HC Deb 17 July 1968 vol 768 cc1452-66

Children coming within the provisions of sections 31 and 32(2)(g) of this Act shall not be fingerprinted excepting in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State and approved by both Houses of Parliament. —[Mr. Willis.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. George Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I raised the question of the fingerprinting of children on Second Reading and in Committee and made clear my dissatisfaction with the present position. My dissatisfaction is now accentuated in view of the purpose of the Bill because, as I hope to show, the present position is in conflict with Part III unless we do something about it.

The present position in Scotland is that the police have overall powers to take fingerprints without consent and without warrant from a person arrested and in custody following arrest. This applies to children, so that any child from the age of criminal consent—8—can be fingerprinted and photographed. That surely runs contrary to Part III.

I do not like the present position in any case, but I know that there is strong feeling among the police about their possession of these powers. While I would not wish to weaken the powers of the police, we must consider this question in the light of the possible effect upon the children themselves. The effects on a child of 9, 10, or 11 years of age of being taken to a police station, fingerprinted with a couple of burly constables beside him, and then photographed, is not likely to be beneficial, particularly when some of the offences for which this might be done could probably be better rewarded by his father simply slapping the boy's bottom.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said in Committee that this was not the Bill to deal with that situation, but I submit that this is not so. Part III of the Bill sets out to make a fundamental change in our approach to offences by children and is endeavouring to remove them from the atmosphere of crime. In-deed, in Committee my hon. Friend went to great pains never to use the words "charge", "courts" or "sentence". The boy would be reported and asked to appear not before a court but a panel and he would not be sentenced or anything like that.

All this was because, as my hon. Friend said, we wanted to create a different atmosphere for the child offender —an atmosphere in which he could be helped, assisted, corrected, although, if necessary, if the offence was very serious, he could be sent to the Sheriff court. I am dealing primarily at this point with offences going before the children's panel, however.

That was the object of the Kilbrandon proposals. It is the whole object of Part III. The present position is that a child charged with an offence or about to be reported for an offence can be hauled off to the police station, fingerprinted and photographed. Are we to retain that system, but then tell the child, "You will go before the children's panel, where you must not be dealt with as a criminal or as an offender but as a child in need of assistance."? Part III is headed: Children in Need of Compulsory Measures of Care". There is nothing there about children of a criminal character.

The fingerprinting system makes nonsense of Part III of the Bill unless we do something about it. I appreciate that some people argue that everyone should be fingerprinted and that this would assist in the identification of people killed or severely injured in accidents—motor accidents, in particular. I realise that it would also be useful for a number of other reasons. But I do not necessarily hold the view that everyone should be fingerprinted. If we were all fingerprinted, there would be no difficulty in this case, of course.

But at present fingerprinting is indelibly associated in everyone's mind with criminality. It is absolute nonsense to suggest that, after putting a child through the process of fingerprinting and photographing, we should say to him, "We shall not treat you further in this fashion. We do not want any stigma of being associated with crime to attach to you or to affect the way in which your case is dealt with."

4.30 p.m.

I proposed an Amendment in Committee, which was not accepted, which would have taken children under 12 out of this provision. The purpose of my Amendment was that children under 12 should not be fingerprinted and that children between the ages of 12 and 16 should only be fingerprinted with the permission of the court or the children's panel. Even so, I do not think that this would be quite so easy as the different situation in England where children under 14 are not fingerprinted, except in special circumstances. Children between the ages of 14 and 16 are fingerprinted only with the consent and sanction of the court. This seemed to be one way out.

Another way out would have been that the child should not be fingerprinted unless his case went to the sheriff, which would be an indication that it was indeed serious and the kind of case for which fingerprints might provide a useful record.

New Clause 1 leaves it to the Secretary of State to go into the matter and draw up regulations which should be approved by the House. It has a degree of flexibility about it which would enable regulations to be made in accordance with generally held views at particular times. We would also have some indication of what the practice would be when the Bill became law.

This is a fairly modest, but necessary, request for something to be done. In my view, Part III in many cases is a nonsense unless we do something about it. I do not think that my right hon. Friend wants to pass legislation which is a nonsense. I believe that my right hon. Friend wants to make a good job of this and wants to take the steps necessary to satisfy the wishes of all who were in general favour of the underlying purpose of the recommendations of the Kilbrandon Committee.

