HC Deb 15 April 1948 vol 449 cc1235-44
Mr. Royle

I beg to move, in page 18, line 5, to leave out "of summary jurisdiction."

I am very grateful that I have the opportunity of raising a matter which has had some discussion in the Standing Committee but which I raise again at this stage of the Bill because I feel it has a tremendous importance for the future, particularly in regard to young offenders. May I read the Subsection with which we are concerned: A court of summary jurisdiction shall not impose imprisonment on a person appearing to the court to be under 17 years of age; and a court of assize or quarter sessions shall not impose imprisonment on a person appearing to the court to be under 15 years of age. I felt, and expressed the view in Standing Committee—a,nd I had a lot of support in this connection—that it was not right in these enlightened days that any young person under the age of 17 should be sentenced to terms of imprisonment by any court in the land. The Subsection lays down that such a position shall apply in the case of a court of summary jurisdiction, but the power is enlarged and widened in the case of quarter sessions or court of assize. I am pressing that what applies to a court of summary jurisdiction in this connection shall also apply to the two higher courts mentioned.

During the discussion in Standing Committee my right hon. Friend and the hon. and learned Member for Exeter (Mr. Maude) adduced their arguments very largely on the illustration of the Standon Farm case; where young boys actually killed one of their masters. It was suggested that this outstanding case was an illustration of how what we want done would operate. We are now laying down conditions for very many years to come, and we cannot base them upon an individual, isolated case of that kind. We must look ahead, realising that we shall not have opportunities for many years, probably, of putting this question right, if we do not put it right now. By then, anyway, many of the other provisions of the Bill will have been implemented. There will be places where young persons of that type may receive the right treatment. So I oppose—and I am confident that I have much support on all sides of the House—the principle that any court should have the power to sentence any person under 17 years of age to imprisonment as we know it now.

This Clause agrees in principle with what I am saying—that no law court shall have that power. Therefore, my right hon. Friend must feel that, in itself, this is a desirable thing. I ask, therefore, Why give that power to the higher courts? Steadily through the years this country has lifted the age at which young people can be sent to prison, and that reform has been approved by the overwhelming mass of our people. It may be many years before an opportunity once more presents itself for further reforms. With the school-leaving age now established at 15 we regard boys and girls as children up to the age of 16 and until they reach their seventeenth birthdays. It is to me a very deplorable thing that such children may be sent to prison with all the stigma that such imprisonment carries with it. We have means at our disposal to avoid that, and we shall have greater means at our disposal as soon as this Bill is implemented. I want to be brief because I share the general desire to get this Bill through, but I feel impelled to make another appeal to my right hon. Friend to have another look at this matter, so that we shall save ourselves for many years to come from sending young persons to prison.

Mr. H. Hynd

I beg to second the Amendment.

The age of 17 is surely a reasonable one in present day circumstances. That, however, is the age which has been fixed only for the courts of summary jurisdiction. The argument in Standing Committee was that the other courts, run by more experienced people, and which have more severe offences which to deal with, might have these special cases which to deal with. It is always very difficult indeed to draw a line at any particular age. The case of the boys shooting their master has been cited. It is perfectly true that they may be just under the age of 17. On the other hand, they could easily have been one month under the age of 15. It is very difficult to see where the line should be drawn and to say that those on the one side must go to prison and that those on the other side must be dealt with in some other way. I suggest that the people we represent, generally speaking, would regard with horror the prospect of boys and girls being sent to prison under the age of 17. We have these other methods of dealing with them, and I hope that, on reconsideration, the Home Secretary will be able to tell us that the age of 17 will be the bottom age for the courts of summary jurisdiction, the courts of assize and quarter sessions.

Mr. Benson

I must say that this Amendment has a very great appeal for me. It is an appalling thing that we send youngsters of less than 17 years of age to prison. On the other hand, I understand the problem with which the Home Secretary is faced. It is the problem of a small residue, with whom it is extremely difficult to deal. We have to realise that that problem exists. What rather worries me is that in the Criminal Justice Bill which was introduced in 1939, the minimum age for all courts was 16. Now it is 17 for courts of summary jurisdiction and 15 for the higher courts. I wonder what has caused the change in the mind of the Home Secretary between 1939 and 1948? It may be the undoubted growth of delinquency—and serious delinquency —among comparatively young people that has occurred since the war; but these are abnormal times. Had the Criminal Justice Bill of 1939 fortunately been passed we should still have been dealing with the law relating to the imprisonment of juveniles at the minimum age of 16 years. I hardly think that a new Bill would have been introduced to reduce that age. There is a problem, I admit. It is probably very little exacerbated by present conditions. I am not sure that I should vote for the Amendment if it were sent to a Division, but I should be very unhappy indeed if the Clause went through in its present form.

