Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Clause 55

Community responsibility orders

Mr. Browne: I beg to move amendment No. 210, in page 34, line 7, leave out

    'punishable, in the case of an adult, with imprisonment'.

The clause provides the courts with a new community-based disposal, as recommended by the criminal justice review. The order combines appropriate reparative activity with instruction in citizenship and is, therefore, particularly suitable for younger offenders, who need better to understand the context within which they make reparation.

By making the order subject to a less strenuous test and, therefore, available for a wider range of offences, the amendment ensures that it can be used at the most appropriate time for those who might benefit most from it. The amendment responds to comments that were made during the consultation period.

Mr. Blunt: I have no difficulty with the Minister asking for more flexibility as regards the imposition of these orders, but I am surprised that he should do so following a debate in which he rejected an opportunity to introduce more flexibility into the youth justice

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system. There is a slight philosophical inconsistency in the Government's approach; indeed, the only consistent element is perhaps the ''not invented here'' syndrome that is evident in their ideas. It might be better if they approached the Committee's proceedings with a mind that was more open to accepting ideas.

We are happy to accept that the philosophy that underlies the youth justice system should make it as flexible and usable as possible so that we can embark on this new departure in youth justice in the most satisfactory manner and apply the lessons to the rest of the United Kingdom. We are happy to support the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Lembit Öpik: I beg to move amendment No. 233, in page 34, line 16, leave out 'instruction', and insert 'teaching'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 234, in page 34, line 18, leave out 'instruction' and insert 'teaching'.

Lembit Öpik: The amendments are so sensible that they should really be Government amendments, and I expect the Committee to treat them as such.

Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on those remarks for a second?

Lembit Öpik: Yes, indeed I shall. If these were Government amendments, it would mean that the Liberal Democrats were already in power, which, I am sure, is what the hon. Gentleman had in mind.

The amendments would change the wording of the clause, because the word ''instruction'' is a rather dramatic description of how one would teach citizenship, and the word ''teaching'' is more in line with the spirit of what is intended. Instruction implies forcing concepts down people's throats, and I was about to say that it was an aggressive activity; indeed, it might be something that old Labour Members would enjoy. As a liberal-minded kind of person, however, I think that teaching best describes the two-way approach that is most suited to learning about citizenship. I shall be interested to hear the Minister accept the amendments.

Mr. Blunt: What an extraordinary admission of the Liberal Democrats' state of mind that they should think that the only sensible amendments are Government amendments. I realise that they have been the Government's auxiliaries since 1997, but a position of such astonishing supplication quite takes my breath away.

Lembit Öpik: I am a continuing supporter of a bipartisan agreement that applies to the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party alone. It is, therefore, obvious why, in the spirit of positivity, I would be willing to lend the Government such a good amendment.

Mr. Blunt: If the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is going to make such remarks, he might like to reflect on where he is sitting and whether he is in the appropriate part of the Room.

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Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich): I thought that the hon. Gentleman was complaining just now that there was not enough time.

12.45 pm

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman is deluding himself if he thinks that we will be able consider the rest of this part of the Committee's consideration in 16 minutes. Everything that the Opposition have said about the conduct of the Committee's business has turned out to be correct. I might add that the Liberal Democrats voted with the Government on where to put the knives.

The implication of the hon. Gentleman's remarks—that we should now track through the rest of the consideration in 15 minutes—is wholly misguided. The Committee has already failed to consider three quarters of the first part of the Bill. Other clauses have also not been considered. I am blowed if we will be able to ensure that the Bill is passed on to Report stage having been properly considered. The Committee's consideration of the Bill has been wholly appropriate throughout; indeed, the Minister has been complaining that the hon. Member for East Londonderry has not made a proper contribution to the Committee. If he had, that would have lengthened debate even more.

