Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hope that I will be able to explain a little more clearly why we disagree with the amendments to satisfy both the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley and the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson.

Amendment No. 6 would raise the minimum age for drug testing under the clause from 14 to 17. I understand that the noble Baroness believes that that would create more protection than would the provisions before us. I shall explain why I disagree.

There is strong evidence to suggest an association between the frequent misuse of substances and offending and other anti-social behaviour among young people. It is therefore important to identify drug-misusing offenders at an early stage and to take every opportunity to encourage them to access treatment and/or other programmes of help. If a young person under 18 is charged with a trigger offence, it is important to determine, where possible, whether his offending is linked to the use of illegal drugs, particularly the drugs which cause the most harm such as heroin and crack-cocaine.

29 Oct 2003 : Column 312

The purpose of the drug test is to act as a screening tool to be used in conjunction with other interventions such as arrest referral. The effect of increasing the minimum age of drug testing from 14 to 17 would be the loss of that opportunity to identify young offenders who are taking specified class A drugs. We are targeting those aged 14 and above on the basis of the research evidence that we have. That evidence includes the clients of 11 youth offending teams and it suggests that the mean age at which younger offenders have reported first taking these drugs is around 14 to 15. We are trying to assist those vulnerable young people by giving them a little help at a time when they really need it.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, will the Minister explain why young people of that age group, who are using serious drugs, would be not picked up by the assessment of the youth offending team? Why is the test needed?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, our evidence suggests that they are not being picked up by the youth offending teams. We are trying to increase the safety net. The Bill aims to make each intervention with an offender a meaningful one in order to assist them to break the cycle of offending. The noble Baroness will know that the earlier we can do that, the better. Once patterns of behaviour are established, they are much harder to break than if we were able to make an early and targeted intervention before the real difficulty has ripened and taken root.

By identifying young drug misusers at an early stage in the criminal justice system, after charge, the young person can be engaged in interventions to address his drug use at the earliest opportunity before it escalates. We therefore propose that Amendment No. 6 should be resisted.

Amendment No. 7 is a consequential amendment that would remove the provision for the presence of an appropriate adult in the case of a person under the age of 17. For the reasons that I have just set out, we propose to resist that amendment too.

Clause 5(3) provides for the presence of an appropriate adult throughout the drug-testing procedure for those persons who have not attained the age of 17. Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 would raise the age at which the testing procedure must not take place, except in the presence of an appropriate adult, from under 17 to under 18.

The noble Lord was clear in reciting the reasons I gave in Committee and I do not resile from those. However, we do not believe that this would be consistent with the current provisions in Code C of PACE—the code of practice for the detention, treatment and questioning of persons by police officers—or with other drug-testing provisions in the Bill. That is important because the provisions applicable under PACE Code of Practice C require any person who appears to be under the age of 17 to be treated as a juvenile, in the absence of any clear evidence that he or she is older, and consequently

29 Oct 2003 : Column 313

provides that an appropriate adult is required to be contacted and asked to attend the police station to see the detained juvenile.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Will she explain why the clause is headed

    "Drug testing for under-eighteens"?

If it were "under-seventeens", we would understand what she was driving at.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the heading "under-eighteens" makes it clear that we are dealing with minors. Once one is dealing with an 18 year-old, one is dealing with an adult. The reason for the phrasing is to make clear that the provision deals with minors and not with adults. Of course, if the matter causes difficulty we can look at it again, but we believe that the heading is perfectly proper.

The effect of increasing the age to include those under the age of 18 may lead to confusion. It would also necessitate the presence of an appropriate adult for those aged between 17 and 18 solely for this purpose. That is exactly what I said in Committee.

We acknowledge all the concerns that the noble Lord has expressed. However, as I have outlined, we consider that there are sound reasons for maintaining consistency in the age level for the presence of an appropriate adult for drug-testing purposes with that in the appropriate adult criteria set out under PACE. We also consider that this age level should be applied consistently across the drug-testing provisions of the Bill and with other legislation. The noble Lord said that consistency should not matter in this regard—or it should not be the determining factor—but we believe that it has importance. Nevertheless, we recognised the perceived inconsistency of treating some aged 17 as adults during the detention process.

The review of PACE conducted by the Cabinet Office and the Home Office in 2002 recognised the need to consider whether more consistency should be introduced into the age levels applying to juveniles across the criminal justice system. That work will soon be underway. I can assure noble Lords that the views expressed on this issue today and on the previous occasion will be taken into account in that consideration. However, we do not believe that it would be proper to do so in a piecemeal way. We need consistency and clarity and for the time being we believe that this is the most appropriate way forward.

At this stage therefore, and for the reasons I have outlined, we propose that Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 be resisted. I reassure the noble Lord that we have heard what he said in Committee and that we have heard and inwardly digested what he has said today. When the matters are reviewed, those statements will be fully taken into consideration in the PACE review. But it will be done holistically and not piecemeal. I hope that he agrees that that is a more appropriate way

29 Oct 2003 : Column 314

of dealing with PACE than taking bite-sized pieces out of it in a way that might cause confusion and get us into difficulties I know he does not want.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask a question. She has repeatedly said that she has heard the concerns raised in this and the earlier debate. Will she acknowledge that whatever may be the individual arguments on individual amendments, the incremental effect of the Bill is to bring more young people within the range of adult treatment within the criminal justice system? Will she also acknowledge that for those of us for whom that is a serious concern, and for organisations such as the Children's Society, whatever may be the argument for each individual amendment, the incremental effect of the Bill must be taken most seriously?

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we take these matters absolutely seriously and we are not taking a tranche-by-tranche approach to the Bill. We believe that its strength is the holistic nature of its provisions. Therefore, the right reverend Prelate will know—we have been in company throughout the 59 hours in Committee and I am sure we will be in company for the remainder of the Report stage—that we have tried to put these provisions in the context of how they should be seen in the whole. All the steps we are taking with young people in the community bite as regards education, health, cautioning and early intervention. That is not taking a piecemeal approach but it is looking at the whole piece.

I do not hesitate from telling your Lordships that we are trying to do something different from anything that has been done previously. This is the first time that the sentencers will have the whole palette—they will be able to look not only at the single offence, but to try to dig beneath it. They will be able to look at the difficulties—some of them social and intractable—which lurk beneath and address them. Only by addressing those difficulties will we cease to have young people continuing the cycle of abuse, offending, deprivation and loss. There is a loss not only to their victims but to themselves. They are too valuable for us not to fight for their recovery and this Bill does just that. I do not accept at all that we have "lost the plot".

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her response. I am grateful in particular to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester for his intervention because he put the matter more clearly than I did in expressing concern that with compulsory drug testing the danger of young people committing yet another criminal offence could be escalated. The point he made was what I meant, although he put it much better.

I am afraid that the Minister has failed to convince me of the necessity of the provision. However, I do not intend to test the opinion of the House at this stage. I shall go away and read carefully what she has said and consult the children's organisations about this important issue of escalation. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

29 Oct 2003 : Column 315

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 7 to 9 not moved.]

Clause 6 [Limits on period of detention without charge]:

[Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 not moved.]

Clause 7 [Property of detained persons]:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page