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Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am most grateful to the noble Viscount not only for his approach this evening but for the letters that he has sent to me over the months.

I can be helpful. As the noble Viscount rightly observed, Schedule 4 deals with arrangements which govern enforcement, variation, discharge and breach of the new reparation and action plan orders. One of those arrangements is that when a young person is brought before the youth court for breach of requirements of the reparation or action plan order made in the Crown Court, the youth court may either commit him in custody or release him on bail, as the noble Viscount indicated.

The youth court has the power, by virtue of Section 23 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, to remand to local authority accommodation. Indeed, that Act obliges the court, unless the offender is a male who has reached the age of 15 and meets certain strict criteria, to remand or commit the offender to local authority accommodation. Therefore, I believe that the noble Viscount's amendment would wish to bring about a power which already exists by virtue of Section 23 of the 1969 Act.

Viscount Colville of Culross: I am obliged to the noble Lord. The problem is that the youth court will not do that if it is confronted by a local authority which says that it cannot afford to pay. It is the local authority that provides the secure accommodation and the youth court has to co-operate with that local authority and for some reason, there never seems to be enough money--as there never is for anything--and that is where the problem arises. The youth court simply does not commit. It releases the young offender on bail and then the trouble occurs.

However, perhaps encouraged by what the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has said, more youth courts will use that compulsory power and will not try to find their way out of it which, I am afraid, is not happening at the moment. Perhaps the word can be spread abroad. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clause 56 agreed to.

Clause 57 [Action plan orders: supplemental]:

[Amendment No. 237 not moved.]

24 Feb 1998 : Column 671

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 237A:

Page 46, line 2, leave out ("21") and insert ("42").

The noble Baroness said: Clause 57 gives details of the procedures which are to be followed when making action plan orders. After the court has made such an order subsection (3)(a) allows the court to fix a further hearing within 21 days of making the action plan order, at which point it is intended that the court will hear a review of the effectiveness of the order to date and make any necessary variations to the order. The Notes on Clauses state that this is to provide the court with an early opportunity to check progress, modify any requirements if this is desirable, and suggest and encourage the young person in completing the order. I can well understand the desirability of such an early opportunity for the court, but I can foresee difficulties in making it work.

As will be obvious to the Committee, this is a probing amendment. I would like the Minister to tell the Committee why the Government have fixed on the period of 21 days. What did they take into account in so doing? Are they sure that the responsible officer will be able to make an effective report at such an early stage? Will he or she be able to judge whether the young person has been keeping to the terms of the order in an acceptable manner, and if he has not been keeping to it, whether he has acceptable reasons for so doing, or not so doing? Will the responsible officer in practice even be able to provide the court with a report so quickly? Is it physically possible to do so? I am aware that it is common to have a waiting period of three weeks in courts before pre-sentence reports can be prepared and presented to courts. Or, is this method intended to be more in the nature of a stand-down report which can be given orally to the court? If so, would this really be acceptable and would it mean that the directing officer would have to give the report himself or herself, and not a deputy? That would make it difficult to schedule the hearing of the report. I should be grateful if the Minister could address those points. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving me an opportunity to explain why the period is 21 days. We are extremely keen that action plan orders should be effective. That means they should be completed by the offender as efficiently and effectively as possible. One of the important elements in an action plan order is that they should affect the offender as quickly as possible by reference to the timing of the offence.

Moreover, the action plan order, as defined in the Bill, can last only for a period of three months. It is therefore imperative that any problems surrounding the requirements of the action plan are ironed out as soon as possible. A vehicle for achieving this is the further hearing, which Clause 57(3)(a) stipulates must take place not more than 21 days after the making of the action plan order itself. I must stress that this is not a duty of the court, but simply a power available to it; no court will be obliged to fix this further hearing if it feels such a hearing to be unnecessary.

24 Feb 1998 : Column 672

The proposed amendment would have the effect of doubling this period of time to 42 days. To allow such an amendment would run a considerable risk of undermining the usefulness of the action plan order to a great degree. Six weeks is almost half of the total duration of the order itself; much too long to wait for the court to discover that the order is not working as successfully as it had anticipated. If, after an intensive three month disposal, one discovers half way into it that it is not working, one has lost the point of it to a large extent.

The noble Baroness may well have been motivated, as her speech indicated, by concern that the action plan may not be fully up and running after so short a period as 21 days. That is the very reason why that period must not be extended. In a short but intensive disposal such as this one, it is essential that the requirements of the order should be put into successful operation at the earliest opportunity. There is no scope here for the requirements to reach full strength slowly several weeks after the order has been made. That would destroy the intensive nature of the action plan.

With the improved co-operation and efficiency of the youth justice system and its agencies that will be delivered by this Government's plans, there should be no reason why the requirements of an action plan should not be put into effect very shortly after the order is made, thereby allowing the responsible officer to make any report that is required within the 21-day timeframe.

I should add that in the consultation document, Tackling Youth Crime, published in September last year, the proposal was a 14-day deadline for that further hearing. It was in response to replies to that document that we extended it to 21 days. That is the thinking behind the 21-day time frame; if it is extended to 42 days, effectively the benefit of an intensive disposal such as this is lost. So we think it appropriate to keep it at 21 days.

11 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: I am grateful to the Minister for that response and his explanation of the reasoning behind the 21 days and wanting to achieve an accelerated system of putting the order into procedure and also checking on it.

I am not quite as sanguine as he in relation to the ability to prepare and present reports within such a short timespan. The Minister referred to the fact that that would be dependent upon the overall youth justice system being speeded up considerably in its operation. I still have residual concerns--for example, a court might feel disinclined to order a further hearing within the 21 days because it is aware of local difficulties in staffing, particularly at peak periods of holidays or sickness, which would mean people not feeling they could get the report up and running. That could completely stymie the whole system. It might not be possible to achieve the early report to which the Minister referred. However, I shall read carefully in Hansard the assurances he has given. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

24 Feb 1998 : Column 673

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 57 agreed to.

Clause 58 agreed to.

Clause 59 [Breach of requirements in supervision orders]:

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon moved Amendment No. 237B:

Page 47, line 17, after ("court") insert ("which stated in open court that it was making the order instead of a custodial sentence").

The noble Baroness said: With the leave of the Committee I shall address the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady David. It has always been an important principle that breaches of a supervision order attract a custodial sentence only where that was warranted by the original offence for which the supervision order was made, and that the custodial sentence is not for the breach but for the original offence and where the supervision has broken down.

This amendment seeks to restore that situation, so that a custodial sentence can be awarded only if it has been stated in open court that the magistrates were making the supervision order instead of a custodial sentence--so that it has always been clear to offenders that a custodial sentence is hanging over them if they fail to keep to the conditions of the supervision order, and in all fairness they have understood that it was the original offence which attracted the custodial sentence and not the subsequent breach. The amendment seeks to re-establish that situation, to ensure that neither the offender nor the court is under any illusion as to the reason for effecting the custodial sentence. I beg to move.

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