HL Deb 03 July 1991 vol 530 cc1058-64

11Clause 47, page 33, line 12, at end insert— ("(3) For the purpose of facilitating the attendance in court of parents or guardians, the youth court in each area shall hold at least one sitting fortnightly outside the times at which the court normally sits if in the opinion of the court this is justified by the number of cases where to require a parent or guardian to attend court at the times at which the court normally sits would jeopardise the employment of the parent or guardian or would be undesirable for any other reason.").

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason:

11A because it is impractical and unnecessary to make provision by statute as to times at which youth courts are to sit.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 11 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 11 A.

Your Lordships will recall that Amendment No. 11 was inserted in the Bill at Third Reading on 4th June, having been moved by my noble friend Lady Faithfull. I know that my noble friend will be disappointed that another place disagreed with her amendment and that I am inviting your Lordships not to insist upon it. But I would ask her to accept that this is not because we disagree with the principle which is embodied in the amendment, which is that, within the resources available to them, courts should be as flexible as possible in scheduling their sittings so that those who have to attend court are not unnecessarily inconvenienced.

The question is simply whether a statutory provision on the lines put forward by my noble friend is the light way to go about this. As I explained in our debate on 4th June, I fear that the effect of the amendment would, in fact, be to impose a rigid requirement on the courts to make all sorts of unnecessary inquiries. They would have to contact all parenis who were due to come to court on any day of the week in order to ascertain whether such a date was convenient to them. If it was not, and if there were enough other parents of defendants in a similar position, then the court would be obliged to hold a weekend or evening sitting, irrespective of whether or not that would be convenient to the other parties to the case—the witnesses and the victims. The court would have no discretion.

Therefore, the amendment would require inquiries to be made and judgments to be made on the number of cases in which parents could not attend at the normal time; whether the reasons, which the parents put forward, were genuine; whether there were enough such cases to require a special sitting and, if so, when that special sitting should be held —at the weekend or in the evening, and all that without reference to the convenience of the other parties.

That would elevate the interests of the parents of a young offender above those of all the other parties to the case; that is, the victim and the witnesses. It might well suit the parents of a young offender to attend in the evening, for example, rather than during the day, but that might well not be so convenient for other witnesses. The victim of, say, a mugging offence might also be caused additional anxiety by being made to come out after dark to give evidence.

I do not put this forward as the main reason, but the amendment would also involve considerable additional expense, to the tune of £7 million at a prudent estimate. When courts are going to be cash limited, that sum will have to be saved from other court work, and other court cases may be unnecessarily delayed.

The existing arrangements allow the court staff to respond to any serious problems which may be drawn to their attention not just by the parents but by the witnesses or the defendants as well. And the present arrangements permit the courts to sit in the evenings or at weekends when that is considered desirable. It is one thing to have a procedure which enables difficulties which arise to be taken into account. It is quite another to require the authorities to ascertain in each and every case whether in fact there are such difficulties.

In our earlier debate I said that I would certainly draw to the attention of the justices' clerks and magistrates the views which have been expressed in your Lordships' House on this subject, and I said that I would give active consideration to the possibility of giving further guidance on this point. Those undertakings still stand, and I hope that in the light of them your Lordships will not insist upon Amendment No. 11.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 11, to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 11 A.—(Earl Ferrers.)

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I shall not oppose the Commons amendment, but I do that in sorrow. I believe that the Commons are misguided in not accepting the amendment. I am puzzled by the reasons given by my noble friend as to why neither the Government nor the Commons could accept the amendment; they were muddled. First, the amendment does not suggest that every case should be given the opportunity to be heard in an evening court.

With regard to the work that would be involved in ascertaining whether every parent should be informed, it is quite possible when serving a notice on parents to put at the bottom, "If you are not able to attend will you please reply and let me know why you cannot attend". It does not mean that an inquiry has to be made into every case. As regards the question of not coming out in the dark; first, in the summer it is not dark and, secondly, hearings could be on a Saturday morning when presumably it is light. Therefore, that is not a very good argument. From the point of view of the children it is very unfortunate that the provisions of the Children Act 1989 and of this Bill conflict with one another. Part I of the Children Act 1989, which comes into force on 14th October this year, lays a responsibility on parents. How are they to be responsible for their children if they cannot come to court? One must remember that with the present rate of unemployment people are very loathe to miss a day's work and perhaps a day's pay.

