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Fixed Penalty Offences And Fixed Penalty 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.

Amendments made: No. 31, in page 26, line 1, leave out from `a' to end of line 5 and insert

'fixed penalty notice in respect of the offence'.

No. 32, in page 26, line 10, after 'notice', insert

'in respect of the offence'.

No. 33, in page 26, line 29, leave out subsection (5).— [The Solicitor-General for Scotland.]

I beg to move amendment No. 34, in page 26, line 35, after '(6)', insert

'subject to section 27(1) and '.

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No 38, in clause 27, page 27, line 27 at end insert

`but no such order may provide for any offence involving obligatory endorsement to be a fixed penalty offence'
No. 50, in clause 39, page 43, line 20, leave out from 'Act' to the end of line 23 and insert
'but not any offence involving obligatory endorsement'.
No. 67, in page 60, leave out schedule 1.

No. 71, in page 65, leave out schedule 2.

In Committee, we raised serious doubts about whether we should embark on framing legislation that would bring offences that are currently and properly defined as endorsable into the fixed penalty net. Our concern has been expressed and shared by many hon. Members, particularly by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), who indicated some dissent in our debates yesterday.

Over the years, the laws applying to motorists have become more and more complicated. The situation has not been helped by the lack of uniform application. The Bill represents an ideal opportunity for simplifying the process of dealing with motoring offences by enlarging the number of offences to be dealt with under the fixed penalty procedure. I believe that the vast majority of hon. Members welcome such a move, because regulations that are well founded and simple to apply will be readily accepted by the driving public.

Regrettably, if the Bill's provisions are enacted in their present form, they will have the reverse effect. Drivers will find them complex, confusing and in some ways objectionable. The Bill will probably not achieve its primary objective of simplification, ease of understanding and the removal of the thousands of minor cases from our courts. There are degrees of culpability in all motoring offences and that fact is generally recognised by the current procedure.

A specific motoring offence may be ignored, or it may result in a verbal on-the-spot warning, a written warning or a prosecution. We believe that the offer of a fixed penalty should be a further option, but that it should not attract an endorsement, penalty points or in any way be given the status of a conviction. That must continue to be a matter for the courts to determine.

The provisions of the clause and its associated schedules describe the offences which may be dealt with by the offer of a fixed penalty. Many endorsable offences are included. The Bill thereby perpetuates the complication of the penalty points system by failing to accept the basic and essential need to simplify these procedures.

I contend that fixed penalties should be no more than a further option available to the police for dealing with motoring offences. As I said earlier, any offence dealt with by fixed penalty should not involve the expensive administrative procedure of endorsements, the levying of penalty points and the associated record-keeping that is envisaged in the Bill. Once the fixed penalty has been paid, that should be the end of the matter. However, if the offender comes before a court for non-payment of a fixed penalty, the penalty points procedure should apply as if the matter had been dealt with summarily in the first place.

We made these points on many occasions in Committee. We have tried to probe the Government on the reasons why they have seen fit to include in the fixed penalty net offences that rightly attract penalty points and other offences that attract endorsements. We have not yet had a satisfactory reply.

The Opposition contend that some of the offences listed in schedules 1 and 2 for fixed penalty treatment should not rank as such. We welcome the Government's intention to remove from the schedule of fixed penalties the pedestrian crossing offence and the offence of disregarding a school crossing patrol, but most of us believe that other offences should be removed because they demonstrate anti-social driving behaviour and should always result in the culprit appearing before a court. The offences to which I refer are offences committed on motorways; contravention of one-way requirements on a trunk road; failure to comply with traffic directions and signs; dangerous parking; failure to stop when required to do so by a constable; and using a vehicle in a dangerous condition.

