HL Deb 13 February 2001 vol 622 cc133-6

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln asked Her Majesty's Government:

In view of the increased number of children and young people held in prison custody, when they will implement in full Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and end the remanding of 15 to 16 year-olds into Prison Service custody.

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

My Lords, significant steps have already been taken. In June 1999 the Government introduced court-ordered secure remands to local authority accommodation for 12 to 16 year-old girls, 12 to 14 year-old boys and 15 and 16 year-old boys who were vulnerable and for whom a place was available. There are now 165 remanded 15 and 16 year-old boys in Prison Service custody, compared with 247 in April 2000.

The scope for further progress depends very much on the numbers sent to custody by the courts, the needs of sentenced juveniles and the provision of new accommodation. We have plans for 400 more places but there are other demands on them. We are meanwhile improving standards in the Prison Service juvenile estate.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree that, in locking up children, England and Wales fall short of standards outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we are, of course, very aware of those standards but there are circumstances in which, sadly, young people have to be detained. The Government's policy attempts to provide effective education and training for young offenders so that when they return to a life outside the prison estate they are fit for employment and want to become fully fledged citizens in the full sense of the term.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, who is responsible for the rights and welfare of these young people while they are in custody? Are there any special arrangements made within the Prison Service?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, obviously the service itself is responsible for those young people. I am sure that the service will take full cognisance of their individual circumstances and seek to ensure that they are fully aware not only of their rights but also of their responsibilities. We believe that that is most important.

Lord Warner

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Youth Justice Board has funded 120 bail supervision and support schemes and that these are reducing the need for the courts to remand young people to custody and secure accommodation? Does he, like me, welcome the efforts that the youth offending teams and the officers in the secure estates have made to improve the regimes and the quality of treatment provided for young offenders in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as noble Lords will know, the noble Lord is the chair of the Youth Justice Board, and should be greatly congratulated on the work that the board has undertaken. I fully endorse the noble Lord's comments and observation. It is with considerable delight that I say that bail supervision and support schemes funded by the board are having a beneficial impact on the total remand population. I understand that it is down 22 per cent from April 2000 to January 2001. We believe that that is real progress. Later this year the Youth Justice Board will implement the intensive surveillance and supervision programme which will manage persistent young offenders, including those on bail, in the community as an alternative to custody. Again, that is progress and is something which all Members of your Lordships' House should congratulate the board on achieving.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the High Court ruling in the case of Flood that girls should not be held in adult prisons and of the Home Secretary's commitment on 8th March 1999 that from April 2000 no 15 and 16 year-old girls would be held in prison? Can he confirm that that commitment has been honoured, or is it accurate that last week 94 girls aged 15 and 16 were still being held in prisons?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am certainly happy to confirm that the Home Secretary did indeed give that commitment. It is a sad fact that some young girls of the age range that the noble Baroness referred to are held in prisons. It is not something that we are particularly happy about. They are a priority group for taking out of the prison estate. That is our policy and objective. We have made steady progress towards that and we shall continue to do so. That group, together with vulnerable young males, must remain one of our top priorities in the forthcoming period.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the serious criticism of our penal institutions by Sir David Ramsbotham, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, and by the Director-General of the Prison Service, Martin Narey? Does he accept that there are serious oppressive conditions in some of our penal institutions? Will he consider, therefore, the possibility of making more use of bail for young people rather remanding them in prison conditions? I refer in particular to 15 to 16 year-olds.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the answer must be yes, we are aware of the criticisms. We are aware of the point made. I am sure that the noble Lord followed what I said earlier. It is our intention to ensure that young people can be supervised on bail in the community. The number of such young people in custody is reducing. We are making encouraging progress. The noble Lord would no doubt like to congratulate us on doing that.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords—

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, perhaps I may—

Baroness Trumpington

I am bigger than you! My Lords, the Minister has repeatedly talked of progress. If what the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, said is true I do not see any progress. Perhaps the noble Lord will tell us what progress has been made.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, fearsome spectre though the noble Baroness makes—I quiver in her presence—I have been pleased to note today some important progress. The Government inherited a fairly poor—

Noble Lords


Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it happens to be the case. We inherited a mess. We have had to rationalise and improve the service and provide effective and proper accommodation for younger offenders. Noble Lords have already heard of the important work that the Youth Justice Board has undertaken. I believe that our policies are effective. They address the real needs of those in the community. In the end they will help young people to turn from a life of offending.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the progress the Government have made already on this matter. Will the Government consider recommending that sentencing authorities, whether they are dealing with young individuals or older people, consider a sentence which will involve community service and not prison custody? Prison custody in almost every case involving non-violent offenders has no greater prospect of success and costs over 10 times as much to the community.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his background knowledge and experience through personal contact in this field. During a number of exchanges, I have stated that it is our intention to strengthen the purpose of sentences that are served in the community. That applies to both young and older offenders. That is the way we intend to proceed. Recent legislative moves have taken us in that direction. I am glad to see that those moves are supported.

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