HC Deb 12 April 1961 vol 638 cc327-37
Mr. Renton

I beg to move, in page 7, line 45, at the end to insert: (2) The aggregate number of hours for which a person may be required to attend at an attendance centre by virtue of an order under the said section nineteen—

  1. (a) shall not be less than twelve except where he is under fourteen years of age and the court is of opinion, having regard to his age or any other circumstances, that twelve hours would be excessive; and
  2. (b) shall not exceed twelve except where the court is of opinion, having regard to all the circumstances, that twelve hours would be inadequate, and in that case shall not exceed twenty-four hours.
(3) An order shall not be made under the said section nineteen unless the court is satisfied that the attendance centre to be specified in the order is reasonably accessible to the person concerned, having regard to his age, the availability of public transport and any other circumstances. This Amendment fulfils an undertaking which I gave in Committee to consider increasing the maximum number of hours at attendance centres and several other matters of detail which were mentioned in connection with attendance centres. The new subsection (2) increases the maximum number of hours which may be awarded from 12 to 24 in a way which I will explain in detail in a moment. The new subsection (3) requires the court to ensure that an attendance centre is reasonably accessible for the child offender.

Several suggestions were made in Committee concerning the maximum number of hours which should be spent at an attendance centre. Some hon. Members felt that the maximum should be increased to 24 hours and others suggested 30 hours. Having given the matter careful thought, we think that it would be right to double the present maximum, which has tended to become the standard sentence. We therefore think that the maximum should be 24 hours.

The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) suggested that, in order to avoid the new maximum becoming a standard sentence, it should be qualified by some phrase. He suggested two qualifications—"in special circumstances" and "where it is expedient". We accept his suggestion in principle and therefore suggest that the words in subsection (2, b) should be inserted. They provide that a period of more than 12 hours' attendance shall be awarded only if "the court is of opinion, having regard to all the circumstances, that twelve hours would be inadequate."

We also felt it right to consider whether there should be a minimum period of attendance. We consider it best to make 12 hours the minimum. Incidentally, it will no doubt tend to become the standard if courts follow the wording of our proposal, except when the offender is a child under 14 years and the court thinks that, in view of his age or other circumstances, 12 hours' attendance would be excessive. That is achieved by paragraph (a) of subsection (2).

The terms of subsection (3) of the Amendment, dealing with accessibility, are self-explanatory. They are of special importance in the case of very young offenders, bearing in mind that we are lowering the age from 12 to 10 years. We will bring to the notice of the courts what the Ingleby Committee stated in paragraph 291 of its Report about the distances which children under 12 years might be expected to travel. We believe that the courts will not have difficulty in interpreting the Clause if it is amended in the two ways that I have suggested.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Hale

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman tell us what is the meaning of "reasonably accessible" in subsection (3) of the Amendment? As this is a day on which someone has just done about 12,000 miles in an hour, and in view of the varied forms of transport which are available even in Lancashire, may I ask what the words "reasonably accessible" mean? As it is possible to send a lad to an attendance centre every Saturday for four to five weeks, surely there should be some definition of these words in the Bill. Surely some guidance should be given somewhere. Surely we should have some idea of what time is to be expended in carrying out this curious sort of sentence.

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer, and he knows very well that the interpretation of "reasonably accessible" will be a matter for the courts in the light of the circumstances. However, it may be of assistance to the hon. Gentleman if I say that, up to the present, for those of 12 years and over the courts have taken (he view, which has been supported by the Home Office—we are responsible for running the attendance centres, although we get others to do it for us—that anything up to 10 miles can be regarded as reasonably accessible, but not in all cases. It depends on public transport. In any case where the child's parents cannot afford the fare by public transport to the attendance centre, then whoever is running the attendance centre has a discretion to pay the fare and to charge it against the Home Office.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I take it that it will be convenient to discuss the two Amendments to the Amendment, namely, in line 3 to leave out paragraph (a), and in line 6 to leave out from "exceed" to "twenty-four" in line 8, and to vote on them if necessary and then vote on the original Question.

Mr. MacColl

Subject to what the Joint Under-Secretary of State may say, I should like to move the Amendment in line 3 at some stage. In view of the lateness of the hour and the desirability of every hon. Member to proceed with the Bill as quickly as possible and to show that we on this side approach the matter in a helpful and not an obstructive way, I do not wish to move the Amendment in line 6.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Then I take it that it will be convenient to proceed to the Amendment in line 3.

