Moved by Baroness Massey of Darwen
191: Clause 101, page 86, line 14, leave out from “committed” to “the court” on line 15 and insert—“(i) by a person aged 16 or 17; or(ii) by a person aged 18 or over before the day on which section 101 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021 came into force,”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment ensures that no children are affected by the changes to mandatory minimum sentences in Clause 101.
My Lords, I shall speak to amendments of various kinds in this group, all related to youth justice. I am grateful to the secretariat of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which my noble friend Lord Dubs and I are members. We have discussed the Bill at great length, interviewed people with expertise on each clause and, as noble Lords are aware, prepared relevant reports. It has been a heavy load on our secretariat and I am grateful for their dedicated work. I am also grateful to the Youth Justice Board, the Children’s Rights Alliance, the Youth Justice Legal Centre and other children’s organisations for their contributions.
Amendments 191 to 194 in Clause 101 would ensure that no children were affected by the changes to mandatory minimum sentences in Clause 101, based on paragraphs 17 to 27 of the JCHR report. Clause 101 will allow a court to diverge from imposing a minimum custodial sentence for certain crimes, including crimes involving weapons committed by those aged 16 or 17, only where there were exceptional circumstances. This increase in the limitation on judicial discretion conflicts with the need for sentencing decisions to be individualised and for the welfare of the child to be a primary consideration. Custody for children, as has been stated in many cases, must remain a measure of last resort. Witnesses told the JCHR that limiting judicial discretion was inherently incompatible with the best-interests principle, the legal duty that the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in any action by a state body, including a court. These principles reflect international standards and are a fundamental protection for the rights of the child.
This set of amendments would amend Clause 101 so that no children would be affected by its provisions. We have heard about the difficult circumstances of many children who interact with the criminal justice system, many of whom have complex needs that should be appropriately considered in sentences. The Bill limits the ability for such consideration by limiting judicial discretion at a time when there is a growing awareness of child criminal exploitation.
The amendment to leave out Clause 103 is based on paragraphs 76 to 82 in parts 7 and 8 of the JCHR report. Clause 103 would make it possible for judges to impose whole-life orders on offenders aged 18 to 20 in exceptionally serious circumstances. Sentences giving offenders no possibility of rehabilitation, and no prospect of release if that rehabilitation was achieved, would breach Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. While it has concluded that whole-life orders for offenders aged 21 and over do not violate Article 3 of the ECHR, the JCHR is concerned about the implication of extending these sentences to offenders aged 18 to 20.
The courts and the Justice Committee have accepted that turning 18 is not a cliff edge. Young offenders aged between 18 and 20 are still maturing and have significant potential to change. Extending to this age group a sentence that makes the prospect of these offenders ever being released unlikely comes perilously close to the Article 3 threshold. It also runs counter to positive recent recognition of the need to treat young adult offenders as a category distinct from old offenders. This amendment would ensure that the minimum age for imposing a whole-life sentence or order does not drop below 21.
Amendments 198 to 201 to Clause 104, which would remove any tariff starting points above the current 12 years, are based on paragraphs 28 to 39 of the JCHR report. Clause 104 introduces a range of starting points for tariffs for children given DHMP sentences. When setting the tariff period, the court must first allocate a starting point and then consider any aggravating or mitigating factors—plus the effect of the defendant’s previous convictions, any guilty plea and whether the offence was committed on bail.
Currently, the starting point for the courts when setting the tariff is 12 years for children of all ages. The Bill proposes a change to this starting point, depending on the age of the child. The changes would more closely align the starting points for older children with the equivalent offences for adults, while reducing them for a small number of younger children.
Life sentences for children have been criticised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, whose interpretation of the UNCRC, while not legally binding, is authoritative. Increasing the length of time that children must spend in custody before they can be considered for release can be seen only as making DHMP even less aligned to the rights in the UNCRC, which the UK ratified in 1992. Scotland and Wales are looking at how the convention might be incorporated into law. I am not sure where they are with this—perhaps the Minister will know more.
