Juvenile Offenders

– in the House of Commons at 9:34 pm on 16th October 1991.

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

Photo of Mr Michael Shersby Mr Michael Shersby , Uxbridge 10:16 pm, 16th October 1991

As the House knows, I am parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales, and I want to declare that interest in this Adjournment debate.

The purpose of applying for the debate is to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health and that of the House to the lack of secure accommodation for juvenile offenders in local authority homes in England and Wales. I am referring to the kind of accommodation to which the courts can remand juvenile offenders, who are often petty thieves and who also have a record of committing violent offences for which, if they were adults, they could be sent to prison for up to 14 years. That distinction is extremely important and, as my hon. Friend will know, it is one of the main criteria for making use of secure accommodation.

The kind of violent offences about which I am talking include actual bodily harm with a weapon, grievous bodily harm with a weapon and burglary, that most unpleasant of crimes from which many of our citizens have suffered as a result of the activities of those youngsters. I should like to make it clear that the young people about whom I am talking are under the age of 17.

Because there is a lack of what is described as secure accommodation, many juvenile offenders have to be placed in what is described as open accommodation in local authority community homes, where they are supposed to be under close supervision. However, such open accommodation is not secure, and I am told that there are problems in recruiting the necessary dedicated personnel to staff those homes.

The grave shortage of secure units in which to confine those petty thieves and other juvenile offenders with a history of violent crime against the person was revealed in answers I received to a series of parliamentary questions I tabled in June. My hon. Friend the Minister gave me details that showed that, in England, there are about 112 mixed-sex places, 133 places for boys and 33 places for girls. That is a very small number of secure places. There are only about 270 places to cope with the large number of juvenile offenders, many of whom have records of violence against the person.

In Wales, the position is much worse. According to information given to me in answer to a parliamentary question, there are two places in West Glamorgan, two places in Mid Glamorgan and two places in Gwent. The situation in Gwent is now so bad that, in August of this year, the Gwent constabulary joint branch board of the Police Federation of England and Wales prepared a memorandum for the Ty Mawr community home inquiry. The federation's belief, which is shared by the chief officer and all senior officers of the force, is that the total absence of secure accommodation for juveniles, who have been committed by the Courts to the care of the Local Authority, is a major contributory factor to the high level of crimes committed in the force area, especially domestic burglaries and thefts of and from vehicles". The federation also believes that The total absence of secure accommodation in Wales places the magistrates and the local authorities in an impossible position". Although my hon. Friend the Minister for Health, who is listening carefully, may say that she is not responsible for Wales, I should be grateful if she would draw my remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, because the situation in Wales is little short of a public scandal. A result of the lack of secure accommodation is that juveniles, many of whom should be confined, are remanded to open accommodation in community homes. Together with the thousands who are remanded by the courts to open accommodation under close supervision, they are absconding in droves. I use those words advisedly. Many juveniles remanded to open accommodation have even jumped out of cars at the traffic lights so that they have never reached the community homes to which they were remanded. They have then returned to their place of habitual criminal activity and re-offended again and again.

A recent survey conducted by the Police Federation on the best available evidence reveals a shocking situation. The stunning figures relate to the year ending 31 July 1990. West Yorkshire, which has numerous community homes, had 4,426 absconders. The total number relates to 1,500 individuals, and 781 youngsters absconded more than three times. Of the persistent absconders, 274 committed offences while on the run. That is a huge figure.

In the home counties, Hertfordshire has nine such establishments. There were 883 absconders; only two secure places exist in Hertfordshire, and 63 youngsters absconded more than three times. Lancashire has 39 community homes and there were at least 965 absconders, 89 of whom absconded more than three times. Leicestershire has 10 community homes and 640 youngsters absconded during that 12-month period. Norfolk has 16 homes and 621 youngsters absconded. Cumbria has seven homes and 786 youngsters absconded, while Durham has a terrible record, with 16 establishments and 2,296 absconders. There is only one secure location, with 46 beds, and 122 youngsters absconded more than three times. So the list goes on. Unfortunately, I have no figures for the Metropolitan police area. They are difficult to obtain because of the number of local authorities involved.

