HC Deb 26 July 1990 vol 177 cc652-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Goodlad.]

9.39 am
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I want to focus attention on a need that exists throughout the country, although I shall demonstrate it in the light of Welsh experience and a recent sad episode of which many hon. Members are aware. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) is here, as it involved his constituent.

I want to emphasise the need to ensure that 15 and 16-year-olds who are certified as unruly by a magistrates court should not go to prison. I shall argue the case and demonstrate that there is virtual unanimity in support of that argument. No one suggests that young people should not be punished. Much of the argument involves the type of secure accommodation that should be available for young people.

I shall quote from the House of Commons Expenditure Committee which puts the case more clearly and effectively than I could:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of certificates of unruliness as a means of achieving secure accommodation. We recommend that the practice of remanding young persons to adult prisons should cease forthwith; alternative arrangements must be made. It is clear and unequivocal and most of us would probably agree with it, but that report was published in 1975 and we are still waiting for action on it. We are still consulting on the problem in England and Wales 15 years on. The recent sad case illustrates the cost that is being incurred.

In the past 20 years, six 15 and 16-year-olds have died in prisons to which they should not have been sent. In the past couple of weeks, there was the youngest ever suicide in a prison in the United Kingdom. A 15-year-old, Philip Knight, committed suicide in Swansea prison. He should not have been there in the first place. He was sent there only because nowhere else could be found for him. There was no adequately secure place available at the time. There is a major gap in provision throughout the country; in Wales it is a complete gap. We have just three small units, two of which have two cells each and the third has three cells. The Government have dismissed those units as unacceptable and suitable only for confining youngsters for a maximum of seven days.

The young lad who committed suicide had been in Swansea prison for three weeks. On the day he committed suicide, he had gone to court for sentencing. He and the prison authorities expected that that was the last he would see of the inside of Swansea prison. It was expected that he would be sent to suitable secure accommodation for young people aged 15 or 16. However, he was sent back to prison because no suitable accommodation could be found.

The hon. Member for Pembroke has asked whether he could have a few minutes of this Adjournment debate. I am willing to agree with that if he should catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, as the case involves his constituent. We all recognise that questions need to be asked. It is not for us to take over the coroner's role, but we should put down some markers.

The governor of the prison and his staff, the prison officers, were every bit as angry as the hon. Member for Pembroke and I that the young lad was sent to Swansea prison. In a broadcast that the prison governor and I did together and in other interviews, the prison governor has made it clear that prisons are not intended for young people of that age. In the past nine months there have already been two suicides at Swansea prison involving young offenders aged between 17 and 21, so it was the third suicide in that time, but the only one involving a youngster in that age group.

It is even sadder that the lad was still in prison although apparently he had made an attempt earlier to commit suicide. It seems that he had cut his wrists about a week before he eventually hanged himself. One is bound to ask with what he cut his wrists when he was supposed to be in a secure prison. What did he use, and why was it available? He then went to the prison hospital where there was an overnight guard because, as is normal in prisons, there was no overnight medical attendant. It has been suggested that the guard did not even have a key. I understand that, according to normal prison procedures, under special watch B, which involves a prisoner being watched every 15 minutes, a sealed package containing the key is available for whoever is on duty overnight, but it has been suggested that no key was available, yet the youngster had already made one attempt on his life and might have needed instant attention.

In view of the immaturity of the boy, why was he not placed under special watch A, which involves constant supervision? Not only had the youngster attempted suicide in prison, but, according to reports, he was suspected of trying to commit suicide before he was even sent to prison. It has been suggested to me by people with great experience in the prison service that, although special watch A—the constant watch facility—is available in theory, it is virtually never used simply because it costs so much, the lack of resources and staffing levels. Yet constant supervision is essentially what a 15-year-old should have had after a suicide attempt when clearly he was in a severe emotional condition, having returned from court that day after sentencing and having expected not to be sent back to the prison.

I emphasise that the criticisms that I am making and the questions that I am asking relate to the system. I am not in any way pointing fingers at individuals. I received a sad letter from someone who retired from the prison service some time ago in which he said that even now, many years later, he still worries about suicides of adult prisoners within the prison and wonders whether more could have been done to save their lives. In this case we are entitled to ask why the system was not operating more efficiently. The individuals involved were operating the system as they were required to do, but it was not enough.

