Lord Dholakia debates involving the Ministry of Justice during the 2019 Parliament

King’s Speech

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Wednesday 8th November 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, it is a delight to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral. In April 2020, we were promised a royal commission on the criminal justice system. We all now know that this has been kicked into the long grass. Instead, we have a piecemeal approach to legislation in this field.

I draw the House’s attention once again to this country’s overuse of imprisonment. The prison population in England and Wales currently stands at nearly 86,000. It is currently projected to increase to over 98,000 in 2026—three years from now. We already use prisons more than other countries in western Europe. We have 132 people in prison for every 100,000 people in our general population, compared with 100 in France and 70 in Germany, our two most comparable and closest European neighbours. It is astonishing that we regard it as necessary to imprison nearly twice as many people as Germany. The British people are not twice as criminal as the German people, yet our sentencing is twice as punitive.

Of the 41,000 people who were sent to prison in the 12 months to June 2021, 40% were sentenced to serve terms of six months or less. Again and again we have heard that these are far too short for any serious rehabilitative work to take place, yet they can result in offenders losing jobs and accommodation, which increases rather than reduces the likelihood of reoffending.

Community sentences, which have a significantly lower reoffending rate, have more than halved in the last decade. Sentences have become significantly longer. The average prison sentence for an indictable offence is now 55 months—nearly two years longer than in 2008, when it was around 32 months. The average minimum term imposed on offenders receiving life sentences for murder rose from 13 years in 2003 to the present rate of 20 years in prison.

Numerous research studies have shown that offenders from minority-ethnic groups are disproportionately likely to receive custodial sentences. Estimates published by the Ministry of Justice in 2017 indicated that black people were over 50% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court, even when higher “not guilty” plea rates were factored into this formula. A Ministry of Justice publication estimated that if the prison population reflected the ethnic composition of the general population, we would have 9,000 fewer people in prison—the equivalent of 12 average- sized prisons. Look at the savings we would achieve by simply taking a proper decision in sentencing of black people. One recent survey found that only 7% of people thought that imprisoning more people would be effective in cutting crime.

Assaults, deaths and self-harm in prison are at historically high levels. Last Session’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act is likely to worsen things, as it contains a range of measures designed to increase the proportion of sentences which some offenders serve in prison.

Following the recent root and branch review of the parole system, the Government have come up with the astonishing proposal that the Secretary of State should be empowered in certain cases to overrule release decisions by the Parole Board. Parole has been one of the most successful initiatives in our prison system. The Parole Board is a judicial body which makes judicial decisions. This proposal would line us up with dictatorships around the world in which politicians interfere with judicial decisions. The proportion of prisoners released on parole who commit a further serious offence is less than 0.5%. No system based on human judgment could produce a significantly better result, and there is certainly no reason to believe that the Secretary of State’s judgment would be more accurate than the accumulated experience and expertise of the Parole Board.

In any event, ploughing more resources into expanding the prison system to hold an ever-increasing number of prisoners is far from the most sensible way to tackle crime. The Government should take steps to increase the use of community sentences, which research has shown have significantly lower reoffending rates than short periods in custody. Instead of devoting resources to expanding the prison system, they should plough them into the prevention of crime, support for victims and the rehabilitation of offenders.

In the same way, the Home Secretary’s proposals for new laws to fine organisations for giving tents to homeless people and reintroduce elements of the old Vagrancy Act are deeply disturbing. When announcing these proposals, the Home Secretary astonishingly referred to people

“living on the streets as a lifestyle choice”.

Agencies working with homeless people are clear that there is a severe lack of fit-for-purpose accommodation accessible to homeless people in our towns and cities. People sleeping in tents are not making a lifestyle choice. They are there because they have no other options left. These measures will punish people simply for being homeless and will cause more deaths on the streets. Somebody should speak to the Home Secretary; it is about time that she seals her lips to avoid such harmful judgment.

