Bishop of Chelmsford supports Bill to raise age of criminal responsibility

On 29th January 2016 the House of Lords debated at Second Reading the Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill – a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Dholakia. The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, spoke in the debate, supporting the objective of the Bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years. The Bill was given a Second Reading and proceeded to its next parliamentary stage.

Chelmsford 251115The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, in rising to support the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia—and, indeed, pledging the support of the church to this campaign—I need to declare an interest: I was a child once and got into some scrapes. Now I am a parent and in the work I do hardly a week goes by when I am not in schools. Indeed, last year I had the sad but very moving honour of opening a garden of remembrance in the diocese where I serve in east London for young people who were the victims of, indeed had been killed by, knife crime. So I do not underestimate the seriousness of the crimes that we are talking about, nor the fact that children and young people do commit them.

It is often said nowadays that children grow up too quickly. I wonder if we have rather short memories. Although there are invidious and unspeakable pressures on children today, it was only a century or so ago that many of our children—who are now safely tucked up in our primary schools—were going out to work in pretty difficult and challenging conditions. Until 1875, a 12 year-old could have sex legally in this country. It was changed that year to 13. Since then, over the past 150 years, a succession of laws and protocols have recognised that with regard to all sorts of things, from smoking cigarettes to going to the cinema to watching certain sorts of films to sexual intercourse itself, we grow and develop gradually.

The decision about when someone is an adult is best made looking back from a point where there can be certainty or at least widespread agreement that at this age—it varies for different activities; it is often 16, sometimes 18—this person really has developed and is able to take responsibility for who they are and what they do. So why, in the case of criminal responsibility, do we make the decision speculatively, hoping that it might be the case that because there is some general growing sense of what is right and wrong, that person so knows what they are doing that they can be held culpable for their actions as if an adult and in a court of law?

But a child of 10 is just that—a child—not yet at that point where there could be such widespread agreement about their ability to know the consequences of their actions, nor developed morally or socially, so that we could be sure that they know what is right. That is why the law does not let them buy cigarettes or watch certain films or go to bed with each other. Therefore, when crimes are committed—for they are still crimes even if the child is no longer labelled a criminal—to deal with them in a court of law not only contradicts every other measure we have made, not only offends against common sense, not to mention the day-to-day experience most of us have as parents and grandparents, but it makes—and perhaps this is the biggest reason for supporting the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia—any possibility of rehabilitation or amendment of life that much harder. Of course, we agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that this is a civilised society, but this legislation diminishes us. As has already been referred to more than once, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on the United Kingdom to raise the age of criminal consent. Quite simply, we should heed that call.

My right reverend friend the Bishop of Derby made this point well in a previous debate on this matter: there are interconnected social and familial roots which combine to make us who we are. Here, the consistent teaching of the church is at odds with a society that by defining everyone as individual misses the deeper, interdependent influences and relationships that form our personhood. As my right reverend friend said:

“Human beings are formed through relationships”.

Crime tends to happen, he said,

“when relationships go wrong or are handled destructively”.

Do not therefore curse the fruit if the soil in which the tree is planted is poisoned and unkempt. To jump to calling a 10 year-old a criminal may play well to the gallery of a certain sort of public opinion that too quickly craves a scapegoat and an easy answer, but misses what my right reverend friend then called,

“the science of social formation”.—[

Official Report, 8/11/13; col. 483.]

That science is about where someone is made a person, particularly in the family but also in schools, churches and other faith groups and community groups.

Where this breaks down, criminal behaviour is of course not inevitable; but where crime occurs in those so young, these influences—or the lack of them—must be taken into account. Furthermore, as has been mentioned, neurological and other scientific advances illustrate that maturity in young people, especially boys, is slower than we may have thought. The male brain carries on developing until the age of about 25. Many of us wish that it would carry on for a bit longer still. To brand a 10 year-old as a criminal therefore fails to understand who that person is and who they are becoming, and our collective responsibility for that. It also risks excluding the possibilities of finding better ways to work with them to ensure that such crimes are never committed again, not just by that person but in the whole of our society. So to my mind even a move to 12, which I wholeheartedly support, is just a step in the right direction. As in France, where the age is 13, Italy, where it is 14, Denmark, where it is 15, and Spain, where it is 16, there are other steps which I believe we should take.

Jesus famously said of those who nailed him to the cross:

“Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”.

He was speaking to adults. How much more should those words apply to children? We can still abhor the crime. We can still, where necessary, impose compulsory measures of supervision and care, and in rare and extreme cases—like that of Jamie Bulger’s killers, which has been mentioned—we could still impose long-term detention in secure accommodation. But that would be part of a care and welfare proceeding, rather than a custodial punishment imposed in a criminal court. In other words, our starting point and our hope would be that as this child develops, because they are children and are still developing, they would come to a point where they would truly know what they had done and truly be enabled to live a different life.

Forgiveness is never just wiping the slate clean, as if a human being were simply a vessel to be emptied or, for that matter, something to be discarded or excluded—nor does forgiveness fail to take crime seriously. Instead, by holding and nurturing someone within a new set of relationships, it means believing that the future can be different. It is for that different future for children who offend that I support the Bill and hope that it is taken forward.


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