HC Deb 12 October 1976 vol 917 cc255-8

4.6 p.m.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to children and young persons. This Bill will make it illegal in future to send on remand schoolchildren of 14 to 16 years of age to prison service establishments. At present there is no legal requirement to commit schoolchildren in that age group to such establishments when they have been convicted and sentenced, yet in practice many thousands of schoolchildren are committed to penal service establishments on remand while awaiting sentence for conviction.

In 1975 over 5,000 boys were sent to penal service establishments, of whom over 2,500 were untried. In other words, those schoolchildren had not been convicted, still less sentenced, for any offence. In that same year nearly 400 girls were committed to penal service establishments, of whom nearly 200 were on remand, before they had even been tried for the offence with which they had been charged.

It seems a staggering situation that over 5,000 boys and nearly 400 girls are sent to prison every year on remand while awaiting conviction or sentence. It is even more incredible when we take into account the fact that a large proportion of such children are untried offenders.

The situation is even worse when we examine more closely the ultimate disposal of those schoolchildren in penal service establishments. Of the 5,000 boys sent to prison service establishments in 1975, over 2,000 were ultimately determined to have been not guilty of the offence charge or to have been guilty of an offence so trivial as to merit only a non-custodial sentence. Again, of the 400 girls incarcerated in penal establishments in that year, nearly 300 were given non-custodial sentences or were found to be not guilty.

Yet all of these had experienced the harrowing conditions of prison service establishments and, in many cases, of local adult prisons—very often for what, by any stretch of the imagination, could not be regarded as other than a relatively trivial offence.

If we examine the kind of offences for which 14-year-old girls are incarcerated on remand in Holloway Prison we shall be surprised, not just by the triviality of the offences, but by the lack of justice and compassion of a judicial and welfare system that can dispose of young persons in such a callous and coldhearted manner. Even more significant in many ways is the fact that these children are not incarcerated in establishments for only a relatively short time. Many have spent months there.

Of those boys subsequently found not guilty one had spent up to four months in a prison service establishment and then, surprisingly, was eventually found not guilty. A total of 15 boys had spent a month in prison service establishments before being found not guilty and 27 had spent two weeks in such establishments. Of those who were given non-custodial sentences—who were found guilty and sentenced by the court but who were deemed to have committed an offence of such a relatively trivial nature as not to require imprisonment—one boy had spent up to six months in a prison service establishment, five had spent up to four months, 56 had spent up to two months and 209 had spent up to one month.

If we examine the figures for girls it can be seen that two girls eventually found not guilty had spent a month in Holloway Prison. Eleven other girls found not guilty had spent two weeks there. Of those given non-custodial sentences one had been three months in a penal service establishment and seven had been there two months while 27 had spent one month in such an establishment.

Yet under the system we operate they had served a prison sentence, in many cases in a local adult prison. We are not just talking about remand centres, which in any case are prisons, but of local prisons, too. For instance, on 30th April this year there were 17 boys between the ages of 14 and 16 in local adult prisons and 12 girls in Holloway Prison.

No one would suggest that it is right or proper that schoolchildren should be sent to prison service establishments. We cannot send them there once they have been found guilty of an offence but we can send them there before they have been found guilty or, if they have been found guilty, they can be sent to such places before being sentenced to Borstal training, a detention centre or whatever. We would in no circumstances deem to treat adults in this fashion. Yet somehow or other we manage to have a different and much lower standard for schoolchildren, whom we dispose of callously, almost in a malicious fashion.

No one would argue that there are not trouble makers. I do not defend vandalism or juvenile violence. It exists and has to be dealt with. But no one could reasonably argue that it should be dealt with by sending young children, sometimes the most inadequate children, to prisons and prison service establishments. It happens for reasons of pure administrative convenience. These children are there because successive Governments have failed to provide the resources to build secure units in community homes. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is here today because the responsibility rests squarely upon his shoulders to take out of our prison service establishments those children who he and I would agree ought never to have been put there in the first place and ought not to be there now.

Unfortunately it is the Home Office that has to carry the can for these children being in such establishments. But the responsibility for getting them out lies squarely on my right hon. Friend. I admit that he and his predecessors have made some movement in this direction. The previous Home Secretary phased out the unruly certificate for girls of 14 and the previous Secretary of State for Social Services provided more resources for community homes. But that is not enough. Unless we take the dramatic action of saying that there shall not in future be the power, by unruly certificates or other means, to send schoolchildren to prison, they will continue to be sent there because no Government will be prepared to provide the resources for the secure units in a local authority community home.

We have to close this road. If it is closed I am certain that the Government will find a road that is more convenient and far more appropriate to the restitution aspect and to the welfare of these school children.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, Mr. Frank Hooley, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Miss Jo Richardson, Mr. Robin Corbett, Mr. J. W. Rooker and Mrs. René Short.