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Lord Meston: I support the amendments. They seem entirely consistent with both the language and concepts

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of the Children Act which focuses on the idea of parental responsibility rather than on the specific identity of the parent or guardian.

Parental responsibility is a wider concept than the old ideas of parental rights which existed before the 1989 Act. My noble friend referred to parents giving up parental responsibility. In law, parents never give up parental responsibility short of adoption. But even if their children are taken into care they find themselves sharing parental responsibility with local authorities. The amendments seem entirely suitable to the idea underlying the clauses within the Bill. For that reason I hope that the Government will accept them.

8.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: I speak as Chairman of the Children's Society and wish to share for a moment the experience of the society, and those who work with it. Reinforcing parental responsibility is an important part of tackling youth crime. Experience shows that there can be considerable work done in parenting skill courses. They can help to improve the parenting and help to reduce family break ups, the taking of children into care, and the likelihood of offending, truancy and antisocial behaviour by young people. There needs to be more funding for such courses on a voluntary basis as part of family centres and other projects in disadvantaged areas. It could make an important contribution to preventing delinquency. Group work with the parents of young offenders alongside treatment programmes for young offenders has also been shown to be beneficial in bringing about more effective parental control and leading to improved behaviour and reduced offending by their children.

However, we have strong reservations about the provisions of more compulsory parental orders. Co-operative parents who are keen to accept help could be involved in those groups, whether or not it was compulsory. However, the order is least likely to work with unco-operative parents; and if they are returned to court and fined for not co-operating that is unlikely to help reduce the child's offending. Fines simply increase the degree of pressure and hardship on families for many of whom life is already a struggle to survive. To punish a parent for a child's action could also result in injustice and increased resentment on the parent's part, thereby putting children even more at risk.

I support the amendments because the expression "parental responsibility" is consistent with the Children Act 1989. We also feel that the provision will not work with the psychology of most parents who would be asked to take that responsibility.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: It is perhaps rather late in the day, but I wonder whether it might save time if I were to speak to my Amendment No. 114 which has not, alas, been included in this group, but which is aiming at the same kind of thing. I am entirely in the Committee's hands about this.

Amendment No. 114 is entirely a probing amendment. As I understand it, parents of children who have committed offences may be required to attend

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parenting classes. If they fail to do so, they may be fined at a level not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale. I can see excellent reasons why parents may not attend parenting classes after work. They may have no one with whom to leave their children and be unable to afford a baby sitter. Are they to be fined for that? If they are fined, for whatever reason, it is very likely that they will be unable to pay the fine. Some will be single parents; some will be on income support. If they cannot, or will not, pay the fine, what are the sanctions? I believe the fine applies equally to offences under Clauses 8 and 9. Are they to be imprisoned? If so, what is to happen to the children? Will they be taken into care? Will the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, tell us what is the Government's thinking on this matter?

Lord Northbourne: I had intended to hold my fire until Amendment No. 110 was called. However, as the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and other noble Lords have decided to raise general issues, it may be appropriate for me also to raise general issues and the concerns that I have now.

The principle of reinforcing parental responsibility must be good. It must be desirable. I am chairman of an organisation called the Parenting Support and Education Forum. We have over 450 members, many of whom are deeply concerned as to whether this provision will actually work. We must listen to the voice of those who work with parents.

Counselling and guidance sessions could conceivably, and may sometimes, help. But there are very severe limitations. As the right reverend Prelate said, parents will go into those sessions in a spirit of rebellion and resentment. That will mean that they are not normally receptive. The severity of the sanction in many cases will seem unreasonable, because the problem arises not from ill-will but from a lack of parenting skills.

The Minister will answer that the whole idea of the provision is to teach parenting skills. But wait a minute--we are talking about children who have already committed an indictable offence; that is to say, they will probably be 11, 12, 13 or 14 years old. Those children are deeply entrenched in the emotional and social problems that have caused them to offend. It is unlikely that half a dozen, or a dozen, lessons to parents will give those not necessarily very able parents the necessary skills to cope with children with emotional problems.

I wish to raise a further matter. If you are a frustrated parent whose child has been causing serious problems and the law then comes and leans on you, starts fining you and threatening to put you in prison because your child is misbehaving, what are you going to do? You are going to hit it; you are going to hit it hard and often. I suspect that there is a danger that these provisions could lead to quite a lot of domestic violence. It is a real danger.

