|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
We also use prosecution too much. In 1996 the Audit Commission produced a report called Misspent Youth which proposed that 20 per cent of juveniles who were then prosecuted should instead be dealt with by diversion programmes outside the court system. Yet since then the Government have introduced tighter restrictions on the number of times children can be dealt with by diversionary measures before being brought before a court. This has produced a striking increase in the number of children prosecuted for minor offences which would previously have been dealt with by informal warnings. In 2006, 61 per cent of young offenders were diverted from court compared with 73 per cent in the early 1990s. Research consistently shows that unnecessarily prosecuting young people can increase rather than reduce their chances of reoffending by officially labelling them as offenders, a label which all too often they then seek to live up to in order to create a hard image and status in front of their friends.
Above all, we use custody too much for young offenders. Around 3,000 young people under 18 are currently in all forms of custody, and more than 2,500
12 Jun 2008 : Column 687
I welcome the fact that the Government have set targets to reduce the number of first-time entrants to the youth justice system and to reduce the number in custody, but they have set targets to reduce the use of custody before and failed to achieve them. If we genuinely want to reduce youth crime, we need a radically reformed, less punitive youth justice system that better meets the welfare needs of children who offend. A reformed system should include a higher age of criminal responsibility, a much stronger emphasis on dealing with minor offenders outside the court system and tighter restrictions on the use of custody for young people. Such an approach would not just be better for young offenders, it would also better protect society from future offending by difficult, disturbed and vulnerable children.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for obtaining this important debate. It is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, with his long experience and great wisdom on these matters. I was also interested to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and to be reminded of those days in 1997 when, among others, I was very excited at the thought of what might follow what I thought was going to be the focus on tackling crime and the causes of crime. At the time, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons and working on a report on young prisoners, I was very pleased to find the noble Lord, Lord Warner, working on the setting up of the Youth Justice Board and youth offending teams, both of which I have strongly supported ever since. We were able to work together and share some of our practical experiences on the ground in order to set up a procedure by which the Youth Justice Board and the prisons inspectorate would work closely together on the inspection of young people ever since.
I also welcome this report, although it is slightly unfortunate that, as is so often the way of these things, the timing of its publication is both late and premature. First, it came out about three days before the publication of the reconviction figures for the years up to 2005; that was the only time that they could be measured because they are measured two years after release. The figures for 2005 show that there had been a reduction of some 16.4 per cent in the reconviction rate among
12 Jun 2008 : Column 688
Secondly, it is slightly unfortunate that we have not had all the details of what the Government are going to put in their youth crime action plan, which is to be published next month. I look forward to it with considerable interest. Having had a discussion with the new chairman of the Youth Justice Board and found the sort of things that she is looking for, I suspect that this plan is perhaps going to answer some of the problems, at least in intention. For example, the plan is said to include: early identification of future prolific offenders; giving chaotic families the support and challenge they need; ensuring that courts have the range of disposals and alternatives to custody; early targeted intervention from other agencies; the need to make the most of short periods in custody; and improving resettlement and continuity of care for young offenders.
All I can say is, Hear, hear, to all that. If that really is in there and it results in improvements it is perhaps premature to dwell too much on the past until we have seen the content of that plan. Having said that, it is appropriate to consider what might come against what is there now in terms of the machinery that is there to deliver those good intentions. I was particularly interested to hear the chairman of the Youth Justice Board say that she was about to embark on discussions with the Prison Service to see whether there could not be someone appointed to be in charge of young people who are in the hands of the Prison Service; that person would be responsible and accountable for what happened to those young people while they were in custody.
I was particularly glad to see that because that is one of the main props that I called for in my report for young prisoners. It has been a serious deficiency in the system ever since, because unless we have one person responsible and accountable for overseeing what happens, things will not happen. That is the way of the world. I refer not only to the criminal justice system but to industry and to schools, hospitals and the Armed Forces. I wish that this point had been listened to before, particularly in terms of young people. I am also concerned that in addition to the question of timing there remains a disconnect in the overall direction that the Government are taking in relation to youth justice and other parts of the criminal justice system.
We have had recently a classic example of this disconnect. The excellent report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, into how women should be treated in the criminal justice systemthat they ought to be held in small establishments around the country near their homes so that local conditions can apply in their rehabilitationwas immediately followed by another report, which has been accepted by the Government, for the building of Titan prisons, which are completely the opposite of what the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, was calling for for women.
At the same time as acknowledging that there is an enormous social content and mental health problems attached to the young people who come into the hands of the criminal justice system, we have the dismemberment
12 Jun 2008 : Column 689
While the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Children, Schools and Families will be involved in drawing up the youth crime planwhich is absolutely right because the Minister for Children is in the DCSFI am worried that there is no mention of the Department of Health, which is responsible for social care and mental health care, being involved. If we acknowledge that the causes of crime lie in social conditions, and that that is where prevention must start, it is an error to leave out of the discussions the people who are most responsible for that environment. They should not be left out of the drawing-up of the plan for what is called resettlement, but which, all too often, I fear, is settlement because you are dealing with people who are not settled.
