HL Deb 12 December 1991 vol 533 cc865-7

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to legislate to end the imprisonment of juveniles.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, the Criminal Justice Act 1991 abolishes detention in a young offender institution for 14 year-old boys and provides for the ending of prison remands for juveniles under 17. The Act also tightens the restrictions on the use of custodial sentences for young offenders.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, I asked whether the Government intended to abolish legislation whereby juveniles up to the age of 17 and young people between 17 and 21, when on remand, can be kept in prisons. Some of them commit suicide and some are appallingly handled. Governors and indeed the Inspector General of Prisons condemned the system and described it as abhorrent. Voluntary organisations agree and feel frustrated that nothing is being done.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is a sad fact that some juveniles commit serious or dangerous offences for which custody must remain an option. The Government believe that custodial sentences should be used as a last resort. Most juvenile offenders can be dealt with under constructive and demanding sentences that lie in the community.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the Bottomley Report of 1988, sponsored by the Children's Society, showed a high proportion of reoffenders among the juveniles in prison? Has the noble Earl any recent figures for re-offending since the change in the law? Furthermore, has he any figures of the number of juveniles who, in the past 12 months, committed suicide while in custody?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, in answer to the first question of the right reverend Prelate, around 80 per cent. of juveniles are reconvicted of a further offence within two years of release from a custodial sentence. Reconviction rates following community sentences tend to be better. That is one of the reasons the emphasis is on using community sentences for juveniles wherever possible. I can say also that until the end of November this year there were four suicides by prisoners under 21. That is comparable to 10 last year.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware of the considerable success rates recorded by various juvenile justice systems in many parts of the country? Young people are successfully diverted from criminal activities in which they had become involved and engage in legitimate activities which attract their attention and challenge their initiative.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, anything that can be done to alleviate juvenile crime is worthy. It is a matter of education by schools and also by parents.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the methods referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, led to a dramatic reduction in the use of custody for young offenders? Those methods should now be increasingly applied to young adults in order to achieve the same result.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the Question refers to juvenile crimes, but I shall carefully note my noble friend's comments.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the recent tragic case in which a nurse was killed in a crash caused by an under-age driver who had absconded from a social service home in the community which was unable to hold him? Is he aware that there is a shortage of secure places in the community for some young people who are dangerous?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am not aware of the specific instance to which the noble Baroness refers. However, we estimate that at least 30 to 35 new secure places will be required by 1995.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, can the Minister say whether there has been any change in the law since the youngest member of the Maguire family, aged 13 on arrest, spent three years in prison? Everyone knows that that was a scandalous miscarriage of justice. Has the law been changed since then?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am not aware of the specific instance to which the noble Earl refers. The only juveniles who may be remanded in prison are 15 and 16 year-old boys. Prison remands are not available for girls under 16 or boys under 15. Under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 prison remands will remain available for 15 and 16 year-old boys until sufficient local authority secure accommodation is available. They will then be abolished.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is the conditions in which these boys are kept that is the scandal? Is he aware also that it was 10 years ago that the all-party Penal Affairs Group recommended to the Government that the scandal should be brought to an end forthwith? Is it not an indictment of the inhumanity and snail-pace procedures of the Government that the scandal still obtains? Will he now have the courage to fix a date on which the practice is brought to an end once and for all?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I do not accept that the conditions are as scandalous and irresponsible as the noble Lord makes out. Once again, I say that there must be adequate protection for the public. We can only end prison remand for juveniles when adequate alternative arrangements are available. The Criminal Justice Act, most of which comes into operation in October of next year, gives courts the power to remand 15 and 16 year-olds to local authority secure accommodation instead of to prisons. The noble Lord asks whether we cannot speed up the procedure. I remind him that the timescale is realistic bearing in mind the need to plan, design and tender for building what is a specialist resource. At the same time, careful planning is essential to ensure that local needs are met and that the right number of places are provided where they are needed.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the problem relates not only to young boys but also to young girls? They are being kept in prison with adult offenders. One junior Minister recently said: In England and Wales experience has shown that the mixing of adult and juvenile girls in custody can be mutually beneficial". Will the Minister reject that statement and do something so that at least girls are treated equally with boys?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, that question is in a somewhat different context to the one which lies on the Order Paper.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that it is almost 10 months to the day since the Home Secretary made the encouraging speech acknowledging that many juveniles being placed in prisons were almost apprenticed to crime and criminology? He felt that that should stop, and any sane person would agree. Can the Minister say whether there is a chance of the whole matter being investigated and procedures speeded up? If those who enter penal establishments—perhaps due to having committed a civil crime, not necessarily a bad crime—are there for a number of years, they meet with hardened criminals and become as hardened as those they meet. Most of the voluntary organisations believe that should be stopped.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, of course we are aware of the urgency of the situation. We are trying to do everything to remedy it as quickly as possible.

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