HL Deb 10 December 1998 vol 595 cc1025-7

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to discover what proportion of 16 and 17 year-olds in detention were, at the time of offending, without legal visible means of support.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the circumstances of young offenders are assessed, but these assessments are neither standardised nor co-ordinated. This is symptomatic of much that is wrong with the youth justice system; that is why the Government have embarked upon a far-reaching reform of it. The Youth Justice Board, established by the Crime and Disorder Act, is considering what form of assessment could best establish the circumstances of all young offenders so that the principal aim of the youth justice system, to prevent offending, can be achieved more effectively.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister familiar with a survey of young offenders in HM Young Offenders Institution Portland, reported in the annual report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons 1996–97, which shows that six out of 10 young offenders had never been employed in any capacity and that 19 per cent. had been disowned by both of their parents before the age of 15? If Sir David Ramsbotham could discover that information, so surely could the Minister. If that is the case, why did he not do so?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Earl entirely misunderstands the point of my answer. I know the figures about Portland; I know the figures about Werrington and other young offender institutions. I am pointing out the lamentable lack of central co-ordination of the figures generally. At present, one can have figures from a particular institution but not across the board. The noble Earl will agree that that is a serious gap that needs to be filled, and filled soon. That is the point of Youth Justice Board activity.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, will my noble friend ensure that not only is the information co-ordinated but that it identifies the causes that take these young people into detention—for example, having been in care, having a record of truancy, being black? Will he also ensure that the policies to be developed are so co-ordinated—or, in the Government's phrase, "joined up"—as to ensure that fewer young people present themselves for sentencing into these institutions?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. We have the Home Office research document Young People and Crime 1995 which identifies key factors related to juvenile criminality—for example, being brought up in a criminal home, living in a family with multiple problems, having poor parenting. having poor discipline in the family and at school, playing truant, having brothers and sisters who offend, and so forth. Obviously we need to use that material in a systematic way which has been lacking to date. I entirely agree with the concluding remarks of the noble Lord.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister agree that on average it costs £75,000 per person to detain offenders in these institutions, and that a little money spent on welfare at this stage is more likely to result in better rewards later on? Will the Minister explain the release mechanism plans for the people who do not qualify under the tagging or the home curfew systems after 28th January?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the group identified by the noble Lord will not qualify because they will not be serving sentences of the type on which the home detention curfew is intended to focus. To use a phrase used earlier, this has got to be "joined up". That is why it is so important that the Home Office co-ordinates with the insistence of Mr. Blunkett that educational standards are properly delivered in our schools. A significant part of the work started on by the Youth Justice Board is to bring together these disparate themes and to produce common solutions across the board. We should welcome its work.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that there are invisible means of support which are perfectly legal? If so, can my noble friend give a definition of "legal visible means of support"?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not want to be indelicate in wondering what "invisible means of support" the noble Lord had in mind. The noble Earl was perhaps referring to a topic that he has raised on earlier occasions; namely, that there is a possible gap in the benefit system for people of the age he describes.

Lord Elton

My Lords, if I give the noble Lord the opportunity, will he respond to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, about the desirability of prevention rather than cure of crime, and the role of the voluntary movement in that? Are the Government seized of, and will they take every opportunity to publicise, the enormous discrepancy between the cost of prevention and the cost of punishment?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that he has put his finger on precisely the underlying theme of the Crime and Disorder Act. For the first time in our legislative history the statutory purpose of the youth justice system is identified as including the prevention of crime by young people. It is a terrible waste of money and, much more profoundly the noble Lord will agree, it is a waste of young human life. We have stood away from it for too long and we are determined to attack these problems.

Lord McNally

My Lords, recently a group of young people in Slough were recognised for their help in counteracting inter-communal violence. Is there not a way of involving young people more in programmes for combating youth crime?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is another theme in the Crime and Disorder Act. People in local communities—of all ages and all ethnic and social backgrounds—are to join together in producing local plans for local conditions, such as those specifically referred to by the noble Lord. I stress the importance of the voluntary organisations and the voluntary sector, which do so much good in this field.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, is not the best means of support in most cases the young person's parents? Do I take it from the Minister's earlier answers that the new co-ordination of information will also show the proportion of these young people who before or at the time of their offence were in full-time education? That is obviously an important element in why they came to offend in the first place.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, to his first appearance at the Dispatch Box in this best of all portfolios, recognising my regret that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, has departed for possibly an even hotter seat than trying to deal with home affairs Questions. The noble Lord is quite right. The Werrington study, to which I alluded earlier, shows that no fewer than 64 per cent. of the inmates came from unsettled home backgrounds. The noble Lord is absolutely right. I have always thought that we do not do enough about teaching parenting in the school curriculum. A very large number of those in detention had a poor educational background; 33 per cent. had been excluded from school and only 37 per cent. had been regular school attenders.

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