Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill

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New Clause 53

Rehabilitation of persons convicted of offences committed under the age of 18
‘After section 1 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 insert—
“1A Rehabilitation of persons convicted of offences committed under the age of 18
(1) Subject to subject (2) below, where an individual has been convicted of any offence or offences and where these were committed before the individual attained the age of 18, then on reaching the age of 18 that individual should automatically be treated as a rehabilitated person.
(2) A person shall not be treated as a rehabilitated person for the purposes of this Act under subsection (1) if the individuals offending behaviour before the age of 18 is deemed to be serious or persistent.
(3) The Secretary of State shall by regulations set out the criteria and procedures for any decisions under subsection (2).
(4) Regulations made under subsection (3) shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of either House of Parliament.”.’.—[Mr. Heath.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Heath: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 54—Conditional discharge
‘In the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, omit section 66(4).’.
New clause 57—Restrictions on custodial sentences for offenders aged under 18
‘(1) In the title of section 152 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (c. 44) (general restrictions on imposing discretionary custodial sentences), after “general restrictions on imposing discretionary custodial sentences”, insert “on offenders aged 18 or above”.
(2) In section 152(1) of that Act after “where a person”, insert “aged 18 or above”.
(3) After section 152 of that Act insert—
“152A Restrictions on custodial sentences for offenders aged under 18
(1) Notwithstanding anything in this or any other Act, a court shall only pass a sentence of custody on a person under the age of 18 as a measure of last resort and where—
(a) the offence committed caused or could reasonably have been expected to cause serious physical or mental harm to another or others, and
(b) a custodial sentence is necessary to protect the public from a demonstrable and imminent risk of serious physical or mental harm.
(2) The court shall state in open session its reasons for passing any sentence of custody under this section.”.
(4) In section 90 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000—
(a) after the words “the court shall”, omit “(notwithstanding anything in this or any other Act)”; and
(b) after the words “at the time the offence was committed” insert “and if the conditions set out in section 152A of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 are met”.
(5) In section 91(3) of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, before the words “the court may” insert “and if the conditions set out in section 152A of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 are met.”.
(6) In section 100 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000—
(a) in subsection (1)(a) omit “sections 226 and 228 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003”;
(b) for subsection (1)(b) there is substituted—
“(b) the court is of the opinion that the conditions set out in section 152A of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 are met”.
(7) In the Criminal Justice Act 2003, omit sections 226 and 228.’.
New clause 58—Pre-sentence reports and other requirements for persons under the age of 18
‘(1) At the end of section 156 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (c. 44) (procedural requirements for imposing community sentences and discretionary custodial sentences: pre-sentence reports and other requirements) insert—
“(9) All provisions of this section are subject to the requirements of section 156A below in relation to offenders aged under 18.”.
(2) After section 156 insert—
“156A Pre-sentence reports and other requirements for persons aged under 18 before a custodial sentence may be imposed
(1) A court shall not pass a sentence of custody on a person under the age of 18 unless it has obtained and considered a pre-sentence report which includes information from the relevant local authority stating—
(a) the circumstances relating to the offender and the offence or offences of which the offender has been convicted,
(b) whether the offender appears to be a child in need as set out in section 17 of the Children Act 1989, and if so details of the offender’s needs as assessed by the local authority, and
(c) the services the local authority has provided to meet the needs of the child or young person.
(2) The court may require the attendance at court of a senior official of the relevant local authority or any other local authority in order to determine what further services may be provided which may prevent or avoid the need for a custodial sentence.
(3) The court may not pass a custodial sentence unless it is satisfied—
(a) if the offender is a child in need, that services have been provided by the local authority which were appropriate or sufficient to meet the child’s needs, and
(b) that the provision of further, or any, services by the local authority would not prevent or avoid the need for a custodial sentence,
unless a custodial sentence is necessary to protect the public from an imminent and demonstrable risk of serious physical or mental harm.
(4) Each local authority must submit an annual report to the Secretary of State and the Lord Chancellor setting out the numbers and circumstances of all the children who have been sentenced to custody from that local authority area.