Mr. MacColl

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, to leave out paragraph (a).

I do not wish to deal with the general problem of the new proposals but to confine myself to the one question of making 12 hours the minimum sentence. I know that this matter was hinted at by the Ingleby Committee, although it did not make a recommendation. It hedged about on it. Ingleby Committee or no Ingleby Committee, I know that I speak for many magistrates—I do not pretend that I necessarily speak for many hon. Members—when I say that they are very much against this limit on the discretion of the courts. At a time when everyone is desperately worried about the problems of juvenile delinquency and the best way to deal with them, I just cannot understand why there is this passion for limiting the discretion of the courts. The courts have often referred to their lack of power and discretion.

In quite a number of cases 12 hours may seem to be excessive. In London, it takes something like three months to finish a 12-hour detention. That is assuming that all goes according to plan. If, however, a boy should be ill or if, possibly, his parents go on holiday and he has to go with them, it may take even longer. Normally, however, the 12 hours occupies about three months.

Many magistrates have been shocked at that—I speak for my colleagues in the London courts—when they have made a detention centre order for, perhaps, 12 hours, under the impression that it will take about three or four weeks, and then they discover that three months later the unfortunate boy still has to trot down to do his couple of hours on a Saturday. That is one objection. Although in some cases one would like to use a period of more than 12 hours, in many cases one wants to use less.

The other point which seems wholly to escape the Secretary of State is that in sentencing, it is sometimes important to have different sentences for different people, because of different degrees of culpability, behaviour and all the rest. The more that we limit the discretion of the court by having a fixed arbitrary standard, the less easy it is to do that.

To give an illustration, several boys might be charged with an offence. One of them might be on probation. In another case, there might be a conditional discharge which has been broken by the subsequent offence. Another may be a boy without any previous offences. Courts generally feel the importance—certainly, I do—of taking breaches of conditional discharges seriously. It is no use asking a boy to promise to behave himself if, when he does not behave himself, nothing happens. It does not help him to think that promises do not matter. Therefore, quite often, when the terms of a conditional discharge have been broken, one wants to be able to put the boy up and to say, "When you were here two months ago, you promised that you would behave. You have not behaved. Therefore, we will punish you for the original offence, as we said we would".

There are only two things that could be done. One is to use the attendance centre and the other is to impose a fine. I supported the Government when they proposed to increase the maximum fine, because I am not at all against the use of fines in appropriate cases. There are, however, a number of boys who are still at school who cannot afford to pay heavy fines and who cannot afford to pay fines without, in many cases, inflicting hardship on their families. That is the kind of discretion which the magistrates should be allowed. They, and not the Home Office, are the people best qualified to judge whether a fine or an attendance centre is the appropriate penalty in a particular case. That is why we have magistrates. If we do not give them that discretion, we are wasting our time in having juvenile courts. We might as well do the whole thing administratively.

Therefore, it is reasonable that occasionally, juvenile courts should feel that in particular cases a fine is unsuitable but that they would like to use the attendance centre treatment as a method of fixing a penalty appropriate to the offence. One boy might have broken a condition of discharge and, at the same time, have a bad school report. Another boy who has broken the condition may have a good school report. The magistrates might wish to vary the number of hours of attendance. Flexibility of that kind would be an enormous help to courts in wrestling with the difficult problems of the young, which are specialised and difficult things to do.

Therefore, magistrates cannot understand the passion of the Home Secretary to make matters more difficult for them. Every time that an arbitrary limit is imposed upon their discretion, it is more difficult for the magistrates, who are in the front line, faced with the human problems of the parents and children who come before them, to try to see that justice is done. The way that magistrates discharge these responsibilities might be criticised, but it is not helping them to deal with delinquency if they are not given discretion.

There are two ways in which magistrates would be enormously helped. My proposal is to delete paragraph (a). The alternative would be to extend the discretion which now applies to a boy under 14 to boys over 14—in other words, not to have the age limit.

I plead with the Under-Secretary not to make things more difficult. To be frank, I believe that it is easier to get the ear of the Secretary of State if one is on the administrative side of this problem rather than on the judicial side. I can understand that anybody running an attendance centre likes to have everything beautifully phased and planned, with people coming in and out at the right time; that makes it much easier for those doing the job. There is, however, the viewpoint of the courts who have to hold the scales of justice evenly.

