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There are serious and insuperable difficulties in the amendments-- difficulties of both practice and principle. For that reason, I urge the House to reject them.
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): The Home Secretary read his peroration, which was presumably prepared by Conservative central office, with style and drama. The trouble is that nobody believes him. Nobody believes him when he accuses the Opposition of not wishing to place powers in the hands of the courts.
Why is the Home Secretary opposing the Lords amendment? Clearly, he has no faith in the magistrates because it simply gives magistrates courts discretion to deal most effectively with the youngsters who come before them. The Home Secretary wants to take away discretion from the courts. The message of the speech that he has just made is that he does not trust the magistrates.
The Home Secretary should listen to the complaints from, and the concerns of, Conservative Back Benchers. Their complaints and attacks are not about the Lords amendments but about the Government's abject failure to tackle the problems of crime. Is the Home Secretary suggesting that we should leave discretion to him as the only residual way of dealing with inappropriate placements? He must be joking.
The Home Secretary has blamed others for the lack of local authority secure accommodation, but it is the Government, the Conservative party, who have ensured that such accommodation is not available. The delay in providing secure places has been due to the Government's unwillingness to suit their actions to their words. I can give a simple illustration. Long before I came to the House, I was one of many people who campaigned for the provision of secure places to end the scandal of young people aged 15 and 16 being held in adult prison accommodation. They are still being held in adult prison accommodation because, despite the then Home Secretary eventually promising in February 1991 to provide secure places, they have still not been provided. We now have the promise that some of them may just about be delivered this year, but, because of the confusion between the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Welsh Office, the money was not made available and the support was not provided. The Government are to blame.
Mr. Howard: How can the hon. Gentleman blame the Government for the delay in light of the example that I gave the House a few moments ago about the Labour-controlled authorities in the north-east, which gave a commitment in February 1993 to provide those secure accommodation places and had failed to make good that commitment in July 1994? They made that
Column 288commitment on the basis of what they knew about the arrangements under which the accommodation was to be provided.
Mr. Michael: I like the way in which the Home Secretary leads with his chin every time. He has just read again from the script that he gave us a few moments ago. I gave him an illustration that I have followed over the years and which I know about. There are still no secure places not only in Wales but in other parts of the country because the Government have failed to respond to requests from local authorities to make available the necessary resources and to support their applications. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) has knowledge of the position in the north.
Ms Armstrong: After hearing the Home Secretary, I am almost lost for words. Many local authorities have been seeking to extend and develop secure accommodation while the Government's record is lamentable. At Medomsley, a new kitchen was built on the existing prison in 1986. That cost £2.5 million and was never opened because the Government got into trouble with their prison policy and closed Medomsley. They now want to build one of these new secure training centres there. There is a planning application with the local council, but the Home Office has failed to pay the planning fee so the council cannot deal with the application.
Mr. Michael: My hon. Friend has illustrated once again the way in which this muddled and incompetent Government fail to deal with the problem even when they choose the method to do so. I am surprised that the Home Secretary does not want to apologise for the way in which he has failed to deal with the issues.
Mr. Howard: Will the hon. Gentleman now answer the specific example that I put to him and to the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) on the precise point of the provision of local authority accommodation? Labour-controlled local authorities in the north-east promised to provide that accommodation in February 1993 and had still not made good that commitment in 1994. What about an answer to that?
Mr. Michael: What about an answer from the Home Secretary about the fact that the local authority requested the Government to fulfil the promise made by the then Home Secretary in February 1991 and that this year the Government have still not delivered the goods? The Home Secretary is not credible. He comes back with the same form of words. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West has swept him from the board. The Government are responsible for the matter. They have failed to deliver.
We are dealing with another age group--11 to 15-year-olds--on which the Government are failing the country. That group is dealt with in the part of the Bill that the Lords amended. The Government's embarrassment is illustrated by the disgraceful way in which the Home Office Minister portrayed events on the "Today" programme this morning.
