Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Jeremy Wright.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and it is a great honour to speak about this important issue. This debate is informed by my visit during recess week to Barton Moss secure children’s home and Hindley young offenders institution. I pay full tribute to their work and to the obvious dedication and humanity of all the staff whom I met in both institutions. The Prison Reform Trust has also been invaluable in helping me think through what I intend to say.
It is fair to say that in few areas of public policy is the research more voluminous, more detailed or more comprehensive than in youth justice. There is always one more report to be read, one more document to be studied in detail or one more set of figures. I welcome the fact that the coalition Government and the Opposition have stressed their commitment to the principle of early intervention during the foundation years from nought to five, but I am concerned that a cohort of young people out there are already on the conveyor belt to crime, as it has been termed.
In preparing for this debate, I was pleased to reread the pamphlet issued in 2002 by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) that first set out the idea of a conveyor belt to crime. I was working in the Conservative research department when it was published, and it is a useful reminder that those were not the wilderness years we often felt them to be at the time. The pamphlet indicated to me that the conveyor belt does not stop at age five but runs right through to age 17.
Although much good work is being done on early intervention and preventing children from stepping on to the conveyor belt to crime, we must recognise that there is a significant policy challenge in what is almost a lost generation—those aged between four and 17 who may already be on that conveyor belt and who have already missed the benefits of Sure Start, family nurse partnerships and other initiatives. It was stressed to me at Barton Moss secure children’s home that the four to 10 age group is particularly important for policy makers to grapple with. We concentrate on the foundation years and the 15 to 18 age group, but a great deal does not always happen in between. I urge Government and think tanks to address the four to 10 age group.
Whenever we discuss criminal justice, we must ask big questions. What is the criminal justice system for? What is the relative balance between punishment and rehabilitation? Crucially, where is the victim in all this? Although it is tempting to embark on a great philosophical exploration of criminal justice, I will focus on a slightly narrower field of play, starting from shorter sentences.
I was struck when one of the professionals whom I met the week before last said to me, “Well, if they are in for eight weeks, at least we can sort out their teeth.” That might seem a slightly odd thing to say—surely the purpose of incarceration is not to address issues of oral hygiene—but the point is much more fundamental. Many of the people who enter the youth justice system have had chaotic lifestyles; many have never seen a dentist or engaged with health services; and many have dropped out of the education system. Even a short sentence can offer a brief opportunity to address some of those underlying problems.
It might be argued that many in the youth justice system have experienced a perfect storm. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 76% of those in the criminal justice system have an absent father, 51% come from deprived households, 39% have appeared on the child protection register, 28% have witnessed domestic violence, 14% have a parent with a physical, mental health or learning disability, 48% have been excluded from school, 31% engage in substance use, 20% engage in self-harm, 17% have a formal mental health diagnosis and 11% have attempted suicide.
I read out that litany not merely to emphasise the relative disadvantage faced by those in the youth justice system but to make a more fundamental and frightening point. The structure of our youth justice system seems to make it more likely that the most troubled in our society will be given custodial sentences, because their needs are thought to be far too complex to be dealt with in the community.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern that some young people suffering from Asperger’s syndrome do not necessarily get the treatment and diagnosis that they need, but are simply put down as mischievous, badly behaved troublemakers?
My hon. Friend anticipates much of my speech. We certainly lack a fundamental ability to assess the needs of young offenders when they enter the youth justice system and determine how best to address those needs. They therefore end up in the secure estate without having been assessed properly, because the tools are not present in the system, which is a great worry that I shall discuss later. The conveyor belt appears to be constructed almost to minimise effective exit points before reaching the secure estate. That should be of great concern, because disadvantaged children face particular problems in both the courts and custody.
It goes without saying that reoffending by juvenile offenders is extremely high. Some 75% of those released from custody and 68% of those given community sentences or other disposals in the community reoffend within a year. Why is that? Undoubtedly, some of them commit crimes and are bad people, but for a significant number, the ineffective screening process and lack of appropriate tools for identifying behavioural and communication difficulties almost set them up to fail.
I welcome, for example, the Minister’s proposed amendments to the Bail Act 1976, which would remove the option of remand for young people who were unlikely to receive a custodial sentence, but I would also welcome an assurance from him that the alternatives will adequately protect vulnerable children. When I visited Barton Moss secure children’s home, I was struck by the fact that many children are remanded there on bail for their own protection and welfare, even though they might not end up receiving a custodial sentence. There must be no presumption against a custodial remand.
Equally, when offenders reach the youth court, they find disadvantage once again. Little is done to screen young offenders for mental illness, learning disability or speech, language and communication difficulties. It is no use imposing a disposal of any sort if the young person cannot comprehend the punishment or interpret what is occurring to them in what can be a very off-putting setting. I admit that I have never visited a youth court, but I can imagine the feelings of a nervous child entering that formal situation, uncertain of the process and of what is occurring.
I welcome the previous Government’s introduction of a witness intermediary scheme to help witnesses with speech and language problems or communication difficulties better to present their case in court, but I must ask why such assistance is not also afforded to defendants suffering from similar problems. Does a child’s impairment increase the possibility of custody, because it makes it more likely that they will fail to comply with a youth rehabilitation order, or because there is a lack of an appropriate youth justice programme that might enable compliance? If so, it is a damning indictment of the system. Is it really the aim of our society that eloquent children should be more able to plead for one last chance?
When children get to custody, they have what is called the Asset form, which is the primary document for interpreting children’s needs. Those forms are critical to the development of appropriate care and sentence plans, but they are structurally flawed, because they fail to identify speech, language and communication difficulties. They impair identification of individual problems and make it harder to address those difficulties during the time in custody, however short or long it may be. The inadequacy of Asset means under-reporting of those problems, and I believe that they are taken insufficiently seriously within public policy circles.
We should recognise that, thanks to Lord Bradley’s report, improvements have been made to the way in which mental health is addressed, but the situation is by no means perfect. Indeed, it is a success only relative to the absolute failure in terms of other needs. The consequences of that failure in screening and appropriate identification are severe. As I have said, we are setting young offenders up to fail, which manifests itself in the rapid increase in the numbers of young offenders who are returned to remand for breach of conditions. For example, someone might be given what is still called an ASBO—an antisocial behaviour order—and told that they cannot enter a particular road. However, their grandmother might live on the other side of that road and, if they cross it to see her and somebody spots them and reports them for it, that is a breach. It might get them sent back to a young offenders institution, but it seems to me to be a technical breach. It might even be that the young person cannot comprehend that to get to their grandmother’s house, they would be breaching an ASBO in the first place. If they do not receive appropriate care and an appropriate sentence plan, and if they have a basic lack of understanding of the process in which they are engaged and are incapable of engaging with the interventions provided for them, we are setting them up to fail.
