Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, on 5 June we announced an increase to the financial levels of fixed-penalty notices for most motoring and road transport offences, including making careless driving a fixed-penalty notice offence, following consultation last year. These changes are being made under the negative resolution procedure, and both the Fixed Penalty (Amendment) Order and the Fixed Penalty Offences Order were laid before Parliament on 28 June. Today is about a parallel scheme—fixed penalty deposits—which are for those alleged offenders without a satisfactory UK address. The draft Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) (Amendment) Order before us today will enable the levels of fixed-penalty deposits to be increased by the same amount as fixed penalties for motoring and other road transport offences, and will include careless driving as a fixed-penalty deposit.
Fixed-penalty notices are issued by police and Vehicle and Operator Services Agency—VOSA—officers. Regardless of whether an alleged offender has a valid UK address, they are issued with a fixed-penalty notice. Those alleged offenders without a satisfactory UK address are then required to pay a fixed-penalty deposit. The Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) Order 2009 prescribes the amount of financial penalty deposit that may be requested by an officer. To mirror the increases that are being made to most motoring and road transport fixed penalties, deposit levels will be increased as follows: £30 will rise to £50, £60 will rise to £100, £120 will rise to £200 and £200 will rise to £300.
If the nature of the offences or the manner in which they are committed are considered too severe or too numerous for the offer of a fixed penalty, the offender will be summonsed to appear before a court but will be required to pay a financial penalty deposit against any court-imposed fine. The order before us today increases the minimum court penalty deposit amount from £300 to £500. It also increases the maximum appropriate amount in respect of any single occasion on which more than one financial penalty deposit requirement has been imposed from £900 to £1,500. VOSA statistics show that in 2012-13 more than 10,500 deposit notices were issued, with a payment rate of almost 100%.
The intention of the policy behind the order was that parking offences would not be covered, as these are not road safety-related. The Committee will be aware that legislation is often complex. It has become apparent today that the order before us may capture some parking-related offences for those alleged offenders without a satisfactory UK address only, and therefore increase the deposits payable for parking offences. Departmental lawyers are currently rechecking the draft order to determine whether there is anything else that may be outside the policy’s scope.
The Committee will be aware that the graduated deposit scheme is aimed mainly at foreign HGVs, which were more difficult to deal with before the previous Administration introduced a deposit scheme. The vast majority of HGVs are maximum-weight articulated vehicles moving between large depots. Parking offences are not often a problem. In the main, offences relate to road-worthiness, driver hours and overloading. Therefore, it is unlikely that any serious adverse effects will arise from this problem. If necessary, we will lay an amending order to correct the issue.
I would also point out that, for foreign cars that make an alleged parking offence, normal procedure is to attach a fixed-penalty notice to the vehicle, irrespective of where it comes from. I will write to update the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, the opposition Front-Bench spokesman, and all noble Lords who speak in this debate before moving any approval Motion in the Chamber.
The changes to fixed penalties follow up key commitments in the Government’s Strategic Framework for Road Safety—referred to hereafter as the framework—which was published in May 2011. The framework sets out a package of measures that would continue to reduce deaths and injuries on our roads. It also recognises the importance of targeted enforcement to tackle behaviour that represent a risk to road safety. The measures announced focus on making the enforcement process more efficient, ensuring that penalties are set at the right levels to avoid offences being perceived as trivial and inconsequential, and making educational training more widely available for low-level offending.
Today’s order supports the framework’s objectives by introducing careless or inconsiderate driving as a fixed-penalty deposit and increasing the amount an alleged road traffic offender must pay as a result. We know that careless drivers put lives at risk and are a major source of concern and irritation for law-abiding motorists. The police will now have the power to issue fixed-penalty notices for careless driving. This will allow them greater flexibility when dealing with less serious careless driving offences, such as driving too close or lane discipline—for example, staying in the wrong lane—as well as freeing them from resource-intensive court processes. Drivers will still be able to appeal any decision in court.
