HC Deb 02 May 1985 vol 78 cc464-87

The Secretary of State shall appoint a Standing Commission on sentencing policy for young offenders, their custodial treatment, care assessment and rehabilitation; and the Chairman of this body shall be a senator of the High Court of Justiciary and shall report to the Secretary of State on any matters he sees fit to refer to them.".—[Mr. O'Neill.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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Mr. O'Neill

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

I fully recognise that the new clause may contain drafting shortcomings. Therefore, the Minister may choose to oppose it. All that I am trying to do is to establish a forum for debate rather than prescribing an exact option which the Minister should embrace.

My involvement in the issue stems from the fact that the Glenochil young offenders institution and detention centre are situated in my constituency. Before the boundaries were redrawn, Polmont borstal, as it as then was, was situated in my constituency, and on the fringes of my constituency, although it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), there is the women's prison at Cornton Vale. Within the central belt of Scotland there are to be found, therefore, a number of penal institutions. I have seen at close hand the problems facing the prison service, and I have been able to monitor some of the Government's responses. My lack of satisfaction with the outcome of those responses leads me to believe that an independent advisory body is needed which would be capable of restoring public confidence in the prison service.

There are very few votes in penal reform. Those who in the past have sought popular support by advocating repressive regimes and harsher sentences have found that it does not result in ballot box dividends. The electorate have felt satisfied until recently that those in prison probably deserve to be there. To be out of sight is to be out of mind, and the care of offenders is left to the prison service. It is only when something goes wrong that questions are asked.

Because of the tragic events at Glenochil, there has been an increase in public interest. Public concern is rekindled whenever a fatal accident inquiry takes place and interest is reawakened when the report of the inquiry is published. Constant publicity and continual dripping of water on the stone has etched the word "Glenochil" upon public consciousness in Scotland. Public interest has changed from concern to a lack of public confidence in the sentencing and care of young offenders in Scotland, particularly at Glenochil. This is despite the fact that five public inquests have already taken place. The report of each fatal accident inquiry showed that the sheriff concerned was unable to establish a cause and effect link between the regime, either at the detention centre or at the young offenders institution, and the death. The Inspector of Prisons, who is independent of the Secretary of State, has also failed to establish any connection, but even this report has not allayed public anxiety.

The exposure of the closed world of the prison service to the glare of publicity has had an effect upon the morale of the staff. To be repeatedly told that one's work is leading to the deaths of young men is bad enough, but to have brought home to one the apparent futility of one's efforts when another corpse is discovered has a devastating effect upon some of the best trained and most highly committed men in the service.

There is nothing to be achieved by using these tragic deaths to vilify the staff or to make cheap capital out of attacking the system. Most of the members of the Scottish all-party penal affairs group have visited Glenochil and other Scottish penal institutions. Although we may not approve of everything that takes place in those institutions—and we have made our views known to the authorities and to Ministers—it is fair to say that those who advocate sudden and wholesale changes to the system, in particular the closure of institutions, do not have a great deal of evidence to support their case.

Perhaps I have already dwelt for too long upon the sensibilities of the staff. They are important, but they are not so important as the anxieties of the families of the young men who are in prison. I am sure that every death is felt in the homes of all those who have sons in prison. The scale of the problem can be illustrated by the figures which have been collected. They were made available to me last week by the governor of Glenochil and cover the two institutions that are to be found at Glenochil.

In 1984, there were 1,037 detention centre inmates. Of these, 75 were placed under suicidal observation for periods of between two and 60 days. A total of 138 days were served under suicidal observation. Of the 75 who spent 138 days under suicidal observation, 53 admitted to self-inflicted injuries before they were admitted to the institution. Of the 53, 10 had inflicted injuries upon themselves during the sentence. Up to 24 April 1985, about 30 inmates had been placed under suicidal observation lasting between one and 46 days. During the first quarter of the year this amounted to a total of about 235 days under suicidal observation. Of the 30 inmates, 14 admitted to self-inflicted injuries before sentence and six inmates had tried to mutilate themselves since sentence. Of the 386 inmates admitted to the detention centre in 1985 for the short, sharp shock, 30 of them have, in one way or another, displayed suicidal tendencies.

The position is the same in the case of the young offenders institution. In 1984, out of 858 inmates, 89 were placed under suicidal observation for periods of between two and 365 days. Of the 89, 37 admitted to self-inflicted injuries before admission and 15 of them inflicted injuries upon themselves during sentence. Up to 24 April 1985, of the 225 inmates who were admitted, 24 had been placed under suicidal observation for between two and 92 days, amounting to a total of 489 days. Twelve of the 24 admitted to self-inflicted injuries before sentence and three have so far admitted to self-inflicted injuries during sentence. I have spent time upon these figures because they are significant. All these inmates have admitted to suicidal tendencies.

I need not spell out the consequences for the prison staff of those young men being in prison. There is the overtime that has to be worked, the care required from the prison medical staff, the burden that is imposed on the social workers and the numbers of hours that psychiatrists and psychologists have to spend working within the prison service in such institutions.

It is clear that Glenochil has been the subject of interest and concern. Staff and specialists, such as psychologists, tell me that despite everything they are doing they expect the problem to become worse. With fewer young offenders being given custodial sentences, those going to detention centres and young offenders' institutions are probably more difficult prisoners than ever before. We are seeing a concentration of potential problem prisoners.

Although there has not been serious research to underpin what I am saying, I am sure that the Minister will have heard from his advisers that at the moment a qualititive change is taking place in the young prison population. We are now seeing the first wave of those who have gone through the process of solvent abuse into hard drug addiction. The damage which that process inflicts upon young people is such as organically to damage their brains, and it creates problems the like of which the prison system has never had to confront before to any substantial extent.

Even with the speedy implementation of every recommendation in the report produced by Dr. Chiswick's committee on suicides and parasuicides in Glenochil and other institutions, the problem will not go away. I hope that that will reduce the difficulties and that deaths might be avoided, but I cannot honestly say that Dr. Chiswick's committee will have all the answers. In fact, the calibre of the members of that committee is such that they would be the first to admit that.

There is a danger of becoming alarmist in spelling out the problems, and I hope that I have not done that. We recognise that that group represents only 10 per cent. of the prison population and that the other 90 per cent will come through the experience for good or ill depending on how effective their treatment has been.

The parents of every youngster who is likely to receive a custodial sentence in Scotland will be extremely worried about the prospects, and it is to that problem that I must keep returning. That is why I am suggesting tonight that some kind of advisory body, separate from the Scottish Office and the prison service, answerable to the Secretary of State, could begin to restore public confidence.

The chairman of such a body must be a member of the bench. Experience has shown that the judiciary do not take kindly to outsiders advising them on how they should be sentencing. We should work on the basis of the old political maxim that if one has a problem and opposition, one of the opposition should be recruited to work for one rather than against one. The appointment of a High Court judge who has probably had extensive experience in one aspect of the business—the sentencing of offenders—would be substantial enough to ensure the independence and authority of such a body.