The tragic death of a youngster took place 15 years after the House of Commons Select Committee on Expenditure made its conclusive recommendation that youngsters under the unruliness certificate—that put Philip Knight into Swansea prison—should not be placed in prisons in future. An even sadder twist to the tale is that on 17 January 1989 the clerk to the magistrates in Haverfordwest, the area from which the young boy came, wrote to Dyfed county council and copied the letter to the Lord Chancellor and the Home Office. He did that because he knows that the scale of provision required would be too large for a county such as Dyfed to undertake. In that letter he said: It is highly desirable that secure accommodation be available so as to prevent the offender running away and sometimes even adding a further list of offences to those which he or she already faces. Referring to young offenders, the letter goes on: They are sometimes being committed to custodial sentences or remanded to remand centres or prisons in circumstances where perhaps a custodial sentence or remand would otherwise not have been ordered if secure residential council accommodation had been available. Therefore, that letter anticipated events and 18 months earlier the clerk to the magistrates in this lad's area had drawn the attention of the county, the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor to the gap in provision.

The Lord Chancellor's Department forwarded the correspondence to the Welsh Office which replied to the letter. The reply is dated 20 February 1989 and is from a Mr. B. J. Collins. It reads: Your letter of 18 January addressed to the Lord Chancellor's Department and concerning secure accommodation in Dyfed has been passed to the Welsh Office for attention. Accordingly, we are currently undertaking a study of the scale and nature of secure accommodation in Wales. That was more than a year and a half ago.

Yesterday I saw the Secretary of State for Wales and asked him about the result of that study. I had a telephone call from him just before I came into the Chamber. He told me that the study, which started 18 months ago, has now been completed, and a consultative document is with the directors of social services. Therefore, 15 years after the original Committee recommendation and 18 months after the attention of the Welsh Office, the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor had been drawn to the gap in provision, we have a consultative document. The result of that consultation is not expected before April 1991. One can hardly accuse anybody of undue haste in the way in which they are trying to deal with the problem. There is an appalling lack of urgency and almost a lack of awareness.

I had an incredible answer a week ago from the Welsh Office. On 19 July I was told by a Welsh Office Minister: We have not received any representations which call for the provision of a secure unit for young offenders."— [Official Report, 19 July 1990; Vol. 176, c. 662.] That is despite having received the correspondence forwarded from the Lord Chancellor's Department and having allegedly set up a study 18 months ago.

That is what the hon. Member for Pembroke and I face in dealing with the problem in Wales. However, it is not just a Welsh problem, and that is why a Department of Health Minister has been courteous enough to attend the debate instead of his Welsh counterpart. The problem in Wales is reflected throughout the country.

In October 1989 the Minister for Health, the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), produced a discussion document. I am not criticising her because it was recognised long before her ministerial appointment that she had a keen interest in social need. She pursued that interest when she was appointed a Minister. The document was for England and Wales and was entitled "Secure Accommodation in Community Homes". The Government's policy is stated. They say: The Government accept that the use of secure accommodation remains necessary for a relatively small proportion of young people because they are a major risk to themselves or other people. The policy view of the Department is that the secure placement must be a last resort, never because no other placement is available at the relevant time. Yet Philip Knight was in Swansea prison because no other place was available at the relevant time.

The Government are trying to shuffle a responsibility that should be theirs on to the councils. There remains a legitimate Government interest in the extent of the national stock of secure accommodation in its scale and location. I do not think that any of us would dissent from that proposition. However, it runs contrary to some of the points that arise later in the document.

The Government are clear about the type of provision they recommend. They rule out the type of accommodation already available in Wales. They said: If greater impact is to be made in reducing the number of juveniles remanded to custody, secure facilities need to be made accessible for those parts of the country which are presently under resourced. Such new units should provide a minimum of eight places or multiples of eight and up to a maximum of 24 places. The Government point to the inadequate nature of the small existing secure units which provide between two and six placces. There are many of those in England, but in Wales we have only units within the unacceptable category.

The document goes on to say that, because of the limitations of size, they provide a poor quality of life, inhibit the staff in providing the quality of care that they strive to attain and are totally unsuited to the task of holding young people for more than a limited period. That unsuitability is recognised by the seven-day rule that applies to holding people.

