Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to raise once again the issues that relate to those children in the country today who are the most difficult and challenging, the most damaged and needy. They are the children between the ages of 12 and 16 and sometimes as young as 10 and as old as 17, whose offending behaviour has resulted in them being detained in either a secure children's home, which I will refer to as a SCH, or a secure training centre or STC, which means that they are also the most expensive to provide for. Older ones, from 16 to 18, will normally be in a YOI.
Decisions on the care of these children fall to the Youth Justice Board and now inevitably are part of the focus of the range of spending cuts being made around the country. Consultations are therefore being held to develop a strategy for the next few years which will determine the need, the cost and above all the type of provision for these children. It will also, coincidentally, reveal how far we are prepared to honour our duty of care to our most vulnerable children, despite all the challenges that they present. Failure to respond effectively today will result inevitably in continued reoffending and far greater and far more expensive long-term problems tomorrow.
The most immediate evidence of the problem comes in the figures from the MoJ that the reoffending rate of this group of children is 72 per cent within a year of release. It is the highest figure for all offenders being released from custody, thus demonstrating the relative ineffectiveness of the penal approach to this group. Their experience of life is light years away from that of the majority of our children and can be encapsulated in the telling phrase, “a disproportionate experience of loss”—meaning loss of family life, love and security.
For those 12 to 18 year-olds who end up in custody, the figures illustrate that 71 per cent have been involved with, or in the care of, social services; 75 per cent have lived with someone other than a parent at some time—this compares with 1.5 per cent of the population; a quarter have experienced violence at home; 40 per cent have been homeless—we are talking here about the 21st century; and 90 per cent have been excluded from school. These are children for whom violence at home is often the norm. Some of them start their nursery schooling not even knowing what their name is, such is the absence of a loving family life. Of those who end up in custody, up to 81 per cent have mental health problems. Those figures may be enough to give a flavour of the extreme and shocking difficulties in many of these children’s lives.
I pay tribute to the Youth Justice Board for its work over the past four to five years, in particular for the way in which it has succeeded in bringing down the numbers of 10 to 14 year-olds going into custody by a remarkable 51 per cent since 2006-07. The reasons for that are complex and varied, but it demonstrates not only the courts’ overuse of custody in the past but the creative work that the YJB has developed with the YOTs and other agencies in the community in prevention, diversion and treatment, all of which is greatly to be welcomed.
Of course, such a reduction leaves spare capacity and, therefore, considerable savings—hence the current consultation. The decisions to be made for the future offer a rare opportunity to reconfigure provision to meet better these young people’s needs and intractable problems, but it is not clear in what direction things will go. The response of the MoJ and YJB to these savings, alongside the demands for funding cuts, may be to take this as an opportunity to develop more welfare-oriented, child-centred approaches. Alternatively, there may be a threat to best practice through the merging or combining of facilities, driven by the need for cuts, which would be unlikely to reduce reoffending and would be a tragic lost opportunity.
There are several reasons for my concern. First, there has been a drop of a third in the number of children placed in secure children’s homes by the YJB, while its use of STCs has risen by 19 per cent. Real concern about this trend has been expressed by virtually every specialist agency working with these children. The views of such agencies are represented by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, which states unequivocally that the predominantly welfare-centred ethos of the secure children’s homes is absolutely vital not only for the future chances and well-being of these children but for reducing reoffending. There should be no further reduction in the numbers of those beds. The suspected motive is to achieve short-term cost savings, which is simply counterproductive. By contrast, the STCs are part of the prison estate with all that that implies—they are essentially places of punishment—and are not an appropriate answer, greatly improved though I acknowledge they have become. It is also absolutely clear that more research is needed into a needs analysis of these children.
A policy starting point recommended by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice is the raising of the remand and custody thresholds, which would guarantee a reduction in the number of those remanded or sentenced to custody and contribute to cutting costs at the same time. That is a wise recommendation. Very worrying is the evidence that the overarching assumption that should inform the sentencing of children—namely, that custody should be used as a very last resort and for the shortest period of time—is not being adhered to. Evidence from Barnardo’s shows that 35 per cent of 12 to 14 year-olds in custody did not appear to meet the custody thresholds defined in the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. The evidence also suggests that 50 per cent of children remanded in custody in 2009 were subsequently acquitted or given a community sentence.
