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Juvenile Detention

Volume 464: debated on Monday 15 October 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a number of issues about the conditions in which children are held in prison. Before I do so I want to make two observations about Government policy on prisons in general—one good and one bad.

It is one of the great shames under the Labour Government that they have been unable to tackle the growing crisis in our prison system. The general prison population has risen to one of the highest in the world, which has led to two issues: prisoner self-harm and increased reoffending rates. Those are two real failures of the Labour Government.

On a more positive note, however, the Government have had success in tackling the whole question of youth justice. Four or five years ago, I saw good schemes resulting from the excellent investment in youth justice; they were geared either to getting young children to avoid criminal activity or to steering them away from it at an early age.

I want to focus on how children are held in prison and how we are failing them. In so many ways the Government have done a great deal to improve children’s quality of life. The treatment of children in our schools, hospitals and health service and in the family context has been one of the issues that the Government have put at the heart of many of their policies to try to improve the quality of children’s lives. However, it is a failure that that has not been matched by the way we look after children who have been put into custody.

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Claire Ward.]

I am not quite sure what that meant, Mr. Speaker, but I am happy to have a go again, without a sense of déjà vu—but it has been an odd kind of day anyway, what with one thing and another.

Lord Carlile’s public inquiry into the treatment of children found examples of treatment that would be considered as abusive in every other setting and would probably have triggered some child protection investigation, but because it takes place in prison, of course, that does not happen. The rule of law and general basic human rights for children should apply equally wherever they are, and that includes living in custody. The Government are putting an awful lot of money into Every Child Matters, but the children do not seem to matter if they are held in custody.

There is an international context. Quite rightly, this country is very proud of often arguing that we need to abide by UN conventions. We are constantly lecturing in many ways the rest of the international community to try to reach those high standards. But in respect of our standards for children in custody, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly expressed its concern about the UK’s lack of compliance, both in policy and in practice. Despite that UN criticism, the Government have done very little to address those concerns. Worse still, many of the non-governmental bodies that we speak to say that, instead of things remaining neutral, they have got worse in recent years.

I want to put to the Minister a number of concerns, the first of which is the age of criminal responsibility. I do not expect for a minute that the Government will shift their view on that, but it is a concern that we in this country regard children as culpable for offences at the age 10. The UN convention on the issue is very clear, and there is a growing consensus that to categorise children of that early age in that way is wrong. In the rest of international practice, the age at which criminal responsibility is triggered is a lot higher. So the UK has already pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable to the UN.

The second issue is the number of children who are in detention. Not only do we choose to imprison at a very early age, but the numbers are increasing, many for minor offences. Article 37(b) of the UN convention on the rights of the child states clearly that the

“detention or imprisonment of a child shall be a measure of last resort”,

but the UK Government have made little attempt to meet the spirit of that and incorporate the last resort concept into our domestic law.

In fact, it is clear that we stray a long way from the principle of last resort. Our per capita prison population is high, and we have the highest number of children in custody. For every 100,000 children in England and Wales, about 23 are in custody—a figure higher than that in France, Spain or Finland, for example, where the figures are six, two and 0.2 respectively.

It is not just the age at which we imprison but the increasing number of children whom we imprison that is of concern. The number of 15 to 17-year-olds in prison in this country has increased by 98.6 per cent. in 10 years. That is a huge increase. None of those figures suggests that the Government regard such imprisonment as a last resort—quite the opposite; they regard it as a priority to send a tough message to youngsters. If it were seen as a last resort under a Labour Government, surely we would have seen some of those figures declining in some way.

I want to consider the current conditions in which some of our youngsters are held in custody. Overcrowding is one of the big problems. Ellie Roy, the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, has spoken of the claustrophobic conditions in which young offenders live. Anyone with children knows just how important it is to let them run around to let off steam, but the conditions in which we keep some children mean that it is very difficult for them to exercise and get rid of their energy. It is no surprise that that creates tension in the institutions, where there is pent-up anger. That leads to aggression, which leads to difficulties in those institutions.

Today, a report produced by the Howard League for Penal Reform focuses on the conditions faced by children in prison. It shows that between 2003 and 2006, 18,000 assaults took place in young offenders institutions—an extremely worrying figure. The Minister will know of the case of Adam Rickwood, who committed suicide only hours after being restrained. The serious case review panel said that, on the evidence that it had seen, Adam should not have been detained and that

“the whole criminal justice system treated”


“as a child in need of custody, rather than a child in need of care”.

That sums up some of the flaws in our system.