The accommodation that is condemned in the document is the only type of accommodation available in Wales. In fact, for other accommodation we have to go foraging in England, but England has its own problems of trying to find suitable accommodation for its young people. The Government say, "Because these units of eight are too big for one county council social services department's requirements, we need a multi-council approach." In the document, there is a long screed giving the reasons for a regional basis, a regional bed bank and regional databases. It says: The Department's Regional Social Services Inspectorate should play an active enabling role in bringing together local authorities within regions to develop coherent local strategy. That is all very well, but the Government abandoned the regional approach in 1982.

We in Wales have to send our youngsters to England. Mid-Glamorgan sent four to England last year and still cannot place two youngsters. Clwyd uses Hindley, Gwent sometimes has to place young people as far away as county Durham, and of course there are Cardiff and Swansea prisons.

The point that emerges from the document is the uneven spread throughout England and Wales of units with a minimum of eight places, which the Government say we need. The Government will provide only capital grant aid, not running cost aid, and they are even withdrawing some of the capital aid for converting existing units. Far from being more helpful, they are being less helpful.

The problem is exacerbated—I do not say this in a party-political sense because it is a financial reality—by the financial constraints of the poll tax. Authorities facing capping are reluctant to take on the capital and running-cost commitment of units whose occupancy rate is less than 80 per cent., yet the Government say, "We will not meet the running costs of these units because it is the responsibility of local authorities."

It is worth bearing in mind that it costs the Home Office about £1,000 a week to keep a youngster in prison. It agrees with councils that they should not be in prison but says, "We want you to bear the cost of providing accommodation." Where is the legitimate Government interest in the national stock of accommodation and its location and in meeting the running costs of these units?

The Government emphasise in the document the need for central initiatives, central co-ordination and central planning provision, and although they can provide all those functions they are dodging their responsibility. The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, the Howard League for Penal Reform, prison governors, councils, social services departments and even common sense are against youngsters of this age group being kept in prison, yet 15 years after a categoric recommendation of a Select Committee we are still consulting and talking, and no one is doing anything.

10.3 am

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me two or three minutes to raise the important case of Philip Knight, who hanged himself in Swansea prison on Friday 13 July.

Philip, who was 15, had been sentenced by the magistrates court and had arrived at prison earlier that day. He was seen alive at 9.30 pm but when he was seen again at 10 pm he was found hanging in his cell. Unfortunately, attempts to revive him failed and he was adjudged dead on arrival at Singleton hospital.

The bald facts of the tragic case of Philip Knight raise considerable worries about how young juvenile offenders are treated by the prison system and how potential suicide cases such as Philip Knight are supervised. As the right hon. Member for Swansea, West said, he had previously attempted to commit suicide by trying to slash his wrist. The first question that we must ask, although I recognise the difficulties for the prison service, is how young people and other prison inmates are assessed as a suicide risk and supervised when they arrive in prison.

The treatment of suicide-risk cases is set out in Home Office circular instruction 29/1989, which states that special procedures must be followed for a potential suicide or a high-risk suicide case. As the right hon. Gentleman said, this can be 30 minutes observation, 15 minutes observation or, in high-risk cases, continuous supervision.

The question that I want to ask on behalf of my late constituent's parents is, why was there not continuous supervision of Philip Knight as he had already attempted to commit suicide?

Circular instruction 20/1989 provides suitable instructions that should be followed by the prison service. It is of particular concern, first, that a youngster of this age should be in an adult prison and, secondly, that, given his history, he was not under supervision. I hope that the Home Office, in conjunction with the Department of Health and the Welsh Office, which is responsible for such matters in Wales, will seriously consider this case and any lessons that can be learned in the light of the coroner's inquest and what additional co-ordination is necessary to ensure that tragic cases do not occur in the future.

10.6 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Stephen Dorrell)

The issue raised by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) is of considerable importance for the treatment of young people charged with offences. The Government do not dispute the seriousness of the issues that they have raised.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West began by quoting the report of a Select Committe in 1975, which emphasised the unsatisfactory nature of the certificate of unruliness procedure. The Select Committee recognised that juveniles on remand should not be committed to prison. That is not in dispute; indeed, the Government are as committed as the Select Committee and the right hon. Gentleman to the phasing out of the remand of juveniles to prison department establishments as soon as resources permit. That statement of policy was made not in 1975, when the Government were not in a position to make a statement on policy, but in a report to Parliament on social services for children in England and Wales between 1979 and 1981. As a statement of policy, there is no division between the right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend and the Government. We are committed to the elimination of this admittedly unsatisfactory procedure.

