HC Deb 13 February 2001 vol 363 cc290-6

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

12.14 am
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Young offenders institutions, such as Castington in my constituency, play a crucial role in the criminal justice system. Young offenders who serve periods of custody in those institutions have many years of life ahead of them when released. The staff do valuable work with difficult youngsters to attempt to steer them away from a long life of crime, which could have a great impact on their communities if they return to it on release.

Excellent work is done in Castington, especially in the Oswald unit, where there is a high ratio of staff to trainees. Particularly difficult youngsters are dealt with in those special conditions. Castington is one of the few parts of the prison estate that is currently under-used. There is spare capacity, a little more of which is currently used for trainees from further away. Its work is generally recognised as valuable in the Prison Service.

The problems that I shall describe have arisen as a secondary effect of an initiative that is designed to reduce reoffending: the detention and training order. It came into operation on 1 April 2000 through the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. I want to focus on the consequences of its introduction in Castington. It is widely acknowledged that the order is a worthwhile initiative, which will prove to be a good method of dealing with young offenders. However, some aspects of it have created serious problems in young offenders institutions.

Between April and October, 10 incidents of multiple cell damage occurred in Castington. A total of 32 cells were damaged, and many more incidents have occurred since then. In the first few months after the introduction of the detention and training order, there were 25 assaults on officers, mainly punches and kicks, which would not go to court, and were previously tackled under a governor's power to award extra days.

In September, an officer was assaulted by two trainees in education and attacked with a metal chair. That case went to court. One trainee received a two-month concurrent sentence, which had no effect on his time in custody, and the other received a conditional discharge. In October, a trainee threw boiling water over another trainee and got a conditional discharge. There was also a serious assault, which involved a trainee under section 53(2) of the Children Act 1989. That regime can present similar difficulties of providing a suitable punishment. Two or three alarms happen every afternoon in the large part of the institution that deals with those on detention and training orders.

Drugs policy is undermined by the absence of a real deterrent to misbehaviour and violence. That extends to failing the mandatory drugs test, which, when there is no deterrent, becomes simply a collection of statistics, not a means of influencing trainees' behaviour.

Newspaper reports detail similar occurrences in other young offenders institutions. They refer to a 700 per cent. increase in attacks on officers in one institution and a £200,000 bill for damage. At Huntercombe, it was reported that 16 cells a week were being damaged. At Stoke Heath, six cells a week were damaged. Has the Minister assembled any figures on the problem? What has been the total cost to date of cell damage by DTO trainees? How many assaults on officers have DTO trainees committed?

In the past, governors would have awarded additional days for lesser offences. That power has gone. It is no longer possible for a governor to extend the sentence and use the threat of extension as a deterrent to misbehaviour in prison. The power could not be reintroduced in the old form without measures to ensure that the judicial process complied with the European convention on human rights. The loss of the additional days procedure has meant the loss of a major disincentive. However, the situation is more complicated than that under the detention and training order. Magistrates courts are presented with a problem. The maximum sentence that they can impose, including the community portion, cannot exceed the sentence that an adult would be given for the same offence.

For criminal damage valued at under £5,000, a detention and training order cannot be imposed at all. It is quite difficult—in fact, it is virtually impossible—to do more than £1,000 worth of damage to a cell. To do £5,000 worth of damage to a cell is pretty much beyond the means of a prisoner, even one using as much violence as he possibly could towards everything around him. The magistrates therefore end up imposing a conditional discharge, which is no deterrent whatsoever to the trainee.

Fines can be imposed, but what meaningful fine can one impose on a trainee who earns £5 a week? If one does impose fines, the bullies—often the people carrying out this violence—will get the money from other trainees. Their regime of fear and intimidation—of which cell violence and assaults on officers are all a part—will enable them to extract the money from other trainees, so the fine becomes meaningless to them.

