HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc786-90

`In section 39 of the Child Care Act 1980 (regulations as to conduct of community homes etc.)—

  1. (a) in subsection (2), the following paragraph shall be inserted after paragraph (e)
    1. "(ea) prescribe criteria according to which different descriptions of children are to be placed and kept in different decriptions of accommodation;"; and
  2. (b) the following subsection shall be inserted after that subsection—
    1. "(2A) Without prejudice to the generality of this section, regulations under this section may contain provisions to ensure that a child may not be placed, and, if placed, may not be kept, in accommodation provided for the purpose of restricting liberty unless he appears likely otherwise—
      1. (a) to abscond; or
      2. (b) to injure himself or other persons; or
      3. (c) to damage or take other persons' property'.—[Mr. Mayhew.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Mayhew

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

The new clause paves the way for ensuring that children in care are held in secure accommodation only in the most serious circumstances. During the debate in Committee it was clear that there was considerable concern about the use that can be made of accommodation in community homes, which is designed to restrict the liberty of children. The Government are in no doubt that it is, sadly, necessary to have such accommdation available to deal with difficult and disturbed children. We agreed, however, to see what could be done to meet the concern expressed in Committee, and the new clause fulfils that undertaking.

It seems right that the law should provide that if children are to be locked up, albeit in a community home, it should be only when that is strictly necessary. It also seems right that it should set standards for when it can be regarded as strictly necessary. That is what the new clause does. In general terms, a child should not be placed in secure accommodation or be kept there unless he is likely to run away, to injure himself, or to harm other persons or their property. Regulations made under this measure will make more specific provision of these general criteria. Those regulations, which are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary, of State for Social Services, will themselves be placed before Parliament in due course.

I trust that there will be general agreement that this is a desirable measure. It operates, as is apparent, by specifying a power to make regulations which will prescribe criteria according to which different descriptions of children are to be placed and kept in different descriptions of accommodation It goes on to specify that a child may not be placed, and, if placed, may not be kept, in accommodation provided for the purpose of restricting liberty unless he appears likely otherwise

  1. (a) to abscond; or
  2. (b) to injure himself or other persons;
  3. (c) to damage or take other persons' property."
In Committee we were agreed that the criteria expressed in imprecise terms were the criteria for a serious offence. It has proved difficult to incorporate that into statutory language and therefore the draftsmen have sought to identify the consequences to the child, or to some other member of the public, of the child being likely to commit a serious offence and to express the criteria in terms of those consequences. I thought it necessary to take a little time to explain why the clause is drafted in those terms.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it is not a good principle to say that the proposal is too difficult to put into legislation and that it must be done by regulation? Is it not far better to include the measure in the Bill? However, if we are to have regulations, what consultations will take place and what opportunities will there be for people to make representations? Hon. Members have no opportunity to amend regulations.

Mr. Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman will know that regulations already exist for governing community homes and the new clause sets out a power for further regulations to be made to achieve that purpose. Therefore, while I cannot speak for other Departments, the hon. Gentleman may feel confident that no fewer opportunities for consultation will exist in this respect than have existed in previous regulations.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Am I not correct in believing that the community homes regulations are statutory and that if they are amended the House will have to debate, or at least confirm, the amendments?

Mr. Mayhew

Certainly; amendments cannot take effect without the approval of the House. If a matter inherent in regulations does not receive the approval of the House hon. Members can reject the regulations and have done so recently, though fortunately not in the case of Home Office regulations.

The new clause sets out the criteria by which any regulations will have to be drafted. Therefore, it gives some control over the regulations. We need not worry too much about the form of the regulations.

The new clause is intended to meet an undertaking that I gave the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) in Committee and I believe that it does so in a bone fide way.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The new clause empowers the Home Secretary to make regulations laying down the statutory criteria for the detention of juveniles in secure accommodation in the local authority community homes system. The Secretary of State for Social Services has announced that he is reviewing the operation of the community homes regulations that were passed in 1972.

The new clause follows an assurance that the Minister of State gave me in Committee in response to a new clause tabled by the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group. The Minister has, in effect, laid down some guidelines, perhaps not yet entirely satisfactory, about the sort of principles that we may expect to see enshrined in revised regulations.

The new clause that we debated in Committee was one of two tabled on behalf of the all-party group, which were designed to increase the safeguards for young people in secure accommodation. The new clauses were, in turn, in response to two disturbing reports from the DHSS which were the backbone of our discussions about juveniles dealt with in local authority community homes.

