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Mr. Wallace: The hon. Lady and I, together with the Minister, sat on a Committee considering the Children (Scotland) Bill two years ago. The Committee took evidence and sat for many weeks considering appropriate measures for young children. Does the hon. Lady recall--I certainly do not--any suggestion by the Government that such a measure was appropriate or necessary?

Mrs. Fyfe: The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point, and he is correct. At no time was it suggested that this was an appropriate course of action for under-16 offenders. The Committee was united in welcoming the fact that the hearing system had worked so effectively over the years and, as the hon. Gentleman has just pointed out, few cases involving under-16s were considered serious enough to be dealt with in a court. The relevance of the amendment is highly questionable.

With such widespread critical comment on the proposals, including from the police, why is the Minister pursuing the amendment? In particular, given that we have agreed that a pilot scheme should go ahead in relation to adult offenders, what is the purpose of opposing such a scheme for under-16s? Are the Government waiting to see the outcome of the other scheme?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) raised the objections of the police to extension of the scheme to children's panels. We listened to the responses, and we are not doing that. We believe that electronically monitored disposals will provide a useful means of dealing with offenders. The Bill currently limits the use of such disposals to offenders aged at least 16. We considered that we should also examine the potential in relation to younger offenders.

In November, we issued a consultation paper seeking views on that, specifically in the context of our children's hearing system. The consultation period ended on 4 January, with most respondents expressing reservations about the use of electronic monitoring by children's hearings. Various reasons were given. It was suggested that such a disposal would be out of keeping with the ethos of the hearing system, for example, and that it should be piloted with adult offenders in the criminal justice system first. We took account of the views, and of the fact that, even if given the power, hearings would probably make little use of it until its value had been proven in the criminal justice system. We therefore concluded that the Bill should not make electronically monitored disposals available to children's hearings.

9.30 pm

Mr. Dalyell: I feel that it behoves those of us who did not serve on the Committee to be a bit reticent at this stage of the Bill's passage, but may I ask what advice the Government are receiving from the police?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: I understand that the police were reserved about the extension of the power

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to children's panels. The responses were overwhelmingly opposed to it, and we listened to those responses. It has been suggested--by, for instance, the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall)--that relatively few people under 16 would come before the courts, and, in fact, that is so. In 1994, only 171 young offenders had a charge proved against them in court. Nevertheless, in some such cases, the courts might consider an electronically monitored restriction of liberty order--perhaps in conjunction with a probation order--to be an appropriate disposal, for example in the case of a football hooligan or a persistent shoplifter.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): Will the Minister tell us in a little more detail the exact nature of most of the cases that were taken to a juvenile court rather than a children's panel? The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) made a good point: he said that it seemed to him that any case that was referred to a court rather than a children's panel was likely to involve an offence to which a restriction of liberty order would not be appropriate.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: That is not necessarily so. The cases that go before the court are the more serious--

Ms Roseanna Cunningham: Will the Minister give way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: Let me finish. I have not had a chance to answer the question.

It may well be that, for a football hooligan, a person who has committed an assault in certain circumstances or a persistent shoplifter, a restriction of liberty order, coupled with a probation order, might be more appropriate than prison. We consider that that option should be available. We think that a pilot scheme is the correct way to proceed, and that such a scheme should be properly evaluated and assessed in due course.

Mr. McFall rose--

Mr. Wallace rose--

Ms Cunningham rose--

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: I give way to the hon. Member for Dumbarton.

Mr. McFall: I thank the Minister.

The Minister referred to the 171 children under 16 against whom a charge had been proved. He knows that 25 of those were detained, and that 46 cases were admitted to children's hearings. The penalty in most of the remaining 100 cases was split between probation, in 32 cases; financial penalties, in 30 cases; and caution and admonition, in 32 cases. Only a small number of young people--25--went to court. Does the Minister agree that those would be very serious offenders, and that tagging would therefore be inappropriate? I am perplexed about why the Government introduced such a measure, and the statistics make their case even weaker.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: I merely suggest that the option should be available to the courts. I cannot

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conceive of all the circumstances that will arise, but it is a useful option. The hon. Member for Dumbarton said that young persons should not be sent to prison for fine default, for example, but should have the option to serve non-custodial sentences in the community.

Ms Cunningham rose--

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: I must proceed and spell out our intentions.

We have decided that courts should be able to use restriction of liberty orders for young offenders whom they sentence. Although that group of people may be small in number, they are often guilty of particularly serious offences that seriously disrupt the lives of people in their communities. I accept that, in some cases, their offences will definitely warrant a custodial sentence. In other cases, it may be preferable to confine them to their homes and to use electronic monitoring to ensure that they stay there.

If a young offender is confined to his home, and that confinement is monitored rigorously by electronic means, he cannot be out on the streets disrupting the community by serious acts of violence or dishonesty. It may also help the young offender to break free from the malevolent influence of older offenders with whom he has been mixing.

Some Opposition parties are not enthusiastic about the use of electronic monitoring, especially for young offenders: objections to it have been made throughout the passage of the Bill. Indeed, the Opposition objected on Second Reading, and their objections lay at the heart of the reasoned amendment that would have killed the Bill stone dead. We do not want to deny the courts the option of tagging when dealing with young offenders who commit serious and disruptive crimes. Such a disposal could provide a measure of protection to the public, enabling the offender to address the offending behaviour without having to resort to a custodial disposal. We believe that that would be a useful option in some cases, and I commend the Government's amendments to the House.

Ms Cunningham: I was trying to intervene on the Minister to ask him to tell us how many of the 171 young offenders to whom he referred will be affected by the proposal. If only 25 of that 171 end up in court, how many of that 25 will be affected? Are we talking about two or three individuals next year? Is that what it is all about? The people of Scotland have a right to know that the Government, while supposedly making some wonderful gesture for the future of criminal justice, are in reality introducing a proposal that will affect only two or three of that 25. I want a direct response to my question.

It is interesting that the Government have introduced the Bill supposedly in response to a consultation process. The proposal has met with widespread opposition from children's agencies, local authorities and the police, but the Minister has not mentioned that. The Scottish Child Law Centre considers that one of the main problems of the scheme is that it is not based on an understanding of children's offending behaviour. A spokesperson for the centre said:


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    tying the child to an abusive relationship which could be the whole reason behind the offending."

We must deal with that issue.

Mrs. Fyfe: The hon. Lady has raised an important point. Not a minute ago, the Minister said that tagging could ensure that the child stayed at home, which is precisely where abuse, if there is any, is likely to take place.

Ms Cunningham: The hon. Lady is right. The child's home may be the problem, but the Minister does not address that issue. Branding children in that way may make it much more difficult for them to change and to learn from their mistakes.

I should like to hear the Minister address the issues that have been raised by the police. I understand that they expressed concern that, obversely, the tags may be a status symbol for some children and will have the opposite effect to the one claimed by the Minister. Did the police say that? If the potential for encouraging disruptive behaviour presented by such a status symbol is enough for the police to express concern, why are the Government pressing on with the measure?

In Committee, the Minister said that there must be consultation about young persons and added that he had nothing further to say other than that he would assess the responses. From what he has said in today's debate, instead of assessing the responses, he has ignored them, and that is not a responsible way for the Government to behave. I hope that the Minister will deal directly with the issues and give direct answers to questions.


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