HC Deb 10 May 1993 vol 224 cc624-32

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

11.41 pm
Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

It gives me a great deal of pleasure to be accorded this Adjournment debate on the important subject of law and order, and especially of juvenile crime. I am delighted to see some of my hon. Friends here. It is interesting that no Opposition Member is here to listen to this debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "There is one."] I see that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) has scurried back. Juvenile crime is an important matter, which is of massive public concern.

To give an idea of the up-to-date nature of the topic, I read from the Daily Mail of Saturday 8 May. The editorial is entitled: Learning lessons from bitter defeat and says: What really concerns people in the country is the seemingly inexorable decline in law and order and the deteriorating education system. They link these two factors—together with the breakdown of the family—to what is perceived to be endemic moral decay. More specifically on the subject of juvenile crime, Professor Hoghughi, the director of the Aycliffe centre for children, said in an article on 1 March this year: In nearly 30 years of working with disordered and delinquent young people, I have never seen such a tide of public anxiety about their condition and behaviour. Yet the horrors we see now are nothing to what is coming unless we take fundamental measures with some of our alienated young people. The Home Affairs Committee report, Government initiatives on secure training orders—about which we shall no doubt hear from my hon. Friend the Minister in a few minutes—and the comment that I heard from a senior police officer in my constituency to the effect that society has gone soft on punishment all suggest a significant concern about juvenile crime in Britain.

Statistics in this policy area are notoriously unreliable. We know that about 5,.3 million crimes were committed last year—unfortunately, a record—20 per cent. of which were committed by juveniles between the ages of 10 and 17. Sadly, that means that no less than one third of males will have had at least some form of criminal conviction by the time they reach the age of 31, and 20 per cent. of criminal offenders are under the age of 18. The Association of Chief Police Officers said in its evidence on juvenile crime to the Home Affairs Committee that it felt that, taking into account detection rates and conditional and informal cautioning, juvenile offending had risen by about 54 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years. We know that the peak ages of offending are 15 for girls and 16 or 17 for young men.

Nevertheless, that is only part of the problem. The main part of the problem, as has been generally recognised, is caused by persistent offenders. It is estimated that I per cent. of 20-year-old offenders are responsible for about 60 per cent. of the crimes committed by that age group. In their evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, the chief police officers gave a litany of cases in which young people, seemingly without any idea of law and order or right and wrong, continue to commit crimes with relative impunity. Last year, we heard of a 15-year-old from Leeds who had committed no fewer than 400 offences, stealing cars worth £3 million, without being called before the court in any meaningful way. Stourport police in my constituency estimate that, if they could lock up 20 young offenders, they could reduce crime in the area by no less than two thirds.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, at a public meeting in my constituency on Friday, the police told me that, if they could take 10 young criminals out of the system in one of my areas, they could reduce by half the amount of crime being perpetrated in that area?

Mr. Coombs

My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

Sadly, many people perceive the criminal justice system at present as no deterrent; it causes young criminals no particular anxiety. One young criminal, Kevin—that is not his real name—was recently quoted in the Evening Standard as saying: I don't regret being a thief. These have been the best two years of my life"— the boy is 16. I'll steal while I can because I enjoy it. I'm addicted to it. Next comes the most significant part: It feels fantastic going into a shop taking what you want and knowing nothing can be done to you. The reasons behind juvenile crime are very varied: they include degrees of parental control, unrealistic expectations in a society that is possibly over-addicted to advertising and violence on the television—a factor whose importance Dr. Susan Bailey has emphasised. There is also no real peer group pressure on young people to make responsible use of time.

I welcome initiatives, particularly those involving the police and education authorities—such as the one in Brighton—and social service departments, voluntary agencies, agencies such as Crime Concern, the Citizenship Foundation and police liaison, all working within the community to prevent people from committing crime in the first instance.

Yet, as the Police Federation has said: While police officers and members of the various social services have striven to find appropriate solutions, the objects of their concerns have gone on offending and formed the well-founded opinion that they have nothing to fear from the law. The chief police officers say that too often the diversion of young offenders from custody has been seen as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. The Police Federation has also said: There is an almost Pavlovian reaction to any concept of punishment being restored to the juvenile justice system. That attitude has been underpinned by the Criminal Justice Act 1982, the 1988 Green Paper and the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which Lord Chief Justice Taylor called a straitjacket on the discretion of the courts to deal adequately with young offenders.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the frustration encountered by our constituents, the police and, indeed, the courts in coping with persistent young offenders was one of the factors that led to the defeat of so many Conservative candidates in last week's county elections?

