Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mrs. Calton: Again, these amendments are all of a theme. The education of children, wherever they are, is not just important, but of paramount importance in ensuring that they grow up to be useful members of society. In my previous work as a chair of a local authority social services committee, it became clear, via Government guidelines, that a child's education was to be considered very important and that in many ways that education and its continuance should be considered more important than placing the child in accommodation.

I have been reading the performance indicators that form part of the quality protects management action plan for Stockport. The Government now regard it as important that a child is kept as close as possible to their home local authority. That applies right across the country. Figures are now provided for how far a child is being taken away from their home local authority. The child is kept close to their home local authority so that they can maintain contact not only with their parents, but as far as possible with their original school. We must examine carefully the crossover in the Bill between the social care system and the youth custody system and ensure that it is seamless, because if we are not careful, children in secure accommodation who have come from the youth justice system will be treated differently from those who, for whatever reason, have ended up in care.

Amendments Nos. 227 and 228 are designed to ensure that the education of children is given sufficient prominence in the justice system. I believe that unless it is mentioned at regular intervals in this part of the Bill, its importance will be forgotten and children's education neglected.

Amendments Nos. 230 and 236 remove the phrase ''if any''. I recognise that those amendments are unlikely to be accepted, but it is important that there is a presumption that the child will be engaged in education or employment. That ''if any'' provides a loophole for anybody who feels that it is okay for the child not to go to school.

I have been engaged with social care and I have visited social care institutions of one sort or another. One of the questions asked by visitors to social care institutions is, ''Where does the child go to school?'' I am not talking about children in secure accommodation, but those who one would expect to be attending school and doing all the things that are expected of children. Too often, the answer is, ''The child does not go to school.'' That is not good enough.

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There must be a mindset in which children either go to school or receive an education in some other way. I shall be happy not to press for the removal of ''if any'' if the Minister will assure me that the clause will include a presumption that the child will be educated. I am concerned that the words ''if any'' suggest that the child might not be educated.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): When I read that, I interpreted ''if any'' as reflecting the situation of 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds who are not necessarily in a place of education or in work. If we take ''if any'' out, it will imply that the reparation order will force them to attend school or another educational establishment or work. That brings many other considerations into play. I shall be grateful for the hon. Lady's comments on that, particularly in light of the fact that the legislation brings 17-year-olds within its ambit.

Mrs. Calton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right. I understand that the words ''if any'' are there to ensure that the clause covers young people who are no longer in the education system and who are not in employment. However, in my experience, that phrase will provide a loophole for people who believe that it is not that important for a child to be educated. That happens, and we must recognise it. It might happen less often than it used to, but I am concerned.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): In responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), the hon. Lady has repeated the assertion that the words provide a loophole. Will she accept that many 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds are not educated? She seems to assume that the world is as she would like it to be.

Mrs. Calton: Yes, I agree. The words ''if any'' are probably legally necessary in this case. However, they will give some people the impression that a child's education is not important. Am I seeing the world as I should like it to be? Absolutely. That is how I intend to continue; I have a much better view from where I stand than, perhaps, some others do.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The hon. Lady has made the point. However, a number of Committee members have tried to explain that the amendment will not achieve what she wants to do. Perhaps it would be easier if we moved on.

Mrs. Calton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me further advice. I shall move on. Amendment No. 231 would extend the definition of ''responsible officer'' to a person professionally responsible for the child's education. There might be circumstances in which an educator could be acceptable in that role.

The intention of amendment No. 232 is much the same as that for amendments Nos. 227 and 228. That is to ensure that the education of children involved in the justice system is given sufficient prominence. Unless that is mentioned at regular intervals throughout this part of the Bill, its importance could be forgotten and the child's education neglected. Educational experience has a vital part to play in the development of a child, and there must be a presumption that a child will receive an education while still of school age.

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We have covered amendment No. 236. My argument in support of amendment No. 239 is the same as that for amendments Nos. 227, 228, 231 and 232. Amendment No. 251 continues the theme that a child's education is of paramount importance and should be continually supported by the presence of an educator.

I will press amendment No. 255 to a separate vote, because it ensures that the child's education is provided for in any plan from a youth conference, and unless it is specifically mentioned, the child's education could be overlooked.

Amendments Nos. 256 and 257 are, in a sense, related to amendment No. 255. They would ensure that the child's educational progress was monitored by key stage test results and that the person responsible for the child's education was informed about the youth conference order.

We can regard the child's education as being separate from the aims of the Bill, but in my experience, a child's education is fundamental to what we are trying to achieve. If it receives only a passing reference at the beginning of this part of the Bill, it might be forgotten and the care that should be taken to ensure that the child's education is as complete as possible may not be taken. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response.

11.30 am

Mr. Mallon: I wish to speak to amendment No. 286, which requires that the report provided for in article 36A should indicate

    ''the educational, psychological and other needs of the offender.''

The amendment is relevant to my previous point about need. This is a perfect example of how welfare might be fulfilled but need overlooked. I believe that paragraph (5) of article 36A is flawed because, although it specifies that the report must indicate

    ''the type of requirements that it would be appropriate to impose on the offender''

that is, the sentence, and

    ''the attitude of the victim or victims''

that is, it recognises the rights and role of victims, it leaves out the third part of the equation: the offender. In these cases, the offenders will be children, so we must complete the circle. I have great respect for the probation service and for people involved in social work, but they may not always be able to make the type of assessment that is required, because the offender may have other needs that require more expert involvement. In many cases, the experienced social worker or probation officer will be able to identify educational and, perhaps, psychological needs, but in certain circumstances the assessment may have to go further than that, and the amendment would make the necessary provision. Although the onus of responsibility will, in most instances, be carried by the probation service and social workers, there may be circumstances that require the assessment of other needs that are not provided for in the Bill.

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The Chairman: Order. Before any other hon. Members speak, I should inform the hon. Member for Cheadle, as she has been helpful enough to tell us that she wants a Division on amendment No. 255, that we shall take that Division when we debate clause 57. Because of the way in which the timetabling motion works, I may put all the votes at one o'clock.

Mr. Blunt: My general approach to the amendments is that they are well intentioned. Naturally, as there is a requirement on all those involved that the best interests of the child offender are protected, children should continue to receive education if they are already receiving it. However, with respect to reparation orders as they are described in the Bill—an amendment that I have tabled would change that—the maximum reparation is for 24 hours. The orders are already limited, therefore.

The amendments would place an additional bureaucratic burden on the order process, especially amendment No. 286 tabled by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, which requires the production of yet another report. The clause represents a new departure. When we draft such legislation we should try to be prescriptive as little as possible to ensure that the system gets up and running and is not destroyed under a huge weight of bureaucracy.

Mr. Mallon: In case there is any misunderstanding, amendment No. 286 does not propose a report, but adds to the requirements for the one report that is prescribed in new article 36A(5).

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