HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc889-91
Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 14, leave out lines 24 to 31.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it is convenient to take amendment No. 15, in page 14, line 31 at end insert 'unless it appears to the court that there are special circumstances (whether relating to the offence or to the offender) which warrant the making of such an order in his case'.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Amendment No. 14 repeals the prohibition on making an attendance centre order if an offender has previously served a custodial sentence. It embodies a recommendation in the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group report "Too Many Prisoners". Amendment No. 15 is a more restricted version of the proposal which would permit a court to make an attendance centre order on someone who had previously served a custodial sentence if there were special circumstances which would justify this course of action.

In general, as the Minister knows, I welcome the provision in the Bill concerning attendance centres, in particular the extension to the Crown court of the power to make attendance centre orders. I also welcome the Government's apparent positive attitude towards the expansion of the concept of attendance centres. They provide a simple, straightforward and easily understood penalty which does not have the undesirable side effects of custody. They are also extremely cheap to administer. The average cost of an attendance centre order in 1979–80 was as little as £35.

1.30 am

Although I warmly welcome the expansion of the attendance centre system, I consider that the centres could be used more flexibly and effectively by the courts if the current prohibition upon using them for young people who have already served a custodial sentence were repealed. That is also the view of the Magistrates' Association. It considers that the question whether an attendance centre order would be appropriate for an offender who had previously served a custodial sentence should be left to the discretion of the courts.

As the Minister will be aware, the Government have often stressed their view that the courts should be given greater flexibility in sentencing. Logically, therefore, I should have thought that the Government would welcome the proposal, especially as the removal of a fetter on the courts would enable them to use attendance centres more often as a genuine and specific alternative to custody.

The principal argument that traditionally has been advanced against making attendance centre orders available for those who previously served custodial sentences is that they might contaminate the less delinquent offenders attending the centres. I do not accept that that is a sufficiently strong argument for ruling out this option in every case where an offender has previously had a custodial experience.

At present the majority of juvenile offenders sent to detention centres have two or fewer previous convictions. Under the Bill the courts will be able to make a detention centre order for as little as three weeks—two weeks with full remission. I do not believe that anyone, certainly not the Minister, would seriously suggest that a young offender appearing in court for a second or third offence who has served two weeks in a detention centre—and no more than that—will inevitably be so hardened that the courts should in no circumstances impose an attendance centre order upon him. I do not accept that. I do not believe that anyone could accept that as reasonable or fair, yet unless the amendments are accepted and the present law is repealed that will continue to be the position.

When the proposal was discussed in Committee on 25 February, it received strong support from hon. Members on both sides. The Minister, replying to the debate, said: I accept that there may be circumstances in which somebody, notwithstanding that he has a custodial sentence, would be a suitable candidate for an attendance centre order. He also stated: There is probably a way of expressing this thought, perhaps through the concept of special circumstances or special reasons. I emphasise that the general rule must remain, but I give an undertaking to look with care and sympathy at the possibility of giving guidance to courts so that they will realise that, while the general rule must be as I have stated, there may be special circumstances which warrent a departure from that."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 25 February 1982; c. 280–81.] Those were sympathetic remarks by the Minister. I suppose that they would be a sufficient answer to the amendments. I hope that the Minister will go further and accept the principle of both amendments. I see no reason why he should not do that. In view of the remarks that he made in Committee and the undertaking that he gave, I hope that the Minister, having thought about the matter at greater length, will accept at least one of the two amendments.

Mr. Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) for the fair way in which he has moved the amendment. The restriction that is now contained in clause 16(3), which amendment No. 14 would remove, has applied since attendance centres were introduced in 1948.

In Committee the hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the Government's much more positive attitude to attendance centres compared with that of the Labour Government. We remain opposed to the deletion of subsection (3) because it serves an important function.

Junior attendance centres take children from the age of 10 and some centres now take girls. We must ensure that, in general, they do not mix with older and tougher offenders. The welcome expansion of attendance centres that has been achieved in the past three years, particularly the extension to cover offenders up to the age of 21, means that special care must be taken to ensure that only suitable offenders are sent to attendance centres. They are not designed to offer elaborate provision. As the hon. Gentleman knows, they are staffed in the main by police officers in their spare time. The capability of looking after widely differing categories of offenders is not open to them. It is important that, in general, we do not allow offenders with experience of custody of one form or another to go to the attendance centres.

However, after consulting those concerned, I am glad to be able to say that we agree that there is a strong case for introducing an element of discretion in the application of the principle. We believe that there should be a presumption that an offender who has had custodial experience is unsuitable for an attendance centre. That ought to be the presumption, but we agree that the courts can safely have a discretion in this matter. We therefore agree that the courts ought to be able to impose an attendance centre order on a young offender, despite the fact that he has already served a custodial sentence, when the court considers that there are special circumstances which make this appropriate. Amendment No. 15 meets this purpose admirably. Therefore, I am glad to be able to say that we are content to accept and we hope that the House will do so.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

In view of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 15, in page 14, line 31, at end insert `unless it appears to the court that there are special circumstances (whether relating to the offence or to the offender) which warrant the making of such an order in his case. '—[Mr. Kilroy-Silk.]

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