The Secretary of State has powers to apply to a youth court for a late release from the custodial part of the sentence. Those powers—clearly rare, last-resort powers—are heavily circumscribed in the guidance that the Home Office has given the Prison Service. They involve a lengthy procedure and, crucially, the Home Office circular of 9 February on the detention and training order states: Late release … should not be used as a means of supplementing disciplinary sanctions. The circular goes on to state that recommendations for a late release should not be used as a disciplinary sanction.

Only overall progress towards the individual's objectives can bring about late—or, for that matter, early—release. That sends a clear signal that the mechanism of late release is not intended to be used in the way that the old sanctions were used to deter and punish people who behave in a wholly unacceptable way that is damaging to other trainees and officers and to the interests of the taxpayer, as in the case of this very expensive cell damage.

I am not aware of the Home Secretary's powers being used in the way that I have mentioned. If the Minister has any examples to suggest that the power is being used to help in the situation that I have described, I should be interested to hear them. That might represent a case for some revision of the circular, to make it clear that progress towards objectives must be discounted by behaviour of this kind. If someone wrecks his cell or engages in acts of violence against other trainees or officers, that ought to be recorded as a failure to progress towards his objectives, and therefore represent a means of invoking the procedure.

I still believe that the procedure is slow and cumbersome. I shall not read out the enormous list of consultations and meetings that have to take place to bring it into effect. The feeling among prison officers is that, by the time it has been invoked, the offender will long since have left the institution and be half way through the non-custodial part of his sentence.

I understand the thinking behind the detention and training order, which is designed to ensure that the custody period and the community period are both carefully structured to develop the young person's understanding that they have done wrong, to change their attitude and to equip them to redirect their lives away from crime. The whole process—the time spent in custody and the time spent in the community under supervision—is meant to contribute to the same objectives and should, therefore, be planned so that such time is used and not spent idly sitting around for several months in an institution. The time should be structured, and there should be an overall plan. That is the essence of the scheme.

To accept that, I do not think that one has to accept that it is impossible to extend the sentence period as a deterrent in some circumstances. To have to face two or three more weeks of custody would not, if someone had behaved badly enough to have threatened the achievement of their objectives, undermine the essential process.

In the early stages, the Youth Justice Board may have got a bit hooked on the belief that it must in some way preserve the integrity of the concept of the detention and training order, rather than addressing some of the problems that have arisen under it. I do not think enough attention was given to the need for an effective deterrent to disruptive and violent behaviour, or to the needs of prison workers, including both discipline officers and education and other professional staff.

Prison workers must be able to maintain order and stop violent trainees from posing a danger to the rest. They must maintain an atmosphere in which trainees are not prevented by the violence and intimidation of other trainees from benefiting from their time in custody—but that is what will happen: those who are trying to meet the objectives that are part of their sentence will find their ability to do so disrupted if the atmosphere inside the institution is violent, and if they are themselves constantly subject to intimidation. It is much harder to resist a bully when an officer cannot be looking in one's direction than it is to worry about whether there is a mark against one's progress in the assessment that is made as part of a detention and training order.

I have been raising the issue for some time, which is why I felt it necessary to raise it here tonight. In a letter dated 29 August 2000, the Minister of State told me that the Youth Justice Board was currently commissioning research into effective practice and into the effectiveness of reward and incentive systems. The results of these evaluations will be available later this year and will form the basis on which new practice guidance is based. I am not sure whether that has actually happened. I am not sure whether the research has produced results that the Minister has seen, or whether, if it has, any new practice guidance has emerged. I certainly have not seen any yet.

What has been the result of the process? Certainly there has been no result so far that has been noticeable to prison officers, professional staff or governors. The concern felt by prison officers is shared by those of governor grade, who must try to maintain good order in their institutions. The difficulties that I have described are recognised at all levels in the service.

The ability to add to a sentence is surely needed for the worst cases, but if that mechanism is not to be used, the Minister and the Youth Justice Board must come up with alternatives. Mere withdrawal of privileges, or a few days without television, will not be enough. In any event, we are talking about people who wreck television sets, and everything else in sight, when an atmosphere of violence develops. Something that actually deters must be found. At present many prison officers are saying "They can do what they like and they still walk out of here on the same day"—and the force with which they say it is an indication of the deep concern that is felt.

