We are world leading in the awful way in which we treat children. At 10, we have the lowest age in Europe for criminal responsibility – far below the suggestion from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child of a minimum appropriate age of 14. That is the average across European countries, but even China and Russia – where the UK rightly often has cause to point out human rights abuses – have higher ages of criminal responsibility than we do.
My Lords, I rise to speak in place of my noble friend Lady Bennett, who has tabled Amendment 221. As Lady Chakrabarti, said, it is perhaps a softer option that your Lordships might find acceptable.
I strongly support the amendment in the name of Lord Dholakia, and Lady Butler-Sloss. The only qualm I have about Amendment 220 is that it sets the age at 12 and not 14. Quite honestly, we treat our children in the criminal justice system absolutely abysmally, with demonstrably disastrous results and a recidivism rate of 40% within a year. This demonstrates that the courts are not working to address the issue of these children. As we have already heard, the Children’s Commissioner has described the youth justice system as “chaotic and dysfunctional”, and the children caught up in it are disproportionately from ethnic minority communities.
We are world leading in the awful way in which we treat children. At 10, we have the lowest age in Europe—far below the suggestion from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child of a minimum appropriate age of 14. That is the average across European countries, but even China and Russia—where the UK rightly often has cause to point out human rights abuses—have higher ages of criminal responsibility than we do. And we do not have far to look—we can go to Scotland to see exactly what happens there. There the age is 12, and I would prefer it to be 14.
This is not a moral question but a scientific one. Children’s brains do not develop as quickly as people might think. Children below the age of 14 are still developing the capacity for abstract reasoning. Their frontal cortex is still developing; therefore, they are unlikely to understand the impact of their actions. I think there is some political will in Westminster to take this evidence on board and, to use a phrase so loved by the Government, “level up” our youth justice legislation. In 2020, the Justice Committee recommended that the Ministry of Justice review the minimum age of criminal responsibility. Unfortunately, the Government seem to have chosen once again to renew their ideological commitment to being tough on law and on youth crime, even when it is committed by children. This is not an acceptable status quo either on human rights or on scientific grounds. Children are being failed by antiquated government standards. This is an outrage, and reform is needed.
If the Government cannot accept Amendment 220—which they absolutely should—Amendment 221, in the name of Lady Bennett, might be a soft option. Both she and I hate putting softer options to the Government, but, in this case, it might work. It would ensure a legally binding commitment on the UK Government to at least consider whether our abnormally low age of criminal responsibility is tenable, given international norms and expert opinion. My friend Lady Bennett would, of course, be happy to discuss a revised text for Report. Personally, I would tough it out and potentially vote for Amendment 220 and for our Amendment 221.
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