HC Deb 28 October 1975 vol 898 cc1324-36

'The Court shall not certify under section 22(5) or section 23(2) or (3) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 (committals to remand centres or prison) that a child is of so unruly a character that he cannot safely be committed to the care of a local authority unless the conditions prescribed by order made by the Secretary of State are satisfied in relation to that child.

In this section, "court" includes a justice'.—[Dr. Owen.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. Owen

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we shall take Government new Clause 31 and Government Amendment No. 256.

Mr. McElhone

I should like to draw the attention of the House to a printing error in new Clause 31 on page 2925 of the Amendment Paper. At line 7 the words "made by statutory instrument" should be inserted after the word "order".

Dr. Owen

As the new Clause represents something which was not raised in Committee and which has been inserted on Report, it merits a little explanation. The House knows that the number of remands to Prison Department establishments of juveniles charged with a criminal offence and certified to be of so unruly a character that they cannot safely be committed to the care of the local authority, has risen steeply in recent years. The number of receptions to prisons of boys aged 14 to 16 rose from under 2,000 in 1971 to more than 3,500 in 1974. The number of certificates issued in respect of girls rose from under 100 in 1971 to nearly 250 in 1974.

The sending of these young people to Prison Department establishments and in particular in the case of girls and some boys to establishments in which adult prisoners are held has rightly attracted growing and widespread criticism. It is a difficult problem. The continuance of such treatment, particularly for the older, more difficult and more violent juveniles, will clearly need to continue, I regret, for a little time at least.

We have given considerable attention to this matter and I am now looking with my Home Office colleagues at the recommendations of the Social Service and Employment Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee in its recent Report on the Children and Young Persons Act. We had to consider whether we should use the opportunity that was presented in the Bill to take this power.

The purpose of the clause is to empower the Secretary of State to prescribe by order the conditions which must be satisfied before courts issue unruly certificates authorising the commitment of juveniles who are remanded to Prison Department establishments.

I think that the House will agree that it was right in this specific instance to take advantage of the legislative opportunity provided by the Bill, even at this late stage of its passage, and to take an enabling power to regulate the issue of unruly certificates.

The Government would, of course, have liked to consult the various interests concerned—some interim informal consultations have taken place—including the courts and the social services, before deciding on the clause, but time has not permitted this.

I should like now to repeat the categoric assurance already given to the various representative bodies that the Government will consult those bodies fully on the form, content and timing of the bringing into operation of the regulations. I do not myself regard them as having resource implications. Rather, they are concerned with ensuring that the courts and social services can together make the best use of what remand facilities are available within the community home system and to confine remands of juveniles to Prison Department establishments to the minimum necessary at this stage of development of the facilities in the community home system. The question of the need for more secure accommodation and the interpretation of the Children and Young Persons Act is not covered and has deliberately been left outside.

I do not intend to move Amendment No. 256 which would have brought into operation new Clause 31, which covers Scotland—this is a matter with which my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson) is concerned—on the passing of the Act. We would now prefer to leave the matter to be dealt with by commencement order, as will be the case in the case of new Clause 17. This puts the two clauses on equal footing. The principle is exactly the same.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

As the Minister of State says, this is an important clause which has not up to now been debated. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to consult us We agreed that it should be introduced at this stage.

The Opposition are greatly in favour of the intention behind the clause. The aim is to keep children out of prison. That is an aim on which we can all agree. A year ago I went to Wormwood Scrubs prison, which some hon. Members may remember is a special security prison with extra security precautions.

However, another wing of Wormwood Scrubs housed the borstal allocation unit for the southern part of England. The boys who were sent there stayed three or four weeks whilst it was decided what borstal they should be sent to. Many of them went not to a closed borstal but to an open borstal. Although the boys were obviously kept separate from the adult prisoners, it could have hardly have failed to get around that they were being kept in prison. Twenty-five per cent. of them slept three to a cell.

It is a scandal that children should be kept in prison. It is even worse if they are kept in prison when they are awaiting trial or sentence, because we are dealing with children whose guilt has not been determined or whose eventual sentence will not necessarily be a custodian one.

This is a problem to which both sides of the House should turn its attention. The problem has gone on for far too long and we should certainly seek to solve it with the minimum of delay. Anything that can be done to minimise the problem is good and the Opposition will support it wholeheartedly.

4.45 p.m.

It should be remembered, however, that children are not in prison simply because magistrates are anxious to commit people to prison. That is not the case as the Select Committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan) was a member, made clear in its Report.

We took steps to consult the Magistrates' Association this morning. The association has made it clear that it would welcome any steps that would obviate the need to send children to prison.

