Justice: Sentencing of Young Offenders — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:52 pm on 11th June 2012.

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Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour 2:52 pm, 11th June 2012

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to avoid the unnecessary sentencing of young offenders.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, the Government are introducing reforms to give professionals greater flexibility to resolve offences without the need for prosecution, if this is in the public interest. However, robust community sentences, and where necessary custodial sentences, will continue to be used for the most serious and prolific young offenders.

Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, because it is rather useful. However, there is one problem in avoiding any unnecessary sentencing of young offenders: the age of criminal responsibility, which is 10 years in England but 15 years in Nordic countries, so there is a big difference there. There has also been a United Kingdom-wide financial programme to help young people to fulfil their potential. Will this programme be used to help the young offenders?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, first, on the question of the age of criminal responsibility, the argument that has been put forward by successive Governments is that keeping it at 10 allows the support services to intervene early and positively with young offenders who have committed serious offences. I think the Scots have already moved or are about to move to 12, and, as the noble Lord rightly said, other parts of Europe have higher ages. All I can say is that at the moment, as with our predecessors, Her Majesty's Government have no plans to review that minimum age-for that reason of intervention.

On the question of help for young offenders, again, following on from the progress made by our predecessors, we are trying early intervention to help to identify the problems behind some of the offences, and that will certainly continue.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there has been a significant reduction in youth crime that is mainly attributable to the work of the Youth Justice Board, which deals with offenders up to the age of 18? Will he consider extending the remit of the Youth Justice Board to deal with young adult offenders up to the age of 21 to see whether this pattern can be repeated?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

Like the age of criminal responsibility, this matter is kept under review. There are certainly indications that more holistic intervention by youth offending teams has led to a significant fall-off in youth offending, and there are lessons to be learnt from that. As always with these matters, the question is how much further up the age group one can carry interventions such as that without severe resource implications. However, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the 18 to 25 group, where a lot of criminality that lasts for a lifetime starts becoming embedded.

Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop

My Lords, I speak with experience of the restorative justice programme at Thorn Cross young offender prison in my diocese, which has demonstrably effective results. Where in government policy will the support be for creative and effective restorative justice programmes that help young offenders to come to see the consequences of their actions?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, the Government hope to publish in the near future a White Paper on the criminal justice system. Having seen some early drafts, I know that we will bring forward some positive proposals on restorative justice, because, as has been said, there is every indication that restorative justice has a significant and beneficial impact on reoffending.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, I welcome what the Government are doing. However, given that half of children in the juvenile estate have experience of being looked after by their local authority and a quarter of adults have similar experience, and given the particular worry about young people leaving the care of their local authority and moving into bed-and-breakfast accommodation, will the Minister discuss with his colleagues the possibility of a review of services for looked-after children, including children in children's homes, and care leavers? Will he also discuss with colleagues the example of the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, which provides a centre of excellence in a university to train staff in children's homes, to research looked-after children's services and to influence policy, which we do not have in this country?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, as so often, the noble Earl puts forward some very sensible suggestions, which I will follow up. Anyone who has been involved with our criminal justice system must be slightly shamed by the fact that a large number of young people who find their way into it as adults have been in our care as children.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the Minister rightly spoke warmly of the work of the Youth Justice Board in answer to the question from his noble friend. Does he recognise now that it was wrong for the Government to propose the abolition of the Youth Justice Board in the Public Bodies Bill and to have fought so tenaciously for it?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

As always, the Government listen extremely carefully to this House. In this case, the House was wise, and the Government were wise to listen to it.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat

My Lords, do those who have offended and have been penalised in one way or another have greater difficulty in finding jobs when their sentence ends? We know that 23% of young people between 16 and 25 are out of work. How much more difficult is it for those who have offended?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I would have thought that it would be difficult. If you get a criminal record, it becomes a problem in employment. That is why part of the thrust of the Government's policy on young people offending is to try to keep them out of the criminal justice system and to give those with responsibility in this area greater flexibility in their treatment. As my noble friend has said, it is also a question of making sure that young people are kept in the education system. Where full-time education is not the most appropriate route, apprenticeships and other forms of training should be there.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Labour

My Lords, is the Minister aware that about a half of those convicted for riot-related offences, certainly at the time the Riots Communities and Victims Panel published its report, were 18 to 24 year-olds? If he does not feel that he can give additional resources at the moment to enable the Youth Justice Board to take over, how else can he address the problems of that age group? After all, if we have another set of riots, that may be money well spent.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

What I can say is that there is a White Paper in the offing on these areas. It does not take a great deal of homework to identify that age group as perhaps the next best group on which to focus the intensity of care that has been shown in the youth justice system. If we could get anywhere near that success in the 18 to 25 group, we would have a real chance of cutting reoffending, which is the real problem in our prison population and in general levels of crime.