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Fixed penalty notices go against British tradition, Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested as he urged a debate on the current system in the wake of “partygate”.
Mr Rees-Mogg – a staunch ally of Boris Johnson who dismissed the row around lockdown-busting Downing Street parties as “fluff” – said the fines risked unintended consequences.
A fixed penalty notice is an alternative to prosecution at a magistrates’ court and is often applied for parking and speeding offences as well as being used for antisocial behaviour and breaches of Covid rules during the pandemic.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Mr Johnson both received £50 fixed penalty notices from the Metropolitan Police for breaches of Covid restrictions last month.
There is no legal requirement to interview a suspect before a decision is made to issue a fixed penalty notice, but police are still obliged to give a suspect the opportunity to answer allegations against them.
Mr Rees-Mogg, the minister for Brexit opportunities, told The Sun: “If we go back to the 1980s, when fixed penalty notices were debated at the time, there was an argument made in the House of Commons that they reverse the traditional British burden of proof argument – that you are guilty until proven innocent – because you have to go to court to get it set aside.
“I think you always need to look at how things have worked when they’ve been going for some decades to see whether the intended consequences are what was expected.”
Mr Rees-Mogg – the Cabinet minister in charge of government efficiency – said fixed penalty notices “assume you’re guilty until you prove your innocence” and described this as “problematic if you’re the constitutional balance”.
Accepting that the system was widely deemed “proportionate” for low-level offences, he asked: “Is it possible [that] society will want to reopen that? Yes, it is.”
The options available to anyone who receives a fixed penalty notice are to either pay it in full – as Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak did – or challenge it at a magistrates’ court. An unsuccessful challenge can result in a criminal record and the obligation to pay any unlimited fine issued by a court.
A total of 124,626 fixed penalty notices were given out during the pandemic for offences including hosting an illegal gathering and refusing to wear a face mask, data showed in March.
More than 40 per cent fines are still thought not to have been paid, with Mr Johnson’s fine leading to calls for a wider amnesty.