I imagine that other members of such a body would be recruited from the Scottish Office's list of the great and good, and perhaps there could be some useful people as well such as psychiatrists, sociologists and social workers—people with some experience in the field.

Such a body could be given the chance to look at the appropriateness of present custodial sentencing, the different types of institutions which could be made available, at what is being done in other parts of the United Kingdom with regard to day centres and the like, and examine the possibilities of hostels, where shorter stays could be arranged. It could look again at the generic sentence. Within the Executive, with all the appropriate safeguards, the prison system specialists could consider the most effective means of dealing with the offender once the courts had decided on the length of a sentence.

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We could consider different ways of applying remission procedure and perhaps go down the road taken in Northern Ireland, where there are remission procedures of 50 per cent. Certainly in sentences of more than two years a remission of that order would be appropriate.

We should consider giving greater assistance to accelerating remand procedures, and probably endeavour to delay detention of any kind until all oustanding cases have been heard so that a prisoner knows that when he begins a custodial sentence it is for a particular period and that if he keeps his nose clean he can get out early, or, if he has to do the whole stint, he can do it without the threat of future punishment hanging over his head. That should not be beyond the courts' administration in Scotland.

Above all, there must be a serious and rapid examination of detention centre training. There must be far greater scrutiny of the short sharp shock treatment than a stroll around a detention centre by a prejudiced Home Secretary before there is any guarantee that the short sharp shock treatment is working or can ever work. Over the years of having watched and tried to gather information about the effectiveness of the system, I have been singularly unsuccessful in obtaining any evidence which shows that it deters, improves or keeps away from a life of crime many of the youngsters who pass through the doors of such institutions.

I say that with regret, because I recognise that many of the staff try hard with the boys. Many of them are committed to the welfare of the young lads. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government commit so much of their prestige and resources to that unproven and distasteful form of incarceration.

As well as changes in the nature of the institution and the widening of the options available to the courts and whoever would be responsible for allocating prisoners their appropriate punishment, there must be some mechanism whereby the grievances of prisoners can be examined. I say that because there is a constant chipping away and undermining of the prison service because of the nagging doubts at the back of people's minds. Sometimes that can be the subject of an orchestrated campaign. Sometimes it can be that people, when they are released from prison, grind axes and try to settle old grievances. I freely accept that. However, it is incumbent upon the Secretary of State, if he is prepared to look at the care and treatment of young offenders, to seek to establish a more effective means of examining prisoners' grievances which would enjoy the confidence of the staff.

If we do not have a system which can balance the obligations and rights of these two groups, allegations and counter-allegations will continue to be made and at the end of the day nobody will be satisfied either that one side has been cleared or that the other side has been vindicated.

When we consider alternatives to prison, we must also look at what happens outside. We must find ways of helping and supporting the beleaguered social worker panels in the preparation of the social inquiry reports and community service order work, all of which are taking up an increasing amount of time.

As anxiety about sentencing policy increases, greater emphasis will be placed on the social inquiry report. More time will be required by social workers. I know that the Minister does not have responsibility for that area of local authority funding, but I hope that he and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will bend the ear of the Secretary of State to obtain more resources.

It is important to recognise that, outwith local authorities and Government, private agencies could be of considerable assistance in the resettlement and rehabilitation of offenders. The figures for suicidal observation times show the amount of effort and time involved. Suicide observation means 15-minute observations, which means that in every 24-hour period, 96 checks are made. If the lad improves, the number drops to 48 checks in 24 hours. It takes only five minutes for someone to hang himself. I do not want televisions in cells, or glass doors. Prisoners are entitled to privacy. That is the balance that governors must strike. However, the problems and difficulties consume much of our resources.

I have seen the overtime figures for Glenochil, and I am sure that they are paralleled in other institutions where the authorities are just as anxious to ensure that the lads do not abuse themselves any more than is consistent with civil liberties. If we could reduce those dreadful figures, we would reach the point where such reforms would become almost self-financing.

I do not wish to take a partisan, anti-Government position. To some extent, the Government have tried very hard. The Minister has allowed greater public asccess to institutions. Indeed, the media now visit them almost as often as some of the recidivists. I have never been denied any information, and every courtesy and assistance has been shown to me. I recognise that the Minister has instructed sheriffs to extend the terms of fatal accident inquiries so that every facet and aspect of a death is regorously examined. The Minister was probably right some years ago to refuse to set up a public inquiry into the running of the Glenochil institution. The requirement of the law to have a fatal accident inquiry and the sub judice provisions that govern that would probably have inhibited a public inquiry from going about its business.

The specialist groups studying suicides and parasuicides will go a considerable way towards providing highly specialised assistance. The reception of Mr. Barry's report was cool, to say the least. He is a distinguished public servant, who has produced a report on an issue of great public interest, but while it might have been correct, it did not allay public fears. The restoration of public confidence will take both money and time. It will take a great deal more than the limited range of options currently open to the courts. Any young man who is sentenced to four months or less must go to a detention centre unless the governor or the courts think otherwise, and then he could be sent to a young offenders institution. If he is a security risk, he will be sent to Glenochil. If that institution has one record, it is that no one has escaped from it.

I was recently told about two boys who had been sent to the detention centre at Glenochil for the short sharp shock treatment. One of them had only one foot and the other did not have a left arm. I am not sure what the courts were about when they sent those lads to the detention centre. I do not know the quality of the social inquiry reports. Quite frankly, the simplicity and the crudeness of the way in which the sentencing policy was carried out horrifies me.

I know that there are now provisions to stop that happening a second time. There is a provision in the Bill that someone can be sent only once to a detention centre and that if the short, sharp, shock treatment does not work, he should be sent elsewhere. That is a first step, but the Government are moving at a slow pace. After almost 20 years of operating the system, there is no option open to the courts when dealing with a young man who is showing signs of serious nervous disorder and who needs secure treatment. There is little help available in the Scottish Health Service. None of us would want to go to Carstairs. If it is shown that a lad is a security risk, he must go to a secure institution.

I make these points not to criticise the system, but to show the paucity of choice and the alarming consequences of that narrow scope. I am not trying to patronise the Minister. I know that he is well intentioned. As a liberal in his party, he is constrained by those about him. However, if one thing has been shown during the past few months or years, it is the shift in attitude in Scotland. There has been a deafening silence from the old Dundee thunderer urging police or prison reform. The Sunday Post has not commented on the institutions during the past few months, or even the past few years. It does not have any answers. It realises that harsh treatment is not the answer, and has made that point clear by its silence.

Options are open to us. There is now a concensus on penal matters in Scotland which affords the Minister the opportunity to move forward with public support on a programme of reforms, especially for young offenders. The modest proposal that I have put forward tonight would give the Secretary of State an opportunity to do something that is desperately needed, if only to allay the fears of parents, to improve the morale of the prison staff and, most important of all, to try to prevent further tragedy.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill). Like him, I represent a considerable number of prison officers. The hon. Gentleman made an interesting speech on an important subject.

