HL Deb 27 November 1997 vol 583 cc1121-32

5.43 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement on youth crime which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"I am today publishing a White Paper called No more excuses. This sets out the Government's new approach to tackling youth crime in England and Wales. It follows a period of intensive consultation which began when we were in opposition. In May I appointed a youth justice task force to advise me on this issue and in September and October I published three consultation papers.

"Reform of youth justice—to make good years of mismanagement and underperformance—is an urgent priority. In the past, the youth justice system has mimicked a bad parent, being indulgent one minute, unexpectedly harsh the next. These are just the faults which foster youth crime; and to compound them the system suffers from endemic delays.

"Many honourable and right honourable Members will have seen the problems in their own constituencies: children whose misbehaviour goes unchecked and escalates into crime; children who offend repeatedly without any meaningful intervention; and who come to court only for their cases to be adjourned, time after time. When they are finally sentenced, many simply receive a conditional discharge—no punishment, no chance to make amends for their crime; no action to tackle the causes of their offending.

"There must be no more excuses for youth crime. Before the election, we promised to halve the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders as part of a fundamental reform of youth justice. This White Paper sets out how we will deliver those pledges. We will make a start through the Crime and Disorder Bill, to be laid before Parliament shortly.

"The aim of the youth justice system—preventing crime: one of the fundamental deficiencies of the youth justice system is that different agencies work to different, even conflicting, objectives. So, for the first time, the Crime and Disorder Bill will make clear that the principal aim of the youth justice system is to prevent offending by young people. All youth justice practitioners will be under a duty to take account of this aim.

"To tackle youth crime effectively, we must recognise that young people often start down the path of offending when they are very young. So the Bill will provide new powers to protect children under 10 from being drawn into crime. Local authorities—after consultation with the police and the community—will be able to set up local curfew schemes for the under 10s. And a new child safety order will help stop individual children under 10 from drifting into crime.

"Tackling the causes of youth crime: many factors draw young people into offending. Not attending school, through truancy or exclusion; having delinquent siblings or friends; coming from a family with multiple problems; and, for older teenagers, being unemployed—all increase the risks of juvenile criminality.

"The Government are taking action to tackle the causes of juvenile crime—by raising schools standards; by fighting truancy and under-achievement; by combating social exclusion; by helping families at risk; and by giving the young long-term unemployed a pathway from welfare to work.

"Families and responsibilities: we know that the single most important factor associated with youth criminality is the quality of a young person's home life—crucially, the relationship between parents and children, and the level of parental supervision. The parents of young people who offend or who are at risk of offending need particular support and guidance. They should also be made to face up to their responsibilities. A new parenting order will therefore require parents to attend guidance sessions and comply with requirements specified by the court to help them control the behaviour of their child.

"But families are about much more than preventing crime. They are the fundamental unit in our society, providing mutual care and support and helping to shape the values of future generations. At the Prime Minister's request, I am chairing a new ministerial group looking at wider ways of supporting families more effectively and promoting good parenting.

"Young people, too, should face up to the consequences of their offending. The rule of doli incapax can stand in the way of holding properly to account 10 to 13 year-olds who commit crimes. Young people of that age know that it is wrong to steal, vandalise or commit an assault. We will abolish this archaic rule to ensure that they are answerable for their offences.

"Final Warning: firm action is needed when young people begin to offend. But this does not happen at present. So we will replace repeat cautions with a new reprimand and final warning scheme to provide a consistent, graduated police response to youth crime, within a clear statutory framework.

"A final warning will normally trigger a tailor-made intervention programme with the offender and his or her family to tackle the causes of the offending. Once a youngster has had a final warning, the presumption will be that he or she will be charged with any further offence.

"Court orders: the Government will give the courts a wider range of powers to help change offending behaviour. Reparation and apology can bring home to young offenders the harm which their offending has caused. The Crime and Disorder Bill will provide a reparation order and make reparation available as a requirement of a supervision order. There will be a new action plan order providing an intensive programme of intervention with offenders and their families, combining punishment, reparation and rehabilitation, as an alternative to custody.

"Secure remands: custody is, however, necessary for the most serious and persistent young offenders; and for some young people it may be the only effective way of preventing offending while waiting trial. However, the courts' existing powers to remand young people to secure facilities are inadequate. The Crime and Disorder Bill will pave the way for powers for the courts to direct that 12 to 14 year-olds and 15 and 16 year-old girls who are charged with serious offences—or who have a history of absconding and offending on bail—are held on remand in secure local authority accommodation. The Bill will also enable the courts to direct that particularly vulnerable 15 and 16 year-old boys are held in local authority secure accommodation when a place is available, rather than remanded to prison.

