HC Deb 10 May 1960 vol 623 cc339-49

10.25 p.m.

Miss Alice Bacon (Leeds, South-East)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 5, after "person", insert "over the age of fourteen ".

The effect of this Amendment would be to make it impossible for anybody under the age of 14 to be considered as an offender for the purposes of this Bill. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary has not seen fit to put down a similar Amendment himself. During the Committee stage proceedings when I moved exactly the same Amendment, every speech from both sides of the Committee, with the exception of the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman, was in favour of my Amendment. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Gardner), the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) and the hon. Member for Denbigh (Mr. Morgan), speaking from the Government benches, supported the Amendment.

The only point on which they disagreed with it was that they thought it did not go far enough. Some hon. Members wished me to change the age from 14 to 16. It was clear that had the right hon. Gentleman not promised to look at the matter again before Report stage the Committee would have accepted my Amendment. It was only because the Joint Under-Secretary gave an undertaking that he would look at the matter that several of the hon. Members opposite decided to vote with him and not for my Amendment.

As I have said, the purpose of the Amendment is to make it impossible for anyone under 14 to be charged with an offence under the provisions of this Bill. At present the age of criminal responsibility is 8 and therefore when the Bill refers to any person, it means in effect that any person over the age of 8 can be charged with a sexual offence of this nature. I know perfectly well—the right hon. Gentleman has said this on two occasions—that any person under the age of 14 would be dealt with by a juvenile court and would be deemed to be in need of care and protection. But surely a great deal of harm would be done to a child between the ages of 8 and 14 merely by having been hauled before a juvenile court and charged with an offence of this nature.

It has also been assumed that it is unlikely that anyone would bring a child under the age of 14 before the juvenile court and charge them with this offence. But I do not think that is so very unlikely when we bear in mind that one of my hon. Friends has at the present time a Bill before the House designed to make it impossible for young children of the age of 14 to be put in prison. Only recently we had a case of a girl of 14 who was put in Holloway Gaol merely because she played truant from school, so I do not think we consider for a moment the possibility that nobody would be likely to bring a child before the juvenile court and charge him with this offence.

I believe that since gross indecency for the purposes of this Bill includes also indecent exposure, it is quite possible that a child under the age of 14 could commit an offence without realising that an offence was being committed. During the Committee stage the right hon. Gentleman said that to put the age of 14 in the Bill would bring this offence out of line with other offences. But surely an offence of this kind, if it can be called an offence when we consider children under the age of 14, is not the same as stealing or breaking windows or hooliganism or things of that kind. During the Committee stage the right hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that the Ingleby Committee is considering the whole question of the treatment of juvenile offenders.

10.30 p.m.

That being so, it would not be right for us to anticipate the Committee's findings in this way. But I believe that this House should not neglect to do something that it believes to be right because of the possible findings of a Committee which has not yet reported. We do not know when the Ingleby Committee is likely to report. Surely even after the Ingleby Committee has presented its report to this House, it is by no means certain that the Government will take any speedy action to implement the recommendations of that Committee.

There is usually quite a long period of time between a Committee reporting and action being taken. To refer to one with which we have been dealing during the last few months, we had a Private Member's Bill on the recommendations of the Gowers Committee. The Gowers Committee reported in 1949. We see there that there can be some considerable delay between a Committee reporting and Government action being taken.

I hope that on this occasion the right hon. Gentleman will decide to accept this Amendment. As I had said, he was urged to do so by every hon. Member on his side of the Committee. It would be abhorrent to all hon. Members if we were to pass a law whereby children between the ages of 8 and 14 could be brought before the courts for offences committed under this Bill. As I said in Committee, I was urged to plead for the age to be increased to 16, but I believe there is a very good case to insert the age of 14.

