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I do not think that my wish list is impossible to achieve. Perhaps it reflects the change in culture that my noble friend Lord Judd described. Some progress will be made if we comply with the children's rights convention. But there is a real problem of perception. There is outrage when a child suffers through the negligence and viciousness of others, but where is the outrage when last year a UNICEF study of children’s well-being in rich countries put us at the bottom of the list? Now there is a worthy target if we want one—to climb from the bottom to the top. A paper on how to do that would be a much better read.

1.21 pm

Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing this issue to the attention of the House. I agree with him that one of our major problems is that the way in which we deal with crime and the young has become the most testosterone-driven part of the political debate. Politicians tend to beat their chests and say how tough they are going to be and then have a crackdown. Once they have finished having their crackdown, they forget about it. The problem re-emerges in a slightly new way in a slightly new fashion and there is another crackdown. The press likes this, because it does not have to think very much, either. It calls for a crackdown and it gets one. It is a horrible cycle. As we have gone through this process, we have seen that it tends to swamp the good work that is done, where it exists, and tends to cover up the bad practice. We have to do more. This is one of the major problems that the Government and everyone involved will have to square up to in the next few years if we are to make any real impression.

I wish to draw attention to a large group within our offender system—the dyslexic. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, who is becoming rather quicker on the draw than me in this area, has already referred to this group.

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When I made my first speech in your Lordships’ House a little more than 20 years ago, I spoke about dyslexia. The change of tone about this condition has been massive. People used to say, “Oh, the poor little middle-class boy genius”—among sufferers, there is a 4 to 1 ratio of males—whereas now the problem is being appreciated and manifesting itself most strongly in our criminal justice system. The noble Lord said that the figure in that area was about 40 per cent. Most of the statistics that I have seen put the figure at about half.

Although most people in prison or the youth justice system come from the lower socio-economic groups, we are not finding and supporting those who have dyslexia within those groups. Some 10 per cent or 12 per cent have this problem to varying degrees. Calling it one problem is probably a misnomer. Dyslexia is a spectrum that covers a large percentage of, predominantly, the male population. It would be astounding if there were not a high number of dyslexics in the prison population.

When I worked for Apex Trust, which is not as big as it was, we dealt with getting offenders into jobs. It was the first time ever that I had sat down in a group where my literacy skills were above average. What can we do about these people who do not achieve? The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that, if we have 100 per cent screening of children going through the education system, we could largely deal with this problem. He may be right, but even with a good screening process at the right age and for the right group, we will probably still miss a few people, whose problems will come out earlier or later. Also, even if we do that now, we are still between 10 and 12 years from dealing with the problem in the population. There is no great appetite for the huge expenditure and change to our education system that what he suggests would require, although perhaps there should be. So what do we do?

We have people who are, as a result of their social context, not being picked up on their way through the system. Noble Lords should not worry; I will soon get around to considering something that is the Minister’s departmental responsibility. As we go through this process, we find people who offend because they are educational drop-outs, because the education system is not friendly to them and they come from a background where you do not find out why you have failed in the education system. It is just accepted that you are no good at school. I am afraid that that is another reality that we have to accept.

What can we do when we get people into controlled environments, particularly custody, that allow us to identify the problem and then deal with it? The thrust of what I would like to concentrate on is the practicality of what one does after identifying the dyslexic—and there are good diagnostic systems. In the adult prison population, many people are assessed as being dyslexic every time they go to a new prison. They are half way through an education system, but then they leave or give up.

Let me take, as a common analogy, someone who hated sport—we are not short of such people in the political class. We tell that person, “You will not only play sport, but you will play it in the most unpleasant

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way possible for you. You did not like the cold and wet; let’s roll you around in a muddy field and play a sport that you have absolutely no aptitude for and make it as unpleasant as it conceivably can be”. We say to the dyslexic young offender, a person for whom school was a memory at 14, “Let’s teach you to spell properly again”. To be perfectly honest, someone who does that really deserves the odd punch on the nose. We are taking a thoroughly unpleasant, hideous and degrading experience and making the person go back through it; even suggesting that they might is bad enough.