Criminal Justice Act 2003 (Removal of Prisoners for Deportation) Order 2023

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Thursday 26th October 2023

(7 months, 4 weeks ago)

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Lord Bellamy Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bellamy) (Con)
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My Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and their staff for the expedited consideration of this draft instrument and for their report. I apologise that the Explanatory Memorandum which accompanied the order was not as full as the committee considered appropriate. I hope to deal with the points raised very briefly in a moment.

On 17 October last, I repeated the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor about several measures to reduce pressure on the prison estate, including a presumption against shorter sentences. Today’s instrument deals with one of those measures relating to foreign national offenders. At present, foreign national offenders can be deported no earlier than 12 months before the end of their minimum custodial period under the early release scheme, or ERS. This order increases that period from 12 months to 18 months. All such prisoners must however serve a minimum of half their sentence. We have around 10,000 foreign national offenders in prison at the moment, but over 3,000 of those are on remand. That leaves around 6,500, and this order brings within scope of the early release scheme a further 300 annually. That was the figure that was missing from the Explanatory Memorandum, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked me that very question in the debate following my Statement.

Therefore, we have an additional 300 prisoners within scope. That may not seem a very large number, but as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee points out, in circumstances where available prison capacity is very tight and often less than 1,000 free spaces, that is a non-negligible contribution to the problem. However, it is quite difficult to say how quickly and in what number prisoners will be deported, because that depends on consideration of individual cases, on Home Office caseworker capacity—hence the need to consult the Home Office when asked the question—and on the number of appeals. None the less, it is an important contribution.

Clearly, as the scrutiny committee points out, a measure of this kind involves making a series of balances between the possible effects on victims and the possible effect on deterrence, as against the severe constraints on prison capacity and the cost to the taxpayer of holding those prisoners. These matters are weighed very carefully by the Government. It is the Government’s duty to reach conclusions on such matters and, as part of the wider policy, this instrument strikes the appropriate balance. Therefore, I beg to move.

Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, I am delighted to contribute to the debate on this order. Over the years, many of us have contributed to debates about the rise in our prison population and its adverse impact on the objectives of our prison service. We are told that the removal of foreign national offenders is now a government priority and that they are therefore expanding the early removal scheme. This would have been acceptable if the excuse of overcrowding were not used as the promotion of the policy.

Overcrowding has been in the headlines for many years, and successive Ministers in the Ministry of Justice have identified different solutions to the problem. They have claimed that 20,000 new prison spaces are being built, with the newest jail set to open in the spring.

We have argued, as has the Justice Secretary, that short sentences are not an appropriate punishment because those sentenced do not get the chance to reform themselves. Reliance on community sentences would be more appropriate for lower levels of crimes.

When the state sentences someone to a custodial option, it assumes full responsibility for that individual. How are we discharging those obligations?

Once removed from our prisons, individuals will not be subject to further imprisonment and are free individuals once back in their own country, but the reverse is also true: they will not be allowed to legally return here and will be liable to serve the rest of their sentences.

These measures are a piecemeal approach to penal reform and do not look at the real sources of prison overcrowding, which has ratcheted up our sentencing system. We have failed to address adequately the backlog of outstanding cases in our courts. Despite abolishing IPP sentences, the problem remains.

We welcome the intention against short-term sentences, but reconviction rates are still very high. My noble friend Lord Marks has already stated the need to concentrate on rehabilitation and greater use of community and suspended sentences. Remand in custody is still very high. The former Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has said:

“We are within weeks or days of no longer having any prison spaces.”


I tend to agree with him.

Lord Russell of Liverpool Portrait Lord Russell of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, we had an interesting discussion about this on Tuesday in the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member. As the Minister said, once again the Explanatory Memorandum was not all that we might have wished for. The committee now keeps a scorecard that shows which government departments are the most egregious in providing inadequate Explanatory Memoranda, so we will effectively have a league table, where some departments are up for promotion and some for relegation.

In this case, I am interested whether the Minister can tell us whether the nationalities of the prisoners involved are preponderant in two or three countries. I think that Romania and Albania were suggested as possibles during our discussion on Tuesday. If that is the case, what discussions have we had, if at all, with those countries and their judiciaries and police forces about the imminent arrival of some of their citizens? If another country were to do the same and had a large proportion of our citizens in prison who were about to be sent back to our shores, some sort of communication between the different national authorities would seem appropriate.

