On 8th September 2017 the House of Lords debated the Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill [HL], a private members’ bill from Lord Dholakia that would raise the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales from 10 to 12. The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, supported the Bill:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I add my thanks to those of other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for his tireless work in this area, bringing it before the House. These issues have been debated pretty exhaustively and many of the main points have already been raised, so I will not repeat them. The criminal offending of children is of course a gravely important issue that has profound implications for the child and their future but also more widely for the victims, and of course we have to balance that, as has been pointed out, with their communities.
The very fact that we need legislation is of course a reminder—and it is good in this debate to remind ourselves of this—of the constant need to support our schools as they work away at values and talking about right and wrong, and indeed our support for those organisations that are particularly concerned with good parenting and supporting families that are in difficult places. I am thinking of organisations such as Mumsnet but also, from a Church perspective, of the Mothers’ Union, which are doing a lot of work in this area.
This sort of legislation, which affects the course of young people’s lives, needs to be done in a responsible manner. Our understanding of psychology, child development and the rehabilitation of young people has improved significantly since 1998, when the law was amended to remove the presumption of doli incapax, and it is deeply concerning that our law has not been updated to account for that recent knowledge and evidence. As has already been pointed out in this debate, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child states that 12 is an “absolute minimum” age for criminal responsibility, and that our status quo of 10 is “not internationally acceptable”. Our neighbours in Ireland and Scotland have set the age of criminal responsibility and prosecution at 12. It is high time to amend our legislation to give English and Welsh children the same protections as their counterparts are afforded.
As I have mentioned, it is important that young people develop a sense of responsibility for their actions. Indeed, the whole process of growing up from infant to child, adolescent and adult, is one of separating from families and care givers to develop responsibility for oneself. Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between young people having basic knowledge of their actions and a deeper understanding of the consequence of those actions. It is not correct that the law should hold children criminally responsible for actions the implications of which they may not fully understand.
Holding all 10 and 11 year-olds criminally responsible and exposing them to the criminal law system is simply inappropriate. At 10, although children may have some concept of right and wrong, it is not clear that they have the mental maturity to form a similar criminal intent to older children or adults. Male brains are understood to develop until the age of 25, and the ages of consent and enfranchisement, as we have heard, are 16 and 18 respectively. It is plainly nonsensical to hold 10 and 11 year-olds responsible in law for the mature decision to commit a criminal act.
Of course, for justice to be served, it is important that victims know who is culpable for wrongdoings committed, and I in no way suggest that we fudge that issue, but this does not mean that young children must be held criminally responsible. Indeed, it is highly significant that only a small number of children commit such serious crimes that they receive custodial sentences. In the 10-year period between 2004 and 2014, only 12 10 and 11 year-olds were given custodial sentences for their crimes.
Conforming to international standards in this matter does not mean lessening the seriousness with which we take the offences which have been committed by children. Rather, it acknowledges that it is clearly inappropriate for the formality and weight of the criminal justice process to be brought to bear on 10 and 11 year-olds. This criminalisation achieves very little. Indeed, it can do much damage to their opportunity to grow up into citizens with a stake in our society.
We should be proud and eager to bring our law into line with international standards, and I support the Bill.
Baroness Murphy (CB):…It has been nearly 50 years since the age of criminal responsibility was last amended in legislation, and a lot has changed in society and culture since 1970, as well as in our understanding of children’s brain development. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned, in some ways we have gone backward since 1998, when the doli incapax rule, which presumed that 10 to 13 year-olds could not be criminally accountable unless there was good evidence, was lost.