HC Deb 01 December 1993 vol 233 cc1138-46

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

10.1 pm

Mr. Warren Hawksley (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity of raising an issue which is of great importance nationally as well as in west midlands constituencies. A debate on the subject of young offenders could range over many days. I intend to specialise in particular in cases in the west midlands which show that public concern is legitimate.

There has been a massive increase in the number of persistent young offenders in particular. That has led to the public outcry, which is fully justified, and to the courts and the police maintaining that they are powerless. They have joined the public in calling on the Government to take action soon and speedily.

Too many young offenders are going into court and leaving court laughing, not just at the judiciary but at society. They think that we are fools to let them get away with what they do. They appear persistently, time after time. I shall cite at length one case in Birmingham a few months ago.

In September, a 13-year-old appeared in court charged with 225 offences, mainly of breaking into cars, stealing cars or burglary of a comparatively minor nature, although the cost of the items that he stole totalled £23,000. The frightening thing is that, of the 225 offences, 175 were committed while he was awaiting trial at a so-called social services secure accommodation abode. He managed to leave the accommodation and commit many offences. Indeed, on one occasion he was re-arrested only three hours after being sent back there by the court.

The chief superintendent, John Jasper, who is in charge of the city of Birmingham centre area, said: If I could lock up my hard core of six, I could reduce city centre crime by 18 per cent. and car crime by 30 or even 40 per cent. He also commented that the magistrates were unable to help him to deal with the problem.

When the youngster eventually got to court, he was given 12 months' probation. Shortly afterwards, he was due to appear on a television programme that I was appearing on for Central Television. I arrived at the studio to be informed that, unfortunately, the youngster could not make it—he had been detained yet again by the police. I should think that the police were sick of spending their time chasing someone who was committing that number of offences.

I am not critical of the Government. The Home Secretary has responded to the problem. Following discussions, his speech to the Conservative party conference contained 27 points covering many of the issues that I had raised, including cautioning.

In my district of Dudley, the chief superintendent, contrary to what the chief constable had thought could be done, suspended cautioning. The chief superintendent said that the small print stated that cautioning could be suspended in cases of extreme need. The number of house burglaries, car burglaries and joy-riding in his area led the chief superintendent to believe that he had the right to suspend cautioning. The results were interesting: in Dudley, joy-riding fell in the first four months from 248 cases a month to 97—a success for the suspension of cautioning.

The Government are right to look at bail-breaking. Too many offences are committed by those on bail. When my hon. Friend the Minister replies tonight, I hope that he will be able to give a guideline not just on whether serious offenders who are likely to reoffend will be denied bail. I hope that he will also consider more persistent and perhaps minor offenders, because they waste a lot of police time and cause a lot of inconvenience and concern to society.

I also hope that the Minister will be able to give us some idea of when he hopes the secure accommodation for such youngsters will be available. It is important that society knows that it will not have to wait much longer for those people to be denied the way of life that they are pursuing.

It is also important that the age of criminal responsibility is considered again, because I believe that many eight-year-olds know the difference between right and wrong. At that age, if they are persistent offenders, they should be treated as young criminals, and they should be prosecuted for offences that they commit.

One issue involves social services more than the Home Office. It is the most important aspect of the issue of young offenders. I served in the early 1970s as a member of Shropshire county council's social services committee when it first became responsible for dealing with young offenders. We took over the running of homes that had formerly been Home Office-approved schools. In the past 20 years or so that social services have been responsible for the way that young offenders and young children are looked after, they have failed. The time has come for the Home Office to be given responsibility for the treatment of those youngsters.

From my files, I have taken out some newspaper headlines from around the September period. They read: Ram-raid boy on safari", Yobbo sent on sailing jaunt", Bailed youth sent to Jamaica"— he was on five counts of arson at the time— Car thief was sent on £20,000 holiday", Yobs taken on £34,000 hols by care workers", 11-week camping trip to Portugal

and 2 months rambling through France". Are those punishments? the law-abiding youngsters in my constituency wonder why they stay law-abiding.

I coined a phrase which seems to apply today—nick a car, grab a social worker and go on holiday at our, the taxpayers', expense. That must stop. It is essential that the sort of holidays given to those youngsters are seen as undesirable. The director of social services for Shropshire told me that money was being saved by sending youngsters on such trips.

I asked how much was being spent. The answer that I was given was that £1,600 per child per week was being spent. When I asked whether that was saving money, he said yes. I confirmed with Dudley social services that to keep a child in care costs about £2,200 a week. That is unacceptable, when we consider that a person can be kept in prison for about £260 to £270 a week. I cannot understand why it is necessary to spend so much on these children.

