Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Simon Hughes: The amendment would significantly improve the clause, and I shall support it.

Mr. Charles Clarke: As the hon. Gentleman has stated, the effect of the amendment would be to change the tests that the constable would have to apply before issuing a penalty notice. Instead of having reason to believe that an offence has been committed, he or she would have to have reasonable grounds to believe. The phrase ``having reason to believe'' is a test that is applied in the case of other fixed penalties such as those for road traffic. It is an appropriate test for schemes such as this that are based on consent, and has no impact on the fundamental rights of the individual—to go to court for example. If individuals receiving penalty notices do not believe that the grounds are reasonable, they may challenge the allegation in court.

We are not talking about a criminal standard as cited by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, as I think that he would acknowledge. The fixed penalty notice in no sense removes the right of individuals to go to court if they feel that the matter is not dealt with properly. In those circumstances, the type of test that applies in the case of other fixed penalties is appropriate. I hope that on the basis of my explanation, the hon. Gentleman will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Heald: I am prepared to give the matter some further thought, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 2, line 39, leave out `18' and insert

    `16 or over, or (in the case of a penalty offence which may only be committed by a person aged 18 or over) aged 18'.

The amendment would reduce the age at which a person could receive a notice to 16. Clearly, many of the offences about which we have been talking are often committed by those under 18. The Library estimated the figure as 25 per cent. of all offences, although for some offences that figure is as low as 10 per cent, and for others it is higher than 25 per cent.

Many of those who commit offences are in the 16-to-18-year age range. Many of those who responded to the consultation exercise undertaken by the Government supported the idea of including 16 to 18-year-olds. For example, Alcohol Concern supported the idea and the Association of Chief Police Officers was generally in agreement. The Association of Chief Officers of Probation said that one benefit might be to bring a child's behaviour to the notice of his or her parents, so there is an element of support there.

Why has the Minister decided not to choose 16 as the age at which a person can be served with a fixed penalty notice? I raise two other issues. First, if an officer is out dealing with an incident, there may be difficulties in differentiating 16 and 17-year-olds from 18 and 19-year-olds. It would be easier for the police if the age were set at 16. Secondly, different disposals could be used with the same group of youths in a way that might not be entirely fair. For example, if a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old were involved in an incident and the police decided to charge the one who was under 18 because he could not be given a fixed penalty notice, but the one who was over 18 was given a notice, it would be ridiculous. The older person would receive what most people would consider to be a lesser disposal than the younger one. Equally, if the police decided to caution the 17-year-old while serving a fixed penalty notice on the 18-year-old, the older boy might feel that that was unfair, because they had both been involved in the same incident.

Mr. Hawkins: I endorse my hon. Friend's argument. I know of a parallel case involving offences that related partly to motoring and partly to dishonesty that took place in my constituency in the past three months. The young defendant, because he was involved both in the dishonesty and was at the wheel of a motor car, was potentially at risk of a more serious penalty. The matter was ultimately dealt with under the new procedures on caution, but the issue nevertheless arose under the law as it stands. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to continuing problems under the proposals.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. As he may recall, on Second Reading my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is knowledgeable about such matters, referred to the difficulties involved in differentiation and the different disposals that might result. Will the Minister explain his decision and why he has ignored, or not taken on board, the views of such bodies?

The Minister might ask why we are suggesting 16, not 14. For the proposals in the Bill that relate to child curfew orders, he has chosen 16 as the cut-off point. The age of 16 is generally recognised as the end of practical childhood, especially in many social work and housing contexts. For various social reasons, 16 has a certain resonance as an age that defines the gap between a child and an adult, although 18 is the age of majority. I do not believe that our suggestion would present a particular problem, and making 16 the starting point for the orders would avoid difficulties.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am looking forward to the debate. The Conservative spokesman has made a logical proposition given that the proposal for fixed penalty notices has, for the time being at least, been accepted in principle following the debate on clause 1.

The Government have proposed in the Bill a package of measures. The curfew system is to be expanded until the age of 16. As we shall hear later, people will be swept up by the curfew until they are 16, and will receive fixed penalty notices after they are 18. However, in discussing how best to deal with disorderly behaviour, people generally make the case that such behaviour often involves people between the ages of 16 and 18—aged either 16 or 17.

I do not know the Parliamentary Secretary and his constituency as well as I know the Minister of State, but I presume that he lives in the real world and realises that, although in theory people cannot buy alcohol until they are 18, they do, and that they drink, get drunk, become disorderly and do all the other wicked things on the Government's list. Given that fact, it seems logical to apply the same principle to people between 16 and 18 as applies to those over the age of 18.

My party takes the view that we should be straightforward about the matter and that people should be treated as adults from the age of 16. They should be able to vote at 16—they already pay tax. They can marry at 16, and we have just legislated that they can have same-sex relationships at that age. We propose that 16 should be the age, and that 18 should be the age at which people may stand for elected office if we want them to have a couple of years of being able to vote for people before they may stand. The logic is that people become adults at 16 and the criminal justice system should treat them as adults.