The story is the same when they get to custody. Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, has said:
“Prisons can offer a short window of opportunity for the majority of young people who end up in custody…That is an opportunity that must not be wasted.”
I am concerned that it is being wasted in some instances. For example, it is critical that children who might have dropped out of the education system and have not acquired the basic skills of literacy and numeracy are re-equipped with them, if they are to fulfil a purposeful life once they are released. However, it is clear from written answers provided to me by the Minister that the number of such young people achieving literacy qualifications dropped from 2,104 in 2006-07 to just 1,350 in 2009-10. Similarly, the number completing numeracy courses dropped from 2,680 in 2006-07 to 1,813 in 2009-10. I doubt that that is simply because of a decrease in the numbers in those institutions. There is clearly something more structural going on, and I would welcome some more information on why it might be occurring.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good contribution. On his last point, does he recognise—I say this as a former Minister with responsibility for skills and training in prisons—that, although many young people are making progress in our prisons, we were not able to introduce schemes such as Building Schools for the Future in prison greatly to improve facilities? Does he also agree that it is important for young people on short sentences that their integration back into, usually, further education in the community happens in a real way?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that contribution, which raises a wider point about who owns the child when they progress through the criminal justice system. One of my concerns is that when someone transfers from their home local authority to the secure estate, their home council effectively washes its hands of them. When they have gone through pupil referral units—or educational diversity, as we call it in Blackpool—and then find themselves in a young offenders institution, it is almost like starting again. They are then released and, yet again, they start again when they are returned to their local authority. Again, there is a lack of cohesion.
I should also like to deal with the issue of the prison escort records of young offenders at young offenders institutions. I have been informed in a letter from the Ministry of Justice that the initial assessment of a prisoner’s language skills is made by the custody manager who completes the escort record, but there has been no national review of the quality or accuracy of those reception language assessments. There is no obvious evidence of the use of a tool that is approved by the professional bodies.
I do not believe that in custodial settings we have enough speech and language therapists. Speech and language intervention at Red Bank secure children’s home reduces the need for physical restraints from two to three times a day to just two times a week, but only 15% of youth offending teams have access to speech and language therapy. I am particularly concerned that the changes to prison health care and the re-assignment to the Department of Health risk worsening prison health care. I am concerned that a primary care trust in which a young offenders institution is located now has to take responsibility for all the young offenders in that institution. It is causing problems in relation to securing funding for the health care within that institution. Will the Minister comment on that and explain why the change has occurred and how he hopes to protect those in young offenders institutions who are in need of specialist health provision that PCTs now appear reluctant to fund?
We need to provide more exits in the community from the so-called conveyor belt. As I have said, I welcome the fact that we are trying to avoid the use of remand. I support the concept of local authorities bearing more of the burden of responsibility for the cost of youth justice in their community—a child from Blackpool does not cease to be a child from Blackpool when he is in Hindley young offenders institution—which was an idea raised by the recent Green Paper. Payment by results is another frequently cited intervention, but I am not sure that it is fully understood yet. I would welcome some reassurance that the schemes on offer are not merely a case of helping the low-hanging fruit first to demonstrate that the process works, but are focusing on those who are hardest to help.
Lord Bradley’s review, which I mentioned earlier, recommended that all youth offending teams have a suitable, qualified mental health worker with responsibility for making appropriate referrals. Child and adolescent mental health services are a particularly malfunctioning part of our health care system. The likelihood of CAMHS taking on a 15 to 17-year-old who presents for the first time with mental health problems is, I am afraid, pretty close to zero. Their view is that they will have to wait to be dealt with by the adult mental health care system. Structurally, that cannot be what is intended by any Government of any political persuasion. A child and adolescent mental health service has the word “adolescent” in it, which surely applies to the 15 to 17 age group.
I should also like to focus on the issue of transitional services for children entering adulthood, a period for which, in my view, there is no real age limit, because young people develop into adults at different ages. The issue will be covered in the forthcoming special educational needs Green Paper, but I hope that, just as early intervention was the public policy fad—if I may call it that—of the past decade, the transition phase will become the fad of the coming decade. It has been sorely neglected, which has had a damaging impact on the quality of public policy in this country.
We also have to consider the impact of arrangements for the release of young offenders. It is not acceptable to just hand them a travel warrant and £46.75 upon their release. I have suggested to the Minister that we increase that sum, because it is not enough. When I market-tested that with the professionals I met, it was not supported as much as I thought it might be. The point was made that, if we give them more money, cash in hand, we cannot control what they spend it on. Those professionals would far rather focus on handing out vouchers to meet the specific needs that those young offenders will face in their first 48 hours or so, rather than a cash payout.
The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. Does he agree that one of the most useful things that can be given to young offenders when they leave an institution is somewhere to live, and that ensuring that they have secure accommodation is one of the best ways of ensuring that they do no reoffend?
That is perhaps an example of our target culture. We measure the number of young offenders on release who have accommodation available to them, but we do not measure the quality or sustainability of that accommodation. There could be an address to go to, but that might be someone’s sofa. For the purposes of ticking the box, that sofa is regarded as a long-term solution, and I do not believe that it always is.
I would like to touch briefly on the issue of doli incapax, which is the pretentious term for considering the age of criminal responsibility. This is something to which I have given a great deal of thought, because most in the criminal justice system focus on the need to raise the age of criminal responsibility to the age of 14. I have thought closely about this. There is clearly a humanitarian instinct lying at the root of that proposal. My concern is that what we are actually discussing is nomenclature, rather than outcomes. I realised at Barton Moss that many of the children it looks after in that setting—that secure setting behind a locked gate—are not there because they have entered the youth justice system. They are there because their councils have put them there for welfare reasons. If the age of criminal responsibility is 12, and we allow councils’ welfare departments to look after those children, the end result might be no different. I have a severe concern that, by leaving that to a council’s social services welfare department, we will lose the many safeguards that are in the criminal justice system to ensure that the law is adhered to. As we all know, in tragic case after tragic case, social services are becoming more risk-averse in how they treat young people. That well-meaning recommendation might well have perverse consequences and I would argue strongly against it.
