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Young Offender Institution, Colchester

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 1 May 1996

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2.44 p.m.

Whether they have consulted the Chief Inspector of Prisons about their plans to send a number of young offenders to the Royal Military Corrective Centre at Colchester.

My Lords, on 17th April my honourable friend the Minister of State announced our intention to establish a young offender institution at the military corrective training centre. Officials gave Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons a full briefing on that day and have offered further briefings, which we know he will find helpful.

My Lords, I did not hear perfectly that reply, no doubt because of my advancing years. I am bound to say that it seemed to me to evade the Question totally. The Question I asked was whether the chief inspector had been consulted about the move. I do not believe that that was answered. Let me put another question to the noble Baroness. Having been hospitably entertained at the place, more lavishly, I understand, than is possible in civilian establishments, I am full of admiration for what it is trying to do for young offenders. However, is the noble Baroness aware that the chief inspector of prisons has expressed grave doubts about the wisdom of sending young civilian offenders to a military set-up?

My Lords, I know that the noble Earl has spoken with the chief inspector. The chief inspector has said that he was not consulted before but did not expect to be. In fact, he has had very constructive meetings with my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and is satisfied that the programme that we have put in place for the young offenders is a very good one.

My Lords, I cannot accept that. He told me exactly the opposite.

My Lords, I do not feel that it would be appropriate or even dignified to engage in an argument about what the chief inspector said to the noble Earl or indeed what the chief inspector said to my right honourable friend. This morning I received a letter from the chief inspector in which he said:

"If a successful campaign can be mounted to make [young people] face up to and tackle their offending behaviour, then they may be persuaded away from a life of crime. If not, then, sadly, statistics show that far too many of them embark on a life of crime, including longer and longer sentences for much of their adult lives".
He goes on to say that he is very pleased to see that the Outward Bound element of what happens at the military corrective training centre is to be included in the pilot scheme.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the proposal is causing considerable anxiety in Colchester itself? Does she agree that there is a great deal of difference between maintaining military discipline and punishing civil guilt? Will my noble friend confirm that the staff of the centre—the so-called "boot camp"—will be different from the military staff? Will she undertake that within a year an independent report on the efficacy of the experiment will be undertaken and presented to Parliament so that it can be considered?

My Lords, it is not a boot camp in the way my noble friend thinks. The young military people there are military offenders. The young people with whom the young offenders will mix for vocational training and education are those who will be leaving the services and who are being prepared for civilian life. We believe it important to put some discipline into the lives of the 32 young people who will be at the centre in order to build up their self-confidence, to improve their self-esteem and to teach them practical skills which will be of value in improving their employability in the community following sentence. It is a pilot scheme; it will be fully evaluated and the evaluation will be made public.

My Lords, will the civilian detainees have access to a board of visitors?

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that many of us view with horror the sending of young offenders to the terrible regime of the glasshouse? It is the wrong place for them. Have the Government learnt nothing at all from the failure of the short, sharp, shock experiment of the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, in the early 1980s?

My Lords, perhaps I can also place on record that it is not a repeat of the short, sharp, shock treatment. The aims of the military corrective training centre are to provide moral and social training and a purpose for life, and to re-instil pride in oneself through hard work, practical training and the acquisition of employment and life skills. There will be drill and physical exercise and the young people will be required to keep themselves and their accommodation areas clean and tidy. The staff will work at building on strengths and tackling weaknesses. The training opportunities will include carpentry, painting and decorating, signwriting, bricklaying, car maintenance, glass cutting, farm work and work experience, including education in basic literacy and numeracy skills, if required, and more broader educational training.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the stringent rules against placing young people in custody are so great that only around 2 per cent. of young offenders are affected? Secondly, many of those young people have never received any form of discipline and never had regular meal times. The discipline they will receive will probably help to make them and is to be highly commended.

