HC Deb 12 April 1961 vol 638 cc319-26
Mr. MacColl

I beg to move, in page 2, line 26 to leave out from "mentioned" to the end of line 30 and to insert: after the words 'grievous bodily harm' there shall be added the words 'or of arson of a dwelling-house with person therein, burglary, rape, armed robbery, robbery with aggravation, or using firearms with intent to resist apprehension'". I think I can put very simply to the House the point at issue which is embodied in this Amendment. Clause 2 is very incongruous among the many incongruities which emerge in the Bill from time to time. This Clause seems very much out of keeping with the general idea of the Bill, which is as far as possible to avoid long sentences of detention for young people.

The Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, provided that, whereas normally children or young persons could be dealt with by magistrates' courts, for certain types of offence, namely, murder and manslaughter, in substitution for sentence to an approved school, or whatever it might be, there would be detention during His Majesty's pleasure, as it then was. Obviously much can be said for that principle. We have already discussed capita] punishment and the essential difference between offences concerned with taking life and other offences. Therefore, one can see the justification for saying that for many reasons it is not desirable that a young person who commits one of the homicidal offences should be dealt with in the ordinary way with other delinquents.

The Bill now proposes to extend that to all offences punishable with imprisonment for fourteen years or more. We discussed this in Committee. Our point was that it is far too wide. I think the words I used were that it is cheating. On the one hand, the Government are saying that they want to cut out long sentences and severely limit the powers of courts to send people to imprisonment for long periods. On the other hand, they are providing this cat-and-mouse procedure under which, in a case in which the sentence could be over fourteen years, a court can pass an indeterminate sentence. Then nobody will know how long it will last. It will not be clear what is to happen to the young person. He will more or less disappear from the public ken and become subject to the administration of the Home Secretary and be under his control. That seems to be a very arbitrary procedure.

The second point is that it is far too wide. There is an extraordinary number of offences of a comparatively trivial kind which can be subject to a sentence of fourteen years' imprisonment. I quoted the example that the abduction of an heiress is punishable with more than fourteen years' imprisonment, but the abduction of the daughter of an ordinary man in the street is not punishable with as much as fourteen years. Therefore, the romantic youth of the future will have to show considerable discrimination. If they desire to go to Gretna Green with a young lady, they must choose a young lady whose father has not a lot of money, because the Government are very determined to preserve the rights of fathers with property but are not worrying quite so much about the rights of other fathers. Therefore, they provide these arbitrary provisions.

There are other examples which are more frequent. Robbery with violence was mentioned often during our discussions. Robbery with violence may be quite a serious matter, but in many cases with young people it is not at all serious. It almost becomes a matter of bullying. It can be anything from snatching a friend's hat and throwing it into the canal to a couple of boys holding up another boy and demanding twopence from him. On the other hand, it may be very serious.

In our opinion, the Clause is far too wide. The test which the Government have applied of simply taking the maximum sentence gives far too much discretion. In a Bill which is designed to restrict the detention of young people, as far as possible, and which goes into great detail in limiting the discretion of courts in the sentences they can impose, it is quite absurd to give this sweeping power and discretion to the Executive as opposed to the judiciary. It is altogether wrong.

We discussed this at considerable length in Committee, and a decision was arrived at which we did not very much like. I do not want to go on re-fighting the same battle. In a spirit of considerable reason we have tried to meet what we think the Government feel about this. Instead of having this rather wide collection of offences, it seems to us to be desirable to try to select particularly gross offences and name them specifically in the Bill rather than to limit it to sentences.

Another good reason for doing this is that the Streatfeild Committee suggests in paragraph 91 of its Report that it should be possible for a number of offences which at present come within the provisions of the Clause to be dealt with by magistrates' courts. That is another indication that it is extremely difficult by the definition of an offence to measure its seriousness. Therefore, in order to try to meet what the Government have in mind, we have selected offences which seem to be the kind of offences which the Government might reasonably want to be dealt with in this way.

We have selected arson of a dwelling house with person therein because, although arson in one form or another is not an uncommon juvenile offence, if young people start setting fire to a house in which people are asleep it is not something to be encouraged. In fact, it could constitute a very serious danger to life. We have cut out ordinary straightforward housebreaking, but we specify burglary because that includes the element of coming at night and causing considerable alarm and apprehension to innocent people in their homes. We have included rape, armed robbery, robbery with aggravation, and using firearms with intent to resist apprehension. Those seem to us to be the main offences which the Government might reasonably say are comparable with the original offences which were put into the 1933 Act.

We suggest that the Government should accept the idea of the 1933 Act of picking out specific offences, if they want to extend them, and not have this general provision covering any offence which in its most extreme form is punishable by fourteen years' imprisonment, because it would be possible to bring into operation what is, on the face of it, this very undesirable way of dealing with some offences. In this country we have always set our face very firmly against indeterminate sentences. We have always taken the view that a man who is convicted and sentenced should know just how long that sentence will last. We want to keep to that as far as possible. To keep this Clause in its present form seems to us to be thoroughly undesirable so I hope that, very much as a compromise, the Government will accept the Amendment.