All too often, prisons have been the forgotten sector of Scottish politics, but they are vital not only for prison officers, social workers and prison visitors but for the relatives and the prisoners. All have a vested interest in the prisons operating effectively and in ensuring that really severe problems do not arise.

I have considerable sympathy for the aim behind the new clause. The May committee recommended the setting up of the inspectorate of prisons. At that time, the committee clearly saw the need for an independent and impartial overview of prisons. That principle is now generally accepted, but when the May committee reported, although the governors and staff associations accepted the idea of an inspectorate, there was some objection from administrators. However, the inspectorate was set up, and it has performed a valuable function. Mr. Phillip Barry has completed several reports and many of his recommendations have been implemented. They have been useful in highlighting the need for improvements.


As for Glenochil, what we say today is necessarily constrained by the sub judice rule and by the fact that a working party was set up last year by the Secretary of State to consider precautions when dealing with possible suicides. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that its report is published as soon as possible, because then it will be much easier to see what steps can be taken. By that time, the review of the possible options for the future of the prison system should also be available.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider setting up a small standing committee of professionals who could perform the necessary investigations as and when difficult circumstances arise—a sort of watchdog committee. The hon. Member for Clackmannan talked about a standing commission. It might not be necessary to have such an impressive body; a small standing committee might be more appropriate. It would need to be largely independent. A similar committee in the past may not have been completely effective, but the Scottish Select Committee of more than 10 years ago was not completely effective either, although since it has started again it has worked actively and had a substantial effect. A similar committee could serve a useful purpose.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not wish to make a cheap debating point about this being another quango, but after what some Conservative Members have said about quangos, how will the hon. Gentleman defend another one? Secondly, with some good will towards his suggestion, what does he say to the argument that it is rather a cop-out when dealing with extremely awkward problems?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Genuine problems must be considered seriously, on their merits. I do not believe that Members of Parliament are competent to do the job. It is difficult for an all-party committee completely to grasp what is going on. Even if the Scottish Select Committee were to take on the task—it has other priorities on its agenda—it could not easily do justice to the subject. A small committee of professionals to investigate cases as and when they arise would be the best way forward.

Several serious points should be made. First, is the Minister satisfied that information about incoming prisoners is arriving quickly enough at prisons and other penal establishments? Is there a satisfactory computer system? Other institutions in Scotland have no problems with suicides. Although the Minister will not be able to do this until the working group has reported fully, will he consider whether there is a danger of imitative behaviour? On 5 November last year, The Guardian quoted the deputy governor of Glenochil as saying that deaths by hanging were having a knock-on effect. Further, there is no provision in the law for re-sentencing if it is discovered that a custodial sentence is unsuitable. The Solicitor-General and the Minister will be aware that there has been a substantial expansion in community service orders, which have worked well. Diversion schemes have also been successful. If a youngster cannot cope with the regime, for a variety of reasons, a mechanism should be available to deal with him so that, if necessary, a tough but constructive noncustodial sentence can be applied.

What about the future of the special units? Should they be available only to dangerous prisoners who must be kept out of circulation, or will other special units be set up for those who are prone to commiting suicide? One criticism from the Scottish Council for Civil Liberties was that only one 40-minute visit a month is permitted at Glenochil, which it believes is too harsh. The Scottish Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders called for a code of practice for the treatment of young persons in custody. It recommended that medical officers at penal establishments and prison staff be trained in understanding immature patterns of behaviour. It also argued for continuity of supervision for youngsters in custody, and for a re-assessment of procedures in relation to behavioural problems.

That organisation also said that strict suicide observation in special solitary confinement cells with canvas bedding and a canvas smock for clothing was dehumanising. The other side of the story is that, if youngsters have committed serious offences, they should be dealt with firmly under a strict regime. The criticism is not directed primarily against firmness under a strict regime; it is that, in some circumstances, prisoners cannot cope with their conditions.

Those of us who have been in the Army—I was in the Territorial Army for about 10 years—have some practical knowledge of what a short sharp shock means. But it is different for volunteers. Some do not mind it, a few like it, and some do not like it at all. But if someone cannot cope in the Army, he can be asked to leave. There are no volunteers in a detention centre.

I have the highest regard for the prison service in Scotland. However, as the hon. Member for Clackmannan said, there is a problem of public confidence, morale and parental anxiety. As a matter of common sense and experience, if something is believed to be not quite right, there should be scope for an investigation, to be followed by the necessary action.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) moved his new clause with all the knowledge that comes from having lived with the problems of Glenochil for many years. He has a detailed and sympathetic understanding of the predicament of prison officers who are asked to provide custodial care for those who, as a result of our laws, we send to prison. He made a powerful and effective speech with which I agree almost completely. His argument went beyond the tragedy of the self-inflicted deaths of recent months to the underlying causes. That is the appropriate tack in a debate on the reform of Scottish law.

The Social Democratic party wholeheartedly supports the hon. Gentleman's recommendation of a standing commission on sentencing policy for young offenders. However, there is one small caveat. He suggested that the commission's duty should be to report to the Secretary of State on any matter which the Secretary of State sees fit to refer to it. I believe that it should do more. It should have the power to initiate inquiries and to make recommendations when it chooses; it should not be confined to acting upon the submission of issues by the Secretary of State. One of the defects of the Law Commission is that it relies upon a reference. That limitation should be avoided.

Mr. O'Neill

I was proposing an additional role, so that the commission can examine specific problems put to it by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Maclennan

In that case we may need only a drafting amendment.

This is not an appropriate time to dwell at length on the recent tragedies at Glenochil, which are subject to fatal accident inquiries. I have no doubt that Dr. Chiswick's committee will have relevant comments to make.

Ministerial responsibility is involved. No recognition is reflected in ministerial action of the need for an investigation into the seven deaths at Glenochil since 1981 to see whether there are any connecting factors. Separate fatal accident inquiries cannot deal with the circumstances of other fatal accidents. The scope of the inquiries is too narrow and their remits are inadequate.

The terms of reference of Dr. Chiswick's committee have been widened since the latest death, and an early report has been called for, but the terms are too narrow to examine the causes. The committee is considering how best to prevent a fatal accident or self-inflicted death, but it cannot cover all the issues discussed by the hon. Member for Clackmannan. It cannot consider whether people admitted to Glenochil are properly or wisely admitted.

The hon. Gentleman provided us with interesting information about the number of people who had been on suicide observation in the last two years. The statistics are terrifying. How could 75 people with suicidal propensities be admitted to the detention centre in 1984? Should such people be admitted to such custodial care? We must go into that in greater depth.