The two major research studies sponsored by the DHSS found that secure units in the local authority system are being used for younger and less delinquent children than was the case several years ago. We all know that the reconviction rates from community homes, and particularly from secure units within those homes, are inordinately high.

I welcome the Government's acceptance of the need for statutory criteria and I welcome the new clause. We have established an important principle, but my colleagues and I in the all-party group will need to examine the new clause carefully. We have already received representations from the Children's Legal Centre, which considers that the terms of the new clause are far too wide.

The centre believes that young people should be detained in secure accommodation only if their behaviour constitutes an imminent danger to the public or to themselves or if there are no appropriate alternatives. It also believes that the interpretation of those criteria by local authorities should be the subject of judicial review. The centre published on Monday this week an important report entitled "Locked up in Care" and subtitled: A report on the use of secure accommodation for young people in care". That report is pertinent to our debate.

Although I welcome the new clause, my colleagues in the all-party group will want another place to return to the issue and we will certainly want to pursue the points made by the Children's Legal Centre.

5.45 pm

I welcome the fact that the Government have taken a step in the right direction and I hope that they will enter into discussions in another place about whether the wording of the new clause is appropriate, whether it will achieve the Minister of State's objectives and whether it will bring about the enforcement of the principles that many of us on both sides of the Committee sought to see established.

I hope that the Government will bear in mind the fact that the new clause was tabled rather late and will be willing to discuss it at a later stage with a view to improving its operation. We have all accepted, not least the DHSS, that we put far too many young people into local authority residential institutions and into the secure units without adequate preparation, supervision or proper legal control. It does them little, if any, good to be held in those units.

In the light of the overwhelming research evidence, not least that provided by the DHSS, we should certainly ensure that the safeguards that we erect to prevent young people from being put into secure units are extremely stringent. The Government have gone part of the way and I hope that they will go much further in another place.

Dr. Summerskill

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) I welcome the new clause, which goes some way towards meeting the points that we made in Committee.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson) and I tabled an amendment to delete clause 21 from the Bill. Unfortunately, that amendment was not selected and we hope that the new clause will at least improve clause 21.

I am glad that the new clause makes it clear that different sorts of children should be placed in different types of residential accommodation, suitable to their needs and appropriate to individual offenders. However, the Minister of State has not taken up my suggestion in Committee that courts should be obliged to consult local authorities about the available accommodation.

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman feel that courts will seek information from local authorities about the types of accommodation that are available, so that they may be assured that suitable accommodation will be provided? In the vital years of a child's development—three years is the average time for which care orders are made in criminal proceedings—he should be in the right place according to his offence, character and needs. We welcome the safeguards introduced in the regulations laying down criteria. They would lessen the possibility of totally unsuitable children being deprived of their liberty where the offence and their personal circumstances or character do not justify it.

There is a 70 per cent. reconviction rate for children who have been in local authority homes. That makes one pessimistic about the effect of putting them there in the first place. Labour Members want to reduce the number of offenders receiving both custodial and residential care. We were told in Committee that the cost of new clause 21 to the ratepayer and the taxpayer could be £6 million a year. However, the new clause certainly goes a small way towards ensuring that greater thought and consideration are given before care orders are implemented.

In Committee the Minister said that the danger of restricting too much the terms of the care order was that there might be a greater use of custodial sentences. I hope that his prediction is not correct. It is only a prediction; he cannot possibly be sure that that would be the effect. On the other side of the argument, residential care orders are expensive and ineffective as a deterrent. There is no evidence that they help the offender or protect society. We prefer that such people should be cared for in the community, particularly as we are talking about young children.

Mr. Mayhew

I am grateful for the words of welcome that have been uttered. I should correct an impression that the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) may inadvertently have given. New clause 37 establishes criteria, which may be implemented by way of regulation in due course, to govern the circumstances in which a child may be held in secure accommodation. The decision as to whether the child shall be held in secure accommodation is not a matter for the court that makes the care order; it is a professional decision made by the local authority in whose care the child is ordered to be placed. We must be clear about that important distinction.

Anxiety has been expressed that criteria, established with the approval of Parliament, do not exist to govern circumstances in which that professional decision shall be made. That is an important point and it bears upon the point that the hon. Lady was making a few moments ago when she referred to something I said in Committee to the effect that if we restrict too tightly the circumstances in which a court can make a care order, we may find the opposite of what we want, an increase in the number of custodial disposals or sentences made.

I am grateful for the opportunity to clear that matter up. I believe that the undertaking I gave has been fulfilled and I commend the new clause to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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

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