There is one final point which I could raise under the debate on clause stand part but which I will raise now in order to save trouble. Why is only one parent referred to in the text of the Bill? Bearing in mind that on the whole the Government believe that two-parent families

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have some advantages, it should read, "parent or parents". I suggest that Amendment No. 110 contributes to ensuring that the terms of a parenting order are not unreasonably onerous.

Lord Hylton: Perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Northbourne that, as I read the Bill, this clause could come into effect not only when an indictable offence has been committed but when it is a question of antisocial behaviour--which is probably a good deal sooner.

I support the general thrust of these two amendments. I should like also to quote a piece of work presently being conducted in Northern Ireland. It has the slightly trendy name of Kidstart. I have the honour of being president of NIACRO, and the programme to which I refer is under the auspices of NIACRO. It aims to support parents who are bringing up young children in difficult situations. We believe that a key factor in its success so far is that participation is voluntary. Kidstart is for parents who want to make changes for themselves and their children. It is effective because the parents and the workers concerned operate in partnership. Forcing parents who already face difficult situations to take part in parenting programmes will be at best useless and at worst counter-productive, creating resentment and additional stress, as was mentioned by my noble friend. I hope the Government will take this matter into consideration.

Lord Henley: As the debate is moving slightly wide of the amendments, perhaps I may put one brief question to the noble Lord replying for the Government. As the noble Lord will be aware, we generally support these clauses dealing with parenting orders. They very much follow on from what was suggested and promoted by my right honourable friend Mr. Michael Howard, the former Home Secretary, in his White Paper of February 1997, Preventing Children Offending.

I should be grateful if the noble Lord would address a question relating to resources for the Probation Service. Obviously, the mechanisms proposed here will increase the burdens on the Probation Service. I should be grateful if the noble Lord, in replying, will say just a little about how extra resources will be made available for the Probation Service, where that money will come from and whether it will have to be taken from other bodies for other aspects of local government and other work before it comes to the Probation Service.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: Perhaps I may come to the aid of the noble Lord on the Treasury Bench--surprisingly perhaps. The crisis theory of social work suggests that, for many people, nothing changes until there is a crisis. I therefore suggest that for as many people as are put off by the compulsory measures proposed by the Government, there will be an equal number who start to face up to their responsibilities and who might otherwise not have done so.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Perhaps it is as well to stick to the groupings; in that way we shall at last have

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a structure that has been agreed. Therefore, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 108, 109, 110, 111 and 112, which were the grouped amendments.

To deal briefly with a specific question put by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, the use of the term "parent" simply means that if there is one parent effectively, that parent can be subject to a parenting order. Of course, if there are two, there is no difficulty on our construction of the Bill.

At the centre of the parenting order is the need to try to restore, perhaps even to construct for the first time, a proper relationship between a child and its parents. That is a fundamental step to help prevent offending or antisocial behaviour. That is why we have framed the legislation as we have. There is no doubt at all, as we see it, that there is a significant gap at present. Not all parents have the inner resources to bring up their children well. The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, rightly pointed out that a large number of parents would welcome support and assistance. It may well be that a degree of sanction will assist them.

To deal with the grouped amendments as I have indicated them to be, the first would have the effect of widening the focus of the order by including the words, "has parental responsibility for". This could mean the local authority if the child is in care. It would also exclude the father of a child who was born at the time when he was not married to the child's mother, if he had not acquired parental responsibility under Section 4 of the Children Act 1989. I do not believe that that is an intended consequence of the amendment.

The second amendment is intended to ensure that a parenting order is not made on a local authority where children in its care offend, but it also unfortunately excludes from the parenting order the parents of those children who are in the care of the local authority or--and this is not infrequent--in local authority accommodation when they commit the offence in question. I do not believe that that is a helpful adjustment of the Bill.

We do not believe it right to have a general exclusion in such cases. We believe that these decisions should be left to the court's discretion. If children have committed an offence and are in care of the local authority, there are various factors which the court needs to take into account. For those children who are subject to a care order, the local authority has day-to-day parental responsibility for the child, but the child's parents--rightly, I believe--do not lose their parental rights for the child. In some cases the child, even if subject to a care order, may well be living at home. Alternatively--and this again is quite a commonplace occurrence--the child may well be living with local authority foster parents.

