Clause 112 - Youth conditional cautions: involvement of prosecutors

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

Our concerns about adult cautions were addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland and, during my remarks on clause 109, I covered our approach to the group of clauses relating to youth cautions, so I do not need to speak at length on this matter. It goes without saying that what applies to adults in terms of taking care and ensuring that processes are not only thorough, but conducted at the appropriate level and with the appropriate scrutiny, applies even more to young people.

This change in policy removes the involvement of prosecutors in youth conditional cautions. I take the Minister’s practical point, which I am sure he will repeat in his response, that there may be a temptation not to invoke conditional cautions if that involves additional time, bureaucracy, and it results in a more complicated  process than a simple caution. We obviously support youth conditional cautions and think that they have an important role to play. We are concerned, however, that the ability for officers with no Crown Prosecution Service—or other—oversight to engage in relatively complex decisions, when it is not really within their jobs or remit to decide what the appropriate disposal is in this instance, cuts corners to too great an extent. If the Minister wants to come up with an alternative way, or a more attractive route, that is another matter. Simply saying, however, that prosecutorial oversight will be removed is not the right approach, and we not only oppose the clause, but wish to press it to a Division.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation)

This is similar to our previous debate. Turning to the detail, the clause does not remove the power of the CPS to authorise a youth conditional caution and vary conditions, nor does it prevent the police from seeking advice from the CPS on whether a conditional caution would be appropriate in individual cases. It enables an “authorised person”—normally a police officer—to make the decision to offer a youth conditional caution to an offender, to set and vary conditions, and to take the decision to prosecute for the original offence in the event of non-compliance.

As the hon. Gentleman’s remarks made clear, the clause removes the existing requirement in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 for such matters to be referred to a prosecutor to authorise. A police officer cannot currently make the decision to offer a youth conditional caution, including for offences where they have the power to charge an offender or administer a simple caution, reprimand or warning, without reference to a prosecutor. That inconsistency in a police officer’s decision-making powers creates confusion and unnecessary bureaucracy for the CPS. As a result, in many cases where a youth conditional caution may have been the most appropriate disposal for the young offender and the victim, the police have instead had to charge the offender or offer a simple caution with no conditions, because doing so was quicker and simpler than referring the case to the CPS. The existence of such a situation cannot be right, and the clause would address that problem.

Youth conditional cautions are currently available in five pilot areas, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for the wider principle involved. The cautions contain rigorous conditions designed to address offending behaviour and to ensure that the offender makes amends to their local community by, for example, repairing any damage that they may have caused, or by paying compensation. The young person must comply with such conditions or risk being prosecuted for the original offence.

Giving the police the power to offer youth conditional cautions will help to ensure that such disposals are used in appropriate circumstances. Guidance will set out the level of training and which persons are appropriate to authorise a youth conditional caution. The opportunities for offenders to make swift reparations to victims and communities will be increased and reoffending will be reduced by providing greater opportunity for offenders to be given quick access to rehabilitative services.

The other requirements for a youth conditional caution remain unchanged. The youth offending team will continue to assess the young person, advise on appropriate conditions,  and monitor compliance with the caution. As at the moment, the offender must admit to having committed the offence and consent to being given a conditional caution. Offenders will always have the right to refuse or withdraw their agreement to such a caution and have their case heard in court instead.

We recognise that there are likely to be some cases in which it would remain more appropriate for the CPS, rather than the police, to make the decision to offer a conditional caution. We will set out those circumstances and arrangements in guidance.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 9.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 112 ordered to stand part of the Bill.