In response to periodic expressions of dismay that have accompanied the announcement of yet another death, the Government have drawn back behind a stockade of self-defence, as if their reputation were as important or more important than the future of such custodial institutions. That has added to, not diminished, public anxiety. Some recognition of the seriousness of the problem would have resulted in a different response from the Government.

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The proposal for a standing commission is wise. We should look beyond our own experience in the United Kingdom and take account of United States experience. In New York, all young offenders in one year were discharged from custodial treatment. The consequences of that are worth examining.

My experience is limited to constituents who have received custodial sentences. I have observed a high rate of recidivism. In England, it is as high as 70 per cent. The Home Secretary has admitted that the short sharp shock treatment has had a negligible effect upon a person's propensity to commit crime. The 70 per cent. figure applies to the only part of the United Kingdom where studies in depth have been conducted by academics of quality and ability.

Custodial treatment is more common in the United Kingdom than in all other European countries. It does not seem necessary for us to stick with the penal philosophy favoured by this Government. I cannot discharge the present Government from responsibility for that, because they are making a virtue of extending the principle of the short sharp shock treatment. I recognise that such treatment is not formally applied in the young offenders' institutions.

The Minister claims that nothing has changed since the Conservatives came to power. However, changes have taken place in the numbers of people in such institutions—some falling off in numbers has occurred—and there has been a change in the type of person sent to them.

We want more than a response to individual tragedies. We want a thorough examination of sentencing policy for young offenders in Scotland so that we might avoid using custodial treatment which coops up some of the most inadequate and deprived people in our society. For them there is little prospect of becoming normal citizens because of deprivation, which forms an inevitable part of custodial treatment. I do not criticise those who look after young offenders, but those young offenders are less likely to become normal citizens after they have experienced such custodial sentences.

Some of my constituents have responded badly to custodial treatment. They came through the ordeal, but it did them no good. In certain circumstances such treatment is unavoidable. Society must detain in custody certain young individuals, but only a small number need that treatment. Experts increasingly take that view.

Major public expenditure implications are involved, because the alternative to custodial treatment is not cheap. Community service orders, day care orders and other tried methods are extremely expensive to administer. The Scottish social work departments are over-stressed, and the Government are putting yet more pressure on them. If the Government want to avoid tragedies, they must find alternatives to custodial sentences. They must recognise the inappropriateness of their retributive penal policy and the need to provide a humane alternative.

Mr. Buchan

My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) was right to use the Bill to raise a burning issue. I congratulate him on what he said, especially as an inquiry is being held. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was right to say that, given the background of Glenochil, it would be insufficient to have merely a fatal accident inquiry.

We are told that there is no apparent connection between the deaths at Glenochil. That, in itself, is disturbing. If there is no apparent connection, the number of deaths must be related to the regime or to the area.

Those of us who feel in our bones that the short sharp shock is wrong do not believe that other custodial solutions will necessarily produce magnificent results. As a former Minister, I know how weary we are after all the attempts to reduce the rate of recidivism. Few of our attempts succeed.

However, some regimes can give hope, both to those who work in the institutions and to those who serve sentences there. Some regimes deaden hope, which must create recidivism. The special unit at Barlinnie had success with a much more serious category of prisoner. Hope must be provided.

The most important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan was the concept of sentencing being done by the courts, but the handling of the prisoner being done by the Executive. There is no reason to assume that the person who judges and sentences necessarily knows the best form of custodial treatment for an offender. There should be a much more flexible response, whether by introducing a delay before sentencing, so that the Executive can examine the case and decide whether to endorse a form of treatment, or by providing that, if a custodial sentence is passed, we should consider what sort of place is appropriate.

In addition, there should be much freer movement between institutions, though not on the lines of the Bill, which says that if a young person has been to a detention centre he must subsequently go to a young offenders' centre. It must be wrong to adopt that attitude towards young people.

We must make sure that we do not create a beleaguered attitude among the staff. They are as much the victims of the situation as the rest of society, and they are in the front line.

All the evidence about the short sharp shock treatment shows that no improvement results from it. It was nonsense to bring back that treatment.

It is said that there is no relationship between the seven cases at Glenochil, but the incidents appear to be related to the people involved being about to undergo a change—perhaps going for an interview or about to be released. We sometimes forget that there are not only prison and staff regimes. There is also the regime of the prisoners who get information from staff and from inmates as they move from one place to another. That regime has its own mythology, folklore and rumours. It can be frightening and panicking for someone facing a change. One of the young people who died at Glenochil was about to be released, or perhaps he was about to see the governor. In any case, the stories spread. I wish that more studies were made of that aspect.

Like the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, I was horrified by the numbers who had made suicide attempts and so on. We must deal with that problem. Supervision is not enough.

I support the suggestion in the new clause that the standing commission should consider not only sentencing policy, but custodial treatment, care assessments and rehabilitation. It must be a continuing process, and we must give hope to the staff and to the inmates. Above all, we must have the sort of mechanism that makes changes easier if it is obvious that a regime is not appropriate for an inmate. We must not be bound to a hard and fast regime.

We cannot separate one inmate from the mythology in an institution. Nor can we have the 100 per cent. supervision imposed by television cameras. That creates its own terrors and problems.

We must have flexibility. The standing commission should consider sentencing, and, if custodial treatment is recommended, we must decide the nature of that treatment and the place to which the offender should go. That would at least allow us to deal with the situation and to offer hope, above all to the staff.

Mr. Dalyell

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) that the staff in institutions—I do not believe that I have any constituents who are staff—should not feel beleaguered. That is most important.

I speak with muted reticence about teenage suicides. I thought that I knew the son of a right hon. Friend of mine very well. I chatted to him at length one day, but found out that a fortnight later he had hanged himself, in circumstances that my right hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Dame J. Hart) and others know about. Great tragedy has struck the teenage children of hon. Members on both sides of the House and of many other people. Who can know what goes on inside the heads of those young people? I am reluctant to pass judgment on a subject that few of us or anyone else can claim to know much about.

A constituent in Winchburgh contacted me the day after the most recent tragedy at Glenochil. She was going round the proverbial bend about what would happen to her son. I do not criticise the staff at Glenochil, because I do not know enough about the centre. However, is it a fact that visiting arrangements have been less than flexible?

I was given the impression by the family in Winchburgh that they would go to Glenochil far more often if they were allowed to do so. Whatever the harshness or otherwise of the regime, it is important that any family ties—some teenagers do not have much of a family life—should be encouraged, within reason, at every turn. I should welcome a response from the Minister about visiting.

It is partly for that reason that I am not unsympathetic to what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) said about having a committee. That might help in many cases.

Mr. Dewar

We have had an extensive debate and I do not wish to prolong it unnecessarily.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) not only on tabling the new clause and allowing us to raise a number of issues about the custodial treatment of young offenders, but on his constructive and dignified response to a most difficult constituency problem—the tragic series of incidents in the Glenochil complex over the past three or four years. I have some inkling, as have other hon. Members, of the pressure that can be placed on the local Member of Parliament to go for what one might call a high profile response. In this case, my hon. Friend has resisted that pressure for the best of reasons and in the best traditions of the House.