None of those offences should be available for treatment by a fixed penalty notice. I cannot understand why the Government have sought to muddy the waters in that respect. I venture to suggest to the Solicitor-General for Scotland that most of us are in favour of extending fixed penalties into the areas I have mentioned. However, we are not in favour of doing so into areas where there are serious anxieties that the Bill, in seeking to deal with the problem, will actually allow motorists to get away with a more serious offence.

We are worried that the Government have sought to include offences that are rightly and properly endorsable. We believe that they should continue to be dealt with properly in court. We do not believe that they should be included in the fixed penalty net, although we give a general welcome to the Government's view that fixed penalties should be extended to take minor offences out of the courts. However, I must tell the Solicitor-General for Scotland that I was not convinced by the arguments in Committee. I am still not convinced that we are legislating in the right way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take my remarks on board.

Not for the first time, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott) who speaks for the Opposition on transport matters.

It is a pity that the House is hardly fuller than it was earlier this afternoon to deal with this important aspect of the Bill, which goes to the root of the observance of, and respect for, the law on the part of the average motorist. Those who have served on a jury dealing with motoring offences will know that there is a marked reluctance by jurors to find someone guilty of a serious offence when a heavy penalty is involved, merely because it is a motoring offence. The reason is that there are a host of minor offences which most of us, alas, probably commit at one time or another, such as exceeding the speed limit.

The average motorist, although knowing that he has done wrong, does not accept that he has broken the law in the same way as he would if committing burglary, fraud or inflicting grievous bodily harm. In most people's minds there is a distinction between, say, driving at 12 miles an hour above the speed limit and driving dangerously. It is not too hard to distinguish between the two. Because there are so many minor offences—some are technical—that are still subject to endorsement, there is a blurring in people's minds. There is not the clear distinction that one would have thought was necessary between a serious offence and a minor one. It is an important aspect, because it relates to the attitude of the motorist to the law.

I should have thought that the Government would use the opportunity presented by the fixed penalty system to encourage a clear distinction between committing a serious offence and committing a technical, or minor, offence. Unfortunately, the Government do not appear to have made the saving or reduced the complication.

It is noticeable that both of the major motoring organisations, the Royal Automobile Club and the Automobile Association, are against the Government's proposals in this respect. To illustrate the attitude of the motoring organisations and my own point of view, there is no more typical offence than that of speeding. If a person drives along the motorway at 120 miles an hour, he is clearly a major danger to other road users and to himself. On the other hand, it is also commonly known that one can drive at 79 miles an hour along the motorway and probably escape prosecution simply because there is a margin offered to the offender who just exceeds the limit. But there is no doubt that the driver doing 79 miles an hour is speeding. However, the odds are that he is not causing any danger either to himself or other road users. Therefore, speeding is fairly obvious whether the offence is serious or a minor infraction of the law.

I have been listening to my hon. Friend with a great deal of interest and I agree with him to a large extent. Clearly serious offences should be punished with severity. Although all of us from time to time unwittingly or through negligence have committed motoring offences, does my hon. Friend agree that there are many people who persistently break the law by committing what he calls small and technical offences and, as a result, are bad drivers and a menace to other people?

I take that point. However, a number of offences that are considered to be endorsable do not, to my mind, fall into that category. I accept what my hon. Friend says about the person who habitually speeds. None the less, in other countries—the United States is an example—it is normal to get a ticket for exceeding the speed limit up to a certain level above the norm.

5.30 pm

Having said that, I go on to say that a person who perpetually breaks the law in a dangerous way is hardly likely to exceed the speed limit by just a few miles an hour. He will probably be the sort of driver who will exceed it by 20 or 30 miles an hour. In such cases he should be prosecuted, and I believe that the offence should be endorsable.

I want the Government to get the advantage of introducing a fixed penalty system, but I believe that they have unnecessarily complicated the issue. Secondly, I want to encourage motorists to keep and respect the law. I therefore believe that we must look at speeding as a two-tier conviction. Thirdly, the motoring organisations that speak for many millions of British motorists have given useful advice, and it is a great pity that the Government have not accepted their point of view.

