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Young Offenders

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

3. What plans he has to ensure that young offenders leave custody better equipped to avoid a life of crime. (902375)

5. What plans he has to ensure that young offenders leave custody better equipped to avoid a life of crime. (902377)

7. What plans he has to ensure that young offenders leave custody better equipped to avoid a life of crime. (902380)

11. What plans he has to ensure that young offenders leave custody better equipped to avoid a life of crime. (902384)

The Government will introduce a new pathfinder secure college in 2017, which will equip young offenders with the skills and qualifications they need to pursue a life free from crime. We are also enhancing education provision in young offenders institutions, and taking steps to improve the resettlement of young people leaving custody.

Last year the York and North Yorkshire Probation Trust community payback team joined forces with local residents to carry out a spring-clean in York. Graffiti was painted over, broken fences fixed, and public spaces brought back to life. Will the Minister join me in encouraging more initiatives of that kind, which provide young offenders not only with valuable skills, but also a sense of community responsibility?

I agree with my hon. Friend and think that where the court deems it appropriate, offenders young and old should be engaged in putting something back into the communities they have damaged by their offending. I also think it important that communities see that happening.

Will the Minister confirm that young offenders such as those in Her Majesty’s Prison Lincoln who have worked with Gelder Group, a forward-thinking construction company in Lincolnshire, say that better education and skills would help them stay away from crime once they are released from custody?

My hon. Friend is right: that is exactly what we hear from young offenders, and evidence is overwhelming that young offenders who engage in education, get qualifications, and go on to find work, have a better chance of staying out of trouble. That is exactly what we want to see.

Does the Minister agree that custody in secure colleges provides an opportunity to end the chaos that many of these children face and to impose boundaries that have all too often been lacking in their lives? Will he stick rigidly to the cross-departmental approach that was set out so intelligently in the “Transforming Youth Custody” paper, which is now a year old?

We want to see a cross-Government approach to this, and my hon. Friend is right to say that many other Departments have an interest in what we are doing. He is also right that a period of stability is vital. It may be a relatively short period of incarceration for those young people, but it is probably one of the few opportunities they have had to be clear about where their next meal will come from and where they are going to sleep, and to give us the space to address some of their significant problems. That is a large part of what we intend to do.

As well as providing support to young offenders to turn their lives around, will the Minister say what regime is in place so that a young offenders institution becomes a deterrent for going back there?

It is certainly important that the environment of a young offenders institution does not encourage those in it to think it is comfortable and to want to go back. For that reason, my hon. Friend will be encouraged to hear that we are looking at changes to the incentives and earned privileges scheme in young offenders institutions, in the same way as we have considered changes in the adult estate. We want to ensure that where young people have access to privileges, they get them only when they have earned them.

A report published by the chief inspector of prisons on 17 December last year suggested that it was easier for inmates to get drugs than clean underwear in prison, and a number of young offenders acquire a drugs habit in prison. How can we break the cycle when they leave?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that drugs in prison—whether adult prisons or young offender institutions—are a continuing problem, but as he and I have discussed, that problem is changing. Increasingly we see good reductions in mandatory drug testing rates for adult institutions—down from some 25% positive results to nearer 7%—but an increase in problems with drugs that are not in and of themselves illegal, but which should not be misused in prisons. For that reason we need to change the testing regime and give ourselves more tools to address the problem, which is what we seek to do.

Under the previous Government, the youth offending teams brought together professionals from different areas to help to tackle youth offending and bring down youth crime. What is the Minister doing to invest in mental health services and drug rehabilitation services in particular? Skills are important, but, if the issues that affect many of our young offenders are not addressed, they are likely to return to crime.

The hon. Lady is right that youth offending teams do valuable work. They continue to do that work, of course, supported by the Youth Justice Board. We are looking at the moment at how we can strengthen youth offending teams and have greater support from the Youth Justice Board to ensure that high standards are maintained. She is right, too, that one of the advantages of the youth offending team model is that it brings together a variety of different agencies, including those within the health sphere. She is right that mental health questions, in particular, are often relevant to addressing wider reoffending needs.

Children in care are some of our most vulnerable young people, yet far too many end up in prison due to a lack of support when they leave care. Will the Minister tell us what work he is doing with colleagues in other Departments to support care leavers, and to reduce the number of young people who turn to crime, both while in care and when they have left care?

I work closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), the Minister with responsibility for children and families, who, as the hon. Gentleman knows, takes a close interest in the welfare of children in care and those who leave care. He is right that a connection is, unfortunately, often made between those leaving care and those who end up in the criminal justice system, but it is important that we address the needs of young offenders throughout the process. He will appreciate that the Ministry of Justice encounters these young people quite late on in that process, but he is right that there should be co-ordination and that will continue.

Recently, a jury inquest into the death of a 17-year-old at a young offenders institution indicated a string of failures by the authorities to safeguard the life of a vulnerable boy. In the past 10 months, there have been 12 deaths in custody of those aged 24 or younger. In the past 10 years, there have been 163 deaths. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister consider inviting the Justice Select Committee to undertake a review into how deaths of young people in custody can be prevented?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on this issue. Every one of those cases is a very real personal tragedy and a worrying sign for the system, but that does not mean that we should react in the wrong way. I think it is appropriate that we think very carefully about what level of investigation is necessary. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, as he may already know, that, in relation to each death, a variety of different investigations take place both internally within the prison system and from the coroner, and, in many cases, from others too. That does not mean, however, that there is not perhaps a case for looking more broadly at what wider lessons can be learned. That is exactly what we are considering at the moment. It is what I am applying my mind to now. I will let him know as soon as I can what we think the right conclusions should be.