Mr. Coombs

I agree entirely. That is why I started with the quotation from the post-election analysis in the Daily Mail, which backs up my hon. Friend's statement consistently.

The result of the rehabilitative policy, if I may call it that, is that the use of custodial sentences and other more rigorous forms of punishment as a deterrent for young offenders, which would make them see the difference between right and wrong and have some respect for the law, has declined. Custodial sentences for juveniles have declined by 65 per cent. in the past 10 years from 63,200 to only 17,200. The number of 14 to 16-year-old males receiving custodial sentences between 1981 and 1991 dropped from 5,900 to 1,400.

Even the use of fines has dropped. The proportion of cases in which fines are used for 14 to 16-year old males who are convicted fell between 1981 and 1991 from 32 per cent. to only 14 per cent. Meanwhile, the use of formal or informal cautions has rocketed. For the same age group, it has increased from 51 per cent. to 71 per cent. of cases. I have even come across 14 cases in which 14 to 17-year-olds have been cautioned even in cases of conspiracy to murder and threats to murder.

Therefore, it is small wonder that I was told by a senior police officer in my constituency today that he heard one young offender who was well known to the police say, "How many more chances do I get?" That trend has been underpinned, if such is the right word, by section 29 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which does not allow magistrates sufficient leeway to take into account previous convictions. Lord Chief Justice Taylor said: Members of the public may feel that if someone commits 135 offences of a particular kind, it is somewhat strange if judges can only take account of one of them as well as the one they are sentencing on. Section 63 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 also removed the option of sending people who were 15 to youth offender institutions.

What should be done to rectify the problem? Let us be positive, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because that is what the public expect us to be. First, section 63 ought to be reformed so that people of 15 years of age or even younger can be given custodial sentences, and rigorous custodial sentences at that. Secondly, section 29 of the Act ought to be reformed in line with the position in Scotland, where before conviction pre-sentencing reports are prepared which include details of the offender's previous offences. Such reports should be available to the judge or the magistrates.

I am delighted that the Government are planning secure training places now. The Government should provide a continuum of further penalties for older young offenders in secure accommodation. New guidelines on cautioning are expected. They cannot come too soon.

The main point that I want to bring to your attention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that of the House is that the regime for punishment of juvenile offenders must be much stricter than it is at present. There is no doubt that attendance centres are uneven in their availability to magistrates in sentencing young people. They cater for people under 16 for a maximum of 24 hours. I visited an attendance centre in Droitwich recently. Attendance centres are mild in the extreme. They rely on exhortation and a little physical exercise, but sadly, given the cautioning policy, they are now dealing, according to the police officers who run them, with much more hardened criminals than used to be the case, so their usefulness is commensurately reduced.

Community service orders apply for between 40 and 240 hours. Too often I have heard them described—it is also my evidence—as a sort of mild, lukewarm version of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. Frequently there are no educational requirements, so that they are not oriented towards the national vocational qualification. Small wonder that 30 per cent. of those who attended them in 1991 breached the orders.

We know that youth offender institutions have spare capacity, but they must be much more rigorous. It is not sufficient for youngsters to go to those institutions and have only 15 hours of education—the recently recommended Home Office standard. Nor is it enough for young people to go to them to do just five hours a week of physical exercise.

If those institutions are to be deterrents—if they are to represent a greater constructive deterrence than the short, sharp shock detention regimes of the early 1980s—young people must stay at them far longer than 30 days, which is effectively the minimum, and too often common practice. When they go there, they must find slightly more rigour than those I visited, which would not do much harm to a minor public school.

If they are to be real deterrents, the prison officers and social workers in them must be told that not only will there be rehabilitation, not only will there be a continuum of education from what was being done in the youth offender institution before release—post-release work is obviously important—but that they must be rigorous and unpleasant, and, as a result, the word must go round in the persistent offending community that they are places one goes to at one's peril and to which one does not want to return in a hurry.

Having made those proposals for greater rigour in our sentencing regime—at attendance centres, for community service orders and at youth offender institutions—I must point out the appalling fact that, according to the latest figures, only two in every 100 offences result in a criminal conviction. So when criminal convictions are obtained, they must be rigorous and act as a deterrent.

