HL Deb 01 April 2004 vol 659 cc1564-84

7.12 p.m.

Lord Dholakia rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will establish an independent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Joseph Scholes al Stoke Heath Prison.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I first offer my apologies for detaining your Lordships' House for longer than is normal on a Thursday, when most people expect to go home by about 7.00 p.m. The subject is important. This is about a child's death in custody. The purpose of my Unstarred Question is to ensure that the state will never again fail in its duty to protect those in its care. We failed Joseph Scholes.

I do not wish to apportion blame, but I want to ensure that one death is one too many. It should never happen again.

Joseph hanged himself from the bars of his cell in Stoke Heath young offender institution, on 24 March 2002, a month after his 16th birthday, just nine days into a two-year sentence for street robbery. His death is an example of how society failed to protect a vulnerable young boy.

Joseph had an unsettled childhood, and became a disturbed young boy. His parents had gone through an acrimonious divorce in 1997, and there had been a bitter custody battle. From the age of six, he had allegedly suffered repeated and severe sexual abuse by a member of his father's family. At the time of his arrest, Joseph had been seeing a psychiatrist for some months and had been prescribed medication. He was exhibiting clear signs of depression, periodic suicidal thoughts, and had begun to self-harm.

Joseph had one previous conviction—for affray in November 2001. This was the result of an altercation with ambulance staff when he was disoriented and disturbed and had tried to kill himself by taking an overdose and jumping from a window. The ambulance workers were struggling to prevent Joseph taking his own life, and Joseph fought back. On this occasion, he was given a community sentence.

As November progressed, Joseph became increasingly disturbed and on the 30th of that month, he was taken into the voluntary care of social services and placed in a children's home. Six days later, on 6 December, he went out with a group of children from the home who had decided to rob mobile phones. They were caught and subsequently charged with street robbery.

As the trial due nearer, Joseph became even more depressed and agitated. Two weeks before his court appearance, he disappeared into his room at the children's home and, taking a knife, slashed his face 30 times. The deepest wound across his nose cut right down to the bone. The walls in his room had to be completely repainted as they were covered in blood.

On 26 February 2002, Joseph pleaded guilty to three offences of street robbery. There was no suggestion that Joseph had used or threatened violence and his involvement was accepted, both by the victims and other witnesses, as peripheral. In his fragile mental state, Joseph thought that a guilty plea would result in less time in court and result in a more lenient sentence.

The judge, to his credit, deferred sentence for 19 days while he read the case file. Joseph was unfortunate to have been tried at a time of heightened public anxiety and political posturing over street crime and he was sentenced to a two-year detention and training order. During the sentencing hearing, on 15 March 2002 in Manchester Crown Court, the judge stated in open court that he wanted the warnings about Joseph's self-harming and history of sexual abuse, most expressly drawn to the attention of the authorities".

On sentencing—responsibility for Joseph's care transferred from the local social services to the Youth Justice Board. The Youth Justice Board was informed of Joseph's vulnerability, his history of anxiety and depression and, importantly, his attempted suicide and self-harming behaviour. A number of people who had worked with Joseph urged the Youth Justice Board to place him in local authority secure accommodation, where the facilities and staffing levels were more conducive to the provision of the care that he needed.

Despite that, and the concerns expressed by all those with the most knowledge and information about Joseph, the Youth Justice Board made the decision to place him in Prison Service accommodation at Stoke Heath young offender institution. We want to know why.

On arrival at Stoke Heath, Joseph was initially put into strip clothing and placed in a cell with surveillance camera, reduced ligature points and high levels of observation. His mother, Yvonne, telephoned Stoke Heath young offender institution to ensure that it was aware that Joseph had been a victim of rape and to inform staff that he was depressed and unstable, with a history of self-harm and suicidal behaviour. But within days of his arrival, Joseph was moved to a single cell with no surveillance camera, with ligature points and with reduced observation. He was deeply anxious about the imminent prospect of being moved to one of the main wings. Given his history of sexual abuse, not wanting to be in the close proximity of other young men was hardly surprising.

On 24 March 2002, Joseph retired to his cell, where he was later found dead, hanging from a sheet attached to the bars of his cell window. The case obviously calls for a public inquiry. An inquest into Joseph's death will shortly be held. But Inquest, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders—I must declare that I am president of that organisation—and a range of other organisations believe that that case should lead to a public inquiry.

Joseph's death raises a number of questions about the treatment and care of children in the criminal justice system and the accountability of those agencies responsible—in particular, the Youth Justice Board, the Prison Service and social services departments. It also raises issues that fall outside the remit of the youth justice system. The issues raised include: why Joseph was not allocated a place in a local authority secure unit; the effectiveness of suicide prevention policies and training of staff in young offender institutions; the adequacy of care provided for vulnerable young prisoners in young offenders' institutions; and any systemic failings that may have contributed to Joseph's death.

There is another, wider issue which relates to sentencing practice. Joseph Scholes should not have been given a custodial sentence. When he was given a custodial sentence, he should not have been placed in Prison Service custody; he should have been held in local authority secure accommodation, which is a more suitable environment for vulnerable and disturbed young people.

Joseph had a history of anxiety and depression, had disclosed a history of alleged sexual abuse, had been in local authority care, had a history of serious self-harm and had threatened suicide. Sadly, a combination of such problems is common among young people held in young offender institutions.