It would be a great pity if this excellent little Bill were spoilt by making it possible for very young people-children between the ages of 8 and 14— to be brought before the juvenile courts. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will accept this Amendment and thereby improve his own Bill.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

I am glad that the hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) has tabled this Amendment on Report, because when we discussed it in Committee I was convinced, apart from any advice that I had been given, that I was right and the Committee were wrong. Yet it was quite clear, as the hon. Lady said, that I was in the minority, and at the end of the Committee proceedings I desired to reconsider the matter to make certain that I was right and that those who opposed me were possibly not considering the full implications of the Amendment. I have done that at great length. Had I found that I was wrong, I would have come to the House myself on Report and tabled an Amendment on the lines of the hon. Lady's Amendment.

I should like to correct one misapprehension which may arise from what the hon. Lady said. She talked about children going to prison, rather suggesting that under the Bill children under the age of 14 could be committed to prison. I do not think she meant that because she knows that no child under that age can be committed to prison. Children of the age of 14 can be received in prison on remand, which relates to the case she has in mind. Any children dealt with under this Bill, if there are such children, will be dealt with by the juvenile courts in the normal manner.

This Amendment, and indeed the Bill, arises out of the first Report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee. Had that Committee decided that this was the wrong age, it would have made a recommendation to this effect. In fact, it did not do so. That is the first point I want to make. The Clause to which the Amendment is applied follows exactly the draft clause attached to the Criminal Law Revision Committee's Report. All hon. Members are concerned that young people shall be kept out of the courts, and that is genuinely our mutual desire.

As the House knows, the law at present is that no child under the age of 8—that being the age of criminal responsibility—can be prosecuted for this or any other offence. The age group with which the hon. Lady is concerned is 8-14, and those children cannot be convicted and, therefore, are unlikely to be prosecuted unless there is evidence that he or she knew that he or she was doing wrong.

There are many offences which children commit upon one another and for which it is not appropriate that they should be punished, but it is not on that account thought necessary to exempt them from the operation of the law. Therefore, if one accepted the Amendment which the hon. Lady proposes, for the first time a person under the age of 14 would be totally exempt from the operation of the law, and she would be introducing an entirely new principle, that a person under 14 should never be prosecuted however well aware he or she was that he or she was doing wrong.

The hon. Lady says, "I accept that for many offences, non-sexual offences possibly, the child under 14 should be liable to prosecution, but not for this sexual offence." I understand that to be her argument. But—this is the point I made in Committee—there are other sexual offences for which children under the age of 14 are at present liable to prosecution, and the one I instanced in Committee was that of indecent assault. There were no fewer that 250 children under the age of 14 prosecuted on this account in 1958. I argued then, and I do so now, that it would be illogical to separate this offence, which is of gross indecency or incitement to indecency, from indecent assault, where the person under 14 is liable to prosecution. If the hon. Lady and her supporters are really logical, they should be arguing that all sexual offences should be exempt so far as those under 14 are concerned. She has not so far argued in that direction.

The hon. Lady's hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. C. Royle), who is not here tonight, said "Let us make a start somewhere. We think it is all wrong, but here we have a Bill before the Committee. Let us start by making it impossible to prosecute a person under the age of 14, and then perhaps at some later stage one can extend it to other offences." The argument that I would put against that is that if the Criminal Law Revision Committee had thought that the right course it would have recommended it. I very much doubt, if we are going to make a start, whether this is the right offence and whether indecent assault is not the right offence on which one should start to exempt those under 14, if indeed it is right to make this exemption.

The third point which influenced my coming to the House on Report feeling that I was right concerns the Ingleby Committee. The hon. Lady said on the Committee stage that I said that one should not make any changes of this nature, apart from any other argument, while the Ingleby Committee was considering the subject of juvenile delinquency. I have looked more closely into this, and the Ingleby Committee has not yet made any definite recommendations. It has got to the stage of drafting its Report, and we shall see it within the next few months.

It is common knowledge that the Ingleby Committee has received evidence on the age of criminal responsibility. It is as near certain as anything can be that it will make a recommendation, but what it will be I do not know. However, if we wrote into the Bill what is, in fact, a new age of criminal responsibility, that would be embarrassing to the Committee at this stage of its deliberations. Surely the first thing is to see what age it recommends, if it recommends any change in the age of criminal responsibility, and see whether it takes care of the point we are considering here. Even if the Committee makes such a change, one has to consider the implications on other sexual offences and not make this change in isolation.