The courts already have discretion to consider the different developmental stages of children and reflect this in the tariffs that they hand down for DHMP. Mandating the courts in legislation to treat older and younger children differently focuses too much on age and not enough on maturity or circumstances. It brings tariffs for older children so close to those faced by adults that the distinction between a child and an adult risks being lost. However, the JCHR accepts the imposition of shorter tariff periods for the youngest offenders as a step towards the recommendations of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. These amendments remove any tariff starting points above the current 12 years but retain the imposition of shorter tariff periods for the youngest offenders.
Amendments 202 and 203 to Clause 105 return to permitting the possibility of a reduction of the tariff at the halfway stage and beyond for those who have committed relevant crimes as children, based on paragraphs 40 to 45 of the JCHR report. Individuals detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure may apply for their tariffs to be reviewed. The policy was changed in February 2021 so that those sentenced when over 18 would no longer qualify for any review of their tariff. Clause 105 puts this into statute.
The age of criminal responsibility is 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and eight in Scotland. Therefore, it is theoretically possible, although it would be exceedingly rare, for someone to commit a murder, be given a DHMP sentence and still be under 18 two years after the halfway point of their tariff, so as to qualify for additional review. Accordingly, the JCHR was told that experts could not imagine a circumstance where someone would qualify for the additional review under this new provision. The effect of this clause is therefore to reduce the frequency of reviews of minimum terms and all but remove the possibility of a review beyond the halfway point. This should not happen.
The Government should seek to identify changes in the process of the DHMP tariff reviews so that they can lessen the distress caused to the families of victims. A child who commits an offence was still a child when they did so, even if they have reached the age of 18 while awaiting sentence or in custody. DHMP sentences should remain under continual review.
Amendments 204 and 206 to Clause 107 propose the main changes to time spent in custody, based on paragraphs 46 to 56 of the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Clause 107 would change the custodial period for children serving sentences of detention of over seven years when sentenced under Section 250 of the Sentencing Act 2020. The Bill would require children serving these sentences to spend two-thirds of their sentence in custody rather than half, as is the case now, with the rest of their sentence spent on licence in the community. Article 40 of the UNCRC emphasises
“the desirability of promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society.”
The UNCRC is clear that detention must be
“a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.
A policy to increase the length of time children spend in custody requires proper justification. The Government’s relevant White Paper argues that spending longer in custody means that those who commit offences will have more time to focus on rehabilitative interventions. However, we heard from witnesses in the JCHR interviews that spending longer in custody hinders reintegration into society, and this would worsen reoffending rates. It is particularly important that for serious child offenders there is a clear focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Clause 107 is likely to shift the focus towards punishment. This may well be counterproductive in reducing offending.
Children sentenced to detention under Section 250 of the Sentencing Act 2020 should, as they do now, spend half their sentence in custody and half being monitored in the community, to support their reintegration into the community. This amendment would prevent the release point for children sentenced to detention under Section 250 of the Sentencing Act 2020 being pushed back to two-thirds of the way through their sentence.
The UN committee has consistently expressed concern about the laws and procedures relating to children that do not properly take into account their age and maturity. I am not clear, for example, why the Government do not seem to be taking steps to address inequalities and any inequities that exist with children who were below the age of 18 at the time of committing the offence but who turn 18 prior to conviction. The UN committee will review our systems next year. I hope that it will be able to record progress. Amending this Bill would be a step forward. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I will speak to the issues raised in these amendments. In summing up the last group of amendments, the Minister said that we had to achieve the proper balance between rehabilitation and punishment. This is even more important in the area of youth justice which we touched on—admittedly with a bit of elasticity of the rules—in the previous group of amendments, but which are particularly relevant here and will occur later in this Bill as we deal with other measures.
The balance between what I would call repair and support for young people and punishment is one of great importance, and we must adjust that balance with great care indeed. This country, along with many others, recognises that children should be treated differently from adults in the justice system. However, there is a concerning trend in this government-expressed Bill, particularly in Clause 104, towards what I would call harsher treatment of older children, and bringing the sentencing of children closer into line with adults. This clause in particular proposes extending whole-life orders in exceptional circumstances to offenders aged 18 to 20. These are the most severe sentences that can be handed down by the courts. The other clauses also touch on the balance that I am talking about.
The Sentencing Council gives a full explanation of why children have to be treated differently, referring to lack of maturity, acting impulsively, inexperience, emotional volatility and negative influences as factors that ought to be considered. In particular, it notes that children and young people are likely to be susceptible to peer pressure. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in her example in the last group, referred to exactly that sort of problem, when young people respond to peer pressure and then resent and turn from it afterwards.