Not all is wrong, not all is right, but the accumulated wisdom of organisations such as the Centre of Crime and Justice Studies ought not to be disregarded and I welcome the opportunity to have its report drawn to the attention of Members of the House.
Lord Judd: My Lords, it is always good to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, with all his experience participating in these debates. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who consistently keeps flying in this House the flag of civilised values in the administration of justice. I also pay tribute to my noble friend who will reply to the debate. I know that he is as concerned as any of us that we get the policy right on this front. His whole life gives evidence of his personal commitment to the young and to the quality of our society. Anything I say today, therefore, will be in the context of helping those who carry immense responsibility on our behalf to get it right. I, too, look forward to the publication of the youth action plan because it may hold great hope for the future.
Perhaps I may say a word about perspective. We concentrate an awful lot on the challenges presented by the young who have gone off the rails, but I think we live in an age of unprecedented quality in the younger generation, who have a social commitment and effective engagement in society the like of which we have never seen before. Their political maturity often finds it difficult to accommodate what they see as the political immaturity of the conventional political system. This is exciting and we need to keep it in
12 Jun 2008 : Column 690
If we are concerned about these things, it is important that we avoid knee-jerk emotional reactions and that at all costs we avoid appeasing prejudice, particularly where it exists in the more irresponsible sections of the media. There is a counterproductivity about wanting to make ourselves feel more satisfied by showing a macho response to what is wrong, thereby exacerbating the difficulties with which we are dealing. I am one of those who holds that a hallmark of a civilised society is the ability not simply to react to what confronts it but to ask, Why does this confront us?. I can think of no area of policy where this is more important than the one we are deliberating today.
I have shared with this House before, and I hope I will be forgiven for doing so again, two anecdotes that have profoundly affected me as an individual. One concerned the former chief constable who was involved in an imaginative programme in a young offender institution in the north. He was talking to a young man who was about to be released, and to his surprise the young man started to weep. The young man said, I am weeping because Im terrified about what I am going to encounter when I leave this place. This is the first place in my life where I have felt secure, where I have begun to discover myself as an individual and to recognise my potential, and where I have felt that there are people who are concerned about me, which has awakened a concern on my part about other people. I really am petrified of what I am going to return to in society.
The other anecdote concerns the late Joan Lestor, who was a great personal friend of my family; in fact she was the godmother of one of my children. She was a strong advocate of childrens interests. She was not given to exaggeration, though; she was a realist. I shall never forget her coming to our home just having visited one of the young people who had been involved in the dreadful murder of James Bulger, that awful event that shocked the nation. She was unspeakably distressed. Why? Because, she said, speaking of one of the youngsters who had committed the crime, That youngster has never been loved in his life.
When we are dealing with justice and the young and delinquent behaviour by the young, we have to ask ourselves about our own values, our own society and the context within which it is all happening. If we have a society that is dominated by greed, by so-called successas if all that matters is getting to the top of the pile with not too many questions about how you get therewhere is our authority? Where is the example to set the context for society as a whole?
There are other issues that impinge acutely on this matter. There has been reference to education, but if our education system is increasingly dominated by league tables that talk about success and use the language of failed schools, what happens to the
12 Jun 2008 : Column 691
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, with his usual wisdom, was right to emphasise the fact that we have to take the whole issue of mental health far more seriously. I speak with some sensitivity on this matter because one of my daughters leads a team of people working with women with mental health problems in deprived communities. She becomes exasperated because of the shortage of resources. Everyone makes referrals to the team, but where are the resources to do the work? We need to give higher priority to all that.
My general message today is that what is needed is a new culture. What I shall be looking for in the youth action plan is not just a set of management proposals but a regeneration of culture and of what our society should be, a reassertion of the importance of muscular love in our social policy. That does not mean sentimentality. I get infuriated in my older age by those who go around talking aboutI do not use the term in its political sensebleeding-heart liberals, when those who say that sort of thing are the weak people who are betraying society while so often the wet-nosed liberals are the people who are thinking hard and sensibly about what needs to be done to get it right. We have to recognise that and become more assertive about why it matters that there is a different concept of how things should be.
Of course we must be clear about what is right and wrong and about what is acceptable behaviour and what is not, but it will not do to go around telling the young how they should behave unless that is evidenced in our own behaviour. We have to set an example. We have to demonstrate our own social responsibility and the fact that it takes precedence over our egocentric, material preoccupations.
