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Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998

Volume 590: debated on Thursday 11 June 1998

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8.16 p.m.

rose to move that the draft order laid before the House on 1st June 1998 be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft order will replace, with some amendments, those provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act (NI) 1968 which relate to children and young people concerned in criminal proceedings. It may be helpful if, by way of background, I first explain some of the inadequacies of the present system. I shall then highlight the changes to be made by the order which will contribute towards reducing the number of children in custody and ensuring that custody is used as a last resort and then for the minimum period.

The current law is primarily contained in the Children and Young Persons Act 1968. That legislation, and in particular the provisions relating to the powers of the courts to deal with more serious offenders, are outdated and result in too many children being detained in custody, and those in custody being detained for periods which are disproportionate to the offences for which they were convicted. Under the present system the only custodial order available to the juvenile courts is the training school order. This is a two-year order and the courts are unable to tailor the period in custody to the seriousness or persistency of the offending behaviour. The period actually spent in custody is decided by the managers of the training schools and that will often be determined by the child's behaviour in the training school or his home background rather than the seriousness of his offending. Time spent on remand is ignored.

As a result, the average period of detention of children in training schools is around 12 months. That is clearly excessive when compared with older people. For example, over 75 per cent. of young adults given a custodial sentence in the young offenders' centre are detained for six months or less and 50 per cent. are held for three months or less.

The present situation is highly unsatisfactory and the changes brought about by the order are necessary to ensure that we comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and that custody is regarded by the courts as a measure of last resort; to be used to the least extent appropriate and for the shortest possible time.

The order will abolish the training school order and Article 39 will replace it with a new determinate custodial order, the juvenile justice order. The standard period for the new order will be six months, three months of which will be spent in custody and three months under close supervision by the Probation Service in the community. In addition, time spent on remand will reduce the period in custody. Bearing in mind what I said earlier about the current average period of detention being around 12 months, these changes should have the effect of reducing significantly the numbers in custody. However, in addition, Article 12 of the order will require the youth court to release a child on bail unless fairly strict criteria are met. This is new and should have the effect of further reducing the numbers in custody.

To put the matter in context, on average, at present, over 60 of the 113 custodial places are filled. This should be reduced to below 40. These important and necessary changes were the subject of very widespread consultation in February 1997 under the previous administration. Indeed, the content of the order was the subject of discussion with interested parties before that. While a few had reservations about some aspects, in general there was widespread support for the main proposals and objectives of the order. It is interesting to note that although the policy reflected in the order was developed separately by the Northern Ireland Office, the proposals before noble Lords today are remarkably similar to those relating to the detention and training order currently being promulgated by the Home Office for the youth court in England and Wales.

The revised explanatory document sets the legislation in the context of the wider proposals for the development of the juvenile justice system in Northern Ireland. The document also identifies the changes from the proposal for a draft order which was published in February 1997 and the reasons why those were made. I do not intend to refer to them but I draw the attention of noble Lords to the decision not to extend the upper age for juvenile courts to include 17 year-olds. Since consultation on the proposal took place, the Home Secretary has indicated that he intends to review the 1991 decision to bring 17 year-olds within the remit of the youth court in England and Wales. In all the circumstances we decided for the present not to extend the jurisdiction of the juvenile court to include 17 year-olds. Nevertheless, we decided to retain the proposal to adopt the nomenclature of England and Wales and rename it the youth court.

In conclusion, I believe that, taken together, these changes will lay the framework for ensuring that Northern Ireland has a juvenile justice system which will meet the demands of the 21st century while retaining the flexibility to adapt and develop.

Although the changes the order makes are modest and relate mainly to the sentencing powers of the courts, the measure will not only reduce the numbers and length of time children spend in custody. It will also act as a catalyst for a greater focus on our key aim which is to prevent children committing offences in the first place. Much work is already being done to divert children from crime and to provide alternatives to custody. As the number of children in custody is further reduced, we intend to devote more resources to that area. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st June be approved.—( Lord Dubs.)

