Clause 84

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:45 pm ar 27 Tachwedd 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Qualifying offenders

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I beg to move amendment No. 352, in clause 84, page 57, line 39, after ‘person’, insert ‘aged 18 years or above’.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 212 and 239, and Government new clause 37—Review of violent offender orders in respect of young offenders .

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

We are back to the issue of how we apply the various criminal sanctions to those who are under 18, as opposed to those who are 18 and over, and whether a difference should apply now. I feel that perhaps I am pushing a slightly open door because I have looked carefully at the Government’s amendments, which spend 50 or 60 lines moving in the direction of my simple amendment consisting of five words. Perhaps there is an element of doubt in the mind of the Minister as to whether it is appropriate to apply violent offender orders to those who are under 18 at the time of the implementation of the order. I emphasise that point because there will be some young people who have served a sentence for a violent offence, who would be subject to a qualifying offence but will have passed their 18th birthday by the time they can receive an order. I will state very quickly why it would be sensible to make the limitation.

The first point is the general case, which we have explored several times in the Committee, that there should be a different penal system for young people from that which applies to adults. The second point is about the number of people who are under 18 to whom violent offender orders would apply. In a moment I will ask the Minister to justify the existence of these orders, particularly with the further restrictions that he is proposing through the amendments, but I am advised by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, which has done some work on this regarding criminal statistics, that well under 1,000 young people commit a range of offences that are eligible for VOOs. Of those, only a few dozen receive a qualifying sentence—one of 12 months or more. Of those few dozen, very few will not be over 18 by the time they are released, so the measure will apply to very few individuals, unless we get the sort of inflation that there has been in the world of ASBOs. It is a shame that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth is not with us because he would have a lot to tell us about ASBOs and how they were never intended to apply to young people. Perhaps that is why he has been allowed a leave of absence for this afternoon’s sitting; the fact that he is unavailable to make that speech has reduced our proceedings considerably. I will presume to make the point for him, as it is one that he has made forcefully on a number of occasions.

The next point is whether a violent offender order is likely to be either appropriate or effective in the case of a young person. I accept that within the orders there are positives as well as prohibitions, and therefore there are some aspects that could be seen as of value to a young person. Having said that, there are other ways of achieving those objectives without applying a violent offender order as a mechanism.

Finally, we already have a different way of managing young people on release if they represent a risk to others. We have reporting requirements that are more stringent for young people than for adults, and we have youth offending teams, which the Government always seem to forget until they bring back a proposal and then are reminded that such teams exist—perhaps they should listen to what they have to say in respect of young people. Such teams were the invention of this Government and their role is to assess the risk of serious harm and to develop a risk management plan. That is exactly the area in which the violent offender orders are intended to work. If the risk is really serious, we are talking about multi-agency public protection arrangements as well. They are a much more stringent regime than anything that a violent offender order is likely to offer.

Whatever the justification for violent offender orders in respect of adults, it is thus hard to substantiate a case for applying them to a person under the age of 18. It is hard to read the Government’s amendments without forming the view that they have reached the same conclusion. New clause 37 sets out a long list of requirements for under-18s. Government amendment No. 212 will introduce the need to consult youth offending teams. Quite honestly, if all the Government amendments are necessary, would it not be better to say that the violent offender order does not apply to young people and that we use the youth offending teams and multi-agency public protection arrangements in the case of more serious risk? In other cases we use the apparatus that the Government have put in place, which has not been deficient in this specific area and which will do the job extremely well. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s convoluted way of justifying something that is very hard to justify.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice) 6:00, 27 Tachwedd 2007

I endorse many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The convoluted way in which the Government have sought to deal with young offenders might be a response to the amendment that he tabled. It also illustrates the problems inherent within the violent offender orders. The more they try to deal with offenders who need special consideration, the more one sees that they have problems. That seems to be highlighted by the new clause and the way in which it will deal with those who are under 18, and those who are under 17 when the orders are made, and the complications that arise. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to amendment No. 352 and his justification for the new clause. Although it might improve the situation, it could raise more questions than answers about the need for offender orders in the first place.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

Just because ideas are proposed by other hon. Members, it does not mean that I will reject them—that is one of the things that I try to bring to Committees. There are issues about under-18s that need to be considered. I do not believe that anyone here wants to criminalise young people. In fact, in our earlier proceedings, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State spent a considerable amount of time debating that whole issue. Without digressing too far, because I will speak to the amendments about the application of  violent offender orders to under-18s, we need to consider how we deal with young offenders. There is a real dilemma here. The Government have introduced all sorts of measures to try to ensure that we keep young people out of prison—or out of the criminal justice system—as far as we can. When addressing the small number of people who may cause a problem—I shall mention the numbers in a minute—it is incumbent on us to ensure that we protect communities. That is something to reflect on.

I shall put this thought into the minds of Committee members, including the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate and for Somerton and Frome: there are some quite dangerous, violent young people under 18—I am not saying that hon. Members would disagree with that—and many of their victims are not 70-year-old pensioners, although that is what people believe from reading the newspapers, but other young people who are under 18. That is a huge dilemma. That is part of what this discussion and debate are about. Although we do not want to criminalise young people and make them subject to violent offender orders, it is because of our desire not to do so that we need to ensure that we have in place processes, procedures, a criminal justice system, and other civil orders, that protect other young people.