In a study, Wasted Lives, published in 1998, in which NACRO researchers interviewed a sample of children under 18 in young offender institutions, they drew up a list of 11 risk factors often associated with young people's offending such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, parental neglect, unstable living conditions, misuse of alcohol or drugs, school exclusion, family conflict et cetera, and found that, on average, the children in the sample had six of the 11 risk factors.

Most of the young people who are now sentenced to custody should be sentenced to supervision programmes in the community—in some cases intensive supervision programmes—that can tackle the problems and attitudes which are at the root of their offending. The minority of young offenders who do need to be detained in some form of custody should not be held in Prison Service institutions but in secure local authority childcare establishments.

Why does that not happen? It is because this country has adopted punitive attitudes and punitive sentencing policies which mean that we lock up more young people than our European neighbours and absurdly regard a two-year sentence as appropriate for a vulnerable child such as Joseph without any significant previous criminal record who had been involved in stealing mobile phones. The country's over-use of custody for young people means that a place in the limited stock of local authority secure places for young people is often not available for vulnerable and disturbed young people like Joseph who desperately need one.

We need to end this country's fruitless punitive approach to sentencing young people. We need to ensure that intensive sentences of community supervision are not just available for young people but are used by the courts. We need to ensure that sentencing guidelines positively encourage courts to use them for young people whom they now jail. We need to ensure that a sufficient supply of local authority secure places is available for those young people who genuinely need to be held in some form of secure custody. We also need to examine the issues in cases such as this one that fall well outside the remit of the youth justice system.

Joseph's death begs questions of society and how it should respond when children show clear signs of being disturbed and in need of professional intervention. It raises questions about how agencies and individuals could have intervened in Joseph's case and how we can ensure that we have better systems and better practice in the future.

These are issues of policy that no inquest, however well conducted, can cover in the way a public inquiry could, as did the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. It took five years of knocking on the door of the Home Office to convince it of the need for an inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. The results of that inquiry helped to regulate a large number of policies, particularly those that affect members of minority communities in this country.

We need to ask ourselves very simple questions. We should examine the fundamental flaws in our system for dealing with children who break the law—flaws that have led to 25 children aged 15 to 17 taking their own lives in custody since 1990.

The call for the public inquiry was motivated by our concerns that the inquest, however well conducted, cannot deal with all the issues that I have identified. Taking into account the state's obligations under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act and the recent House of Lords judgments in Middleton and Sacker, we maintain, as we have from the outset, that due to the circumstances of this particular case, the inquest, however well conducted, is wholly unsuited to satisfy the state's human rights obligation to investigate this death.

I appreciate that the issue of sentencing is not a matter that should normally concern an inquest. The decision to give Joseph a custodial sentence is central to our concerns about his death. As well as being a matter relevant in its own right, the issue of sentencing of children is also very relevant.

In conclusion, in December 2003, Inquest, Yvonne Scholes and her MP attended a meeting with Paul Goggins MP about the need for a public inquiry. He gave no commitment to setting up a public inquiry, but he said that he would review the case following the inquest. If the coroner is to reach a decision about why Scholes took his life, he should know the circumstances surrounding his death. I do not think that the inquest is capable of reaching a decision unless all the facts are available to him or her.

I hope that the Minister will agree to such an inquiry. For my part, I shall ensure that the coroner is in receipt of the facts that I have outlined. I offer my condolences to Joseph's family and assure them that we shall get to the root of our failings.

7.25 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I wholeheartedly support the request made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for an inquiry. I shall attempt to be relatively brief. Any death of a young person, whose life lies before them, is devastating for his or her family. It should leave every one of us with a clear feeling of guilt. Even a death that occurs in the tragic circumstances in which Joseph Scholes took his life—at just 16 years old—would not perhaps of itself necessarily warrant this kind of public inquiry. It is the wider issues and the unanswered questions surrounding the death of Joseph Scholes that make an even stronger case for such an inquiry. Noble Lords have ably outlined those issues and questions.

I turn first to the personal aspects. Of course, there was some bad luck involved. Joseph's conviction for three offences might not have led to a prison sentence but for the alarming epidemic of mobile telephone thefts at that time. It was a sad enough comment that the offence took place while he was temporarily in the care of the local authority.

Was a prison sentence rather than medical treatment the answer, given the young man's background? By all accounts, Joseph was a highly disturbed young man and, as we know, had a history of being sexually abused by a member of his father's family. Prior to the offence, he had been seeing a psychiatrist. At that time, his behaviour was especially worrying, with a tendency to self harm already apparent.

However, one lesson that I learnt from many years as a magistrate is that one should not make judgments on sentences passed unless one was present throughout the whole trial and heard all the evidence. In Joseph's case, the judge was sufficiently concerned when imposing a two-year sentence to ask that Joseph's abused and self-harming background be drawn "most expressly" to the attention of the authorities.

We know that the judge's message got through to the prison—we have heard that already. So had his mother's warnings about his depressed state and suicidal behaviour. Initially, Joseph was under constant surveillance before being moved, inexplicably, to an unsupervised single cell where he hanged himself.

Whether the Youth Justice Board, to which responsibility for his well being had passed, and Stoke Heath Prison failed in their duty of care to Joseph clearly must be thoroughly investigated and the appropriate lessons learnt. However, as we have also heard, both NACRO and Inquest's view is that the inquest system is unsuitable for this purpose. That is another reason to set up an inquiry to look at the wider public interest issues involved.

