Report (3rd Day) (Continued)
82: Clause 125, insert the following new Clause—
“Discretionary early discharge of prisoners
In section 23 of the Criminal Justice Act 1961, after subsection (3) insert—“(3ZA) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations establish pilot schemes under which, where a prisoner is to be discharged on a Friday or the day before a bank holiday, they may at the discretion of the governor of the prison be discharged up to two working days earlier than the day on which the prisoner would otherwise be discharged, provided that—(a) it would be helpful for the prisoner’s reintegration into society, and(b) the prisoner has served a custodial sentence of more than 30 days. (3ZB) The power to make regulations under subsection (3ZA) expires after the period of two years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, and any pilot scheme must have concluded within that period.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would enable trials of schemes for early discharge from prison which would reduce the bunching of releases on Fridays to take place during a two-year trial period.
There is a slight mistake on the Marshalled List. It should read “After Clause 125”.
My Lords, Amendment 82 is concerned about Friday prisoner releases, or perhaps I should say the bunching of releases of prisoners on Fridays. I place on record my thanks for the support that I have received from around the House, from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lords, Lord German and Lord Ramsbotham, and from NACRO, which has done a lot of work and research on this subject over many years.
There is always the danger at this stage of a Bill’s proceedings that you just rehearse familiar arguments and regurgitate facts that have been introduced before. I want to avoid that tonight and instead state briefly the central thesis that concerns me and my fellow supporters; state how we have changed and amended it to meet the points made by the Government at the earlier stage of the Bill; and then explain why we have retabled it in this new form today.
The basic thesis is that when you are sentenced, the court sets a calendar date for your release, not a day of the week. If that calendar date falls on a Saturday, a Sunday or—if it is a bank holiday—a Monday, the prisoner will be released on the previous Friday. A quick bit of mental arithmetic will show noble Lords that some three-sevenths of all prisoners are likely to be released on a Friday. Equally, it is clear to us all that Friday is the last day of the week and so, as the afternoon wears on, the local authority and voluntary services begin to wind down. Because a greater number of prisoners are being released, inevitably they are reaching the places where they can access those services later, so they are even more likely to be closing down. Added to that, the prisoner may well have been released from a prison that is some way from his home town, and in the event perhaps he has no home anyway.
Wrap all that together with the discharge grant, which has now been raised from £46 to £76, a sum on which he or she has to live for two or three days, after allowing for any travel expenses that may have been required. The result is that prisoners who may have no accommodation or support, facing the challenges of freedom after a period of incarceration, are having to do so on very limited financial resources. I suggest that it would be hard to construct a set of circumstances in which the temptation to reoffend could be greater.
In Committee, we argued that giving prison governors five-day flexibility on the day of release could help to tackle this issue of bunching and so improve the opportunities for rehabilitation and reduce the chances of reoffending. In his response, my noble friend Lord Wolfson, while recognising the force of the amendment and that it had a core kernel of truth that needed to be addressed, argued—quite persuasively, in my view—that the amendment was deficient in three ways. First, he said that efforts to avoid the effects of Friday bunching needed to be focused on prisoners where the chances of rehabilitation were greatest—a fair point. Secondly, he said that a five-day release window was too long—I understand that. Thirdly, he said that was particularly significant in the case of short custodial sentences. So we sharpened our pencils and tabled a revised amendment to meet those criticisms.
First, we addressed the issue of rehabilitation so that now the amendment says
“it would be helpful for the prisoner’s reintegration into society”—
we focused on that. Secondly, we reduced the discretionary period from five days to two days. Thirdly, we limited the discretionary scheme to cases involving custodial sentences greater than 30 days, so that the reduction as a percentage of the sentence was greatly reduced.
With that, we put the amendment down in the Public Bill Office—but shortly after we tabled it, the Government published their Prisons Strategy White Paper. Paragraphs 139 and 140 address the issues and challenges of Friday releases, and do so in terms with which neither I nor, I suspect, my fellow supporters could disagree. I quote:
“We know that accessing timely support on release can be particularly challenging on a Friday, due to the limited time before services close for the weekend. We need to do more to support those with complex needs to access support on release such as older prison leavers who struggle to access social care and those that face practical challenges such as travelling significant distances to access services on time. We will therefore explore allowing prisoners who are at risk of reoffending to be discharged one or two days earlier at governor discretion”.
What is not to like? Nothing is not to like there. What is not to like is the fact that there is now a proposal for consultation. The next paragraph reads:
“Should we take a legislative approach, as described above, for those at risk of reoffending … If so, how should we structure this approach?”
If, as seems likely, primary legislation will be needed to give effect to any new scheme, and if it is to be preceded by a period of consultation, the chance to include anything in this Bill is gone—finished—and we will have to wait another two or three years before another appropriate legislative vehicle comes along. To put it no higher, this seems an unconscionably long time before addressing an issue that all parties agree is serious.
My noble friend Lord Wolfson was kind enough to see a group of us to discuss the ways in which we might tackle this. We explored the possibility of using an interim period to carry out some real-life practical research that could inform and improve the shape of any future Friday release scheme, when or if it is introduced.
We withdrew our amendment and tabled another one. This amendment allows the Minister by regulation to establish pilot schemes to test new approaches to Friday release that meet the outlines I described. These could form a useful part of the proposed consultation exercise. It was in this spirit that we ensured that the regulations had a two-year sunset clause.
I will pull all the threads together. It is generally agreed that the bunching of Friday releases has a number of undesirable features that are likely to increase the chances of reoffending. Secondly, it is agreed that any flexibility in release dates needs to be short and focused on cases in which the chances of rehabilitation are the greatest. We argue that to allow another two or three years to elapse before any action is taken to tackle this problem is, I am afraid, wrong.
The formulation of revised Amendment 82 meets all the policy objectives and at the same time provides a temporary bridge to enable real-life work to begin on testing the best way to tackle this problem in the future. I hope my noble and learned friend will recognise the efforts we have made to address and answer the points that he and his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, made. I do not for a moment suggest that the current drafting of the amendment is suitable so I hope my noble and learned friend will commit to taking it away and bringing back a redrafted version at Third Reading that meets the points we have all been making. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 82, to which I was very pleased to add my name. I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, for his tenacity on the issue of Friday releases. I am also grateful to the Minister for meeting us last week and for his helpful letters on universal credit—which I am pleased to see is also addressed in the recent prisons strategy White Paper—and on how the power to avoid some Friday releases has worked in Scotland.
However, as I said to the Minister at our meeting, the latter tells us about the “what” of the small number of releases made under this power but nothing about the “why”. While I quite understand why the Scottish Prison Service could not, as the letter said, comment on the facts of individual cases, I would have thought it could have pulled out some patterns to help our understanding. Such an analysis would surely be of value to the Home Office, so I hope it will pursue the matter further. The fact that the Scottish Government are currently consulting on the possibility of ending Friday releases suggests they are not happy with the current—I would say—overbureaucratic procedures.
It is very encouraging that, as we have heard, the prisons strategy White Paper shows that the Home Office has been listening to concerns raised about Friday releases. I quite understand why the Minister does not want to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation, as he explained when we met. Hence, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, noted, the amendment has been carefully drafted so as not to do so. Indeed, the adoption of pilots as envisaged would provide useful evidence to guide the Government when they are ready to legislate on the matter. Like that of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, my understanding is that it probably will require legislation.
The pilots could be established at the end of the consultation period so that they could take on board views expressed during that consultation. However, we have no idea when legislation will be possible because—even if everything goes smoothly and even with the best will in world—another legislative opportunity might not come along for quite a long while, as has already been suggested, in the wake of what is an extremely large Home Office Bill. It surely makes sense for the Government to support this amendment, which, by enabling the adoption of pilot schemes in the short term, contributes to longer-term, evidence-based policy-making. It could make the world of difference to a number of prison leavers and their reintegration into society.
I hope therefore that the Minister will accept it or at least the principle of it and, as has been suggested, come back at Third Reading with the Government’s own amendment. If he does not, I fear it will send out a message to those working on the ground that, despite the consultation, the Government are not in fact really interested in evidence and how best to address speedily the problems, which they now acknowledge exist, created by Friday releases.
My Lords, when I was a child and my parents stopped me doing something I would say “That’s not fair” and they would say “Well, life isn’t fair.” I would argue that this House is where we can make life fairer and obviously Friday releases are not fair. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, on persisting because this is an injustice, and it is a relatively small fix—I would hope.
I understand the point about consultation, but we all know that it is not fair. This amendment is a simple practical solution to the problem. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said “What’s not to like?” There is something not to like: it gives Ministers discretion, whereas I think that they must implement these schemes, so I am less giving than the amendment.
If you want to be tough on crime and want that to be your legacy, you have to break the endless reoffending cycle and give people the best opportunity you possibly can to reintegrate with society. Friday releases are the polar opposite of that. They make life much harder for released prisoners before they have even got on their feet. It is obvious that this has to change.
My Lords, I raised the issue of Friday releases at Second Reading and in Committee. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, for pursuing this issue now we are on Report. I agree wholeheartedly with his remarks. I was encouraged in Committee by the number of noble Lords who supported this amendment.
Some prisoners are lucky in that their families keep in touch with them while they serve their sentences. This means that on release they have somewhere to go. Others find that their friends and family no longer wish to be associated with them. It is not for me to comment on this aspect. It is those without support mechanisms on the outside that this amendment seeks to assist.
I will not repeat the remarks I made in Committee but just say that even the most well-organised and enthusiastic local authority housing department will have difficulty finding a suitable place if someone turns up at 3 pm on a Friday afternoon looking for accommodation. A roof over their head may be found but it may not be suitable due to previous difficulties such as drug and alcohol addiction. They may have been able to get themselves off their addiction during their time in prison but finding themselves in an overnight hostel on their release is not conducive to maintaining their willpower to remain clean and sober, or to their rehabilitation.
We are not suggesting that a definitive release date is suggested at the time of sentencing; that would be wholly inappropriate and unreasonable. But we are suggesting that prison governors should have discretion over the final days of the sentence so that the release date is not on a Friday, weekend or bank holiday for those without friends and family to support them, and that local authorities can be notified when someone is due to be released who may not have accommodation to go to. This seems to be a very reasonable way of ensuring that those released from prison have the best possible chance to keep their life on track and move forward positively. The prison strategy is welcome but waiting two years before tackling this issue of Friday, weekend or bank holiday releases is unacceptable.
My Lords, I do not disagree with a word of what has been said but regarding “What’s not to like?”, what I do not like is looking at the symptoms rather than the cause of this. I have understood over many years that the problem arises because there is no—I do not like the word—“upstream” work undertaken to support prisoners coming up for release. It needs a lot of preparation if the situation that my noble friend Lady Bakewell has just described is not to be encountered. Proper preparation for the release of prisoners is what requires attention. As I said, I do not disagree with a word of what has been said and I am happy to support the amendment, but I hope that what is proposed and what the Government are proposing will not be seen as a panacea because it is not; it is a much bigger problem than just Friday releases.
My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots. I agree with everything that noble Lords have said so far. I moved a similar amendment in Committee, which worked slightly differently from my noble friend’s amendment.
I am surprised that Ministers have not resolved this issue, especially as it was specifically referred to in the White Paper, which talked about a consultation. Who would be against it? What does the Minister think the cost is if a prisoner reoffends immediately on release and has to be sent to prison again? It costs £40,000 per annum so a six-month sentence could be £20,000, simply for releasing the prisoner on an inappropriate day.
I strongly support my noble friend. If he takes this to a Division, I will support him. I hope that my noble and learned friend the Minister seriously considers reflecting upon this issue and coming back at a later stage. There was a guffaw from the Front Bench.
It was coughing.
Maybe the Minister was suggesting something. Seriously, I hope that my noble and learned friend agrees to reflect on this matter, thus avoiding a Division.
My Lords, I too have signed this amendment. It amazes me that we have unanimity on the problem—a problem that may be solved in a number of different of ways but something which everyone thinks is a problem and should be solved—yet we are being asked to wait a number of years for that to happen. Talk to any Minister who has an interest in taking forward a new proposal, and the first thing that they will say is, “Ah, there is a problem with how much legislation we can get through in a year”, or whatever the space of time between the Queen’s visits.