In my experience in Scotland as a member for nine years of the children’s panel, which is the Scottish equivalent to the youth court, our guiding principle was, and still is, that the child’s needs should be addressed as a priority, for it is only in understanding his or her needs that you can begin to understand and deal appropriately with the deeds that have led to the hearing. I am quite clear that there are times, especially for the most difficult, when secure accommodation is indeed absolutely necessary because security is what is really needed and the child is at serious risk in the community, whether from family, lifestyle or contacts. Indeed, sometimes the community may be at risk from a child’s chaotic or violent behaviour, but this is usually for a brief period. However, any placement should be very frequently reviewed so that proper assessments are made. I believe that that is the right model.
The recent development, within prisons in England, of what are called “enhanced units” for children and young people is interesting but also worrying. For example, the Keppel unit at Wetherby YOI and the Willow unit at Hindley YOI have recently been developed. I have visited the Keppel unit and seen evidence there of very good work, of which the YJB is justly proud. However, imprisoning children with adult provision being adapted to them rather than being designed around their needs is simply not right. It raises the question of whether such provision is becoming the alternative in the MoJ’s planning for secure children’s homes provision. That would be a real mistake. There is no question of the need for specialist provision, but it must be properly geared to meet the needs of this group of children in a specialist environment.
Cost is a very real issue for the YJB. For example, the cost per bed night in one of the four STCs, such as Oakhill, can be £861.40. There has always been a perception that secure children’s homes were more expensive, but the Prison Reform Trust has demonstrated that this is no longer the case. It quotes one children’s home at a mere £599 per night. This is important because it seems that there is more scope for negotiating price. The figures for residential provision, although absolutely mouth-watering, reflect the needs of the most vulnerable children, to whom our duty of care must be honoured.
These are just some of the issues that the Government must take into account. False economies are not what these children, or the country, need. I look forward to hearing reassuring words on the future of current best professional practice in secure children’s homes from the Minister.
My Lords, I declare an interest, which the Minister may think singularly inappropriate—I am a member of the Out of Trouble advisory group of the Prison Reform Trust—and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, on introducing the debate.
The background to the debate is that in this country we criminalise children at much too young an age, much younger than in most other jurisdictions. We lock them up five times more on average than similar societies do. For example, to compare ourselves with Finland, we have 2,000 youngsters under 18 in custody, whereas Finland, with one-tenth of our population, has precisely six. Finland has 4,000 adolescent treatment centre places, whereas this country, with 10 times the population, has a mere 1,100. There is also the significant cost, to which the noble Baroness has referred; it costs £51,000 a year to keep a child in a young offender institution and £165,000 in a secure training centre. Of course, we now have cuts of 20 per cent in the YOTs budget—23 per cent, actually, in London—at a time when, as we have heard in the past couple of weeks, reoffending rates in 70 per cent of youth offending team areas are beginning to rise.
The noble Baroness has referred to the background of many of these youngsters. Three times as many suffer from mental health problems as in the general population and 25 per cent of them have special needs, while 23 per cent of them have IQs of less than 70 and 36 per cent have between 70 and 79. That is nearly 60 per cent with IQs of under 80, and 60 per cent have poor communication skills. All too often, they are in custody because of breach of an order, such as an ASBO, and not necessarily for serious offences. In cases of non-violent, less serious offences resulting in custody, about 61 per cent arise from a breach of an order.
The Prison Reform Trust recently published a document on this whole process, pointing out that far too often it is the breach of an order that leads to custodial sentences, and it made eight significant recommendations for improving that situation, including topics that one might have thought would be useful across the whole of the system: involving children in decisions taken about them; improving the quality of intervention in the community; and identifying and meeting welfare needs leading to offences in the first place, dealing with the problem before it translates into a criminal offence. That involves not just the criminal justice system. Clearly it goes much beyond that and involves the health system, children’s services and, arguably, the whole issue of family responsibilities. This issue certainly needs to be progressed.
