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Young Offenders

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2012

Reducing reoffending is a key priority for this Government, and the challenge is most acute with young offenders. Recent steps that will specifically apply to under-18s include youth custody pathfinders, the troubled families programme, the programme on gangs and youth violence, restorative justice, new out-of-court disposals, increased curfews, more severe breach penalties, minimum mandatory custodial sentences for aggravated knife crime, and integrated resettlement support. These measures complement the already very substantial number of further measures and programmes that are aimed at dealing with all age groups who reoffend, not least young adults.

I thank the Minister for his breathless list. He will know of the charity User Voice, which engages those who have experience of the criminal justice system in bringing about reform and reducing reoffending. A group of young people from the organisation recently came to give evidence to the Justice Committee for its youth justice inquiry. It was striking to hear them say that having respect for the status and position of a youth offending team worker is not the same thing as connecting with them and having them make a reasonable difference to their lives. Does the Minister agree that there has to be a much greater role for offenders and ex-offenders in steering young people away from the spiral of offending and constant reoffending?

I have met people from User Voice several times, and I agree with my hon. Friend about the value of their work. I also agree that ex-offenders are uniquely placed to offer support to offenders, along with other professional services, and can connect with them in a way that many other agencies cannot. Peer-mentoring services using ex-offenders are being developed at Ashfield and Cookham Wood young offenders institutions, working with the Prince’s Trust.

What particular support will there be for young offenders institutions such as Lancaster Farms in my constituency, particularly in dealing with young offenders on short-term sentences?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for the work of Lancashire Farms, which is a young offenders institute for young adults. There are a range of initiatives. The piloting of drug recovery wings will apply to those with short sentences. We are reforming the way in which education and training are delivered and linking them directly to the demands of the labour market on release. Prisoners who are assessed for jobseeker’s allowance before their release will be mandated to the Work programme on the first day of their release, and that will be an important way of joining up Government and involving the Department for Work and Pensions.

The lack of work opportunities is one reason young offenders go on to reoffend. Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the link between youth unemployment and reoffending, and what steps is he taking to help young offenders find work?

We know that it is important to tackle youth unemployment. The £1 billion youth contract will encourage employers to give young jobless people a chance, the Youth Justice Board has developed an employing ex-offenders action plan, and resettlement consortia have achieved success in helping many young people to find employment on release from custody.

Does the Minister agree that the best efforts to reduce reoffending are often based on local courts with good local knowledge, working closely with local agencies? We have a very good magistrates court in Rotherham for Rotherham, and a very good one in Barnsley for Barnsley. Will he rule out any further magistrates court closures, which might put local justice in jeopardy?

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I cannot do that. We have to deliver the whole justice system as efficiently as possible. Because of the financial catastrophe that overtook the country under the last Administration, in which he played a prominent part in the Treasury, the provision of all court and prison infrastructure has to be examined so that we can deliver offender management considerably more effectively than the last Administration.

I welcome the new drug-free wing at Pentonville prison, which aims to cut reoffending. May I put to the Minister what I put to the Lord Chancellor when he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee this morning? The key to ending reoffending is to help prisoners once they leave prison. That support is vital.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are examining how we can make the transition from custody into the community much more effective for drug-addicted offenders. We want drug workers in the community to reach into prisons and link in the—

Order. We are grateful to the Minister. I do not wish to be unkind, but the answers are simply too long. Progress is too slow and it needs to be speeded up.

The double-dip recession created by the Government has made it much harder for young people in general and young offenders in particular to find work. What conversations is the Minister having with his colleagues to encourage growth in the economy and to solve the problem of youth unemployment in general and young offenders in particular?

The last time I looked, Spain’s interest rates were about 4% higher than ours. If we had those interest rates, it would cost the country £40 billion a year to borrow the amount of money necessary, which would certainly put paid to all the employment programmes that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting.