Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I understand that, but we should consider how the legislation would be used by the practitioners. The requirements prescribed in proposed new subsection (5) are general. The Bill states:

    ''The report must indicate—

    (a) the type of requirements that it would be appropriate to impose on the offender; and

    (b) the attitude of the victim or victims of the offence to the requirements proposed to be included in the order.''

If the hon. Gentleman's amendment were included in the Bill, the practitioners would be faced with a checklist of

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

Those ''other needs'' might produce another lengthy checklist. For example, the hon. Member for Cheadle would like to include educational requirements on a checklist.

The instrument of the reparation order will emerge only after the individual has been through a youth conference process, and that individual will have to consent under the order, as he has to consent under the whole youth conference process. The amendments may be well intentioned, but they would strangle the effectiveness of the system that we are putting in place.

Reparation orders will represent a less formal part of the youth justice process in an effort to persuade the offender to face up to his responsibilities to the victim. To achieve that aim, there must be flexibility in the structure. Although the amendments are fine in their intention, when translated into practice they could have the unintended effect of making the system more difficult to administer. At this stage, we can only guess

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at the bureaucratic burden that will come from the new departure in youth justice that is being planned.

We must be concerned about the possibility that an enormous burden will fall on those trying to administer the process, particularly in the initial stages. Reparation orders involve a series of additional responsibilities and cannot come into effect until the Secretary of State has made certain other provisions. Our instinctive, underlying approach should be to keep matters as simple as possible. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh will not press the amendment. The Committee has heard what he and the hon. Member for Cheadle have said, but while the issues to be tackled are important, we should try not to burden those who will administer the system in a way that could lead to unbalanced outcomes, particularly with respect to reparations.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Member for Reigate makes important points about reparation orders, and about the community responsibility orders to be dealt with under clause 55. However, the response from the hon. Member for Cheadle could include the point that some of her amendments go further, and would entail conferencing orders, which could apply to offences of greater seriousness than those for which reparation orders would be appropriate.

This extensive group of amendments—with the exception of amendment No. 286, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh—effectively deals not with several issues but with just one issue in several different ways. Following the order, or at least the approach, taken by the hon. Member for Cheadle, I shall attempt to deal with the amendments as briefly as possible. I shall try to take them in the order in which they appear on the selection sheet.

On amendment No. 227, the education of a young person is important, and care must be taken to avoid conflict between that and the requirements of a reparation order. However, it is not necessary or appropriate to require that a person professionally responsible for the child's education should report to the court on the appropriateness of the reparation and the attitude of the victim, which would be the amendment's effect. Generally, teachers have no obvious qualifications to make such judgments, particularly in relation to a victim. I can see how teachers would have a contribution to make with respect to a child who could be in their care for part of the day, and for whose education they were partly responsible, but I do not see that they would have skills to contribute to a report on the appropriateness of the reparation and the victim's attitude. Under the Bill the Secretary of State would already have powers to designate a person to perform the relevant function, in circumstances where that would make sense.

Amendment No. 251 would similarly require an education professional to attend every youth conference. I wonder if teachers would really welcome that duty in addition to all those that they now have. I urge the hon. Lady not to press the amendment to a vote. I do not know if it is her intention that a teacher should be required to attend

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every youth conference, or merely to make it possible for teachers to attend, but the effect of the amendment would be to require it.

On amendment No. 228, I accept that details of the child's educational provision are important and should be reflected in the court report to avoid unnecessary interference between those arrangements and the reparation requirements. However, other aspects of the child's life, such as religion or work, should also be taken into account in determining the appropriateness of the requirements of a reparation order. We do not want to be drawn into ranking them in importance. We should include all or none of them. As I explained when I was urged to include some of the considerations, the appropriate list will be inferred from the provision, and the application of common sense by the courts and others will identify what aspects of a child's life we should report on. We should not try to be prescriptive.

I fully accept that the factors set out in amendment No. 286 are typical of those that must be taken into account when determining the requirements of a reparation order. I would, however, expect those factors and others, such as the child's age, to inform the court's decision about what requirements are appropriate in each case. I am, therefore, content to leave it to the courts and to those professionals who prepare the reports to reach sensible judgments on such matters. The courts would have to take such factors into account when deciding what was appropriate, and I refer my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh to new article 36A(5)(a). They are also bound to have regard to the child's welfare under clause 53(3).

11.45 am

On amendment No. 230, there will be circumstances in which a child who is subject to a reparation order may be beyond compulsory school age, not in full-time education and unemployed, and similar considerations apply to amendment No. 236. For all the reasons that have been given, I would ask the hon. Member for Cheadle not to press those amendments.

Amendment No. 231 would add to the categories of people who can be nominated as responsible officers. That extremely unusual power would be unwelcome with most teachers and educational professionals. Placing someone with responsibility for a child's education in a position of having to enforce a court order could have a detrimental effect on the child's attitude to education if, for example, breach proceedings were necessary.

The provisions at which amendment No. 232 is aimed transfer the authority for a reparation order from the court that imposed it to the court in the petty sessions district in which the child lives, if that is different. That technical provision will enable the court that acts for the receiving area to deal with matters such as breach, revocation and amendment. In any event, a court that had such information or any other relevant information would forward it to the other court as a matter of course. Therefore, there is no particular point to the amendment.

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On amendment No. 239, copies of a community responsibility order must be given immediately to the child who is subject to the order, to his parent or guardian and to the officer responsible for supervising the order. That is for the information of all concerned and the proper discharge of the order. Although it will be important to ensure, as far as is practicable, that the order does not interfere with, among other things, the child's education—contact between the responsible officer and, say, a teacher may be necessary for that purpose—I see no reason why the person who is professionally responsible for the child's education must also receive a copy of the order. In any event, I cannot think what purpose they would put it to.

Amendment No. 255 requires the conference plan, in all cases that involve children who are still in receipt of education, to contain details of provisions for the child's education. The conference already has the power to include educational elements in the plan, and the child can be required to participate in

    ''activities . . . offering education or training''.

It does not, however, follow that, just because a child is in education, all offending behaviour must be tackled through the provision of education. Nor does it follow that the plan will cut across the child's education; in fact, the reverse will be true, because the co-ordinator will ensure that the plan's requirements do not interfere with the child's schooling.

Amendment No. 256 would require that, when the director is informed of the extent to which the child has complied with the youth conference plan, he also receives a report on the child's attendance and performance at school in every case that involves a child who is still in receipt of education. New article 10D provides that a report must go to the director at the end of the period that is specified in the youth conference plan to inform him of the extent to which the child has complied with the plan. That information will enable him to decide whether to instigate proceedings in respect of the child. Education may not be a relevant consideration here, and it is inappropriate to insist that it would be in every case.

Amendment No. 257 would require a copy of the youth conference order to be given to a professional responsible for the child's education in all cases where the child is still in receipt of education. It will be necessary for the child's school to know when the plan includes requirements relating to the child's attendance or performance at school, to ensure that compliance is monitored. If the plan includes no such requirements, I do not agree that the school should, as a matter of course, be informed about that order. For all those reasons, I ask the hon. Member for Cheadle not to press the amendment. I make a similar request of my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh.

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