Other factors also cause concern. In the population of young people in custody, a disproportionate number of children are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, particularly in remand. They seem to have a significantly higher propensity to be remanded in custody than other children. The position of black and minority ethnic girls receiving custodial sentences is also distinctly out of line with either their male counterparts from those communities or with the non-BME population. If those issues are to be tackled, we need to get to the children well before the problems manifest themselves. In the mean time, we must also look at non-custodial ways in which to deal with these children, including justice reinvestment. Involving young people in community payback and giving them a skill while they are doing that has proved to be effective in reducing reoffending rates. Contrary to the public myth peddled by some of the tabloid press, there is a willingness on the part of the public to accept that custody is not necessarily the best solution and that properly constructed schemes involving young people in community activities and the like can be very effective.
I end by quoting the following passage:
“Just threatening to lock young people up will not break the cycle. Of course criminals need to face penalties for their actions but we desperately need to deal with the reasons why they are committing crime in the first place. Otherwise we move from being ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ to being ‘tough on headlines, soft on the causes of the headline’”.
That is a quote from the report from the Centre for Social Justice, produced by Iain Duncan Smith’s working party.
My Lords, this debate identifies two issues that need to be addressed. First, there is the effect of budget cuts on secure children's homes and, secondly, there is the impact of cuts on policies designed to deal with reoffending rates. In this debate, we cannot ignore the fact that in recent times there has been a reduction in the custody of children of 10 years of age. That is welcome, but we should also be concerned that England and Wales has the lowest age of criminal responsibility and the highest level of child incarceration in western Europe. These are the further issues that cannot be avoided or ignored.
Past government announcements have made it clear that the independent role provided by the Youth Justice Board is, they say, no longer required. There is no dispute that the Youth Justice Board was created in response to a lack of cohesion and collaborative working, which was a feature of our justice system in dealing with children and young persons. Equally, it is true that the Youth Justice Board has, over 12 years, developed a secure and distinct estate for young people. This is something we all welcome. I am aware of the Government's intention to retain youth offending teams and that they will continue to place young people separately from adult offenders in dedicated, secure estates. The Youth Justice Board already has a proven record and I suspect that it should be a barometer against which all future successes or failures will be measured.
There is ample evidence at hand that preventive intervention in the lives of children with behavioural problems can bring about improvements and reduce the risk of serious or persistent offending at a later stage. That is why this must be at the heart of any policy development in reducing offending. It is beyond dispute that a substantial number of young people—the figure could be as high as 70 per cent—reoffend within two years of leaving a penal establishment. Prisons do little to correct this behaviour. This is where specialised help, geared to the need of individual offenders and accompanied by better training for those who work in secure centres, is absolutely important. I urge my noble friend the Minister to ensure that the impact of budget cuts does not impair training, which is where the cuts are more likely to be found and faced.
We had an interesting debate last week on the role of magistrates. It is clear that sentencing should never ignore the two other pillars, restoration and prevention, on which our justice system is based. Each of those pillars has its own role but each is dependent on the other two. Put together and effectively co-ordinated, they help in the problem of integrating the offenders in society. Of course, we must never underestimate young people who are violent and for whom secure settings are appropriate. When we examine the reoffending levels associated with youth custody, there must be something fundamentally wrong; three out of four are reconvicted within a year of completing their sentence.
Against this background, we must also recognise a striking improvement in the youth justice system: the frequency of reoffending by young people has been reduced since 2000; the number of young people coming into the youth justice system for the first time has reduced significantly in the past two years; and over our first 18 months, there has been a very significant decline in the number of young people under 18 being held in custody. This is a distinct youth justice strand, and my plea to the Minister is to ensure that whereas the current economic circumstances require the Government to make substantial reductions in public expenditure, it is not inconsistent with policy that these cuts do not impinge on the success of youth justice work.
We need great care and sensitivity to ensure that the system breaks the cycle of deprivation, otherwise children and young people from disadvantaged communities and neighbourhoods will be recycled again and again within the criminal justice system. We understand the Government’s dilemma; pressure on public spending requires the need to eliminate waste and invest in services that deliver value for money. Against that, we need to respond to the real difficulties faced by our children, particularly those from deprived or disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government alone cannot solve this problem. Communities have to come together to provide better life chances and skills and address the anti-social behaviour of their children. We need to build a carefully structured and adequately resourced youth justice system that will lessen the impact of crime in the community. In conclusion, we have a success story to tell; let us hope that budgetary cuts do not bring us back to the dysfunctional youth justice policies before the Youth Justice Board was established.
