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Children: Criminal Responsibility

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have to review the effect of the reduction in 1998 of the age of criminal responsibility to 10 years old.

My Lords, there are currently no plans to review the effect of the changes to the criminal responsibility rules introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, although it is very disappointing. Does he think that there is any correlation between the fact that in this country we have the lowest age of criminal responsibility in western Europe and the fact that a higher number of children in prison than in all those other countries put together? Will he undertake a study of how those other western European countries deal with offending behaviour among their child populations?

My Lords, it is very difficult to make crude comparisons between different countries with different systems. I accept that we should look constantly at the experience of other countries to see what we can learn from them. Equally, I hope that other countries will look at the experience of the UK. The overall philosophy adopted is that early intervention allows for action to be taken to prevent reoffending in the future. It is very important that action to prevent reoffending is seen as a major priority.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for interrupting her supplementary question; I am sorry to have done so. I am afraid it was over enthusiasm.

Are the Government considering any plans for the diversion of children who are offenders between the ages of 10 and 12? If so, what are they considering?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Baroness for her comment. The Government’s intention is to ensure that custodial sentences should be a last resort. We want to ensure that young people who come within the criminal justice system are dealt with as effectively as possible, with the emphasis on rehabilitation and the prevention of reoffending. In order to reduce the number of children being taken to court for relatively low-level offences, the introduction of youth conditional cautions is provided for in the Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently being debated in another place. We also support other initiatives.

My Lords, in the light of that answer, the Minister is obviously aware that in 2005 76 per cent of children given custodial sentences reoffended within 12 months of their release. Does he agree that the other initiatives to which he referred are very urgent indeed in view of these figures?

My Lords, the figures given by the right reverend Prelate are right and clearly are very serious. It shows that the earlier the intervention, the more likely one is to prevent reoffending. This is why we are looking at a number of areas where early intervention can take place before a young person is taken in front of the full criminal justice system. However, it is also likely, is it not, that the young people who end up in custody are likely to be the most hardened offenders? One has to be very cautious about drawing too many conclusions from the figures.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a public interest in this issue and that we have seen recently that youngsters between 10 and 14 can be guilty of the most horrific offences or “crimes”? It is important that we publicly call them to account. We should perhaps not punish them, but we should certainly treat them as the Minister suggested. Would the public not be outraged if these matters were dealt with behind closed doors?

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is right to draw attention to the public’s interest in these matters. I am sure also that young children in the category about which we are speaking understand the difference between naughtiness and action that is seriously wrong. That was the basis of the change in 1998. Equally, as I have said already, we have to ensure that early interventions are focused on the prevention of reoffending.

My Lords, have the Government considered the findings of the Scottish Law Commission in 2002 that the criminal justice system as a whole is inappropriate for dealing with young children, that there should be an absolute bar on prosecution of children under the age of 12 and that the vast majority of cases should be dealt with by a welfare-based system of children’s panel hearings which addresses the child’s behaviour with the co-operation of the parents? Is not the use of the criminal courts in England and Wales to deal with 10 year-olds an abuse not even contemplated in the dark ages?

No, my Lords, I strongly refute that suggestion. I am quite clear that young people even at that age understand the difference between right and wrong. It is appropriate that young people are dealt with in the criminal justice system as they are in this country, but the emphasis is always on rehabilitation and prevention of reoffending. That has to be the first priority.