Prison Capacity

Lord Dholakia Excerpts
Tuesday 17th October 2023

(8 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, the Minister rightly draws attention to the remand prisoner population, which is considerably high in this country. Has he looked at the international dimension and asked himself the simple question: why is it possible for countries such as Germany to regulate their remand population while we are looking at sky-high figures? First, does he agree that less use of remand in prison would have a tremendous impact on our prison population? Surely the courts should send to prison only those whose offending makes any other course unacceptable. Secondly, those who are sent to prison should not stay there any longer than necessary.

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I am not in a position to draw any comparison with Germany or any other country. However, I am bound to say that we need to learn as much as we can from the experience of other countries, so I take the noble Lord’s point on that. I fully agree that no one should be in prison for a moment longer than they need to be.

Prison Capacity

Lord Dholakia Excerpts
Tuesday 6th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

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Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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Community service orders are far more effective than short-term sentences. As a large number of cases go through magistrates’ courts, are we making effective use of such sentences? If not, why not?

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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As I think I said earlier, I am sure that a court would always prefer to impose a community sentence if it can.

Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2022

Lord Dholakia Excerpts
Thursday 3rd November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining why this provision is necessary. This SI amends the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 to enable current or potential sponsors under the Homes for Ukraine scheme to undergo a full criminal background check undertaken by the DBS. In essence, the changes are designed to give local authorities more flexibility to undertake the highest level of DBS checks on sponsors who are related to children under 18 or to relations who require additional support due to age, disability or illness.

As someone who was responsible for promoting a Private Member’s Bill on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, I see no reason why this legislation should not be supported. Any legislation to ensure that an applicant who is prepared to can host a refugee is welcome. Currently, the host can undergo an enhanced DBS check when they have an unrelated person under the age of 18 or in rare circumstances when the sponsor is providing additional support to a non-family guest who may have additional needs. If the host houses a related person under 18 or a related person with additional needs, they can currently undergo only a regular DBS check.

Enhanced DBS checks are higher than basic checks and should incur an increased cost for local authorities. At present they bear a heavy cost for looking after refugees and asylum seekers. What provision is available to assist local authorities if the present method of payment is not sufficient? The SI should theoretically grant flexibility for local authorities to process applications for sponsors who live in complicated circumstances where it is not immediately clear which DBS test they should be eligible for. Are there systems to ensure that DBS checks are available for refugees and asylum seekers when accommodation to house them is provided by local authorities? Of course, we have serious concerns about children who cannot be traced and who end up being exploited by those who use them for trafficking.

This SI provision applies in England and Wales only. The Minister mentioned discussions with the Scottish authorities on this provision. Have the Government consulted the Scottish authorities about how they deal with such issues? Finally, can we be assured that such checks are carried out on refugees in hotels and detention centres at present?

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument, and of course we support it. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, very effectively set out the background to this. I will just set the scene and then ask a few questions of the Minister. First, I personally know a number of friends and colleagues who have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes. I am sure others in the Room have the same experience and, from what I have been told, it has been a positive experience for all concerned. However, there have been problems and we need to be realistic about them.

Parole Board (Amendment) Rules 2022

Lord Dholakia Excerpts
Tuesday 18th October 2022

(1 year, 8 months ago)

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Lord Garnier Portrait Lord Garnier (Con)
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My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. Because she set out the arguments so well and so fully, there is very little more that I need to say—save that, in standing, I want to demonstrate that this is not a party-political issue; this is a matter of constitutional propriety, and I think it is a matter of justice.

I suppose this is a smallish point, but I think that the negative procedure is the wrong way to deal with a statutory instrument of this nature. According to the notes attached to the statutory instrument, this regulation has been in law since the summer, and this is the first time that your Lordships’ House has had an opportunity to discuss it. As we have learned from the noble Baroness’s remarks, this statutory instrument carries with it matters of huge importance which should not just be lightly passed into law.