It is a great honour to rise for the first time and speak in your Lordships’ House. I would like to thank your Lordships for the quality and the depth of the welcome I have received from all sides of your Lordships’ House. It has, for me, been a very sharp learning curve. Indeed, I was so ignorant that when mention of another place was made I assumed that this was heaven. It is only since joining your Lordships’ House that I have been amazed by how hard and diligently your Lordships work. In particular, I thank my sponsors, the noble Lords, Lord Harris of Peckham and Lord Sassoon, and my mentor, the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, all of whom give an immense amount of their time freely to this House and to the community, and yet have spared time to assist me. I also thank all the dedicated staff who serve your Lordships’ House. The friendly nod and wink from the doorkeepers has been invaluable in navigating me in the right direction and helping me to avoid the many pitfalls awaiting a newcomer.
My great-grandfather arrived from Russia almost penniless. He started work in the East End, sifting rags. My grandfather left school when he was 16 and my father, having won an exhibition to Cambridge, was the first member of his family to attend university. My mother’s family had arrived a few generations before and was already successful by the time my parents met. My parents both worked hard, my father in his chosen career and my mother devoting herself to him, the family and numerous charitable causes. That was the example that they set. Education was of paramount importance at home and doing one’s best was the gold standard.
I was fortunate that there was no gender discrimination and it was expected that I would strive to become self-sufficient in the same way as my two brothers. At 12, I was sent to boarding school. I was not an especially good student and felt that some of the existing customs were rather strange and capable of improvement. One of these was the way our day was managed. The whole community was controlled by the almost Pavlovian ringing of bells to get up, start and stop eating, begin and finish lessons and go to sleep. My year group occupied some prefab classrooms and one day, together with a more nimble friend, we tape-recorded the school bell and then blocked the real bell at the end of the corridor. For a blissful week we got away with operating the tape recorder and cutting five minutes off each lesson, until the truth was out. In January this year, when I was woken at 3.43 am by the Division Bell in this House, I thought of the irony of the by then familiar noise that now regulated my life.
I was inspired at school by my headmistress, who taught law. I recognised that, used effectively, it was a means that enabled people to protect others. I subsequently obtained a disappointing law degree from Exeter University but managed to get a sought-after place to do my articles in the City, at the firm Herbert Smith. It was there that I had the good fortune to work among hugely talented people, one of whom is my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, who sits on the Benches opposite and was then in charge of the articled clerks. He encouraged me and inspired me to keep going and make my career in law. So much of life is luck, and I have been blessed with people who can see light at the end of the tunnel when it is not always obvious that there is any there.
During my articles I shared a room with a legal executive, Stanley Grant, who had had little formal education but who knew everything that was worth knowing about divorce law. That was where my career as a divorce lawyer began. By far the most important aspect of early promotion to partnership at the age of 25 was that, when my children arrived some years later, I could afford proper childcare and could delegate some of my work in the office to capable assistants to enable me to be physically with my children at the beginning and end of each day.
I am grateful for this opportunity to make my maiden speech in today’s debate on budget cuts for secure children’s homes and reducing children’s reoffending rates. It is a topic of great importance that touches on the work that I do. I have three points to make: first, the importance of a stable home life; secondly, the importance of education; and thirdly, the important role of teachers as carers, educators and inspirers. Nothing that we do in policy-making should detract from these important principles, all of which can both diminish the risk of offending in the first place and assist in rehabilitation when it occurs. Children are frequently the innocent victims of a breakdown of the family unit, be it a cohabitation, a marriage or a civil partnership. Without any feeling of belonging, they are the most vulnerable to offending. It is my belief that prevention is better than cure, and this is the way to seek to cut the cost of these problems.
As he retired, the parting message of Lord Jakobovits, not only to the Jewish community but to the British people, was that marriage and family life had to be learnt but that if necessary we should have classes for young people, teaching them the importance of family life and how to bring up children, how to discipline them kindly but firmly and how to instil the sense of moral law within them.
I express my gratitude to my own family, my grandparents and parents, for their example of hard work and fun and their unblemished record of staying together, and to my husband and children for their understanding and tolerance, without which I doubt I could deal with the things that are, sometimes literally, thrown at me. It has been a long journey but I hope very much that over time I will be able to make a proper contribution to your Lordships’ House. I feel proud and humble to be a Member.