It is hard to think, if a child is living in local authority accommodation or with foster parents, that the court would impose a requirement on the local authority or the foster parents to attend counselling and guidance sessions; that would hardly be sensible, some might say absurd. But it may well be that in some circumstances there would be a proper need on sensible consideration to impose specific requirements under Clause 8(4)(a)

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which would help to address the child's offending behaviour. It may well be that the court would think that counselling and guidance sessions for the actual parents would help lead to the eventual return of the child in care to its parents. That is very often the best outcome.

These are difficult areas. There is undoubtedly a gap at the moment. Too many children fall into that gap.

There are amendments to Clauses 8 and 9 in the name of my noble friend Lady Amos. The first amendment goes to the very heart of the parenting order and is not acceptable to us. We must have available for the courts the option of placing requirements on the parents to ensure that their child behaves in an acceptable way. It must be right in certain circumstances--and some parents would welcome this--for the court to be able say to a parent: "Your young child must be in at night", if there is a general pattern of antisocial offending behaviour because the child is running loose. It is important to bear in mind that it is sometimes an offence to leave a child unattended at home, if the child is of a certain age. But the child can be out and about, possibly being drawn into crime, when it is susceptible to the influences of older children, and there is no sanction to deal with that.

I have to stress that these are not intended to be draconian or Dickensian remedies. They are intended to slot in with the philosophy of the Bill, which is: to try to think what causes children to fall into harm. That is what it is. They are often very young, they have little benefit from what most of us had: namely, a loving home. What we are trying to provide is a regime which will assist parents, not dragoon them unmercifully, but offer assistance to parents where at the moment they have little help at all.

The second amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Amos would include the duty to avoid any interference with the parent's responsibilities to care for other children in the family. I sympathise with its aim, but I simply do not believe it is a necessary addition.

We then consider the final amendment in the group, that of my noble friend Lady David. It relates to parental involvement in the criminal justice system. We have tried to draw a distinction between the parents of young and older juveniles. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, that juveniles aged 16 and 17 are quite different in their development from younger children. They are at a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood and should have different considerations given to them. The emotional, intellectual and physical development of 16 and 17 year-olds will vary greatly. Some will have left school, they may be at work, they may be living independently. They may even in these days have family responsibilities of their own. Others may be living fully dependent upon their parents at home in full-time education.

We believe that when children under 16 go to court in criminal proceedings, the parents must be involved. Subsection (1), therefore, puts a duty on the court to make a parenting order where a child or young person under the age of 16 is convicted of a criminal offence and--and this is the important matter--when the

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condition in Clause 8(6)(b) is met--that is, it is desirable in the interests of preventing a further commission of an offence by that child or young person.

For older juveniles, we believe the situation is somewhat different. It will often be right for parents of 16 and 17 year-olds to be involved, but in some circumstances it may not be. We therefore put the duty on the courts to involve the parents of children and young people under 16. For 16 to 17 year-olds we say that should be a power. We believe that that reflects what occurs in real life because 16 and 17 year-olds are at a different stage of development.

In a nutshell, the real basis of the whole strategy behind parenting orders is this: no one wants to see a child fall into crime. Many children fall into crime because they do not have adequate parents. Some inadequate parents can be assisted. They can sometimes--as the right reverend Prelate said--be assisted on a voluntary basis. Sometimes a sanction may be effective, which may be gentle, tempered to the appropriate circumstances. We would prefer voluntary counselling and parenting guidance, but for those who do not wish it, who are perhaps afraid of it, in some cases a sanction may be of assistance. We believe that we have got the scheme about right. It is not perfect, but about right. Therefore, I have taken a little longer than I wished to deal with matters in this grouping in that way.

Perhaps I am deviating outside the groupings, but the noble Lord, Lord Henley, raised the issue of resources in particular and I do not want to overlook his question; it is obviously important. It will be part of our consideration. With the new regime we are intending to introduce pilot exercises and I can assure him that the question of resource, wherever it needs to be directed and from wherever it comes, will be an important part of the pilot exercises and our review of them.

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