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Young People: Custody

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will respond to the report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner on the restraint of young people in custody.

My Lords, we consider this a thought-provoking piece of research that will be fed into our wider-ranging independent review on restraint. I should point out, however, that the authors themselves say that the size of the sample of young people they talked to—89—was not high enough to be statistically significant and therefore not necessarily representative of young people across the secure estate.

I thank my noble friend for his reply. In his review, will he bear in mind the inconsistency of the types of restraint and pain distraction that can be used in different kinds of children’s settings, with an objective of producing consistent standards to the highest international level and compliant with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? What arrangements are being made to provide independent legal advice to the young people who gave an account to UserVoice, which was published in the report, of treatments that might be unlawful, to ensure that they have the advice that they need to be able to challenge those treatments?

My Lords, on the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, the whole thrust of departmental policy is to try to ensure that in all parts of the secure estate there is consistency of training and application in these matters. We are continuing to take advice on this. On the matter of legal advice, the Youth Justice Board commissioned Voice and Barnardo’s to provide an advocacy service in every part of the secure estate. Secure children’s homes also have advocacy services under contracts held by the relevant local authorities.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Youth Justice Board is a crucial player in this whole difficult area of young people and custody? The Government intend to abolish the YJB and take its functions into the Ministry. The Minister uses the strange but certainly novel argument that it should be abolished not because it has been a failure but because it has been too successful. Is it not time to stop this nonsense and accept that Her Majesty's Government have got this wrong and that the independent Youth Justice Board should be allowed to get on with its vital job?

That is a little wide of the mark, but I am very happy to say that we will return to this matter on Monday next, when I am sure that that question will be in the noble Lord’s opening speech. He can look forward to my response on what the Government’s policy will be.

Could I ask the Minister, in order to put this matter beyond doubt, whether the technique of inflicting pain on young people to make them comply, by hitting them on their nose, has now been banned, and whether the techniques of bending back the thumb and hitting them in the ribs is still being used or whether those have also now been stopped?

The nose technique has certainly been banned. My knowledge of the other two pain techniques that she mentioned is not as in-depth. However, I must emphasise that the whole thrust of advice and development, not only under this Government but over the past two or three years, has been, as I said in my opening remarks, to make sure that there is good training and consistency of staff attitudes in this matter. It is a difficult matter and I understand the concern, but it is a concern that I have detected in the staff and administration of the secure estate as well as around this House. The big problem, as successive Ministers have found, is that we also have a duty of care to staff and other inmates, as well as the desire to secure a safe and secure estate. Dealing with some of the most difficult and complex young people is very difficult, but reliance on administering pain is a very last resort in very difficult circumstances.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the fact that government policy on the Youth Justice Board will be revealed on Monday. Is that because the Government do not have a policy today, or would he care to answer the question from my noble friend Lord Bach?

The Government’s policy is as in the Bill. An amendment on it is to be debated on Monday. This is far off the question before the House. Two old experienced campaigners such as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and the noble Baroness know full well when they are wandering wide of the mark. I will see them on Monday.

My Lords, this report by the Children’s Commissioner is most powerful in its first-hand descriptions of how restraint techniques in secure settings are actually experienced by children themselves. It makes quite distressing reading. It is followed by the commissioner’s unambiguous recommendation that the use of pain to enforce control and order should be prohibited and that internationally agreed standards, as set out by the UN and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, should be used as a benchmark. Will the Minister please undertake to ensure that there is rigorous, thorough and better training of all staff in the children’s secure estate who deal with these most damaged and difficult children, so that the use of pain during restraint ceases? Will he undertake, with the help and advice of the YJB, to ensure that greater consistency is established across the estate and that more effective and rigorous monitoring is in place throughout?

I fully appreciate and have benefited from my noble friend’s deep knowledge of these affairs. However, as I said earlier, I also have a duty of care to staff and other inmates and the people she refers to as “children” are often 16 or 17 years of age, six foot in height and 14 stone in weight. In such circumstances, keeping a safe and secure estate becomes a real problem. That is the problem that we are wrestling with in the study that we are undertaking.