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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Prosecution of Offences (Youth Courts Time Limits)(Revocation and Transitional Provision) Regulations (S.I., 2003, No. 917)

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Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 16 June 2003

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Prosecution of Offences (Youth Courts Time Limits) (Revocation and Transitional Provision)

Regulations (S.I., 2003, No. 917)

4.30 pm

The Chairman: Annette Brooke, do you wish to move the motion?

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) indicated dissent.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): If no one else wants to pray against the motion, I will.

I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Prosecution of Offences (Youth Courts Time Limits) (Revocation and Transitional Provision) Regulations (S.I., 2003, No. 917).

I apologise for having usurped the position of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), but he was not in his place at the appropriate moment to move the motion, so I am now on my feet.

I wish the Minister many happy returns of the day. I am sorry that he is obliged to spend his time before the Committee this afternoon. That said, the Committee must scrutinise the statutory instrument because what it purports to do is totally contrary to the Government's principles and policy as set out several times between 1997 and the present.

I find it astonishing that this state of affairs should have come about. It calls into question whether the Government's policy has any foundation, and although the Minister told me before the Committee began that he might be able to provide some reassurance, issues arise in terms of the way in which the Government have handled this matter. In particular, what they said that they are doing gives me the distinct impression that they are wriggling off, and out of, a failed election pledge, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said during question time today.

It all started with the Labour party's 1997 election pledges. I remember the card that the party circulated in my constituency, which said at the top:

    ''Keep this card and see that we keep our promises'',

and continued:

    ''New Labour's early pledges are . . . Fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders by halving the time from arrest to sentencing.''

That very clear commitment arose from the Labour party's belief that its predecessors had not done enough to speed up the process of justice. When the Government took office in 1997 and started to introduce legislation, they took steps to implement

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that pledge during the first sitting of the Committee that considered the Crime and Disorder Bill by setting out a statutory framework within which time limits would be imposed, to ensure that cases involving young people who came before the courts moved from arrest to sentencing within strict time parameters.

The Government placed a great deal of emphasis on that measure. When the matter was debated on Second Reading in the House of Lords, where the Bill began its passage, Lord Williams of Mostyn said:

    ''The Bill's fourth major theme is improving the speed and efficiency of the criminal justice system. Part III contains provisions springing from the Review of Delay in the Criminal Justice System, the Narey Review, published by the previous government. These include measures to improve case management, to bring cases promptly to court, and to provide for cases which must be tried in the Crown Court to be sent there immediately.

    To reinforce these improved arrangements, we will introduce time limits for the prosecution of all criminal cases under the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. The Bill will enable more exacting time limits to be set for cases involving juveniles than for those involving adults and for even tougher time limits for cases involving persistent juvenile offenders. It will also provide tighter criteria for granting extensions to prosecution time limits. The Bill will also provide that where a person is charged with an offence and the prosecution time limit is exceeded, rather than this resulting in the defendant's acquittal, the proceedings will be stayed. Such prosecutions could be re-activated in exceptional circumstances on the authority of a very senior designated prosecutor.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 December 1997; Vol. 584, c. 535.]

There were two aims in the beginning: first, to speed up the process of justice; secondly—Lord Williams clearly spelled this out—to improve the quality of justice by ensuring that the Human Rights Act 1998 did not cause delays.

When the Bill came before the House of Commons, the then Minister of State for the Home Department, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who is now the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life, made the winding-up speech for the Government on Second Reading. He said:

    ''As a magistrate and youth worker, I was very frustrated over the years by working in a creaking system that failed to engage young people. Young people were processed through the system as spectators in discussions about the offences in which they were supposed to have taken part—the system often dealt with them so late that they had forgotten what they had done by the time they were punished. The lives of victims were damaged, the community was undermined and the lives of young offenders were ruined.

    The Government are taking action. The Bill gives the tools for the job to our partners the police, local government, the courts parents and the community. That is why I believe that it will be a successful instrument for tackling crime and disorder in the community.''—[Official Report, 8 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 452.]

Unsurprisingly, when the official Opposition examined that part of the Bill in Committee, they broadly approved of it. The strict time limits had the double merits of ensuring expeditious justice—the previous Conservative Government had been considering similar proposals—and speeding up the process. Justice delayed is justice denied, and a speedier process has benefits. There were, of course, safeguards in the event of a prosecution not being brought within a certain period, and amendments on that were tabled and rejected.

The then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire

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(Mr. O'Brien), who is now Under-Secretary for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said the following in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison):

    ''The decision to use the arrest as the starting point was made with reference to our key pledge to halve the time between arrest and sentencing for persistent young offenders. The amendment''—

which suggested that the time limit should run from an offender's being charged—

    ''would undermine our wish to administer justice expeditiously, particularly for young offenders; it is very important in their case.

    Our plans for statutory time limits tackle the need for a speedy response to offending by young people. Delays can impede justice and frustrate the victims of crime. It is important that a clear link should be established in the mind of offenders between the behaviour and the sentence. All parts of the youth justice system must therefore work as quickly as possible. Swift police decisions about whether to charge are an important part of that process.''—[Official Report, 14 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 399.]

Following that debate, the Government produced the Prosecution of Offences (Youth Courts Time Limits) regulations 1999, which explicitly state the time limits, including an overall limit of 99 days, an initial limit of 36 days and a sentencing limit of 29 days. The regulations were introduced in a pilot scheme in a number of petty sessional areas, ranging from Aberconwy to Ynys Môn via Wellingborough, Wrexham, Northampton and Staffordshire, Moorlands. The express intention was that the new rules should provide better quality of justice, which they did. The then Under-Secretary for the Home Department, who is now Minister of State for the Department for International Development, made a written statement about the matter on 28 March and provided an evaluation of the way in which the regulations were working. He said:

    ''The evaluators recommended that statutory time limits should be implemented from a human rights perspective. They argued that delays in the youth court need to be curbed in terms of time limits rather than time targets because limits apply to each individual case rather than an average.''

He continued:

    ''The report also expresses the view that national rollout would require significant funding, training and a review of court room and staff availability.''

He went on to say:

    ''Although statutory time limits have been made to work in the pilot areas, concerns have been expressed by the criminal justice agencies at the burden that the limits impose on the system.''—[Official Report, 28 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 27WS.]

He then announced—hey presto—that it was his intention to drop them. We have a situation—the reason why the Committee has been convened—in which the Government have decided to drop the time limits that were the centrepiece of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. They were trumpeted to the skies as being essential, but are now to be disposed of in toto.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Would the hon. Gentleman accept that we now have far more sophisticated methods of achieving exactly the same objectives, through measures such as the case tracker system and youth court time targets? We have moved on and are achieving our objectives through other means. I am not clear whether the hon. Gentleman is objecting to what the Government are trying to do. Is

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he saying that the Government should keep the targets even though they are no longer regarded as necessary?

Mr. Grieve: There are two elements to this case. Are the Government achieving their targets? I shall be very interested to hear the Minister's comments on the fact that there appears to have been a subtle but rather important shift in the way that the Government describe the target in their original pledge. The original pledge referred to the period between the point of arrest and sentencing. That was the target, which is why the regulations were drafted in such a way as to pay specific attention to the time between conviction and sentencing. That was the expeditious justice that the Government were seeking to achieve.

The press release produced by the Home Office on 6 June contains something of a panegyric about the general success achieved, and then goes on to state that the pledge was

    ''to halve the time it takes to get persistent young offenders into court from the time they were arrested.''

That was not the pledge, however, and if that is indeed the measure of success, it is not the correct one in terms of what the Government may, or may not, have achieved.

 
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Prepared 16 June 2003