The figures that I have quoted show clearly that there is a huge problem of which the House is not aware but which needs to be tackled urgently. That problem will become worse next year, when the Criminal Justice Act 1991 comes fully into force and abolishes remands to prison for juveniles. At present, young people can be remanded to prison where a certificate of unruliness is provided, but that is all to stop under the Criminal Justice Act which the House has recently passed. That Act also prescribes the development and use of alternatives such as diversionary bail, support schemes and secure accommodation.

I have received a letter from the Association of County Councils, which has been kind enough to give me quite a lot of information in advance of the debate. It says that the Home Office consultation paper suggests that at least an extra 30 to 35 places will be needed to meet the demands of the new arrangements. Like all good local authority associations, it is naturally worried about who will pay the bill. It is also worried that the relatively small proposed increase in the number of secure places will not meet the increased need.

These matters require urgent attention. Therefore, I am glad that, in answer to a parliamentary question, I have this week been informed by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office that the Secretary of State for Health has set up a national steering group to ensure that secure local authority accommodation will be provided to meet the requirements of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 in relation to juvenile remands.

I hope that a representative from the Police Federation will be invited to join that steering group, so that the view of the police on this important matter can be taken fully into account. At present there is a grave and serious breakdown of confidence in the system among many police officers because of the lack of secure accommodation. That problem could easily be remedied by involving police in the steering group so that their expert advice, gained over a long period, may be made available.

The problem of juveniles continually absconding from local authority homes is giving the police and the Police Federation grave cause for concern. Their worry is due to the lack of secure accommodation to which courts can send young people until their cases can be heard. Another problem facing the courts is the fact that, even if it is considered necessary to remand juveniles to secure accommodation, it is often difficult to do so because the facilities are so scarce.

I seem to recall that my hon. Friend the Minister for Health was once the chairman of a juvenile bench, so she will be familiar with such problems. I hope that, now that she is a Minister with direct responsibility for providing such accommodation, she will be able to help other magistrates out of what is now a difficult problem. If those juveniles whom the courts decide should not be in open accommodation in community homes were instead placed in secure accommodation, not only would crime be prevented but the juveniles would be held in care where the necessary medical advice was available while their cases were coming to court. We all know that that process takes far too long, and presents another problem which needs to be tackled.

What are the Government doing about the problem? It is one of the twin problems facing our society today. The other involves the vast number of people who offend while on bail. I know that that issue is the responsibility not of my hon. Friend but of those at the Home Office. If I am successful in catching Mr. Speaker's eye on Friday, I hope to raise the matter in the debate on the policing of London. However, tonight we are dealing with the single very important and serious problem of the lack of secure accommodation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell the House what the Government are to do about it. We cannot continue as we are.

Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley Minister of State (Department of Health) 10:29 pm, 16th October 1991

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) on once again raising a subject of great concern to the House. He is a powerful and persuasive advocate on behalf of the Police Federation. No one can have lived through recent months without being deeply concerned to know what plans are envisaged for young people who do themselves and the community no good.

I respond warmly to the opportunity to spell out to the House our thinking on the provision of secure accommodation for juvenile offenders.

Some of my hon. Friend's remarks were more relevant to the general provision of residential care for juveniles. The issue of absconding has more to do with children's homes in the broader context. My hon. Friend will know that Sir William Utting's recent report on residential care, together with the binding regulations under the Children Act 1990, implemented on Monday, sets out in no uncertain terms the criteria for the management of our children's homes, which certainly needed urgent consideration.

There has been a dramatic fall in the number of young people in residential care, just as there has been a considerable fall in the number of young children in penal institutions. Those who remain in need of residential care are often a troubled and a troublesome group, and we must be sure that the staff running the homes are skilled and able to deal with youngsters who need control as well as care.

We are talking about young people who, however vile their crimes, are still impressionable and at the formative stages of their lives. They need both care and control.

I pay tribute to the co-operation that we have received from the police over the years in developing diversionary approaches. All agree that, if we can avoid giving youngsters the old school tie of penal custody at an early age, that is doing them a favour as we send them out into their adult lives. However, we should never jeopardise the well-being of the public for a theoretical or ideological principle.

Restriction of liberty is a serious issue at any time, but particularly so when we are talking about locking up children—in the context of this debate, those under the age of 17. No doubt the vast majority of children being looked after by local authorities—offenders or non-offenders—can be safely and satisfactorily cared for in open homes or in the community. But there are a relatively small number of such young people who, because of their disturbed or disruptive or offensive behaviour, need to be accommodated in the safer environment of a secure unit.

