17th February 1993





Standing Committee F


Wednesday 17 February 1993


Clauses 1 and 2 agreed to.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: MR. DAVID KNOX

Banks, Mr. Tony (Newham, North- West)

Bermingham, Mr. Gerald (St. Helens, South)

Bowis, Mr. John (Battersea)

Cann, Mr. Jamie (Ipswich)

Day, Mr. Stephen (Cheadle)

Hayes, Mr. Jerry (Harlow)

Hendry, Mr. Charles (High Peak)

Jack, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Home Office)

Kennedy, Mr. Charles (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury)

Livingstone, Mr. Ken (Brent, East)

McAllion, Mr. John (Dundee, East)

Mitchell, Mr. Austin (Great Grimsby)

Nicholls, Mr. Patrick (Teignbridge)

Nicholson, Emma (Torridge and Devon, West)

Pickles, Mr. Eric (Brentwood and Ongar)

Mr. F. A. Cranmer, Committee Clerk

3 Standing Committee F Wednesday 17 February 1993

[MR. DAVID KNOX in the Chair]

Sexual Offences Bill Clause 1

10.30 am

Question proposed, that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow): First, I am delighted I am to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Knox, albeit briefly. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann), who is a personal friend, for taking the time and trouble to come to the Committee. I shall not detain members of the Committee for long. The Bill would ensure that boys aged 10 to 13 years who commit sexual offences involving penetration are convicted of the correct offence. At present, they can be convicted only of indecent assault, which carries no assumption of impotence, because of an irrebuttable presumption of incapacity in the common law-[Interruption.] It is coincidental that I refer to impotence as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) enters the room. The Bill would rectify an anomaly in the law and, as such, I hope that it will be welcomed. Enactment would increase the victims' confidence in the law and reflect the gravity of the offence. It would not mean that more children would be brought before the courts for unlawful sexual intercourse. The purpose of the law on intercourse with a girl aged under 16 is to protect those girls from sexual exploitation. It would not normally be used to deal with consensual teenage sex unless the special facts of the case required a prosecution to be brought. The Bill would not affect the sentencing powers of the courts and it would not mean that juveniles would be incarcerated after being convicted of serious sexual offences. The courts will, however, be able to make decisions on the disposals which are available in the full knowledge of the offence which has been committed. It might be helpful if I explain the background to the Bill. It would implement the recommendation in the Criminal Law Revision Committee's 1984 report on sexual offences, which stated that the presumption of incapacity in law of boys aged 10 to 13 years should be abolished. That measure was included in a 1990 private Member's Bill on sexual offences which was widely supported. The offences would include all crimes that involve an offender's capacity to penetrate the vagina or anus—rape, buggery, attempts to commit those crimes, unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13 or 16 years, unlawful sexual intercourse with a person suffering from a mental disorder or defect, or any other sexual offence involving penetration. The figures for 1987–90, which are the most recent available, show that nearly 169 boys aged 10 to 13 years 4 were proceeded against for indecent assault on a female and 1,035 were cautioned. During the same period, 18 were proceeded against for indecent assault on a male and 144 were cautioned. In some of those cases, although it is impossible to say how many, there would have been penetration and a charge of indecent assault would have seemed to the victims to be something of a euphemism. Such offences cause distress to the victims, and that may be compounded because the attackers cannot be convicted of the correct offence. It merely adds insult to injury. Some members of the Committee might wonder what the point is of convicting young people of the right offence if they will not be subject to a further custodial order. Section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 gives the courts the power to order the long-term detention of juveniles convicted of grave crimes. That applies to those aged under 14 years in cases of murder or manslaughter. Intensive community-based supervision has proved an effective way of responding to children of that age who commit serious offences. When it is necessary to remove the child from the home, local authorities have powers under the Children Act 1989 to take care proceedings. When children in the care of local authorities need to be contained, a placement can be made in secure accommodation provided that the criteria in the 1989 Act are met. I understand from my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government are working on proposals for a new sentence to provide education and training in a secure setting for juveniles who persistently offend. I understand that my hon. Friend is also considering the adequacy of the scope of detention under section 53. There is no risk of naughty or mischievous children being brought erroneously before the courts. The prosecution will have to prove that the accused understands that what he did was seriously wrong. In that light, I believe that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) for introducing the Bill because it performs a valuable service. It is a sign of the times that the measure is necessary and, indeed, desirable. When I first studied law, the presumption of incapacity was considered strange and as having no particular relevance. It certainly never struck me, in 1970, that it would become necessary and relevant for Parliament to alter the law. The idea that boys of such an age would commit rape on any scale was unthinkable. Unhappily, as we know from recent events, time moves on. If criminal law is to command the necessary respect, it must fit with reality. Therefore, the Bill is of greater significance than might first have been thought. Even if the Bill has no direct relevance to penalty, it at least reminds us that there are two sides to any crime and the resulting sentence. One is the reform of the offender, if possible. The other, which receives far too little thought or attention is containment of the offender during the period of the sentence and the resultant protection of the public. For far too long, the idea that containment is a necessary part of a custodial criminal sentence has been put to one side. In future, we may look back at the Bill and understand that it was a great deal more important than it seemed at the time. In America, which tends to lead on such issues, certain states apply to the courts to keep dangerous offenders 5 inside at the end of their sentences—the nature of their offences demonstrates their propensity to commit crimes which would endanger the public were those offenders to be released. We have not reached that situation yet, and, on one level, it is to be hoped that we never will. The fact that the Bill recognises that the criminal law needs to progress and that a class of offence that was virtually unthinkable 20 years ago must now be addressed may seem a sorry reflection of the times but is a necessary step to ensure that criminal law marches hand in hand with society's determination to deter evil-doers.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow on reaching Committee stage with his Bill, which Opposition Members support. I agree with the comment of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) that the necessity of such measures is a sign of the times. Such legislation is passed with a heavy heart because it acknowledges an issue the deploration of which unites us all—offences are increasingly committed by younger people. Certainly, sexual activity starts at an ever-earlier age. Older people such as I regret that but I shall still support the Bill. I want to register that we are dealing once again with the symptoms of crime and anti-social behaviour and not with the causes. One understands that the Bill was not intended to deal with the cause. Immediate action is necessary when deemed to be desirable. We know that the Government are considering stronger sentences for young offenders in this category and in a range of other categories. I am sure that there will be general support in the House for the Bill but, while supporting it, we must always acknowledge that somewhere along the line there has been a failure by society generally, and we must all play our part in sharing the burden of blame. I live in one of the roughest parts of London, and that definition must make it one of the roughest parts of the country. Muggings, rapes, burglaries and car crimes are, unfortunately, carried out regularly and routinely, often by very young people, some of whom fall beyond the scope of penalty through the law. In my area, people want immediate action. They want something done whether the perpetrator of the offence is aged 10, 11, 30 or 40. We ask for more policing, more investigation of crime and, where appropriate, tougher sentences, but we must do more to eliminate the causes of crime—poverty, ignorance and unemployment—in our society. I know that we cannot deal with those factors in the Bill but I must stress why the Opposition's support for the Bill is conditional.