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It is right that we should be debating this issue, because there is undoubtedly a great deal of public anxiety over it, and we should reflect that in Parliament. We must try to put what have been tragic events into some perspective, and discover the best framework within which the staff, who have the unfortunate job of supervising persons serving custodial sentences, can operate. An enormous spotlight has been turned on the issue because of the suicides since 1980–81. It is clearly a subject of tragedy, of high emotion, and sometimes, in terms of public reaction, of anger.

I join those who recognise the problems that face the staff. I do not want any sort of accusatorial procedure to be established. We should ensure that the staff are not, in some way, placed in the dock for what has happened. To do that would, by and large, be unfair. I also caution taking a sceptical approach to some of the remarks that have been made. I say "some", because they must be properly investigated.

For example, some statements that have been made about the way in which the staff operate and the way in which the regime is run within the Glenochil complex.

In that context, we had an interesting example of the need for caution with the sensational letter that received widespread publicity at the time of one fatal accident inquiry in 1983. Subsequently, the young man who wrote the letter, in which he made the most lurid accusations of assault, drugs and extortion in the detention centre, gave evidence at the fatal accident inquiry and confessed that he had never been in the detention centre and had no direct knowledge of any of the events described in his letter. They had all been inventions of his imagination—a form of attention-seeking of a most destructive kind. I mention that because it is important to try to take a balanced approach to the problem.

I intend to make some critical remarks about the way in which we have organised the regime and about the detention centre procedure. It is important to remember, though sometimes easy to forget, that we are considering a complex that contains two separate institutions and two different approaches and regimes. Although much of the criticism has centred on the short sharp shock approach, as it is called, five of the seven deaths occurred in the young offenders' institution, some involving young men facing lengthy sentences.

The last one—a tragic case, the details of which appeared in a newspaper, so I am not breaking any confidences by repeating the personal details—concerned a young man who came from a fractured and sad background, an example of the inadequacy of many such young men. He had been to a detention centre originally; he had been at Friarton and was transferred, because of his instability, to the young offenders' centre at Glenochil. He was typical of the individual problems with which the system must cope, but with which it has obviously been failing to cope, in the most final sense, considering the number of individuals concerned.

I have much sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan said in favour of the new clause. I argue for an overall review, on a permanent basis, of the way in which the system is operated. There is undoubtedly much scope for reconsideration of the way in which we carry out the sentences imposed by the courts and the form of custody that we inflict on the young men concerned.

I welcome the fact that an inquiry is now going on into the way in which suicide-risk inmates are dealt with at Glenochil. Nobody would cavil that such an inquiry should take place. However, we should go wider than that in our researches, and that is where the standing commission referred to in the new clause would come in.

A substantial mistake was made when we abolished borstal and the indefinite form of sentencing that borstal training represented. I do not mean that we made a mistake in abolishing borstal as such. I supported that, and I still do. The mistake was what we put in its place. The Government decided to go for the detention centre as basically the only option for any custodial sentence between 28 days and four months. It was to be a one-road solution, the regime for all individuals and all seasons, with no flexibility and no attempt to consider the needs of the individual.

That was undoubtedly a mistake, and it was pointed out to the Government at the time by me and many other hon. Members. We opposed the proposal then, and nothing that has happened since—I am not referring specificially to the two detention centre suicides; I am talking of a broader perspective—has convinced me that I was wrong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan spoke of a couple of spectacular mistakes in placement by the courts. He referred, for example, to the case of a boy with a physical defect of a dramatic sort who was clearly unfitted for a detention centre, yet who was sent to one. I recognise that such mistakes can happen. There is machinery in section 45(10) of the 1980 Act to deal with such persons. It allows transfers from detention centres to young offenders' centres. I gather that that provision has been used occasionally—almost always when there has been a specific, usually physical, problem which has made its use essential.

We need greater flexibility than that escape route allows. I believe that Ministers also take that view. Therefore, I welcome the fact that clause 43 of the Bill contains an important concession which recognises that a substantial number of youngsters who were going into the detention centre at Glenochil—and, no doubt, into the detention centre at Friarton—had been there once, or perhaps more than once, previously. Those youngsters created a substantial discipline problem in the detention centre. It is the law of diminishing returns if one believes that the detention centre concept is always effective. They created real problems for the staff.

In clause 43 we are legislating to prevent a continuation of that situation. That is a recognition of the fact that all is not well with the old, simplistic assumption that a detention centre must be right for everyone, that it does much for the backbone of a lad and aids his moral character. We have departed to some extent from that with this sensible provision in the Bill.

We made an error in going down the detention centre road. I checked the earlier debates and noted that, at the time, I did not call for the abolition of detention centres. I do not call for their abolition now. There may be a case for the retention of the detention centre as one of a range of options for the young offender. However, I repeat my strong feeling that to have it as the only option has been a narrow piece of legislation which has had unfortunate results.

There was a tendency for the Government to see it not simply as something which fitted their approach, but as a remarkably convenient move, for it could be represented, on the one hand, as being tough with the young offender, and, on the other, as a move which would save a considerable amount of cash because it would reduce the size of the population in young offenders' institutions.

I have had handed to me an interesting little publication, issued by the Conservative Research Centre, on the policy of the Government in Scotland. The document, issued a few days ago, in the section dealing with law and order, refers to a statistic that I have heard Ministers use in the House in recent weeks. It says that the number of youngsters serving custodial sentences has been reduced by 20 per cent. since the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act came into effect.

However, I suspect that the number of admissions might show a considerably different picture because the population has dropped. When we abolished borstal, the average was nine or 10 months, and sometimes longer than that if satisfactory progress was not made. Now everyone on a summary complaints procedure faces a maximum of six months at a young offenders' institution, and many go to a detention centre. Inevitably, the number who were in at any one time was cut, but not necessarily the number of youngsters being admitted and experiencing the difficult transition into and out of a detention centre or young offenders' institution.

It is not my job to argue at great length tonight, but I genuinely think that that is the sort of area that we must consider. We should look back to the debates in 1980—for example, 12 June 1980—when the matter was first discussed. It is amazing to see the lack of research and what might be described as proper inquiry made by the Government before they took that dramatic change in direction in the way in which we deal with the young offender. It was Opposition Members who scrambled around reading articles in New Society and looking for documentation from the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. We were trying to bring some logical facts to bear on whether the detention centre had a desirable effect and whether it reduced recidivism. For Ministers, it was merely a statement of faith, "We believe in the discipline. We believe in the short sharp shock." That was the end of the argument. I genuinely believe that, with Glenochil, we have misused an opportunity to look in a systematic, in-depth way at the impact of the detention centre and the results that it produces. We should do so before committing ourselves, as we did in 1980, to a road which, unfortunately, has been littered with the tragedies that we have been discussing for the past hour or so.

