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Jim Knight: Let me relieve the hon. Gentleman of his pain. The appeals would be heard by a general regulatory chamber of the first tier. One of the aims and advantages
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of the new tribunal system is to avoid a multitude of small chambers. Given the small number of appeals likely, we do not think we need a chamber specifically for such appeals.

Mr. Gibb: I am grateful for that response, which is on the record and will be helpful to those outside.

Let me return to Lord Adonis’s comments in his letter of 1 July. In that letter he said:

The point to note is that we are talking about a civil penalty. For employers, the punishment for not complying with the Bill—that is, for not providing training or time off for training—is a civil one, whereas the punishment for the 16 or 17-year-old who does not participate is a criminal one. It is the fact that the Bill seeks to criminalise young people that has raised so many concerns. We all share the aspiration of increasing participation in education or training to the age of 18, but how will it help a young person if he or she sets out on their career saddled with a criminal record?

The Children’s Rights Alliance for England, the British Youth Council and the Association of School and College Leaders all oppose the provisions that introduce criminal sanctions, even though they might support the general aims of the Bill. The Prince’s Trust, which has vast experience of helping the very group the Bill is principally aimed at, is concerned about criminalising young people. In her evidence to the Public Bill Committee, Martina Milburn, the trust’s chief executive, said:

My noble Friend Lady Morris fought valiantly in another place to try to find a way for the Bill’s objectives to be achieved without recourse to criminal law. On Third Reading she said:

The Government have argued that penalties cannot be imposed except by using the criminal process, but it seems that civil penalties can be imposed on employers, whether they be individuals or companies. The Government say that the civil procedures are not designed for those under the age of 18, but again, I am not sure whether that is true. The county courts are very used to dealing with rent and money issues affecting 16 and 17-year-olds. The Government also say that if a civil penalty is not paid, the ultimate sanction is jail, which the youth court process that the Bill uses cannot resort to. However, most civil penalties are enforced through attachment of earnings orders. It cannot be beyond the wit of
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parliamentary draftsmen to ensure that those are the only remedies in law for ensuring the payment of civil penalties of £200 or less in such circumstances.

On the provisions concerning parliamentary staff, which the Minister mentioned and which the amendments would change, it is clearly right that all the duties and rights that young employees generally have should also apply to staff in the House of Commons and another place. As Lord Adonis said in Committee in another place:

I take the point, but it might be helpful if the Minister could explain why that would not be appropriate. Does that also mean, for instance, that the House of Commons authorities cannot be prosecuted for breaches of health and safety regulations or for the standards of hygiene in the kitchen? It would be helpful to have an answer to the latter point before 8 o’clock this evening or before any of us pops out for a cup of tea and a muffin in the canteen.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): I rise briefly to speak about criminalising young people. It is in the nature of things for 16 and 17-year-olds to be disaffected and to baulk at participation. There is a great feeling that the Government have not done enough to find a way around the problem of criminalising them. We currently have too big a Government, with too much interference in people’s lives and too much of a nanny state. I urge the Minister—he is a good man who understands these things clearly—to look at the problem again and find an innovative way round it.

Jim Knight: We will return to those points in the next set of amendments, so I will deal with them then, rather than now.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) for pointing out Lord Goodlad’s letter and the importance of audi alteram partem, meaning “Hear the other side”, which is what we have been doing throughout the process in the Lords. We will be debating the various ways in which we have been listening to the other side throughout today’s debate.

The hon. Gentleman underlined the reasons why we believe that the principle of having appeal is right, on reflection. I believe that I answered his question on the first tier of the new tribunals system that is in place thanks to the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. To some extent, when the Bill was originally drafted and scrutinised in the Commons, the measures that are now in place in respect of that Act were not in place. It is therefore appropriate that we now take cognisance of them.

The hon. Gentleman asked questions about civil versus criminal sanctions. I suspect that when we deal with the next set of amendments we will probe in a little more detail whether criminal sanctions are appropriate for young people on top of the range of things that are in place to encourage them to participate. However, it is appropriate that we have civil and not criminal sanctions
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for employers. The enforcement system for employers is not criminal. It culminates in a financial penalty that is recoverable through county courts, in which employers have the opportunity to present things from their perspective having used the right of appeal, if they so wish. That is appropriate, and we will discuss in a minute whether the measures for young people are appropriate. In essence, as the hon. Gentleman knows because we have discussed the matter at some length both in the Chamber, in Committee and in private, I believe that the youth court, because it is specifically designed to deal with training and sanctions for young people, is the appropriate body to deal with those matters for young people.