Therefore, having considered it, I think I was perfectly right during the Committee stage in saying that one should not make the change for one particular offence, and one should certainly not make it in advance of the Ingleby Committee's recommendations, particularly at this stage of its deliberations. The hon. Lady and her hon. Friends may say that weeks and months are going by before any action is taken. But I pointed out to the Committee when we were discussing the matter that no child under the age of 14 has ever been prosecuted for this particular offence. That is not quite right, because they could not be prosecuted. No offender under the age of 14 has ever been known to the authorities in relation to this offence. It is most unlikely, therefore, that in the next six or nine months, between now and the conclusion of the Report, any under 14-year-old offender is going to be called before the court.

The point is therefore largely academic. The hon. Lady says that it makes her case; I feel that it makes mine, because if we make the change now it will probably not affect any child under 14 years of age, but it will have restrictions on the existing law and may embarrass the Ingleby Committee. Therefore, I think that the House, while sympathising with the point made—because this is an important matter and I am particularly interested in young people—would be wrong to accept the Amendment at this stage.

Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

It seems to me that if we are to wait until the Ingleby Committee reports —it may report, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, in six, seven, eight or nine months—there is no guarantee, of course, that the recommendations of that Committee will be written into the law for one, two, three or four years, or for a very long time.

We have many instances of Committees reporting and of nothing being done for years on end. In the meantime, these children will be left without any provision such as that proposed in the Amendment. Therefore, I do not believe that we should completely accept the argument of the right hon. Gentleman that it would be better to wait until the Ingleby Committee reports.

On the other hand, the argument that no child has ever been charged or is likely to be charged seems not to be a very good reason why we should not write this Amendment into the Bill, which is making some changes in the existing law, because, again, we have no guarantee that somebody somewhere, because this Bill has now been introduced, will not bring a case against a child of under 14 years of age and that the child will not be brought before the court.

It seems to me that my hon. Friend's argument is a good argument that, while we are dealing with this excellent little Bill which deals with a problem that is concerning many people, we have the chance at any rate to take a lead on what quite evidently the right hon. Gentleman believes is necessary, that children of tender ages should not be liable to be brought before the court at all. Therefore, I support the Amendment.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I should be very disposed to support my right hon. Friend and what he said about the Ingleby Committee were it not for the knowledge that in my experience there always is a Committee sitting to consider matters which are the subject of legislative proposals in the House and in many cases the Reports have not been seen for several years. I have seen action delayed for an unconscionably long time while Committees deliberated and while their Reports were debated in the House.

I have no illusions about the matter— that in a debate upon this Amendment on the conclusion of the Report stage of a Bill brought from the Lords we are not going to persuade the Government to change their mind now and accept the Amendment. Therefore, I think that no harm of any kind can come of giving a little guidance to the Ingleby Committee.

My right hon. Friend said that no child under the age of 14 had, in fact, ever been prosecuted for this offence or brought before a court.

Mr. Vosper

I corrected myself. I said it could not be so because no such case had ever been known to the authorities in relation to this offence.

Mr. Bell

I was in the process of correcting myself when my right hon. Friend rose. I was about to say "or has been known to the authorities." I think that that is largely because occurrences which are not criminal offences are very often not brought to the notice of the police. I was about to say that I would suspect that when this Bill becomes law in its present form we shall find that no prosecutions will, in practice, take place under it because people will have more sense. It is not always a satisfactory thing, however, to allow absurdities in the law to be smoothed over by sensible administrative discretion by the police not prosecuting because they think it would be absurd to do so. It is, of course, not imagined that there have been no instances of gross indecency between children under the age of 14. Of course, there have, but they have not come to the attention of the police and inevitably the children concerned have not been prosecuted.

