Criminal Justice and Courts Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:23 pm on 30th June 2014.

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Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Labour 6:23 pm, 30th June 2014

My Lords, I want to go through the Bill and address various points. First, Part 1 is concerned with dangerous offenders, in Clauses 1 to 5 and Schedule 1. The effect of these new offences and new release conditions will be to increase the prison population—an increase of about 1,000 prisoners over the coming period, as the Government said in their impact assessment. When I attended the All-Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group around Christmas time, we heard from the Parole Board about the pressure that it is currently under. Given the existing backlog of cases for parole hearings and the Osborn judgment, I think it behoves this House to look very carefully at the Bill in Committee to examine how realistic it is that the Parole Board will be able to meet the increased expectations following the Osborn judgment and the provisions within this part of the Bill.

I move on to Clause 15 and the matter of cautions. I welcome the proposal to restrict cautions to summary and either way offences and to limit the use of repeat cautions. It is of extreme importance that cautions have public confidence. There has been legislation for scrutiny panels—which I have mentioned in previous Bills—to look at whether they are being appropriately administered. Scrutiny panels are being piloted in different parts of the country and I know there are schemes in place to look at the consistency of the various roles of scrutiny panels. It is clear from the legislation that it is for the police to lead the set-up of the scrutiny panels, but it is unclear to whom those scrutiny panels report and what is to be done with their findings. To give the House some idea of the scale of the issue, in the Metropolitan Police area in 2012-13 there were some 70,000 out-of-court disposals, and the current proposal within London is that there will be two meetings of a scrutiny panel each year in each judicial business group area. Therefore, I do not want to be too sceptical, but I am doubtful whether that level of scrutiny is going to be sufficient to assuage doubts about the proper use of cautions.

I move on to Part 2 of the Bill and young offenders, which are dealt with in Clauses 29 and 30 and Schedule 6. As we have heard throughout the afternoon, and Ministers will be very aware, there is near universal opposition to the secure colleges idea. The various pressure groups that contact noble Lords are universally against these proposals. I understand the Government’s objective to reduce the cost of detention training orders and to enhance the educational provision available to young offenders. I understand both those objectives. The objections to the secure colleges will be well known to Ministers: the families of children will inevitably have to travel further to the colleges, and there may well be a mixing of different age groups and ability ranges so the colleges will have to be very carefully managed so that the different elements of the college are appropriately separated. I know the Minister in the other place, Jeremy Wright, has promised to publish secure college rules. I would be grateful if the noble Lord the Minister could say when we might expect to see those and whether we could expect to see them before Committee stage.

I have two specific questions which, so far as I am aware, were not asked in the other place. First, will it be open for secure colleges to take 18 to 21 year-olds? Clearly, they would be managed separately from those under 18, but would it be open for secure colleges to take 18 to 21 year-olds if there was space available? The second question is whether it would be open for local authorities to refer young people to a secure college if they have no criminal conviction. My understanding is that this is the case—rarely but it is the case—in secure children’s homes, but would it be available for the secure colleges?

I spent some of yesterday afternoon looking at the Youth Justice Board’s website. There are 75 youths in custody in the East Midlands and 48 in the east of England. Therefore, when one considers the new build site for Glen Parva in Leicestershire, there is obviously an inadequacy of youths to go to that site, so it is self-evident that the youths would have to come from further away. However, we have had larger dedicated juvenile prisons in the recent past. First, Wetherby could take 360 prisoners plus a further 48 in a special purpose-built unit, but its capacity has now been reduced—mothballed—to about 200, so there is capacity there. Secondly, Hindley became a juvenile-only prison in 2009, with 450 places but because of falling numbers and after four and a half years it was resplit into 248 juvenile offenders and 192 18 to 21 year-old prisoners. The point that I am making is that building capacity is not the central issue, which is surely to provide the enhanced education. The £80 million cost is a lot of money. We do not know where it is coming from, but I suspect that many noble Lords, and certainly many pressure groups, would think that it would be better spent on enhancing education provision rather than building new buildings.

I move on to Part 3 of the Bill and the single justice procedures in Clauses 36 to 40. I agree with the Bill’s proposal that a single magistrate can convict and sentence high-volume, low-seriousness cases; this is when a defendant pleads guilty or agrees to the procedure or does not respond to notifications. I have sat on hundreds of these cases, and I am very glad to agree with the procedure. I say to my noble friend Lord Beecham, who is not in his place, that one magistrate is more than sufficient and you can, under current rules, sit with two magistrates. The Magistrates’ Association has raised a concern that this change in procedure should not be seen by the public as a lessening of the rigour with which criminal cases are dealt with in a magistrates’ court. To this end, the MA has come up with two alternative suggestions, which I may move as amendments in Committee. The purpose of the suggestions is to publish the courts’ list in a readily accessible way so that people can be confident that procedures are going through in a public way.

I move on to the committal of young offenders to the Crown Court, in Clause 41. I welcome this clause, which was introduced at the very last minute in the other place. If the Government have any estimate of the numbers of young people who they think will be sent up to the Crown Court under this provision, I would welcome that information. The Carlile report, which was a very good one, of course went much further than this in terms of trying many more cases concerning youths in the magistrates’ court. But this clause is a welcome step in the right direction.

On Part 3 and the costs of criminal courts, in my view it is wrong on principle that people should pay their court costs; it is the role of the state to provide the court’s services, so the state’s laws can be properly administered. I accept that my point of principle is weak when it relates to rich foreign businessmen who seek to resolve their contractual disputes in British courts. But from where I sit, as someone who regularly sits in magistrates’ courts, a very high proportion of the people I see are poor and on benefits. It is inevitable that imposing a mandatory court cost will make poor people poorer and more likely to plead guilty to reduce the potential court costs. Does the Minister think that that is fair? At the very least, magistrates and judges should have discretion about how much of the court costs are actually applied.

I want to make one comment on judicial review, and specifically on children, who are the most vulnerable. They cannot pursue these matters themselves and I would support any move in Committee that seeks to protect children with regard to judicial review.

Finally, in wrapping up, my noble friend Lord Beecham described this Bill as a pot pourri and then went on to give us a lesson in etymology—that it is not necessarily something that smells nice but could be a mixed pot of meat. We will see which is the correct interpretation in the coming weeks.