While I appreciate that the rehabilitation of young offenders will involve understanding, too often that form of understanding has been misread by young people in this country as a means of justifying their position—a justification of why they are offending and therefore an excuse for it. If we take the sort of initiatives that I have outlined, some of which the Government are already taking, we shall make the punishment inherent in the criminal justice regime for young people much more rigorous, so enabling us to restore confidence in the system for the British people as a whole.

11.57 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

I wish at the outset to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) on securing this debate on a very important subject. I underline and endorse the concerns he expressed about juvenile justice.

I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) for being in their places at this late hour to add their support. I appreciate that my near parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, has been a stalwart campaigner on the matter, and he conveys the rigour of his commitment to the cause to the House tonight, as he has on behalf of his constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest began by talking about public anxiety over the issue. Much as I have sympathy, as I shall illustrate in practical terms, with much of what he said, juvenile justice is an intensely complex area.

We should not try to act as apologists for the wrongdoing of the young criminals. Many of them are very young, however, and I know that my hon. Friend would agree that, when one visits the institutions in which they are incarcerated, one realises that they may have suffered from physical or sexual abuse, and that they may not have had a loving relationship with their parents. They may not have received the guidance that would have kept them from their wrongdoing.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about rigour, but I hope that he will couple that with effectiveness. It is important that we should consider what we are trying to achieve, under whatever rigorous regime we impose. Our ultimate aim must be to communicate to such young people that they should not go back into society and reoffend. The track record of ensuring that reoffending is kept at a suitably low rate has not been good.

My hon. Friend referred to the difficult issue of statistics. Time does not permit me to underline some of the calculations to which my hon. Friend referred and which ACPO made in an attempt to demonstrate the size of the problem. There is no difference between any commentators, however, when we come to discuss the marked persistency of reoffending among young people.

The number of juveniles known to have committed crimes has fallen sharply in the past decade. In 1991, those under the age of 18 comprised 17 per cent. of known offenders compared with 25 per cent. in 1985 and 26 per cent. in 1981. What seems to be the case, however, is that those young people who offend tend to offend more often. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of findings of guilt per offender aged between 14 and 16 sentenced in court rose from 1.7 to 2. Those statistics underline the point that my hon. Friend was right to make: that persistence must be the number one priority that we address.

It is good to be able to reply to the debate in the knowledge that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is committed to introducing, at the earliest opportunity, a secure training order, which will target the persistent juvenile offender. We have been left in no doubt by hon. Members, police officers and others that tackling those offenders, who have caused so much mayhem and havoc to our constituents, must be our number one priority.

My right hon. and learned Friend hopes that it will not be too long before the courts are provided with that new sentence. It is designed to be available for 12 to 15-year-olds who have been convicted of three imprison-able offences and who have proved unwilling or unable to comply with the requirements of supervision in the community while on remand or under sentence. The court would be empowered to impose such a sentence only when it was satisfield that that order was necessary to protect the public from further offending by a juvenile, and when a place in a suitable facility was available.

Those caveats do not diminish the effect that we hope to achieve, but they show that, by concentrating on such a sentence, we look to it to deal rigorously with the persistent offender—the person who, to put it bluntly, has not come to heel.

My hon. Friend referred to the education that is available in young offender institutions. A key part of the new regime would concentrate on the education and training that an offender may lack. The regime is designed to get at the heart of an offender's behaviour. We will give ourselves sufficient time in which to do that because a secure training order will be imposed for a minimum of six months or up to two years. For a young person between the age of 12 and 15, that represents the possibility of his liberty being removed for an extremely long time. Moreover, I have visited a number of institutions that deal with juveniles under lock and key, and they certainly could not be described as holiday camps or pleasant places to go to.

Many of the places that I have visited that deal with section 53 young offenders are spartan, have rigorous regimes and are not entirely pleasant. But they have one thing in common—they try to concentrate on educating the juveniles and getting to the heart of the offending behaviour. Our regime is different, because it will focus on the problems of the persistent juvenile offender. I can assure my hon. Friend that it is our earnest intention to provide up to 200 such places as soon as we can to enable the persistent juvenile offender to be dealt with. I hope that that reassures him.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Is my hon. Friend hopeful that he will gain the support of the Opposition? They seemed to undergo a conversion to law and order recently, but does not my hon. Friend find it amazing that there is not a single Labour Member or a single Liberal Democrat present for tonight's debate on an extremely important subject?

