HL Deb 05 February 2004 vol 656 cc795-7

11.8 a.m.

Baroness Walmsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there will be a full evaluation of the pilot scheme for fining 16 and 17 year-olds under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 before the Secretary of State considers extending the powers to those under 16.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, we plan to introduce penalty notices for disorder as soon as possible for 16 and 17 year-olds in the same areas as for adults. Later this year we expect to pilot in some areas for 10 to 15 year-olds, taking account of early experience with 16 to 17 year-olds.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, does she recall that during the passage of the Bill through this House, she assured us, on 3 November 2003 at col. 554 of Hansard, that there would be a pilot for 16 and 17 year-olds to see if the scheme could be usefully applied to younger age groups? Is the Minister aware that at a recent meeting in the Home Office an official told the Children's Society that there was no intention to pilot for 16 and 17 year-olds, because there were no implementation issues for that age group? What therefore is the justification for the enthusiasm of her right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who said in response to a Parliamentary Question on 21 January that he hoped that the implementation of the scheme for the under-16s would happen, as soon as possible"?—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/04: col. 1319.]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I recall the statements made as the noble Baroness suggested. The Home Office research findings, which I hope will be published soon and summarise the findings of the interim valuation of the pilot for the over 18 year-olds, have given us cause to be positive about the benefits of applying these to 16 to 18 year-olds. They confirm that the police think the scheme provides them with a quick and effective tool and I hope that when the noble Baroness and others are able to see those research findings they will see the basis on which we now believe that it is right and proper to include 16 and 17 year-olds.

I am most disappointed that that report is not available now because the noble Baroness would be greatly assisted and comforted if she were able to see what was in it.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that guidance on this issue will include special attention to the situation of children in public care? Is she absolutely confident that the measure will not lead inadvertently through fine default to an increase in the custody of children?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are extremely careful about issues in relation to children in care. In relation to the measure leading to conviction and then the sentencing and imprisonment of children, one of the benefits of a fixed-penalty notice is that it is a short, sharp way of dealing with matters which does not involve the child having a criminal conviction and therefore does not blight the child's life in the long term if he turns away. It is a creative intervention that can be useful.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, while I acknowledge the possible efficacy of direct penalties, is it not yet another case of the Government rushing wildly around a corner without having looked to see whether there is anything there that they might trip over?

It seems that by extending direct penalties to juveniles, one immediately brings into question parental responsibility because in most instances the parent will become responsible for paying the penalty. The question then arises: what happens if the parent is on benefit and is unable or chooses not to pay the fine? The idea of putting a parent in those circumstances in prison and leaving the child, the offender, alone at home would be unacceptable to everyone.

The matter needs deeper thought than has at present apparently been given to it and more experience of the 16 to 18 year-old age group before the Government move in this way and with this rapidity.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we intend to have a full evaluation of how the fixed-penalty notices will apply to 16 to 18 year-olds so that we can learn the lessons in relation to them. We would then have a clear understanding of precisely how they operate. For under-16s parental responsibility is an issue, but 16 to 17 year-olds are responsible for paying those fines themselves. I understand the noble Lord's anxiety, but I hope I will be able to satisfy him that it is not well founded.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, in response to the Minister's second answer to me, could she let the House know when we will be able to see the evaluation of the scheme for the over-18s? Is she aware that even if it were to show great benefit for that age group, all the children's organisations are convinced that it will be entirely irrelevant to the under-16s for whom the issues are completely different?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, there are two sets of evaluations and I am doing everything I possibly can to ensure that they are before the House. I regret to say that the research findings have been significantly delayed for a number of reasons, including change of personnel in the statistics section, technical problems with staff, and sickness. Your Lordships will understand our frustration that they are not available.

I would love to be able to tell the noble Baroness that they will be available by the end of this month. I can certainly tell her that I will do everything within my power to ensure that they are—but whether that will be enough, we will have to wait and see.