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Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for getting this debate at such an opportune time. It is particularly important because of her commitment to child welfare, with which we are all so familiar.

I would like to talk about public-private partnerships, which the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, have referred to in different ways. The noble Lord referred to the difficult place the secure training centres have in the profile, with the rather more structured organisations of the Department of Health and the Home Office lying on either side. I do not want to go into the politics of the public-private partnerships. These were started by the Conservative government, and have been inherited by this one.

The problem must be addressed. The centres are more complicated, but the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, has made suggestions for a more thorough monitoring of them. I happen to be the chairman of an independent hospital, and our inspection standards are higher than those applying to the National Health Service. I gather the reverse is true of these secure training centres. It is a concept that has so many advantages, and must be made to work so that the poor relation of the childcare industry is looked after.

There has been reference to the very good debate in another place by Sally Keeble. She raised the concerns of so many at the frequent use of restraints, which I think may have come as a surprise to many people.
 
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That was reinforced by the Carlile report, of which we have heard tonight. Let us be under no illusion about the violent behaviour that these children, of an average age of 14, can display, but she has paid particular attention to the restraints used, and that has been taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. It is pleasing that the double restraint and other methods have been either abandoned or recommended to be.

The restraint has to be a balance between humaneness and effectiveness. That is the challenge to these centres. Sally Keeble made the important point that physical control, which is supposed only to be used for the protection of residents and staff, appears in certain cases to have been used as a means of discipline, which is not permitted.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, has referred to the huge cost of inmates—I think they are called trainees—in these institutions, which is something like six times that of the most expensive independent school. One of the questions that has puzzled me is the alarming statistic of the assault rate in the centres being something like 10 times that of young offender institutions.

I refer back to the noble Baroness's comparison with Scottish children's homes. Allowing for her loyalty as a Scot, she painted a very impressive picture. We on these Benches have always criticised the Government for not paying attention to the practice in other countries with regard to the health service. I wonder whether the Home Office should not look again, much nearer home in this case, at the practice in Scotland and see what can be learnt. I gather the Welsh experience is also a good one. We have devolution. There is a chance to gain from apparently more successful and more humane treatment in Scotland, and to see whether that can be adapted to England. This has been a very interesting debate, with the usual high quality of speakers. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

8.16 pm

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I join in the general congratulations and thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, on raising this important subject for debate this evening. I only wish we had a bigger audience for it, because it is certainly a subject that should command greater interest, not least because of the important issues it touches on.

The noble Baroness made a number of important points, some of which I shall pick up on in what I say, but the key thing I take away from her contribution was that she made an unfavourable comparison between the STCs and the secure council-run homes that are provided. She rather favoured the way the latter operate. That is important, and the points of comparison are fairly critical to the way we look at this issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, made a special plea that healthcare standards and education should be to the highest level, and that we should focus strongly on good practice in STCs. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, expressed his important views
 
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trenchantly as usual, which need to be taken account of, not least because of his vast experience in this field as an inspector. I listened very carefully, as ever, to what the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, had to say. She asserted at one point that there was something deeply wrong with STCs. From a government perspective I take issue with that, but the issues she raised of restraints, single separation, handcuff use and strip searches are of concern and require careful use and monitoring.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, made important points, in particular about training and the quality of work undertaken in the establishments. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for his contributions on PPPs, drawing our attention to assault levels and the lessons that can be learnt from devolution.

This has been a well informed debate, as one would expect from the cast involved. The use of custody for young people is, and is bound to be, a contentious subject about which people have very strong views. People in general firmly believe that custody has to be available as a last resort in response to the most serious offending, a view the Government fully share. But we also believe that, wherever possible, young people who commit offences other than the most serious should be dealt with in the community. Custodial establishments therefore have a limited role in response to offending by under-18s, but a vital one. At their best, they can offer young people the chance of a complete change of direction, by guiding them towards positive and worthwhile activities and away from the unproductive, sometimes destructive, life many of them have been leading. That is an essential part of what secure training centres are trying to achieve. Their emphasis on education, and on a full day of purposeful activity, can provide a new direction to lives previously lacking in purpose.

How we treat young people in custody and find means to steer them away from offending into that more positive and productive way of life is a critical question. The recent report by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, on behalf of the Howard League for Penal Reform has usefully brought one aspect of the custody of young people to public attention. It is important to note that my ministerial colleagues will meet the noble Lord at the end of this month to discuss his findings. His report concerns a very specific part of how we treat young people in custody—what is generally referred to as behaviour management. He looked at behaviour management across the whole of the juvenile estate. By contrast, the noble Baroness raised the more general questions of the role and purpose of one particular part of that estate—the four secure training centres.

It may help your Lordships if I briefly summarise the history of STCs. They began in the 1990s as establishments for young offenders between the ages of 12 and 14 who had been sentenced to a secure training order. The STO, which was introduced by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, was a short-lived order. It was replaced in 2000 by our Government with the detention and training order.
 
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The contract for the first centre at Medway in Rochester was signed in 1997 and the centre opened in April 1998 with places for 40 young people. A further two centres of similar size at Rainsbrook, near Rugby, and Hassockfield in County Durham opened in 1999. In 2002 capacity at Medway and Rainsbrook was increased to 76 beds and at Hassockfield to 42. A fourth centre, Oakhill in Milton Keynes, opened in August 2004 with places for 80 young people. In all, the four centres can accommodate up to 274 people—a small number.

