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Children: Custody

Volume 689: debated on Monday 29 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What changes they have made to the treatment of children in custody since the report by Lord Carlile of Berriew into physical restraint, forcible strip-searching and solitary confinement in custodial institutions for children, published in February 2006.

My Lords, the implementation of the code of practice on behaviour management relates directly to many of the noble Lord’s recommendations. The Youth Justice Board has been working with establishments on new definitions and data rules concerning physical interventions. It plans to begin using this new framework from April. The Youth Justice Board and the Prison Service have created a joint programme board to review behaviour management issues, including single separation and full searching.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Does he recall the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, saying in his report that the treatment of these vulnerable children was so bad that it could in any other circumstances result in criminal charges, and that the high level of the use of pain infliction to restrain children was particularly concerning? Does the Minister accept that in the months since the noble Lord’s report came out these restraint methods have continued to be used, more than 5,000 times? How high will that figure have to get before a change of policy will be considered?

My Lords, I recall the noble Lord’s reference. He also commented that he found many examples of good practice in young offender institutions, secure training centres and so on. Sadly, on occasion, because of operational requirements, physical restraint has to be used on young people in secure accommodation. Regrettable though it is, it is for their safety and that of others that occasionally these techniques have to be used.

My Lords, I declare an eponymous interest in this Question. Why, since the Howard League report was produced, has the entirely unnecessary practice of full strip-searching continued to such an extent that at Huntercombe young offender institution, in the most recent statistical period, there have been no fewer than 1,800 enforced strip-searches? It was quite clear to those who advised me when preparing the report that enforced strip-searching should be carried out only in a very small number of cases, if at all, and that the practice carried out at Huntercombe and elsewhere is unnecessary. Why won’t the Government act on this abuse of the bodies of young men and women?

My Lords, I understand the passion with which the noble Lord has put his question. The noble Lord, when preparing his report, recognised fully that strip-searching was necessary from time to time to prevent drugs and weapons being brought into establishments. We realise that there is a great deal of sensitivity on this issue; for that reason, young offender institution and secure training centre rules require that every trainee must be searched on arrival and subsequently only as the governor thinks fit. Of course any search should be conducted in a proper and seemly way, but they must be carried out so as to discover anything that might be concealed. Regrettably, it is necessary to carry out strip-searches; obviously they must be done in the best way possible.

My Lords, the report of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, recommended that children should not be placed in prison segregation units. Have the Government accepted his recommendation and instructed prisons to stop holding children in segregation units?

My Lords, the use of segregation for young offenders held in secure units is obviously problematic. It is not highly desirable, but from time to time, not least when a young person is acting in a dangerous and violent fashion, it is essential to segregate them, for their own safety and security and that of others.

My Lords, figures released in October 2006 show that more than 3,350 children and young people were held in the secure estate. It is overwhelmingly clear that any improvements to custodial regimes are extremely difficult to effect with such overcrowding. What do the Government propose to do to ensure that custodial sentences are passed only as a last resort, in line with the United Nations convention?

My Lords, custodial sentences are used only as a last resort and when appropriate. Clearly, those judging cases involving young offenders have to consider that carefully. It is regrettable, but some young people commit very serious offences. For those reasons they need to be placed in secure accommodation.

My Lords, in his report the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, recommended that policy responsibility for all children, including those in custody, should rest with the Children’s Minister in the Department for Education and Skills. In the light of the lack of progress since the report was published, the recent resignation of the highly respected chairman of the Youth Justice Board, Professor Rod Morgan, and the rumours about restructuring the Home Office, is such a change now under active consideration? If not, why not?

My Lords, all these things are subject to review and consideration, regardless of whether the future of the Home Office is under examination. It is regrettable that Mr Morgan decided to resign from his post before his contract expired, but these things happen from time to time.

My Lords, the Minister has already said that he did not accept two of the main recommendations in my noble friend’s report, but will he say whether the Government accept any of the five main recommendations or any of the 107 others in the report? Do we have to go on hearing from the Chief Inspector of Prisons not only about the excessive use of force at Huntercombe—and not solely for the purpose of strip-searches—but about the many other defects in the handling of young people, such as the use of handcuffs?

My Lords, many of the recommendations in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, have been accepted by both the Youth Justice Board and the Prison Service. As I understand it, the noble Lord had a fruitful and useful discussion and meeting with my noble friend Lady Scotland precisely on those parts of the report that were of interest. I think that it would be fair to say that the majority of the recommendations in the noble Lord’s report are either in active commission or under active consideration.

My Lords, will my noble friend comment on the treatment of girls in custody? I understand from a 2006 report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons that girls in some institutions are automatically strip-searched on entry. Will this practice now stop?

My Lords, I am not aware that girls are automatically strip-searched on entry. I will look at that observation and communicate further with the noble Baroness.

My Lords, in light of the recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights in the Wainwright case, the Minister’s replies will be hard to sustain. What consideration have the Government given to how to meet the outcomes of that case, which suggest that a good deal of our treatment of young people is simply not acceptable under human rights legislation?

My Lords, I do not entirely agree with the noble Baroness’s assertion, but clearly that case is important and means that, as at all times, we have to actively consider aspects of our policy with regard to the imprisoning of young people in our offender institutions.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. One of our concerns was the use of handcuffs in secure training centres. Does the use of handcuffs still continue and, if so, how many times were they used in 2006?

My Lords, regrettably, handcuffs have to be used from time to time, for the reasons that I have given: some young people become very violent and require to be physically restrained. I do not have statistics on the use of handcuffs in 2006. There probably are some data somewhere in my brief on the use of handcuffs, but I had better set out a full range of data on their use in the past few years so that the noble Lord can be best advised.