"Detention and training order: for the minority of young offenders whose crimes require that they are sentenced to custody, public protection is best served if sentences and regimes work to change anti-social attitudes and behaviour and equip youngsters for a law-abiding life on release. The Crime and Disorder Bill will establish a new detention and training order in place of the current sentences of detention in a young offender institution and the secure training order. Detention under Section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 will remain available for 10 to 17 year-olds convicted of the most serious crimes.

"The detention and training order will he made up of 50 per cent. custody and 50 per cent. community supervision, with provision for shortening or extending the custodial element to encourage young offenders to make good progress against agreed sentence plans. Orders will range in length from four months to two years and young offenders will be placed in the most suitable accommodation for their circumstances.

"Better structures: at the moment we do not have effective local and national structures to tackle youth crime. The Crime and Disorder Bill will rectify this, establishing local, multi-agency youth offending teams charged with planning and supervising community interventions. And to provide better national direction, the Bill will establish a new national youth justice board for England and Wales which will ensure consistent standards and monitor local performance. The board will also set and oversee standards for secure accommodation.

"Changing the culture of the youth court: I have spent a good deal of time over the past two years studying the operation of the youth court. Over the summer, I visited courts across the country and discussed problems and solutions with all those involved, including young offenders. Despite the obvious commitment of the people working in the system, the unavoidable conclusion is that it is simply not working. Offenders are rarely asked to account for themselves. They are bystanders in the process, at best bemused by the obscure theatre of the occasion. Parents are not confronted with their responsibilities; victims have no role; and the public is excluded. I am convinced of the need for fundamental change. We are already encouraging magistrates to allow victims into court to see justice done. And we will be asking youth court magistrates to use their discretion to lift reporting restrictions following a young person's conviction where this is in the public interest.

"I want to go further than this and integrate the best aspects of restorative justice into the youth court system. There has been a wide welcome for some remarkably successful schemes which bring young offenders face to face with the human consequences of their crimes. These schemes can bring significant reductions in re-offending. Victims too can benefit from this approach if they want to by telling offenders how the crime has affected them.

"Confronting young offenders with the damage they cause is in many ways much tougher than the present alternative. Today young offenders are spectators of legalistic, adversarial court proceedings and frequently hear lawyers making excuses for their offending. But with the restorative approach there is no way for youngsters—or their parents—to hide from their personal responsibilities.

"The White Paper proposes a radical new approach for young offenders coming before the youth court for the first time. First-time offenders pleading guilty would normally be referred after conviction to a youth panel. The panel would draw up a contract with the young offender and their parents which could last for up to a year and would tackle the causes of the offending. Under the contract, the offender would also be obliged to make reparation. If the contract were broken, the young offender would end up back in the youth court and could be sentenced for the original offence.

"These changes will require primary legislation. The Government will introduce this at the earliest suitable opportunity once the Crime and Disorder Bill has been enacted and in the light of comments we receive from this House and from those outside this House about the details of what we propose.

"Legal aid: currently there is no system of quality assurance to guarantee that legally aided lawyers in the youth court possess the right skills and experience for this work. Moreover, what they are paid depends on the length of time they take to complete cases, which can provide a perverse incentive and so adds to delay.

"The Government believe that a better approach might be for lawyers to provide services under block contracts. This would provide flexibility and a consistently high quality of legal representation. Contracts would discourage delay. Pilot trials will be run by the Legal Aid Board.

"Faster justice: delays in the youth court system impede justice, frustrate victims and only encourage more crime. A young offender who commits an offence today will have to wait on average until the middle of April to be sentenced. That is unacceptable. No parent and no teacher would wait that long to deal with misbehaviour by their children or pupils. Our first priority is to halve the time it takes between arrest and sentence for persistent young offenders, ensuring rapid justice for those individuals from whom the public most needs protection.

"Before we came into government, information was never collected to show how long it took to deal with persistent young offenders. Over the past few months, we have been collecting this data. I can now tell the House that it takes, on average, 142 days—almost five months—from the date of first arrest to sentence, during which time the victim receives no justice and there is neither punishment nor intervention to prevent re-offending.

"With the Lord Chancellor, I took immediate action after the election to combat delays. Provisional data for last month show that the average time to complete young offenders' cases once they reach court is 60 days compared with 68 days last October. The average number of adjournments has also fallen. I welcome these improvements, but this is only the start. In those areas which have already introduced fast-tracking schemes, the results are clear. In north Hampshire, for example, since October last year the average time taken between charge and sentencing for young offenders has dropped from 133 days to 89.

