HC Deb 29 January 1991 vol 184 cc916-22

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

11.59 pm
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

Last July, a 15-year-old boy, Philip Knight, killed himself while on remand in Swansea prison. His case, though tragic, is, sadly, not unique. However, he was the youngest child ever to commit suicide while detained in prison. His avoidable death brought the scandalous practice of remanding juveniles in adult prisons to the attention of the public.

Last year, nine young men under the age of 21 committed suicide while on remand. Everyone—the press, the media and the Government—said that it must never happen again. The Government announced that they intended to change the system. Last Friday, however, another 15-year-old boy was remanded in Swansea prison, a prison for adults. Why?

Last year, 1,613 15 to 16-year-old boys were on remand in adult prisons. The suicide rate among all remand prisoners is very high. The young, as we have learnt, are no exception. Fifty-five per cent. of all suicides in prison are committed by prisoners on remand. Of the 1,613 untried and unsentenced juveniles in prison or remand centres, the prison department's statistics do not account for 357 cases. I could not trace what happened to them; nor could the prison department. Of the remaining 1,256 cases, 41 per cent. were found to be not guilty or were given non-custodial sentences. That is a very high percentage of all the young people who have been on remand in adult prisons.

Hon. Members are aware that draft legislation is currently being considered in Committee to amend and reform the law relating to the treatment of juvenile offenders and others. I had hoped that it would provide the opportunity to bring about radical changes to a system that is designed to deal more with the hardened criminal than with a particularly vulnerable section of the community—young people charged with but not yet found guilty of various offences.

We have now had the chance to examine the proposals in detail and to listen to comments and criticisms from a large number of organisations concerned with young people. The criticisms from a wide range of professional and other organisations have been overwhelming. All agree that the Bill's provisions do not meet the challenge posed by young men on remand in adult prisons. Some people believe that the Government are operating a dual agenda, giving the signal of great public concern about what is happening, but not meeting their obligations or their promise to tackle the problem.

The conditions in which juveniles are remanded in custody are usually much worse than those of youngsters who have been sentenced and who are in young offenders' institutions. Their conditions of imprisonment are among the worst to be found in the penal system. Overcrowded and insanitary conditions prevail. Bullying and intimidation are rife. Prison staff tell us that the necessary specialist training to deal with these often distressed youngsters is not available. We are all aware now, if we were not before, of what can happen when cries for help, in the form of self-mutilation, rule-breaking and so on, are misinterpreted or ignored. Many of these young men and women —many of them children—are emotionally unstable.

A recent prison board report dealing with B wing of Hull prison said: The hospital staff have had to deal with an upsurge of self-mutilation and the swallowing of various objects, such as radio batteries, almost entirely from inmates of B wing. The reasons are various—attention seeking, immaturity, depression, poor conditions leading to protest action and a desire to get away from the prison to perceived sympathetic attitudes in the local NHS hospital where surgery is involved. It is largely because of the vigilance of the wing and hospital staff and the treatment available that a fatal consequence has so far been avoided. Unless there are improvements in B wing, it is likely that sooner or later there will be a death. If we accept, as we do, the principle that a person is innocent until proved guilty, it is reasonable to expect that the conditions in which someone is remanded should be at least as good as, if not better than, anything that can be found elsewhere in the penal system. That is clearly not the case.

The Government say that they are aware of all this and that we need more secure units and more specialist juvenile remand centres, all of which cost money. They argue that the answer lies in privatisation and they quote the American model where it is claimed that the private sector helps to supplement the state penal settlement by running its own secure institutions.

We are talking about less than half of 1 per cent. of the American prison population, and I challenge the view that a consortium led by Kentucky Fried Chicken, which I understand is involved, is the sort of organisation with appropriate experience in the sensitive area of juvenile offenders. I understand that the Government have put out to tender the new juvenile remand centre at Everthorpe on Humberside. If I am wrong, I hope that the Minister will tell me.

It is recognised that trained specialist staff are needed to help young people on remand to come to terms with their situation.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

My hon. Friend may not be aware of some of the results of the American privatisation of prisons. Some valuable research was carried out successfully in the American prison service on the reduction of suicides among prisoners, using the counselling of fellow prisoners. When inquiries were made about that detailed research, the information was refused on the grounds that it was copyright.

Ms. Lestor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information.