Prison officers now say that they would be much happier working with those over 18, because more sanctions are available and the working atmosphere is better, or even with those under 18 who are on remand. Very few are being remanded to young offender institutions, but they too are not subject to the same regime. In the case of detention and training orders the sanctions have gone, or whatever little remains is not really intended to be used as a sanction as we normally understand the term.

Ministers and the Youth Justice Board must come up with an answer. If they do not, the value of detention and training orders will be undermined by a violent and intimidating atmosphere for all trainees, and the ability of prison officers to do the challenging job expected of them will also be constantly undermined by assaults, by the absence of officers who are off sick as a result of assaults, and by a feeling that they cannot exercise sufficient control to do the positive work that they value.

Prison officers achieve most when they are able to interact positively with the people in their charge. I have seen that happen, and I have seen its effectiveness. It should be borne in mind that many youngsters who are the subject of these orders have had great difficulty in relating to others in a civilised way. If the young people have had a family background, it may have been a severely disrupted one. Many of them may have been in and out of local authority homes and had no stable background. Others have been exploited, and many of them have been abused physically or sexually. Therefore, many of them have had a lifelong problem with relating to other people.

If those young people have prison officers who genuinely care for their welfare and relate positively to them, it would be a real advantage. However, that advantage cannot be deployed to the benefit of the youth justice system if there are not sanctions to prevent intimidation, violence and other pressures that make it very difficult for officers to perform the basic order and security aspects of their job, let alone the rehabilitative work in which they all want to engage.

12.30 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

I thank the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for his careful and measured approach not only to this subject, but to a range of home affairs issues about which he has very real knowledge, not least from the days when he served with such distinction as the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman on these issues.

The particular interest that hon. Members take in custodial institutions in their own constituencies is valued by the Home Office and by Ministers. It enables both the Government and the House to hear at first hand the experiences of prison officers and of constituents. I take very seriously the concerns that have been expressed to the right hon. Gentleman, as I certainly do those that have been expressed to me as I have visited institutions across the country. Although I have not yet had an opportunity to visit Castington, having heard his account of that institution's experience since the introduction of detention and training orders, and linking that with the experience of other institutions, I have been given occasion to reflect very carefully on the operational impact of the orders and all the limitations that he has outlined.

The good order and discipline of our custodial institutions are of the utmost importance. They are particularly important in institutions that cater for young offenders and their needs. As hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate, if rehabilitation of young people is to be effective, there has to be an ordered and structured environment in which the causes of their offending can be dealt with. Anything that undermines good order and discipline is a threat to that process.

We are therefore absolutely determined to bear down on any who seek to disrupt the good order and discipline of our establishments, by using the full force of the criminal law; by utilising such incentives as are available to us within the establishments; and also by recognising the important role of effective management in maintaining and delivering regimes, which should not be underestimated in creating good order and discipline within establishments. Variations between establishments' performance on those matters tells us something about the effectiveness or otherwise of the management and the strategies that the management has adopted to cope with a group of inmates who are problematical and volatile at the best of times.

I note what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said about assaults and other disorder at Castington. Especially worrying are assaults on staff, who are entitled to feel protected. We are determined that they will feel protected, but it is interesting to note that the total number of adjudications, including those for fighting, showed a significant reduction in the third quarter of 2000 compared with the first two quarters, when DTOs first came into force.

That should in no way lull us into a sense of false optimism or complacency, but the decline gives an impression of a service in which staff and governors across the whole youth offender estate are getting to grips with the problem. That is wholly admirable, and to be commended.

We have to examine how best to respond to the situation, and to do so in a way that does not undermine the rehabilitative impulse that propels and guides DTOs and their implementation. The right hon. Member for Berwick?upon?Tweed referred to the survey and the research into these matters that was commissioned to be carried out by the Prison Service. I can tell him that the picture that is emerging is one in which there was a fairly high overall level of indiscipline, with some 8,300 adjudications—that is, four per trainee—in the first six months of the DTO. That bears out the experience that the right hon. Gentleman shared with the House.