Clause 101 would permit the court to diverge from mandatory minimum sentences only when there are “exceptional circumstances”. This is change from the current wording, “particular circumstances”. Neither “particular” nor “exceptional” have been defined in law, or in this Bill, or in the Explanatory Notes associated with the Bill. So who is going to interpret “exceptional circumstances”? If it is to be the Secretary of State, where does that definition exist? Perhaps the Minister could give us the definition at the end.
I went to the dictionary, as one always does to look up words, and looked up “exceptional”. There are at least four definitions, ranging from “only likely to happen very infrequently” to “having much more than average intelligence, ability, or skill”. With that breadth of difference in the understanding of “exceptional”, I am sure that there is a great deal of work to be done on that definition. There is a world of difference between “likely to happen very infrequently” and “beyond the average”, which is the other interpretation that you could give to this word. Either way, it is important that the Government tell us why they have made that change and what it means in practice.
My second point is about the discrimination elements in these amendments. The Government have recognised that these clauses have a disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic children. We have only to turn to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report. Basing its comments on the Human Rights Act 1998, it says:
“Discrimination may be justified, but only where the difference of treatment pursues a legitimate aim and where there is a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised.”
The report says that many of the witnesses who were interviewed questioned whether the Bill had gone too far and does discriminate. So there are questions to be asked as to whether the Bill breaches the right that people have under that 1998 law.
The report further states:
“The government recognises the unequal effect of these measures in its Bill, but does not provide any mitigation”.
So can the Minister provide an explanation of the measures they propose to mitigate the impact of this discriminatory effect on BAME children? The House will need to consider whether these measures need to be written into the Bill, but I hope the Minister might undertake that action could be taken through government amendments.
The Bill proposes extending whole-life orders in exceptional circumstances to offenders aged 18 to 20, and these, as I said, are the most severe sentences. But those who offend as children should not lose the opportunity to benefit from the youth sentencing framework and rehabilitation periods, because system delays there are not of their fault.
The court delays we have at the moment existed before Covid and have been exacerbated since. In the year ending December 2019, before Covid, the average delay between offence and court completion was 160 days—nearly 23 weeks. That is eight weeks longer than in 2011, despite the reduction between 2011 and 2019 in the number of youth offence court cases. Covid has made this situation so much worse. Can the Minister confirm that those who cross the age threshold because of these delays will not be subject to a more severe sentence?
In a recent report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation, the chief inspector said about the impact on black and minority-ethnic children:
“Half of the boys in the inspected cases had faced racial discrimination in their life; a third had been victims of criminal exploitation and a quarter had a disability … Yet many of these children are only receiving support with these needs for the first time through the criminal justice system.”
By looking at the criminal justice system we are looking at the cart, but the horse has already bolted from the stable. This is quite clearly unacceptable. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation says so, and I believe we need to revisit the amendments the Government have tabled to ensure that the proper balance is achieved, as the Minister said in response to the previous group of amendments. Proper balance does not mean turning the dial far more towards punishment than towards the repair of these young people.
My Lords, I speak on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby on this occasion, who could not be here today. I add my support to Amendments 198, 199, 200 and 201, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, which deal with tariff starting points or DHMP sentences as they relate to young people. The noble Baroness laid out well the case for amending Clause 104 so that it takes into account evidence on maturation. I will briefly add the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby’s perspective as a Lord spiritual and as part of a team of Bishops focused on Her Majesty’s prisons, particularly young offender institutions. She also declares an interest as vice-chair of the Children’s Society.
Children ought to be treated as children, and we resist any erosion of that in law. If we are to argue to the contrary we must be content to go against the trajectory of every other arena of English law. Eighteen is soon to become the age at which people can legally marry, leave education and join the Armed Forces. I urge noble Lords to reflect on this. If we project from this that children are to be protected from making decisions about marriage, education and even enlisting in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces until they reach a maturation point of 18, then the same logic surely must continue to apply in this instance.
The net consequence of Clause 104 would be more children spending longer in custody. Put simply, with very few under-16s impacted, the result would be more older teenagers receiving more severe sentences than is currently the case.