Because of the seriousness of the issue, strict legal criteria exist which must be met before a loal authority can restrict the liberty of any child whom it is looking after, and even when these criteria exist, a local authority can lock a child up only for a short period—72 hours—without seeking the authority of a court to do so. These criteria which enable a local authority to place a child in secure accommodation are either that he is a persistent absconder who, if he absconds again, is likely to suffer significant harm; or that, if he is not locked up, he is likely to injure himself or others.

These legal safeguards, which are designed to protect children from unnecessary, inappropriate or unduly lengthy restriction of liberty, apply just as much to alleged juvenile offenders who are remanded to local authority accommodation as to those accommodated under civil legislation.

Secure accommodation within the community homes system plays an important dual role. By keeping children safely and securely it protects them from the risk of injury or significant harm, and it protects other children and members of the public from the risk of injury.

It is important to remember, however, that the use of secure accommodation in community homes is not confined to offenders or alleged juvenile offenders on remand. Secure accommodation forms but one element in a range of facilities and services provided by local authority services departments for all children that they are looking after—the majority of whom are not offenders.

The Children Act 1989, which we welcomed this week, introduced important new local authority duties which are relevant to the way that they exercise their responsibilities towards alleged juvenile offenders and the use of secure accommodation. The Act requires local authorities to take reasonable steps designed to do two things: to encourage children within their area not to commit criminal offences; and to avoid the need for children within their area to be placed in secure accommodation.

These twin duties are not incompatible. They fit very well into the work being undertaken by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I endorse his work in preventing criminality. It is much better to help youngsters than to punish them. The duties formalise what is already good practice in many parts of the country, and quite properly emphasise the point that, in dealing with young people who get into trouble with the law, or are at risk of doing so, local authorities must ensure that a wide range of facilities and services are made available; and that those services have the confidence of the police, the magistracy and the local community. It is important for such services to inspire that confidence.

My hon. Friend spoke about the time when I was chairman of a juvenile court. I well remember the pleas and exhortations to use intermediate treatment at a time when such treatment which in any sense could be thought to be appropriate for youngsters who had often been involved in quite serious offences was not available. However, there are now many examples of such alternative arrangements to secure accommodation, such as special remand fostering schemes or intensively staffed support Systems either in community homes or in non-residential settings, such as bail support schemes.

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's point that these young and turbulent people need sufficient control to stop them going headlong down the road to a life of crime which does them no good and terrorises the local community.

Because only a relatively small number of children need to be accommodated in the safer environment of a secure unit, it is not practicable for every local authority to provide its own secure accommodation. There is, however, a national network of such facilities to which all local authorities have access.

At the end of September, there were 280 approved places in secure units in England. During the year ending 31 March 1990, there were 1,428 admissions to secure units, of which 372 involved children remanded to local authority care.

However, we are aware that local authorities have often reported difficulty in finding a secure placement for children in their care. We are also aware of the practical difficulties often experienced by authorities in having to ring up to 30 individual secure units in an attempt to find a vacancy. In the longer term, the objective must clearly be to ensure that local authorities have direct access to an adequate stock of secure accommodation locally. Many local authorities are already moving towards developing a regional approach to the provision and use of secure accommodation, with the active encouragement of the Department's social services inspectorate.

In the shorter term, I am pleased to say that we are addressing the problem of matching demand and supply of secure facilities by providing a grant to enable a national bed bank to be established on a pilot basis. We are near to completing discussions with a local authority that is prepared to take on such a service and we hope to he able to make a full announcement shortly. This unit will provide one contact point to assist local authorities seeking a secure vacancy and, at the same time, enable a clearer picture to be formed of the potential demand for such placements.

Regrettably, juveniles continue to be remanded to penal establishments too often because alternative facilities are not currently available in the child care system. As my hon. Friend said, provision has been made in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 to bring this undesirable practice to an end. While we believe that many such young people could be safely dealt with in the community, for example through further bail support schemes, there will clearly be a continuing need for some additional secure accommodation to be provided. I shall shortly turn to how we propose to deal with that, but first I should like to place on record three points about local authority secure accommodation.