Herein lies the problem because, unless I am mistaken, the criminal justice system treats people as becoming adults at 17. That is the age at which a person goes from being a young offender to an adult offender and from being put away in a young offenders institution to being in an adult prison. In the Bill, we should at least try, even if only partially, to end the anomalies and differences. We should at least try to be consistent and take account of the age at which people are free from their parents' authority, and can therefore leave school, marry and, by definition, have their own household and be accepted on to local authority housing lists, along with all the other aspects of life that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire describes. It seems sensible to include 16-year-olds in provisions for adults under the criminal justice system.

The Government should be logical and set an age at which people move from being classed as young people under the criminal justice system to being adults. The age should be 16 years—school-leaving age—and we should treat young people of that age as adults not only under the Bill, but in all respects, as they are in many other walks of life.

6.45 pm

I realise that people in other age groups are affected by the law—one cannot drive motor vehicles until one is 17 and one cannot drive heavy goods vehicles until one is older than that. I hope that the Government will explain their view about the age of majority and the age of adult criminal responsibility. Whether or not the Bill is enacted in the form that they want, I hope that its proposals will be consistent with other parts of the criminal justice system.

Mr. Blunt: The Bill fails the reality test. We are discussing a proposal for fixed penalty notices to deal with widespread disorder. Those who are familiar with police activities will know that young males aged 16 and 17 account for a significant amount of disorderly behaviour—they are beginning to test their powers against authority and, historically, young men have behaved in that way. The Government are proposing to give the police more flexibility and extra weapons in the battle against low-level hooliganism and misbehaviour, which so disfigures much of our society. That is why the Prime Minister came up with his initial proposal about dealing with drunken hooligans.

It is extraordinary, however, that such a proposal does not involve the behaviour of 16 and 17-year-olds because it is missing a significant part of the target. We have only to consider the offences listed in the Bill to see whether they are likely to be committed by 16 or 17-year-olds. It refers to

    ``Throwing fireworks in a thoroughfare''.

If someone aged 18 years or over was discharging fireworks dangerously, that would be an extremely serious offence. If young kids were running around with bangers, it would be a different matter. However, for 16 or 17-year-olds—those on the cusp—who really should know better and have some awareness of the effect that that action would have on people, a fixed penalty notice would perhaps be the most effective weapon in the police's armour and one to which they would want to turn.

The Bill refers also to people who

    ``Knowingly giving a false alarm to a fire brigade''.

If an adult did that, it would be immensely serious. Surely it would result in a court summons. However, if a 16 or 17-year old acts in that way, the police are in the business of judging how aware such individuals are of the consequences of their action, and a fixed penalty notice would be appropriate in such circumstances.

I have read the list of offences, bearing in mind the judgments that must be made by the police officer, and each time I come back to the view that, if a 16 or 17-year-old were involved, we would make a different set of judgments about the sort of punishment that would be appropriate than we would if the person was over 18 and into full adulthood. We are trying to give the police the flexibility to deal with low-level misbehaviour, yet we are taking it away as regards the vast number of people to whom the measure will apply.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire both referred to the fact that a curfew order can be placed on someone up to the age of 16, but there will be a lacuna for 16 to 17-year-olds, who will not be tackled by the Bill. I suppose that there is a procedural difficulty in bringing 16 and 17-year-olds within the ambit of the law. I note that the Association of Chief Officers of Probation said that there may have to be ancillary powers to make the system work if parents are to be responsible for payments for children under the age of 18.

It also makes the point that, without proof of age, determining who is or is not over 18 could be difficult, especially if there are lesser penalties for the under-18s. By giving the police these powers, we are placing them in a position where they have to make difficult judgments about on-the-spot-penalties, particularly when faced with a group of young louts aged anywhere between 11 through to 20. We are taking away from the police the flexibility that is one of the arguments for this set of penalties.

Chief Inspector Coulson of the Bedfordshire police, believes that

    ``The lower age limit for receipt of a fixed penalty should be 18 years.''

He also makes the point that

    ``Police do have difficulty in dealing formally with persons under that age and without a change in legislation the practice would be doubtful at least.''

I suspect that is what the Minister will rely on, in replying to this debate. Chief Inspector Coulson goes on to say

    ``It may be unenforceable, depending upon the nature of the offence and the circumstances surrounding it. Again, this is a legal transaction and to involve minors there must be safeguards for both the offender and the police officer.''

He is talking about the target audience, and the Government should have been able to overcome this hurdle of dealing with 16 and 17-year-olds. Most of the offences on the face of the Bill will be committed in the main by young adults—usually male, often people who are repeat offenders or are falling into criminal ways and are already identified to the local police already as members of society with a poor record. Even those who are coming to the attention of the police for the first time are likely to be in 16 or 17-year-old age group. I have seen this situation with the Fulham division of the Metropolitan police. It is a pity to go to the trouble of implementing fixed penalty notices, only to eliminate half the target to which they will apply.

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