"The Crime and Disorder Bill will provide for fast-tracking for all persistent young offenders. There will be mandatory time limits for all young offender cases but stricter limits for those involving persistent young offenders. The time limits will be backed by demanding performance targets. The Bill will also implement many of the recommendations of the Review of Delay in the Criminal Justice system, to streamline procedures, improve case management and so expedite justice for both juveniles and adults.

"Conclusion: one of the most depressing things about visiting this country's adult prisons is to hear how many inmates started offending as children. By nipping youth crime in the bud, we will be preventing today's young offenders graduating into tomorrow's career criminals. Our manifesto committed us to tackle youth crime and its causes. This White Paper sets out how we will do it.

"The measures which I have announced today should deliver a youth justice system which prevents youth crime, as well as punishing it; which deals directly with offending behaviour rather than simply processing cases; which reinforces responsibility; which delivers justice for victims as well as offenders; and which provides value for the taxpayer's money. I commend this White Paper to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for coming to the House—he was here already and will be here for some little time—and for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. There is much in the Statement with which we will agree and which we will find easy to accept. I could say that the Government have stolen our clothes, which could be described as a crime of a young government.

I have a number of questions, but there is much with which we can agree. I hope that when debating the legislation we will be able to offer our help and support where appropriate, but we shall wish to study the detail with great care. Perhaps I may say to the usual channels that I hope that before receiving the Crime and Disorder Bill we will have an opportunity to debate the White Paper. I have not yet seen it and I believe that a debate after having studied the White Paper will be more effective than the brief remarks one can make in response to a Statement of this kind. I very much hope that there can be such a debate.

We published our Green Paper, Preventing Children Offending, in March. It set out many proposals designed to intervene early, to prevent juveniles turning to crime by establishing new local groups, and by involving many different people within the community, including the parents. It also examined ideas for early identification of children most at risk of offending. That policy appears to have been followed by the Government in bringing forward their White Paper. For that reason, I look forward to reading it.

I wish to raise three points. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to respond to them, but if he is not perhaps he will write to me in due course. The first relates to a matter of detail, but it may be that I have misunderstood the Statement. At the end of the section of the Statement which referred to changing the culture of the youth courts, the noble Lord said that such changes would require primary legislation and that the Government would introduce that legislation at the earliest opportunity once the Crime and Disorder Bill had been enacted. Is it correct that the proposals in the White Paper relating to youth courts will not be included in the Crime and Disorder Bill but will be brought forward later? Would it not be possible to include them in the Crime and Disorder Bill, or would it be better to pass that Bill before proceeding to examine changes in the youth courts?

The second point relates to secure accommodation. The noble Lord made it clear that he expects that on some occasions, where appropriate, greater use will be made of local authority secure accommodation. It is some time since I was involved in a local authority, but I understand that they now have much less secure accommodation. Therefore, they would have to provide considerably more secure accommodation in order to cope with the demands of such children. Will help be given to local authorities to provide secure accommodation where necessary?

I appreciate that the noble Lord may have preferred notice of my third point, but I shall be happy if he writes to me on the subject. He will remember the new regime which we introduced for 18 to 21 year-old offenders. It is being piloted at the Colchester military corrective training centre and at the Thorn Cross young offender institution. It placed a heavy emphasis on discipline and training. I should be grateful if the noble Lord could say how that regime is going, the degree of success it has achieved and whether the Government, who appear to have adopted a Conservative approach to these matters, will be prepared to continue with it.

Having given a general welcome to the Statement, I look forward to reading the detail in the White Paper and later in the Crime and Disorder Bill. I am sure that we shall have many late nights debating the detail of the Bill.

6.5 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, we, too, are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is no reflection on him that it was what one might have expected of a Second Reading speech on the Crime and Disorder Bill. Indeed, there were eight specific references to the Bill and, given speeches, briefings and previous Green Papers, there was nothing new. In those circumstances, I wish to save most of our comments of substance until the White Paper has been read and digested and until the Bill is before the House. In repeating what the Home Secretary said in another place. the noble Lord said that the Bill will be available shortly. Can he be more specific? Can we expect the Bill before the Christmas Recess? What possibility is there that it might begin in your Lordships' House rather than in another place?