Clearly, it is a difficult route for anyone to take through a Bill. I am sure that there would not be a Bill talking about the Friday release problem as a piece of primary legislation. It is bound to fall within another piece of legislation, but it is surprising that the Government support the principles upon which this amendment is created but cannot find the route for it to happen more swiftly. Let us remember the point that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, just made, that the cost of not doing something here is immense.
If you stand outside a prison gate at a particular time on a particular week, you will often see people lined up at a bus stop with the same plastic bags containing their total belongings, their total life, and with their £76, if they have not already spent some of it on getting themselves some food. That is how they face the life in front of them. My noble friend Lady Hamwee was quite correct that the absolute certainty of getting this right is in the through-the-gate services which the Government must provide. It is one of the sad reflections that the gate is seen as a wall rather than as a place from where opportunities which commenced inside the prison can continue. I always relay to anyone who wonders about this that about 60% of the people who do my local recycling are on day release from prison and go back in the evening. The advantage is that they can earn a bit of money and eventually find their way back to employment more swiftly.
We know the difficulties here and it surprises me that the Government have not yet taken the view of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, who has sharpened his pencil and come up with the right answer. The right answer is that, if the Government want to take this forward in a bigger piece of legislation, in the interim you create the regulatory powers for the Minister to be able to give discretionary powers to the prison governor to identify those prisoners who are most at risk, and give them the opportunity to sort the problems out with local government. We are talking about a simple matter here.
As my noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville said, local authorities have a major problem with housing. I experienced this with a couple of people coming out on a Friday. They went to the local housing office and were told there was nothing available. They wandered round from one local authority to another attempting to find a link between them, and I honestly do not know where they ended up, but it certainly was not in a place where their lives could continue and they could make a future for themselves.
The challenge in paragraphs 139 and 140 of the prisons strategy White Paper we were presented with is to get on with it—that is the Government’s intention. I am sure the intention is not to hold back from it. This is a straightforward, simple resolution of the problem, which meets all the Government’s objectives. I support this amendment, and I hope the Minister can tell me the answer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson: what is not to like?
My Lords, my first interest in criminal justice came about 20 years ago, before I became a magistrate, when I was a trustee of the Wandsworth Prison visitors’ centre. Like all those centres, it was set up on the recommendation of Judge Stephen Tumim, and we dealt with the needs of the families of prisoners. It was then that I first came across this problem—it is not new—and the fact that it is very much the management of small issues that is of central importance for the prisoners and their families.
We owe a debt of thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. He has indeed gone into the detail of this problem and come up with a highly practical way of resolving it—tonight, potentially. This House should take advantage of that opportunity. In one sense, I will be intrigued to hear what reasons the noble and learned Lord the Advocate-General for Scotland might give for not pursuing this, but this really is an opportunity. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has addressed the three original points made in Committee in his new amendment, and I really encourage the noble and learned Lord to take advantage of this opportunity.
My Lords, this amendment seeks to reduce releases on a Friday, or on days before bank holidays, including releases of persons whose release falls on a non-working day, by creating a power for the Minister to establish a pilot scheme via secondary legislation that would grant prison governors the discretion to release earlier in the week, where that would be helpful for the prisoner’s reintegration into society.
I thank all noble Lords who have participated, particularly my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for their constructive and entirely commendable approach to this. As my noble friend put it, rather than simply rehearsing the arguments made at an earlier stage, they have gone away, considered the matter and sought to refine them in answer to the points made by my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar.
The question posed ultimately by the noble Lord, Lord German, rehearsing the one posed by my noble friend, was: what is not to like? Regrettably, I cannot answer that with “Nothing”, which I suspect was the answer being fished for. I will endeavour to explain why.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, highlighted the existence of a discretionary scheme in Scotland, in terms of the Prisoners (Control of Release) (Scotland) Act 2015. We have engaged with the Scottish Government and looked at research carried out by the Scottish Prison Service, and we have seen that the uptake of this discretionary scheme since 2015 is extremely low: only 20 prisoners in that period have been granted early release. I submit that that gives us some indication of the complexities attendant upon the point. It is not as though we have in the neighbouring jurisdiction a solution to this matter which could be taken from the shelf and applied in England and Wales. We plan further engagement with the Scottish Government to look at the matter in more detail, and we will share the results of that engagement with the noble Baroness.
I am sorry to interrupt, but the Minister seems to be using this as an argument for not accepting the amendment. I have two points. First, there is no reason why the pilot should follow the example of the Scottish procedures, which, to me, seemed very bureaucratic when I read the helpful letter sent by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson. Surely the whole point of pilots is to think about other ways of doing something before the Government actually legislate.
Secondly, yes, a very small number has been helped. We do not know why that is. Certainly, the letter I was sent tells us the what but not the why. But even a small number being helped is better than no one being helped in the period until such legislation can be passed.
My Lords, if the Scottish experience shows that it is no good, why on earth was it put in the White Paper?
The point is not simply to equiparate the example of Scotland; the point is to emphasise the complexities which underlie the matter. I will expand upon that in the rest of my answer.
We recognise that a high number of releases take place on a Friday. We accept that this can create challenges in some cases when it comes to prisoners accessing services, support in the community and finding accommodation, especially if they have multiple complex needs or a long way to travel to their home address.
I echo the observations from my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. As the House now appreciates, our recently published Prisons Strategy White Paper is allowing us to consult on the issue of Friday release from prison. In the course of that consultation, we will invite views on allowing prisoners who are at risk of reoffending to be discharged one or two days earlier, at the discretion of the governor of the relevant institution, where a Friday release can be demonstrated to be detrimental to an individual’s resettlement.
However, it is important that we allow time to understand the views of stakeholders, including operational colleagues, prison staff and the third sector. We submit that it would be premature to provide in statute for the pilot of a new release scheme, regardless of whether a sunset clause is attached—as the promulgators of the amendment have proposed—because, as mentioned, we are in the process of consulting on whether a legislative approach is necessary and, if so, what form such a scheme should take and how it should operate. We want to see the outcome of this consultation before we bring forward proposals. We will issue a response to the White Paper consultation in April 2022, and we will set out our plans on Friday releases moving forward from there.
I would call into question the appropriateness of using a sunset clause in relation to a pilot scheme. Sunset clauses are used only for temporary situations where the provision is needed only for a specific period of time and is not designed to remain on the statute books—for example, in the recent coronavirus legislation. This, I submit, is not appropriate for a pilot, as its purpose is to test out a policy with a view to fully enacting that policy if the pilot is found to work. A sunset clause would not allow this, so that, if we decided the right approach was to pilot and it was effective, we would still be required to wait for the next legislative opportunity to be able to rule it out fully. Therefore, tying our hands to a pilot scheme would likely extend the timescales required to enact full rollout of a new release scheme, if that was decided to be the most appropriate approach.
Is the noble and learned Lord in effect saying it will be at least two years until there can be legislation, because this only runs for two years?
More than once, even today, this House has emphasised the importance of moving forward on the basis of evidence. The Government’s view is that it is appropriate to complete the consultation proceedings, interrogate them and decide how best to move forward.
My suggestion was to wait until the end of the consultation, which we are told will be next April, review the evidence, which surely should not take that long, and then run the pilot on the basis of what is found out in the consultation.
When this Government want to bring in some quite nasty legislation, they can move very fast. I do not see why they could not bring in some rather nice legislation very fast as well.
Surely the Minister could introduce at Third Reading an order-making power that would last indefinitely.
My Lords, notwithstanding the fact that we are in the season of Advent, approaching Christmas, I am not prepared to argue on the basis of what is naughty and what is nice, or what is nasty and what is nice.
I am sorry, but I do not understand what the Minister means.
What I mean simply is that the noble Baroness, doubtless with the best possible intention, is using simplistic language to categorise the Government’s legislative approach, which language I do not accept.
On the subject of the holistic approach—if I may put it like that—which was urged upon us by the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, it is indeed important that we acknowledge the funding the Government are making available to provide just such an approach. Our December Prisons Strategy White Paper set out plans to reduce reoffending and protect the public. We will spend £200 million a year by 2024-25 to improve prison leavers’ access to accommodation, employment support and substance misuse treatment, and for further measures for early intervention to tackle youth offending. We will make permanent the additional £155 million per year provided in the years 2019-20 for a new unified probation service to support rehabilitation and improve public protection, which will be a 15% increase on 2019-20 funding. This expands upon our Beating Crime Plan, which was published in July, setting out how we will cut crime and seek to bring criminals more swiftly to justice, reduce reoffending and protect the public. That included new commitments to recruit 1,000 prison leavers into the Civil Service by 2023, to expand our use of electronic monitoring and to trial the use of alcohol tags on prison leavers.
In addition, in January, a £50 million investment was made by the Ministry of Justice to enhance the department’s approved premises to provide temporary basic accommodation for prison leavers to keep them off the streets, and to test innovative new approaches to improve resettlement outcomes for prisoners before and after they were released. Then there is £20 million for a prison leavers’ project to test new ways to prepare offenders for life on the outside and ensure that they do not resume criminal lifestyles, and £80 million for the Department of Health and Social Care to expand drug treatment services in England to support prison leavers with substance misuse issues, divert offenders, make effective community sentences and reduce drug-related crime and deaths.
For the reasons I have outlined, including the overwhelming notion that these questions are not simplistic and we cannot simply move forward without the necessary evidence, as well as the assertion that an appropriate consultation is under way, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, we have had an interesting debate. I thank all those who contributed to it. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, is always sharp on these matters; she has been well up to her reputation tonight. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said, this is a small fix. As the noble Lord, Lord German, pointed out, it is not an expensive fix either; in fact, it may result in a net gain to the Government because, if we can stop some people reoffending, we will save more money than any cost—there is probably no cost here, or at least very little—and we could be better off as a result. I am grateful to those noble Lords and to the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Hamwee. My noble friend Lord Attlee asked who is against the idea. I have not yet heard much about people who oppose it. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his remarks and the fact that we are better than we were last night.
On my noble and learned friend the Minister’s comments, I do not think that the House buys the Scottish experiment as an example here. It is just not relevant. Nor do I buy the argument about the sunset clause being inappropriate; I think that is just the officials reaching for some reason to try to rubbish this amendment. I accept my noble friend’s point that we need time to understand and his commitment to a consultation finishing by April 2022. Most interesting is the possibility that legislation might not be needed and there might be other ways of achieving what we all wish.
So we have a sort of balance here. On the one hand, an immediate opportunity is being missed and progress seems glacial, to put it no more roughly than that; on the other, we have an encouraging set of statements in paragraph 139 of the White Paper. My judgment as to whether to divide the House on this amendment and possibly damage the concept is that we would really be dividing the House on whether we want to try to create a bridge and find a way to start some work on this project immediately. On balance, the Government have offered us half a loaf. I think we should probably take that half a loaf tonight; I therefore seek leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 82 withdrawn.
Amendments 82A and 82B not moved.
Schedule 13: Community and suspended sentence orders: special procedures relating to review and breach
83: Schedule 13, page 243, line 36, leave out from “State” to end of line 37 and insert—
“(6) Regulations under this section are subject to—(a) the negative resolution procedure, where under subsection (1)(b) the regulations specify a period, and(b) the affirmative resolution procedure, in any other case.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires regulations under new section 395A of the Sentencing Code to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure if they apply indefinitely.
Amendment 83 agreed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, will take part remotely in the next debate.
