HC Deb 05 December 1996 vol 286 cc1189-91
5. Mr. Gunnell

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the recommendations of the Audit Commission on the prevention of crime contained in its report "Misspent Youth". [6152]

Mr. Maclean

The Government are determined to do all that they can to prevent children turning to crime. However, they do not accept the Audit Commission's recommendation that local authorities be given an enhanced role in dealing with juvenile criminals. Punishment must be a matter for the police, the probation service and the courts.

Mr. Gunnell

Does the Minister agree with the Audit Commission's core findings that our youth justice system is inefficient, not working properly and in urgent need of reform? If he is aware of the initiatives that West and South Yorkshire police have taken with regard to young people and crime, will he ensure that such preventive measures are co-ordinated, expanded and resourced, as the Audit Commission recommends? Or are the commission's recommendations too close to Labour party policy for him to accept good advice when he gets it, as would seem to be the case?

Mr. Maclean

I am not surprised that the Labour party grasped at the suggestion that social workers, rather than the courts, be put in charge of justice. I can accept a large number of the Audit Commission's analyses of the problem. What was rather disappointing, naive and unconvincing was its solution, which was to hive people away from the courts and do more cautioning. We are keen on cautioning for first-time offenders because that has about an 80 per cent. success rate. It is naive, however, to believe that a large pool of first-time offenders are wrongly going to court and could be hived off and cautioned instead. That is nonsense and, because the Audit Commission got that wrong, it rather undermines its credibility in the matter.

Dr. Twinn

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a serious aspect of youth crime is that many of the crimes committed by repeat offenders take place while they are waiting for their cases to go to court? More of those young people should be remanded in secure places, where they could perhaps start treatment for crack and other addictions, rather than waiting for months and repeating their crimes while in the care of local authorities.

Mr. Maclean

My hon. Friend is right, but the Opposition voted against our proposals to lock up habitual young offenders when they voted against our proposals for secure training centres. It is not merely that the Opposition vote against measures that would mean people being locked up; they even vote against community punishments. When we increased community sentences to 240 hours, the Opposition voted to cut them to 120. When we introduced curfew orders for the first time, they opposed that. The Opposition are pretending that they are worried about youth crime, but they have voted and argued against all that we have been trying to do to crack down on young offenders.

Mr. Straw

Why does the Minister not accept that, of all his and the Government's many failures on law and order, nowhere have they failed more than on youth crime? Is it not astonishing that, in the past 10 years, while the number of crimes committed by youngsters has shot up, the number dealt with by the police and courts has dropped alarmingly, delays have worsened, costs increased and the number of secure accommodation places decreased? Instead of all this bluster, why does the Minister not accept that the Audit Commission report confirms the urgent need for Labour's pledge to halve the time that it takes to bring persistent young offenders to court—the Minister laughs at that pledge and the country can see him laughing, complicit in the delays, which have got worse in the past 10 years—and for our proposals to ensure that prompt and effective action is taken to punish, divert and deter young offenders? Or is the Minister going to continue to do nothing, so that too many youngsters stay out of control, blighting their lives and causing misery for thousands of members of the public?

Mr. Maclean

That was a good example of bluster if I ever heard one in this House. The reason why I was laughing and am still chuckling is that we have heard that that much-touted Labour pledge will halve the time that it takes to get kids to court, but the Opposition have not spelt out a single detail of how they will do it. They have not spelt out how they will make the defence move more quickly or how they will expedite the files. They have not spelt out a single detail on those matters.

Through our pre-trial issues steering group, we have taken practical action to expedite files and to get people, including juveniles, to trial faster. The Magistrates Association has recently announced that it will bring to trial early youngsters who are up on multiple charges, and it will bring them to trial for the first offence.

If the hon. Gentleman has been so very worried about juvenile crime, I can conclude only that he has been away from the House for far too long. He voted against all the measures that we have taken to deal with juvenile crime. He voted against community sentences and curfew orders, and he even voted against making parents attend court in all circumstances. Labour even voted to cut the time required to be spent at an attendance centre, from 36 to 24 hours. So much for being concerned about juvenile criminals.

Forward to