Clause 53 - Aims of youth justice system

Part of Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:15 pm ar 7 Chwefror 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 5:15, 7 Chwefror 2002

I am not inclined to take an intervention now because I have other comments to make that are important to our debate.

I have no criticism of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire for speaking to amendments in other hon. Members' names and I understand why he wants to open up this area of debate. I have no criticism of anyone who lobbies the Government in the interests of children and to redirect our attention to international conventions and principles accepted by successive UK Governments, who accepted that international standards that relate to the protection and interests of children were appropriate. We can, and do, look to other countries and find that they do not protect children as we do, so it is incumbent on us to observe the principles in the conventions, and set by example that which should apply the world over.

I read with interest the contributions to the consultation processes, including those for the

review. They came from a number of well-informed and important groups. However, that does not mean that, as a Minister standing at the prow of the history of UK Governments' attempts to respect conventions, I should not add something on record: although we must constantly be drawn back to principles, reconsider legislation and improve it if we can, we should not say that there should be no concession or that the principles, which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire sets out in short and some consultation contributions set out at length, are not being respected.

UK Governments have been punctilious in ensuring that conventions are respected, so I say to the hon. Gentleman that if he chooses parts or articles of conventions that he believes are not being properly respected, it is incumbent on him to point them out so that they can be addressed. It is better that that happens as we proceed through the Bill. He will find no absence of willingness on my part to address them. No hon. Member would want to be party to the enactment of legislation that contravenes our international obligations.

In moving amendment No. 278, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire provides an alternative form of words for subsection (1). I cannot, and do not, disagree with the sentiments expressed in what I consider to be a thoughtful amendment. I am glad that it has been moved. None the less, although the words are different, his sentiments are already reflected in the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman's genuine concerns about reintegration and a constructive role in society for the child can best be addressed through preventing offending and re-offending. A child's sense of dignity and self-worth can be developed by having regard for his or her welfare and by furthering his or her personal, social and educational development. Building a sense of respect for the rights and freedoms of others can be achieved by encouraging children to recognise the effects of crime on themselves and others. I contend that the hon. Gentleman and I are saying the same thing, but I prefer the way in which it is worded in the Bill.

I understand the thinking behind amendment No. 233. However, I am worried that it confuses the Bill's drafting considerably, and risks duplication in some areas and conflict in others. By advocating the prevention of offending as the means of protecting the public, and by directing persons and bodies to have regard for the welfare of the child—particularly by furthering the personal, social and educational development of children who come into contact with the youth justice system—the statement of aims is entirely consistent and compatible with all the international conventions in the amendment.

The spirit and letter of the international instruments are further satisfied by legislative provision, which already restricts the use of custody for children and which, in this Bill, increases the community sentencing option for courts, traduces restorative interventions and makes available pre-court diversionary arrangements. Those legislative provisions are underpinned by policies that aim to maintain young

people in their communities by providing support to them and to their families before offending patterns are confirmed. The aims therefore set the scene for, and must be viewed in the context of, all that we evidently intend to do in legislative and policy terms to protect the public, meet victims' needs and, crucially, support children away from crime.

The Government are not opposed to incorporating international treaties and instruments into British law—where appropriate. Our incorporation of the European convention on human rights through the Human Rights Act 1998 is one of our most significant achievements and one of which I am most intensely proud. There is, however, a difference between incorporating legal conventions, such as the European convention, and putting in place some of the guidelines in the amendment.

If the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire identifies areas covered by the guidelines that are not adequately dealt with in the Northern Ireland statute book, we shall be happy to consider his points. Although I hope that he will try to do that as we go through this part of the Bill, I am not persuaded that he will be able to, given the examples that he has cited so far. He quoted article 12 of the UN convention, which states that the child's views should be given due weight, but that already happens. A child is entitled to legal representation as a defendant, and we are taking matters further through youth conferencing. I do not, therefore, understand where the deficiency is when it comes to giving the child an opportunity to be heard. Indeed, the Bill contains legal aid provisions on youth conferencing, which will ensure that the child's voice is heard loudly.

I do not know my way around the convention as well as the hon. Gentleman does, but he quoted an article that requires custody to be used as a last resort in the case of children. That is, however, reflected in existing law, under which detention is used only where the offence justifies it. Existing law is restated in the present provisions; I am thinking particularly of new article 44A(4) in clause 56. I look forward to further examples, but I hope that we do not need to return to the two that I have mentioned, because there is clearly no merit in either of them. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees—indeed, I do not think that he did this—that it is unhelpful simply to cite such instruments as a sort of mantra. Nor do I think that those who encourage such amendments would want to do that.

The amendment would also introduce confusion into the heart of the system's aims. Paramount consideration would be given to the child's welfare, but the system's principal aim would still be to protect the public by preventing offending by children. I think that that was the point that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight was trying to make in an intervention on the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. I should make it clear that, in the Government's view, any tension will generally be more apparent than real. Given the consequences of criminal behaviour—some of which hon. Members have alluded to—the interests of young offenders, and of children in particular, will be served by preventing offending. The clause also makes it clear

that those who exercise functions in relation to youth justice should seek to promote the welfare of children and to encourage them to recognise the effects of crime and to take responsibility for their actions.

The clause replicates the language of the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, but differs from the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which, I accept, gave paramountcy to the child's welfare. There is, however, a clear reason for that distinction. It is reasonable for agencies that deal with the child's welfare in the context of family law and care law to take a slightly different approach from that taken in the criminal justice system. When legislating in compliance with principles, the Government must apply them to the circumstances that prevail, not slavishly repeat them. We must distinguish between care law and criminal law. After all, we are dealing with cases in which a child's behaviour results in his or her rights clashing with those of other citizens. As always, a balance must be struck, and I believe that the Bill strikes the right one.

Amendment No. 284 seeks to include in the Bill specific reference to the UN convention on the rights

of the child. The Government fully accept the principles espoused in the convention, but the issue is how best to implement them and how best to have regard to the child's welfare. Those aims are best achieved through the approach that we have adopted, and we have gone to considerable lengths to give practical effect to them in the Bill. We should reflect the convention in the provisions that we make for children; we should not slavishly repeat the principles. I firmly believe that we have done that.

Amendment No. 277 seeks to replace the term ''welfare'' of the child with ''best interests'' of the child. I do not think that there is any material difference between the terms. I am satisfied that if we have regard to the welfare of the child a concept that is well understood and defined—we will, to all intents and purposes, have regard to the child's best interests. I therefore see little point in the amendment and encourage the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Stringer.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Six o'clock till Tuesday 12 February at half-past Ten o'clock.