On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In the light of earlier exchanges, I should say that this is a serious point of order. It relates to the fact that the Government tabled, at the close of business on Thursday night, some 43 pages of amendments and new clauses to the Bill, which is now on Report.
The Government may have been close to being in order in doing that, but it cannot be good for the House that 43 pages of amendments and new clauses are submitted at 10 o'clock on a Thursday night. A number of those amendments, but not all of them, may relate to commitments that were given in Committee, but it cannot be right for the Opposition, and especially the Scottish Opposition, to be faced with 43 pages of amendments on a Thursday night and then have to plough through them. That must be getting close to being an abuse of the House.
I make this point of order in all seriousness, because this is a special Bill, which is widely welcomed throughout Scotland. It is long overdue and we welcome it. Not only that, it is a Bill for which the Opposition made a special concession to the Government by agreeing to have the Second Reading in the Scottish Grand Committee and consequently saving Government time. It is therefore all the more objectionable—I hope that you will agree with this, Madam Speaker—that the Government should treat the House in such a way, and make life so uncomfortable for Opposition Members who are concerned about and deeply interested in the issues raised by the Bill, by tabling so many amendments and new clauses at the last conceivable moment.
Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. During the Committee stage, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, in an effort, no doubt, to be helpful to the Committee, said that he would take away and consider a range of issues. The difficulty with the amendments having been tabled so late is that it is only after they have been tabled that we have been able to identify the issues on which consideration was promised but about which nothing has been done. By that stage, it was too late to table amendments to raise the matters today on Report.
There has been an effort to ensure that we go forward on a non-partisan basis, but our patience is starting to stretch a bit. I know that the issues are complex, but I would have hoped that if they were that complex, even this debate could have been delayed until another day— perhaps to a day that was not a Scottish bank holiday—when we could have considered the issues further after the Government had had time to table amendments.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In an effort to be helpful in this matter, may I say that many of the amendments arose out of representations made by Opposition Members in Committee. In line with the precedent of the English Children Bill, to which there was an enormous number of amendments, genuine efforts were made to meet those representations. However, the matters were complex in detail, although not controversial.
There are, of course, other provisions that will, no doubt, be further amended in the other place and there will be further debates in the Commons. If Opposition Members feel that there are substantive issues that require further consideration, the House will, I have no doubt, have a further opportunity to consider them in due course. Most of the amendments meet points raised in Committee and are a response to concerns and requests from Opposition Members.
Order. As the House knows, I cannot allow a debate to follow points of order. I am concerned about the matter because I am aware that in trying to be helpful and generous, the Minister gave a number of commitments in Committee. However, I realise how extremely unhelpful it has been to Opposition Members to have the amendments tabled so late. They have not been able to make a full appraisal or take full account of the amendments in conjunction with the Bill. The Minister has tried to be helpful, but he has not been as helpful as he might have been. I am sure that he has taken note of that, as we all have. This is a lesson to be learnt for the future.
The new clause would amend the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 to provide a facility for the courts to refer the cases of certain children who have pleaded guilty or who have been found guilty of an offence directly to the hearings system for disposal. It is considered that the children's hearings system is genuinely better placed to deal with such offenders.
Sections 173 and 372 of the Criminal Procedures (Scotland) Act 1975 have the effect that the court cannot make a direct referral. Many courts seek the advice of the hearing and only then dispose of the case or refer it again to the hearing for disposal. This introduces delay into the system and causes inconvenience to the courts, the hearings system and the child. The new clause would allow the court, in appropriate cases, to refer the child's case directly to the reporter for disposal by a children's hearing.
Can the Minister explain why, in proposed subsections (2)(i) and (2)(ii), the High Court has a degree of discretion which is denied to the sheriff court? Is the reason the severity of the offence presumably dealt with by the former?
There is a huge mass of new clauses and amendments. Has the Minister tabled the amendments he promised on Friday 21 April during the Report stage of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill? He promised that he would either table amendments on Report or see that they were tabled in the other place.
The point is simply that the principal reporter can arrange a children's hearing for the purpose of obtaining its advice on the treatment of the child. The new clause would give the court the power to refer the case directly to the reporter in certain circumstances, which is a safeguard, makes for more efficiency and is generally in the interests of children.
Clause 59 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill provides powers for the Secretary of State to provide 100 per cent. funding for 16 and 17-year-olds subject to supervision requirements. The clause provides for a simplified means of disposal and improves the interface between the courts and the children's hearings system.
Amendments Nos. 201 to 206 and 215 introduce various changes to ensure that the references in the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 to the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 are brought into line with the provisions of the Bill.
I should like to ask the Minister a couple of brief questions, one of which has already been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). In new clause 6(2), why is it stipulated that
the High Court, may; and
(ii) if it is the sheriff court, shall, request the Principal Reporter to arrange a children's hearing"?
Equally serious cases come before both, so it is not clear why the distinction has been made.
Why have the district courts not been mentioned in the new clause? Most of the crimes likely to be committed in Scotland come before district courts, so it is surprising that the new clause does not mention them.
I asked the Minister the same question earlier: why does the High Court have a discretion that is denied to the sheriff court? My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) is also right to ask why the district courts are not mentioned. Is the
advice as to the treatment of the child
referred to in subsection (2) of the new clause analogous to a social report of the type sometimes asked for by a judge or sheriff?
I can answer both points. First, the High Court "may" because the cases referred to it will in all likelihood be considered more serious. Secondly, I shall examine the point about the district courts not having been included. If there is merit in the point, we can insert it later in the passage of the Bill.
As the hon. Gentleman knows very well—his wife has played a leading role as a social worker—the role of reporter is different from that of a social worker. He, of course, is independent and has to make an independent report to the court—[Interruption]. I see that Opposition Members are amused to note that I have the information ready to hand. The reasoning behind the precise wording of the new clause is that it repeats the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act.
It is hardly an answer to say that this simply repeats the wording of existing legislation. This was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the law on children. To say, furthermore, that the High Court generally deals with far more serious cases does not answer the point either. No matter how serious a case may be, it would still seem necessary to request the principal reporter to arrange a children's hearing so that advice can be given about the treatment of the child. Even in the worst cases at the High Court, surely such advice would need to be sought.
It depends on the circumstances of the case. If the child were involved in a murder inquiry, the gravity of the case would be such that it would properly come before the High Court.
The new clause enables the courts to refer the cases of certain young people who have offended direct to the children's hearing for disposal. We think that that is a sensible provision which complements the provision in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill to provide for such young people non-custodial disposal, which attracts 100 per cent. funding from the Scottish Office. I believe that that too is generally welcomed; it discharges the undertaking in the White Paper "Scotland's Children", to enable children's hearings to deal with certain young people aged 16 and 17 for whom full criminal justice disposals are not appropriate.
If the child has been involved in a murder investigation or a serious crime, of course he will not fit into that category. I understand that that is why "may" has been used in that context.
New clause 21 was discussed in Committee during the 13th sitting on 6 March. On that occasion we talked of supplementary secure units and suggested that the courts, especially sheriff courts, should have discretion to use such units without reference to children's panels. Does not new clause 6 cut across the objectives behind new clause 21? Does it not conflict with the sympathetic words of my hon. Friend the Minister in Committee?