'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial
Criminal Justice Bill delayed by amendments in House of Lords
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill will not now become an act until at least October this year.
Prior to the House of Lords' report stage beginning on July 5th, it was thought that parliamentary opposition to the Bill had been exhausted. However, the Lords' Report Stage, representing the last opportunity for any meaningful changes to be made, proved to be the most significant stage of the Criminal Justice Bill so far.
Amendments to the clauses on criminal injury compensation, on penal institutions for young offenders, on the removal of the rights of silence and, most surprisingly, on the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act, have pushed the Bill's possible completion into October.
The first of the major amendments came to the clauses on penal institutions for 12-14 year olds and were backed by former Conservative home secretary, Lord Carr. Much to the Government's chagrin, the Lords demanded that the courts should have discretion whether they send young offenders to existing local authority secure accommodation or to the new child prisons proposed by the Government. The Government was defeated by 170 votes to 139. The cross party opposition to child prisons also secured an amendment saying that young offenders could be re-referred to secure local authority accommodation if it was considered that the new child penal institutions were considered unbeneficial to the re-habilitation of a particular young offender. The Government was defeated on this issue by 147 to 128.
In order to prevent a similar defeat over the clauses in the Bill which remove the rights of silence, Michael Howard himself tabled last minute amendments in an attempt to satisfy the House of Lords that these clauses are not too draconian. His amendment now means that a police officer will have to caution a suspect that their silence might be used to infer guilt. Effective opposition in the Lords was indeed mollified by Howard's tabled amendments. As a consequence the clauses on the removal of the rights of silences were voted through by 143 votes to 91.
However by far the most unexpected Government defeat was still yet to come. For when the Lords came to consider the clauses on the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act, a rebellion against the Government supported by Conservative peer Lord Stanley of Alderley demanded that the repeal of the Act be delayed for five years and that the 100% grants enabling local authorities to make provision for gypsies, be continued.
It is unlikely that the Government will allow these amendments to change the Bill without a further fight, but the oppositional stance taken by the House of Lords on the final furlong of the Bill (which is certainly more than it received in the Commons) has ensured that there will not be enough time left in this session of parliament for the Bill to become an Act.
“Royal assent before the summer recess has never been an absolute requirement” said Michael Howard licking his wounds. These words however, mask Howard's disappointment that he will not now be able to walk into the Tory Party conference in September, trumpeting the implementation of the 27 point law and order package he announced at last years conference.
The rabid Olga Maitland (Con MP Sutton and Cheam) was less guarded about her frustration: “This is a major disappointment. The Commons should sit longer now to deal with this rather than wait until October. People are having a hideous time in some areas and the public has a right to expect proper action to be taken now.” Fortunately, bitter though it is, Olga Maitland’s tongue cannot hurry the Bill. The next session of parliament will begin with further debates in both Houses.
Unfortunately, due to a High Court ruling earlier this year deciding that local authority duty to gypsies should not include new travellers, the delay on the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act does not represent any light at the end of a dark discriminative tunnel for many travellers. Indeed it is some measure of the way new travellers have been demonised, that the Lords only voted for the amendment after the House had been reminded that the high court ruling meant new travellers would not benefit from the reprieve. Both Save the children and the Children's Society have been instrumental in campaigning against the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act and both charities say that new travellers deserve similar political respect as traditional gypsies and that this respect should be extended further than it is at present.
Despite this however, the clauses on unauthorised camping in the Bill remain unaltered and will continue to be used against all travellers. Only traditional gypsies parked up on official sites have received any relief from the report stage decisions. It is also undoubtedly the case that the Government will not accept the amendments asked for by the Lords but it comes to debate them in the next session. It is likely that the Government may introduce some mollifying amendments of its own, similar to those tabled by Michael Howard over the rights of silence.
The delay in the Bill however, does provide an extra summer for the mounting opposition to gather further momentum. An extra summer with which to spread round the dire consequences of the Government's attempt to crush what they consider to be easy law and order scapegoats. For if the full implications of the Criminal Justice Bill were known, the carefully media cultivated cheers would turn into the jeers the Bill undoubtedly deserves.