The second point I draw from her remarks is that, long ago, we got rid of political decision-making in the tariff-setting of life sentences for prisoners, and yet we are now introducing political input into questions which should be dealt with by the Parole Board by a “single view” of the Secretary of State. I suppose there was a time when the Secretary of State for Justice might be expected to know something about the law, but that is no longer the case. Therefore, it seems to me all the more extraordinary that a political Minister should have the power, passed by this little-discussed measure, to have a single view which trumps all others—indeed, shuts out all others.

In essence, I entirely support what the noble Baroness had to say, and I am reasonably certain that most other speakers will as well.

Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, I am pleased to support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and to reinforce her concerns about recent changes to the parole process.

When it considers a prisoner’s case, the Parole Board has two decisions to make: first, whether to direct the prisoner’s release; and, secondly, whether to recommend that the prisoner should be transferred from a closed prison to an open establishment. The board carries out these functions to an extremely high standard. Its members include current and former judges, police officers, Crown prosecutors, probation officers, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers and members of other professions.

All Parole Board members receive thorough training on risk assessment, which is regularly reinforced by risk-focused in-service training. In every case which goes to an oral hearing, the board assesses whether a specialist member—such as a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a member with particular training in terrorism issues—should be on the panel. As a result of this strong focus on effective risk assessment, the proportion of prisoners released on parole who commit a further serious offence is less than 0.5%, which is a remarkable record of the success of the Parole Board in its work. It is difficult to see how any system based on human judgment could produce a significantly better result.

An essential part of the parole process is the provision to the board of reports from specialists working for His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service—including prison staff, probation officers and psychologists—as well as other specialist reports commissioned by the service. These reports contain a detailed assessment of the prisoner’s risk. They include information about the prisoner’s progress in custody, their sentence plan, their risk of reoffending, their risk of serious harm and the arrangements and licence conditions which would be in place if they were released.

In the past, these reports also contained recommendations for or against release on parole and for or against a transfer to open conditions. The Parole Board was not bound to accept these recommendations, as it has a duty to make its own independent assessment of the prisoner’s suitability for release or open conditions. However, it was obviously helpful for the board to receive recommendations from professionals who had particular knowledge of the prisoner because they had worked with him or her on a regular basis during the prisoner’s sentence.

These recommendations have now been prohibited. This decision is totally illogical, since professionals who are commissioned by the prisoner’s legal representatives will not be prohibited from making recommendations. If a prison psychologist assesses the prisoner and believes that he or she is not safe to release, they are prohibited from saying so. However, if an independent psychologist is commissioned by the legal representative to assess the same prisoner and concludes that they are safe to release, they can make a recommendation for release to the Parole Board. In this case, the board would receive only one recommendation from a psychologist, a recommendation in favour of release, as even though the prison psychologist considers that the prisoner remains too dangerous to be released on licence, they are prohibited from saying so to the Parole Board.

This approach is patently nonsensical. It is difficult to see what it has to do with protecting the public or promoting sound decisions. The decision to prohibit these professionals from making recommendations seems to have arisen from the desire of the previous Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, to reject recommendations for open conditions in certain cases, specifically cases where he argued that a move to an open prison would

“undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system”.

This phrase seems to be shorthand for refusing recommendations in high-profile cases because of a fear of adverse media publicity, even when there is strong evidence of the prisoner’s suitability for open conditions.

The former Secretary of State may well have feared that it would look embarrassing if he refused a recommendation for open conditions when his own professional employees in the Prison and Probation Service recommended this. This does not seem to be a very grown-up way of making decisions. ln any organisation, senior leaders are entitled to overrule the recommendations of subordinates if they consider that there is a good reason for doing so. But no sensible leader would prohibit their staff from making recommendations in the first place in areas where the subordinate has particular knowledge and expertise.

The Secretary of State has always been able to reject recommendations for open conditions made by the Parole Board. But it makes no sense for him or his officials and the Parole Board itself to make their decisions in the absence of recommendations from those who have close knowledge of the prisoner. The new Secretary of State should review this change in the parole procedure and reverse it. This would be by far the least of the U-turns which the Government have undertaken in the last few weeks. None of us would be inclined to crow over a sensible reversal of policy of this kind. On the contrary, we would welcome a readiness to change direction after considering reasoned arguments from those with knowledge and experience of the parole system.

