HC Deb 02 May 1975 vol 891 cc979-88

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity to discuss what I believe to be a very important and extremely disturbing situation. I refer, of course, to the number of children between the ages of 14 and 16 who are currently being incarcerated in prison establishments.

I believe—and it is an opinion shared by a large number of my hon. Friends—that this is a situation which causes a great amount of anxiety and is a real cause for concern. At the same time, it is one which seems to arouse nothing more than the excessive complacency of the Government. There seems to be a considerable desire on the part of the Government to do nothing to tackle the problem. They seem to spend their time passing the problem back and forth between the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Security, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General playing a middle role somewhere between them.

As long ago as 1969, in the Children and Young Persons Act, we provided for a system of community homes. That measure established the principle that children should not be in prison establishments. It set out firmly and clearly the assumption and view that prison was an inappropriate place in which to put children and that their needs had to be catered for in a community-care kind of system.

Despite that, the vast majority of young offenders between the ages of 14 and 16 are sent to penal institutions, which I believe to be totally inappropriate to their ages, to their circumstances, to their needs and, in many cases, to the offences which they have committed.

No one could reasonably argue that a prison establishment was an appropriate place in which to put a child. It would be extremely difficult to find anyone to argue the case for a child being put in a prison establishment. But, whereas in 1971 2,764 boys entered prison custody at remand centres, the number increased in 1974 to a staggering 4,645 boys. Of this latter group, 3,340 were on remand awaiting trial. They had not been convicted of any offence. They were innocent in law. We were, in effect, interning children without trial and, moreover, putting them into prison establishments.

Taking the figures a little further, in 1973 a total of 3,760 boys were put into prison establishments, of whom 2,697 were untried, innocent, being interned while awaiting trial. In that same year a total of 202 girls, of whom 155 were untried, were put into prison establishments.

These figures are bad enough. They are not only a poor reflection on our system of administration of justice but a gross indictment of our welfare and support facilities. They certainly make a mockery of everything that has been said or promised about the problems of dealing with the difficulties of young offenders since the landmark White Paper on the child, the family and the young offender.

What is worse and, in many ways, even more alarming than the fact that in 1975 we are putting children into prison establishments is that so many of these children are subsequently found not guilty or are given non-custodial sentences.

I hesitate to quote figures yet again. They are boring and repetitive and I am not particularly numerate with figures. Nevertheless, they are necessary to illustrate and highlight the nature and scale of the problem.

Of those 3,760 boys entering prison establishments in 1973, 1,514 were subsequently found not guilty or given non-custodial sentences. Of the 202 girls similarly entering prison establishments, a staggering 152 were found not guilty or given non-custodial sentences. That means that nearly 50 per cent. of the boys and over 75 per cent. of the girls incarcerated in prison establishments in that year and given the harrowing taste of prison life and all that that entails ought not to have been there in the first place. That was clearly indicated by the subsequent verdicts of the courts. Many of those childred were in remand centres, which, in all but name, are in fact prisons, but some of them were in local prisons awaiting trial.

For example, on 5th February this year there were 11 boys and four girls in prisons. On 31st March these figures had increased to 17 boys and seven girls. The problem is getting worse.

It is ironic that we would not dream of putting into prison a 14-year-old girl or a 16-year-old boy who had been convicted of an offence, yet, somehow or other we manage to put unconvicted boys and girls into prisons. There would be a tremendous outcry if it became an act of policy to imprison convicted children. Yet, somehow or other—as a matter of fact, as an administrative convenience—we are managing to get away with the imprisonment of unconvicted children awaiting trial.

That in itself is disturbing, but what is more disturbing is the time spent in custody awaiting trial. Of all those I have in mentioned in 1973, 50 boys and six girls were subsequently found not guilty. Indeed, 45 of those boys and five of those girls aged between 14 and 16 spent up to a month in prison establishments and three of the boys and one of the girls spent between one and three months in prison establishments before being found not guilty.

Then there is the second category of those who are convicted of an offence but are given non-custodial sentences, and in the same year 62 boys and girls spent two to three months in prison establishments although they were subsequently deemed to have committed an offence so trivial as not to require a custodial sentence. Three spent between five and six months in prison establishments, and four over six months, all again subsequently being given non-custodial sentences. This I believe to be a shocking indictment of our whole judicial system and reflects, I believe, the complacency and blandness of successive Governments.

Nor are the offences with which the children are charged particularly serious or harrowing. Most of them, indeed, are relatively trivial offences. For example, of the 17 boys and seven girls to whom I referred who were in prisons on 21st March of this year, five were there for theft, one for taking a motor vehicle, and six for taking a motor vehicle without the authority or consent of the owner. We put children into prison for that? We put eight children into prison for burglary. We put one girl aged between 14 and 16 into Holloway for soliciting, and one for loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offence. Is this the picture of a so-called humane, Civilized, compassionate society, or is it more appropriately the real picture of a Dickensian hard- nosed Britain and a complacent Government?

