Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill

My Lords, I support the proposed amendment of my noble friend Lord Windlesham. I make it clear that I welcome the proposal to refer young, first-time offenders to youth offender panels. I regard that as a positive alternative to the other disposals available to magistrates. However, it is the compulsory nature of the referral order which I oppose. I share the view that the order should be optional and not mandatory. As presently drafted, the clause will be seen as an attack on the discretion of magistrates. They will be given no choice and no chance to exercise their own view. I ask the rhetorical question: who is in a better position to decide a case than magistrates who hear the individual facts of the offence and the personal background of the offender?

In Committee the Minister described the importance of the youth offender panel as the “triggering of an inquiry”. But in seeking to exercise their discretion as to sentence, magistrates are already able to order a variety of reports, including, of course, one from the Probation Service. That would require a quite proper delay during which time a detailed inquiry would be carried out. I believe that one of the strengths of our Lay Bench in particular is that it comprises responsible people drawn from a variety of backgrounds. I particularly welcome the fact that there are now more magistrates from the ethnic minority communities. They should be encouraged, not discouraged, to use their own common sense and judgment. As presently drafted, this measure is the antithesis of that.

I once represented a youth in Birmingham who was before the court for the first time. He had boasted that he could do 100 meters in record time. That sounds impressive, but he was talking about breaking into electricity meters! He was on a determined course and to pursue a youth panel contract with him would have caused more harm than good. At the very time when this Government are trying to encourage more people to come forward as magistrates surely it is unwise to give the signal that they cannot be trusted to use this new form of sentence intelligently.