84: After Clause 132, insert the following new Clause—
“CHAPTER 3ASSAULTS ON THOSE PROVIDING A PUBLIC SERVICE ETCAssaults on those providing a public service etc
In the Sentencing Act 2020, after section 68 insert—
“68A Assaults on those providing a public service etc(1) This section applies where—(a) a court is considering the seriousness of an offence listed in subsection (3), and(b) the offence is not aggravated under section 67(2).(2) If the offence was committed against a person providing a public service, performing a public duty or providing services to the public, the court—(a) must treat that fact as an aggravating factor, and(b) must state in open court that the offence is so aggravated. (3) The offences referred to in subsection (1) are—(a) an offence of common assault or battery, except where section 1 of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 applies;(b) an offence under any of the following provisions of the Offences against the Person Act 1861—(i) section 16 (threats to kill);(ii) section 18 (wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm);(iii) section 20 (malicious wounding);(iv) section 47 (assault occasioning actual bodily harm);(c) an inchoate offence in relation to any of the preceding offences.(4) In this section—(a) a reference to providing services to the public includes a reference to providing goods or facilities to the public;(b) a reference to the public includes a reference to a section of the public.(5) Nothing in this section prevents a court from treating the fact that an offence was committed against a person providing a public service, performing a public duty or providing services to the public as an aggravating factor in relation to offences not listed in subsection (3).(6) This section has effect in relation to a person who is convicted of the offence on or after the date on which section (Assaults on those providing a public service etc) of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021 comes into force.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would add three new aggravating factors to the consolidated sentencing code, where the person attacked is (i) providing a public service, (ii) performing a public duty, or (iii) providing services, goods or facilities to the public or a section of the public.
In moving the amendment in my name, I want also to address the related amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe.
In truth, I do not believe that there is any great difference between noble Lords’ position and the Government’s. We all agree that it is entirely unacceptable that workers in public-facing roles should face verbal abuse and worse. That is why we have brought forward Amendment 84, to make it clear that such abuse will not be tolerated and to put in statute that the public-facing nature of the victim’s role will be an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing.
I am grateful for the welcome the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has given to the Government’s amendment. I know, too, that it has been welcomed by many of those who have campaigned on this important issue. I think they, rightly, regard this as a very welcome and significant step forward. In the debate in Committee, I gave your Lordships a firm commitment that the Government were in the process of considering, as a matter of urgency, how best to balance the many issues raised on this topic. Amendment 84 is the result of that consideration, and I would like to explain its purpose.
The amendment places in statute the aggravating factor applied by the courts in cases of assault where an offence is committed against those providing a public service, performing a public duty or providing a service to the public. The aggravating factor is set out in the Sentencing Council’s sentencing guidelines. The provision applies to offences listed in the sentencing guidelines, which are also specified under Section 67(3) of the Sentencing Act 2020, with the addition of common assault and battery. This provides consistency with the statutory aggravating factor applied to assaults against emergency workers, as set out under Section 67 of the Sentencing Act 2020. This includes assault occasioning actual bodily harm, wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, malicious wounding and threats to kill, as well as an inchoate offence in relation to any of these offences. These are the assault offences most likely to be experienced by front-line workers. Importantly, the provision also allows the court to apply the aggravating factor to any other offence, where the court considers this factor relevant.
If the offence was committed against a person providing a public service or performing a public duty, the court will have a statutory duty to treat that fact as an aggravating factor, and must state in open court that the offence is so aggravated. This amendment will reinforce in statute the seriousness with which the courts should treat these offences. It will send a very strong signal to the public that assaults of this kind are totally unacceptable. The Government want to ensure that all those who serve the public can feel protected from abuse when working.
This legislative change recognises the very strong public and parliamentary feeling about assaults against public-facing workers. I understand the argument that retail workers are asked to enforce the statutory age restrictions and that many see this as a reason for increased protection. We have also heard concerns from the retail sector about the risk of increased abuse fuelled by the mandatory requirement to wear face masks in shops. However, I consider it is important to give the same protection to all workers who face a similar risk of assault. For retail workers, it builds on the important work already under way by the National Retail Crime Steering Group to ensure that assaults are not seen as part of a retail worker’s job. The steering group brings together the Government, retailers, unions and trade associations, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the police-led National Business Crime Centre.
I mentioned the work of the National Retail Crime Steering Group in Committee and I will not repeat it now. The work of the steering group will continue and it will play an important role in spreading the message about this change in the law, ensuring that retailers are reporting assaults to police and helping to ensure this is a deterrent to offenders. I can inform your Lordships that yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister, together with the Home Secretary and Attorney-General held a round table to discuss this important topic with CEOs and representatives from across the retail sector. So no one should be in any doubt as to the seriousness with which this issue is being treated at the highest levels of government.
I turn briefly to Amendment 100, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. It seeks to create an offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing a person who is performing their duties as a retail worker, and impose a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment, a fine or both. Given that the Government are creating a statutory aggravating factor, I hope that he will agree that that is not a necessary change.
It is important to remember that a person may be found guilty of common assault even if they have not been physically violent. Raising a fist to lead a victim to believe that they are going to be attacked, or pushing the victim, could constitute assault. The Government do not believe it is appropriate to provide for a higher maximum penalty in such cases. I understand that minor assaults and verbal abuse can have a significant toll on someone’s mental and emotional health, and I do not mean to diminish that fact. For more serious assaults, where physical violence has resulted in injury, actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm can be charged. Those offences attract higher maximum penalties. The maximum penalty for assault occasioning actual bodily harm is five years’ imprisonment.
I turn, finally, to Amendment 104FB, tabled by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe. It seeks to place a duty on the Government to conduct a review of, and report on, the adequacy of resources that police forces have available for the purposes of preventing or investigating assaults on retail workers. We all want to make sure that the statutory aggravating factor acts as a deterrent and results in a reduction in assaults against retail workers. As I have said, our amendment is part of the Government’s broader work with the retail sector and police to reduce these crimes. However, we will pay close attention to the impact this amendment has, as we do with all new legislation. In addition, the Sentencing Council reviews the sentencing guidelines on a regular basis, and the statutory aggravating factor will be considered as part of that process. We will continue to discuss the situation with the retail sector through the National Retail Crime Steering Group. The main indicator of whether incidents have reduced is the experience of retail workers, whether they feel safer at work and whether they experience a reduction in incidents.
Ultimately, the allocation of police officers is a matter for individual chief constables and the police and crime commissioners to whom they are answerable. It is the Government’s duty to ensure that the police have sufficient resources and there can be no doubt that the Government are doing what is required in that space. As noble Lords will know, we are committed to an additional 20,000 police officers in England and Wales, and we are over half way there.
I am grateful to all those who have worked with the Government on this, and I hope they will now see that their efforts have been worth while. I see the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on the Back Bench. I pay particular tribute to him. He has not let this one go over a number of years. I also hope that, in the light of the government amendment and having heard my comments, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe will be content not to move their amendments. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, also has an amendment in this group. I look forward to hearing what he has to say and I will respond when winding up. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak in support of the amendment. I thank the noble Baroness for bringing it forward. As she said, we met many years ago in her office upstairs, with representatives of the trade union USDAW to discuss these issues. We rightly pursued this point.
Many years ago, when I was about 14, I became a shop worker; I started working in a shop on the Walworth Road. It got me talking, and I have not stopped talking since. Meeting people gave me confidence. Equally, over the many years I worked there, there were often incidents when you were abused by customers. In those days, when someone paid by credit card you had to phone up if you were a bit suspicious. You had people legging it for the bus—there were all sorts of incidents. There were always issues. You would sometimes be abused by people who were seeking to do wrong: to shoplift or cause other problems. So I have first-hand experience of some of the problems that shop workers have experienced.
I was a member of USDAW. It is a fantastic trade union. It understands its members and the issues they have, and puts them forward persuasively to government and local authorities. It always did that. One of its long-running campaigns is called Freedom from Fear. You have the right to go to work, do your job, be paid for your work and not live in fear. Many shop workers have that issue; they are in fear of what will happen to them there. During the pandemic we have all seen some appalling stories of how shop workers have been treated. USDAW has been really good in standing up to that.
I pay tribute to John Hannett, the former general secretary of USDAW, to Paddy Lillis, the present general secretary, to the staff and to the many hundreds of thousands of USDAW members who have not let this issue rest. I also pay tribute to some really good employers, the supermarkets that understand the problems their staff have. The Co-op, Tesco and many others have stood up and backed the union and its members. This amendment has also been led by the work of Daniel Johnson MSP in Scotland. He got his Private Member’s Bill through last year.
What is really good about this amendment is how wide it is; it covers anybody delivering a service to the public. In some senses it is wider than my noble friend Lord Coaker’s amendment, which I think is great, and a better amendment. It is really good and we should do it.
I am really pleased. We all hear many stories about what goes on. My good friend Elaine Dean, the vice-president of the Central England Co-op, will tell you about some of the appalling incidents it has had with its members and with staff over the pandemic. I genuinely thank the Minister. She listened, understood and went back to the department and argued in support of the campaign, and we have come out with a good amendment. I thank her very much for that.
My Lords, I call the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, who will speak remotely.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that my son works in retail. I have added my name to that of my noble friend Lord Dholakia on Amendment 114 in this group. This threshold needs removing from the Anti-social Behaviour Act, and here we have the perfect opportunity to do it.
Retailers keep UK plc going. They provide us with the goods we need to live our lives, no matter what. They are key workers, but they do not have the key support they need. It is shocking that retailers lose £770 million a year to retail crime. Between the 307,000 shops, this comes to an average of almost £2,500 per shop, per year. Noble Lords may say that this amount of money could easily be a sunk cost for our supermarkets —but not for our independent shops. Assuming an 8% margin, retailers such as those belonging to the British Independent Retailers Association would have to make sales of almost £32,000 for a small shop just to make back what they have lost to these criminals. This is while the level of retail crime is still increasing: by 19.1% between 2014 and 2018, compared with 4.96% between 2010 and 2014, before the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act was given Royal Assent.
As only one in 20 of all shoplifting offences are now prosecuted, it cannot be a shock that such odds are likely to give any wily criminal the feeling that their crime does not matter and that they can do what they want with little or no consequence. Is it any wonder that retailers feel that, while they are being punished, perpetrators of retail crime are not? This needs to change. Retailers need to feel that they have the Government’s support and that they are not the ones being punished when someone steals from their shop. I therefore support this amendment from my noble friend Lord Dholakia.
My Lords, I support the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Kennedy. I shall speak to my Amendment 104FB, which would require the Secretary of State a year hence to carry out a review of the adequacy of police resources devoted to assaults on retail workers. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I always had very good relations with USDAW in my many years as—I suppose you could say “a retail boss”—an executive at Tesco.
I start with an enormous thank you to my noble friend the Minister for arranging a meeting with the retail industry bodies, USDAW and several parliamentarians, including myself, with a star cast of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General. We all felt, for the first time, that we were having a high-level and constructive discussion on what could be done across the board about violence and abuse of retail staff. That is against a background of 455 security incidents a day, according to the BRC, and very few prosecutions.
The police response to these incidents has historically been inadequate. We need to ensure that the police have the right resources and can put a higher priority on prosecuting these retail crimes. This is particularly important given the role of retail workers in enforcing Covid restrictions such as masks, but also in addressing knife crime and shoplifting, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, explained, which in my experience is often caused by the need for individuals to get drugs, so it feeds into drug crime as well.
At the Zoom meeting, the industry welcomed the fact that the Government had recognised the seriousness of the issue and tabled Amendment 84, which we have heard about from my noble friend. This would mean that the worst offenders could see tougher sentences. The industry also very much welcomed the new relevant instructions from the Home Secretary and from the Attorney-General.
However, it is important to ensure that this new measure has the desired effect in terms of police effort. I believe there should be a regular review to monitor its effectiveness, hence my amendment proposing a review in a year’s time, which I hope the Minister will feel able to support.
My Lords, Amendment 114 is in my name. We discussed it in Committee and I have studied at great length the response from the Minister. Unfortunately, it has not satisfied many retail traders, whose income depends on crime being prevented. The consequences for shop insurance and livelihoods depend on proper action on low-level crimes.
In 2014, a change in the law meant that shop theft valued at less than £200 would not be charged through the courts but, rather, would be tried summarily. The reasoning behind that was to make the prosecution of cases more efficient. The Government may claim that that has happened, but that is only because the courts no longer see the problem and no longer see that it takes an average of 30 convictions for this type of criminal to go to jail. The burden has fallen on small retailers, who now see savvy criminals exploiting the situation to steal with virtual impunity.
