Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Charles Clarke: This is an entirely legitimate debate. There was a wide range of evidence from different bodies in the consultation process that we have had, as well as many views in Government on how we should address this issue. It is right that we debate it. Before I get into the detail, I would like to deal with a number of the points that were raised.

We should not be tempted too far down a debate on general issues—important and difficult though they are—such as when the age of majority comes. I remember when I was involved in the British Youth Council—more years ago than I care to mention—doing an analysis of what stage people took on different ages of majority. I do not think the attraction of simplicity is necessarily the right approach. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned an example, but I would be loth to say that, at 16, everyone should be able to drive a car on the public highway. I am doubtful about allowing people to buy drink in a pub under the age of 18. The age of 18 is established as the age of majority in a number of international environments, and also in domestic laws such as the Children Act 1989. I am not saying it is not a legitimate debate, but at the moment we have a structure of law—which may seem inconsistent as one travels from minority to majority, crossing different ages for different areas. I do not think it is the case to put a line in and say that it all happens at 16.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: I am going to deal with the specific points but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene on a more general point, then I give way.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Minister. I take his point that he is going to return to the matters raised by my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire and for Reigate. While I recognise that the Minister is right to say that there is no blanket age that covers everything—I accept his points about driving and about drink—and I do not agree with the arguments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, he must recognise that the main force of our argument relates to the question of who commits these offences, and at what age.

Mr. Clarke: I am not sure that I will give way to the hon. Gentleman again, as that is precisely the point that I was coming to. I will read from my notes on that point.

Public perception is that some of the offences listed in clause 1 are predominantly committed by under-18s. However, I want to place on the record that the figures show that, in 1999, in England and Wales, more proceedings were brought against over-18s than against under-18s for all the offences. That is not to refute the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate, to which I shall shortly return, that under-18s are a major issue—I just want to outline the statistical situation.

Mr. Hawkins: On that precise point, will the Minister give way very briefly?

Mr. Clarke: No, I will not. I will finish what I have to say and, if the hon. Gentleman does not feel that I have answered his points, I will give way to him before I finally sit down.

I shall come to the thrust of the argument in a second. First, there are two issues that arise wherever one draws the line. The first is that of identification of the individuals concerned, which is an issue whether the distinction to be made is between the ages of 15 and 16, of 18 and 19 or of 17 and 18. Wherever one draws the line, that problem arises. That situation is inevitable, but police officers deal with it every day. The police will be able to do all that they presently can to establish identity and age but, if in doubt, they will be able to take the individual to the police station to establish the truth. If the offender is under 18, they will be able to use reprimand and final warning system.

The second point that arises in the context of age limits is that of unfairness, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. I understand the point, but the problem arises wherever the dividing line falls—whether the limit is set at 16 or 18. The issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Reigate, about how the police deal with groups of young people, arise whatever the age difference. How to deal with groups is a matter where the best practice to which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department referred in the previous debate is very important. It could be difficult to deal with different people in the same group in different ways in particular circumstances. That argument does not specifically concern the age group that we are discussing, because the problem arises under all sorts of circumstances.

I want to make one final technical point before I deal with the substantial part of the argument. Some under-18s will probably be dependent on their parents to pay the penalty for them, which raises the prospect of juveniles having to respond to penalty notices on the basis of their parents' willingness, or otherwise, to pay, rather than from their own choice. If the parents pay, the direct intervention with the young person, which happens under the current system, is avoided. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire should know that that is the nub of why, after much discussion in Government, we came down on our chosen side of the debate. I would like to place the remarks of ACPO on the record, because they set out the position with admirable clarity. In answer to the question, ``What should be the lower age limit for the receipt of fixed penalties?'' ACPO states:

    ``There is much in favour of issuing fixed penalty notices to 16 and 17 year olds, and we are generally in agreement that this age group should be included in the fixed penalty notice system. However, careful consideration must be given to the relationship between fixed penalty notices and the fledgling reprimands/final warnings system, and to ensure the full involvement of Youth Offending Teams in dealing with all young offenders. Colleagues''—

that means colleagues within ACPO—

    ``also expressed concern regarding the apparent lack of involvement of appropriate adults in the proposed fixed penalty notice process''—

which is related to the observation that I just made about fines paid by parents—

    ``and queried liability for payment of fines for 16 and 17 year olds.''

That is the full response of ACPO on that point, and we have considered it carefully. The reforms to the youth justice system introduced in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, including the youth offending teams and the Youth Justice Board, are in place and are generally considered to be working well. After consideration, we decided that it was better not to destabilise that position, which is based on a strictly progressive system of reprimand, final warning and charge, in and in which there is a positive intervention by youth offending teams, to confront offenders with the consequences of their actions. Our concern was that adding financial penalties would weaken what we believe to be an increasingly effective youth justice scheme for 16 and 17-year-olds.

That is not to say that we regard it as an open and shut case; we thought about it at length, which is why I was at pains to tell the hon. Gentleman that his amendment was perfectly reasonable. On the balance of judgment, however, we concluded that we should continue to strengthen and improve the work that we are engaged in for that age group, through our youth offending teams and in other ways, and, most important, to confront young people with the consequences of their actions rather than to impose fixed penalty notices that might allow evasion—perhaps because parents pay them.

7 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I am glad that the Minister said why the Government were considering interlinking the new final warning and reprimand system and the arrangements put forward in the Bill. He said that it is a sensible debate about a serious subject. In reaching their decision, the Government must have recognised that many serving officers—the police constables at the sharp end, who have to deal with the sort of incidents that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate described so graphically described—would not necessarily agree. The Minister has told us about ACPO; what does he think are the views of the Police Federation, which represents officers at the sharp end?

Mr. Clarke: I shall come to the Police Federation view when winding up. I shall make the more general point that, in my experience—the hon. Gentleman can say in a moment if he does not agree—that sharp-end police officers—an unattractive shorthand term—are increasingly seized of the value of the youth offending team and the sort of partnership approach that has been built up between the police, social services, youth services and so on. It is not correct that police officers at the sharp end would say, ``It's terrible; let's just hit him like this,'' and take no account of the views of ACPO.

I do not have the full Police Federation evidence before me, but the summary shows that it raised a number of questions about the difficulty that a police officer might face when trying to decide how severe an offence was—that is, whether it merited a fixed penalty notice—but it did not have a considered view on whether 16 and 17-year-olds should be included. However, as a result of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the modern police office is increasingly working in partnership and would understand the force of our arguments. That said, I do not regard it as open and shut argument. We have come to a view, which we shall carry through, but I do not malign the integrity of those who argue the other side of the case. It is a reasonable case to put, but I believe that my arguments carry weight.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister accepts that we are debating a serious issue. Will he at least keep an open mind? If the Opposition provide further evidence to suggest that the Government should think again, will he at least keep open the slight possibility that they may be persuaded to come back with their own version of our amendments on Report?

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Prepared 6 February 2001