7.30 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)

I have listened with interest to the arguments of the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) in support of the Amendment, but I am afraid that I shall have to disappoint him by saying that they do not convince us that acceptance of his Amendment would improve the Clause. Indeed, in our view it would have the contrary effect.

I thought that I explained to the Standing Committee the object of the Clause, a matter on which the hon. Gentleman has touched. It is, of course, the intention of the Clause to enlarge the scope of Section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, so as to enable the courts, in appropriate cases, to order that the child or young person be liable to be detained during Her Majesty's pleasure, and, in that case … liable to be detained in such place and under such conditions as the Secretary of State may direct. It follows from that that we hope that the courts will not find it necessary to make much use of these provisions.

At the same time, we feel it necessary that the courts should have this power in relation to particularly grave and heinous offences. The object of the Amendment is to put forward a different criterion of the offences that are to be embraced within the Clause. As the Bill now stands, the power will inure to the courts where the maximum sentence for the offence is fourteen years or more. The Amendment proposes instead that there should be specific reference to the offences named in it.

The hon. Member has argued that some of the offences resulting in charges which, on conviction, could carry a maximum sentence of fourteen years may be very trivial. That is true, of course, but the same argument applies to some of the offences detailed in the Amendment. The hon. Gentleman gave the instance of the offence of robbery which, as he has just said, and as he said in Committee, might be committed by a small boy who threw another small boy's school cap into the river. The offence of robbery with aggravation might be committed by a schoolboy robber who used a toy pistol to hold up his victim; he might be guilty of armed robbery and, if he joined forces with another boy, he would be guilty of robbery with aggravation.

Whatever the kind of offence charged, the gravity of the offence will ordinarily differ tremendously in degree. The hon. Gentleman emphasised that, and we accept it. It is because we accept it that we think it right to draw the line as we have drawn it, and to leave it to the discretion of the courts to use this power only in the grave cases. We think that it should be left to the discretion of the courts to determine when the case was of such gravity that this kind of sentence was the only sentence that could properly be passed—and, of course, there is always the power of appeal against sentence.

I would point out, however, that the subsection applies only where the child or young person is convicted on indictment. That means that the only offence for which a child could be dealt with under Section 53 (2) of the Act of 1933, as amended by this Bill, would be manslaughter. A young person—that is to say, someone who has attained the age of 14 but is not yet 17—may, with his consent, be dealt with summarily for any indictable offence other than homicide. In practice, the great majority are tried in this way, although, naturally, the proportions vary according to the offence. A juvenile or other magistrates' court would thus have no reason to commit a young person for trial on indictment for a comparatively trivial offence.

Secondly, it is true to say that the courts are well accustomed to adjusting their sentences to the circumstances of the offence and the offender in each case, and I have no reason to doubt that the courts will use the discretion that this Clause will give them—will use with discretion the extension of their power to impose long periods of detention for grave crimes committed by young persons, especially as Section 53 (2) of the 1933 Act expressly provides that the power to impose detention can be exercised only where the court is of the opinion that the case is such that none of the other methods will be useful—

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Roughly, how many offences now exist for which a sentence of fourteen years or more can be imposed? I think that some of the sentences have gone—piracy on the high seas and arson at the Royal Dockyards have gone. The list must be very diverse.

The Attorney-General

During the Committee proceedings I gave a complete list of all the offences. I do not have it with me now, but it is a fairly diverse list.

I would say that although we are enlarging the scope of Section 53, it is giving what might be called a reserve power to the courts which I think is not likely to be exercised often. However, when we are making other changes in the Bill, I think that it is desirable to give the courts this reserve power to deal with the exceptionally grave case—

Mr. Hale

Is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman not too modest? He was in course of convincing me by his eloquence rather more than he convinced his hon. Friends. He was on the road to that desirable end.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman is encouraging me to prolong my speech, but that might not be entirely acceptable to others on that side of the House, and, in particular, to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Charles A. Howell), whom we are delighted to have with us on this occasion, although on this occasion we may not hear his views.

That is the argument for this Clause as it now stands, and against this Amendment. The hon. Member for Widnes said that we have always set our face very firmly against indeterminate sentences. That is not quite true; the sentence to borstal is indeterminate, and some of the other provisions of the Bill enlarge the power to impose indeterminate sentences. I think that there is something to be said, particularly in relation to children and young persons, where the powers under the Bill of sentencing are thought to be inadequate, for the courts to be able to say, "This is a particularly grave case. Our powers, as they stand, are really not sufficient. We shall exercise the power we have under Section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act and order you to be detained during Her Majesty's pleasure"—and I would emphasise the words …under such conditions as the Secretary of State may direct. He can therefore alter those conditions according to the behaviour of the young person.

I commend the Clause to the House as it stands. For the reasons I have given, I do not think that it would be improved by the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.