Skip to main content

Crime (Young People)

Volume 301: debated on Monday 24 November 1997

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.


The Government's plans to tackle youth crime were set out in three consultative documents which were issued this autumn. The main features include proposals to speed up the youth courts, replace cautions with a new final warning scheme, introduce new community-based sentences, strengthen arrangements for custodial punishment for young people and establish a youth justice board for England and Wales with local youth offending teams. Many of those features will be contained in the forthcoming crime and disorder Bill. I intend shortly to publish a White Paper which will reinforce the proposals and look to future reforms of the youth court system.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is already widespread agreement that one of the most effective proposals in his consultation documents is the reparation order, which will force young people to face the consequences—and, indeed, the victims—of their actions and give victims the chance to come face to face with the perpetrators of the crimes from which they have suffered? Does he think that the principle of reparation can be allowed further to permeate the youth justice system, as it is far more likely to be effective than traditional forms of punishment? Does he believe that child mentoring will also play an important part in preventing youth crime?

I disagree with my hon. Friend in one respect only: in suggesting that reparation is not a traditional form of punishment. Reparation is the most effective and traditional form of punishment, by which one forces the offender to say sorry and repair the damage which he or she has caused. One of the problems with the youth justice system is that it effectively ignores the interests of both the victim and the wider public, and detaches the system to some high level of abstraction, where even the offender is simply a spectator in an endless and often useless process. We are determined to tackle that.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that prison institutions for young people are rather like an old school tie: a costly way of confirming a young person's identity for life? Although those who have committed the most grievous offences will need to be imprisoned, will he build—[Interruption.] New Labour is so hard-hearted. I am urging the Home Secretary to assume more enlightened colours rather than subscribe to the harsh face of new Labour.

Rather than shunting on troubled and troublesome young people, will the right hon. Gentleman urge education, social services and health departments to work with his agencies to reduce the number of young people in prison institutions?

No one wants to see young people gratuitously put in prison, but they are there because they have committed a series of crimes and have to be put away. The major problem that we face of the large number of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds who are sent to prison or young offenders institutions arises as a result of the wholesale failure of the youth justice system to deal effectively with those young offenders at an earlier age. The system is so soft for so long before, to compensate, it becomes over-harsh.

A major part of my reforms is designed to cut delays in dealing with young offenders, especially very young offenders. It is designed to ensure that the system is consistent, and that, when it gives a final warning, it really is a final warning. Where the courts come to the view that 12 to 14-year-olds have offended so badly that the need for protection of the public and their own protection requires them to be locked up, not in prison but in secure accommodation, the provision exists to enable that to happen.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the reconviction rate for young people who enter young offender institutions under the age of 17 is 88 percent? Does he therefore agree that putting more and more young people inside for longer and longer is not necessarily the answer to rising levels of juvenile crime?

My hon. Friend is right, but the depressing fact is that the reconviction rate for such offenders after any kind of punishment—custodial or non-custodial—is far too high. It is also true, and it has emerged from a number of inspectors' reports, that that average—which she quoted correctly—disguises large variations in performance between different young offenders institutions. With the same resources, some are remarkably successful in ensuring that young offenders lead more successful lives when they get out and some are less successful. As with the effective schools programme, the challenge today is to ensure that the resources available to those institutions are used more effectively, to establish more constructive regimes and to ensure that there is a path back into work for young offenders. That is why it is important to link work with young offenders with the welfare-to-work programme.

Will young people—16 to 18-year-olds—be covered by the tagging proposals that he announced to the House last week? Perhaps the Home Secretary might also care to answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) about whether tagging will cover those guilty of drug offences, because his frantic briefing did not quite make it to the Under-Secretary, his hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). [Interruption.] Indeed, it seems to be continuing.

The answer to the first question, as I made clear last week, is that the tagging arrangements will be rolled out first to individuals in prison establishments. On the second question, I made it clear in the statement on Thursday that risk assessments will be made of any offender with a nominal sentence of between three months and four years. Such offenders will not be released under the tagging arrangements unless the governor of the prison judges that it will be safe to do so.