Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Campbell of Alloway: I take the point of distinction but I cannot see that it makes any substantial difference. Perhaps I am being obtuse about the matter. I agree with the Minister 100 per cent. that we should break the cycle. I have faith in the quality of the magistrates and I believe that they should be given a discretion to exercise as they see fit in order to break the cycle. Of course I take the distinction, but for the life of me I cannot see the difference.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: There is a big difference. We are for the first time imposing on a young offender who pleads guilty the principle of restorative justice. That is to be obtained only by the intervention of a panel. That is why it is mandatory.

We recognise that this is a fundamental shift--it is intended to be such--in the way that the youth court deals with young people in such categories. We are separating the question of guilty or not guilty from the process of dealing with the offending behaviour. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, is right in saying that the measure would alter completely the arrangements for mandatory referrals. His amendment removes the conditions which make compulsory referrals necessary and it would allow a court to make a referral in any case where a first-time offender was being sentenced, including an offender who offered a not guilty plea.

We have set the mandatory criteria on a deliberate basis. We believe that we need to focus our attentions and qualities in a way that has not been done previously on the category of young offender most likely to benefit from the approach. We believe that a necessary precondition for that is an admission of guilt.

I have listened carefully to the arguments. We adhere firmly to the necessity of a mandatory principle here. It is not an attack on the discretion of the magistracy generally. There will be an opportunity to review the conditions attached to mandatory referrals. The new arrangements will be piloted so that we can assess whether we have got them right. As has been indicated, the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to change the availability criteria in the light of experience.

We are at a fundamental difference of approach. We believe that there should be a uniformly required inquiry into first-time young offenders who plead guilty. We have reached that belief as a matter of fundamental principle. I believe it right that young people who offend for the first time and who plead guilty should be the subject of required intervention at a very early stage. That is the only way in which we will effectively break the cycle.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: I support the idea of restorative justice and the youth offender panels.

18 Jan 1999 : Column 377

I believe that they will prove valuable in tackling youth crime. However, I hesitate about making them compulsory in every case which falls under Clause 2(1).

The Minister said that to be sent before a youth panel was not a sentence in itself but would set in place an inquiry. In many ways it will be seen as a sentence by the young person whether or not the Minister or I see it as such. It can involve a financial penalty, even though it is not called a "fine" and even if the money goes to the victim or to the local community. It can involve restrictions on the person's movements. He may not be sent to a youth offender centre but he may be restricted from going to certain places or going out at certain times. Those options will be available under the contract. I believe that something imposed under the authority of the court which involves taking money away from an offender and restricting his movements is akin to a sentence, however we like to look at the niceties.

The Minister said that an inquiry would be set in place. I hesitate over the term. We are familiar with the fact that after someone is found guilty there may be a delay before sentence is passed in order to obtain inquiry reports from the Probation Service, or whoever, so that a more effective sentence can be passed. This is not of that character. It is not so much an inquiry as a discussion. There will be a discussion about the possibility of agreeing a contract. That is desirable, but it will be a discussion rather than an inquiry.

The Minister made his position clear. We shall consider what he said. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 5:

Page 2, line 9, at end insert--
("( ) If the area in which the offender resides, or will reside, is not an area in which referral is available under subsection (4), the court shall sentence the offender as if he had always resided in a place where referral was not available.").

The noble Lord said: The amendment seeks to remedy an omission from the Bill. The Bill provides for what should happen if an offender moves to live in another area in which youth offender panels function. We hope that soon there will be youth panels everywhere, but initially they will be available to the courts only in some parts of the country. I cannot see what will happen if an offender moves to an area where there is no youth offender panel. He cannot be sent to the panel in the area from which he is moving because it may be a considerable distance and he cannot be sent to a new one because there is not one in the area to which he has moved. I believe that in those circumstances he should be sent back to the court and sentenced as though no youth panel were available. It is a temporary situation but not one we can ignore.

