A Clause for concern

Don Touhig4x3Backbench Labour peer Don Touhig tells us why the Colaition's proposals for court-imposed fines risk driving the poor into deeper poverty

So here’s something...

A young man lives in the North of England. He is 25, unemployed with a young son. He has just been let out of prison and is facing a number of court imposed fines as well as other debts.

He would probably be the first to admit that his lifestyle is chaotic yet he wants to rehabilitate himself. He has tried desperately to find a job. He has a repayment plan for his court imposed fines but still has difficulty paying his way on a limited budget.

I personally have no doubt that he has the responsibility to pay his fines. But government plans in the Crime and Courts Bill (currently going through Committee stage on the floor of the Lords) will, if unchanged, impose a financial penalty on him which he may never recover from.

The young man I refer to is a real person and just one of the cases I have been made aware of prior to a debate this week on an amendment I have tabled to Clause 20 of the Bill.

At present, fines imposed by the magistrates’ court take account of person’s basic needs to care for children, buy food and keep a roof over their heads. In effect, these fines are means tested so that the person involved is allowed to retain a basic subsistence level of income. Yet Clause 20 means that the father I refer to would face a further fine for not keeping to his original repayment plan which, on the admission of the government, could be a greater amount than the original penalty.

I’ve asked the (LibDem) Minister leading on the Bill, Baroness Northover if, without being means tested, the second fine could be greater than the original fine. Her reply: “In theory, I suppose that that could be the case”. The government, it seems, do not think the additional fine should be means tested.

For the poorest individuals and families, even a small increase in regular payments can have serious consequences forcing them into deeper poverty. If Ministers will not change then many, who are seeking to rehabilitate themselves and pay off their debts, will end up resorting to pay-day lenders. The government will claim it is not its intention to undermine people’s capacity to pay their rent, feed their children and keep a roof over the heads – but that is what will happen.

This ideological-driven Coalition is driving poor people, who have got into trouble and want to make a fresh start, into greater poverty. It is doing this because it can. If it was the banks doing this to people and not the government, I am sure Ministers would be touring the TV studios denouncing them.

Lord Don Touhig is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords

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