HC Deb 11 November 1980 vol 992 cc213-22 4.21 pm
Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 so as to provide that where a child or young person is found guilty of any offence of criminal damage for the commission of which a fine or costs may be imposed or a compensation order may be made under section 35 of the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973 if the court is of the opinion that the case would be best met by the imposition of a fine or costs or the making of such an order whether with or without any other punishment, the court shall order that the fine, compensation or costs awarded be paid by the parent, or guardian of the child or young person, instead of by the child or young person. The Bill will amend section 55 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 by making it compulsory for magistrates to impose upon parents of 14- to 17-yearold offenders the fines and compensation orders that result from acts of criminal damage by those offenders. At present the magistrates can exercise their discretion whether to impose parental responsibility, and evidence suggests that they are often reluctant to do so.

The Bill coincides with the recent Government White Paper on young offenders. I am pleased to note that the Government also consider it important to emphasise that the present provisions are inadequate in this respect.

The initiative for introducing this intended legislation has come from my county authority in Bedfordshire, which formed a working party to investigate and recommend measures to combat the increasing violence in our county. Its report emphatically laid much of the blame upon poor parental control, public apathy and lack of co-operation with the police. It saw the need further to amend the 1933 Act.

I congratulate the working party on its findings and its diligence. Regrettably, it could draw on much experience of vandalism in our county, particularly in the southern area, in which my constituency lies. There are few tower blocks, schools, places of worship or shopping precincts in Luton that are not now desecrated by some form of graffiti. Daily acts of violence against persons and property are now too numerous even to be reported by the local media. The better the facilities that are offered, the more they are a target for marauding thugs—which is all that they are.

For example, only a fortnight ago in my constituency the foundations of a community centre were dug. The centre has received much public support and public money. Within a week of the foundations being dug, the very people for whom the centre was built had desecrated and vandalised some of the works. Not many nights now pass in Luton without the sound of breaking glass.

Statistics tell us that crime is increasing by about 10 per cent. a year. In major cities the figures are even worse. Vandalism costs over £100 million a year to the public purse. Damage to schools is estimated at £15 million and to telephone kiosks at £1 million. British Rail's bill is over £3 million.

Since my intention to introduce the Bill was made known, I have received letters from all over the country relating terrifying personal experiences: old people's windows smashed by children; shop fronts destroyed by football hooligans; newly planted trees uprooted; new house walls sprayed with graffiti; and even warehouses and factories set alight.

If we add to that the daily national reports of Tube and train violence, daytime muggings and constant theft, we see that the backcloth to Britain's so-called peaceful society becomes a rather ugly painting.

The present Government were elected on a ticket to restore dignity and pride to family life, believing that a sound, disciplined background would add respect to our education system and responsibility to parental control. I admit that there are some parents who need assistance in bringing up their children. There are families for whom social and employment problems create special difficulties. But I believe that for too long our judicial administrators have been hiding behind that minority as the excuse for releasing the majority from their full parental obligation.

Children who suffer lack of guidance are not often beyond parental capability They are encouraged to break the law by their parents absolving themselves of all responsibility. It is too easy to hide behind the "I cannot control him" excuse, or even the "His social worker does not understand him" syndrome.

Many parents do not bother with a simple form of discipline, probably because they fail to practise it in their own lives. Many would rather stay ignorant of their offspring's action, because their ignorance covers up for their own moral inadequacies and misdemeanours. Everyone apart from themselves is blamed—the school; the teachers; the council, for not providing facilities; even the State, for an inadequate supply of constant entertainment. Never is it considered that a stronger family life might have prevented the birds from flying from the family nest so early.

I commend the action of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon), who, finding that two children in his constituency had desecrated a local playgroup's premises, admonished the parents. The children went back and repaired the damage that they had done. I understand that there is no further problem there.

Parents must learn to accept responsibility, or have it forced upon them. Too often a fine or compensation order upon a young person is left unpaid, and criminal and parents alike often laugh their way out of court at their good fortune.

It must be accepted that fines are often the only sentences left open to magistrates. In these days of prison difficulties they may be the only course at present. Such a deterrent, if payment is pursued, may be as effective as the short, sharp shock, but only if it means a heavy financial imposition that will hurt the parent as well as the child. The adult choice of paying or imprisonment will be a salutary reminder to an erring parent who had thought that his child's action was someone else's responsibility.

Men who are on short-time or are receiving unemployment benefit will not take kindly to paying for the local bakery shop window, especially if the bill runs into several hundreds of pounds.

A lesson in public humiliation also would not go amiss. If the press could name the children who were persistent violent offenders, the parents would share their public shame.

The afflicted often receive nothing but paltry compensation, totally inadequate to deter the criminal or adequately avenge the offence. About £25 million in fines was left unpaid last year. How much longer can the public purse be expected to foot this bill? If the parents default in payment, an inevitable consequence for many of them is that the full force of the law and imprisonment must be inflicted as a further deterrent in the fight against crime.