I ask the Government what evidence there is and what good examples there are of taking that person, sitting them down and telling them, “The reason why you cannot do this is because you have this condition. It comes down to this: the short-term learning capacity in your brain is different, but you have other compensating traits—better lateral thought and being able to tackle subjects sideways”. I feel sorry for Hansard when I occasionally go off and do that myself. That approach would be a valuable first step.

It must be remembered that this is a disability in your differently constructed brain. If you are late in tackling this, you will never hit key stage whatever. That is very common. We should concentrate on making sure that these individuals are given a series of coping strategies. A basic one is explaining that you have a problem. If you are told that you have to fill in a form, you may need to say, “Can I have two, because I will make mistakes on the first one?”. There is something that I still do, even as a large white male with a posh voice who happens to be a Member of the House of Lords: I still have the odd run-in with authority. I do not like doing what I am told. When you consider someone for whom every form of officialdom is basically unfriendly, is it any wonder that people just give up and go away? Will we take the first step by explaining not only to society as a whole but to the person involved that they can deal with this problem? It will never be easy—they will never be like everybody else—but they need to take that step forward.

The Youth Justice Board is probably a good place to start running these models and projects. It will not be about passing a certain level of literacy, because often the moment is gone. That is not always so; sometimes it is a marginal problem that needs some support, but often it will be a social problem or it will be because learning capacity is either not there or has slowed down. Will the Government give us some answers on what they will do? Unless they explain the problems so that they can be understood by other people in such groups, education and understanding will not be there. When communication breaks down, we have to start again.

How can someone apply for housing and benefits if he cannot handle the form? If he does not know how to ask for that help, which is now provided in legislation, how will he get it? The practical task is getting the Government to accept that they have to take a slightly different approach. They should invest in this group to explain about living in the world as it is and not how it should be according to statistics.

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1.31 pm

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I join all noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, on initiating this debate, which touches on one of the most crucial areas for which government can be responsible in any community. At the same time, I say how much I admire the youth justice campaigns that he has so valiantly fought over the years. Having paid those two deserved tributes to him, I beg leave perhaps to doubt the grave indictment that he levelled at Her Majesty’s Government of total and abject failure in this field.

I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for not following in the same terms the most moving appeal that he made in his address to us. I have the greatest respect and sympathy for his case and I am sure that his speech contributed substantially to the discussion in your Lordships’ House today. As the last of the speakers on the list not from the Front Benches, I shall touch on a document that has been referred to more than once in this debate: the report published some days ago by the children’s commissioners for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I am glad that Her Majesty’s Government require the commissioners to report once every five or six years—I am not sure which—as that, as much as any exercise, focuses attention on this issue. When the previous report was submitted, in 2002, there was only one commissioner—the one for Wales. Now we have commissioners for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The others have followed, if I may say so with some pride, the pioneering and progressive attitude of the Welsh Assembly in this matter.

I shall make some general remarks, the first of which concerns the mandate of authority that the four commissioners have. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the mandate is founded on the rights of the child as declared in the convention. The situation is slightly different in England, where the mandate is based on the five aspects of well-being that are highlighted in the White Paper Every Child Matters. This is not logic chopping or hair splitting: there is a world of difference between rights based on basic human rights as interpreted in the international convention and what, with the best will in the world and with the most genuine intentions, is declared as an instrument of government policy.

The remits of authority differ. The commissioners for Wales and Northern Ireland have every right to deal with individual cases, which is the most important feature of their function. That right is not enjoyed by the commissioners for England and Scotland. The English commissioner has a right of entry to premises where a child is in care or is being catered for, but that right is not enjoyed by the other three commissioners. Devolution has reached different levels in the Celtic countries, which means that certain anomalies apply. For example, in Wales immigration is a reserved, non-devolved matter, which is different from the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland. When a child in Wales seeks asylum, the commissioner cannot intervene. Ironically, it would not make any difference to pass the

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case over to the English commissioner, because he would not be allowed to intervene. These matters deserve considerable attention.

