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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Just to say that if I find any further or other research that could help and/or answer more specifically the points made by the noble Earl, I shall certainly write to him and make copies of the letter available to all those who have participated in the Committee.
Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: I thank the Minister for that full, well-argued and thoughtful response. I am also grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his eloquent description of how families can be affected and sucked into situations in which there is great potential for damage.
I was well aware of what the noble Baroness reminded us: that under the new provision courts retain discretion to have reporting restrictions in place. That leaves me unclear why the position has been reversed at all. The noble Baroness has already demonstrated her awareness of the sensitivity of the situation; my case is that automatic restrictions should apply unless the court decides otherwise. Once again, it is a matter of balance.
The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 169 to 171. Given the lateness of the hour, perhaps I might suggest that the debate on these amendments and the debate on the Question whether Clause 39 shall stand part be rolled into one, if that meets with the Committee's approval.
Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: Thank you very much. The Bill extends the scope of fixed penalty notices for disorderly behaviour downwards to 16 and 17 year-olds, and so treats those young people as adults.
When the scheme was introduced for over 18s under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, it was also to be piloted and evaluated in four force areas. As I understand it, that evaluation has not been completed or the outcomes assessed. It therefore seems over-hasty to consider the extension before its initial effectiveness has been clarified. However, whatever
More worryingly, the Bill provides the power in Clause 39(3), by affirmative resolution procedure, to extend the age group still further to children as young as 10. Amendment No. 170, therefore, proposes that the subsection be firmly deletedif a deletion can be even more firm the second time aroundon the grounds that children of that age simply cannot understand the full consequences of accepting a fixed penalty notice, whatever the outcomes of the pilots for 16 and 17 year-olds. That extension should simply not be an option. An FPN should be issued only if the child gives informed consent. It is stretching credulity that children of that age have the capacity to understand what the consequences or relevance of a fixed penalty notice will be. Certainly, the police operational guidelines in the current piloting in relation to adults states:
Furthermore, there are real risks of labelling such vulnerable children and opening the door wider to the possibilities of further offending. It is not a device that enables positive social behaviour or ensures the sort of protection that such children actually need.
Amendment No. 171 is a logical extension for the protection of young people that they may be offered a fixed-penalty notice by a police officer only where the child is accompanied by an appropriate adult and additionally should also have the right to legal advice. Again, the notice may be issued only if the young person gives informed consent, as is consistent with code C of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice, which applies to under 17 year-olds. We believe that that should also apply to under 18 year-olds, as children aged 17 seem to have been missed out.
I wish now to oppose the Question that Clause 39 stand part of the Bill. I have already outlined our objections to Clause 39, and the extension of the fixed penalty notice to young people aged 16 and 17 for disorderly behaviour during the discussion of the amendments, so I shall not rehearse them. It is clear that the purpose of the adult fixed penalty notices scheme is to deal quickly and effectively with low-level anti-social and nuisance offending, to encourage community involvement and to cut down on the burden of administration, which uses up so much valuable police time. Those objectives are completely understandable, and we have no quarrel with them where adults are concerned.
I know that the Minister is as committed as anyone to protecting the vulnerableespecially childrenand to promoting harmony in our communities, and we share those aims. However, the major flaw in this part of the Bill is that the steps being proposed will achieve none of those objectives. Indeed, the danger is that, by widening the net of sanctionsI believe that we sometimes use the phrase "sanction creep"to include younger people whose lives and lifestyles betray all sorts of inadequacies, the measures will increase the likelihood of them being drawn further into youth offending and the criminal justice system. We have been talking this evening about behaviour that is essentially not criminalabout being in a place where people are being intimidatedyet we this evening talk about youth justice and criminal justice. If we look back in Hansard, I am sure that we will find that the language has slipped. That is where the danger lies.