(5) For the purposes of this section “relevant local authority” means the local authority in which the offender was habitually resident at the time of committing the offence or offences in relation to which sentencing is being considered by the court. In the event that the offender is no longer resident in that local authority area at the time of sentencing, or if there is any doubt as to the relevant local authority, the court may of its own volition or upon the request of any party determine which is the relevant local authority.”.’.
Each of those proposed new clauses has been tabled in the name of the hon. Member for Somerset and Frome. Have I got that right?
Several hon. Members Somerton.
The Chairman: I shall get it right before we finish, David.
Mr. Heath: There is not very long to go now, Sir Nicholas.
The new clauses bring us back to some of the issues that we discussed in relation to part 1 of the Bill. It is a strange aspect of our proceedings that we reach the end and yet seem to be discussing things that we have already discussed, but that does not make the points that are encompassed in the new clauses any the less important. I was very brief in my remarks on the previous proposal, so I want to spend a little longer on the present group.
New clause 53 deals with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and I do not think that I need to spend long on it. It would invoke the Act for a young person who was convicted of a less serious crime at the point when they reached their 18th birthday. In other words, it would mean that young people would start with a clean sheet when they reached the age of majority, unless they had been convicted of a serious or persistent crime. It would work on the basis that children should be treated as children and on an acceptance of the idea that children, like adults, might make mistakes. We would be expressing the hope that the sentence imposed had had the desired effect and that children should start their adult life with a clean sheet.
The point is quite an important one. I accept that if someone has a string of convictions, or is guilty of a serious crime, the position would be different. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be appropriate to take cognizance of the fact that things that we do as children should not saddle us for a prolonged period of time—certainly not in those crucial years on reaching majority when one is beginning to start to seek a first job, or a place in further education, when there is a risk of serious prejudice to the rest of the person’s life.
New clause 54 addresses an issue that we have certainly already discussed: that at the moment a court cannot impose a conditional discharge of a youth conditional caution. The same applies to final warnings. It seems reasonable that a court should have full discretion to apply a disposal that seems appropriate under all the circumstances and after consideration of the individual case, but at the moment the law prohibits that. It seems to me that there is no obvious reason why the court should not have the option of a conditional discharge, if that is the right way of dealing with an offender at that point.
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The purpose of new clause 58 is to ensure that when an offender is under 18 and is to be given a custodial sentence, appropriate local authority provision to meet the needs of the offender is considered by the local authorities and the courts. That would prevent courts from sentencing children and young people to custody if it appeared that further service provision could avoid custody. We come directly back to the point that we were discussing on the previous amendment: whether there are ways of preventing children and young people from being put into custody, which we all say that we want to avoid. I accept at face value what the Government are saying on this issue, in terms of their earlier provisions within the Bill—part of its objective is to divert young people away from a custodial sentence.
The new clause would ensure that alternatives to the custodial sentence are applied, even at the point at which the court has decided that perhaps a custodial sentence is justified, and it would cause the court to determine whether it is justified for the punishment of the offender or for the protection of the public. If it is for the protection of the public and that is the only disposal that provides for that, there should be no question. But if we are talking about a custodial sentence for the purpose of punishment there may be alternatives that are more suitable, which will have a better effect on the recidivism of the offender. To enable the local authorities, the Secretary of State and others to step back and take an overview of the needs of the particular individual is no bad thing.
New clause 57 is perhaps the most important of the clauses within this group of amendments, so I would like to take a little time with it. It would introduce a statutory custody threshold that must be tested before any young person is sentenced to custody, ensuring that it is a matter of last resort, and that it is being used for public protection. I made some reference to this in the discussion on earlier provisions, but we have an extraordinarily large number of children and young people in prison in this country. I will give the Committee some figures. For every 100,000 children in the population of England and Wales, about 23 are in custody. The equivalent figure in France is six; in Spain it is two; in Finland it is 0.2. The number of 15 to 17-year-olds in prison increased by 98.6 per cent. in 10 years, between 1995 and 2005, from 1,675 to 2,326. We should be very concerned about that.
