§ 3.9 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
The Bill continues the reform of youth justice which we began in the Crime and Disorder Act, and introduces much-needed protection for witnesses and the victims of 1237 crime. I know that all noble Lords look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, which is to be made quite soon, particularly bearing in mind his expertise as a serving police officer for many years. I believe that he is presently superintendent in command of a Slough district.
We are committed to the reduction of crime and the fear of crime. If we are to achieve that ambitious goal, which I am sure that all noble Lords share, we must take effective action to deal with young offenders. Our primary aim is to prevent offending by children and young people. However, when they break the law, meaningful punishment is necessary to help young people to take responsibility for their actions, to make amends for their crimes and reparation to their victims and to return to the law-abiding community.
Part I of the Bill introduces a new sentence for young people convicted for the first time; that is, referral to a youth offender panel. The panel will agree a contract with the young offender, which will involve reparation to the victim and measures to tackle the causes of offending. The youth court will set the contract's duration. If a contract cannot be agreed or is broken, the young offender will be returned to the youth court to be sentenced for the original offence.
Panels will include at least one member of the local youth offending team as well as lay members of the community. The parents of offenders under 16 will be required to attend and the parents of older offenders will be encouraged to do so. Victims may attend if they wish. That new disposal therefore provides an opportunity for a great many young people to ensure—this is critical—that their first conviction is also their last.
Part II of the Bill fulfils our commitment to provide greater protection for complainants in rape and certain other serious sexual offence trials. It implements recommendations of the report, Speaking Up For Justice, to encourage and enable witnesses to give evidence who face real difficulty in doing so, whether through disability or intimidation. That report was subject to widespread consultation and was, I believe, widely welcomed.
Chapter I of Part II helps to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society have access to justice. Far too many cases involving the most vulnerable victims have been abandoned, or not even begun, because the victim cannot adequately give his side of the story. Other witnesses are afraid to come forward, or at least reluctant to do so, because they fear reprisal.
Under Clauses 16 and 17, special measures will be available for various witnesses—other than the accused—to help them to give their best evidence. Witnesses will be eligible for those special measures if they are under 17, or if they have a mental or physical disability or disorder, or if testifying would scare or distress them so much that their evidence would be impaired. There will be a presumption that complainants of sexual offences are eligible unless the court is satisfied that that is not necessary.
The court will determine in each case whether, and what, special measures should apply. Clauses 22 to 29 set out protective measures which may be authorised: 1238 first, putting up screens to prevent the witness seeing the accused; secondly, using a live television link to give evidence; thirdly, clearing the public, and occasionally the press, from the court room; fourthly, removing wigs and gowns; fifthly, using pre-recorded video evidence-in-chief; sixthly, using video-recorded cross-examination; seventhly, allowing intermediaries to help disabled witnesses to communicate with the court and, finally, enabling disabled witnesses to use other communication aids such as, for instance, alphabet boards and speech synthesisers.
Chapter II of Part II is designed to protect children and complainants in certain sexual offence trials from the trauma of being cross-examined in person by their alleged attacker. All noble Lords will have been deeply dismayed at the court room ordeals endured by the victims of Milton Brown and Ralston Edwards. They were subjected to prolonged and humiliating cross-examination by their attackers in person. That cannot be right.
Some have argued that it is best left to judicial discretion to prevent any repetition. In cases involving sex, violence or cruelty, defendants are already barred from personal cross-examination of child witnesses. The Government firmly believe that it is necessary to extend that prohibition to certain other serious offences involving child witnesses and to complainants of rape and certain other sexual offences. We owe a duty to the victims of those distressing crimes to ensure that they are not victimised afresh when they come to court. Clauses 33 and 34 are designed to fulfil our duty which, in the past, has not been fulfilled. The Bill also empowers the courts to impose such a ban in relation to other witnesses and in other cases.
We intend that those provisions will not interfere with the defendant's right to a fair trial. Defendants who are barred from personal cross-examination will be able to instruct a legal representative to do that work on their behalf. Where defendants refuse a lawyer, the court can appoint one if that is in the interests of justice.
Chapter III puts limits on the circumstances in which the defence in a sexual offence trial may use evidence of the complainant's previous sexual history. Under Clause 40, no such evidence or questioning will be admissible on the question of whether the complainant consented to sex unless that evidence or those questions relate to a specific incident within 24 hours of the alleged offence or are necessary to rebut prosecution evidence. On the question of whether the defendant believed that the complainant was consenting, evidence of sexual history will be admissible, provided that it relates to specific instances of fact and that the main purpose of introducing it is not to discredit the witness.