At every opportunity, Hansard records in the House and in Committee the way in which the parliamentary Labour party has tackled every important issue positively and constructively, including how we deal with young offenders. Those hon. Members who follow the record
Column 289will know that we set out an alternative agenda on Second Reading that would have tackled crime, nipped young offenders in the bud and dealt with the problems faced by our people. We have opposed the bad ideas, supported the good and proposed positive improvements and alternatives to some of the more muddled ideas proposed by the Government.
Mr. Bermingham: As my hon. Friend said, the Home Secretary has failed. I shall put to my hon. Friend the question that I sought to put to the Home Secretary. What is the position if, having had a child assessed by psychiatrists, educationists and everyone else, all the reports go to the court and the court decides, for example, that the child should go into secure training? What would the position be if it were found that two years were not long enough to secure the re-education and rehabilitation of the child, who still remained a danger to society and needed to be constrained? There is no provision for that.
Mr. Michael: My hon. Friend is right. If the amendment is rejected, varying the time limits would be in the hands only of the Home Secretary. A limited period is specified in the Bill. The Home Secretary would have sole discretion to vary in any direction.
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North): Will the hon. Gentleman deal with the point that has just been put to him? In Committee, his party suggested half the length of sentence and a minimum of only one month.
Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman would have heard my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) if he had not been so keen to intervene with his prescripted question, which is, of course, inaccurate. In one of the amendments to the Bill, we sought greater discretion over the time that youngsters would be sent to secure accommodation to save the Home Secretary from the mess that he is getting into with this legislation.
Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green): Does my hon. Friend agree that the answer to some of the questions that have arisen are in the section on juvenile offenders that is contained in the unanimous report of the Home Affairs Select Committee on juvenile crime? Many of its recommendations have been warmly endorsed by the Opposition Front Bench. The report considers a new national agency scheme that would take charge of the problem of persistent juvenile offenders. I regret to say that, despite all the warm words of the Home Secretary, the report has been ignored by the Home Office.
Mr. Michael: My hon. Friend is right. In the past 12 months, the Home Secretary has been concerned only to score one or two points by implementing some of the measures contained in his speech to the last Conservative party conference. He has been seriously unsuccessful in achieving that end. He would have been much better advised to spend time studying the excellent cross-party report produced by the Home Affairs Select Committee rather than trying to implement his own ideas.
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) is wrong to suggest that the Home Affairs Select Committee
Column 290concluded that an agency should replace secure training centres? The recommendation was that there should be an agency in addition to secure training centres.
Mr. Michael: The hon. and learned Gentleman's loyalty to his Home Secretary knows no bounds-- he should receive some reward. I should have thought, however, that he would be more loyal to the findings of his Committee, rather than leaping in to diminish their value and to defend the Home Secretary.
"We recommend the establishment of a new national agency to manage the custody and supervision of persistent juvenile offenders and others who receive custodial sentences."
It could not be clearer-- even to Conservative Members.
Mr. Michael: I wonder whether the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) wishes to intervene once more to withdraw his defence of the Home Secretary and to defend his own Committee, or does he wish to make no further contribution?
Sir Ivan Lawrence: The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green is muddled. The Select Committee decided to assume that secure training centres would be implemented by the Government. We went on to propose that, in addition, an agency should consider the running of all these matters at some stage in the future. To suggest that, in some way, the Select Committee was proposing that there should not be secure training centres along the lines that the Government recommend is complete nonsense. Anybody who asserts that clearly has not read the report.
Mr. Michael: I suppose that we should expect an expert advocate to be able to twist and turn in that way, but it says little for the hon. and learned Gentleman and I am sure that members of his Committee will be disappointed to find that he has not been more loyal to their findings.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): The Secretary of State mentioned secure accommodation in the north-east of England. I have just been on the phone to representatives of the social services in Northumberland, who tell me that they are having talks with the Department of Health with a view to trebling the amount of secure accommodation in Northumberland and with authorities in Sunderland and Newcastle on building secure accommodation somewhere in Northumberland. Rather than not doing anything, it looks like the north-east is well ahead of the Home Secretary.
Mr. Michael: I am afraid that the Government always seek to knock the easy target of local government-- usually inaccurately and when the error has been made by them rather than by local government. Labour Members are ready to criticise local government when it fails to do its job, but the Government are always ready to criticise local government, even when it is doing a decent job, despite their failure to support and assist its work.