The cost of retail crime to retailers is huge. My noble friend Lady Harris mentioned the cost, according to figures supplied to us by the British Retail Consortium, to those such as members of the British Independent Retailers Association. Money that could otherwise be used to improve facilities, raise wages and improve the offers to consumers instead goes straight into the pockets of criminals.
That is not a trend that is in reverse. Retail crimes are rising year on year, with an overall increase of 19.1% between 2014 and 2018, compared with an increase of 4.96% between 2010 and 2014 before this threshold was in place. This is reflected on the ground too. In the most recent crime report taken across members of the British Independent Retailers Association, two-thirds of BIRA members reported that most crimes against their business were valued at less than £200 and that there has been a disproportionate increase in this type of crime since the threshold was put in place.
Of course, the reduction in resources available to police forces undoubtedly poses challenges. It cannot be good when John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation, acknowledges that shoplifting is
“increasingly likely not to be attended by officers”,
and forces such as Thames Valley Police inform local shops that they will not send out officers to deal with shoplifters who steal less than £100-worth of goods. How can this foster trust and build confidence? It cannot; it means that many businesses feel as if they are alone in this fight—a fight that is a risk to their very business. To put it into context, a small business owner working on a typical margin of 8% will need to sell £2,500-worth of goods to make back £200 of stolen goods, with independent retailers such as John Barlow in Nottingham reporting that police
“are basically telling thieves, ‘Help yourselves’. Of course, there are more serious crimes police need to solve but you can’t just give thieves a licence to steal.”
The Government are aware that there is a problem and it is appreciated by retailers that the Minister in the Home Office talked to chief police officers in July 2020 to say that retail crime should not be tolerated. However, that is not enough. Retail crime is going up; it is just the number of convictions going down. Just one in 20 of all shoplifting offences are now prosecuted, while the number of cautions for such thefts—of all values—has fallen from 40,000 to just 5,000 in a decade, according to figures obtained by a freedom of information request.
The Government are putting the burden of this crime on the retailer, not the court system, to claim efficiency. But giving a criminal the equivalent of parking ticket will not make them stop. It just means that the only person who sees the punishment is the postman delivering the fine. The criminal themselves will see this as a minor inconvenience as opposed to a reason to stop.
I urge the Government to reconsider their position and use this perfect opportunity to remove this clause and show solidarity with our retailers. Perhaps the Minister would like to meet a delegation of representatives of small traders. I look forward to her response.
My Lords, I signed and spoke to related amendments in Committee. I also take a perhaps rare opportunity to congratulate the Minister on a comprehensive and fair Amendment 84 that really addresses the concerns of workers who are particularly low paid and insufficiently respected.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I note that this demonstrates a hashtag I use often: #campaigningworks. USDAW has done so much work on this over so many years, as has the Institute of Customer Service and its Service with Respect campaign.
I want to ask the Minister two detailed questions. Does this also apply to people providing services over the phone or remotely? I am thinking particularly of Section 16 and threats to kill. It would appear that would also potentially be covered under this. If the Minister wants to write to me later that is fine. I also want to confirm—I think I know the answer but it is worth confirming for the record—that this is an offence committed against a person providing a public service. Will volunteers also be covered under these provisions? Many volunteers provide all kinds of public services and I think that is an important issue.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak in this debate. I declare an interest as a member of USDAW and the Co-operative Party—I wanted to make sure that I did not forget to do that.
I know that it is quite late in the evening, but it is worth us spending a few minutes on something that impacts on millions of people across this country, in every single area of this country, from the smallest and most impoverished communities to the wealthiest. This directly impacts on all of them.
The Minister is quite right in saying that her amendment supersedes mine, and I welcome government Amendment 84. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, will speak to her amendment, and we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. On my amendment, I thank my noble friend Lord Kennedy for pointing out that it is the first time in my life that my comrade has praised the Conservatives for tabling a better amendment than me. On this occasion, he is absolutely right; it is a far superior amendment to the one that I tabled. It is a great tribute to the Minister, who has listened.
We often say that Ministers should listen and need to take account of something. This Minister has actually acted on that and changed the legislation—she has talked to her civil servants. I say this as an example to other Ministers in both Houses: sometimes a Minister has to stand up and say, “This is what the public, the House and the Chamber demands, and this is what common sense says—so change the law and do what people think is right”. Millions of people across the country will see this as something that has taken years of campaigning by people such as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, my noble friend Lord Kennedy and others. People on all sides have demanded this change.
One thing that we need to emphasise in the amendment that the noble Baroness has put before us is really important. Rightly, much of the emphasis has been on retail workers, and I want to emphasise some of the facts. We have emphasised the fact that the trade union and large retailers of all sorts have come together. But this amendment talks about assaults on those providing a public service; that is a huge expansion of the categories of worker that can be taken into account by those in court, using the aggravating factors before us. That is something that we should reflect on as a Chamber; it is a key change and a massive extension of the number of those workers who will be protected from abuse.
As we sit here in this Chamber at 9.23 pm, there will be people in the remotest part of Cornwall in a village shop, someone collecting tickets on a railway station in a different part of the country—a rural part of Northumberland, for example. There may be somebody on Walworth Road or in Manchester, who will at this time be facing the sort of abuse that we all deplore. We can say to those people that not only have we deplored and understand how horrific it is, we also recognise the responsibility that we have with the other place in legislating to do something about it.
The Minister was right to say that this sends a signal. Of course it does, and that is really important—but it also gives the magistrates and courts the power to say to people who think that they can act with impunity, whether it is in a village shop or a railway station or on a bus, “We are going to use that as an aggravating factor and you are going to receive a stiffer punishment than you otherwise would have done.” That should give people pause.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was quite right in some of the points he made. However, the important thing for us now—the Minister will know this, and I think the noble Baronesses, Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lady Bennett mentioned it—is how we ensure that we make this legislation work. How do we give the confidence to somebody, who is often on their own and sometimes not in the first flush of youth, to come forward and report that crime to the police so that those people get taken to court? Often those people will be their own witness. They have to go to the police to report that crime and say, “I’ll go to court” or whatever the process will be. As we move forward with this incredibly welcome piece of legislation, we need to understand how we build that confidence among people. That was one of the things that members of various trade unions as well as USDAW have raised with me. It is about building people’s confidence so that they come forward, are their own witness and report the crime. We must get to a point when the new powers that courts have can be used, because we understand the intimidation.
The Government could do with some good publicity at the moment. I would be ringing this out across the country, not to benefit a Conservative Government but to show that the Government of our country, responding to people across the Chamber, have turned around and said, “We are changing the law and we want people to be aware of the law.” Not only do we want those who act in a criminal way to understand that there is now a punishment that courts can use to deal with them, but, as I say, we want to give confidence to people to come forward.
Many other things could be said but it is important for all of us who have come together as we have to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and to say a big thank you to her again for the changes she and her colleagues have made and the way in which she put that meeting together. This is a strengthening of the law which reflects the seriousness with which the state views these assaults. We will not tolerate it, and the law is saying to people across this country, “We’re going to act, because these people deserve better protection than they’ve had so far.”
My Lords, in my time as a Minister I have had a to-do list in my mind, and included on it was tackling assaults on retail workers and the historic disregards. I am very pleased that in the Bill we will be able to do both, so tonight is a very good night.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for bringing back his amendment and for his obvious commitment to support business owners in areas affected by high crime rates, in particular business owners from diverse communities. In Committee my noble friend Lord Sharpe made it clear that shoplifting offences involving the theft of goods of up to £200 can and should be dealt with by the police as a criminal offence. Section 176 has no bearing on the ability of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute a person for theft from a shop or on the court’s powers to punish offenders.
My noble friend also spoke about a survey conducted by the National Business Crime Centre to ask police forces about the reporting of retail crime. I will repeat what he said, because it is important. He stated that the survey asked
“whether forces had a policy where the monetary value of shop theft determined whether the crime was investigated. Thirty-four out of 43 forces responded … the survey found that no forces used a £200 threshold for making decisions about responding to shoplifting offences.”—[Official Report, 3/11/21; col. 1272.]
I have heard what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said today and I understand the concerns about the prevalence of shop theft. I understand in particular the concerns from owners of small businesses, such as small independent shops operating in areas with high crime rates. If the noble Lord is amenable, I would like to meet further with him to discuss it.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Kennedy, for their fulsome support of the government amendment and for repeating the point that we are sending a very strong signal about how seriously we treat this issue. There is more that we are doing. As my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, prolific shoplifters often have a drug or alcohol dependency, and shoplifting funds this addiction. We need to have the right interventions in place, and the Government’s 10-year drugs strategy, published last week, sets out the Government’s intention to invest in substance misuse treatment, including clear referral pathways for offenders into treatment to reduce the risk of reoffending and help reduce acquisitive crime, including shop theft.
It is essential that everyone plays their part, which includes the need for retailers to work with their local neighbourhood policing team. Many areas have a business crime reduction partnership to bring together businesses and their local neighbourhood policing team to tackle local crime priorities. Business crime reduction partnerships play an important role in sharing information between businesses and police to identify and tackle prolific shoplifters. In turn, the Home Office is also working with the National Business Crime Centre and the National Association of Business Crime Reduction Partnerships to ensure that effective partnership working takes place. The National Retail Crime Steering Group, which I have spoken about previously, has published best practice on sharing data about lower-level incidents and crime that may not require an immediate police response but build a picture of the level of crime in an area and help to establish an appropriate longer-term solution. This information is hosted on the British Retail Consortium website.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe asked about reviewing the legislation. We will pay close attention to the impact that this amendment has, as we do with all new legislation, as I said before. The Sentencing Council reviews the sentencing guidelines on a regular basis. As I said earlier, the main indicator of whether incidents have reduced is the experience of retail workers and whether they feel safer at work. We want to see a real shift in the working culture so that abuse is not part of the job.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked whether the amendment could cover verbal threats over the phone, and it could well do. It could also cover volunteers, depending on the circumstances; for example, volunteers working in shops.
I think I have persuaded the noble Lord that repealing Section 176 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act is not the way to reduce low-value shop theft, but we will have those conversations later.
It is very nice when, occasionally, you get plaudits from all around the House, so I am going to bask in it for one second and thank noble Lords—it will not happen often.
Before my noble friend sits down, perhaps she could get one final plaudit for her terrific performance in this area by agreeing that the Home Office, and indeed the other departments—the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General’s Office—will look with favour on a discussion with the retail and indeed the wider sector on the impact of these changes, say, in a year’s time. I think she rightly said that what matters is the experience of retail and other workers in the light of the new law. I fear perhaps that not much progress might be made, so if we find that we need to review this in a year’s time, I hope she will look positively at that.
I am more than happy to do that. In fact, I think it would be a very good idea to meet up, because the discussions have been positive and fruitful over the last period. So, yes, I am very happy to do that in support of my noble friend.
I welcome the support for the government amendment, as I have said. I think it makes a real, significant step forward. Let us keep it monitored, as my noble friend said.
I am genuinely very grateful to the Minister. I think this is a good example for all Members of the House that when you have an issue, you should just keep raising it, because this House can maybe act in ways that the other place sometimes cannot. Sometimes people get into their trenches there, but we can do it a bit differently here. Certainly, by raising issues persistently, and with the Minister listening and bringing people together, we can actually get things right. I think that is one of the great things about this House.
The noble Lord is absolutely right. I think we will call it the “Kennedy approach”, but then we have had the “Cashman approach” as well—and they have both worked. We have the bandwidth to look at things in a different way from the other place. On that note, I commend the amendment to the House.
Before the Minister sits down, I will just bounce off what the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said. The Government are offering more protection to retail workers here. Does the Minister agree that this does not take responsibility off employers to make sure that they are also doing all they can to provide a safer working environment for their staff?
I can agree, yes.
Amendment 84 agreed.
