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Young Offenders

Volume 710: debated on Thursday 7 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to accommodate young offenders in the future in the light of the Youth Justice Board’s decision to reduce the number of places available in secure children’s homes.

My Lords, young offenders who are sentenced to custody will continue to be placed by the Youth Justice Board in the accommodation that is best suited to meet their needs. The number of secure children’s home places that the Youth Justice Board has announced it will contract for is an optimum number that is determined by the board’s examination of the average level of demand for beds in secure training centres and secure children’s homes over a three-year period.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. She may be aware that the number of secure children’s homes that deal with our most vulnerable and difficult offending children has been more than halved over the past decade, with a shift in provision to secure training centres, which are part of the prison estate. Is it not a cause for real concern that the essentially welfare-led approach to these children’s needs is being replaced by the very different, more punitive ethos of the secure training centres, in which the training and staff ratios are lower, the use of restraint is still commonplace, and the reoffending rates are among the highest for offenders of any age?

Further, can the Minister confirm that the closure of Orchard Lodge means the loss of the last facility in the whole of London, so that in future the nearest secure children’s home will be in Southampton?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. I reassure her that her interpretation of the approach of the Youth Justice Board is not how I would interpret it. I draw her attention to the youth crime action plan and the Government’s commitments in it to promote the youth rehabilitation order as a really constructive alternative to custodial sentences. Over the past 12 months, and before that, we have seen a significant and unsustainable level of vacancies in secure children’s homes. That is what is driving this change from the YJB. I also reassure her that we at the DCSF are looking very carefully at the drop in the level of demand on the welfare side, and at the same time we are investing in a number of alternatives to meet the needs of these children who are, as she says, very vulnerable.

My Lords, as the Minister will be aware, a lot of concerns have been expressed recently about the interests of children. In the light of that, does she agree that there is a need for more children’s homes and not fewer?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. He points to the extremely live debate that is taking place, which follows the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the Government’s recent response. Through the Care Matters programme and the Children and Young Persons Act, we have placed a duty on local authorities to ensure that a range of appropriate accommodation is available for children who, through a court decision, are taken into care. It is right that we have the appropriate accommodation and that there are places in residential care for children who find themselves in the care of the local authority.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the letter from the Youth Justice Board says that,

“quality was the predominant factor”,

in making this decision? In the light of that, can she explain why Sutton Place, a secure children’s home in Hull, got a rating of “outstanding” from inspectors and was not given a new contract, while Oakhill secure training centre, which has been in trouble or under a rectification notice since it opened, continues to hold vulnerable children in custody?

My Lords, the noble Baroness draws attention to the criteria that the YJB used for its review of its commissioning of places for secure children’s centres. I believe that the noble Baroness is referring to the fact that the assessment made through the tendering process was prospective and not retrospective. The Ofsted reports to which she refers are retrospective. The YJB asked bodies like Sutton Place to make proposals, which were assessed in terms of the quality and management proposals that were put forward. In the past, Oakhill has been subject to unfavourable assessments, but we can be reassured. On 21 March, Oakhill was given a “satisfactory” overall rating by Ofsted. There have been problems there, but there has also been improvement.

My Lords, how convinced is the Minister about the robustness of the projections for the demand for numbers of places? She mentioned that it was based on the average demand. Is she aware that where there is an average, there is also a top and bottom figure? In 2008, the chief inspector said that demand outstripped supply. If the projection of lower numbers of places being required is based on the Government putting more resources into rehabilitation in the community, that would be a good thing. Perhaps the noble Baroness can assure us, because it is not a cheaper option, that the Government are going to put an adequate amount of resources into in-community rehabilitation.

My Lords, I hope that I can answer the noble Baroness’s questions coherently. My point about the youth crime action plan is that the triple-track approach that the Government are adopting is very much about tackling offending behaviour through enforcement and punishment, as well as promoting better and earlier prevention and using alternatives to custody, such as intensive fostering and intensive surveillance programmes.

As the noble Baroness says, an average is just that, but the YJB has retained the resource to spot-purchase provision, should that be necessary. I believe that a comprehensive piece of work has been done, but the DCSF is keeping a very close eye on this, because we are extremely concerned to ensure that there are proper, adequate welfare placements as well.