I still unashamedly prefer the solution in the first Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing), who was then the Minister in charge of the Committee. It was lost because of the 1979 general election. The House will remember that in clauses 36 and 37 we had something that looked very much like what was wisely commended by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan)—that the court should decide on the necessity or otherwise of custodial sentence. It decided the length of the sentence, but after that it was a matter for proper assessment as to whether it should be a detention centre, a young offenders' institution or some other form that might evolve in future. That proposal would allow greater sensitivity, which might lead to better results and give a new dimension to the job of a prison officer. I accept that it might be difficult for some to adapt, but I believe that almost everyone in that profession is conscious of the fact that the system can be rigid and limited, and that they must try to broaden the range of their activities, experience and sensitivities.

Therefore, I welcome the idea of a standing commission to go into the broader issues of policy that we have neglected and for which we in the House can be criticised.

There are many other areas that I cannot and should not debate tonight. I have been talking mainly about the detention centre, but when we come to the young offenders' institution we encounter the problems of the young men who are shut in. The staff do their best, but it is a limiting and depressing regime for those young people for some years. There is the important matter of the possibility of getting greater variety in that regime, which the standing commission could consider, too.

8.15 pm

There is also the problem of transfers of youngsters showing signs of mental stress. I have been told by some senior staff involved in that work that if they approach a mental hospital and say that they are from Glenochil, doors slam in their faces because it sounds like trouble, and no one wants it. One does not want to see youngsters suffering from stress in the conventional closed ward of a mental hospital, which most mental hospitals are trying to move away from. The relationship between the young offenders institution and detention centre and the mental hospital should be looked at in view of some of the comments that have been made to me by people of genuine experience.

There is an enormous amount to be done in examining the alternatives to custodial sentence. I do not practise nowadays in the sheriff courts in Scotland, but I doubt whether they have changed very much over the past year or 18 months since my experience came to an end. Until recently, it was frequent to have a youngster in the dock, with the sheriff having before him a series of reports saying unanimously that community service would be a useful way of disposing of the case, and the boy might respond to it. However, the final, deadening remark at the end is, "No place is available." I recognise that there are genuine difficulties in getting the work opportunities implicit in community service orders, but there is also an enormous problem of a lack of resources. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that in areas of Scotland there is not just a lack of places, but the scheme does not operate at all. We should consider that. We should also consider probation and its use, and attendance centres.

Therefore, there is an enormous area to be covered. The one thing that has happened is that we have allowed the Government—perhaps we could not stop them—to go down a road which, in many ways, at least in custodial matters, has reduced the options, made the system more rigid and made it close in upon individual offenders. That is one of the things that has led to some of the troubles that we are now considering.

It is a sensitive issue. Clearly there will be variations of opinion upon it. Truth is never absolute, and it is hard to assess the results. We have a duty to continue to try. We certainly have a duty to take seriously the tragedies in the young offenders institution. We must sympathise with the staff and with the problems of an institution which is the place to which all troublesome youngsters are sent. If a boy is in trouble in Polmont young offenders institution, he will be transferred to Glenochil. If a boy shows signs of mental instability, he will be transferred to Glenochil.

There are special problems for the staff. I still believe that we are giving them a task that has been complicated by an over-rigid approach to the regime that should be available and that many youths will not, in detention centre terms, respond merely to the fact that they have to work through a series of grades that depend on taking a minute off their mile time or the ability to order their kit with almost military precision. That may be a useful regime, but it is not a universal panacea. The Government, in trying to make it so for a large proportion of the youngsters coming into custody, possibly took a wrong turning.

If we can get the wider perspective and in-depth examination that I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan is thinking about when he advocates a standing commission, we shall be doing a great deal to help future generations to cope with the distressing problems that we have experienced over the past three or four years.

Mr. Ancram

Rightly, this has been a lengthy debate on a very important subject. I join hon. Members who rightly acknowledged and endorsed the efforts that are made by those who work in such institutions. We all recognise that, in a sense, they are working for us. We owe them an acknowledgement of the work that they do. I am grateful to hon. Members who have done so tonight. I listened with care to the speech by the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill). He raised a matter of great public concern. I entirely share his regret at the tragic deaths in the Glenochil complex, a subject to which I shall return.

As the hon. Gentleman said to me, I hope that I do not sound patronising in saying this. I should like to thank him for the thoughtful and responsible attitude that he displayed not only tonight but during the difficult months that have passed. He has served his constituency well in so doing. That contrasts remarkably with some comments made by hon. Members, which have done nothing to achieve any confidence, but have done a lot unnecessarily to instil anxiety in the hearts and minds of parents who have children at that institution.

The Government are committed to the full investigation of those complex and distressing cases, but I should make it clear at this stage that in my view a statutory standing commission is not the answer. Nevertheless, I welcome this opportunity to debate the whole question of the treatment of young offenders.

First, it is important to set in context the issues that have been raised about custodial treatment of young offenders. Understandably, public interest and concern have been concentrated on those detained in custody. Detention, however, is the last resort, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) recognised to some extent. Only a minority of young offenders are dealt with in that way. The court can sentence a young offender to detention only if it is satisfied that no other method of dealing with his is appropriate. Before doing so, the court must obtain information about the offender's circumstances, usually by way of a background report from the local authority social work department. Other, non-custodial, disposals are available and the courts rightly turn to them first. The figures bear that out. Last year, more than 50,000 young offenders appeared before Scottish courts, but fewer than 5,000 received custodial sentences. The vast majority—more than 90 per cent.—were dealt with in some other way.

A wide range of non-custodial options is available to the courts. The hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) seemed to be suggesting that the non-custodial options were too narrow, but the range available is very wide and it is still widening. The commonest, and often the most appropriate, is the fine, but probation is also widely used, especially for the under-21s, and community service is now available in most sheriff and high courts as a realistic alternative to imprisonment.

Mr. Buchan

I was referring to the options within the custodial structure. I was not dealing with the non-custodial options, of which there are certainly many. I believe that the custodial structure should offer a wider variety of regimes and institutions, ranging from the very open, almost teaching, environment to, inevitably, the extremely secure.

Mr. Ancram

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he was suggesting that some offenders who were inside penal institutions should be outside but that places were not available.

Mr. Buchan

That is true, too, but I was not making that point.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Member for Garscadden referred to community service orders. I should point out to him that they are now available in three quarters of the Scottish sheriff courts and we are actively pursuing expansion of that system.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not wish to score cheap public points, but the Minister's briefing to the effect that the options are widening does not accord with the experience of those of us who have received complaints about the closure of the Guthrie school. That option should have been kept open. I do not make the point in a partisan spirit, but the hon. Gentleman must be careful about claiming that the options are widening.

Mr. Ancram

The closure of Dr. Guthrie's school is the responsibility of another Minister, so it would not be right for me to refer to it at the Dispatch Box.