I know that some of your Lordships, and some outside this House, have misgivings about some aspects of the provisions. The Bill does not exclude all evidence of previous sexual behaviour, only irrelevant evidence. Taking rape as an obvious example, a complainant's previous sexual behaviour, whether one of wild abandon, tedium or total abstinence, is simply not relevant to the question of whether there was consent on 1239 the occasion in point; nor should it render a complainant less worthy of belief or less deserving of the protection of the law.
Chapter IV of Part II and Schedule 2 to the Bill reform current rules on reporting restrictions to give clearer protection for certain witnesses. Clause 43 extends current restrictions on the identification of alleged child and juvenile offenders and witnesses to apply from the moment a complaint has been made and to be enforceable throughout the United Kingdom.
The current restrictions on identifying alleged rape victims will be extended to alleged victims of certain other sexual offences and be made enforceable throughout the United Kingdom. Under Clause 45, the court may also order restrictions on the publication of details which might allow intimidated witnesses to be identified.
Chapter V of Part II relates to the competency of witnesses, creating a simple new presumption that everyone is competent to give evidence in court if they can understand the questions put and give answers which the court can understand. The Bill provides for adult witnesses to give evidence unsworn in certain circumstances.
Finally, Chapter VI amends the law on drawing inferences from a suspect's silence to meet the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Murray. In future, no inferences may be drawn from silence under questioning at a police station where a suspect has not been given the opportunity to see a solicitor.
Perhaps I may make two comments at this stage about the passage of the Bill. First, we are approaching this with a genuinely open mind. If your Lordships table amendments that are consistent with the theme and philosophy of the Bill, I undertake to give each one decent consideration. I have said that in the past, and we were able to do it, particularly in respect of the Human Rights Bill, the Data Protection Bill and the Crime and Disorder Bill. As I see the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, in her place, perhaps I may say that we were able, for example, to have extremely constructive discussions with representatives of the Magistrates' Association and the Justices' Clerks' Society which she brought about. Improvements were made to the Bill in those particulars.
Secondly, I repeat what was stated by my noble friend the Leader of the House by letter; that it is our intention, if your Lordships are agreeable, on any Bill of substance, following Second Reading and before Committee, to give all noble Lords and advisers the opportunity, should they wish it, to have discussions with officials and/or Ministers as is thought appropriate in order that questions may be answered informally in order that errors or misunderstandings on either side might be removed. I hope that your Lordships will take advantage of that opportunity because this is an extremely important piece of legislation.
If we can stop today's delinquents becoming tomorrow's recidivists, we will have done a good job for society, for prospective victims, and in terms of 1240 preventing the endless waste of human life and resource which is seen by anyone who regularly visits prisons, as I do.
We believe that the youth offender panel is an imaginative tool for the criminal justice system. It can step in at the time which virtually all criminologists and penologists know is so critically important, right in the early stages; in other words, it can put first-time offenders back on the right track.
We cannot deliver justice unless victims and witnesses are willing to report offences, to give evidence in court and to have decent, imaginative support, for their needs, troubles and worries. But we have not fulfilled our obligations to a large number of witnesses in the past, regarding them as appendages—sometimes rather inconvenient appendages—to a system which has been focused too much on the criminal trial and not sufficiently on the needs and decent requirements of witnesses and complainants.
We are therefore seeking not only to protect the defendant's right to a fair trial, but to recognise that no right is absolute and that other people have co-terminus rights which need careful regard.
This measure is designed to run in conjunction with the recent White Paper and with the Bill introduced by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in your Lordships' House yesterday. We want all our citizens to have equal access to justice. That means that victims and witnesses are entitled to have the care and respect that they deserve. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Lord Windlesham
My Lords, the first part of the Bill adds another piece to the mosaic of youth justice which is being assembled following the passage of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. It deals with a new process by which certain young offenders may be referred by the youth court to a youth offender panel. As an aside, perhaps I may say that the Bill takes many clauses to achieve its simple aim. It is strange to see so much detail incorporated in a statute. I asked a knowledgeable source what the reason could be and was offered one possible explanation. It was that in the Crime and Disorder Act more of a broad brush was wielded and that the Home Office, in its usual conscientious way, sent out guidance, only to be accused of legislating by guidance. Perhaps this time no chances were being taken. I do not know whether that is a correct explanation. I leave it for the Minister to inform the House or otherwise.
