Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I listened with care to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and I disagree with him, not on the intention behind his proposals regarding children but because this part of the Bill on youth justice must have regard to the whole community, the Government's aims to improve justice meted out to children and the need for children to face up to their responsibilities.

The Government's overall objectives are welcomed, and the Opposition support them. We have concerns on some matters of detail: the strength of reparation orders, the strength of the community restorative orders and the way in which the conferences are to take place. However, the legislation is wholly consistent with all the conventions referred to by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.

5.15 pm

This debate does not take place in isolation. We are all aware of the percentage of crime that is committed by children. The legislation will include 17-year-olds in the category of youth justice. A significant percentage of criminal behaviour is carried out by those under 18. Ultimately, we are debating the protection of the public. In drafting subsection (1), the Government and the review group have been criticised by human rights bodies, such as the Children's Law Centre. That body wants to see an amendment to the clause. It states:

    The principal aim of the Youth Justice System is to prevent offending by children, having taken into account the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration.

I part company with the organisation on that point. The paramount consideration is legitimately the protection of the public.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is asking us to incorporate his judgment. When he referred to imprisoning children or putting them into custody, he implied that that would lead to further problems down the line, because there would be a lack of public protection when children were released from schools of crime to cause more trouble. It is a matter of judgment whether custody will be the right solution. The first consideration must be protecting the public. In my county of Surrey, the chief constable arrested five repeat burglars in Guildford. They would be considered youth offenders under this Bill because they were all younger than 18. There was a 25 per cent. drop in the crime rate in Guildford by putting those individuals into custody.

Mr. Francois: We should also consider that a large proportion of crime committed by children is committed against other children. I cite the example of mobile phone theft.

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Mr. Blunt: That is true and I imagine a vast amount of it is unseen by the system and the statisticians. The welcome innovations that we will debate in part 4 of the Bill have to be seen in context. The Government have been correct in phrasing the overall objective. They have the Opposition's support because they achieve in detail the objectives to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, the Government, the official Opposition and all others of right mind are committed.

Mr. Garnier: I am somewhat concerned by the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. It would not advance the youth justice system in Northern Ireland one jot. Equally, I am not hugely convinced that subsections (1), (2) and (3) help.

I am interested that the Government are prepared to place in the Bill a clause headed:

    Aims of youth justice system.

When the Access to Justice Act 1999 was in Committee, there was a considerable dispute between the Government and me. The then Parliamentary Secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), who is now Secretary of State for Defence, had carriage of the Access to Justice Bill. Lord Ackner and others sought to put an aims clause into that Bill and the right hon. Member for Ashfield argued with great vehemence that the inclusion of an aims clause would be dematerialist and, at best, unhelpful. I do not know why we should have an aims of youth justice system clause in this Bill. To my mind it is unhelpful.

The use of the expression:

    The principal aim of the youth justice system

suggests that there are other aims that are of lesser value. When one compares subsection (1) with subsection (3), the value of subsection (1) is wholly undermined. If the principal aim of the youth justice system is to protect the public by, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, preventing offending by children, one bangs them up. The only way in which to prevent the public from being interfered with by offending children is to keep them off the streets.

That is, of course, not what the Government mean. They mean that it would be nice for the public to know that they are concerned that youth crime is a problem, but having set out that lofty aim they will not implement the meaning of subsection (1). Subsection (3) states that those in charge of the youth justice system must exercise their functions

    with a view (in particular) to furthering their personal, social and educational development.

It is possible for children to be placed in custody, and while they are in custody to have their personal, social and educational development looked after.

That is understandable in theory, but I have a suspicion that subsections (1), (2) and (3) are no more than an early-day motion. They are of little legislative value, and they are of little value to those who sit in judgment or who work in the youth justice system in Northern Ireland. I have no idea whether other members of the Committee are magistrates, and I

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may be the only member who, as a judge, has sent someone to prison. I assure the Committee that every magistrate in a youth court and every judge who has to deal with people under the age of 18 will have in mind, if not the text of the various conventions and so on to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred, the aspirations of subsections (1), (2) and (3). However, they would not want to be hobbled and would not be assisted by the need to reach a conclusion that fits the exact form of the clause by having the clause placed in front of them between the child in question and the decision that they must eventually take in the interests of justice.

