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Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) (Amendment) Order 2010

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2010

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) (Amendment) Order 2010.

My Lords, I am pleased to introduce the Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) (Amendment) Order. The purpose of this order is to prescribe the amount of financial penalty deposit that can be requested from an alleged offender—by the police or by an examiner from the Department for Transport’s Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, VOSA—in respect of some particular fixed penalty offences.

This draft order before the Committee is one of three related draft statutory instruments which are needed to keep the provisions affecting the issue of fixed penalties and financial penalty deposits for road traffic offences up to date. The other two draft instruments are subject to the negative resolution, so we have only the one to consider here today. However, since the three instruments are interrelated I will be saying a few words about the draft negative instruments because doing so will help to explain what the order before the Committee is about.

Before doing so, the Committee may wish to be reminded that the purpose of financial penalty deposits is to provide a convenient mechanism for fixed penalties to be effective. The point is that when a fixed penalty is issued to an alleged offender who does not have a “satisfactory UK address”, there is no enforcement mechanism in existence that could subsequently ensure that a fixed penalty is paid. Consequently, by taking a deposit payment from such a person on the spot, it is possible to guarantee payment, since the deposit will automatically be used to pay off the fixed penalty after 28 days, unless the alleged offender asks before that time for the case to proceed instead to court.

Deposits are commonly taken from drivers from abroad, who may fail to respond to a fixed penalty on leaving the UK, though the law applies to any individual who fails to provide a satisfactory UK address to the enforcement authorities. As the Committee will see, this is an essential procedure because it enables the enforcement authorities to deal in a practical way with offenders based outside of the UK, who are otherwise extremely difficult to pursue.

All fixed penalty levels, and the deposit amount corresponding to the relevant fixed penalty, are kept under review, and there are three main reasons why this needs to be done: first, in order to ensure that penalty levels and deposit amounts are set appropriately, to help deter offending; secondly, to ensure that penalty levels and deposit amounts are broadly consistent for similar offences—in other words to help ensure that the fixed penalty scheme itself is self-consistent; and, thirdly, to ensure that fixed penalties and the corresponding deposit amounts remain broadly in line with average court fines for the relevant offence.

Returning to this particular order, its purpose is to harmonise the financial penalty deposit amounts for similar registration plate offences, and for three offences relating to seat-belt wearing, so that all of these deposit amounts correspond with the relevant fixed penalty levels for these offences. Its purpose is also to reduce the deposit payable in respect of the offence of having insufficient motorcycle tyre tread depth, which is a necessary change for a reason I will explain in a moment.

As I mentioned, the two related statutory instruments are subject to the negative resolution procedure, although they are necessarily being taken forward as part of a package, together with the draft order before the Committee. One of the draft negative instruments is the Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Amendment) Order 2010. This will make the offence of failing to fix a prescribed registration mark to a vehicle a fixed penalty offence in respect of which a financial penalty deposit can be requested.

The other draft negative instrument is the Fixed Penalty (Amendment) Order 2010. This will increase the fixed penalty level from £30 to £60 for driving or keeping a vehicle without a registration mark on display; and increase from £30 to £60 the fixed penalty level for driving or keeping a vehicle with an obscured registration mark. That order will also reduce from £120 to £60 the fixed penalty level for insufficient tyre tread depth on a motorcycle tyre.

Of course, failing to have a clearly visible registration mark can have significant implications for law enforcement and tracing criminals. The need to have a correct and visible registration mark on display is especially important from the point of view of the police and their increasing use of modern technology to help trace criminals and other persons in whom they may have an interest. Indeed, many people in whom the police have an interest are nowadays detected and apprehended as a result of the use of so-called automatic number plate recognition—ANPR—cameras. Consequently, increasing the fixed penalty and financial penalty deposit amounts in respect of registration mark offences will help to encourage compliance with the rules, and therefore be helpful for law enforcement more generally.

The fixed penalty scheme also prescribes a £60 fixed penalty for failing to have a registration plate of the correct size, shape and colour, and the Fixed Penalty (Amendment) Order 2010 will increase from £30 to £60 the two other registration mark offences I have already mentioned. The intention is therefore to make equivalent provision in the order we are considering here for the financial penalty deposits, which will secure payment from offenders without a satisfactory address in the UK who might otherwise not pay. If we were not to make these changes we would be left in the situation where no deposit amount would be prescribed for having an incorrect registration mark, and none could be taken in respect of a £60 fixed penalty. It would also mean that in the case of an obscured registration mark, or having none at all, a deposit of only £30 could be taken against a fixed penalty of twice that sum.

The changes in this order will also increase the financial penalty deposit level for certain seat-belt offences from £30 to £60. The reason for making this change is so that the amount of deposit that can be taken from offenders for these offences is the same as the existing fixed penalty level. Currently there is a £30 differential between the fixed penalty for these offences and the deposit amount that may be taken in respect of them.

Finally, the changes in this order will reduce from £120 to £60 the financial penalty deposit amount for insufficient tyre tread depth on a motorcycle tyre. This change is necessary in order to mirror a similar change in the fixed penalty level for this offence which will be made under the Fixed Penalty (Amendment) Order 2010.