It is true that we should celebrate every small progress that is made by a child. Merely attending two consecutive appointments can be a triumph for some. We have to stress, however, that the youth justice system is never the place to try to address all of society’s ills, as tempting as that might be. The youth justice system is perhaps a place that can be used to catch up and to address that which has been overlooked, but we have to start, as a nation, to accept that more must be done in the community. I realise that the Minister is shifting the Youth Justice Board back in-house. I would welcome an assurance from him that youth justice will remain the responsibility of a separate unit, within the Ministry of Justice, dedicated solely to the under-18s. The Youth Justice Board has issued many useful reports that have underlined the inadequacies of various stages of the youth justice process, and it would be a great shame to lose that independent voice. It is still important that, whoever we are and whatever our organisation, we still speak truth unto power. I hope that the civil servants responsible for youth justice do not recoil from speaking truth unto the Minister, where that is required.
Equally, if all exit points from the conveyor belt to crime, which I keep referring to, are bottlenecked around the secure estate, that risks still being a dumping ground for all the children whose problems cannot really be accommodated within society at the moment. In my view, they should be accommodated within society. We should be able to cope with those who have complexity of need. It is a damning indictment of this country that, to address those problems, we have to send children to a secure estate, lock them away from society, and say that society does not want to have to deal with those problems.
I have been appalled by some of the populism I have heard in political debate about criminal justice in this House. It deeply disappoints me. The dignity of the individual is compromised by many of the conditions in the youth justice system. The victim, as well, fails to receive satisfaction. Satisfaction is the crucial word, because punishment has two elements: retribution and satisfaction. Retribution comes in the form of incarceration, which is a deprivation of liberty and freedom. That is where the victim receives recompense for the crimes done to them. Satisfaction, however, is just as important, because satisfaction is where there is recompense for the wider community whose laws have been offended. The key part of satisfaction is that we reduce the likelihood of reoffending—when a young person leaves the youth justice system, they are less likely to reoffend, and more likely to have a purposeful life in the community whose laws they offended in the first place.
If our youth justice system makes it more likely that the most vulnerable receive the harshest punishments, we, as a nation, must examine our consciences. Community solutions, at the appropriate moment, are the way forward. Equally, I recognise that to be done properly, those solutions must be intensive, with the costs up front. They are expensive, and I recognise that, but as the Audit Commission report in 2004 made clear, if only one in 10 of those who went into the youth justice system was catered for properly, the savings for the public purse could be as much as £100 million. We are back to the old argument that early intervention saves money, which requires ambition on the part of Ministers and the bravery to take decisions where the costs are up front, but the benefits are long term. I urge the Minister to continue on his well-meaning path towards trying to improve the youth justice system.
I am grateful, Mr Streeter, for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on a very good and effective summary of the state of youth justice.
I would like to associate myself with a number of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, particularly in relation to the important role that now has to be played by local authorities on this issue. I, too, visited a young offenders institution just a few weeks ago: Feltham in west London. It was my fourth visit to Feltham in the 10 years that I have been the Member of Parliament for Tottenham. I visit constituents there from time to time. That keeps me in touch with them and in touch with some of the most challenging youngsters in my community. Reflecting with prison officers and chaplains, some of whom I have got to know, it is clear that the cohort of young offenders from Tottenham and other areas of north London are now in Feltham for more serious crimes than they were on my previous visit a few years ago, and on my visits before that. The nature of violent crime in particular, and what young people are being sentenced for, is deeply worrying, and is reflected in newspaper headlines about knife crime and other crimes.
The hon. Gentleman touched on some concerns that are really important if we are to address this issue. What happens when a young person leaves an institution such as Feltham? Reflecting on my experience as the Minister with responsibility for skills—and, therefore, offender learning in prison—for two years in the previous Labour Government, I am clear that we were able to improve education in prisons. If serving a sentence of more than six months in our prisons, a prisoner will now take not just level 1 and level 2 numeracy and literacy, but training, hopefully, in a trade that can be taken beyond prison. That is the case now. Lots of young men, in particular, are leaving prison and graduating with certificates to show the skills that they have acquired.
I would like to stress two points. We have not been able to renew and improve education facilities in our prison stock in the way that must be expected in the 21st century. There are jobs and opportunities out there, but if prisons, in partnership with industry, cannot provide the latest technology and training for those young people, whether in respect of construction or cabling for the information technology industry, the skills that they come out with will be virtually worthless when they compete with young people who have not been held at Her Majesty’s pleasure. That is something that we need to address.
A drive to ensure that industry works in partnership with our prisons to renew facilities and to support the provision of facilities in young offenders institutions is necessary. We did not see the kind of private finance initiatives or public-private partnerships that might assist in improving the situation in prisons in the last period. I hope that it is something that we can get to, so that young people receive the kind of training that I saw in Sweden and Finland, which, frankly, have far better results with their young offenders than we do.
Just a few years ago, my Government were able to begin pilots in what we called test bed regions, and I hope that the Minister might be able to comment on their success or progress. They were meant in part to deal with the other problem that is manifest in the system. I feel sorry for the Minister. I worked closely with justice and prisons Ministers in my period, and I know that many of the issues that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys raised lie beyond the door of the justice system, and beyond the door of a skills Minister dealing with education in prisons. If a young person exits but does not quickly get suitable housing, which is very much in the domain of the local authority, that is a disaster, because he will probably end up with the same crew that he was hanging out with before he went inside. If he exits and has to wait two or three weeks to access benefits, that is a bigger disaster. Guess what he will do to find money and resources in the interim period because, frankly, colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions have not been able sufficiently to integrate their systems so that he can quickly get the support that he needs, get on to jobseeker’s allowance and move forward.
Integration with further education and the role of the probation service are also fundamental. It is clear that the public imagination of what probation and probation services should mean is nothing akin to what is happening. A great deal needs to happen to ensure that a responsible adult is alongside the young person when they exit the young offenders institution. That is clearly the role of the probation service, which needs proper resources but also must be subject to proper expectations and accountable to the public. It must work alongside young offenders to ensure that they can continue to develop the skills they acquired in prison when they exit, particularly if they had a short sentence. There must be integration of the course that they were doing in prison with courses at the local further education college. In Britain, there are still too many young people falling through the cracks. They are not able to continue their education or training and access the necessary job.
