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Prisons: Search and Restraint

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the report of 8 December from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, whether they propose to continue routine strip-searching and the use of restraint techniques involving the infliction of pain in prison establishments for those under 18.

My Lords, the Government are currently reviewing full search practice in the under-18 secure estate to ensure that it is proportionate and appropriate, and they will fully consider any recommendations that arise from the review. Physical restraint in the under-18 secure estate is to be used only as a last resort where all other options have not succeeded or could not succeed in bringing a violent or potentially dangerous situation under control. A new system of restraint for use in the under-18 secure estate is currently being developed.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that this report from the Council of Europe committee echoes what has been said in your Lordships’ House many times—that the deliberate infliction of pain as a method of controlling young people in custody is unacceptable? Does he recall that in December 2008 the Government said that the technique of inflicting pain on the nose in prison institutions for juveniles would be replaced with a safer alternative within six months? That was 13 months ago. Can the Minister tell the House what has happened to that commitment and when he expects this dangerous practice to be stopped?

My Lords, I start by saying what is probably obvious to Members of the House: unfortunately, but in the real world, the behaviour of some young people in custody is extremely challenging and can put their own safety and that of other young people and staff at serious risk. We have to be realistic about this. We have accepted the recommendation from the independent review of restraints that the nose distraction technique should be withdrawn from use in the under-18 estate. The technique has been withdrawn from secure training centres and will be withdrawn from young offender institutions once a suitable alternative is in place. The decision not to withdraw it prior to that is based on the need to have in place a technique that enables staff to deal quickly and effectively with incidents of violence by young people where they may be biting a member of staff or another young person.

Will the Minister join me in regretting the decision by the YJB to appeal the decision by the Information Commissioner that the restraint manual should be published? Parents at the very least, if not the wider public, should certainly know what is happening to their young people. Will the Government go further and follow the model of the Australian department of corrections, which involves parents in planning the management of young people following serious incidents?

I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble Baroness on that. The general part of the manual is already in the Library of the House. The part that has not been disclosed is the detailed description of the specific techniques. We believe that a detailed knowledge of the techniques, as applied, would allow those being restrained to take countermeasures that would reduce the effectiveness of the techniques and put trainees, staff and other persons in the secure establishment at risk. As the noble Baroness says, the Information Commissioner’s decision on this is being appealed, and we will just have to await the result.

My Lords, perhaps I may draw the attention of my noble friend the Minister to one of the recommendations in my report on women in prison, the effect of which was to abolish routine strip-searching in women’s prisons from 1 April 2009, and its replacement by a new system whereby strip-searching was done on an intelligence basis rather than as a matter of routine. I understand that the effect has been wholly beneficial. Might not that be considered in the light of this review of routine strip-searching for young people?

I am very grateful to my noble friend for reminding us that her report led to that change, particularly with regard to female offenders aged 17. One of the matters that we are looking at hard, with the Youth Justice Board review about to go to the relevant Ministers, is whether intelligence-led searching is not a better way forward.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister would not necessarily agree with me on the matter of placing our young people in penal establishments rather than in establishments that deal with their development and their particular difficulties. However, I have been responsible for some of the establishments that have had some of the most difficult young people in them, and it is my experience that changing from a regime that looks at their development and difficulties to one that places the majority of them in penal establishments leads, in fact, to a deterioration in their behaviour. Would it not be better to look more strategically at where young people are placed and at how we look at their future, rather than considering the matter piecemeal as we address this very difficult issue of inflicting pain?

My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what the noble Baroness says. Unfortunately, young people occasionally need to be remanded in secure accommodation or, at a particular age, in a young offender institution. I hope she will agree that a huge change has taken place in the way in which training and education occur in those establishments—which are crucial to trying to ensure not only that young offenders are punished but that, when they come out, they can avoid crime in the future. I want to reassure her that the ideas that she has put forward are very much our ideas too.

May I, for once, rather support the Government? In this particular situation, where gangs of children have taken charge of our streets and our cities, it is no easy problem. We are not obviously dealing with it in the right way, but it is difficult to criticise at this time, unless anyone can suggest a way in which to deal with the gangs of children on our streets.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support. As the House will know, these are deeply difficult and sensitive issues. No one wants to punish children unnecessarily, but there are young people who need to be locked away for a while, as long as they are educated and trained and every effort is made to ensure that they do not reoffend when they come out. That is what we are trying to do. A huge effort on all sides is going into trying to deal with the difficult issue of young people in custody.