Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Francois: Mindful of your earlier remarks, Mr. Conway, I shall be brief. The amendment seeks merely to give courts greater flexibility in deciding for how long reparation orders should be in force. It would not dictate that a court should impose 160 hours. It would give the courts greater flexibility in exercising their judgment and allow them to impose a slightly longer order if it was thought that it might help with rehabilitation. It is a facilitating amendment, and I ask the Government to consider it from that point of view.

Mr. Browne: The clause provides the courts with a new community-based disposal. As the hon. Member for North Down helpfully pointed out, it broadly replicates the provisions that apply in England and Wales. The hon. Member for Reigate said that we are seeking to do a number of things differently from England and Wales. He is right, but when we seek to enact provisions broadly similar to those that apply in England and Wales, it behoves us to be consistent about the penalties that apply there and in Northern Ireland. Those penalties must also be proportionate.

Mr. Blunt: When the Minister speaks of penalties being imposed, are those penalties that are consented to?

Mr. Browne: Yes, but they are still imposed. One may consent to the imposition of them, but they are still imposed by the courts. That does not differentiate the penalties as between Northern Ireland and England and Wales, nor does it detract from the argument put by the hon. Member for North Down—which, with respect, the hon. Member for Reigate did not properly answer.

The hon. Gentleman's reference to the extension of reparation orders to 17-year-olds does not answer the point for the following reason: it is the Government's intention that reparation orders will be a low-level disposal and, as the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) rightly pointed out, it is particularly suited to younger offenders and to those who have not progressed to more serious offences. That is why they are restricted to 24 hours, and the courts will use them only in that respect. One should not underestimate the impact of 24 hour's intervention in a young person's life in such circumstances. I would also argue that the reparative nature of the order might be lost if its duration was seen as punitive in relation to the offences for which it was likely to be used. That is the important argument about proportionality.

The orders have their genesis in English legislation. Home Office research published in 2001, which

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evaluated the effectiveness of youth offending teams under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, reflects the broadly positive experience of the same order in England and Wales. For example, more than 80 per cent. of the orders were found to be completely satisfactory. That is a high level of satisfaction with the court orders imposed.

As the hon. Member for Reigate said, for more serious offences or offenders, other community orders, for example a probation order, or a community service order for those aged over 16, are available. These orders are not intended to be substitutes for others; they should be seen as part of a progression of orders that are being enacted in relation to the Bill. This order is intended to apply at the lowest level to first offenders and very young offenders.

12.30 pm

Mr. Blunt: I have listened to the Minister and I am disappointed that the Government's position is not more flexible. I want to take up one point about whether the orders will provide proportionate reparation. The maximum order that can be imposed is 24 hours, and 24 hours at the minimum wage amounts to about £100 worth of labour. Only in the minority of cases will the victim have suffered £100 worth of harm and will such an order bring the offender to justice. Any amount of vandalism or theft is extremely likely to involve loss equivalent to more than £100.

Mr. Browne: I would not like the Committee to suppose that this way of thinking, which reduces everything to pounds and pence, is the Government's way of thinking. It may be the Opposition's thinking that the effectiveness of orders and disposals by the court should be reflected in monetary terms.

Mr. Blunt: No, the Opposition are thinking about the victims, who will be told that the maximum reparation that they can receive towards the hurt that they have endured is an order worth 24 hours of work by a young person. The victim may think that that is insulting given the hurt and damage that he or she may have suffered. By setting such a restriction on the number of hours, part of the clause's purpose—enabling the victim to feel that he or she is part of the process and can gain proper reparation—would be lost.

Mr. Turner: Does my hon. Friend accept that when an adult commits a crime, there are other means by which he or she can be required to pay compensation, but when a young person commits a crime, it is unlikely that they will have any assets on which to draw to pay compensation to the victim? In such circumstances, it is not at all unfair to reduce the matter to pounds, shillings and pence.

Mr. Blunt: I agree with my hon. Friend, who puts the point well.

I do not want to detain the Committee further on this point. I regret that there is no flexibility in the Government's thinking. We shall consider how best to draft amendments that will meet our concerns about the age-related nature of the issue and ensure consistency throughout the system, and we shall

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return to the subject on Report with the victim firmly in mind. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lady Hermon: I beg to move amendment No. 265, in page 33, leave out line 22.

The Chairman: With this we may also consider amendment No. 266, in clause 55, page 34, leave out line 29.

Lady Hermon: If Committee members turn to paragraph (4) of article 36A, they will see that,

    ''Before making a reparation order, the court must obtain''—

it has a duty to obtain—

    ''and consider a written report by—

    (a) a probation officer;

    (b) a social worker of the appropriate authority; or

    (c) such other person as the Secretary of State may designate.''

That gives the Secretary of State wide discretion. I have no idea who might be in that grouping.

Likewise, the new article 36D(2) that the clause would insert into the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, states:

    ''In this Order 'responsible officer', in relation to an offender subject to a reparation order, means one of the following who is specified in the order—

    ''(a) a probation officer;

    (b) a social worker of the appropriate authority''

and, again, the open-ended category of

    ''(c) such other person as the Secretary of State may designate.''

Amendments Nos. 265 and 266 would remove the references to that category. However, I have in mind the comment last week by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) that he represented

    ''a community that has often been overlooked in appointments to non-departmental public bodies''

and his assertion that his

    ''community sees itself as unrepresented on a variety of bodies,''—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 7 February 2002; c. 274.]

I hesitate about damaging his community's chance of being represented. Perhaps it would be possible to enlighten me as to who is envisaged as being affected by the provision, so that I can review my amendments.

My fallback measure is to compare what is proposed for Northern Ireland with what has been arranged for the rest of the United Kingdom, which means I must return to the subject of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. Under section 74(5) of that Act, in England and Wales a responsible officer is defined in limited terms, as

    ''(a) a probation officer;

    (b) a social worker of a local authority social services department'',


    (c) a member of a youth offending team.''

That is an exhaustive list. We know where it begins and ends, but it is proposed that in Northern Ireland the Secretary of State should be able to designate anyone. That is too open ended. Will the Minister explain the phrasing that has been used and tell the

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Committee whom the Government had in mind for the function in question when the Bill was being drafted?

Mr. Browne: The flexibility for the Secretary of State to designate anyone as a responsible officer is necessary to ensure that schemes for reparation orders and community responsibility orders will be available in all parts of Northern Ireland, because it allows for those with a direct interest in the statutory sector, such as the juvenile justice board, and the voluntary sector, which already works closely and effectively with children who offend, to act as responsible officers and to be responsible for the supervision of the child where appropriate. Those would be the very people to be appointed to youth offending teams in Northern Ireland, if such things existed there, but since they do not, the Secretary of State requires flexibility. It is intended that only people who would have been members of youth offending teams will be appointed.

Lady Hermon: Will the Minister undertake to tighten up the provision? He has explained whom the designation was intended to include, and perhaps a form of words could be arrived at to be included in the Bill later in its progress. Clarifying the Bill seems preferable to retaining the reference to

    ''such other person as the Secretary of State may designate.''

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady was inviting the Minister to intervene, and he did not. Therefore she should advise me whether she will seek leave to withdraw the amendment, the debate having concluded, or whether she wants to press it to a division.

Lady Hermon: In light of the time and of the Minister's generous nature, for which he is famous and in which I shall place my confidence, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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