HC Deb 19 July 2001 vol 372 cc135-70WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes)

It is my great pleasure to be able to speak in this debate on an important subject in which I have had a personal interest for many years. I also ought perhaps to declare another form of interest. My husband is a manager of a multidisciplinary youth offending team and therefore I get a lot of inside information about what is happening on the ground.

I am pleased to see Members in the Chamber for the debate, although it is a great pity that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is not supported by more of his colleagues, because this is an important subject upon which there is potential for parties to work together to achieve shared aims in relation not only to young people in general, but to youth crime and youth justice.

Given the importance of the issue, we have placed it at the heart of the Government's attack on crime and disorder. We know that young people under 18 are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime. In London, for example, about 25 per cent. of all burglaries, and a third of car thefts are committed by those aged between 10 and 16.However, we also know that young people suffer disproportionately from crime. They are more likely to be victims of crime than offenders, often at the hands of other young people. The 1998–99 youth life style survey showed that a third of young people had experienced theft of their property.

Many of those who offend are still young enough to be diverted from crime if we can intervene at an early stage. Effective youth justice is not merely a question of protecting the law-abiding citizen, important as that is. It must also prevent the waste of young lives that have turned into lives of crime, by helping young offenders to mend their ways. It must also put victims alongside those issues in determining how we approach the problem of youth crime.

When the Government came to power four years ago, the youth justice system was failing. The 1996 Audit Commission report, "Misspent Youth", highlighted the need for radical reform. The system was not preventing offending, it did not safeguard the welfare of young people and it paid little attention to victims. Instead, the system was making excuses for itself and for the young offenders who came before it.

The then system had no focus on prevention or on victims. Young offenders were not identified and tracked in a systematic way. Supervision was weak and there was little inter-agency co-operation. That is why, right from the start, the Government made tackling youth crime and its causes one of their top priorities. We are beginning to see signs of a transformation—a new culture of joint working. A new system has had to be built from scratch.

In 1997, we made it an election pledge to speed up the time that it takes to process persistent young offenders. More broadly, we have set in motion the biggest shakeup in the youth justice system in a generation. In the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, we set out an entire new philosophy for youth justice, dedicated to preventing offending and re-offending. As an important start, we established a statutory aim for the youth justice system of preventing offending by children and young people. That has helped to refocus local youth justice agencies on the delivery of services.

2.35 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.50 pm

On resuming

Beverley Hughes

I was setting out some of the principles underlying the approach that the Government are trying to develop in legislation and in setting up the youth justice system. I was explaining that we started by establishing a statutory principal aim for the youth justice system—preventing offending by children and young people. That has helped to refocus local youth justice agencies in providing services.

The approach has four important elements. It starts, first, with prevention; secondly, an important aim has been to improve the performance of the system throughout; thirdly, we want to make punishment effective—it needs to be tough but proportionate and must challenge misbehaviour and promote responsibility; and fourthly, the underlying philosophy includes recognising the impact of crime on victims and the need to make reparation a key element in the development of a new restorative justice.

I want to outline the components of our approach in more detail. Prevention is based on work with each offender, intervening early to try to nip offending behaviour in the bud. The new multi-agency youth offending teams tackle risk factors such as those associated with education, health and parenting. However, prevention of youth crime begins a long way upstream from the youth justice system. Our reforms work integrally with the Government's wider effort to combat social exclusion in all its manifestations. For example, the surestart programme begins early by promoting the physical, intellectual, social and emotional well-being and development of children under four in disadvantaged areas. By 2004, the Government will be investing almost £500 million a year, and reaching a third of poor children under four.

Similarly, the children's fund has been established as a new part of the Government's strategy to tackle child poverty and social exclusion. That fund will concentrate on supporting five to 13-year-olds, filling the gaps in provision between Sure Start and Connexions. The fund is worth about £450 million over three years. A longterm crime reduction programme entitled "on track" is aimed at children under 12 who are at risk of offending. It is part of the children's fund. The Connexions service exists to help steer all 13 to 19-year-olds through education, training and employment, and it places particular emphasis on the needs of those most at risk of under-achievement and disaffection.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I shall ask the Minister a question in connection with her perfectly well made point about the importance of starting early with work among disadvantaged or vulnerable children. Has she yet had a chance to be briefed on the work that has come out of the investigation into the death of Damilola Taylor, by the police and other agencies in Southwark? That has interesting information about children who have experienced, first, social services involvement at primary school age or earlier, and a history of abuse in the family, then school problems—particularly bullying and being bullied—and who end up coming to the notice of the police as offenders for the first time at about 12 or 13. In all cases, there is a pattern of activity that one or other of the agencies concerned has spotted before. It seems that a really important lesson is the need to link the agencies together, so that they can share information as early as possible.

Beverley Hughes

I am aware of some of the early findings, although there has not yet been a full report, nor have there been recommendations as to how the lessons learned can be implemented. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of close, systematic inter-agency co-operation that does not fail at times of stress. We have learned this lesson so many times due to various tragedies or events that it is sad that we have to learn it again. We need to pay attention—it is critical.

The Government's 10-year drug strategy addresses another key area of prevention. The target is to reduce the proportion of young people using illicit drugs, particularly heroin and cocaine, by a quarter by 2005 and by a half by 2008. In addition to the broad governmental measures, the youth offending teams, the Youth Justice Board and its partner agencies are concentrating on prevention by identifying young people at risk and by focusing on vulnerable communities. The youth inclusion programme, run by the YJB, focuses on such preventive work with 50 of the most at-risk 13 to 16-year-olds in 70 disadvantaged neighbourhoods throughout England and Wales. For 2001, we have funded almost 150 Easter and summer splash schemes for young children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

I hope hon. Members will not mind my reiterating some broad Government policy—it is important to understand that we shall not effectively tackle youth crime or address the causes of crime unless we start early and pay attention to the areas of young people's lives that influence whether they are led into crime. The measures that address certain aspects of social exclusion are as important as the policies and programmes that are specifically youth-justice focused.

The second issue that I mentioned was performance. We must create a far more efficient and effective youth justice system. We have started to cut delays. I mentioned the pledge in the 1997 election campaign to halve, by 2002, the average time taken from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders from 142 to 71 days. By April 2001, it had been cut to 78 days. That is encouraging. We should remember that that is not a target for its own sake; reducing delay reinforces the link between the offence and the response to it. That is an important part of the learning process for young offenders. As well as reinforcing the link, it allows for earlier intervention. Everybody involved with young people agrees that the earlier we can intervene the better the outcome can be. That can strengthen public confidence in the system.

We have set up the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, which has been in operation since September 1998, to provide national co-ordination, and have established 154 multi-agency youth offending teams—known as YOTS—across England and Wales. These are important in relation to the point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), because they bring together the police, probation services, local authorities, health and education providers and other agencies at local level to work together with individual young offenders. YOTS are required to address all aspects of their offending behaviour, including relevant family, education, health and other issues.

From April 2000, the Youth Justice Board also assumed responsibility for the commissioning and purchase of all forms of juvenile secure accommodation throughout England and Wales, whether in the Prison Service, the local authority or the private sector, for both remanded and sentenced young people.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that Wales has a specific problem with young people who are remanded or have custodial sentences. Wales has limited facilities to accommodate them, which means that young people travel to Eastwood Park near Bristol from my area and the depths of west Wales, for example. Among other problems that that causes, it affects continued links with youth offending teams and families when the young people go back into the community. Also, I have been told anecdotally that the use of the Welsh language sometimes causes bullying in young offenders' institutions. I would be grateful for the Minister's comments.

Beverley Hughes

I am aware of the problem. I heard about the arrival of four young people from Cardiff at a London young offenders institution as I visited it this week. We do not want the situation to continue. The factors about closeness to home and to the local youth offending team are important in helping young people most effectively while in institutions, and also while resettling them when they are ready to come out.

The Youth Justice Board is working hard to improve the availability and spread of secure places, and the quality of regimes. It is paying special attention to the problem in Wales. I visited another establishment in Wales and, co-incidentally, the board visited at the same time to explore the possibility of purchasing some places for juveniles there. The hoard hopes to commission some places in the near future. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, as it is important and we want to tackle it.

The third issue that I shall raise—they are all emblematic of the Government's approach—is punishment. The reform system has to dispense proportionate and constructive punishment. It must focus on making young offenders face the consequences of their offending, and on diverting them from re-offending. Courts are now offered a range of sentencing alternatives. For the first time, there is a systematic process for use of information about young offenders through a new, common assessment scheme called ASSET. Importantly, it enables youth justice professionals to use a standardised instrument to try to match the causes of offending, and a specific programme of action is coming out of the assessment to stop further offending.

Many new programmes have come on stream and are available to the youth offending teams, ranging from help for parents, education and training, drug and alcohol placements, to reparation and restorative justice programmes. Some of the powers that we have given to the police and the courts are essentially preventive. The police now issue a single final warning to offenders, instead of the old system of endless ineffectual cautions.

The courts can now impose a range of orders targeted at the underlying causes of offending. For example, a parenting order reinforces parental responsibilities and provides support to help parents keep their children out of trouble. A reparation order allows offenders to make amends directly to the victim, if the victim is willing, or to the wider local community. The new orders have proved popular with sentencers. So far, more than 13,000 reparation, child safety, parenting and action plan orders have been made since they were introduced nationally on 1 June 2000.

We are trying to use new technology effectively by introducing curfew orders backed by electronic tagging for juveniles. Such orders are designed to break the pattern of offending behaviour, which if left unchecked could increase the risk of offenders receiving custodial sentences. The next major step for youth offending teams is the innovative referral order that is being piloted in 11 areas. It is specifically designed to prevent reoffending through a new approach when young people first come to court and plead guilty. The young person will be referred to community-based youth offender panels, which will decide on positive interventions in consultation with the offender, victims or their representatives and others who have a link to that young person. We plan to implement the order nationally from April 2002.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I appreciate that referral orders are still in the pilot stage and that the statistical information available to the Minister might not be complete. However, is there any evidence to hand to enable us to assess the success of the referral order scheme in deterring young offenders from committing crimes again?