We should be working for a situation in which the young are enabled to fulfil their potential. The success stories are there. When I was president of the YMCA, I saw the stories of youngsters who had been involved in some quite shocking crimes but went on to get PhDs once people really began to relate to them and see what could be done. We should be concentrating on how we enable the young to make something of their stunted and distorted lives and to recognise that, after the experiences that many of them have been through, it would be an absolute miracle if they were not caught up in criminal activity of one kind or another. We must get the social context right, and that means integrated thinking by a whole range of government departments.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd. He is right that we need to have hard-headed thinking, and when he uses the word liberal I know that he uses it quite rightly. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford for introducing the debate today and for the opportunity to speak on a report that speaks very strongly for itself. The report, in combination with the fact that the UK Childrens Commissioners are presenting to the UN this week in Geneva and with the most recent UNICEF report, draws a pretty grim picture of childhood and youth in the UK. It is not a picture we can be pleased with.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, reminded us that before 1997 things were far from good. He suggested that my noble friend took a pop at the architecture. I think it was a justified pop. The noble Lord is right that things were not good before 1997, but in many ways they have got worse. I accept that some of that can be laid at the door of society in general, but some of it should be laid at the door of the Government in the way they have chosen to proceed with measures that they put in place in good faith, but which by and large have failed. It is time to take another look.
The report highlights the failure of all but one of seven measures: the only area of improvement has been a reduction in arrest-to-sentence times. The Government have failed in six other objectives. I shall speak about one of them: to improve accommodation. I shall then speak about demonisation of young people and ASBOs.
On improving accommodation, the Governments target was to ensure that all young people subject to community intervention or released from custody had appropriate accommodation when they left. However, that accommodation is not provided. Many young people do not know where they are going to go when they leave custody. In its survey, Youth crime briefing: housing and accommodation issues for young people in the criminal justice systemit was conducted in December 2005, but I understand that the situation has not changedNacro found that homelessness can significantly increase the likelihood that a young person will break the law. Moreover, homelessness can affect the way in which young people are treated in the justice system. For example, they are less likely to receive bail if they have no permanent address. In 2004, the Audit Commission showed that up to 1,000 young people are remanded to secure facilities each year because they do not have a suitable address for bail. Has that figure increased or decreased? This problem is further compounded by the fact that young people without accommodation are more likely to receive custodial sentences. When they are released, many of them will find it even harder to find somewhere to live, either because of deteriorating family commitment, which may have meant that they were in trouble in the first place, or because of the social stigma that goes with the prison sentence. Fewer than half of the young adults surveyed by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisonsa survey referred to in its annual report of 30 January 2007said that they knew where to get help to find accommodation, drug treatment or continuing
12 Jun 2008 : Column 693
There is a myth around that RJ is in some way a soft option because it does not involve enough punishment. The research shows that offenders find it tougher to face their victims than to go to court. Another myth is that it is costly. Even the most expensive RJ conferencesthose for serious crimescost only £800, compared with the £35,000 a year that we pay to keep someone in prison. It is time for us to stop endlessly studying and evaluating RJ and to use it much more widely in the areas where it has proven value.[Official Report, 26/11/07; col. 1104.]
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that comment, because RJ is being rolled out not nearly fast enough and it is young people who can benefit from it the most. I have been into schools practising restorative justice. It is quite astonishing how young people who have gone through any kind of restorative process have developed a completely different view of themselves and how they relate to the world. That does not mean that they will stop being troublemakers overnight, but they are on a different track to a more positive outlook and start to relate to authority far more constructively. I hope that the Government will think about resourcing restorative justice much more positively.
I turn to the demonisation of young people. The Childrens Commissioners report found that children are being demonised by a society that is locking up too many of them. The Governments measures have contributed to the demonisation of children. For example, they have largely accepted the buzz off or mosquito system, which disperses any groups of young people that may be hanging about by emitting a high-pitched noise that only they can hear. I accept that young people hanging about in a group can occasionally be threatening, but often they are not. They are disruptive to some degree and might cause one to get off the pavement; they are loud and raucous; but very often they are not threatening. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that the media have contributed to an unconstructive and dangerous view of any assembly of young people. The Government could have another look at the ethos underpinning mosquito systems, because they affect all young people and not just those who cause difficulties. If one walks past such a system with ones eight or nine year-old child, they suffer as much as the one or two young people who might be causing a difficulty outside a shop. The system is making places unpleasant to be for a whole generation of young people. It is an appalling thing to do to our young people.
I turn finally to ASBOs. The use of ASBOs risks contributing to, rather than reducing, the criminalisation of young people. They represent a crossover from civil to criminal proceedings. A young person can now be given an order, as they have been, for playing music too loudly, which is a non-criminal offence. If they breach the order, it is treated as a criminal offence and the young person can end up with a custodial sentence for actions that did not initially constitute a criminal offence.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|