HL Deb 21 January 1998 vol 584 cc1510-2

2.53 p.m.

Lord Hooson asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that girls who are children under the Children Act 1989 are not held in Prison Service establishments.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Government are reviewing the range of secure accommodation for holding young people who are remanded or sentenced to custody and how this might best be used. That will include consideration of the most appropriate arrangements for the very small number of girls who are held in custody. On 30th November last year, there were only 90 girls under the age of 18 in Prison Service establishments.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, is it not highly unfortunate that at such a vulnerable age these youngsters, who are themselves quite often difficult cases, are subjected to the influence of older prisoners? Indeed, they share with them the prison accommodation and regime. Although the number of girls involved may have been only 90 at the end of November, it is a highly unfortunate situation and is in breach of the requirement under Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, our belief is that present custodial arrangements for 10 to 17 year-olds generally are not satisfactory. The available accommodation is fragmented and quality is uneven. Moreover, the sentencing framework leads to arbitrary outcomes; the structure of sentencing does not allow for sufficient emphasis to be placed on rehabilitation; and the courts' powers to remand young people to secure accommodation are presently inadequate, although they will be addressed in the Crime and Disorder Bill. We must have consistent provision over the whole of the country focused on the needs of particular individuals.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, a week or two ago we were told that this year there would be a modest addition of 25 to the number of places in local authority secure accommodation. Can the Minister tell the House what plans there are, if any, for a further increase in future years?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as I understand it, the plans are to have further places available. However, that will be subject to the review presently under way to look at the whole of the prison establishment which, so far as concerns the question, will deal with girls under the age of 18. We are considering—and I hope this finds favour with your Lordships—designating establishments for juveniles only. That would cure some of the mischief identified by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, in his Question. Girls under 18 in the prison establishment are subject to the young offender institute regime. That involves separate wings and houses—although I agree, and regret the fact, that there is a possibility of their mingling with adults in those circumstances. That is not a good system.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that he is willing to embrace in his decision the provision for children under the age of 17 which is unsatisfactory in those prisons and establishments which presently house asylum-seeking children—such as Campsfield House, in Oxford—who are well under that age?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords,I shall re-state the policy I set out in reply to a Question earlier this week; namely, detention is used as a matter of absolute last resort for asylum seekers. Plainly no one wants to see children in those circumstances in detention if it can be avoided. There are difficulties involved which I referred to earlier. Some asylum seekers come to this country, wilfully having destroyed their documents, and it is sometimes difficult to be sure of the age of a particular detainee.

Lord Acton

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say whether the new position of assistant director for women prisoners has been filled? Further, will not an improved regime for such young girls who stay in the prison system be an urgent priority for that person?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's second question is yes. In answer to the first specific question I can tell the House that the director general has accepted the recommendation of the Prison Service review. He has set up a directorate of regimes. An assistant director for young offenders has been appointed—namely, Felicity Clarkson—and Linda Jones has been appointed as assistant director for women. They will work together and deal as well as they can with the problems identified by the noble Lord's Question.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that his truly remarkable answer to the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, forms the agenda for a great deal of work? The noble Lord mentioned the Crime and Disorder Bill as providing an answer to one of the numerous items that he listed. However, can he encourage noble Lords to expect the results of work on the other issues, all of which are urgent?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Yes, my Lords; some of them will be immediate answers to long-standing questions, while others will take a good deal longer. It is important to note that young girls under the age of 18, who are rightly called children under the Children Act, have got into these lamentable situations because of extremely difficult circumstances which they encountered when they were much closer to conventional childhood. That, of course, is a particular underpinning of the Crime and Disorder Bill. I am happy to be candid; these matters are so important that the more openness and honesty there are free of party political partisanship, the better it is for all.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that for many dealing with young offenders his emphasis on the importance of rehabilitation will be reassuring? Does he agree that among those working with young offenders there is a widely held view that for girls to be in prison is totally counter-productive? Can he assure the House that the 90 girls to whom he referred will not have to wait until the outcome of the total review before action is taken to provide more appropriate treatment?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, not all of these problems are susceptible to easy answers. One of the difficulties is that some girls under 18 have small babies of their own. They wish, perfectly understandably, to be with their small infants. There is no provision for mother and baby units in any secure local authority accommodation. The only provision available is within the prison estate. Most offenders in the category described by the noble Lord are serving quite short sentences.I cannot tell my noble friend Lord Judd that the problems will be solved within the three-and-a-half months or so which is the average time served. I say once more that this Government recognise these problems and are determined to grapple with them.