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JeremyBeecham.jpgJeremy Beecham on the government’s ill-thought through plans for secure colleges for young offenders

“Government plans for the largest children’s prison in Europe are bad for children, bad for justice, and bad for the taxpayer”.  Not my words, but those of 29 signatories to a letter in The Daily Telegraph, and including chief executives of leading children’s charities, the President of the Royal College of Psychiatry, the chair of the Association of Young Offending Team Managers and other experts.

No-one would argue with the intention to improve the education, and thereby the life chances, of young offenders. But the Coalition’s proposals – within the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill – for a secure college housing a third of young offenders in custody bear all the hallmarks of yet another Grayling gimmick. With a site in Leicestershire going begging, the Lord Chancellor’s latest brainwave was to engage a building firm to design a college housing boys and girls aged 12-17; and then start a tendering process which would lead to potential operators effectively writing their own job description. As a consequence, precious little information would be provided on costs or the precise way in which the institution would be managed.

Last week, Ministers finally published its consultation on the rules governing the establishment, including the revolutionary and transformative suggestion that inmates should be entitled to at least one hot shower a day. The consultation however, will conclude after the legislation is enacted, so that Parliament will have no opportunity of considering the outcome or the government’s response.

There are serious problems with the proposals, including housing all 45 girls now in custody in England in one place, potentially far from home and remote from the local authority services with which they should be in contact. Nor will be any overnight visitor accommodation on site. Also worrying is the prospect of having 12-15 years olds in the same institution, even though they will be housed in separate units.

Furthermore, it is entirely unclear how the educational component (which underpins the government’s rationale for the plan) will work, given that the population will be constantly changing. At Second Reading, Justice Minister Lord Faulks said: “a sufficient bank of time in a secure college would be intended, with an individually tailored plan”. He failed to reply to my questions on what sort of time he was talking about and who would ultimately determine its allocation?

And there is much concern, expressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission amongst others about the use of force “to maintain good and order and discipline”. The JCHR recommend it only as a last resort and “for the purpose of preventing harm to the child or others and to the extent that the minimum force necessary should be used”.

Our country criminalises children at a much younger age than most and appears reluctant to learn from the experience of others – for example Spain, where Diagrama run the best children’s custody centres in Europe. Or even US, where the Missouri model – with facilities containing no more than 50 beds – is becoming widely adopted. Lord Faulks described the secure college plan as enabling the government to “trial a new approach to youth custody”. But it’s an odd sort of trial that encompasses a third of the total potential number of relevant young offenders.

These half-baked proposals have attracted very little support, and embody the Tories’ typically slavish attachment to outsourcing. They are being pushed through with scant regard to the proper processes of parliamentary scrutiny. Yet another lamentable example of Grayling’s propensity to rush to misjudgement.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham

Published 22nd October 2014

Another Grayling gimmick

Jeremy Beecham on the government’s ill-thought through plans for secure colleges for young offenders

Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson on the continuing lack of consumer protection for those downloading games or music

What sort of planet do policymakers in the BIS department inhabit? This week in the Consumer Rights Bill Committee, the government’s Intellectual Property Minister tried to persuade us that digital sales are “different” from sales of physical goods or services; and that as a result consumers should have less protection in the market place. 

Digital Content is vital to the creative sector as well as consumers, and the digital music, video and games market now accounts for 43% of the total UK entertainment sector. The console and PC gaming industry is now worth £1.17bn and 99.6% of the 189 million music singles sold in the UK in 2012 were downloads. Recent research puts the UK as the leading European country for total digital content spend per capita. Digital sales are clearly the future of retail, so this Bill ought to be used to at least get the principles right.                                   

Many of us in the Committee have been surprised to learn that the law in this area is not clear. Digital downloads have been around for nearly 40 years, and the first legal case dates from 1988. But the law has been lagging behind consumer behaviour, so simplification and clarification is urgently needed. Not just to make it easier for businesses to understand and comply with their responsibilities, but also to explain to consumers their rights and help them assert these when things go wrong.

Effective competition delivers better service, lower prices and innovation. But to benefit from this, consumers must have confidence that they can exercise informed choice. A lack of confidence may mean they don’t switch to alternative providers, thereby losing out on the benefits of competition while also allowing unscrupulous businesses to prosper.