As the hon. Member for Westhoughton said, a policeman now has an alternative. He can either caution, as he does on certain occasions, or he can issue a fixed penalty. In addition, if there is any doubt, he can insist on a prosecution against the offending motorist. The fact that those three alternatives exist take care of the case where there is some doubt about whether the motorist has committed a less serious or more serious offence. If the policeman is in any doubt he can issue a notice of intended prosecution, in which case the courts can decide.

I am in agreement with the Opposition amendments. The Government should explain why they have not accepted this common sense advice. If we have fixed penalties that insist on endorsement, there is the problem of levying the penalty points. There is the record-keeping associated with that and all the administration that is involved. Surely the practice in other countries should have given us some guidance.

We should not forget one thing. British motorists are about the most law-abiding in the world. The accident rate on our roads is excellent compared with that in nearly every other major industrialised country. The British motorist is not a habitual law-breaker, yet the one area where there is friction between the police and the public is that covering traffic offences.

The Government appear to have missed an opportunity to reduce at one fell swoop the time taken by the courts to deal with minor offences, by convincing the motorist that he will be heavily penalised if he commits a serious offence. On the other hand, using the fixed penalty system without an endorsement will ensure that police-public relations are not worsened. Frankly, many of the offences that are now listed as endorsable are not accepted as serious offences by the vast majority of motorists. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to be realistic about the real world and to think again about this part of the Bill.

I shall be brief in my support of the amendments. In doing so I agree not only with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott) but with what was said by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry).

I believe that the Government have missed an opportunity. Transport legislation should aim to achieve quick and fair justice. If that is the case, many parts of the Bill do much to expedite matters and to establish a quick relationship between the punishment and the crime. Most people involved with safety and driving behaviour believe that that is of the essence. If the paying of the fine or penalty takes place as soon as possible after the committing of the misdemeanour, all the research that has been carried out in many countries shows that that is the best possible solution, because people than respond.

Only yesterday, in our debate on wheel clamps, we heard how some sections of the law on driving and parking have fallen into disuse because there is no clear relationship between the misdemeanour or crime and the penalty that is paid. If that attitude creeps into the behaviour that has been described by my hon. Friend, we shall be in danger of the law falling further into disrepute. I therefore believe that we must have a system that is fast and fair.

We shall create a dangerous precedent if at the same time as introducing a fixed penalty system on a much broader scale we introduce a system which the motoring public regard as unfair. The provisions of the Bill are not bad when viewed in the long term. However, I should have liked a phasing in of the legislation so that in the first year or two, when motorists are learning about the fixed penalty system, the penalties do not result in a loss of licence.

This is a major change. Many of us have underestimated the size of the change and the qualitative step that we are taking by introducing a much broader fixed penalty system. If we allow the motoring public two years to learn about the fixed penalty system, we can then assess in a fair and pragmatic way how the system has worked. We shall then be able to see more clearly whether there is a need to introduce fixed penalties into the system, from which penalty points and loss of licence flow.

I cannot understand why the Government cannot adopt a much more tentative approach at this stage. After all, we must be realistic. It is unlikely that a transport Bill will be introduced each and every year.

My right hon. Friend is right. Even though many of us would like to see improvements in the law each year, we realise that a transport Bill will not be introduced each Session.

Surely the drafting of this Bill can be amended so that the penalty points system can be phased in over, say, a two-year period. That would be similar to some of the provisions of the 1981 Act. I do not know why that is impossible. I hope that the Government will examine this again, bearing in mind what has been said about police-public relations, and will more seriously consider the views of the major motoring organisations.

As someone who has served on two Standing Committees on transport Bills, I pay tribute to the motoring organisations. In a sense, Oppositions are more grateful to motoring organisations than Governments, because they do not have large armies of bureaucrats helping them with drafting and so on. The reputation of the two major motoring organisations in Britain is second to none. Although we may disagree with some of their actions, by and large they reflect the wishes and desires of the motorist. In the short time between the Bill going to another place and returning to this House, I hope that the Government will talk to the motoring organisations and have second thoughts on this aspect of the Bill.

