Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): We have had an extensive debate, which has, arguably, lasted for five days with a short break. I have listened to hon. Members' views and it is even clearer to me now that it was last week that we are, in fact, discussing the direction that we want the youth justice system to take.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) underlined the binary option before us. One option is to continue in much the same vein as before. The other is to take a new approach, which regards youth offending as a symptom rather than a cause, and thus the solution as being much deeper and more profoundly connected with the treatment of the

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human condition than clause 53(1) would imply. As the Minister rightly said, one can make the case that those considerations are incorporated in part 4, in which case we are arguing about a matter of emphasis, but that emphasis is crucial. If we apply the 20-year rule and ask what someone will think of the legislation in 20 years' time, I believe that they will naturally look at clause 53 to ascertain the principal intent of this part of the Bill. That is what I am asking the Committee to consider.

As I said last week, if young people are not treated fairly, with understanding and in a way that is appropriate to their age, and, worse still, if they are put into an unsuitable environment in which their educational needs are not met and their behaviour is not challenged but simply punished, I am sure that society will reap the results later and that it will cost more in the long run.

The principle underlying amendments Nos. 278 and 284, and the other amendments in the group, is that rather than giving passive consideration to such matters, one should actively commit to rehabilitation, on the assumption that it will reduce reoffending and aid the prevention of crime more effectively than discussing sentencing, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has just done. The emphasis in the United Kingdom has been wrong for a long time. I am sure that we would all agree that the paramount consideration is to protect the public, but I would argue that the best way to achieve that is by putting the rights of the child first and by measuring the success of our intervention from the change in crime rates.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), who sadly is not here at the moment, made an interesting point. I asked the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh whether we did not want the strong propensity to offend to become a weaker propensity to offend. Yes we do want that, but putting it like that implies that we can somehow go straight to that point. We should consider the matter in another way. We want to turn a weak association with mainstream society into a strong one, so we should start at a different point and, rather than simply suppressing the desire to offend, we should nurture the desire to participate positively in society.

I return to the main point of the amendments. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough said some interesting things; he said that most crime was committed by youngsters, which is certainly an interesting statement, and that prison sentencing policy had changed. He talked a lot about sentencing, and we suggest that the kind of argument that he was making is exactly what the clause would lead Northern Ireland into. Amendment No. 278 would make us ask, instead, ''What do we have to do to stop young people from reoffending? How do we persuade an individual that he wants to play a constructive part in society?'' In that case, the requirement to suppress criminal tendencies would diminish.

The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the amendment was as useless as an early-day motion, which shows that this is not a moot debate. The

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amendments are not as useless as an early-day motion, but suggest that we should handle Northern Ireland youth justice in a different way from how it is handled anywhere else.

Mr. Garnier: I am breaching my own injunction to be brief by interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he may be confused. Of course, we want diversionary activities to prevent youngsters from offending, but the work of the youth justice system consists of catching people when they have committed offences. That is why I talked about sentencing, which does not have to mean sending youngsters to prison or young offenders institutions—it simply means dealing with them through the court system. Diversionary activities happen as much through education and parental guidance as anything else, and they should surely not have to happen through the youth justice system.

Lembit Öpik: In actual fact, the hon. and learned Gentleman has saved me time, because he lucidly described the choice that the Committee needs to make. If the Committee agrees that the youth justice system as described in the Bill should purely be concerned with what we do when young people have offended—and, on a secondary level, with what parents might have done to prevent the offence—it should vote against the amendment. If, however, like myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, the Committee feels that the

    ''principal aim of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland is to . . . promote the child's reintegration and the child assuming a constructive role in society'',

as the amendment says, it must recognise that that view is not adequately represented in the clause. That is the choice that faces us.

