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Lord Williams of Mostyn: We believe that promoting the welfare of children and young people is directly concerned with preventing offending by them. Clause 28 provides for the new principal aim of the youth justice system to prevent offending by children and young children. It requires all those working within the youth justice system to have regard to this aim in carrying out their functions. But Clause 28(2) also casts the net much wider. Under Clause 32(5) the board will have the functions of monitoring the operation of the youth justice system and the extent to which the principal aim is being achieved. It will have the functions of advising the Secretary of State.

We believe that the functions as presently defined will enable the board to consider all the relevant matters, which would include the general proposition encapsulated in the noble Baroness's amendment. We believe that our definitions and aims and the functions of the board which we have defined would incorporate the general principle which she is pursuing. I hope that on that basis she is able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness David: That is a fairly satisfactory reply. I should like to read it carefully at a better time of day, but in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 32 agreed to.

10.30 p.m.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 33 agreed to.

Clause 34 [Time limits]:

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 185:

Page 26, line 29, leave out from ("section,") to ("shall") in line 31 and insert--
("(a) for the word "Where" there shall be substituted the words "Subsection (6A) below applies where"; and
(b) for the words from "the overall time limit" to the end there shall be substituted the words "and is accordingly unlawfully at large for any period."

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( ) After that subsection there shall be inserted the following subsection--
"(6A) The following, namely--
(a) the period for which the person is unlawfully at large; and
(b) such additional period (if any) as the appropriate court may direct, having regard to the disruption of the prosecution occasioned by--
(i) the person's escape or failure to surrender; and
(ii) the length of the period mentioned in paragraph (a) above,").

The noble and learned Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to government Amendments No. 186 and 187 and Amendment No. 188 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. These four amendments are all concerned with statutory time limits. Government Amendments Nos. 185 and 186 are designed to ensure that the system of statutory time limits provided in Section 22 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985, as amended by Clause 34, is not open to manipulation by the defendant.

Clause 34 provides that the time limit for the prosecution to complete any specified stage of the proceedings be suspended automatically during any period that the defendant is unlawfully at large and that the remainder of the time limit reapply when the defendant reappears before the court.

At present, the 1985 Act provides for the limit to be stopped altogether once a defendant absconds. Clause 34 improves that arrangement by ensuring that the discipline of statutory time limits be maintained right through the proceedings. However, it would be wrong if, by absconding and reappearing after some considerable time, the defendant were to cause such disruption that the prosecution were unable to pick up the threads of the case in the remainder of the time available. This might lead to a breach of the time limit and the staying of proceedings against the defendant, thereby providing him with an incentive to abscond.

We cannot necessarily expect the prosecution to keep up to speed on an absconder's case, particularly as there will be no indication of when or if he will reappear. However, we must balance this against the need to ensure that time limits are an effective discipline on the criminal justice system. In many instances the absconding of a defendant will not have any significant impact on the prosecution, who will be able to complete all necessary procedures within the remaining time available.

In some circumstances, however, there may be a need for further preparatory work to be undertaken as a result of the defendant's absence; for example, in tracing witnesses or arranging a new trial date. In those cases it is only right that the prosecution should be allowed extra time to carry this out. The determining factor for the courts in deciding whether, and if so by how much, further to suspend the time limit will be the extent to which the prosecution has been disrupted by the absconder's absence and the length of time that he was unlawfully at large.

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I turn to Amendment No. 187, which deals with a different aspect of time limits. Clause 35 of the Bill is concerned with providing additional powers to set time limits for cases involving young offenders. We intend to use the powers in Clause 35 to make regulations which will set more stringent time limits for persistent young offenders than for other young offenders. Government Amendment No. 187 will ensure that time limits between conviction and sentence can be set for all persistent young offenders, including those who are under 18 at the point of arrest but have turned 18 by the time they are convicted.

As currently drafted, Clause 35(1)(b) would allow us to set time limits only for those persistent young offenders who are under 18 at the point they are convicted. However, the definition of a persistent young offender adopted by the Government, and set out in an inter-departmental circular issued in October last year, makes clear that if someone is identified as a persistent young offender at the outset of the case--at the point of arrest, or the laying of an information--he should be treated as a persistent young offender for the duration of that particular case.

This definition is designed to ensure that where a persistent offender is under 18 at the outset of the process, that young person should be "fast-tracked" from that point on, regardless of whether he or she becomes 18 during the process. Amendment No. 187 is designed to give effect to that and designed to ensure that people do not drop out of the process simply because they become 18 before conviction, but after arrest.

Amendment No. 188 is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. The noble Lord's amendment would allow for extensions to time limits that are set between the point of conviction and sentence. I do not believe that such a provision is necessary. The time limit between conviction and sentence is designed as an administrative time limit. It is not a time limit in the sense that if it is not complied with the proceedings are stayed. That limit, once set, will give a clear indication of the maximum time that should reasonably be allowed for the preparation of any pre-sentence reports and for the court to sentence. In cases involving young offenders, court administrators will be obliged to set the date for sentencing within the time limit, and pre-sentence report writers will be expected to meet that deadline.

However, where the date fixed for sentencing arrives and the court is not satisfied that it has sufficient information on which to sentence, the court could decide to adjourn the hearing until a later date. There is, therefore, no need to make explicit provision for the time limit to be extended in advance; the court has that power in any event. The courts will be able to exercise their discretion so that where there have been genuine difficulties an extension may be granted. However, all parties will be expected to do their utmost to be ready to sentence on the date set for sentencing, and the courts will be expected to be rigorous in granting adjournments and in determining the length of those adjournments.

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In setting the time limit--it has not yet been set--between conviction and sentence, the Government will of course take account of the target for providing a pre-sentence report set by the National Standards for the Supervision of Offenders in the Community. The Government also acknowledge the particular issues which arise in preparing pre-sentence reports for young people, especially the need to seek input from family and school.

Finally--and this is important--the Government have also made clear that time limits will only be set after piloting and further consultation. Therefore, there should not be any concern that the time limit between conviction and sentence will operate so as to undermine the effective operation of the sentencing process. In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, will not press his amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his very full exposition of the point which was raised by way of a probing amendment. One is anxious to ensure that there is sufficient time for the proper inquiries and reports to be prepared as regards the progress of treatment of young offenders. We on this side of the Committee support the concept of stringent time limits so that persistent young offenders can be dealt with swiftly. In the circumstances, I do not propose to press my amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 186:

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