The problem which must be faced, however, is the shortage of secure places for difficult juveniles. Therefore, as the leader in The Guardian said this morning, we should not approve this clause without having some information about how it will work and how it is to be applied in practice. There are at least two questions. I am sure that the Minister of State, whose interest in this question is well known, will have the answers.

First, what new arrangements has the Minister of State in mind for making new secure accommodation available? We all agree that children should not go to prison. We all agree that prison should not be used in this way. How are we to avoid that situation arising? As the hon. Gentleman will probably have seen, tonight's Evening Standard carries the report of a councillor in one London borough talking about the crisis of child care in London and saying that there is no way of controlling the increasing violence in our community homes without a massive increase of staff. That is the problem we face. What alternative arrangements does the hon. Gentleman intend to make?

Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman say something about the regulations and the policy? For example, do the Govern- ment intend to accept the Select Committee's recommendation that the practice of remanding young persons to adult prisons should cease forthwith?

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Like the hon. Member for Sutton Cold-field (Mr. Fowler), I warmly welcome the clause, which seems to be designed to tighten up the conditions in which an unruly certificate is issued. About 4,000 children are admitted to prison establishments every year—not just to remand centres, but many of them to local prisons. On any one day about a dozen girls will be in Holloway prison. As the hon. Member said, that is a scandal to which too little attention has been paid by hon. Members of the House and by the public at large. It is a blight on society that we should send children to prison and that there should be so little in the way of alternatives to offer.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State has gone some way, but unfortunately not yet far enough, to alleviate the situation. As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield reminded us in his very fair and welcome comments, many of the children who are in prisons or prison establishments are awaiting trial; they have not yet been convicted of any offence. It is merely alleged that they have committed offences. A substantial proportion of the children committed to prisons as a result of the granting of unruly certificates are subsequently found not guilty of the offence with which they are charged or are given custodial sentences. Yet in effect they have already served a prison sentence. They have not just lost their liberty. They have been exposed to what anyone with any sense of compassion would regard as intolerable and uncivilised conditions.

No one suggests that all of these children are innocent or are angels. Some are very unruly. Some are violent. Some are difficult. They are aged from 14 to 16.

What precisely are the alternatives that my hon. Friend is offering? All that he is doing by means of the clause is to say that we shall tighten up the way in which unruly certificates are granted, that we shall make the conditions more stringent. Perhaps he will illustrate the exact nature of the conditions that will be prescribed by order. In future, under what conditions will magistrates be able to grant unruly certificates? How does the clause compare with the commitment made to me by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department that he was considering the phasing out altogether of unruly certificates?

There seems to be some confusion between the two Departments. It would seem that the Home Office and the 111 Members who signed the all-party motion condemning the imprisonment of children agree with me that we should phase out unruly certificates. At one stage that was felt necessary for girls, but Lord Harris has made it clear in a letter that that should apply to all children. However, the Minister is saying that we are talking not about phasing out but about tightening up the conditions under which the certificates shall be advanced.

We are not stopping the imprisonment of children by means of the clause. My hon. Friend is saying that we may prevent a few of them going to prisons because we shall have more stringent conditions than in the past. In his opening remarks my hon. Friend said something about the "minimum necessary". Surely he did not mean that. Surely he did not mean that it is necessary to imprison children, that it is necessary for some children to be in penal establishments. However, that is what he said. I believe that he said that, apart from the minimum necessary, it is to be hoped that the majority will now be dealt with by other means.

That raises the question of the exact nature of the other means. This is an issue of resources. As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, we cannot deal with 4,000 so-called unruly juveniles a year unless we are prepared to commit the necessary resources to the building of secure units. I do not believe that all of the 4,000 children that pass through our penal establishments each year should lose their liberty. Many of them could be properly cared for in the community by means of supervision orders, by the local authorities or by the probation service. Perhaps there is an important and continuing rôle for the probation service in offering that sort of care. The fact that so many are proved innocent or given non-custodial sentences only serves to emphasise my point.

Clearly there are some children who require secure accommodation. My hon. Friend has been rather unforthcoming as to exactly how the local authorities are to provide such accommodation, unless the Government are prepared and willing to advance far more resources than in the past. I know that there is an amendment to provide an extra £2 million to be tied to local authority provision of secure accommodation, but what are the special conditions that will be prescribed in future for the granting of certificates? What alternatives does my hon. Friend now propose for those children who will not go into prison establishments? What resources does he propose to give to local authorities? Will he consider the suggestion in The Guardian that has been mention by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield—namely, that when children are sent to prison the local authorities should pay the full costs of their incarceration?