I apologise for coming late to this debate, but I am concerned about the issue involved in the amendment. I subscribe to the general thesis behind the proposal in the Bill that, in so far as it is possible to extend the fixed penalty system, it could be done for a number of comparatively minor traffic offences. It seems to me that a fixed penalty would be appropriate for offences of the kind set out in the schedule. However, what I find unacceptable is that, under the points system, those penalties can be the accumulator for disqualifying people from driving.

Disqualification is the severest punishment that magistrates' courts can impose. It can create far more difficulties for an offender than a prison sentence. A prison sentence of, say, a month may disrupt his life and cause him to be socially ostracised, but disqualification can end his job and lead to a collapse of his living standards. In the present economic climate, perhaps he would not work again for a considerable time. I do not believe that totting up the number of endorsements imposed simply as traffic precaution measures, which fixed penalties would be, should be a prerequisite for cutting a man's standard of living.

Therefore, I am opposed to the suggestion that fixed penalty endorsements should be used as part of the system of points regulation for disqualification. If the Government wish to continue to use these fixed penalty offences as part of the system of points regulation for disqualification, they should provide that after, say, three fixed penalty endorsements, there should not be any further fixed penalty endorsement and that any subsequent endorsements would be for other offences. The fixed endorsement principle would apply, say, only three times.

If one looks at the offences that will be part of the fixed penalty endorsement system, it is not too much to say that none of them, even cumulatively, should count for disqualification. The offences that are suggested are a nuisance, but represent the kind of thing that any driver of any vehicle can do from time to time. They are not offences like dangerous driving, driving without insurance or driving under the influence of drink, which can be said to be criminal offences. They are the inevitable pattern for anyone who is on the road for a long period. Those who can say that they have not committed any of these offences are probably people who do not often drive.

5.45 pm

In those circumstances, it is right to say that it should not be possible for a fixed penalty endorsement for this kind of offence to be dealt with by disqualification. I am opposed to the Government's proposition. I favour the amendment.

As the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott) said, there was considerable debate on this matter in Committee. I recognise that the division of opinion on what should be done has not necessarily followed party lines. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) has made clear in this debate and previously how he feels. It was suggested in Committee that endorsable offences should not attract penalty points if they were dealt with by the fixed penalty system. That proposal was not acceptable, but at least it maintained one of the principal objectives of the Bill that I had understood both sides of the House considered desirable—to reduce the considerable burden that road traffic offences impose on the police and the courts.

We are now discussing a proposal that no endorsable offences should be included within the fixed penalty system. If that were to be followed, we would effectively demolish the objective of this part of the Bill. The estimate is that up to 600,000 cases a year could be taken out of the courts by the extension of the fixed penalty system. That number would be so significantly reduced by this proposal as to make it hardly worth while, because about 500,000 cases would have to be dealt with by the courts.

How many of the cases that come before the courts are for comparatively minor speeding offences? According to my information, the majority of cases are for speeding. If, therefore, only offences where the speed limit was exceeded by more than 15 miles an hour had to come to court, there would be a considerable saving.

Two points are involved. The first concerns offences which are ordinarily dealt with following a plea of guilty and where there is no necessity for a court appearance. I shall come to that point. It is important to establish that the introduction of the fixed penalty system is not intended to devalue the seriousness of endorsable offences or their consequences. We are providing a simpler and more efficient method of dealing with many traffic offences that are currently processed through the courts.