On the basis of those explanations, which I hope are adequate, I hope that the House will support the amendment.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 23 agreed to [Special Entry].

Clause 44

Variation and revocation of attendance notice

Lords amendment : No. 24.

Jim Knight: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 32, 40, 173, 178, 179 and 211.

Jim Knight: I welcome this second group of amendments that were made in the other place and I believe that we therefore have a stronger, fuller and better Bill. This group makes further refinements to the support and enforcement system for young people, which is probably the most controversial and debated aspect of the Bill.

Amendment No. 40 enables a local authority to enter into learning and support agreements with young people. In a learning and support agreement, the local authority would agree to provide support and learning activity, and the young person would agree to comply with certain requirements. The young person must be involved in the process of identifying their needs and the best way to address them, and in negotiating the requirements that they in turn agree to stick to. That something-for-something approach is the model for our activity and agreement pilots aimed at 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training—or NEET—the evaluation of which will report fully later on in the year. Early signs are very promising that it is an effective approach to which young people respond positively. When we debated learning agreements in this House, I always said that they were best practice.

Contracts or agreements are also widely used by voluntary sector organisations, such as Barnardo’s and Rainer, in their programmes to support young people’s transition back to formal learning. The idea is popular with young people. Learning and support contracts serve to emphasise that both the local authority and the young person have responsibilities, and I hope that the House will support the amendment.

Amendment No. 24 is a minor amendment that makes it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that where a variation is made to an attendance notice, as provided for under
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clause 44, all the requirements about the description of education or training in the notice apply as they did to the original notice. So the education or training must satisfy the central duty to participate, be suitable for the young person and so on.

5 pm

Lords amendments Nos. 25 and 26 give effect to another recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The amendments would ensure that the amount set in regulations for the financial penalty to be given to a young person could never exceed the maximum fine that a young person could receive in a youth court, which is currently £200. We have already said that, in practice, the financial penalty for young people would be significantly less than that figure, and I am grateful to the Committee for its careful scrutiny of the Bill.

On amendments Nos. 27 to 31, 173, 178, 179 and 211, the Government believe that very few young people will reach the enforcement process, and I hope that very few—if not none—will reach the very end of it. If a young person fails to participate, a local authority must engage with them, find them an option that suits them and help them to take up learning again. Even after enforcement action has been formally started, there will be a process of administrative sanctions, support and dialogue with a young person before they can reach the youth court.

I remind the House that the local authority needs to engage with the young person and offer them appropriate learning and support. If that is not taken up, a formal offer will be made, followed by an attendance notice, and if that does not work, the matter will go to the attendance panel. In turn, if the young person still fails to engage after that fourth stage, a fixed penalty notice will be issued by the local authority to avoid the need to enforce the matter through the courts. If the young person then fails to pay the fixed penalty notice, there is a right to appeal to the attendance panel. It is only then, if the attendance panel agrees with and confirms the need for the notice, that the matter goes to the youth court. That is at the end of a very long process with many stages, and if a young person re-engages in learning or has a reasonable excuse at any one of those stages, all enforcement action will cease.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The Minister says that if the young person goes back into education, all enforcement action will cease. Does that mean that they could continually engage with the enforcement process and go back enough to return to ground zero again? How will he ensure that they do not take the mick out of the system?

Jim Knight: Naturally, we are concerned about mick-takers, so the process would not go all the way back to the beginning. In the end, the matter would come down to the judgment of the attendance panel, at the points at which I have described it working. If someone came back before the panel pretty rapidly and its members felt that they were a mick-taker, the panel would want to move pretty rapidly through the rest of the stages. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman in respect of such individuals.

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Should enforcement action be taken against a young person, however, it is the Government’s clear position that no young person should enter custody as a result of committing the offence of failing to comply with an attendance notice without reasonable excuse. We are satisfied that there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that that will not happen to those aged under 18, and custody will not be available to the youth courts in respect of defaulting on the payment of a fine. Furthermore, we do not believe it is realistic that, in practice, any court would impose a custodial sentence for non-payment of a level 1 fine on someone more than 18 years old. However, the amendments would achieve greater certainty on that point and remove even the theoretical possibility of the situation occurring by transferring from the magistrates court to the county court the enforcement of a fine imposed for that offence only once the individual concerned had turned 18.