Mr. Nicholls: In addition to that list of possible causes of crime, will the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that sometimes crime is caused by plain, straightforward wickedness for which he, I or society should not feel any responsibility?

Mr. Banks: I would say yes and no to that question. I have never believed that anyone was born wicked. I have always thought that everyone was born innocent and acquired guilt and wickedness as part of social conditioning.

Mr. Nicholls: That is where the hon. Gentleman is wrong.


Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman seems to think that I am wrong. We are in great danger of getting into a metaphysical and philosophical debate. If that were to happen, I am sure that even your patience Mr. Knox, which I know that I am trying at the moment would probably snap.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member is right. I have been very tolerant but my patience is being stretched.

Mr. Banks: Mr. Knox, as you know, I have sat in many Committees which you have chaired, where you have fairly administered the rules and where, from time to time, you have been most indulgent towards me, I do not intend to cash in any more of my credit. Laws are made and enforced by people who, in many ways, have no understanding about the conditions in society that the Opposition and people such as Sir Peter Imbert—not a man noted for his socialist convictions-believe create the atmosphere in which crime grows and breeds. If people do not have a stake in society they will not follow the values and standards that we would wish to follow and would wish others to follow. It is all about conditioning. We support the Bill. We must deal with immediate situations. I repeat, however, that the Bill deals with symptoms, not causes. Perhaps it will be left to a Labour Government to deal with causes.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack): Thank you, Mr. Knox, for allowing me to catch your eye in this debate. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow for introducing the Bill. He follows an honourable tradition of the House by supporting amendments to the law on sexual offences. It might be useful if I remind the hon. Member for Newham, North-West that on 16 February 1990, in column 595 of Hansard, his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) unequivocally supported this amendment to the law when he was speaking about a sexual offences Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Streatham at the time, Sir William Shelton. 10.45 am The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West set the tone for that debate when he said of the reasons for the introduction of the measure given by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow: "Such a scandalous situation should not exist in modern law."—[Official Report, 16 February 1990; Vol. 167, c. 599.] It has taken three years to catch up with that observation, but it shows that the Government and the Opposition are unanimous. The hon. Member for Teignbridge made some pertinent comments and addressed the interesting question of future developments in the law in this area. The changes to the law that are proposed in the Bill give us the opportunity to consider future policy for sentencing juveniles, and my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow has already mentioned section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West perhaps ranged a little widely on the subject of crime. I think that Sir Peter Imbert and his colleagues at the Metropolitan 7 police understand the circumstances in which crimes are committed as much as they understand the practicalities of policing. But I want to take up one or two points that the hon. Gentleman made. Following the introduction of the Bill, the courts will be able to focus on the crime committed and will be left in no doubt about the importance of pre-sentence reports that advise them on appropriate supervision orders. As I am sure the hon. Member for Newham, North-West knows, a supervision order, properly implemented, can get to the heart of the offending behaviour of a young person. That is a testament to good quality probation work. It is right and proper for us to consider new forms of custody for the persistent juvenile offender, but we must not forget the importance of probation work in dealing with sexual offences. Not long ago, I spoke to a non-nonsense lady member of the Manchester probation service, who dealt with sexual offenders. I derived confidence from talking to her about her work with juveniles and adults. I pay tribute to the work of the probation service in that area. The Bill will enable probation officers clearly to focus on the crime in question, which will enhance their ability to deal with offenders and to give advice and counselling to young people. We should not forget that in this context, however serious the crime, the offenders are young people who are 8 still impressionable and who may still be influenced to stop offending. There are other relevant measures. For example, the Criminal Justice Act 1991 gives parents responsibilities which aid the effectiveness of the supervision orders that can be issued in respect of rape. I hope that the Committee will remember that perspective.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye): I have one straightforward inquiry. Is it right that the Bill applies only to England and Wales and not to Scotland?

Mr. Jack: The hon. Gentleman is right. The Bill does not relate to Scottish law. I am grateful to him for raising that point. In conclusion, I welcome this opportunity to debate the measure and I commend the Bill to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Knox, Mr. David (Chairman)

Banks, Mr. Tony

Bowis, Mr.

Cann, Mr.

Day, Mr.

Hayes, Mr.

Hendry, Mr.

Jack, Mr.

Kennedy, Mr.

Lidington, Mr.

Mitchell, Mr. Austin

Nicholls, Mr.

Nicholson, Miss Emma

Pickles, Mr.