The very principle of blurring the boundaries between adults, young people and children immediately runs counter to the established codes of PACEespecially Code Cwhich are precisely designed to safeguard young people against early contact with the criminal law. Everything that we can do in that regard also safeguards the law-abiding majority in our communities. What is certain, as sure as night follows day, is that the younger the age at which those involved in anti-social behaviour become involved with youth offending, the more certain they are to reoffend, with all the consequences that flow from that. We override these sensible, existing legal precautions at our peril.
Furthermore, this group is already discriminated against in relation to financial and other benefits. Such young people are less likely than their less vulnerable peers to be in either school or work and will come under disproportionate pressure in comparison with adults when it comes to paying fixed penalties. Transferring the burden to parents raises the question of how the payment will be enforced and of what provisions will exist for looked-after children, who are the responsibility of the local authority. It increases the risk of children coming into care if the parents cannot or will not pay, and thus of spreading the criminalising net still further. Therefore, this proposal is especially
There is a real danger of employing politically attractive strategies which are simple, speedy and visible in the hope that they will reassure the electorate that action is being taken, regardless of whether a problem has really been addressed or has simply been moved elsewhere. The Minister has already put her finger on the problem when she said that there is no quick fix in these situations. Dealing with many of the root problems of anti-social behaviour is anything but simple. They take time to resolve, which does not help those who want to see some immediate response and solution.
What works in this context is particularly dangerous if it takes place in a moral vacuum, as I tried to indicate in my comments on the dispersal of groups. Truly effective action must take account of the bigger picture and the long-term outcome. We have an increasing range of imaginative measures now being developed, born of increased co-operation and inter-agency working, with schools, the police, voluntary agencies, social services and the engaging of communities, as well as involving legal sanctions for the seriously criminal, which can produce real change.
I am really interested in some of the new initiativesthe new youth inclusion support panels, for exampleand wonder to what extent the Government are seriously resourcing and implementing the necessary infrastructure to be sure that they have an impact. We have probation boards, criminal justice boards and a welter of agencies with changing names that confuse outsiders such as myself.
Having spent years as a magistrate, particularly as a children's panel member in Scotland, I know how crucial early interventions and decisions can be in determining the path of a vulnerable child's life. The involvement of community groups and diversion from criminal justice routes can be vital. The police and youth offending teams have their place in preventive and supportive work, but agencies with generic child welfare skills are key and must work alongside them. That would prevent the criminalising of children who had never committed an offence anyway. That is the heart of the matter.
I look forward to hearing and understanding more from the Minister on what concrete financial and practical plans there are in that regard. Good intentions are not enough. Above allI return to the theme that we have all discussed this eveningwe must consult those young people, as it is with them that the solutions lie. As I said, we cannot enforce respect or mutual care and understanding; people must experience it for themselves. We must find ways to give young people that experience. Whatever the root causes of the difficulties, whether they are caused by boredom, having nowhere to go or by real difficultieslearning difficulties, social or emotional difficulties, addiction, abuse or domestic violencethe clause will do nothing to change them. Hence our resistance to it. I beg to move.
I have no difficulty with the idea of moving the age for fixed penalties down to 16. There is, after all, a proposal that the voting age be lowered to 16 under examination at present. Someone who might be entitled to vote at 16 should be prepared to pay a fixed penalty and to do some of the other things that come later in the Bill. I shall return to that argument.
The amendment is designed to deal with the problem of lowering the age further by order. I considered carefully the question of whether the Bill provided sufficient protection. The clause requires an order with the approval of both Houses of Parliament, and so it could be argued that that provides sufficient protection against rash action by a Minister. Then I considered the nature of the order procedure in this House, in parallel with the other place. We cannot propose amendments to orders or change them. We either approve them or, at a push, reject them, although, by custom and practice, it is rare for the House to do so.
Because of that procedure, the matter ought to be the subject of primary legislation. I cannot envisage a situation in which a Minister would propose something as radical as this in the short-term future, and it would be remarkable if it were not possible to introduce another Bill that covered the issue at some point in two, three, five, eight or 10 years' time. For that reason, I thought that it would be prudent to excise the relevant part of the clause. That is the reason for the amendment, and I hope that the Government will consider it valid.
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