I believe strongly that future parole decisions should continue to be based on the accumulated experience and expertise of the Parole Board, informed by reports and recommendations from professionals with close knowledge.

Lord Garnier Portrait Lord Garnier (Con)
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I apologise for intervening. I forgot to refer to my interests in the register. I am a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and am connected to a number of other prison welfare bodies.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My Lords, I support the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Kennedy. I shall speak to my Amendment 104FB, which would require the Secretary of State a year hence to carry out a review of the adequacy of police resources devoted to assaults on retail workers. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I always had very good relations with USDAW in my many years as—I suppose you could say “a retail boss”—an executive at Tesco.

I start with an enormous thank you to my noble friend the Minister for arranging a meeting with the retail industry bodies, USDAW and several parliamentarians, including myself, with a star cast of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General. We all felt, for the first time, that we were having a high-level and constructive discussion on what could be done across the board about violence and abuse of retail staff. That is against a background of 455 security incidents a day, according to the BRC, and very few prosecutions.

The police response to these incidents has historically been inadequate. We need to ensure that the police have the right resources and can put a higher priority on prosecuting these retail crimes. This is particularly important given the role of retail workers in enforcing Covid restrictions such as masks, but also in addressing knife crime and shoplifting, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, explained, which in my experience is often caused by the need for individuals to get drugs, so it feeds into drug crime as well.

At the Zoom meeting, the industry welcomed the fact that the Government had recognised the seriousness of the issue and tabled Amendment 84, which we have heard about from my noble friend. This would mean that the worst offenders could see tougher sentences. The industry also very much welcomed the new relevant instructions from the Home Secretary and from the Attorney-General.

However, it is important to ensure that this new measure has the desired effect in terms of police effort. I believe there should be a regular review to monitor its effectiveness, hence my amendment proposing a review in a year’s time, which I hope the Minister will feel able to support.

Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, Amendment 114 is in my name. We discussed it in Committee and I have studied at great length the response from the Minister. Unfortunately, it has not satisfied many retail traders, whose income depends on crime being prevented. The consequences for shop insurance and livelihoods depend on proper action on low-level crimes.

In 2014, a change in the law meant that shop theft valued at less than £200 would not be charged through the courts but, rather, would be tried summarily. The reasoning behind that was to make the prosecution of cases more efficient. The Government may claim that that has happened, but that is only because the courts no longer see the problem and no longer see that it takes an average of 30 convictions for this type of criminal to go to jail. The burden has fallen on small retailers, who now see savvy criminals exploiting the situation to steal with virtual impunity.

The cost of retail crime to retailers is huge. My noble friend Lady Harris mentioned the cost, according to figures supplied to us by the British Retail Consortium, to those such as members of the British Independent Retailers Association. Money that could otherwise be used to improve facilities, raise wages and improve the offers to consumers instead goes straight into the pockets of criminals.

--- Later in debate ---
Earl Attlee Portrait Earl Attlee (Con)
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My Lords, I rise briefly to support the noble Baroness in Amendment 89, for the reasons she has outlined. I think the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in this Report stage seems to get the short straw every time. I have a question for my noble friend the Minister about the role of the CPS when deciding to prosecute. It has to apply the test of public interest. Is the very young age of a defendant a proper consideration for the CPS when making that public interest test?

Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, Amendment 89 is also in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who cannot be with us today but has faithfully promised to support it. I have a Private Member’s Bill on this same subject which is awaiting its Second Reading. Suffice to say, on at least two previous occasions, it has gone through all its stages in this House, but the general election intervened last time and halted its progress. Let me assure the House that the Bill is not going to be put into the long grass. I will come back again and again until we find some success in its implementation.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for her support of this amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his kind words, and my noble friend Lord German, who took up this issue in Committee when I was hospitalised on that particular day.