8.23 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear explanation of what the order does and how it is placed in the broader strategy. The order makes many amendments to related legislation and it is difficult for anyone not closely involved with children's legal problems to understand. The order is filled with references and cross-references and, if they are all correct, I congratulate the parliamentary draftsman who put them all together.

I find the revised explanatory document extremely interesting and helpful. It makes clear that in addition to the measures being taken in the order to reduce custodial sentencing and time on remand, particularly in custody, the Government intend to bring together all agencies, both statutory and voluntary, to work on a partnership basis to divert children from crime and to work more effectively to prevent them re-offending.

Part of this strategy requires a supporting infrastructure. I hope that that develops in a way which will make the most of the important work of the voluntary bodies who already operate well together. I hope that the statutory bodies such as health, social services and the Probation Service, will not think it beneath them to work with the voluntary agencies.

This work is urgent and most important. Children's crime is not decreasing in Northern Ireland. For instance, the pressing of drug-laced sweets on children in primary schools by drug pushers is deeply disturbing and is not disconnected with paramilitary groups.

I understand that funds are not at present available to develop inter-agency work. Is the Minister able to say what is being done to make funds available? It will be money well spent.

Child crime tends to be worse in cities where efforts are currently concentrated. But it is now clear that the Juvenile Liaison Bureau must cover the whole of the Province, the rural areas as well as the housing estates. I believe that the order is just part of a strategy which is very exciting and which holds a real prospect of reducing child crime in Northern Ireland. I wish it every success.

8.26 p.m.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, I welcome the order and the strategy of which it is a part. I also congratulate the Minister for the clear way he introduced the order and for his emphasis on prevention. Ultimately, the order deals with children who have to be taken to court and judged. I believe that we all recognise that the most important thing is prevention and that only part of the iceberg shows.

I have two comments and two questions to ask of the Minister. My comments are these. There is a requirement in Article 8 that a child should be brought before a magistrate as soon as practicable and at all events within 36 hours. There are certain limited exceptions. This is extremely important. There is nothing more important than a child in that situation—who, in the end, may or may not be proved guilty—being brought before a magistrate as soon as possible. I welcome the way in which that is expressed in the order. I hope that the measure will be implemented and that there will be as few as possible exceptions to it.

I welcome Article 37 which sets out clear recommendations for the amount of time a young person should serve at an attendance centre. Such guidelines are very welcome when they define exactly what latitude the court has without undermining the discretion. The article is a model for future legislation.

My questions are these. It is important that future legislation complies with the European Convention on Human Rights. I am not clear that Article 45, and perhaps Article 46, do comply. The notion that someone's sentence can be altered by the Secretary of State is a matter of lively debate. It has arisen in the tragic case of the two boys who were convicted of the murder of Jamie Bulger. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on his confidence in the compliance of Article 45.

Finally, I am concerned about Article 59, which gives the Secretary of State the power to acquire land by agreement or compulsorily for the purpose of the order. On the face of it, it is difficult to see why the Criminal Justice (Children)(Northern Ireland) Order should involve the compulsory acquisition of land by the Secretary of State. I am prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. The power is extremely widely expressed and, on the face of it, appears to be unnecessary. I do not see why the Government should not acquire in the market any land they need for centres or other purposes. I ask the Minister to exercise minimally the powers contemplated in this very wide-ranging expression in Article 59 and to do so only where they are directly relevant to the purposes of the order.

8.29 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the clarity of his explanation of the terms of the order. It is with some surprise, but it is a pleasant surprise, that I find myself speaking from the Front Bench on Northern Ireland matters. I served for some years as a magistrate, but in England, including in the youth and family courts. Although I find the contents of this order of great interest, I am, however, only too keenly aware of the differences in the operation of the youth criminal justice system between England and Northern Ireland and I therefore sought the advice and assistance of the Northern Ireland Juvenile Courts Association before drafting my comments and questions for tonight's debate. I am most grateful to the association for the time and trouble it has taken to assist me.