Beverley Hughes

Yes. There is certainly evidence from the pilot areas, although it is rudimentary at the moment and cannot be used to compare referral orders using the standard test of the reconviction rate within two years. However, there is encouraging evidence in those areas of a reduction in the amount of re-offending compared with what we would normally expect had a referral order not been introduced.

We are also determined to tackle the problem of young people who defy the criminal justice system by committing repeated offences on bail, and I know that many hon. Members experience that problem in their constituencies. The new Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 includes provisions that will enable the courts to deal with those who repeatedly offend on bail, but who could not previously be remanded into custody because their offence was not serious enough. It will also offer the courts the option of using electronic monitoring of juveniles on bail or on remand to local authority accommodation.

This week, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary launched the intensive supervision and surveillance programme—the ISSP—for about 2,500 of the most persistent young offenders. That is the direction in which we need to go. The ISSP is a highly structured, community-based programme, which is designed to tackle the underlying causes of offending behaviour. It includes supervision and surveillance of an intensity that community programmes have not offered before. Surveillance can be for up to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be carried out with the aid of electronic tagging and of another new technology, voice recognition, which can be used in conjunction with telephones to establish a young person's whereabouts when they phone in and their voice is recognised. Those various mechanisms can also inculcate the discipline and the response to structure and routine that are necessary for many persistent young offenders whose life styles have been characterised by lack of order, lack of discipline and chaos. The ISSP is an important measure, which will be introduced shortly and used for the most persistent young offenders.

These measures are, of course, backed by the antisocial behaviour order. Next month, we will extend the age range of children who can be covered by child curfew schemes by increasing the limit to 15. That will help local authorities and others to deal with the problem of unsupervised children out on the streets at night.

I have talked so far about the range of provisions that enable young people to be supervised effectively. These provisions deal with their offending behaviour and enable them to remain in the community. For some young people, however, the seriousness or persistence of their offending means that custody might be the only immediate answer, but time in custody must be used constructively. The detention and training order aims to achieve that by combining custody and community supervision to punish and rehabilitate young offenders. Each young offender is subject to an individual training plan, which is designed both to tackle the particular factors that are thought to precipitate their offending behaviour and to provide them with the necessary skills to avoid getting into trouble on release.

Since the Youth Justice Board took over the secure juvenile estate last year, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), facilities and regimes for the under-18s have been transformed, and I have been to see some of them. The board has increased time out of cell and has placed a far stronger emphasis on education and training, cognitive behaviour programmes and the development of social skills. However, there is still a long way to go. By next year we will have implemented the proposals made in the social exclusion unit's report "Bridging the Gap" to increase the time allowed for education and training to 30 hours per week for all in custody who are under the age of 18.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Is it not a matter of enormous concern that we have proportionately more young people in custody than any other western country? Is it appropriate to lock away children in prison establishments, rather than in local authority establishments, where they would be under the jurisdiction of the Children Act 1989?

Beverley Hughes

My hon. Friend is very experienced and expert in such matters and he will know that the majority of juvenile offenders in custody are held in secure training units, local authority secure accommodation or young offender institutions in the juvenile part of young offender institutions. Only a tiny number are held in prison.

The latest information that I have is that only 13 are held in prison. We need to change that, but I know that my hon. Friend realises that there are sometimes competing imperatives. For example, there are fewer female juvenile offenders, but it is not always possible to provide female places in all parts of the country. Sometimes the need to keep a young woman close to her home is judged to be an overriding factor. In a tiny number of cases, special circumstances apply, or a judgment is made about a range of issues that results in someone being kept closer to home in prison instead of in a specific juvenile institution. However, I take the general drift of my hon. Friend's remarks.

Simon Hughes

I am grateful for the Minister's response to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), but I wish to push her a little further.

Four years ago, in his first generic report, the chief inspector made clear his view that children should not be held in prison. Is that the Government's policy? Is it therefore the Government's plan that, within a short time, there will be no children in prisons in England and Wales? I do not want to put words into anyone's mouth, but the hon. Gentleman and many others believe that we ought at least to ensure that children are placed not in prison but in alternative forms of custody.

Beverley Hughes

As I have said, the vast majority of juveniles are not in prison; it is more appropriate for them to be placed in one of the three institutions that have specialist juvenile provisions. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that juveniles will never be placed in prison establishments because, as I have tried to explain, the tiny number of juveniles in prison now are there because competing factors can sometimes mean that a prison placement is in their best interests. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that it will never happen, but we generally support the policy that they should be placed in establishments that cater for juveniles. That is what we aim to achieve.

The fourth issue that I raised in my introduction was the underlying philosophy of our approach, which is to engender a new restorative justice with three key principles. First, young offenders should start taking responsibility for their actions; secondly, reparation by young offenders to the victim or the community should be a feature of that approach; and thirdly, as a result of the previous two principles, we aim to reintegrate young offenders back into their own communities. That is recognised as an important new approach.

The youth justice strategy reforms that I have set out represent the boldest and most thorough-going drive to reform the youth justice system and to tackle youth crime and its causes that we have seen so far.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that a lot of change has been demanded from the staff who work in such areas, particularly from those in the probation service, which has had to change its whole being. Does she agree that there is a need to bolster confidence because of links with other aspects of the Connexions service as much as anything else? Indeed, some have left the probation service to join Connexions. We need to evaluate the pressures on the service, and anything that the hon. Lady can do to bring that forward would be useful.

Beverley Hughes

I spoke about such matters at the recent national probation conference. Yesterday, I met both the general secretary and the chair of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, who also raised such issues. The new national probation service has done exceptionally well in achieving a change in not only its structure, but its culture and approach. I commend it for that. It has coped with a substantial change. As I said at the conference, we look forward to the challenges of the next few years as a result of the Halliday proposals and sentencing reforms.

Another report is being issued on courts as a result of the Auld report. I hope that that will lead to a much more informed debate on where we need to be going in respect of criminal justice, in general, and youth justice, in particular, and towards making community sentences much more effective. The probation service is well placed to play a major role—if not the major role—in achieving our desired result. Most of the people who work for it want to join the Government and other agencies in achieving that outcome. I welcome working with the service.

We must recognise that many of the changes to which I have referred have been in force for only a year. It is too early to be certain about results, but at some point we must be clear about the effectiveness of those changes. The Home Office and the Youth Justice Board have commissioned several substantial pieces of research and performance evaluation to cover all areas of the youth justice system. We shall receive a series of reports on effectiveness and evaluation this summer.

Youth crime affects young people. Indeed, it affects the whole of society. I hope that people recognise that the Government have signalled their determination to tackle the problem both constructively and proactively. It is an enormous challenge and, although I have spent some time setting out what we have done, I am the first to recognise that we still have a long way to go. Over the past four years, we have made a strong start. We must be committed to tackling the problem. By reducing the number of young people starting or continuing in criminal careers, we can prevent young lives from being wasted. We can maximise their contribution not only to their future, but society. We can also create stronger, safer communities.

3.19 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I wish to express my apologies for being unable to stay until the end of the debate. I was asked to speak at short notice in place of one of my hon. Friends who, for personal reasons, cannot be at Westminster this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) will be present on behalf of the Opposition Front Bench for the duration of the debate, and I shall of course read the Hansard reports of the speeches that I am unable to hear myself: I share the Minister's hope that we can achieve a fair measure of cross-party agreement on this subject. It is in everyone's interest that the Government's reforms bed down and work successfully. In the nine years that I have been a Member I have learned that it is much better if people who deliver a public service can make a new system operate effectively, albeit with a little tweaking, than to have a complete upheaval every four or five years or whenever there is a change of ministry.

We can agree with plenty of the Minister's comments and with those in the Youth Justice Board's annual report, which was published a couple of days ago. My constituency is in the Thames Valley police force area, and my chief constable is a member of the YJB and an ardent evangelist for the virtues of the restorative justice approach, which was pioneered by Charles Pollard in Milton Keynes and in my constituency. I was impressed by the session of the restorative justice circle that I attended and by the enthusiasm with which the members of the Buckinghamshire youth offending team that I visited last year, who were from different agencies and disciplines, worked together for a more effective approach towards the problems of youth crime and disorder.

The test of the new system will be the extent to which it increases public safety by reducing crime and reoffending, and I look forward to the publication of the promised performance indicators. I am sure that throughout the course of the Parliament the Opposition will keep a beady eye on the Government's targets and performance indicators to establish whether what happens in practice measures up to the promises that we have been given.

I want to ensure that any critical remarks or questions that I put to the Minister during my speech are viewed in the context of wanting the new system to succeed. We need to be on the alert for a surfeit of committees and plans. We now have YOTs, which are supposed to draft strategies to prevent youth offending and reduce the incidence of youth crime in their areas and, with the police authority, to draft a policing plan for the area. Each locality, which usually represents a district council or metropolitan borough area, is required to produce a community safety or crime reduction plan. The Youth Justice Board has set national targets for YOTs, and the Home Secretary has set national targets for different police forces, which in due course we shall have for the various probation services as part of the new national probation service. There is always a danger that the time, energy and professional expertise of police officers, probation officers and others go into attending committees and preparing plans and that the sharpness of focus that we all agree is necessary is lost.

Mr. Dawson

The hon. Gentleman describes a complex social system. However, surely with YOTs and the direct line to the Youth Justice Board, we now have a simpler and more effective system than the plethora of youth justice arrangements that used to operate?

Mr. Lidington

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right. However, YOTs depend for their funding partly on the extent to which police forces, the probation service and others are prepared to put money into a common pot. Their ability to do so and to devote staff time through secondments to YOTs depends upon each agency's priorities. It is not possible to separate the question of YOTs from broader questions about the organisation of the criminal justice system.