With regard to the imprisonment of juveniles by summary courts, the Home Secretary has taken power by Order in Council to vary the age. It seems to me that, as the present exceptional conditions pass, and as we certainly shall under this Bill develop new forms of institutions for dealing with the extraordinarily difficult type of youngsters with whom the Clause as drafted is intended to deal, there may be very good grounds, if not immediately, at any rate, later on, for raising the age below which even a higher court may not send a child to prison. I think that first of all the Home Secretary ought to let us know why the age is being dropped from 16 to 15. I would suggest to him that in another place he takes power, as he has done in respect of Summary Courts under Subsection (3) of the Clause, to raise the age, if and when it is possible, for the higher courts, as well as the summary courts.

7.0 p.m.

Earl Winterton

This question raises matters of considerable moral and philosophical importance. I hope that the hon. Members opposite—the hon. Member for West Salford (Mr. Royle) and the hon. Member for Central Hackney (Mr. H. Hynd), and particularly the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson) who, but for the fact that I always stick to Parliamentary terms, I would describe as my hon. Friend, because he is—will not think I am saying anything wounding if I say that the strong feeling of emotional desire to avoid what seems to them horror, is sometimes a bad guide in jurisprudence. We should be concerned with the practical realities of the situation. Over and over again, during the 43 years that I have been in this House, I have heard the sort of argument which has just been put forward. It is easy to produce specious arguments, and to carry them to their logical conclusion; but fortunately the House of Commons, like the British public, is never logical. We might just as well say that it would be terrible to imprison an old man of 75, with one year's life ahead of him, as say that it would be terrible to send a boy of 16 to prison. I do not want to enter into a philosophical argument, but when the Home Secretary replies I hope that he will deal with the practical difficulty that there must be power to send to prison certain people of the age under review because there is nowhere else where it would be safe to send them.

I do not want to be provocative, but I must deprecate the use of the word "children" here. Do hon. Members opposite realise that boys of 17 fight in the Army and the Navy? They are not children at all: if they were, they would not be allowed to fight.

Mr. H. Hynd rose

Earl Winterton

I must be permitted to make my own speech in my own way. I am making a statement of fact, as the hon. Member well knows, and it is no use his trying to controvert the fact. For the benefit of the hon. Member, I will repeat my statement. To describe as "children" young men of an age at which they fight in the Army and Navy is a misuse of the word. [Interruption.] It is no use the hon. Member bubbling with indignation and pointing at me. To call such young men "children" is to use the word sentimentally. They are not children but young persons.

Everybody knows that there are certain young persons who can be dealt with only in the way laid down in the Clause. To judge from the arguments which have been used in this and other matters—though not by the hon. Member for Chesterfield—one would suppose that in recent years nothing had been done to improve our prison system. We on this side of the House are sometimes accused of not sufficiently enhancing the prestige of this country. Yet some of the speeches made by hon. Members opposite during Committee—to which we cannot now refer in detail—and on Report, lead one to believe—though this is not their purpose —that in this country we have the most brutal prison system in the world. In fact we have one of the best, and this Bill, which is ameliorative and non-party, is intended to improve that system. It is only fair to the Home Secretary to say that.

The right hon. Gentleman may reply to his hon. Friends that he is prepared to reconsider this matter. I have risen for the purpose of deprecating both the use of the word "children," and the contention that in no circumstances—and I stand by this—should young ruffians of 16 be sent to prison. During wartime I have seen and fought against people of 16 who thoroughly deserved to be sent to prison. I object to the view that in no circumstances should such people be sent to prison. I would agree with both hon. Members opposite who have supported this Amendment if this were common practice, and if there were in the Bill no alternative but that these young persons should always be sent to prison. If that were so, I should be with hon. Members opposite 1oo per cent. But I ask the House to have regard tonight to the practical considerations in this case.

Mr. Royle

Has the noble Lord noticed that when we refer to "children" within the terms of the Subsection we are referring to people of 15 years of age, as well as those who have reached 17?

Mr. Ede

We had a very interesting discussion on this question in Committee, in which my hon. Friends who have spoken today took part, and I appreciate the view which they put forward. It is a horrible thing to send anybody under 17 years of age to prison. It is a still more horrible thing, to my mind, that there are some persons under 17 for whom there is no alternative. I can assure the House that it is only with the greatest reluctance, and after trying every alternative, that we come to this final, sad conclusion. Unfortunately, there are persons under 17 years of age whose tempers are so violent, and whose natures are so refractory, that it is not possible to keep them, with safety to the physical and moral welfare of the other inmates, in these institutions, where we are trying to deal with persons of this age.

I, as Home Secretary—as my predecessors have been, and as I am afraid my successors for some time to come will be—am confronted with the fact that in the circumstances there is no alternative treatment for this very small minority of young people. In this Bill the age is reduced from 16 to 15 because, as a result of practical experience, it has been discovered that there were a few cases of boys between 15 and 16 who could not be kept in any other form of institution, and whom public opinion would not have allowed us to liberate into the community without taking some steps to bring home to the offenders the inevitable consequences of the course they were pursuing. One of the boys concerned in the Standon Farm inquiry was between 15 and 16 years of age. I hope it will not go out, as a result of this discussion that any very large number of boys or girls is dealt with in this way.

