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Plans to increase child prison sentences may breach international law, government warned

Government proposals to jail children convicted of some crimes for longer may breach international law, a parliamentary committee has said.

A report found that parts of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill will also have a disproportionate impact on black children, and cast doubt on the government’s justification for it.

The bill, which is currently being considered by the House of Lords, has previously sparked concerns over a crackdown on protest and laws that discriminate against Travellers.

Clauses targeting knife crime and violent offences would increase the use of mandatory minimum sentences for children and dramatically raise the tariffs possible for indefinite sentences.

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said prison should “remain the measure of last resort for children” and be used for the shortest appropriate time.

“Child offenders are still children,” said chair Harriet Harman. “It is deeply concerning that some of the provisions in this bill would have a disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic children, as the government admits, and yet has no plans to mitigate this.

“We urge the government to revise this bill to ensure that it provides the scope to allow sentencing that reflects the individual circumstances of those convicted.”

A report published on Thursday said that the government’s stated aims were to ensure violent offenders spend time in prison that matches the severity of their crimes, tackles reoffending and protects the public.

The bill would limit judges’ ability to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes involving weapons, and increase the tariff for indefinite child prison sentences from the current 12 years to a maximum of 27.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is binding on the UK as a matter of international law, says sentences must be specific to each case and a “measure of last resort”.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights said the government’s proposals were “difficult to reconcile” with the convention and recommended a series of changes.

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It said that the proposals could also violate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) because, as a government assessment admitted, they disproportionately affect children from minority backgrounds – particularly black boys.

“Discrimination may be justified, but only where the difference of treatment pursues a legitimate aim and where there is a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised,” the report said.

“The government’s aim to protect the public is a legitimate one, but the extent to which the measures will achieve this was contested by witnesses, leaving questions about its compatibility with the ECHR.”

“Legitimate aim” has also been cited by the government as justification for other parts of the PCSC Bill that disproportionately affect black people and Travellers.

An equalities impact assessment on planned Serious Violence Reduction Orders said: “Any indirect difference on treatment on the grounds of race is anticipated to be potentially positive and objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving our legitimate aim of reducing serious violence and preventing crime.”

Several clauses target Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, by creating a new criminal offence of “residing on land without consent in a vehicle”, and broadening police powers to seize caravans and other property.

The government said the proposed laws were a “proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aims of prevention and investigation of crime and the protection of the rights of others, notably those of the occupier and the local community”.

Official figures show that the proportion of black children arrested, sentenced and held in custody has been steadily increasing over the past decade.

In March 2010, 28 per cent of children in custody were from black, mixed, Asian or other background, but by March 2020 the figure was 52 per cent.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights said that black children “receive more custodial and harsher sentences than white children” for unexplained reasons.

“If the government implemented measures designed to mitigate the effect of the bill’s changes on minority ethnic groups, there could be a greater chance of avoiding discrimination,” the report added. “But the government appears to have accepted the disproportionate impact of

these provisions of the bill on ethnic minorities without indicating any specific steps to address these disparities.”

It warned that the proposals also come at a time of growing awareness about child criminal exploitation, such as “county lines” drug gangs who have been linked to increased violence. “The line between criminal and victim can be blurred,” the report said.

The committee welcomed some changes proposed by the PCSC Bill, which aim to reduce the amount of time spent by children whilst awaiting trial.

The Ministry of Justice said the law was compatible with the ECHR and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child had been taken into consideration.

A spokesperson added: “The number of children sentenced to custody has fallen by 75 per cent over the last decade. Our sentencing reforms will provide stronger alternatives to custody, while ensuring the most serious young offenders receive sentences that reflect the severity of their crimes.

“While the number of ethnic minority children entering the justice system has fallen by three-quarters over the last 10 years, we are determined to tackle the deep-rooted causes of racial disparity.”