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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, if noble Lords will forgive me, I wish to make a Business Statement. Later this evening, my noble friend Lord Gilbert will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on Kosovo. The exact timing depends on proceedings in another place. If further details become available in time, they will be shown on the annunciators.

Persistent Juvenile Offenders

7.58 p.m.

Viscount Brentford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for introducing the debate. Its timing is interesting, as it follows the debate on marriage. Undoubtedly, as many noble Lords have said, the breakdown of marriage and the family is often a root cause of youth offending.

First, I wish to make one or two comments on the report. I attempted to find out from the Home Office whether there is any update on the extent to which the criticisms in the report have been met. I was told that there was no information at all on progress. Perhaps the Home Office was concealing the information from me in order to give all the ammunition to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, when he replies. I certainly failed to find out anything about action that has been taken as a result of the report. I hope the noble Lord will tell the House what progress has been made. I shall not set out the criticisms as they have already been referred to.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to the use of volunteers. I wonder whether volunteers are coming into Medway to build relationships with the young people there. I appreciate that they are there for a maximum of one year, but it is important for them to be able to build a relationship with an outsider, particularly as many are a long way from home.

Secondly, I wish to touch on the question of education. Clearly it needs improving at the STC. But what interests me more is the problem of the lack of education that so many young offenders have experienced. I wonder whether in the STC sufficient attention is paid to the learning aptitudes of the young

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offenders. Perhaps the noble Lord will tell the House whether an assessment is carried out to check whether each young offender is an abstract conceptualiser; a concrete experiencer; an active experimenter; or a reflective observer, or whatever combination of learning aptitudes they may have. That will clearly affect the education programme in the STC for different individuals there.

Paragraph 9.3 of the report refers to the fact that many of the offenders have been out of school for considerable periods of time. Perhaps I may quote John Harding, Chief Probation Officer for Inner London. He said:

    "We know that two thirds of school aged offenders sentenced in youth courts had either been excluded from school or had significant truancy records. Attention needs to be focused at the onset of behaviour disorder in schools by the youth offending teams so that an action plan is drawn up by the team, the school and the parents that ensures the pupil is still in receipt of full time education and the family supported through the crisis".

I have a daughter who works as a primary school teacher in the field of special needs. She deals particularly with violent children younger than the age of those in the STC. That is the age when it is crucial for such children to be helped. If they are not helped in school when they are below the age of 12, they will run into the youth offending climate.

But schools do not have the money to pay for special needs teachers to deal with violent children in particular. I am delighted that the Government are planning to reduce the amount of exclusion from schools. Please will they provide more financial help for special needs teaching? It will save them money in the long term. Money needs to be spent in that area in order to stop offending before it starts, as my noble friend Lord Elton vividly portrayed.

My third point relates to mentors for these young people. They so often need role models. We have talked about visitors, volunteers coming into STCs. But I want also to raise the question of mentors on a wider basis, before young people offend and also during the period of community service. Many of these young people lack fathers, a point that was mentioned particularly in the previous debate. They do not have the role models, whether they are boys or girls, that fathers provide when they are living in the home. There is an excellent scheme under which local people are used as volunteers to offer time to single parents with hyperactive children. There are also mentors from business who work with welfare-to-work trainees. I read of a magistrate offering her home. Are the Government planning to encourage the further use of mentors and foster homes in the future?

8.5 p.m.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I, too, extend my thanks to the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for introducing this debate. It was also a great pleasure to listen to the very positive contribution of the former Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley.

This debate is not only about the Medway Secure Training Centre. As many noble Lords have demonstrated, it is about much more than that. It is about how we treat persistent young offenders who commit a disproportionate number of crimes and often wreck the lives of many law-abiding citizens.

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We often delude ourselves that by locking up such youngsters we shall solve the problems caused by youth crime. That may create a temporary respite. But unless we have clear objectives about the purpose of secure training centres, we might as well admit defeat now.

We also delude ourselves that prison works. That was central to the thinking of the previous government. I am surprised that it still finds favour with the present Government.