The only subsections in clause 53 of any value to a court and those who come before the youth justice system are subsections (4), (5) and (6), which define what we shall be dealing with in later clauses in part 4. Subsections (1), (2) and (3) are interesting to read and inoffensive in the terms in which they are expressed, but are of no utility whatever to the practical work of dealing with young offenders in courts. They will not be removed because I believe that it would be better if they were, but I ask Minister to explain why the Government said one thing in 1999 and are saying something else in 2002, and why the first three subsections should be in the Bill.

Mr. Browne: It might help the hon. and learned Member for Harborough if he had a copy of the review document before him. If he does not have one, I can provide one. Paragraph 10.63 refers to the purpose and reasoning behind the recommendation that

    in drawing up legislation . . . the Government should develop, agree and incorporate a clear statement of the aims of the juvenile justice system in Northern Ireland.

That shows that there may be reasons for expressing in statute aims other than for the strict purpose of allowing judges to interpret them. The purpose is clear and I am sure that, in preparing for the Committee, the hon. and learned Gentleman read them because he would have known that we were likely to discuss the matter. Otherwise, perhaps he will read them so that we can discuss them later.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. Browne: I am not inclined to take an intervention now because I have other comments to make that are important to our debate.

I have no criticism of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire for speaking to amendments in other hon. Members' names and I understand why he wants to open up this area of debate. I have no criticism of anyone who lobbies the Government in the interests of children and to redirect our attention to international conventions and principles accepted by successive UK Governments, who accepted that international standards that relate to the protection and interests of children were appropriate. We can, and do, look to other countries and find that they do not protect children as we do, so it is incumbent on us to observe the principles in the conventions, and set by example that which should apply the world over.

5.30 pm

I read with interest the contributions to the consultation processes, including those for the

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review. They came from a number of well-informed and important groups. However, that does not mean that, as a Minister standing at the prow of the history of UK Governments' attempts to respect conventions, I should not add something on record: although we must constantly be drawn back to principles, reconsider legislation and improve it if we can, we should not say that there should be no concession or that the principles, which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire sets out in short and some consultation contributions set out at length, are not being respected.

UK Governments have been punctilious in ensuring that conventions are respected, so I say to the hon. Gentleman that if he chooses parts or articles of conventions that he believes are not being properly respected, it is incumbent on him to point them out so that they can be addressed. It is better that that happens as we proceed through the Bill. He will find no absence of willingness on my part to address them. No hon. Member would want to be party to the enactment of legislation that contravenes our international obligations.

In moving amendment No. 278, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire provides an alternative form of words for subsection (1). I cannot, and do not, disagree with the sentiments expressed in what I consider to be a thoughtful amendment. I am glad that it has been moved. None the less, although the words are different, his sentiments are already reflected in the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman's genuine concerns about reintegration and a constructive role in society for the child can best be addressed through preventing offending and re-offending. A child's sense of dignity and self-worth can be developed by having regard for his or her welfare and by furthering his or her personal, social and educational development. Building a sense of respect for the rights and freedoms of others can be achieved by encouraging children to recognise the effects of crime on themselves and others. I contend that the hon. Gentleman and I are saying the same thing, but I prefer the way in which it is worded in the Bill.

I understand the thinking behind amendment No. 233. However, I am worried that it confuses the Bill's drafting considerably, and risks duplication in some areas and conflict in others. By advocating the prevention of offending as the means of protecting the public, and by directing persons and bodies to have regard for the welfare of the child—particularly by furthering the personal, social and educational development of children who come into contact with the youth justice system—the statement of aims is entirely consistent and compatible with all the international conventions in the amendment.

The spirit and letter of the international instruments are further satisfied by legislative provision, which already restricts the use of custody for children and which, in this Bill, increases the community sentencing option for courts, traduces restorative interventions and makes available pre-court diversionary arrangements. Those legislative provisions are underpinned by policies that aim to maintain young

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people in their communities by providing support to them and to their families before offending patterns are confirmed. The aims therefore set the scene for, and must be viewed in the context of, all that we evidently intend to do in legislative and policy terms to protect the public, meet victims' needs and, crucially, support children away from crime.