We need to help youngsters to face the consequences of their actions and make plans for their future when it is found necessary to remand them. There must be proper recognition of the problems facing youngsters when they leave remand to return to the outside world. Many have no homes to go to, no jobs to support them and no family to fall back on. It is clearly an inadequate and short-sighted response to turn the key and with it turn our backs on their lives.

Ian McKinley was transferred from Strangeways prison to Hindley. He spent the whole seven weeks between his transfer and his death in solitary confinement. During that time, he was never assessed for suicide risks by a doctor, nor was he seen by a psychiatrist. That was clearly a completely inadequate response to his needs.

Prison officers are left to do a skilled social worker's job, keeping an eye out for the potential suicide. When things go wrong, there is no formal post-trauma counselling, although after Strangeways there are ideas afoot to formalise some form of counselling system, which is long overdue.

The Prison Officers Association quotes an example of one officer at Armley who was in trauma after cutting down the bodies of two juveniles who had hanged themselves one night. He was not even given a rest period to come to terms with what he had witnessed. Instead, he was put to work acting as letter censor, with a brief to look carefully for any signs in the letters that more prisoners might be suicidal. That is a terrible way to treat someone who had just been through that appalling experience.

Just as there are good and bad Members of Parliament, so there are good and bad prison officers. Time and again, the Prison Officers Association has argued the case for better training, clearer guidelines and more resources. It recognises that its members are neither psychiatrists nor social workers, yet skills and responsibilities associated with those professions are expected of them and when things go wrong—as we know, they can go horribly wrong —the gross insensitivity towards individual officers leaves one breathless.

There were three juvenile suicides in Hindley remand centre last year, one in February and two in June. The same two prison officers appeared at both inquests. Neither had received post-trauma counselling, or any suicide prevention training. No doubt many of the prison officers carry a great deal of guilt with them. They should not because it is not their fault, but that is what happens. The young female officer who discovered Philip Knight's body—the 15-year-old boy—was not given leave to attend his inquest. She had received no counselling, and the Prison Officers Association thought that attendance at the inquest might help her. The Home Office refused. It failed to send a representative from its prison department or anyone from senior management at Swansea. Why? What is the argument behind that?

At inquest after inquest, the same issues are raised and each time good sections of the media—newspapers and others—protest. Each time, we are told that action is in the pipeline, but it is not, and that is not good enough.

We must tackle the degrading and dehumanising regime in the remand sector and examine why youngsters are in it in the first place. That includes considering the role of social security legislation, which deprives many 16 and 17-year-olds of some form of financial support, turning them to petty crime and a life on the streets.

We must work more closely with the voluntary agencies that work with vulnerable youngsters on a daily basis. We must examine the use of the unruliness certificate and secure local authority accommodation to identify where improvements can be made. We must not be lulled into accepting privatisation as a reasonable response to the long-term needs of young people, when in reality it is a shortcut to offloading responsibility.

Almost a year ago, we were promised a consultation paper on custodial remands for 15 and 16-year-olds. The Minister of State said in the House on 13 December that we could expect sight of the paper either before Christmas or shortly after. It has yet to materialise. Proposed amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill will not now be available for tabling in Committee, and we shall not be given much time to comment on some of the Bill's more controversial aspects, such as the privatisation of secure units.

I have grave doubts about the Government's commitment to reform of this shameful sector of the prison service. Over the years, we have had brought to our notice time and again the tragedies of our young men and children—they are children—who are on remand in adult prisons. I know that in some areas—Swansea is one—there is no alternative, and we must carefully consider that.

Time and again we hear of suicides. The public are outraged that these issues are raised but nothing is done. I am personally outraged, because I believed the Government when they said at the time of Philip Knight's death that it would not happen again, that action would be taken and that proposals would be made. The Criminal Justice Bill is being considered in Committee, but reforms and changes have not been proposed. In December we were promised a consultative paper, but it is yet to materialise.

Public anxiety about remanding juveniles in custody cannot be met by proposals that will merely reduce their number, as some organisations expect to happen, but not end this unacceptable practice. Remanding boys of 15 and 16 to adult prisons is morally indefensible in a civilised society. Nothing short of a total ban on such remands will meet justified public concern. The few young people who must be detained to protect the public should be held in local authority units, not in the conditions that obtain in Victorian prisons.

