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Viscount Tenby: I rise to support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Masham. My noble friend has already done a great deal of valuable work in chairing the group which produced this extremely useful report at the end of last year on the use of prison custody for girls between 15 and 17 years of age, of whom there are probably no more than 60 at any one time within the system.

In a way, the amendment and others which follow all hinge on the undesirability in a civilised society of committing various groups of offenders to senior prison establishments. In this case it is girls who, bizarrely, are not given their own separate young offender establishment.

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I fully realise the administrative implications which will follow should the amendment be adopted. No doubt the Minister will enumerate those implications in his reply. Let me try to make an educated guess as to some of the reasons he may advance. The numbers are small: we know that already. To have a custom-built section in a designated prison will inevitably mean concentration of all such prisoners there, almost certainly far from family and support probation services. It will place too high a financial burden on the prison estate. That is a situation that over the years the Government have inherited from past administrations.

All these arguments have merit: it would be foolish and unfair to say otherwise. No-one is blaming the Government for this state of affairs. This thoroughly unsatisfactory situation stems from years of neglect and the absence of imagination on the part of previous administrations.

What we do have a right to say, surely, is this: let us do something about it now. A complete reorganisation and refunding of the programme for local secure accommodation could remove these girls from the prison system now and for ever, especially if we take the bold step of parting local secure accommodation, at least for the purposes of funding, from the Health and Social Security Department, and passing it to where it belongs, the Home Office and Prison Service. If that revolutionary suggestion does not take the smile off the noble Lord the Minister, I do not know what will.

Lord Hurd of Westwell: I support the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. I do not believe that she needs a great deal of support because the work she has done in this field gives her a unique authority to speak. She has mobilised the argument very well.

I pray in aid Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, who, in his thematic review of women offenders published last year, stated:

    "There are serious child protection issues in mixing young prisoners with others... We noted, for example, women convicted of procuring being held alongside 15 and 16 year olds".

That deals with the mothering argument which the noble Baroness expected to meet from the Minister.

The Minister may argue--and we can understand why he should do so--that the Prison Service is now committed to providing wholly separate units designated to the needs of teenagers. But, as has been pointed out, the numbers are small; we are talking about 80 15 to 17 year-old girls in the system at any one time. Separate prison units for that purpose would be expensive and, as the noble Baroness pointed out, they would inevitably mean that such girls would be held hundreds of miles away from their own homes.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons went further. In the same review he stated:

    "I am convinced that the Prison Service is better suited to, and more appropriate for, dealing with adults and that children",

that is, children of both sexes,

    "should no longer be its responsibility. I am also convinced that, whilst some of the particular needs of children in custody are shared with young adults, they have other distinct needs in the areas of

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    protection, maturation and education. I therefore conclude that the Prison Service should relinquish responsibility for all children under the age of 18".

As has been pointed out, the number of girls sent to Prison Service custody trebled between 1992 and 1996. Many of us would believe that most could and should be punished in the community. However, for those who genuinely deserve and require a secure environment, detention should be in local authority secure accommodation which, for all its faults--such accommodation can never be perfect--is likely to be closer to home and more responsive to the needs of children than a prison can ever be.

Lord Judd: I support the noble Baroness. In doing so, I join those who have paid tribute to her consistent commitment to this issue. If we take penal policy seriously, as regards serious offences, we can never underestimate the importance of punishment and the protection of society. However, in a civilised society, the greatest challenge of all in penal policy is the rehabilitation of the offender. In the treatment of young girls, I find it difficult to imagine anything which could engender a greater likelihood of delinquent behaviour in later life than the issue raised by this amendment.

There is plenty of evidence to indicate that even when dealing with the most serious offences, if the right kind of individual and personal attention can be provided for the young girl found guilty of the crime there is a real chance of building a better life for the future. It is easy in such debates to ignore or to make only a passing reference to the fact that in almost every case there are horrific stories of conditioning in younger life, in family circumstances and so forth which those of us who come from what can be described as more normal family circumstances find difficult to believe.

For all those reasons, I hope that my noble friend will take the amendment seriously and will accept it. I have heard him argue that we must be realistic, that not everything can be done at once and that only small numbers are involved. However, perhaps I may say without being accused of being over emotional, each individual case represents a 100 per cent. problem in terms of the individual. To say that only a small number of girls is involved and then to ignore the future cost to society in failing immediately to find appropriate treatment is extraordinary. Therefore, I cannot believe that it is possible to underestimate the need for urgency in action.

I know that the Minister is sympathetic. I hope that today he will say that his department is determined to move faster in this matter and that he will indicate that by accepting the amendment tabled by a noble Baroness who is second to none in her understanding of and commitment to the issue.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: I support the amendment for the cogent reasons given by all Members of the Committee who have spoken. It requires no elaboration, no further emphasis and, assuredly, no repetition.