Mr. John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)

I intervene for only a moment or two to express my thanks and gratitude to my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary for his Amendment. I was one of those who spoke in Committee about attendance centres, which I regard as an important new experiment which should be given every possible consideration to allow for their proper development. I certainly spoke in favour of extending the total number of hours in the maximum case to 30, but I said at the time that I did not see any great difference in principle between a maximum of 24 or 30 hours. I regret that my hon. and learned Friend has not seen his way to make it 30 hours, because when providing for a maximum we ought always to provide for the very worst case, even though the maximum may not frequently be used.

I am glad that in paragraph (b) of the new subsection (2), my hon. and learned Friend has left the magistrates a substantial discretion. As I read the provisions of paragraph (b), the court can form its own opinion having regard to all the circumstances of the case, which means that it can do exactly as it pleases and that it does not have to have regard to special circumstances, which would mean something completely different. Therefore, so far as there is discretion between 12 and 24 hours, my reading of the Amendment is that courts will have complete and absolute discretion.

I am in substantial sympathy and agreement with the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) about the limitations on the discretion of the court below 12 hours. Normally, it is advantageous to leave the courts as wide a discretion as possible. If we are fixing a minimum sentence, it must be upon the basis that it is not worth sending anybody to such a sentence unless he is sent for that minimum. I would have supposed that it was worth sending people to attendance centres for a minimum of, say, six hours. It would be absurd to send them for only one or two hours—that would be a waste of time—but if we are to have a minimum figure, it could have been substantially less than 12 hours, unless my hon. and learned Friend has substantial reasons for saying that that is the only basis upon which people should go to attendance centres.

Generally, however, I welcome the Amendment. I hope that it will draw the attention of the courts to the availability and use that can be made of attendance centres, that these centres will be provided much more widely throughout the country and that very many more people will have this treatment as a first step towards their reformation.

8.0 p.m.

Miss Bacon

I welcome the Amendment, which follows the lines of Amendments which we moved in Committee. We were then rather concerned to reduce the age from 12 to 10 as a safeguard against long distances which might have to be covered. We were concerned about the distances to be travelled. I would reiterate what I said in Committee, that it is not only the number of miles or the availability of public transport that matter but the kind of area into which these very young boys will be required to go. We have in Leeds an attendance centre which is on one side of the city centre, and I should not like to think that any young boys of 10 or 11 had to come from outside the city on a Saturday afternoon and then have to cross the city to get to the attendance centre on the other side even though the distance to be covered might be only four or five miles. I assume, therefore, that steps will be taken to see that this consideration is provided for in any instructions which are issued. We thank the hon. and learned Gentleman, because we were concerned about these very young people travelling not only long distances but across big cities where they may get into more harm than if they stay at home.

We thank him, too, for increasing the number of hours from 12 to 24. I believe that anything which keeps children out of residential institutions is to be welcomed. In so far as hours are extended, that may mean that young people may be able to go to attendance centres rather than be sent to approved schools, and that is very welcome. During the last eighteen months, I have seen a good many of the institutions for children and young people, and while quite a lot of those I have seen are well run and good in themselves, I still Chink that anything which keeps children out of them is to be welcomed as, on the whole, residential institutions create, perhaps, as many problems as they solve.

Although there are only a few of them, I believe that the attendance centres are doing very good work, and I hope they will be extended. Some of them, like those in Leeds and Liverpool, have a liaison scheme whereby some children voluntarily can go during week nights as well as on Saturday afternoons. I am sorry that we have not had the opportunity to discuss a new Clause put down by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), which followed a suggestion made by Sir Basil Henriques a short time ago for training centres. It may be that, out of the attendance centres and the juvenile liaison schemes they have, we may get something on the lines envisaged for the training centres.

I welcome the Amendment because although we are increasing the hours we may by so doing keep some children out of residential institutions.

Sir G. Benson

I apologise for not having heard the hon. and learned Gentleman move the Amendment. I should like to ask one or two questions. Originally 12 hours was the maximum. Now it is to become the minimum, with 24 hours as the maximum. Has the hon. and learned Gentleman any facts to offer us about the results of these attendance centres? Has he, for example, the re-conviction rate? Has he any idea of the type of lad who is successful and of the type who is unsuccessful? Has he any information about whether the number of hours of attendance is in any way related to failure or success? So far as I know, there is no information at all available, except possibly to the Home Office, on what the centres are achieving or have achieved—or on whether they are achieving anything. Before I could feel inclined to accept as the minimum what was the maximum or to accept doubling the maximum, I should Ike some evidence that they are effective.