Fixed penalty levels have not increased since 2000. Therefore, their real value has fallen substantially, by about 25%. For example, if the £60 fixed-penalty notice level set in 2000 had increased in line with inflation, it would now be £80. Penalty levels are now lower than other penalty notice offences of a similar severity. For example, lower and higher-tier penalty notices for disorder offences, which were recently increased, are now £60 for leaving litter and £90 for being drunk and disorderly. Increasing fixed-penalty deposit levels will not only ensure broader consistency with other, similar penalty notices, it will also reflect the seriousness of these offences. In addition, setting the penalty at these levels will remove the need to review penalties in the longer term. I therefore commend the order to the Committee. I beg to move.
I thank the Minister for his explanation of the purpose and thinking behind the order we are considering. I understand from what he says that a hiccup may have been found that needs to be addressed, and I thank the Minister for pointing that out. I am not sure that I have entirely understood the order. No doubt my contribution will make it clear whether I have or not, and the Minister will put me right if I have incorrectly understood what it says and what it provides.
We know that the order provides for fixed-penalty deposits to be increased in line with the recent increase in fixed-penalty notices, to which the Minister referred. It also provides for a fixed-penalty deposit to be extended to less serious cases of careless and inconsiderate driving in the light of the decision that fixed-penalty notices can be issued for careless driving offences.
The Explanatory Memorandum states that the fixed-penalty deposit may be imposed by a police officer or a Vehicle and Operator Services Agency officer at the roadside on an alleged road traffic offender who does not have a satisfactory address in the UK. The purpose of this is to provide a guarantee of payment of a fixed-penalty notice or conditional offer in respect of an alleged offence.
The Minister has said that Vehicle and Operator Services Agency statistics show that more than 10,500 deposit notices were issued in 2012-13, with a payment rate of almost 100%. That suggests that if the individual who cannot give an acceptable address says that he or she cannot pay immediately, the vehicle is immediately impounded pending payment. However, perhaps the Minister could confirm that that is the case.
One would have assumed that most of the fixed-penalty deposits are, or will be, imposed by police officers rather than an officer of the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency. I say that in the context of the statement by the Minister in the Commons when this order was discussed there on 2 July, who said that the more than 10,500 deposit notices issued in 2012-13 were issued by VOSA officers with apparently none by police officers, which suggests that these notices related to commercial vehicles.
If that is the case, what happens in respect of private motorists who cannot pay—perhaps a private motorist stopped in the future in relation to a careless driving offence—when presumably it will be a police officer who will have stopped that motorist? If the motorist is unable to pay in circumstances where he or she cannot give a satisfactory address, does it mean that their vehicle will be impounded and they will be unable to drive it away, thus presumably maximising the prospects of 100% payment of the fixed-penalty deposit?
Who is in receipt of most fixed-penalty deposits? Presumably it is most likely to be foreign drivers or drivers with foreign addresses, but how many are issued to British nationals? In what circumstances, other than having no fixed abode, could a British national be deemed not to have given an acceptable address unless they are no longer resident in this country?
In the debate in the Commons, the Minister said that he would inform the Committee by letter of the absolute number of fines unpaid. I am not sure whether the Minister in the Commons was referring to fixed-penalty deposits, fixed-penalty notices or both but, whatever the case, does the noble Earl have those figures to give today and, if not, may I be advised of the answer in addition to the Commons Committee?
Finally, perhaps I may make a point about the extension of fixed penalties to careless driving cases. The Explanatory Memorandum shows the really quite dramatic fall that there has been in the number of careless driving proceedings in court over the past 10 years or so. I am not sure to what the decline can be attributed, although the Explanatory Memorandum suggests some possible explanations. However, I just hope that, with fixed penalties being introduced in relation to careless driving, a check will be kept to ensure that they are being used in only the least serious of such offences. There must be a temptation to use them in more serious cases in the light of the time savings involved and the paperwork that does not need to be completed and prepared, as it would have to be for a case going to court. I hope—indeed, I am sure—that the Minister will confirm that the necessary effective checks are in place. After all, the difference between careless driving causing a collision and injury and it not doing so can often be a matter of luck rather than the degree of carelessness in the driving. Certainly, from the Opposition, we have no objection to this order.