We know that, by their nature, prisons are institutions designed for security rather than for care. The structure of a prison militates against the delivery of a child-centred care policy, and with such a poor staff-child ratio it is almost impossible to address the individual needs of what are obviously vulnerable children. Remember that more than half of the children coming into custody have a history of involvement with care or social services, more than half have serious mental health problems, and more than half were dependent on a drug in the year prior to their imprisonment. Those are major problems, and I am not convinced that they are being tackled in our present custody regime.

Restraint is a controversial issue in relation to looking after children in custody. I welcome the Government’s decision to hold a review; it would be helpful if the Minister said a little more about the terms of reference and what he hopes the review will cover. I hope that it will bring some clarity to a murky area. There are plenty of matters that the review should consider. It should acknowledge and examine the link between the violence of the restraint used and the violent response that it may prompt from the youngsters on the receiving end. I do not for a minute deny that this is a difficult matter. This morning, I spoke to a prison officer who told me how difficult it is to restrain a 15-year-old who is flying off the handle. In those circumstances, what should a prison officer do? Clearly, restraint is unavoidable in some circumstances, but I would like to hear a commitment from the Government to look into whether the amount of restraint used can be reduced, so that it really is a last resort.

In addition, clarity is needed in some of the regulations—for example, the amendment rules. By allowing the use of restraint to help to maintain “good order and discipline”, without any consultation, the Government have created a vague extension of powers, which lends itself to different interpretations throughout the various prison regimes. I do not believe that there is clarity in this area. For example, when staff at Hassockfield secure training centre were asked about it, they gave varying explanations of when they felt restraint could be used. Clarity would be enormously helpful.

On staffing and education, there simply is not enough focus on children in our prison system. Any attempt at a child-centred approach is jeopardised by the fact that young offenders institutions are managed by area managers with general responsibility for all prisons. Surely we need specialist management that can focus on the unique issues relating to children. All too often, experienced staff suddenly move to an adult prison, away from the youth justice system.

The target culture is also having a bad influence. Private firms managing secure training centres, under pressure to meet targets for children’s participation in education so that they get financial rewards, were found during the Carlile inquiry to be using restraint to ensure that children attended education sessions. That is even more staggering when one considers how crucial education is to those young people, with almost half of children in custody having literacy and numeracy levels lower than an average 11-year-old’s.

Finally, I want to talk about family access to children in prison. Children in custody face terrible isolation. Of course, some lack a family support network, which is probably one of the reasons why they are in custody. In those circumstances, we need to find adults who will visit and give them support. For those who have a family, there are a number of barriers. As a result of overcrowding, visiting a child in prison can be quite difficult, simply because of the distances involved. That is not the only problem: Action for Prisoners Families found in its research that families of children in three juvenile prisons have registered a great number of complaints about the difficulty in getting through to the visit booking line. There were 41 complaints about that at the New Hall juvenile facility between July and September 2007. Those problems are not new. Action for Prisoners Families tells me that it has been pressing the Government on the issue for some time, and it is of concern that nothing has been done. It is critical that we do more to try to get the family of a child in prison involved; that has to help with rehabilitation afterwards.

One of the concerns about children in custody is the confusion over who owns the issue. Responsibility seems to be divided between the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice. There needs to be greater clarity about who exactly has responsibility for the issue. The DCSF will co-ordinate the response to the UN convention on the rights of the child, but the Ministry of Justice continues to take charge of juvenile detention. That is incomprehensible. I await with interest the memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Justice and the DCSF to see whether we can get clarity on the issue. It will be helpful to hear the Minister’s view on where ownership lies.

Children are in custody because of the difficulties that they have caused. I do not for one minute underestimate the difficulties of holding and dealing with children in custody. However, when it comes to issues including the number of children in custody, the age from which we hold individuals in custody, restraint, education and training, problems of overcrowding, and the way in which we give access to those children, we are letting down that vulnerable group. All of those points taken together have given rise to serious concerns on the part of the UN. I hope that the Minister will give me some reassurance that the Government, as a priority, want to address the concerns raised by the United Nations.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing this debate on an issue that is important to all Members of the House. At the start of his speech, he raised the wider issue of the prison population, and referred particularly to self-harm and reoffending. I give him an assurance that I take self-harm and suicide in prison very seriously. Work is ongoing with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) on looking into a suicide prevention group, and into how we can reduce self-harm in prison.

One of the Government’s key objectives is to ensure that we reduce reoffending. That means looking at employment, housing, drug abuse and mental health issues. It means considering how we can prevent offending and ensure that when prisoners are reintegrated into society, they have support mechanisms. There is much more work to be done, but I am confident that we are moving in the right direction, and I do not accept the criticism that the hon. Gentleman made at the start of his speech. However, he raised a number of important issues and I will try to respond to them. Before I do so, I pay tribute to the work done by the hon. Gentleman, the Children’s Commissioner and the many charities who do strong work on the subject, and who give the Government advice on such issues.