I want to end by giving a practical example of why the Committee should agree with the amendments. I have had some association with an organisation called Youth at Risk, which has embodied and tested the concept of tough love. That sounds a bit woolly and namby-pamby—letting kids off the hook by loving them and hugging them, to make them better people. The organisation says, however, that rather than simply creating a mindset of criminality in offenders, such a strategy gets deep inside the motivations of offenders and gives them the option to choose a different route. The statistics that the organisation has shown me in terms of reoffence are absolutely phenomenal, showing a reduction in reoffending to a fraction of its normal level. Therefore, we can see evidence that the amendments would achieve the result that we all want, by protecting the public by preventing children from offending, and ensure that those children become constructive members of society.

The arguments have been presented. I respect the Minister's remarks and I hope that hon. Members understand that there is an important decision to be made on an issue of principle. For that reason, Mr. Conway, I hope that you will allow us to have separate votes on amendments Nos. 278 and 284. There is no

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point in voting on the other amendments in the group, because all of the issues are adequately summarised by those two amendments. Now that we have had a constructive debate on the matter, I ask the Committee to consider what has been said and vote accordingly.

11 am

The Chairman: Order. Following the request made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, I shall put the question on amendment No. 278 when the debate on this group has concluded. The Committee will have an opportunity to divide on amendment No. 284 after we have disposed of the next group of amendments. At that stage, I shall ask the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh to move that amendment formally.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 19.

Division No. 17]

AYES
Calton, Mrs. Patsy Hermon, Lady
Mallon, Mr. Seamus O¨pik, Lembit

NOES
Atherton, Ms Candy Barnes, Mr. Harry Blunt, Mr. Crispin Browne, Mr. Desmond Campbell, Mr. Gregory Dobbin, Jim Francois, Mr. Mark Garnier, Mr. Edward Hayes, Mr. John Heyes, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter McIsaac, Shona McWalter, Mr. Tony Merron, Gillian Mole, Chris Stringer, Mr. Graham Turner, Mr. Andrew Tynan, Mr. Bill Woodward, Mr. Shaun

Question accordingly negatived.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I beg to move amendment No. 224, in page 30, line 41, at end insert—

    '(3A) A Guardian ad Litem will be appointed for the child in all cases where custody is a possible outcome of Court proceedings.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 252, in Clause 57, page 43, line 25, after 'representative', insert 'or Guardian ad Litem'.

Amendment No. 259, in Clause 61, page 56, line 9, after 'solicitor', insert 'or Guardian ad Litem'.

Mrs. Calton: I shall try to be brief. Others have suggested that a guardian ad litem should be appointed in order to protect the interests of young people. Interestingly, I have a different perspective on the matter from that of youth groups in Northern Ireland, because I have chaired a local authority social services committee, and I was a teacher for the best part of the past 30 years.

The thrust of the Bill is wherever possible to move children into the care system rather than into custody centres. It could be argued that there is not a massive difference between some children in the care system and others in the criminal justice system. That is why we should protect the interests of young people facing custody, to ensure that at least one appropriately legally qualified person will protect their legal interests. As the Bill stands, all those persons and bodies are responsible for the welfare of the child, but no named person takes legal responsibility. In an ideal world, it would be sufficient for those persons and

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bodies to take responsibility, but just as a child in the care system requires a guardian ad litem, so too, we believe, does the child taken into custody.

The United Nations convention on the rights of the child makes the point that children's rights require special protection. It states in the pre-amble that

    ''childhood is entitled to special care and assistance.''

Article 20 states:

    ''A child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment, shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the State.''

Some will argue that such protection could be provided simply by appointing a solicitor. I hope that the Government understand that providing a solicitor who has no special training in the protection of children's interests would be a mistake. It would not be in the best interests of the child.

Providing a guardian ad litem in every case of possible custody would be expensive. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire said, if the Government do not spend the money up front, they will have to spend it eventually; and with children the money needs to be invested at an early stage. The education and the social care worlds are beginning to understand that principle. If the Bill does not recognise that children need special care at that stage, we will ultimately have failed to protect the rights of the child—and society will pay the price. What I say is based on my experience as a teacher and my rather more limited experience as a chair of social services.

There is not much more to be said on the matter. The principle will be either accepted or rejected. We may live to see the day, 30 years on, when what I fear will happen. I would like to think that we could deal with the problem in advance.

 
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Prepared 12 February 2002