In most part, the order follows the terms of the draft order published in February 1997 by the previous government. In that respect, the House will not be surprised that I give a welcome to these provisions.

There are some amendments to the 1997 version, but I do not object to them. There are, however, several questions which I will put to the Minister on issues raised by the provisions of the order. In the spirit of co-operation, I have given the Minister's office advance notice of those questions in order, I hope, to make it possible for him to address them effectively tonight.

The draft order was prepared in 1997 as part of the juvenile justice strategy which the Conservative Government were in the process of developing. Its publication followed extensive consultation with a wide range of NGOs that are concerned with children's issues and the criminal justice system. It took account of the principles underlying the Children (Northern Ireland) Order which came into effect on the 4th November 1996. The objective behind that order was to provide the statutory framework within which an appropriate range of justice services could be developed.

It is of course important that systems do not become too rigid, too bureaucratic, with too high a dependence on statutory measures. I therefore welcome paragraph 5 of the revised explanatory document which points out that there is already much excellent work taking place in Northern Ireland in preventing re-offending and that that work can be built on without the necessity of legislation.

The questions I wish to address to the Minister tonight cover the following four issues: bail; the reporting of court proceedings; the establishment of juvenile justice centres, and the role of multi-disciplinary co-operation, to which the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, has already referred.

With regard to bail, I note the general welcome given by the Northern Ireland Juvenile Courts Association to the presumption that bail should be granted and to the laying down of strict criteria regarding remands in custody. I welcome the fact that the original draft order has been amended so that Article 12 now includes serious persistent offending as a possible exception to release on bail.

Decisions taken by magistrates as to whether or not bail should be granted are always a serious matter and are treated thus by magistrates—all the more so when one is faced with a child defined in this order as a person under 16. Could the Minister tell the House why the Government decided to reject the Juvenile Courts Association's proposal that there should be a requirement in the order that courts consider a bail assessment before deciding on a remand in custody of a person under 16? Could the Minster also tell the House what the Government's view is of the Juvenile Courts Association's proposal that bail hostels should be established so as to avoid the necessity of remanding a child to custody solely on the grounds that he or she has nowhere to go?

The second issue to which I should like to refer is the reporting of court proceedings. Article 22 extends to Northern Ireland the provision that youth courts may allow the identity of the defendant, including a photograph, to be published. I note, in passing, that this morning's newspapers carry reports that the Government have plans to encourage courts in Great Britain to make further use of this procedure than is currently the case.

Earlier this evening, I noted on the BBC News website that the Minister in another place, Mr. Alun Michael, has gone on record as saying that alleged perpetrators of offences will be encouraged to watch the proceedings in youth courts so that they can see the impact of what has happened on the alleged victim. Does the Minister consider that there are any problems peculiar to Northern Ireland in the operation of such a procedure? For example, will the courts in Northern Ireland be required to pay particular attention to the effect that publication of name or photograph could have upon the security of the child and his or her family?

I turn now to the establishment of juvenile justice centres, which the Minister carefully explained. Northern Ireland Office statistical research indicates that children who are committed to custody tend to have experienced family breakdown and may have been subjected to neglect, and physical or sexual abuse. The National Children's Bureau research highlights that most of the children have emotional and behavioural problems necessitating the implementation of anger management and other therapeutic programmes. The same research indicates a disproportionately high number of the children in the present training school system as having disabilities, including learning difficulties.

Can the Minister assure the House that the staff looking after these very vulnerable children will receive appropriate childcare training and that regular independent research will be undertaken into the operation of the new juvenile justice centres? Will the Minister consider including requirements to this effect in the new juvenile justice centres rules?