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I am on my feet because I wish it to be on record that some of us on this side of the Committee, quite apart from the noble Lord who has just spoken with far greater experience than I, support the amendment. It is, so to speak, an all-party amendment. I wish to ask the Minister seriously to consider not only the relatively small number of people involved, 60 or 80--a handful compared with the mass of prisoners--but also the cost involved compared with the cost to society if action is not taken. A balance must be struck. I hope that the Minister will give us a firm assurance so that we do not have to divide on the issue. However, if there is a Division, I shall support the amendment.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: I assure the Minister that we, too, support this important amendment. Everything that could be said was said, first by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and then by other Members of the Committee. I believe that no rational distinction can be drawn between the position of adolescent boys, who are kept separately from adults, and adolescent girls. I believe that the case for adolescent girls is even stronger; they should not be contaminated by too intimate a contact with older women.

I hope that on this occasion the Minister, who has not been particularly giving in connection with the Bill, will assure the Committee that it is not a matter of cost and that he will accede to the requests which have been made.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: I am sorry to say that in my diocese there are more prisons than in any other diocese in the country. All the chaplains and voluntary workers in prisons would wish to support the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in pointing out that small numbers represent a great opportunity. Small numbers enable relationships to be struck which lead to the prime aim of rehabilitation sought by every Member of the Committee. The amendment represents the most effective way of achieving that result.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: I support the amendment. The penultimate line mentions the "best interests" of the young girl. The noble Baroness gave as an example the possibility of a girl staying with her young baby, but I have two further ideas of what it might be. The first would be the application of crisis theory; the idea that one might promote change by shocking the individual with the reality of imprisonment. The second one is the rather mistaken view that the young woman might learn a coping strategy for imprisonment just by being in prison. I should particularly like to reject that, because I believe that it is much more important that young offenders learn coping strategies for living in the community.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Members of the Committee will remember that the noble Baroness raised this matter by way of a tabled Question a short while ago. I do not believe that anyone who has heard what she said today, or read the reports to which she

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and the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, referred, could approach the topic other than with a sense of deep unease and unhappiness.

It seems to me that the amendment really deals, first, with the question of accommodation; and, secondly, with mixing during activities. The Flood judgment in 1997 required the Prison Service to put right what was wrong in the present arrangements. It means that all female offenders under the age of 21 years are now held in designated parts of female prisons. In some cases there are separate houses or separate wings. Whether it is a separate house or a separate wing, those designated areas operate under young offender institution rules.

It is possible that for specific reasons some young women should be in a prison rather than in a young offenders' institution. That is what is allowed under the Criminal Justice Act 1982, but it only applies on a case-by-case basis and not a category basis. Reference has already been made to some examples in that respect; for example, placement in a mother-and-baby unit or the need for specialist medical or psychiatric care, which will not always be available in the sort of local authority accommodation that has been suggested as the answer to these problems.

The noble Lord, Lord Acton, asked me a specific question, the answer to which is, no. There is no local authority home with a mother-and-baby unit. The Prison Service has four: one at Holloway, one at New Hall in Wakefield; one at Styal in Cheshire and one at Askham Grange, the open prison, in York. I readily accept that it is no answer to say that the number involved is fewer than 80, indeed, that is something that we must consider.

If we had the number of distinct local authority units which has been mentioned we might well end up with a number of local authority secure accommodation units containing as few as five persons. It is very difficult to get a decent, meaningful and constructive regime for education, training and appropriate programmes to help address problems so as to do away with the possibility of reoffending in units which are that small.

I know that this point has already been made, but we should not overlook the fact that the possibility of contact with family and with the home community can be maintained. This is no excuse; nor is it a reproach. We inherited a situation which is difficult. I do not pretend that we have even begun to achieve a perfect solution.

So, what have we done? We have reorganised the Prison Service so that there is now a framework for delivery of a regime specifically directed to women and female young offenders. A good deal of the impetus for that came from the report of the chief inspector and from the report to which the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, made such a notable contribution. Moreover, some of that impetus has come from within the service and a part of it is predicated on our belief that custodial sentences are not an end in themselves.

I mentioned earlier the review of the range of secure accommodation for holding young persons who are remanded in, or sentenced to, custody. I can assure the Committee that that review also includes now--in the sense that the review is still continuing--consideration of

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the most appropriate arrangements for the small number of girls held in custody. I agree with what my noble friend Lord Judd said; namely, that whether the number is 60 or 80 is not really material. Each one of those girls is an individual. I emphasise the sense of deep unease that one feels when one looks at what the chief inspector said in his report and, indeed, at the findings of the Howard League report.

All I can say to Members of the Committee is that, for my part, I take such concerns most seriously. I am not seeking to avoid Home Office responsibility for this problem which is both long-standing and serious. I cannot accept the amendment. However, I undertake to transmit what I take to be the unanimous, strongly expressed and held views of this Chamber to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

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