HL Deb 14 June 1999 vol 602 cc1-4

Lord Hurd of Westwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made in involving the family in planning the sentencing of young offenders.

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

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that the families of young offenders take responsibility for their behaviour. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced the parenting order, which is currently being piloted. For young offenders, this Session's Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill introduces the referral order. That will involve them and their families attending a youth offender panel to work together to devise a programme to prevent further offending behaviour.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Will he confirm that experience so far indicates that it is useful to involve the family in plans for the nature of custody of a young offender and in the plans for his release, given that they have to "pick up the pieces" afterwards? I have two specific questions. Are the Government thinking of moving that same principle up the age scale to include young adult offenders? On a smaller, practical point, has the Minister resolved the question of who should pay for transport to and from prison for that purpose?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords. I unreservedly endorse the noble Lord's first proposition. All informed research—and I pay tribute to the Prison Reform Trust, of which he is the distinguished patron—indicates that the road to criminal behaviour starts at a very early age for most delinquent offenders, and that the sooner we assist them, the better. I wish to keep an open mind on taking the scale up in terms of age. We are presently doing a degree of work in that connection with welfare-to-work schemes in prison for 18 to 25 year-olds. That can involve family contact. In respect of paying for transport to and from prison, in the context of the Crime and Disorder Act and youth offender panels, such expenditure would not be covered. There are schemes for assisting family visits to prisons. They are reasonably well publicised, not least by the Prison Reform Trust.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the steps that the Government are taking on this matter. Does he accept that young offenders' institutions really amount to prison for children and young people? Does he agree that it is better, where possible, for young people to be dealt with and, where necessary, to make recompense for their offences, outside institutions? Should not the community accept responsibility wherever possible?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I accept that if at all possible, especially in the case of young offenders, one seeks restorative justice whereby first-time offenders in particular have to make restoration to the victim, achieve reintegration into the community and, fundamentally, take responsibility for the consequences of their own behaviour. Unfortunately, it will be necessary for some to be trained in closed circumstances. Huntercombe young offenders' institution, for example, is doing remarkable pioneering work—and with the assistance of generous donations from firms in the private sector such as Nissan and Kwikfit. Good work is being done; however, I agree that, if at all possible, we should seek to nip offending in the bud at an earlier stage.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, is the Minister aware of research in the United States indicating that prisoners without family support are twice as likely, or even six times more likely, to offend than those who have family support? Is that not also the case with juvenile offenders? Most young offenders who come before the courts in this country are from broken families. Will the Government ensure that the central part of the new juvenile regimes that have been established will provide for the thorough involvement of the family?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am happy to agree with the theme identified by the noble Lord. The indicators for crime are known. They are: poor or broken family circumstances; families which have themselves been engaged in criminal activities; lack of work; and alcohol and drug abuse. It is important to view these matters on a wide spectrum. The work that my right honourable friend Mr Blunkett is doing in the education context is also of fundamental importance. Both the measures to which I referred—the 1998 Act and the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill—put into effect the themes identified by the noble Lord.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the experience of restorative justice schemes, such as that run by the Thames Valley police force, reveals that the involvement of the family in identifying the criminality and the wrongness of the deeds of the young creates a framework in which they are better able to avoid criminality in the future? Would the incorporation of that process in sentencing for "custodiable" offences reduce the number of sentences taking a custodial form, thus reducing the probability of future offending by those young people?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I absolutely agree. I believe that the work done on the Thames Valley pilot scheme is first rate. It is based on the principles of restorative justice of which I spoke a moment or two ago. We believe that these measures assist families, some of whom have neither inner resources nor outward help. I believe that they are key to the problems with which we are wrestling; namely, the reduction of crime particularly among young offenders.

Lord Laming

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the facilities for family visiting at some young offenders' institutions are less than adequate? Can the Minister say whether the criticisms made by the inspectorate are now being addressed?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, in my experience, provision for family visits is patchy and variable. That should not be tolerated. The work that the chief inspector does is extremely helpful in pointing out deficiencies. But I stress, as I did with regard to Huntercombe a few moments ago, that some of the work being done is extremely effective and encouraging.

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