We should also be concerned about the sort of young person who is in prison. We often talk about the underachievement, in academic terms, of adult prisoners, but we should recognise the difficulty for young people as well. Nearly half of the children in custody had literacy and numeracy levels lower than an average 11-year-old; over half of them had a history of being in care or social services involvement; 40 per cent of girls and 25 per cent. of boys reported suffering violence at home. One in three girls and one in 20 boys reported sexual abuse; 40 per cent. of boys and 67 per cent. of girls had serious mental health problems and over half reported dependence on a drug in the year prior to imprisonment.
We must then look at what is happening to young people within the prison system. I know that there have been strenuous efforts to improve that. The Minister talked about processes of restraint and the things that happen. However, we should recognise that the inspections and considerations that review the treatment of young offenders in prison suggest that, even with the best will in the world, there are still serious weaknesses. That is not intended as an attack on prison staff—far from it.
Indeed, my noble Friend Lord Carlile of Berriew, whose arguments in his role as independent assessor are often supported by the Government, in his 2006 inquiry said that
“some treatment of children in custody would, in any other circumstances, trigger a child protection investigation and could even result in criminal charges.”
That is quite serious stuff from a respected colleague. When we look at the utility of keeping those young people in custody, we will see that we are spending an enormous amount of money on custody—£280 million a year from the Youth Justice Board. However, we know that 76 per cent. of those who are discharged from custody reoffend within one year. In other words, it is a revolving door. With regard to discouraging reoffending, we are paying for no discernible effect.
Having a custody threshold for young people is not a new idea. We used to have it in English statute law, in section 14 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982. It was inserted into the 1982 Act against the wishes of the Conservative Government by a noble Lady on the Labour Benches. The Government resisted it and later applauded it as a necessary and valuable addition to the Act.
However, that provision was repealed by the Criminal Justice Act 1991. It set a custody threshold for people under the age of 21. Now the operative age would be 18. There is clear evidence that it had a significant effect on the number of young people who were sent into custody while it was in operation. The Government ought to think seriously about whether that would be a useful addition for reminding the courts of the seriousness of reducing a young person to a custodial sentence.
Mr. Hanson: I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome for bringing forward his proposals. This is a useful discussion. He will know that we had a long discussion in relation to part 1 of the Bill about the use of custody and our wish to see other out-of-court disposals that will result in a reduction in custody and give further opportunities through the youth reoffending order to ensure that we do not put individuals in custody. He has raised a number of points with regard to the clauses. It might be helpful if I tried to address some of the points that he has brought forward.
As for new clause 53, I accept that it is helpful to ensure that young adults are moved away from offending and are helped into employment. One of our big objectives through work with the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending is to look at how we can help the employment of offenders. That is key to getting individuals who are leaving the custodial estate at the age of 18 into employment. Indeed, we are gearing some of the training programmes and work in the estate to secure employment and skill levels that are consummate to the job market outside.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, in 2002 and during the past couple of years, we have been looking at the document entitled “Breaking the cycle: Taking stock of progress and priorities for the future”. It reports on how to support individuals to get back into employment as well as on the several changes that have been made. Since that report, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, which followed the Bichard report, has come into play. It means that we need to look into how and when, and under what circumstances, we consider the employment of ex-offenders in many areas of employment. The Bichard report has put into the pot some significant new areas for discussion following our original “Breaking the cycle” report.
We are re-examining whether we need to update the policy proposals in “Breaking the cycle”, and whether we need to look at new arrangements under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 not only for young people, but adults. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that his new clause is serious and would have a major impact on the employment prospects of young people and pose a risk element for employers and the public at large. I ask him to withdraw it because such issues need full examination in the light of our original objectives in “Breaking the cycle” and our current thinking into how ex-offenders, both young and over the age of 18, can be employed in the community at large.
I am keen to ensure that young people and adult prisoners are given fair opportunities to get back into the employment market. As the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Gentleman will agree and as our debate on prisons highlighted, there is an element of consensus that employment skills, raising those skills and employability are the key drivers of the prevention of re-offending in respect of people throughout the criminal justice system. However, the new clause is a step too far, given the stage that we have reached in our consideration of such matters.
