Labour was embroiled in fresh claims of incompetence yesterday after it emerged that nearly ?300 million of court fines went uncollected last year.

Harriet Harman, the constitutional affairs minister, confirmed that almost 20 per cent of fines levied by courts in England and Wales in 2005-06 were not paid.

Last night the Conservatives condemned the figure as disgraceful, not least as it came after repeated cutbacks in legal aid. Jonathan Djanogly, the Tory constitutional affairs spokesman who forced Miss Harman to disclose the figure, said the failure to collect so much money was "hugely embarrassing".

"The answer to how much was not collected in 2005-06 is ?282 million," Miss Harman told Mr Djanogly during a special meeting to approve the Draft Collection of Fines (Final Scheme) Order 2006.

She said new procedures to track down fine defaulters had already dramatically improved collection rates.

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