Courts owed over 1.3bn in unpaid fines

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Courts are owed more than £1.3 billion in unpaid fines, compensation and confiscation orders, a report revealed today.

The outstanding sum for England and Wales has jumped from £920 million in three years, a rise of nearly 50%, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

In its report into the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the NAO said the ministry "does not yet understand, in sufficient detail, the costs of its activities within its prisons, the probation service and the courts".

Officials warned these shortcomings reduced the department's "ability to monitor its overall budgetary position".

The MoJ has a budget of £10.1 billion, and faces a spending squeeze along with a number of other government departments.

NAO head Amyas Morse said: "The financial management of the Ministry of Justice, both at its headquarters and its arm's length bodies, has improved but it falls short of established best practice in three significant areas."

These were not having a "consistent approach" over managing its finances, lacking a full understanding of its activities and costs and not yet integrating its financial systems and processes.

Mr Morse added: "Without improvements in these areas, the ministry will not be able to make informed decisions on relative operational performance, affecting its ability to deliver the sustainable efficiencies that are needed in the current constrained spending environment."

Of the £1.33 billion in unpaid fines and other orders during 2008/09, officials only deemed £455 million to be fully recoverable - just over one third of the total.

It blamed this on the increased use of Deduction from Benefit Orders for offenders.

"This ensures payment is received but does take time to be paid in full, thus increasing the amount of impositions in arrears over six months," the report said.

The NAO's main criticism was the "complexity and range" of financial management processes and accountability within the MoJ.

This made it difficult for officials to introduce consistent procedures, "reducing their efficiency and increasing their cost".

Mr Morse said the department had not yet provided a clear timetable for the improvements.

"This timetable needs to be established with urgency and we recommend that it is put in place within the next four months," he said.