Young Offenders

– in the House of Commons at 9:51 pm on 22nd June 1983.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Hunt.]

Photo of Sir Nicholas Bonsor Sir Nicholas Bonsor , Upminster 10:00 pm, 22nd June 1983

I am grateful for the opportunity to make the first Adjournment debate speech in this session of Parliament. As I said a few moments ago, the two main problems that the Government must face are the difficulties of providing employment and the appalling increase in the crime rate, especially the crime rate among young people. For that reason, I hope that it is appropriate to draw the attention of the House and the Government to that problem at an early stage in this Parliament.

The treatment of young offenders is one of the most complex and difficult of the decisions of legislators. In common with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lyell), I sat on all the Committees of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 during the previous Parliament, and I am fully aware of the difficulties that face us in trying to legislate effectively to control youngsters in committing offences and to provide effective methods for their rehabilitation. The Government have already done a great deal in that direction in the Criminal Justice Act. They have extended both the scope and terms of detention centres so that magistrates now have the power to send youngsters there for shorter periods instead of the full term, and they have introduced the short, sharp shock. They have enabled magistrates' courts to fine parents for the misdemeanours of their children and they have given greater flexibility to the courts in their handling of young offenders.

Therefore, it is all the more disappointing that, in 1981, of all known offences of burglary, 42 per cent. were committed by children aged between 10 and 17. For theft and handling stolen goods, the figure was 36 per cent., and for criminal damage it was also 36 per cent. It fills me with horror that, of all offences within our criminal code, the most were committed by 15-year-olds in the male section, and by 14-year-olds in the female section. Those figures are a terrible indictment of the morals of our society and of the way in which we fail to give adequate leadership to the young.

In trying to tackle the problem we must distinguish between the different elements of crime and the different degrees of seriousness of crime, and provide different remedies for them in turn. I would put them in three categories, the most serious being the vicious and harmful offences such as mugging, armed robbery, burglary and causing grievous bodily harm. The irresponsibility and shamelessness of the children involved must cause deep concern throughout our society. The concept that 12 and 13-year-old boys can go in concert to rob, attack and viciously beat old ladies not only on the streets but in their homes is so alien to the British way of life as we all knew it that we must look for new initiatives and remedies and a more enlightened and wider scope in the way in which we try to deal with the problem.

In the second category of anti-social behaviour I include vandalism, shoplifting and petty theft. The third category is wholly petty offences, such as trespassing on a railway line, breaches of regulations and other trivial offences. In the latter category we currently provide police cautions. It is a pity that police cautioning varies so enormously from one area to another, and I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to consider ways in which more cohesion can be introduced into the system. I also ask him to consider whether those cautions should be recorded. If they were, they would have a greater effect as a deterrent than they do at present. No official record is kept of the caution, and if the child comes in front of a court, the caution is not always recorded against him. However, in general, the caution is an admirable institution that could be usefully extended.

The three suggestions that I shall make are fairly radical, but they are worth considering, and I hope that my hon. Friend will give them his full attention. May I say that it gives me the greatest pleasure to see my hon. Friend sitting on the Front Bench, especially in this capacity. Before he moved to the Home Office he and I shared a common nursery at the bar, and I know that he has had experience in the juvenile courts, as did I. In case I give the wrong idea, I should say that he had experience representing others in juvenile courts. It is not a strange area for him to be dealing with and it is one that I know that he fully understands.

The first of my three proposals concerns the detention centres and the way in which sentences there are being used at present. I had the good fortune to be able to have a close look at the operation of the detention centre at Send, which is one of the new short, sharp, shock detention centres. That was while I was involved in the Criminal Justice Bill 18 months ago. The system has two or three shortcomings which have yet to be remedied, although the concept of sending youngsters there for shorter terms and for sharper shocks than was previously the case is admirable. I think that the system will work well but, as I have said there are one or two flaws.

