HL Deb 08 November 1999 vol 606 cc1149-52

2.48 p.m.

Baroness Sharpies

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider activity courses for young offenders a success.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, recent Home Office evaluation of probation programmes that use demanding physical activities points to a range of positive outcomes. The best practice identified will help probation services to improve their work. However, we shall not know the full position until the results of reconviction studies are available. We do not consider that activity-based programmes should be either seen or used as a soft option. They must be part of a programme tailored specifically for individual needs from the Government's programme, which is designed to reduce reconviction and offending rates.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, whilst I thank the noble Lord for that reply, does he not agree that very many millions of pounds are spent on the various projects without definite results? Would he perhaps like to follow the example of the Simon Weston Spirit, based mostly in Liverpool, which has been extremely successful in its work to help young offenders to mend their ways?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the information that she provides. I am sure that that is an example which the rest of the country will seek to follow. We believe that our programmes are successful. Some three thousand plus people are placed on them annually and the indications are that the reconviction rates are on a parallel with other levels of reconviction rates for other forms of sentencing. Therefore, we believe that on evaluation those programmes have merit. Clearly, we need to keep them under review at all times.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the reoffending rates among unemployed youngsters are twice as high as among those with jobs? Will he consider the initiative taken by the Ministry of Defence to include ex-offenders in the services? Also will he consider whether a similar initiative can be taken by other government departments; and whether employers can be encouraged to ensure that targets are set in employing ex-offenders?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments on the activities of other departments. Clearly, in order to advise further in this area, we must wait to see how the two pilots being conducted in the youth offender institutions are working and, following from that, how effective they have been and what value and merit they have.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the Minister said that the reoffending rates for the activity courses were in parallel with other forms of punishment. However, earlier he seemed to say that we do not know what the reoffending rates are. I became a little confused as to what is the exact position. When will a full evaluation of the courses become available?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, reconviction studies thus far show that prison and community sentences are roughly equal in terms of reconviction rates. Our What Works initiative will focus on every aspect of the probation service's work with offenders on those matters which have been proven to reduce reoffending. That programme aims to ensure that all probation practice is based on evidence of success. We are conducting careful research and evaluation as to what works and we believe that that pragmatic and sensible approach will provide us with the best way forward in that area. We are confident that over the next 12 months we shall continue to see dramatic progress. Clearly, it is in the interests of us all to ensure that those programmes work; that they are effective; and that we bring down the reconviction rates. That is very important.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I read in the Yorkshire Post today that the Army is to recruit in young offender institutions in Wetherby and Dover. Will the Government consider extending their courses to within the young offender institutions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I thought I had answered that question when I responded to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I believe that it is something which we must keep carefully under review. It is obviously an important departure and we shall look to see how successful it is in the future.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, will the Minister agree that it is important that young people should be prevented from becoming offenders in the first place? Perhaps I may ask him whether the Government support such organisations as DIVERT—I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Elton who is its chairman is not in his place—which seek to provide sporting and other activities to children who may otherwise get into trouble?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness makes a very important point; that is, that we must ensure that young people do not get into the offending habit. Therefore, it is in the interests of us all to support those projects which carry out that important work.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us what is the cost per annum?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, costs vary according to how one judges these matters. However, I shall try to give the noble Baroness a range of the unit costs. They vary considerably from £33 per participant who starts the programme. As far as we can identify it, the average cost of a place provided was £379. The average cost per participant who starts is £468. The average cost per completion is £730.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, will the Minister join me in condemning those Labour local authorities which over many years have refused to allow the military to recruit at schools, job fairs and the like? Does that not seem illogical in the light of the Government's decision on offenders?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the question seems somewhat wide of the subject with which we are dealing this afternoon. Clearly, that is a matter to which the Employment Service may wish to turn their attention.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, will the Minister say whet her there has been any evaluation of the scheme at Applecross on the west coast of Scotland, which is a joint venture between his department and the Ministry of Defence?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, this is indeed tricky. We shall try to find the answer for the noble Baroness if we can. As far as I am aware, we have been looking closely at the Venture Trust project at Applecross in Scotland. Currently, we have agreed funding until 31st March next year. Obviously, funding beyond that date will be dependent on recent research and the reconviction study which has now been completed.