Children and young people

Prisons and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 18th April 2017.

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

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

We have already had some discussion of the clause when considering amendment 95. The clause introduces schedule 3 to the Bill, which permits preliminary proceedings for defendants aged 10 to 17 charged with criminal offences to be conducted in writing. A person charged with offences may choose to give specified information to the court in writing, including the indication of a guilty or not guilty plea. It is planned that the giving of that information will usually occur online through a common platform—a unified digital case management system—currently being developed by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.

Through its six-year reform programme, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is developing a specific service model for young people, including those who provide information of the sort I mentioned in writing. That is in recognition of the fact that there is already a distinct youth justice system for children and young persons, with separate procedures and processes applying to them when they come to court. The future service model for young people takes account of the 70% decline in the number of young people proceeded against in the criminal courts since 2006-07. While that reduction is welcome, its scale poses the logistical challenges I have mentioned before, which can lead to delays; for young people, it is particularly important that cases are heard as quickly as possible.

The purpose of the clause and schedule is to reduce the number of times young defendants and their parents or guardians need to travel to court, so reducing the burden of travel. The Bill will allow for case management at the pre-trial stages of cases to take place outside the courtroom, so that young defendants preferably travel to court only for trial and sentencing hearings—for example, where a case must be sent to the Crown court, it will no longer require a court hearing to do so.

The Bill provides a number of safeguards applicable to young defendants who provide information in writing. For example, having regard to the circumstances of the case and the age of the young defendant, the court will ascertain whether the parent is aware of the written proceedings, and if not, will make them aware. The aim is to ensure that, taking into account the young defendant’s age and maturity, he or she is given enough information to make an informed decision when choosing to participate in the preliminary proceedings in writing. Courts must therefore also provide the young defendant, and as appropriate, their parents, with information that explains the written procedure, the choices available to them and the effects of those choices.

Where a plea of guilty or not guilty is indicated in writing, courts will also subsequently have to make sure, at the first hearing in the courtroom, that the young person has understood and confirms their written indication of plea before proceeding further. It is worth underlining that the young person is indicating their plea, not pleading in writing; they have to do that in court. As with any case involving a young defendant, when dealing with preliminary matters in writing, courts must have regard to the overarching statutory duties to prevent offending by young people and to have regard to their welfare.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General

We oppose clause 30. As the Minister has indicated, we have already discussed children being involved in written proceedings when we discussed amendment 95 to clause 23 a moment or two ago. I am grateful for some of the safeguards the Minister has set out, but for the Opposition they remain insufficient. I indicated in our discussion about amendment 95 concerns about the awareness of parents and guardians, the likeliness of children entering guilty pleas, peer pressure and, most fundamentally, children being able to understand proceedings.

I want to deal specifically with the Taylor and Carlile reviews, with which the Minister will be familiar. The Taylor review, which was commissioned in 2015, looked at the youth justice system and was published in December last year alongside the Government’s response, which included a commitment to implement the spirit of the review. The Taylor review was highly critical of the court system, which it found was

“not set up to ensure the full participation of children in criminal proceedings.”

It should trouble the Committee that Taylor found that court procedures and outcomes are frequently not understood by children. He stated:

“On many occasions children leave the court confused by the outcome and need to have their sentence explained to them by a YOT”— youth offending team—

“worker… Too often children are the passive recipients of justice and do not understand the process to which they have been subjected.”

In addition, he found that the youth justice system

“has a statutory aim to prevent offending, but the criminal courts are not equipped to identify and tackle the issues that contribute to and prolong youth offending… Magistrates frequently report that they impose a sentence without having a real understanding of the needs of the child, and they rarely know whether it has been effective.”

The phrase “frequently report” is important; it is not simply a problem that a minority worry about, but a frequent problem.

Taylor recommended the introduction of a new system of children’s panels to sentence children. Those panels would have greater powers to identify and tackle the causes of offending, and panel members would oversee a child’s progress. In 2014 a major review of the children’s court system, chaired by the noble Lord Carlile, made similar findings—particularly that children were not engaged in proceedings—and advocated a problem-solving approach.

The Opposition’s concern is that the Bill does nothing to rectify the very serious problems that both Taylor and Carlile identified. We worry that those problems of engagement, participation, understanding and comprehension will be made worse by introducing proceedings in writing in this way. Our position is therefore that clause 30 should not stand part of the Bill and should be deleted altogether.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the reports to which he refers are well worth considering. The Government responded warmly to the Taylor review.

Young people lead their lives in a more online way than some of us older folk, so having an online procedure that explains things to young people, with the safeguard of their having to attend court so that they give only an indication of plea in writing—they do not actually plead—will help.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General

On online procedure, in the initial evidence session Professor Susskind referred to the fact that children interact with one other in a very different way from the way they did 20 or 30 years ago. My only slight concern about that is that we often urge caution on children when they engage with people online, particularly when that online contact is transferred to offline contact.

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that interventions should be short and to the point.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General

We should therefore perhaps exercise some caution about the way that children engage online.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about being cautious—as a Conservative, it comes naturally. Having said that, there are a range of safeguards in the Bill, for example the fact that the parents and guardians are involved and that the parent has to be made aware of the written proceedings if they are not already aware. That has to be investigated. The online procedure will explain matters, as well as the oral explanations that always take place in the youth courts.

We obviously do not agree about this, but I invite the Committee to support clause 30, which will help rather than hinder the cause of young people in the courts, and schedule 3.

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

The Committee divided:

Ayes 7, Noes 4.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Amendment made: 51, in schedule 3, page 72, line 49 , at end insert—

“( ) If—

(a) the person gives a written indication of plea before attaining the age of 18 years, and

(b) after the person attains that age, the court is considering whether to deal with the person as an adult,

the court may only deal with the person in a way that it could have dealt with the person if he or she had indicated that plea at a hearing which took place before the person attained 18 years.” —

The amendment provides that, if the defendant reaches 18 after giving a written indication of plea, the court must exercise its powers to deal with the defendant as an adult in a way that it could have if the plea had been given at a hearing before the defendant turned 18.

Schedule 3, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 31