The context of this amendment cannot be disguised by the irrelevancies of Conservative Members' interventions. This is an enormous rag-bag of a Bill, which implements a conference speech that itself was ill-considered. Much
Column 291of the Bill is ill-considered and badly targeted. The Government have failed to take part in sensible discussions and to accept common-sense improvements from the Labour party-- or even in this case from Conservative Members of the House of Lords.
The Bill will fail to tackle the real target of reducing crime, speeding up justice, cutting reoffending and making society safer. On a number of issues-- custody for young offenders, the protection of innocent people and, above all, criminal injury compensation, which we shall debate later-- the Government have handled the programme in a ham-fisted manner and have caused outrage in the House of Lords as well as elsewhere in the country.
In moving the amendment that the Home Secretary wishes to overturn, Lord Carr made it clear that he did not seek to alter or weaken the sentence of the court. That is an important point to remember. The amendment was passed because it is clear that the creation of colleges of crime for 12 to 15- year-olds will cause further problems and will not be an ideal way of meeting the need for secure places for persistent and particularly difficult young offenders. Their lordships sought to mitigate the dangers of the Government's proposition.
Even the Government do not pretend that youngsters will be sent away to a secure unit for ever. Those youngsters will return home at some point and it is crazy deliberately to create a regime that makes preparation for that return more difficult and makes it more likely that a returning youngster will reoffend, and in ways that are more serious and damaging to the community as a whole and to individual victims. That, however, is the truth about the system that the Home Secretary wishes to create. If he is determined to press ahead with his colleges of crime, it is only common sense to allow the courts the discretion to be flexible when deciding where a young person serves part of his sentence. That does not mean discretion to social workers, to the Home Secretary, to managers or to accountants but discretion to magistrates, whose responsibility it is to consider the safety of the public.
The first effect of the amendment would be to enable a court making a secure training order to specify that the period of secure detention is to be spent in local authority secure accommodation rather than a secure training centre. The court could specify that only after consultation with the local authority.
Dame Jill Knight rose --
Mr. Michael: I shall give way in a moment. Work by the Dartington social research unit into the benefits of different types of regimes-- [Interruption.] I understand from the comments of one or two Tory Members that they believe that taking note of research is odd. Like the Prime Minister, they want to understand a little less before taking decisions that will damage the public and the eventual victims.
The research to which I referred--
Dame Jill Knight rose --
Column 292young person is most likely to achieve success, especially as many young people leaving secure units return to their families. The Association of Chief Police Officers highlighted the problem with existing secure accommodation in its evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in February 1993. It stated:
"in areas of the country where secure places are not available, the young offenders are taken long distances, which often reduces the opportunity for family contacts to be maintained, thus actually increasing the difficulties of the offender and weakening family support when it should be encouraged."
The Government are intent on pressing ahead with that very type of regime in the centres that they propose. The amendment would not stop them doing so, but it would allow the court an element of discretion, and thereby avoid some of the worst effects of the Government's proposals.
Dame Jill Knight: The hon. Gentleman made great play of people using scripts, but I am not using one; nor was my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald). I note that the hon. Gentleman is careful not to leave his script; perhaps he is afraid that he will not be able find the exact spot when he returns to it. The flaw in his argument is that he seems to think that it is perfectly sensible and sound to send tearaway children into local authority care, but, as is the case in Birmingham, local authorities frequently admit that they cannot control those children.
Mr. Michael: It is sensible to proceed logically, which is why I did not want the hon. Lady to interrupt me in the middle of my logical speech. She has just woken up to the subject that we were debating a few minutes ago and from which we have moved on. Local authorities do sometimes find it difficult to deal with some very difficult young people, and that is why many are frustrated by the fact that the Government have not given them sufficient resources to provide adequate local authority secure places. That is the disgrace. If the hon. Lady does not know enough to appreciate that that is the problem, I suggest that she study the issue with some diligence. I now return to the matter of secure training orders, to which we had proceeded before the she intervened.