Mr. Austin

What is the number?

Mr. Ede

I cannot give it at the moment, but it is very small indeed. I can assure my hon. Friend that when I am asked to consent to this course and do so, it is always with the greatest reluctance. Even in the Standon Farm case I took a very long time, and considered all the other courses which might have enabled me to avoid sending the lads to prison, before I finally decided that there was no alternative. I am sure that any other person who has served in my office, irrespective of his party, would adopt the same attitude towards this problem.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for one thing he said. In the course of the discussions on this Bill some hon. Members have made statements which might indicate that in this country we have a prison system of which we ought to be thoroughly ashamed. I am not saying our system is perfect; it is a long way from being perfect; and because of circumstances of our times it is not so good as it otherwise might be. During the past few days I have had the privilege of showing a very distinguished American visitor to this country round some of the institutions in which we deal with juvenile offenders and young persons. I was assured that this visitor to our shores was impressed with the fact that in dealing with these young people we are a long way ahead of the most enlightened States of the United States of America.

It is the ambition of everybody connected with this system, which is designed for these young people whom we desire to prevent becoming recruits to the criminal class, that it shall operate in an atmosphere as reformative, helpful and constructive as possible. Unfortunately, there is a number—a very limited number—of young people who, were an attempt made to keep them inside our more progressive institutions, would, through their evil influence and the way in which they decline to co-operate with those whose ambition it is to help them, wreck the work being done there. I should like to be able to accept an Amendment of this kind, but I have to face the realities in connection with the office I fill. If I accepted this Amendment, I should then be in a position that I could not deal with the very limited number of these young people in the interests of society, and particularly in the interests of the society with which they will be associated when they come within the penal system of the country.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: In page 18, line 6, leave out "appearing to the court to be.".—[Mr. Younger.]

Consequential Amendments made.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move, in page 18, line 12, to leave out from "court," to "is," in line 14.

It would be for the convenience of the Committee if we discussed this Amendment with the Amendment in line 15, which immediately follows. In Committee, I undertook to consider amending this Clause to make it clear that "character" means something more than the past record of the individual, and that the court should also take into consideration the mental and physical condition of the individual. These Amendments give effect to this undertaking. The Clause places a duty on the court to obtain information about the circumstances of the case before imposing imprisonment on a person under 21. It is undesirable that the duty of obtaining information about the mental and physical condition should be placed on the court, because this would mean that the court would have to have a medical report in the case of every offender under 21. This danger was pointed out by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) when we were discussing an Amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross). As my hon. and learned Friend said, the effect of such a requirement would be to place a very heavy burden on the rates and on the over-worked medical profession.

Accordingly, the Amendment provides that the court, in addition to obtaining information about the circumstances, shall take into account any information before the court which is relevant to the offender's character and to his physical and mental condition. There will be no obligation on the court to obtain such information where there is nothing in the circumstances of the case to suggest that any such inquiry is necessary. They will, of course, always have information before them as to the past record, where it is known, of the person concerned. This Amendment has been very carefully considered in order to carry out the undertaking I gave.

Mr. Benson

I wish to thank my right hon. Friend for meeting so successfully the point which was raised in Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 18, line 15, after "and," insert: for the purpose of determining whether any other method of dealing with any such person is appropriate the court shall obtain and consider information about the circumstances, and shall take into account any information before the court which is relevant to his character and his physical and mental condition. (3)."—[Mr. Ede.]

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move, in page 18, line 15, after "court," to insert "of quarter sessions or a court."

This Amendment and the next two Amendments, in lines 15 and 16 respectively, carry out an undertaking given in Committee. It applies the requirement to state the reasons for imposing imprisonment on a person under 21 to courts of quarter sessions. Courts of summary jurisdiction have to give their reasons, and I was asked to extend this provision, which I have done.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 18, line 16, after "person," insert: as is mentioned in the last foregoing subsection.

In line 18, after "and," insert: if the court is a court of summary jurisdiction."—[Mr. Ede.]

Mr. Younger

I beg to move, in page 18, line 22, to leave out from "Council," to "prohibit," in line 23.

This Amendment, together with. the Amendments in lines 31 and 37, are in response to a request made to my right hon. Friend that he should introduce the affirmative Resolution procedure if it should be found necessary, by order in council, to raise the minimum age below which persons may not be sent to prison.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 18, line 25, leave out "appearing to the court to be."

In line 31, leave out from "sexes," to "until," in line 33, and insert: Provided that no Order in Council shall be made under this subsection.

In line 37, at end, insert: (4) A draft of any Order in Council under this section shall be laid before Parliament, and the draft shall not be submitted to His Majesty in Council unless each House of Parliament presents an Address to His Majesty praying that the Order be made."—[Mr. Younger.]