New clause 57 would place unacceptable restrictions on custody for under-18s. I share the objective of the hon. Gentleman to reduce the level of custody of under-18s in our estate, but we need to examine it in terms of preventive measures, interventions and the work of the Youth Justice Board rather than take a blanket approach that would include the removal and restriction of the court’s ability to use custody for some of the most serious offences, including—under the new clause—the removal of the mandatory life sentence equivalent for murder. It is a serious matter.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s objective. I am happy to discuss with him outside Committee how we can reach a satisfactory conclusion, but the ability to be able to set the custody threshold at the level sought by the new clause would be difficult for both the public and the community at large to accept. It would place the public at significant risk and have the impact of examining sentences that would not be in agreement with the public’s expectations in the current circumstances.
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New clause 58 would place additional duties and requirements on the courts and local authorities to consider prior to the court being able to impose custodial sentences on a young person. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it would duplicate existing safeguards and provisions in respect of information about the young offender, and would impose additional bureaucracy and cost, particularly on local authorities, for little extra gain. Safeguards exist in respect of the court’s duty towards the offender, and I am satisfied that the information that is available to it under the current arrangements enables it to make the appropriate sentencing decisions.
I accept that there is a real challenge for all hon. Members, inside and outside the Committee, to look at what we should do to tackle the level of reoffending mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. It is not acceptable to me or the Government to find that we have in the region of 75 per cent. reoffending rates from those leaving custody. Something is not working if that is the case. The solutions that the hon. Gentleman has brought forward today, while raising the issue, would add to some of the problems and would not necessarily stop the reoffending. They would also cause some difficulties in public perception.
Mr. Burrowes: We all know the 75 per cent. statistic. However, the Minister says that that is the reoffending rate, but it is the reconviction rate. The reoffending rate may be a lot higher.
Mr. Hanson: Indeed, that is for reconviction. Neither I, nor the hon. Gentleman know how much reoffending goes on that is not caught. Reconviction is at a very high level. I am not proud of that fact. It is something that we should address in detail. It is an issue that is of great importance and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it. I ask him to withdraw the motion on the basis that we will examine how we can affect employability and will look at questions about the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 as part of the “Breaking the Cycle” review that we are undertaking. I do not think that the public or the Committee would accept that there is not still a role for custody for individuals in the community who commit very serious offences.
Mr. Heath: That is precisely what I did not say in the new clause, which would make it very clear that custody is for those who present a threat to the protection of the public. I have no difficulty with that at all.
Having said that, I am grateful to the Minister for the way that he approached his response. I did not expect a meeting of minds on every issue. Why should there be? However, I do think that we can discuss matters in an intelligent and sensible way. I think that we did that yesterday, with the possible exception of a couple of speeches at the beginning.
Mr. Hanson: Not by anybody here.
Mr. Heath: Not by anybody in this room. We had a very sensible debate yesterday. There is more that we share in terms of penal policy than that which separates us. We are all seeking the same objectives. I am pleased with what the Minister said about the rehabilitation of offenders. It is high time that we looked at that again to see how we can improve things. It is not just a case of wiping the slate clean. As the Minister knows, we need to come to terms with a whole range of issues associated with transition, and I look forward to talking with him further about those.
At some point, we must accept that the custody system does not do what we pay it to do. We pay enormous amounts of money for it. There must be better alternatives. We should recognise the damage that it potentially does to young people. In that age group, only those who must be shut away—because it is only by shutting them away that we can protect the public—should be given standard custodial sentences. I do not dispute that there may be other secure sentencing possibilities that we should use instead, but it seems futile to spend an enormous amount of money on a system that has a virtually 100 per cent. reoffending rate. Nobody would plan a public policy with that little effect, but still we carry on with it and expand it in increasing numbers. However, the hour is late and it is time we moved on. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
The Chairman: The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome—[Hon. Members: “ Hooray”]—seeks leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
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