Child Offenders

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 15th July 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative 2:30 pm, 15th July 2002

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of the growing number of crimes committed by children too young to be brought before the courts, they have any plans to reduce the age of criminal responsibility.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Criminal Policy), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice System)

My Lords, the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is currently 10 and Her Majesty's Government have no plans to reduce it.

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that age is not necessarily an accurate basis for distinguishing between right and wrong? Is it possible that a spate of youth crime may start at a younger age?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Criminal Policy), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice System)

My Lords, I agree that age is not necessarily the right dividing line for those who can determine between right and wrong, but an age of criminal responsibility is needed. I accept that in certain places there are those, under the age of 10, who commit crimes and antisocial behaviour. I do not believe that the correct way to deal with them is to reduce the age of criminal responsibility. Our age of criminal responsibility is one of the lowest in Europe. I believe that Scotland is the only country that has a lower age and it has been advised by the Law Commission that it should be increased to 12. The right course is to intervene as early as possible to try to prevent people going down the path of crime.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, I am delighted that the Minister accepts that our age of criminal responsibility is one of the lowest in Western Europe. Does the Minister also accept that the best way to deal with children is to adopt the practices used in many European countries where children are dealt with in family courts where supervision and care are more of a concern than any criminal process? Would such a process help to reduce crime?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Criminal Policy), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice System)

My Lords, when a child under the age of 10 is drawn to the attention of the authorities for committing antisocial behaviour or a crime, he or she is treated as a child in need under the 1988 Act and social services consider the correct course for that child. I wholly agree that in relation to a child under 10 all steps should be taken to consider what is the best way to divert him or her from a life of crime. When a child is 10 or older, difficult decisions have to be made about the extent to which criminal proceedings are appropriate.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of reducing juvenile crime at whatever age is to ensure extra support early enough for families in the most deprived areas? Does he further agree that nipping the very first signs of truancy in the bud is a necessary part of the equation?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Criminal Policy), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice System)

My Lords, I wholly agree that the best possible support should be provided to prevent children turning to crime at any age. I fully accept the basis of the noble Baroness's question. First, I draw her attention to the Sure Start programme, which seeks to achieve that and, secondly, to the Government's focus on seeking to ensure, for example, that children who are excluded from school nevertheless receive full-time education. All of us know the close connection between exclusion from school and the commission of crime.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, while accepting the answers given so far by my noble and learned friend, does he agree that there may be some justification for increasing the degree of responsibility and perhaps punishment for adults who may influence young children to commit crimes?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Criminal Policy), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice System)

My Lords, indeed. All too often one hears of occasions when children and parents are engaged together in shoplifting activities. One should come down as hard as possible on parents who urge their children to commit criminal offences.

Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Conservative

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House the legal position of children who, according to recent truancy reports, are encouraged to stay away from school in order to engage in shoplifting?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Criminal Policy), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice System)

My Lords, the legal position depends on the age of the child, but if a parent incites a child who is over the age of criminal responsibility to commit a criminal offence, that is the crime of incitement. As the noble Viscount will know, the Government have been keen to ensure that the strictest possible measures are taken by courts in dealing with parents who do not ensure that their children attend school when they can.

Photo of Baroness Stern Baroness Stern Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that treating troubled and damaged young children as criminals makes them more troubled and damaged? Section 130 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 has allowed many more children on remand to be locked up in secure places which are overcrowded and an experiment, to be conducted in 10 areas, is to be rolled out in September of this year. In the light of the large numbers of young children who have been locked up under that section, does he agree that the implementation of the section throughout the country should be postponed?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Criminal Policy), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice System)

My Lords, I do not agree with the last proposal. Difficult decisions have to be made about children who are above the age of criminal responsibility in relation to crimes that they commit. Where, for example, crimes such as street robbery are on the increase, it is necessary for judgments to be made as to how best to protect the community. That does not mean that where it is appropriate for an individual child to be given help rather than to undergo criminal proceedings, that that should not be provided, because that would help to reduce re-offending. However, it is not a one-way street. The protection of the community also has to be considered.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative

My Lords, I thought that we were dealing with children under the age of criminal responsibility. If that is the case, would it be possible to introduce, without criminalisation, a way in which magistrates could make an effective order that social services would have to implement?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Criminal Policy), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice System)

My Lords, the question is indeed about the criminal age of responsibility. As I indicated before in answer to an earlier question, where a child comes to the attention of the authorities because it has committed an act of antisocial behaviour or a crime, that child is treated as a child in need and the social services investigate the correct course to pursue. That is better than bringing the child before the court in every case.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister said that England has the lowest age of criminal responsibility and that Scotland is being advised to raise the age there to 12. Is the Minister considering raising the age of criminal responsibility in England?

Given the success of parenting orders and the need that many of these children have for clear boundaries, does the Minister hope that some of the money that the Chancellor is today investing in schools will go to better parenting education in schools so that students leaving school will be better equipped to manage family life?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State (Criminal Policy), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice System)

My Lords, I thoroughly support the underlying sentiment of the second part of the question; namely, that money spent on parenting orders and on helping people to understand their responsibilities as parents is money well spent. But it is not for me to determine how the education budget should be spent.

As to the first part of the question about whether we are thinking of increasing the age of criminal responsibility, as I made clear in Answer to the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, we are not.