Clause 53

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:15 pm ar 22 Tachwedd 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Alternatives to prosecutions for offenders under 18

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

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. O’Hara. I refer to the principle behind the extension of conditional cautioning to 16 and 17-year-olds, while understanding the logical distinction from what is in place for 18-year-olds. No doubt we want to deal with particular circumstances concerning young people and whether it is appropriate for the regime that is in place for adults to apply to them.

Before we move to schedule 11, I want to consider alternative ways in which to deal with the process of youth conditional cautions. What evidence does the generic Minister have for the supposed success of  conditional cautioning? Is there real evidence to justify its extension? It is often tempting to see what happens at the adult court and say, “Well, what is good for the adults should be good for the youths.” I should like to see on an evidence base whether conditional cautioning has worked. Obviously, “Alternatives to prosecution”, the clause heading, is the point of conditional cautioning. No doubt all members of the Committee are united in wanting alternatives to prosecution in appropriate cases and to divert young offenders away from the criminal justice system.

I am concerned whether alternatives to prosecution under the clause are, in fact, an alternative to justice. The worry that is borne out by practice in many ways is whether justice is not properly delivered in those many cases that are being extended by the Government in respect of pre-court disposals and if that is seen in the realms of conditional cautioning or fixed penalty notices. The trend of particular concern to the Magistrates Association and practitioners is that the appropriateness of such penalties should not be done down and dealt with before matters reach court.

No doubt the Government’s mantra is to bring more people to justice and they are keen to ensure that targets are fulfilled and that disposals happen. That might be a fast track to dispose of different offences, albeit low-level offences, but is it a short cut that diverts away from justice? I invite the Minister to explain the principles behind conditional cautioning and to say whether it is appropriate to extend it to the arena of 17 and 18-year-olds.

More often than not conditional cautioning comes within the province of the custody officer, albeit it with reference to the Crown Prosecution Service, to decide on the appropriateness of conditional cautioning. However, in practice, it is very much at the behest and call of the custody officer and the police to decide within a range of areas how they wish to impose certain conditions. I want to know whether the conditions that are attached are always appropriate to the particular penalty and offender.

There is also a concern about resources. It is one thing to have a regime of conditional cautioning and to extend it to 16 and 17-year-olds, but whether the resources will be in place properly to apply those conditions is another matter. No doubt, we will talk about that and concur to some extent when looking at areas of rehabilitation and restoration programmes. The argument that will be made by the Minister of State to justify conditional cautioning and the rationale behind it—to divert young offenders from the criminal justice system and involve them in an early intervention in restorative and rehabilitative programmes—might hold little weight if the funding and resources to go hand in hand with such a proposal are not provided. In practice, one is left with conditions being tacked to cautions, which have little to do with any real rehabilitation or restoration, but which seek to circumvent the young offender’s liberty in certain areas. I ask the Minister to confirm the exact principle and rationale behind clause 53, and to tell the Committee about the evidence that justifies extending the practice to 16 and 17-year-olds, and whether the required resources are available.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 1:30, 22 Tachwedd 2007

I want to echo some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate. All of us can see merit in pre-court disposals and diversion away from prosecution—I do not think that there is any doubt about that—but there is also concern about how that works in practice, and whether the same considerations are given when a conditional caution is applied, and the degree to which it simply removes a level of responsibility from the prosecutorial and penal systems in dealing effectively with offenders.

I would like to raise a separate issue, and I am genuinely interested in the Minster’s response. Why were the ages of 16 and 17 chosen as being appropriate for the conditional caution, and not those who are under-18 and younger than 16? On the face of it, the measure introduces a new anomaly, and had I tabled an amendment at an earlier stage in the proceedings, it might not have been starred and it might have been selected for debate at a subsequent sitting, where we might have explored the matter more fully.

The proposal creates a potential new anomaly in that a 15-year-old with an identical series of circumstances to a 16-year-old would not be eligible for a youth conditional caution and therefore a prosecution would be required to achieve the same objective. The arguments of diversion from prosecution that apply to a 16-year-old would not apply to a 15-year-old. It is not inconceivable, in fact it is almost certain that there will be circumstances in which several youths are involved in an unlawful activity and they will have to have different disposals according to which side of their 16th birthday they are; one will lead to a 15-year-old appearing in court and the other will result in a 16-year-old being given a youth conditional caution.

I am interested to know why the Government have taken the view that this should apply only to 16 and 17-year-olds. If the answer is that it is considered that only a 16 to 17-year-old would have sufficient maturity to understand a youth conditional caution, that raises a different question, about the fact that many 16-year-olds might not have that maturity, and about whether the disposal is effective and appropriate in that case. Is it perhaps an adult disposal, being used for young people; and is that appropriate? What is the reason for the cut-off point at 16? What are the arguments for it? Will the Minister explain why the Government have taken the view that they have on the magical element of the 16th birthday, which makes the disposal appropriate then, but not for a younger child?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I welcome you back to the Chair for the afternoon sitting, Mr.O’Hara. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate and for Somerton and Frome for raising again the issues that they have raised today. I hope that at the end of the discussion clause 53 will stand part of the Bill.

The youth conditional caution is, as I know the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate is aware, designed as a disposal to prevent young people from going before the court for offences that are deemed not to be sufficiently serious. We want to extend the range of out-of-court options to avoid their going to court. The benefit for a young person would be in having a matter dealt with  much more speedily than by a court referral; from my perspective the approach would improve community confidence in the youth justice system.