I intend to oppose Clause 103 being added to the Bill. Clause 103 would make it possible for judges to impose whole life orders on offenders aged 18 to 20. Our amendment would ensure that the minimum age for imposing a whole life order does not drop below 21. Although these are not legally children, in common with Clause 104, Clause 103 fails to take into account the Government’s 2015 response to the report by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, into the deaths of 18 to 24 year -olds in custody, where the Government agreed that
“It is widely recognised that young adults, particularly males, are still maturing until around 25 years of age.”
I am grateful to the Prison Reform Trust for its briefing on this and for highlighting that the origin of Clause 103 derives entirely from a single recent case. I understand the strength of feeling around that particularly tragic case, as it resulted in terrible loss of life. However, I do not believe there is any justification for extending whole life orders to young adults in this manner.
As Christians, we on these Benches might be somewhat predisposed to second chances and redemption through Christ. Under the proposals in this Bill, a young person, who the Government’s own research says has not reached full maturation, could be imprisoned for perhaps 60 or 70 years without any prospect of redemption or restoration. There is a wider argument here against whole life orders in principle but, until now, the law has recognised that for under-21s a sentence of this magnitude has been too significant a prospect, for the reasons already outlined. I am yet to hear a compelling case for change.
This is not to say that crimes ought not to be appropriately punished and justice served. It is to say that choices made by a neurologically immature young person should not determine the whole fate of that person’s life. Young adults who are still maturing are more capable of change and more likely to desist from crime in future.
We might even debate whether many of the young people in Her Majesty’s young offender institutions have had the ability to make real adult choices, free from abuse, coercion and manipulation, as the noble Lord, Lord German, just outlined. In reality, we are talking about a handful of cases, and children and young people deserve to be treated not as handfuls, but individually and separately.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on tabling these amendments. I will speak in particular on Clause 101. It is a real pity it is in the Bill, so I look forward to the Minister explaining exactly why it is here, particularly after having heard your Lordships.
Mandatory prison sentences could lead to a repeat of what happens in the USA, where there are three-strike laws, which are partly responsible for their obscene rates of incarceration: nearly 1% of the American population is in prison or jail, and this is very racially unbalanced. That is not to say that there are not many situations in which people should be sent to prison for these offences, but this blanket approach takes out any nuance whatever. It is easy for the Government to increase prison sentences and set mandatory minimum sentences; they can go around to the tabloids and say, “See what we’re doing. We’re being tough on crime”. It is much more difficult, but more important, to deliver real rehabilitation and diversion so that people do not reoffend and we do not take up huge amounts of taxpayers’ money keeping them in prison. I love the word that the noble Lord, Lord German, used—“repair”. We talk about rehabilitation, but “repair” is a superb word when talking about some of these very damaged children. Will the Government be adding any rehabilitation or diversion to these mandatory sentences, so that people do not offend three times, or will they just say “job done” and rely on the deterrent effect alone?
Most worrying to me on this list of offences is the inclusion of drugs offences. We should be moving towards a legalised and fully regulated drugs supply that is as safe as it can be. Creating a minimum sentence of seven years for drugs offences is a huge backwards step and will make the supply of drugs a lot more violent and dangerous, as people will have so much more to lose if they get caught.
On the previous amendment on the disclosure of cautions, I learned today from an amazing source that the illegal Prorogation of Parliament was wiped from the bound Hansard records. It apparently has ceased to exist in the bound version. It strikes me that, if we can delete all references in bound Hansard to the illegal Prorogation of Parliament—thanks to our esteemed Prime Minister Boris Johnson—surely we can be a little kinder to young people.
On “exceptional circumstances”, we all know that if you are a water company, exceptional circumstances mean you can release a sewage discharge any time you like, so, presumably, “exceptional” can be anything you want it to be, which is a little bit upsetting when it comes to the law, where words matter and should be more precise.
I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of all this, because I think it is rather nasty, hard-line and discriminatory.
I thank my noble friend Lady Massey for introducing these amendments. She did so comprehensively, and I shall speak very briefly in support of them.