Despite the assurance given in a Written Answer by the Minister of State in another place, Mr. Ingram, in February this year, it is widely believed that bullying is a problem in the current training schools. Fears have been expressed that this legislation may exacerbate the problem. A number of children's rights and childcare organisations have raised concerns about the potential for sectarian bullying which could arise as a result of the routine mixing of Catholic and Protestant children in the new juvenile justice centres. Can the Minister identify what measures the Government intend to take to ensure the protection and safety of vulnerable children under the new arrangements?

In a Written Answer to Mr. Kevin McNamara on 27th February this year, the Minister of State in another place indicated that currently 34.6 per cent. of staff in the training school system identified themselves as Catholic, but that only 18.4 per cent. of staff in the statutory sector are Catholic. I am told that if the impact of the legislation results in the closure of Catholic training schools, it has been argued that that will almost halve the number of Catholic staff providing a service to a mainly Catholic group of children. According to recently published statistics from the Northern Ireland office, those children account for 55 per cent. of the total. Can the Minister reassure the House that, in the sprit of the Good Friday Agreement, that will not be allowed to happen, and that the contribution of the Catholic voluntary sector will be positively maintained?

Finally, I turn to the matter which was so carefully raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cooke. I refer to the role of multi-disciplinary co-operation within the criminal justice system as it affects young people. Paragraph 9 of the revised explanatory document refers to the role of the Probation Board and states that,
"It will be encouraged to work in partnership with other organisations".
How do the Government envisage the board being "encouraged" to work with those other organisations? How will that progress be monitored? Here I join to some extent with the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, in asking what estimate the Government make of the resource implications for the non-governmental organisations. I have some experience of costing such resource implications for NGOs and I know that it is always difficult to achieve the right level of resourcing.

I realise that I have not alluded tonight to many of the major aspects of this order. In part that is because they deal with provisions with which I wholly agree, but mainly because I am very much aware of the constraints of time that govern us. For example, I am aware that the discussion of doli incapax alone may occupy us for two, three or four hours—as indeed it did so recently during the passage through this House of the Crime and Disorder Bill. I would however be grateful if the Minister could address the questions that I have posed tonight, albeit they touch upon a fairly narrow range of issues. Like other noble Lords this evening, I welcome and support the making of the order.

8.40 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful for the support given by noble Lords to this particular measure and for their approval of what the Government seek to do. This relates back to the previous government who put in hand the process of consultation that brings us to the present position. But it is useful that this particular proposal has widespread support. I believe that it will result in fewer children being in custody and that those in custody will remain in custody for shorter periods and will have a greater sense of justice. The present procedures are a blunt instrument that is not sensitive to the offences committed by the children and may on occasion punish them for having unsupportive home backgrounds by keeping them in detention for longer. Clearly, that is an unsatisfactory position and this particular order will put that right.

I shall deal with the specific questions raised this evening. Both the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked about the role of voluntary organisations and resources. The Northern Ireland Office has established a working group to bring together a wide range of interested parties. This is helpful in developing the partnership concept to deal with some of the difficulties that have been described. As to resources, it is hoped that savings will be realised from a reduction in the numbers in custody and that those savings can be used to encourage further work in this area and involve voluntary organisations to a greater extent than hitherto.

I appreciate the comments on the background document made by the noble Lord, Lord Cooke. It is encouraging that he agrees with it and regards it as helpful in clarifying the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked a number of questions. He asked about the role of the European Commission on Human Rights and its relationship with Articles 45 and 46. Articles 45 and 46 deal with the punishment for certain grave offences. It is a re-enactment of provisions in the Children and Young Persons Act (Northern Ireland) 1968 and similar provisions are in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 which applies to England and Wales. The legal advice that we have been given is that the provisions as currently drafted do not offend against the European Convention on Human Rights. It is on that basis that we are proceeding with them.