My Lords, the statistics quoted by my noble friend are absolutely right. Some of us believe that many young people have no structure in their lives, too much pent-up energy and no sense of moral or spiritual guidance. They have enjoyed no training or learning at mother's knee. The programme aimed at for those young people is absolutely right. The routine at the centre will be such that they will rise at 6 o'clock in the morning. During the course of the day they will enjoy breakfast, lunch, tea and supper. All other times will consist of inspection of their accommodation and themselves, parades, physical training, education and training or work experience. They will go back to their rooms at 8 o'clock in the evening and the lights will go out at 10. There will be a three-staged arrangement whereby they earn privileges through good behaviour.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that one thing is certain—that those offenders who go through the course will emerge much physically fitter than when they entered? Have the Government considered the possibility that the regime as a whole may not cure them of their anti-social habits and lives expressed in burgarlies and so forth? The Government may be making future offenders much more physically fit and better able to carry out their "tasks".

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a most important point which allows me to say how the programme differs from the boot camps mentioned by my noble friend and the short, sharp, shock treatment mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara. The importance of the programme is that it will put structure and discipline into young people's lives. But it will also address their offending behaviour. There will be programmes especially designed to help them address their persistent offending—burglary or whatever—so that they come out fitter and with more structure and discipline in their lives and thereby, one hopes, make a contribution after their sentence. We have chosen a co-operative venture with the Ministry of Defence because the corrective centre at Colchester is highly successful in returning people either back into the service, so that they can make a better job of their lives in the service, or into the community so that they can make a more worthwhile contribution there.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that quite a few of us on this side of the House, although obviously not all of us, wholly support the experiment and think it entirely well founded? Can my noble friend expand upon the education facilities to which she referred—not the carpentry and the glass cutting, but the other facilities?

My Lords, it will take different forms. Each of the 32 young people will have a sentence programme which will address basic literacy and numeracy if that is appropriate and deal with other broader forms of education if that is appropriate. There will also be vocational training. They will have particular sessions which are designed specifically to address their offending behaviour.

My Lords, in an earlier reply the Minister referred to the experience of those who are already in, or have been at, the military corrective centre at Colchester. However, is she aware that Mr. Nicholas Soames courteously replied in October of last year to a letter from me about the outcome of this programme for service personnel and revealed that there was no monitoring of the two-thirds of offenders released into the community rather than back to their service? In other words, is it not the case that there is no evidence to support the ability of this regime to secure a successful return to civilian life and that the experiment is being carried out without even an attempt to secure evidence to justify it?

My Lords, I should like to think that the noble Lord would accept any pilot scheme aimed at addressing a problem that has eluded all governments—how we prevent the rate of re-offending, which is more than 50 per cent. in this country, whether people go into prison or go on young offenders' programmes, and do what we can to find a successful way of reforming their lives. We think it is a very good thing. We believe that there is evidence to show that people return to their communities and certainly back to service life. We shall include that kind of evaluation as part of the experiment. I hope the noble Lord welcomes that.

My Lords, what the Minister has just said is contradicted by a letter to me of 11th October last year. I shall make sure that she has a copy. There is no evidence as to the success or otherwise of those offenders who have been returned to civilian life.

My Lords, perhaps we should let the matter rest so far as that point is concerned. I defer to what the noble Lord says but I hope he will accept that this is a genuine attempt to address the persistent criminal behaviour of young people. We wish the experiment well, and we shall be looking for just such evidence as to what kind of contribution the young people make to their communities when they return to them.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that many of these young people offend because they do not have supportive families? Therefore, when they have served their sentence, they will be going back into a community which has not been supportive. Can she say whether support will be provided once they have served their sentences, and what kind of support it will be?

My Lords, the noble Countess makes an important point. It is probably right that we should put on record that many of these young people are as they are because they have not had guidance from their parents in their younger years. Many of the young people will leave this institution in their twenties. The whole point is to make them more self-sufficient. There are programmes in the community to help people when they return from young offender institutions. Where that is appropriate, I hope those will he in place.