85: After Clause 132, insert the following new Clause—
“Pre-sentence report requirements
(1) Section 30 of the Sentencing Act 2020 is amended as follows.(2) After subsection (3) insert—“(3A) A court must make inquiries to establish whether the offender is a primary carer for a child.(3B) If the court establishes that the offender is a primary carer for a child, unless there are exceptional circumstances before sentencing the offender the court must obtain a pre-sentence report containing information to enable the court to make an assessment of the impact of a custodial sentence on the child.”(3) After subsection (4) insert—“(5) In this section—(a) “child” means a person under the age of 18; and(b) “primary carer” means a person who has primary or substantial care responsibilities for a child.””Member’s explanatory statement
This Clause amends section 30 of the Sentencing Act 2020 to make clear the requirement for a sentencing judge to have a copy of a pre-sentence report, considering the impact of a custodial sentence on the dependent child, when sentencing a primary carer of a child.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 85 I will speak also to the other amendments in my name in the group. I am very grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord German. I am very grateful for the briefing and expertise provided to me by the organisation Women in Prison and I declare my interest as Anglican Bishop for Her Majesty’s Prisons.
In Committee I highlighted the injustice of punishing a child for their parent’s mistakes and I will not go over that ground again. But I want to frame this discussion by reminding us that when a parent goes to prison it can affect every area of a child’s life, from losing their familiar home and school through to reduced educational achievement and mental and physical well-being. The consequences can last a lifetime.
It is also important to highlight again that the imprisonment of a household member is one of 10 adverse childhood experiences known to have a significant negative impact on a child’s long-term well-being, including life expectancy. It raises the possibility of children being imprisoned themselves at some point in their lives. However, I want to be very clear on that point that there is nothing genetic about offending. If a child is failed by the system, left disenfranchised and excluded, we have failed them. We must do all we can to ensure that children can reach their potential.
In response to the Government’s counter-arguments in Committee I wish to make three points, knowing that other noble Lords will provide more detail. First, on pre-sentence reports, the Minister said in Committee that
“a request to the court for an adjournment in order to prepare a pre-sentence report is considered mandatory in cases involving primary carers”.—[Official Report, 1/11/21; col. 1041.]
However, as I understand it, the sentencer does not have to accede to that request and a PSR will be obtained only if the sentencer requests it. Making it mandatory for probation to request a PSR still does not create an obligation on a sentencer to request one.
Over the past decade there has been a decline in PSR volumes and a shift from written to oral PSRs. There are three delivery methods of pre-sentence reports: oral reports and fast delivery reports are both usually delivered on the same day as the court hearing by the court duty probation officer, while standard delivery reports require more detail and are delivered after an adjournment of up to 15 days to obtain additional information.
A research and analysis bulletin from HM Inspectorate of Probation in 2020 found that the recent shift towards oral PSRs, with a focus on speed and timeliness, has impacted on the quality of information provided to courts. In 2018-2019 58% of reports were orally delivered rather than written, twice as many as in 2012-2013, while 39% were fast delivery reports and only 3% were standard delivery reports. I am encouraged that between March and May 2021 a pilot commenced between the Ministry of Justice, HMCTS and the probation service of an alternative delivery model to increase the number of cases receiving pre-sentence reports from 53% to 75%. I note that women are identified as one of three primary cohorts for higher-quality reports on the day.
However, I believe the pilot focuses on delivering written fast delivery reports for women produced on the same day rather than full standard pre-sentence reports, which would enable more time for information to be sought in relation to children and the impact of a sentence on them. It is true that some sentencers request pre-sentence reports when sentencing a primary carer, but not all do. The point of this amendment is to ensure that judges and magistrates have the full picture when sentencing.
I come to sentencing guidelines. Provided by the Sentencing Council to judges and magistrates, they already acknowledge the devastating impact of parental imprisonment. In Committee, the Minister said:
“Courts are required by law to follow those guidelines, and the guidelines specify that being a ‘Sole or primary carer for dependent relatives’ is a mitigating factor when sentencing an offender.”—[Official Report, 1/11/21; col. 1039.]
It is my understanding that being a sole or primary carer can be a mitigating factor, but it is up to the judge to decide whether they consider it as such, so it is left to the sentencer’s discretion whether they consider it a factor which should change the sentence. It therefore cannot be said that the guidelines create an obligation on sentencers to consider dependent children.
On the ground, there is evidence that these guidelines are not always being consistently and robustly applied. Dr Shona Minson has carried out research into the application of the guidelines being applied in sentencing. She spoke with 20 Crown Court judges and asked:
“What kind of personal mitigation most often influences you in sentencing decisions?”
Half of the judges interviewed thought of family dependants. Half of them did not. So it seems that judges do not take a consistent view on the relevance of dependants as a factor in mitigation. According to Dr Minson’s research, judicial understanding of the guidelines in case law, which set out the duties of the court in relation to considering dependants in sentencing, is limited and, at times, incorrect.
In Committee, the Minister said that the judiciary “get it” when it comes to sentencing mothers. I think that this assertion needs testing. In fact, we simply do not know the number of women in prison who are primary carers, so it is no more than speculation to say that judges “get it” on this issue. If the Minister is basing his assertion on the decline in the number of women in prison, the latest annual prison population projections explain that this recent decline
“is likely driven by a drop in prosecutions and sentencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic … lockdowns have affected the mix of cases brought to criminal courts and restricted the courts’ ability to process cases”.
Between 2013 and 2019, the women’s prison population remained relatively consistent. Indeed, the fact that 500 new women’s places are being built is not a sign that women’s prison places are projected to fall.
Finally, I come to the importance of data. I was really encouraged to read in the recently published White Paper on the prisons strategy that the Government intend to
“begin recording data on prisoners’ family circumstances and caring responsibilities, and conduct analysis to better understand the circumstances and needs of offenders.”
I applaud and welcome this as a step in the right direction. Without data, we are making policy in the dark. I should welcome confirmation from the Minister on the timeline for this. Amendment 88 in this group asks that this data be collected at sentencing, disaggregated by gender, ethnicity, sentence and offender type, and made publicly available. I should welcome further discussions with the Minister to ensure that we are collecting the right type of information.
In conclusion, as a Christian, I believe that each precious and unique child is made in the image of God and must be treated with dignity and respect. I know from the work of charities such as Children Heard and Seen the devastating impact that losing a parent to prison can have on a child of any age. Research from the Prison Reform Trust found that children with a parent in prison felt invisible. We must consider the rights of children to a family life. At the heart of these amendments is not a plea never to send a mother—or, indeed, a father—to prison. Instead, I hope that we might work towards preventing long-term harm for children whose parents have done wrong but for whom a community penalty is more appropriate for both the offender and the children. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I will be listening carefully but, at this point, I flag that I am minded to test the opinion of the House on the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak—briefly at this hour—to this group of amendments and declare my interest in the register, particularly as a trustee and vice-chair of the Prison Reform Trust.
I strongly support these amendments, which have been so effectively moved by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester. I support everything she said. It is essential that the courts fully take into account primary caring responsibilities, especially for a child, in their sentencing decisions and recognise the consequences of not doing so on the impact on the child and the family.
I will not repeat all the arguments that I made in Committee, but, as we have heard, the key document before the courts at sentencing is the pre-sentence report. However, as the charity Women in Prison has pointed out in its supplementary evidence to the Justice Select Committee, the information from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service shows a real decline in proper pre-sentence reports over the past decade. In 2010, for example, pre-sentence reports were available for 62% of all court disposals, reducing to only 53% in 2018. Almost half of the sentences that result in a custodial or community order have no new pre-sentence report prepared to inform the sentence. We have heard—and I support—the improvements that are being looked at in this area but that is the current situation and it must be urgently addressed.
Further, there is a lack of data to disaggregate those figures according to gender. In answer to a Parliamentary Question in 2019, the Government could not say how many women who are likely to be the primary carer had been imprisoned without a pre-sentence report. This remains totally unacceptable. Even where a pre-sentence report is available, it does not routinely provide information to the court about caring responsibilities. As I said in Committee, and it is worth repeating, in January 2021 I asked a Parliamentary Written Question about how many children in each of the past five years were taken into care because their mother was given a custodial sentence. Extraordinarily, the Answer was that the data requested was not something that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service recorded. I am pleased to hear that it is now addressing that issue, but I again ask the Minister with what action and over what timescale will this matter be addressed.
Or course, prisons collect information on caring responsibility, but at the point of prison reception. That is simply too late. The damage to the child and the family has been done, especially for those sentenced to a short prison sentence. We can and must do better. The pre-sentence report must include information about primary care responsibility. Data from various sources must be brought together. They include: the local authority, which currently has responsibility for safeguarding children; the health service, because of the impact on the family and individual; and particularly liaison and diversion services. There must be agreed information-sharing protocols.
We must invest further in technology to ensure that information can flow seamlessly across the criminal justice pathway so that there are no barriers to the information being available to the judiciary in a timely way, ideally at first court appearance. Delaying getting that information can mean that the woman in the example I am giving is put on remand while that information is collected. Again, damage to the child and the family flows from that decision. We must try to reduce the number of people put on remand who have primary carer responsibilities. These amendments would underpin this ambition, and will be a significant step forward in limiting the damage, both social and economic, of imposing a custodial sentence—often a short one—which has the impact on the family, instead of administering a robust community sentence.
Ensuring a clear understanding of primary carer responsibilities will mitigate against the often-irreversible consequences for children of being taken into care, and the primary carer losing their home and employment. I am sure that the Government can see the overriding benefits of this, and will, like me, support these amendments tonight.
My Lords, I rise briefly to offer Green support to the right reverend Prelate, who so powerfully introduced these amendments. Indeed, the stress on the need for information is absolutely crucial.
I want to make a very specific point on how the damage of a prison sentence can be magnified where a prisoner who has primary carer responsibilities—most likely a woman—is then subject to recall to prison for a further time. I am drawing here on a report from the Centre for Women’s Justice, which notes:
“The Transforming Rehabilitation Act 2014 provided that all offenders who had served prison sentences of more than one day should be compelled to attend probation supervision for one year. They can be recalled to prison if probation staff find they have failed to comply satisfactorily. Women on licence recall now make up 8% of women in custody.”
That is a truly shocking and surprising figure. This reports notes that the main reason for recall is
“failure to keep in touch with the supervising officer”,
rather than some more serious offence.
A report by the Prison Reform Trust noted that, of 24 women recalled, three had been pregnant at the time of recall. One said that the reason why she failed to attend an appointment was due to a hospital visit for a pregnancy scan. She was then separated from her other children and put back into prison, with further massive disruption obviously resulting. Will the Minister look into this situation? This is part of the sentencing guidelines, but there is a particular issue here in respect of probation and the way in which women—or anyone with caring responsibilities—are treated in this situation.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate for her dedicated work in this matter. We could see her laser-like approach to looking at each of the issues facing this group of people, which are clearly addressed in these amendments. These amendments cover a range of issues, but I would like to take up the points already made by the right reverend Prelate, the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about data.
It is interesting that on 6 December, the Minister, in replying to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, said:
“We do not hold current figures on how many women in prison aged (1) 18 to 24 or (2) 25 years or older have dependent children.”
I appreciate that there is attention being given to this for the future, but I can only echo the words that, if you do not know, then you are going to be making policy in the dark, as the right reverend Prelate said right at the beginning.
However, figures have been produced by the Howard League. I think it gained these figures by doing an analysis of what it could glean from talking to prison governors and staff. We know that women make up 5% of the prison population but are more likely than male prisoners to be serving short sentences for non-violent offences. The majority of those women experienced childhood abuse, and many are victims of domestic abuse, so they are more likely than male prisoners to report poor mental health and problems with alcohol and drugs.
Here is the crucial figure: the Howard League says that two-thirds of female prisoners are mothers of dependent children, and that at least a third of these are single parents. That means around 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year, and the vast majority of them are moved out of their homes as a result. I am sure that every noble Lord here can understand the strong detrimental effect that has on their development and well-being. The harsh impact on the welfare of their mothers goes far beyond the impact of the imprisonment itself.
There was a review of women in prison in 2006-07 by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. One of the outcomes of that was women’s centres, which have so far proved very effective at keeping women out of prison. However, there are insufficient numbers of them, and they are insufficiently well resourced. We need to enlarge that figure considerably.
The important feature here is the future. We understand that the Government now intend to collect the right data, so that we can inform our policy-making. The issue of recall, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about just now, is a specific issue and one that has a double effect, of course, because sometimes the reason for being recalled is very slender. The children’s lives are then doubly affected.