I can see you rising, Mr. Conway, so I shall return to the Bill. It is appropriate to put those matters on the record. The difference between ''instruction'' and ''teaching'' escapes me. This is more Liberal Democrat aspirational nonsense that does not need to be included in the Bill.

Mr. Browne: I am always interested in discussing the nuances of words, as we have done in the past, but I cannot for the life of me see any substantive difference between the two words. There is a difference of emphasis, however, to which I will come in a moment. I do not want to suggest that teaching is not instructive, but I prefer the word ''instruction'' in this context, because it implies the provision of guidance and direction, which is exactly what the children in question need.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Member for Reigate is not being very nice to me, but he is, after all, a Conservative. Nevertheless, we have made our point. If the Minister, who will monitor the implementation of the measures, will ensure that meaningful citizenship education is provided, then that ought to satisfy me, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move amendment No. 309, in page 34, line 34, leave out '40' and insert '240'.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire thinks that I am not being very nice to him. I would point out that it is his knife that is now sticking in the guts of the Committee's consideration, since he voted for the programme motion when it was first considered. However, I shall move on to ground on which I may be able to convince the hon. Gentleman.

Amendment No. 309 is designed to increase the maximum aggregate number of hours that can be

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specified in a community responsibility order from 40 to 240. The purpose of the measure is to bring 17-year-olds into the remit of the measure and achieve some degree of consistency. It is not envisaged that much younger offenders to whom the measure would apply would be subject to a maximum of 240 hours—that is not the intention behind the amendment. We discussed this matter at an earlier stage. I seek an indication from the Government that 40 hours may not be an appropriate duration for a community responsibility order for a 17-year-old, and that they may be prepared to reconsider the matter and devise a more sophisticated instrument that would ensure that the maximum length of the order matched the age of the offender.

Mr. Browne: As the hon. Member for Reigate pointed out when we were debating an earlier set of amendments, the criminal justice review recommended that a form of community service should be developed for children aged under 16, and that it should be limited to a maximum duration of 40 hours. The community responsibility order has been developed in response to that recommendation. It provides for relevant instruction in citizenship, including programmes to address offending behaviour and victim awareness, and practical reparative activity, from repairing damage to helping at a school for the disabled.

The order is aimed at younger children, although it is available for all, including those whose offending is relatively minor. That is why the Government have been flexible. The instruction element provides the essential context for, and a better understanding of, the reparative activity that follows. To increase the maximum hours from 40 to 240 would be excessively punitive and wholly disproportionate for the type of offenders and offences it is aimed at. The reparative nature of the order would be lost if it were unnecessarily onerous. Other community orders, such as a probation order or a community service order for those aged 16 and over are available for more serious or persistent offenders.

In those circumstances, I would ask the hon. Member to withdraw the amendment. If he is concerned about the pain of the knife, he knows that an offer was made by the Government to the Opposition to move it to a later time today, and that that offer was refused.

Mr. Blunt: As the Minister has chosen to bring the matter into the debate, it is appropriate for me to point out that we did not vote for the knives. The Government have got themselves into a mess and did not offer the Committee sufficient time for proper consideration of this part of the Bill. In light of the fact—

The Chairman: Order. The Minister slipped that one in the back of the net rather quickly, so I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to respond for the sake of the record. I should be grateful if he would now return to amendment No. 309. Further issues will have to be raised on a point of order by hon. Members from any party.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Conway. I have listened to the Minister's arguments. Because the legislation will apply to 16 and 17-year-

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olds, the provision should be more flexible on community responsibility orders and community service orders, so that it can be applied proportionately. A 17-year-old receiving a responsibility order of this duration will think that he has got away with it. Part of the process in which we are engaged, particularly youth conferencing, is to get serious youth offenders to face up to their behaviour. If the limitations that can be placed on the orders arising from youth conferences enabled such 17-year-olds to be seen to be getting away with it, that would be a pity, and it would devalue the effect of the conferencing system. Perhaps we can rejoin that debate on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Prepared 12 February 2002