My Lords, I know that I speak for noble Lords on all sides of the House in saying without reservation how warmly we welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, to our midst. Her speech was significant and I shall return to it in a moment. First, let me just say that it is good to have with us somebody with such a powerful reputation in her career, and with so much insight into the legal dimensions of our society and, beyond that, into the stories behind those legal dimensions. I know that Exeter University has a tradition of producing strong and formidable women—my wife is one. It is small wonder that that university so wisely awarded the noble Baroness an honorary doctorate. Before long, I am sure we shall want to award her all sorts of plaudits for the contributions that she makes. We welcome her most warmly and look forward to her contributions.
In her speech, the noble Baroness made reference to the importance of family life, education and stability in the upbringing of children. It could not have been a more significant contribution to make to this debate, in which we are dealing with children who have lacked stability; children who frequently have not enjoyed any kind of family life; and children who have, for one reason or another, not had the benefits of continuous and sound education.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, who will wind up, always admonishes me when I make this kind of point, saying, “Please remember that there are children from such backgrounds who make it”, and that cannot be disputed. However, what also cannot be disputed is something of which I became very aware during nine years as president of YMCA England, when I looked very closely at and came to admire the work being done with young offenders by the staff and volunteers. What became very clear was that so many of these young offenders had such horrific and sad stories behind them, with so much disruption in their lives, that it would have been a bit of a miracle had they not found themselves in trouble with the law. What is so important is that all who deal with such children are discovering that there is a need for them to be handled in a secure and intimate atmosphere, where it is possible to get behind the immediate situation that confronts us and understand where they come from and how they can be helped back into a productive role in society.
Any tendency to move still further away from secure homes of this kind is calamitous, not just because of the consequences for the children and the dangers of reoffending, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, but because it makes for economic nonsense. The Public Accounts Committee in the other place has estimated that the cost of offending by children is in the realm of £11 billion a year. That is an immense cost to society. We can get no satisfaction simply from punishing the young. We have to prevent them reoffending. If they are to stop reoffending, we have to get close to them in an environment that can ensure that they get back into a constructive role in society. The evidence is that in larger young offender institutions and other institutions of that kind this does not happen.
There is one other point that I must make, which is that as a society and state we ourselves have a responsibility for the children in our care. One of the most alarming and disturbing statistics that is seldom recognised on the scale that it should be is that, since 1990, 31 children have died in care in young offender institutions and secure establishments. Contrast that with the fact that there have been no deaths in secure children’s homes during that period. How is it that we can recognise that statistic yet move firmly in the opposite direction from the logical conclusion? On economic grounds and on humanitarian grounds—but very powerfully indeed on economic grounds—for any chance of being able to claim to be a civilised society in the treatment of our children, it is essential that we do the sensible thing. If we are going to strengthen anything in our penal system for the young it should be to strengthen, not diminish, the role of secure children’s homes.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Linklater on her ability in presenting, and on securing, this debate on an important and valuable subject. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Shackleton on her excellent maiden speech. I found it quite moving, coming from the same parental and grandparental background that she does. She may find that that background is a real driver towards contributions on matters on which one feels strongly in this House—where good argument is heard with patience and respect, and where bad argument is rejected with mere politeness. I am sure that she will make a great contribution to our affairs.
I recognise in the speeches that have been made so far, and in some of the briefings that heralded this debate, the statistical soup that can surround this subject about offending children and young people. It points in many different directions but always produces the same unpalatable reduction, which is that we are not succeeding in reforming the activities of children in custody and sending them out quickly into society as people who will not go through the revolving door of custody, time after time. Unfortunately, the picture is of a very fast-revolving door.
The cohort of residents in custody has multiple issues to face up to. They are troubled and we do nothing to deal with that trouble constructively, except in a relatively small number of cases. We have one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world, yet we have a higher recidivism rate among children than almost anywhere else in the world and, despite having spent many years looking at this subject, I do not quite understand what we are doing wrong. However, I believe that the kind of regime provided in local authority secure children’s homes has been far better designed to reform than anything provided in secure training centres or young offender institutions.
