Young Offenders (London)

Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:24 pm on 18th January 2001.

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

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 7:26 pm, 18th January 2001

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce an Adjournment debate on a subject in which I have expressed considerable interest over the years. Indeed, essentially, I am coming back to a subject which I raised in an Adjournment debate in May 1999. I have followed it up through interest in and contact with people who work at Feltham prison, as well as prison visitors and others.

However, I want to put the matter in a wider context. I am sometimes criticised by my dimmer critics in Twickenham for taking an interest in an institution in an adjacent constituency which is not part of Twickenham. However, all of us—and certainly those of us who are concerned with London—have an interest in the workings of the young offenders institution. A though we have just had a debate on police numbers, there is a fear of crime. Crime is not simply a matter of police numbers and detection by the police, but involves the way in which the relatively small numbers of persistent young offenders are dealt with. It concerns whether they are caught, how they are punished and whether they are subsequently rehabilitated or reoffend. That relates very much to the way in which the young offending regime operates.

I am aware that, since I introduced my last Adjournment debate, there have been big changes, some of which have made headlines, including the riots at Feltham and the tragic death of Zahid Mubarak. However, there have been positive development in the youth justice system, such as the creation of teams to deal with young offenders, the appointment of the Youth Justice Board and a whole new approach to under-18 offending. I want to try to incorporate some of that in my speech.

My main message for the Minister, to which I hope he will respond, is that the message that I get back from the prison is that there is a tale of two parts. In certain respects, there have been big steps forward and big improvements, but, in others, there has been stagnation or regression, which relates largely to age categories. Everybody concerned acknowledges hat there has been a big step forward concerning the care of under-18s or former juveniles. A separate wing has been created, more recreation has been provided, and here is a gym and proper education provided. When I last spoke on the matter, few of the 16-year-olds were getting any education, which is now being remedied. There is a much more positive approach to the rehabilitation of that age group.

I am sure that the Minister would accept, however, that for people in that age group, everything is far from perfect. Even now, there are far too many of them in Feltham prison. I believe that the prison's capacity for the under-18s is about 180, but there are far more than 200 there. As a result, a separate unit for them has had to be created among that for the older prisoners, where they have none of the better treatment that they get in the other unit.

As I am sure the Minister knows, there are also problems, such as the disciplinary regime. Despite the fact that many under-18s are enjoying better recreational facilities, there is a marked recourse to smashing up cells. There is obviously still a lot of anger and violence in that age cohort. None the less, the feedback that we are all getting shows that there have been a big step forward and great improvements.

The older young offenders—the 18 to 21-yearolds—constitute the other side of the coin. They are affected partly by the improvements that apply to the lower age range. The younger offenders get gym, and there is therefore less gym space and time available for the older offenders. Many continue to be locked up for 22, and sometimes 23 hours a day, partly because of staffing problems, to which I shall revert in a moment. Conditions are difficult, and there are little problems, which I hope that the Minister can perhaps solve through intervention.

In an overcrowded, pressurised environment, an hour out of a cell provides little recreation. The young people naturally want to ring home, and there are simply not enough telephones to do that. Those are simple problems, but the environment is difficult for 18 to 21-year-olds. That is the big story that has emerged in the past couple of years.

Among the other issues that I raised 18 months ago, one of the main problems that Sir David Ramsbotham, the chief inspector, highlighted was hygiene and cleanliness. I believe that substantial improvements have been made, and that much has been done to alleviate simple problems such as changing clothes, and ensuring that people have regular changes of mattress if needed. However, many of the problems to which I referred continue to exist. That is worrying. I shall itemise some of them.

First, extreme violence and tension often exist in the prison environment. I was struck by a passage in the visitors' annual report. It reads flatly until one assimilates what it is trying to convey. It states: Over the year Feltham has had a high level of assaults and self-harm. During July 2000, an average month, statistics show that there were 49 serious assaults and 10 serious attempted hangings. That reflects a typical month. The problems have existed in the prison for many years, and they culminated in the murder of Zahid Mubarak last year. Clearly, they are part of the culture that has not yet been eradicated.

Secondly, all prison reports have referred to the problem of severe overcrowding, and the sharing of cells that were designed for only one prisoner. I have had trouble with the arithmetic; perhaps the Minister will be able to bring us up to date. I understand that there are currently just over 600 prisoners because one of the wings is out of action. However, I believe that the plan is to increase the numbers again to approximately 875. That would be 100 prisoners in excess of the official capacity. In human terms, that means that approximately 60 cells, which were designed for one inmate, will be shared, in some cases as dormitories. Over the past couple of years, efforts have been made to introduce basic privacy in those shared units, but considerable tension exists in them, and the position is unsatisfactory.