The concerns that I have expressed were conveyed to me by police and probation officers and magistrates. As parliamentarians, we must be aware of the risks, and through our questions encourage Ministers to guard against them.

Inherent in the system is a tension between national and local priorities. When talking to local government officers and police officers about the implementation of community safety or crime reduction plans, I find that, on the one hand, there are priorities that are laid down by the Home Office—performance indicators imposed on police by the Home Office. On the other hand, there is a statutory duty on the partnerships to consult local people to ascertain their priorities in terms of community safety and crime reduction. That tension also applies to the youth justice system, and I hope that Ministers will be alert to it throughout this Parliament.

I am critical of the Government on a number of points. The Minister referred to the Government's early pledge to halve the time taken from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders. As she said, in May 1997 the figure was 142 days and the target was 71 days. Today, she told us that the time taken is now down to 78 days, which is a reduction on the figure for March this year of 83 days—the last published figure before the Minister's comments. I hope that she will be able to say whether May 2002 is still a firm target for the Government's delivery of the early pledge made in 1996.

Will the Minister also tell us what records exist for individual police forces? When I thumbed through the YJB's annual report for 1999–2000, I noticed that it listed six police forces —Cumbria, North Wales, North Yorkshire, the City of London and Dorset—that had achieved the 71-day target or exceeded it. However, the newly published report for 2000–01 contains no such list. Surely, if the YJB had found that more than six were achieving the Government's target, it would have said so. I am suspicious about what is going on, and I hope that the Minister can deal with that in her reply or, subsequently, in writing.

My underlying question about the Government's target for reducing the time from arrest to sentence is that, throughout the Chamber, we agree with the Minister that it is a sensible objective to try to link the fact of punishment to the commission of the crime. That linkage is broken when it takes ages for someone to be brought to justice. Even if the individual criminal is not affected, common sense might tell us that an offender's peer group might be influenced by the sight of him or her receiving swift and exemplary justice.

I have also seen evidence—from studies conducted by the university of Sheffield, for example—that the Government's attempt to speed up the system has merely led to young offenders being recycled round the system more swiftly. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government are putting measures in place to enable us to assess the extent to which reducing the time taken to try such cases and to sentence offenders leads to a reduction in crime and recidivism, because there is no benefit to be had from achieving the 71-days target if there is not also a reduction in crime or reoffending. We should not assess that Government target in isolation: we should also assess whether it delivers the goods to the public by producing a safer country.

I turn to the penalties that are available to the courts under the new system. The Minister's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), wrote to me on 11 May 2001, about a parliamentary question that he had initially replied to on 20 December 2000—those dates might contain a lesson about the need to speed up the system. I had asked about the number of community orders on young offenders that had been breached or revoked, because it is fine and dandy for such penalties to be made available to the courts, but it is also necessary to ask whether they are effective in practice.

In his letter, the then Minister stated that, between April and December 2000, 29,461 community orders were made against young offenders, and that no fewer than 8,573 had been either breached or revoked. That figure represents no less than 29 per cent. of all the community orders that the courts made on young offenders in that period. It is therefore a serious matter, and it is necessary to ask several questions about it.

The then Minister was unable to distinguish between figures for breach and figures for revocation, although the latter category would refer to cases about which the court had taken a serious view concerning the nature of the breach. Therefore, I am unsure whether the figure of 29 per cent. refers only to cases in which the order has apparently failed, or whether it also contains individual cases that have come before the court more than once, and when the second breach has led to revocation. I would welcome further information about that matter.

Does the evidence suggest that there is a greater risk of breaches with certain types of order? Again, the then Minister's letter failed adequately to address that. Indeed, he wrote that the Youth Offending Teams do not yet collect data for breaches of each individual order". The use of the word "yet" suggested to me that the Government might have plans to introduce a more detailed reporting system, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's response concerning that. If an order has been revoked, does re-sentencing for the original offence follow, and what type of sentence is given in such circumstances? We need more information about the operation of these orders, and about breaches or revocation, to enable us to come to an informed conclusion about the effectiveness of the new penalties.

Mr. Dawson

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the use of the breach procedure on such an apparently large scale may indicate the system's health? I would be suspicious of any system of youth justice in which breach was not used. If one compares the apparent efficacy to that of custodial sentences in preventing re-offending, may this be a case in which community sentences are properly enforced to ensure that they work properly?

Mr. Lidington

Indeed. One possible explanation of the figures is that the authorities are now enforcing action on breaches more tightly than previously. We need further information; I will not denounce either the Government or the new penalties without that. However, the questions are perfectly reasonable.

I ask the Minister three other points about penalties. My first point is about not so much penalties as reward schemes of the type that the Prime Minister announced in April. The Minister will recall that the Prime Minister said that there would be a Youth Justice Board pilot scheme in London through which youngsters might qualify for vouchers for clothes, music and the like as a reward for good behaviour. All of us, at constituency level, have seen examples of effective diversionary schemes that successfully distract disaffected young men from the temptations of crime and antisocial behaviour. However, there is a fine balance between an effective diversionary scheme and a scheme that appears to reward—in the case of some young people—good behaviour that many others would regard as their plain duty and something that they get on with without reward from the state. The Minister will know that the announcement aroused controversy from many people, including spokesmen for victims' groups. Do the Government intend to follow the policy through or have they discarded the approach?

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Was the confusion not because a majority of people, through the press, saw the scheme as rewarding young people who had committed an offence? I understood that the scheme was to try to reward young people living in the most difficult areas who, despite all that goes on around them, manage to resist temptations such as a life of crime. In that sense, the scheme was a novel way to support young people who are in the difficult circumstances that many find themselves in.

Mr. Lidington

I will be interested to hear an explanation from the Government of the nature and scope of such schemes, and the criteria on which their success would be judged.

The Minister will be familiar with my two further points about penalties. Child curfew orders were to be one of the great success stories of the previous Parliament's legislation. Of course, they turned out to be nothing of the kind. Not one local authority applied for a child curfew order. In recent legislation, the Government extended the age limits of the groups that a child curfew could be sought for. However, do the Government plan to issue—or have they issued— guidance to local authorities and police forces about implementing the new legislation relating to child curfew orders? The police and local authorities are concerned that a blanket ban on all young people going out in a particular area would divert crime and disorder to a different estate or would disproportionately affect the interests of youngsters who are law abiding and would see the measure as an unfair punishment. Further information on that would be useful, as would be some words about the Government's approach to antisocial behaviour orders. These orders can be taken out in respect of anyone from the age of 10 onwards, and from my constituency experience—I suspect that it is shared by other hon. Members from whichever party—a great many complaints, which usually come from the decent people living on rough council estates, concern the behaviour of unruly youngsters in their neighbourhood, who are making life hell for those particular families or individuals. I know that that is a subject which the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) has taken up on a number of occasions in Parliament.

The previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), championed antisocial behaviour orders. He said that they would be one of the key instruments in dealing with a problem that everybody, of all political parties, acknowledged was real, harmed lives and made misery for many thousands of our constituents. He urged local authorities and police forces to get on with the job of enforcing the new laws. Yet on the most recent figures that I have seen, only 214 antisocial behaviour orders have been issued nationally in the years that these remedies have been available.

One reason for that still seems to be that the police and local authorities find it time-consuming, cumbersome and bureaucratic to get an order in place. Another difficulty concerns standards of proof. Although to get an antisocial behaviour order one needs only to demonstrate to the court the civil standard of proof, if one is seeking remedy for subsequent breach of an antisocial behaviour order, one has to prove one's case to the court up to the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt. It has been put to me that, for that reason, police and local authorities are reluctant to initiate the process of securing an ASBO unless they believe from the start that they have evidence up to the criminal standard of proof that would be required for any subsequent enforcement action. Cost may also be a factor. I have see one estimate from the police that obtaining an ASBO order costs up to £100,000 when staff time is taken into account. However, the penalties for breaches are insubstantial and it therefore turns out not to be worth doing.

Mr. Dawson

This is only anecdotal evidence, but I would like to say that the northern division of the Lancashire constabulary has been effective in using antisocial behaviour orders across rural and urban areas in its patch. It has used them effectively to deal with drunkenness, downright criminal behaviour and persistent burglars. They have been well supported by communities that have experienced tremendous relief and by the local media. They have worked very well.

Mr. Lidington

If that is happening in north Lancashire, it is indeed good news, although it poses an ever starker form of question as to why that apparent success has not been followed up by police forces and local authorities elsewhere in the country. I would hope that if there has been some trick that the Lancashire authorities have discovered, which enables them to use ASBOs more effectively than has been the case elsewhere, the inspectorate of constabulary and others will make that experience well known in other parts of the country.

The Minister made points about secure training places and local authority places. One of the political differences between the two sides of the Chamber is that the Opposition would continue to argue for a much greater expansion of secure training places than that proposed by the Government.

I shall raise a specific point about local authority provision, which was made to me when I visited Bradford city council last week. The council feared that one possible outcome of police and court action following the disturbances was that a number of very young people would be remanded into local authority care for secure provision pending trial for a violent offence. The council thought that it would be difficult to find and finance the places. The Home Office should consider that aspect of the matter, in case any help needs to be given to Bradford or other parts of the country where problems might be faced in the wake of recent riots.

I turn to the issue of young offender institutions. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said in his intervention, that is a matter to which the chief inspector, Sir David Ramsbothom, and his predecessor, Sir Stephen Tumim, rightly devoted a great deal of attention and energy. Aylesbury YOI is in my constituency; it houses some of the most dangerous and difficult young offenders anywhere in the country. They are not simply naughty boys but young men who have committed violent and sexual offences and who need to be housed in secure accommodation.

Managing an institution such as Aylesbury or Feltham YOI is a complex and challenging business. People who serve as prison governors and officers in those establishments deserve support and encouragement for the good work that is done there. Frankly, it is not a job I would like to take on myself. However, problems undoubtedly exist in those places. The difficulties at Feltham have been in the news on and off for the past few months. In Aylesbury, there have been a series of appalling suicides; from memory, I believe that five young men died in the course of about 18 months. From the figures given for the Prison Service nationally—I am not sure whether they apply specifically to the YOI sector—it is clear that the suicide rate has recently increased. Assaults, which sometimes reflect bullying, have also risen in number.