The noble Lord also asked about the powers to acquire and dispose of land. The simple answer is that the power is needed so that the Secretary of State can acquire land to provide juvenile justice centres if the need for new ones should arise. It is only for that reason that we seek to include the power in this measure. It is the standard formulation in legislation in the Northern Ireland statute book where it is necessary for government to acquire land, and it links into the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 so that the Secretary of State occupies land as would a local authority.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked a number of questions. I am grateful to her for having given me advance notice of them. I shall try to deal with them in the order in which she raised them, although I may have them in a slightly different order. She asked about restrictions on reported proceedings. The provisions in the order mirror those applying in England and Wales. It is for the court to decide whether reporting restrictions are to be lifted. The court can do this only if it is in the interests of the public to do so. Obviously, the court would take into account the possible danger to a young person found guilty of an offence if his or her name was allowed to be published. That has particular relevance to the situation in Northern Ireland.

As to bail hostels, the provisions of the order make clear that a court shall not remand a child in custody merely because there is nowhere else for that child to go. In such a case the provisions of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 would come into play and a place would be found for the child to be looked after. Clearly, that draws a distinction between care for a child and punishment for an offence. Dealing with the general situation on bail, the provisions of the order make it clear that only in exceptional cases will a child be remanded in custody, and in making its decision a court will have to make an assessment as to the need for the child to be detained in custody. Further, a court will have to give reasons when it decides not to release a child on bail. Therefore, we do not consider that a bail assessment as advocated by the JCA is necessary. We have already achieved the same aims by the way in which we are proceeding.

I refer next to juvenile justice centres and the training of staff. Many of the staff in training schools are qualified in either social work or education. I can assure noble Lords that we place great importance on the programme of education, training and confronting offending to be offered to children in custody and that staff will be given appropriate training where necessary. With regard to research into the operation of the juvenile justice centres, a new database will monitor closely the success of the regimes in preventing reoffending, which is surely one of the key yardsticks for making such judgments. As to the quality and standards of care in those centres, the Social Services Inspectorate of the DHSS is fully committed in this area, but we shall consider including that point in the rules to be published.

The noble Baroness also asked about Catholic staff in training schools. A policy and fair treatment analysis was carried out before publication of the draft order. The principal changes to be introduced by the order should lead to a reduction in the number of children, both Catholic and Protestant, remanded in custody and shorter periods in custody for those given custodial sentences by the courts. The clear benefits to children outweigh any adverse consequences for staff in juvenile justice centres as a result of a fall in population. I can assure noble Lords that if further changes are to be made to the training school estate to reflect a reduction in population, a further policy and fair treatment analysis will be carried out. But if we seek to reduce the number of children in custody and are successful in that, it follows that there will be a need for fewer centres or fewer staff in existing centres. I am afraid that that conclusion is inescapable. I believe that if the whole aim of reducing numbers can be achieved it will be well worth while.

Next, the noble Baroness asked about child protection safeguards. The staff in training schools who currently look after children in residential accommodation will become the staff in the juvenile justice centres. They are already fully acquainted with child protection procedures. Inspectors of the Social Services Inspectorate of the DHSS regularly visit the schools and ensure that standards are maintained.

I turn next to the role of the Probation Board. The senior management of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, the DHSS in Northern Ireland and the NIO have agreed to work in partnership to meet the needs of children in need, including young offenders. NIO has established a working group which comprises representatives of DHSS, DENI, social services, probation, RUC and other bodies to consider how best to deal with young offenders and those at risk of offending. In addition, a new database is being established so that all children, whether in custody or under supervision, can be closely monitored or tracked. NIO officials are in close discussion with the Probation Service as to how the standards of supervision can best be monitored. The Social Security Inspectorate of the DHSS will also be engaged in monitoring the standards of supervision by the Probation Service.

I believe that I have dealt with all of the key points that have been made. I am very grateful for all the support that has been given to this order which will surely be of great benefit to young persons in Northern Ireland and therefore to the wider community in Northern Ireland.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure for three minutes. I suggest that the House reconvenes at 8.52 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[ The Sitting was suspended from 8.49 to 8.52 p.m.]