The main reason given in another place for turning down this amendment was the cost, but that was not mentioned the first time we debated this amendment. The Commons have thought up the figure of £7 million to £10 million. If we are to accept the Commons amendment we shall want to know, very understandably, how that £7 million to £10 million was made up. The amendment does not say that every court should sit every fortnight during an evening or on a Saturday; it simply says where the case demands it. There are an enormous number of courts in this country where it would not be demanded and it would not be necessary; for instance, such places as Devon and Cornwall. Therefore, I ask my noble friend the Minister whether he can say how the Treasury arrived at the figure of £7 million to £10 million. On what basis did the Treasury work that out? What was the formula? How did the Treasury manage to arrive at that figure between the time we last debated the Bill, during its time in the House of Commons, and now?

While not agreeing with the Commons in their amendment I shall not oppose it. However, I should mention to my noble friend the Minister that this amendment has been agreed by the Police Federation, the Magistrates' Association and by the Justices' Clerks' Society. In this day and age, when we are supposed to be considering the consumer, we should think of those who are appearing before the courts.

I have two more points to make. First, I have spoken individually to a number of magistrates. Many of them are working and have jobs but they do not want to give up being magistrates. They would be very happy to come in during an evening or on a Saturday when required. Therefore, the magistrates are fully in approval of this amendment. Secondly, having said all that, I shall not oppose the Commons. However, in not opposing the Commons I consider we have a right to know how that decision was reached.

Lord Richard

My Lords, may I say how much we appreciate the intervention of the noble Earl in our debate. We missed him yesterday when we were debating the four-day limit for people held in police custody. I am glad to see that he is fully recovered from what I understand was his excessive exposure yesterday to the storms of Wimbledon. We welcome him back. We heard with interest what he had to say.

Perhaps I may put one point to the noble Earl. In our previous debates he has from time to time said that he would consider issuing guidance. The Government may not like the amendment that was put down in the House of Lords and have therefore come back with the one now proposed by the Commons. If the noble Earl can say—perhaps with a greater degree of firmness than he has in the past—that guidance will be issued to the courts so that they might take this point on board (a perfectly valid point, in my view) the situation might be somewhat improved.

Finally, since I am being pleasant to the noble Earl tonight perhaps I may say how much I enjoy the ingenuity of his department. I am bound to say that some of the arguments that he produced tonight against the principle of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, were ingenious and novel. Certainly they were arguments that during the three months of discussion on the Criminal Justice Bill we have not heard before.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Richard, in welcoming the noble Earl to our proceedings today. I do not know whether I should congratulate him on the quality of his maiden speech. Unhappily, he did not wholly satisfy us on the substance of the matter for a number of reasons, one of which has just been drawn to our attention by the noble Lord, Lord Richard; namely, some of these remarkably new arguments which have suddenly appeared.

I was particularly interested in the £7 million to £10 million calculation, as was the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. How did the Government arrive at the figure of £7 million to £10 million? The noble Baroness asked an interesting question. What is the basis of that assumption? How many courts is it assumed will take advantage of this provision in the Bill? Clearly an assumption must have been made, otherwise the figures of £7 million to £10 million could not have been arrived at.

My second point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, in regard to guidance. We heard about guidance on the last occasion we discussed this matter. We have spent a fair amount of time considering whether or not the Government could give guidance. Eventually we concluded—on the basis of what had happened in the past—that they could indeed give guidance.