I acknowledge the difficulties of managing such establishments and the fact that young men in their teens and early twenties are the group most at risk of suicide, but I hope that the hon. Lady and the Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform will keep that matter close to the top of their respective agendas in the years to come.

I hope, too, that the hon. Lady or her right hon. Friend will spell out Government thinking on the future of YOIs. In the consultation document published a couple of years ago, the Government said that they were minded to move towards a system in which different institutions existed for offenders above and below the age of majority. That would result in a real shake-up of the present YOI system. Is that still the Government's objective? Will they give some assurance, if that is the case, that they recognise the need for institutions such as Aylesbury that will deal with the most serious offenders, who simply cannot be housed in community-based accommodation but who will require, under any foreseeable arrangement, very secure housing?

I read the report of the debate initiated by my noble Friend Lord Hurd that took place in the House of Lords a few days ago. It is required reading for anyone interested in the prison or criminal justice systems, and I hope that in this context of young offender institutions the Government will take note of the comments that were made by Members of that House, from all parties and from none. We need a prison service that not only serves the public by keeping prisoners securely, but is more successful than it has been in the past at ensuring that when prisoners are released—as almost all will be one day—they are able to lead law-abiding lives.

I appreciate the fact that both the Minister and the Youth Justice Board have recognised that effective policies to deal with young offending must include effective punishment and tackle the reasons why young people are tempted into crime in the first place. If there were time, we could debate matters such as achievement at school, exclusion from school and family background. I was struck by the statement in the YJB's report of this week that only 50 per cent. of children excluded from school had a father or stepfather living at home. We know from research by organisations such as NCH Action for Children that children who have been through local authority care are disproportionately represented in youth courts and young offender institutions. I hope that the Government will try, wherever possible, to involve voluntary agencies in the delivery of services that are designed to reach out to disaffected and excluded young people. Those organisations are often able to provide a human dimension to care that a Government agency, however well intentioned, finds difficult because it is inevitably bound by a Whitehall rule book.

I welcome the fact that the Government have made time for the debate. As an Opposition, we shall continue closely to scrutinise the impact of the changes that they have introduced. It will be in the interests of all our constituents if the new youth justice system succeeds as the Government hope that it will.

3.53 pm
Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I am pleased to follow the two speakers that we have heard so far. After the Minister's thoughtful introduction came the comments of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who entered into the spirit of the debate that people want about youth justice—an important issue that affects us all in our constituencies. The debate gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we are doing and some of the problems that confront us, rather than scoring political points off each other.

Having had a couple of conversations about the issue over the past few weeks, I should point out that although we are talking about youth justice and reflecting on the young people that cause us problems, huge numbers of young people are a great credit to themselves and their families. They do a remarkable amount of good, including charity work and volunteering, and they contribute a great deal to society.

I shall start in the same way as my hon. Friend the Minister by examining some of facts that I took from the excellent social exclusion unit policy action team 12 report on young people. The report is now a year old and some of the facts will have since been updated, but I shall quote from it because it provides the context for our debate today. It states that One in three men have a criminal record by the age of 30"— an astonishing figure—and that 40 per cent of offenders are under the age of 21 and a quarter are under 18". That, too, is astonishing. The report also states that there is an Increase in violent crime by juveniles". An important factor that has not been mentioned so far is the increasing amount of violent crime by young women.

My hon. Friend the Minister drew attention to the victims of crime. The report states: In England and Wales, young people aged 16–24 are more likely to be victimised than any other group. We often think of it as an adult issue, but young people in schools, youth clubs and on the streets are also concerned about crime and youth justice. The majority of them know someone who has been a victim or have themselves been victims because they are the most likely victims. The report continues: a quarter of all violent crime is committed against young men… One in six young people aged 14–25 are the victim of a violent offence each year and more than one in three 12–15-year-olds are assaulted each year. When I read those statistics to provide the context for today's debate, I was confronted again with the enormity of the issue that we are discussing and what we should be doing about it. The classic retort, which we all make sometimes when we are frustrated, is, "Let's get tougher. We must crack down on crime and lock up more young people." I say that because I, too, am frustrated. For persistent offenders—violent and dangerous young people who are a threat to society or who simply will not respond to anything—there is no alternative because we must protect the public.

The report, to which the hon. Member for Aylesbury and my hon. Friend the Minister referred, also states: There are 11,500 15–21-year-olds in custody, of whom at least three-quarters will be re-convicted within two years of release. Nearly three-quarters of offenders under the age of 21 released from prison are re-convicted within two years. The imprisonment rate has risen by about 50 per cent since the early 1990s. However, the popular myth is that offenders are getting away with their crimes. Our debate is important because those are the facts. We are locking up more young people and, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, of the 29 member states of the Council of Europe, only Romania, Estonia and Lithuania have higher imprisonment rates for people under the age of 21 than England.

I make no apology for quoting at length from the report. We must ask ourselves whether we feel safer and whether there has been a reduction in antisocial behaviour, re-offending rates, and so on. There is an enormous amount of work for us to do as a Parliament, as a Government and as elected Members to try to improve the lot of our constituents. There is certainly a problem.

I was delighted by my hon. Friend the Minister's remarks, which the hon. Member for Aylesbury supported. We seem to be entering an era in which we are determined to confront some of the difficult facts. We must ensure that persistent and dangerous offenders are locked up and kept away from the community so that they are no longer a threat. I am interested, however, in the various other measures that the Government are examining to try to turn young people away from crime. It is early days, but I am pleased that we now have young offending teams to bring together different people and agencies. The matter is not just for the police, although, of course, they are involved. Social services, housing agencies and others need to come together to support young people and their families. The Government are making progress in putting the restorative aspect in place as well as ensuring that we clamp down on those who persistently offend.

It is more helpful to discuss practical matters rather than to have a purely intellectual debate. As well as introducing new measures, we must ensure that existing laws and regulations are enforced. Where youth justice is concerned, there is nothing more frustrating for people than the introduction of a new initiative that they thought they had heard all about a couple of years ago. We need to enforce existing laws and to ensure that new ones work.

There has been a problem with antisocial behaviour orders. I accept the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made about north Lancashire, but there have been problems in other parts of the country. Not as many orders have been passed as expected. I was delighted—as, I am sure, were many other hon. Members—by the introduction of the orders, because at last there was a civil, rather than a criminal, sanction for a problem that was driving us all mad—antisocial behaviour by young people on our streets.

We all hear about those problems in our constituency surgeries. Of course, serious crimes are brought to our attention there as well, but a large number of my surgeries—and this seems to be true for other hon. Members—are taken up with people complaining about what seems to be quite trivial antisocial behaviour, but which is driving them stark, raving mad because of what they have to put up with in their own houses and on their streets. When antisocial behaviour goes unchecked in our communities, there is a sense that the law is not being properly implemented, and that can lead to other things. I would like antisocial behaviour orders to be examined to see whether they can be toughened and tightened up.

Many people say that existing laws on the sale of alcohol to young people and tenancy agreements with councils are not properly enforced. People who take on council properties are supposed to ensure that their, children are properly supervised, but no one enforces tenancy agreements with the necessary rigour and thoroughness. My first plea to the Minister is that antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts be made sufficiently rigorous.

I am pleased that the number of police is being increased because that is important for our communities and for youth justice on the streets. Given what we have seen in the past few weeks on our television screens, it is also important that my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues in the Department look again at how to recruit more ethnic minority police officers. There have been many initiatives to try to deal with that issue. We should celebrate the fact that we live in a multicultural society that is an inspiration to us all, but we must consider why we cannot recruit the ethnic minority officers that we need. Greater numbers of such recruits would be enormously helpful.

To judge by the comments of my constituents, there is a great deal of work to do. Many members of the public have lost confidence in community sanctions. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister talk about the need for community punishments as an alternative to locking up young people, but they should not be regarded as a soft option. We must give people the confidence in community sanctions that they have so far lacked. It may not be fair to describe them as a soft option, but if they are seen as such it will be very difficult for them to work.

I was also pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister talk about the causes of crime. It is important to consider the circumstances of many young people. I make no apology for believing that if we totally divorce the criminal justice system from its social context, it is doomed to failure. We need also to consider poverty, housing, poor facilities, educational achievement, and so on. The Home Office should talk to other Departments about the provision of sporting, recreational and leisure facilities for young people, and about what is being done to tackle other neighbourhood problems. We need also to talk to more young people, and to give them a voice.

This morning, I had the privilege of visiting Ernehale junior school in my constituency. Nottinghamshire police and the local education authority have set up the DARE—drug abuse resistance education—programme, certificates for which were being awarded to young people at the school. Police officers, teachers and parents are working together to try to give year 6 pupils the personal skills necessary to resist drugs. When I was there this morning, they were given certificates and tee-shirts such as this one—

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair)

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Hansard writers find it extremely difficult to record visual exhibits, which are therefore prohibited in the Chamber.

Vernon Coaker

I am sorry, Mr. Gale.

What was important about the DARE graduation that I attended this morning with year 6 pupils was the optimism that it offered. The police, social services and parents have, by working together, given young people the skills, self-esteem and ability to resist drugs, which is the way forward. We must punish those who persistently offend, but we must also recognise that we need to look at ways in which we can turn people away from crime by giving them the hope, skills and abilities that they need to resist the temptations that will come their way.

This is an enormously difficult time for young people to grow up in and we have not yet got the youth justice system right. However, this debate on how to address the serious problems that our young people face gives cause for optimism. I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in clamping down on persistent offenders and finding a form for the restorative justice that will, in the end, give us more hope. When we have a similar debate in three or four years' time we shall not be quoting the sort of distressing figures that we have heard today.