My Lords, I am grateful for the positive response from noble Lords. As regards the hiccup, I will write to the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, with full details of the impact and how we will cover it.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about careless driving. Of course, careless driving is not necessarily a less serious offence. Some of the offences that we are already capturing under the graduated fixed penalty are less serious than careless driving. The issue is that we have brought careless driving into the fixed-penalty regime. I understand the noble Lord’s point about dealing with a more serious careless driving offence by means of a fixed penalty when it would be appropriate to take it to court. It is a matter for the police which way they go and I am sure that they will make the judgment correctly. However, I have details here about which would come out as less serious offences, able to be dealt with by means of a fixed penalty. I have no doubt that the more serious offences will continue to be taken to court. For instance, if a driver emerges from a junction incorrectly, he may pick up a fixed penalty but if he causes another motorist to take emergency avoiding action, his chances are that he will find himself in court.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, drew attention to the fact that the successful payment rate for these graduated fixed penalties is about 100%. He is quite right. Most of them are issued by VOSA because the target is the foreign heavy goods vehicle, which is going nowhere until the driver has paid the graduated fixed-penalty deposit against either the fixed-penalty notice or the possible court action. The noble Lord also asked what happens where this scheme is used for private motorists. The answer is basically the same. The vehicle is not going anywhere until the penalty has been paid. It can be immobilised with the so-called Denver boot. Payment is usually made by a credit card but there are provisions in the legislation to deal with the problem of someone mucking about by coming out with a very complicated payment system, such as asking several times for £5 to be taken off several cards. There are limits on how you can pay but the system is fair and I am confident that it works.
The noble Lord asked whether he can be copied in on any correspondence to his colleague in the House of Commons. Whatever we write in terms of the details to the opposition spokesman in the House of Commons will of course be copied to the noble Lord.
I think the Minister said that the figure given for the almost 100% payment rate related to commercial vehicles, because it was VOSA people dealing with it. Presumably, from what he has said, fixed-penalty deposits already apply to private motorists, where they relate to a fixed-penalty offence and where they have not been able to give a satisfactory address. Has there also been nearly 100% payment in relation to private motorists where it is a police officer dealing with the matter, rather than a VOSA officer?
My Lords, I think the noble Lord’s analysis is correct. It is mainly foreign heavy goods vehicles but no doubt private vehicles will be dealt with. When we drive on the continent as private motorists, we try as hard as we can to comply with the rules in, say, Germany and German drivers would try to comply as hard as they can with our rules. I suspect that the police apply the rules pragmatically.
What I am getting at is that, as I understand it, at the moment, if somebody is stopped for a speeding offence they may be given a fixed-penalty notice. I had asked whether there are any circumstances in which a British national might be deemed to be giving an unsatisfactory address, other than their having no fixed abode. However, let us suppose that it is a foreign driver. In a situation where that foreign driver is unable to give a satisfactory address, presumably at the moment they are given the fixed-penalty deposit because of that. Is there, equally, a successful payment rate of or near to 100%, as there is in relation to commercial vehicles?
I will check with the Home Office to find out more details for the noble Lord but I suspect that the answer is yes. That is because if the police determine that a motorist does not have a satisfactory UK address—in other words, if they come from overseas or are from the UK but cannot give a decent address, which for various reasons some people cannot—there is a vulnerability that they may not pay. So they would come into scope and that vehicle will be immobilised until the graduated fixed-penalty deposit is paid. I understand why the noble Lord is concerned and if I can give him any details about the success rate of private vehicles, I will provide them.