Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 8:08 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 8:08 pm, 11th January 2010

That rather diminishes my 46, but it does underline the great concern about the issue. I am sure that changes will be made to the current proposals in Committee-I sincerely hope so, as there is no grave concern about the standard of home education: quite the reverse. I went to university with people who had been home educated and they were probably the brightest people I ever met. They are high flyers today and they are probably home educating their own children in turn. I see no need to wield a big stick in that area.

Welsh people, of course, have a great regard for the liberation that education provides. I went to a university, Aberystwyth university college. It was built on public subscription; the one in Bangor was built from the odd pennies and ha'pennies from the rather poor quarrymen in the local area. We know how important education is and how liberating it can be.

I really believe that there are some good parts to the Bill, but there are also some rather strange parts. On the youth justice provisions, I would advocate the transfer of the relevant powers to Wales. The inclusion of youth justice within the education and young people's portfolio at the Welsh Assembly seems to make sense. In the jigsaw of society, there are a great number of interlocking pieces, where decisions made in one field influence outcomes in another. It does not make sense for a Welsh education system to introduce one set of values, evidenced by the play-based foundation phase for young children and the 14-to-19 Welsh baccalaureate schemes for teenagers, and then have to make do with a criminal justice system that does not adhere to the values we would like to see reflected in it.

My party is not the only one saying it. The Howard League, a renowned think-tank, recently concluded in its paper "Thinking beyond the prison bars":

"The current Whitehall-led option of imprisoning such a high proportion of vulnerable children in unsafe circumstances cannot be acceptable...Despite the limited effectiveness of the criminal justice system as a lever to tackle youth crime, it seems somewhat perverse that the Assembly has access to the social welfare lever but not the criminal justice lever. If the Assembly had control of both levers then it would have the ability to move finances between the two accordingly. Money currently spent on ineffective prisons could be transferred to bolster prevention and social welfare strategies", many of which we have heard about already. The league also drew attention to the fact that because of lack of provision, most Welsh children who find themselves in custody are held in England, far from their families. This is not simply a matter of logistics, but of culture, language and other difficulties that come along with them.

It is the responsibility of Governments to determine the exact policy, but Plaid Cymru would like an urgent debate on the devolution of youth justice to Wales. A think-piece entitled "Safer Communities", which we published in 2008, argued that in the provision of youth justice in Wales, we could learn from the example of Finland. That country has a very small number of children in custody. Instead, there is a wide variety of psychiatric and care provision to deal with behavioural problems at an early stage, which as we heard is crucial.

A comparative analysis of young people in trouble in Wales and in Finland found that Finland had smaller numbers of young offenders locked up. It accommodates very large numbers of children and young people in non-custodial residential centres of one type or another. Those include youth homes, children's homes, and interestingly, family-group homes. By far the largest number-almost 4,000-are also assisted with psychiatric problems and so forth. If England and Wales had the same number of psychiatric beds per head of population as Finland, there would be approximately 40,000. In Wales, there would be 2,220, but there are currently, in fact, only 28.

It appears that concern about child and adolescent mental health in Finland has eclipsed concerns about youth crime, and it would follow from this that behaviour that might be viewed as criminal in England and Wales might well be dealt with in Finland first and foremost as a form of disorder, or at least as something that should be addressed outside the criminal justice system.

We would like to see greater use of reparation orders-in other words, orders made in the civil courts that require the perpetrator to repair the damage that their behaviour has caused-of child safety orders for children under 10 years of age who have shown behavioural problems, of acceptable behaviour contracts and so forth. Provision for those orders is made in the Children Act 2001, but little use is made of them because, I understand, social services departments are understaffed and often underfunded.

Those tools should be expanded to include both mentoring of young people by older role models in the community and conferencing to bring youths, their families and relevant agencies together to discuss the young person's problem behaviour in order to find the causes and try to fix them. The most important issue is that the system should be child-centred and work for the benefit of the community. It is very clear from the high reoffending rate and the number of people who go from youth custody of one form or another to adult custody that we must look at alternative means of dealing with the problem.

To conclude, in discussing the devolution of youth justice to the Welsh Assembly, I have welcomed the acceptance that youth justice is included as part of society's contract with young people rather than part of the adult criminal justice system. I have also offered suggestions about the route that might be taken by a Welsh youth justice system if were we given the powers-and, of course, the funding-to implement them. There is a growing chorus of voices in Wales to devolve those powers, which could be achieved. I hope that the Minister will pay some attention to this particular plea when he responds to the debate.

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