We know that no fewer than 25 young men aged 17 and under in prison in this country have killed themselves since 1990; eight of them were aged 16 and three were as young as 15. In 2002 alone, 12 young people under 20 years old took their own lives. That is an appalling record for all of us to have on our conscience.

Earlier this week, my noble friend Lord Listowel mentioned that we currently have 2,500 children in prison, while the French have 755 and the Danes have just 12. While we continue with this policy, there is a growing body of opinion that does not believe that prison is the appropriate place for children, even if the offence would merit a prison sentence if it had been committed by an adult. My noble friend Lady Stern has also reminded us that the 10th report of the UN Joint Committee on Human Rights has recommended that prison should no longer be used for children under 18 years.

If we add to that the growing criticism by the Prison Inspectorate itself in the past decade, and that of individual judges such as Mr Justice Munby, who recently reported that conditions in such institutions should "shock the conscience of every citizen"—I have seen many such institutions over the years; they certainly do not appear to have changed very much; it is in such institutions that we are holding some of this country's most vulnerable and damaged children—then surely the time has now come to reassess the whole situation.

What I found particularly rewarding sitting as a juvenile court chairman for more than 20 years was that if we had a potentially delinquent/disturbed child before the court early enough, there was still time to put in place support services and opportunities that would end such offending behaviour. With the Children Bill currently before your Lordships' House, early opportunities to change such behaviour should begin, and already have begun, to increase.

For older children, too, there is still time to make that transition if they are held within a specifically child-centred setting where training and education can also be given. It can hardly be argued that a prison setting, where all too often further and more sophisticated criminal techniques are learned, will enhance the chances of that happening.

For those wider reasons which vividly highlight the need to assess the effectiveness of how we deal with serious child offenders, and for meeting the immediate, legitimate concerns of the Scholes family, who need to understand fully what took place, I hope the Minister will agree to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for a full, independent inquiry.

7.32 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. I must leave your Lordships' House at 8.20 p.m. I very much regret that that is so but I hope that by speaking briefly we shall finish by that time. I have a long-standing family engagement.

My goodness, what a tragic issue we have to consider today. If Joseph Scholes had been French or German, he would probably have found himself in a residential care establishment in which the staff had had about three years' training for work with troubled children. In this country he found himself in an establishment where prison officers are trained basically for nine weeks and then have two or three days' training to work with children. Can that possibly be acceptable?

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, pointed out that 12 young people under 20 killed themselves while in the care of the Prison Service during 2002. I shall not repeat further anything else that she said.

There was no suggestion that Joseph had used or threatened violence in his crime and it was accepted by both the victims and other witnesses that his involvement was peripheral. I am left speechless when I consider the response that we made to this child.

I very strongly support the call by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for an inquiry. Several noble Lords have referred to the question that I asked earlier this week in regard to juveniles in custody, and one of the Ministers in the Home Office told me that he was very pleased that I had asked the question because it highlighted the disparity between this country and our continental neighbours.

I hope that the Government will consider that an inquiry will be helpful in moving things forward in much the same way as the Victoria Climbié inquiry provided such an important impetus to the current welcome reforms outlined in the Children Bill. I look forward to the Minister's response.

7.35 p.m.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for deciding to ask for the debate and for his persistence in ensuring that our concerns about the death of Joseph Scholes are heard in this House. It is a terrible thing for a mother to lose a child, particularly when it is widely felt that the death might have been prevented and was a result of a failure somewhere in the system. I know that we all want to express our sympathy to Mrs Scholes and her family in her loss.

It is a great strength of this House that it feels that it is its responsibility to make time to discuss failings of public administration that have serious consequences for a fellow citizen, even when it is past seven o'clock on a Thursday night. I thank all those who have so willingly given up some part of their evening to stay late for this debate.

Nothing will bring Joseph back, but we can try to ensure that the mistakes are not repeated. I want to concentrate not on what was wrong, but on what we should do to put it right, as well as on which matters should be looked at by a public inquiry, which there certainly must be.

I shall look quickly at the whole process, from the basis, I admit, of imperfect knowledge, as I have not had access to the decision-making processes at any point. I shall look at how a series of decisions, made by well-meaning people—and I have no doubt whatever that they were—led to such a tragic outcome. I shall make an analogy with the case of Adele Price, a severely disabled woman who was sent to prison. The European Court of Human Rights found that her treatment in prison violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. That case was Price v the United Kingdom, 10/7/01. One of the judges expressed the following opinion, which, although it applies to physical disability rather than mental illness, seemed to provide a lens through which we should look at the case of Joseph. The judge said: The applicant's disabilities are not hidden or easily overlooked. It requires no special qualification, only a minimum of ordinary human empathy, to appreciate her situation … In my opinion, everyone involved in the applicant's imprisonment—the judge, police and prison authorities—contributed towards this violation. Each of them could and should have ensured that the applicant was not put into detention until special arrangements had been made". I shall begin with the incident where Joseph tried to kill himself by taking an overdose and jumping from a window. He then became involved in an altercation with the ambulance staff who came to help him. It was decided after that to charge him with an offence. I can see why. Ambulance staff do a magnificent job and have to be protected, but whether charging a very sick boy with affray helps to protect them is open to question. The case shows once again how hard it is to draw a clear line between victims and offenders and then proclaim that victims must see justice done. It is more complicated than that. The ambulance workers might have been better served by some time off to recover, and good management support and recognition for the work that they do, rather than the prosecution of a suicidal teenager.

