§ Lord Taylor of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they have any plans to review the banding system for fines in magistrates' courts.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, we are monitoring all aspects of the unit fine system which now applies in magistrates' courts.
§ Lord Taylor of Blackburn
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Has he had representations from the Magistrates' Association and the Justices' Clerks' Society? What action does he intend to take on the representations that they have made to him?
My Lords, we take account of all representations that are made to us. The Act has been in force for only about six months. That is the reason why my right honourable friend is monitoring its effect before deciding whether action should be taken, and, if so, what action.
§ Viscount Tenby
My Lords, does the Minister agree that proportionate allowance tables in use in my court and over the whole of Hampshire go some way towards relieving some of the inequalities which exist under the unit fine system? Will he accordingly undertake to promote the use of such tables throughout the country until the present exhaustive survey of what is clearly a flawed system has finished and alternative arrangements put in place?
My Lords, I understand the noble Viscount's anxiety. Certainly we shall take account of what is happening in Hampshire. I believe that my original supplementary reply still applies. The Act has been in force for only about six months. We wish to see how it is working. We shall certainly take into account the Hampshire experience before deciding what to do.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that although the Act has been in existence for only six months, there is plenty of evidence from all parts of the country that discrepancies in fines appear to indicate even at this early stage that something is wrong somewhere?
My Lords, I am aware that that is a view which some of your Lordships and others hold. However, the system places on a statutory basis what the courts have for a long time been required to do in setting a fine which takes the offender's means into account.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that many magistrates are extremely distressed by what is happening. Far from having the flexibility that they previously enjoyed, while taking people's means into account, they are now forced into a system which they regard as too rigid. They are being forced to hand out fines which are totally disproportionate to the crime or misdemeanour that has been committed.
My Lords, I am aware of the concern of some magistrates. I am aware of the worry that is expressed. I can only say to the noble Lord that while I understand people's anxiety, one has to let the new system run for a while to find out whether it is all that bad and, if so, how it ought to be altered.
§ Lord Mellish
My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware that the banding system has many faults. The relevant issue is surely the severity of the crime not how much a person can afford to pay.
My Lords, it is fair to say that it is not right that a person who is well off should be able to afford to break the law while someone who is not well off suffers draconian penalties. The system is that people should pay according to their means. Indeed, that has been the system which courts have applied hitherto.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that when there were low fines for everyone, many of us who sat as magistrates found the fines for some people derisory. Is it not desirable that, although the current system has problems and is not working well, fines should be tailored to people's means?
My Lords, the system of a list has been in operation for some time. The table applies at level 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. A maximum amount is applicable under those levels. The unit fine system does not alter that. For instance, if one is on level 4, there is a maximum value of £2,500. The maximum number of units that one can be charged is 25. The maximum that one can be charged for a unit is £100. Twenty-five times £100 equals £2,500, which is the maximum under the levels.
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, will the Minister accept that although many of us agree that the system of unit fines is good in theory, the problem was exacerbated when the price per unit increased from £20 to £100 at the beginning of the year? It is that factor which has caused so much distress to many magistrates.
My Lords, that is one of the points which we shall take into account when monitoring the Act to see how it is working.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, would it be unkind to suggest that there might be an analogy between this banding system and the new banding system under the council tax which came into effect today? Would it further be unkind to suggest that, although differences in ability to pay are of paramount importance, some banding systems could be a little crude?