The Magistrates Association said:
"It is vital that links should be maintained with the child's family and community by a designated social worker so as to facilitate rehabilitation. In the Association's view, this can only be achieved in small, locally based units."
It is, therefore, sensible to accept the logic that magistrates should have the opportunity, where appropriate--where an application for an order is made and in the limited circumstances dealt with in the amendment--to consider whether it is appropriate to vary where a young person is placed.
Mr. Stephen: We all know that there are good parents and bad parents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that all too often the parents, because of their own criminal or other deviant behaviour, are part of the problem?
Mr. Michael: That is sometimes true, and that is the sort of factor that magistrates should take into account in exercising the discretion that the Lords amendments would give them. If the hon. Gentleman considers that
Column 293point, he may find himself in agreement with the sense of the Lords amendment, because it does not fly in the face of his argument. Secondly, the courts would be able to decide that the regime in a local authority secure unit, including education and training, would be more appropriate for the young offender than the regime in a secure training centre. There has been considerable discussion on the matter, and there is much evidence to support that case.
The Minister responding to the debate in the House of Lords suggested that secure training centres would deal specifically with persistent offenders and would therefore be better able to provide a regime to tackle offending behaviour. However--this answers the objections of a couple of hon. Members --the criterion in the Bill for the use of the order is that a young person should have been convicted of at least three imprisonable offences, not necessarily on different occasions. That would include many young offenders who are not very persistent.
The Minister in the House of Lords also said that the age group would be relatively small, but, as clause 5(2) makes clear, secure training centres will accommodate young people between 12 and nearly 17. The oldest will be those who were sentenced when nearly 15 to a two-year order, and who have been recalled from supervision to the institution after release. That wide age group, and the likely sophistication of some of the inhabitants of the homes, give us cause to worry that they will develop into colleges of crime, rather than places that will return young people to the community more likely to obey the law.
The Home Office's research has shown that local authority secure units provide a better quality of regime for young people than do larger institutions. A court may therefore prefer to commit the young offender to a small local authority secure unit that would provide more individual personal attention and therapy, and a less institutional atmosphere, than a larger secure training centre. Such a unit may also be able to prepare the way for continuity when the young person is released.
Where a court wished a young offender to be held in local authority secure accommodation rather than in a secure training centre, the Lords amendments would give it that choice. Obviously, such a choice would be based on the evidence and the facts, and would be made only in the narrow set of circumstances set out in the amendments. There are several circumstances in which the power to exercise flexibility over the period of detention might be used. First, a court may commit a juvenile to a secure training centre many miles from his or her home area, although it feels that detention in local authority secure accommodation would have been more appropriate, if no such place is available at the time of sentence. A local authority place may become available later, and it may be clear to the secure training centre staff that the child would be more appropriately held in such a place.
That is a simple example of a situation in which it would be common sense for such a variation to be made. It is not adequate to say that the Home Secretary could exercise the power in such circumstances. We all know about the bureaucracy that is involved in getting such a decision to the point of being reviewed by the Home Secretary. Some of the young people would probably be pensioners by the time that process was complete.
Column 294Secondly, a child in a secure training centre may be disturbed or suicidal, and the way in which training and treatment is provided may make a local placement more appropriate. Thirdly, a child in a secure training centre may make excellent progress and respond positively to the regime there.
Following assessment of a child committed either to a secure training centre or to a local authority secure unit, it may become clear that he or she would be more appropriately placed in an open community home, with foster parents or in some other manner that would be more effective in preventing future offending. Surely that should be our priority--to prevent future offending, to avoid future crime and to protect people who could become victims. Finally, there could be circumstances such as compassionate grounds--for example, the death or serious illness of a close relative-- which would make a transfer to accommodation nearer to the home area desirable. Those are just a small number of examples of when it would be appropriate to employ the flexibility provided by the Lords amendments. I do not envisage that the flexibility provided by the Lords amendments would be used on that many occasions. That is why I find it difficult to understand why the Home Secretary is so negative in refusing to accept them.