I will try to take the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in turn, starting with the age of criminal responsibility. He is right that I cannot change Government policy today, but it is important that we reflect on the issue at all times. I do not think that it is in anybody’s interests to prosecute children who are unable to differentiate between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing, but my view is that children aged 10 and over are able to understand that difference. It is not in the interests of justice, victims or the young people concerned if there is no possibility of addressing serious lawbreaking by children of that age.

Of course, as the hon. Gentleman said, we need to make sure that we prevent offending. A large part of youth offending teams’ role is to work with young people who are beginning to display offending behaviour and to prevent it from escalating—and to work with their parents. I visited Coventry youth offending team recently, and saw excellent work, both with children who display signs of truancy at school, and have perhaps even been excluded from school, and with parents who have severe difficulties. That work aims to prevent reoffending, but we need an age of criminal responsibility, and we cannot change it at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of child-centred services, and I can give him an assurance that great support is provided for young people in custody, as their offences should not obscure the need to care for them as children. The Youth Justice Board has a strategy on the secure estate for children and young people, and it has set out clearly the principles to which it wishes to adhere to achieve the goal of ensuring that children are cared for as children. Indeed, establishments should have a culture centred on the child; be run by adequately trained staff committed to working with children and young people; provide accommodation for young people that is separate from adult accommodation; minimise the likelihood of harm through integrated and rigorous safeguarding; provide high-quality health care; and ensure that regimes are geared to children’s education, training and, importantly, play, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

If the hon. Gentleman reflects, as I have done, on what has happened over the past 10 years, he would immediately recognise that that range of principles represents a radical departure from previous practice. He will accept that we are dealing with individuals who often have very severe difficulties—not just those such as drug or alcohol abuse that are visible when they go into youth custody, but the difficulties with literacy and numeracy that he mentioned. Recent studies show that nearly half of them have literacy and numeracy abilities below those of the average 11-year-old, and a quarter of them had abilities below those expected of a seven-year-old. We must therefore consider the need to prevent reoffending by securing school attendance, because 87 per cent. of young people entering secure accommodation have missed significant periods—often years—of schooling. Many of them have mental health problems, including depression and a tendency to self-harm. Their health is often affected by substance misuse, and more than half of them have reported dependence on drugs in the year prior to custody.

We must therefore consider very strongly how we deal with individuals as children, as well as dealing with their challenging behaviour and deep-seated problems. The challenge is how we meet those objectives. If we look at the positive things achieved by the Youth Justice Board—and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has done so—we can see that there have been great improvements. The education of young people in custody, in particular, has improved. Spending and investment in education has increased fourfold since 2000, and the amount of time during which young people in custody receive education has risen dramatically. In 2000, they received an average of seven hours of education a week, but in the Youth Justice Board facilities, they receive an average of 28 hours a week. That is a big change, and I hope that we can build on it, following the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of the joint responsibility of the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice for managing the Youth Justice Board in future.

The hon. Gentleman asked about that joint responsibility, and we are going to produce a memorandum of understanding. We will ensure that there is joint operation and examination of the board’s focus, because secure establishments are still required, so justice is part of that responsibility. However, it is important to look at the underlying causes of social exclusion, as well as poor literacy and numeracy, both outside the secure training estate and, indeed, inside it. Recently, the Department for Children, Schools and Families led a project to improve the education of school-age offenders in custody. A consultation exercise in the summer was very fruitful in gathering suggestions about how we can develop that policy.

We are also undertaking investment in health by transferring responsibility for provision to primary care trusts. The level of provision should be equivalent to that which a young person with the same difficult and complex needs would get in the community. As we have seen, mental health provision, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is particularly important. There are a number of programmes, not least the resettlement and after-care provision programmes, which are designed to be particularly innovative.

The work of the youth offending team which engages with young people after their sentence has ended is equally important. The provision of mental health in-reach services to custodial establishments has been greatly improved. Training and consultation by forensic nurses to health professionals is now provided in residential, custodial and community settings. The range of extra NHS secure forensic mental health units for young people has been expanded. I do not deny that more can be done, and we are considering that investment in a positive light.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of young people in custody having good contact with their families and other agencies, particularly if the establishment is a long way from the person’s home area. All establishments are required to make arrangements that promote positive contact and involvement with families, and to ensure that information is passed to families or other appropriate adults on significant occasions. The young person must be provided with facilities to write, access to telephones and advances to buy telephone credits or the equivalent, and encouraged to maintain contact with his or her family. Governors and directors have discretion to assist in meeting the costs of visiting a young offender. That happens on a regular basis.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned article 37 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, of which the United Kingdom is a signatory. That makes important stipulations about the treatment of young people in custody. Article 37(c) specifies that children who are in custody should not mix with adult prisoners unless that is in the best interests of the child. When we ratified the convention in 1991, the UK entered a reservation against that provision because at the time there was no separate under-18 estate.