Five and a half years ago I chaired an inquiry for the Howard League for Penal Reform, of which I am currently the president, on the use of restraint, strip-searching and isolation among children in custody. It was not happening in local authority secure children’s homes. It was happening in other institutions. It is still happening in other institutions. The Howard League this year conducted a two-day evidence hearing that I chaired to see what had happened in the five years since the report was produced in 2006. Some good progress had been made; the provisions made for young people in custody have improved the situation, and I share the view that it is good news that far fewer young people are in custody—particularly those between 14 and 16 years of age—than before. Nevertheless, far too much restraint is still being used.
What is it that secure children's homes provided that enabled us to avoid those pitfalls of restraint, strip-searching and isolation? It was a number of qualities. First, they were small; they are small. It is within something that is much more like home that children learn the habits of a home. One of my observations, having visited secure children's homes and other custodial institutions for children and young people, is that most of the young people in them have never enjoyed the sort of home to which my noble friend Lady Shackleton referred movingly in her maiden speech. Putting them into an animalised, brutalised structure contributes to that feeling of dissociation.
Next, secure children's homes have high ratios of well trained staff, specialist staff who understand children. It is self-evident that we should deal with children as children, not as criminals, if we are to succeed in reforming them and turning them from children into adults, rather than from child criminals into recidivists. Next, they have education. Secure children's homes, in my view, have a very high standard of education. With that, they combine therapeutic and behavioural provision tailored to children's needs. That provision is not being made adequately in the other parts of the child and youth custodial setting. Therefore, the Government should be looking at more, smaller units, far more like secure children's homes, rather than going in the opposite direction, towards larger institutions, which appears to be policy at present.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, for this opportunity to discuss the impact of budget caps on the work of secure children homes in reducing children's reoffending rates. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, on her excellent maiden speech, which I found personally moving. I am sure that we shall hear a lot more from her in future. The noble Baroness made a strong case for not closing secure children's homes. From my experience as a juvenile court chairman in inner London for 20 years, they have clearly retained their reputation of providing the best service for those children, for whom that kind of placement was essential.
I want to address how, by spending more resources at an earlier stage of those children's lives, there would be less need for the state to be locking up children. Keith Joseph's speech in 1978 on the cycle of deprivation was made more than 30 years ago, and still we have a pattern of families where we know, or strongly suspect, that early intervention, support and mentoring may have prevented the pattern of offending that is so grossly expensive in both financial and personal ability terms. It is certainly good news that the number of juveniles offending who have been imprisoned has dropped overall, but there are also counterproductive aspects to these statistics, if the result is that young people who are given custodial sentences are imprisoned so far away from their families that any form of effective family therapy is virtually impossible.
There are other concerning aspects too, some of which have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, showing that the percentage of black and minority-ethnic youngsters is rising and that the proportion of young men imprisoned for the first time is up by over one-third. Another worrying aspect is the number of imprisoned juveniles—one-third of boys and one-fifth of girls—who have reported that they felt unsafe at some point. Indeed we have just heard cited by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, the appalling statistic which I will not repeat, but which I was going to use. The Youth Justice Board spends £268.9 million a year incarcerating children, which is 69 per cent of its spending. If you add to that that the estimated total costs to the UK’s economy of offending by children could be as much as £11 billion a year, there must be a case to be made for spending citizens’ money more productively.
The one obvious thing that we have not done, and still have no plan to do, is to keep records of just how far back in generation terms the pattern of criminal behaviour began in such families. It is almost as if as a nation we are too nervous of the results to do the necessary research. There is some research in existence showing that a staggering 63 per cent of boys with a convicted parent go on to offend and that children of prisoners are three times more likely to show delinquent behaviour. Surely the time has come to provide adequate research funding to ensure that these figures are available—and backward looking—in the future so that a sensible package of family support can be a first step.
Thankfully, all political parties have now accepted Frank Field’s and Graham Allen’s principle of early intervention as a necessary educational starting point and one which will save money in the long run, whether it is used for assessing and providing the support needs of children with SEN, who would otherwise fall behind their academic attainment level, or for deciding what support is needed for children from deprived or inadequate backgrounds. Funds for the necessary research to provide evidence of success rates among youngsters who have benefited from this kind of early intervention and support will also be essential. My own belief is that the sums saved will be considerable.
