HL Deb 22 January 1997 vol 577 cc681-4

2.51 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made with the five secure training centres for young offenders envisaged under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, contract negotiations for the provision of the first two secure training centres are in their final stages. Contracts will be signed as soon as the terms of the contractual agreement have been settled. Bids for the provision of a third secure training centre at Onley, Northamptonshire, were received on 30th April 1996 and those are currently being assessed. Invitations to negotiate for the other two sites will be issued once outline planning permission is obtained.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that characteristically informative reply. I have certainly no wish to add to this week's list of problems for my old department. Nevertheless, one recalls the urgency which the Government attached to the legislation which provided those centres for 12 to 14 year-old persistent offenders. In view of that, is it not perhaps a little surprising that more than two years after the date of Royal Assent, as far as I understand it, not a single brick has been laid; only one planning consent has been obtained; and the prospects of completing the programme do not seem to be in sight? Might it not have been better to have devoted resources to developing further local authority secure units, given that their standards of care, education and safety are a good deal better than is sometimes supposed?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord's hostility to this policy is well known. It would not be the best use of resources to discontinue the policy. We are very anxious to continue it. There are two main reasons for the delay. One reason is the complexity of the contracts. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that we want to make sure that the centres are not just built well but that they are managed well. That adds to the complexity of the contract.

The other side of the matter and the other cause for delay is the hostility of Labour councils with which we have to deal. Many of them are being particularly difficult as regards negotiations for planning permission and the details of follow-up planning permission after outline planning permission is granted. If we had received more co-operation from them, we should have made much quicker progress.

The final point to make to the noble Lord is that the secure training centres will provide a highly disciplined educational training programme for persistent young offenders. That is not provided in the secure places which are managed by social services.

Lord Carr of Hadley

My Lords, looking ahead and not backwards—and I am not addressing that remark particularly to the Minister—does she not feel that the availability of those important new centres is so urgent that the Government should reconsider their previous refusal to allow them to be developed locally, not instead of the central bodies when they are set up but pending the setting up of those bodies? Meanwhile, the courts continue their work without the availability of those very important new centres given to them by Parliament. Does the Minister think that it is right to go on without bringing some centres into use?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I understand the point that my noble friend makes. First, we believe that the new centres are imminent. We are about to sign two contracts and we hope that it will not be too long before we sign the third. We expect two and possibly three centres to be up and running by next summer. Therefore, my advice is that we should get on with it and get the places operational.

As regards facilities close to home, there will be five centres spread geographically around the country. There will be two kinds of parents of those children. There will be co-operative and very concerned parents. I believe that they will be grateful that an opportunity is taken for highly disciplined educational training programmes which will help to return those young people to more law-abiding ways. Then there will be unco-operative parents. Quite frankly, I believe that any opportunity should be taken to help the children of such parents, whether or not the centre is close to home.

An absolutely key part of the management of the programmes is that not only will there be a structured programme for those young people but that there should be communication with their families. That is all built into the management of those training programmes. For some of those young children, being away from home might actually be good for them.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is disappointing that the Minister thought it necessary to pass off the responsibility for the delays on to local authorities. Will she not acknowledge that when the legislation was being considered, we warned the Government as to exactly what would happen? It is nothing to do with local authorities. It is bound to take this length of time to negotiate those complicated contracts. Will the Minister also acknowledge, bearing in mind the second question of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, that we said at that time, and we still say, that the opportunity for expansion of local authority secure accommodation was there and has been missed by this misguided policy?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the opportunity has not been missed. We have 170 new places. More than half are up and running and almost all the remaining half will be up and running by June. The noble Lord opposed this policy in a very hostile way. His colleagues in local government oppose it. Perhaps I may give the noble Lord an example. In Medomsley, which is the site for one of the proposed centres, the local authority would simply not make the decision on planning permission within the required time. That has caused enormous delays while we have tried to further that particular application. In the meantime, the site for the unit, where there was a former detention centre—and it has been empty for five or six years—has been subject to the most incredible vandalism. If that had been a responsible council, it would have welcomed the development of that site, which would provide an opportunity to turn very persistent young offenders into more law-abiding citizens. We should have welcomed the noble Lord's support but we know that he and the party opposite are not supporting that policy.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the centres will be run by private companies? If so, can she explain how you make a profit out of locking up children of 12 years of age?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is about the centres being well run. Within the Prison Service, prisons are being run more economically in financial terms and certainly as efficiently and in some cases more efficiently. It can be done. There will be an operations manual which will be made public for all your Lordships to see as soon as the contracts are signed. The noble Lord will be able to judge for himself, but we have every confidence that the centres will be well run, economically effective and, more important, that they will be operationally effective.

Lord Acton

My Lords, during the period when only the first two centres are operating, can the Minister say whether they will take young offenders just from their regions or from all over England and Wales, thereby causing grave difficulties for families and local social workers?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may suggest that these families are experiencing grave difficulties anyway. I must spell out to the noble Lord the fact that we are talking about 12 to 14 year-old young offenders. They will have to have been convicted for three or more imprisonable offences; they will have to have previously proved either unable or unwilling to comply with the requirements of a supervision order in the community; and the nature or seriousness of the offending must require custody in line with the criteria contained in Section 1 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991.

Therefore, such young people and their families are having grave troubles at present. It is true that it will be a national facility. Therefore, when such centres are up and running, the facility will be available to take children from across the country; and, indeed from Wales. I must point out again that we believe this facility will benefit those young people. We should welcome that fact.