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Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, I have put my name to Amendment No. 125. I wish to support the noble Baroness. No one who read the powerful report from the Howard League inquiry, which the noble Baroness chaired, could be in any doubt that the very last thing that emotionally damaged adolescent girls need is to be locked up in a prison environment with older, more sophisticated, emotionally damaged women.

The Minister has, I think, the sympathies of us all because he has inherited a situation, and one which is worsening. The present numbers of 60 to 80 per year represent a three fold increase since 1992 as more girls are sent to prison. We all recognise his difficulties in making provision for small numbers of this kind which will involve a different regime and specially trained officers. But the present position surely cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

The Government have said on many occasions, both prior to the general election and subsequently, that all legislation would be scrutinised to ensure that it treated men and women fairly. This seems to me to be one area in which a real start could be made. These teenagers, few in number though they are, may not be the most deserving youngsters in our community but they are every bit as much--perhaps even more--in need of special help and guidance as their male counterparts; and our present penal system is currently treating them less well for the single reason that they are female.

I hope that the Minister will give us hope that something is to be done in the very near future.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, Amendment No. 128A refers to Scotland. I wish to speak about the special circumstances which pertain there.

Amendment No. 128A is aimed at separating off young women under the age of 18 from adults, or at least from those over 18 in Scotland. The aim is laudable. The intention that girls under 18 should not be in prison but maintained in secure accommodation is clearly central to the approach embodied in the children's hearing system.

Where this may not hold water is in the ability of the secure accommodation unit to contain the very unruly behaviour of a few of the girls. That may be a matter of staff training or of inadequate facilities. The Scottish women's prison at Cornton Vale typically houses about 180 prisoners of all ages. The current average population of young offenders aged between 16 and 21 is no more than 12 to 15. This small group can include those remanded on serious charges; those on unruly

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certificates; those "revolving door" clients who are chronically disturbed; and one or two young women serving very long sentences.

The policy over the past few years has been to run the YOI and the prison on a mixed basis for practical reasons. The advantage outweighs the acknowledged disadvantage. The mixing of this small group of young offenders with adults has a stabilising effect, reducing volatile behaviour among the younger women. Many of the young offenders are older than their years in terms of raw life experience, characterised by the expression, "Seventeen and 18, going on 40".

They are vulnerable young offenders, but they are most vulnerable to being bullied by their own age group. I can assure the House that there never has been any use of Cornton Vale prison for girls under 16. I realise that I am in a difficult position here as I believe that the amendments have merit, but the circumstances seem to make them unworkable.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, everyone has spoken with great feeling, and with great generosity in recognising the situation that we have inherited. I believe all noble Lords who have spoken feel strongly about the matter; and so do I. I say, without any equivocation, that I have great sympathy with the overall aim of these amendments.

We have specified in Clause 28 of the Bill that,

    "It shall be the principal aim of the youth justice system to prevent offending by children and young persons".

That was done as an aspect of deliberate policy. We want to make the system quicker, and fundamentally we must have earlier interventions where those can work.

The new detention and training order is focused on this group. Half the length of the order will be served in custody and half under community supervision. It will be possible for good or bad progress to be reflected in the release date from custody. It is vital that there should be consistent, continuous through-care from the point of sentence to the point of completion of the period of community supervision.

Under Clause 63(7) of the Bill, youngsters subject to the new detention and training order can be placed in: a secure training centre; a young offender institution; a youth treatment centre; local authority secure accommodation; or,

    "such other accommodation provided for the purpose of restricting liberty as the Secretary of State may direct".

Those are alternatives that we have chosen specifically to deal with the point that arose earlier; namely, although young people may be of the same age, their requirements are different, and those requirements are not always related simply to chronological age because their backgrounds are different and the remedies wanted may also differ.

These amendments would go wider than the proposed detention and training order. The proposal would encompass Section 53 children--those sentenced by virtue of the 1933 Act for very serious offences--and those sentenced to detention in a young offenders

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institution and under the secure training order, although that applies only to those aged 12 to 14. As the noble Earl pointed out, it would also apply to Scotland.

A good deal has been achieved by the Prison Service since the Howard League report. I was particularly grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, was able to join us in the Home Office yesterday. I think I can say as objectively as possible that the response of officials was universally open-minded. They acknowledged the difficulties and were eager to see what could be done within a realistic time-scale.

Since the Howard League report was published, all young offenders--that is, those under 21--are held in designated young offender accommodation. We are looking to the further separation of young offender and adult accommodation. On 10th March, according to the latest figures I have, there were 83 sentenced girls under 18; of those, over half were held in separate young offender blocks, or wings in open prisons, or in mother and baby units. We have agreed plans for a further two physically separate units in establishments which currently hold a further 25 juvenile girls. Of the 17 Section 53 girls held on 31 January this year--that is, those between 15 and 17 years of age and held for really serious offences, 13 were in local authority secure accommodation, including every one of the 15 year-olds. There were two l6, and two 17 year-olds in Prison Service accommodation. It is not a perfect situation; however, I believe we have begun to make progress.