Finally, I go back to the number of children. A substantial number of children in this country are moved out of their homes and lack the family basis on which they are being brought up. We must recognise that this specific factor—all the other factors range with it—affects the future of those children. If nothing else, this series of amendments must put right, full and square, that the welfare of the child is fundamental in everything we do. There is an awful lot that we need to do, and these amendments reflect that.
My Lords, one of the children to whom my noble friend refers gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights when I was a member and we were looking at the impacts on children of imprisonment of mothers in particular—and fathers too. That child had been 15, I think, and found herself going from literally dancing around the living room to music when her mother was in court to finding herself responsible, as she saw it, for herself and her younger brother. The impact is devastating. I do not want to spend any longer on this at this time of night, but I thank the people who give evidence to committees such as the JCHR and the all-party groups about this sort of situation. It is very vivid and helps us to understand better than we can from words on paper just how devastating this situation can be.
My Lords, I have also put my name to these amendments, so ably moved by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, and I support them. I have to confess that, as she was speaking to each amendment, I was mentally going through the processes I go through as a sentencer. She introduced her comments by talking about probation reports. As I have mentioned, I became a magistrate about 14 years ago, when there were no oral reports, and fast-delivery reports were only just being introduced. Most of the time, we saw standard reports. There has been an evolution over the last 14 years. There are oral reports, fast-delivery reports and standard reports. In the youth court we have far more enhanced reports, which are 10 to 20 pages long, and in the domestic abuse courts we will be more informed of the family situation when sentencing somebody convicted of a domestic abuse-related offence.
I do support these amendments. The reports put in front of magistrates’ courts and Crown Courts need to be appropriate, and, of course, they need to include the family circumstances of the person being sentenced. The great dilemma, in any system, is to get enough information in a timely manner but not so much that it delays things. I remember that when oral reports were first introduced in magistrates’ courts, we very much appreciated that, because we had experienced probation officers who would interview the offender on the day and come to the court and tell us the various pros and cons of the sentencing options. We knew those probation officers and trusted them to give us a balanced view and guidance on the appropriateness of certain sentences.
That is a good example I have just given. There are, of course, less good examples where we may not have been made aware of the family responsibilities of the person we were sentencing, and there is an absolutely consistent dilemma, whenever one is sentencing, over whether one has a whole picture.
As I say, I support these amendments. This is all based on the data. It is about having appropriate data at the time and about recognising the domestic situation and whether there are responsibilities. Everyone here today has mentioned the position of children, but a lot of people I sentenced also had responsibilities for older parents or other caring responsibilities, and that needs to be taken account of as well.
While I support these amendments, I think more can be done. Reports need to be focused in the right way, and the probation service needs to build on its links with appropriate local social services, as it does when I sentence domestic abuse-related incidents. Much more needs to be done, and I will support the right reverend Prelate if she decides to press her amendments to a vote.
My Lords, this group of amendments relates to primary carers in the criminal justice system. We debated it at some length during previous stages, and, as I noted in Committee, the proposed new clauses have their origins in previous work by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Let me just take a moment to echo the tribute paid by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to those who give evidence to that committee and the other committees of this House. While the Government support the principle behind these amendments and have listened carefully to the arguments in support of them, we are still not persuaded that they are necessary.
I will explain the Government’s reasoning regarding each of these proposed new clauses. Amendment 88 would require the Secretary of State to take reasonable steps to collect data centrally and publish it annually on how many people sentenced have parental responsibility for a child or children under the age of 18 or are pregnant. We have publicly acknowledged the gaps in our current data collection on primary carers in prison and believe that understanding the position in prison is where we should focus our improvement efforts regarding data. This will provide an evidence base to develop policy solutions to offer proper support to primary carers who are imprisoned, and their children.
I am sorry that progress has been so slow, but I am pleased to say that the necessary changes to the basic custody screening tool will be made during the first quarter of the coming year. From that point we will be able to collect data on primary carers in prison and the numbers of their children. An important caveat is that our data collection is necessarily dependent on prisoners declaring the information. Although we do our best to encourage people to provide information, there will always be some people who, for various reasons, do not disclose what the underlying position is. We continue to look at this issue to ensure that our data collection is as good as it can be. I heard the right reverend Prelate say that she would be keen to continue discussions on that point. She knows from previous issues that I am very happy to discuss this with her. I will keep her informed of our progress.
Amendment 88 also refers to collecting data on women who are pregnant when they are sentenced. The Government’s view is that the primary focus should be on those who are pregnant and sentenced to custody. We have already taken steps to acknowledge previous weaknesses in our data collection. We are now collecting and publishing data on the number of pregnant women in prison in the HMPPS annual digest, which contains a weekly average for self-declared pregnancies, and the total number of births to women held in custody over the year, in location categories.
On the closely linked topic of maternity services in prisons, this week I met the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, to discuss the breadth of work already completed and under way to address learning from the appalling “Baby A” case, as per the existing statutory obligations. I am grateful to her for the time that she spent discussing the matter with me. HMPPS has accepted and completed all the PPO recommendations. The PPO’s recommendations for health have either been completed or are in the process of being completed.
This work includes investment by NHS England and NHS Improvement of recurrent funding for an improved maternity service at HMP Bronzefield that will be delivered by Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. All the work that we have completed or are in the process of implementing is set out in a joint action plan that we have submitted to the PPO, and which is available publicly on its website. Nationally, as part of the jointly commissioned women’s estate health and social care review, a perinatal steering group has overseen the development of a pregnancy and post-pregnancy service specification for health and justice commissioners. Publication is anticipated for early next year.
Turning to Amendments 86, 87 and 105, which concern remand and sentencing decisions in cases involving primary carers and pregnant women, I will not repeat the points that I made in Committee, but we consider these amendments unnecessary, since a series of relevant and adequate considerations for courts making such decisions are set out in relevant case law and sentencing guidelines, and, as I dealt with on earlier groups today, ensure that custody is a last resort in all cases.
The case law and the sentencing guidelines, which the courts have to follow, are clear that courts should give full and proper consideration to the fact that someone is either a pregnant woman or a primary carer. However, without wishing to diminish the importance of their consideration, we have to acknowledge that courts have to consider various and often complex circumstances relating to the offence or the offender. Regrettably, there will be cases where the risks posed by the individual or the seriousness of the offending is such that, despite the existence of dependents, custody is deemed necessary.
I listened carefully to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord German, about recall. In the time that I have had to respond specifically to that point, I can tell them that in the three years from June 2018 to June 2021 there was an 18% decrease in the number of women recalled to custody while the comparable decrease for men was 4%. So I acknowledge that there is an issue on recall and I am happy to continue that conversation, but the position has got better.
However, we are clear that delivering public protection and confidence across the system is not just about the better use of custody. As set out in our female offender strategy, we want fewer women serving short sentences in custody and more being managed in the community. As part of that strategy, we have committed to piloting residential women’s centres, which will offer an intensive residential support package in the community for women at risk of short custodial sentences.
I turn to Amendment 85. As I set out in Committee, current legislation already requires the court to obtain a pre-sentence report in all cases unless the court deems it unnecessary on the facts of the case—for example, if the offender had been before the court three weeks earlier and a pre-sentence report was obtained then. This requirement is reflected in the sentencing guidelines, which courts have to follow. When sentencers request pre-sentence reports, guidance introduced in 2019 mandates probation practitioners to request an adjournment to allow time to prepare a comprehensive pre-sentence report in all cases involving primary carers and for those at risk of custody.
I am keen to reassure the right reverend Prelate that a key objective of this Government’s reforms is to improve both the quality and the prevalence of pre-sentence reports in the justice system. We heard first-hand experience from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about the quality of pre-sentence reports, which can be extremely good. We want to ensure that that quality is consistently good.
I think the point I made is that they are extremely variable.
I am looking at the glass as half full. I acknowledge their variability but we want to improve their standard across the board. It is a little simplistic, if I may respectfully say so, always to assume that a written report is better than an oral report. I know the noble Lord was not making that point but I have heard it elsewhere. He was quite clear from his experience that a good oral report may be better than a written report.
If appropriate, exactly; it all depends. The sentencers have experience of the nature of the reports that are appropriate in each case.
On that point, we acknowledged in our sentencing White Paper that pre-sentence reports have decreased over the last decade. We specify in the White Paper that, although we do not propose to alter current judicial discretion, we want to build the evidence base around pre-sentence reports. We therefore commenced a pilot scheme in 15 magistrates’ courts in May this year, in collaboration with the judiciary and HMCTS. It strategically targets female offenders, and some other cohorts, for fuller written pre-sentence reports. The process evaluation will be published in autumn next year and will give us the evidence base to drive improvements in pre-sentence reports and make future decisions. We want to preserve a balance between the current legislation and sentencing guidelines and the independence of judicial decision-making. We very much hope and expect that that pilot scheme, which takes into account operational considerations in the courts as well, will enable us to improve the position significantly.
I hope that what I have said—I hope not at too great a length—will persuade the right reverend Prelate and noble Lords that the Government share the concerns underpinning these amendments and, importantly, that existing law and practice, together with the action we are already taking, make these amendments unnecessary. I invite the right reverend Prelate to withdraw the amendment.
It is good to hear what the Minister has to say. Some of those points were things that I challenged when I talked about the mandatory comments on PSRs. It was good to hear the Minister say, “We want to improve things; we want to improve the quality”. This amendment would ensure that the “I want” becomes something in legislation. I would go back as far as the Farmer review, where, even then, the issue of the potential for inconsistency in PSRs was raised.
There is still a gap between what is being said and the evidence. For that reason, although I know it is late, I would like to test the opinion of the House. This amendment would not in any way compromise the decision-making discretion of judges but, I hope, would be useful in assisting judges by ensuring that they have all the right information. Although it is late—I cannot help that—I would like to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 85.
Amendments 86 to 88 not moved.
Clause 133: Youth remand
88A: Clause 133, page 126, line 35, at end insert—
“(8) After section 102, insert—“102A Centralised monitoring of court decisions to impose youth custodial remand (1) Within six months from the day on which the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021 is passed, the Secretary of State must nominate a body to collect, analyse and publish data on the decision-making process of courts when sentencing a child to custodial remand.(2) “Decision making process” refers to the consideration and application of the required Conditions for the custodial remand of children by the court, as set out in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.(3) A report on the findings must be laid before Parliament and published on an annual basis.(4) The first report must be published and laid before Parliament no later than 18 months from the day on which the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021 is passed.””
My Lords, we have been talking about data, and this is another example of collecting data, because the fear is that different parts of the country will remand children in different ways. The bail decisions for youth are a complex set of decisions; they are different as for adults, and it is absolutely and invariably the most difficult decision that any judge or magistrate will make. I can see that it would be easy to have different standards in different parts of the country, and that is the main purpose of this amendment. What I have just said is my subjective view but, of course, unless the data is collated in some way, it is only my subjective view. This is about complexity and a lack of consistency, and it is information on which the Ministry of Justice should really have a view on.
Amendment 89 seeks to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12. The current Labour Party policy, which I agree with, is that it should remain at 10. I have been a youth magistrate for 12 years, and I have never seen a 10 or 11 year-old in court. It does happen, of course, but from what I understand is that it happens only in the very most serious cases; only in very extreme cases would anyone that young ever get to court.
Moving on, Amendment 90 says that:
“Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must complete a review of the age of criminal responsibility.”
Obviously, that is linked with Amendment 89. Of course, Scotland has regularised its new age of criminal responsibility to 12. For many years, the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland was eight but in practice it was only ever administered at 12. I understand that the rules have changed in Scotland so now it is 12. That raises an interesting question about what would happen if an 11 year-old was living in Scotland but committed a crime in England. How would that youth potentially be brought to justice in England when what they had been alleged to have done would not have been an offence in Scotland? I am sure there will be an appropriate way of dealing with that situation. Nevertheless, the Labour Party’s view, and my view, is that the age of criminal responsibility should remain at 10. I beg to move.
“No child should suffer such appalling abuse, especially from those who should love and care for them most.”