There must, of course, be a small get out. Parents who were abroad, or those detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, would be an obvious exception. But exceptions must be rare; they must apply in an absolute minimum of cases.

The Bill should strike a chord in the hearts and pockets of every parent. It will prove an effective deterrent to the intending juvenile criminal and to parents alike. It will return responsibility to family life and discipline to dissenting households. I ask the House to grant it a Second Reading.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

Does the hon. Gentleman seek to oppose the Bill?

4.29 pm
Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Before saying why I wish to oppose the Bill, may I say that I believe it to be a gross abuse of the House for the hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle) to seek to introduce a Bill when we have only two days left in this Session and when he knows very well that there is no conceivable way in which the Bill could go through any of its stages this Session? Therefore, clearly, what the hon. Gentleman is engaged in today is a mere public relations publicity exercise rather than a serious attempt to amend the law as he suggests.

The Bill would provide that whenever a court imposed a fine, a compensation order or costs upon a juvenile convicted of criminal damage, it should order that the fine be paid by the child's parents or guardian instead of by the child.

I accept that there is widespread agreement on both sides of the House that there are some occasions on which it is reasonable and proper to oblige parents to pay fines imposed upon young offenders, but I think that it is equally agreed on both sides of the House that there are other occasions on which it would be both unreasonable and harmful to insist that a fine be paid by an offender's parents.

In the previous Labour Government's Criminal Law Act 1977 the courts were given the power in certain circumstances to oblige parents to pay fines. One argument for that measure was precisely the argument that has been used by the hon. Gentleman—that it may encourage parents to take more responsibility for the actions of their children. I do not think that anyone in the House would dissent from that intention and the acceptance of parents taking responsibility for the disciplining and control of their children.

Under the provisions of the 1977 Act a court may—indeed, it must if an offender is under 14 years of age—order a parent or guardian to pay a financial penalty imposed on a juvenile offender unless it is satisfied that the parents have not neglected to exercise due care and control of the young person.

The Government, in their White Paper "Young Offenders", argue that the courts may have been reluctant to use that power—it has been used very sparingly—because of their uncertainty about its precise scope. Therefore, the White Paper proposes that parents should be required to pay their children's fines unless, in the particular circumstances of the case, the court thinks that it would be unreasonable to make them pay. There are varying views whether that proposal would be an improvement on the present law. No doubt we shall be discussing that matter in the months ahead.

The point is that neither the present law nor the Government's proposals in the White Paper would require parents to pay fines in every case. I believe that such a requirement would be both unreasonable and unacceptable. In some cases parents may have done everything reasonable to ensure that their child was disciplined and controlled and abided by the impositions placed upon him. Therefore, it would be unreasonable to penalise parents who, through no fault of their own, unwittingly and unintentionally are unable to control their child.

In other cases—I think that the hon. Gentleman should have made this point—magistrates may consider that if the fine is to have any value it should be paid by the offender—the child. He should not be allowed to slough off the responsibility on to his parents and blithely go on committing further offences knowing that he will not be made directly responsible for whatever restitution is called for.

It seems remarkable that if we are asking for greater responsibility and discipline it should be placed not where it would be most appropriately placed—on the offender—but, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, in all cases on his or her parents.

In other cases, young offenders or delinquents may be at odds with their parents. Hon. Members on both sides of the House must have come across many such cases. If a fine were to be imposed upon a parent without the court having any discretion, the resulting resentment, bitterness and frustration could harm family relationships even more than they currently are within that context and might place that juvenile or offender at greater risk than he was previously or would otherwise be.

There is the problem that we have to anticipate of the parent of a particularly recalcitrant offender who has done everything in his power to control him. There may be nothing more that he could reasonably be expected to do to discipline him. There may be bad blood between them and the parent may not physically be able to control his physically adult child. There may be resentment and bitterness and no ties of kinship. If such a parent is ordered to pay a fine, he may say "No. I have done everything that I can. I am not responsible. I am not physically capable of controlling the child." If that parent refuses to pay the fine, having done no wrong, perhaps being incompetent in some way but not wilfully culpable, he will end up in prison, as a fine defaulter. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that respectable, decent, law-abiding parents who are fulfilling their responsibilities to their children as best they can, albeit incompetently, should, through no fault of their own, be imprisoned.

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting taking away the flexibility that the courts now possess. Under the present law, passed by the previous Labour Government, and under the proposals outlined in the Government's White Paper "Young Offenders", this power would exist but would be retained by the courts for use in a flexible and imaginative manner. Magistrates have discretion to distinguish between cases where making a parent pay a fine would be an appropriate course of action and other cases where to do so would be unfair and perhaps potentially damaging.

The hon. Gentleman's Bill would give no such discretion to the courts, but would require payments in all cases where fines, compensation orders or costs have been imposed upon juveniles. For that reason alone, despite the merits of the case, I believe that the Bill should be opposed as a reprimand to the hon. Member for Luton, West for abusing the procedures of the House.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 92, Noes 133.