The hon. Gentleman will know about several recent cases in which effectively minor offences have led to court appearances by young people. The youth conditional caution is designed to try to avoid that scenario, by providing a better way of dealing with several minor incidents, so that young people who have exhausted existing out-of-court disposals and who then commit low-level offences can be kept out of court. The principle is to try to prevent young people from going to court.

The hon. Gentlemen have asked three questions about the broad principle of youth conditional cautions. First they asked whether and how we have evaluated the use of the cautions for 18-year-olds. Secondly they asked about costs and savings implications. Thirdly, they asked the valid question why, if a 16 or 17-year-old could be liable under the Bill for a youth conditional caution, a 15-year-old could not also face that prospect. I shall try to answer those three questions, rather than to go into detail about youth conditional cautions, because I suspect that hon. Members know the principle, and there is not much point in my going over it.

We have undertaken an evaluation—the details of which have not yet been published, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take what I say on trust—which we commissioned in 13 early implementation areas in six criminal justice areas in England and Wales, to provide evidence to inform our national roll-out. There was an evaluation from December 2004 to November 2005, and I hope to be able to publish its results shortly. The evaluation shows a positive impact from youth conditional cautions for 18-year-olds. I am looking forward to publication taking place shortly. I am examining the results; but there is value in what has been done.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

I do take on trust the positive results from the evaluation, although it would obviously have been helpful, and in many ways ideal, if it had been published before the Government went ahead with legislating on extending youth conditional cautioning. I wonder whether the evaluation takes account of the concerns that arise about victims and their often limited involvement in the conditional caution process compared with a court disposal. There is some concern about whether victims see justice happening, and whether they are involved in compensation or other restorative approaches; they might have a better chance of obtaining those forms of justice in a court disposal.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I accept in part what the hon. Gentleman says. It is important that victims should be central to the question of involvement in the criminal justice system. I accept that an element in the youth conditional cautions means that victims may not visibly be part of that through the Court Service. However, we should make no mistake about the fact that the youth conditional caution will, I hope, still be an effective way of preventing further crime. The purpose—I know that, deep down, the hon. Gentleman shares my view—is to ensure that those who have previously committed offences and who may have been  reprimanded or given a warning and who may shortly reach the stage of being taken to court should be given some sort of warning or caution as a pre-court disposal. The intention is to intervene without taking the young people to court, which otherwise could be a potential beginning to an escalation of their court careers and their involvement in the criminal justice system.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

Another method at the court’s disposal for young offenders is the referral order. It is unique to young people and is not available to adults. It gives the courts the opportunity to divert the young offender from the criminal justice system. The advantage of the referral order is that the offender goes to court and, in that publicly accountable way, justice is seen to be done by the victim and the public—and by the offenders themselves. The referral order also has available a package that allows the direct involvement of the young offender team and other agencies, allowing them to provide the restorative and rehabilitative approach that would be put in place by the youth conditional caution but not in the formal way provided by the referral order.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The purpose of the conditional caution is to prevent young people from going to court. That is the purpose of the pre-court disposal. Our hope and wish is that that intervention will prevent future court appearances. I accept the potential issues that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but in the evaluations that have taken place so far, anecdotal evidence suggests that about 70 per cent. or 71 per cent. of victims are satisfied with how their cases were dealt with. That evidence is anecdotal, but I hope to publish it shortly. However, there is merit in examining the extension to 16 and 17-year-olds, provided for in clause 53, based on experience to date. It is done for a purpose, which is to intervene before individuals come to court. If their behaviour deteriorates and they fail the youth conditional caution system, they will come before the court in due course, and all the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned will come about.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the costs of the youth conditional caution. If he examines paragraph 726 of the explanatory notes, he will see that we anticipate that it will result in a saving for the courts. On current projections, it will be £98,000 for the Court Service, £68,000 for the police and potentially more than £300,000 for the youth offending team in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11. There will be a financial saving, but I emphasise that it is not being done for the purpose of saving resources. It is being done because we hope that pre-court interventions will help young people to face up to their behaviour, and not to embark on a long career in court.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made an extremely valid point. We have conditional cautions for 18-year-olds, and the Bill will extend them to 16 and 17-year-olds. It is valid to ask why we are not doing it for 10 to 16-year-olds. It is a potential anomaly. I do not rule out considering that at some point, but I want to take things at a pace that ensures that things are done properly. I am happy to examine the question; there may be merit in considering an age of criminal responsibility of 10. It would involve consideration of a number of details in a wider consultation, which I  may consider. We would need to examine not just the individual’s responsibility but also the important issue of parental responsibility. For those children aged between 10 and 15, there may well be greater parental involvement than there is for those who are aged 16 or 17, and indeed for those who are 18, the age for the current operation of cautions.

We need to examine the needs of parents and carers, administrative procedures and the resource implications, but I will not rule out that possibility of extending the age at which conditional cautions would apply. The aim at the moment is to extend that measure to areas where there is potentially a high level of offending among 16 and 17-year-olds. As hon. Members know, this measure is designed to be a pre-court diversion to ensure that we try to take action before escalating into court in due course. I hope that both hon. Gentlemen will welcome the measure, I hope that I have been able to offer some answers to the questions that were put and I commend the clause to the Committee.

Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.