Draft Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (Amendment) Order 2008

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Mr. Hanson: I shall try to answer the points that hon. Members have raised. The prime driver behind the order and amendments are the changes that we want to make to Ashfield young offender institution, which I have mentioned, near Bristol, in Avon. At the moment, the centre provides accommodation purely for under-18s, and it seems sensible to delegate management of the contract to the Youth Justice Board on the Secretary of State’s behalf, rather than his office having to deal with it, as it does now. This is an administrative matter, bringing Ashfield into line with other institutions that are operated by the Youth Justice Board, and giving commissioning powers accordingly.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate seems to think that the board does not perform a useful function. I remind him that before 1998, when there was no Youth Justice Board, the provision and commissioning of youth accommodation and the tackling of youth crime was chaotic, disorganised and had no central function. The board’s establishment by the Labour Government in 1998 has provided a focus for the management of young people, not only through accommodation but through support through the youth offending teams throughout the UK. I know, even from the nods that I have had from my hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham and for Dagenham, that youth offending teams provide a useful function and are a main part of the Youth Justice Board’s functions.
Mr. Burrowes: The Minister will note that throughout my comments on the order, I made no reference to the youth offending teams, which perform a useful role in many areas, and which have improved. The order is concerned with custody and the board’s role in that regard. Does the Minister agree with any of my criticisms about the custodial regime? Where have there been improvements through the Youth Justice Board?
Mr. Hanson: I was just about to come to those points. The hon. Gentleman will know that Government policy is to try to reduce the number of young people going into custody, and we have recommitted ourselves to that policy through the youth crime action plan. Sadly, however, there are many severe crimes, and there are individuals who persistently commit crimes, so young people will still find themselves in custody. Custody is provided for offenders who commit very serious crimes or who are persistent offenders. When the courts deem that a custodial sentence is necessary, as they sometimes do, it is our job to ensure that we invest resources in education, employment and skills to try to turn around the lives of those individuals. The Youth Justice Board is committed to that aim, and is having some success in that regard.
When we debated the youth provisions in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, at around this time last year, more than 3,000 young people were in custody. There are now about 2,800 young people in custody, so there has been a fall in the past 12 months, and I hope that that downward trend will continue. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have introduced several diversion measures for pre-custody activities, including the youth rehabilitation order that we passed last year, which will come into effect soon. The youth crime action plan, which he has partially welcomed, has looked at a range of issues such as early intervention, early identification, giving help and support with literacy and numeracy and giving parental support. We hope that those measures will reduce the demands on custody and the impact on the custodial estate, but there will, sadly, still be a custodial estate. Our work on that will give the Youth Justice Board some serious challenges in relation to the most serious, dangerous and persistent offenders.
The hon. Gentleman will also note that the vast majority of individuals in the young persons custodial estate are 16 or 17. At the last count we had 844 16-year-olds and 1,477 17-year-olds. Those individuals are at the very top end of the age range and have been through difficult times, and a range of interventions has failed to make a difference to their offending behaviour.
I hope that there is a shared agenda that we should use custody as a way of trying to prevent reoffending. We need to improve and increase educational opportunities, and in the youth crime action plan we are trying to secure greater support from local authorities for ownership of the individuals who go into the system. We need a holistic approach to those individuals, and we need to ensure that we try to improve reoffending rates. I accept that they are high—in the low 70s—for people who go through the custodial estate, but that is not because of a failure of the Youth Justice Board. It is because the people in custody are serious, dangerous, persistent offenders. I am not giving up on them because, as in the past, they will ultimately be customers of the adult estate at a later date. We need to focus on that matter.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that our focus today is on ensuring that the commissioning power is in place, particularly at Ashfield. I believe that the Youth Justice Board is doing a good and positive job, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I are meeting regularly to ensure that that job is improved still further.
Mr. Burrowes: The Minister puts the order in the context of Ashfield. As I understand it, however, it will allow powers for the Youth Justice Board to take the lead in commissioning for any new YOIs.
Mr. Hanson: The Youth Justice Board’s role is to do that for the under-18 estate on behalf of the Secretary of State. That is its commissioning role. It currently does that by providing direct services and by commissioning places in private sector establishments, as it will at Ashfield in future. It is important that it does so. Where there are mixed estates, as the hon. Gentleman will know in relation to Parc prison in Bridgend, where there are over-18s and young people, we have retained that role for the Secretary of State and his nominee accordingly. However, the board has the role of commissioning services for under-18s, and we seek to regularise that in the case of Ashfield.
I believe that my hon. Friends will support the role of the Youth Justice Board and recognise the difficult group of individuals with which we are dealing, and that they will continue to support not just myself and my right hon. Friend, as Ministers with joint responsibility for the matter, but the staff of the Youth Justice Board in dealing with education, literacy, numeracy and improved skills and trying to change offending behaviour, which I believe can be done.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green made a number of important points. On disclosure to the board, the order just gives the governor or director the power to disclose to the Youth Justice Board if appropriate. That relationship is the same as disclosure to the Secretary of State’s nominee, as is currently the case. No change has been made to the rules about to whom the information may be declared or disclosed otherwise, and there is no change in relationship. The change is simply from the Secretary of State to the board.
As I hope we have shown, the Youth Justice Board is a specialist body with expertise in dealing with young people, not just those in custody but the myriad young people who go through YOTs. Some go through YOTs into youth custody and back again. That expertise is growing, and Francis Done, the board’s chair, and the newly appointed chief executive are committed to achieving it.
I believe that we all have the same objective—to reduce the number of first-time entrants, to reduce the number of people who reoffend and to make a difference to people’s lives. Reoffending rates are falling, and I am pleased to tell the Committee that even this very week, new Government figures show that 10,000 fewer young people entered the criminal justice system for the first time in the past year than in previous years. The number of first-time entrants aged between 10 and 17 fell from 2,031 last year to 1,800 this year. There is continued progress on the reduction of crime, reoffending and first-time entrants. Sadly, however, while there are serious and persistent offenders we will need custody. It is a last resort and we are trying to reduce it. The order will give the YJB extra powers where appropriate, and I commend it to the Committee.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 6.
Division No. 1]
Byers, rh Mr. Stephen
Cruddas, Jon
Hain, rh Mr. Peter
Hanson, rh Mr. David
Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Lucas, Ian
McGuire, rh Mrs. Anne
Burrowes, Mr. David
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Featherstone, Lynne
Ottaway, Richard
Penrose, John
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (Amendment) Order 2008.
Committee rose at sixteen minutes past Three o’clock.
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Prepared 13 November 2008