There is a working group, about which the noble Baroness was informed, and about which she knew anyway, on age mixing in the female estate. We are considering the options, including whether or not juvenile girls should be held with juvenile boys in some circumstances, because there are problems in others; whether they should be held in totally separate units in the female prison estate; and what can be done about local authority secure units, to which the noble Baroness significantly directed her remarks.

There are difficulties with all of those options. One has to face the fact that among the 90 girls some are very difficult to manage. They can be a risk to the younger and more vulnerable individuals who are sometimes held in local authority units. We want to have the most flexible range of remedies for these girls on an individual basis rather than set out in legislation that they should be held in one place or another.

The accommodation of some of these girls in local authority secure units may not meet their needs as effectively as accommodation in secure training centres or, in some cases, the kind of unit that the Prison Service is seeking to provide. I say again that not all local authority secure units provide as good a level of care as is desirable.

It is very difficult to see offending behaviour programmes necessarily having the same priority in an establishment which is not exclusively devoted to dealing with offenders. We must bear in mind that many of the local authority units are small, providing 16 to 18 places. They take a wide age range, from 10 upwards. I understand and deeply sympathise with the proposition

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that is put about the vulnerability of these young girls. However, we must not forget the vulnerability of the younger children in local authority secure units of age 10 upwards. There is often a significant difference between a 10 year-old and the young girls to whom the noble Baroness referred. It is very difficult in units that small, with an age range that wide, to provide suitable accommodation in such a small establishment.

The age range is narrower within the Prison Service, from 15 to 17. What are we doing for juveniles in prison? The noble Lord, Lord Judd, made a perfectly reasonable and typically generous request. We are looking to a careful assessment of each individual's health, social, educational and vocational needs; programmes to tackle individual needs in education, training for work and offending behaviour; and regular and formal reviews of each individual's plans. I believe that experience shows that, when an individual gets into the system, the system often becomes more important than the child. I believe that the structural internal discipline of regular formal reviews is very important. We want the co-operation of the agencies and, where possible, the support and involvement of families.

The Children Act does not apply in prisons. However, we wish to reflect its principles in the operation of regimes for young offenders. An additional £3 million has been put forward to enhance regimes in six establishments, including two juvenile establishments and two women's prisons. That money is to develop the kind of regime to which I referred earlier.

I understand and share the concern about inappropriate mixing of vulnerable female prisoners with other female prisoners who can bully them, oppress them and lead them further astray. We have made a start. We have not been able to deliver everything. As I believe that an imposed discipline is good for us as well as for those who minister to children, I am happy to undertake to report back to your Lordships on the further progress we have achieved in improving facilities for girls when we introduce the new detention and training order in the summer of 1999.

I have not offered a perfect answer to these difficult problems. The truth is: I have no perfect answer. All I can say is that, whether it is Ministers in the Home Office--not least the Secretary of State--or whether it is the officials, to whom I pay grateful tribute, we are determined to do what we can to address this problem which, though numerically small, is a blot on our community. The noble Earl's figures are correct. In Scotland there are 20 young female offenders, only five of whom (according to my last figures) are under 18; most of them are held in Cornton Vale, which is an all-female institution. If I understood him correctly, the noble Earl said that some of the regime there seems to be fruitful and working well. I am happy for that reassurance.

I repeat that I do not have a perfect answer. All I can offer is a commitment to do the utmost that we can and to reiterate my offer to return to your Lordships with a progress report in what may seem a long time away to a young person of 15 to 17, but which seems a realistic timescale to me in which to be able to return with a

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full report. I am conscious that what I have said will be recorded; having been recorded, it will be read and will rightly be put to me once more when I have my opportunity to report.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who is really committed to this subject. I thank also the Minister for his full answer, which will be read carefully and digested.

I am concerned that the Minister did not mention education in those units. I feel that the 15 and 16 year-olds particularly need a full school day's work. Next Wednesday the Cross-Bench Peers have a debate on the problems of the prisons. I know that some noble Lords will be visiting prisons before then and will see the situation for themselves. It was interesting to hear about Scotland. I am a full-blown Scot and did not want to leave Scotland out; but I know that the system is different and I therefore thank the noble Earl for looking into the situation in Scotland.

I should like to take this matter away because it is important. It can mean a difference to a young person's life. We have one more stage of the Bill to come, at which time I will have the right to bring back the amendment if I need to. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 53 [Reprimands and warnings]:

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