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Lord Carlile of Berriew: I support the principle underlying the noble Baroness's amendment. I declare an interest as the very recently outgoing chairman of NACRO'S committee on children and crime.

NACRO has carried out a great deal of work researching the causes of children's crime and the effect of criminal findings upon children and their futures. My first observation is that there is overwhelming evidence that most children under 14 who commit crime are socially excluded in some way or another and are far more likely to commit crime because of that social exclusion. That finding has meant that NACRO has welcomed the work carried out by the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister in trying to ensure that there is less social exclusion of children and disadvantaged families. The result of reducing social exclusion will be less crime committed by children.

The NACRO committee also found that increasingly criminalising children leads to further crime by children at an older age. If they come before courts at a young age and are sentenced to custodial terms of one kind or another when they are young, they are far more likely to commit crime later. There is some evidence that children who are regarded as "bad" because they have committed crime are more likely to be stigmatised later by those who live around them.

Can the Minister explain the rationale behind the clause? The Notes on Clauses do not make this clear. There is a risk that the clause will lead to precisely that further criminalisation of children which the research carried out by NACRO and the committee that I chaired found would be counter-productive.

Can the Minister confirm that the provisions of Clause 93(3) and 93(4)—the provisions that leave the court with the discretion on certain grounds not to admit evidence—as intended by the Government would, in the Government's view, be applicable to questions arising in a court under Clause 101? There should be at least the same level of discretion to exclude findings of guilt and other evidence of bad character which apply to children under the age of 14 as to activities of those same people when they are adults.

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I support the noble Baroness's amendment in principle. I hope that the Government will be able to persuade us either that they have covered these concerns or that they will revisit these very important issues.

Lord Hylton: I support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, although it would give the Government a better chance to have second thoughts if the whole of Clause 101 were to be removed from the Bill. The Government might like to reflect on the old saying that every dog is allowed one bite. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was right to mention the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Perhaps we could have an assurance that spent convictions under that Act will not be allowed to be quoted against defendants.

I conclude by suggesting to the Minister that the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is far too low and should be considerably raised.

2.30 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I rise briefly to support Amendment No. 146A in the name of my noble friend Lady Seccombe. I should make it clear that there has been a printing error in the Marshalled List. Those who study them assiduously as their bedtime reading will notice that, on the original version, my name and that of my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts appeared below that of my noble friend Lady Seccombe. Those names have now slipped, by some chance, to give our support to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. It was a fortuitous printing error because I can now give my support to the noble Baroness, having heard the arguments that she has adduced today and the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew.

I, too, have received most helpful briefings from the various organisations representing the interests of children. They make strong points, and the Minister will have a tough job to persuade us that the arguments put forward should not carry the day.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I thank all those who have spoken on the same theme. I will try to answer the issues raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Seccombe and Lady Walmsley, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, and, more latterly, by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay.

Clause 101 is intended to remove the absolute barrier to admitting evidence of certain juvenile convictions in trials of offences committed as an adult. Our aim is to simplify the plethora of rules governing the use of previous convictions and other misconduct as evidence and enable that material to be admitted and assessed on its evidential merits. We therefore believe that the sort of convictions covered by Section 16(2) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1963 should fall under the general scheme for admissibility set out in the Bill. Such convictions may well be relevant to the case, and where they are, it should be possible to introduce them as evidence, provided—I emphasise this—it is safe to do so.

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The amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, would add an unnecessarily complex series of restrictions to the admission of such evidence. May I explain why? With the amendment, it would be necessary either for the prosecution to show that there was a "continuous or persistent" commission of offences or for the defence to have introduced evidence of the defendant's experiences before the age of 14 years. It would then also be necessary to show that those convictions met the conditions of admissibility set out earlier in the Bill. We spent some time looking at those provisions in Clause 93.

The introduction of new, specific criteria would lead to complex legal arguments on whether conditions such as continuous or persistent commission of similar offences had been satisfied and would move away from considering the probative value of the evidence as the key to its admissibility.

The considerations suggested by the amendment may, in the circumstances of an individual case, be important. However, that is already reflected in the general scheme of admissibility set out in the Bill. For example, where persistent offending of a similar kind lends weight to the probative value of evidence, it will be taken into account by the court when applying the exclusionary test under Clause 93(3), as that involves assessing the probative value of the evidence against any prejudicial effect. That takes up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, that that test will be able to bite upon any such evidence. Equally, where a defendant has introduced evidence of his experiences under the age of 14 so as to create a false impression about himself, evidence of his convictions at that age will be admissible to rebut that false impression, but it will be directed at a specific issue that has been raised during the trial.

However, it is wrong to impose such factors as prerequisites to the admissibility of the evidence, as it would mean that such convictions could never be used in other circumstances, no matter how relevant. We do not agree that that is the correct approach. I shall develop our argument on Section 16(2) and 16(3) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1963 in the context of the stand part debate that we are to have. The amendment raises the question of whether such convictions should be admissible only in certain pre-defined circumstances. For the reasons I have just given, we do not agree. For example, a conviction for an offence that had close similarities to the one now charged may well be highly relevant, even if committed at a young age, without any element of persistence.

There are problems, too, with the requirement that the defendant has introduced evidence of his experiences below the age of 14. What of the defendant who gives a misleading impression to the jury by claiming to be of generally good character or admits only to minor offending in his later teens? His convictions for younger offending may well be relevant to correcting the picture he has given to the jury. We talked about that earlier under Clause 93.

The amendment represents an attempt to limit the circumstances in which that sort of evidence is admissible to those in which its probative value might

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be thought to be most significant. We are not unsympathetic to that concern. However, we consider that the most appropriate way of ensuring that evidence of that nature is admitted only where its relevance is clearly established is not by having an arbitrary rule that risks excluding cogent evidence but by subjecting the evidence to the general scheme set out in the Bill, in particular the test to ensure that probative value outweigh prejudicial effect. In the light of the sort of anomalies I have referred to, we oppose a strict rule in this area.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, asked for a number of broad assurances, which I hope I have covered. Perhaps I should say a word or two more about Clause 101. Although they very much dovetail with the comments I made in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, wanted a slightly more generic debate on the import of Clause 101.

As I said, Clause 101 repeals subsections (2) and (3) of Section 16 of the Children and Young Persons Act. That provision precludes the use in adult proceedings of certain convictions received as a juvenile. Specifically where a person aged 21 or over has committed an offence, their convictions for offences committed under the age of 14 cannot be given in evidence. Clause 101 removes that arbitrary restriction and ensures that such evidence will instead fall under the general scheme for admitting it.

It is important that we bear in mind the overall purpose of this part of the Bill—to create a new and single statutory scheme for admitting bad character evidence that operates on a coherent basis. The intention, therefore, is to enable courts to admit evidence where it will assist in determining a case, but subject to suitable safeguards, which we have just explored. Clauses 93(3) will suffice to provide a safeguard, as will Clause 93(4), which we discussed earlier. The right balance is struck to ensure that relevant and only relevant convictions, including the sort with which Section 16(2) is concerned, can be put before the court; but that those with little value, especially because of their age, are excluded without creating an arbitrary exclusionary rule encompassing potentially relevant evidence.

I hope that I have been able to explain to noble Lords why we seek that extension.

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