Motion to Consider
My Lords, the draft order, which was laid before the House on 6 February and which was approved in the other place on 14 March, is made under Section 84(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Northern Ireland Act allows changes to be made to legislation that are necessary because of an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This order is made in consequence of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, which was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly on 14 March 2016 and received Her Majesty’s Assent on 12 May 2016.
Part 1 of the 2016 Act fundamentally reforms arrangements for the collection and enforcement of fines in Northern Ireland by creating a new regime that provides additional ways for offenders to pay their fines. It includes powers for collection officers to secure payment through an attachment of earnings order, which is a court order made in Northern Ireland that requires a debtor’s employer to deduct specified amounts from wages and pay them to the court to discharge the outstanding amount.
The order will amend Schedule 5 to the Courts Act 2003 to enable fine collection officers and courts in Northern Ireland to obtain or verify certain information from HM Revenue & Customs, including the name and address of any employer the individual may have and details of any earnings or other income that the individual receives. This information will allow fine collection officers in Northern Ireland to determine whether an attachment of earnings order is an appropriate enforcement option to be pursued in respect of the debtor.
Schedule 5 to the 2003 Act already enables Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs to make such disclosures in England and Wales, and the amendments made under the order will allow it to do so in Northern Ireland as well. Such amendments could not be made by the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland through the 2016 Act because Section 18 of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 stipulates that conferring such powers on HMRC cannot be carried in Northern Ireland legislation and can be done only through Westminster. However, Section 84(2) of the 1998 Act allows for such amendments to be made by an Order in Council, such as this order, if “necessary or expedient” and I consider that the proposed amendments are necessary to facilitate the effective operation of the attachment of earnings provisions of the 2016 Act.
I am happy to confirm to noble Lords that Ministers and officials of the United Kingdom Government and the Northern Ireland Department of Justice have worked closely together on this draft order, which I commend to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his very comprehensive explanation of the order, and I very much welcome the order, which will provide the courts in Northern Ireland with additional sentencing, collecting and enforcement options. It will go a long way in helping to reduce the number of people—I believe 2,000—who are jailed each year for non-payment of fines by increasing the availability of community-based options in place of custody, by deducting money from their benefits each week. I believe that the vehicles of habitual offenders can be seized.
Can the Minister say how much money in unpaid fines is owed to the Stormont Government, going back over the last number of years, and how much money in police time is spent in enforcing fines? Is the Minister confident that there are enough safeguards with regard to the policy of possible seizure of vehicles? However, these amendments will go a long way and will prove effective in saving money.
My Lords, this order—one of five we are discussing today—is the only one so far to have been taken in the Commons. In that place a very brief explanation was given by the Minister—the noble and learned Lord has given a rather fuller explanation than was given then—and my honourable friend David Anderson replied with a sentence only. I do not propose to add to that except to say that the noble Lord who has just spoken has raised some salient points and I was interested to hear what he said. We certainly have no objection to the order.
I am obliged to noble Lords. I will address the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont. I do not have precise figures for outstanding fines, but if those figures can be collated I undertake to write to the noble Lord, although I am not sure that they can be collated in the manner he indicated. However, perhaps at a higher level of generality, I can say that at present we are dealing with about 20,000 cases a year where there is a financial imposition. Of those, more than 16,000 currently result in a default hearing, and the default hearing itself is an extremely time-consuming exercise, taking up manpower and, in particular, police time. It is anticipated that with these measures we will be able to reduce the number of default hearings to something of the order of 4,000 cases. That in itself will bring about a significant saving in time and money. I hope that goes some way to satisfy the points raised by the noble Lord. With that, I invite agreement to the order.