HC Deb 05 November 1962 vol 666 cc759-68

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

11.12 p.m.

Mr. Alan Brown (Tottenham)

I shall be very brief, because I know that there are others who wish to take part in this debate. Never in the history of this nation has more criticism been levelled at our youth than today. We do not have to look far to find the reason for the grave concern being expressed by the public and the Press. It is the ever-increasing incidence of delinquency among our young people, evidenced year by year in our annual crime statistics.

The country is fortunate in possessing a series of criminal records, kept since 1857, which give full details of the crimes committed and the punishments awarded, together with information concerning the delinquents themselves. It is, therefore, possible to study the trend of delinquency and anti-social behaviour over the past 100 years.

The latest report has recently been published, and the records of criminal statistics for 1961 are horrifying. It is not surprising that society is alarmed. Juvenile delinquency is shown to have reached a peak never before known in this country. But even worse is the fact that its incidence continues to rise. During 1961, the number of juveniles found guilty before the courts has increased to 120,198. Of this total, 64,284 were found guilty of indictable offences. The increase in the number of juveniles found guilty before the courts—from 107,000 in 1960 to 120,198 in 1961; an increase of 13,198—is without parallel in our history.

Such an appallingly high figure must pose the question: was it necessary, in this modern day and age, and in this Welfare State in which we all take pride, to bring no fewer than 120,000 children before the courts last year? I submit that it was not, and that the majority of these children need never have appeared before the courts at all. If Her Majesty's Government implement certain findings of the Ingleby Committee I am sure that the House will agree that this desirable state of affairs will be brought about.

There is, for example, recommendation No. 7, that the minimum age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 12. Most specialists in the field of child care that I know consider this most desirable. Its implementation would considerably reduce the figures of juvenile delinquency. But even at the age of 12 ours would still be the lowest age of criminal responsibility in the world.

Another most important recommendation is No. 6, that the juvenile courts, in their dealings with children in need of care and protection, as opposed to delinquent children, should get further away from the conception of criminal jurisdiction. Hon. Members will recall that on several occasions I have drawn the attention of the House to this strange flaw in our present legislation, the last time being on 12th May. We seek to combat juvenile delinquency and yet we use precisely the same methods of disposal and treatment in the case of an innocent child who is merely the victim of neglect as for a juvenile thug.

What manner of justice is it that demands that because an innocent child is under the age of 17, and, therefore, subject to juvenile law, he shall be dragged before a court of summary jurisdiction and sent from there to a remand home or centre where perforce he is mixed with hardened criminals, who are frequently well-steeped in crime?

In my experience the treatment of a unoffending child is frequently the cause of frequent abscondings. Does society know that the majority of the girls in our approved schools are there for care and protection? Not so long ago there was a case of a girl who was interfered with by her stepfather. She was brought before a court as being in need of care and protection, as, indeed, she was. She was sent to a remand home and then to an approved school. The victim, in her view, was punished. Is it any wonder that so many of these young people have "chips on their shoulders"?

I think that the implementation of recommendation No. 19 would help. The power of parents to bring their children before a juvenile court should be revoked. An example of this power was afforded by the case of Sophie, last year, which was reported in the newspapers.

Finally, a word about recommendation No. 24. Hon. Members will recall that last week, at Brighton, the chief clerk to the Metropolitan juvenile courts, speaking at the annual conference of the Association of Remand Home Superintendents and Matrons, referred to the appalling ignorance of even the Metropolitan Bench of parts of the law which they administer in the juvenile courts. I have just finished dealing with the case of a 14-year-old girl, the eldest of six children. The girl and her parents were summoned at the instance of the local education authority, the girl being charged with truancy. She was made the subject of a fit person order and taken from her family and home. Such a judicial decision was quite wrong, because it was contrary to the principles of the children's service, that under no circumstances shall a child be taken from the parental home unless there is no other course of treatment open. These are some of the things which, in my view, should be examined.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will tell the House the intentions of the Government regarding the amendment of the juvenile law and methods of treatment of juvenile delinquents so that they may be brought up to date to meet modern requirements.

11.20 p.m.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

I want to refer to a matter which has caused great anxiety in Liverpool. I am a magistrate and sit regularly on the juvenile court bench. In Liverpool, we have been very concerned—the Minister will know that our figures are fairly high—about reports we receive from the education authority before we deal with the punishment to be administered.

I have been watching this matter for some months. I asked for figures on the question of the educational ability of juveniles brought before the Liverpool juvenile court. I did not expect to receive such an appalling statement. I shall give the figures and perhaps I may follow that with a suggestion for dealing with the question on a national basis. If the figures in other areas where there is a large amount of juvenile crime are similar to those in Liverpool in relation to educational attainment on age, this problem requires looking into, but so far as I am aware it has not been considered.

The figures I refer to are statistics relating to educational ability of juveniles appearing before the juvenile court in the period 1st May to 17th July, 1962. They are: above average 6, average 74, below average 129, not stated 9; that is, out of 218 children there were 129 below educational ability. Young persons, above average 11, average 78, below average 106, not stated 31, a total of 226. Out of that total 106 were stated to be below the educational ability for their age.

Often when we receive the educational report it gives the age of the child and then the educational ability for that age and we find it two and a half or three years below educational ability. In that respect, the problem should be looked at from a national point of view, because if, through some such reason as there being too many children in a classroom, those of a lower standard have been able to pick things up as quickly as others and still remain in that class, their ability is below the age it should be. It may be that this causes an inferiority complex in the child, because it cannot reach a certain educational standard. It then takes some action to draw attention to itself.

This is such an important matter that the Liverpool juvenile court decided at its quarterly meeting to keep records of this sort and to supply them quarterly to the magistrates of juvenile courts in order to see whether this is a general situation throughout the area. We could then ask the Ministry whether it is prepared to have some inquiry made on a national basis to see if we are slipping in relation to the educational training of these children.

11.25 p.m.

Miss Alice Bacon (Leeds, South-East)

I cannot, in the two minutes which I have promised to take, say anything about the whole question of juvenile delinquency, but I want to ask the Minister to deal with one specific point. I was much interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. A. Brown) about young people who, perhaps, ought not to be in residential accommodation. It has always been my contention that we take far too many children into residential accommodation who could probably be kept in their own homes if their own homes were suitable. In some cases their own homes are not suitable.

During the Recess we had the interesting report about training centres, centres such as exist in America and which have been advocated over here. By these centres some juvenile offenders would remain resident in their own homes but would undertake day training or evening training in training centres. I was very disappointed to find that the Committee which has been considering the matter came down against the training centre idea. I should like the Minister to tell us what are the Government's views on this matter, whether they agree with the Committee, or whether they have an open mind and will look into it again. Will he also say whether we may hope for a report from the Government in the near future?

11.27 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke)

I think that it was about six months ago that my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. A. Brown) gave us an opportunity to discuss this topic, and we are grateful to him for doing so again. On that occasion he found some hope, in the criminal statistics as they then were, for thinking that the rising tide of delinquency was about to turn. Since then we have had the figures for 1961, and, as my hon. Friend said, his confidence seems to have been misplaced, for juvenile delinquency has again increased.

I think that I should utter the usual word of warning about these figures. Statistics showing the number of persons found guilty by the courts are influenced to a degree which we cannot assess by such factors as the willingness of victims to report offences by children and the readiness to deal with children's offences by prosecution in the court. Whatever one may think of my hon. Friend's strong suggestion that too many were brought before the court, that in itself shows the danger of attributing too much absolute value to the statistics themselves, because undoubtedly in many cases there is a variation from year to year, and from place to place, in people's opinion whether certain children's offences should be subject to prosecution.

In reply to my hon. Friend, I remind him that Ingleby came down firmly in favour of keeping juvenile courts, and we have no reason to doubt the wisdom of retaining the judicial rather than approaching the non-judicial tribunal as is sometimes suggested.

I also attended the meeting at Brighton, to which he referred, of the remand home superintendents and matrons, though not the actual lecture which he mentioned. My approach to those magistrates who sit on juvenile courts is not as pessimistic as his. I think that all of us should remember that, because we sometimes may disagree with the judgment of a bench, it does not follow that that bench is appallingly ignorant. The hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), who sits as a magistrate in a juvenile court, knows, as do others, the immense care and the great knowledge which these juvenile courts in London and in the Provinces have developed over the years, and we stand four-square behind them.

The second reason for suspecting some of the statistics is that the mere absolute numbers of prosecutions is not the right test. The total number of children in each of the age groups under which the criminal statistics are arranged differs from one year to another, so the number found guilty is not by itself an adequate guide to delinquency. Comparisons should be based on delinquency rates—for example, the number found guilty of indictable offences per 100,000 for the age group. For boys between 8 and 14 years of age, this figure was 1,254 in 1960 and 1,425 in 1961, an increase of 136 per cent. This is, fortunately, still below the peak figure of 1,503 in 1951. In the case of those between 14 and 17, the figure for 1960 was 2,436 and, for 1961, 2,535. This is well above the 1951 figure of 2,044, but even 2,500 represents only 2½per cent. of the age group who have committed indictable offences in any one year.