Wherever possible, local authorities strive to provide accommodation within the child care system for alleged juvenile offenders on remand. In the present circumstances, however, that is not always practicable and, regrettably, some young people are remanded to a prison department establishment while awaiting trial or sentence. We acknowledge that this is the least desirable of all the options, and none of us would wish it to be used, except where no other option is viable.

Strict criteria govern the use of penal establishments for such people. Over the years, this route has been progressively closed to all remanded girls under 17 and boys under 15. Only juvenile males aged 15 and 16 can now be placed in penal establishments on remand. This is a significant advance on the position when the Select Committee reported in 1975. They must either have committed alleged offences carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years or more in the case of an adult or have been charged with a crime of violence or have a previous conviction for such a crime. I emphasise that the Government remain committed to the complete abolition of penal remand for juveniles as soon as resources permit.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke referred to the case of Philip Knight and cited it as an example of the continued operation of this admittedly unsatisfactory procedure. Clearly I cannot disagree in general terms with the proposition that Philip Knight should not, in an ideal world, have found himself admitted to the prison. The specific questions which have been asked about his case are the subject of an inquiry by Dyfed social services department, which will make a report to the social services inspectorate in Wales. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West recognises that it would be inappropriate for me to discuss any of the specific circumstances surrounding that tragic case.

In response to the points raised by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke, I should like to comment on the general development of policy in penal establishments in England and Wales for the reduction of the risk of inmates committing suicide. The prison service is constantly looking to improve its suicide prevention strategy. Present initiatives include a planned trial for the use of closed circuit television, the continuation of the family ties programme, a proposed experiment at Winchester prison in the use of card phones by remand prisoners and a pilot scheme to reduce routine censorship in category B establishments. The risk of suicide is acknowledged to be and clearly is a problem in penal establishments. Serious work is being done to eliminate the risk of people committing suicide, particularly juveniles, whom we acknowledge should not be there in the first place.

The core of the charge made by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West is perhaps summed up in his phrase that progress towards the achievement of the ideal objective defined by the Select Committee in 1975 has not been going forward with "undue haste". The right. hon. Gentleman quoted the discussion documents issued by the Welsh Office and by my Department as evidence that we were more interested in talking about the problem than in resolving it. I do not accept that charge. To some extent, the right hon. Gentleman misses the point of the discussion documents.

He went on to say that the core of the problem is that the Government are not providing sufficient resources for the development of a network of secure units. The Government do not believe that the solution lies necessarily in the creation of more and more secure units. The discussion documents were directed to the questions of establishing the scale of need of secure units, how we can use the units that exist more effectively, and how we can eliminate the unnecessary remand of juveniles to them.

Mr. Alan Williams

I understand that. The hon. Gentleman stated the Government's policy in 1980–81, when they recognised that they wanted to end the imprisonment of these youngsters. Why did it take until October 1989 even to produce a consultative document?

Mr. Dorrell

As the right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say, my hon. Friend the Minister for Health cannot be responsible for everything that was said and done in the intervening period. It seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman might welcome the fact that some serious work is being done and the commitment to address the problem to ensure that there are sufficient secure units across the country and that they are used effectively.

I should like to refer to the provisions in chapter 8 of the recent Home Office White Paper "Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public" relating to young offenders. This noted the encouraging development in some parts of the country of bail support schemes offering close supervision of, and constructive work with, young people on remand on bail and expressed the Government's view that such schemes offer a valuable means of avoiding the undesirable effects of remanding a young person away from home.

The White Paper acknowledged also that the arrangements for remanding juveniles charged with criminal offences are unsatisfactory in certain respects. While falling short of proposing complete abolition of penal remand for juveniles, it suggested that the unruliness certification procedure would be replaced by a more stringent test for a remand in custody, which would be more closely related to the need to protect the public from the risk of serious harm or from repeated alleged offending.

I hope that I have been able to show the right hon. Member for Swansea, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke that there is no division of principle on these difficult issues, and that the Government are addressing them as substantial issues. Their importance is highlighted by the tragic events which have been brought to the attention of the House.