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Young Offenders (Provision of Speech Therapy)

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the provision of speech and language therapy for young offenders; and for connected purposes.

In preparing today’s Bill, I have been indebted to Juliet Lyon and Jenny Talbot of the Prison Reform Trust, and to Kamini Gadhok and Jane Mackenzie of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. The problem is simply stated: more than 60 per cent. of the 11,000-plus young offenders in institutions today lack the communication skills to engage effectively and profitably with educational programmes, with courses in behaviour and anger management, and with initiatives designed to enhance their thinking skills.

The House will be aware, not least from the work of the educational charity I CAN, that it is estimated that the lifetime cost of the failure to treat communication disorders is of the magnitude of £26 billion. We are also commonly reminded that some 80 per cent. of young offenders reoffend: they go through the revolving door of the criminal justice system over and over again. We also know from a vast literature of published evidence of repute and academic expertise that a lack of education and the inability to communicate are risk factors in reoffending. People in the situation that I have just described are less likely to obtain a qualification, less likely to land a job and less likely to find a home; conversely, they are more likely to suffer emotional and behavioural problems, more likely to experience mental health challenges, and more likely to commit, or to go on to recommit, crime.

That is the situation with which this country is faced, and it prompts the obvious question: what can be done about it? I put it to the House that we could do a lot worse in dealing with this client group of people with severe communication disorders than to go for a significant, far-reaching and intensive programme of speech and language therapy.

As chief inspector of prisons, the then Sir David Ramsbotham—now Lord Ramsbotham—visited Polmont young offenders institution in Scotland. There, he had an intriguing and memorable conversation with the governor of the institution. Going round the prison estate, he was struck by the governor’s observation that if by some mischance he was obliged to get rid of all the institution’s staff, and if it was within his discretion, the last person to be let out of the gates would be his speech and language therapist, because of the invaluable extra that that person provided for the institution and the young people incarcerated there.

Sir David subsequently became aware, as others will have done, of the work undertaken on commission for the Home Office by the Learning and Skills Research Centre as long ago as 2001-02. A study of a particular group of young offenders in an institution found that when that group were given help with their oral communication skills, they were 50 per cent. less likely to reoffend in the year after release than the group who were not so helped. The reoffending rate was cut from a typical rate of 44 per cent. to 21 per cent. Armed with the impressionistic material and the empirical evidence, the chief inspector of prisons said to the Home Office, “I think that this is significant. I have taken advice and I am told that the most distinguished speech therapist in England is Professor Karen Bryan. I would like to undertake a two-year trial at particular institutions, to see whether help could effectively and cost-effectively be provided.”

It was agreed that the trial would go ahead, and it took place under the auspices of Professor Karen Bryan between 2003 and 2005. Speech therapists were appointed at Brinsford and Werrington young offenders institutions, both of which are in Staffordshire. Working to Professor Karen Bryan, their responsibility was to assess, to diagnose and to plan effective interventions to help those young people. The young offenders suffered from a miscellany of difficulties, but the significant point is that they suffered from difficulties of hearing, of listening, of understanding, of remembering, of relating to people and of expressing themselves in terms that were simultaneously comprehensible and legitimate.

At the end of the two-year study, which was privately financed courtesy of Lady Helen Hamlyn, Professor Bryan concluded that 100 per cent. of the young offenders studied would benefit from, or—to put it more strongly—were palpably in need of speech and language therapy. The report went to the Government. What did Ministers say? They were full of plaudits. The response was laudatory. They were grateful for a striking, important and valuable piece of work. One could deduce from Ministers’ observations that the report would have a significant influence on future Government policy. Therefore, I am bound to inquire what, two years on and in the light of those public ministerial utterances, has happened. The answer is: absolutely nothing.

To add insult to injury, in December 2005 the Department for Education and Skills published a document entitled “Reducing Re-offending Through Skills and Employment”, which consisted of 47 pages, 20,000 words and no fewer than 58 footnotes, but made not one reference to speech and language therapy. In the House of Lords on 27 October, Baroness Scotland of Asthal said that there was no problem, because the service was “already available”. If people were identified as having a problem, they were referred. The unspoken message that we were entitled to take from those remarks was that if there was a problem, it was being handled and there was no reason to worry. That is cold comfort, and rings hollow to the people at the coal face who know that it simply is not the case. The impression was given that it was happening, but it is not; that people can get the help, when they cannot; and that the system will work, when it will not.

There is an institutional paralysis at the heart of the system, not noticed by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) in dealing with the Offender Management Bill—and it is the fact that the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills, the Youth Justice Board, the Prison Service and children’s services are all involved. When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Nothing happens, nothing changes and nothing beneficial accrues.

The proposal in the Bill is simple. I suggest that we should cut the Gordian knot and place responsibility firmly in the hands of the Home Office. It provides that every young offenders institution—all 18 of those that cater for young men and the four that cater for young women—should be required to employ a speech and language therapist. That person would screen, diagnose and provide. The cost, at £34,000 per therapist, is infinitesimally small compared with £30 million spent on the respect agenda, or the £80,000 per head cost of uselessly and unproductively incarcerating someone who, we can confidently predict, left untreated, unqualified, unreformed and unemployed, will come back into a young offenders institution all over again.

I understand the strength of public feeling that says that when people commit serious crimes they must be locked up and pay their dues. The deprivation of liberty must take place. But we have to give people hope. We have to do something to make a difference. My Bill is not a panacea, but it would improve lives, offer opportunities and do something to hold out the prospect that those young people who are on the wrong track can become productive, effective and worthwhile citizens. I am proud of my Bill, which enjoys cross-party support, and I commend it with enthusiasm to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Bercow, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mr. Richard Benyon, Angela Browning, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Geoffrey Cox, Mrs. Joan Humble, Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, Bob Russell, Mr. Ben Wallace, Hywel Williams, Sir George Young and Mr. Geoffrey Cox.

Young Offenders (Provision of Speech Therapy)

Mr. John Bercow accordingly presented a Bill to require the provision of speech and language therapy for young offenders: and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed [Bill 98].

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During the exchanges on the modernising medical careers statement, the Secretary of State said that she was going to get in touch with the chairmen of ITN and Channel 4 because of the time taken to get in contact with the Department. One of the rules of Parliament is to maintain an open society, with the media able to investigate and report. Has there been a change of policy that requires Secretaries of State to comment on the actions of the media, instead of the other way around?

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, but he will know that it is not anything about which I can comment from the Chair. His observation is more of a continuation of the earlier exchanges.