I am concerned that social services are using these private homes. The Bryn Melyn home at Bala has been involved in many of the cases that I have quoted. People have been sent to Portugal, and a girl was sent swimming with dolphins. I am not sure whether that was in Ireland or Israel: it may have been both. They have sent people to France and Eire. I asked, "Do these trips succeed?"

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the mother of a youngster who was sent to Portugal said that it was a total waste of time and money. Who should know better about the effect of that so-called punishment on the young person than the mother?

Mr. Hawksley

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful comment. The mother was right, and, yet again, social services were wrong.

The youngster has returned. When he was there he was, I was told, doing a computer studies programme. I am advised that, unfortunately, they sent the wrong programme, so he spent most of his time scuba diving and, apparently, getting badly sunburned. I was worried that Shropshire county council might be sued because of the sunburn that he suffered.

After his return the Express and Star reported: A Midland teenager car thief has admitted going on a crime spree only weeks after returning from a £20,000 trip to Portugal designed to reform his behaviour. He was back in Telford court with a list of charges against him. As well as that, he managed to escape from the court, and had to be arrested yet again. Surely such people should be locked up for some time.

I hope that social services will look at the way establishments in which such as Bryn Melyn are run. Are qualified social workers sent on these trips, and if so, what interest do they take in what happens? The director of Shropshire social services department said, "Well, it is up to Gwynedd. It has approval for running the establishment."

The Home Office should take over the responsibility of running these establishments and for the care of young offenders. The madness of holidays and the rampaging of persistent offenders must stop quickly. Over the 20 years that social services have had responsibility, they have failed badly. Let us treat these persistent offenders as young criminals and stop their holidays. Lock them up quickly, so that the property of our constituents is safer.

10.12 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Hawksley) for giving me the opportunity to hear the views of hon. Members on juvenile offenders and for giving me the chance to state plainly Government policy in this area. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage (Mr. Wood), for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) for being present throughout the debate, and for similarly pressing me on these matters. Their constituents have exactly the same concerns as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge.

The Government's first duty is to protect the public: that must always come before anything else. From that perspective, there is no doubt that there are currently gaps in courts' powers for dealing with juvenile offenders, particularly those who are under 15. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary recently announced that the Government intend to give the courts the powers they need to deal properly with alleged and convicted offenders of all ages, and that includes juveniles. If that means custodial sentences, so be it.

Critics of these options often talk of secure institutions as colleges of crime. But at present, persistent juvenile offenders are at large committing crimes openly on our streets in front of other children, giving them hands-on experience.

In my view, street corners must be more efficient universities of crime than any prison, because the prisons contain only those criminals who are unsuccessful enough to have been caught. The best teachers are still at large.

Let it be made clear: on those street corners children are not learning to steal Smarties or to scrump a farmer's apples. Those children are embarking on serious crimes, often with serious implications for their victims, who are often other children. Stealing a car, driving it dangerously, putting the lives of other people at risk, is a serious crime. Burgling a home, often one that is lived in by a defenceless older person, is a serious crime. What should we do with the juvenile who commits such a crime not once, not twice, but over and over again?

We could relate stories of such offenders; the 15-year-old in Sunderland who already has 55 convictions and who the police believe is responsible for almost 50 per cent. of crime in the city centre; or the 15-year-old in Bexleyheath who has already been convicted of 18 burglaries, two thefts, three criminal damage charges, an assault and riding in a stolen car. Tonight we heard another frightening example from my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge, of a juvenile offender, a youngster, with an horrendous record of criminality at that young age.

We do not need to be guided, however, by those individual stories, because the same message is coming out loud and clear from throughout the country. There is a hard core of offenders—not thousands, but only hundreds—with whom the system is quite unable to cope, but that small number of offenders just do not respond to what is currently available.

For those young people who continue to offend in spite of high-quality community schemes, there needs to be a custodial option. For 12 to 14-year-olds, the secure training order will be that option. For 15 to 17-year-olds, detention in a young offender institution is already the custodial option, thanks to changes that were made to the criteria for custodial sentences by this Government in the Criminal Justice Act 1993. So the courts will get real powers to deal with those juveniles whose offending has got completely out of control.

I remind my hon. Friends that we intend to introduce proposals for a secure training order. That will be a new sentence for 12 to 14-year-olds who have persistently offended and failed to comply with supervision in the community, and whose offending is so serious that only custody will do.

