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Fine Payment Defaults

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2008

1. How many people were in custody in Northern Ireland for defaulting on fine payments at the latest date for which figures are available. (204415)

Today 30 people are in prison in Northern Ireland for fine default. Although the numbers can fluctuate and at any time be quite low, fine defaulters represent about 2,000 prison receptions per year. Next month, I shall begin consultation on a range of proposals for dealing more effectively with fine defaulters.

Before putting my question to the Minister, may I ask the whole House to condemn unanimously the attack on a PSNI officer earlier this week? We send our support to all parties that have condemned the attack and we send our best wishes to the police officer and his family.

Will anything be done to disincentivise the sending of fine defaulters to prison? At the moment, that seems an easy option. Nine in 10 people in prison for defaulting on fines are there for fines of less than £600. Other methods must be found to make sure that people do not use it as an easy option.

First, the whole House will join my hon. Friend in condemning the cowardly people who perpetrated the dreadful attack on Police Officer Ryan Crozier on Monday. The heartfelt, warm wishes of the House go out to Police Officer Crozier and his family. He was seriously hurt, but is beginning to recover in hospital. The Chief Constable aptly described the attack as having been carried out by those who are “lashing out” because they “are in their endgame”. He is right, and we all condemn their actions.

I turn to my hon. Friend’s question. Of course we need a substantial, sustainable alternative to imprisonment for fine defaulters. We have begun that by bringing in the supervised activity order through the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. However, people should pay the fines given to them in court, and next month I shall bring forward proposals to make sure that if people will not pay, the fines will be deducted from their earnings or benefits and that there will be much stricter enforcement by the courts.

May I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and the Minister about that cowardly and brutal attack on Police Officer Crozier? It was good to see that Mr. McGuinness was among the first visitors to the hospital.

I also associate myself with the other remarks made by the hon. Member for Blaydon. Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to understand—let alone explain and justify—the fact that people with a few hundred pounds owing are put in jail, while people who have defrauded the Exchequer of millions through fuel smuggling appear to get suspended sentences?

In individual cases, it will always be for the judges to decide the appropriate penalty. My role as Minister with responsibility for criminal justice and policing is to make sure that courts have sufficient powers and a range of powers. I want on the one hand to be tougher, but on the other to make sure that when fines and other non-custodial sentences are handed out, they are properly adhered to.

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in the issue of sentencing. I am pleased to confirm that following Royal Assent for the criminal justice order last Wednesday, I shall tomorrow sign the order to commence the new indeterminate and extended prison sentences, so that anybody who tomorrow or any day afterwards commits a serious sexual or violent offence and is deemed to be dangerous can be sent to prison on an indeterminate sentence.

I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the remarks made in respect of Police Officer Crozier, whom we wish a speedy recovery.

On the remarks that the Minister has just made, I welcome the implementation this week of the new law in relation to indeterminate sentencing and the abolition of the automatic 50 per cent. remission for serious sexual offences. My party fought for that for a long time; it was also demanded by the people of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister say what sort of impact the changes are likely to have on custodial sentences and prison places?

There is, of course, universal condemnation of the attack on the police officer, just as there is universal support for the criminal justice order and the new provisions. There will be a net increase in the number of prisoners in the system over the next few years as a result of the longer sentences and of people who do not keep their licence conditions being brought back to prison, where they will face a further period of incarceration. There will also be more people on community sentences, and that is entirely right. I say to the hon. Gentleman, his party colleagues and colleagues on both sides of the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will begin carefully to prepare the path towards the completion of the devolution of policing and justice.

May I join all others, including the Minister, in condemning the callous and cowardly attack on the police officer on Monday night and wish him a speedy recovery? I wish equally that we will have a speedy return to justice for those who perpetrated this deed. It is appropriate that we pay tribute once again to the courage and bravery of all those who serve in the PSNI and other services.

On some estimates, the prison population in Northern Ireland will double by 2020. Given the issue of fine defaulters and the other issues raised by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), can the Minister be a bit more specific about how he and his Secretary of State are going to address the growing pressures that this will undoubtedly place on the Northern Ireland Prison Service?

My right hon. Friend and I have set aside some £14 million in the current spending period to commit to the Prison Service to ensure that more places, and the relevant programmes, are available. We have also invested in an unprecedented way in the delivery of the probation service. There will be more than 50 additional probation officers as a result of the investment that we are making because we need provision in the community and extra provision in prison. I can further tell the hon. Gentleman that we are investing £70 million in building 400 new prison places that will be available over the next three-year period. We are building capacity, we are building the programmes, and the message that goes out is: “If you are committing offences in Northern Ireland you will be brought to justice and dealt with appropriately.”