The detention and training order, which replaced the STO in April 2000, was available for young offenders aged 12 to 17. The STCs therefore began taking a wider age range. As well as DTO trainees, the wider intake included young people serving longer terms of detention under Sections 90 and 91 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. The Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 enabled young people who had been remanded to the care of a local authority with a security requirement to be placed in a secure training centre with the consent of the Secretary of State.

Secure training centres as they have developed now accommodate young people of both sexes between the ages of 12 and 17 who have either received a custodial sentence or have been remanded to secure care. Why do we send young people to custody? We do it because their offending is so serious that there is no realistic alternative. We do it to protect the public. People expect—and are entitled to expect—that the justice system will take proportionate measures to protect them from significant harm. While the young person is in custody there is an opportunity to try to steer him or her away from offending behaviour and into useful and life-enhancing activities. Most young people who go to custody serve short sentences and are not out of the community for a very long period. It is essential therefore to try to ensure that when they are released they do not simply start again where they left off; in other words, that they do not return to offending. The period in custody provides the chance to break what has usually become a pattern of offending and to prepare the young person for a new life after custody. For that reason detention and training orders, which are the main custodial sentence for under-18s, are structured in two parts with the first half spent in custody and the second under supervision in the community. Work begun in custody—for example, in improving literacy and numeracy—can form the basis for continued education or training after release.

Of course, not all young people serving custodial sentences are placed in a secure training centre. Most—about 85 per cent—are placed in youth offender institutions run by the Prison Service. The remaining 15 per cent are divided roughly equally between STCs, which are run by private firms under contract to the Youth Justice Board, and secure children's homes, which are run by local authorities. Each type of establishment has its own characteristics. Young offender institutions are generally larger establishments for offenders aged 15 to 17. Secure training centres and secure children's homes take
 
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predominantly a younger age group though they also accommodate some older trainees who are particularly vulnerable. The ethos of secure training centres and secure children's homes is similar. STCs are larger, as I said, but the trainees live in small units that house up to eight, and both types of establishment have a very high staff-to-trainee ratio, which allows trainees to receive a great deal of individual attention.

Because they are larger than secure children's homes, STCs can provide a more varied regime. Their particular strength is in education, which continues all through the year—there are no school holidays—and enables trainees serving longer terms to make real progress. This is very important because, as we know, studies have shown that persistent offending and low educational attainment are closely linked. Most trainees have serious problems with literacy and numeracy. It is heartening, therefore, that in 2003–04—the latest year for which figures are available—100 per cent of STC trainees improved their literacy and numeracy by at least one skill level. That is a better performance than was achieved in either young offender institutions or secure children's homes.

There has, of course, been much concern about two deaths that occurred at Rainsbrook and Hassockfield in 2004. The death of any young person in custody or elsewhere is always a tragedy. I cannot comment on the events surrounding the deaths of Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood because investigations are in progress and inquests have yet to be held. However, I can assure the House that the Government and the Youth Justice Board are taking all possible measures to safeguard young people in STCs.

I know there is a body of opinion which holds that the private sector has no role to play in the provision of custody, but I was interested to note that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, speaking at the launch of his report, said that he did not mind whether a custodial establishment was run by the public or private sector as long as it was run well. That is a very practical and sensible view. I think it is now generally agreed that the introduction of privately run prisons has helped to raise standards in the adult estate and I believe that the secure training centres are playing a similar role in the secure estate for children and young people. It is also true that secure training centres are able to take some trainees whose behaviour cannot be managed effectively in a secure children's home.

STCs have made a valuable contribution to the secure estate for children and young people, generally providing high standards of care and education to very difficult and often very troubled young people. They are part of our vision of a diversified estate which provides for a variety of needs and demands. Those who advocate limiting custodial provision to secure children's homes should face the fact that those homes are not suitable for many young offenders and that they would not be able to cope with them.

A number of points have been raised, some of which I shall try to cover in the brief time available to me in which to speak. The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, argued the case for small, local SCHs. The Youth
 
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Justice Board purchases 235 places in secure children's homes and we fully accord with the valuable role that they play in the special circumstances for young trainees. The noble Baroness asked about a strategic review. In November the Youth Justice Board published its strategy for the secure estate for children and young people and outlined plans for improving provision, including a new capital programme, additional training of staff and enhanced regimes. That has now been taken forward.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, made reference to good practice. I argue that the 25 hours per week of taught lesson time, the classes taking place in small groups with highly qualified teaching staff, and the fact that—as I said earlier—100 per cent of trainees serving sentences of six months or more have improved literacy and numeracy by at least one skill level is evidence of increased good practice within the estate.

My time is now up, sadly. Other points were made about strip searching which I shall try to address in correspondence. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, asked a question in response to a letter seeking regular reports to Parliament on restraint. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, has replied to Andrew Dismore MP, the chair of the Human Rights Committee, and promised that regular reports would be made. I repeat that commitment this evening. It is very important that that information is put into the public domain.

I again thank the noble Baroness for her persistence on this issue, as ever. It is some years since we had a debate on STCs, on which the House clearly needs to be advised regularly. We undertake to do all that we can to ensure that that is the case.


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