Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Turner: First, I notice that the hon. Gentleman quoted the words ''a primary consideration'', whereas the amendment states ''the paramount consideration''. There is a vast gulf between those two phrases.

I wanted to ask the hon. Gentleman about his earlier quotation about a child growing up in a family. From memory, that was one of the considerations that he said should be borne in mind. We all support the idea of a child growing up within the family, but the problem with such conventions is their interpretation. Does it mean that it is impossible to imprison a child? I have heard nothing yet—

The Chairman: Order. I urge brevity for all interventions. I do not like cutting in on hon. Members when they are speaking.

5 pm

Lembit Öpik: I thank the Committee in advance for its forbearance; my contribution was slightly longer than I would normally be entitled to make. I want to establish the principles, because they are of great importance to organisations that seek to support, protect and nurture children, including those who, in a legal sense, end up going off the rails.

I shall correct the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. He said that I had suggested that the paramount aim was to do all those nice things for children. Amendment No. 278 states:

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    The principal aim of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland is to prevent offending by children and to promote the child's reintegration and the child assuming a constructive role in society.

It makes an extremely clear statement. Amendment No. 223 refers to

    the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration.

The hon. Gentleman was right about that, but if he had waited a moment I would have gone on to say that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle believe that amendment No. 278 is better constructed than ours.

I do not want to quibble about the wording of amendment No. 223. I am using it as a vehicle to provide the Committee with the opportunity to put on record the core elements of the conventions that we believe are currently not sufficiently represented in the Bill.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): You asked for brief interventions, Mr. Pike, and I shall attempt to comply.

The hon. Gentleman is putting forward liberal justice with a small and a large ''L''. He concedes that amendment No. 223 may not be as well drafted as amendment No. 278. Will he withdraw his amendment, so that we can concentrate on amendment No. 278.

The Chairman: Order. The second amendment has not been moved. It is grouped with another amendment for debate, but only the first has been moved.

Lembit Öpik: Such is the reverence and awe with which some hon. Members regard the United Nations convention on the rights of the child that I am not surprised that they want to gag me. I know the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) well, and have great affection for him. I hope that he does not really want to gag me, but I assure him that I do not intend to press amendment No. 223 to a Division.

I am using the amendment as a vehicle to put on record some important considerations that come directly from that convention and others. It will provide a basis for debates on subsequent strings of amendments, many of which were tabled by my hon. Friend and me. I remind the Committee that I am doing this to avoid duplication, so that I do not have to keep mentioning the conventions later. I want to move the Committee on as best I can. I shall need to mention a few other elements from the conventions. I hope at least to explain my motives. I see the hon. Member for Rayleigh nodding; that is a relief.

Article 12 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child provides:

    States parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

It goes on to say:

    For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or though a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.

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Article 14 states:

    States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

I shall come back to that later. I assume that hon. Members have access to the document and can read it at leisure. I shall provide free copies for those who want them. It continually assumes that treating the child with respect and dignity and empowering and reintegrating the individual is the best way to prevent problems from arising in the future.

We should give more regard to the UN convention on the rights of the child than is suggested in the crucial first statement in clause 53. The other evidence that I have with me is legion. The UN rules for the protection of juveniles deprived of their liberty state that the first fundamental perspective is—

Mr. Turner: On a point of order, Mr. Pike. The hon. Gentleman is quoting in extenso from documents that are not in front of the Committee. If we are to judge what is being said, it would be helpful for us to have access to those documents.

The Chairman: The position is clear. Amendment No. 223 relates to those documents, and Mr. Öpik is in order to refer to them, so long as he keeps his quotes within reasonable limits. I would not expect him to read every aspect of them, but he is in order, and he has assured the Committee that he intends to be relatively brief.

Lembit Öpik: I assure the hon. Member for Isle of Wight that I am not making it up—it is all here in black and white—and I assure you, Mr. Pike, that I am précising dramatically.

The Chairman: I accept that.

Lembit Öpik: If Committee members feel that I am being a zealot over these documents, they should be tremendously grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle has had to leave. She will be checking up on me when the Official Report is printed. In the spirit of the debate, I shall give a few more examples as concisely as possible.

The first fundamental perspective that comes from the UN rules for the protection of juveniles deprived of their liberty states:

    The juvenile justice system should uphold the rights and safety and promote the physical and mental well-being of juveniles. Imprisonment should be used as a last resort.

Under ''8'', the document says that

    care of detained juveniles and preparation for their return to society is a social service of great importance.

Mr. Browne: I am reluctant to intervene on the hon. Gentleman because I know that he is trying to cover a wide range of issues as concisely as possible. However, if he wants to give examples from the principles set out in international conventions of cases in which the law of Northern Ireland does not respect those conventions, it is incumbent on him to do more than to read them out. He must make it clear where the law is deficient. He has given important examples of the principles that are designed to protect children, to which the Government have signed up. Previous Governments signed up to them too. They are

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religiously followed in the legislation that applies in Northern Ireland.

Lembit Öpik: In order to achieve the clarity that the Minister, reasonably, calls for, I might—I did not want to do this—have to cite specific elements of the documents as we reach the amendments to which they relate, in order to illustrate the deficiencies in the Bill. I shall alter my strategy dramatically and talk just about the amendments that we are considering. I have covered the parts of the documents that will allow me to do that. The Minister looks a little edgy, perhaps fearing that I shall try to pull apart this entire section of the Bill. No one questions the Government's desire to achieve the result that I advocate. I return to the matter of balance, and shall move swiftly to discuss the specific import of amendment No. 278.

The difference between the amendment and the provision in the clause relates to the phrase

    the child's reintegration and the child assuming a constructive role in society.

Hon. Members can read the amendments for themselves, but if the Bill is to do justice to the principles that I have already read out and to the Minister's intent in this area, it needs to do more than baldly suggest that the prime objective is to protect the public.

When the focus is on crime prevention, we often store up problems for the future by curing the symptoms rather than the cause. Clause 53 sets out the principles of part 4, and we want the statement of principle to include the codes that I have described. For that reason, it is necessary to consider amendment No. 278 in the context of amendment No. 284, which states:

    All persons with responsibility for the youth justice system shall have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

That is the document from which I have quoted extensively.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight made a perfectly reasonable point about amendment No. 223. It is my judgment that amendments Nos. 278 and 284 would provide a more elegant and robust solution to the challenge that we set ourselves in amendment No. 223. In addition, amendment No. 277 would change the word ''welfare'' to the words ''best interests'', which is more faithful to the spirit of the principles that I have proposed.

Considering the package of amendments as a whole, we are asking the Government to rebalance the intention of the principles in clause 53, which relate to the whole of part 4, so that they include rehabilitation rather than just prevention. I have examined this part of the Bill in great detail, so perhaps I can predict the Minister's response. He may feel that my concerns are adequately covered in other clauses. I am not intending to be confrontational; I am just concerned about an omission that might, in time, have a salient effect on the emphasis of the justice system towards young people in Northern Ireland.

The Government have shown genuine concern for human rights. They have been proactive in the international forum, and have tried to embody many

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worthy conventions in British law. It seems a shame not to apply that same rigour to this part of the Bill when it would be relatively easy to do so. I intend to press amendment No. 278 to a vote if the Minister's reply does not fulfil my strategic intent and that of my hon. Friends. But if he can give an assurance that he will revisit the issue, with a view to making an express commitment to incorporate the principles of the UN convention on the rights of the child, I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment.

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