Some of the e-mail correspondence that I have received from prison staff suggests that the third problem has become worse. It relates to staffing. It is not simply a matter of numbers or money. There is a high rate of long-term absenteeism for sickness. The figures that the Minister recently provided in a parliamentary answer suggest that the rate of absence is about 18 per cent.; prison staff tell me that it is somewhat higher. Staff are under extreme pressure and many respond by going on long-term sick leave. The remainder are therefore asked to pick up the slack and are under even more pressure. That leads to higher sickness rates. There is a vicious spiral of extreme tension, demoralisation and low staff morale. Such a serious issue cannot be accommodated by hiring more people and providing more money. It clearly relates to the management of the institution.

Another problem has arisen in the past year. I was startled when I was told that there have been five governors in the past year. Two were temporary because of the gap between permanent appointments. However, with such a rapid turnover of senior management staff, it is difficult to get the continuity and commitment necessary to make such an institution work.

There are two recurring themes. One is the treatment of the health needs of prisoners. I know that an attempt has been made to strengthen the health unit in the hospital, but it is most alarming that it takes the best part of three months to place the large number of prisoners who are psychologically disturbed in a national health service psychiatric institution, because of the shortages of staff and the difficulties of vetting. In that three-month period, many of them are vulnerable to self-harm.

The other factor, which I do not want to make too much of, is that in the past there has been a serious imbalance between the proportion of ethnic minorities in the prison population, which is roughly 50 per cent., and the proportion in the staff, which is about 10 per cent. All the staff I have ever met have had a positive approach and have treated prisoners in a non-racialist way. I do not think that people associated with the prison have ever alleged that that is a major issue. However, such an imbalance between the composition of the staff and the inmates is a problem, but perhaps the question of why there is such an imbalance in the prison population should be posed to magistrates. Progress in building up the role of ethnic minorities in the staff seems to be slow, and that clearly requires further attention in the long term.

Can progress in dealing with the under-18s be carried forward to the older young offenders? There is now a jarring contrast between the two, and it is not merely academic, because 17-year-olds become 18 and they progress from a much-improved regime to one that is much worse. The disparity between the two regimes must be dealt with, and I would be interested to hear how the Minister proposes to do that.

The staffing problem merges into the general problem of professional staff and labour shortages in west London, which manifests itself in various ways and applies to police officers, nurses and teachers. However, there is a specific problem of high rates of long-term sickness and absenteeism, possibly connected with management leadership. How is that problem to be addressed?

Will the Minister take a personal interest in dealing with the difficulties that some visitors have pointed out to me? Simple, practical measures could often, with a little money and resources, make a considerable difference to the quality of the environment in which these prisoners live—for example, having access to more telephones and having electricity in the cells so that they can have televisions. I am not arguing for a Butlin's holiday camp environment, but it is generally accepted that such facilities are important to prevent self-harm and suicide, especially in the early stages of incarceration.

My final point is more fundamental. How do the Government see the role of institutions such as Feltham in the long term? what is envisaged in 10 to 20 years' time? It is the largest institution of its kind in Europe. Our experience of these young offenders institutions is that they are not succeeding in their fundamental objective of rehabilitating prisoners. There is an enormously high rate of reoffending, which is partly due to the nature of the institution. What is even more important is that 70 per cent. of the prisoners are non-violent offenders. Is there not a better way of dealing with this problem than incarceration in an institution such as Feltham, with its problems of overcrowding, and with its pressures and violence?

I know that the Government have carried out pilot schemes on alternatives. One thing that slightly worries me, which the Minister can perhaps comment on, is that magistrates are using their increased flexibility of powers by giving custodial-plus-training sentences in preference to community service. Because the training element is attractive to magistrates, they are referring more young people for custodial sentences, whereas that may not always be the most; propriate approach.

I should be grateful for the Minister's response on the long-term picture. Will there be a major role for prisons of that kind? Clearly there are very violent people who have to be locked up to protect society, but is not there a way to achieve an environment in which the numbers held are much smaller and the pressures exerted much less severe?

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) 7:40 pm, 18th January 2001

I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing time for the debate, whose title is so broadly cast that, at first sight, I did not think that he would concentrate so much on Feltham. However, I welcome any attention being paid to that institution. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen) for the concern that he shows for the matter and I also welcome interest when it comes from neighbouring Twickenham.

I would take issue with those of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who uncharitably mock his interest in Feltham. The more London Members who are concerned about what happens there, the better it will be. As London Members, we all have constituents who sadly end up in that place and we all have constituents who have an interest in Feltham making its contribution to cutting crime. That, and reducing recidivism while holding prisoners in safe and decent secure conditions, have to lie at the heart of Feltham as an institution. That is what it is all about, and I acknowledge our debt of gratitude to all those who work at, with and in Feltham to that end.