I should like briefly to give two cases, one of a girl of 14 and one a girl of 16, both of whom spent some considerable time in Holloway prison. The 16-year-old girl was charged with stealing £6 worth of detergents from a super-market. No one represented her in court, her parents were not informed, she was put in Holloway, and only subsequently, after representations were made on her behalf, was she given bail. We put her in prison for stealing £6 worth of detergents, and eventually she was given bail.

The 14-years-old girl was charged with theft to the value of £30. No one represented her in court, she was not given bail, and she was put into Holloway. But, again, when representations were eventually made on her behalf she was brought out on bail after spending a week in Holloway. No one, I believe, would seriously suggest that either of those girls should have been imprisoned in the first place. Nor, indeed, should they have been imprisoned even on conviction. They should certainly not have been imprisoned immediately after the alleged offence without it being proved.

What are the reasons for the increasing number of children being put into prison establishments? I do not believe that it is the wicked magistrates to whom people sometimes refer, but I believe that there are some magistrates who are remand-happy. Indeed, as I believe the Home Office Advisory Board, as reported in The Guardian on 29th April, indicated, some magistrates are far too concerned with what they envisage to be their role in protecting the public who come into their domain. In many cases they place undue emphasis on the protection of the public instead of looking at and trying to accommodate the need of many children who do not require any kind of support. Some magistrates penalize rather than help, and they are creating the criminals of the future, when what is really needed is a much more discriminating and humane approach.

Nor do I believe that it is necessarily the fault of the social workers, though many of them are unduly happy about getting "unruly" certificates signed, perhaps in some cases to get what to them is a somewhat troublesome child off their hands, and perhaps my hon. and learned Friend will deal with this when he replies to the debate. There seems to have been a sudden increase in "unruly" certificates, which seem to be thrown out like confetti, and a dramatic drop in the number of supervision orders. Are these children really unruly? Is the Home Secretary really signing this many certificates? What does he mean by "unruly"? Yet most of these children, in order that they be entertained at Her Majesty's expense in a prison, have to be certified as being so unruly as to be beyond even the care of a local authority.

No, the fault does not lie exclusively with either magistrates or social workers, nor, as many people would like to believe, and certainly suggest, with the Children and Young Persons Act. The fault lies squarely on the shoulders of successive Governments for having willed the end but been unwilling to provide the means.

There is no point in the Minister passing the buck yet again today and saying "Yes, I sympathise, I understand, and my regrets are as profound, as deep, as sincere as yours, but it is not my fault. You should speak to the Secretary of State for Social Services". That will not do. That has been said too many times in the past. There is no point in my hon. Friend expressing sympathy. I know that he has sympathy and I believe that he is sincere, but we have had enough of sympathy in the past. Sympathy will not do for all these many hundreds of children who are now in prison establishments.

Nor is there any point in my hon. Friend saying "Yes, but many of these children are on remand in custody because we need reports on their psychiatric state." Prison is a strange place in which to draw up a psychiatric report. In any event, it would seem to exacerbate, rather than to solve, the problem. It is not the place in which assessments of children can be properly and adequately made.

Nor is there any point in the Minister trying to minimise the problem, because, like juvenile crime itself, it is increasing. He accepts, I acccept and I believe this House accepts—this is demonstrated in two Early-Day Motions—that prison is in- appropriate for children and that the practice is indefensible, that it is criminal to put 14-year-old girls and boys between 14 and 16 in prison. What we want now, and what I hope my hon. Friend will give, is a clear, unequivocal commitment to action.

4.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

This is a serious matter and all of us involved with the problem of juvenile delinquency and criminal offences by young people recognise that the situation is serious. It will not be helped, if I may say so, by extrapolating from inadequate evidence some rather wild suggestions which came out in parts of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) and which marred the signal service that he has done to the House and the country over the last few weeks, as well as today, in focusing attention upon this problem. The problem and the facts are sufficiently serious to make their own impact without the use of the kind of language which my hon. Friend has sought to use today. Recognising that, I want to answer him in a perfectly serious vein.

The first thing to recognise is that under Section 19(1) of the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973 neither a Crown court nor a magistrates' court is allowed to impose imprisonment on a person under the age of 17. In addition, under Section 23 of the Children awl Young Persons Act 1969 a court which remands a person under the age of 17 and does not release him on bail is required to commit him to the care of a local authority. Therefore, the statutory protection for children of the age group about which my hon. Friend is concerned is already very stringent.