4.11 pm
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Like others, I welcome the debate. I welcome the fact that the Government have given us this opportunity in the week of the publication of the Youth Justice Board report, which means that there is a logical sequence of events.

Today gives me my first opportunity to welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes). I look forward to working with her and her colleagues at the Home Office. She has experience, commitment and interest.

Judging by the tenor of the debate, it has been well worth having. Some of us, including me, were in the Chamber on Tuesday debating not unrelated issues in the debate on urban community relations. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) was also present. Many issues that cropped up in that debate are relevant to today's, and vice versa.

Politics, life and news are a rollercoaster event. We went from the debate on Tuesday, which was well reported and regarded, to a day when the public debate focused on the Conservative party's leadership and its future. Today we woke up to have a debate on crime statistics, which has gone on to be about crime and sentencing. I hope that this debate features against the other two big stories of today, because unless we sort out the problems of youth offending we will create considerable problems for ourselves.

Like the hon. Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Aylesbury, we are all under pressure at this time of the year to reconcile our time here in the last week of term with other people's last weeks of term. Before I came here this afternoon, I attended the leavers' service of the primary school of which I am chair of governors. It was held in the parish church of St James's in Bermondsey. When I stood up to say a couple of words, behind me was a beautiful picture accompanied by the appropriate theological phrase, "Lo, I am with you always."

As I drove back from Bermondsey, I reflected on the fact that most young people get into some sort of scrape or trouble. However—the hon. Member for Gedling was right—in most cases it does not remain with them: they do not become locked into a pattern of behaviour or get a criminal record.

Earlier in the week, we have the launch of the Youth Justice Board report at which the Minister was present; I apologise for the fact that I could not be there. Like others, I pay tribute to the board for its work. It is fair to say that there is little difference of opinion between the three parties on some simple propositions. Until a few years ago, the youth justice system was in a mess. I do not blame that entirely on the Conservative Administration, but the statistics speak for themselves. The Audit Commission's report was strident and pungent about the crying need for reform. One oft-mentioned statistic was that 3 per cent. of offenders were responsible for 25 per cent. of offences. Another salient point picked up by the commission was that in 1991 more than 1,000 young people aged 15 to 16 were on custodial remand, whereas by 1995—four years later—the number had increased to 17,000.

The social exclusion unit figures quoted by the hon. Member for Gedling remind us that if we are not careful to implement the correct strategies, the numbers simply grow. The message from the courts has been that no alternative exists and that the public and the young person must both be protected. However, we learn from reports such as those of the chief inspector of prisons that putting a youngster in custody is often far removed from providing protection. Tough, clear statements have been made that many youngsters in custody are bullied, harassed and assaulted. As we are all aware, they are unlikely to be improved by the experience.

Feltham young offenders institution—where, happily, there has been a division into two regimes—is the subject of a report due out, I think, next week. It is a pity that it was not published before today's debate. I join the hon. Member for Aylesbury in asking the Minister to tell us what further strategies the Government have introduced to ensure that abuse and self-abuse—at the most extreme, attempted suicide—are reduced in our custodial institutions for young people. The chief inspector is clear: there has been far too much bullying, assault and harassment. The figures on attempted suicides are a disgrace to all of us.

I agree with the Minister that reducing drug taking by young people is hugely important. The hon. Member for Gedling pointed out the need to reduce alcohol abuse as well. Hon. Members will have seen last month's news bulletin printed inside the cover of the Youth Justice Board report. The MORI survey that was commissioned at the same time as the report revealed attitudes to crime and set out three factors, called motivators, environmental factors, and values, that influenced children's likelihood to offend. Motivators were explained through quotes from youngsters, such as the following: You do it for a laugh. Another said: That copper up behind you. You get the blood pumping. You know you're going to get chased. That is a rush. The experience is excitement for young people. A third motivator was: When I was nine, I was f***ing mad and I used to do anything for money. Money is often a factor for youngsters. Mobile phones are often nicked and sold on for money.

There is also a section in the survey on environmental factors. On Tuesday, I mentioned the fact that there are places near all of us where no one would want to live. That is no inducement to good behaviour or the belief that quality of life must be enhanced. The survey also mentions values, offering a sad and telling statement that I will quote verbatim, because it picks up some important themes and provides an example of what we are trying to deal with. A 15-year-old female offender said: I probably wouldn't have done half of them things if I weren't pissed. When I was on Valium I thieved so much alcohol from the shops. You just don't give two shits. And if boys pull up next to you that are stoned in the car, if you're sober you're like, 'No, because then I'll get nicked.' But if you're pissed you'd be like, 'oh, yes, man… let's go'. That is not unreal. We all know that that is how people sometimes come to us, and we see such people on the streets. It is tragic, pathetic and awful. Before I became an MP, as well as a lawyer in the criminal courts I was a youth leader. I dealt with that sort of kid every day because they came to the youth courts every day.

The report is clear. The telling statistic from the Youth Justice Board is that last year 160,000 decisions were made in the youth justice system, of which 50 per cent. were final warnings and reprimands, 26 per cent. community-based penalties, 20 per cent. community sentences and 4 per cent. custodial sentences. We need to remind people that the courts have—thank goodness—decided that we do not need to send inside the majority of those who come into the youth justice system. Only four in 100 are sent inside, because the other options are better.

As the hon. Member for Aylesbury said, some young people have no appropriate role model. That point is constantly made. Normally, it is a case of young men lacking an adequate role model, although it is a sad trend that more and more young women are behaving badly. Young women are more likely to have a role model, but in some cases it is clearly not a satisfactory one. That is demonstrated by the statistics given at the beginning of the report, which I have used to set the scene without duplicating what other hon. Members have said.

Answers given by the Under-Secretary's predecessor—the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)—to parliamentary questions tabled earlier this year. Show that, of those aged between 10 and 17, a fairly consistent number are sentenced at magistrates courts—about 5,500 during each of the past five years. Happily, only a few of that age group are sentenced at the Crown court, but that figure shows a worrying increase, having gone up from almost 3,000 in 1995 to almost 5,000 in 1999, which reflects the severity of what the young people in question do. At the youth court, the total number sentenced has risen from 59,470 in 1995 to 79,883 in 1999.

It is therefore not surprising to read in the YJB report the responses of regular school attenders to the question, "Have you committed any criminal offence in the last 12 months?" In 2000—only a year ago—when the board carried out the survey, 22 per cent. answered yes. In one year that figure has increased to 25 per cent.—a quarter of all young people. Whereas a year ago the only two figures that were above 25 per cent. were 44 per cent. in respect of fare dodging and 31 per cent. in respect of shop theft. This year, fare dodging has increased to 49 per cent. of those questioned, vandalising property to 39 per cent. and shop theft to 35 per cent. The really worrying and depressing figure is for physical assault, which has increased to 35 per cent. of those questioned.

There are features common to all those offences. I take the view that there is a step difference between offences against property and offences against other people and I think that everybody with responsibility in this area agrees. That is why I told the Minister about the findings of the work done in Southwark, which may have to be further refined but which shows the pattern of physical abuse being replicated in different ways as youngsters get older. Surprisingly for me when I went through the figures I learned that, tragically, it often starts with abuse in the home by a parent, relative, carer, stepchild or mother's boyfriend; the young person in turn becomes the bullied, the bully, then the offender.

One point completes and reinforces the picture. The hon. Member for Gedling quoted the social exclusion unit figures from 2000. Because I had to respond on my party's behalf to the latest crime figures, I read carefully the crime figures report that was embargoed until this morning. Looking at violent crime as a whole in the last year, victimisation was highest in the 14 to 19 age group, which accounted for one in five of all victims. In addition, three quarters of male victims and nearly 9 per cent. of female victims knew the offenders, so they were victims as well as offenders and they knew each other in many cases. In the case of robbery, the 14 to 17-year-old males group accounted for a quarter of all victims in the last year for which statistics are available, and 40 per cent. of the suspects were males aged 14 to 19.

We have a group of young people—the future of the country. Many of them start off on the straight and narrow. Often, they often become offenders or victims, but on stripping away the bravado, we find that they do not want to be either. They want to go on and get the same satisfaction from life as the rest of us.

The Minister made two other important points which I wholly endorse. We must make sure that in the pattern of constructive activity we do not think only about the three school terms—or six, if that change occurs—but of the time between the terms, when summer schemes and the like are hugely important. The second is that it is clearly right for young people that the period between offence, punishment and disposal should be as short as possible. Otherwise, the system does not work. Youngsters have to understand the relationship between the two, or it becomes disjointed—a game.

Will the Minister and her colleagues to try to increase the co-ordination between her Department and the Departments for Education and Skills, for Work and Pensions and for Culture, Media and Sport in certain areas? We desperately need more trained and qualified youth workers. I hope that by the end of this Parliament we shall have the youth service on a statutory footing, which would help a lot. We need more counsellors for young people—people qualified to help with drugs, alcohol and other problems.

We desperately need more mentors. I have long believed that if every primary school child in their leaving year had somebody come in to talk about their aspirations—someone from business, sport or elsewhere in the community; it could be a police officer, somebody in the services, a teacher or whatever—and that happened again in secondary school before children started to play truant, to be excluded and so on, they would have something to motivate them and they would be more likely to remain engaged.

Some children are not academic; they are not going to be academic. It is no good thinking that GCSEs are what they want out of school. They might want to drive cars or ride trail bikes instead. We should find out what will lock them into pursuing a sense of achievement and value. I hope that Ministers will talk to each other about how we can maximise that; a programme that supports each youngster in that way would be helpful.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Aylesbury that they should not get a message that if they behave they will receive mercenary rewards. We live in far too mercenary a society—there is too much bribery by way of anything from increased pocket money to a double cheeseburger. We must find non-mercenary rewards, and schools try by way of stars, merit marks and all the traditional coloured sticky things that we used to have on our school books. Things like that matter a lot.