The fact that there are now more ways to dispose of young offenders is reflected in the fact that fewer and fewer young offenders now end up in penal institutions. Our policy continues to be that non-custodial sentences should be developed further, as shown by our continued commitment to the growth of community service orders. Last year, 1,200 such orders were made for young offenders. Our recent announcement about fine-enforcement officers is further evidence of our intentions in that direction. The hon. Member for Garscadden questioned this, but the daily population of young offenders in penal custody has been reduced by 20 per cent. since the new sentencing arrangements were introduced in November 1983. The full figures for 1984 are not available, but the 20 per cent. reduction is a clear improvement.

The crux of the debate is, perhaps, that there will always be a minority of offenders for whom a custodial sentence is the only option in view of their response to previous disposals or, in some cases, the seriousness of the crime. Some young offenders defy all efforts at non-custodial restraint and continue to offend. Some have committed extremely serious offences and considerations of public safety as well as of criminal justice require the imposition of custodial sentences.

I believe that the Government have responded quickly and positively to the new opportunities for dealing with young offenders out of custody. The methods available to the courts are already varied and continue to develop, and they are being used in a constructive and reasonable way. The formulation and review of policy must be flexible so as to respond quickly as new opportunities and difficulties emerge. That is an important part of the Government's purpose. The same applies to the assessment of young offenders. The provision of information before a sentence is imposed is the responsibility of the local authority social work departments, to which guidance has been given by the Scottish Office—most recently in November 1983 in a circular setting out in detail the requirements of section 45 and schedule 5 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan referred to the resources available to social work departments. A joint Scottish Office-COSLA working party comprising officials from the Scottish Departments, social work directors and financial advisors is currently considering the provision of social work services for offenders and I hope that recommendations will come forward for our consideration in due course.

Mr. Dalyell

It is desperately important to all our constituents that more resources should be made available. Is the Minister satisfied with the level of resources likely to be made available, because we have heard differently? In that context, the working party is extremely important.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that a working party of this kind must assess whether resources are being deployed in the most effective way and, if so, what additional requirements there may be. We must await the results.

The decision as to the sentence is a matter for the court. I do not think that that fact was fully reflected in some contributions today. For young offenders who may be mentally disordered, there are arrangements for medical reports to be obtained and the court can make a hospital order rather than impose a custodial sentence. I should make it clear to the hon. Member for Clackmannan that that does not mean Carstairs.

Mr. O'Neill

I think that the Minister is about to slip around this, and I want to get him. God forbid that any of these offenders should be sent to Carstairs, but I am told by the prison authorities that virtually no other institution in Scotland is prepared to take them. They cannot find anywhere else to put these lads unless the nature of the disorder is such that the offender should never have been sentenced in the first place. That is the reality of the situation.

Mr. Ancram

A medical report has to be obtained and the question of accommodation follows.

The arrangements for assessment and classification of young offenders within the prison system are the subject of current research with the SHHD. That research will be made available to Dr. Chiswick's working group, so that he will have the benefit of it in reaching his conclusion. The changing pattern of offences and sentences by the courts inevitably means that adjustments are required in the allocation and use of penal establishments for young offenders. Apart from the reduction in the daily population of young offenders, to which I have already referred, the response and attitudes of young inmates need to be carefully monitored by the prison service. I can assure the House that this task is not overlooked and that great care is taken in the assessment and review of appropriate regimes for individual inmates. I shall, however, come to some specific changes that we have in mind a little later.

8.30 pm

Recent concern about the Glenochil complex and continuing, generally uninformed, criticism of detention centres have tended to distract attention from other young offenders' institutions in Scotland. In the light of the subject of this debate, it is right that I should mention them. The open establishments of Castle Huntly and Noranside offer a contrasting and worthwhile opportunity for young offenders to serve custodial sentences in more congenial and open conditions. There is also a YOI at Polmont which deals with shorter-sentence young offenders and a number of young inmates remanded in custody by the court. I share the appreciation of the hon. Member for Clackmannan of the work done by the staff not only at Glenochil but at other establishments such as these.

I do not think that the type of standing commission which the hon. Member for Clackmannan suggested would add significantly to the considerable efforts that are already being made to improve sentencing and custodial care for young offenders. Earlier in the proceedings on the Bill, the House approved a Government amendment—the hon. Member for Garscadden referred to it—intended to ensure that, normally, young offenders receiving a sentence of between 28 days and four months appropriate to a detention centre would serve such a sentence only once in a detention centre. This amendment reflected experience with the new sentencing arrangements under section 45 of the 1980 Act. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I cannot interfere with the sentencing of the courts in individual cases, but I believe that we have responded positively to the changing needs of young offenders. We shall continue to try to do so.

There have been suggestions that detention centres should not continue in their present form. I understand that that is one of the contentions of the hon. Member for Clackmannan. I must emphasise that the brisk detention centre regime has operated in Scotland since 1960. It is followed at the Glenochil and Friarton detention centres. As Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons noted in his report on the Glenochil detention centre, the regime is positive and purposeful. I remain convinced that it is of great value to many young offenders who need time away from associates who might encourage them or lead them into other offences and a regime that is physically demanding but worth while in terms of targets for performance.

I accept that the detention centre regime is not suited to all young men who receive sentences of between 28 days and four months. Section 45 of the 1980 Act recognised that some individuals might be medically or physically unfit for the regime, and such individuals can be transferred to a young offenders' institution. As I reminded hon. Members earlier, there are other amendments which will mean that no one will serve in a detention centre more than once.

Mr. Dewar

This may be a misapprehension on my part, but I have the impression from talking to staff involved that the exceptional provisions of section 45— these provisions require the specific approval of the Secretary of State before a transfer is made—come into play only in cases of exceptional misplacements. An extraordinary example of misplacement has involved a boy with only one foot being sent to a detention centre. Will the Under-Secretary of State assure me that, if the governor of one of these institutions approaches him with the case of a boy who fails to cope, he will look sympathetically at any transfer request?

Mr. Ancram

Obviously, a detention centre sentence will not be imposed in special circumstances. That might be the case in examples of the sort given by the hon. Member for Glascadden. There are other cases in which a person is found not to be suited or is unable to cope with the detention centre regime. In such cases, the person can be moved. I do not want to go further on that point, because it involves a case on which, for obvious reasons, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment.

Mr. Buchan

This might not be the appropriate time to make an in-depth analysis. If the short sharp shock institution is not suitable for young offenders, will the Minister consider using a variety of institutions? Clearly, this will require legislation. Will the hon. Gentleman say that his mind is open on this matter, so that a serious medical, physical or psychological condition does not have to be specified before it is decided that a particular boy should be not in that centre but in a different regime? If the hon. Gentleman were to open his mind to that proposition, he would allay many anxieties.

Mr. Ancram

Nothing I have said should suggest that I expect individual young offenders who are incapable of remaining within a detention regime to remain there.