The past few years have seen major developments in this respect. In 1999, the then Home Secretary promised that all girls under 17 would be removed from Prison Service establishments, and over the following years steady progress has been made. There has been a programme to build separate units for 17-year-olds. The first of the new units, at Downview in Surrey, was opened in 2004. I am aware of the need for adherence to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. As I said earlier, children are central to the youth justice system and should be treated as children—but as children with special needs.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned an issue of current political and community concern, the safeguarding of young people in custody and the way in which their behaviour is managed. He will know that the recent inquests into the deaths of Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood have generated a great deal of discussion and, understandably, some very strong feelings, on both topics. He mentioned the current legislation regarding the use of restraint and the modification that we made by amendment in another place and in the House earlier this year for the use of restraint for good order and discipline.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights is examining that. I gave evidence to the Committee last Wednesday. I am confident that we have got it right. Like the hon. Gentleman, I wish to see a reduction in the use of restraint, but I recognise that there are many instances where restraint remains essential to protect individuals from self-harm, to protect other young people from attack in secure establishments, and for the protection of staff. We need to examine the operation of that, which is why in July this year I instigated a review, to which the hon. Gentleman graciously referred.

The terms of the review were published in a parliamentary answer just before the summer recess, and the hon. Gentleman can refer to that. The answer makes clear the need to establish a review. I have given the two joint Chairs until 4 April to produce a report for me and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families. I want a wide- ranging review that will examine the current use of restraint, the circumstances in which it is used, what happened in the past and what needs to happen to ensure the safety and security of children and staff in those establishments.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that we are keen to learn the lessons of Gareth’s and Adam’s deaths; indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and I are due to meet those boys’ mothers either at the end of this week or the beginning of next—certainly within the next fortnight.

As I said, many children entering custody have a history of self-harm, and protecting them is no easy task. Like the death of any child, the death of a child in custody is a tragedy that we must do all we can to avoid. The coroner’s report has been produced, and we are awaiting my right hon. Friend’s response to it. I shall also respond on his behalf, and with him, shortly.

Challenging behaviour is an issue for which a rights-based approach, although essential in providing a framework, will never be adequate if we are to attain a full understanding of what is needed and how it can be achieved. I should like to draw attention to the Youth Justice Board’s code of practice on managing children and young people in the secure estate. Among its requirements are that physical restraint must not be undertaken except by staff who are trained and competent, and that such staff must be mindful of the particular needs and circumstances of the child.

Crucially, restraint must be used as a last resort and only as the result of a risk assessment—not as a punishment or to secure compliance with staff instructions. The hon. Gentleman’s point about its use to help secure children to undertake education was raised last week with me in the Joint Committee. I said to the Committee, and I say to the hon. Gentleman, that if there is evidence of such use of restraint, I will take it very seriously and investigate it personally.

Through the Youth Justice Board, we are trying to ensure full compliance with the code of practice; we are currently assessing performance in the second year of the code’s operation. We are considering a range of measures in a number of secure training centres to help support better use of compliance techniques and to ensure, for example, that we can defuse situations without having to use physical intervention. Hassockfield secure training centre is piloting the use of a technique, known as therapeutic crisis intervention, to make sure that physical intervention does not have to be used for compliance to be secured. We are also evaluating a restorative justice pilot, which has examined similar issues, at Ashfield young offender institute.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising these points; it has been a very wide-ranging debate. I hope that I can assure him that we take these matters very seriously. Safeguarding the rights of all involved in the under-18 custodial estate is a difficult balancing act but one which we must get right. Lord Carlile’s report of last year showed us that this is a particularly acute issue as regards matters not only of restraint but of full searches and single separation. The Youth Justice Board is currently considering those issues. High population pressures are with us, as the hon. Gentleman said. We need to consider how we can provide a regime that helps to prevent reoffending, gives young people confidence and skills, and helps them with the problems that they face, at the same time doing so in an establishment that has proper order and discipline within it.

I hope that I have given an indication of some of the work that we are doing and how we plan to improve the care of young people in the custodial estate. I contend that whatever the challenges for the future, the estate and its operation is in a better place now than what children faced 10 years ago. I hope that the House will recognise that, in a very difficult area, the Government have shown their commitment to achieve the vision that we set out to pursue. That vision, in summary, is to ensure that children are treated as individuals and that their challenges and difficulties are faced up to. The whole purpose of the investment in the youth justice estate is to secure a prevention of reoffending for those young people and to help them to lead productive and full lives for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o’clock.