I do not wish to speak at any greater length on this matter—I said much more about it in Committee—but I believe that it is important and that something is necessary. It is not good enough to be given the reply that my hon. Friend gave me in Committee, that, of course, we will consult with the police and others concerned. Whatever the consultations might mean, there is no legal backing for what might be suggested. I understand that the legal position—and probably the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) could either confirm or deny this—would still be that a chief constable, if he thought it necessary, could carry on the existing practice. That is in spite of consultations and agreements.

This is why I believe it is necessary that we should lay down something in the form of regulations. We cannot put it in the Bill at this late stage, but it can be done by regulations. This would give the necessary power to the Secretary of State to see that the wishes of people concerned with this practice were carried out.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I did not have the pleasure and privilege of serving on the important Committee dealing with this Bill although, like many others who were not on the Commitee, I have read some of the Committee reports.

I should like to mention two brief points on this new Clause, which has been so eloquently moved by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis).

Having had a brief look at the Bill, the first point is that, in seeking to exclude children, this would, under Part III of the Bill, mean children up to the age of 16. This would be a considerable exemption from the powers we are talking about.

Mr. Willis

No. All I am suggesting is that the Secretary of State should have power to make regulations about this matter. The Regulations need not necessarily exclude children, say, between 14 and 16, or between 12 and 16. It depends what the regulations are.

Mr. Taylor

I read the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about children of the age of 12. The question of age is critical. We know that a young lady may not purchase cigarettes until she is 16 and cannot buy a bottle of stout until she is 18, although by that time she may be a wife and mother. Certainly, age limits are difficult to justify in present circumstances.

We must bear in mind that the usual and normal purpose of fingerprinting is to detect and solve crime. The right hon. Gentlemen could have made a better case if there were any evidence of abuse of these powers or of their use on a widespread and general scale. However, no evidence has been put forward along these lines, so far as I am aware.

We must bear in mind that, although many of the points are significant, expensive crimes are often committed by young children of 9, 10, 11 and so on. The fingerprinting of young people in such circumstances could lead to the solution of a crime at a much earlier stage, save a great deal of public expense, and also save unnecessary inquiries which might cause distress to other people.

In these circumstances, unless there is any evidence of abuse of the existing powers or of their widespread use—and this is certainly not my information— the Government should look carefully at the whole matter before accepting the new Clause. The powers are simply used to solve crimes. This can often lead to a great saving of public expense and prevent distress being caused to a large number of people. I do not think that any evidence has been advanced on these angles.

I hope that the Government will seriously consider the new Clause before accepting it.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Aberdeen, South)

I do not wish to detain the House for more than a few minutes, but I would like to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis).

This subject was given an airing in Committee. The Under-Secretary relied on a variety of arguments which I found, and still find on further examination, highly unsatisfactory. First, my hon. Friend said that there was no demand and there had been no public outcry or pressure for a change in this sphere. It was then pointed out by myself and by various other hon. Members that there had been no outcry in the general public sense for Part III. If we were to wait until there was a general public demand for social reform we would be going without a large number of valuable changes for a long time.

My hon. Friend then said—and here he had support from the Opposition Front Bench—that this was the wrong Bill; that we should wait for the Criminal Justice Bill. As a back bencher, I found this kind of argument particularly unpleasant. It is the kind of argument which Front Benchers fall back upon in the last extremity. It is an argument which can be, and is, freely used either way. It becomes a convention, a parliamentary smokescreen for refusing to take action.

It is not so long ago that another Undersecretary of State for Scotland, when considering security of tenure in the Agriculture Bill, was arguing strongly in the face of attacks from the Opposition, that if an Amendment fell within the terms of the long title the Government were entitled to push it through and that, with the pressure upon legislative time, it would be wrong to turn up the chance.

I think that if we have a Measure which, on merit, deserves action, we should not be put off by the kind of argument that in some way it is not suitable and that we should wait for a hypothetical bill which may or may not be coming up in the next year, the year after, or the year after that.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East that the present practice is against the spirit of Part III. I have in mind the arguments which were constantly used by the Undersecretary of State on Second Reading and in Committee. I realise that the original Amendment put down in Committee by my right hon. Friend was almost certainly too hard and too inflexible and no doubt was not suitable for a series of technical reasons.

