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Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I am very grateful for those words from the Minister. The best thing I can do is to thank her for that concern and to say that I very much hope that she can come forward at Third Reading with a proposal that is acceptable to the whole House. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, on behalf of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and other noble Lords who have put their names to the amendment I should like to move Amendment No. 186 to delete Clause 92 from the Bill. I shall not rehearse in great detail all the arguments put in Committee.
There were five major arguments: first, that there has not been adequate consultation about the effect of this issue on children; secondly, there was no call for it in the Auld report or the Law Commission report; thirdly, it is not relevant in the light of developmental changes in children to take away their protection from this kind of evidence of bad character being submitted; fourthly, it is inconsistent of the Government in the light of the call for a clean sheet for under-18s in the Home Office report Breaking the Circle; and, fifthly, doli incapax has already been eroded in Section 34 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, so that a 10-year old child is now presumed to be as criminally responsible as a fully mature adult. In such a case, surely, there is at least a need to take account of a child's vulnerability and lack of mature judgment by ensuring that the rules of evidence are appropriate when applied to children.
As my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew pointed out in Committee, most children who commit crimes are in some way disadvantaged or socially excluded. That is society's fault not theirs. It is also society's fault that when they demonstrate early offending behaviour we do not intervene early enough or effectively enough to address that behaviour and turn around that young life.
Given those two key ways in which society fails these young people, it seems perverseone of the milder words I could useto hold against them in later life offences committed in childhood, when they were being let down by the rest of us.
In Committee, the Minister told us that this measure was an attempt to simplify the plethora of rules governing the use of previous convictions and other misconduct. I believe that child offending is a complex matter and has complex causes. The law should be able to be sufficiently highly refined to take account of that and to deliver justice. There is no virtue in simplicity when it does not deliver justice.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, very briefly and as a layman, I would like to support the amendment. I think there is a large amount of opinion in the country which believes that the age of criminal responsibility is too low. It is certainly lower than it is in many other comparable countries. It therefore perhaps should be raised. The situation would be improved if the amendment were to be accepted.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hope that I have already made clear on speaking to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that our view is that the general scheme in the Bill for evidence of bad character distinguishes properly between the evidence that has a bearing on the case that should be capable of admission, and that which should be excluded. We therefore consider that those provisions should apply rather than a restriction which gives rise to a number of undesirable anomalies.
I hear what the noble Baroness says about it being society's fault that young people offend. I cannot share that view. I accept entirely that many young people are placed in tragically deprived circumstances and that they succumb to bad behaviour, but by no means does every child who is so disadvantaged do that. If we say, as the noble Baroness does, that it is all society's fault, we fail to take into account that we all have a degree of responsibility for our own actions, even when we are small. However, I agree with the noble Baroness, as I have on many occasions, that the disadvantage that young people face must be addressed. They need succour, support, boundaries and assistance. With those elements in place, they have better opportunity to receive support for their good behaviour as opposed to erring in a way that we would all disapprove of.
Clause 84(3) provides a key safeguard for the admission of evidence of the defendant's bad character. We have also touched upon the courts provisions in Clause 84(4). Rather than go through all the reasons why I cannot agree with the noble Baroness, as I did in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, perhaps it will suffice to say that the Government recognise that there are particular considerations of the kind of convictions and circumstances covered by Section 16 that do not apply more generally.
I repeat, therefore, that we are prepared to look further at whether the approach taken in the Bill pays sufficient regard to those factors and to consider whether there is a better way forward that we might suggest at Third Reading. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel content to withdraw her amendment, notwithstanding that we have not on this occasion agreed on all fours.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for her response. However, perhaps I may respectfully correct the impression that she has gained of what I said earlier. I did not say that children's crimes are not their fault or that they are society's fault; I said that children who commit crimes are in some way disadvantaged and socially excluded, and that is society's fault. The fact that we do not intervene early and effectively enough is also society's fault; it cannot be the children's fault. I do not suggest that there is no fault associated with criminal behaviour.
Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.