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Young Offenders

Volume 229: debated on Thursday 22 July 1993

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what powers he has to review custodial penalties for offenders under the age of 18 years.

The Government keep all penalties under constant review and propose changes when we judge that it is necessary. We have decided to introduce as soon as possible a new secure training order to deal with the hard core of persistent juvenile offenders for whom other court-imposed sanctions have failed.

In welcoming the secure training order, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he agrees that the peak age for offending in Britain is 16 for boys and for girls? Is he aware that the lives of our constituents are made miserable and inconvenient by the activities of a small minority of people who deserve custodial sentences because of the scale of their activities? Does he agree that the cautioning system in Britain, use of which has increased significantly in the past few years, certainly needs review so that adequate deterrence is provided in cases of burglary and other offences?

It is clear from my discussions with magistrates, judges and the police that there is a need for a secure training order for those 12 to 15-year-olds who have already been through all the community sentencing procedures and are still determined to continue in a life of crime. There is overwhelming evidence of the need for a secure training order, but there is deafening silence from the Opposition on accepting that need.

Does the Minister agree that if we are to have secure training orders and people in security, we must deal with the need for secure accommodation? The Minister says that there is no evidence that the Opposition are concerned about the problem. Will he acknowledge that in Leeds, where there are 27 secure places, discussions were held two years ago between the authority and his Department about the addition of 10 places? It was agreed that the extra places should be pursued. Yet no money has been produced by the Home Office, as it promised since that date. How can we have more people in secure accommodation when we do not have the places?

It is clear that the Opposition are dodging the point. Secure training orders are specifically designed for 12 to 15-year-olds who will be sent to units directly by the courts. The Opposition know—if they do not, they should—that the courts have no power at present to send to a secure unit directly anyone under the age of 15. Will the Opposition support the demands of magistrates throughout Britain to give them that power? Yes or no?

Is my hon. Friend aware that today in Yorkshire a 17-year-old youth has been convicted for his third joyriding offence in 18 months? Unfortunately, I cannot name him because of the absurd Criminal Justice Act 1991. Suffice it to say that when the arresting officer caught hold of him, the youth said that he was prepared to kill to make good his escape. That was no idle threat because the young man has killed before. In 1991 he ran into a 57-year-old nurse in my constituency. When will my hon. Friend change the law so that eventually the punishment fits the crime, not the criminal?

Of course, while we are looking at the law on the sentencing of 12 to 15-year-old persistent juvenile offenders, we shall at the same time look at the law for other age groups, to ensure that sentences are proportionate to those in the younger age group. I hope that my hon. Friend will not be disappointed when we have concluded our discussions.

Is not the Minister failing to learn from past mistakes? Is he aware of his Department's own evidence that under the old approved school system the vast majority of young offenders had reoffended within five years and that children leaving approved schools had a reoffending rate that was 49 per cent. above that which would otherwise have been expected from their records and characteristics? He should take note of the consensus and demands of my hon. Friends that the present system needs to be better operated. Secure places should be provided by local authorities, where people can be detained close to their families and given support to try to reduce the reoffending rate.

It is clear from what we have said so far that the new secure training orders will be nothing like approved schools or borstals. The Opposition cannot hide much longer behind the myth that we are re-establishing old borstals; we are clearly not. Sooner or later, the Opposition will have to come clean. Will they vote for secure training units or not?

The hon. Lady had better explain that to magistrates and to the police who have arrested 14-year-olds, some of whom have 30 previous convictions. Such youngsters have been through the whole range of community sentences and now the only other sentence for them is a secure training unit. The Opposition cannot ignore the fact that for a small number of young people community sentences are not appropriate.