The first point at which a different decision might have been made would have been where that first prosecution was taken out. Maybe guidelines for prosecutors on dealing with mentally disturbed young people would be a good idea. Maybe prosecutors have them already or they have been produced since Joseph's death. No doubt the Minister can tell us the answer to that.

I turn to the judge and his decision in the case of the mobile phone robbery. From the information that I have, it seems to me that the judge was caught between the guidance of the Lord Chief Justice about the right sentence for robbery of mobile phones. He was confronted, do not forget, with a "persistent offender", as Joseph is now described because of his first offence. He was also caught by his anxiety that prison might not be in the best interests of the child, which the Convention on the Rights of the Child required him to consider. He did consider, for 19 days, and then pronounced a sentence of two years, and urged that the authorities take note of Joseph's history and problems.

We can hope that the new Sentencing Guidelines Council will make it clear that sentencing must take place within the legal framework of the Human Rights Act and the protection of the right to life, and that when the judge cannot order an appropriate placement in a mental health unit or other safe place, the protection of life should come before punishment.

Here I should like the House to take note of the view of the European Court of Human Rights when considering the Younger case. It said: Not every claimed risk to life therefore can entail for the authorities a Convention requirement to take operational measures to prevent that risk from materialising. For a positive obligation to arise in the context of where the risk to a person derives from self-harm, such as a suicide in custody, it must be established that the authorities knew or ought to have known at the time of the existence of a real and immediate risk to the life of an identified individual and, if so, they failed to take measures within the scope of their powers which, judged reasonably, might have been expected to avoid that risk". I hope that the Minister will agree that this debate, and the concerns of this House, will be put before the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

Then we have, most crucially, the decision of the Youth Justice Board officials about placement. I understand that the social workers working with Joseph did not expect Joseph to be given a prison sentence and were therefore not well prepared for that outcome, and that there were no vacancies in secure units and no other suitable placement was available. The Youth Justice Board has no powers to require the National Health Service to find a suitable place, nor had it the power to send him back to the children's home where he had been living while on remand.

It would require but a small change in the law to allow the Youth Justice Board that leeway—the leeway to find a more suitable placement than a prison when all those involved, including the judge, are concerned about safety. Will the Minister seriously consider using the Children Bill, which we discussed here two days ago, to introduce such an amendment into the law? I am sure that it would have very wide support and would certainly sit within the framework of a White Paper called Every Child Mutters.

I turn to the last stage of this sad tale. Why was Joseph not moved the next day from the prison establishment to somewhere more suitable? I understand that that was tried on the next day, but that the secure units were full of even more vulnerable children. Perhaps the Minister could confirm whether that was indeed the case. So Joseph stayed in Stoke Heath young offender institution until he died. That raises in my mind a question about the role of the medical services in prison, and their powers. At the moment, as I understand it, they have no powers but can only advise. Have the Home Office and the Department of Health, in considering this case, as I am sure that they have done, thought of giving the medical authorities in prisons the power to require the Youth Justice Board to move juvenile prisoners when the placement is clearly inappropriate?

Finally, let me say that this time I hope that we shall act. I first became concerned about the tragic cases of children killing themselves in prison when Simon Willerton hanged himself in Leeds Prison on the very day that the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture made its first visit to the United Kingdom in 1990. I remember the details of many of these children since.

I also remember that, after a spate of such suicides and attempted suicides by hanging, those responsible had a series of meetings to discuss what to do. They knew the causes of such suicides: despair and misery, the accumulated experience of fractured and unloving childhoods. They knew what ought to be done—these young people should not be in prison establishments, they should be in proper adolescent mental health units. But they also knew the limits of their power. Since many of these incidents had been hangings on upturned beds, they made a big decision. They screwed the beds to the floor. I hope that never again will we respond to the tragedy of a child killing himself in one of our prisons by simply screwing the beds to the floor.

7.45 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, first of all, I thank my noble friend Lord Dholakia for introducing this important debate and congratulate him on his excellent speech and for the way he has taken up this case and those of the many hundreds of other people who have come to him for help over the years. They have found a listening ear and a willing advocate.

I add my condolences to those that have already been expressed to the Scholes family. Noble Lords have heard my noble friend's justification for a public inquiry and I agree with him. I am sure that Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, would also agree with him. She has suggested that the most serious incidents of self-harm and deaths in custody should be investigated so that lessons can be learnt. Joseph Scholes was not alone. Sadly, there are hundreds like him. No inquest can explore the fundamental problems relating to young people in prison that a public inquiry could uncover. An inquiry could look into the complex reasons why so many children are harming and killing themselves in prison. I have my own ideas. I think that it boils down to three basic issues: sentencing policy; the lack of mental health services; and the fact that prison is not a suitable place to keep children. I shall say more about each of these.

However, before I do, I shall make one overarching point. The noble Baronesses, Lady Howe of Idlicote and Lady Stern, have reminded us that the UK has for many years been a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under Article 3, the UK Government are under an obligation to ensure that in all actions concerning children the best interests of the child should be the primary consideration. Article 40 of the convention requires the Government to establish a separate and distinct system for the treatment of children in trouble with the law.