The House will know that under Article 4 of the convention it is incumbent on all Governments who have signed up to and ratified it to incorporate its contents in domestic law. We have not done so. The Minister may be able to tell the House whether there is a genuine intention to do so and on what timescale.

The convention report is chequered. Much of it is encouraging and much is disquieting. Certain matters constitute a considerable blot on the conscience of our community, particularly on criminal matters. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, touched on the age of criminality. We are entirely out of line with the European Community in this case. Our age of criminality is 10; it is eight in Scotland. In nearly every other European country, it is 13 or 14. I think that France has an age of criminality of 16. The Children and Young Persons Act 1969, which as a junior Minister in the Home Office I had the pleasure of taking through the House of Commons almost 40 years ago, had a provision enabling the age of criminality to be raised from 10 by affirmative order of both Houses of Parliament. I well remember the late James Callaghan as Home Secretary saying how progressive a measure that was and how much he hoped that the initiative would soon be taken. He was a man of fairness and toughness. Unfortunately, that provision subsequently disappeared from the statute book.

Many of your Lordships have touched on the number of children in custody. In February this year, apparently 2,837 children were held in custody. The figure given by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, was slightly different. He adumbrated the principle that accountancy gives many facets to the ordinary, common truth. Be that as it may, the figure is disgracefully high, whether it is his or the one that I cited from the commissioners’ report. As I have said many times, in the United Kingdom more children are in custody than in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Norway put together. That is the situation that stares us in the face. Only one or two circumstances can reasonably be responsible for that. Either our children are more wicked and have a greater predilection to serious offences than children in Europe, or we have a different attitude towards sentencing. Clearly, it is the second factor that is responsible.

I accept that there are some children of such dangerous calibre and viciousness that they have to be incarcerated. I also accept that it is a serious matter to injure a person with a knife or to carry a knife in a situation where that is kept as an option. However, I do not believe that the answer lies ultimately with punishment or prosecution. It lies more in managing to inculcate a culture in the home, school and community at large, whereby it is regarded as a disgraceful, cowardly and barbaric thing to carry a knife. That is easier said than done. Clearly, it is only in that direction that any solution lies.

I am rapidly running out of time, but let me make a point that has been touched on by many noble Lords in this debate. There is a danger that we, as a society, have a punitive attitude towards our children and young persons. They are getting a bad press. The

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media have a negative attitude towards them. There is a grave danger that we might be seen, as a society, to be at war with our young people. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about the way in which in many areas young people are dispersed by the use of what I think is called the mosquito bleeper, a high-pitched resonance that disperses children as if they were pariah dogs.

Our children are the greatest material treasure that a community could have. Let us remember, as far as the attitude of society is concerned, that old men—and old women now and again—over the centuries in this land and no doubt in the civilisations of China, Sumer, Greece and Rome, have always been telling one another how decadent the young are. There may have been a morsel of truth in it, but I doubt it. I believe that it has had more do with the attitude summed up by that jealous and cynical remark made by Bernard Shaw:

1.42 pm

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford for the opportunity to have this debate. It is also gratifying to see that a number of notable experts in this House on this subject have taken the time to speak today and have brought their wise, personal perspectives to the subject.

A decade is a long time, but in the life of a young person it is, critically, a period of enormous change. Unlike adults, it is a period when the foundations for their physical and mental well-being are established; when their knowledge-base and interests are cultivated; and, most importantly, when their life chances are determined. It is through this decade from age eight to 18 when the future of that person will be cast in the direction of success or failure. Fortunately, most succeed on the measures of well-being that we consider relevant in our society. We produce people who are relatively well educated, relatively healthy and make a positive contribution to society. It is those who do not contribute, those who tripped up at some point early on in their lives, who are our concern today. Moreover, those who encounter problems early on are seldom the sole protagonists of that error. As many noble Lords have illustrated, to a large extent broader circumstances contribute to offending behaviour in children.