We have begun only recently to address more fully the reason why so many youngsters offend and why some persist in re-offending again and again. Many of them have never had the right to a decent childhood. They are the products of chaotic and disturbed family lives. Many are still to be found among the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, those who come from homes where people have never worked, those who under-achieve in schools and those excluded from schools, and victims of violence and physical and sexual abuse.

Against that background we welcome the many initiatives of the present Government in which they are attempting to address the problems. Only yesterday the passage of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill was completed in this House. The Bill has at its heart for the first time provisions to address offending behaviour.

The crime reduction strategy announced last week by the Home Secretary deals with major reform of the youth justice system. Targets are now being set to give local people the means to monitor the effectiveness of the police and local authorities in reducing crime and disorder in their area. There is also the new anti-social behaviour order under the Crime and Disorder Act which will commence on 1st April 1999. No one, irrespective of their political affiliations, can fail to appreciate the positive measures introduced by the Government. They have the general support of all parties in this House.

We now have time to rethink some of the false assumptions that we made in 1994. We must accept that we have been wrong in looking to instant solutions in eradicating offending behaviour. We have only to look at our history of borstals, approved schools and detention centres. It is no exaggeration to say that within a short period of their release a large number of youngsters offend again; 60 to 70 per cent. of youngsters fall within that category.

When the legislation creating secure training centres was going through this House in 1994, the House carried an amendment with all-party support which could have given the courts an alternative power to sentence 12 to 14 year-old offenders to be held in local authority secure units instead. This amendment had official Labour Party support as well as the support of the Liberal Democrats and many Conservative and Cross-Bench Peers. It was reversed by the then government when the legislation returned to the other place. Line after line of the recent report by the social services inspectorate on the Medway Secure Training Centre justifies and reinforces the view that the House took in 1994.

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First, the report found, as has been cited by many noble Lords, that there was an,

    "absence of an experienced, highly skilled staff group".
It may be that this was the first possible experiment to be carried out, but why were inexperienced people appointed? The report spoke of the extreme difficulty of trying profoundly to alter the outlook of some of the most challenging young people in the country with a largely unqualified and inexperienced staff. Yet it was always obvious that putting the care of difficult young offenders in the hands of private companies which had no experience of childcare provision was an indefensible way to deal with disturbed and vulnerable children. Such young people would be far better off dealt with in secure units run by local authority social service departments and staffed by trained care workers.

Secondly, the report found that the quality of education at the Medway centre was unsatisfactory. It said:

    "Half the lessons observed were less than satisfactory, with unfocused discussion, lack of suitable resources, and a poor learning environment. Teachers lack specialist knowledge and skills in the subject".
There can be no doubt that these young people would have received a better standard of education in local authority secure units. Even before the 1994 legislation was passed, Home Office research comparing local authority secure units with Prison Service young offender institutions had shown that the former provided more and better quality education, gave more help and advice with young people's problems and equipped young people with more qualifications, training and work experience.

Thirdly, the report on the Medway centre found that:

    "Other major matters such as diversion from offending programmes, an element of the establishment's work which is fundamental to its success, have simply failed".
One of the reasons for this failure was the trainees' reaction to the use of violence, which has been spelt out again and again by a number of noble Lords.

Stripped of the jargon, it is quite simply that the experience at Medway had made these young people even more criminal in their attitudes and even more likely to re-offend than when they first arrived. In contrast, the Home Office research study referred to earlier found that local authority secure units had a significantly lower re-offending rate than Prison Service young offender institutions for serious young offenders. Local authority units would be more likely to succeed with 12 to 14 year-olds than a 40-place mini-prison like the Medway centre.

Up to a point it is understandable (although wholly wrong) that inexperienced and inadequately trained staff should react with excessive force to the difficult and disturbed behaviour of these children. The inspection team encountered,

    "numerous instances when good order had broken down".
The report is full of references to,

    "the very disturbed behaviour, abusive language and challenges which the trainees present".