We need a step change in the attitudes of industry and business to young people who, if they do not succeed in work, will cost the state millions in recidivism. I am afraid that the attitude of employers to employing young people who have a criminal record is still less than positive or wholesome. It is our civic duty to ensure that if someone makes a mistake, they are able to correct it.
I end with the story of a young man who came to see me in my surgery on Friday last week. He saw me in 2003, having committed some crimes in 2001. He had changed his life and wanted to join the Territorial Army. I contacted the TA at that point, but it said, “Sorry. We want to see more sustained progress in this young man’s life before we will take him on.” It is now 2011, and he has come back with his Criminal Records Bureau record showing no criminal activity, and with references from some of his employers over the last period. He has turned his life around and still wants to join the TA, and it is my sincere hope that it will look favourably on him. We need both public and private sector employers to take that kind of attitude to young people.
I am deeply concerned that the kind of cuts that we are seeing in provision for young people could lead to a serious explosion in crime among this important cohort. I say that fully cognisant of the importance of Tottenham and constituencies such as mine in respect of such issues in the past. Cuts to youth services and to provision such as after-school clubs for young people can have a detrimental effect down the road. I represent a constituency where many young people do not have access to gardens. They may live on the 15th floor of a tall tower block and share a bedroom with four, five or six brothers and sisters. They need youth services. They need the state in loco parentis after school and at the weekends. Without that, they are literally on the streets, in front of the television or on the internet.
Working women in my constituency do not get home at 3 o’clock to pick up their children. They are often single mums who need activities after school and at the weekend to keep their kids occupied until they can pick them up after they finish work at half-past 5 or 6 o’clock. Cuts in this area can have a huge and detrimental effect, so I hope that when we speak about youth justice, we recognise that it cuts across nearly every policy area, and that we must do better in Britain in the coming period.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this debate. As I said in an intervention, he has made a thoughtful and meticulously researched contribution—indeed, possibly even a liberal with a small l contribution. His emphasis on early intervention and ensuring that there is proper assessment of learning and communication difficulties among young offenders was a strong point.
I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who made a strong contribution based on his experience as a Minister. I did not disagree with anything that he said, including his last point about the impact of cuts on youth services. We must be cautious about that, because of the potential for significant negative knock-on effects.
I apologise to you, Mr Streeter, and to others, because I must leave early to sit on a Statutory Instrument Committee that is looking at licensing hours in relation to the royal wedding. Clearly, we hope that more people will not join the criminal justice system as a result of extended licensing hours and their drinking longer and harder than they might otherwise have done.
The backdrop to what we are discussing must surely be, to some extent, public perceptions of young people. Members may be familiar with a YouGov poll commissioned by Barnardo’s that was conducted at the end of 2008. It found that nearly half the adults regarded children as increasingly dangerous to each other and to their elders, while 43% feel that
“something has to be done”
to protect society from children and young people. It is a sad indictment against not young people but adults, society and, perhaps, the media that we have arrived at a point where the perception of young people is as negative as that.
The poll goes on to state:
“The British public overestimates, by a factor of four, the amount of crime committed by young people.”
I wonder to what extent that perception affects sentencing policy. If people think that young people are committing four times as much crime as they actually commit, that may be reflected in the sentences that are handed out.
That is the perception, but, interestingly, the number of children in custody has fallen by one third since 2002, from 3,175 to just more than 2,000. That goes against the perceptions that that poll revealed, and may explain to some extent the fall to which the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred in terms of young people accessing services. Fewer children are going into the custody system.
That is the backdrop, and I shall now address the issue. A couple of months ago, I organised a sentencing round table. I invited many of the organisations involved in youth justice to come and suggest how to enhance the proposals in the Green Paper and to propose additional measures. They stressed the importance of the emphasis on diversion, discretion and judgment in what happens with children who go into the youth custody system. As an aside to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, I hope that he will stick to his humanitarian instincts and consider why an age of criminal responsibility of 14 might be the appropriate course of action. Indeed, at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference on Saturday, I shall open a debate on a motion that proposes precisely that.
The organisations had concerns about whether the Green Paper focused enough on custody of young people, and there was a lot of enthusiasm about what is happening to youth custody in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that, and confirm whether the Government are considering that as a way forward. Northern Ireland has far fewer children in the prison estate.
The organisations also focused on the need to address learning difficulties and mental disorders, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said. He rightly drew on the briefing of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists—at least, I am drawing on it—and referred to the asset system, which is the tool designed to assess young people. The concern, as the hon. Gentleman has said, is that it is not designed to identify learning difficulties or communication disabilities. I have a specific question for the Minister. Can that system be looked at to ensure that it is adjusted so that it can do precisely that? As he has said, it is a significant issue. Current evidence shows that 60% of young offenders have such severe communication disabilities that they cannot access prison education programmes. I agree with the right hon. Member for Tottenham that good, strong educational programmes in prisons are key, but they could go further in allowing offenders to obtain qualifications.
When I visited the prison in the Minister’s constituency, the point was made that it is all very well an offender achieving an NVQ level 1, but they need to go further if they are to be competitive in the job market when they come out. Appropriate courses must be available. That prison—Highdown—has a gym, where prisoners like to go, and perhaps they should be able to achieve some qualifications in gym work that they could use when they come out.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham was right to say that employers need to do more, and I am sure that he will be familiar with National Grid’s scheme, which is fantastically successful. It trains prisoners, and its experience is that on release, because they take up a guaranteed job at the end of the training, they are less likely than the general population to offend. That is a real success story, and I wish other employers would emulate it.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that National Grid’s scheme works because the young offenders have often had day release or been out on tagging. Some of the public storm in the tabloids about young people leaving institutions must stop if such schemes are to work.
That is a significant point, but unfortunately, there is an element of risk. The right hon. Gentleman was a Minister, so he will know that there may be occasions when something happens on day release, but overall the impact is positive. The Government must be willing to accept that there will be some risk, and that there may be some negative publicity if something regrettable happens, but the overall contribution of such schemes is positive, which is what must be borne in mind.
Other matters that were raised at the round table include transition, which is significant. When young people go from the youth estate into the adult estate, it is a huge leap, and that transition must be much smoother. That applies not just to 17-year-olds going into the prison estate, but to 18 to 21-year-olds, because many of them are not able to go into the normal adult estate without additional support.