When most young people go into custody, they will serve half their sentence in custody and the other half out on licence or on a training order. The gist of the Bill is to increase the custody element to two-thirds, while the amendments would put that back to half the period. As I have said on other amendments, I have an aversion to sentence inflation, and this is an example of it. There is no evidence that I am aware of that it would reduce reoffending. Rehabilitation is available within both the youth estate and the adult estate, but it is so much better if it can be engaged while outside prison.
On principle, I am against sentence inflation. My noble friend has set out with her normal expertise why, when looking at a wider context of international law, this example of sentence inflation is not appropriate. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, these amendments, which I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for putting down, all relate to custodial sentences for children. There were one or two points that she made that I shall perhaps respond to when we get to group 9, because there is a little bit of an overlap with some of the points there. I hope that she will forgive me if I respond to some of the points then, but I shall seek to respond to the majority now.
As the Committee will be aware, there is a separate and distinct sentencing framework for children. When sentencing children, the courts have to take into account two statutory considerations: the principal aim of the youth justice system, which is to prevent offending by children and young people, and the welfare of the child. I hope that overlaps with some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord German, emanating from the Sentencing Council.
Although, therefore, custody should always be a last resort for children, there will be some cases where it is necessary, and we believe that the court is best placed to determine the appropriate sentence. But those who commit the most serious offences, and who pose a risk to the public, should serve an amount of time in custody which reflects the seriousness of their offending.
Against that background, let me go through the relevant clauses and amendments. Clause 101 relates to—and I underline this point—minimum sentences. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, on a few occasions referred to “mandatory” sentences. The clause is not headed “mandatory sentences”; the words “mandatory sentence” do not appear in this Bill, except in one place, Clause 101(8), which refers back—it is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is not in his place, because we have a nice piece of parliamentary drafting here—to Section 399(c) of the Sentencing Code “(mandatory sentence requirements)”, but that refers to a minimum sentence where the conditions set out in the clause do not apply.
I have two points to make in this regard. First, minimum sentences are not mandatory in the sense that they must be imposed. They are a mandatory consideration that the court must make before passing a sentence unless the provision in the sentence is met. Secondly, the Bill does not introduce minimum sentences for under-18s for the first time. Offenders aged 16 or 17 are already subject to minimum sentencing provisions if convicted of threatening with a weapon or bladed article, or a repeat offence involving a weapon or bladed article.
The threshold for courts to depart from imposing a minimum sentence is open to them, the question being whether the test is met. This amendment aims to ensure that the change in the threshold will not apply to offenders aged 16 and 17 who are convicted of these two offences. In Clause 101 we seek to ensure that courts depart from the minimum sentence only in exceptional circumstances.
The purpose of a minimum sentence is that unless the threshold is met—we will debate in another group what that threshold should be—the minimum sentence is imposed. There is nothing between us on how it works; there obviously is on whether it is a good idea. I hope that is fair.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but in sentencing law and in the criminal justice system, minimum sentences are currently referred to as “mandatory minimum sentences”, subject to thresholds and exceptions such as exceptional circumstances. That is a very long tradition. As lawyers we must be fair to lay Members of the Committee as well. It is unfair to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has missed the point. It is very common in the parlance of sentencing law and criminal justice law to refer to minimum sentences as “mandatory minimum sentences”, subject to whatever thresholds and exceptions there are.
The point I am making is very important and we will get to it in another group. I absolutely accept that people use “mandatory sentence” in a common parlance way, but when we get to a later group, we will discuss what the test should be. I will not delay the Committee now, but the figures for when the minimum sentence is not actually imposed are surprising. People using the phrase “mandatory sentence” would be surprised to hear that in a third and sometimes nearly half of cases, the minimum sentence is not given. If “mandatory” does not apply in a third of cases, I question whether it is the appropriate word. Therefore, we must bear in mind that we are dealing with a minimum sentence with a provision, whether that is “exceptional” or some other test. I certainly do not seek to criticise the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for using the shorthand. I wanted to point out that it is a shorthand which can be misleading when one looks at the facts as to how such sentences are imposed.
What is the essential difference in my noble friend’s mind between exceptional and particular circumstances? Is not the truth of the matter that he wants the default position to be a custodial sentence, whereas there was greater discretion to the judge when the particular circumstances were what the law was to consider?