Building on all that, I turn finally to Lords amendment No. 32, which would introduce a commitment to undertake a review of the enforcement process for young people who did not comply with the duty to participate, so that we might be clear that the system was effective in reinforcing compulsion, and learn any lessons to improve the system. We have said that the review would be completed by 2016, allowing it to examine experiences of the first cohort to be required to stay until they were 18 years old. The review would also be chaired by someone who was independent to ensure that it was robust. The purpose of the review is to make sure that the support and enforcement system achieves what we want it to do—make sure that young people participate so that they can achieve, progress and reach their full potential.

The group of amendments to which I have spoken serves only to strengthen the support provisions for young people and ensure that the enforcement system is robust and fair. I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): We are pleased to return to our measured consideration of these important matters, which absorbed a good deal of the debate in Committee and the House of Lords. We are grateful to the other House for its close consideration, which gives us a chance to debate these matters again. Without at all wishing to crow, I should say that the Government have had a chance to think again about some of the arguments advanced in Committee regarding the issue of criminalising young people, which so concerned Opposition Members.

Amendments Nos. 27 to 31, 173, 178, 179 and 211 ensure that ordinary adult fine enforcement procedures do not apply in the case of persons not complying with an attendance notice. Amendment No. 28 ensures that even pre-18-year-old offenders are dealt with in magistrates courts and that those over 18 are dealt with in county courts. Neither court has the capacity to impose custody, as the notes on the amendments make clear. Amendment No. 29 ensures that if the offender fined is over 18, they are dealt with in the county court. Amendments Nos. 28, 30 and 31 allow the Lord Chancellor to make further detailed provisions. Amendments Nos. 173, 178 and 179 are consequential amendments, inserting the
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words “or Lord Chancellor” after “State”. Amendment No. 211 invokes the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 to allow magistrates courts to revoke youth default orders when the individuals concerned reach 18 and apply new fines, depending on how the young person has complied with the order. Again, the county court will deal with that.

As an Opposition, we fully support the move to civil law, preventing custodial sentences and the utilisation of learner support agreements that delay the use of fines. The Minister has said a word about that issue today, and we debated it at length in Committee. We made the case consistently during the passage of the Bill and are pleased that the Government have finally agreed the position that we adopted at the outset. Time and again in the evidence sittings in Committee we heard that young people might be criminalised. That was of concern not only to the young people themselves, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) has mentioned, to many of the organisations that work most closely with the disadvantaged.

As compassionate Conservatives, we make no apology for allocating a disproportionate concern, energy and intellectual capital to the defence of the most vulnerable in our country, particularly young people. The experience of those who deal with young people—particularly disengaged and troubled young people—was made clear by their evidence. Those with such experience believe that if such young people were stigmatised or criminalised they could become entirely disengaged and impossible to re-engage in the education process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned, the Prince’s Trust waxed eloquent on that subject. I take this opportunity to wish His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales a happy 60th birthday; without him, there would not have been a trust to give the evidence that so informed our consideration and in the end persuaded the Government to change their mind. He is surely the greatest living Englishman.

A representative of the Prince’s Trust told us that

The evidence graphically illustrates that young people in the greatest need are least likely to benefit from a Bill that coerces them and ultimately—if they do not abide by their duties—criminalises them. We heard similar evidence from the Association of School and College Leaders, which said in its briefing on the Bill that its preferred approach to achieving full participation was persuasion rather than coercion.

There is no lack of commitment among those on the Conservative Benches to the principle of increasing the participation of post-16-year-olds in education. Indeed, we regard ourselves as at the forefront of that campaign. However, we believe that we are most likely to achieve such participation by inspiring, encouraging and moving the hearts and minds of young people, rather than by coercion.

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In Committee, the Minister made it clear that he believes that the vast majority of young people, including many who are disengaged, can be re-engaged—not by compulsion, but by the quality of the offer that the Government would seductively place before them. Furthermore, when I pressed him closely on that, he acknowledged that there would always, notwithstanding that seductive offer, be a certain number who played truant. Truancy is at its highest level for 10 years, as the Minister must know. The percentage of half-days lost to truancy across all schools last year rose, and was higher than at any time since the Government came to office. Recently, they dropped their target to cut truancy, as he will know. We are therefore still concerned about the recourse to fines and youth courts, which should be a last resort.

On Report in the other place, Baroness Morris of Bolton said that

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