We know the circumstances. We have looked at them not only today, but did so recently in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill as it made its way through this House. However, the more depressing aspect of this saga is that 10 years and several billions of pounds of funding have resulted in so little being achieved. On most of the measures which could constitute success on youth crime—take first entrant rates, reoffending rates, or reductions in custodial sentences—there has been an expansion of the youth justice net, rather than a reduction in the crimes being committed.

The report before us today—Ten Years of Labour’s Youth Justice Reforms: An Independent Audit, published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College—shows that if one takes a broader look at the system, the picture is even bleaker as these reforms over the decade have singularly failed to address the

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needs of the most vulnerable children and young people. For significant numbers of young people supervised by youth offending teams, the system has failed to meet the most basic test of a safety net; that of providing suitable accommodation—the proverbial roof over the head—without which stability is impossible to attain. When it comes to preparing them for later life, one-third are found not to receive full-time education, training or employment. Substance misuse or the provision of mental health interventions are ever the Cinderella of the service, whereby, according to this report, none of the targets for substance misuse, screening, assessment, intervention and mental health referral has been met.

Many expert noble Lords spoke in this debate, but I want to respond to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Warner. I pay tribute to his ongoing and prevailing involvement in youth justice. His record is such that we in this House can be proud to have been party to it, even at a stage once removed. I will also resist the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, to take a pop at him for his involvement in the current system—in a very direct fashion, that is. There is a problem with the noble Lord’s refutation of this study in that he believes it is based on the fallacy that the report is comparative, looking at a previous golden age and then finding the present age to be wanting. That is not what it sets out to do. The report, which is written by independent experts, using empirical data and tried-and-tested methodology to arrive at their conclusions—unwelcome as they may be to the Government—is one that stands up to peer review and to other independent expert analysis.

I touch on this because it is symptomatic of a larger problem to do with evidence-based research within the Government and their supporters. They do not like it. There was a fine illustration of this only last night with the Counter-Terrorism Bill and its odious proposal of detention for 42 days—noble Lords knew I would come to this, did they not? When the head of the Metropolitan Police was asked for evidence to support his enthusiastic response to 42-day detention without charge, his response was that there was none. He just wanted to keep the power in his back pocket in case he needed it. The fundamental problem is having powers in case you need them at some point, rather than looking at the research as it exists. My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford has spoken of risk-averse management. For those who might suggest that we are just making political weather out of this, let me quote Professor Simon Hallsworth, a former adviser to the Government on gun crime. He criticises the Government for their “deeply sinister” abandonment of their policy to be tough on the causes of crime, only in order to replace it with a policy which is concerned with the “management of risk”.

I move now to the Government’s current response. Almost all the experts agree that a more robust preventive strategy employing social and welfare-based interventions is the way to tackle potential risk-prone individuals before they enter the criminal justice system. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families almost said as much in his article in the Independent on Sunday on 8 June 2008, when he plugged the new youth crime action plan. He tells us that we need,

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In fairness to him, he also goes on to say:

The point is that all these things are rendered mere aspirations unless they are accompanied by strategic and real-time resources. As my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford said, when 10 times more is spent on offending, versus preventive measures, it is no wonder that the outcome does not measure up.

As the report points out, a key element of the Government’s approach has been a reliance on,

This finding is supported by others. Professor Hallsworth, the director of London Metropolitan University’s Centre for Social Evaluation Research, dismisses the Home Office’s Tackling Violence Action Plan as anti-social criminology. He adds that it is “hardly evidence-driven policy”. He describes the policy as,

I can only refer again to last night and to the debate that will probably ensue. Moreover, Professor Rod Morgan, the former head of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, says that he was,

when he headed the YJB.

We hope that these concerns will prove unfounded when it comes to the Government’s new action plan and that the track of prevention alluded to by Mr Balls will be prioritised. More broadly, we hope that the Government will reflect on the findings of this report and reassess whether the strategic focus of government agencies to work with and support young people at risk is the more effective way forward.

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