HC Deb 11 June 1974 vol 874 cc1579-88

11.30 p.m.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

Although the hour is late, I am grateful to have the opportunity of drawing attention to the lack of accommodation for the treatment of juvenile offenders, not only in my constituency, but throughout west Scotland. An effective deterrent is essential, otherwise offenders will continue to offend against society. Some of the offences with which I am concerned are increasing in number in my part of the country. They involve the wanton, malicious and unnecessary destruction and desecration of property, and even attacks on people. It is not unusual in my part of the country for schools to be flooded, for public buildings to be set on fire, and for bowling greens to be dug up and ruined and fixtures prevented from being implemented. These are but some of the illustrations which focus the seriousness of this type of offence against society in my part of the country.

If time permitted, I could weary hon. Members with a recital of incredible damage to properties. Municipal houses, once vacated, have to be boarded up in many parts to prevent not only the wanton destruction of the glass windows but interference with the gas and electricity supplies and the flooding of homes upstairs, with disastrous consequences for people downstairs.

When young people are convicted for perpetrating and committing such foul deeds against society, it is tragic that there is almost nothing that can be done with them. There are only four ways of dealing with an offender. First, he can be sent to a List D school. In January we were informed that there would be no vacancies in List D schools until June. Now we are told that it will be September before there are any vacancies. Therefore, an offender cannot be sent to a List D school for corrective treatment.

The second possibility is to send the offender to the assessment centre in the county. But again the centre is full up, and there is no hope of admission.

The third possibility is to send the offender home, for supervision by the social work department—but that department tells us that it does not have the necessary officers to carry out personal supervision.

The last possibility is to send the offender to the police, to be given a stern warning not to do it again. This is occurring so regularly that few offenders pay attention to what the police say, so more offences are committed. I have had cases concerning boys who have committed the offence of destroying public property and there has been no way of supervising them. Therefore, they are not sent to institutions but returned home. They are no sooner home than they commit other offences, including the burning of schools. If this situation continues we shall have no deterrent at all.

Recently, a boy was convicted of five offences. There was no room at the inn, so he was sent home. Within days he committed three more offences. He was brought before the children's panel by the police. His father appeared at the hearing and pleaded for his boy to be taken away and placed in a List D school. The children's panel could do nothing about it because there were no vacancies at the school. The boy was allowed to go back home to be supervised by his parents, but he went in at the front door and out at the back door to commit other outrages against the community.

Last week I had a letter from a constituent, asking for my help. He said that for two years he had been the focus of juvenile misbehaviour and misconduct. He listed all the offences that had been committed against him, his family and his property. He claimed that the police were powerless. That is true because, although the police are doing their utmost, unless we can provide an effective deterrent to convince these young offenders that crime does not pay and they must not do it again, the actions of the police, no matter how public spirited, are abortive.

I have known the police in my constituency to do an excellent piece of detection, and catch and have convicted young people responsible for doing thousands of pounds worth of damage to industrial offices, schools and other public buildings. But that is all abortive unless there is some authority to take the offender in hand to ensure that he will be taught a lesson and that he will never commit such offences again.

That is why the police are the butt of the young offenders, who put their fingers to their noses at them and treat them with disdain. They know that there is no room at the inn and all that the police can do is to warn them.

We recently passed the Social Work (Scotland) Act, in which we promised to provide treatment and accommodation for such offenders. The Act provided for treatment centres, but they have not yet been introduced in my part of Scotland. It is obvious that unless we provide treatment the law will be made a farce. Unless we can teach these young hoodlums a lesson by providing the essential corrective treatment, in the years that lie ahead we shall be afflicted by these shocking problems of vandalism, attacks on persons, the carrying of dangerous weapons and a diminution of the rule of law in our society. We should not have included such provisions in the Act without also providing the resources to pay for these institutions.

I am knowledgeable about List D schools because, as a member of the local authority, I was attached to many committees which dealt with them. In those days a boy had to prove his worth in a List D school. He had to prove to those in charge that he could be trusted to be sent home for the weekend or for a holiday. But today, in spite of all the wanton destruction that occurs, we seem to have grown soft. The young offenders seem to get out of the institutions without difficulty. I know of boys who walk out of the institutions on Friday and do not come back until Monday. Security has almost come to be regarded as a bad word, like the word "punishment" in relation to young persons. I am referring not to those who commit a first offence, but to those whom one could describe as habitual offenders.

The only way to deal with these offenders is to take effective and rational action. Perhaps my hon. Friend will consider confined institutions for these habitual offenders under the age of 16, so that they will not be allowed to go home on any weekend when they feel like taking some time off. Some of them are treating these schools as a pale reflection of a Butlin's holiday camp. We are inclined to err on the side of the offender and to overlook the suffering humanity who are at the receiving end of these offences.