I said at the beginning of my speech how we were all shocked that a young boy of 15 could kill himself and that many of the young people who have killed themselves have been very young. People on remand, whatever their age, are at their most vulnerable. They do not know what will happen to them and they are plunged into despair and misery. With the best will in the world, our prison system is not geared to coping with such misery, which needs specialist training and far more skills than we give our prison officers. It is not their fault that they do not have the skills or the wherewithal to deal with these young people.

It is important that the Government state their thinking on abolishing this misery for our young men in particular, but also some girls, and what plans they have for fundamental change so that there are no more Philip Knights, no more young men killing themselves in misery because they are remanded in conditions that cannot cope with their needs, where they feel abandoned and where, often, they should not be in the first place. They are not a danger to society. Often, they are disturbed young people with behavioural problems that need specialist training.

12.14 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I am aware of the hon. Lady's long-standing interest in these issues, which goes back over many years. She speaks with considerable experience but, like me, she will have learnt not always to trust press speculation about the terrible things that the Government might be about to do. She mentioned the possibility of privatisation in respect of our future provision for juveniles on remand. When we publish our plans in the very near future, she will see that much of what she has read in the newspapers amounts to speculation.

The Criminal Justice Bill is currently being considered in Standing Committee. Indeed, I spent most of today in that Committee. In the Bill, we are making provision to put out to tender the new establishment at Everthorpe, which will actually be called Wolds. It will be a remand prison for adults, not for juveniles. I hope that I have cleared that point up to the hon. Lady's satisfaction. I was anxious to deal with those two matters at the beginning of my speech, as they materially affect the tone of what I am about to say.

The situation should be seen against the background of the fact that the number of juveniles sentenced to custody in this country fell from approximately 8,000 in 1982 to just over 2,000 in 1990. By anyone's standards, that is a considerable reduction. It is to be warmly welcomed, in the sense that it was not paralleled by a rise in juvenile crime. On the contrary, juvenile crime dropped during the 1980s. I think that there is considerable agreement between the political parties that one of the best forms of crime prevention is, if possible, to stop young people going into detention in the first place—in other words, criminal prevention is very much better than crime prevention—except in the case of those very narrow categories of people who, for public protection, have to be in custody.

I should like to deal briefly with that matter before considering the hon. Lady's specific points about remand. There are only limited circumstances in which sentenced juveniles can be held in adult prisons. Most of those still held will be awaiting allocation after having been given a sentence of detention under section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The hon. Lady is very familiar with the workings of that Act and will realise that those young people will have been convicted of the most serious crimes—very often, homicide. Otherwise, the power to hold juveniles temporarily in adult prisons is used very rarely indeed.

The concern of the hon. Lady and of the public, quite rightly, has focused much more on unsentenced juveniles. The hon. Lady may be aware that, in the Criminal Justice Bill that is now being considered in Committee, we are abolishing the sentence of detention of 14-year-olds in young offender institutions. That is another step forward along the road that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members would wish us to take. Concern is not so much now about sentenced juveniles in detention as about unsentenced juveniles in detention and about the conditions in which those juveniles are held. The public are rightly concerned about this, as am I.

The main category of unsentenced juveniles who may be held in prison department custody are 15 and 16-year-old boys refused bail who are certified by the court as being too unruly to be safely remanded to local authority care—the unruliness certificate procedure. In addition, convicted juveniles of both sexes may be remanded in custody to await sentence at the Crown court, but their numbers are small. As with sentenced juveniles, the number of remanded juveniles held in prison department custody is coming down. In 1987, in England and Wales, there were about 1,900 people in that category, and in 1989 about 1,500. I do not yet have the 1990 figures, but I expect that when they are published they will show a further decline. The drop is encouraging, but no one —least of all the Government—wants unconvicted 15 and 16-year-olds to be locked up in adult prisons.

It is a matter of regret that juveniles have to be locked up at all. However, I am afraid to say that, with some juveniles who have been charged with very serious offences or who otherwise pose a risk to the public, it is necessary to have some secure containment before they come to trial. The hon. Lady will argue that a certain amount of secure containment is available under the child care system. As she knows, standards of security vary a lot around the country. Such accommodation can be used for remanded juveniles, but there are problems. There is limited accommodation. Understandably, local authorities do not have large holdings of vacant accommodation and there are compelling demands on it from within the care system. In addition, under the present law, the courts' power in using secure accommodation is severely limited.