Mr. Jack

I join my hon. Friend is saying that it is disappointing that the Opposition Benches are utterly deserted this evening. I have found it difficult to obtain an unequivocal endorsement of our policy proposal. I have challenged the Opposition from the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions and, sadly, they have not given a clear and ringing endorsement of our policy. They have their own version of the policy, but it is not ours and it is not focused on the needs of the persistent juvenile offender. That is something that we have done, but they have not.

It is important to consider the effectiveness of the policy. I acknowledge that we need to do more work when we consider the statistics of juvenile crime. But in sectors where research has been conducted, such as the Hereford and Worcester young offenders project, it has been found that, of those who went into custody, 86 per cent. reoffended, whereas 67 per cent. of those on community supervision reoffended.

I am not proud that 67 per cent. of the latter reoffended, and more work needs to be done in that sphere, but there is a measurable and significant difference between the effectiveness of placing people in custody and punishing people in the community. While more work needs to be done on improving the effectiveness—the new national standards that we have introduced into the probation service will lend an enhanced rigour to the punishment —we must remain aware of the fact that there is a significant difference in the reoffending rate of those who go into custody.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

I advise my hon. Friend to be careful when drawing such a conclusion from the reoffending rates of those who go into custody for the simple reason that, with the current regime on cautioning and sentencing, the sort of young people who progress all the way to custody are so imbued with the ways of life of habitual crime that they are likely to reoffend in any event.

Mr. Jack

I understand my hon. Friend's point, but I hope that, in concentrating my remarks on what the secure training order will achieve, I can show him that we are trying to address the problem that he mentioned.

My hon. Friend also mentioned cautioning. I agree that we must not undervalue cautioning as a first point of contact with the criminal justice system. Only 3 per cent. of cautions are given to juveniles who have already had two or more cautions. There has been a feeling that cautions are given out like sweets, but that is not so. Some 87 per cent. of those cautioned in 1985 were not convicted within two years. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I are looking carefully at possible ways in which cautioning as a first encounter can be improved by attaching certain conditions.

It is important to recognise that 87 per cent. of those cautioned in 1985 were not convicted within two years of the caution. Sometimes a caution can be a useful shock to the system, to promote an attitude of "so far and no further". We take that matter seriously.

My hon. Friend mentioned attendance centres. I have also visited an attendance centre. When one considers the raw material with which attendance centres and probation centres have to deal, it becomes clear that such people are not the easiest with which to work. For somebody aged 12, 13 or 14, the attendance centre represents deprivation of liberty, and it is probably the first time that they have had to remain in one place for a period.

There is the rigour of physical activity and a skill such as woodwork to occupy them. It is a first encounter with some form of custody. For those young people, it can be a useful reminder of what could come next if they do not learn some lessons in discipline. We are looking at ways and means of improving the regime in attendance centres. and the points raised by my hon. Friend will serve well to assist those working in them.

My hon. Friend mentioned expanding the range of juvenile disposals. We are looking at the scope and scale of offences covered by section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to see whether certain offences should be brought into the range of custodial disposals.

My hon. Friend went on to discuss the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I hope that he will know from the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend that we intend to take on board the views of right hon. and hon. Members, particularly on matters relating to section 29 of the Act. I am sure that my hon. Friend will see the Home Secretary's recent statements as confirmation of that.

My hon. Friend mentioned regimes in young offender institutions. I counsel him to go to the Nightingale unit at Feltham. He will find that it is not a particularly pleasant place. However, he will find 15 hours of education and five hours of physical activity. He will also find guidance and counselling on alcoholism and drugs and other activities that bring a rigour to the regime there in not particularly pleasant surroundings. Anger control is also addressed. A real attempt is made to deal with some of the most difficult offenders that one will find, some having committed some of the worst crimes in the country. My hon. Friend will not find a holiday camp atmosphere at Feltham—far from it. Instead, there is a determination to get hold of those young people in order to give them some rigour and discipline to enable them to go back into society and not reoffend again.

Finally, the short, sharp shock treatment to which my hon. Friend referred briefly was not particularly successful as 75 per cent. of the people reoffended. We are trying to introduce young people to some of the rigours of prison, a scheme presently existing on trial to enable some people to sample—

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

Adjourned at eleven minutes past Twelve midnight.