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One result was that,

    "The level of damage to living units, the education block and the dining room was such that safety features were compromised".
It was a vicious circle, with the inspectors observing that:

    "The breakdown in the care system is leading to reinforcement of cycles of deprivation".

It has been pointed out, and I reiterate, that what we found in the Medway centre report is that the youngsters found that the inside world very much replicated the outside world from which they came. All this underlines the folly of the whole idea of placing as many as 40 disturbed and difficult children in one institution. Local authority secure units hold many individual children who are as difficult as the Medway's trainees, but these units are not plagued by the problems which have arisen from placing so many repeat offenders in one centre.

Secure training centres are too big and run by the wrong organisations. They are also in the wrong place. Even when all five planned centres are built, many young people will still be held a long way from their homes. This makes it difficult to maintain close links, through regular visits, with families and social workers from their home areas--links which are vital for the young persons' eventual resettlement when they leave the secure institution.

The secure training centre policy is a blight on the Government's otherwise largely admirable youth crime policy. The positive and constructive elements of this policy include the establishment of inter-agency youth offending teams in every area; a requirement placed on local authorities to produce youth justice plans and provide a range of diversion and supervision programmes for young offenders; increased financial support for the development of bail support schemes; supervision programmes and preventive work; and new sentences such as reparation and action plan orders which could help to steer many young people away from re-offending.

I have no hesitation in strongly supporting the vast majority of the Government's plans to tackle youth crime. However, the decision to press ahead with the previous Government's plans for secure training centres was a serious mistake. It is not too late to halt the plans to build more secure training centres. If the resources which would otherwise be spent on these centres were used instead to provide more local authority secure places and intensive community supervision programmes, this would do much more to reduce juvenile crime.

Is it not time that we discontinued plans for other secure training centres? There are better ways of spending £120,000 per child per year and this debate has highlighted that. No one disputes that a small number of people commit a disproportionate amount of crime. The point at issue is that secure training centres have done little to address their behaviour. It is time we looked at other alternatives.

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8.15 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for initiating this debate. His experience in juvenile magistrate work is second to none.

As noble Lords know, the secure training centres were instituted under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and they represented a laudable and imaginative initiative by the last Government to steer a balanced course between the frankly penal short sharp shock regimes and the wholly community-based ones. If one reads the specification in the appendix to the report, one sees that the accommodation, education, vocational, health and recreational standards are high. I will come to that in a moment.

I feel that several noble Lords have not done justice to these centres, for two reasons. The first is that they are designed to be part of a package: the custodial punishment basically in the first half of the sentence, and the rehabilitation under close supervision in the community in the second. We have very little experience of the second half of that and I shall welcome any news that the Minister can give us on it. I also hope he can say whether the proportions of the custodial and rehabilitation aspects can be varied. Presumably in serious cases, the second half could be eliminated altogether.

The defects of the Group 4/Rebound experience have been chronicled by several noble Lords. I find it easier, even with the privilege of this House, to refer to them, simply because they have been largely acknowledged by the contractors. It is clear that there was a total underestimation, on their own admission, of the problems posed by the trainees. They underestimated the difficulties of obtaining staff and training them in matters like staff communication, reporting, simple procedures like fire drill and dealing with violent trainees, leading inevitably to bullying. They should have known about that. We know that two managers departed, which left the management structure largely in tatters. The staff were badly fazed by two escapes, which made them possibly over-concerned with security. There were obvious mistakes on the Government's side in that the specifications were not nearly robust enough and that led to the most terrible vandalism. There should have been provision for more imaginative security which would have avoided some trainees being virtually denied fresh air.

Perhaps I may return to the trainees themselves. They come from the most difficult section of juvenile society. The report gives statistics showing that the average number of previous convictions is seven; the average time spent out of mainstream education is four years; and 25 per cent. arrive with criminal charges outstanding and with histories of great violence. I wonder whether local authority secure accommodation, referred to by many noble Lords and with particular knowledge by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is suitable for this class of young offender.

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I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, that surely there must be no alternative to taking these children out of society even for a short time.

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