Even allowing for the fact that the proportion who offend at some time or other before they grow up is naturally higher, we need not picture a whole generation in conflict with the law. Nevertheless, there is reason enough in conscience for concern, and the only reassurance I can bring is the news that preliminary figures for delinquency rates during the first half of 1962, which have just become available, are lower than those for the corresponding part of 1961. Whether or not this is the beginning of a different and downward trend we cannot know and we must not assume, but at least it looks once again promising.

In these debates it is customary to say that we are not alone in this, and that is true. The problem in America is well known, and, to judge from a survey made by the Council of Europe two or three years ago, several European countries have had the same general experience as ours, though differences of law and practice bedevil any attempt to make direct comparisons. The Government can and do accept their responsibility, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will be the first to agree that it is not one that the Government can or should assume alone.

The prime responsibility must be with the community itself, and it was for that reason that my right hon. Friend the First Secretary, then Home Secretary, called a national conference last November of Church leaders and others prominent in public life and various forms of voluntary service to the community. Much must depend upon the reaction of such persons and it was of great interest and encouragement to hear from my colleague the Minister of State of a recent conference in Leeds, in which he took part at the request of the Association of Head Teachers, to consider what might be done locally to prevent or reduce juvenile delinquency.

I was much interested in the figures given by the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange of those who become delinquent and who are below the average intelligence for their age. These are startling figures, but not surprising, because I think that our own research units and general knowledge of the subject lead to the belief that a large part of the first step in delinquency is taken by those of below average intelligence in order to do just as she said, to call attention to themselves because they cannot do so in the normal way. Of course, the large classes, and particularly those sitting at the back of large classes, play their part in this.

We continue to support and promote research into the causes and prevention of crime and the treatment of offenders. The Home Office Research Unit is engaged in studies of probation and the approved school system. Manchester University is making a survey of claims designed to reduce delinquency. The London School of Economics is conducting a major study of various aspects of this problem. There are many others of which I could tell the House if there were time.

My hon. Friend asked me various questions about the Ingleby Report and the recommendations therein. Since we are speaking on the Adjournment and since the fact that we shall have legislation on this subject has already been announced in the Gracious Speech, I regret that I cannot satisfy his natural curiosity beyond saying that he will not have very long to wait.

Miss Bacon

Shall we have very long to wait before it comes to the House of Commons?

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

That is a matter not for me, but for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I cannot give the hon. Lady an answer.

Miss Bacon

I was wondering whether it would go to another place first.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

I do not think that I am allowed to say that, and I am not sure that I know.

The hon. Lady asked me a direct question about the recent Report of the Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders which dealt with the nonresidential treatment of offenders under 21. This was a Report to which the Advisory Council gave great attention, but I am bound to say, with the hon. Lady, that I am rather disappointed with it. However, the fact that one is disappointed is not reason enough to disagree with the Report. I have to tell the hon. Lady that the Government do not propose at present to seek power to set up non-residential training centres. We have brought the Report to the notice of probation authorities and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education is bringing it to the notice of the local education authorities and those national voluntary bodies whom it most concerns.

All I can say of comfort to the hon. Lady is that, if anyone were to propose the setting up of an experimental centre, with the support of the courts and others concerned, and on a non-statutory basis, we should certainly be ready to discuss the proposal. We do not ourselves propose to take the initiative in setting up such an experimental centre, because of the Report of the Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders, but we should be prepared to discuss with any person or persons who would like to do so, on a non-statutory and voluntary experimental basis, how it might best be done and what help, if any, we could give.

I could go through the usual list of places of treatment and places of detention which we have to deal with this intractable problem. Undoubtedly, in my experience, the detention centre is the one which has captured the public imagination. Indeed, it has almost become a status symbol in certain parts of the country; various counties insist upon having one because their neighbouring counties have one. The detention centre, of course, is very good, but it is only one of many methods of treatment. We must not forget the excellent work which is still being done, particularly at the lower ages, by the remand homes and the approved schools.

The attendance centres, although not so well publicised or so well known, are extremely important. We are steadily increasing their number. The courts consider them a useful means of dealing with young offenders in the early stages of delinquency. They can usefully be provided only in the main centres of population, so there is a limit to the degree of expansion possible, but new centres have been opened during the past year in Birmingham, Blackpool, Salford and South Shields, bringing the total number up to 47. Others are to be opened soon in Liverpool and Central London.

The picture is one of considerable activity. I speak under some restraint and constraint tonight owing to the rules relating to Adjournment debates and the fact that we are soon to publish the Bill which follows the Ingleby Report. That Bill, of course, will throw the whole subject open to much wider and deeper discussion than has been possible tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Twelve o'clock.