First, to allay concerns about the standard of physical containment in local authority secure units, especially in the context of implementing the Criminal Justice Act, we arranged for senior officials of the Home Office prison department to conduct a security assessment of a sample of secure units. Their report, which included some helpful suggestions for improving aspects of security, noted that secure units constructed or adapted according to the Department's revised secure accommodation design guidance would provide the requisite degree of physical security.

Secondly, I remind the House that local authorities cannot operate secure units without the approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He is advised in this matter by the Department's social services inspectorate, which regularly inspects each unit to ensure that high standards of safety, security and quality of care are maintained.

Thirdly, I remind the House that social services departments, and within them secure units, have over the years established a good record of handling and containing young offenders convicted of the most serious crimes. I am thinking especially of those youngsters serving life or lengthy determinate sentences under section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. My hon. Friend knows that we also have direct experience in managing the secure facilities of the youth treatment centres, to which we have recently given further consideration.

The new remand provisions in the Criminal Justice Act will have important implications for local authority social services departments—in particular, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the new court power to require that certain remanded juveniles are placed in secure accommodation, and the parallel duty to be placed on local authorities to ensure that they are in a position to comply with such court requirements. These provisions emphasise the need for each region of the country to move to a position of becoming self-sufficient in terms of the provision of secure accommodation —a policy that we have been advocating for the past two years. It does no good to the youngster or his family if it is necessary to travel halfway across the country to reach such accommodation.

Photo of Mr Michael Shersby Mr Michael Shersby , Uxbridge

I am interested in what my hon. Friend is saying. Will she say what additional resources will be available to local authorities by way of central Government grant to make the additional facilities available?

Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley Minister of State (Department of Health)

I am pleased to assure my hon. Friend that all additional new secure accommodation required will be eligible for 100 per cent. grant aid under the normal arrangements, which includes the element of grant-aiding Commissioning costs. He will be reassured to learn also that there is a continuous programme of expansion. Two new secure units will be coming on stream shortly—one in Humberside for 10 children at the turn of the year, and the second in Birmingham for eight children next summer. Firm proposals have been presented to the Department by Avon county council to replace an old, outdated, existing secure unit. There is one proposal in Hampshire, and another has been made by the London borough of Newham, which will increase the size of two existing units. We are also aware of the plans that are being prepared to increase and redevelop a number of other secure units.

The prime need, however, is to ensure that all the proposed developments, including the Government's investment, take place within a well thought out national strategy. I had expected to be able to inform my hon. Friend and the House—I understand that he has already been informed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—of the establishment of a national steering group, whose remit will be to bring forward a national action plan and timetable for the development of services and facilities to ensure that adequate arrangements are in place to enable the abolition of juvenile penal remands to be implemented by the mid 1990s.

The group, which will be having its first meeting on 8 November, will include representatives of the relevant Government Departments, including the Home Office, of the local authority associations, of social services, of the probation service, of, I hope, the Crown prosecution service, and of the police, as well as of the voluntary sector. It will be chaired by a senior civil servant from my Department.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has been invited to be represented on the group, and I shall certainly consider further whether the Police Federation should be separately represented. In addition, Wales will be represented on the group and will wish to take account of proposals. But my hon. Friend may be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has recently circulated a consultation document outlining his proposals for developing secure accommodation in Wales. That seeks views on creating a new 20-place secure unit in Wales. My right hon. Friend will, I am sure, wish to take account of my hon. Friend's comments in his considerations.

As I made clear earlier, the number of absconsions from existing children's homes is a source of concern. It is distinct from the question of secure units because absconsions from those are small. This is a subject that we are addressing carefully in the light of our on-going commitment to improve the quality and standing of residential care within social service arrangements for children.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are well aware of the need to ensure that adequate levels of secure accommodation are made available; that accommodation is of sufficiently high standard to afford adequate protection to the children themselves and to others who may be at risk from them; and that arrangements are already in hand to achieve those twin objectives within the overall context of a national strategy.

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend for raising this important subject. I hope that I have been able to reassure him on a number of fronts. As he is aware, we already have a date in the diary early in November when we will be able to consider these aspects in further detail, but I hope that as matters stand I have been able to make it clear that for youngsters there is wrong as well as right, that they need control as well as care and that it is essential that the public are protected from youngsters who, in their turbulent youth, are causing distress and havoc in local communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.