HL Deb 09 December 2004 vol 667 cc973-5

Baroness Stern asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the report by the Prison Reform Trust, A Lost Generation: the experiences of young people in prison, published on 4 November.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, we are considering this report. The Government have invested heavily in improved regimes for all prisoners, concentrating on activities such as education and vocational training, which are of course particularly valuable for young adults. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 allows a sentence to be tailored to the needs of young adults and other offenders. The National Offender Management Service will improve the way that we manage all offenders, including young adults.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Does he however agree that this report makes depressing reading? Young offenders used to be treated as a specific group with specific regimes and more funding. Now we read that they are kept in poor conditions with frequent moves, held far from their homes with restricted education and training and have a reconviction rate of more than 70 per cent.

Does the Minister accept that in their manifesto before the last election, the Government pledged to improve treatment for 18 to 20 year-old offenders? Do the Government yet have any plans to do that?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I fully accept what the noble Baroness said about the report making depressing reading. The population of 18 to 20 year-olds in prison at the end of October was 8,450. It is true that that is 2 per cent less than a year ago, but that is an enormous percentage of the total prison population, and the reoffending rate is high. In fact, 63 per cent of offenders are unemployed when they are first arrested. So the situation is not good.

However, we have been doing things to assist with the situation. I fully accept the point about the manifesto commitment, but in many ways that has been overtaken by events. It was the decision of this House to create a new sentencing framework in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. A project board has been set up to consider how that is to be brought in. It will work to establish a strategy for managing young adult offenders. It will cover many, if not all, of the issues raised by the report of the Prison Reform Trust. At the end of October the first consultation workshop was held as regards bringing this into operation, and it included representatives from the voluntary community sector such as the trust.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister not accept that the ring-fencing of resources for juveniles and those under the age of 18 is being done at the expense of the 18 to 20 year-old group for which there is a manifesto commitment, which has not been entirely overtaken by the change in proposed administration of the system?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am not seeking to make excuses about this. The situation is not a good one. A lot of work is going on, particularly in the five larger young offender institutions where there has been considerable investment in the past four years in addition to other areas of the programme. It is true that there is a wider investment programme, but there have been programmes specifically for young offenders.

They will benefit from the fact that this year alone £122 million will be spent on education and training for offenders; young offenders are a particular target. I am not using the excuse of the 2003 Act, but it changes the situation somewhat. The project board has been set up specifically to drive this forward, so there will be rapid progress in the future.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of YMCA England, which works quite extensively with young offenders in prison. Does my noble friend not agree that when one begins to talk in any kind of depth with young people who are in prison and begins to hear the reality of the circumstances in which they grew up, one realises that it would be a miracle if they were not in trouble? If we were starting from scratch we would not have at all the kind of institutional inheritance that we have. As many of the staff in prisons will say, the last place that these people should be is in prison. They need all kinds of support, encouragement and help to become positive citizens and to begin to understand themselves as people and to feel that anyone cares.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I fully accept what my noble friend says. Indeed, in a way, this House spent four hours yesterday evening debating this very issue; that is, alternatives to prison. We made it very clear: too many young offenders, like too many others, are in prison for short sentences, which is an absolute waste of time. I think that there is consensus on that.

One of the issues raised in yesterday's debate—I referred to the pilot in Liverpool and I heard the judge being interviewed on the radio this morning—and being taken forward is to look for alternatives in which the public will have confidence; that is, community alternatives for offenders that engender public confidence, which is a route to stopping the wrong people, such as those young people, going to prison.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the Minister know how many more people are getting qualifications while they are in prison? As most of their crimes are economically based, giving them a way of obtaining an income other than crime should be a very good way of stopping them.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, absolutely. I regret that I do not have anything with me on that, but I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, in the short term we are stuck with a certain number of young people in prison. Can the Minister give us any good news of special measures being taken to cope with the vulnerability of young people who are away from home for the first time, or who have never had a home, and are particularly subject to bullying and the risk of suicide?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, without going through a great list, I can tell the noble Lord that there has been a training programme for people who deal with young offenders in prison and institutions. I understand that now there are at least two trained people in every institution who train staff so that they are able to deal with young offenders. These are special circumstances, so that is one area in which staff are properly trained in dealing with young offenders.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, can the Minister give further clarification on his comments on the Criminal Justice Act 2003? He appeared to say that the provisions on sentencing in that Act would supersede the commitment made by the Government in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2001 to abolish detention in a youth offender institution and replace it by detention and training orders. If that is the case, I would be exceedingly concerned. Can the Minister clarify the matter?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I took the view originally that that was what this Question was about. Although the Question is about the Prison Reform Trust report, this is an important issue.

The noble Baroness asked me specifically about the commitment given to prepare a Prison Service order covering young adults before abolishing the sentence of detention in a young offenders' institution. Our view is that that has been overtaken by events; that is, by the decision of the House to create a new sentencing framework in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 as well as by our proposals to improve offender management. The project board has been set up specifically to deal with young adults in the light of all those changes and the views of those currently being consulted. Obviously, there is a time lapse. The timetable for bringing into force the different parts of that Act is still being looked at by the Government.

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