Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Browne: In raising an issue that it is appropriate to raise at this point in the Bill, the hon. Member for Reigate gives me an opportunity to clarify some basic points about reparation orders.

Significant thought was given to the subject of his amendment, which is the combination of custody and reparation. To understand our decision, one must understand the consistent approach taken in relation to custody for young offenders. We intend reparation orders to be available for children whose offence is relatively minor, or for first-time offenders. Custody, on the other hand, is traditionally and appropriately a last resort for serious offenders, so the two things cannot be combined as the hon. Gentleman suggests. If custody is appropriate, we are dealing with a far more serious offence than the ones to which it is expected or intended that reparation orders will apply.

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The restriction in relation to custody orders is therefore necessary, in our view.

The hon. Gentleman asks why a reparation order cannot be combined with the orders mentioned in new article 36B(2)(b), but those orders incorporate an element of reparation or work in the community, so it would seem inappropriate and, arguably, disproportionate, to add a reparation order on top of them. The element of reparation can be incorporated into the orders when appropriate, so there is no need to create double reparation by adding another distinct provision on top.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but I want to clarify one point about community service orders. Am I correct in saying that orders to make reparation to the victim can be part of

    ''a community service order, a community responsibility order or a combination order''?

While he considers that point, I must say that I do not find his arguments about the inappropriateness of combining reparation orders with serious offences that require custodial sentences wholly convincing. A first-time offender may be guilty of an offence such as street robbery, as is perfectly possible in an age of rising street robbery and when the Lord Chief Justice is giving instructions in favour of exemplary sentences for mobile phone theft. Given its serious nature, such a first offence may require a custodial sentence, but we may want to have the flexibility to bring the offender face to face with his victim in the way envisaged under reparation orders. Such a restriction on reparation orders in relation to custodial sentences creates an unnecessary limitation.

Mr. Browne: Without going into debates that we may have under other parts of the Bill, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he should consider the whole suite of provisions, including community responsibility orders, community service orders and youth conferencing. To concentrate all the reparative aspects of justice on one order is to fail to understand how the orders interact and where they can substitute for one another. We do not intend that each person who appears before the court can be made subject to every order.

In respect of community service orders, the element of reparation may be not to the victim but to the community. Of course, the reparative aspect of a community service order and other orders can be recognised.

12.15 pm

Mr. Blunt: That makes my point precisely, because the role of victims in reparative justice is important. It would be healthy for reparation to be seen to be made directly to victims, although the Bill would plainly have to require the offender to consent to reparation being made in that way. Such an approach would, however, tackle victims' concerns that reparation should be made to them and deal with the offender.

It misses the point simply to say that a community service order makes reparation to the whole community. As we shall debate later, victims are part of the youth conference system, but if offenders are

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sent to prison because of the seriousness of their offence, it will become impossible for victims to receive direct reparation through a reparation order—even when everyone agrees that direct reparation is the desired outcome. That is an unnecessary restriction.

It is important that victims see reparations made directly to them, rather than indirectly to the community. I suspect that most victims do not have confidence that community service orders always result in indirect reparation to them. The amendment would go to the heart of the issue by giving victims a proper role in the process, which is clearly what is desired—at a philosophical level, at least—in the Bill. I shall therefore press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 17.

Division No. 19]

Blunt, Mr. Crispin Francois, Mr. Mark
Turner, Mr. Andrew

Atherton, Ms Candy Barnes, Mr. Harry Browne, Mr. Desmond Campbell, Mr. Gregory Dobbin, Jim Hermon, Lady Heyes, Mr. David Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter McIsaac, Shona
McWalter, Mr. Tony Mallon, Mr. Seamus Merron, Gillian Mole, Chris O¨pik, Lembit Stringer, Mr. Graham Tynan, Mr. Bill Woodward, Mr. Shaun

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 32, line 24, leave out '24' and insert '160'.

When I first read that a reparation order could not require the offender to make reparation for more than 24 hours, I wondered whether there was a typo, because 24 hours does not sound like a great deal of time. I know from discussions on the Bill that reparation orders are—in the minds of the draftsmen, as I am sure the Minister will explain—at the bottom of the list of punishments available to the courts. None the less, the clause would wholly limit their effectiveness.

We should bear it in mind that the Bill brings within its ambit 17-year-olds who can be sentenced to 240 hours' community service. I see a parallel between reparation orders that benefit the victim and those that help the community. Whether reparation is made to the community or directly to the victim should be a matter of judgment.

Lady Hermon: May I draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention the equivalent number of hours that would be regarded as appropriate in England and Wales? Section 74(1)(a) of the Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 states that

    ''A reparation order shall not require the offender to work for more than 24 hours in aggregate''.

Can he explain why young people in Northern Ireland should be subject to a reparation order that would increase those hours to 160?

Mr. Blunt: First, because the legislation will bring 17-year-olds within its ambit. I believe that the victim should stand at the centre of reparative justice and that

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it should be a matter of judgment as to whether reparation is made to the victim or to the community. If it is appropriate to make community service orders—benefiting the community—of 240 hours, it is unnecessarily limiting to say that only 10 per cent. of the reparation should be given in instances in which the victim might gain from it.

Lembit Öpik: What does the hon. Gentleman regard as the primary objective of the reparation order, and does he think that there is any element of rehabilitation involved in it?

Mr. Blunt: Yes, I do. That is why I do not think that it should be limited to 24 hours, particularly for 16 and 17-year-olds who are no longer in full-time education. I would envisage that serving a lengthy period of reparation would achieve a relationship between offender and victim. That could be set up only if both agreed. If it were possible for that relationship to be established over a period, it would be a direct way in which the offender could begin to be reintegrated into society. It would not be a punishment being administered by representatives of the state—of course, it would be overseen by them—but would be a direct way of allowing the offender to create a relationship with the victim. Presumably, that is the intention of reparation orders, even those limited to 24 hours' work.

I can see that 240 hours is equivalent to a community service order, and that the amendment says 160 hours. The right duration is a matter of judgment—the court should be able to judge, in the light of the nature of the victim and of the offender, which sort of order would be appropriate and what the duration should be. My preference is for reparation to be made directly to the victim rather than to the community, so 24 hours is too limiting, especially as we are considering offenders up to the age of 18.

Lembit Öpik: There is an interesting debate to be had about the question of reparation and rehabilitation. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, even if his argument were to hold water, the amendment would create a different set of circumstances for those who are under 17, as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has pointed out? We would need a more sophisticated amendment if we were to maintain parity with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Blunt: I am happy to accept the hon. Gentleman's point: we would, if we were going to be as sophisticated as the review intended. At paragraph 10.74, the review states:

    ''We recommend that a form of community service should be developed for those under 16 years of age, with a maximum period of service of 40 hours.''

Again, that would be different from what happens in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Bill will bring about differences, not only with reparation orders but in other areas, because it introduces an experimental system of criminal justice for youth. Northern Ireland's experience in the wake of these proposals will clearly hold important lessons for the rest of the UK. It would be a pity to limit reparation orders to 24 hours because of the

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relationship between offender and victim, which is intended to aid rehabilitation, especially as they will involve 16 and 17-year-olds.

I hope that the Government will be flexible in considering the amendment. I shall not press it to a Division. Deciding what the number should be is a matter of judgment. Perhaps the amendment should be more sophisticated, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire suggests. I should be grateful if the Government would keep an open mind.

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