Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Clarke: We will keep an open mind, but I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman. The Government's firm view, after much consideration, is the one that I have set out today. We would need a great deal of persuasion that we had not chosen the right course. As I said earlier, it is not as if a great issue of principle is at stake; it is a question of doing what is most effective when dealing with that age group. We believe that it is best to intervene directly, and that can be done under the youth offending team structure set up by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. It is not simply a question of dealing with the expensive hangovers that might afflict the Wooster types on boat race night, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey talked about.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Minister for his understanding of the proper debate. If the Government hold to that view on the youth offenders team system—which is one that we support—does it not follow that the difference in penal treatment should apply at 18 and not 17? Should not those under 18 be kept in young offenders institutions?

Mr. Clarke: I will not be drawn into more general arguments about the youth offenders system. When we came to office in 1997, we felt strongly that the system of youth justice was not as it should be and needed major reform. For that reason, we made important policy commitments in the area and established the regime that we have.

I concede that the kind of approach that we have talked about in relation to young offenders may have important lessons for the future as we go up the age range. Certainly, that must be the case if redemption is to be a possibility in the criminal justice system. The reason that we have decided that young people should be the priority—and the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with it—is that that is where the problem is greatest and where early intervention is most important to prevent the development of offending habits.

Mr. Heald: Some exceptions already exist, such as the fixed penalty notice scheme for motoring offences, which will apply to 17-year-olds. That remains outside the scheme of reprimands and final warnings and young offenders teams. The Minister tells us that the guidance will state that only the minor examples should be served with a fixed penalty notice. Should those not constitute a different category of offence from the serious examples that should lead to more serious considerations? Or is he saying the opposite? In the latter case, can we have the guidance?

Mr. Clarke: We will do our best to ensure that the Committee has the draft guidance before it rises. That is our intention.

To conclude, I will tell a story. A young man in my constituency, who lives about two streets from me, two Fridays ago, at the age of 17, got drunk celebrating his birthday. He was refused admission to a nightclub because he was so drunk, and a taxi driver refused to pick him up. He disappeared and has not been found. He was at the same school as my son. In our neighbourhood, his disappearance is the biggest issue: all the families think all the time about what has happened to him. Many think that he fell into the river, but nobody knows. His disappearance is traumatising the city of Norwich.

Suppose that event had not happened, but the boy had committed the type of offence that we are talking about, and suppose the system had worked in a much better way. I am glad to report that the clubs are now dealing with such situations in a much better way. They have learned lessons from that awful tragedy. Would it be better to have a form of intervention that said to the boy, ``You shouldn't behave like that in the future. These will be the consequences if you do''? Alternatively, would it be better for a fixed penalty notice to be slapped on him, which his parents might pay?

The intervention is the key thing. It is a question of saying to the individual, ``This is how you behave or don't behave.'' I accept that there is weight in the hon. Gentleman's point, and I am not trying in what I have said to dismiss what he is saying. I do not regard it as a trivial or trite or party political point. However, we have built our reforms of the youth justice system on the proposition of telling young people that they must not behave in certain ways. The fixed penalty offences set out in clause 1 are precisely the offences where intervention has the greatest chance of making a difference. There are comparisons with the driving offences, but they are not strong. That is why I stick to our position, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing the amendment, well meant though it is.

Mr. Heald: I accept that it would be right to give the matter further thought, but I have some doubts about the Minister's reply. If the police are dealing with two youngsters, one over 18 and one just under 18, it is difficult for them to act fairly or even to identify the age difference correctly. That is a practical problem.

We all recognise that minor offences can be dealt with by fixed penalty notices, as happens with motoring. Although I agree that there is clearly a need for intervention when a young person goes badly off the rails, I cannot help thinking of all the children of prominent people who have been found drunk or have committed some minor indiscretion. The idea that each of them needs to be brought before a young offenders team and given the full treatment is wrong.

At what level will fixed penalty notices be issued? Will they be used for the most minor matters, which most of us say do not require a great deal of intervention, or will they be pitched at a higher level, in which case more serious offences will be undervalued? Although the Minister is annoyed by the fact that I keep asking to see the draft guidance, it is fair to do so, given that he has said that matters of discretion arising from the Bill will be decided by officers on the basis of that guidance. It is also fair to say that we do not know how he will pitch the level of fixed penalties. Our view on them would depend on whether he pitched them at a high or low level. We need to see the information on the order under clause 3, or at least to know what he has in mind.

Although I do not promise that it will not return on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 3, line 6, after `penalty', insert

    `, and in the case of a penalty offence under section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, compensation,'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 12, in clause 3, page 3, line 16, at end insert—

    `(2A) The Secretary of State may, in respect of a penalty offence contrary to section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 specify the amount of compensation for which a person may be liable.'.

No. 13, in clause 3, page 3, line 24, after `penalty', insert

    `and, as the case may be, compensation'.

Mr. Heald: I am afraid that it is me again. The amendments would enable the Secretary of State to set a level of compensation that could be awarded to the victim in addition to the fixed penalty. My preferred option is not to have criminal damage in clause 1(1). The Minister knows that we feel strongly about that, because we argued about it a good deal. The fact that we voted against clause 1 standing part of the Bill was substantially for that reason: I do not think that victims should be deprived of compensation rights in such circumstances.

Fixed penalty notices will be used in cases involving damage of a low value, typically under £200. Victims will not want to go to civil courts to recover such damage, as the cost in terms of time would outweigh the advantage. For those victims, the awarding of compensation on conviction is simple and straightforward. They can rely on it. They may have to wait a little to receive their money, for the reasons that the Parliamentary Secretary gave, but the compensation will still be there and paid first.

I do not want to hark back to my personal experience all the time, but I have worked on many criminal cases, and compensation claims are always considered important by the CPS and the prosecution. When one takes part in a case in court, the prosecution brief always reminds one not to forget about the compensation claim. It would be wrong for us to trample down that state of affairs because we are introducing a new system. A fixed, perhaps low, level of compensation might be necessary. I can see that the fixed penalty would—obviously—be fixed, but at least a constable could decide, when the amount was higher than specified in the regulations, that it would be necessary to charge the person concerned, because compensation would be unacceptable. In some instances, the damage to the property would come to slightly less than the amount fixed. Perhaps the order could provide for some element of recompense for the distress caused by the offence.

7.15 pm

A simple system is necessary. It might be possible to find a way to provide compensation through the fixed penalty notice system. If that is not possible, I still argue that it is wrong to deny compensation to victims of criminal damage simply because an officer exercises his discretion to opt for a fixed penalty notice. I shall take a lot of persuading that I am wrong about that. All too often, victims have not been given the consideration that they deserve. Criminal damage is a nasty, mean offence and we should not deprive its victims of compensation.

I imagine that the Minister will tell me that the amendments are technically defective. We did our best. If he can come up with a way of dealing with the thorny problem that we have identified, we shall be happy to think about that.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am sympathetic to the amendment. The technicalities can be dealt with later, but compensation is important. I think that the Government agree that a system of justice should allow the person who commits an offence to repay something to the person against whom it was committed. That direct link between the person whose property was damaged and the offender is appropriate.

The Minister knows my view about the system and will remember that in response to the Government's first list of offences to be covered by fixed penalty notices I said that in cases of significant criminal damage, in which the culprit could be identified, a fixed penalty notice system was appropriate, because of the lesser risk of misidentification and so on. It follows that if criminal damage is included in the system, a compensation option should be established. We should not foreclose compensation if the police choose to take the fixed penalty option. I maintain my reservations about the system as a whole.

 
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Prepared 6 February 2001