Youth offender panels will be set up by the local youth offending teams, numbering between 150 and 200 in all, throughout England and Wales. They are currently being piloted. This part of the Bill will not apply in Scotland where there is already a separate system of children's hearings which has previously been commended to the House. Those of your Lordships who had the privilege of knowing Lady Faithfull will recall that she frequently referred to the Scottish practice in debates on criminal justice issues.
1241 Four of the pilot teams are in London. In order to inform myself in advance of the debate, and in co-operation with the Inner London Probation Service, I had an opportunity this morning for a discussion with the manager of the youth offending team in West London. These teams consist of representatives of all the relevant local services: social workers, probation and police officers, and education or health staff. They are genuinely multi-agency in composition. When a youth court decides to make a referral order under Clause 1, following conviction for the first time of a young person not less than 10 nor more than 18 years of age, a panel will be set up to prepare a programme in the form of a contract designed to reduce the prospect of reoffending. Those present at the panel are expected to be the offender and his or her family, if available; the victim and friends or family, if willing; a police officer; a member of the youth offending team, probably drawn from the social services, and, most importantly, the magistrate who conducted the proceedings who may be a stipendiary magistrate, or the chairman or a member of the bench of lay magistrates.
Reparation is intended to be a central feature in the process. Details of programmes to influence the offending behaviour of the young person are set out in Clause 8. The first requirement is to make financial or some other form of reparation to the victim. Other provisions are designed to achieve reintegration into the law-abiding community, and to take responsibility for the consequences of his or her offending behaviour.
These are ambitious objectives, but early and appropriate intervention in what may develop into a criminal career is, in the Minister's description, an "imaginative tool". I accept that description and think it is an apt one. However, it would be unrealistic to expect that the objectives will always be met. Some, perhaps many, of the young people will inevitably relapse into further offending and make further court appearances. But referral to a youth offender panel represents a constructive alternative to entering on a cycle of persistent offending, which has been one of the most serious, harmful and widespread of all criminal justice issues.
The characteristics of youth crime—or the "blight" of youth crime, if that is not too strong a word—are only too well known. Within the family, if there is one, they are parental criminality, poor parental supervision and family conflict. At school, if they attend, there is widespread truancy and disruptive behaviour, in some instances leading to exclusion. In the community, there is disorganisation and the availability of drugs. As regards the individual, the characteristics are his or her temperament; alienation; early involvement in problem behaviour; lack of any occupation; no qualifications or skills; no work experience; and unemployment or low income. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, there is a lack of victim empathy. This is common among young offenders, especially persistent young offenders.
The relevance of that last factor—lack of any empathy with victims—takes us back to the youth offender panels. Their success or failure, I submit, should not be judged solely on the basis of the extent to which they do or do not prevent offending. The focus 1242 should equally be on what can be done for the victim or relatives of the victim, who are so often overlooked in public responses to crime.
I turn to the latter part of the Bill which includes significant new measures to provide better protection for witnesses and victims. For too long, vulnerable people have been unable to achieve protection through the courts. That may be because they are uneasy or fearful about giving evidence. Children, rape victims and witnesses with physical or mental disabilities are only three examples of categories that call for special protection.
I should perhaps have declared an interest earlier. I am president of Victim Support. I have had the privilege of working in that capacity for many years. It is a large, voluntary organisation which, last year, offered help to more than 1 million people who had suffered from criminal offences ranging from burglary to the murder of a relative.
The Crown Court Witness Service, provided by Victim Support in every Crown Court in England and Wales, has in the past year helped nearly 100,000 victims or witnesses who have attended criminal trials, including approximately 2,500 children under the age of 14. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, who is due to speak in the debate, and to the House in general, that Victim Support owes a great deal to his predecessor as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, for the encouragement he gave in the establishment of the Crown Court Victim/Witness Service. One of the last public engagements that Lord Taylor fulfilled before his early retirement on the grounds of ill health was at Newcastle Crown Court at an event organised by Victim Support.
Much remains to be done, especially in extending victim/witness services in the magistrates' courts. Victim Support is currently working in co-operation with other organisations and on court-based initiatives in some 130 magistrates' courts. Full national coverage is needed and I believe it is now within reach. The funding is under discussion with the Home Office. I hope that the Minister—whose heart 1 am sure is in the right place on this issue—will take the message back and say that we keenly await an early and favourable decision.
