Draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Repeal of Age Restriction) Order 2003

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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Can the hon. Lady tell the Committee when she visited the young offenders institution at Bullwood Hall, which is in my constituency?

Mrs. Brooke: It was during the summer holiday and it was a private, unaccompanied fact-finding visit not connected with any public statement, so I doubt that the hon. Gentleman needed to be told about it. Nevertheless, I apologise that I did not give him notice.

I should like to recount the conversation that I had. The young woman was serving a long sentence for offences related to drugs and had undertaken a fashion design course and was producing some very exciting work. She had a college place fixed up for when she was released, and was going home for occasional weekends, all as part of the rehabilitation process. Even so, she expressed fears about how she would cope and how she would stay clear of her former associates—it was mature of her to think like that. She was very frightened about getting caught up again in the drugs scene and everything associated with it. We have to give such young people a really good package on their release so that they have confidence and receive support.

Finally, will the Minister reassure us about support in the community, which is important if we are to have rehabilitation? To start to reduce the number of children in prison would be a positive move.

4.48 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): I must be unusual in this House in not having a prison or young offenders institution in my constituency and therefore will not be sprung a visit by a Liberal Democrat even without an accompanying press release. However, Erlestoke prison is just outside my patch.

I, too, welcome the order, but I should like to know how much it is driven by expediency and how much by a desire to help in rehabilitation. Children are more able than any other category of prisoner to benefit from a rehabilitation programme, so it is important to know whether rehabilitation or expediency is on the Minister's mind. If it is expediency, how much, if anything will be saved by the measure? If it is cost neutral and will not make a big impact, we have stronger grounds to believe that it is led by consideration for rehabilitation rather than by expediency. If he is able to comment on that, it would be useful.

It would also, in passing, be interesting to know to what extent the Minister has considered how the measure will affect the perception of justice. The first priority must be to rehabilitate young offenders. However, it is also important in many of our

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communities that are blighted by the crimes committed by juveniles for justice to be seen to be done. I am slightly cautious in thinking that the order may not help in that process.

4.49 pm

Paul Goggins: I hope that I will be able to reassure Committee members on the points that they have raised.

Each of the three hon. Members who spoke asked whether the order was an expedient response to current population pressures in the Prison Service. It may reassure hon. Members to know that, although there is undeniable pressure on the prison population generally, the number of juveniles in custody has fallen slightly in recent months. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked a question on the matter, so he might like to know that the number of juveniles currently in custody at the end of April was 2,837. In August last year, the total was 3,175. The vast majority are in Prison Service custody, and about 500 are in custody or in close supervision outside the Prison Service.

I hope that that helps to explain that the order is not being introduced to relieve pressure as a knee-jerk reaction. It deals with an anomaly that we would be seeking to deal with even if the pressures on the prison estate generally were less severe, and, as I have explained, the juvenile population pressures have reduced ever so slightly recently.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Would the Minister reassure the Committee that the measure is not intended to relieve the pressure on the judicial review?

Paul Goggins: I referred in my opening remarks to current ongoing litigation. I am not able to comment on that case, but it is true that it has demonstrated an anomaly. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, the Government are introducing a proposal today to deal with it.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked roughly how many young people the measure might affect in a typical year. I am advised that about 150 juveniles detained under section 91 are released into the community each year. We believe that about 140 of those would be eligible for consideration for HDC. Although it is difficult to second-guess risk assessments, it is thought that about half of those would be able to benefit directly from HDC.

I agree strongly with the hon. Gentleman, as I did in earlier exchanges on a different order relating to HDC, that just tagging people is not enough. We have to use time as constructively as possible. I repeat what I said then: if we consider HDC as a whole, about two thirds of those on HDC are engaged actively in some form of education, training or work. About 30 per cent. are in full-time work. That has to be a very constructive alternative to being in custody, which would otherwise be the case. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) asked whether I could spell out whether the order was part of our overall policy and the

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strategic framework rather than an expedient measure carried out in disjointed way. I simply say to her that HDC is proving to be a very effective regime and extending it to the under-18s subject to section 91 is a step forward in the development of that strategic approach. There is nothing different about the measure; it is extending what is proving to be a worthwhile approach for over-18s.

I heard what the hon. Lady said about sentencing, on which there is an ongoing debate. In relation to juveniles who have often committed serious offences when they were very young, my experience is that the judicial process and all the custodial and community agencies involved take each of those young people very seriously and try to strike a balance between punishment for the wrong that they have done and the need to rehabilitate them and resettle them in the community. I would expect that approach to continue in the future as HDC is extended to under-18s.

The hon. Lady asked about the planning and execution of training and support for young people when they leave custody. I reassure her that training planning does take place. There is close liaison between the supervising agencies and the custodial establishment, which enables plans to be made for a young person to move out into the community with the appropriate support.

I strongly support the hon. Lady's comments about the possible role of mentors, and I will certainly look

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into the matter. If volunteers and members of the community can become actively engaged in supporting these young people in education and in finding work, that would be a good thing. We should consider extending it. [Interruption.]

I hope that the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) was reassured by my earlier comments. I assure him, too, that the proposal is not merely expediency, as it corrects an existing anomaly. It is not a response to population pressures, but the sensible and right thing to do.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) will agree with me that, whether or not we observe the courtesies of writing to hon. Members, every Member should be encouraged to visit prisons to find out what happens there.

The Chairman: As long as there are no more interruptions, such as a Member on a run—rather than on the run and not tagged—or the sound of a mobile phone, I shall put the question.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Repeal of Age Restriction) Order 2003.

Committee rose at four minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Brooke, Mrs.
Campbell, Mrs. Anne
Colman, Mr.
Cruddas, Jon
Francois, Mr.
Gardiner, Mr.
Goggins, Paul
Grieve, Mr.
Heath, Mr.
Heppell, Mr.
Keen, Alan
Murrison, Dr.
Ruddock, Joan
Tynan, Mr.
Tyrie, Mr.

 
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Prepared 23 June 2003