There is a difficult balance to strike and this is a difficult debate. I do not for one moment suggest that either of the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken want to put other young people in danger, but there is tension and difficulty here. Although we do not want many young people to be subject to violent offender orders, our view is that, for a very small number, those orders should be available to the courts.

To give a specific answer to the question that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked, we estimate that the number is 20. That estimate in respect of such people for whom violent offender orders may be appropriate came from the Youth Justice Board, which also advised us that the figure could be less than 20. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about the numbers.

On the amendment tabled by the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for Cambridge—and, indeed, the Government amendments—we have considered in detail whether violent offender orders should apply to young people. That matter was specifically raised as part of the Government’s consultation on the orders earlier this year. This is a difficult issue that none of us likes to contemplate. The Committee will be aware that the primary aim of violent offender orders is to protect the public from the most serious violent offenders, a small number of whom, unfortunately, will inevitably be under 18. We therefore believe that violent offender orders must apply to both adults and young people.

More than 70 per cent. of respondents to the consultation, including the Crown Prosecution Service, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation and the Association of District Judges, agreed that violent offender orders should be applied to young people in some way. We have no wish to apply new interventions such as violent offender orders to young people without due thought and consideration about their appropriateness. Because of that, and in recognition of the dynamic nature of risk and risk management in  respect of young people, we have been working closely with the Youth Justice Board to develop the appropriate, effective procedures and practices for the application of violent offender orders to young people that are set out in the Government amendments. We are trying to reflect some of the issues that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has raised. The provisions will not go as far as he wants, but they will hopefully include some safeguards.

Government amendment No. 212 will require the chief police officer to consult a member of a youth offending team prior to making an application for a violent offender order in respect of an individual under 18 to ensure that an order is necessary and appropriate. A youth offending team would already have been managing the young person following their serious offence and throughout their time in custody. That team’s advice on whether an order would be necessary or appropriate would be based on its extensive knowledge of the individual, including their offending history, family, accommodation, education, health, and needs with regard to substance misuse. It will also know what work has gone on with the young person to tackle their violent behaviour during the course of their sentence. It is important that all that information is taken into account when deciding whether to apply for a violent offender order for a young person.

Government amendment No. 239 will amend section 38 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to enable youth offending teams to provide support to individuals below the age of 18 who are subject to such an order or interim order. Section 38(1) of the Act places a statutory duty on local authorities to make specified youth justice services available in the local area. The amendment adds to that list of specified youth justice services and requires the youth offending team to co-ordinate the provision of support for children and young people subject to an order or interim order.

I have already explained how a youth offending team manages a young person following their serious offence and throughout their time in custody, and how it will have built up an extensive knowledge of that young person. Inevitably there will be instances when a young person refuses that support. We cannot, of course, compel a young person to accept an offer of support, but none the less we feel that it should be made available in all cases.

We are currently working with the Youth Justice Board to consider the types of support packages that could be offered to individuals.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Llafur, Northampton North

Will my hon. Friend tell us what attention is being paid to ensuring that the youth offending teams are adequately staffed? Some have mentioned the considerable pressures in dealing with their current work loads. How will that work in practice?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

We are talking to the Youth Justice Board about how to ensure that those subject to violent offender orders can be properly managed by the youth offending teams using the resources available to them. We do not think that that will involve a huge number of young people, but I take the point that many of them will be quite resource intensive. We are discussing that with the board, however, to ensure that adequate resources are available.

Finally, new clause 37 introduces mandatory annual reviews of violent offender orders for individuals below the age of 17, which will help to ensure that orders made in respect of young people apply only for as long as the risk posed by them is assessed as sufficiently high to warrant it. That mirrors annual reviews for antisocial behaviour orders for individuals below the age of 18, which are being introduced by this Bill. A review will take place every 12 months after a violent offender order, or interim violent offender order, has been made, or was last varied or renewed, provided that the young person is still under 18.

I take to heart the points made about under-18s. We do not want them made subject to violent offender orders, but believe that that will be appropriate for a small number. We have tried, through the Government amendments, to take into account the concerns of people such as the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for Enfield, Southgate. We have tried to introduce into the Bill various safeguards that we hope go some way towards meeting those concerns while also ensuring that we do what we can to protect the public. With those remarks, I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

It is difficult to pick a fight with the Minister. He presents himself extremely reasonably. I think that the Government amendments are a clear admission of the fact that the provision is unnecessary and that other routes are available. The case is self-evident. Having said that, my amendment would change the terms of the orders—admittedly in a very longwinded and complex way—and address a lot of my points. I shall reflect on whether there are circumstances for the fewer than 20 young people—so we are told—in which the violent offender order takes us any further than the existing reporting structures, risk assessments and the rest of the panoply associated with a youth offending team’s management of a case and the MAPPA restrictions. If it is clear that the order makes a significant difference to even a few, I shall not return to the issue on Report.

I shall reconsider the issue, and reconsider very carefully the amendments, which I shall not oppose, because they represent movement in the right direction. However, if I feel that the case has still not been made, I shall return to the matter because I feel very strongly that we must be very careful indeed when applying yet more criminal law to young people—even when they are pretty horrible young people who commit serious offences and from whom the public need protection. Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 84 ordered to stand part of the Bill.