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Page 12, line 27, leave out ("17") and insert ("18").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, as well as my name. Unfortunately the noble Lord is not well and is

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unable to be here this evening, but I am sure that he would have moved the amendment much better than I can.

At Committee stage a similar amendment was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, supported it on the ground that this new legislation ought to be in line with the age limit of children to be found in the 1989 Children Act. I also supported this amendment and noted the inconsistency between the Long Title of the Bill, which refers to offenders under 18, and this clause, which now deals with witnesses and which stipulates 17 as the upper limit of childhood.

The Minister responded positively in discussion at that stage, indicating that protection would be afforded to 17 year-olds with disabilities and to 17 year-olds in circumstances in which there were legitimate concerns of intimidation. However, I am still concerned about the majority of 17 year-olds which will include some with mild learning disabilities who do not fall into either of these categories, yet may be considered vulnerable solely on account of age. It seems to me that their position remains ambiguous unless this amendment is accepted. In my view 17 year-olds should be considered children. I beg to move.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I would like to support my noble friend on this amendment. We are getting into a rather strange position and I am not blaming the Government. It is partly due to the previous legislation. When we discussed the difference between Northern Ireland law and the law of England and Wales as regards the definition of youth--and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for the long letter that he wrote to me on the 25th February, explaining all this and giving the background--we found that the age limit for youth in Northern Ireland is 17, whereas in England and Wales it is 18.

Here we have the question of what I call delicate witnesses suffering from mental disorder, impairment of intelligence and physical disability, and there we are referring to the age of 17. I feel that it is somehow very artificial that we should have these different ages for different circumstances when dealing with the criminal law relating to youth. The circumstances that are different (on the one hand living in Northern Ireland or in England and Wales and, on the other hand, suffering from some slight impediment) do not seem to me to justify the differences in the age limits. I hope it is not too late for the Government to consider the desirability of being consistent and it is for that reason that I support this amendment.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I sympathise with the desire for certainty and indeed consistency, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said a moment ago, which was I think raised when we discussed this matter in Committee. There is obviously a period of time between true childhood and adulthood and (the noble Lord is quite right) Parliament has not produced consistent outcomes.

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As I said on the earlier occasion, a girl is able to give consent to sexual intercourse at the age of 16, in other words before she can drive a car; she can buy cigarettes before she can buy drink; and she can be held on remand with adults before she is eligible to be tried for a minor offence in an adult court. There are discrepancies undoubtedly. What we have done here is to adopt the age limits for young people set by Parliament only eight years ago when we passed the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which is of course two years after the Children Act 1989. At that time Parliament agreed that the age limit for treating a witness as a child for the purpose of privileged access to special measures, like video recording or live-link, should be 17 in sexual offence cases and 14 in cases involving violence. It also agreed that the age limit for treating an offender as a child for the purpose of being dealt with by the court, or a witness as a child for the purpose of reporting restrictions, should be set at 18.

I recognise the case that the noble Lord has made for a comprehensive overhaul of age limits. However, I do not think this Bill is the vehicle in which to do that because the discrepancies--as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, indicated--are dotted about a considerable body of legislation. I am happy to say that my resistance to this amendment does not, of course, mean that 17 year-old witnesses cannot have access to special measures. The Bill allows 17 year-olds to claim eligibility for special measures on the grounds that intimidation, disability or disorder, or the nature or circumstances of the offence, will otherwise reduce the quality of the evidence they have to give. I recognise that if one wants perfect symmetry, one can take examples from other Bills. However, if one wants to aim for perfect symmetry underpinned by a wholly consistent approach, this Bill does not constitute the opportunity to do that.

Lord Renton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, of course he was justified in referring to age limits of various kinds, right down to the age of 14, in other circumstances mentioned in other Bills, but here we are dealing with an important matter within the scope of this Bill alone--leaving aside the other Bills--in which we should try to achieve consistency. It is relevant to mention that we are now going to re-establish a Northern Ireland parliament. Knowing the people of Northern Ireland as I do--and whom I have good reason to know through my responsibilities in the past--I should have thought that the people of Northern Ireland might be rather resentful if they find that there is a disparity between the definition of youth for the purposes of this Bill in this country and its application to similar circumstances in Northern Ireland.

Without doing what the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said might be done--namely, going right across the statutes in order to achieve consistency--here is an outstanding matter in which I suggest that an attempt could and should be made in this Bill. The Bill, of course, will have to go to another place. Therefore

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there is plenty of time for the Government to think about it. I hope that before the Bill receives Royal Assent that may very well be done.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, like my noble friend I hope that the Minister and those who advise him, and also the Ministers in his department in the other place, will give this matter further serious consideration because it is an important matter.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, will he reflect on the fact that the Minister says that we cannot put all the inconsistencies right in this Bill? However, that is not necessarily a reason for adding another inconsistency by means of this Bill.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I entirely agree. The Minister has been helpful in some respects in replying to this amendment but, as I said, I hope that he and his advisers will reflect upon the matter further and that before the Bill finally completes its passage through both Houses of Parliament the Government will bring forward an amendment of this kind. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Annaly moved Amendment No. 28:

Page 12, line 38, at end insert--
("(c) that the witness is deaf and will require a sign language interpreter for the purposes of giving evidence.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 28 is also supported by my noble friend Lord Swinfen and the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, who is not able to be present today. He supports the amendment strongly. I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 29 and 44, which also stand in my name and those of the two other noble Lords I have just mentioned. They are all connected and they concern profoundly deaf people who rely on sign language to communicate.

