Mev Brown: Public is left counting cost of others’ offending

Too many offenders are getting away with never paying their fines
Too many offenders are getting away with never paying their fines
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We have been hearing a lot from politicians that they are “taking the tough decisions”. Maybe, but tough for whom? Cutting the number of people entitled to housing benefit, for instance, by ending the right for under-25s to claim will apparently save £2 billion.

We already know about so-called Kippers – Kids in Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings – an estimated 6.8 million of them and rising.

There are millions who can’t afford the market rate for housing, especially here in Edinburgh, and have little or no chance of council or social housing, because they are not homeless.

This latest measure will only exacerbate these problems.

Motorists may have been given a rare break by the Government delaying a 3p-a-litre rise in fuel duty from August to next January. But duty on fuel has been increasing remorselessly, raking in billions for the Treasury and leaving motorists with a choice of “pay up or stay at home”. And, of course, almost all goods are transported by road these days, so the price at the pumps has been feeding into inflation.

Earlier this year there were clear signs that the “oil shock” was really starting to affect the economy to the point where demand for goods was being hit, perhaps the most likely explanation for this week’s policy change.

The sight of 30,000 police officers marching through London earlier this year protesting at budget cuts simply echoes the strains that are being felt by workers right across the public and voluntary sectors north of the border.

But these are hard times and the books must be balanced.

However, it looks increasingly like it is always the regular people that are just trying to get on, that are trying to do the right thing, who end up being the mugs that have to pay for other people’s mistakes.

Well, here’s a radical idea – how about we get offenders to pay their fines?

Official figures show that more than 20,000 Scottish criminals – almost half of those fined in the last three years – have not paid a single penny of their penalty.

Altogether, they suggest that criminals have dodged paying almost £10 million in fines in Scotland in three years.

That is bad enough, but the reality is that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

A better indication of the true scale of the problem can be found in a recent report published by the cross-party Public Accounts Committee at Westminster. It showed that almost £2bn of fines remains unpaid across the UK. A significant sum in the current economic climate.

The problem is that, basically, if an offender refuses to pay a fine, there is little the courts can do. Their hands are largely tied.

There are a range of measures open to them, including arresting wages, but most of these are easily avoided by offenders who are determined not to pay up. Switching job, for instance, instantly stops payments being docked from their wages, until the courts can catch up with them again.

But ensuring that offenders pay their court fines could be easily achieved.

The HMRC and the Benefits Agency can provide the solutions.

In the case of working offenders, rather than arrest wages, existing HMRC mechanisms could be used to collect fines by adjusting the offender’s tax code. So if an offender moves to a new job then collection of the fine will follow them to the new employer.

In the case of offenders on benefits, the courts simply need to get the offender’s National Insurance number.

If a fine is not paid within 28 days then the court could be compelled to use the Benefit Agency’s existing “Third Party Deduction” mechanism to guarantee collection in full.

In the case of on-the-spot-fines, the issuing police officer could record the offender’s NI number, ensuring that unpaid fines are collected in the same way.

The idea that convicted offenders can simply “revise” their sentence – effectively choose to swap their fine for community service, which they may well not turn up to – does nothing for the public’s faith in our justice system.

We should be ensuring that offenders pay their fines. It would send a powerful message to those of them who think, perhaps rightly, that they are above the law.

• Mev Brown is founder and editor of www.frontlinepolicy.org.uk

FINE IF IT WORKS

FISCAL fines were introduced in 2008 in a move designed to free up Scottish courts.

They were to offer swift punishment for minor non-violent offences, such as breach of the peace and vandalism, and ease pressure on busy courts.

But they were recently branded a “waste of time” by one sheriff after he had to write off a drug user’s £100 penalty. David Sinclair, spokesman for Victim Support Scotland, said: “ We recognise that the fines system has had some initial success, but clearly there is some way to go to ensure that all fines imposed are recovered.”

Last year, the late Paul McBride QC said benefit- seizing legislation was needed to make the system work.