The proliferation of portable internet-connected devices, including tablets and smartphones, has provided people with more opportunities to purchase and consume digital content. The pace of development, with a broadening array of new products and services, makes efforts to clarify digital content rights and remedies timely and welcome.

Labour is pressing Ministers to align these rights as far as possible with those for tangible goods and services. In practice, this boils down to the question of whether, when content does not meet quality standards, the consumer should be restricted to a right to a repair or offered a replacement. We believe very strongly that they should have both short- and long-term rights to reject the content, something that both the BIS Select Committee and Which? support.

The government argues that because digital content is not provided on a tangible medium, it "cannot be returned in any meaningful sense". However, consumers acquiring the same material on a DVD or CD will have the rights to reject it. As the Select Committee says: “the different remedies available for tangible and intangible digital content in the Bill would… embed inconsistency into consumer law.” Consumer groups argue that people experience intangible digital content in the same way as tangible content, and therefore expect to be able to reject it and receive a refund if their statutory rights are not met.

Ministers are being very short sighted in dealing with this issue. Having a common redress system for all goods would be logical. But it would also strengthen consumers’ willingness to try new and innovative digital products.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow Business Minister in House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 22nd October 2014

Digital daze

Wilf Stevenson on the continuing lack of consumer protection for those downloading games or music

GlenysThornton.jpgGlenys Thornton on a dangerous clause in the Deregulation Bill

It’s the opening day of Committee today on the Deregulation Bill and we have several examples already of what a mixed bag it is. No prioritisation, no criteria, no costing, the occasional impact assessment – most of which Ministers want to bury – and no consideration of the government’s long term or unforeseen consequences of its proposals.

Following hard on the heels of an attack in Clause 1 on workplace health and safety, Clause 2 removes the power of Employment Tribunals to issue wider recommendations to employers found to have unlawfully discriminated. Prior to the introduction of this power in the Equality Act 2010, a tribunal could only provide a remedy to successful claimants but not recommend an employer address the root causes of such discrimination. This meant that where the victim had left the workplace, the tribunal was powerless to ask the employer to change policies, practices or a culture that could likely lead to further discrimination.

The government wants to repeal this provision because of “employer fears about inappropriate or excessive recommendations”. Yet there is no credible evidence to support this argument. In 2012 there were 19 cases where tribunals issued wider recommendations according to a study published in Equality Opportunities Review (EOR). In 15 of those cases, the recommendation was for training on equality and diversity. For seven, respondents were asked to address equality issues generally or to review policies. These are proportionate and reasonable suggestions to address serious cases of discrimination. 

Later in the day, we move onto taxi licence deregulation and Clauses 10-12, which Ministers rushed into the Bill during the Commons stages – hoping it would go unnoticed.

How wrong they were. Peers across the House of Lords have been inundated with representations, ranging from women’s safety organisations such as the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, Police and Crime Commissioners, trade unions, students unions and local government leaders. All have highlighted the serious safety implications these measures would have, particularly in light of recent events in Milton Keynes and the Alexis Jay report into child sex exploitation in Rotherham.

Following concerted pressure and campaigns to get the clauses removed, the government u-turned recently and agreed to pull Clause 10, which would allow anyone without a private hire vehicle (PHV) licence to drive a minicab when it is ‘off duty’. The other two clauses however, remain in play.

Clause 11 ends mandatory licence checks, so that they only need be updated every three years. This could lead to drivers with criminal convictions or medical conditions that make them ineligible doing so for long periods of time without the licensing authority having the knowledge to revoke their license.

Clause 12 allows cross border subcontracting of bookings, which will lead to taxi bookings being passed to any operator around the UK. But it also allows a watering down of licencing. That could see PHV drivers opting to get licenced in the least-stringent area while at the same time leaving licensing authorities without the enforcement powers over those then operating outside of the area. It’s a hotch-potch clause in hotch-potch legislation, but clearly dangerous too. That is why Labour Peers will tonight lead a vote to get it deleted from the Bill.

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Shadow Equalities Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @GlenysThornton

Published 21st October 2014

Taxi times

Glenys Thornton on a dangerous clause in the Deregulation Bill

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