New Clause 3

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am ar 20 Ebrill 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Court presentation officer

‘(1) Designated members of a relevant police constabulary shall, for the purposes of this section, have the powers and rights of audience of a Crown Prosecutor in relation to the prosecution of—

(a) the offences listed in paragraphs 1, 3, 4 and 5 of Schedule 1 to the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 (Specified Proceedings) Order 1999 (S.I. 1999/904);

(b) specified offences that cease to be specified when a magistrates' court begins to receive evidence in those proceedings where a defendant does not enter a plea.

(2) A designated member of a relevant police constabulary shall not have rights of audience when an offence ceases to be specified where the defendant enters a not guilty plea and the case proceeds to trial.

(3) A member of a relevant police constabulary shall be designated for the purposes of this section if that member is a recognised designated court presentation officer employed for that purpose.

(4) A recognised designated court presentation officer must also be a serving police officer from the relevant police constabulary.

(5) In exercising his role as a designated court presentation officer, a police officer must have regard to any advice or guidance issued by the Secretary of State.

(6) The Secretary of State may, by regulation, issue guidance on the recruitment, training and operation of designated court presentation officers.'. —[Mr. Kidney.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I beg to move that the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure, Mrs. Anderson, to see you back in the Chair after the Easter break. New clause 3 is quite specific: it would allow police officers to present one more category of case in court; it is in addition to those that they can present already.

When I was a young solicitor there was no such thing as the Crown Prosecution Service. When desperate motorists who faced disqualification as a result of road traffic offences asked for my representation to help them save their driving licences, I would go to the magistrates court and find the courtroom filled with others who had similar cases. The prosecutor was a police officer in uniform, who presented the cases one after the other until the whole list had been finished. That was quite common in those days.

For reasons that I understand and with which I agree, Parliament decided, through the Prosecution of  Offences Act 1985, that prosecutions should not be undertaken by the police but by a separate organisation, and the Crown Prosecution Service was established. From then on, most prosecutions have been conducted by CPS employees or agents. However, a small number of minor, summary-only offences, including many road traffic offences, could still be presented by a police officer. They were known as specified offences. Even those offences ceased to be specified, and they had to be handed over to the CPS in two set circumstances.

The first circumstance was when the accused pleaded not guilty. Once a trial was required because of a not-guilty plea, legal judgments and other legal issues might benefit from the presence of a qualified CPS prosecutor rather than a police officer. That is understandable. The second was when a person simply ignored the court process and did not turn up. Even so, the argument would have been that some legal judgments were required. For example, the court would have to be satisfied that the person accused of the offence knew that he was supposed to be in court, so evidence would be needed that they had received the paperwork. Next, a judgment has to be made on whether to call witnesses to prove the case or simply to serve the statements on the accused and then read them out in court. But why should we expend time and effort on people who are irresponsible enough to ignore the process? Inevitably, therefore, a CPS representative would turn up in court and read out the statements, and the case would be proved.

Under the new clause, in that second class of cases in which the procedures are ignored, the police officer can present the case to the court as the CPS would have done. To show how important it is, I shall give a case study, as it were, concerning the Metropolitan police. Although this example is of what happens in London, I stress that the problem affects all police forces; the new clause would benefit the administration of justice throughout the country.

In 2004, the Metropolitan police reorganised the way in which it dealt with road traffic offences. It formed a pan-London traffic criminal justice operation or command unit. As a result, all London’s traffic offence prosecutions go through one office. That has ended the postcode lottery of whether the police would decide to prosecute, so we have consistency, and with it come economies of scale, standardised processes and improved IT support systems.

Crucially, the police depend on a good strong partnership with the CPS and the courts. Between them, the three partners have developed a system of five specialised traffic gateway courts. All cases go through one of those five courts, and the system has resulted in an effective use of everyone’s time and the consistent enforcement of traffic law. I would argue that, if people cannot get away with breaking road traffic laws, the system also makes an effective contribution to road safety.

The police in London would like a similar model to deal with camera fines and other fixed penalty notices that have to go to court—for example, when cases are contested. The volume of work would be too much for the five gateway courts, and the police are currently negotiating for additional operations courts. Except for the specified proceedings, the CPS still has to provide  the prosecution staff in all courts for all cases. As the Metropolitan police has found, however, the CPS is unwilling, because it is stretched, to devote resources to matters such as safety camera prosecutions.

The police are quite willing to provide the prosecution—except, of course, in not-guilty trials. They can prosecute the specified proceedings, except when the accused ignores the process, because there has to be proof in absence. In that situation, the court has the discretion to allow the case to be presented by a police officer, rather than a CPS prosecutor. Clearly, it is not possible to build a strategy on the hope that all courts will grant a police officer permission to do that on the day. If the new clause were passed, however, it would allow prosecutions to proceed in an orderly way. In any case, what is wrong with going that slight step further and using the law to allow police officers to carry on as they usually would and prove the case in absence? A fixed penalty notice system is good, but it must be underpinned by the ability to take people to court, which means proving the case in their absence if they ignore the process.