I of course include staff in that, but I include, too, the board of visitors, which I am glad the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the more than 20 voluntary sector organisations that spend time in Feltham contributing to the regime and to building the links between the institution and the wider community, which are so important to ensuring effective resettlement and reintegration in the community.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions about progress at Feltham. Real progress has been made since he last addressed the matter in the House, but there is no room for complacency and we still have a way to go. There is a distinction, to which he drew attention, between Feltham A and Feltham B in terms of the quality of the regimes for under-18s and over-18s. Undoubtedly, progress has been made on the regime for under-18s—he drew attention to several aspects of that—as a result of a not inconsiderable investment in new youth justice resources, which has characterised the Government's approach to ensuring that young people are effectively diverted from crime and have their criminal activities properly addressed by the police, the courts, the probation service and prisons. It is vital that all those agencies, as parts of the criminal justice system, work together. They work best when they enable the voluntary sector and the community to make an input to reducing reoffending and creating effective reintegration to the community.

So that no one is in any doubt, let me make the point that our view is that the courts should be able to remand or, on conviction, sentence young people to young offender institutions when they believe that the offences committed by and the circumstances of a young person merit that. It is our responsibility to ensure—as we will—that enough places are available for young people to be held in safe, secure and decent conditions. My response to the hon. Gentleman's question about the future of institutions such as Feltham is that there will be a continuing role for institutions that can hold young people in such conditions, whether they are on remand or have been sentenced.

I must add, however, that it is important to provide the courts with a range of options. That has been a hallmark of the Government's approach to youth offending, and it is why we have placed such emphasis on the role of the youth offender team. The team is important in the context of disposal, which involves probation services, social services, the police, the voluntary sector and health authorities working together to ensure that young people's needs are met, and that the incidence of offending is reduced.

We also introduced those youth offender panels to divert first-time offenders who admit guilt from the criminal justice system. Ours is a dual approach, which recognises the importance of ensuring that there is adequate provision for secure holding while also investing in the availability of sentencing options that can be delivered in the community, and which involves an ever-closer working relationship between those responsible for secure accommodation, or custody, and the probation service. We want to ensure that, whatever the courts decide, matters involving education and health are addressed.

The health issue is important. I visited Feltham on new year's eve; indeed, I visited a number of prisons on new year's eve. My visit gave me an opportunity to view the health-care centre again. It has improved enormously, in terms of its fabric and also in terms of staff numbers, but a number of deeply troubled and distressed young people are held there.

We should of course ensure that there is effective transmission to the national health service and the wider mental health care system, and that such transmission is expedited. That is being achieved through ever-closer working relationships between the NHS and the prison health-care service. However, we should also do all that we can to reduce the number of incidents of self-harm at Feltham. Mandatory suicide awareness training for all staff was completed at the end of December, and a "buddy" scheme will shortly be introduced. Listener training has also been completed.

The question of facilities in general is important. The Prison Service has been working actively with the Youth Justice Board to alleviate pressures at Feltham, and to bring the population of under-18s within the establishment's capacity of 240. The number has been within that total since November, and we intend to do all we can to ensure that it is not exceeded. We have achieved the reduction by redesignating remand to "sentenced" accommodation at Ashfield and Onley, and creating an additional 90 "sentenced" places at Hollesley Bay.

It is true that we now need to concentrate more on provision for the over-18s, and to seek resources accordingly. That is not going to be easy, but we shall certainly be focusing on it. Hon. Members should not forget, however, that our achievements in relation to under-18s were made possible by a considerable injection of resources. Nevertheless, the director general is seeking to find new resources for over-18s at Feltham, and I support him 100 per cent. in that.

We are working at Feltham to build on the staff's determination to address various issues, which undoubtedly include racism, institutional racism, the importance of the RESPOND—racial equality for staff and prisoners—programme and, as the hon. Gentleman said, the importance of ensuring greater diversity among staff. As he will be aware, the Commission for Racial Equality also is taking an interest in Feltham.

There are also issues of recruitment and sickness at Feltham. Throughout the Prison Service, however, management is placing a new focus and emphasis on addressing the sickness issue. Sickness levels are unacceptably high and we have to ensure that they are reduced. It is a challenge for management and for unions.

There are real recruitment and retention issues in the south-east, largely because of the cost of accommodation. That point was made to me very forcefully by Feltham staff when I last met them to discuss the issue. Therefore—with colleagues at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the office of the London Mayor and others—we are working on who will be designated as key workers. We should ensure that prison officers are among the key workers for whom extra assistance is being investigated to alleviate accommodation problems in the south-east, particularly in London.

So there have been some real improvements, but challenges remain. Everyone, however, is determined to tackle those challenges. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's very well made point on management continuity at Feltham, especially in relation to its governor. There are various reasons for management changes at Feltham, sadly including sickness. However, we are working to ensure continuity, high-quality management and leadership at the establishment.

I pay tribute again to all who are concerned to improve Feltham. I am also absolutely determined to ensure that the Prison Service and the Home Office do all in our power to ensure that Feltham makes a real contribution to crime reduction—by holding those young people, whether under 18 or over 18, in safe, secure and decent conditions. The more debates there are on such institutions and the greater hon. Members' interest in them, the better it will be. I am grateful for the opportunity to have contributed to this important debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Eight o'clock.