I end with an urgent and heartfelt plea—I feel that it will be echoed on both sides of the House—for my hon. Friend to act speedily in conjunction with the Home Office to ensure that we remove this scandalous blight from our society, that we move from the Dickensian situation of having children in prison. I urge my hon. Friend to move quickly.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Although a final judgment on the clause must await the conditions which the Secretary of State prescribes, I join in welcoming the principle in the clause and what the Minister of State is seeking to do. At present a magistrate is faced with a difficult decision when there is an application for an unruly certificate, when he is told that unless a certificate is advanced the social worker cannot ensure that the child will reappear at court when next required. Anything which will in some way regularise the position has a great deal to commend it.

Perhaps this debate also gives the opportunity to emphasise that magistrates do not of their own volition issue certificates of unruliness. They can only issue a certificate if the social worker applies to the court for a certificate. Social workers make application only if they consider that the circumstances warrant such action. They make application if they do not have the accommodation to cope with the child. If the clause can go some way to alleviating the present position it has my support.

Mr. Robertson

It is clear that new Clauses 17 and 31 can hardly have very much in common. The procedures for dealing with children in Scotland initially preclude a court proceeding. The question of sentence does not arise initially if the matter is being dealt with by the children's panel. New Clause 31 deals with the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 and not with the Children and Young Persons Act 1969. Two different concepts are raised. I think that my hon. Friend might have dwelt a little longer on the different procedures that apply.

When we consider these provisions in relation to Scotland we must bear in mind the number of children who are in the notorious prison of Barlinnie. We must bear in mind the number of children who have appeared before children's hearings and who have been told that nothing can be done for them as there is no residential accommodation to send them to for corrective treatment. The backlog is so great that the whole system of children's hearings is in danger of collapse unless there are considerable added resources. Unless those resources are applied to the whole procedure I am afraid that it will become a laughingstock and will be brought into disrepute. That will be a pity.

Theoretically, unless a child has been found guilty of some criminal behaviour it does not appear before the courts for sentence. However, the practice is rather different. We are bringing in new proposals that have unclear intentions. At present we cannot operate the provisions of current legislation. The Government might have been better employed had they considered how to deal with the existing problems.

For example, they should have considered how to make the children's hearings more effective, bearing in mind the many children coming before them. At present there are no ideas about how those children should be dealt with and kept out of further mischief because of the lack of accommodation and the lack of resources. The result is that many children are without any real guidance or help from the social work departments. It gets to the point of being downright cynical to table clauses of this nature. Unless something is done to the present system there is a danger of collapse.

I shall be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has to say on this matter. When he was a back bencher he had some scathing things to say about the social work provision in Scotland, particularly as regards children's panels and children's hearings. I shall be interested to hear whether he still holds those opinions after the short time that he has been in his new position wearing his new hat. Will he try to defend the indefensible, or is he pie pared to let this matter go by without saying anything?

5.0 p.m.

Dr. Vaughan

I am concerned about the provision of the resources with which to back up this measure. The Minister said that he did not think additional resources were necessary. Will he give us more details of how he thinks these provisions will be carried out? We are concerned that there will be insufficient resources with which to implement many parts of the Bill. It is not only a question of buildings. It is more a question of staff.

It is not only the prison and remand home aspects which cause concern. Resulting from our anxiety about young people in prisons or prison-type surroundings there has been increasing pressure on the psychiatric services. Those services are being stretched to take unruly children. I do not refer to children who need psychiatric treatment. I mean the children whom the community find difficult to look after. The alternative to prison is the general adult psychiatric hospitals. In those hospitals, which are sometimes large, children are exposed to the sight of the most serious forms of mental illness. That cannot be right. Sometimes they are placed in children's units containing children being treated for minor disturbances, such as learning disorders and bed-wetting problems. Therefore both the disturbed and difficult children are mixed. That is bad for both types of child. In psychiatric units disturbed and restless children need a staffing ratio of at least one member of staff to two children, or one member of staff to one child.

Dr. Owen

My hon. Friend will reply to the points concerning Scotland which were raised in this short debate.

The Expenditure Committee expressed concern, reflecting the evidence it received from several witnesses, that unruly certificates were being issued too freely on less than adequate grounds in a substantial proportion of cases of juveniles who do not in the end receive any custodial sentence from the courts. The Government make this pledge. There is no difference of opinion between the two Departments involved. This is a joint exercise between my Department and the Home Office. We are carefully examining the report of the Select Committee. We intend to answer that report and to give a full, detailed reply to Parliament. In the examination we are looking at a commitment, which has already been given by the Home Secretary, on the phasing out of remands on unruly certificates.