Division No. 493] AYES [4.35 p.m.
Atkins, Robert (Preston North) Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St Edmunds) Onslow, Cranley
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Grylis, Michael Page, Richard (SW Hertfordshire)
Banks, Robert Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Parris, Matthew
Best, Keith Hawkins, Paul Patten, John (Oxford)
Blackburn, John Hawksley, Warren Pawsey, James
Bright, Graham Hill, James Proctor, K. Harvey
Brinton, Tim Hooson, Tom Rees-Davies, W. R.
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe) Jessel, Toby Renton, Tim
Bruce-Gardyne, John Kershaw, Anthony Rhodes James, Robert
Bryan, Sir Paul Kilfedder, James A. Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
Budgen, Nick Knight, Mrs Jill Shersby, Michael
Bulmer, Esmond Lang, Ian Silvester, Fred
Butcher, John Latham, Michael Skeet, T. H. H.
Cadbury, Jocelyn Lawrence, Ivan Squire, Robin
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Stainton, Keith
Clark, Hon Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Steen, Anthony
Cockeram, Eric McCrindle, Robert Stevens, Martin
Colvin, Michael McNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury) Stewart, John (East Renfrewshire)
Costain, Sir Albert McQuarrie, Albert Tapsell, Peter
Crouch, David Marlow, Tony Thompson, Donald
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Mawby, Ray Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Mawhinney, Dr Brian Townend, John (Bridlington)
Durant, Tony Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove & Redditch) Warren, Kenneth
Fell, Anthony Mills, Iain (Meriden) Wells, John (Maidstone)
Fisher, Sir Nigel Mills, Peter (West Devon) Wheeler, John
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Moate, Roger Wickenden, Keith
Fookes, Miss Janet Molyneaux, James Williams, Delwyn (Montgomery)
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Morris, Michael (Northampton, Sth) Wolfson Mark
Garel-Jones, Tristan Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes)
Glyn, Dr Alan Neale, Gerrard TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Gower, Sir Raymond Needham, Richard Mr. Christopher Murphy and
Greenway, Harry Neubert, Michael Mr. Tom Benyon.
Allaun, Frank Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Hamilton, James (Bothwell)
Alton, David Dempsey, James Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Dixon, Donald Hardy, Peter
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham) Dobson, Frank Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) Douglas, Dick Haynes, Frank
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur (M'brough) Dubs, Alfred Hefter, Eric S.
Bray, Dr Jeremy Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth Hogg, Norman (E Dunbartonshire)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Eadie, Alex Home Robertson, John
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Eastham, Ken Homewood, William
Brown, Ronald W. (Hackney S) English, Michael Hooley, Frank
Buchan, Norman Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) Howells, Geraint
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Evans, John (Newton) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen North)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Ewing, Harry Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
Canavan, Dennis Faulds, Andrew John, Brynmor
Cant, R. B. Flannery, Martin Johnson, James (Hull Nest)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Johnston, Russell (Inverness)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Foot, Rt Hon Mlchael Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rhondda)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Forrester, John Jones, Barry (East Flint)
Cox, Tom (Wandsworth, Tooting) Foster, Derek Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Craigen, J. M. (Glasgow, Maryhill) Foulkes, George Kerr, Russell
Cryer, Bob Freud, Clement Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Cunliffe, Lawrence Garrett, John (Norwich S) Leighton, Ronald
Cunningham, George (Islington S) Graham, Ted Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Davidson, Arthur Grant, George (Morpeth) Litherland, Robert
Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford) Grimond, Rt Hon J. Lyon, Alexander (York)
Lyons, Edward (Bradford West) O'Neill, Martin Steel, Rt Hon David
McCartney, Hugh Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Stott, Roger
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Park, George Straw, Jack
McGuire, Michael (Ince) Powell, Raymond (Ogmore) Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
McKelvey, William Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds South) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton West)
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Richardson, Jo Thomas, Dr Roger (Carmarthen)
McNamara, Kevin Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Tinn, James
McTaggart, Robert Roberts, Ernest (Hackney North) Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Robertson, George Watkins, David
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW) Weetch, Ken
Maxton, John Rooker, J. W. Welsh, Michael
Maynard, Miss Joan Roper, John Whitehead, Phillip
Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Sandelson, Neville Wigley, Dafydd
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Sever, John Winnick, David
Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen) Short, Mrs Renée Woodall, Alec
Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wythenshaw) Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford) Woolmer, Kenneth
Morris, Rt Hon Charles (Openshaw) Silverman, Julius
Morton, George Smith, Rt Hon J. (North Lanarkshire) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Newens, Stanley Soley, Clive Mr. Andrew F. Bennett and
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Spearing, Nigel Mr. Stan Thorne.
O'Halloran, Michael Stallard, A. W.
Question accordingly negatived.