However, that should not of course mean that help and support for those who have ended up being imprisoned should be abandoned as if they were hopeless cases. Again, there are savings—financial and personal—that can be made, and why not follow up the idea suggested a year or two ago of setting up a young offender academy as part of the resources for this age group? The Government’s plans for more job training and actual work in prisons will be an important step in the right direction, but so, too, will be the need for help and support in finding a job and accommodation for those who have no families, particularly when they have served their sentence and need to settle back into the real world. This is another area where not nearly enough support is currently given.
On that note I shall end, as we are all much looking forward to hearing what the Minister will say in reply to this fascinating debate.
My Lords, I am more than grateful to slip in for two minutes at the end of this debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Linklater on securing the debate and my noble friend Lady Shackleton on her moving maiden speech.
The House will be aware that some secure children’s homes are used for emergency admissions in cases of extreme family breakdown or other circumstances, which can sometimes include offending. The House will also be aware that, because many local authorities need to reduce budgets overall, they are currently streamlining such facilities by outsourcing them and sending children who need this care out of county or out of authority. The House will also be aware of the link between some of those children and the risk of future offending.
Are the Government taking any account of the delayed effects of this policy on costs, bearing in mind that these privately owned facilities can be between two and five times more expensive than those provided in-house? However, it is notoriously difficult to predict the level of that expense because the facilities obviously have to respond to emergency admissions, which cannot be predicted. More seriously, I hope that the Government are taking into account the incalculable risks for children at the extreme limits of their vulnerability—vulnerability described by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and my noble friend Lady Shackleton—of being moved away from all that is familiar to them. I hope that they are also taking into account the effect on their subsequent life chances, which may include going on to offend. It is for this reason that I raise this category of concern within this debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for bringing forward this very important debate. Ever since I have been in the House, I have admired her. A few years ago she took part in a debate that I initiated on women in prison. I was impressed with her knowledge then, and I have been impressed with her great experience in this area tonight. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, on her wonderful maiden speech and thank her for sharing her experiences with us. I certainly look forward to many more contributions from her in the future. My noble friend Lord Judd called her a strong and formidable woman, so I welcome her to the team of strong and formidable noble Baronesses in the House.
How we care for children is of immense importance to everyone, but it is especially important to vulnerable children such as those who are held in secure children's homes. Any measures that prevent children getting into crime should be welcomed by us all. The fact that there will be fewer places in secure children's homes, as the number of children in custody is falling, is welcomed by people such as Frances Done, chair of the Youth Justice Board, who in May this year said:
“We are pleased that fewer children and young people”—
especially in the younger age group—
“are entering custody and that prevention and rehabilitation work under way in the community is paying off”.
However, other experts in the field, such as Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, have said that if children are to be locked up, then secure children's homes are the best place rather than sending them to a young offender institution or a secure training centre, as they have higher reoffending rates and lower levels of educational achievement.
The Ministry of Justice announced in June that the Youth Justice Board is to be abolished as part of the Government’s drive to reduce the number of quangos, and despite the excellent work that it has done to reduce the level of crime and reoffending. Your Lordships’ House voted by a large majority not to include it in the Public Bodies Bill. At that time, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said:
“It would be real sacrilege if we took out of the criminal justice system something that works, whatever the motives that are put forward, and introduced something that has not worked and has not been tried”.
Under the new system which will be transferred to local government with the youth offending teams, the Government say that there needs to be a local joined-up approach to address the multiple disadvantages that many young offenders have and the chaotic lifestyles that many lead. It seems to me that local authorities will in future play a bigger part and bear more of the costs. As criminal justice is not a devolved matter, but local government is, how will that work in England and Wales? Will there be separate and different standards in England and in Wales? For example, will English and Welsh children be treated differently? How will standards be set and who will set the standards to ensure that all of our children will be treated in a similar manner?
What discussions have the coalition Government had with the Welsh Government on this matter, and if there have been any, can the Minister say what has been the result? How can the Ministry of Justice operate in Wales on this matter if it cannot dictate terms to local authorities in Wales? If we are to move over to that system, what thought has been given to that?
Work in the community to prevent criminal activity among young people has to start at an early age, working with parents and schools. However, with different systems in place in the two countries of England and Wales, much discussion must be held on these matters before the Youth Justice Board is abolished. For everyone's sake, I hope that this system works as well as the Youth Justice Board has in reducing crime and reoffending rates among children.