The Bill is long and complicated and I hesitate to be absolute on the matter. However, I do not believe that the situation has been provided for in the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Renton: My noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley has raised what I consider to be one of the most difficult

18 Jan 1999 : Column 378

points on this part of the Bill. Paragraph 34 of Notes on Clauses states:

    "Subsection (4) limits the availability of the new order to those courts that have been notified by the Secretary of State that arrangements are in place for a youth offending team to implement referral orders. It is intended that the new orders will be introduced at different times across the country",
that means in different places at any one time,

    "also on a pilot basis",
and I ask what that means,

    "so that their effectiveness and the resource implications can be fully assessed in advance of nationwide implementation".

It has generally been the practice and, indeed, a principle of the administration of justice in England and Wales that the same system of justice, the same powers of the courts, apply throughout England and Wales. But here we are to have a system in which in one area--and I shall ask the meaning of the word "area" in a few moments--we may find that the courts have a particular power and in another area they have not. That is a very strange situation which may have a strange effect. It may mean that in some cases where an offence has been committed a well-informed young offender--17 is not so young--may decide to commit his offence in a place where a referral is available rather than the court exercising its usual powers of sentence.

I find that a strange situation. I hope that the Government will consider it very seriously. Frankly, if my noble friend's amendment were accepted, there would be an answer to that problem. But perhaps I may say, with respect to him, that if his amendment is accepted, Clause 1(4) could not stand. There would be a contradiction within Clause 1 between the new subsection proposed by my noble friend and subsection (4) as it now stands.

This is the most important matter raised so far today. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will give a helpful answer.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I hope so. Pilot schemes are quite well known now in the criminal justice system. One has schemes which, in the nature of things, have not been tried in the past. Resources are focused on particular areas--probation or magistrates' courts areas--to see how schemes work. There is nothing novel about that. For example, one may have bail support schemes in a particular area in a format which does not exist in another area, even an area which is contiguous. For example, there are all sorts of pilots in relation to tagged bail which are tried out in some parts of the country and not in others.

Pilots are an extremely useful tool because one can monitor results in practice. For example, rather than saying to your Lordships that something is a good idea, a pilot scheme enables me to say, "This is an excellent idea because it has worked well in practice." That is an extremely important additional tool in the armoury of criminal justice, in particular in relation to the question of restorative justice.

At the moment it is plain that the operation of the youth offender panels depends on the existence of a local youth offending team which has taken on specific responsibilities for the implementation of the orders.

18 Jan 1999 : Column 379

That is why Clause 4(4) restricts the availability of the orders to the courts in those areas where a youth offending team is in operation in the young offender's home area or the area in which it is expected that he will be living during the currency of the order. The court will be notified where that is the case and referral orders will then be available to the court unless or until that notice is withdrawn.

The existence of the notice is a necessary pre-condition before the court can start to consider a referral order. If one has the sort of devious criminal identified by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, one must bear in mind that under the provisions of Clause 1(1)(b), the court may impose a custodial sentence if it wishes or, alternatively, at quite the opposite end of the spectrum, it can issue an absolute discharge for this particular category of offender.

The point which the noble Lord, Lord Cope, identified was: what happens if a young offender is sentenced in area A where there are youth offending panel facilities available and he moves away to another area where there are no such facilities? He asks whether there is possible injustice or lack of symmetry. The answer is in the Bill. There is no question at all that a young offender should be required to attend a panel away from his home area even when he has recently resided in an area where referral orders were available.

If a young person's family moves out of the area, even after the contract has been agreed, we find a solution to the noble Lord's legitimate concern in Clause 11. That offers the opportunity to the court, if a young person's family moves out of the appropriate sentence area--that is, appropriate because the facilities are available--to consider alternative disposal. We included that provision to meet the possibility which the noble Lord identified.

I hope that I have been able to deal with that specific point although I see out of the corner of my right eye, blinkered as I am not, that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, may not be entirely satisfied.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page