Who said that? It is not a Christmas quiz. It was the Minister repeating a sentence what feels like a long time ago, but it was earlier this evening in proceedings on this Bill in your Lordships’ House. What if the same child victim of cruelty or neglect survives and grows to act out as a damaged little person as a result of that neglect or abuse?
I am very disappointed to hear about my own party’s position on the age of criminal responsibility, not least because I was reading David Lammy’s comments in the Guardian just a couple of years ago in relation to concern that our age of criminal responsibility, at 10, is too young. I think that we as a society are failing some of our most vulnerable children, including victims of neglect and abuse, and we should not be criminalising them. Given what we know about child development, 10 is way too young. It makes us as a jurisdiction an outlier in the civilised world and that is not something to be proud of.
Perhaps understandably, much of the debate in Committee focused on some of the most notorious cases, including that of Thompson and Venables, but such horrific and notorious cases are few and far between. More often, we are talking about offences such as criminal damage, and it is often looked-after children who are criminalised for offences of that nature. They have already been let down in their lives by their natural parents and/or their adopted parents and are looked after by the state. They then get involved in something that is treated as criminal damage in a care environment and for which neither noble Lords’ children and grandchildren nor mine would ever be criminalised.
I have dealt with that exact point in my time as a youth court magistrate. It is not just children aged 10 or 11. In the past few years—let us say the past five years—I have never seen any child brought to court for criminal damage in their care home. They used to be brought to court because it was an insurance-related issue and a conviction was needed to get the insurance money, but that has been resolved as an issue. In my experience, care homes do not charge their children for criminal damage.
I am grateful to my noble friend; obviously I do not have his personal experience as a magistrate but just today I looked at published statistics from 2018, which showed that a small number of children were criminalised for criminal damage.
Whether children end up in court or not, if they have criminal responsibility, they can be criminalised. They may never get to court—they may accept an out-of-court disposal—but they will be criminalised and will potentially have a conviction that follows them around for a very long time. This is amoral; it is not the way to treat a vulnerable little person who has probably been neglected and/or abused. They are not ready for criminal responsibility—they are not responsible. All the scientific evidence suggests that their brains are not developed enough at the age of 10.
We weep hot tears for these children when we see them as victims of abuse and neglect, but we do not do so when some of them manage to survive but act out in ways that children will. Some children will never be criminalised for minor theft or criminal damage because they have the protection of their privilege. Other children will sometimes be criminalised, which is wrong in principle and says something very embarrassing about this jurisdiction—even compared with the neighbouring jurisdiction north of the border, as my noble friend pointed out. I do not want to repeat what I said about this in Committee, but I thank and pay tribute to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who have campaigned on this issue for many years to stop us being an outlier in the world.
I note that next year my noble friend Lord Adonis will bring forward a Private Member’s Bill to lower the voting age from 18 to 16—something I will support but I suspect the Government will resist. The Government will insist on 18 for voting purposes and the age of majority, and perhaps take the view that children and young people are not mature enough to vote until they are 18, but heap criminal responsibility on them at the age of 10. That is a mismatch of eight years. Of course. children and young people—indeed, all people—develop slightly differently. Personally, in an ideal world, I would support 16 as a decent compromise. However, that is not the point.
The amendment in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, to which I have added my name, settles on just 12. I am afraid that the fact that neither the Government nor my own party can support that, despite report after report from the UN on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is an embarrassment. We are choosing some children over others. These difficult issues about children and criminality are always about other people’s children. However, the difference between believing in and promoting human rights and not doing so is whether you care about other people’s children, and not just at Christmas—and not determining, as a noble and learned Lord said earlier, who is naughty or nice but caring for everyone’s children and all children.
With that, I will spare your Lordships any more of my thoughts on this issue—I feel very strongly about it. I wish your Lordships and your children and grandchildren a very good Christmas when it comes.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and I agree with every word she just said. She noted that the UK is an outlier in the world in having an age of criminal responsibility of 10. However, I notice that my native Australia is now in the middle of the process of looking to raise its age from 10, which I think was inherited from UK law. With that development in Australia, we will be even more of an outlier.
I shall speak to Amendment 90, which appears in my name, but I stress that this is not in any way meant to compete with Amendment 89. I would support Amendment 89 but, like the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, I think it does not go far enough. My idea of a review is that if you were to hold a review, as the Justice Committee in the other place recommended last year, you would arrive at a figure higher than 12. Fourteen is the obvious one.
I apologise that I was not available to present the corresponding amendment in Committee because I was at the COP 26 climate talks. However, I thank my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb for doing a great job of presenting it then, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for supporting me at that stage. I also apologise for an administrative oversight on my part. There was extensive debate on the wording of proposed new subsection (2)(b). It was my intention to change the wording but I am afraid I did not. However, I hope noble Lords will look at the overall intention of this amendment rather than getting into the depths of discussion on the detail of the wording, since I have no intention of pressing this amendment to a vote tonight.
In particular, I want briefly to draw attention to proposed new subsection (4) in this amendment:
“The panel must consult with an advisory panel made up of young people currently and formerly in the youth justice system.”
There is a principle there that we should be following much more: people who have the lived experience of knowing what it is like to be the subject of the system have to be listened to, and we have to understand what the lived experience is like.
There is a risk in the situation I find myself in of thinking that everything has been said but not by me. I will try very hard not to do that. Rather than repeat all the arguments made in Committee, I will pick up one sentence said then by the Minister in response to the noble and learned Lady, Baroness Butler-Sloss:
“I have sought to set out why we believe that 10 is the correct age, given the way that our criminal justice system deals with children.”—[Official Report, 17/11/21; col. 263.]
In that context, I point to comments made by the former Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, in late 2019. She called for a wholesale review of the youth justice system, saying that the youth court was
“not a child-friendly environment where you could really help a young person and is not meeting standards that we had hoped.”
I will give some statistics from the end of 2019. I hope the Minister can tell me that these have got better but, knowing everything I do about the state of the court system during Covid, I doubt that they have. Cases involving children were taking 40% longer than they did in 2010, with the slowest region, Sussex central, taking 491 days on average to deal with a child’s case. Reoffending rates for children were higher than they had been 10 years before, with more than 40% of children committing an offence within a year of being convicted or cautioned. That is nearly double the rate for adults. Picking up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the proportion of children receiving a youth caution or sentence who were black, Asian or minority ethnic had almost doubled since 2010 from 14% to 27%.
The Minister may say that the number of children being dealt with by the courts has gone down significantly. What experts say in response is that the children coming before courts now are much more those who come from the most dysfunctional and chaotic families —or who were taken into care after having been in that environment—where drug and alcohol misuse, physical and emotional abuse and offending are common. They do not need judgment; they need help. They are children who have already been failed by our society and putting them into the criminal justice system—I fully acknowledge that individuals within the criminal justice system do their best for these children—is not the right place.
In Committee the Minister said that the Government do not accept that they are breaking the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but I cannot see how that can be squared with the declaration by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that 14 should be the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
My Lords, I support Amendments 89 and 90. I endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said. Thompson and Venables, the murderers of Jamie Bulger, although 10 at the time, had a developmental age of only four, which makes their High Court trial obscene. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is to be praised for persistently trying to raise the age of criminal responsibility through a succession of Private Members’ Bills.
My Lords, prompted by the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, I was reminded of a visit I made to the only young offender institution in Scotland, where we had the opportunity to speak to young people in custody there, the staff and the governor. They talked about how, without exception, those in custody had been subjected to a range of adverse childhood experiences. What came across from both the young people and the staff was that, even though those young people were aged 16 and over, it was not their fault that they found themselves in those situations; it was the adults and support mechanisms that had let them down. Moving the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 is a move in the right direction and the minimum that should be done at this time, which is why I wholeheartedly support the noble Baroness.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the noble Baroness in Amendment 89, for the reasons she has outlined. I think the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in this Report stage seems to get the short straw every time. I have a question for my noble friend the Minister about the role of the CPS when deciding to prosecute. It has to apply the test of public interest. Is the very young age of a defendant a proper consideration for the CPS when making that public interest test?
My Lords, Amendment 89 is also in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who cannot be with us today but has faithfully promised to support it. I have a Private Member’s Bill on this same subject which is awaiting its Second Reading. Suffice to say, on at least two previous occasions, it has gone through all its stages in this House, but the general election intervened last time and halted its progress. Let me assure the House that the Bill is not going to be put into the long grass. I will come back again and again until we find some success in its implementation.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for her support of this amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his kind words, and my noble friend Lord German, who took up this issue in Committee when I was hospitalised on that particular day.
The amendment is designed to raise the country’s unusually low age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12. At present in England and Wales, children are deemed to be criminally responsible from the age of 10. This provision was last amended over 50 years ago, in 1963, when the age of criminal responsibility was raised from eight to 10 by the Children and Young Persons Act of that year. This means that children who are too young to attend secondary school can be prosecuted and receive a criminal record. A 10 year-old who commits a “grave crime”, which includes serious, violent and sexual crimes but can also include burglary, will be tried in an adult Crown Court. A child of 10 or 11 who is accused with an adult will also be tried in the Crown Court.
The age of criminal responsibility in the United Kingdom is the lowest in Europe. In Ireland, in 2006 the age was raised to 12, with exceptions for homicide, rape or aggravated sexual assault. Even in Scotland, where the age of criminal responsibility is particularly low at eight, legislation in 2010 provided that children cannot be prosecuted below the age of 12. Outside the British Isles, the age of criminal responsibility is invariably higher: in Holland it is 12; in France it is 13; in Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Romania it is 14. In most European countries it ranges between 14 and 18. Across Europe, the average age is 14.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly stated that our minimum age of criminal responsibility is not compatible with our obligation under international standards of juvenile justice and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In a statement in 1997 the committee said:
“States parties are encouraged to increase their lower minimum age of criminal responsibility to the age of 12 years as the absolute minimum age and to continue to increase it to a higher age level”.
In subsequent reports in 2005 and 2007, the committee reiterated that a minimum age below 12 is not internationally acceptable. Recently the committee recommended that the UK should
“raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility in accordance with acceptable international standards”.
Taking 10 to 11 year-olds out of the criminal justice system will not mean doing nothing with children who offend. It would mean doing what other countries do with 10 and 11 year-old offenders; it would mean doing what we do with delinquent nine year-olds. In other words, it would mean dealing with the causes of these children’s offending through intervention by children’s services teams.
In the majority of cases where court proceedings are necessary, it would mean bringing children before family court proceedings, which can impose compulsory measures of supervision and care. In the most serious cases this can mean detention for significant periods in secure accommodation, but this would be arranged as part of care proceedings, rather than as a custodial punishment imposed in criminal proceedings.
Those who oppose increasing the age of criminal responsibility often argue that children of 10 to 12 are capable of telling right from wrong, as though it automatically follows that they should therefore be dealt with in criminal courts, but this does not logically follow. Most six year-olds have a sense of right and wrong, but no one suggests that they should be subject to criminal prosecution. In 2012, the Centre for Social Justice, which was set up by the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, produced a report on the youth justice system entitled Rules of Engagement: Changing the Heart of Youth Justice. It said:
“There is now a significant body of research evidence indicating that early adolescence (under 13-14 years of age) is a period of marked neurodevelopmental immaturity, during which children’s capacity is not equivalent to that of an older adolescent or adult. Such findings cast doubt on the culpability and competency of early adolescents to participate in the criminal process and this raises the question of whether the current MACR, at ten, is appropriate.”
The evidence from international research is overwhelming. There is extensive evidence from neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists demonstrating the developmental immaturity of young children. The Royal Society, in its report Neuroscience and the Law, concluded in 2011 that,
“it is clear that at the age of ten the brain is developmentally immature, and continues to undergo important changes linked to regulating one’s own behaviour.”
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has expressed the view, based on similar evidence, that our age of criminal responsibility is too low. The research shows that children of 10 and 11 have less ability to think through the consequences of their actions, less ability to empathise with other people’s feelings, a greater level of impressionability and suggestibility, and less ability to control impulsive behaviour. So while 10 year-olds may know that stealing something is wrong, their ability to apply that knowledge to their actions will be very different from that of an 18 year-old. This does not mean that children aged 10 or 11 have no responsibility for their actions, but on any reasonable interpretation of the evidence they must be regarded as less responsible than an older adolescent or an adult. It cannot be right to deal with such young children in a criminal process which assumes a capacity for mature, adult-like decision-making.