10.45 p.m.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend that this sort of offence is not the kind that Parliament ought to create, by legislation, between young children. We are creating a new offence by this Bill, there is no question about that. The question now before us is, are we now to create such a new offence between children of tender years? I think that every hon. Member would answer "no" were it not for the argument my right hon. Friend has put that the Ingleby Committee may make some general recommendation about the age of criminal responsibility. Equally, of course, it may not, because the matters put to that Committee are predominantly other matters. It has the whole problem of juvenile delinquency on its plate and that is a very big problem. What concerns us is how to reduce the appalling problem of juvenile delinquency, not the age at which that begins, because that age is not 9 or 10 but very much older than that.

We may find that we have brought this offence into existence for these children and that in some parts of the country someone will not exercise the discretion and children will be charged with the offence. I have known many Acts go through when people have said that no one would be so foolish as to apply them in a certain way. We know that children up to the age of 14 years are required to go to school all through the day, yet in many cases they do not and local education offices do not prosecute them, yet sometimes prosecutions are taken. Sometimes Parliament passes a reasonable law, but people exercise an unreasonable discretion.

It may be too late, but I ask my right hon. Friend to consider whether the Amendment ought not to be made, on the understanding that it is his intention that no child of this age should be prosecuted for this offence. If that is the intention, why not put it in the Bill and deal with it explicitly?

Miss Bacon

I found the reply of the right hon. Gentleman very disappointing. As the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) said, there is always some Committee sitting and that is used as an excuse for not doing anything. That is particularly true of the Home Office at the present time. I have lost count of the Committees which have been set up by the Home Secretary in the last few months and which are now considering some aspect of many things with which we should like to deal.

The reply was disappointing. The right hon. Gentleman again instanced the offence of indecent assault and said that we should surely start with that offence rather than this. I should have thought it should be entirely the other way round. Someone under the age of 14 who commits an indecent assault does so with the knowledge that he is doing wrong. I believe that many of the young people who might be brought before the courts and charged with offences of indecency will not have any knowledge that they are doing wrong.

The right hon. Gentleman repeated what he said in Committee, that no one under the age of 14 had been known to commit this offence; but it has not been an offence up to now, so they will not have been known, but that is not to say that in future children will not be hauled before the courts on this offence.

I do not think that there is any validity in the argument that since they will not be prosecuted but only brought before the juvenile court as in need of care and protection, no harm will be done. I think that the whole idea of bringing children before a juvenile court on charges of this kind will do them harm for many years and probably throughout their lives.

The right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that in Committee and again this evening every speech which has been made from both sides of the Committee and the House, with the exception of his own, has been in favour of the Amendment. I know that if he wishes to use it, he has a majority behind him and therefore the Amendment will be rejected, but I urge him even at this late stage to bear in mind the fact that he is a lone voice among all other voices on both sides of the House.

Mr. Vosper

That is possibly because I have more knowledge of the Ingleby Committee's deliberations than anyone else in the House, and that to me is the decisive argument against accepting the Amendment, strong as the other arguments may be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) and the hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) said that there are always Committees sitting. That can be said of the Ingleby Committee, which was appointed by my right hon. Friend's predecessor and which has been sitting for many years, but it has reached the stage of drafting and I hope that we shall see its Report very soon. Much of my right hon. Friend's legislation for young offenders must be determined in the light of the Ingleby Committee's recommendations, and it is therefore a matter of great urgency that we receive the Report as soon as possible. I have reason to believe that the Committee will have something to say on this issue, and to accept the Amendment at this stage would be embarrassing.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that none under the age of 14 has been reported as committing what is to be this offence, adding that in the past it has not been an offence. But since the offence first came to light in the case of Fairclough v. Whipp, 42 people have been discovered who would otherwise have been prosecuted; the youngest of those was 17 and the oldest 79. There is therefore some force in saying that no offenders under this age have been known to the authorities.

I said in Committee, and I did not elaborate tonight, that every effort would be made to deal with such a person before the juvenile court by way of care or protection proceedings. There may be cases which could not be dealt with in that way because of the attitude of the parents and therefore some prosecutions would have to be undertaken, but I come back to the fact that to accept the Amendment would be illogical in view of the state of the existing law, and most certainly at this stage of the Ingleby Committee it would be embarrassing to the Committee. I therefore continue to oppose it.

Amendment negatived.

Bill read the Third time and passed, without Amendment.