For many years we have been severely criticised for the poor way in which we carry out our obligations under the convention. For example, the primary objective of our youth justice system is not the welfare of the child but the reduction of re-offending. I argue that, if you pay primary regard to the welfare of the child, you will inevitably cut re-offending. Children who offend are usually very damaged and vulnerable children, many of them victims themselves. They are children who have been failed by society and we fail them again when we lock them up in prison without addressing their fundamental problems. That is not the sentimental talk of a woolly Liberal. It is a fact and it is actually in all our hard-nosed self-interest to put it right. Adhering closely to our obligations under the UNCRC is in the interests of the child's human rights and is in the interests of taxpayers.

I shall now expand on the three problems I listed earlier. First of all I shall say a word about sentencing. Joseph Scholes had committed only two minor offences; my noble friend has given us the details. Why he should have been sentenced to two years' custody beats me, and it clearly beats other noble Lords. It has been claimed that the reason was the climate of political posturing about being tough on crime at the time of his trial. If that is the case, it is an outrage and those responsible for such posturing and for the reporting of such posturing should be ashamed of themselves. The sentencing of children is a critical point at which their welfare needs to be properly considered, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, pointed out. Without that focus it is hard to see how re-offending can be prevented, especially when you look at the profile of children in custody: 60 per cent have been looked after by a local authority; 25 per cent of males have suffered violence at home; and 85 per cent exhibit signs of personality disorder.

No one is suggesting that there should be no punishment of young offenders but, in its own interest, society needs to pay a good deal more attention to whether the sentence is appropriate, and to whether it will rehabilitate the offender so that he does not burden society with any more offending. Justice costs and, although the cost is justified, I would like to see less need to spend money on the criminal justice system by being a lot more effective in the way in which we deal with offenders, with a rigorous programme of education and rehabilitation during custody and after release.

Spending money on that and on families with very young children is an excellent investment and saves money on the criminal justice system later. The problem that flows from sentencing practice is the number of people, especially young people and children, in prison. Adult prisons are overcrowded, impeding education programmes, and the rates of child imprisonment have almost doubled over the past decade. That increase has occurred during a period when recorded crime by children has been declining. Article 37 of the UNCRC states that imprisonment of children should be used only as a measure of last resort. That was clearly not the case with Joseph Scholes, and nor is it the case with many hundreds of others.

The second problem that a public inquiry would uncover is the lack of mental health services for young people. Research by Young Minds concludes that more than a million children have a mental disorder, including half of all the children who have been involved with the police. That is not to say that all children with a mental disorder offend, of course, but it is important to expand children's mental health services rapidly as a preventive strategy to help such vulnerable children. I welcome the fact that the Government have invested heavily in child and adolescent mental health services, but some of the problems that we face might not be quite so desperate if that investment had come earlier.

Why have prisons and young offender institutions become such dumping grounds for the mentally ill, young and old? The answer is simple. According to the mental health charity Mind, 50,000 psychiatric beds have been lost over 20 years. There is nowhere for people to go when they have a mental breakdown and that often leads to prison for people who commit minor offences. The courts are remanding increasing numbers of mentally ill offenders in custody to await pre-sentence psychiatric reports, because there are not sufficient places available in bail hostels.

So much offending by mentally ill people is really a public health issue. The problem will certainly not be solved by cramming more people into gaols or by investing in another prison-building programme. The solution is to provide more resources for mental health care, drug and alcohol treatment and mental health support and supervision centres throughout the country. Why should we continually throw money at our prisons when the more we build, the more demands to send people to gaol seem to fill the tabloids?

The third conclusion that a public inquiry might reach is that prison is not a suitable place for children and that our age of criminal responsibility in this country is far too low. My noble friend Lord Dholakia referred to that in his excellent speech at Second Reading of the Children Bill on Tuesday. Joseph Scholes was only 16. He was a child and we failed him. We are criminalising children too young and putting them into the care of an overstretched Prison Service that cannot possibly respond to their needs.. Prison officers, however well meaning, are not trained to deal with the numerous mental health and personality disorders of their young inmates. Children who offend, as the UNCRC says, should be dealt with by a completely different service focused on their care, welfare, education and rehabilitation.

The problem is compounded in the case of girls in prison, who seem to suffer even more than boys if the rates of suicide and self-harm are anything to go by. The Howard League recently published a report on girls in prison to celebrate the fact that no 15 year-old and 16 year-old girls are kept in prison any more, a matter on which the Government are to be congratulated. The Howard League studied 111 teenage girls, who it helped while in custody and beyond. Fifty-five of them had experienced family breakdown; 40 had drug or alcohol problems; 19 self-injured; 9 had children; and 11 were pregnant. All those facts illustrate the multiple problems to which I have already referred and which could have been nipped in the bud before a pattern of offending was established and there was any question of custody.

So, what solutions might a public inquiry recommend? We have heard some suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. I would second guess at least five. First, listen to children. Nobody listened to Joseph or his mother. Nobody listens to a great many children who land up in custody or dead. The Howard League report tells the story of one girl, Gabby, who was listened to only at a very late stage by the Howard League, a voluntary organisation. Gabby was 17. She had been beaten up by her father and abused by her sister's boyfriend. She took an overdose at 15. Nobody listened. Social services sent her to live with her sister and the boyfriend who had been abusing her. She slit her wrists in the bath. Nobody listened. She went to a children's home and was moved 14 times. Nobody listened. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, told us how that situation might have been different if she had been French of German. She became mixed up with drug users, was convicted of robbery and sentenced to an 18-month detention and training order with a care order. Still nobody was listening, because she received little support. At last the Howard League listened and helped. That girl could have landed up dead like Joseph Scholes, as so many girls do, had it not been for the intervention of the Howard League.