The Beijing rules on juvenile justice state that the age of criminal responsibility,
“should not be set at too low an age level, bearing in mind the facts of emotional, mental and developmental immaturity.”
The official commentary to the rules states that,
“there is a close relationship between the notion of responsibility for delinquent and criminal behaviour and other social rights and responsibilities”.
It is therefore significant that in no other area of the law, whether it is the age for paid employment, the age for buying a pet, the age of consent to sexual activity, or the age for smoking and drinking, do we regard children as fully competent to take informed decisions until later in adolescence. The age of criminal responsibility is an anomalous exception. In relation to the age of consent to sexual activity, for example, we regard any purported consent as irrelevant in order to protect children from abuse or immature sexual experimentation. It is completely illogical that we regard immaturity in this context as worthy of protection by law, but we take a diametrically opposite approach when it comes to criminal responsibility.
A 30 year-old with the mental age of a 10 year-old child would probably be regarded as unfit to plead, so why do we see a child of 10 as capable of participating in the criminal justice process? The illogicality of our current law is increasingly recognised. The Law Commission concluded in its report Unfitness to Plead that the age of criminal responsibility is not founded on any logical or principled basis and that
“there may be sound policy reasons for looking afresh at the age of criminal responsibility”.
In Northern Ireland an independent review commissioned by the then Minister of Justice in 2011 recommended an immediate increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, and a further scoping study made a similar recommendation. In Scotland an advisory group recommended that there should be an immediate increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12.
It is sometimes argued that there is no need to raise the age of criminal responsibility because the number of 10 and 11 year-olds who receive youth justice disposals is small: in 2015-16 a total of 360 were cautioned or convicted. Even though this represents a small proportion of those going through the criminal justice system, what happens to more than 300 vulnerable children can hardly be regarded as unimportant. The fact that the numbers involved are relatively small is, in fact, a strong argument for the amendment. It means that it will not be a huge burden in terms of resources to make alternative provision through welfare interventions and, where necessary, family court proceedings for the children who would otherwise have been charged and prosecuted.
Nor would dealing with children through non-criminal processes put the public at risk. On the contrary, dealing with 10 and 11 year-old children through non-criminal procedures would be more effective than using any criminal justice process. The evidence shows that children dealt with through the criminal justice process are more likely to reoffend than those diverted from the criminal justice system and dealt with in other ways. Children officially labelled as offenders often react by trying to live up to the label and acting in increasingly delinquent ways to achieve status in front of their friends.
A briefing on my previous Bill was circulated by the Criminal Justice Alliance, which has a membership of 125 organisations involved in the criminal justice system. The briefing concludes that with the numbers so low, the resources needed to execute a shift towards treating these vulnerable children through a welfare lens, rather than the criminal justice system, would be small, while the benefits for them and for wider society would be very considerable.
As the Centre for Social Justice report put it, raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility
“would achieve important changes. Young children would not be tarred with the stigmatising ‘offender’ label, which, the evidence shows can exacerbate delinquency, and would more likely have their victim status and welfare needs addressed, which the evidence suggests are currently often neglected.”
Children who go through the criminal process at a young age are often young people from chaotic, dysfunctional and traumatic backgrounds involving a combination of poor parenting, physical or sexual abuse, conflict within families, substance abuse or mental health problems. The prospects for diverting the child from offending will be far better if these problems are tackled through welfare interventions, rather than by imposing punishments in a criminal court. A welfare approach would avoid unnecessarily giving children a criminal record, which can make it harder for them to gain employment when they reach working age. As unemployment increases the chances of reoffending, this is another way in which criminalising children can increase rather than reduce the likelihood of future crime.
Of the 10 and 11 year olds who are charged and prosecuted each year, very few receive a custodial sentence—in some years none does. But although the number of serious child offenders is small, the public will obviously want to be assured that raising the age of criminal responsibility will not increase the risk from these young people.
Some people who generally support raising the age of criminal responsibility argue that an exception should be made for the most extreme cases, such as homicide or serious sexual offences. It is difficult to see the logic of this approach. The most serious child offenders invariably have the most complex welfare needs. Their backgrounds include: experience of serious physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect; parental mental illness; rejection and abandonment by adults; traumatic loss; conduct disorders; and serious emotional disturbances. They need a welfare-based approach—in secure care if necessary—to help them face their unresolved trauma, to develop and mature emotionally, to reach an appropriate sense of guilt, and to learn to control their emotional and aggressive behaviour.
The boys who killed James Bulger, who were rightly mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, were aged 10 at the time of the killing and 11 when they were tried. Most foreign commentators were amazed that children of that age should be tried in an adult Crown Court. They questioned whether such young children could really understand the complexity of a lengthy criminal prosecution and trial, whether they should have appeared in the full glare of media coverage, whether they understood all the issues and the language of the trial, whether they could give sensible instructions to their lawyers, and whether their decision not to give evidence was simply due to being frightened of speaking in such a setting.
Even though some changes have been made to court processes involving children since then, it remains true that exposing such young children to a criminal trial is no way to achieve justice. Moreover, the case took nine months to come to trial, during which time the defendants received no treatment or therapeutic help in case it prejudiced their pleas. This is a completely unacceptable way to deal with young defendants and one that would be unthinkable anywhere else in Europe. It should be equally unthinkable in the United Kingdom. The two boys should have been dealt with in family proceedings and detained in secure accommodation without all the ill effects that resulted from a public Crown Court trial.
I commend my amendment to the House. If it were to become law, it would represent an important step towards dealing with child offenders in a way that was more humane, more in line with the reality of children’s development and more effective than our current approach in addressing the environmental and welfare needs that cause the offending. This is one of the shortest amendments I have introduced, but, if implemented, it will change the shape of the criminal justice system for our children.
My Lords, it is late, and I have very little to add to this debate, since it has already been extensively outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and other speakers, save this. I have extensive experience of working with educators from many jurisdictions, including all those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and many beyond. Some will have, as I have myself, worked with a small number of 10 year-olds who, for a variety of reasons usually to do with adverse childhood experiences, behave in ways that are exceedingly difficult to manage—and some can, under certain circumstances, become aggressive or violent. But what I know is that educators from all those jurisdictions, in general, understand that 10 is simply too young to be an age of criminal responsibility, and many from the countries mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and many others are astounded it is 10 in England.
Ten year-olds, as my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti has said, need to be nurtured if they have hitherto had circumstances in their short lives that have damaged them seriously. In my own view, 12 is still too young to be an age of criminal responsibility, and had the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, been able to be in her place tonight, she would certainly, I am sure, have listed all the jurisdictions that have an age significantly above 12, as well as notably, as referenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. But it is the case that a move from 10 to 12 would be a move in the right direction, and I hope the Government will consider this seriously.
My Lords, we have two amendments before us in the sense of concept. I will take Amendment 88A first and then Amendments 89 and 90 together—they raise quite discrete issues.
Amendment 88A is twofold. It requires the centralised monitoring of youth remand decisions made by the court and the laying of a report of findings before Parliament on an annual basis. On centralised monitoring, as I made clear in Committee, courts will now be required to provide the reasons for their decision in writing. This will be provided to the child, their legal representative and the youth offending team, and it goes beyond what courts already do at present. The record will therefore provide qualitative information, which is not currently readily available. That will enable us and partners in the criminal justice system to understand and better monitor the reasons given for the use of custodial remand.
However, those decisions are complex. We should not prescribe in law at this time how the information should be collected and processed. I am also mindful not to impose unrealistic burdens on operations. As I have indicated previously, HMCTS is also currently designing a new digital case management system, which will deliver better data capturing and reporting. We will consider the best way to collect, analyse and, if appropriate, publish that information.
On the second point, as I explained in Committee, my department already regularly publishes statistics on remand: youth justice statistics are published annually; youth custodial statistics are published monthly. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, will agree that our objectives are in fact aligned here, and understand the need for pragmatism at this time. I therefore urge him to withdraw Amendment 88A.
Amendments 89 and 90, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years and require a review of the age of criminal responsibility. As I have said before, the primary objective of the youth justice system is to prevent children offending in the first place. Where it occurs, we must provide the police and courts with effective tools to tackle offending. That is why we believe that setting the age of criminal responsibility at 10 is the correct response. It provides flexibility in dealing with children and allows for early intervention with the aim of preventing subsequent offending.
Importantly, having the age of criminal responsibility at 10 does not preclude other types of intervention where they would be a better and more proportionate response. This could include diversion from the criminal justice system in the first place. I can answer with a simple “yes” my noble friend Lord Attlee’s question about whether the age of the child is taken into account by the CPS as part of the public interest test. Diversion from the criminal justice system is happening in practice. There has been a dramatic fall since 2009 in the number of children aged between 10 and 12 years in the youth justice system. We want that downward trend to continue.
As I said in Committee, no 10 or 11 year-old has received a custodial sentence since 2010. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, talked about never seeing a 10 or 11 year-old in court. In response to the specific point about criminal damage or arson, in 2020, 171 children were proceeded against for either criminal damage or arson. Of those, the number aged either 10 or 11 was zero. We discussed the appalling Bulger case in Committee. It is a rare case, but it is important that when awful cases such as that arise, we have the correct mechanisms to deal with them.
The fact is that there are a range of approaches across Europe—and the wider world—to the age of criminal responsibility. Other European countries also have an age of criminal responsibility set at 10. The noble Baroness, Lady Blower, said that she was astounded that we had the age of 10, but so does Switzerland—not a country one normally associates with human rights breaches—and I suggest that neither Switzerland nor the UK is in contravention of our international obligations.
In the Republic of Ireland, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, mentioned, children aged 10 and 11 can be prosecuted for the most serious offences, such as murder or rape, although it is fair to say that the general age of criminal responsibility there sits higher, at 12. There can therefore be reasonable differences of opinion. I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, when she says it is about whether or not you care about other people’s children. Switzerland cares about other people’s children, as does this country. We have set the age of criminal responsibility at 10.
In response to the specific, private international law seminar question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about, I think, a Scots child who comes to England, the short answer is that you will be subject to the criminal law in the jurisdiction where you are present when you commit the offence. I will check but I am not going to get into extradition now, especially as it is intra-UK and even more so because it is after 11.15 pm. Let us leave the seminar there, but that is a short answer to the question.
It is therefore not as simple as saying that our age of criminal responsibility should be the same as that in other countries; countries differ. The age of maturity of the child is considered at all stages of the youth justice system in England and Wales, as I said, from the decision to prosecute in the first place through to the most appropriate sentencing outcome and then, if there is a sentence, to supporting the child in completing that sentence and moving towards a life beyond crime. We believe the current age is appropriate and there is no need to either change or review it.
I shall briefly pick up two other points. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, rather threw a load of statistics at me. I will have to look at the Official Report and send her a note on those.
As for voting age, it is very tempting to get into that debate even at this late hour but I respectfully suggest that it would be to mix apples and iPads; they are completely separate topics. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
The Minister referred to the diversion of young people who might end up in the criminal justice system but are sent down other paths. Can he tell me, either now or in the future—I understand that he may not have the figures to hand—whether the Government have statistics on the demographic characteristics of which children get diverted and which go into the criminal justice system? I am aware that I recited quite a few figures, but they show that there is a greatly increased percentage of children from certain backgrounds who seem to end up in the criminal justice system, which suggests that diversion is working for some but not for others.
I am happy to respond in writing a little more fully, but I can say—with the caveat that I absolutely share concerns about ethnicity proportions in the youth justice system, and indeed through the criminal justice system generally—that the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic children entering the youth justice system for the first time fell in the decade between 2009 and 2019 by 76%. So there is progress but there is still work to be done. I will look at the Official Report and write with anything further.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 88A withdrawn.
Amendments 89 and 90 not moved.
Consideration on Report adjourned.
House adjourned at 11.19 pm.