Bishop of Rochester speaks on criminal justice, youth violence, child exploitation and probation reform in Queen’s Speech debate

17.10 RochesterOn 8th January 2020 the Bishop of Rochester, Rt Revd James Langstaff, spoke during the third day of debate on the Queen’s Speech, on the topic of criminal justice:

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the gracious Speech and look forward to hearing two maiden speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay and Lord Davies of Gower. I am sure we will listen with interest to their contributions and that their different experiences will come to be of value in your Lordships’ House.

My contribution focuses on criminal justice matters, not only because of my role as bishop to Her Majesty’s prisons but because these issues affect every community, including those in my diocese.

My cathedral was privileged to host the Knife Angel memorial for victims of knife crime last September and many tens of thousands came to see it. That included a special service to remember those who have died or been otherwise affected as a result of knife crime. Alongside this, we sponsor a conference on these issues jointly with the University of Kent. One of my clergy, the Reverend Nathan Ward, also co-ordinated the presentation to the Prime Minister of a pledge book signed by more than 5,000 individuals in Medway committing never to carry a knife.

Therefore, I welcome the Government’s intentions in proposing a serious violence Bill, not least the proposed emphasis on multiagency working between named public agencies. I note also the manifesto commitment to increase funding for youth services by £500 million and the other funding mentioned in response to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. Nevertheless, analysis by the Children’s Society suggests that overall funding for youth services from all public services reduced by some £3 billion between 2010 and 2018. In welcoming the proposed duty on public agencies to collaborate, I rather hope that duty will extend to requiring them to collaborate not only with each other but also with voluntary and community organisations, including church and faith communities, not least because of the funding issues. The reality on the ground is that most services for children and young people are now provided by voluntary organisations through both volunteers and paid workers. In the area of my diocese for example, the number of out-of-school youth workers provided by churches far exceeds those provided by all statutory agencies combined. It will be good to see this acknowledged and supported through the legislative framework.

All communities in our country, including faith communities, are sadly affected by domestic abuse and those communities encompass both victims and perpetrators. I welcome therefore the return of the domestic abuse Bill. My diocese is working closely with specialist agencies to raise awareness and understanding in our churches and other communities around this issue, particularly to encourage men to speak out about male violence against women as part of the White Ribbon Campaign with which we are associated. I note the good intention to place a duty on tier 1 local authorities in relation to providing refuges and other safe accommodation. I trust that, in responding to the debate, the Minister can assure the House that the Chancellor also supports that intention.

Alongside the domestic abuse Bill, I welcome the focus on victims but ask the noble Baroness that particular attention be given to children who are exploited, and not infrequently forced into crime as a result of that exploitation. Again, this was mentioned earlier in response to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. Such young people too often appear in the criminal justice system as offenders or at least as suspects when fundamentally they are victims. Therefore, somewhere in this package of Bills, a clear statutory definition of child criminal exploitation would help all concerned.

The gracious Speech contains a number of proposals concerning detailed issues around sentencing and combating terrorism. Others are better placed than me to comment on those. However, perhaps because it is not thought to require further legislation, almost nothing is said about the huge challenges that face the regular work of our Prison and Probation Service. We know that the surest—and indeed the cheapest—way of reducing crime and making our communities safer is to make sure that those who offend do not do so again. We know also that the factors which lead people to desist from criminal behaviour are really very simple: decent and assured accommodation; purposeful activity, whether in employment, training, family engagement or volunteering; and networks of good and supportive relationships. Key to much of that is what happens immediately on release and in preparation for it. Alongside the proposed legislation, I hope that in this Parliament we will see good progress on these basic matters, not least in the context of the reshaping of probation services. I am sure I will not be alone in this House in keeping my attention in that direction.

Finally, I think I welcome the proposal for a royal commission. My slight reticence is because we have yet to see the terms of reference. I hope that commission will give attention not only to practical matters but to the reaffirmation and articulation of the principles and purposes that underpin the justice system as a whole. I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, served as a commissioner on the 1993 royal commission, and that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who is speaking today, gave evidence to that commission. Of course, the context has changed significantly since 1993 and we face new and evolving kinds of criminal activity, but the importance of upholding principles of justice, fairness and the power of reconciliation does not change. I look forward to engaging with the commission and continuing to work on these issues with Members across your Lordships’ House and beyond.

Lord Rosser (Lab): [extract] …Finally, an Oral Question today asked about children involved in county lines drugs gangs being seen as victims, not criminals, a point the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester referred to in his speech. …

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con): [extract] …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester asked whether there would be a definition of child criminal exploitation. There is a government definition in the Serious Violence Strategy, which is commonly used to describe child exploitation associated with county-lines drug dealing. Robust legislation is also in place to prosecute those who exploit children for communal purposes. In April 2019, the Government published a Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit, which provides front-line practitioners with tools to disrupt child exploitation. …


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