The kind of children to whom my hon. Friend has referred get into prison largely as a result of the use of the "unruly" certificate. He said that he was not blaming social workers or magistrates. He wanted to know why the Home Secretary was issuing "unruly" certificates. I am afraid that my hon. Friend's research, which has been prolific over the past few weeks, did not take him quite far enough. We have no power over the issue of "unruly" certificates. It is for the juvenile court or the magistrates' court to decide whether they will issue an "unruly" certificate, and they will normally do so only where the social services department indicates that it has no community home where the child can be accommodated safely because of the nature of the behaviour of the child who is appearing before the court. Therefore, what we are concerned about is children who are so difficult that it would not be easy to keep them within the existing community homes provision. It is that that has caused the difficulty.

I recognise—and I am concerned about it, as is my hon. Friend—the extent to which the use of "unruly" certificates over the last few years has, in fact, burgeoned. But it may be an indication either of a different attitude on the part of the social services departments or the courts or, much more likely, that the whole problem of delinquency among young people is reaching considerably greater proportions than it has ever reached in the past.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

My hon. Friend is making little of this. Four thousand boys have been put in prison this year, and yet we find that the vast majority of them are so unruly that they are not guilty, they have the charges against them dropped or they are given non-custodial sentences. How can they be so unruly if they are subsequently sent out?

Mr. Lyon

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has ever been in the situation of considering such a case, but it is quite conceivable that the court can come to a realistic assessment—I accept that it may not in every case be realistic—that a child is unruly and is yet not convinced that he is guilty of the offence with which he is charged. That is by no means a strange factor. In my experience at the criminal Bar, there have been many men whom I have defended successfully who had very bad records indeed and might have been described as violent, unruly or in every other way bad characters, but, nevertheless, they were not guilty of the offences with which they were charged.

That is the position here. It may be—I accept my hon. Friend's thesis—that the courts are being too lax in the use of the "unruly" certificate, but such evidence as we have would not tend to sub- stantiate that on a big scale. There are obviously exceptions. Some of the matters to which my hon. Friend has referred are, perhaps, exceptions. But we are, so far as we can, encouraging courts to remand on bail in as large a number of cases as possible.

It is true that the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 also gave the Home Secretary the power to phase out the use of the unruly "certificate in relation to specified classes of young people. It would be possible for us to move in that direction—we are anxious to do so—as soon as enough secure community homes are available for us to do so. Here I think that my hon. Friend has a perfectly valid objection. It is true that successive Governments, of both parties, have not yet put enough resources into the problem of meeting this particular difficulty, either for children on remand or even for children who are in care. We have given a great deal of attention to that in the last year.

As I indicated in a debate in December, the scale of local authority provision in the coming financial year for the provision of security homes is very considerable indeed. A substantial number of places will become available, but they are not yet available. Therefore, we cannot move as fast as certainly the Home Secretary and I should like in phasing out this power. In view of my hon. Friend's campaign, we shall carefully consider the possibility of starting to phase out this power as applied to girls aged 14. Perhaps we can make a small start there.

The position is not quite as simple as my hon. Friend suggested. In every case where a child is remanded into secure accommodation other than to a community home, the court has to send the child to the institution in that area which is available for it on remand. In most cases these are remand centres. Most of the boys about whom my hon. Friend has expressed concern go into remand centres which are designed to take boys up to the age of 21. They do not take males above that age except at Risley, where there is a physical separation between males over 21 and those under 21. The concern is that they might mix with boys of an older age group than 17. In most cases there is physical separation of boys over 17 and those under 17.

Even if they go to a remand centre which can technically be called a prison, they are still going to a quite separate establishment.

There is concern about location in a prison as such. That happens in six local prisons throughout England and Wales where the courts have nowhere else in the neighbourhood to send young males, where there is no remand centre to be used for the purpose. These are Bedford, Canterbury, Lincoln, Norwich, Oxford, and Shrewsbury.

The sending of girls to Holloway is what causes most vocal complaint. This applies to all girls in the South-East and the Midlands, where the only reception place is Holloway. There is small possibility of our ever being able to provide a remand centre to cope with the small number of girls admitted to Holloway. The girls can be physically separated in the hospital establishment. We do not regard this as very satisfactory. Probably the best way of dealing with the problem will be to move as quickly as possible to phasing out "unruly" certificates for girls. There may still be problems involved in going as high as 16.

Although the position is grave, we are not as complacent as my hon. Friend suggested. We are moving as quickly as we can to providing the amount of secure accommodation that will allow us to phase out. We shall be fortified in our resolution to do that by all the criticism my hon. Friend has directed at us and by his highlighting of the problem today.

This is only a small part of the total difficulty about juvenile offences which is at present under review by my Department and the Department of Health and Social Security as part of our overall review of the problems associated with the Children and Young Persons Act. We shall take it into consideration in reporting on the review.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.