This matter is particularly relevant in the context of a court. I must declare an interest. I have a stepsister and a halfsister who are both profoundly deaf, one of whom is under the wing of the RNID in Blackburn. The RNID has been kind enough to brief me on these amendments. I declare another interest in that the RNID and British Telecom have sponsored two text phones for me, one of which is in my office in this House. Should anyone wish to communicate with a deaf person, they should feel free to use the phone in my office. I believe it is the only such phone in this House, believe it or not.

I can speak quickly to Amendments Nos. 28 and 29. I believe it is justified to mention on the face of this Bill deaf people who rely on sign language because they are a vulnerable category of people. They may suffer from a mental disorder, as is mentioned in Clause 16(2). I propose to include a further provision. Deaf people may look quite normal but if they cannot hear and have never heard a thing since they were born, I need say no more about how vulnerable they are. Amendment No. 29 proposes to insert the words, "the means of communication" in the Bill. That speaks for itself.

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That leads me to Amendment No. 44, which requires a little more explanation. It concerns the case for video recording all sign language communication within a court. The case for video recording all sign language that occurs within a court--whether by a deaf person or an interpreter--is quite simple. Without video recording a mistake can occur in interpreting which can never be corrected as sign language is a visual-spatial language. At the very best audio recordings or written accounts are simply a record of an interpretation. The video taping of all communication by sign language within a court is therefore the most basic safeguard to ensure that mistakes in interpreting can be picked up. It is a simple step to ensure that justice occurs for both deaf and hearing people.

The case for video taping is strong. I wish to highlight research which was carried out two years ago by the Deaf Studies Research Unit at the University of Durham. In the report, Equality Before the Law--Deaf People's Access to Justice, the authors state,

    "Yes, interpreters make mistakes. They make wrong decisions. We have certainly observed such errors. Sometimes they have been resolved quickly, at other times they have been ignored. Some errors could have grave consequences. It is generally agreed that it is almost impossible to interpret for any period of time without making some type of error. It is even more likely that the interpreter will make several debatable decisions. When we consider the number of court cases involving deaf people that will proceed with just a single interpreter and with no one in the court who actually knows what they are doing, how competently or incompetently they are proceeding, then this must give all those who have an interest in justice cause for concern".
It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that a key recommendation of this study is that in all stages of legal interaction a video recording should be taken. The video recording within courtrooms at the very least would be easy to undertake and would cost little, yet such a step would do much to ensure that mistakes could be corrected and equality before the law obtained for deaf people. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I support this group of amendments. With regard to Amendment No. 28, one of the circumstances set out in Clause 16(2)(a)(i) is,

    "suffers from mental disorder within the meaning of the Mental Health Act 1983".
A profoundly deaf person may suffer from that, but most deaf people do not. Sub-paragraph (ii) states:

    "otherwise has a significant impairment of intelligence and social functioning".
Just because someone is profoundly deaf does not mean that he is not intelligent. Some profoundly deaf people are extremely bright. Neither does it mean that they have an impairment of social functioning. Subsection (2)(b) states:

    "that the witness has a physical disability or is suffering from a physical disorder".
As far as I am aware, profound deafness is not a physical disability or a physical disorder; it is a sensory disability. The Minister and his advisers should look at this part of the Bill in that light. The same also applies to Amendment No. 29.

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With regard to Amendment No. 44, my noble friend pointed out that it is essential to have a video recording of the sign language interpretation. There are relatively few interpreters of sign in this country and some are better than others. In answer to a question the other day, the noble Lord the Minister, when talking about video recording police interviews which can be brought into the criminal proceedings in court, mentioned that it was perfectly satisfactory to have a sound recording of that interview. That would be perfectly all right for those who can understand the spoken word; a profoundly deaf person cannot understand the spoken word. He may be able to lip read but there will be no effective video recording of the lips of the people speaking--certainly not of the profoundly deaf person.

There should be excellent video recording facilities in these instances. If excellent ones are not available--the noble Lord the Minister was talking about the costs and said that not all police stations have recording equipment--I should have thought that it would be possible, because there are so many camcorders around today, to borrow one and even to get someone in--and, if necessary, put them under oath not to reveal what has gone on--to video record the profoundly deaf person's signing and the signing of the interpreter translating. If there is a sound recording of someone translating from, say, Chinese into English, that can be corrected later on. There is no alteration. But it is no good having a sound recording of a sign language interpretation. It makes no sound. Therefore, it is essential to have a video recording of it. Such an occasion will come up rarely, but it is important. I hope that the Minister will give serious thought to this matter when he is considering the amendments. I sincerely support my noble friend's amendment.

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