Some of the difficulties have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor). But I refuse to accept that it is beyond the ingenuity of the Scottish Office, if it accepts the general case that the unregulated fingerprinting of juveniles is undesirable, to produce a reasonable and workable scheme which would in practice overcome difficulties of the sort which would in practice overcome difficulties of the sort which the hon. Member for Cathcart has in mind.

The present practice is unsatisfactory. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State said that one of the difficulties in the situation was that, since there was no statutory provision, he was unable to say with absolute authority what is the practice in different parts of Scotland". He said that there were wide variations, his information being that there are one or two police forces in Scotland which rarely take fingerprints of juveniles, while others make considerable use of this provision. But it was little consolation to hear from my hon. Friend, a moment or two later, that he was simply stating the position as it is. I understand that it is very rare to take fingerprints of children below the age of 10… "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 2nd July, 1968; c. 587.] The Minister should be in a position to say authoritatively what the position is. If there are the wide variations of which he spoke, the matter is not, as the hon. Member for Cathcart suggested, such that in some areas, after serious crimes occur, fingerprints are taken while in other circumstances they are not. Obviously, the general practice varies from area to area, and this is not a situation which ought to be tolerated or allowed to continue.

I believe that the Minister is sympathetic. He made clear in Committee that he sympathised with some of the points put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East, and he said: I undertake to look at this again before Report. However, I should be misleading the Committee if I gave the impression that I felt that it was possible on Report to provide Amendments which would place all these complicated matters on a statutory basis. I honestly do not believe that that could possibly be done in the time available."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 2nd July, 1968; c. 595.] I am the first to accept that it would be unreasonable to prepare hard and fast Amendments in the time available, but the new Clause merely gives power for the making of regulations for the approval of Parliament at a future date. This overcomes the difficulty to which my hon. Friend referred. If it be a real difficulty, and if the Minister is sympathetic towards the general intention, as he suggested, there need be no barrier against accepting the new Clause at this stage.

Mr. John Robertson (Paisley)

I support the new Clause and the argument advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis). So long as we are to have children's panels of the kind envisaged under the Bill, normal police procedures in this respect are inappropriate. We had a long argument about it in Committee, and I took the view that there should be some revision in the children's panel procedure.

I should have preferred that a charge be made, but under the procedure envisaged no charge will be laid. Thus, there will be informal proceedings, with people able to give evidence against themselves without their realising that they are so doing. I did not like that procedure, but, so long as it is there, the normal police procedures in dealing with children must be changed in line with the ideas running behind Part III.

As my right hon. Friend said, fingerprinting has always been associated with the concept of criminality. In this context, it is abhorrent and so contrary to the other ideas embodied in the Bill that the Government should have no difficulty in accepting the spirit of the new Clause. Even with the alteration proposed by my right hon. Friend in moving the Clause, there might still be some anomalies and it might not be possible to lay down a procedure which did precisely what we wanted, but it would be a good step in the right direction.

It is a great pity that the Government did not themselves accept the principle and bring forward an appropriate Amendment in Committee to cover the whole situation. However, the new Clause would give the Secretary of State sufficient power to deal adequately with the situation.

I am sure that it would be the wish of all right hon. and hon. Members— certainly all who were members of the Committee—that the Secretary of State should accept the Clause. It follows the spirit of the Bill precisely, and, if he is not prepared to accept it, he will, I suggest, make his Bill a nonsense.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. N. R. Wylie (Edinburgh, Pentlands)

I do not see how the Government could accept the new Clause as it stands. As is obvious from what has been said so far, this is a difficult problem which involves striking a balance between individual interests and the public interest, and I am by no means sure that it would be right to accept this proposal for a change at such a late stage in legislation. For one thing, the Clause refers only to fingerprinting, but a great deal of evidence in criminal cases relates not to fingerprinting, but to palmprinting and foot-printing. There was a recent decision in Scotland sustaining a conviction on the basis of identification of teeth marks.

If we are to make a change in the law here—it would be a new provision because, as the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) pointed out, the matter is governed entirely by common law at present—it would have to be carefully thought out. I am not at all sure that this would not have been an appropriate Measure for a change to be made, if a change were deemed advisable. The Bill deals with children, and there is no doubt that the interviewing of children by the police could relevantly nave formed part of its subject matter.