Mr. Buchan

Not incapable.

Mr. Ancram

I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I have said that we are always looking at this matter in terms of trying to meet changing needs. The demand is not static; it is continually moving. We have responded to it as it has moved. Obviously, I shall carefully consider all the remarks made in this debate.

The suggestion for a standing commission and the other proposals for a large-scale public inquiry bring me to the serious concern that the Government share about recent deaths in custody. Self-inflicted injury or the death of a young man, perhaps at his own hand, are distressing and complex problems, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) pointed out. Obviously, I cannot comment on the two most recent deaths which are still to be subject to fatal accident inquiries. I wish to emphasise, however, the seriousness with which the Government regard the problem and the importance which we attach to full investigation of the individual cases and the more general issues.

I resent the suggestion of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan)—I should perhaps have expected that he would indulge in such language—that the Government are in any way complacent or are battening down the hatches as a result of these incidents. We take these incidents very seriously. We attach great importance to investigating them in the fullest possible way.

Mr. Maclennan

If that is so, why will the Government not agree to establish an inquiry that goes beyond the terms of a fatal accident inquiry to consider the conceivable nexus among the seven deaths?

Mr. Ancram

If the hon. Gentleman would let me make my speech in my own way, he might discover my view. The fatal accident inquiry has been criticised as inadequate by some people who, I suspect, have not read the determinations of previous fatal accident inquiries. The independent investigation of the facts and circumstances of a case is a vital first step. The sheriff principal or sheriff concerned has the opportunity to set up additional factual observatons or recommendations in his determination. The Government take full and careful account of any such observations or recommendations. Indeed, in the case of the fatal accident inquiry on William McDonald, which recommended the investigation that Dr. Chiswick and his working group are carrying out, the sheriff principal made several searching and important observations on the issues arising from that case.

The Government have taken full and careful account of those observations. The Chiswick working group on suicide precautions at Glenochil implemented a recommendation made by the sheriff principal. The Crown Office is taking steps to ensure that the fatal accident inquiries into the two most recent deaths take place as quickly as can reasonably be done, but I am sure the hon. Members accept the need for a full and thorough investigation as a basis for such inquiries.

There has been criticism of the scope and nature of the investigations by Dr. Chiswick's working group on suicide precautions at Glenochil. I emphasise that the working group is independent and that it has taken a great deal of evidence from within the prison service and from other bodies and individuals. The working group is free to examine and comment upon the wider issues arising from its remit. In view of concern about recent deaths at Glenochil, my right hon. Friend has made arrangements to ensure that the working group can complete its task more quickly and report by the end of June. We have undertaken to publish its report and the Government will want to give careful and detailed consideration to any recommendations that it makes or which emerge from the fatal accident inquiries into the two most recent deaths.

I do not wish to diminish in any way the concern or importance that the Government attach to these issues. I fully appreciate the force of the argument of the hon. Member for Clackmannan that there needs to be careful examination of the problems of dealing with young offenders, but, as I have emphasised, matters arising from the deaths at Glenochil will already be the subject of careful and independent scrutiny and my Department is continuing to monitor and respond positively to the changing requirements of young offenders in general. I do not exclude the possibility of further inquiries or investigations at a later stage when we have considered the full findings of the fatal accident inquiries and the Chiswick working group. We should not pre-empt those findings by considering further investigations or changes.

A number of questions were asked by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) asked whether information about inmates was reaching prisons quickly enough. That is one matter with which I hope the Chiswick report will deal. He asked also about inmates sentenced to detention centres when they are manifestly unfit for it. I hope that I have dealt with that point.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked about visiting frequency at Glenochil. Visiting entitlement was extended in most penal establishments last year. I shall study the arrangements at Glenochil in the light of what he has said to see whether improvements can or should be made.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland referred to the narrowness of the terms of reference of the Glenochil working group. I accept that its membership is professional. It comes from the caring professions. It does not include anyone from the judiciary. At the same time, the evidence that it is taking is wide-ranging. It comes from a number of varied sources. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has spoken recently to a number of people who have given evidence. I believe that the working group is capable of coming to conclusions and making recommendations which will be valuable.

I said earlier that I would mention a number of measures that we are considering. Before Dr. Chiswick reports, we are continuing to take practical measures to improve the precautions and care of inmates who might be suicidal. I should emphasise the difficulty of identifying inmates who are genuinely suicidal as opposed to self threatening for other motives. That is a matter of which I know the hon. Member for Clackmannan is aware.

Work is being put in hand at Glenochil to make a secure hospital facility of a ward and a single cell so that strict medical observation can be provided in appropriate cases. In addition, immature or vulnerable inmates who are identified as requiring a more closely supervised regime will be transferred from Glenochil to the secure unit at Carrick house at Polmont. Carrick house is a facility which has been used for some time to allow vulnerable or immature inmates a respite from the pressure that they feel other inmates may put upon them. It is not new, it has been going for some time.

I must stress that governors and staff already make considerable and continuing efforts to deny bullies any opportunity for their activities and to ensure that weaker inmates are encouraged and helped to remain in normal circulation. For the small number who cannot cope, Carrick house will provide an alternative location. I am also arranging that all inmates who are found to be medically or physically unfit for the detention centre regime will be transferred to Polmont young offenders institution in the first instance as it is the establishment which normally deals with short-sentence young offenders. It may be necessary to transfer some of those inmates to Glenochil if they present serious security risks.

I mention those measures to emphasise the continuing flexibility and response to change which is day-to-day part and parcel of the custodial services for young offenders.

I welcome the fact that we have had the chance to debate this important matter. I hope that the hon. Member for Clackmannan will feel, in the light of what I have said, that his suggestions are unnecessary and that he will withdraw his new clause. The Government are determined continuously to improve the system and to respond to the changing circumstances and needs of those within it.

8.45 pm
Mr. O'Neill

I am not completely depressed by what the Minister has said. His last few remarks give us some grounds for hope, but I am rather sad that he persists in viewing the young offenders' system with the tunnel vision that has characterised the Government from the outset. He refuses to look outside the two options which are open at present—the detention centre and the young offenders' institution. Within those parameters, there is insufficient scope for a flexible response.

I shall withdraw the new clause, because I realise that it is unrealistic, but it has provided us with a useful basis for debate, and I am happy about that. I must apologise, because I did not appreciate that I had spoken for as long as I did. I feel that we shall have to return to this subject. I wish the measures which the Minister has described a fair wind. We all hope that anything that is done will improve matters, but we may well see more tragic deaths before we find solutions to the problems towards which almost everyone who has participated in the debate has been groping. Until we find them, I cannot see the terrible problems diminishing. We know that they will never be resolved completely because people will have to be retained in secure custody because of the nature of the crimes that they commit. That is, however, no excuse for moving only at the speed of the slowest. That has, unfortunately, characterised the Government's response. To that extent I am slightly disappointed this evening but we have had a useful debate, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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