I hope that my hon. Friend will rethink the whole approach towards the treatment of young offenders to ensure that there are institutions to which they can be allocated, to maintain an effective deterrent, to teach them that crime does not pay, and to correct those who can be corrected, in order that they can play a more responsible part in the society to which they belong.

11.42 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Robert Hughes)

I welcome this opportunity afforded to us by my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) to raise the subject of the treatment of juvenile offenders in Scotland and the shortage of List D places. This gives us a chance to debate a problem which is causing a great deal of public concern in Scotland at present.

The concern expressed by my hon. Friend at Question Time on 15th May was underlined by him this evening and I know that his concern is shared by many hon. Members. I assure the House that the Government are anxious to see the problem tackled effectively. This is one of the most difficult and pressing problems in social work in Scotland.

My hon. Friend described in graphic detail the problems of vandalism and wanton destruction in schools, churches, bowling greens, and on public property generally. One does not want to minimise the fact that these things are going on, but I think that my hon. Friend is under a fundamental misapprehension about the work undertaken by social work departments and what happens at children's hearings. He said, for example, that we convicted young people and had no effective deterrent. There is no provision under the children's hearings whereby young offenders can be convicted. The position is that where offences are committed, the child and its parents are asked whether the offence is admitted. If the offence is admitted, the children's hearing can then decide what is the best form of treatment for the child, bearing in mind his home and school circumstances, and his environment and background.

If the offence is denied by the child and its parents, it is necessary for the sheriff to determine the proof as to whether the child did commit the offence. But in no sense is it a conviction, in the sense that the child is put on trial and is then sentenced. Where an offence is committed with an elder person the child may go before a sheriff court, but that is a different matter and will be treated in a different way. On the general position in relation to vandalism, which is linked to the truancy point, there is no question of conviction and sentence, or of approaching the matter by sending children to a List D school as a kind of deterrent.

The whole aim of children's hearings and social workers is to try to provide for the child in the best possible way and to try to develop methods by which the child can be brought back into society and taught to be a useful member of it.

We know that it is not easy to do. The possibility is that by the time children come before children's hearings there is not much likelihood of a speedy solution by means of the one short, sharp lesson, such as that which my hon. Friend suggests. Over the years before we had the Social Work (Scotland) Act we discovered that the penal system of juvenile courts did not work. If it had worked, there would have been no need to change. The Act was introduced largely because experts felt that the penal system of classing youngsters between the ages of 8 and 16 as criminals and convicting them of offences was not filling the bill.

The intention of children's hearings, in sending children to List D schools, is not to provide corrective treatment in the sense of prison sentences; it is to help children to mend their ways and to fit back into society.

All this does not invalidate my hon. Friend's concern about the shortage of places—and there is a shortage. We face a situation of the kind which is liable to arise in the period following the passage of major social legislation. It is a situation in which there is a gap between the expectations and demands aroused by the legislation and the resources available in response to them.

The provisions of the Social Work (Scotland) Act, which set up the children's hearings, came into operation a little more than three years ago. Since then, a clearer picture has emerged of the range of facilities which should be available for children coming before the hearings, and it is now plain that existing resources do not match expectations.

I well understand the frustration of members of children's panels—it has been expressed in the Press and in letters to hon. Members—over the deficiencies which confront them when they are trying to reach the right decisions in respect of children who come before them. I want to see resources for children extended and diversified as rapidly as possible, not only so that children who have got into trouble may be given a better chance for the future but also so that panel members may derive a satisfaction from their work equivalent to the energy and dedication which they put in.

As my hon. Friend said, much of the recent public concern has been expressed in terms of shortage of places in the List D schools, formerly known as approved schools. It is a fact that the bulk of the demand for residential places arising from the children's hearings has fallen upon the List D schools, although these schools are not the only places able to help children who need residential treatment.

I pay tribute to the staffs of the schools for all that they have done and are doing for the children in their care. They do a tremendous amount of good work, and they are anxious that when children in their care go back into the community they really are able to go back into the community. That is one reason why children are allowed home at weekends. They must not be removed from their backgrounds for so long that they come out of school only to find the strain of going back into their homes very difficult, often leading to the commission of further offences. Let me also say how greatly I value the work of the hard-pressed staff in local authority assessment centres who are looking after the children while they are awaiting admission to List D schools.

In relation to List D schools it would be wrong for me to hide from the House the facts about places. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland told my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) on 6th May that there was a big change in the number of places available. For example, at 15th April 1971 there were 1,844 approved places in List D schools. At 31st March 1972 the number of places had dropped to 1,813. At 31st March 1973 it had dropped to 1,779, and at 31st March 1974, to 1,735. That is a net drop of 109 places over the period which I have been discussing.

The reasons for this drop are twofold. First, some List D schools have been closed or have changed their status. But the List D schools have already been doing much to change the type of accommodation which they offer. Instead of all the children living in one big dormitory, modernisations have been carried out which give some sort of privacy to the youngsters in these schools. These two things together account for the drop in the number of places.

