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Public Bill Committee Debates
Policing and Crime Bill

Policing and Crime Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Hugh Bayley, Sir Nicholas Winterton
Austin, Mr. Ian (Dudley, North) (Lab)
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing)
Dorries, Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Holmes, Paul (Chesterfield) (LD)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Ruffley, Mr. David (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Chris Shaw, Andrew Kennon, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 12 February 2009


[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

Policing and Crime Bill

Clause 30

Directions to individuals who represent a risk of disorder
1 pm
Question (this day) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): We had just made a start on clause 30, which includes a new provision relating to directions to individuals who represent a risk of disorder. The clause will amend section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. Currently, an individual aged 16 or over who is in a public place can be given a direction to leave that locality and be prohibited from returning within 48 hours. There are two trigger requirements: first, that the presence of the individual in that locality is likely, in all the circumstances, to cause or to contribute to the occurrence of alcohol-related crime or disorder, and secondly, that the giving of a direction is necessary for the purpose of removing or reducing the likelihood of there being crime or disorder in that locality. Clause 30 will reduce the minimum age from 16 to 10.
I understand the concept behind what the Government are trying to do. We heard from the police during the Committee’s evidence sessions why they felt that the power would be helpful. However, it was interesting that they felt that it was at the top end of that age range—I think they mentioned 14 and 15-year-olds—that the power was most likely to be used. In all genuineness, because it will extend to 10-year-olds, the provision makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable because of the clear relationship between criminal law and child protection issues.
The clause as it stands speaks only of the requirement to prohibit someone from being within an area for 48 hours and the removal of that person from the area, but we know that the police have other powers to take children to a place of safety, their home or where their parent or guardian might be. I want to understand properly how the provisions are intended to fit together. For example, in clause 28, the Government give the police an additional power to take a child home in circumstances where alcohol has been confiscated. I accept that alcohol may not be confiscated in the circumstances contemplated in clause 30, although there may be some overlap, and that the police have other, general powers to take children back home if they feel that they are at risk or in danger. I am still trying to understand clearly why there is a power in the Bill to move children on, particularly young children, rather than a requirement to take them to a place of safety or ensure that appropriate child protection arrangements are being followed through.
On the question of 10-year-olds, if there is a risk to their safety—section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 specifically contemplates a risk of crime or disorder—do we think that it is acceptable simply to move the child on and displace them in those circumstances? It is important that we hear from the Minister how the power is intended to relate to other police powers as well as to social services and everything that goes with them. Certain agencies have picked up on the issue. The YWCA said in its briefing notes to the Committee that it
“has serious concerns about reports from some young women that they have been ‘moved on’ by the police under existing legislation, but not always to an established place of safety. This has meant in some circumstances that young women have been put at risk by being moved to unsafe places like unlit parks or by having to find their own way home. This can put young women into extremely vulnerable positions.
We believe that an approach of providing a package of support for young people is the best way to ensure that they do not get locked into a cycle of offending. Any ‘Direction to Leave’ to young people that does enter legislation must include a requirement for young people to be taken to an agreed place of safety.”
Obviously the YWCA is highlighting its specific concerns, but there is something worrying about the extension from 16 to 10. It is horrifying to think that a 10-year-old would be out late at night at risk of offending and getting into disorder. Sadly, that reflects some of the difficulties, problems and challenges faced by many of our communities up down the country, which is why I understand the Government’s belief that a simple power of removal may not necessarily be appropriate in isolation. The police may feel that they are constantly taking children back to their home or elsewhere. In those circumstances, as we discussed this morning, some parents simply let the child back out again. There is no parental responsibility. The Government are trying to say that we need an additional trigger or lever to get parents to take their responsibilities seriously, albeit that it is now through something that is almost a criminal process.
The real question underlying all of this is what options have the Government explored to avoid going down the criminalisation route? Clearly they must have examined other options, some of which we touched on this morning. The Government have formed the view that it is necessary to go down a criminal justice route. It would be helpful to know what their rationale was, what the evidence was and what their thoughts were in trying to balance the issue of child protection and parenting with the issue of criminal justice. Why do they think it appropriate to take this approach rather than seeking to trigger support from social services or child welfare, which I wholly accept are not mutually exclusive? Clearly something has gone on for the Government to feel that escalation to this level is required.
In that context, and because I think there is a need for interlinkage, will the Minister explain why, according to my reading of clause 3, there is no requirement to notify the parent or guardian of a child issued with a notice under section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act? That may happen, but I should be grateful if the Minister considered that. If a child is at risk of offending and is in a situation where the police feel strongly that this power needs to be invoked, there should be a requirement for notification to go to the parents or the guardian.
