UK Politics

Unpaid court fines approach £2bn

Warden at the door of a prison cell
Image caption Like all government departments, the ministry is facing constraints on its budget

Almost £2bn is owed in unpaid court fines and confiscation orders, a report by a committee of MPs has revealed.

The cross-party Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises government spending, says the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) should do more to collect money owed.

MPs said it was unacceptable that "timely and accurate" financial accounts cannot be produced by the MoJ.

The MoJ said it had improved the way fines were collected.

The Public Accounts Committee also said financial management at the department had improved in the past year, but added that significant problems remained.

Not enough fines were collected and 60% of money pursued via confiscation orders may never be recovered.

'Cycle of failure'

The Ministry of Justice was established in 2007 when responsibilities for the criminal justice system and prison policy were taken out of the Home Office.

The Public Accounts Committee said the department had to "break the cycle of failure" when it came to its financial housekeeping.

Although there had been progress in some areas, such as financial modelling and forecasting, it said the department's chief financial officer had not been able to commit to meeting a July 2012 deadline for delivering accounts for the current year.

Insufficient progress had been made when it came to "maximising" the department's income, the committee said.

Although the amount of fines collected had increased, the amount of money outstanding was increasing at a faster rate.

MPs urged closer working with the Home Office when it came to enforcing confiscation orders, saying it was not clear how "substantial" amounts outstanding would be recovered.

MPs also identified specific weaknesses at the Legal Services Commission and the HM Courts Service when it came to producing information that could be externally audited.

"Financial management at the MoJ has improved since we last reported," Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said.

"However, the ministry remains unable to deliver timely and accurate financial accounts. This is unacceptable and undermines public confidence in the ministry's stewardship of public funds."

Asset seizures

The department was expected to find £2bn of extra savings a year by 2014-2015, Mrs Hodge added.

"Given the workload pressures it is under, including those largely outside its control such as increases in the prison population, it has its work cut out," she said.

"Without full information on its costs, there is a risk that savings will be made through unnecessary cuts to front-line services essential to the poorest in the community, rather than genuine improvements in the ministry's efficiency."

An MoJ spokesman said the department was determined to build on the improvements identified by the committee.

He said: "We have increased deductions from benefits, introduced asset seizures and begun programmes of targeted blitzes. Already we're seeing results, with £282m fines collected in the last financial year.

"We are also taking steps to recover the full costs of court services by introducing simpler fees and, where necessary, changing court costs."

Legal aid cuts

But a leading QC said the report provided further evidence of the need for a shake-up in the government's approach to confiscation orders.

"This report emphasises the full amount outstanding in unpaid confiscation orders, which is more than triple that of the savings which the government is seeking to make by cutting legal aid from the most vulnerable members of society," said Stephen Cobb, chairman of the Bar Council's working group on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

"Despite the Bar's tireless campaign for restrained assets to be unfrozen to allow wealthy criminal defendants to pay their own legal fees, the government continues to squander its limited funds on legal aid for these individuals, in the hope that some of the funds may be recouped later via confiscation orders."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites