Clause 41 - Report by local authority in

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:45 pm ar 15 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath 3:45, 15 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 74, in

clause 41, page 32, line 25, leave out 'seven' and insert 'twentyone'.

This is a short point. All that I want to say, without too much of a pun, is that seven days, which is what the Government have proposed in clause 41, is too short. I was encouraged in tabling the amendment, which is a serious one, by the comments of the leader and the chief executive of Surrey Heath, the main local authority in my constituency. I meet the leader and the chief executive regularly, and every time I do they say that even though the Government want to ensure that powers are given to local authorities, the difficulty is that there are costs associated with those powers, and the Government do not provide the funding to accompany the new obligations imposed on local authorities.

At this point in the afternoon, I do not want to start a huge new debate about local authority finance. When I left the Chamber earlier, there was much discussion of that issue in relation to education funding. Such a debate would not be appropriate here, and would probably be out of order. However, this matter is an example of something about which I hope the Government will have second thoughts. Even if the Minister cannot say today that he will agree to a time scale of 21 days, I hope that he will consider the suggestion seriously in the spirit in which it is put forward, and perhaps introduce it later as a Government amendment. Even 14 days—although I have suggested 21—would be better than seven.

It is far too onerous an obligation to expect small borough councils such as Surrey Heath—and there are local authorities that are even smaller, more rural and more remote than that—to produce such a report in seven days. That is all I need to say about the amendment, but I do so in the knowledge that I have the full support of my local authority chief executive and of many other local authority chief executives and leading officers. The Government should not force local authorities to act within such a short time scale. It would be better and more flexible if the time scale were extended to 21 days.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

For 10 and 11-year-old offenders, the choice open to the court is either bail or remand to local authority accommodation. The local authority then has discretion over the placement of the child on remand. That measure allows the court to ask the local authority to report back within seven working days on where children will be placed should they be remanded in local authority care. That report informs the court's decision on whether bail or remand to local authority accommodation is the most appropriate option available to prevent further offending. The measure deals with 10 and 11-year-old persistent offenders, and the local authority must deal quickly with requests for reports. The local authority will be asked to undertake a preliminary investigation of a child's circumstances and tell the court where they would place the child if they were remanded to local authority accommodation. We are not expecting the local authority to produce a full assessment of the child's needs within this period.

We need to strike a balance between exploring the child's circumstances and placement options and avoiding the introduction of unnecessary delays to youth justice proceedings. A maximum period of seven working days strikes a fair balance. We expect the power to be used only for persistent serious 10 and 11-year-old offenders, so we are talking about small numbers of people.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I may be able to help the Minister. The measure clearly relates to social services, so it is the county council that will bear the burden, not Surrey Heath borough council, whose chief executive will not have to worry about that extra duty.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was just about to say that we are talking about a social services report; it is a county, not a district function. Many of the persistent offenders whom we are talking about will already be known to the social services department. I am not at all sure that in those circumstances we want to allow a delay in proceedings.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

Obviously, I had thought about the point made by the hon. Member for Ludlow. However, the Bill does not restrict the measure to county councils, it just refers to a local authority. There is good reason for that: as the Minister and the hon. Gentleman will know, under powers recently introduced, some areas are now unitary. Next door to me in Surrey Heath we have Bracknell Forest and Woking, which are small unitary authorities. I campaigned—successfully, as it turned out—for my

previous constituency, Blackpool, to become unitary. In those cases, we are talking about local authorities that are much smaller than counties. Although I accept the point that because we still have a two-tier system in Surrey, Surrey Heath might not have to operate that measure, the Bill just says ''local authority'', and there are small unitary authorities to which the same point applies.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Let me repeat that we are talking about young people—10 and 11-year-olds—who are persistent offenders. There will not be a huge number of them. We are also talking about a criminal justice system that we have done a lot to try to speed up. It is not in the interests of justice to allow unreasonable delays to remain part of the system. Seven days is sufficient to give what is not a full assessment but a report to the court on what it will mean for the child concerned if the court takes a certain decision.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

Will the Minister say a little about whether social services will be expected to report back to the court on the accommodation that they have available, and whether it will involve the 10 and 11-year-olds mixing with older young people?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 4:00, 15 Mai 2003

As I said, at the moment the court has no way of knowing of the consequences of its decision. It takes a decision either to remand the person to local authority care, which could mean fostering, or to release the person on bail. We are seeking to inform that decision, so that the court can ask, ''Do we release this individual on bail or remand them to the care of the local authority? If we remand them, this is what the local authority says it is going to do with them.'' That should surely help the quality of the court's decision. We do not think that seven days is an unreasonable period within which to ask a local authority to give such a report.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I echo the helpful intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere. May I suggest a compromise to the Minister? Rather than saying seven days with no exceptions, he and his officials might at least consider whether there could be a Government amendment specifying 14 days, but with guidance saying, ''If possible, do it more quickly.'' For there to be no exceptions to the seven-day provision would be another burden. When there is a scandal in a social services department, we often hear Ministers saying, ''Some social services departments are terribly hard pressed and short of staff.'' We have only to consider some of the conclusions of the Climbié report: we heard about how short-staffed some social services departments were. There should not be such a restrictive requirement in the Bill, and I hope the Minister will say that he will keep it under review.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have said what I said. I shall not move from that position, because I have not heard an argument indicating that what we are saying is unreasonable. However, during the passage of the Bill representations that are received will be considered. If local authorities are adamant that things cannot be done in seven days and a case is made, things would have to be looked at. At the moment, however, seven days is reasonable for what

we are asking. With that caveat, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

The Minister's final comments are helpful, and I welcome them in the spirit in which they were offered. There is, however, a serious point to be considered in the light of all the problems that have been identified, not only in the inquiry into the Climbié case—perhaps the most harrowing recent case—but in many other inquiries into social services. There has been concern that we are not getting the calibre or the number of people, especially in some inner town and city areas. I have talked to people in social services throughout the country who say that they are terribly short-staffed.

The provision is too restrictive, but I am glad the Minister said that he would listen to representations. I am sure that there will be some representations, especially in another place, where many people have very long experience in dealing with the administrative burdens on social services and with children's issues. I suspect that the Government may finally have to think again, but, having put the matter on the record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I beg to move amendment No. 75, in

clause 41, page 32, line 26, leave out subsection (6).

Again, I can be brief. The amendment is about bail. I do not want to open a huge debate about that; although I would love there to be one, this is not the time or place for it. My personal view is that bail is too widely used and the courts are put under huge pressure to grant bail because the prisons are overcrowded. We are dealing with 12 to 17-year-olds, and circumstances in which offenders are living. I want to put the case on the record and probe the Government.

The drafting of subsection (6)(c) seems to open up the scope for excuses to be made; it refers to the court being

''satisfied that the behaviour which constituted the offence was due, to a significant extent, to the circumstances in which the offender was living.''

I do not want to let pass without comment anything in legislation that says that any offender of any age commits offences because of circumstances. It is all too easy for the offender's circumstances to be used as an excuse for causing the offence. I am unhappy with that wording, and I hope the Minister will at least say that he will think about it again.

The Government have been pretty good at what was described in a debate this morning as ''tough love'', and saying, ''Even young people have got to take responsibility for their actions,'' so I was surprised to see that wording. I wondered whether a left-leaning advisor had managed to slip something in under the Minister's nose without his spotting it, because it did not seem to fit his usual style, or the Home Secretary's, to have such a phrase in their Bill.

It has often been said that if peoples' circumstances could be blamed for their offences, crime would have been vastly higher in the depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. It is offensive to poor but honest people who struggle but always stay on the right side

of the law, despite great poverty, to say that other offenders committed the offence only because they were in poor circumstances.

I want to recognise, and compliment, people who stay on the right side of the law however difficult their circumstances. It is a small point, but I hope I have explained to the Minister why we are probing the matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that the wording in the Bill gives an unfortunate impression, perhaps unintentionally. He would achieve his objective by modifying the wording of paragraph (c).

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The amendment would prevent the measure from being extended to 12 to 16-year-olds. It is initially targeted at 10 and 11-year-old offenders as limited options are available to the court—either bail or remand to local authority accommodation. The local authority then has discretion over the placement of the child on remand and the measure allows the local authority to report back in seven days on where the child will be placed should he or she be remanded to local authority care. That informs the court decision on whether bail or remand to local authority accommodation is most appropriate to prevent further offending.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

How many 10 and 11-year-olds are involved? What is the scale of the problem? My hon. Friend may not know the answer, and he may wish to consult his officials. I ask the question out of curiosity.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend could not possibly have seen me glance in a certain direction when he asked that question. No, I cannot give him the exact figures now, but who knows what might drop into my mind later. He may wait in anticipation of my being able to give him some information.

There may be potential benefits for the courts to have the power in relation to 12 to 16-year-olds. The courts have the power to remand that age group in custody; if we extended the power to that age group it would allow the court to consider all the options available in terms of remand placements for young people. If the local authority were willing to offer a more structured environment, that could be all that was required to manage a young person safely in the community, and it would avoid unnecessary custodial remands—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Llafur, Normanton

Order. There are too many meetings in this Room. Can we listen to the Minister?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The court may feel, for example, that the offer of a placement by a local authority in a non-secure children's home or with foster parents would provide sufficient safeguards. Before we implement the measure for 12 to 16-years-olds, we would want to pilot its effectiveness with 10 and 11-year-old offenders—[Interruption.] The idea of pilots is winding up my hon. Friends on the Back Benches. We want to gain the operational experience that will be necessary before introducing it for the older age group. That is why we want a secondary power to allow us to implement the measure in the future.

I can now tell my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling that the numbers are relatively small; we estimate that fewer than a hundred 10 and 11-year-olds a year are involved.

The wording that has been quoted is being used because home circumstances are one of the considerations that a court will take into account when deciding whether to bail or remand. That information indicates to the court whether a young person needs to be remanded to secure or non-secure accommodation. It is not an excuse for the behaviour that brought the young person to the court in the first place. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will understand, the court needs to be able to make judgments about the consequences of its decision. It therefore needs to know the home circumstances, as well as a variety of other details, before it takes a decision.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I seek clarification. It was suggested that home circumstances should not be regarded as extenuating, but I have certainly come across difficult circumstances for children where both parents have been drug addicts, with other serious problems as well. In such cases one would want to try to remove the child. Would those circumstances be covered here? Secondly, I am obviously interested in the pilot and I should like it to be developed quite quickly. Could it mean, at the upper end of the age scale, that a 16-year-old might not go into Feltham when on remand? That would be a big step forward.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We need effective provision for all age groups. This clause fills a gap for 10 and 11-year-olds, and we have the potential to extend it. The circumstances that the hon. Lady describes are indeed those that need to inform court decisions.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I am glad that we have had this debate. I should correct the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. I never suggested that extenuating circumstances should not be taken into account. For a number of years at the Bar my job when I was defending was to put forward extenuating circumstances. What I said, as the Minister

understood, was that the wording gave a rather unfortunate impression. I entirely agree that it was intended to mean that the courts must consider circumstances, but the best intentions in legislation have often been twisted because of the way in which words have been interpreted by the courts so as to have a wholly different effect.

It has been helpful to have the Minister say on the record that the possible interpretation that I described is not the intention. I hope that he will look at this with his officials to see whether we can make it clear that the idea is for the court always to take into account what the circumstances were, rather than those circumstances being used to excuse the offender's behaviour. That would be fine, and I leave it the Ministers, his officials and parliamentary counsel to draft it in such a way that it cannot bear the other interpretation. I am sure that the Minister understands my argument. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

We have had an interesting discussion about phrases such as ''persistent offender''. Constituents often ask me what ''persistent'' means in a legal context. For example, subsection (1)(b) reads:

''in the opinion of the court the person is a persistent offender.''

Does the meaning vary from Bill to Bill, or is there a legal definition? Is it a matter for the court to judge? I am not trying to be awkward. It is simply a matter of interest to me.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will write to my hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Four o'clock till Tuesday 20 May at ten minutes past Nine o'clock.