Having expressed solidarity and a desire to collaborate and agree with colleagues, I have another point that I should like to flesh out. Again, it has already been made by the hon. Member for Gedling. There is an interesting book about communities and how to rebuild them co-authored by Lord Young of Dartington, the Labour sociologist. It makes the point that, for 30 or 40 years, housing allocation destroyed communities: moving a single 17-year-old into a flat where he or she does not know anyone, or moving a young couple with a child or two nine-year-old children away from their parents, aunts and uncles or grandparents means that there is no family support. Inadequate parenting—we might all be guilty of that—is compounded by inadequate support, and kids are out and about, running amok much more. We must make sure that social landlords, such as the local authority, and others in the housing sector, manage housing policies, housing allocation, tenancy issues and responsible neighbour issues much more effectively.

I have a set of questions that are not intended aggressively, but designed to check where we stand. They arise as much from other people's concerns as from my own. First, the new intensive surveillance and supervision programme was launched this week. I welcomed the pilot in Southwark. However, I want to ask whether it is intended to be an alternative to custody. If so, custody-level offences have to be reached before it should be considered. However, there is always a danger of downward slippage in the mind of the person handing out the sentence.

Secondly, how are we doing with ensuring that youth offending teams are properly evaluated before they are developed? People in the sector have put it to me, and the Minister will know this from her family, that there is a mountain of work and that people want to move quickly. There is a danger that we do not learn the lessons of the past. The Minister was honest enough to say, "Look, this is a new system and we don't have all the answers yet." That is true—we clearly do not, and I am keen that we do not push people more quickly than it is humanly possible for them to go as regards evaluation. In that context, who evaluates the youth offending teams? Is it the Youth Justice Board or someone else? What is the Minister's plan in that regard?

Thirdly, I shall not make a party point about implementation but merely express my trust that the Government's goal for speeding up the youth justice system will be achieved by next year. If it is not, I will have a bit of a go, but I am happy to wait. However, there is a tension between accelerating the process and ensuring that the victim gets involved in any reparation system. It is not always easy to get victims to sign up to being part of the criminal justice process; they do not necessarily feel happy about having a relationship with the person who committed the offence.

One encouraging point to emerge from the reports by the Youth Justice Board and Her Majesty's inspector of prisons is that young people understand the impact of the crime much more if it is personalised and they relate it to someone, rather than to society as a whole. I am a huge believer in the effect of that approach. If offenders suddenly realised that smashing up someone's car meant that it could not be used to take a little child to hospital, they suddenly see their offence in a personal context—it could have been their little brother or sister or baby. Will the Minister make it clear that we are not accelerating the process and cutting the time between the criminal act and disposal so much that we lose the opportunity of working with victims?

Fourthly, are we satisfied that the people in the youth courts are now adequately trained? The issue was raised by the professionals—by the Magistrates Association, the Judicial Studies Board and Her Majesty's inspector. Fifthly, are we satisfied that the courts take a consistent approach? I am not one who believes that we should have robots in the courts—we should not. We have individuals who judge the individual, the crime and the community circumstances. Clearly, however, we must make sure that there is no unjustified disparity.

Sixthly, when will the new referral orders be implemented? I think that I am right in saying that they are planned for next year at the latest. Do we have plans to make sure that enough community volunteers are recruited to sit as panel members and to ensure that youth offending teams are adequately resourced?

My last two points relate to matters touched on by the hon. Member for Gedling. The other day, I substituted for the Minister at a National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders conference—it is amusing to think that a Liberal Democrat spokesman substituted for a Minister; I am not sure that No. 10 Downing street would regard such an option as automatically desirable, although I sure that we could often manage to express compatible views. Perhaps it would be better to say that I took the Minister's place at the NACRO conference, which was about what we do with 18 to 20-year-olds.

It is clear from the debate in the Lords and from Lord Warner's contribution that, whereas huge progress has been made with youngsters aged up to 17, many of the advantages thus gained will be lost unless we get the system for those aged 18 and upwards in working order. I do not want the Minister to tell us that things will be changed in two seconds, as that would be a mistake. However, I should be grateful to know what process and timetable are envisaged for working out whether the Youth Justice Board or a similar body should deal with commissioning. I prefer the idea of commissioning for a band covering those aged 18 to 24; the 18 to 20 grouping is less appropriate.

I have a plea. I perceive a dilemma to which we are all prey. Governments frequently want to sound tough, even though the more effective actions are often the less tough ones. The hon. Member for Gedling made that point well, as did the hon. Member for Aylesbury. There is a tendency to use phrases that dress up or hype the need to punish. The trouble with that approach is that it hides the truth and does not educate the public about what really works, and the culture that it creates can lead those who pass sentences to respond accordingly.

One of our new colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), is a philosopher—his background is as a teacher of philosophy. He told me that Plato said that democracy was a nightmare operation because it meant pandering to the public wish, which was bad for the public because a more considered response was preferable. I am no expert on such matters but that is what I am told. Plato was apparently a spin doctor of his day—an adviser rather than an elected politician.

The general election is over, there will not be another for some years and the Government appear to have just enough of a majority to enable them to hang on for four years. In that case, the more honest that we can be about what is effective rather than what sounds tough, the better. I do not criticise the Minister, but my plea is that we set a pattern of honest debate about what works rather than what sounds good.

Beverley Hughes

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, on which I have been reflecting. Does he agree that the debate needs to include a challenge to what I could call the popular notion—it is not only public usage, but the language that we use in the House—of what is tough? I have never accepted that there is an inherent contradiction in the idea of a toughness that demands rigour and discipline but that constructively provides some of what young offenders need to avoid future offending.

Simon Hughes

I absolutely agree. Besides doing youth work, I spent a few happy days experiencing borstal from the inside—not compulsorily, I point out lest hon. Members get the wrong idea. It was a telling experience. Half the time it was frustratingly and desperately boring. Being locked up is a quite unpleasant experience: knowing I could not get through the door brought on an overwhelming desire to go the pub, which would not normally have overcome me in the middle of the night. Besides that, there were activities that were theoretically tough but actually easy, like completing an assault course or some other tough physical assignment that was over in 20 minutes. That is easier than routinely turning up to take part in responsible activity for weeks or months. It is often much tougher to confront one's actions and their implications by dealing with the victim, or as part of a group that forces one to come to terms with one's inadequacies.

Whatever other arrangements are made between parties in this Parliament, I am happy to collaborate and co-operate with Ministers as much as possible on this issue. I have suggested to the Home Secretary, on behalf of my party, that we do so in respect of criminal justice reforms. We serve no one by making cheap political points and holding a Dutch auction of wacky ideas. We need a more measured approach.

The answers will not come tomorrow, as the Minister honestly said. There is always pressure on the Government to deliver so that something can immediately be put in the shop window. If we get the system right, it may take the lifetime of this Parliament to establish it firmly, and another Parliament to see that it works. Reducing crime, preventing re-offending and allowing more young people to start on the path toward responsible, constructive adulthoods is a prize well worth having, as much for them as for the rest of us.

4.40 pm
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

It is a pleasure to take part in such a stimulating debate. I am mildly bemused by the idea of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) committing himself to a borstal for three days to experience life there. He may recommend it, but I would not take up a similar offer, even though he has risen in my esteem by being prepared to go to such lengths.

The Minister's intervention of a few minutes ago was extremely important and constructive. If we can create a genuine dialogue about the issues between all parties in the House and outside, we could make real progress on youth justice. Earlier this afternoon, I diverted myself with the thought that it is almost 20 years to the week since I began a placement at a pioneering youth justice project in Rochdale, in the days when IT meant intermediate treatment rather than information technology. That project explicitly set out to put into practice the ideas developed by David Thorpe, David Smith and Norman Tutt at Lancaster university's centre for youth crime and community. It acknowledged the role of systems in youth justice and worked towards the development of ideas about effective practice, concentrating on offending behaviour, seeking to confront young people about it and effecting lasting change. It took a multidisciplinary approach, but compared with the present structures—the Youth Justice Board and the youth offending teams—those early stages were rudimentary in the extreme.

I welcome the debate because it coincides with the publication of a good report from the Youth Justice Board, and because my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced intensive supervision and surveillance programmes earlier this week. I am not sure of the figures nationally but am pleased that, in Lancashire, it will mean £2.7 million of extra investment over three years. That will enable work to be carried out with 75 young people at once, to reduce offending by 5 per cent. and to tackle those young people's underlying problems. It will pay particular attention to educational needs and will develop a programme that I hope will reassure the community about the extremely serious behaviour of those young people who can be regarded as persistent offenders—young people who have been charged or warned for imprisonable offences on four or more occasions and who have received at least one community or custodial penalty. They will not be first offenders but serious, persistent offenders. The community should at least be reassured that the programmes can operate rigorously and be effective and that they have substantial resources behind them.

As I said, those programmes will be targeted at persistent offenders. Those working on the programmes will have a case load ratio of one worker to five young people, which is a remarkable level of intensity. The programmes will stress reparation, education, and training and will deal with serious offending behaviour to help young people to build a bigger stake in the community. I hope that grounds for breach in those programmes will be operated rigorously; if so, they will provide an excellent tool. In addition to the local youth offending team, they will make a big difference in dealing with the offending behaviour of those young people.

As well as reducing crime and assisting young people to make far more of their lives, I hope that a programme of intensive supervision and surveillance will begin to reduce the incidence of custody in my local area and throughout the country. I have not worked in youth justice since the late 1980s, but I have worked within a system that managed to obtain a custody-free zone. That was a worthy objective and I am still proud of having been part of achieving it.

The considerable use that we make of custody is unacceptable. We should put an end to remand in custody for 15 and 16-year-olds. I am completely opposed to the use of prison custody for all young people under 18. I firmly believe that young people who are a danger to others and to the community and have to be kept away from the community should be maintained in secure units that are subject to the Children Act 1989, which imposes the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of young people who, although they may have committed the most serious and heinous offences, are still children. I shall return to that subject later.