New clause 3 is narrowly drawn and deals only with the mischief that I have identified. It would give the police new powers and provide for new procedures, allowing the police to speed up the criminal justice system to the extent that it is in their power to do so. The Metropolitan police has used such new powers and procedures most effectively in dealing with road traffic offences, but it has alerted us to a bottleneck that it encounters at the court stage. It foresees it growing significantly, and as I said at the beginning, it will extend to other parts of the country. It is incumbent on us to remove that bottleneck, and we have the opportunity to do so today. That is why I tabled the new clause.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Conservative Members give new clause 3 a cautious welcome. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making available to me some of the briefings that he has had from various organisations. As he rightly said, the new clause is designed to tighten up procedures and end an anomaly by giving police officers rights of audience when offenders do not turn up. Where no plea has been entered, and the prosecution believes that the case could be proved at first hearing, court presentation officers should have the right of audience.

As the hon. Gentleman said, such an arrangement would have the advantage of relieving an overworked CPS. If the new clause came into effect, the CPS would deal with traffic offences only where more serious, non-specified crimes took place or where cases relating to specified crimes had been adjourned for trial. As the hon. Gentleman said, the CPS was previously needed in such cases simply because the courts were required to hear a statement of evidence. Such statements would be read out by the CPS, so the case could be presented and proved only by the CPS.

The new clause would make it the norm for court presentation officers to be used for all minor offences. It would remove the anomalous power of individual courts not to grant rights of audience. I note from the hon. Gentleman’s comments and from representations from the police that the police are pressing for the right of audience in such cases.

I looked at the contrary argument, which seems to be that a person who is absent has no defence. They would therefore require an independent prosecution, and that would be of the highest importance in such cases. As the hon. Gentleman said, however, why should the whole process be held up by people who are, in effect, thumbing their noses at the system and saying, “We are not going to attend court”? As we and the Minister have said throughout, we aim to deal with the hard core of offenders, and non-attendees at court are often the very serial offenders we are talking about.

Therefore, we give the new clause a cautious welcome. I say cautious because no one should assume from our support for extending the rights of audience in this specific case that we would necessarily support extensions elsewhere. In this case, however, such an extension would end an anomaly.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I hope that you had a good Easter, Mrs. Anderson, and I welcome you back to the Chair.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for raising this issue. I entirely understand his point and agree with his intentions, but I am afraid that for several reasons I shall advise the Committee not to accept the new clause. The first is that there is already judicial discretion about who can appear in front of the court in a routine case. Therefore, judges can, and sometimes do, allow police officers to present routine cases. The cases that my hon. Friend has identified are the sort to which judicial discretion could be applied.

The Government’s preference is that we should leave the matter to judicial discretion, rather than putting in place an automatic power to allow certain individuals to appear before a court, which would be impossible to remove without further legislation. As the new clause is drafted, there is a tension between whether an officer who is to act as a court presentation officer needs to have had a certain amount of training, and whether the court presentation officer should just follow guidance as to how he should behave. If the new clause were accepted, it would not be possible to take the power of appearance away from individuals even if things were not to work out in the way in which my hon. Friend assumes that they will, and people were to present to the court defective cases that held up its procedures.

Although it is the Government’s view that the matter is best left to judicial discretion, I hope that I will go some way towards satisfying my hon. Friend if I tell him that the Metropolitan police, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Department for Transport are working together on it. The Metropolitan police has agreed to put together information for the DCA about the rights of judicial discretion, and how it could be used to improve the presentation and efficiency of routine cases. We undertake that, when we have that information, we will do what we can to ensure that all courts realise how they might use that discretion and think about how they can improve the efficiency of presentation of cases.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am disappointed because, as I explained, the Metropolitan police has developed a  system to deal consistently with road traffic offenders. On Tuesday afternoon, when my hon. Friend asked us to vote against several clauses in the Bill, he said that the laws were adequate and that we just needed to enforce them consistently and effectively. Does he not recognise that there is an inconsistency in his argument if he thinks that a whole strategy can rely on thinking, “One day the court might grant a discretion to allow the officer to present the case when he gets there.”?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

My point is that the Metropolitan police has already gone a long way towards making the presentation of such cases more efficient, using the existing law. We believe that that can go further, bridging the gap between what the Metropolitan police is doing and what it wants to do, without the introduction of the power suggested in new clause 3. I am confident that, working together, the Metropolitan police, the Department for Transport and the DCA can resolve the issue to the satisfaction not only of the Metropolitan police but of my hon. Friend, without running the risk of creating a new power that could not be removed if it turned out to have side effects that my hon. Friend does not intend.

My strong advice is that the Committee should not accept the new clause, and I hope that my hon. Friend accepts my assurance that the DCA, my officials and the Metropolitan police and others will work on the matter to find a way of resolving it without the need for the new clause.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If I may, I should like to reserve the right to come back to the matter on Report. Having listened to the Minister, I realise that I need to lobby not just his Department but the DCA. I urge him not to be so timid about changing the law that was passed in 1985. Parliament has changed it in other regards. A good example is the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which amended the Crown Prosecution Service provisions in the 1985 Act to allow, when suitable, non-legal staff in the CPS office to present cases on behalf of the CPS.

We were bold enough then to let the CPS use non-lawyers to present some of their court cases, which are more serious, obviously, than the ones about which I am talking. Surely, the matter is not a difficult one. Let us be sufficiently bold, recognise that there is a bottleneck, and make that modest amendment, because when the Bill is passed, our next opportunity to do that could be many years away. So I shall not press the new clause to a vote, but I would like to come back to the matter on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.