I would love to speak for longer and tell the House about my experiences with community policing and the way that it has helped to reduce crime and keep children out of trouble, but I am not able to. However, I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
My Lords, I am not sure whether it is me or my colleagues in the choice of debates, but I am faced with the same problem I had a few days ago when replying to the debate on magistrates initiated by my noble friend Lord Dholakia; I now have six minutes to reply, rather than 12. However, I make no complaint because this has been a very good debate in which a number of specific issues have been raised. I will reply to all noble Lords on the matters that I cannot cover in this restricted time. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, will be delighted to know that in a few days’ time, the question of the YJB will be brought back to this House for further debate. She has given me many good warnings that I must be ready to speak about Wales at that time.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Shackleton on her outstanding maiden speech. I now consider her fully equipped to play a full and active part in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill—LASPOO to its friends—which will be here on 21 November. I expect that she will be getting her name down early to participate in that debate. I have a suspicion that I am going to need all the friends I can find.
As for the speech by my noble friend Lady Linklater, I got what I expected: a thoughtful introduction, full of useful statistics, and based on a deep commitment and wide experience. That is always the daunting thing for me when replying from this Dispatch Box to this kind of debate: that this House brings together great experience on these matters. I can assure the House that I will specifically respond to everything that has been said today, including all the suggestions and questions.
Secure children’s homes play a key role in the provision of suitable secure accommodation for young people on remand or serving custodial sentences. I have a long-standing admiration for the way in which they look after those placed in their care, so let me be clear that the Government remain committed to this sector. Secure children’s homes take children from both the criminal justice system and welfare placements. In respect of children from the criminal justice system, the homes are generally used to accommodate 12 to 14 year-olds; girls up to the age of 16, and 15 to 16 year-old boys with particular needs. As has been mentioned, the key point is that the staff-to-child ratios are good and help secure children’s homes to focus on attending to the physical, emotional, educational, health and behavioural needs of children in their care. It therefore comes as no surprise that nine out of the 10 secure children’s homes inspected by Ofsted this year received a rating of “good” or “outstanding”, with only one rated as “satisfactory”.
A number of noble Lords have talked about the problem of reoffending. The right way to improve public safety and reduce the number of victims is to reduce reoffending. There are a number of ground-breaking initiatives designed to help bring down the reoffending rate. Together with the YJB, we are piloting a number of financial incentive schemes to explore how we can further incentivise local authorities to reduce reoffending. We are setting up and encouraging the expansion of regional resettlement consortia to promote closer working between custodial establishments, youth offending teams and their partners in the voluntary sector. This will provide the opportunity for joint planning and commissioning of resettlement services.
The noble Baroness asked specifically about the work of secure children’s homes in reducing reoffending. Unfortunately, the present reliable statistical data showing the reoffending rate for each type of accommodation used in the secure estate is not a straightforward matter. As we have heard, secure children’s homes range from very small establishments housing only eight young people to larger buildings with a capacity to accommodate 38. Where small numbers are concerned, there is a greater risk that the statistical results may be skewed in exceptional cases. Furthermore, the placement of children in young offender institutions, secure children's homes and secure training centres is based on their needs. The age of the individual is also a factor. As a consequence, it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons across the three types of accommodation and say whether one is better than another.
The safeguarding and welfare needs of all young people admitted to custody are taken extremely seriously across each sector of the secure estate. The placement of young people and their subsequent care are based on an assessment of their needs and risks conducted by their youth offending team and updated in conjunction with staff in the secure estate. These assessments focus on the young person as an individual and the range of factors that may have led to their offending.
Initiatives, such as the Keppel Unit, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Linklater, show that we are focused on improving outcomes for young people within the youth secure estate. The Government published their secure estate strategy in July 2011, and the consultation closed on 11 October. The Youth Justice Board is now carefully considering the responses received, so my comments on the future of the secure estate are necessarily curtailed until the consultation response is published early in the new year.
However, it is important that the fall in the number of children and young people in custody has not been distributed equally across all age groups. The biggest decrease has been seen for young people aged between 10 and 14 years old. It is the younger age group that is most likely to be placed in secure children's homes and secure training centres.
I hope this very brief response has reassured the noble Baroness that the Government are fully committed to maintaining the secure children's home sector and to reducing reoffending. In January we will see the outcome of the consultation and will issue our response. I can assure the noble Baroness that we will continue to give the highest priority to those in our care.