An issue concerning young adults to which the Minister may wish to respond is that the law is being disregarded and they are mixed up in adult prisons. The law is clear, but I understand that it is not being applied. Another significant point that was made at the round table is the need for early intervention and early investment.
I have some additional proposals that I hope the Minister will consider. The police should be allowed discretion in how they tackle youth offending, perhaps adopting a problem-solving approach rather than unnecessarily arresting young people when they admit responsibility. It should be recognised that the criminal courts are not necessarily the most effective environment in which to deal with children, particularly those under 14 when, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys has said, they often do not have the slightest idea what they are going through in the court system, because it is too complex and completely opaque to them.
We must decriminalise children when they should be treated as victims, such as child prostitutes, and we should protect young people who are criminalised for victimless crimes. I am thinking specifically of consensual sexual acts between those under 16. On restorative justice, I hope that the Minister will respond on the Northern Ireland proposals.
As hon. Members have stressed, it is important to give local authorities responsibility for custody costs, so that there is a clear and strong incentive for them to invest in youth services, as the right hon. Member for Tottenham has said, if they can see a clear correlation, which I am sure that there is, between investment in youth services and a reduction in the number of young offenders going into custody with all the charges and costs associated with that.
This debate has been positive with well thought-through contributions, and I hope that the Minister will respond in kind; I am sure that he will.
I welcome the debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing it. The contributions so far have been valuable, and I pay tribute to the previous speakers. I hope that my contribution is as informative and as reasoned as those I have heard. I start by saying that I believe in prison and young offender institutions. I believe that they should be about punishment, but also about rehabilitation, and that applies to children and adults. Many people in the adult penal system are subject to drug and alcohol problems, as well as mental health and education problems.
I want to focus on one area. It has been touched on by my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake): the ability of young people to engage in education programmes while in young offender institutions. Communication disability is prevalent in the youth justice system. We have heard evidence that more than 60% of young offenders have severe communication disabilities and cannot access prison education programmes. Only 5% of those offenders are identified as having a communication disability before entering a young offenders institution. A substantial proportion of children with communication disability experience social and behavioural problems in school, and those difficulties become entrenched over time as they cannot access the curriculum and become increasingly frustrated. Over a third of those children later develop mental health problems. Evidence also shows a strong correlation between poor education skills, particularly literacy skills, and criminal or offending behaviour. Young offenders with communication disability have a higher rate of reoffending once in the criminal justice pathway.
What do we find when we look at some of the money spent on prison education programmes? As has been mentioned, offender treatment programmes are largely language based. Some young people, however, cannot benefit from prison education programmes because their communication disability prevents them from accessing language-based interventions. Money invested in prison education schemes is therefore wasted and would be better spent providing specialist speech and language therapy services to enable that group of young offenders to learn the communication skills needed to contribute positively in society.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys mentioned the Asset form, which I believe should be revised. The current assessment tool is not designed to identify learning difficulties or communication disability. Moreover, it is verbally mediated and therefore inaccessible to most young offenders with a communication disability. The tool fails to identify children and young people with learning difficulties or communication disability. Subsequently, the resources needed to support young offenders with those difficulties are not provided.
What do we find when we look at speech and language therapy services provided in youth justice institutions? Access to rehabilitation and treatment programmes is the key to reducing reoffending—something we all seek. Due to the link between communication disability and subsequent behavioural problems, speech and language therapy intervention with young people reduces the risk of them developing behavioural problems and subsequent offending behaviour. Speech and language therapy intervention allows the offenders to access education and a wider range of rehabilitation programmes, and subsequently they are empowered to change their offending behaviour.
At Her Majesty’s young offender institution at Hindley in Wigan, 97% of the offenders reported an increase in confidence when they were able to access education, and they felt more comfortable asking for help following intervention by a speech and language therapist. Prison staff reported a decrease of 87% in the number of young offenders who received behavioural warnings following speech and language therapy intervention.
Given that communication disability is now recognised as a significant contributory factor towards reoffending, what steps will the Government take to support that group of vulnerable young people? The Asset form is a verbally based assessment that has been shown to be inaccessible for children and young people with learning or communication disabilities. Given that more than 60% of young offenders have communication disabilities, what steps will the Minister ask the Youth Justice Board to take to revise the Asset form? The Youth Justice Board and the Government recently confirmed the need to support young offenders with communication disability. Is the Minister aware that speech and language therapists are being removed from young offenders institutions such as Her Majesty’s young offender institution at Hindley?
Finally, I am sure the Minister has seen the recent report by the Public Accounts Committee, which accepted that 70% of young offenders have communication difficulties and that the current assessment does not give sufficient weight to those issues and problems. The Committee recommended that an explicit assessment of communication difficulties be carried out where difficulties are identified, and that speech and language therapy be considered as part of the sentence programme. That brings me to my original point: I believe in prison and the penal system, but I also believe in the rehabilitation of offenders. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this debate and on an outstanding analysis of the current issues. All hon. Members who have spoken have taken that lead, and I am pleased to see a growing consensus that youth criminality is a result of multiple vulnerabilities and failures in the individual and in society. I share the concern expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) that if the cuts to youth justice funding that we anticipate go ahead on the scale that is promised, we risk not addressing those failures. I will return to that point.
The previous Labour Government had a properly funded, multi-agency approach to youth offending. It included youth offending teams, which have been a real success story; the Youth Justice Board, which uses an evidence-based approach to disseminating best practice; the introduction of alternative disposal orders; and the recognition that intervening early is far better than trying to manage a child who has already become embroiled in criminality.
As a result, the youth justice system of today is radically different from that of the past. During the previous Parliament, the Government’s approach to prevention saw a significant drop in the number of first-time young offenders, from 170,040 in 2005 to 61,387 in our last year in government. Recent statistics show that the number of offences committed by young offenders dropped from 301,860 in 2005 to 198,449 last year—a drop of 35%. In the past two years alone, the under-18 prison population has dropped from 2,932 to 2,045—a drop of 30%. Those remarkable figures are possible only because of the good work of the Youth Justice Board, of YOTs around the country and of those third sector and social enterprise front-line providers that have given so many options and provided valuable data to inform an evidence-driven approach to drive down youth offending. We all want better outcomes for our young people.