The noble Earl has this evening repeated, in almost precisely the same terms, the point about guidance. It would give many of us pleasure if he could indicate in rather firmer terms than he has done so far that he will give guidance to the courts. As the noble Baroness rightly says, it does affect a substantial number of offenders. The other point I make, in terms of the hours of darkness, is that a Scottish winter is more severe than an English winter; there are fewer hours of daylight in Scotland. Curiously enough, the Scots can cope with that but apparently we cannot. It is rather puzzling.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, your Lordships are always particularly courteous and I am grateful for the touching way in which the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Harris of Greenwich, welcomed me to this debate. I did not take part in earlier proceedings because that particular subject matter of the Criminal Justice Bill was taken originally by the Leader of the House and we thought that as a matter of propriety it would be better if my noble friend concluded that responsibility, even though it had hazardous consequences for the Government this evening. That is why my noble friend dealt with those matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, welcomed me back from the hazards of the elements, and that was very kind of him. However, he will of course know that I have a certain responsibility for police matters and periodically one has to go out to the country to see how the police are getting on. That particular part of London is quite difficult at this time of year. I thought your Lordships would understand if I acquired a little first-hand experience of traffic conditions. It was fairly congested. I would not have done that if I had not had total confidence that the matter with which I was concerned was in capable hands—which indeed it was. Therefore, I am grateful to your Lordships for that welcome.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, really is the most impossibly difficult person to satisfy on any matter. He comes along and says, "Well, here we are this evening. The Government are introducing a whole lot of new arguments that we have never heard before. It is really quite extraordinary how the Home Office digs up these arguments". Then he says that I repeated exactly the same words on guidance that I gave before. If I produce new words the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, is dissatisfied. If I use the same words he is dissatisfied. I can only assume that despite his convivial and jovial face he really is a disgruntled gentleman who one can never satisfy.

I come to another difficulty. My noble friend Lady Faithfull said that she did not intend to oppose this amendment. I thought that was extremely helpful. I commend that spirit to her to continue. That spirit was noticeably not prevalent at the earlier part of the debates on the Bill. My noble friend referred to muddled reasoning. I do not think that this is a muddled reasoning at all. I tried to explain to her that we agreed totally with the idea that she had in mind, but that we thought it was much better to leave the matter to the courts which have the power to require these weekend and evening sittings, as at present, without putting this statutory obligation upon them. My noble friend said that the amendment does not require that an inquiry should be made in each and every case. However, the court would have to do its homework properly. The amendment states: For the purpose of facilitating the attendance in court of parents or guardian, the youth court in each area shall hold at least one sitting fortnightly outside the times at which the court normally sits if in the opinion of the court this is justified by the number of cases where to require a parent or guardian to attend court at the times at which the court normally sits would jeopardise the employment of the parent or guardian". How will the court ascertain that information unless it takes active steps to do so? That is why I suggest to my noble friend that this would be an extravagant demand to place upon the courts.

My noble friend then asked me to elaborate a little on the costs. She asked where the figure of £10 million comes from, as did the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Harris of Greenwich, the inference being that the Home Office had plucked the figure out of the air—

Baroness Faithfull

Yes, quite.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend has a lovely habit of interjecting in the most delightful way and saying, "Yes, quite"; but in fact that was not so.

The figure is achieved by a simple mathematical calculation except in one respect. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Richard, where the figure of £10 million came from. In another place my right honourable friend Mr. Patten used the figure of £7 million. That was elaborated by the Opposition to £7 million to £10 million The figure of £10 million is the responsibility of colleagues in another place of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. The figure of £7 million is a straightforward calculation. We assumed that there would be one additional sitting required per fortnight in each petty sessions area—not in each court house but in each petty sessions area—and that each sitting would last for two-and-a-half hours.

The increased costs would be incurred by the police, gaolers, social workers, probation officers, court staff, by legal aid and by heating and lighting. In total, those are estimated at £12,156 per petty sessions area. There are 550 petty sessions areas and £12,156 times 550 equals £6.6 million. Nothing has been plucked out of the air there. That is a straightforward calculation. The additional costs to the Crown Prosecution Service are estimated at £0.4 million. That gives a total cost of £7 million. That is how the figures have been arrived at.

In suggesting that my noble friend does not insist on her amendment I said that we did not look upon the cost as a major factor but that it was nevertheless a relevant factor. For all those reasons I hope that my noble friend will be, as my noble friend Lord Waddington said earlier, on the side of the angels this time and will agree to support the Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

8 p.m.