Dr. Godman: I intervened briefly on the Home Secretary to ask for confirmation that the measure or the related measures do not extend to Scotland. I should be grateful for the confirmation of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) on that point. We may well be facing something much more formidable in the proposed criminal justice Bill for Scotland, which, I think, will be announced in the forthcoming Queen's speech.
Mr. Michael: I am always prepared to sympathise with my hon. Friend about likely developments in Scotland, but it is very unwise for an English or a Welsh hon. Member to comment on them. My understanding is that we are talking about a matter that will affect England and Wales. It will be interesting to see what legislation there will be in the next Session and whether the Home Secretary will succeed in blocking the bringing forward of a Bill to provide a body to deal with miscarriages of justice or whether the Lord Chancellor will succeed in pressing for that legislation, which was one of the 27 points which, still, have not been delivered. With my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), I shall look with interest to see what is set out in the Queen's speech. In practice, it seems that the directors of secure training centres, which, of course, will be run by private commercial organisations that have a direct financial interest in maintaining high occupancy, may not often apply to a court to move a child elsewhere. Nevertheless, the amendments, if accepted, would introduce a desirable element of flexibility, subject at all stages to court decisions, into the operation of the secure training order. Our objective should be to ensure that the secure training order, in view of the Minister's insistence in proceeding with it, is as workable as possible.
Column 295were a poor attempt to bring real care and training to the young who offend and re-offend? It was once again a hurried measure, by a hurried Home Secretary, who has hurried ideas and who hurriedly fails every time.
Mr. Michael: My hon. Friend is quite right. The measures were put into a statement in the House without thought, and even without consultation with the Department of the Home Secretary's predecessor, who, unfortunately, did not have the sense or gumption to think things through, to listen to the Select Committee on Home Affairs and to come up with something a good deal more sensible. The problem today is that we are able only to consider the Lords amendments, which provide a limited opportunity to introduce a little flexibility and common sense into the measures that have already passed through the House. For the acceptance of that little bit of common sense, rather than simply to look for a quick fix or a quick headline, I appeal to the House. That little element of flexibility would not undermine or damage what the Home Secretary seeks to do. It would simply provide a little common sense--
Mr. Michael: --which would allow the system to be slightly better targeted and less damaging than it could otherwise become. I shall give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman if he can hold his breath until I get to the end of a sentence.
Sir Ivan Lawrence: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I wish that he had held his breath a little longer. Will the Labour party give a commitment to implement the agency that was recommended by the Select Committee on Home Affairs and about which the hon. Gentleman has said much this afternoon?
Mr. Michael: It took a long time for the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee to think up that question and to return to his feet. We would be far more interested if he would tell us whether he would press his Home Secretary to implement that recommendation--or, has he so little confidence in the recommendations of his own Committee that he is not bothering to do so, and so little interest in the recommendations of his own Committee that he did do not even know that that recommendation was there until my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green produced the evidence? During the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, we made clear the constructive alternative strategy that we would adopt. That strategy would succeed in dealing with problems of crime, which are not even addressed by the Home Secretary or the Government. I understand why the Government and their tame Back Benchers wish to distract attention from the wording of the Lords amendment. They want to do that because the amendment is modest. Indeed, it was tabled by a Conservative peer in an attempt to prevent the Government from digging themselves even deeper into difficulties in future. That is why the House should accept these modest amendments which were passed in another place.
Mr. John Greenway: The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), tried very hard to disguise the fact that the Labour party is opposed to secure training units and to the provision in the Bill, but he failed. The public, who are crying out for something to be done about persistent juvenile offenders--
The public, who are crying out for something to be done about persistent juvenile offenders, will note the Labour party's attitude. I want to bring a more dispassionate approach to the issue because, although we can have party political arguments in this place, people of all parties want something to be done about persistent juvenile offenders. That is what the Bill attempts to achieve.
Ms Armstrong: Is it not true that none of the centres will be built or in operation before the next election? Is not the real reason why the Home Secretary refused to answer my earlier intervention that nothing in relation to the secure training orders will be up and running before then? The Government cannot even get round to paying the planning fee to make progress with the planning application.