Some years ago, I worked as a criminal barrister and represented young offenders. It was clear to me then, as now, that many young offenders are themselves profoundly vulnerable, a point which was made well by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. That is true not only in respect of their immaturity or youth, but because many are disadvantaged socially and educationally and suffer a wide range of impairments and emotional difficulties. Mental health issues are three times as prevalent among children in the youth justice system than in the general population.
Studies over the past few years show that between 40% and 50% of children in the youth justice system have emotional or mental health issues. A study of youth offenders found that 23% had an IQ under 70, and 36% an IQ under 80. As has been mentioned, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists found that 60% of children in the criminal justice system have a communication disability, and of that group, half have poor or very poor communication skills.
Some of those indicators are a result of deprivation, while others are clinical issues that need to be dealt with through appropriate interventions. They are not just drivers of offending or reoffending. The inability to deal with a complex and highly verbal youth justice system has driven many young people to act out, self-harm or worse. There may be a declining number of the most serious incidents and cases of self-harm that lead to death in custody, but each incident is a tragedy and, where it is preventable, we have a duty to act.
Hon. Members have mentioned some of the tools used to identify vulnerabilities found in young people in the criminal justice system. Asset, the Youth Justice Board’s tool for classifying young people and identifying vulnerabilities, has been rightly identified as lacking a suitable mechanism for isolating speech and language deficits. I am pleased, therefore, that when giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in January, the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, John Drew, confirmed that a complete review of Asset is being undertaken to find a way to integrate speech and language components. In 2009, the previous Government commissioned a review of the entire YOT assessment, planning and supervision framework, which has been at work since January 2010.
Reviewing Asset is not the only way in which communication impairment should be taken into account. Two weeks ago, I was in Milton Keynes at the Oakhill secure training centre. Among others, I met Diz Minnitt, the speech and language portfolio holder for the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and operational manager for the Milton Keynes youth offending team. They are at the forefront of the use of speech and language therapists, and they have an exceptional practice, focusing on prevention. They have halved the number of first-time entrants to the system in the past five years, and they have reduced the need for custodial disposals, far outstripping the national and regional rates of reduction.
There is a great deal of argument about what drives down crime, but I am firmly of the view that dealing with difficulties such as speech and language problems, so that young people can fully engage with deterrence and offender management programmes, is a big component of driving down first-time offending and reoffending. But here we come to the problem—future funding. We know that the Ministry of Justice faces one of the biggest cuts of any Department—23%—but I saw in Children & Young People Now magazine today that John Drew has said that the Youth Justice Board is preparing to distribute 29% less in Government funding to YOTs compared with last year. He is quoted as saying:
“There are a couple of YOTs saying it is going to be exceptionally difficult to maintain a basic YOT…Inevitably it will mean fewer resources on the ground to discharge a range of responses.”
He concludes that
“it will be really difficult to have as much success as we have enjoyed over the last two to three years”.
It is not just YOTs that are affected. Kamini Gadhok, chief executive of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, has said:
“News of cuts being made to speech and language therapy services in YOIs”—
young offenders institutions—
“is a deeply disturbing and regressive policy. Communication is an essential skill that is vital for the rehabilitation of offenders.
The delivery of speech and language therapy has been shown to reduce reoffending rates by as much as 50 per cent, which in turn reduces costs to the taxpayer.”
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys may confirm from his visit to Hindley what I believe is the case there—that the only full-time speech and language therapist post is being scrapped, which is a retrogressive step. The Minister needs to deal with that point when he responds for the Government. We have some excellent schemes throughout the country, but they are under threat. What will the Government do to ensure that they are at least preserved, if not enhanced, over the next few years?
The third sector, social enterprises, YOTs and the secure estate are all under pressure from sharply declining central and local revenues. If there is a massive contraction of youth justice funding, it may lead to a decline in the system’s efficacy, a rise in crime and the failure of schemes that, if fully funded, would probably have succeeded. If a scheme can reduce first-time offending, reduce reoffending, reduce the prison population and reduce our expenditure, should we really be reducing that scheme? That is the lesson from the report published today by the community or custody inquiry, although it does not deal exclusively with youth justice. A very high-powered panel concludes that some of the existing innovative schemes for intensive community punishments as alternatives to custody may be at risk, let alone the expansion in such schemes that the Government wish to see.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber agree that we do not want more children slipping through the net and being condemned to spiral down within the criminal justice system. Those who have been involved with youth justice for some time will know that we have been here before. I shall quote a passage from Hansard from 18 years ago, almost to the day. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who as Home Secretary was responsible for youth justice then as he is again now as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, was defending himself against an attack by the then hon. Member for Sedgefield, the shadow Home Secretary. Following that, the then hon. Member for Lewisham, East read to him a letter written by a youth worker in Lewisham:
“‘I find it at least ironic and at worst callously indifferent to hear members of the Government and Ministers bemoaning the lack of social responsibility among young people and expressing concerns about juvenile crime, when the consequence of their policies on local government spending is that something as worth while as the Young Lewisham project is forced to close.’”—[Official Report, 2 March 1993; Vol. 220, c. 148.]
I fear that many more letters like that will be written because of the cuts, not just in MOJ funding but in local government funding and in other areas. Although the aims of the justice Green Paper are commendable in many respects, ruthless spending cuts will lead to a diminution of capacity and systemic failures and undermine the very sensible case that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and other right hon. and hon. Members have advocated today. I fear that if those cuts are combined with the cuts referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham in Sure Start, youth clubs and the education maintenance allowance, our most vulnerable young people face a bleak future.
Every hon. Member who has spoken since my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) introduced the debate has referred to the quality of his contribution, and I would put myself at the head of that list. In examining a number of concerns in the youth justice area, he has taken a machine gun to all the targets and blasted them away. Even though I have more time to reply to the debate than I would normally expect, there simply is not enough time to reply to all the issues that he has raised. Many of them merit significant debate in themselves. However, I will do my best.
I shall start by immediately addressing the point about funding made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) on behalf of the Opposition. I am of course concerned about the possible impact of funding cuts. Every Minister who is responsible for service provision of one sort or another will be concerned about the impact of the expenditure cuts that they have to deliver. I am not alone in that, but if there is one source from whom we will not take a lecture, it is those who presented us with the hideous problem of getting the overall fiscal balance of our country right so that we can get ourselves out of the appalling economic mess that we are in.
