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Further Provisions With Respect To Fixed Penalty Offences And Notices

Volume 24: debated on Tuesday 25 May 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Amendment made: No. 36, in page 27, line 22, at beginning insert

`Proceedings shall not be brought against any person for the offence to which a fixed penalty notice relates until the end of the period of twenty-one days following the date of the notice or such longer period (if any) as may be specified in the notice (referred to below in this Part of this Act as the suspended enforcement period in respect of the offence).
(1A).'.—[The Solicitor-General for Scotland.]

I beg to move amendment No. 37, in page 27, line 26, leave out ' (including Schedules 1 and 2)'.

This amendment has been coupled with amendment No. 57. Hon. Members may observe that my remarks will also be relevant to amendment No. 58.

These minor amendments do no more than seek to make the Bill easier to understand. Schedule 2 is not introduced until clause 39 and it therefore seems inappropriate to refer to it in clause 27, before the reader knows that it has anything to say about fixed penalties. However, in order to retain the meaning of the existing reference to schedules 1 and 2 in clause 27, we need to say that references to this part of the Act include the schedules introduced by it.

Amendment agreed to.

I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 28, line 17, at end insert

`( ) Chief officers of police shall operate the provisions of this Part of this Act on the same basis and in respect of the same fixed penalty offences in accordance with written advice from the Secretary of State for the Home Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland.'.
We debated this issue in Committee. We did not get much satisfaction from the Under-Secretary of State.

Perhaps, if the Solicitor-General listens to my remarks, he will moderate his view.

We debated the uniform application of the fixed penalty system. Under the Bill a constable or the procurator fiscal in Scotland may issue a fixed penalty notice. It seems that the availability of the fixed penalty system as an alternative to prosecution will remain a policy decision for individual police forces rather than be nationally implemented on a uniform basis.

That will perpetuate the present unsatisfactory and confusing situation whereby in different areas of the country the fixed penalty is used to a differing extent for different offences. Under the terms of the Bill over 30 more offences will qualify for fixed penalty treatment in Scotland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. It is inequitable that a decision whether to prosecute or issue a fixed penalty should depend upon where the offence took place rather than on the nature of the offence.

A first step in simplifying motoring offence procedure would be that the fixed penalty system should be available on the same basis throughout Great Britain for the same offence. The Solicitor-General may recall that in Committee I gave some examples of the wide discrepancy among the police forces of Essex, Suffolk and Kent in respect of certain fixed penalty provisions. Chief constables do not apply the fixed penalty procedure uniformly. The amendment provides that some uniformity would be a good thing in new legislation.

It appeared that the Government were sympathetic when the Under-Secretary of State for Transport wound up the debate in Committee. I prayed in aid in defence of the amendments the recommendations of the report of the inter-departmental working party on road traffic law. Paragraph 50 says:
"We have acknowledged the reasons put forward by Chief Officers of police for the unevenness of the application of the existing fixed-penalty system. The resource argument in that connection would have little if no relevance to offences under the extended system since it is designed to reduce the work of the police in preparing and undertaking prosecutions and we therefore consider that there should be uniformity in practice."
The acceptance of the amendment would make the extension of the fixed penalty provisions uniform throughout the United Kingdom, as they should be.

We had a considerable debate on this matter in Committee. I do not quite know what the words "on the same basis" mean. I understand the amendment to mean that there should be uniformity of practice in the conduct of the fixed penalty system both in terms of procedure and offences dealt with. It is hoped to achieve that uniformity by circulars to the police.

The Government's reservations are essentially the same as they were about the amendment that was debated in Committee. I thought that it was accepted that it would not be right to seek to impose complete uniformity of procedure on the police and unrealistic to suppose that all forces could deal in the same way with all possible offences. The Committee was aware that the interdepartmental working party on road traffic law had recommended that the system should be operated uniformly. The Association of Chief Police Officers has accepted that recommendation in principle. It is accepted that uniformity should be our goal but it may have to be achieved gradually rather than instantly. The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott) withdrew his amendment in Committee on the basis that he accepted the assurance of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport that the fixed penalty system would be operated as uniformly as possible. It is with some surprise that we find a further amendment on the Notice Paper.

The hon. Gentleman may feel that there is a distinction between imposing uniformity by statute and advising it by circular. The drafting of the amendment does not make such a distinction. It provides for circulars to be issued giving advice and the police would be under a statutory obligation to comply. That is quite contrary to normal practice, where advice to chief constables has no statutory force although it is issued in the expectation that it will be fo—llowed. It would be unusual for a statute to provide that Ministers should not only offer guidance but also stipulate the contents of the advice. The amendment is similar to a provision for regulation-making powers. Ministers frequently give undertakings as to the advice they will offer but not on the face of the Bill.

Technically, it is not conventional to refer to the particular Secretary of State. I cannot accept the amendment and commend it to the House. The most that it would be appropriate for me to do would be to undertake to explore with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the possibility of guidance being issued to the police to the effect that consistency of practice is desirable if possible. Since the Association of Chief Police Officers has already agreed to that approach, it might be thought that such advice would be superfluous. The Government do not object to the principle of uniformity.

6.15 pm

I have a sense of deja vu since the same people have said much the same thing in Committee. To be consistent, I should like to say that we should not regard uniformity as something to be universally sought. There may be circumstances in which the application of the provisions within a particular police area may be considered by the chief constable to be necessarily operated in a way that is not entirely consistent with that operated in other police areas.

Certain areas of the country are affected by motoring offences at particular times of the year—Christmas or the New Year—when chief constables may wish to carry out particular schemes designed to discourage motorists from committing road offences by telling them in advance that there will be a blitz on that type of offence. Anything which inhibited a chief constable from carrying out such a scheme because it did not conform with the way the fixed penalty system was being operated elsewhere would be most undesirable. This amendment is an interference in chief constables' operational decisions. It was wrong when it was suggested in Committee and it is even worse that it should be included in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) made exactly the same points in Committee. My response, now as then, is that, although I understand the resource argument, I believe that the amendments we tabled then and now are valid to try to make the Government ensure that the fixed penalty scheme is applied on a uniform basis. It may be that we did not table it correctly but we intended to ensure that the Government were apprised of our feelings.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland asked me why I withdrew the amendment in Committee. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, I am famous for being able to facilitate progress in debate. That is one reason why I withdrew the amendment.

I was pleased to hear the Solicitor-General for Scotland say that the Government will issue guidance to chief constables on the new provisions within the Bill. If uniformity cannot be written into the statute, guidance to chief constables will be most welcome. The motoring public will feel that it is unfair if one area of the United Kingdom issues more fixed penalty notices than another merely because the chief constable considers them to be especially important in the first area. That will cause confusion in the minds of the motoring public.

I did not say that the Government undertook to issue guidance to chief constables. I said that my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Scotland will consider the possibility of issuing that guidance and that that will now be explored.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that when the Secretary of State for Scotland and other Ministers have considered that possibility they will see fit to give guidance. It is important that it is given. With that in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.