Mr. Greenway: I have some sympathy with the idea that it is taking too long to get the secure training units up and running. However, I can tell the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) and the Labour party that it might have been helpful if, when the legislation was passed a year ago, the House had accepted it with enthusiasm. Instead of its taking a year to get the measures through Parliament, we could then have had the legislation on the statute book six months ago and--for reasons which will become obvious--that would have been very helpful in a particular case.
I said that I wanted to try to take a dispassionate view of the matter. In supporting what my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary wants to do, I want to refer to the case of a 14-year-old boy who appeared at York youth court on Monday. That 14-year-old has acquired the nickname "Blip Boy" because of his effect on police crime statistics in the York area. He has already been convicted of 38 burglaries and thefts. At York youth court on Monday he admitted a string of further offences which included five burglaries and attempted burglaries, theft and handling, aggravated vehicle taking, assaults, possessing controlled drugs and possessing an offensive weapon, all--and this is the point--while he was living in social services accommodation in North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Lady Barron, wife of Sir Donald Barron who is much respected and a very senior public figure in the York area--as is Lady Barron--and apolitical in the extreme, said that she would have liked to have given that 14-year-old boy a custodial sentence, but she could not do so. All she was able to do was to give him a two-year supervision order--but had it been within her power to give a form of custodial sentence, that would have been the court's preference.
I want to refer to some of the things that that young man has done. A 65- year-old woman required hospital treatment after she was assaulted by the boy when she
Column 297spotted him burgling a neighbour's house. The youngster has also assaulted social workers who tried to restrain him in social services accommodation.
I am told by York magistrates court that the young man in question fulfils all the conditions set out in the Bill for a secure training order. He has already been the subject of several section 25 orders and has a long record of absconding from local authority secure accommodation. A senior figure at the court told me this morning that it is highly probable that, as long ago as six months, the court would have preferred to give the youth a custodial sentence, because it was perfectly obvious that every other measure had failed--and not for want of trying. The social services had tried everything without success. I do not criticise them for that; indeed, the House should commend the work of social services departments that are trying to deal with these juvenile offenders. The fact is that they cannot always succeed, however. The task is beyond them. We need something else, and that is why the secure training orders are so important.
Mr. Beith: Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that, with the Lords amendment, such a person could be made the subject of a secure training order as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent, when an obligation would be placed on a local authority to keep the person in secure accommodation? If the amendment is not agreed to, we shall have to wait until one of these centres has been built before anyone can be given a secure training order.
Mr. Greenway: I understand that, but we are dealing with legislation that will have to apply for a long time to come, not just the next six months or so. I do not therefore believe that we should take the route proposed in the Lords amendment. Magistrates, after all, will not be compelled to sentence a juvenile offender to a secure training order. They will still have at their disposal the whole current range of sentences, including a supervision order, or a requirement to be in local authority social services accommodation, or a section 25 order: none of that will change.
We need a clear-cut alternative that goes beyond what is currently available. The Select Committee report mentioned 200 or 300 youngsters in this context, although that report was referred to today with considerable inaccuracy by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. When we scrutinised this matter early last year, we were told that 200 or 300 places would probably be required, and there will have to be specialist care, education and training in them. I do not see such care being provided in local authority accommodation. It will require a special kind of unit, and that is what the Government want to provide.
The hon. Member for Durham, North-West talked about the speed with which the system could be put in place. It is clear to me that the secure training units need to be built as quickly as possible. If my right hon. and learned Friend catches your eye later in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that he will tell us how quickly he believes the units can be established. This matter has nothing to do with whether magistrates or police officers support the Conservative party, another party or no party. They all genuinely believe, with the public, that magistrates do not now have at their disposal what they need to deal with these youngsters. So we should give secure training units a try. If people are watching our debate this afternoon, they will see that, once again, the
Column 298Government have come up with an imaginative idea to respond to public concerns, but that the Labour party has confirmed yet again that it does not have a single policy on how to deal with these youngsters.
Mr. Beith: I do not think that the conclusion of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) followed from his argument. His argument was that there is an urgent problem, which he instanced by a case from his area. He then failed to recognise that a more immediate way of dealing with that problem is to allow secure training orders to go ahead under the terms of the Lords amendment, which would allow them to be brought into effect straight away using existing local authority secure accommodation. The Government have belatedly provided for more such accommodation and for an increase in the number of places available in it.
