Clause 53 - Aims of youth justice system

Part of Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:45 am ar 12 Chwefror 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Ceidwadwyr, Harborough 10:45, 12 Chwefror 2002

I take an entirely different view. Legislation is not the place for statements of intent, which are to be found in policy documents, party political manifestos and papers provided by jurists and others. They should not be placed in statute.

Not only do sentencing policies change, in accordance with declarations by the senior judiciary, but so do Government responses to criminal behaviour. The ways in which the present and previous Governments have dealt with aspects of criminal behaviour have changed from time to time. Usually, in my experience, Government responses to changes in public concern are somewhat delayed and it sometimes takes as long as five years for a criminal justice Act to be passed to bring about change reflecting those concerns. None the less, I have given two examples of the constantly moving scene. By setting in stone the amendment or subsections (1), (2) and (3) we would not do any service to the courts, the Government or those whom we seek to serve.

That lesson was brought home to me at the weekend when I attended a Judicial Studies Board tuition course—one of the refresher courses that recorders attend. I was constantly reminded, as the only recorder at the seminar who was also a Member of Parliament, that much of the criminal justice legislation passed by the House is difficult to apply and does not adequately take account of what has happened before. The result is increasingly meaningless legislation. An article in issue 3 of ''Sentencing News'', for 15 November 2000, concludes:

''Legislators seem to be unable to learn the lesson that statutes which no one can understand cannot be put into effective operation.''

I do not suggest that the amendments or subsections (1), (2) and (3) are impossible to understand, but they are coming close, as I said last week, to being as useless as an early-day motion.

I was rebuked by the Minister on Thursday afternoon, at column 292, for failing to read the criminal justice review. I am not prepared to accept a rebuke from the Minister, whether it is right or wrong. It was wrong, in fact. In my role as shadow Attorney-General I studied the criminal justice review as it was

published before the general election. I may even have come to it before the Minister. I cannot claim to have his detailed knowledge of it, but the points that I am making are outside that context. Simply repeating paragraphs from the review does not add to the quality of the argument that we need to get to grips with in this Committee if we are to produce effective measures.

Nothing in what the Minister said on Thursday afternoon comes close to being an answer to the points that I raised then. I am not making a party political point, but arguing that we need increasingly to be on our guard. We need to ensure that measures passed by the House, particularly on criminal justice matters, have some utility and effectiveness, instead of amounting to a collection of ill-thought-out amendments to earlier measures, or warm words that will make us feel good but fail to achieve our aims.

I of course accept that the aim of the youth justice system must reflect either the content of the amendments or the subsections that I have attacked. However, we do not need those provisions in the Bill. They will not help the sentencers to deal with the youngsters who come before them, nor will they help the people who write the pre-sentence reports. They will be hobbled and will produce a formulaic report.

After the Bill is passed, the probation service or whoever writes the pre-sentence reports in Northern Ireland will, almost as if setting out a computer matrix, write reports that reflect subsections (1), (2) and (3). The reports will then deal with the meat of the case, consider what should be done with a particular child or young person and pay no more attention to the aims set out in clause 53. They will not ignore those aims because they will always be in the mind of, and second nature to, the sentencer, but I assure the Committee that the amendment would be of no assistance whatsoever in securing proper sentences or treatment for young people, custodial or non-custodial—and I hope that, in the case of young people, they will be predominantly non-custodial.

From my experience, from the criticisms that have been expressed to me by those who are far more experienced than me in the practice of sentencing, from my understanding of the way in which legislation is, increasingly, being constructed in this House, and despite the Government's best intentions, as well as those of the two leading proponents of the amendments, I can assure them that they are barking up a tree that will produce no fruit.