I hope that the Government will not accept the Clause as it stands, but, arising out of something said by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor), I put to the Government that one is sometimes not altogether happy about the police practice, if it be a practice, of taking fingerprints, footprints or other impressions from children when those children are not under suspicion but are invited to cooperate with the police in that way, perhaps not always being warned that they are under no obligation to do so. I had experience of that in a case only last week, and I think that there is here a question which should usefully be examined. However, I do not regard the Clause as the way to deal with it.

Mr. Ross

I appreciate the concern expressed by my hon. Friends, and particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis). When a Minister of State at the Scottish Office, my right hon. Friend was concerned with this matter, so it comes as no surprise to me that he has put his proposal forward now.

It is all too easy to pass over to the Secretary of State the job of drawing up regulations. This matter is far too important to be slipped off in that way. People often talk about the Secretary of State's powers and what he has to do. I have even heard some of my hon. Friends who would wish this proposal to be adopted say that the Secretary of State already has too many powers.

It is not right at all times to say that we can do things by regulation, which simply means that the Secretary of State goes away and does just as he likes. From the point of view of Parliament and of the people concerned, it is not right that a question like this should be dealt with in that way, the matter coming back later for debate in the House because Parliament has slid its obligations on to the Secretary of State.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) was right to say that this is an important matter. If we could have seen a way through the problem, we might well have put an appropriate provision into the Bill. But it is not as easy as all that, and hon. Members are right to point to the difficulties, as the hon. Member for Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) did. We could not proceed without full consultation with the police and the courts. Is it easy, for example, to isolate children's fingerprinting from other aspects of detection or from the fingerprinting of adults? The question sometimes arises whether children should be fingerprinted in any circumstances and, if they are, whether and in what circumstances their fingerprints should be put on the record.

The second of these aspects will have to be considered in any event when implementing the Bill. As my right hon. Friend said, there is no statutory regulation or overall power to tell the police what to do. This is governed by a court decision of 1931, in respect of which no minimum age was laid down.

But the present practice of fingerprints is for the police to retain the prints of people convicted or found guilty. Under the new arrangements, child offenders will not normally be brought before the courts, so there will be no finding of guilt. Therefore, this aspect must now necessarily be considered. As my hon. Friend said when this matter was discussed in Committee, there will now be consultations with the police to work out the practice which should be followed after the new arrangements for children's panels come into operation.

The taking of fingerprints serves a number of important purposes. It is a useful aid to the detection of those who have committed offences—we must face the fact that some very young people commit very serious offences in Scotland —particularly housebreaking, theft and vandalism, where the use of fingerprints is sometimes essential to obtain sufficient evidence to justify proceedings against a suspected offender. Another important point is that the taking of fingerprints can exclude many other people from suspicion.

I think that it would, therefore, be generally agreed that fingerprinting is an essential part of police investigation of offences, and there are strong arguments against dealing with children's fingerprinting in isolation. Having discussed this with my right hon. Friend before now, I know that we both feel much the same about this. I have noted the views expressed on both sides, today and in Committee, that the present position over fingerprinting of children in Scotland is not entirely satisfactory and that, in this matter, some form of statutory regulation is desirable. Bearing in mind our ultimate objective in the Bill for the treatment of children in trouble, I am not unsympathetic to this point of view, but I do not think that we should try, in this Bill and at this stage, to deal with children's fingerprinting.

After all, this raises wider considerations and its implications need further thought and discussion. The Scottish Law Commission, in its Second Programme, which will be laid before the House and published this week, has already proposed to the Lord Advocate and myself the setting up of a departmental committee to examine criminal procedure in Scotland, and the Lord Advocate and I have approved the programme. We have now to consider, along with the Commission, the scope, composition and timing of the proposed Committee.

It would be right to consider whether this difficult question of fingerprinting could appropriately be referred to that Committee for its views. When I remind the House that the Chairman of the Law Commission is Lord Kilbrandon, who was most responsible and in many ways could be proclaimed the genesis of this important part of the Bill dealing with the children's panels, hon. Members will appreciate that we are dealing with someone who is very conscious of most of the points of view expressed.