It would be interesting to understand what protocols and procedures are envisaged. If a child is in receipt of that notice, would the police notify children’s social services in the local authority concerned? There are child welfare issues and risk and danger issues if a child as young as 10 is issued with this sort of notice. As we know, some of the problems that many young children face are linked to their home environment, behavioural issues, mental health issues and drug addiction. Their parents may have similar issues too. We need to ensure a more co-ordinated and strategic approach once an at-risk child has been identified through this mechanism and a notice has been issued. I understand some of the rationale behind the direction that the Government are taking, but in isolation, it is difficult to understand and appreciate how the provision is intended to operate in practice. This is a sensitive clause, because of the age of the children concerned.
I have a question for the Minister arising from the youth alcohol action plan, which includes in its summary of actions the issuing of
“guidance to the police, health and children’s services to strengthen their approach to dealing with young people drinking in public places.”
That relates to our previous debate, and the action plan says that the timing of the provision is subject to the parliamentary timetable. The Bill deals with a number of the aspects of the action plan. If we are to gain a better understanding what sort of response is intended to deal with children in such situations, what has happened to the guidance contemplated in annexe A of the action plan? If parliamentary approval is required, or if it is still envisaged that it will be required, why is such a measure not included in part 3, which seems to encompass the main aspects of the guidance? Perhaps it has been published already or dealt with in another way. However, it would be helpful to understand clause 30 better, because of the significant and sensitive nature of the additional powers that the Government seek to give to the police.
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I have three brief points to make. First, I am sure that the police would say that the existing powers are too limited. However, it can be argued that there is a battery of existing powers that could be used in the situations envisaged in clause 30. Under section 46 of the Children Act 1989, the police can, under certain circumstances, remove children for their own safety. Under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, under certain circumstances, children under 16 can be removed to their place of residence. Under sections 4 and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, action can be taken if anyone—children, in this case—is using
“threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour”.
A group of 10, 13 or 15-year-olds under the influence of alcohol might well fall under the provisions in the Public Order Act in respect of their language, behaviour and so on. Why are all those existing powers in legislation deemed so inappropriate that we need a blanket provision or catch-all so that all children between the ages of 10 and 18 can be dealt with as stated in the Bill?
My second point concerns a matter that we have already touched on. Is it suitable simply to say that we can move people on? Let us imagine a group of 10, 11 or 13-year-olds in a public place, perhaps on a dark winter’s evening: the police believe that there is a problem and that they need moving on. Is it really appropriate simply to move a group of 10-year-olds from one spot to another, rather than taking them back home, for example, or taking some other action? There is a question about the suitability of moving very young children around and whether we are simply displacing their behaviour.
The police will say that in some cases the issue is not clear-cut. A group of children might well be causing what the neighbours perceive as a public order problem, but are not actually breaking the law. At 9.30 pm one evening, I was with a police community support officer in Duckmanton, a pit village on the edge of my constituency. Three 13 and 14-year-old lads were riding around on their bikes, hitting each other over the head with a huge lump of polystyrene. No offence was being committed, although some litter might have resulted and they were shouting very loudly. However, the neighbours would certainly have been unhappy about it. If the police had a word with them and they would move to another area and repeat the performance. In what way is existing legislation inadequate and why is it suitable simply to move the problem around, especially when dealing with particularly young children—the Bill proposes to amend legislation to cover children as young as age 10?
My third point concerns the attitude in this country towards age and criminality and the way in which we treat children. Rod Morgan, former chairman of the Youth Justice Board, said about eight days ago that we have one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe, although it is even lower in Scotland at eight years old. However, we lock up twice as many young people as we did in the early 1990s, and we are criminalising many more. When we lock them up, it costs £200,000 a head to keep them in secure accommodation: money which might be better spent on adopting—the Government are fond of this—the Finnish example of strict liability.
1.15 pm
In Finland, the age of criminal responsibility is 15, and the emphasis is on trying to rehabilitate young children aged 10 to 15, working with them through psychological approaches or rehabilitation programmes—whatever is appropriate for them and their families. That would cost much less than £200,000 to lock them up, as we tend to do. In Finland, only three children in the 10 to 18 age range are in confinement, as opposed to the 3,000 here. Statute that allows us to experiment with the Scandinavian route already exists, but with clause 30, we seem to be looking more at a punitive approach rather than tackling the problem at its source.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I shall make a brief contribution to raise a specific point. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch, that it is incredible that children as young as 10 should roam the streets of our towns and villages, particularly at night, unsupervised by their parents. Sadly, as he alluded in his contribution, in certain circumstances that is a sad reflection of society but it is a fact of life at present.
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Prepared 16 February 2009