However, the total stock of places in List D schools is being increased. The building programme in the current financial year is valued at about £600,000. Schemes already started or due to start within this year will provide about 80 extra places. The programme will also provide for improvements of other kinds. But the primary responsibility for providing new residential accommodation has been placed by Parliament on local authorities, and I am glad to say that a number of authorities have been working on plans to provide new centres both for the assessment and for the residential treatment of children. There should be about 150 additional places in assessment centres which are at present being considered or actively planned. These will go some way to relieve the existing pressure and also to provide better assessment of the needs of children coming before the hearings.

I have spoken so far about measures which inevitably take some time to implement; additional places cannot be con- jured up overnight, especially when there is a shortage of suitable staff for this demanding work with children. At the same time, it is clear that there is an urgent need for the provision of extra residential places in the short term. Since pressure began to mount, a number of the List D schools have accepted increased numbers of pupils in an effort to help relieve the situation, but there has been no reduction in the pressure, and I am considering whether any further expansion of the schools would be possible. I also have no doubt that the local authorities could play an active part in helping to deal with the situation.

Local authorities have a good deal of other accommodation at their command —and in this context there must be taken into account the resources not only of social work departments but of other agencies. I am thinking here in particular of what education authorities and voluntary bodies may have to offer. In a situation such as we are now facing there needs to be constructive and imaginative exploitation of all the accommodation that is available. Not all children placed under residential supervision requirements by the hearings need the special education provided in List D schools. I would accordingly expect local authorities to consider whether some of their other children's homes might be used, in part at least, for children who have come before the hearings. There are at present over 5,000 residential places in children's homes in Scotland, and 16 new homes with 281 places are now under construction. I am glad that we were able to include another 27 homes with 550 places in this year's building programme. I realise that decisions to use new accommodation for children under supervision might well involve special staffing and a re-assessment of priorities by local authorities, but I suggest that such questions have to be faced at the present time.

I should not leave the House with the impression that the answer to the social problems posed by difficult children lies only in the direction of providing more and more residential places. In proportion to its population, Scotland already has about twice as many children in List D schools as there are in similar establishments south of the border. There are some grounds for thinking that the current pressure on places is partly due to the lack of alternative forms of treatment in the community, which many panel members and social workers would like to see further developed.

My hon. Friend said that there were four approaches to dealing with people who came before the panels. One was the List D schools. The second was the assessment centre. The third was to send the person home and put him under supervision. The fourth was to send him to the police to be given a stern warning. I do not think that the position is as clear-cut as that. Between residential treatment, on the one hand, and supervision in the community, on the other, lies the whole area of what is commonly known as intermediate treatment. I have seen in Edinburgh how imagination can be used in its provision. I emphasise that there is no single pattern which can be used by every authority to deal with every kind of child. Some authorities are dealing with the problem by using volunteers to attend centres to help take children under their care.

Intermediate treatment, which is being increasingly considered as appropriate as an alternative to simple supervision by a social worker, or residential treatment, is very important. I do not think that this form of treatment is some kind of easy option or a despairing alternative to residential care; it has validity in its own right. Schemes of intermediate treatment may include direct action by social workers with groups of young people for whom such an approach seems appropriate; the mobilisation of existing youth services; the organisation of volunteers, and recreational programmes developed for specific groups. They may also involve some residential care, special day schooling, or attendance at day centres. A number of projects of this kind have already been developed by local authorities and voluntary organisations, and we shall do our best to encourage a wide extension of this kind of activity. The voluntary organisations can play an active part in this kind of thing.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

To what extent are children's hearings making more referrals for List D accommodation simply because there is not this intermediate area, with voluntary organisations and churches, because they are all too conscious that there is an inadequate supply of social workers to implement the provision?

Mr. Hughes

My hon. Friend has raised a very important point. With the lack of social workers, the alternative back-up, and the fact that intermediate treatment is only now beginning to be discussed with the kind of attention it deserves, has meant that the children's hearings have felt that they have only two choices—on the one hand, supervision by a social worker, which often, with the heavy case loads, meant minimal supervision and minimal contact with the social worker, and on the other residential care.

Many children's hearing panel members, directors of social work, and so on, have expressed concern at the current situation. I have recently met local authorities, the reporters, the directors of social work, and managers of List D schools—all interests concerned about the difficulties facing children's hearings and the treatment of young offenders. Although they have been concerned about the difficulty in resources, all of them have had one message to deliver. It is that despite the difficult circumstances those of us who are concerned and who feel that the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 is on the right lines must not lose our nerve. We should all reaffirm our commitment to the children's panel system. The punitive ethos in the treatment of young offenders will be a long time passing. It will take patience before it passes. Only with care can we solve these problems in the future.

It would be wrong to leave the matter without saying that we are dealing with the end-products of a disordered society, and the provision of social amenity is an essential part in prevention. The House may be assured that the Government will do all they can to help the local authorities and other bodies to tackle the problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve o'clock.