The research shows that one quarter of the adjudications were for violent offences, and that three quarters were for other offences. It found marked variations between establishments in the pattern and incidence of offences. There has Peen a year-on-year increase in adjudications, but it is interesting to note that the pattern is uneven. The establishments at Brinsford, Castington, Huntercombe and Onley all experienced disproportionate increases in adjudications relative to population, although the House must bear in mind the caveat that I gave in relation to Castington. The establishments at Lancaster Farms, Thorn Cross and Wetherby showed absolute or proportional decreases, although it should be noted that Wetherby was not functional for most of the year. Werrington and Stoke Heath showed modest increases.

We need to reflect on the causes of that variation. Where good practice has been developed, it can usefully be spread as a means of addressing the problem outlined by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. The focus of the DTO is on a clearly structured sentence with an obvious end-point, which allows for sensible sentence planning and proper engagement with the young offender. The sentence aims to give the young person a better chance of living a crime-free life on release. It is therefore necessary for regimes to focus on rehabilitation and constructive behavioural change.

I doubt that there is any disagreement between the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and the Government about the importance of that approach, nor about the importance of ensuring that any remedial action that we take to deal with the problem that he has identified does not undermine that focus.

As a result of the fact that extra days in custody as a disciplinary measure are not available for young offenders serving a detention and training order, there has been an increase in the incidence of disorder in some institutions. There undoubtedly is an element which has seen the absence of such a power as a green light for unacceptable behaviour. They would be mistaken, however, to believe that we lack the resolve to address the problem. We can and we will. We will expect the prosecuting authorities and sentencers to recognise the significance of the phenomenon that they are required to address.

I am bound to say that in some of the sentences handed down in the examples that the right hon. Gentleman gave, I am surprised—I put it no higher than that in this forum—by the leniency of the approach taken by sentencers. There are some restrictions, which the right hon. Gentleman outlined, on the capacity of the courts to deal with incidents of juvenile criminal damage, but the assaults that he described, I would have expected a more condign punishment. We shall continue to bring home to sentencers the importance of their role in ensuring good order and discipline in these establishments.

Nevertheless, we have taken the view—and I am not, at this stage, persuaded to change it—that it would be premature to legislate to restore added days, and that the new juvenile regimes have not yet been given the opportunity to bed in. I feel that more time is needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn about how disciplinary strategies, which are being taken forward with vigour by the Youth Justice Board and the Prison Service, are working and about the extent to which they are getting to grips with the problem. Castington is a good example of improvement, and I want us to build on it.

There is also the issue, of which the right hon. Gentleman is aware, of deciding on any particular legislative course before the outcome of the current European convention on human rights challenge to powers concerning adults has been determined. I am absolutely committed, as are the Youth Justice Board and the Prison Service, to bringing about a number of non-statutory improvements. We are taking those forward as a matter of urgency. A comprehensive package of measures will focus on effective practice in Prison Service regimes and address the understandable concerns of staff with supportive measures to help to deal with situations in which the law may have been broken.

We believe that improvements can be made in the present law. The Prison Service and the Youth Justice Board have already started working on these. We intend to continue to develop strategies along those lines and to ensure that they are properly resourced and supported. We intend to publish research findings about positive staff and trainee attitudes to good reward and incentive schemes, to improve staff guidance and to provide consultancy support and training, particularly in restorative justice methods. That is being done at Wetherby. We also intend to build disciplinary compliance into more explicit sentence plans, and hence qualification for early or late release. All that can and will be done.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for enabling the House to have this short debate. We recognise the challenges that management and staff face in running custodial establishments. We are enormously grateful to them for all that they do. I give a clear commitment to ensuring that we continue to monitor the situation very carefully. There will be a vigorous and determined response from Prison Service management and from the Youth Justice Board—

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 sixteen minutes to One o'clock.