The amendment is designed to raise the country’s unusually low age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12. At present in England and Wales, children are deemed to be criminally responsible from the age of 10. This provision was last amended over 50 years ago, in 1963, when the age of criminal responsibility was raised from eight to 10 by the Children and Young Persons Act of that year. This means that children who are too young to attend secondary school can be prosecuted and receive a criminal record. A 10 year-old who commits a “grave crime”, which includes serious, violent and sexual crimes but can also include burglary, will be tried in an adult Crown Court. A child of 10 or 11 who is accused with an adult will also be tried in the Crown Court.

The age of criminal responsibility in the United Kingdom is the lowest in Europe. In Ireland, in 2006 the age was raised to 12, with exceptions for homicide, rape or aggravated sexual assault. Even in Scotland, where the age of criminal responsibility is particularly low at eight, legislation in 2010 provided that children cannot be prosecuted below the age of 12. Outside the British Isles, the age of criminal responsibility is invariably higher: in Holland it is 12; in France it is 13; in Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Romania it is 14. In most European countries it ranges between 14 and 18. Across Europe, the average age is 14.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly stated that our minimum age of criminal responsibility is not compatible with our obligation under international standards of juvenile justice and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In a statement in 1997 the committee said:

“States parties are encouraged to increase their lower minimum age of criminal responsibility to the age of 12 years as the absolute minimum age and to continue to increase it to a higher age level”.


In subsequent reports in 2005 and 2007, the committee reiterated that a minimum age below 12 is not internationally acceptable. Recently the committee recommended that the UK should

“raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility in accordance with acceptable international standards”.

Taking 10 to 11 year-olds out of the criminal justice system will not mean doing nothing with children who offend. It would mean doing what other countries do with 10 and 11 year-old offenders; it would mean doing what we do with delinquent nine year-olds. In other words, it would mean dealing with the causes of these children’s offending through intervention by children’s services teams.

In the majority of cases where court proceedings are necessary, it would mean bringing children before family court proceedings, which can impose compulsory measures of supervision and care. In the most serious cases this can mean detention for significant periods in secure accommodation, but this would be arranged as part of care proceedings, rather than as a custodial punishment imposed in criminal proceedings.

Those who oppose increasing the age of criminal responsibility often argue that children of 10 to 12 are capable of telling right from wrong, as though it automatically follows that they should therefore be dealt with in criminal courts, but this does not logically follow. Most six year-olds have a sense of right and wrong, but no one suggests that they should be subject to criminal prosecution. In 2012, the Centre for Social Justice, which was set up by the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, produced a report on the youth justice system entitled Rules of Engagement: Changing the Heart of Youth Justice. It said:

“There is now a significant body of research evidence indicating that early adolescence (under 13-14 years of age) is a period of marked neurodevelopmental immaturity, during which children’s capacity is not equivalent to that of an older adolescent or adult. Such findings cast doubt on the culpability and competency of early adolescents to participate in the criminal process and this raises the question of whether the current MACR, at ten, is appropriate.”


The evidence from international research is overwhelming. There is extensive evidence from neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists demonstrating the developmental immaturity of young children. The Royal Society, in its report Neuroscience and the Law, concluded in 2011 that,

“it is clear that at the age of ten the brain is developmentally immature, and continues to undergo important changes linked to regulating one’s own behaviour.”

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has expressed the view, based on similar evidence, that our age of criminal responsibility is too low. The research shows that children of 10 and 11 have less ability to think through the consequences of their actions, less ability to empathise with other people’s feelings, a greater level of impressionability and suggestibility, and less ability to control impulsive behaviour. So while 10 year-olds may know that stealing something is wrong, their ability to apply that knowledge to their actions will be very different from that of an 18 year-old. This does not mean that children aged 10 or 11 have no responsibility for their actions, but on any reasonable interpretation of the evidence they must be regarded as less responsible than an older adolescent or an adult. It cannot be right to deal with such young children in a criminal process which assumes a capacity for mature, adult-like decision-making.

The Beijing rules on juvenile justice state that the age of criminal responsibility,

“should not be set at too low an age level, bearing in mind the facts of emotional, mental and developmental immaturity.”