I think that that might be the best way of dealing with it, but I appreciate and share the concerns of hon. Members, and I understand the importance of this from the point of view of the police and detection. It is a matter of balance, but we must face the fact that, when we have a Bill about criminal procedures, we should deal with this matter. Before we do, we shall be able to have our minds very much clearer about what we are doing and what we are asking the Secretary of State to make Regulations about.

Mr. Willis

The purpose of the Clause would, as my right hon. Friend said, be to slip this matter off to the Secretary of State, but this should have been considered when the Bill was considered. This Bill has been under consideration for about two years now, and I suspect that this aspect was never considered at all. It was certainly never considered by Lord Kilbrandon when he framed his Report and I fancy that it was never considered when the Bill was being framed, until I whipped down a new Clause in Committee. That was evident, from what was said at the time.

I am not against fingerprinting. I know the need for it and the uses to which it can be put, but I also recognise that the fingerprinting of children has certain possible effects on a child's mind. But I thought that Part III of the Bill was concerned specifically with creating an atmosphere in which children would not be given the immediate impression that they were criminals and would be labelled as such for the rest of their lives. I said in Committee that I knew that the police were very concerned about this power, which some of them use considerably. I recognise that there are cases in which it should be used.

My right hon. Friend mentioned separating adults from children. Somehow, they manage to do this in England when fingerprinting, but we are now told that it is impossible. I think that it can be done. There is no indication that these much severer and overriding powers of the police have led to any better rate of apprehension than in England, and this should be considered. I do not know that the rate of apprehension in Glasgow, where, I understand, this is generally or at least greatly used, is any better than in any of the large communities in England. So we should not be persuaded by all these arguments—

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Would the right hon. Gentleman say whether comparable cities in England have a shortage of 400 policemen?

Mr. Willis

I understand that all the centres of population in England have a large shortage of police, and that, in the largest of all, London, the shortage is far greater than that in Glasgow—

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

This matter of a shortage of police keeps coming up. But we know that, over the last 10 years, the police force in Glasgow has increased by nearly 25 per cent. I do not know how this shortage is determined, and what target people have in mind, but surely we should remember that there has been a considerable increase in the number of policemen.

Mr. Willis

My hon. Friend is right, of course, and I have argued with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor), in an earlier debate, that the numbers in the police force have increased. However, I take the point, but there is a bigger shortage in London than in Glasgow.

I make that point only in passing. I know that the police like to build up records of fingerprints, and I do not blame them. They have a very difficult job to do. But we also have a job to do—a job with a wider interest to take into consideration. We must take account of what the police say, but we also have to take account of wider, personal considerations.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Archie Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

I did not have the benefit of being on the Committee dealing with the Bill, but I am attuned to my hon. Friend's feelings as expressed in the Clause. If the police obtain fingerprints in connection with some form of delinquency and discover that the possible offender went to a certain school, can they take fingerprints of the whole class in which they think the boy or girl may be, or the whole school?

Mr. Willis

Not unless they obtain the permission of the children, or the parents. A person is fingerprinted and photo-graphed in Scotland when he is charged with an offence. Prior to that the police can fingerprint only with consent.

One difficulty is that many people do not know that their consent is required, and if somebody says to them, "Come on —give us your fingerprints," they do so. At Wallyford, in Midlothian, the whole village was fingerprinted. I have no reason to doubt that it was a voluntary action on the part of the villagers. It must be a very amenable sort of village, without a rebel.

We are considering children, and the effects of fingerprinting upon them. We have accepted the vital principle that we should not deal with children of the age of 8, and so on, as criminals. If they commit serious offences they should be fingerprinted; I have not said otherwise. But it is not the appropriate treatment for the majority of children, and I very much doubt whether it is the appropriate treatment for any child going before a children's panel. It may be correct in the case of children going to sheriff courts.

My right hon. Friend has said that further consideration is needed. The matter should be considered now, when we are dealing with the Bill. It has taken a long time to prepare. I am not clear whether my right hon. Friend made a commitment about the committee which is to be set up to carry out an inquiry into our criminal procedures.

Mr. Ross

I could not do so at this stage.

Mr. Willis

That means that we have no promise that anything will be done about it. I am not altogether happy, and in the circumstances I shall not ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Question put and negatived.

Forward to