The first is that the boys are going to the centre too late, in two senses. In many instances the magistrates' courts are directed that they should not send children to detention centres until other remedies have first been tried. Therefore, the youngsters who go there tend to be those who have already embarked on the habit of crime that a short term in a detention centre is inadequate to break. Secondly, it is too late because, as I said earlier, many of the more serious offences that are committed by children are now committed by those under 14 who are not eligible for such punishment but who could most usefully gain benefit from it. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider the possibility of altering the age grouping to 12 years as opposed to 14, and of introducing two separate detention centres, junior and senior. It is wrong that boys of 12 or 13, or even 14 or 15, should be at the same detention centres as boys of 17, many of whom are hardened criminals and can lead the younger boys astray, giving them quite the wrong idea about life. It would be much better to segregate the younger and the older age groups and to introduce that system at an earlier age.

Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend to look at the possibility that juvenile courts could be empowered, and directed in some instances, to refer the young offender back to his or her parent or school, with an instruction to the parents or school that the child be corrected. I do not believe that either the excellent probation service or the other methods of child care control in the social services or the day centres and other ways in which misdemeanours can be punished are effective in providing an adequate deterrent.

In the disciplining of young people and children, there is no substitute for introducing discipline at home or, failing home, at school. It is essential that the child should respect and admire the person who is inflicting the punishment or directing the correction. If children meet an entirely strange person in the form of a probation officer or social services officer, the relationship takes too long to establish, and in many cases the link between home and school and the child is being under-used.

I recommend my hon. Friend, when he has time, to read the book by Donald West, who was the director of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge, in which he explains many of the myths of juvenile delinquency and sets out, better than any of the other authors on the subject, sensible suggestions about how to approach them. In the book he says: Our observation that secondary schools in the study area have little influence upon the realisation of their pupils' delinquency potential was both surprising and discouraging". That bears out what I have to say, and it is time for the search for new ways in which the influence of the school in relation to the child, and particularly in relation to the young offender and the whole area of co-operation between the juvenile courts and the schools, to be reviewed.

Thirdly, and perhaps most startlingly, I propose that the Government should look at a system whereby children who persistently commit non-violent offences, such as vandalism and other social misdemeanours, but not attacks on other people, could be taken out of their home environment, where they are clearly incapable of receiving control and guidance from home and put not into care, as at present—they are usually put into a children's home or a more penal institution — but fostered out with specially chosen foster parents who would give them a home away from their own areas and give them the opportunity to get away from the peer group that is influencing them and away from the background that has led them into crime.

There is no doubt from all the studies that have been undertaken that initiatives need to be taken in this area. Many children in deprived areas and, now that the divorce rate is so high, children of one-parent families where the mother or father has to go out to work and does not have time to exercise adequate control, do not have a chance of reforming themselves or being reformed unless they are taken away from that environment for a period. One of Donald West's studies showed that the peer group influence and the influence of adults who are not capable of properly directing a child have the greatest influence on the growth of child delinquency.

As a matter of compassionate interest in the child's welfare and as a method of effective deterrence and effective remedies for juvenile crime, a foster scheme should be introduced. I am not sure, but I believe that such a system has been tried in some states in America, and I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department would look at that. The scheme would undoubtedly have many advantages over anything that we are currently applying in this country.

I am certain that the present situation cannot be allowed to continue and that, despite the excellent remedies that the Government have already introduced, the trend is still in the wrong direction. Irrespective of whether my suggestions are correct or there are better ways of tackling the problem, I confidently ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to explore every way in which the Government can take fresh initiatives in this important area.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney 10:12 pm, 22nd June 1983

I start, Mr. Speaker, by saying that it is a pleasure to be able to address you as Mr. Speaker. Your elevation pleased your many friends in the House, among whom I wish to be numbered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) made it clear how pleased he was to have the first Adjournment debate in the new Parliament, and it would be churlish of me not to say how nice it was of him to involve me in the debate. It is a fine way for him to mark his incarnation as a Greater London Member to arrange for a Minister from a Greater London constituency to answer the debate.

It is customary for Ministers to congratulate hon. Members who initiate Adjournment debates on their good fortune in being able to raise an important issue. I can say that genuinely, because juvenile offences and the complex and difficult issues confronting those who have to grapple with ways of dealing with juvenile offenders are matters of the first importance to our society. I am glad that the debate has attracted the attendance of a number of new hon. Members.

My hon. Friend pointed out the extent to which those who are worried about the impact of juvenile crime are entitled to rest their case on the statistics. It is a sad fact that more than half of known offender; are under 21 and that one third are under 17. In round terms, about 300,000 offenders under 21 were cautioned or found guilty of indictable offences in 1981, the last year for which information is available. Even more shocking, as my hon. Friend said, the peak age for offending today is 15.