Mr. Renton

I am afraid that I have not the statistical information for which the hon. Gentleman asks. Indeed, I do not know whether it exists in any precise terms. Various people have given their impressions. I remember that in Committee my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson), whose intervention just now I welcomed, put forward the view, if I remember rightly, that the longer the number of hours of attendance at attendance centres the greater the chances of success in preventing further crime on the part of the offenders, but I think that that was only a general impression he had gained, and I do not know of any specific evidence. I will try to find it and, if it is available, to give it to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson).

Mr. Hobson

The point I was making then was that the longer the hours it is possible to send convicted persons to attendance centres, the more of them could go there instead of to borstal or a detention centre for very much more severe sentences.

Miss Bacon

Perhaps the Joint Under-Secretary of State is not aware of the fact that there are figures available about the Leeds attendance centre particularly for the juvenile liaison scheme in connection with it. In the six years in which the juvenile liaison scheme has been run, a total of 2,164 children have come to the notice of the juvenile liaison officers before they have appeared in court, and of those 194, only 9 per cent., have committed any further offence, and some of those offences have been quite minor, such as cycling offences, which shows that the juvenile liaison scheme, at any rate, has a success rate which is very high.

Sir G. Benson

I was talking about the attendance centres, not the juvenile liaison schemes. That is what I am interested in.

Mr. Renton

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady, and with respect to her, although I am grateful for any intervention of the constructive kind she makes, I do not think she has given the information for which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chesterfield was asking.

However, I can tell the House that the Institute of Criminology has undertaken research into the results of the working of the attendance centres and the result of that research is shortly to be published. I understand that one of the conclusions which it has drawn is that the hours possible at attendance centres could be increased. In other words, the research which it has undertaken would be in support of the proposal in this Amendment.

I am grateful for the support which has been given to our attempt in paragraph (b) of this new subsection (2) to prevent the new maximum of 24 hours from becoming the standard, an expression of the hope which was expressed by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) in Committee.

I am also glad that the hon. Lady appreciates that we are making a conscious attempt to ensure that young children are not sent too far to attendance centres. I agree most fully with her that it would be unwise to attempt to lay down any specific distances.

The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) referred to the importance of letting the courts have discretion in some matters. This is a matter in which, I think, they may very well be best left to use their own discretion.

The only point of substantial disagreement on what I have put forward in this debate so far has come from the hon. Gentleman the Member for Widnes. I listened with respect to the views he put forward. Without any commitment whatever, I will undertake to look at this point again. We have to face the fact that the Ingleby Committee considered that if we lowered the age from 12 to 10 then it might be feasible to have shorter hours, but the clear implication of what the Committee said was that, apart from that factor, it was best to leave it at what had become the standard. That is what this new paragraph (a) does. It is a matter of interpreting what the Ingleby Committee says.

Mr. MacColl

I am dealing with a statement of facts and not a matter of interpretation. I say that it has not become standard practice. I speak from experience in London only, and I certainly frequently make orders for a period of much less than 12 hours.

Mr. Renton

The hon. Member's experience does not appear to have been characteristic and does not conform with the information that we have in the Home Office.

Those who are responsible for running the centres have found, as the Ingleby Committee has recorded, that generally speaking attendances of only four to six hours are not worth very much. It was with these factors in mind that we decided that, except for those under 14 years of age, 12 hours should be made the minimum and indeed it was to be regarded as the normal standard for those of all ages who were qualified to receive sentence of attendance at attendance centres. Nevertheless, in view of what the hon. Member has said about fettering the discretion of the courts, I will undertake, without commitment, to consider the matter further.

I do not accept what the hon. Member said—and they were rather wild words—about the Home Office always attempting to fetter the discretion of the courts. It is very rarely, and it is very rarely in the Bill, that we have attempted to fetter the discretion of the courts. However, if ultimately there appears to be no good reason for doing so on this occasion we will amend this provision further.

Mr. MacColl

In view of what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, and not withdrawing a word of what I said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment in the hope that something will happen in another place.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Proposed words there inserted in the Bill.