We all agree that there is a serious problem of youth crime. I agree with the description of the problem in the Statement and in the White Paper. We must also agree that there is a need for innovation and a new approach. There are encouraging ideas in the Statement and the White Paper, even though they are not new. However, the whole House will wish to scrutinise the Bill carefully. We on these Benches will want to look particularly at local curfew schemes and the new parenting orders. Who will make the orders? I assume that it will be the courts, but it is not clear from the Statement and it is not clear from the text of the White Paper. We will also wish to look carefully at the argument that 10 year-olds should be answerable for their offences. That is not to say that there is not a problem. The paragraph dealing with that aspect is interesting, even philosophic, and we shall wish to scrutinise it carefully before committing ourselves in the way suggested by the Statement and the White Paper.

The White Paper and the Statement refer to the causes of juvenile crime. However, they are inadequate and we on these Benches will make clear that the causes of juvenile crime are not only those listed in the White Paper and the Statement but include inferior housing, of which there is still far too much in this country: the neglect of inner cities, which is plain to us all when we travel around the country; the problems of one parent families, which are due not only to the failure of responsibility; and the incidence of sheer poverty, which the whole House hopes the Government will do more to remedy than appears to be their intention.

I wish to ask the noble Lord two questions. The first relates to the anticipated increase in the number of young people on remand. What new provision is being made to accommodate them in acceptable circumstances? The second relates to resource implications. I understand that there is no proposal that the changes should be financed from the National Lottery. If there is no such proposal, what will the costs amount to and where is the money to be found? We would not be happy if it were to be argued that the money will be found from existing budgets.

I shall look in particular at the role of local authorities which are to be responsible for local curfew schemes. Those schemes are to be permissive rather than mandatory and, as I read the White Paper, no additional resources are to be found. Does the Minister believe that in those circumstances the schemes will be widely taken up? I hope that they will because, despite what I said earlier, the experiment is worth examining. But without the necessary resources is it a serious proposition? There is also the issue of further resources for the police and the courts. The Statement did not spell out the resource implications, but perhaps the Minister will help us now.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for the tone that they have adopted. I personally think it is much more fruitful if we can, together, recognise that we share common aims. In particular, the Crime and Disorder Bill contains a good deal of detailed material. If amendments are put forward which are designed to be helpful, I shall welcome them. We do not claim the monopoly on wisdom.

It is self-evident that not every idea in the Statement and the White Paper is new. The Home Secretary is intent upon drawing forward and together various strands. We do not claim to be the author of every single idea. Some of the ideas have been discussed by people in the youth justice field for a very long time. The truth is, the discussion must come to an end and we must focus our resources on what we can do. No one in your Lordships' House would pretend that the youth justice system—the way we treat young offenders and the way we seek to stop them becoming the adult recidivists of tomorrow is at all effective.

The total cost of the White Paper measures to he taken forward in the Crime and Disorder Bill will be about £22 million. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, is quite right to say that the local child curfew is expected to operate within existing resources. It is permissive—I should express that a little more gently: it is a matter for local choice and option. One would expect local authorities to use their resources as they think appropriate since not all local authorities have the same problem. We prefer to leave it to local authorities, since some have particular problems concerning young children while others do not experience the same problems.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked me three distinct questions. Again, I am grateful to him, as always, for offering me the opportunity to write to him. There will be a need for further primary legislation beyond the Crime and Disorder Bill. That relates to a question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. "Shortly" means before the Christmas Recess. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, has the decency to smile because he often used to say, "shortly", followed by, "This Government are not complacent". I shall omit that statement, and say that "shortly" means before the Christmas Recess.

As regards secure accommodation, the previous government had made plans—I do not say that in any carping sense—which have not yet been fulfilled for reasons that may well be understandable. We shall consult carefully with local authorities, recognising that they have problems with resources. There are resources implications if we are to have secure accommodation in the local authority context rather than in the context of secure establishments, which are sometimes hundreds of miles away from a child's home. We bear in mind the important need for many young offenders, even if they have to leave their families, to remain in reasonable contact with the local community as far as is reasonably possible.

I have no up-to-date details on Colchester—not even the most assiduous and inventive official had thought that I might be asked that particular question. I shall take up the opportunity so courteously offered to me and write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, is quite right to say that we must knit together those various themes—inferior housing, neglect of the inner cities, one-parent families and poverty. I do not believe that anyone with experience in that field could possibly dissent from what he said. That is why we regard the different schemes such as Welfare to Work as extremely important. It is not simply welfare to work for parents, but welfare to work for young offenders coming out of prison. That was part of the context that I tried to explain to the House in relation to the tagging system for the final two-month period of short-term sentences.

