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The Earl of Listowel: I shall speak to Amendment No. 168. I am particularly concerned at the impact of fixed penalty notices on looked-after children. Briefly, before addressing that issue, I should like to turn back to tools, to which the Minister has referred throughout the proceedings. I recognise the feeling in many communities that something needs to be done, but it seems that nothing can be done. There need to be new tools to do that.

One must also remember the concern often raised about the rise in the number of prison inmates since 1992. While there has been a decline in crime since 1992, there has been a steady increase in the number of prison inmates and a sharp increase in the number of children in custody. Part of that is put down to the well-intentioned introduction of new tools, which, in some cases, have appeared to act as a means of widening the net to embrace children and adults who would not otherwise have been involved with the criminal justice system.

Secondly, I turn to the possible impact of fixed penalty notices on families. I remember visiting a hostel run by Centre Point. I saw two 16 or 17 year-old girls, who, as I understood it, had been pushed out of their family by their step-father. One must consider the impact of fixed penalty notices on families who may

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not be too happy to have their children in the family anymore. It does not just apply to this clause, but to other clauses in which the fixed penalty notice is mentioned.

In North London, there is a mediation service for homeless children alone in London. It has a special residence where it provides mediation services for these children. Often, it finds that parents do not want their children back—possibly understandably on the part of the parents—once the mediation service has been introduced. That issue needs to be looked at carefully in terms of the impact of fixed penalty notices. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, spoke of election. If we are considering lowering the age of electoral responsibility to 16 years-old, we should be thinking of giving more responsibility to 16 and 17 year-olds.

This is a difficult issue. The ultimate right for children is that they should be treated like children. We have a duty to protect them, as they are immature in some ways. I know that that flies in the face of much of what is said. It is a difficult balance, especially in changing times with changing responsibilities. However, we must hold on to the idea that children are immature and lack experience in many ways. What they say is not necessarily a panacea for world ills or for the truth. It may be useful to discuss their experiences with them because they are experts in their own experience. They know about their schools and their local environment, but they have limits on their experience and their maturity limits their judgment.

I am concerned about the impact on looked-after children, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater. Her Majesty's Government have already set a target to reduce the level of involvement of looked-after children with the criminal justice system. There is a danger that fixed penalty notices might work against that target, although I acknowledge that the early intervention that fixed penalty notices allow might be beneficial for some of these children. However, there are practical considerations which makes one think that fixed penalty notices might work to the detriment of looked-after children.

First, a looked-after child is perhaps most likely to put the fixed penalty notice in the bin once it has been given to him or her. He would then be liable perhaps to prosecution. If we were to exempt looked-after children from prosecution because of their special backgrounds, their sense that they were being treated differently from other children would be unhelpful. Yet, a successful prosecution or the involvement of the criminal justice system is also an undesirable outcome.

Secondly, a looked-after child may have difficulty in paying a 40 or an 80 fine, which I think is the kind of figure being discussed. Let us say that the child receives 8.50 per week pocket money. The local authority can take only two-thirds of that in penalty. It might take two months for a boy to save the 80 to pay his fine. By that time, will he have already defaulted? Will the local authority be expected to pay the fine up-front and for the boy then to repay the local authority, and

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will local authorities agree to this? Might such a financial punishment push the child towards crime or prostitution to pay the debt?

Those are some of the questions which must be resolved. I look forward to the Minister's reply. Perhaps a meeting with the Minister or her relevant officials between now and the Report stage to discuss the clause and how it will impact on looked-after children would be mutually beneficial.

11.15 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I say straightaway that I would be happy to make such an arrangement with the noble Earl, either with myself or with officials if my diary does not permit. I hope that I can take up immediately some of the points made by the noble Earl because he will know that parental liability would apply to a parent or guardian. Looked-after children fall into the category in which the local authority discharges that function while the child is in its care. We would expect the local authority officer to use this opportunity to discuss the child's behaviour with them.

I turn to a further point made by the noble Earl which was echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater. The expectation is that the child will usually be taken to the police station and an appropriate adult found. We believe that the police officer will be able to make a judgment regarding the ability of the child to understand the penalty notice when they stop that child in the street. In fact, it should have no impact on the anti-social behaviour order by a penalty notice.