The reason for the reduction in the fixed penalty level for this offence, and consequently for the reduction in the deposit amount for this offence, is that the penalty level was inadvertently increased to £120 in April 2009, and the action being taken now is simply to restore the penalty to its former level. The reason why the fixed penalty and deposit levels for this offence were unintentionally increased in 2009 was due to the fact that such a large number of legislative changes were needed when the financial penalty deposits scheme was introduced and a small error occurred.

To summarise, the overall purpose of prescribing financial penalty deposit appropriate amounts is to enable the fixed penalty scheme to operate effectively for offenders based outside the UK in the same way as it does for those with a satisfactory UK address. Small maintenance changes need to be made to this scheme from time to time, as I have explained. I therefore commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, neither have I, but I am going to speak at slightly greater length than the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, if only to congratulate the Minister on the lucid way in which he presented the order. He deserves a larger audience when the Government are for once doing good things. I commend him on what he is doing and I am sorry that he has a limited response here today. He has wholehearted support on my part and, so far as I can detect from the brief remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, he has 100 per cent from him too.

I appreciate the particular and gentle way in which the Minister indicated that there had been an error with regard to motorcycles in 2009. I am glad that that has been corrected, not least because those in the motorbike community sometimes feel that they are hard pressed even to the point of being victimised because they travel on two wheels. We all know from the incidence of accidents that it is a more hazardous form of travel. Therefore, at times motor cyclists are prone to considerable criticism for the accident rate, particularly since, as we know, a very small number are guilty of offending against speed limits in ways that cannot possibly be condoned. I am therefore glad that, on this occasion, we are indicating that fair is fair and making sure that the minor error that occurred in 2009 is put right.

We particularly commend that part of the order dealing with seat belts. There is no doubt that in the range of legislation that has helped to reduce fatalities and injuries over the years, seat-belt legislation takes pride of place. It has been of enormous significance. That is why successive Governments have extended its range and salience. We are entirely in favour of this order, which increases the deposit as far as seat belts are concerned.

I am interested in the noble Earl’s point about registration numbers. Perhaps he will correct what may be my somewhat dated perspective; can he make it absolutely clear whether number plate law obtains to the same specifications across the European Community? He emphasised the aspect to do with foreign vehicles and he is absolutely right that number plate recognition is an important part of law enforcement. I believe, for instance, that at present several countries do not expect motor bikes to have front number plates. I recall—this is where I am slightly hesitant because I may be a little dated—when Italian front number plates, particularly on fast Alfa Romeos, were of a microscopic quality, so even those with the keenest eyesight had difficulty in recognising them. I am not sure that the new technology is up to that. Can the Minister therefore offer that element of reassurance on number plates? Is there a degree of standardisation, and does that which obtains as far as the British motorist is concerned apply also to foreign motorists when they bring cars into this country and may be guilty of traffic offences?

I know we have tightened up on this matter but there is always the tendency for people to select a number plate that has an affectionate dimension to it. Therefore, the characters are produced in ways that mean they may not always be entirely recognisable. I saw one the other day that I was certain was the driver’s favourite nickname for his girlfriend. You had to get pretty close to the car—I do not know about the girlfriend—before you could easily recognise the number plate. I am just seeking reassurance on that score.

The noble Earl should recognise that we very much approve of the order and realise that it is under the affirmative procedure. That is why we are debating it today. If not, we would have been content for the order to go through.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their response to the order. As I explained at the outset, this is one of three related statutory instruments. The other two have been laid before the House under the negative resolution procedure.

I was surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, did not have a good go at me about foreign lorries; I had a lovely speech ready to roll but I did not need to use it.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, for his contribution. He raised a number of points. This order builds on the work of the Road Safety Act, which the noble Lord himself piloted through your Lordships’ House. I remember our debates on that. The noble Lord talked about seat belts. I cannot sit in a moving car fitted with seat belts without fitting them. I would feel so uncomfortable. It is a mystery to me why anyone would want to travel in a motor vehicle without wearing a seat belt, but they do. We do as much as we possibly can to stop people from doing that. I went out with the Metropolitan Police, and one of the things that they were paying attention to was motorists driving without wearing a seat belt.

The noble Lord talked about number plates. He is right that there is a wide range of styles of number plates. VOSA is particularly concerned about foreign goods vehicles. I believe that VOSA can read foreign number plates with its automatic number plate reading equipment. That is important because VOSA targets its efforts against certain operators and certain vehicles when it knows that they are rogue operators. The fixed penalties might seem to be quite small in relation to the operation of a goods vehicle. However, every fixed penalty offence will be recorded on the VOSA database. If the vehicle is detected again, it will be stopped to try to ensure that it is operating in compliance with the law.

The financial penalty deposit scheme helps to provide our enforcement authorities with an effective enforcement mechanism for dealing with alleged road traffic offenders who would otherwise be extremely difficult to pursue. The scheme needs minor housekeeping changes from time to time to keep it in line with the fixed penalty scheme so that UK resident offenders and offenders who have no satisfactory address in the UK can be dealt with in an equivalent way. Such minor changes are being proposed under this order and I believe that most motorists would understand and support these amendments irrespective of whether they are UK residents or non-UK residents. I therefore commend the order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.