The Government are not opposed to incorporating international treaties and instruments into British law—where appropriate. Our incorporation of the European convention on human rights through the Human Rights Act 1998 is one of our most significant achievements and one of which I am most intensely proud. There is, however, a difference between incorporating legal conventions, such as the European convention, and putting in place some of the guidelines in the amendment.

If the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire identifies areas covered by the guidelines that are not adequately dealt with in the Northern Ireland statute book, we shall be happy to consider his points. Although I hope that he will try to do that as we go through this part of the Bill, I am not persuaded that he will be able to, given the examples that he has cited so far. He quoted article 12 of the UN convention, which states that the child's views should be given due weight, but that already happens. A child is entitled to legal representation as a defendant, and we are taking matters further through youth conferencing. I do not, therefore, understand where the deficiency is when it comes to giving the child an opportunity to be heard. Indeed, the Bill contains legal aid provisions on youth conferencing, which will ensure that the child's voice is heard loudly.

I do not know my way around the convention as well as the hon. Gentleman does, but he quoted an article that requires custody to be used as a last resort in the case of children. That is, however, reflected in existing law, under which detention is used only where the offence justifies it. Existing law is restated in the present provisions; I am thinking particularly of new article 44A(4) in clause 56. I look forward to further examples, but I hope that we do not need to return to the two that I have mentioned, because there is clearly no merit in either of them. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees—indeed, I do not think that he did this—that it is unhelpful simply to cite such instruments as a sort of mantra. Nor do I think that those who encourage such amendments would want to do that.

The amendment would also introduce confusion into the heart of the system's aims. Paramount consideration would be given to the child's welfare, but the system's principal aim would still be to protect the public by preventing offending by children. I think that that was the point that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight was trying to make in an intervention on the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. I should make it clear that, in the Government's view, any tension will generally be more apparent than real. Given the consequences of criminal behaviour—some of which hon. Members have alluded to—the interests of young offenders, and of children in particular, will be served by preventing offending. The clause also makes it clear

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that those who exercise functions in relation to youth justice should seek to promote the welfare of children and to encourage them to recognise the effects of crime and to take responsibility for their actions.

The clause replicates the language of the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, but differs from the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which, I accept, gave paramountcy to the child's welfare. There is, however, a clear reason for that distinction. It is reasonable for agencies that deal with the child's welfare in the context of family law and care law to take a slightly different approach from that taken in the criminal justice system. When legislating in compliance with principles, the Government must apply them to the circumstances that prevail, not slavishly repeat them. We must distinguish between care law and criminal law. After all, we are dealing with cases in which a child's behaviour results in his or her rights clashing with those of other citizens. As always, a balance must be struck, and I believe that the Bill strikes the right one.

Amendment No. 284 seeks to include in the Bill specific reference to the UN convention on the rights

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of the child. The Government fully accept the principles espoused in the convention, but the issue is how best to implement them and how best to have regard to the child's welfare. Those aims are best achieved through the approach that we have adopted, and we have gone to considerable lengths to give practical effect to them in the Bill. We should reflect the convention in the provisions that we make for children; we should not slavishly repeat the principles. I firmly believe that we have done that.

Amendment No. 277 seeks to replace the term ''welfare'' of the child with ''best interests'' of the child. I do not think that there is any material difference between the terms. I am satisfied that if we have regard to the welfare of the child a concept that is well understood and defined—we will, to all intents and purposes, have regard to the child's best interests. I therefore see little point in the amendment and encourage the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Stringer.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Six o'clock till Tuesday 12 February at half-past Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Atherton, Ms
Barnes, Mr.
Blunt, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Calton, Mrs.
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Clarke, Mr. Tony
Dobbin, Jim
Francois, Mr.
Garnier, Mr.
Hall, Patrick
Hayes, Mr.
Hermon, Lady
Heyes, Mr.
Kilfoyle, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
McWalter, Mr.
Mallon, Mr.
Merron, Gillian
Mole, Chris
O¨pik, Lembit
Stringer, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Tynan, Mr.

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