Clause 2 - Penalty notices

Part of Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:45 pm on 6th February 2001.

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Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 6:45 pm, 6th February 2001

No, I will not. I will finish what I have to say and, if the hon. Gentleman does not feel that I have answered his points, I will give way to him before I finally sit down.

I shall come to the thrust of the argument in a second. First, there are two issues that arise wherever one draws the line. The first is that of identification of the individuals concerned, which is an issue whether the distinction to be made is between the ages of 15 and 16, of 18 and 19 or of 17 and 18. Wherever one draws the line, that problem arises. That situation is inevitable, but police officers deal with it every day. The police will be able to do all that they presently can to establish identity and age but, if in doubt, they will be able to take the individual to the police station to establish the truth. If the offender is under 18, they will be able to use reprimand and final warning system.

The second point that arises in the context of age limits is that of unfairness, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. I understand the point, but the problem arises wherever the dividing line falls—whether the limit is set at 16 or 18. The issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Reigate, about how the police deal with groups of young people, arise whatever the age difference. How to deal with groups is a matter where the best practice to which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department referred in the previous debate is very important. It could be difficult to deal with different people in the same group in different ways in particular circumstances. That argument does not specifically concern the age group that we are discussing, because the problem arises under all sorts of circumstances.

I want to make one final technical point before I deal with the substantial part of the argument. Some under-18s will probably be dependent on their parents to pay the penalty for them, which raises the prospect of juveniles having to respond to penalty notices on the basis of their parents' willingness, or otherwise, to pay, rather than from their own choice. If the parents pay, the direct intervention with the young person, which happens under the current system, is avoided. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire should know that that is the nub of why, after much discussion in Government, we came down on our chosen side of the debate. I would like to place the remarks of ACPO on the record, because they set out the position with admirable clarity. In answer to the question, ``What should be the lower age limit for the receipt of fixed penalties?'' ACPO states:

``There is much in favour of issuing fixed penalty notices to 16 and 17 year olds, and we are generally in agreement that this age group should be included in the fixed penalty notice system. However, careful consideration must be given to the relationship between fixed penalty notices and the fledgling reprimands/final warnings system, and to ensure the full involvement of Youth Offending Teams in dealing with all young offenders. Colleagues''— that means colleagues within ACPO—

``also expressed concern regarding the apparent lack of involvement of appropriate adults in the proposed fixed penalty notice process''— which is related to the observation that I just made about fines paid by parents—

``and queried liability for payment of fines for 16 and 17 year olds.''

That is the full response of ACPO on that point, and we have considered it carefully. The reforms to the youth justice system introduced in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, including the youth offending teams and the Youth Justice Board, are in place and are generally considered to be working well. After consideration, we decided that it was better not to destabilise that position, which is based on a strictly progressive system of reprimand, final warning and charge, in and in which there is a positive intervention by youth offending teams, to confront offenders with the consequences of their actions. Our concern was that adding financial penalties would weaken what we believe to be an increasingly effective youth justice scheme for 16 and 17-year-olds.

That is not to say that we regard it as an open and shut case; we thought about it at length, which is why I was at pains to tell the hon. Gentleman that his amendment was perfectly reasonable. On the balance of judgment, however, we concluded that we should continue to strengthen and improve the work that we are engaged in for that age group, through our youth offending teams and in other ways, and, most important, to confront young people with the consequences of their actions rather than to impose fixed penalty notices that might allow evasion—perhaps because parents pay them.