Given that we have now merged the Question whether the clause should stand part, perhaps I should cover a few points. I take it that the comments I make on this amendment will directly impact on the comments that I shall not make in relation to the Question whether the clause should stand part.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, resists the extension of the penalty notice for disorder to 16 and 17 year-olds. We believe that penalty notices for disorder have an important role to play in tackling anti-social behaviour among 16 and 17 year-olds. As the noble Baroness pointed out, currently they apply only to those aged 18 and over. Pilots of the adult scheme have shown that most of the disorder offences involve alcohol-related anti-social behaviour in town centres on a Friday or Saturday night, behaviour which is often associated with 16 and 17 year-olds. An extension of the scheme would allow the police to impose an immediate sanction on anti-social behaviour which will act as a deterrent, but will not leave the young person with a conviction. That is an issue which we think is quite important.

The noble Earl was right to refer to the sharp end; that is, those children who are seriously dysfunctional because of the way their history has fashioned them. We know also that other young children, with the exuberance of youth—perhaps they do not have the excuse of social deprivation—also indulge in loutish, violent, inappropriate and drunken behaviour. By the grace of God many of them grow out of it in due

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course. So fixed penalty notices for such young people, which can provide a short, sharp shock to bring them up on what they are doing, can be capable of being very effective.

We shall pilot the scheme first to see whether it could be usefully applied nation-wide. Further, it will encourage the police to take action in a beneficial way against anti-social behaviour in the streets which is not being dealt with at present.

I turn to Amendment No. 169, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, which would prevent the extension of fixed penalty notices for disorder to under 16 year-olds and would remove the power to impose parental liability for the payment. As I have just said, we believe that penalty notices for disorder could have an important role to play. Sadly—it is an extremely sad situation—children as young as 12 years old are engaged in disruptive behaviour that can be dealt with under the scheme, such as throwing stones at trains or being drunk on a public highway. It is a matter of real concern to us that younger and younger children seem to be abusing alcohol. The Association of Chief Police Officers has urged the Government to extend the scheme to juveniles. As I said, we intend to pilot the first scheme on 16 and 17 year-olds. We would seek the approval of Parliament by the affirmative resolution procedure should we wish to lower the age limit further.

I hear what the noble Lord says in relation to affirmative resolutions not generally being voted down. However, it is possible for that to be done. If either House were to feel strongly enough about the issue, it would be a way of expunging the order from the books—not least because in Committee in the other place there was a great deal of passion for immediately reducing the level to below the age of 16 because of the difficulties that have been experienced.

So that is a vehicle that we could use which, somewhat unusually, would be very effective in regard to this issue because the age limit could be lowered or not lowered. In other affirmative resolution procedures there are often attachments which make it more difficult. Not that I am suggesting for one moment that noble Lords should do that because, if the day comes, I may well be arguing with great vigour that it is something that we should do.

We believe that it is right for parents to take responsibility for their children's behaviour and that they should be expected to pay the penalty on their children's behalf. It is quite wrong that parents are allowing young children to misbehave on the streets, often late at night, and not doing anything about it.

Amendment No. 171 would ensure that where a juvenile is offered a penalty notice the child must be accompanied by an adult and have the right to legal advice. Experience of the adult pilots shows that most penalty notices for disorder are issued in the police station, as I have described.

However, to impose conditions more broadly would effectively restrict the police so that they would not be able to issue penalty notices for disorder on the street.

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This would deprive them of the ability to give an immediate and low-key penalty to a juvenile. It would also defeat one of the aims of the penalty notice scheme to deal quickly and effectively with anti-social behaviour on the streets.

The provision in subsection (11) of Amendment No. 171 is unnecessary as penalty notices can be appealed, and this appeal is taken through the courts. So there are safeguards there. Adequate protection is thereby already afforded to anyone who is issued with a penalty notice for disorder, including juveniles. So if the juvenile did not consent to the issue of a penalty notice, this could be raised properly through the courts.

As regards the clause stand part discussion, it is right that we should remember that we have piloted the other scheme in the four police areas across the country. As the noble Baroness said, the scheme targets low-level anti-social offending. Penalty notices can be issued to adults for 11 disorder offences, including being drunk and disorderly, Section 5 public order offences and throwing fireworks.

There was a lot of concern as to whether these fixed penalty notices would work. We have found—and we hope to be able to publish relatively soon the results of the first review—that they have been very successful and have targeted the kind of problems we want them to. Indeed, many of those who were sceptical about the scheme have been won over and now see it as a very effective method of going forward. We hope that it will be similarly effective with juveniles, particularly those aged 16.

I would gently remind the Committee that people are able to get married at 16—they have been able to do so for many years—with their parents' support. Some of the young people in this group are not only married but parents themselves. So we are not dealing with children of a quite tender age. Of course we believe—with a passion equal to that of the noble Baroness and the noble Earl—that they are still children and that they still need protection and observation. But we also still have to challenge them a little in relation to some of these issues, and the research that we have carried out so far suggests that this might be an appropriate way of doing so.


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