That said, I take seriously the cautions that are being offered. In the situation that we are in, we have to think about new ways of delivering services that focus much more effectively on the output that the public services deliver. We are coming out of an era in which those at the centre have been privileged to dictate very carefully, through targets and performance measurements, how people in the public services deliver those services. Now, we need to turn to those people and draw on their expertise and professionalism to deliver the services more efficiently, and they will know that better than anyone else.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys paid tribute to the people whom he saw working in the institutions that he visited, and I shall join him by paying tribute to all the people who operate in the youth justice area for the quality of the work that they do. We know the value of that work. My hon. Friend, in concluding his remarks, drew attention to the report by the National Audit Office that said that the cost to the economy of offending by young people in 1999 amounted to £10 billion. Intervening early in the lives of children at risk and their families, before that behaviour becomes entrenched, can present our best chance to break the cycle of crime.
Youth justice is, of course, a key part of the justice system. The object of the youth justice system is to turn off, or at least turn down, the pipeline into the adult justice system and spare many potential victims of crime. Of course, the logic extends itself. My hon. Friend referred to the work done in 2002 by our right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who is now the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, in relation to the conveyor belt to crime.
Frankly, early intervention is just a blinding glimpse of common sense. In the debate, there has been a focus on concentrating on four to 10-year-olds rather than teenagers. In paying tribute to the people who work in the youth justice system, we need to acknowledge that turning round a socially excluded, angry and hostile teenager is difficult and, of course, expensive. Those who do such work are doing great work. How much better would it be, however, to do that work with not only four to 10-year-olds, but children who are born in circumstances in which the predictors make it all too clear that a horrifying percentage may end up socially excluded and on their way into the youth justice system? I fully acknowledge that communication issues sit at the heart of much of that, and I will return to that issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys analysed many of the problems with the youth justice system, so let me give a short introduction to the issues. Despite the increased investment in youth justice under the previous Government, there is still a lack of public trust in the system. Members of the public remain concerned about becoming victims of crime. Fewer than half of them have confidence in the ability of the justice system to deal effectively with young people, in particular. Reoffending rates among young offenders who are released from custody are horrifyingly high, with 75% being reconvicted within one year. Tragically, things are not much better for those sentenced to the higher-end community sentences, who have a 68% reoffending rate. Those figures are the worst for any age group in the justice system.
Too little is done to ensure that young people who offend pay their victims and communities back for the harm they have caused, whether directly or indirectly. The system does not incentivise agencies to invest in preventing offending and reoffending or in early intervention. Indeed, the system is set up in such a way that local agencies financially benefit when a young person is taken into custody. All the wrong incentives are in place, and we must address that.
My hon. Friend spoke about secure accommodation. Such accommodation will remain the most appropriate place to deal with a small proportion of young offenders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr Offord) said, there remains a need for custody. There will also still be occasions when remand to custody is appropriate for a young person.
However, it is a rather depressing state of affairs when people in the justice system are taking decisions to remand someone on bail when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said, the issue is the person’s social circumstances. It would surely be better if we moved to a system where the local authority’s social services department dealt with such things. If someone needs to be taken into custody in a secure children’s home for their own protection, the judgment should be reached through the social services system, not the agencies of the justice system.
There are occasions when custodial remand is used inappropriately because of a lack of alternative accommodation. Some 58% of young people remanded in custody are acquitted or receive a community sentence. Some of the funding spent on unnecessary remand could be better used to develop local solutions, which would be more cost-effective in the long term and allow young people to be diverted from a potentially unnecessary period in custody.
We have published our intention to introduce a single remand order for all under-18s. That would simplify the system and make local authorities—gradually and with support—responsible for the full cost of youth remand. That will reverse the current perverse incentive, which benefits local authorities when one of their young people is placed in custody. We also intend to amend the Bail Act 1976 to remove the option of remanding young people who would be unlikely to receive a custodial sentence.
Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, commented on assessment in the youth justice system. It is important to note that it is not the intention for youth justice assessments to be capable of assessing every possible aspect of young people’s lives. Rather, it is intended that they should provide a baseline and then trigger additional or specialist assessment where required. That means that we are working to ensure that changes are based on the principle of screening for, and alignment with, other assessments, rather than of replacing them. It is also right for professional discretion to sit at the centre of assessment arrangements, so there needs to be the flexibility in the system for that.
I would not say anything as strong as that Asset is inappropriate, but it is outdated and in need of review, and I welcome the support for such a review from the hon. Member for Hammersmith. The clear feedback from practitioners is that although Asset has a lot of good content, the form’s format and associated processes do not make best use of it. On that basis, the Youth Justice Board is looking at the assessment process in the youth justice system and developing a business case for changes to the Asset framework. We accept that more could be done to facilitate high-quality identification and analysis of difficulties in the areas of mental illness, learning disability, speech, language and communication. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon made clear, the assessment of communication difficulties is important.
The proposals for the future framework look to improve identification through a discrete section for gathering information about needs in such areas that is not dependent on the link with offending behaviour. In particular, that includes a specific section on speech and language, which are not covered in the current version of Asset. It is also the intention to improve intervention planning by bringing all activities associated with addressing individual young people’s behaviour into one plan and making referrals to other services more accurate and easier to generate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred to the assessment made by custody officers escorting young offenders. I should make it clear that, under the current system, the young offender team sends assessment information to the Youth Justice Board placements department in advance. The department then sends the assessment electronically to the youth offender institution before the young person arrives, so the assessment should be ready and waiting there.
My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of the relationship between youth offending teams and child and adolescent mental health services. Youth offending teams are multi-agency teams and must include a health partner. Primary care trusts have a statutory duty to provide health input to youth offending teams. The future commissioning structure is now being developed, and my officials are working closely with the Department of Health to ensure that there are appropriate arrangements to support an effective relationship between youth offending teams and child and adolescent mental health services and wider health services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) raised the extremely important issue of communication difficulties. Young people with speech, language and communication needs are over-represented in the youth justice system. We are working to facilitate the early detection of such needs in young people and to equip staff to communicate more effectively with those with speech and language needs. Providers of education in custody have been trained to use the hidden disabilities questionnaire, which identifies a range of learning difficulties, allowing education providers to refer learners to the appropriate support and for further assessments, if necessary.
An anecdote that has been reported to me provides a good illustration of why such provisions are required. A youth offending team worker told of a young person who, when asked in court whether he felt any remorse for his offence, said, “No.” It was only in the taxi on the way back that he asked the youth offending team worker what remorse meant. Plainly, that is not acceptable, and one can well identify what might have happened to that young person’s sentence as a consequence.