When a court has before it, for example, a juvenile whom it feels needs to be locked up, it has no power to direct that that juvenile should be locked up in secure accommodation. If the court wants to keep the juvenile out of prison department custody, it has to remand him in local authority care and to rely on the sensible discretion of the local authority.

Generally speaking, local authorities exercise sensible discretion. In some parts of the country, they may have erred too much in favour of not exercising the discretion to hold children in secure conditions. In those areas, sentencers have got into the habit of not using local authority accommodation, so people have ended up in prison. I do not know about the position in Swansea, to which the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) referred. I know that, in some parts of the country, there are considerable gaps in provision and we must address ourselves to that.

Under the present system, there is no alternative to a prison department custodial remand for some juveniles. We regret that. We also accept that it is undesirable, and we want to do something about it. We are committed to the objective of ending prison department custodial remand for unsentenced juveniles, as my right hon. and learned Friend the then Home Secretary's White Paper pointed out when it was published last year. My right hon. and learned Friend said on Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill: The object is to devise a system that will not result in their going to prison".—[Official Report, 20 November 1990; Vol. 181, c. 150.] He was referring to juveniles.

In our White Paper, "Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public", we outlined proposals for amending the arrangements for the remand of alleged juvenile offenders under 17. As part of those proposals, we announced our intention to restrict the circumstances in which juveniles can be remanded to adult prisons. We promised a consultation paper, to which the hon. Lady referred; I can understand her impatience at not having seen it.

We have been working hard on developing the proposals on juvenile remand. That has not been easy. There are conflicting demands which need to be balanced. We have had to ask people from the prison department to look at the standards of security in some local authority secure accommodation and we find that security varies widely.

I do not mean that we are considering only matters of containment; we are considering the issues of suicide and self-injury, which can sometimes occur because someone who is contained—whether in a prison cell or in a local authority home—can find something with which to hang or damage himself. Much inspection work has been needed. It is a complex area of law and practice, which is why it has taken us so long to prepare the paper.

The paper is now almost ready, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary hopes to be able to publish it within a week or so. That will mean that it should be available for the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill in time for it to receive an initial consideration. We shall therefore meet the sole pledge given by my right hon. and learned Friend the then Home Secretary when he said that he would undertake to bring forward the consultation paper while the Criminal Justice Bill was being considered in the House.

As the White Paper made clear, we needed to look at all aspects of the arrangements for juvenile remand. I hope that the House will understand that I cannot go into the details before we publish.

In preparing the consultation paper, we scrutinised the existing framework of law and practice from the point of bail onwards. There have been some encouraging developments, such as the use of bail support schemes for juveniles. I am a strong proponent of the development of bail support schemes for juveniles, in the same way as I think that bail information schemes are valuable for adults in making sure that only those who have to be remanded in custody—there will always be those who have to be remanded in custody before trial—actually get that custody.

Bail support schemes provide a structured programme of activities for and work with young people awaiting trial under very close supervision in the community. On some occasions, that supervision is of such an intensity that it may be no cheaper, and I can imagine that, in certain circumstances, it can be as expensive as remand in prison accommodation. Several schemes already exist in different parts of the country, which show that they can deal properly with remanded juveniles in the community and reduce the need to refuse bail in all but the most serious cases.

I should like bail support schemes to be set up soon in all parts of the country, in the same way as bail information schemes for adults are set up, whereby information is conveyed to the Crown prosecution service to determine whether it is necessary for the Crown prosecution service to press for remand in custody.

We need also carefully to consider the protection of the public and the standard of security that is needed for some of the most disturbed and difficult juveniles who are charged with offences. As always, in trying to balance the public interest, one wishes to do all that one possibly can to help young people who are remanded and awaiting triald, but, at the same time, to guard the public interest. That is the difficult task that Home Office Ministers of whatever political party always have to face.

It is our intention to give effect to the proposals that will be contained in the consultation paper which will be published very shortly in the Criminal Justice Bill, by way of amendment either in Committee or on Report, or in the other place. It will certianly be considered during proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill, and there will be full discussion. There is the proviso that, before we can have those discussions, we must have a reasonable period for consultation, as the hon. Lady said, and consider carefully the comments that we receive.

I hope that, with that undertaking, the hon. Lady, whose frustration at not seeing the consultation paper I fully understand, will feel that the matter is not quite as bleak as it was at 11.59 pm, when we began the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.