Of the endorsable offences, only the less serious ones are being included in the extended fixed penalty system. We are not proposing to include careless driving or any of the more serious offences. Except for the more serious breaches, with which only the courts will be able to deal appropriately, the net effect of committing an endorsable offence will be little different if it is dealt with by fixed penalty. The licence will still be endorsed with penalty points, although the fine may be slightly less and there will be no record of conviction. The endorsement will, of course, be a record of the offence itself.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) made an important point. Although the degree by which the speed limit is exceeded—many hon. Members may on occasion have done just that—may be small, what is more important and what is, I believe, in the interests of public safety is that, if a motorist repetitively commits that offence, it would seem appropriate that the courts should have that in mind. If we know that a motorist has been driving in this way on a number of occasions, eventually he will have to pay a greater penalty.

I have heard the worry that dealing with endorsable offences in this way, and not through the normal process, will lead to a diminution of respect for the law. If that were to be so, I should be concerned. However, I do not believe that that will be the case, particularly as in a substantial number of cases there is no personal appearance in court. For straightforward speeding and other endorsable offences—the type ideally suited to the fixed penalty treatment—a substantial proportion of offenders plead guilty by post. This does a great deal to save court time, but a large amount of court work is still necessary in such cases, which would be removed if the fixed penalty procedure were used.

It must be remembered that the fixed penalty system is not being introduced exclusively, or as the only option. It will be one of three options. A constable will still have the discretion to caution or prosecute when there are serious breaches of the law. I know that much of the concern about the introduction of endorsable offences into a fixed penalty system originally centred around the need for the licence at the roadside. We have already dealt with that matter, which is not a particularly relevant problem over the border. If that problem disappears, some of the anxieties about including endorsable offences in the fixed penalty system will also disappear.

In all the circumstances, it seems to me that what is being provided is an additional option that gives the police greater flexibility. Concern was expressed that people m ho have had fixed penalties imposed on them may rind that the accumulator works against them, and that it might be undesirable to do all this within the fixed penalty system. It must be emphasised that the motorist is not obliged to accept the fixed penalty notice. If it is a matter that concerns him, and he wishes to go to court, there is nothing to stop him doing that, even with the fixed penalty system. It would be alarming if motorists believed that we were introducing this system to deprive them of the fundamental right, in the last resort, to go to court.

There are two threads which, although they may not conflict, none the less are evidence of an unease, for different reasons, about what has been introduced. On one side, there is the argument that this will diminish the respect for the law, and reduce the seriousness of the offences involved. Another thread, which the RAC has been suggesting, is that we ought to be reducing the importance of such things as lesser speeding offences by taking them out of the penalty points system.

I understand that that is what the RAC is suggesting in the latest briefing that it has sent to hon. Members. It appears that it is suggesting that, in the more serious speeding offence, it would be incumbent on the prosecution not only to establish the speed at which the motorist was going and the prevailing speed limit, but to point to some additional evidence of potential accident risks. In such circumstances, we should not be making a true distinction among the different effects of speeding at a particular degree above the limit but, in that category of dangerous or reckless driving, introducing yet a further category of offence in which speeding, of itself, is not necessarily a major part.

I agree that the proposal by the motoring organisation is misconceived, but does the Minister agree that speeding can be either a potentially dangerous activity or not, depending on the circumstances? It may not be simply a question of degree. The speed of 30 miles an hour could be dangerous in a particular place, yet 100 miles an hour on a motorway might not be dangerous in any circumstances.

In that respect, would it not be better for us to reconsider the whole realm of speeding and whether we should make it, as it has been in this case, simply subject to a fixed penalty? If the driving is thought to be dangerous or reckless, charges should follow, which would deal with the serious danger that is occasionally caused by speeding.

I follow the hon. Gentleman's point, but as I understand the position—this is the case north of the border on which I can speak—if someone was doing 120 miles an hour in a 30 miles per hour limit close to a school, he would not expect to be prosecuted only for breaking a speed limit. He would be charged with the more aggravated offence of careless driving. I understand the argument and realise that it is appropriate to look to the circumstances of the driving, such as the condition of the road, not just the speed.

