HC Deb 23 January 2003 vol 398 cc155-8WH
7. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

What the Government's policy is on children in prisons. [91811]

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham)

With the support of the Youth Justice Board, the Government have provided a wide range of alternative sentences for juveniles and young offenders, including community sentences. However, the most serious or persistent young offenders should receive a custodial sentence.

The Prison Service has created discrete juvenile institutions, which are for juveniles only. There are also juvenile units in young offenders institutions. As a matter of policy, juveniles and adults are separated in Prison Service establishments. A small number of juveniles may, on occasion, be held outside juvenile institutions for security or medical reasons, or to be close to court. Where possible, they will be held separately from adults.

Mr. Burstow

I am grateful to the Minister. He will know that over the past 10 years the number of children in custody in adult prisons has doubled. The figure today stands at 2,609. He will also be aware of the report "Safeguarding Children" by the joint inspectors, which expressed many concerns about young offenders institutions. Can he and his colleague from the Department of Health comment on the situation since the judgment by the court in respect of the judicial review called by the Howard League? What extra steps are the Government taking to tackle what Mr. Justice Mumby described as degrading, offensive and totally unacceptable treatment of children, to ensure that all children enjoy their United Nations convention rights? The judge in that case predicted that it was only a matter of time before there was a successful challenge under the human rights legislation. Can he comment on those matters, particularly in the light of the fact that it appears that the Home Office and the Department of Health do not have the same view about whether the Children Act 1989 applies within prisons?

Mr. Denham

There are two points there. It is misleading to talk about the number of young people in adult prisons without allowing for the segregation of those young people from adults. The number of young people who may mix with adults—meaning 18-year#olds and 19-year-olds—is much smaller than the figure that he gave. There is a small number of cases, for example, in the mother and baby unit at Holloway, in which young women may mix with older women. It is wrong to give the impression that there is a routine mixing of juveniles with ordinary adult offenders in our prisons. That is not the case.

Mr. Justice Mumby made it clear that one phrase in the guidance said that the Children Act did not apply. He was right to say that that was wrong in law. He also recognised that the philosophy of the guidance concerning young people in the prison system was in line with the aims of the Children Act. Child protection committees are in place, and we are training our staff. We are linking into social services work with young offenders. Some practical issues have to be tackled. If somebody is, say, 200 miles away from his home area—he might be there particularly to ensure that he is in a juvenile institution and not in an adult prison—it is difficult for there to be the necessary practical working links with the social services. We know that improvements are needed, but a substantial commitment has already been made and we shall build on that, following the judgment.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

As co-Chair of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, some of the members of which are here, I welcome this session and the Minister's comment about funding—it is very good news. Can I ask the Minister about young people and children in prison? We are locking more and more young people up, for longer and from an earlier age. While that makes us appear tough, the re-offending rate is something that we are all concerned about. Can the Minister describe further what happens in prison to encourage those young people to turn away from crime and to reduce their re-offending? What structures are in place to support those young people and their families when they leave prison after three or four months and to stop them from going straight back into a life of crime?

Mr. Denham

We are aiming to improve the quality of the education and training that is provided in young offenders institutions. There is a new senior post of head of learning and skills in each establishment, and special educational needs co-ordinators and learning support assistants have been appointed on a ratio of one assistant for every ten prisoners. Each young person has an entitlement of 30 hours' education, training and personal development activity per week, as recommended by the social exclusion unit in its report "Bridging the Gap".

We have concentrated on basic skills. Many of those in young offenders institutions lack the most basic literacy and numeracy skills, and people in those institutions should receive recognition for their achievements—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Could the Minister speak up? He is not being heard at the back.

Mr. Denham

Some 2,000 young offenders achieved successes in basic literacy and numeracy skills last year. Those improvements in education within the service are enormously important. Equally important is the target that we have set to ensure that 90 per cent, of all young people coming out of custody are engaged in education, training or employment by April 2004. We expect not just those in the young offenders institutions but the youth offending team and the Connexions service to work with those young offenders to ensure that we have a high rate of successful placements when people come out of institutions.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

We have heard that the number of children in prison has increased in 10 years from 1,328 to more than 2,600. Why does the Minister think that that has happened? Is it because we are better at apprehending young offenders? Is it because they are committing more serious offences—or is it because we are becoming worse at providing other and more appropriate forms of care and custody?

Mr. Denham

There are several reasons why the number of young people receiving custodial sentences is increasing. There has undoubtedly been an upward trend over a long period in the more serious forms of offending by young people. There are two ways in which to reduce the trend, the first of which is the development of successful alternatives to custodial sentences. We spoke earlier about intensive supervision and surveillance programmes targeted on those who would otherwise receive custodial sentences.

However, more preventive work must be done. In the majority of cases in which 15-year-olds were sent to young offender institutions there were signs much earlier in their lives—sometimes as early as five, six or seven years old—when they fell behind with literacy at school. No Government have succeeded in such early prevention, but I hope that the Green Paper on children at risk to be published in the spring will show the way forward.

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