In conclusion, this Bill, and the emphasis it gives to reparation in Part I, and the special measures including screens, television links, video recorded evidence and other facilities in the latter parts, should make a substantial contribution towards furthering the interests of victims of crime. Of course, the rights of the accused in a criminal trial are also of high importance. But in view of the time—there is important business later today—I shall leave that aspect of the Bill to others better qualified to speak about it than myself.
§ 3.35 p.m.
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, it is a great delight for me to follow the two noble Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Windlesham. They care so passionately about our criminal justice system, as do many of us in your Lordships' House.
1243 The White Paper, No More Excuses, included a range of proposals to improve the effectiveness of the youth court in preventing offending by children and young people. I am delighted that this is the principal aim of the youth justice system. For that reason, it will certainly carry the support of this side of the House.
Last Monday, in a supplementary to a Starred Question, I said that it cost more than £75,000 for each of the 15 to 17 year-old male offenders in custody. Yesterday saw the publication of Wasted Lives, a research project conducted by NACRO, which I now chair. I am delighted that the previous chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Christopher, is sitting opposite me. That report also had the support of the Prince's Trust.
With 2,500 young offenders in custody nationally, the total cost of their offending is at least £190 million. That figure is supported by KPMG, who looked at the costing in terms of this particular process. The message in the report is clear and simple. Early intervention means fewer crimes, fewer victims and less work for the courts and prisons. I do not think many of us can disagree with those principles.
I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. Almost all criminal justice agencies have identified causes of many youth crimes. It has its roots in severe family and educational problems. Disadvantaged groups are still to be found disproportionately among the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, those who have never worked, those who are stopped and searched, those who underachieve in schools and many families which shuttle between penal and mental institutions and their homes.
Part I of the Bill is an imaginative development which will have a number of advantages over the current youth court procedures. The purpose, in terms of the juvenile offending teams and the special panels, has been spelt out clearly. The provision requires youth courts to refer the majority of juveniles who appear in court for the first time and who plead guilty to a youth referral panel. The young offender and his or her parents would be required to attend the panel. Others, such as a teacher, could do so if that were appropriate, and victims would be able to do so if they wished.
The youth panel and the young person would have to draw up a contract which would involve the young person in appropriate activities, such as reparation to the victim or the community, and in work designed to tackle the cause of offending. If the young person did not comply with the contract, he or she would be returned to court to be sentenced for the original offence. If he or she completed the contract successfully, paragraph 5 of Schedule 3 of the Bill provides for the offence to be spent for the purposes of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. So far so good.
First, as one who has sat in a magistrates' court for a long time and also in the youth court, perhaps I may say that in the more formal proceedings of the youth court today the young offender and the parents often fail to understand fully what is happening, and the legal procedures can hinder the process of getting young people and parents to speak and contribute fully to the 1244 discussion. The proposed panel would be better able to involve the young person and the parents fully in discussing the offence, its impact on the victims and the steps that should be taken to make amends and to ensure that there is no repetition.
Secondly, when victims wish to be involved, the procedure would enable them to do so. Experience of restorative justice—for example, with cautioned young offenders in this country or in New Zealand's family group conferences—shows that in appropriate cases face-to-face meetings with the victims of crime can have a salutary effect on young offenders and that many victims appreciate the opportunity to bring home to the young person the degree of distress that the offence has caused them.
Thirdly, in a panel setting the drawing up of a contract can concentrate on the best course of action to prevent reoffending, including attention to the welfare needs of the young person and his and her family such as family counselling, educational measures and help in relation to drug abuse. While courts can invoke welfare-related measures—for example, when passing a supervision order—they can only do so when the offence is regarded as sufficiently serious to warrant such a sentence. As a result many young people appearing in court for the first time miss out on welfare intervention which could help to steer them away from further trouble.
Fourthly, the provision for the offence to be regarded as spent if the contract is completed successfully will provide a positive incentive to the young person and a constructive outcome, enabling him or her to make a fresh start without the stigma of a criminal record. This seems to me to be the most significant approach to youth crime and must be welcomed.
Of course, we have some very detailed reservations and I shall certainly take up the Minister's offer that we shall be able to discuss these between Second Reading and the Committee stage.