Secondly, we need much greater access to children's advocates, not just for children in care, but for all children who come into contact with the authorities. If there is someone there to ensure that the voice of the child is heard, or to speak for him if necessary, a better quality of decision making will take place at all levels. Thirdly, we need even more resources for children and young people's mental health services both before and during custody. Martin Narey, the head of the National Offender Management Service, says that at any one time in the general prison population 5,000 prisoners should immediately be transferred to secure psychiatric settings. The problem with young offenders is likely to be at least as bad. Anne Owers has suggested not only that help be focused on suicidal inmates but should identify inmates who are so mentally ill that they should not be in prison at all, but in a new network of mental health units to provide the support they need. Again, that should be doubly available for young people.

Fourthly, there should be much less custody and more focus on community sentences. Opportunities abound for meaningful community sentences which include reparation, rehabilitation, education and care, so that we can be tough on the causes of offending.

Finally, it is vital that children who offend are treated as children, first and foremost by a separate system in the context of care, rather than in the Prison Service. This has been an excellent, but short and important debate and I look forward to the Minister's answer to the issues raised.

7.58 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, in view of the previous excellent and informed speeches, I shall be brief. I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for instigating the debate, and, with others who have spoken, express our condolences to Mrs Scholes at this continuing sad time. I also pay credit to the efforts of her local Member of Parliament, Chris Ruane, and to NACRO and Inquest, who have diligently taken up the case.

Many noble Lords have referred to various aspects of the case and I have noted three, all of which have been covered. I refer to the landmark judgment by Mr Justice Munby, in a case successfully brought by the Howard League against the Home Office and the Department of Health over the treatment of young offenders. We have also heard about the judge who passed sentence on Joseph Scholes. I appreciate the difficulty that he was in, because the Lord ChiefJustice had made at that time very recent guidelines that sentences should be between 18 months and three years—Joseph Scholes was given two years. The judge should also be given credit for at least doing his best to alert the authorities to the previous disturbed history of Joseph Scholes.

We have also heard that there was no secure accommodation available for Scholes, so he was sent to Stoke Heath young offender institution. We have also heard that he was placed on suicide watch for the first few days. No reason being given, and without consultation with his mother, he was transferred to a special cell with normal ligature points, reduced observation and no surveillance cameras. The rest—as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said in last week's excellent debate introduced by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury—is history. Whatever the crime, it resulted in a death. In fact, the crime involved no violence and no robbery.

The case underlines the need for a much closer examination of the place of children in prisons. In the overwhelming number of cases, they have come from disturbed family backgrounds and they are particularly vulnerable if for no other reason—and this is not meant to be cynical—they have not had the time to pick up the prison survival techniques of their older counterparts.

Prison officers, particularly in YOI, are frequently inadequately trained in dealing with young offenders, treating them simply as younger versions of adults but with a greater capacity to make a nuisance of themselves. And certainly they do not recognise the different problems and pressures they face. Witness an anecdotal remark by a young offender in a report in the Times of 17 February: I did not ask for any complaint forms because I was terrified. I was worried about repercussions if officers thought I was informing on them". That is typical of the particular pressures on young offenders and one should not overlook the problems of bullying at that age.

The Joseph Scholes case was not unique. The NACRO inquest helpfully lists the number of juvenile deaths in custody since 1990. The verdicts on such deaths, which amount to 25 since 1990, are listed as: self-inflicted; accidental; one or two open verdicts; and misadventure. However, one entire column of the report lists the cause of every death as hanging. Sadly, we must assume that some of those were from beds not screwed down.

We strongly urge the Government to bear in mind that the treatment of children in prisons has been the subject of successive reports by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Prisons. Miss Anne Owers has been quoted on several occasions today and perhaps I may take the liberty of quoting her again. In her report for 2004, she states: There are a number of areas where prison service orders drawn up for adults are simply inappropriate for children and do not reflect child protection principles. Routine strip-searching, and the use of force if this is resisted, can be extremely damaging for children, particularly those who have suffered abuse in the past. It is our view that strip-searching should be done only after risk assessment and force used only as its last resort when all other methods have failed. The use of force in general needs to be consistently recorded and carefully monitored". Could that be clearer?

We strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, in his request that the Government set up a public inquiry into the circumstances of the death of Joseph Scholes. I am pleased that we do not appear to have a blanket refusal, which I thought was the case. If, however, the Government remain adamant in their refusal to do so, will they give urgent consideration to the setting up of an inquiry at the highest level and with the widest powers which will address many of the issues raised by the Scholes case?

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has spoken in greater detail, but I have four points for such an inquiry. The first is the availability of suitable accommodation for young offenders, which was so clearly lacking in the Joseph Scholes case. The second is the roles and responsibilities of local authorities, the Youth Justice Board and other bodies, particularly following the Munby judgment. The third is for an increasing role for the NHS in the cases of disturbed children—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. The fourth and not least is a review in consultation with the Law Officers and the Sentencing Council of sentencing policies for children.