We have emphasised, especially in respect of 14–year-old girls, the constraints set by the facilities at present available within the community home system. Even if the money is available, it takes time to build a community home and to staff it. There are problems of staffing and money. We must persuade people to undertake this type of difficult work. It is easy for the Press and the rest of us to put up our hands in horror at the thought of juveniles in prison establishments. In many senses these young persons are adults. They are physically well developed. They are violent. Often they have a record of aggression which is frightening in such young people. They require a high ratio of staff, often of considerable physical strength.

Although I do not wish to exaggerate the problem, there are many young people who should not be in prison establishments. However, there are some who will always present a problem to society. We need more community homes.

Although the Bill makes provision for direct grants I do not wish to deal in great detail with the provision of resources for this aspect of the social services, which is being given a high priority by the Government and the local authorities. When local authorities are allowed to choose their own priorities and capital building programmes it is noticeable what a high priority they give to secure accommodation. We shall look in detail at the target for the provision of more secure accommodation places.

We hope for consistency and uniformity in the criteria under which unruly certificates are issued. They could be prescribed by regulation. We hope that this will lead to a reduction in the number of such demands and to the more careful vetting and selection of cases.

Following the evidence to the Expenditure Committee, the intention is that the local or temporary difficulty in finding a suitable place in the community home system should not be allowed to lead to wholesale remands to prison establishments in cases where thorough and determined efforts to find suitable places should have succeeded. A check will be made on the situation. I do not claim that that will solve the problem. However, it is a modest step forward in reducing the number of juveniles in prison. We shall hold consultations about the regulations. It will be open to the House to debate the regulations.

It may take a little time to telephone the social services department to discover whether provision is available. It may mean more of a search in social services departments to find secure accommodation. We shall encourage those concerned to search outside their area or region to find secure accommodation within the community home system.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Will the Minister be more precise about the criteria for unruly certificates? Will the conditions be prescribed by order? What are the criteria? When will the order be laid? What will be the date of commencement?

Dr. Owen

We do not know yet what the specific provisions will be. We must first consult the bodies concerned. This is an enabling power. I should have liked to have had fuller consultations before now. When we looked at the matter in the light of the report of the Expenditure Committee we discovered that we did not have the power to deal with the problem. We are taking the power. I hope that consultations will take place and that we may soon be in a position to announce to the House the results of our review in the light of the report of the Expenditure Committee. I should not like to commit myself to the date when we shall lay an order.

Dr. Vaughan

Has the Minister made an estimate of the total number of children who are likely to be involved?

Dr. Owen

We have not made an estimate of the number of children in prison or the number of people who need secure accommodation. This evidence was given to the Select Committee, but it would be very difficult to make an estimate of the number of children who would be involved as a result of a tightening up of the regulations.

I do not wish to sound critical of the procedure in granting unruly certificates. However, the magistrates are responding to pressure. Much depends on the regulations and on the collaboration between the magistrates and the social services departments. The position has improved substantially in the past year. As a result there will be a substantial drop in the number of such people in prison establishments. That will make a bigger impact than the editorial in The Guardian gave credit for. It will not solve the problem. I warn the House that a complete solution of this problem in terms of an absolute ban is some time away. It will be difficult to achieve. However, there will be a dramatic drop in the number of persons in prison establishments if these suggestions are soundly and sensibly applied. I do not think that we utilise to the full our existing secure accommodation facilities.

Mr. McElhone

I wish to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson) regarding List D schools and the effect of Clause 31. Perhaps my hon. Friend's memory may be a little faulty about my protestations from the back benches regarding List D schools. I have made many protestations from the back benches in regard to social work, but not in regard to children's panels and List D schools. That perhaps was a fault on my part.

I agree that the question of resources is extremely serious. Nobody would claim that we are entirely satisfied with the provision for Scotland. I also take the general points made about this matter, which have been covered in the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Security. As the House knows, I have been in my present office for only a few weeks, but I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley that I shall be writing to him on the subject.

Projects due to be completed later this year on the existing List D schools programme will provide an additional 20 secure places, almost doubling the existing accommodation. We are also discussing with the Lothian Regional Social Work Department the possibility of its providing a youth treatment centre for 40 very disturbed children. These are welcome provisions.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

But not enough.

Mr. McElhone

I agree with my hon. Friend when he says, "Not enough". Seventeen new children's homes have been provided by the new local authorities since the beginning of 1972, and 13 are at present under construction. The total number of places involved in the project is around 500. A further 17 projects are included in the building programme in 1975–76, including the provision of another 315 additional places. I agree that the provision is not sufficient, and I give an assurance that I shall take that matter on board in the next few weeks and I shall write to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley on the subject.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Forward to