Fortunately, after the age of 21 the rate of offending drops off and, happily, a delinquent phase in adolescence is not always followed by a career of crime thereafter. The vast majority of adolescent delinquents move out of delinquency with maturity, and only a hard core of recidivist offenders take up a life of crime as adults. However, that should not and does not make us complacent about the problem, and my ion. Friend is right to remind us that it took up a great deal of our time in the last Parliament. He served on the Committee on the Criminal Justice Act, which came at a time when I was toiling away at the Department of Energy so I must not be expected to know about these things as well as he, but I know that the Act made a real contribution to fresh thinking about the treatment of juvenile offenders, and, in particular, gave the courts the range of sentencing powers required to deal with the many difficult issues that confront them.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues which went wider than the question of courts—the role of parents, schools, and even society as a whole, in dealing with the vexed question of why, in a society which, overall, in the past 30 years has grown more affluent, there has been such an increasing tendency to turn to crime, particularly among young people. My hon. Friend made a number of detailed, positive suggestions and I know that he would not expect me to respond in detail to each one tonight. However, we shall consider what he has said and reflect upon it at our leisure with more care. As he knows from having served on the Committee on the Criminal Justice Act and from some of the developments thereafter, we are aware of the need for fresh thinking in dealing with this complex problem.

My hon. Friend focused a great deal of attention on the kind of custodial sentence that should be available and when it should be imposed. The statistics for the past 20 years show that the courts have not hesitated to impose custodial sentences on young offenders. In the 1960s it was rare for custodial sentences to be imposed on an offender under the age of 17, but during the 1970s the courts increasingly felt obliged to impose custodial sentences, not just in absolute numbers, but as a proportion of the number of offenders coming before the courts. In the 10 years up to 1981, the proportionate use of custody for boys under 17 doubled. One in eight of such boys dealt with by the courts in 1981 was given a custodial sentence. Overall, nearly 30,000 boys and young men under 21 were given custodial sentences in 1981, compared with fewer than 20,000 in 1971 and fewer than 10,000 in 1965—an increase of 300 per cent. in 16 years.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Bonsor Sir Nicholas Bonsor , Upminster

In qualifying that, will my hon. Friend comment on two things? First, at that earlier time was an approved school sentence described as a custodial sentence? If it was, I am surprised at the figures that he has given. We have now abolished approved schools, but in those days they were frequently used to train young offenders. Secondly, I hope that my hon. Friend will take the point that I was not recommending wider use of the custodial sentence, except in so far as bringing in 12- and 13-year-olds, but rather that it should be more specifically applied to the more serious offenders.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I was not suggesting that my hon. Friend wanted to see more custodial sentences imposed. Nor was I denying that the courts were imposing them. I was merely seeking to set the scene by making it clear that the courts had been tending, as the problem of juvenile crime and the seriousness of many juvenile offences had grown, to use custodial sentences earlier than had been the case hitherto.

The difficulty with the growth in the use of custody is that, sadly, it has not prevented the problem of reoffending from becoming a very real one for our consideration. As my hon. Friend knows from our discussions on the Criminal Justice Bill, our reconviction rates are high. For young men aged 17 and under 21 they range from a 56 per cent. reconviction rate for those released from detention centre to a 69 per cent. rate for those released from prison. For boys under the age of 17 the rates are strikingly worse, with a 72 per cent. reconviction rate for those released from detention centre and a 78 per cent. rate for those released from borstal. Again this bears out some of the points that my hon. Friend made about the involvement of a younger age group in crime in recent years. The reconviction rates are strikingly higher for this younger age group.

It was that which led the Governent to decide two years ago that there was a clear need to overhaul the sentencing powers of the courts in respect of young offenders. It was especially apparent that borstal, with its indeterminate training structure, was not working in the way that had been intended. The alternatives designed to enable the courts to deal with young offenders short of custody clearly did not command the confidence of the courts to the extent that they should. That is why we introduced a new system in the Criminal Justice Act, and that new system for the most part came into force last month. It is to be hoped that the months ahead will show that it is working well. I think that all of us wish the new structure well.