As I say, there is a specific amendment on that point, so I will come to this in more detail then, if I may. The question is about when you depart from the minimum sentence. We are dealing here with the scope of the exception—that might be an unfortunate word, because one of the words we are using to qualify the exception is “exceptional”—and whether the exception is in circumstances which are just in the case, which I think is the gist of one of the amendments in a later group, or exceptional circumstances. I absolutely accept that one has a minimum sentence, which we can call the default, with an exception. It is always for the judge to decide, looking at the offence and the offender, whether the test is met. I will come in a moment to the words “exceptional circumstances” in particular.
What we want to do, to underline the point, is to ensure that courts depart from the minimum sentence only in exceptional circumstances. That reflects the seriousness of the offences and the risks posed to others. We believe that will create greater consistency in the statutory provisions on minimum sentences which apply to other offences. This change does not mean—
Unless the exception is met, this is the sentence that will be imposed. I do not want to split hairs with the noble Baroness, but it is not mandatory in that sense. It is a minimum sentence which has to be imposed unless the conditions are met.
It is not a mandatory sentence, because you can impose more. Let us be clear: it is a minimum sentence, which has to be imposed unless the exceptions are met. To take it outside this clause, if you have a minimum sentence of two years unless there is an exception, the first question is: is the exception met? If it is not, you have to give at least two years. You do not have to give two years; you could give two and a half years. I am not sure I am saying anything different. Reference has been made to America. In other jurisdictions, when they say mandatory, it can be mandatory without exceptional circumstances or any other provision. I am not sure we are saying anything different. I think we are all clear about what we mean. I would prefer to use the phrase “a minimum sentence”, which is the phrase used in the Bill, unless the exception applies.
I am so sorry to elongate this, but it is important. The Minister, sitting in a Government with a massive majority, gets to rewrite the statute book, but he does not get to change terms that are well understood by lawyers and sentencers in this jurisdiction and others. He is proposing a mandatory minimum sentence subject to certain exceptions. The common parlance—perhaps not on the street, but in the profession and on the Bench—is that this is a mandatory minimum sentence. He can argue for it and say that it is good policy, but it is not helpful to the Committee, anyone outside it or anyone reading Hansard for us to suggest that this is something totally different from a mandatory minimum sentence subject to exceptional circumstances.
I am really not sure that we are saying anything different. As I said, we will come in a later group to how many offenders do not get the minimum sentence with some sentences. There must come a point at which so many offenders do not get it that using the word “mandatory” to describe it is itself misleading. I suggest we are better off sticking to the terms used in the Bill, which are both accurate and appropriate.
I underline the point that the change we are proposing does not mean that all 16 and 17 year-olds will receive the minimum sentence. The courts will retain the discretion not to apply the minimum where there are exceptional circumstances which relate to either the offender or the offence and which would justify doing so.
I will come in a moment to the word “exceptional” as I think that was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord German. I have been a little diverted on the way, but we will get there.
What the courts will therefore do is to continue to take the child’s welfare needs into consideration. I also point out, of course, that the actual minimum sentence for 16 and 17 year-olds, when given, is shorter than that for over-18s when given: four months as opposed to six months. Applying minimum sentences to 16 and 17 year-olds—the older cohort of under-18s—recognises the increased maturity and development of this age group compared with younger children. Any custodial sentence is given as a last resort, but we believe that for older children who commit these particular offences, it should be mandatory for the court to consider carefully whether a custodial sentence is appropriate.
I wonder if the Minister could be a little clearer. A moment ago he cited figures for the number of cases under existing law in which, apparently, mandatory sentences are not passed because judges took the circumstances into account. When you couple his description of those figures with the phraseology that he is using now about the merits of the Bill, the impression is very clear that the Government are not happy with the judges citing exceptional circumstances in failing to deliver the kind of sentence that the Bill would impose. Am I right to understand that he is, in fact, critical of the number of exceptions that are made at present and wants fewer of these in future?
I am certainly not critical of any particular sentence passed in any particular case. What I do think the figures show is that we need a test that more clearly balances the minimum sentence on the one hand with the exception on the other. We think the test of exceptional circumstances—I know that the noble Lord, Lord German, is waiting patiently—meets that test.