The question of remand places is extremely important. It seems to us that there are two distinct aspects. First, there is the deeply worrying problem of 15 to I 6-year olds being remanded inappropriately; secondly, there is the counter side to that particular coin: some young offenders are undoubtedly being released into the community when they should not be. That is not a draconian or pre-Dickensian view. It is no favour to a child to let him out to run up a longer charge sheet, eventually to be dealt with inadequately and to gain a lasting impression that the law means nothing and the victim is of no account.

There is a philosophic underpinning to all that has been thought about by the Home Secretary and his colleagues for some time. We cannot simply have piecemeal remedies for what is a fundamental blight on our society. The noble Lord invited me to comment earlier about the problems of inadequates in prison, and prison being treated, for some, simply as a dump or dustbin. They are let out into society no better than when they went into detention, and quite often a good deal worse. We must adopt a fundamental approach in order to attend to youth justice and see to it that children do not just drift into crime.

The reason that specifics were included in the Statement, which did not include the aspects to which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, referred, is that, statistically, it is plain—and a very dismal thought—that one can predict with a reasonable degree of scientific accuracy which children will become offenders on the indicators that we all know so well. The Home Secretary's Statement was pointing to those indicators as something to which we must attend. They are well-known to anyone who has had experience of Home Office affairs for some time.

Therefore, generally, I repeat that I welcome the offer of co-operation. I assure your Lordships that when amendments are put forward, whether they are probing or intended to reconstruct particular clauses, your Lordships will not find from me the response "Resist, resist, resist", if there is merit and value in the amendments put forward.

6.17 p.m.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, I very much welcome the Statement of fundamental change that we have heard this afternoon, and in particular the extremely positive emphasis on alternatives to custody in which offenders and their families will be forced to face up to what is happening to them and to change, and be given an incentive to change in their own self-interest. As the Minister said, the present system has failed in terms of recidivism, and it must be given to few Front Bench spokesmen to bring forward a programme which simultaneously offers hope to young people and saves a great deal of money, at least in the longer term, for the Government.

I therefore express the hope that the Government will be able to find, from the £43 million referred to earlier, at least a modest amount in order to build on the existing scheme to which reference was made. For example, the scheme run in East Kilbride by NCH Action for Children has produced significant reductions in recidivism and has sent some youngsters back into that very deprived community with at least the intention and hope of leading a better life in future. I hope that possibly 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. of that £43 million will be made available to local authorities and voluntary organisations in order to extend the provisions emphasised by the noble Lord and offer some help to youngsters and to the rest of us.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for those comments by my noble friend Lord Murray of Epping Forest. On a number of earlier occasions, he and I have discussed those topics on an informal basis. I must say that the £43 million is dedicated to dealing with the prison population and its present inexorable rise. Therefore it is not available for the ameliorative schemes that my noble friend mentioned. But if we are to save money in the Prison Service, which I believe is possible at some stage in the future, although not immediately, then of course the Home Secretary is determined to produce, in so far as he is able, within the usual budgetary constraints, money that is properly directed. There is no doubt at all that money properly directed means stopping offending, preventing offending and checking offending in its early stages.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I welcome the general thrust of the Statement and, in particular, what it says about reparation and rehabilitation orders. Will the Government study with care the recent report from the Howard League concerning juvenile girls in custody or in prison; that is, people in their teens under the age of 18? Will the Government also look at the whole question of crimes committed either by young persons who are in care or when they leave care?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I take the point made by the noble Lord absolutely. I have read the Howard League report to which he referred, and in the context of reparation your Lordships will remember that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked me for specific details of the Thames Valley scheme. I replied to the noble Lord so recently that that communication will not yet have reached his desk. Nevertheless, I hope that I have given him full details.

Reparation is extremely important because it has at least two aspects: one is practical and one is moral. The moral component is that the offender must recognise, not simply by the parroted plea of guilty, but much more fundamentally that he or she has done a deep wrong. It seems to us that contact with victims in a controlled and civilised way—and I stress contact where victims wish it—is of enormous value not only to the victim but to the offender. It has certainly worked extremely well on the pilot basis in Thames Valley.

One cannot fail to be concerned about the dismal life that so many children in care have. I have conducted investigations myself and reported on abuse in a children's home. No one who has even looked at the headline conclusions of Sir William Utting can think that we have discharged our duty properly over these many years. There is no doubt at all that the problem identified by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is very real and one which partly reflects a proposition that is self-evident; namely, that children who are away from their parents need a good deal of care, sensitivity and trained attention, which so often has not been the case.