On a more positive note, after several years of necessary upheaval, the Government are putting youth justice on the right lines. As I said in an intervention, the strong leadership of the Youth Justice Board is important, but it must maintain quality control and surveillance and consider the effectiveness of youth offending teams. It is beginning to work. Its admirable goals are to help rebuild communities and promote decent opportunities for all by preventing offending by children and young people. I strongly support its aim to promote a culture in which it is a matter of shame for young people and their parents to appear in a youth court. I strongly support an approach that emphasises the rights of victims and the responsibilities of young people and their parents to reduce the seriousness and frequency of offending by children and young people, which, in turn, will lessen the use of youth courts and custody measures. What had, in the 1990s, become a confusing and inadequate mess has been transformed under the Government's direction.

I look forward in particular to the introduction of referral orders in April 2002 as a result of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. I firmly believe that an approach to first-time offenders that involves parents, agencies and communities as well as victims in a programme of restorative justice to tackle criminal behaviour that requires offenders to repay their victims will be a key building block in the youth justice system of the future. It is important to reflect on the huge range of community approaches in the youth justice system. Referral orders will complement the system of final warnings, reparation orders, parenting orders, action plans, combination orders, curfews, ASBOs and compensation orders, as well as the more traditional approaches of fines, conditional discharges, binding over and supervision orders. People know what systems work and are clear about which measures address offending behaviour and relocate young people positively in community structures. If emphasis is placed on identifying which systems work and they are linked to other basic networks and community opportunities, it will make a huge difference.

I declare an interest as the husband of a sure start manager. We need to put youth justice in an overall context of community redevelopment and regeneration. I agree with the Government's programmes on neighbourhood regeneration, the renewal of initiatives to combat child poverty, the promotion of work opportunities for parents, providing young children and their families with great opportunities under programmes such as sure start at an early stage and facilities such as the children's fund. Locating youth justice within such systems and facilities can be profoundly important. It is the only way in which youth justice will work and how we shall achieve an acceptable situation. I strongly believe in the participation of young people in the structures that dominate their lives and in the decisions that are important to them. It is of enormous significance that we empower and involve young people at all levels—that is a message for the Youth Justice Board and other agencies working with young people in the community.

Two important issues are the rate of custody and the age of criminal responsibility. I am firmly opposed to young people being in adult prisons, and we have had an indication of the Government's reluctance about such placements. I hope that the Government will agree that, as a fundamental principle, young people should not be in adult prisons. That resolution should not be undermined by factors such as whether facilities are closer to home. It is a fundamental principle that young people should not mix with adult offenders.

Young people are accommodated in other forms of Home Office custody. In 1999, approximately 4,700 young people received custodial sentences and at the end of March 2000, 1,708 under-18s were serving sentences in custody. We seem to lock up more teenagers than almost any other country in western Europe, and I wonder why. We almost doubled the number of imprisoned 15, 16 and 17-year-olds between 1993 and 1998. I am concerned that the alterations to the criteria for remand under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 will lead to more young people being in custody, which cannot be right.

We are aware—it has been mentioned again this afternoon—of the number of young people who have committed suicide in custodial institutions and of the huge number of incidents of self-harm. There has been a stream of horrific reports from the prisons inspectorate, which said that it had not come across such totally deliberate and unnecessary impoverishment of children anywhere", and that this would be unacceptable in a civilised country". The inspectorate has highlighted disgraceful treatment and appalling conditions. Incidents of bullying, criminal behaviour and drug abuse are well documented, as is the gross overrepresentation of young black people within custodial institutions. Such a system cannot be right.

I have an excellent young offenders institution within my constituency. I am going to Lancaster Farms tomorrow to celebrate and commend its work. Although I admire the institution's work with young adults, I am appalled that there is now a wing—albeit rigorously separate from the rest of the establishment—that is available for 12-year-olds. With the possibility of the extension of detention and training orders, some of those involved may be as young as 10.

Not only am I morally opposed to the use of custody for young people, I do not believe that it is effective in reducing crime. Custody is not a tough measure: it avoids the really tough decisions, which involve facing the necessity of confronting young people with their offending behaviour, of putting in place structures and systems that can support them, of addressing their behaviour in the community, and of addressing the role of the parents and the institutions that have failed them in the community. Compared with facing those decisions, locking young offenders away for a while is not a tough measure. Our debate has given me hope that we can have further discussions on this issue.

Custody for young people reinforces their criminal identity. It also cuts them off from their families, schools and wider communities when much needs to be done to re-establish those ties and to build mutual commitment—which is very important. The high rate at which we commit young people to custody demeans us all, and it must be addressed. The Government have done a lot for children—although they must do a heck of a lot more—and they should be making great strides to address the issue.

The best way for the Government to start to get to grips with the problems of the youth justice system is for them to take a good, hard and considered look at the age of criminal responsibility. At present, criminal responsibility starts at 10 years of age, when children are still in primary school. Children are not legally entitled to own a hamster until they are 12 years old, but at the age of 10 they are expected to take the responsibility for criminal behaviour that is applicable and relevant to an adult. The age of criminal responsibility is 18 in Belgium and Luxembourg, 16 in Portugal and Spain, 15 in Denmark, 14 in Germany, 13 in France and 12 in Greece.

Youth justice is a serious issue for young people and their families. It is also important to communities: lives can blighted, destroyed and disrupted by the serious criminal behaviour of young people. However, their problems must be addressed properly, and in the right context: it must be acknowledged that they are, in many ways, the victims of communities that need huge resources, investment and support to enable them to become fit places to live in. The serious underlying problems in such children's lives must be addressed. Many of them have problems with their families, schools or mental health. All of their various problems must be addressed firmly and comprehensively. We should not go down the custodial route, or resort to the soundbites that all politicians, including me, can be driven to utter when we feel under pressure.

The Government are moving along the right lines; good basic structures are being put in place, and I look forward to continuing this debate over the coming years. This is an opportune time, as has been said: we are at the beginning of a new Parliament, so we have several years to think the issues through. Some basic structures are beginning to be put right, and we should now begin to tackle some of the hard and difficult issues.

5.4 pm

Beverley Hughes

It is a long while since I heard such a constructive and informed debate in Parliament. It augurs well for cross-party support, although it has raised matters that not only Opposition Members but my hon. Friends will take issue with. However, I welcome the general support for the Government's approach, and the co-operation to engender the debate that, as it is acknowledged, must take place.

I have tried to pick out themes in hon. Members' speeches, rather than simply responding to individuals, and I shall try to address those themes as comprehensively as possible. A number of hon. Members mentioned the Government's pledge in 1997 to reduce the average time—at 142 days, a considerable period—taken for a persistent young offender to move through the criminal justice system from charge to sentence. I am glad that it has been recognised, notwithstanding questions about the impact on reducing the period, that the period between being apprehended and the matter being disposed of at sentence is too long to allow young people to make the necessary link.

I tell the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that the pledge was to reduce the average time taken by half by or before May 2002—that holds. By the first quarter of this year, 18 of the 42 areas were already at or below 71 days. We cannot claim that we have met the pledge overall because it was about the average time. However, we are working hard so that by—or possibly before—May 2002 we will be able to say that the average has been reduced to that level.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) queried whether that might conflict with the goal of reparation. I remind him that the pledge is about persistent young offenders because that is where the strong link must be made most forcibly. When the pledge is met, we will examine how we continue to ensure the continuation of the principle of keeping the time gap as reasonable as possible. It may be that another pledge is not the correct approach. We will have made a big inroad when the pledge is met and may then have to think of other ways to ensure that the time does not drift back. Reparation largely comes beyond sentence—certainly in terms of many orders that we have heard about today—when discussions following sentence take place about how a young offender can best make reparation to an individual consenting victim or the wider community. I am not concerned that we prevent reparation by trying to keep a reasonable period of time to enforce the necessary link.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the matter of suicides and self-harm, as did the hon. Member for Aylesbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). In February, the Home Secretary announced a new three-year strategy to reduce suicides and self-harm across the custodial estate. That was a response to the rising trend of incidents resulting in suicide or serious self-harm. The Director General of the Prison Service has made the matter a personal priority since his appointment in 1999. I do not want to be premature, but we are beginning to see the results of that focus and the action that resulted from having that strategic approach. There was a 16 per cent. reduction in suicides in the financial year 2000–01 compared to the previous year. So far this year, that trend has continued. Of course, even the present figure represents a tragedy, but there has been a reduction. There were 30 self-inflicted deaths across the prison estate by 3 July this year, compared with 42 in a similar period last year.

I cannot give the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey the differentiated figures for young offenders in institutions, but I am confident that they are part of that trend which, after a long upward tendency, is heading downwards. As hon. Members intimated, it is a tragedy for people to lose their lives in custody in such a way. The incidence of suicide and self-harm is also, for many people, a barometer of the general health, or the ill health, of the custodial system.

Simon Hughes

The Minister might not be able to give the answer now, but will she at some stage tell us whether the following two things are in place? First, do all prisoners—especially juveniles and young adults—whether they enter custody on remand or on conviction, have access to a "buddy" system with someone already in custody? That is good practice.

Secondly, do all prisoners go into cells for more than one person at the beginning, so that for the initial few days, which are always the critical period, someone appropriate can monitor them effectively and be on hand? That appears to be one of the best ways of managing prisoners through that time of crisis.

Beverley Hughes

The "buddy" or mentoring system is developing strongly, especially in the youth offender institutions. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman whether every single person can have that facility on entry, but I will write to him on those matters after the debate.

The hon. Gentleman also raised some specific questions to which other Members did not refer, which I will deal with now. ISSPs are indeed specifically framed as an alternative to custody. He mentioned courts, and asked whether there was consistency. I think that we all recognise that variance exists in the system, and it is difficult to know whether that variance is justified from the figures, because we do not hear all the detail of individual cases and circumstances that might be taken into account. However, the main objectives of the Halliday review, which has now reported, and the way in which the Government use those proposals and any others that come out of the consultation process, are designed to ensure that we achieve consistency across courts, within the limits of a system taking individual factors into account. People should be able to expect consistency in sentencing when they appear in different courts in different parts of the country.