The official commentary to the rules states that,

“there is a close relationship between the notion of responsibility for delinquent and criminal behaviour and other social rights and responsibilities”.

It is therefore significant that in no other area of the law, whether it is the age for paid employment, the age for buying a pet, the age of consent to sexual activity, or the age for smoking and drinking, do we regard children as fully competent to take informed decisions until later in adolescence. The age of criminal responsibility is an anomalous exception. In relation to the age of consent to sexual activity, for example, we regard any purported consent as irrelevant in order to protect children from abuse or immature sexual experimentation. It is completely illogical that we regard immaturity in this context as worthy of protection by law, but we take a diametrically opposite approach when it comes to criminal responsibility.

A 30 year-old with the mental age of a 10 year-old child would probably be regarded as unfit to plead, so why do we see a child of 10 as capable of participating in the criminal justice process? The illogicality of our current law is increasingly recognised. The Law Commission concluded in its report Unfitness to Plead that the age of criminal responsibility is not founded on any logical or principled basis and that

“there may be sound policy reasons for looking afresh at the age of criminal responsibility”.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Lord Dholakia Excerpts
Moved by
132: After Clause 54, insert the following new Clause—
“Low-value shoplifting
(1) The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 is amended as follows.(2) Omit section 176 (low-value shoplifting).”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause repeals section 176 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, relating to low value shoplifting
Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, the purpose of the amendment in my name is to remove Section 176 from the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. With regard to what is affectionately known as shoplifting, it is estimated by the British Retail Consortium that businesses lose £770 million a year to shop theft—and retail theft crimes are rising year on year. According to figures available from the Home Office, there was an overall increase in retail theft of 19.1% between 2014 and 2018, compared with an increase of 4.96% between 2010 and 2014. This is no surprise.

Section 176 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 allows anyone accused of shoplifting anything under £200 to plead guilty by post, as if they had been given a parking ticket. Use of this legislation is often cited as a cost-saving exercise, but the truth is that it does not save money. In fact, it does the opposite, as everyone loses, whether it is customers who end up paying higher prices or the retailers who lose their jobs when the business fails. But it is still being used, with Thames Valley Police for example informing local shops that they will not send out officers to deal with shoplifters who steal less than £100-worth of goods. This piece of legislation has, therefore, massively reduced the deterrent to theft and the punishment that an offender can expect, with many savvy criminals exploiting the situation to steal with virtual impunity.

Just one in 20 of all shoplifting offences are now prosecuted, while the number of cautions for such thefts have fallen from 40,000 to just 5,000 in a decade, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. In addition, it is worth noting that it takes an average of 30 offences before an individual is convicted of a shop theft that results in a custodial situation. It is soul destroying for hard-working businesses to have their livelihood literally stolen away from them. The British Independent Retailers Association has come to see me on a number of occasions; its crime survey for 2021, just completed this month, shows that two-thirds of its members see most crimes against businesses valued at less than £200, while two-thirds of members also reported a disproportionate increase in the theft of goods worth less than £200 since this threshold was put in place in 2014. This shows that businesses are losing more and more each year to this type of crime, as it is currently being left unchecked.

John Barlow, a BIRA member in Nottingham, rightly pointed out that the police are basically telling kids, “Help yourselves”. Of course, there are more serious crimes that the police need to solve, but you cannot just give thieves a licence to steal. Shop theft is not a victimless crime; in fact, smaller independent retailers feel the impact of retail crime more acutely than larger retailers, which typically have better security systems, employ guards and security staff, sell larger orders and have better margins and economies of scale. Conversely, a small retailer operating on a typical margin of 8% would need to sell £2,500-worth of goods to make back £200 of stolen goods. In addition, they are often working alone, unable to call in back-up from another staff member, and left literally at the mercy of the perpetrator and the trauma of the event. How can this be right?

The removal of this legislation would send a signal to those who perpetrate shop theft: it is very clear that you will be prosecuted; your actions matter; and you will be held to account. It would show that this Government really hold our retailers, who have kept our country going through the pandemic, in high regard, and that the retailers can have confidence that justice will be served. I beg to move.