It is intended to be a determinate sentence for between six months and two years, one half of which will be served in a secure training centre and the final half under supervision in the community. We want the new sentence to provide good-quality regimes that are designed to educate the young people, to tackle their criminal behaviour and to equip them to lead a law-abiding life in the community.

For the older age group, the 15 to 17-year-olds, the sentence of detention is already available, but the maximum length of that sentence, detention in a young offender institution, is currently limited to 12 months. We believe that that places an unnecessary restriction on the courts, and the Government believe that they should have greater powers to pass longer sentences where necessary. We therefore intend to double the maximum sentence from 12 months to two years.

I intend to put firmly on the record the fact that, for many juvenile offenders, custodial responses will not be necessary. The figures demonstrate that plainly. One hundred and forty-two thousand 10 to 16-year-olds were known to have committed offences in 1992, of which 80 per cent. were cautioned, 8 per cent. were given a community sentence, 3 per cent. were fined and 1 per cent. only were detained in young offender institutions.

The same picture, I might add, is true in relation to adult offenders. Of all the adults who were convicted last year, 73 per cent. were fined, 10 per cent. were cautioned, 4 per cent. were given a community sentence and 3 per cent. only were sent to prison. It is therefore nonsense for the Government's critics to claim that "Lock them up" is our only policy either for adult offenders or for juvenile offenders.

Protecting the public, of course, requires consideration of the long term as well as the immediate future. Many youngsters commit crime, and most grow out of it. That is why the Government have developed over the past 10 years measures which deal with juvenile offenders without automatic recourse to the courts or to custodial penalties.

The response to the first offence is often a caution. That is fair, and it works for a large number of offenders. Cautioning has been successful in most cases. Recent evidence shows that 87 per cent. of those cautioned are not reconvicted within two years. A caution gives a clear warning to the youngster that his behaviour is not acceptable. It gives him a chance to stop that behaviour.

However, there has been far too much repeat cautioning and cautioning for serious offences, and that is not acceptable either. That is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has issued new draft guidelines on cautioning.

Many offences are committed while the youngster is already on bail for previous alleged offences. In the next criminal justice Bill, we intend to introduce measures to reverse the presumption of those who are charged with an offence while out on bail for a previous offence.

To be effective in stopping offending, the punishment needs to follow the crime as quickly as possible. Delays in the justice system must be minimised. Inter-agency arrangements to reduce delays are already in place. The pre-trial issues steering group comprises representatives from the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Justices' Clerks Society and the Association of Chief Police Officers, and it has set time limits for the various stages of criminal proceedings.

The targets for juvenile offenders are more demanding that for adult offenders, and there are already areas in the system where delays for all cases are being reduced. For example, in 1992, the period from first listing in magistrates courts to completion was 67 days. By June 1993, it had fallen to 53 days. It is important that we get juveniles to court as soon as possible to be tried for the offences they have committed.

We have also enhanced the range and efficiency of community penalties by extending attendance centres, introducing a wide range of requirements to supervision orders, and developing tough national standards for the supervision of offenders in the community.

We continue to support effective supervision in the community. Only last week, I opened a centre in Wandsworth which provides supervision and support in the community for alleged juvenile offenders on bail and convicted juvenile offenders subject to community sentences.

Many community approaches have been developed in recent years, and many of them work well with juvenile offenders. However, community-based schemes have sometimes sought to keep young people out of custodial establishments as if it were an end in itself rather than a means to the more important end of reducing crime.

Successful community schemes must provide an individualised and intensive programme for the offender. The programme must get to the heart of the individual's offending by addressing particular difficulties, whether it is drinking too much, lack of self-control, trouble managing money or whatever.

Community penalties must be just that—penalties. They will not have the confidence of the public or of my hon. Friends or myself unless they make the necessary impact on the offender. They must not be perceived as a soft option, or even as a holiday. Supervision in the community must not send out the wrong signals. Children must not be allowed to think that, if they embark on a life of crime, all they will get is tea, sympathy or holidays abroad.

Although a cushy foreign holiday is clearly an unacceptable and wrong response to offending, in some cases physically demanding activities can be a most effective way of instilling much-needed discipline into the lives of young offenders. I can see some merit in the kind of outdoor pursuits which could provide some young offenders with character-building opportunities, and I should be interested to hear from organisation with ideas on appropriately tough and demanding schemes. Links with private enterprise would be vital for the offenders concerned, to take the gains of their outdoor experiences into the world of work.

