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Vulnerable Youths (Criminal Activity)

12. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): What plans he has to expand provision for diverting vulnerable youths away from criminal activity; and if he will make a statement. [64356]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): We are pursuing a wide-ranging programme to reform and speed up the youth justice system and to divert vulnerable young people away from crime. We are currently piloting a range of new measures stemming from the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, including the final

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warning scheme, the child safety order and the parenting order, all of which are designed to help ensure early action when children and young people first offend or are at risk of offending.

Mr. Mullin: I am not talking of the measures under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998; I am talking about some of the very good schemes--such as one running in the Home Secretary's constituency--designed to provide young people who live in areas vulnerable to crime with constructive activities to prevent their involvement in crime in the first place. I want to be sure that that issue is now being taken seriously in the Home Office; that did not happen under the previous Government. Such an approach requires co-ordination with other Departments that have a part to play--such as the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Mr. Boateng: I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. The results of the scheme to which he refers, youth works, have been laudable, and that scheme is an example of the good practice that we want to be spread across the country. As my hon. Friend must be aware, we have established the Youth Justice Board, which has responsibility for developing similar initiatives. We have underpinned its work with more than £80 million so that progress may be made on that agenda. That is good news for young people and for society. We are determined to deliver on the agenda that includes effective diversion from crime.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), on his question.

What is happening about being tough on the causes of crime? What evidence is there that the Home Department is in discussion with other Departments to ensure that we have effective measures to prevent crime being committed in the first place?

Mr. Boateng: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes an interest in this matter and he knows that we are working on the issue not only with the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions--with which we are making progress on a range of projects as a result of research and funding--but, importantly, with the Department of Health. As a result of the partnerships that are being established pursuant to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the youth offender teams, for the first time the Department of Health has an input at local level, through local health authorities and trusts. Evidence has shown that early intervention works, and we believe that our new investment in such schemes will deliver rich dividends.

Police (Sickness)

13. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): Which police authority had (a) the highest and (b) the lowest level of absence through sickness in the last year for which figures are available. [64358]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kate Hoey): The latest figures available are for 1997-98. The highest level was in South Wales, where the average figure per officer was 17.39 days per annum, and the lowest was in Wiltshire, at 8.76 days.

Mr. McNulty: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Although I accept that the overwhelming number of sickness absences in our police forces are genuine, can she assure me that, where there is evidence of abuse, it will be dealt with firmly--not ignored or swept under the carpet--and that the perpetrators will not be retired without facing disciplinary action?

Kate Hoey: My hon. Friend is right. We are taking the matter seriously. He will be aware that Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary recently published its report, "Lost Time", which highlighted sickness levels in the police last year. We obviously cannot allow such levels to continue without tackling them effectively. Sickness absence costs between £210 million and £250 million a year; we must all work to reduce that.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): Obviously, greater efficiency is important, but will the Minister confirm that last year, there were more than 13,000 assaults against individual policemen and policewomen, and that Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary reported that the amount of time lost through sickness because of assault was "remarkably low"? Would it not be a grave mistake, therefore, if we failed to recognise the exceptional devotion to duty of the vast majority of members of the police service in this country?

Kate Hoey: The right hon. Gentleman's remarks show that there is no relationship between inputs and outputs. Clearly, some members of the police force will have to leave because of the assaults that they have suffered, or the stress of the job and all the difficulties that being a police officer entails, but there is no reason why sickness levels in certain parts of the country cannot be brought down. I hope that we would have support from across the Chamber for all the measures that can be taken to do that. It should not be seen as a party political issue.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that there are many stressful occupations? Teachers and many others have a stressful life. The police force is in a privileged position: its members have a shorter career term than most other professions--on average, 30 years. Although we have great respect for our police force, it is a matter of concern if there are high rates of sickness and of early retirement through sickness, especially if that retirement is used to evade scrutiny and the proper procedures of police security.

Kate Hoey: I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said, particularly about the levels of stress associated with other jobs. Answering questions in the House is sometimes rather stressful. My hon. Friend's comments underline the need for us all to work together to reduce sickness levels. Police officers should not be allowed to make sickness an excuse for avoiding disciplinary measures, and we will make sure that that does not happen.

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Young Offenders

14. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): When he expects to end the practice of holding 15 and 16-year-olds in adult prisons. [64359]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth): I hope that we can all agree that juveniles in custody on remand or under sentence should be held in facilities appropriate to their needs. The Government intend to start work during 1999 to establish a distinct estate within the Prison Service for 15-to-17-year-old boys remanded or sentenced to custody, and to improve the care and regimes delivered within it. An assessment is already under way of the needs of young women under the age of 18.

Dr. Lewis: Does the Minister recall that when his party was in opposition, its shadow Home Affairs team, led by our present Prime Minister, repeatedly castigated as inadequate the Conservative programme for providing no fewer than 170 secure local authority places, and that the present Prime Minister said that the problem could be solved "without delay"? Does the Minister realise that the admission from his Department, in response to repeated questioning from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), that the present Government have provided only six extra places since they came into office shows that the Labour party says one thing in opposition and produces a heck of a lot less in government?

Mr. Howarth: No. The hon. Gentleman should take a little more time to reflect on what the Government whom he supported achieved over 18 years. In just 20 short months we have started to deal with a problem that has

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been festering for many years. The hon. Gentleman should judge us on what we achieve over the term of this Government. At the end of that period, proper arrangements will be in place to deal with juvenile offenders in a way that would not have entered the imagination of our predecessors, the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. He should be ashamed of their record. We are putting right the wrongs that they perpetrated.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Is not the Minister overlooking the words of the Prime Minister when he was shadow Home Affairs spokesman, when he said that the places in local authority secure accommodation could be provided "without delay", and when he said that

The Labour Government have provided only six places. Are not the Government welshing on what they said in opposition, when they undertook to deal with the matter by providing more places in local authority secure accommodation? Now they say that the 15 and 16-year-olds should be held in part of the prison estate. Are they not reneging on commitments given by the Prime Minister in opposition?

Mr. Howarth: I find that outrageous. The hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the previous Government and they did nothing about the growing problem of how to deal with juveniles. Conservative Members criticise our spending plans, and when we decide to do something about problems by spending money on them they criticise us for doing so. They should hang their heads in shame for the mess that they made of dealing with juvenile crime and the juvenile criminal justice system. For the hon. Gentleman to lecture the Government from the Dispatch Box is laughable.

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