Perhaps I may explain one of our main reservations. It relates to the nature of sanctions for failing to keep a contract which has been agreed in a non-court setting and is therefore not subject to the full limits of proportionality which normally apply in sentencing. It is true that the referring youth court would have taken proportionality into account in specifying the length of the contract, but the intensity of programmes of intervention of the same length can vary a great deal.
It does not seem right that a failure to abide by a contract agreed in a non-court setting should be subject to the full range of youth court penalties, including custody, especially as the referring court must have decided that the original offence did not merit custody before making the referral to the panel. We will therefore seek to amend the Bill on this point in Committee.
Many of us would like to go further than the Bill in dealing with young offenders through non-criminal procedures rather than in criminal courts. That is the case in Scotland, where most young offenders are dealt with in welfare-based children's hearings. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie is 1245 to contribute on that particular point. Such orders can have a tremendous influence on young people. It is also the system in many European countries where young offenders are dealt with in civil family courts rather than in criminal courts as in this country. However, the provisions in Part I of the Bill are a welcome if small step in the right direction.
Perhaps I may commend the report, Wasted Lives, which I mentioned earlier. It should be bedtime reading for all members of the youth referral panel. It identifies six key points that need to be addressed. The most significant risk factors are absence from school; friends involved in offending; family conflict; unstable living conditions; and other family members involved in crime. The average number of risk factors for each offender is six. More than half of the juvenile offenders questioned by researchers in the report had some contact with the social services, usually as a result of family difficulty. Almost one-third were described as being in children's homes and one-quarter claimed to have been in foster care. Around half of those interviewed came from a violent family background. Almost all of those interviewed had experienced long absences from school. These are the issues which we certainly need to address in different settings.
The second point in the Bill which interests us is the protection of witnesses. I commend much of what the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, had to say on that point. There should be wider use of live video links; screening witnesses from the defendant's view; excluding specified people from court during witnesses' evidence; removing wigs and gowns; using video recordings for evidence-in-chief and, in some cases, using video recordings of cross-examination and asking a witness questions through an intermediary. These are all sound judgments and ought to be supported.
However, there is a strong case for strengthening the protection of child witnesses, vulnerable or intimated witnesses and the alleged victims of sexual offences. There is no doubt that in the past the trauma of giving evidence has led to the collapse of all too many cases involving serious offenders who have walked free as a result. It has also often inflicted a double trauma on victims who have already suffered greatly as a result of serious offences. In many cases members of minority ethnic groups have been subjected to sustained harassment, intimidation and violence. The fear of reprisals against anyone giving evidence has made it difficult for prosecutions to be brought with a reasonable chance of success. Therefore the Government should be applauded for their determination to tackle those particular problems. Equally, we hope that some judges will refrain from stupid comments on rape cases which can do a great deal of damage to the confidence of the community in our courts.
Finally, I need to tackle two issues which have been brought to my attention. These matters relate to people who have mental health problems. There is a need to look very carefully at Clause 31. That ensures that, where it is thought to be necessary, the judge will give a warning to the jury that the use of a special measures direction should not prejudice them against the accused. However, there is also potential for a special measures 1246 directive to prejudice the jury against a witness by giving his or her evidence less weight than if it had been given it without the aid of a special measure. That is likely to be particularly true of people who have mental health problems, given the stigma and discrimination that they often face and the stereotypes that members of a jury are likely to hold.
At this stage I do not wish to comment on the right to silence. But in conclusion I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to the statistics on race and the criminal justice system. I refer to the Home Office publication under Section 95 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I would not wish to repeat the gross over-representation of black people in our penal institutions, but suffice it to say that we would certainly wish to ensure that the outcomes of the youth justice panel are ethnically monitored and publicised on a regular basis. There is no excuse not to do that at this time.
§ 3.48 p.m.
§ The Earl of Rosslyn
My Lords, I have been a police officer for 18 years, serving, first, with the Metropolitan Police and now in the Thames Valley as a superintendent in command of the Slough and district police area. I am very proud to have had an association with both these organisations and I am grateful to my own chief constable for allowing me to speak here today, mindful of the requirements of police regulations that a police officer should not play an active part in politics. While arguably as anxious a moment as any I have experienced while on duty, I hope to be sustained this afternoon by the quiet encouragement which this House offers to maiden speakers and to which I have often been a silent witness.
