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Crime: Age of Responsibility

Volume 723: debated on Monday 20 December 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the age of criminal responsibility as recommended in the recent report on youth justice by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he recognise that the journey of many of the 10 to 13 year-olds entering the criminal justice system begins with alcoholic parents, continues with a disruptive mix of foster care, children’s homes and different schools and concludes with entry into the criminal justice system and that the stamp of criminal conviction confirms their feelings of low self-esteem? Given the shortcomings in the care system recognised by the coalition Government, do they consider the low age of criminal responsibility in this country to be consistent internationally, when it is two years below the minimum age of 12 recommended by the committee on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Earl’s continuing interest in these matters. I do not think that there is a conflict between the age of criminal responsibility and the kinds of concerns that he expresses. The whole thrust of our policy is to intervene as early and as positively as possible with young offenders. The factors that lead young people to offend are complex and can often include the circumstances that the noble Earl mentioned. That is why children who offend are referred to local multi-agency youth offending teams, which take a holistic approach to tackling the causes of offending, including housing, education, health and parenting issues.

My Lords, the Minister and his department have taken some good initiatives in recent days on criminal justice matters, but does he not accept that the age of criminality is far too low for children and its impact on their rehabilitation is far too severe? Will he look at international practices in relation to children and consider what good practices could be adopted in this country, bearing in mind that we have probably one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility?

My Lords, I concede that we are at the lower end of the age of criminal responsibility. The department and all the authorities concerned look at international comparisons and practices. For the moment, we hold firm that, although the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years, the thrust of the policy when children come into the care of the authorities is not to feed them into the criminal justice system but to apply as vigorously and, as I mentioned in my previous answer, holistically as possible responses to their needs to try to avoid them reoffending.

My Lords, the Question started on the Cross Benches. Does the Minister recognise that, while fewer children enter the criminal justice system under the age of 14 than over the age of 14, the younger the child is the more likely that she or he will go on to become a prolific offender? Will the Minister look at what money could be saved by diverting these young people into the welfare system? Does he further recognise that, once a child is drawn into the criminal justice system, he or she is likely to be there for a long time? All this fits in exactly with the aims that the Minister said his department is interested in fostering. Why is he being so cautious about this one?

My Lords, I do not think that the department is being cautious. The noble Lord’s first point is true: the difference in costs between putting young people into custody and finding alternative treatments is out of all proportion—it is tenfold. Therefore, there are both financial and practical attractions in this. I go back to the point that, although the age is low, the thrust of policy is in the direction that the noble Lord is pointing. For example, the pilots on intensive fostering, which were started by the previous Administration, are well worth studying and are very encouraging. The cost of intensive fostering is about a tenth of that of keeping a young person in youth custody. I accept fully his point about the danger that, once children under the age of 14 are in the criminal justice system, they will stay in it and go up the escalator of offending. That danger is very real, which is why we are trying to address these problems.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for my impetuosity. I accept that it is necessary to maintain a proper balance between the protection of society and the interests of a young person or child, in the context of acting humanely, but does not the Minister recognise that, whereas the average for the age of responsibility the world over is about 14, we are very much lower than that? In consequence, we incarcerate four times as many of these young people as Portugal and 25 times as many as Belgium.

My Lords, our general record on incarceration has been questioned by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and we have put forward proposals to try to address it. As for young people, I agree entirely. We are trying to make a system that diverts young people from criminal activity while understanding that the activities of young people can be disruptive and frightening to the general population. We have to keep that balance in addressing the issue but, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said in his supplementary, every time one looks at offending, the same three, four or five issues keep coming through: disruptive families, poor education, drugs or whatever. That suggests that the sensible thing to do in order to attack crime rates is to address these underlying issues.

My Lords, is not the root of this problem—and it is a serious problem—gang culture and not age? Something should be done about gang culture. I do not know how to do it, but somebody should know. To talk about age diminishes the real substance of this problem.

My Lords, as so often, the noble Lord puts his finger on a very real problem. I assure him that my department is looking at the issue of gang culture with a number of associated organisations.