The Scottish Parliament has agreed to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to twelve. Now there is pressure on the English government to raise criminal responsibility from the age of ten, which is where it’s been since 1963. Under English law, there are special rules governing children aged 10-14, and there is even talk of raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.
It’s more than forty years since I studied law, and at the time everyone was confidently saying that the age of criminal responsibility was set to go up any day now. (One social policy textbook of the time said it already had done, because the author had no reason to suppose it wouldn’t have happened by the time the book came out.) The proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 was initially made, if I have it right, by the 1960 Ingleby Committee, nearly sixty years ago. In England, the Children and Young Person’s Act 1963 raised the age from eight to ten (s.16.1); and then the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act raised it to fourteen (s.4). You may reasonably blink at the last part of that, because it never happened. The Act was passed, but it needed a commencement order to come into force, and the order was never made – basically, no Secretary of State had the courage to do anything about it. Eventually the provision was removed by the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which had a tidying-up provision to cancel laws that hadn’t been brought into force.
I’ve heard it said that making Acts of Parliament is a national sport; no-one should take them too seriously. It’s a reminder that campaigns can’t afford to stop when the legislation is passed. It’s also perhaps a reminder of something Churchill once said about another country. You can always rely on our governments to do the right thing, once they’ve exhausted all the other alternatives.