In considering the sentencing provisions of the new Act, it is important to bear in mind the context in which any sentence has to operate. In the end, the courts cannot themselves resolve the problem of rising crime. As my hon. Friend made clear, it is in society as a whole that, the problem can be resolved. The courts can merely deal as effectively as possible with the incidence of crime when it has occurred.

None of us knows, although criminologists speculate on these matters, exactly why young people especially have turned to crime to the degree that they have in recent years; nor why, after a period, many youngsters grow up into law-abiding citizens. But it is right to focus on the role of the family and to recognise the responsibility of the Government, not merely to promote an effective law enforcement agency in the police or to give the courts the wide range of sentences which enable them to deal sensitively and effectively with the very wide range of different offenders who come before them, but to ensure that there is a co-ordinated effort in Government involving Departments outside the Home Office in trying to deal with some of the earlier stages in the process by which so many young people turn to crime.

I might perhaps usefully spend a little time in explaining what the Government are doing to try to focus on the importance of the family in all this and also what my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Health and Social Security are doing at earlier stages in the chain leading to a hardened juvenile criminal posing such a problem to society, to try to obviate that development in future. Our commitment to the family is, I hope, well known. It is clearly of fundamental importance that the Government should do all that they can to support the family. The prevention of crime, although important, is only one of the reasons why this is a priority for us.

Social policy in general is relevant in dealing with crime. My hon. Friend points out the significance of schools. One cannot help feeling that it is a major task of schools to try to deal with the problem of the number of young people still in school who have turned regularly to crime. Schools have an important role to play in determining whether our children grow up into responsible law-abiding adults.

Co-ordination is important, and my hon. Friend stressed this. There are regular meetings between the Departments concerned, in particular my Department, the Home Office, and the Department of Education and Science, under the auspices of the third crucial Department, the DHSS. That Department has overall responsibility for juveniles and maintains an interdepartmental group on juvenile delinquency.

In addition, a review is being carried out of how departmental policies might best be co-ordinated to deal not with the consequences of crime but with the prevention of juvenile crime. Certainly the next stage of the traditional urban programme will specifically cover projects for developing the involvement of parents in their children's education and welfare, and projects providing sports, recreation and other facilities so as to make constructive use of young people's leisure time. As a member for an inner London constituency, I know particularly well that the devil can soon make work for idle adolescent hands, especially in communities where there is not the same pressure from neighbours and others as there is in a tight rural community to conform to norms and behave responsibly.

Perhaps I might say a word about an important element in our attempt to ensure that we can divert at the earliest possible stage young offenders of crime to a more profitable use of their lives, before those lives become irrevocably blighted by a series of convictions which then make picking up the pieces of a decent life rather difficult. We are making real efforts—certainly the DHSS is making such efforts — to develop community-based facilities through our intermediate treatment schemes. They involve a programme that is intermediate between custody on the one hand and a passive form of supervision on the other—one that manages in the community still to exercise a positive effect on the behavioural pattern of the young offender. I am pleased to say that local authorities are increasingly developing intensive and structured programmes of intermediate treatment designed specifically as alternatives to youth custody or detention centres for young people who have offended repeatedly or seriously, in an effort to tackle the problem of the high level of reoffending that has caused so much concern to those who, for other reasons, strongly support the use of custodial sentences in appropriate cases. We have every reason to hope that effective and well-formulated intermediate treatment programmes will have a more positive effect.

I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend that these intensive intermediate treatment schemes are not a soft option. They are an intensive course of education, training, sport and community service for more than three months. For instance, in one project in Norfolk, young offenders, in addition to a range of other educational and training programmes, are forced to carry out manual work, building log cabins for use as holiday camps for the handicapped. Clearly, those are not easy tasks. In many projects, a contract is signed in which the youngster has to commit himself to attend the course punctually and to behave himself. The increased importance of intermediate treatment as a positive alternative to custody is illustrated by the fact that local authorities in England and Wales spent 12·5 million in 1982–83, compared with only £6·5 million in 1980–81. So we are making the resources available.

There is much more that I should have liked to say, but I hope that I have said enough tonight to make it clear that we take this issue seriously. We have sought to develop a range of policies to contain the worst offenders and to try to dissuade those who at a young age have embarked on crime from continuing in a career that can bring only grave damage to society and destroy the lives of the individuals concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.