New Clause 53

Part of Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:45 pm ar 29 Tachwedd 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 5:45, 29 Tachwedd 2007

There is not very long to go now, Sir Nicholas.

The new clauses bring us back to some of the issues that we discussed in relation to part 1 of the Bill. It is a strange aspect of our proceedings that we reach the end and yet seem to be discussing things that we have already discussed, but that does not make the points that are encompassed in the new clauses any the less  important. I was very brief in my remarks on the previous proposal, so I want to spend a little longer on the present group.

New clause 53 deals with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and I do not think that I need to spend long on it. It would invoke the Act for a young person who was convicted of a less serious crime at the point when they reached their 18th birthday. In other words, it would mean that young people would start with a clean sheet when they reached the age of majority, unless they had been convicted of a serious or persistent crime. It would work on the basis that children should be treated as children and on an acceptance of the idea that children, like adults, might make mistakes. We would be expressing the hope that the sentence imposed had had the desired effect and that children should start their adult life with a clean sheet.

The point is quite an important one. I accept that if someone has a string of convictions, or is guilty of a serious crime, the position would be different. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be appropriate to take cognizance of the fact that things that we do as children should not saddle us for a prolonged period of time—certainly not in those crucial years on reaching majority when one is beginning to start to seek a first job, or a place in further education, when there is a risk of serious prejudice to the rest of the person’s life.

New clause 54 addresses an issue that we have certainly already discussed: that at the moment a court cannot impose a conditional discharge of a youth conditional caution. The same applies to final warnings. It seems reasonable that a court should have full discretion to apply a disposal that seems appropriate under all the circumstances and after consideration of the individual case, but at the moment the law prohibits that. It seems to me that there is no obvious reason why the court should not have the option of a conditional discharge, if that is the right way of dealing with an offender at that point.

The purpose of new clause 58 is to ensure that when an offender is under 18 and is to be given a custodial sentence, appropriate local authority provision to meet the needs of the offender is considered by the local authorities and the courts. That would prevent courts from sentencing children and young people to custody if it appeared that further service provision could avoid custody. We come directly back to the point that we were discussing on the previous amendment: whether there are ways of preventing children and young people from being put into custody, which we all say that we want to avoid. I accept at face value what the Government are saying on this issue, in terms of their earlier provisions within the Bill—part of its objective is to divert young people away from a custodial sentence.

The new clause would ensure that alternatives to the custodial sentence are applied, even at the point at which the court has decided that perhaps a custodial sentence is justified, and it would cause the court to determine whether it is justified for the punishment of the offender or for the protection of the public. If it is for the protection of the public and that is the only disposal that provides for that, there should be no  question. But if we are talking about a custodial sentence for the purpose of punishment there may be alternatives that are more suitable, which will have a better effect on the recidivism of the offender. To enable the local authorities, the Secretary of State and others to step back and take an overview of the needs of the particular individual is no bad thing.

New clause 57 is perhaps the most important of the clauses within this group of amendments, so I would like to take a little time with it. It would introduce a statutory custody threshold that must be tested before any young person is sentenced to custody, ensuring that it is a matter of last resort, and that it is being used for public protection. I made some reference to this in the discussion on earlier provisions, but we have an extraordinarily large number of children and young people in prison in this country. I will give the Committee some figures. For every 100,000 children in the population of England and Wales, about 23 are in custody. The equivalent figure in France is six; in Spain it is two; in Finland it is 0.2. The number of 15 to 17-year-olds in prison increased by 98.6 per cent. in 10 years, between 1995 and 2005, from 1,675 to 2,326. We should be very concerned about that.

We should also be concerned about the sort of young person who is in prison. We often talk about the underachievement, in academic terms, of adult prisoners, but we should recognise the difficulty for young people as well. Nearly half of the children in custody had literacy and numeracy levels lower than an average 11-year-old; over half of them had a history of being in care or social services involvement; 40 per cent of girls and 25 per cent. of boys reported suffering violence at home. One in three girls and one in 20 boys reported sexual abuse; 40 per cent. of boys and 67 per cent. of girls had serious mental health problems and over half reported dependence on a drug in the year prior to imprisonment.

We must then look at what is happening to young people within the prison system. I know that there have been strenuous efforts to improve that. The Minister talked about processes of restraint and the things that happen. However, we should recognise that the inspections and considerations that review the treatment of young offenders in prison suggest that, even with the best will in the world, there are still serious weaknesses. That is not intended as an attack on prison staff—far from it.

Indeed, my noble Friend Lord Carlile of Berriew, whose arguments in his role as independent assessor are often supported by the Government, in his 2006 inquiry said that

“some treatment of children in custody would, in any other circumstances, trigger a child protection investigation and could even result in criminal charges.”

That is quite serious stuff from a respected colleague. When we look at the utility of keeping those young people in custody, we will see that we are spending an enormous amount of money on custody—£280 million a year from the Youth Justice Board. However, we know that 76 per cent. of those who are discharged from custody reoffend within one year. In other words, it is a revolving door. With regard to discouraging reoffending, we are paying for no discernible effect.

It seems to me that some of the other disposals are so much more effective for that age group. Some of them have been brought forward by the Government in  the Bill, and I applaud that. That was discussed at length earlier and we have said that we think it is of value. Having a higher threshold before sending people into custody, or at least a higher level of consideration, must be a good thing per se. It is beneficial in terms of effectiveness, budget and, most importantly, the effect that it has on those young people, so that we do not have another Liam in our prison estate. That is what this section of the Bill is about and that is why the new clause is a serious issue.

Having a custody threshold for young people is not a new idea. We used to have it in English statute law, in section 14 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982. It was inserted into the 1982 Act against the wishes of the Conservative Government by a noble Lady on the Labour Benches. The Government resisted it and later applauded it as a necessary and valuable addition to the Act.

However, that provision was repealed by the Criminal Justice Act 1991. It set a custody threshold for people under the age of 21. Now the operative age would be 18. There is clear evidence that it had a significant effect on the number of young people who were sent into custody while it was in operation. The Government ought to think seriously about whether that would be a useful addition for reminding the courts of the seriousness of reducing a young person to a custodial sentence.