Referral orders are coming on stream everywhere in April 2002; 11 pilots are running at present. I raised the issue of volunteers with my officials, because we have recently cleared the guidance on referral orders. At a conference held on Tuesday, that guidance was made available to youth offending team managers and others. It was asked whether there would be difficulty in getting volunteers to serve or community panels. The experience from the pilots suggests that a diverse range of people is willing to undertake that public duty. It is important that those panels represent the diversity within their local communities. So far, the pilots have succeeded. We may face challenges in some areas, but the evidence suggests that with the right strategy they can be overcome.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about youth offender team training and resources, to which I shall refer later. They are important, because much of our aspiration for the effectiveness of the new system and its facilities depends on the quality of the work of individual professionals on the ground with individual young offenders. We recognise the importance of resourcing and training, which the Youth Justice Board takes seriously.

I shall deal later with several points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). I listened carefully to his views on the use of custody and the age of criminal responsibility. He speaks, as always on the subject, from a considered and informed position. As he will know, the Government's view on the age of criminal responsibility is now settled, and differs from his. However, I hope that he will recognise that as a result of the Government's emphasis on prevention, including my comments today and observations about prevention, although we may make young people liable for their behaviour at an early age, we have put in great effort and resources and have provided several new opportunities for young people who enter the system at an early stage to be diverted from such behaviour as effectively as possible. Although I accept that there is no meeting of minds on the principle, I hope that there is a meeting of minds on what we each want to achieve in keeping very young people out of the criminal system and from consolidating a criminal career.

The hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Aylesbury mentioned 18 to 20-year-olds. We have rightly focused on juveniles, in the custodial estate in particular. The impact of the Youth Justice Board in improving conditions in the juvenile custodial estate has been significant. In recognition of that effectiveness, our manifesto for the last election included a commitment to use our experience of the Youth Justice Board in improving the circumstances of juveniles not only in custody but across the board, apply those lessons in considering the 18 to 20-year-old group and make that the next priority for improvement. Ministers in the Department have already commissioned work to develop that approach, and I shall ensure that that work progresses rapidly over the next few months. Hon. Members will be interested to know that I shall not have much of a recess, as that is one of the urgent pieces of work that needs to be done. Many Ministers are involved, but I am initiating it.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned one of the many issues that need to be considered—18 to 20 and the right, or most feasible, age group, about which views differ. The 18 to 20-year-old group has been identified because, as about half the 100,000 persistent offenders are in that age group, an impact on it could have a significant impact on crime overall.

Another issue is whether 21 to 24-year-olds would be more suitably linked with the way in which we treat adults in the criminal justice system, rather than the way in which we treat young people aged 16 and 17. There are a number of different professional views about that, which we want to take on board in developing our ideas about the 18 to 20-year-old group—or whatever age group it turns out to be. Custody will not be the only focus, although I recognise some of the urgent questions in that regard. We will look across the board in the same way that we have for juveniles to consider how we can make the system more effective for them.

Broadly, two important issues were raised by Members of all parties in this debate. The first was concerned generally with questions of evaluation, effectiveness and performance. The hon. Member for Aylesbury said that he would be looking, from the Opposition's point of view, with a beady eye on performance. He will be behind me, because I will be looking with a beady eye as well. I, and all my colleagues, want these measures to work. I agree with him that, in terms of the measures by which we will be judged, the impact that we have on youth offending and re-offending will be one of the most important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling raised some important points about the need to make sure that the measures that we have already introduced are bedded down, and made as effective as possible before other measures are brought on stream. That is an important point. I listened carefully to what he said about ASBOs. Other hon. Members raised the issue of the child curfew. The age in relation to the child curfew has been raised because feedback from local areas showed that such a low age was not workable. Young children do not associate only with people of a certain age—groups are mixed. If the measure is to be effective, we have to have more flexibility. On ASBOs, I cannot give my hon. Friend any resolution to those problems, except to say that they have been recognised. A review of the ASBO scheme has been instigated, to consider how to make it even more effective. A total of 215 antisocial behaviour orders is a fairly good record. One of the questions that we want the review to address is why people in local areas have not used the provision more frequently.

Questions were also asked about breaches, and I would say to the hon. Member for Aylesbury—although he has left this Chamber—that we recognise that, in order for us to be able to evaluate what is happening in relation to some of the new measures, data collection needs to improve. Data on breaches will be collected and it will be possible to differentiate between the figures for breach and revocation of community orders. Everybody agrees that youth offending teams are a good thing, and I declared my interest at the start of this debate. However, we must evaluate their effectiveness. We must have a system in which we can say how well they are doing. We are discussing with the Youth Justice Board what that mechanism of inspection or evaluation should be. There will be an evaluation of the teams, and on-going evaluation of the specific programmes that they are using—the offending behaviour programmes, education programmes and so on. All those programmes are in the process of being evaluated and the results will appear shortly.

A central tenet of the way in which we have approached the matter—it is a term that has been used today—is that we have a system based on what works. That is not merely a slogan. It is a principle that we must have evidence that what we are resourcing and doing in terms of interventions in young people's lives and the lives of their families is having a positive impact. That is an important backstop position for us.

My hon. Friends the Members for Gedling and for Lancaster and Wyre and the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Aylesbury all raised important issues, which are part of a wider debate that we must try to engender about the future of youth justice. Hon. Members also pointed to this country's high custody rate for under-21s. It is difficult to provide demanding, constructive regimes within custody when we have to cater for large numbers of young people there. There is therefore a need to provide effective community-based alternatives. That is important, and it has not happened in the past.

I would like to recount a comment from my husband, who is the youth offending team manager of a team in an area that has a high incidence of youth custody, which I used at the meeting of the annual review of the Youth Justice Board this week. He asked me, "When we were setting up our team, do you know how many young people were transferred to us from the statutory agencies, as being on supervision in my area?" When I said "No," he said, "It was 12." That was how effective the system was at that time at identifying, bringing in and supervising young offenders.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling rightly said that the public does not yet have confidence that we are providing effective alternatives to custody. We need to do that urgently, and that is why evaluation is important, as part of the process of demonstration. We need effective disposals, and we need to engender public confidence in them. There are lessons from the past for all of us.

The youth offending teams, and the apparatus around them in the youth justice system, are changing the culture. We have touched on an important point by recognising that we can be both constructive and tough. We have to get that message across.

Mr. Dawson

Does the Minister accept that this Government inherited a system that was chaotic indeed? I am sure that there are many examples of extremely bad practice, but there are also examples of good practice. We do not have to hold up our hands in despair. There are things that we know how to do well. If we have a proper structure, such as we are now developing, we can make the system work.

Beverley Hughes

I agree with that, and it fits quite neatly with what I was going on to say.

The matter is partly about structure and resources, and the Government have a commitment to provide those, and the impetus and the political will for change. However, ultimately, the effectiveness of the new system also strongly depends on the quality of what happens every day in the interaction between young offenders and dedicated professionals, the quality of the decisions made by the courts, the rigour with which people pursue goals and the effectiveness of inter-agency co-operation. However strongly we all feel about the matter, the Government cannot do those things. We depend on people in local areas to deliver that rigour and quality. Otherwise, we will not be as effective as we could be.

Simon Hughes

I should like the Minister to respond to my point about inter-agency co-operation between the three Departments of Government—she mentioned four—on the issues of the youth service, mentoring, ways in which young people can be supported through the education service, a potential statutory youth service and sport and other activities outside the formal school environment. Will she take that up and examine the idea of working with the other two or three Departments to see whether we can get a more comprehensive system for providing support for young people in the primary and secondary school age ranges?

Beverley Hughes

At Government level, that cooperation is going on through various sub-committees. If the hon. Gentleman means will the Government establish one big Department to institute those arrangements, my reply is that I do not think that we will. We cannot avoid the need, whether it is at central Government or at local government level, for Departments and organisations to work together. We cannot fuse everybody into one big organisation, as that would not work. We must continue to work at people in different organisations, ensuring that they break down barriers and pool their resources and expertise effectively where that is required. It is equally important—this is a bit jargony, but hon. Members will know what I mean—to bend the core activities and resources of mainstream organisations so that those organisations take on board the work that is going on.

In terms of YOTs, we need education, health, police and probation not only to send somebody along to a team or meeting but to take on board and incorporate into their priorities the work of YOTs. I accept that the same thing needs to happen at Government level. We are working hard to make that happen and in some ways that is how we reached the youth justice proposals. YOTs have had contributions from the Departments and we must continue to ensure that those partnerships work. Nevertheless, the principle that there needs to be that partnership remains.

Simon Hughes

I agree with every word that the Minister said. However, I am still pushing her to say that she will consider whether we can offer through the school system a better scheme for comprehensively linking mentors with young people. We should seek to build up the youth service and look at whether it could be statutory and filled with people who can do both professional youth work and professional counselling because we are desperately short of that. Such role models outside home and school are, in my experience, hugely important in avoiding the development of criminality.

Beverley Hughes

I agree in principle that the role of mentors in the community is something that many YOTs are pioneering. As the hon. Gentleman said, they must mainstream that in terms of services outside the criminal justice service, which could be an important part of prevention.

We must keep focused on the impact of crime. We must remember that families and communities are threatened and have their lives made miserable by the activities of some young people. We must say that our shared position on tackling youth crime is not negotiable: we must tackle it and we recognise the reasons why. Having said that, we must go further and recognise that in order to tackle youth crime we must tackle the underlying causes as well as the offending behaviour. We have had an excellent debate and I thank hon. Members for their contributions. If we can continue to work together in that spirit, we shall ensure that these new measures and the developments arising from them can be as effective as possible, as that will help many young people and their communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Six o 'clock.

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