We have worked with the Communication Trust to develop “Sentence Trouble”, a guide to help youth justice workers communicate more effectively with young people with communication needs. Some 30,000 copies of the booklet have been distributed across the sector to all youth offending teams, young offenders institutions, secure children’s homes and secure training centres, as well as pupil referral units, magistrates, police, special schools, Connexions services, primary care trusts and speech and language therapists. The booklet is supported by a training programme and a website that features a forum for staff to share information, useful links and resources.
On the education of young offenders, local authorities with Prison Service young offenders institutions in their area are now responsible for securing suitable education and training for young people in custody. Primary legislation on education applies to young people in custody, which means that they have the same entitlement to education as their peers in the community. I am pleased to announce something that may help to answer some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, which is that we shall continue to fund the education support service in the next financial year in Prison Service young offenders institutions. The education support service has an important role in the education of young people, developing the links between Connexions and Jobcentre Plus and helping to give support for resettlement, in the form of referrals, national insurance queries and benefit and debt advice. It also helps to support young people applying for financial assistance for education, and offers information, advice and guidance on careers, helping them to develop their interests and skills, and, hopefully, identifying possible career opportunities.
It is of course the local authority where the young person normally resides that now has a responsibility to promote the fulfilment of the learning potential of the young person while they are in custody, and to share information about the young person’s education and any special needs they may have. By placing more responsibility on local authorities, the legislation aims to ensure greater continuity of learning for young people between custody and community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) both raised concerns about the number of young people in custody and the rate of provision of literacy and numeracy courses, which appears to be declining. All young people who enter custody who are able to participate are referred to learning and skills provision funded by the Offenders Learning and Skills Service. Of course, all too many young people have other issues, such as substance misuse, that they need to deal with before they can participate meaningfully in learning. Perhaps it is not quite so helpful to look at the number of young people who are learning, while the number of young people in custody continues to fall. Given the significant fall in the number of young people in custody, the numbers do not necessarily read across.
A critical issue is resettlement and making the links so that when people have been in custody they make the transition to the community effectively. Every year hundreds of young people leave custody to create a new life in the community and each faces the challenge of staying out of trouble and integrating back into society. Many of those vulnerable young people have no home, school or job waiting for them. Without the right support, many will reoffend, creating an unproductive and expensive situation for them and wider society. The aim of resettlement is to provide housing, education, training and mentoring for young people to reduce reoffending. That is of course an area in which, frankly, we have not done particularly well.
To address our capability shortage in that respect we need a radical new way of thinking. I hope that payment by results will be the vehicle by which we shall deliver such a step change in service delivery. It is a way in which we can free up professionals, and involve a wider range of partners from the private and voluntary sectors in taking innovative approaches to dealing with offenders. We want agencies to be driven by results, not burdened by targets. That is why we are committed in the coalition agreement to introducing payment by results. We are considering a number of options for how we might do that in the youth sphere. Perhaps it is in resettlement more than in any other area that we can raise our game by incentivising people to do what will work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys raised the issue of discharge grants and discussed the giving of the resettlement grant of £46.75. Of course, young offenders do not receive that grant, which is for adults. It is an instructive point. My hon. Friend said that there was concern about the raising of the amount. In contrast to the adult system, all under-18s are subject to sentence planning, and they have an allocated case manager in the community. The detention and training order is an integrated custody and community sentence. The youth offending team has the lead responsibility for sentence planning. That means that the young person’s accommodation and employment needs should be identified early in the sentence, and coherent plans for the day of release should be put in place. Those could include immediate access to supported accommodation, and should mean that financial support would be targeted and more flexible than the one-size-fits-all grant for the over-18s.
Properly, resettlement has become a prominent focus for attempts to tackle youth crime, but it has long been recognised that there is inadequate strategic direction, and poor performance. The use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and other forms of temporary accommodation, as well as a lack of resources and expertise nationwide, are frequently linked to reoffending. I hope that payment by results will bring about an improvement. Meanwhile, however, the Youth Justice Board last year set up a new resettlement programme with the aim of addressing numerous resettlement issues together. A key focus of the programme is the establishment of two regional resettlement consortia, around the Hindley young offenders institution in the north-west and the Ashfield young offenders institution in the south-west.
The aim is to bring together senior members from the secure estate, the youth offending teams, voluntary services and local authorities—particularly children’s services and housing—to take a strategic approach to developing flexible, co-ordinated resettlement services. Strengthening the links in the system through partnerships that work across agency and local authority boundaries not only tackles re-offending, but has additional advantages in addressing issues of child welfare, safeguarding and community safety. The proposals in our Green Paper are intended fundamentally to change the incentive structure in relation to resettlement. We want local authorities to take full responsibility for ensuring that young people who leave custody do not return there, and to incentivise more of the kind of work that I have outlined.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys raised the issue of the age of criminal responsibility and I am pleased that he supported the Government’s position, which is to leave it at the age of 10. Our coalition colleague the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington did not take quite that view, and having praised my hon. Friend for an admirably liberal speech disagreed with him about that. The Government believe that children aged 10 are able to distinguish between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing. It is entirely appropriate to hold them to account for their actions if they commit an offence, and it is important to ensure that communities know that a young person who offends will be dealt with appropriately. We have no plans to change the age of criminal responsibility. We accept, however, that prosecution is not always the most appropriate response to youth offending. Much of youth crime is addressed using out-of-court disposals and robust intervention to prevent reoffending. Indeed, we are now seriously considering widening the delivery of restorative justice and giving the police their own restorative justice interventions for the lower level of offences, which could be recorded for their own purposes. That is in addition to making sure that people both make restoration and receive punishment—the two are not alternatives—in the rest of the criminal justice system.
I am conscious that I have received advice on many issues on which, sadly, I do not have time to respond to my hon. Friend. I very much welcome his speech and the issues he has drawn to our attention in the debate. The policy area in question is very important, and relies on co-operation between a significant number of authorities, to drive down the number of people coming into the youth justice system, and make sure that fewer people leave that system to go into the adult one. We can learn a significant amount from work that was done previously—from the way youth offending teams were set up and the way they make such co-operation and co-ordination systematic. That is the challenge that I enjoy. I am delighted to have hon. Friends who take such an intelligent interest in the issue.