The Explanatory Notes issued with the Bill make reference to three principles to be applied by youth offender panels: restoration, reintegration and taking responsibility, which are collectively referred to as "restorative justice". This, I believe, is as significant a statement of intent as that contained in the Crime and Disorder Act, which defined the principal aim of the youth justice system as being,to prevent offending by children and young people".Significant and welcome, it contrasts with the experience of many that, while the existing process of youth justice revolves around the offender, offenders rarely have to account for their behaviour and there is little community or victim focus. The process is, too often, slow and expensive, concentrating on punishment and blame rather than repairing the harm which has been caused.
Since 1997, our force has applied the principles of restorative justice as the standard response to early offending among young people and in particular when cautioning young offenders as an alternative to court proceedings. Traditionally, a police caution involved little more than the admonishment, by a uniformed police officer, of a young offender, in the presence of his parent or guardian. In applying the principles of restorative justice, many such cautions are now delivered as part of what is called a "community conference". This relatively new approach has in fact 1247 ancient roots—the model having been adapted from the Whanau conference first practised by the Maori people. It involves bringing together victim, offender and others affected by the offending behaviour, with a trained police facilitator guiding them through a discussion of how the crime occurred, how it has affected their lives and how the harm caused can be repaired.
The conferences provide victims and others with the opportunity to confront the offender, to express their feelings, ask questions and have a say in the outcome. Facilitators need considerable skill in managing the intense emotions which can arise. Central to their task is to keep the focus on what the offender did and how his unacceptable behaviour affected others, rather than whether the offender is a good or bad person. By making this distinction between the unacceptable behaviour and the potential for good in the person, the conference offers the possibility of social reintegration. Enough shame is required to bring home the seriousness of the offence, but not so much as to humiliate or exclude.
There is already some evidence that conferences, if planned and implemented well, can satisfy victims to a greater extent than the traditional justice system, with victims considering justice to have been better delivered and offenders held more accountable. Victims also reported a greater sense of healing and were found likely to receive more compensation than that ordered by the courts. There is, however, much evidence that victims are often more satisfied with symbolic reparation than material compensation. Only 6 per cent. of victims who attended a conference left fearing that they might become victims again, compared with almost a fifth who went through the courts; 74 per cent. received an apology from the offender, as compared with 14 per cent. in the court system; and 79 per cent. of offenders felt ashamed of their actions, compared with 66 per cent. who attended court.
There is also some emerging evidence that this new approach can lead to lower rates of repeat offending. Perhaps I may end my speech by giving your Lordships one example. On 1st May 1998, two 13 year-old boys broke into an unoccupied building in Slough where a new mosque was shortly to be built. Before leaving they turned on a gas supply and, shortly afterwards, an explosion and a fire occurred. While fire fighters struggled to control the blaze, the main ceiling collapsed and the safety of a number of officers was at risk. The two boys were arrested and admitted their part in the incident. From contact with other agencies, it was evident that both had a number of educational and domestic problems which were contributing to their offending behaviour
In October, I took part in a community conference attended by those boys, their mothers, other members of the family, fire officers (including one who had been present on the night) and three trustees of the mosque. We frequently exhort young offenders to accept responsibility for their actions but rarely do we require them to confront so directly, as these two boys did, the consequences of what they have done. For the boys this was at times profoundly uncomfortable, but it was also 1248 the beginning of a process of strengthening their network of support and guidance. And what of the victims? Many had feared that the motive for this crime was racism or religious intolerance and it was not until this meeting with the two boys that the anxieties of the Muslim community were assuaged.
Community conferences are a new and evolving approach to justice and we must be careful not to claim too much too soon. But there are encouraging signs that they can be an effective intervention within the criminal justice system. I do hope that the youth offender panels will play their part in further developing this potential.
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, it is a very great pleasure for me to thank the noble Earl for his contribution and to congratulate him on a really fascinating maiden speech. I know that the noble Earl's enthusiasms include music and historic buildings, but it is his life's career since university as a policeman, starting on the beat and now rising to the extremely responsible post of superintendent, that fits him particularly to contribute to the Second Reading of this Bill.
Any noble Lords who have read the White Paper upon which the Bill is based and have wondered what the word "mediation" means in the context of the legislation have now had a very good example from the noble Earl. Indeed, he has illustrated it beautifully. I wonder whether the Minister knew that the roots and ethos of the Bill are, in fact, to be found in the Maori culture. The noble Lord is shaking his head. I believe that the noble Earl has told him something that he did not know—and that is quite something. I am sure that we are all very glad to have heard the noble Earl. We hope that the constraints of his profession will not prevent him joining our discussions again—and as soon as possible.