It ought to be common ground that such measures arise because of genuine public concern about the fact that there are at least some young offenders who have frequently absconded from the accommodation in which they were placed and who have persistently reoffended. There is certainly a small number of very persistent young offenders who have received a great deal of press attention and who present the public with serious problems. There is therefore genuine anxiety on the part of the public, who want reassurance that the courts, empowered by this House, can put such people in places from which they cannot abscond and then reoffend. They should also be given the right training and education while they are locked away in the right sort of accommodation.
How one sets about that is the subject of some public argument at the moment--what should the legal framework be? The Lords have genuinely considered the Government's approach; they have not thrown it out of the window, but have sought to modify it and to give the courts a choice. A reason offered for legislative action in this area has been the belief that the courts did not have enough options open to them. One hears magistrates say in private that they feel that their hands are tied. One effect of the Lords amendment is to untie their hands and to give them more than one way of applying a secure training order.
Listening to the Home Secretary, one might imagine that the amendment was the product of rabid anarchists. In fact, it was moved by, and carried with the support of, members of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's own party --indeed, the amendments were moved by one of his distinguished predecessors in the course of a responsible discussion of a difficult problem. The amendments came about because of the considerable experience of some Members of another place, several of whom served in Conservative Governments.
Listening to the Home Secretary, one might also imagine that the amendments will affect a large number of young offenders and will, if left in the Bill, undermine work with a large number of them and delay its effectiveness. None of those suggestions is true. We are talking about only 200 young offenders who could be the subject of such orders--that at least is the maximum number of places that will be initially provided.
If the Lords amendments are not agreed to, there will be delay and no chance of bringing in secure training orders until the places in the private sector institutions are provided. With the amendments, the Bill could be
Column 299effective from the moment of Royal Assent, and the orders could be used as a means of dealing with young offenders.
One could also be forgiven for imagining, from what the Home Secretary said, that the Government have a clear picture of the kind of regime of supervision and training that will do the trick in the institutions. Several times the Home Secretary said that, with their 40 young people each, the institutions will enjoy the right supervision, training and education regimes. That betrays a degree of knowledge about what we are going to do with these people which neither I nor many professionals in the field claim to share. There is no such certainty about what measures will effectively help some young offenders to lead useful lives and to abandon the ways of crime into which they have entered at such an extraordinarily early age. There is a great deal of professional discussion of such issues. All the experience of recent years suggests that Home Secretaries who come along with solutions turn out not to have them at all. What happened to the short sharp shock that was supposed to be a proven method of dealing with young offenders? We have it no more because it did not work. The borstals and approved schools went because gathering together large numbers of persistent young offenders in such regimes did not appear to work. It was not that Ministers thought they were unpleasant or undesirable institutions; they simply had a high reoffending rate and other means had to be sought to deal with the problem. The Home Secretary should not glibly use phrases such as "an appropriate regime of education and training" as though there were a known and recognised answer to the problem.
Clearly, improving youngsters' education so that they have the opportunity to make a useful life must be part of the exercise. Some young people who become involved in that level of crime appear to be pretty intelligent and shrewd about how to carry out crimes and how to evade them. They have energies which need to be channelled effectively. A number of them are clearly in need of discipline and a framework in which they can begin to understand that they have obligations to others.
One can see some of the elements, but pretending that one has the right answer has been the mistake of successive Home Secretaries. The present Home Secretary would be wise not to make that mistake, particularly given that his own Department's research casts such doubt on the matter. The Home Office research and planning unit paper No.66, entitled "Juveniles Sentenced for Serious Offences", published in 1992, states:
"The study also found that offenders who had been in secure units in the local authority community home system were significantly less likely to have been reconvicted two years after release than those released from young offender institutions."
The research evidence does not suggest that there is an alternative regime in a different institution which we know will work. We are arguing only about how we can guarantee the security that the public require; there is no menu of better methods of providing training for young people readily available.
The professionals working with this age group in local authority homes and social service departments or with the next age group in young offender institutions are