With regard simply to speeding offences, we are allowing in the Bill a simple and necessary flexibility, with three options. First, if the offence is minor, all that the constable needs to do is give a caution or warning. Secondly, if the offence is more excessive, the fixed penalty would be more appropriate. Thirdly, if it is significant and serious but does not involve one of the other driving offences it is still open to the police to take the case to the courts. That flexibility is desirable.

By deleting all of schedules 1 and 2, these amendments would have an odd effect. I doubt whether the hon. Member for Westhoughton intended that. It would mean that when we introduce the new system we should have to seek parliamentary approval, by the affirmative resolution procedure, for the use of fixed penalties for offences, such as parking offences, that have already been in the fixed penalty system for many years. I think that the hon. Member for Westhoughton accepts that that is an appropriate system to deal with such offences. Rather than adding to the list of fixed penalties, we should have to seek further approval for those that we already have. We should be moving backwards rather than forwards.

I appreciate the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough on this matter. However, as this system allows for flexibility, if we were to exclude all the offences that were endorsable, all that we have sought to do in this part of the Bill would effectively be worthless, because so many offences would be left before the courts. For those reasons, I am not inclined to recommend that these amendments should be accepted.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) in his tribute to the motoring organisations. Throughout the proceedings on the Bill, on Second Reading, on Report and in Committee, we have been greatly assisted by the Royal Automobile Club and the Automobile Association in formulating our amendments and our view of the Bill. I pay tribute to them because they co-operate fully with all hon. Members.

6 pm

We have had an interesting short debate. Good contributions have been made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) and by my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) and York (Mr. Lyon), all of whom, like me, feel that endorsable offences on principle ought not to be included in the fixed penalty net. It is clear from what the Solicitor-General for Scotland said that the Government have no intention of withdrawing that provision because they believe that it will assist in taking out of the courts many of the offences that are taken to court at present.

I still remain opposed to the principle. I speak only for myself from the Dispatch Box, not for my party, because this is not a party issue, but an issue that concerns the House generally. Therefore, I must say that I still oppose the principle because I do not wish to see those offences given the status of a conviction, which I fear may happen.

The Solicitor-General seemed to try to mollify me by saying that the problems envisaged in Committee in respect of the licence had been removed, so the major plank of our objections was removed. That is a useful step. I am pleased that the Government have taken our advice, but our fundamental objection to the principle enunciated in the Bill has not been removed. While I recognise that many Conservative and Opposition Members may support the hon. Gentleman, a number of us, including hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon, still oppose that principle.

I am keenly aware that I might attract the wrath of the House if I were to force a Division, but I shall restrain my natural inclination only because I believe that their Lordships will have taken note of what we have said in Committee and in the Chamber. I am sure that when the Bill goes to another place, their Lordships may be able to persuade the Government to remove endorsable offences from the provisions of the Bill because many hon. Members do not believe that they should have been included.

The Question is, That the amendment be made. As many as are of that opinion say "Aye". Those of the contrary opinion say "No".

Amendment negatived.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When you put the Question a moment ago, I said "Aye". I may not have said it loudly enough, but I said it. In those circumstances, is it right that the Division should not have taken place?

I put the Question clearly. I did not hear any "Ayes". I said: "The 'Noes' have it". There were still no "Ayes" in my hearing. When I moved on, the complaint was made. I was sure in my own mind that the "Noes" had it.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was sitting next to the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) and I distinctly heard him say "Aye". I imagined that the Division would take place.

I did not hear that. I waited and still did not hear any "Ayes". I heard the "Noes", so the amendment was defeated.

Amendment made: No. 35, in page 27, line 12, at end insert—

'(8A) In this Part of this Act, "fixed penalty notice" means a notice offering the opportunity of the discharge of any liability to conviction of the offence to which the relates by payment of a fixed penalty in accordance with this Part of this Act. '—[The Solicitor-General for Scotland.]