I turn now to Clause 104 and 105, which both relate to children who have committed murder and will therefore receive the mandatory life sentence of detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure. I hear in this regard the words read to us on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. When giving a life sentence, the judge sets a minimum amount of time that must be spent in custody before the offender may be considered for release by the Parole Board. This is known colloquially as the tariff. Judges use starting points to determine that tariff. They can set a minimum term higher or lower than the starting point by taking into account aggravating or mitigating factors. Currently, there is a 12-year starting point for all children who commit murder.
In this Bill, we are replacing the fixed 12-year starting point for all children—what might be called the mandatory starting point—with a range of starting points that take into account the child’s age at the time of the offence and the seriousness of the murder. The age groups are to reflect the different stages of development that a child goes through and that, although both in law are children, a 10 year-old is very different from a child of 17 years and 10 months. The different levels of murder, if I can put it that way, are based on the more nuanced system used for adults, which takes the seriousness of a murder into consideration. Therefore, the twin factors of age and the seriousness of the murder are then brought together. The higher the age and the more serious the murder, the higher the starting point, and the converse is also the case.
This amendment retains a range of starting points for children based on three age groups, but it does not distinguish between the levels of seriousness of a murder. Because murder can vary in seriousness in the criminal sense, we believe it is right that the starting points should reflect this as well. We do not agree that starting points should only be based on the age of the child; they should also reflect the seriousness of the murder. Moreover, the amendment does not address the gap in starting points between older children and adults. A child of 17 years and 10 months is very close to becoming an adult. The amendment would mean that the same category of murder would have a 12-year starting point for a 17 year-old, but a 30-year starting point for an 18 year-old. However, I underline the same point that I made about minimum sentences. The judiciary will continue to take the individual circumstances of a case into consideration and can give a minimum term higher or lower than any given starting point.
Let me address the review amendments. Children who are sentenced to detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure are eligible to apply for a review of their minimum term. In this Bill, we are placing the minimum term review process in legislation. It allows children who are aged under 18 when sentenced to detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure to apply for a minimum term review at the halfway point. We are restricting eligibility for further reviews to be available only to those who still aged under 18 at the time of the further review. By contrast, this amendment would allow those sentenced as an adult to apply for a review at the halfway point and continue to apply every two years. It would also allow adults who were sentenced as children, who have already had one review, to continue to apply for a review every two years. This amendment is neither necessary nor in line with case law. That is because, under the measures in the Bill, children who are sentenced to detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure will continue to be eligible for a review at the halfway point of their minimum term.
That right has developed through case law. It recognises the unique rights of children and the fact that they develop and mature at a faster rate than adults. The review is an important part of confirming that the minimum term remains appropriate or determining if a reduction should be made. However, they should be eligible for a further review only if they are still a child at the time of that further review. This is because, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, children have the greatest capacity to demonstrate the significant changes to maturity and outlook that the review considers. Therefore, the opportunity for multiple reviews would be available only to younger children at the initial time of offending, as they are more likely to be under the age of 18 at the time of any further review.
Those who commit murder as a child but are sentenced as an adult have already had their age and maturity taken into consideration. Adults who commit murder are not entitled to reviews and so this Bill ensures that all offenders who are an adult at the time of sentencing are treated equally. It is important to remember that we are talking about the most serious offence, that of murder. The minimum term set by the judge takes into consideration a child’s age and maturity at the time of the offence and reflects the seriousness of the offence. That minimum period should therefore be served, except in exceptional circumstances.
That brings me to the question of the definition of exceptional circumstances, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, for his patience. “Exceptional circumstances” is a phrase used all over the law and the criminal law. It is a matter that judges are well used to interpreting. It is a phrase in plain English. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, it does not need, or would benefit from, a gloss from the Dispatch Box. The phrase means what it says on the tin. It is for the individual judge in the individual case, having heard the evidence, to decide whether the exception is made out.
Can the noble Lord tell me the difference, then, between the current words, which are “particular circumstances”, and those that the Bill is proposing—“exceptional circumstances”? What is the difference between “particular” and “exceptional” to the fraternity of judges and lawyers who do not need it written down because they all understand it? For those of us who are non-lawyers, some definition would be helpful.
I hear the words, “higher bar”. I do not disagree that “exceptional circumstances” is a stricter test. There is case law on that, although the name of the case has slipped my mind, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord, Lord German. I see that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who may remember, is here. I am sorry to give him exam questions. “Exceptional” is a word that has been passed and interpreted by the courts at a high level. It is proper to leave it to them to decide what “exceptional circumstances” means. However, I will write to the noble Lord with the case law, once my memory comes back to me.