Lord Paddick Portrait Lord Paddick (LD)
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My Lords, we support my noble friend Lord Dholakia in wanting to protect small shopkeepers by calling on the police and CPS to take low-level shoplifting more seriously. Repeated low-level theft adds up and, as my noble friend has just said, when the profit margins are typically around only 8%, you need to sell a lot of goods to make up for those losses. This is particularly a problem if perpetrators do not believe that the police and courts will take effective action. I would welcome a response from the Minister to reassure small shopkeepers that the Government take this issue seriously—and that includes what action they will take in response to my noble friend’s amendment.

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I hope I have reassured the noble Lord to some extent that Section 176 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 does not prevent these low-level shoplifting offences being investigated by police and the perpetrator being brought to justice. On this basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation. A large number of these businesses are owned by people from our diverse communities, and corner shops are areas of high crime rates. They have made a number of representations to me. I shall discuss the Minister’s comments with them and, if need be, come back later, if possible. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 132 withdrawn.

Queen’s Speech

Lord Dholakia Excerpts
Tuesday 18th May 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia (LD)
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My Lords, I make no apologies for drawing the attention of the House yet again to the state of our prisons. The United Kingdom continues to have the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe. In England and Wales, there are 131 prisoners for every 100,000 people in the general population, compared with 90 in Spain and 69 in Germany.

Sentence lengths have greatly increased in recent years. The average sentence for an indictable offence is now 58 months, which is more than two years longer than in 2008. Mandatory life-sentenced prisoners now spend on average 18 years in custody compared with 13 years in 2001.

We still send large numbers of people to prison for short periods: 47% of those entering prison under sentence are imprisoned for six months or less. Community sentences are significantly more effective than short prison sentences in reducing reoffending among comparable offenders, yet the use of community sentences has halved in the past decade. As a result of the higher use of custody, most of our prisons are overcrowded: 80 out of 121 currently hold more prisoners than their certified “normal” population.

Safety in prison has deteriorated over the past decade, during which the number of deaths in prisons has risen by over 50%. For every 1,000 prisoners, there were 741 incidents of self-harm in the period 2010-2020, compared with 282 in 2014. Over half of British prisons have found it more difficult to provide resettlement support to help prisoners avoid reoffending on release. Over the past 10 years, there has been a marked decline in prison inspectorate ratings of our prisons for purposeful activities and resettlement.

Covid-19 has caused particularly acute problems for the prison system. During lockdown, the vast majority of prisoners have spent 23 hours or more out of every 24 in their cells—2,000 of them in conditions that amount to solitary confinement. But even before lockdown it was clear that purposeful activity in our prisons had suffered a marked decline in recent years.

The latest projections predict a prison population of over 98,000 by 2026. The Government have announced plans for a significant programme of prison building. Despite this, last year’s report from the Public Accounts Committee, Improving the Prison Estate, estimated that the demand for prison places could outstrip supply by the next financial year. We all know that prison building programmes take time to deliver additional places, and this one will be no exception.

Against this background, the Government are introducing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which contains a raft of provisions for lengthening sentencing further, including measures to ensure that most offenders serve lengthy minimum sentences and to increase the time served under discretionary life sentences. The Government estimate that these measures will increase the prison population by a further 700—the population of a medium-sized prison—by 2028. The Government’s impact assessment of this acknowledges that there is little evidence that these measures will deter offenders or reduce the level of crime.

I have one simple question for the Minister: will the Government adopt a policy objective of reducing, or preferably ending, overcrowding in our prison system, with clear target dates? It is a question that can be answered with a yes or a no. If the Government were prepared to adopt a clear objective along these lines, they would gain the support of noble Lords in all parts of this House.

Tucked away in the gracious Speech is a sentence which will require lots of attention in coming months:

“Measures will be brought forward to address racial and ethnic disparities”.


Nowhere are these disparities more obvious than in prison sentences. I see that my time is up, but I intend to take this matter up in future debates, and I will write formally to the Minister on this issue.