This debate takes place on an auspicious day, as from today the prison ombudsman will be responsible for investigation into all deaths in prisons, which will include those of young offenders. While that by itself, since it is ex post facto, will not prevent any direct deaths, it is earnestly to be hoped that any lessons learnt from what we are confident will be thorough investigations will be well received and acted upon.

I also refer to a Written Answer at col. 92WS of Commons Hansard for 31 March from Mr Paul Goggins outlining some very welcome steps that the Government intend to take, with help and advice from the Ministerial Roundtable on Suicides on which the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League sit together with other appropriate prison bodies. That Answer is very much to be welcomed but, in a total of two columns, there is no mention of the words "children", "young person" or the like. The nearest that we come to it is a passing reference to targeting the most vulnerable.

All that highlights what tonight's debate has been about—the very special factors which apply to children and young persons. This is the message that I hope all who have spoken will wish to convey to the Minister.

Again, I express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I hope that this debate can be the catalyst for a wide and effective review of the enormously important subject of the treatment of children in custody, hopefully with a public inquiry into the Scholes case.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for bringing this sad and tragic case to the attention of the House. As the noble Lord said, one death in custody is one death too many. It is a sad case when a young mother outlives her son in such circumstances. I know that the whole House will share that sentiment.

The noble Lord told us how he attended the launch of the campaign by Inquest and NACRO for a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Joseph Scholes's death last November. As I understand it, he stated then that he wished to instigate a debate into the case.

The sudden death of any person in prison custody is tragic, whether it is due to natural causes or apparently self-inflicted, and it can have a huge impact on the prisoner's family and friends and the staff who come into contact with them. It is entirely understandable that bereaved families need to know how their loved ones died, and Mrs Scholes has received strong hacking from support and campaign groups and Members of both Houses. That support has been echoed very ably this evening. I simply want to add my voice to the expressions of sorrow and unhappiness at Joseph's death and, as others have done, I offer my sympathies to his family.

This has been a valuable debate and all the contributions to it have been particularly telling. independent of their length and the issues raised. I was much impressed by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. In making his case for an independent inquiry, he put his finger on some of the important issues that will need to be addressed in the forthcoming inquest, as did others.

The passion of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is well known in these cases. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, also raised important points, particularly in relation to when the sentence was given and the moral panic surrounding the issue of mobile phone thefts. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for her contribution, which I considered to be most important, focusing as it did on the unravelling complexities of the case and the issues that it threw up. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in her customary way, made a very powerful plea. I listened with great interest, in particular to the points that she made on behalf of girls and young women in prison custody. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, also drew attention to important points, and I am grateful to him for acknowledging the value of Paul Goggins's Written Statement in yesterday's Commons Hansard.

I turn to some of the specifics of Joseph's death. The inquest into his death has yet to be resumed. Regrettably, I am unable to provide great detail at this stage, although much detail has been provided to your Lordships' House. Joseph was 16 years old and in the voluntary care of Trafford social services when, on 15 March 2002, he was sentenced to a two years' detention training order, having already been convicted of three street robberies. As there were no local authority secure unit places available, Joseph was allocated to Stoke Heath young offender institution. It was, as has been noted, his first time in custody.

Nine days later, during the afternoon of 24 March, Joseph was found hanging from his cell window bars. Staff and paramedics attempted to resuscitate him, but Joseph was pronounced dead on arrival at North Staffordshire Hospital. A prison service investigation was commissioned by the West Midlands area manager soon after and conducted by a senior governor from another establishment. It was one of the first to be overseen by an advisory panel, which included representatives from the Youth Justice Board, the Prison Ombudsman's office and social services. The contents of that report have been disclosed to Joseph's parents and to the coroner.

All deaths in prison custody are subject to police investigation and a coroner's inquest held before a jury. The inquest into Joseph's death was opened and adjourned, as is routine in such circumstances. A three-week hearing is scheduled to begin later this month, on 19 April. Another investigative element to this is the serious case review under Part 8 of Working Together to Safeguard Children, more commonly referred to as a Part 8 case review. That has been carried out by Trafford social services. Its report will be finalised after the inquest into Joseph's death has been held.

Following the launch of the campaign to request a public inquiry into the wider circumstances surrounding Joseph's death and other juveniles in prison in the House of Commons in November last year, Paul Goggins, the Minister for correctional services, met Mrs Yvonne Scholes, Joseph's mother, in December. During the meeting the Minister stressed that Home Office Ministers and the Prison Service are committed to reducing the numbers of apparent self-inflicted deaths in custody, and provided information on the Prison Service safer custody programme, to which I shall turn in a moment. While that was welcomed by Mrs Scholes, she reiterated her request for a public inquiry so that other, more wide-ranging questions—many of which have been raised this evening—about the wider criminal justice system and how it deals with juveniles can be explored.

I have to make it clear that there are no plans at this stage, however sympathetic we may be, to hold a public inquiry. The inquest will resume later this month and over 50 witnesses have been called to give evidence. This in itself will be a thorough inquiry, providing the opportunity for independent public scrutiny, and it is hoped that many of Mrs Scholes's questions will be answered. The Minister has, however, already given his assurance to Mrs Scholes that there will be a comprehensive summary of the lessons learned by the various agencies involved and that the results will be shared with both her and her MP, Chris Ruane.