I will now move to the last of the amendments to Clause 107. Children who commit the gravest crimes can be given a standard determinate sentence known as a section 250 sentence. This sentence has automatic release at the halfway point; the remainder is served on licence in the community. In this Bill, we are moving automatic release from the halfway to the two-thirds point for section 250 sentences of seven years or more which have been given for the most serious violent offences and all serious sexual offences. These are sexual offences with a maximum penalty of life, as well as manslaughter, attempted murder, soliciting murder and wounding with intent to commit grievous bodily harm.
In this regard, we are taking a different approach for children from adults in two respects. First, we are not changing the release point for children sentenced to between four and seven years, but only for those sentenced to seven years or longer. For adults, it includes the four to seven-year cohort as well. Secondly, for those children who are sentenced to seven years or longer, we are focusing on only the most serious of offences which pose a significant threat to public safety. By contrast, the amendment would retain automatic release at the halfway point, regardless of length or offence committed. For the reasons I have set out, we think that inappropriate.
I am conscious that I have said quite a bit on this, but we have had some debate on what “mandatory” means. I will finish with three points. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked where Scotland and Wales are with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There was the Supreme Court case with the Scottish legislation, but, as I am not sure exactly where the devolved Administrations are up to, I will write with the up-to-date information.
Secondly, a discrimination point was made. The Bill is fully compliant with convention rights, as my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford has certified under Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act.
Thirdly, I will take a moment to respond to the point from the noble Lord, Lord German, about those who cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood because of delays in court. Sentencing powers are determined, consistently with what I have been saying, by the offender’s age at the time of conviction. However, sentencing guidelines make it clear that the courts should use a sentence that would have been given at the time the offence was committed as a starting point. In addition, they emphasise that sentencers should take an offender’s maturity and any other factors into account even after they turn 18. In terms of delays, youth cases have been prioritised and are regularly reviewed to ensure that they are being listed as expeditiously as possible, listing being a judicial function, especially cases that involve youths in custody and those where a child is almost 18. I hope that answers the noble Lord’s point.
For the reasons I have set out, I hope the noble Baroness will be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I did not quite realise it would end up in a dispute about the semantics. I am not a lawyer, and I think the law should be clear; I think I know the difference between “particular” and “exceptional”, but I will not go there again today. I thank noble Lords for their support for the amendments and the incisive, perceptive comments they have made.
I go back to my earlier premise that we must remember that, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children are those under 18, not 16. Everything that has been said by colleagues today expresses concern about the treatment of children in our youth justice system.
This has been a concern of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for years. As I said, it will be reporting back again next year on how we treat our children in the youth justice system. I hope that it finds something more acceptable than what it has in the past. By amending this Bill, we could possibly move a step forward on that issue.
The issue, for me, is that this is about children’s rights, and we should really consider those. I noted the comments of several colleagues. The noble Lord, Lord German, brought up the important issue of who is in the system and how black and minority-ethnic children, especially boys, are overrepresented in the system. We should think about that carefully.
The Government speak about levelling up in society, but I think the strategy set out in much of this Bill will do just the opposite. I will of course read carefully the comments of the Minister. I am afraid that I cannot stay for his later comments on a different group, but I will also read those carefully.
We must remember that children do not arrive fully formed at the age of 16—or any age, for that matter. We have recently been presented with research on the brains of adolescents and children which comes up with some surprising examples of how the brain does not in fact mature until over the age of 18, certainly, and that children should be treated as children. This provides unequal effects on children.
As has been said in the debate today, children have been affected by Covid and by the developmental health issues it brought about, as well as by the effects of delays on sentencing. All in all, I do not think that this is a very happy story as far as children are concerned.
I will need to consult other colleagues who have spoken today and respond to those organisations and individuals who have been so important in giving advice on these amendments to the Bill. Youth justice is such an important issue, which I feel we must push further on Report. I will not respond to all the Minister’s points today, because that would take a long time; I may wish to have a discussion with him, if he will consent, about some of these important issues. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 191 withdrawn.
Amendment 192 not moved.