HC Deb 03 August 1978 vol 955 cc917-20
4. Mr. Sims

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what new proposals he has for dealing with juvenile and young adult offenders; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. John

We hope to publish later this year a consultation document on a new custodial sentence to replace imprisonment, borstal training and detention centres for young offenders between the ages of 17 and 21 years. This will have implications for the treatment of juvenile offenders, which will be the subject of separate consultation.

Mr. Sims

Is the Minister aware that that information will be welcomed by those who are interested in this matter? We look forward to reading the proposals, particularly since the 1977 criminal statistics indicate that half the burglaries, one-third of offences of criminal damage and one-third of offences involving theft are committed by children under the age of 17—and a higher proportion by those under the age of 21.

Does the Minister agree that a number of these youngsters are not socially deprived but anti-social hooligans who need punishment rather than treatment? Will he look again at the proposal for shorter detention involving rigorous treatment and conditions and strong discipline? Will he bear in mind that that line is supported not only by magistrates but by others who are not noted for their reactionary views, such as the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk)?

Mr. John

Of course, there are examples of people from what we would call satisfactory homes who commit crimes. There is no question about that. However, what I have been trying to tell Opposition Members—all morning, it seems to me—is that one cannot have a neat stereotype into which juvenile delinquents fall. It is a vastly complex subject.

What we have to do in framing a criminal policy is to give to the courts as wide an array of powers to deal with offenders as is possible. I hope that the addition of a generic sentence to that array—that is what we are talking about when we are dealing with the consultation document—will add greatly to it. It will be the subject of consultation, and, therefore, I hope that it will be the subject of widespread discussion. I hope that it does not meet with the instant illiteracy that some recent enlightened reports have received from sonic sensational newspapers.

Mr. Spearing

Does not my hon. Friend agree, however, that prevention would be much better than cure? What steps are being taken by the Home Office, or by anyone else in Government, to identify the adolescents at risk in any community and to provide them with the sort of risk and adventure opportunity that might be an alternative? Are not these steps much better than some more controversial steps of which we have heard recently?

Mr. John

The chief aim of any police force is to prevent crime rather than merely to pick up criminals after crime has been committed. But I return to the point I made earlier. There are infinite numbers of variations on vandalism, according to the area. Therefore, it is for the chief officer of police in each area, in common with the local authorities and all other authorities in the area, to identify the causes and to take steps to remedy them. My right hon. Friend has called all these interested bodies together in a national conference to discuss this point. I believe that that is the way forward.

Mr. Carlisle

As someone who has something to do with the implementation of the Children and Young Persons Act, may I ask the Minister of State whether he agrees that the failure of the present Government to bring forward any proposal for the amendment of those parts of the Act which in working have been proved to be unsatisfactory, as shown by the Select Committee, is a very grave dereliction of duty at a time of rising crime?

Mr. John

As the Select Committee reported, in a section of the report which the hon. and learned Member has ignored, the Children and Young Persons Act cannot be held responsible for the rise in juvenile crime. To take the case of vandalism, for example, the average rise over the last four years in criminal damage committed by juveniles is only 1 per cent. a year, as compared with 16 per cent. for the four years before.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall call one more hon. Member from each side of the House on this Question, and then we shall have to move faster with the other Questions.

Mr. Stan Crowther

While I accept that there are many cases in which a custodial sentence is quite unavoidable, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he agrees that, wherever it is avoidable, it is more sensible to require the offender to do something useful? What steps are being taken, therefore, to extend and intensify the community service scheme, particularly with a view to extending its scope at the juvenile end of the age limits?

Mr. John

One has to be careful in the sense that community service orders are available only for offenders of the ages of 17 and 18.

Mr. Crowther

That is why I am asking the question.

Mr. John

We are certainly extending the number of attendance centres. There are now 67 as opposed to 60. We are thinking of introducing early next year experimental attendance centres for girls.

I think that the constructive use of leisure is one of the points that we must look at to see that people do not persistently reoffend. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that sometimes detention is a regrettable necessity, but unless it is coupled with a determination not to reoffend it will be useless.

Mr. Nelson

Is it not important, however, to differentiate between the rate of recidivism and the number of young people who commit crimes for the first time? Is it not a fact, borne out by the statistics, that measures such as community service orders—which I very much welcome—have been very successful in reducing the rate of recidivism but that with regard to the number of crimes committed by young people for the first time it is the likelihood of detection rather than the severity and toughness of further penal measures which is more likely to have an impact?

Mr. John

The likelihood of detection is obviously an important point. Toughness of sentence by itself does not, in my view and in the view of history, have a great part in the deterrence of crimes. We are very conscious of the importance of community service orders, and wherever possible we would like to use constructive ways of treating people in order to prevent recidivism.