While improvements have been made to the way in which deaths in prison custody have been investigated since the late 1990s, Ministers and the Prison Service recognised that other options needed to be considered. After considering a number of alternatives, the Minister announced earlier this year that Mr Stephen Shaw, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, would be taking over that responsibility, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said, from today, 1 April. He will have the power to investigate all deaths, whether they are deemed to be self-inflicted, or due to accidents or natural causes. His role will also extend to deaths of probation hostel residents and immigration detainees.

However, I must make it clear that the reasons for strengthening investigations into deaths in prison custody go beyond issues such as Article 2 compliance. The main reason is to contribute to improving suicide prevention strategies to ensure a better focus on what went wrong and why, and to extract learning so as to minimise recurrences. Reducing prisoner self-inflicted deaths and managing self-harm is a key priority for Ministers and the Prison Service. A large number of prisoners who are taken into custody are already struggling to cope with a wide range of problems. These can include drug and alcohol abuse, difficult family backgrounds, as has been mentioned this evening, and problems with relationships, social disadvantage or isolation, histories of sexual or physical abuse and mental ill-health.

There have been no apparent self-inflicted deaths of juveniles since that of the 17-year-old Ian Powell at Her Majesty's Prison Parc on 6 October 2002. The recent reduction in self-inflicted deaths of juveniles may be attributed to a number of key improvements for the care of juveniles. These are increased safety and a more controlled estate, coupled with increasingly active regimes, including more time out of cell and higher levels of purposeful and structured activities.

There have also been improvements to first-night reception arrangements, identified as the most important single initiative. All juvenile establishments are provided with two extra staff and an extra healthcare worker to ensure all receptions are properly assessed and staff have time to talk to them, to reduce anxieties and to help them to settle in.

Other improvements have been made to reception processes that focus on identifying vulnerability; and there have been measures to improve the healthcare centres. Better child protection arrangements are now in place, including child protection training as a priority, something which I know the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is particularly keen to see carried forward.

There is, we like to think, a more caring staff culture. There is an acceptance of need to support mental health and well being of young people in prison, including induction procedures and advice for prisoners on how they can cope with imprisonment.

Of course there are, regrettably, no simple solutions. The reasons for self-inflicted deaths are, as I think we have learned this evening, highly complex. Despite the Prison Service's best efforts, some prisoners will not easily disclose their feelings and intentions regarding any possible self-harm. We hope that by ensuring that those who are most vulnerable receive all appropriate care and support during their most susceptible periods, we shall be able over the longer term to reduce the number of such tragic incidents.

The current three-year Prison Service programme to develop policies and practices to reduce prisoner suicide and manage self-harm in prisons ends this month, although much key project work and evaluation runs well beyond that. That has been developmental and focused primarily on the riskiest prisoners in the riskiest prisons. Its key elements have included projects to improve pre-reception, reception and induction arrangements; to improve the exchange of information between agencies; to develop safer prison design, including "safer cells"; and an investment of over £21 million on improvements to systems and the built environment at six "safer local" pilot sites.

Over recent months a wide-ranging review of this programme has taken place in consultation with a range of partner agencies and outside organisations. Account has been taken of the evaluations of the pilot projects and the emerging findings from commissioned research. Future strategy as announced yesterday by Paul Goggins will—as the noble Viscount made clear earlier—be broader and more closely integrated with other approaches, seeking to find the balance between policies that target the general prison population and policies that target those most at risk. It will be based on clear research-founded links between levels of prisoner distress and levels of self-inflicted deaths, and can be summarised as, "reducing distress and promoting the well-being of all that live and work in prisons".

This broader approach will form an important part of the Prison Service's decency agenda. The strategy encompasses a wide spectrum of the work of the Prison Service through integration with other agendas that have overlapping aims, such as resettlement, drugs, detoxification, staff care and welfare, health, purposeful activity, staff and management attitudes—

Baroness Stern

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minster for giving way. Since his time is nearly up and he has not answered any of my questions, perhaps I may ask him if he intends to or whether he proposes to write to me about them.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I think it is important that the response in general covers the issues that have been raised. That is why I have dealt with the issues in the way that I have. I have made a careful note of the questions that I have been asked, and they deserve a fuller response than I could possibly make in 12 minutes of summarising. This is an important debate, and the issues that have been raised in it are wide ranging and go further than the individual case. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that I will put together a full response to the different questions and points. I could not have covered them all this evening.

In conclusion, the future strategy will encompass specific suicide prevention strategy for juveniles. It is important that is understood. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, made the point about Paul Goggins's statement yesterday, and I want to make it clear that that strategy is most important. This has been a useful discussion and debate in your Lordships' House. It is sad that it has been occasioned by such a tragic case. I hope that lessons can be learned, certainly from the outcome of the inquest that is to start shortly. No doubt the Minister—because of the high profile that this case has achieved, the important representations that have been made to him, and this debate—will follow the outcome of that inquest very carefully indeed.

Finally, it is time for us simply to reflect on this and express our deepest sympathy to the family and all those involved—

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, did he mention whether a large number of witnesses will be available to the coroner'? Does this include those people who were responsible for sentencing? That seems to be outside the scope of the coroner. Perhaps he could look into it, rather than reply to me now. I will appreciate the reply, so that I can get in touch with the coroner.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not have the response to that question to hand. It is an important question, like the other questions raised. I will make sure that the noble Lord, and other noble Lords involved in this debate, get a response.

House adjourned at twenty-two minutes past eight o'clock.