Like the noble Earl, I should like to speak briefly on Part I of the Bill. I have two specific questions for the Minister. It seems to me that the system proposed is, to use the Minister's own word, "imaginative" and that it should be practical. However, I say that with one proviso; namely, that the right people can be attracted to serve on the youth offender panels and that they are properly equipped to do the job.
Some features of the Bill—I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who knows both systems so intimately may agree with me—have in fact been well proven over the years in the long-standing children's hearings system, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Windlesham. Of course, it is clear that this is a very different arrangement from the Scottish system and that it is set in a very different legal context. I note with some relief that Part I of this Bill steers well clear of the knotty problems which, despite a good deal of recent amendment and updating, still beset children's panels north of the Border.
The separation of the function of the court and of the panel works in Scotland, although it does so differently. I believe that it will work under this Bill. Both schemes 1249 share one very important element: the atmosphere that can be created at a panel meeting as opposed to in a court. That can involve a two or three-sided discussion, and looking together at what the offence was, who was hurt by it, why a price has to be paid for offending, what that price should be, and how the child or young person can best be led to alter his or her behaviour in future.
A third important benefit of this scheme is, I believe, missing in Scotland. The procedure proposed will be absolutely clear and simple to understand for a young person, for parents and for anyone else involved. If you are a young, first offender and choose to accept the sentence of referral to a panel, you and your parents, where appropriate, will know and understand precisely what will happen. You will be asked to discuss with the panel members what you have done wrong; you will know and understand that the panel will, with you, draw up a list of certain things you must do or must not do over a period, which has already been set, of between three and 12 months; and you will sign a contract, an agreement. If you stick to that agreement, that will be the end of it as long as you do not get into trouble again. If you break the agreement or decide not to sign it, you go back to the youth court.
That procedure should be simple to understand for all concerned, but of course whether it succeeds depends largely on how the panel does its job. It depends on the skill of the members of the panel in identifying from what they see and hear the likely root causes of the offence. Is the cause lack of parental supervision, the keeping of bad company, truanting, drugs, drink, or lack of a job? The success of the procedure depends on the skill of the panel in identifying the sort of programme that has the best chance of changing that particular young person's bad behaviour. Would being kept away from a particular peer group help or hinder? Would being kept at home at certain times help or hinder? It may do either. Would meeting the victim help or hinder? Would a particular course at school or college help? Those are very difficult matters. They require not just commonsense, but knowledge and skill, as the many noble Lords who have been magistrates, or who are magistrates or judges, know very well.
Can the Minister give us some idea of how the Government see the panel members being recruited and trained? Each panel will consist, as he said, of one member of the relevant youth offending team and two others. How will those others be selected? We are told in Clause 6(4) that it will all be defined in regulations. I suggest that we need to know a lot more than that. From where will panel members be drawn? Will people be asked to volunteer? How will they be vetted? Will training be compulsory? What will be the time commitment? These are not the usual routine questions about the nature of proposed regulations in a Bill; they are questions that go to the heart of this scheme—questions about the people who will, quite simply, make it succeed or fail.
Panel members in Scotland find this work hugely satisfying, but they have to be special people with special knowledge and skills. Can the Minister let us into the Government's thinking on this matter? The framework of the scheme seems so promising, but to 1250 assess its chances of success we need to know more about the people who will operate it. I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us.
My second question arises from the note which some noble Lords have received from the Law Society, which welcomes the aims of Part I and is reassured that legal advice will be available in the essential early stages at the police station and at court, where a decision has to be made about the correct plea. I wonder whether, at any time after referral to the panel, a young person or his parents may or may not be entitled to seek legal advice about, for example, agreeing the nature of reparation to a victim or the amount of a fine.
Keeping the court and the panel separate make it desirable that lawyers should stay away, out of the system, but I know that in Scotland, where the legal profession never has a place at panel hearings, there is anxiety now that this conflicts with the European Convention on Human Rights and that it will cause a problem under the new Human Rights Act. Can the Minister tell us whether his assurance on the front of the Bill that its provisions comply with the convention means that lawyers will or will not be capable of being involved in the panel procedure? It is a very interesting scheme. I look forward to hearing other speakers, to the Minister's reply and to the later stages of the Bill.