Community schemes must reflect the disciplines of working life. They must place responsibilities on the offender to attend and participate, with failure to do so leading to a speedy return to the courts.

The Government have already started the work of improving community penalties by setting national standards. These standards are now being reviewed, so that offenders ordered to serve community sentences receive proper punishment. Those improvements are crucial to the success of community penalties. Without them, the support of the police, clerks, magistrates, judges and, above all, the public will not be sustained. All those people must have faith in the penalties.

There is now more than ever a need for community penalties to be based on creative partnerships between statutory agencies and voluntary organisations. Local authorities, the probation service and the voluntary sector must pool their skills, traditions and resources to ensure that projects comprising community penalties are of the highest possible quality.

I am keen that the business world should be involved in skill training and other work with offenders to forge the links with employers which will be crucial in determining the success of an ex-offender's return to the job market.

I must tell my hon. Friends who did not manage to participate in the debate that the Government are not relying on those measures alone to deal with juvenile offenders. Action must be taken at all stages of the cycle of offending juvenile behaviour.

The most important responsibility for ensuring that children grow up to respect the law rests with their parents. Some families need help in achieving that, and the Government have already acted in the Children Act 1989 to require local authorities to provide facilities for children and their families to receive guidance.

In that context, the Government have helped the voluntary sector to develop family support services such as home-start, the family services unit and the family centre network, and we are now encouraging local authorities to use those services.

Those parents who do not take their responsibilities seriously must be required to face the consequences of their children's behaviour. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 increased parental responsibility in a number of ways. First, it strengthened the power of the courts to make parents attend court in cases involving offenders up to 17 years of age; secondly, it made parents pay fines and compensation arising from the young person's offending. We consider making reparation and compensation to the victim of great importance.

Thirdly, the Act contained greater power for the courts to bind over parents to control their children if that will stop further offences. Fourthly, it allowed bind-over orders to be imposed for up to three years or to the offender's 18th birthday. Fifthly, it provided fines of up to £1,000 for parents who refuse to be bound over without good reason. But more may be able to be done. Therefore, the review of community-based sentences, which my right hon. and learned Friend announced in his speech on 6 October 1993, will include an assessment of how to strengthen parental involvement in such sentences passed on their children.

Offending often begins while children are truanting from school. The Department for Education has taken steps to ensure that schools get to grips with truancy, keeping proper, published records of the problem. Poor behaviour in schools can often be a sign of offending to come. Schools will be inspected on their standards of discipline and behaviour. Those children who are excluded from school will not then be allowed to slip through the education net. Education authorities will be required to develop comprehensive plans to educate pupils who are not attending school.

As my hon. Friend told us, some offending occurs while the juveniles concerned are absconding from children's homes. In April this year, the Department of Health issued guidance on permissible forms of control of young people in children's homes. This makes it clear that staff in all children's homes are expected to control the children in their care; to take positive action to prevent children who are detained by order of the courts from running away; and to take appropriate action, which may involve the use of physical restraint, to prevent the child injuring itself or others, or damaging property.

Of course, offending can also begin when a young person finds nothing constructive to do. Crime prevention is of prime importance. Crime concern, which was set up by the Government five years ago with annual Government funding, has created and developed a number of schemes to divert young people from crime.

They include projects to give children on high-crime estates some supervised activity outside school hours, and schemes to keep young people out of trouble during the long summer holidays. In Bristol, a programme of summer activities for young people led to a drop in crime of 29 per cent. on a particular estate and savings of £9,000 to the local authority housing department on petty damage. Crime concern is now beginning to work with young people in their schools to address crime issues.

The Government also set up the safer cities programme. Since it began, the programme has supported more than 3,000 local crime prevention schemes, with funding in excess of £20 million. For example, a motor education project in Bradford led to a reduction of 60 per cent. in the number of new juvenile car crime offenders coming to the notice of the police.

The Salford safer cities project gave grant aid of about £1 million to 200 local crime prevention and community safety initiatives, to the benefit of all sections of the community: 47 of those schemes involved assistance in providing constructive activities for young people at risk of involvement in crime.

I appreciate the attention of my hon. Friends who are present for this debate, and I hope that they agree that the Government's action to deal with juvenile offenders, which I have briefly outlined, represents a sensible and balanced response to the problem. We welcome new approaches where they can be shown to be effective, but we do not shrink from using custodial powers where they have, sadly, proved to be necessary with young offenders.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge can warn the hooligans he mentioned that their days of thumbing their noses at the courts are coming to an end, their days of rampaging through the streets are numbered, and the days of more peace and quiet for his constituents—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.