Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 29th November 2004.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 6:22 pm, 29th November 2004

My Lords, I shall attempt to be brief. I welcome the many positive measures on home affairs presented in Her Majesty's gracious Speech, particularly the youth justice Bill, which will make it clear that the aim of work in the youth justice system is rehabilitation. That is a welcome step forward. I also commend to your Lordships the speech made by my noble friend Lady Stern, who made a remarkably robust and authoritative evaluation of the treatment of juveniles in custody. I shall concentrate on the offender management Bill and look at the training of prison officers, as compared to that of probation officers, and at the way in which the identity of prison officers is distinct from that of probation officers.

Before doing so, I also draw to your Lordships' attention the forthcoming youth Green Paper. It is essential to the debate on anti-social behaviour and preventing crime that we address the issue of the decline in youth services over many years. It is welcome that, since 1997, the Government have invested significant additional resources in that area. However, Tom Wylie of the National Youth Agency said recently that there were problems about the implementation of services. It is a local government responsibility, and the funding is not necessarily going where it was intended to go.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, emphasised the concern that we must have about what might happen in the merging of the two services, some of which we already know. I was very disturbed to see the reports on television of how the probation service first received news of the proposed merger and how it was handled. It was reminiscent of your Lordships' experience, when we learnt of the Lord Chancellor's sudden disappearance from our constitution.

I was reminded of a visit that I made to a meeting of guardians ad litem during the implementation of CAFCASS, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which merged two different professional groups. That meeting was just before the guardians successfully took CAFCASS to judicial review. Many of them were talking about leaving the service and moving to different work. Because so many left, as the noble Baroness will know from her previous employment, vulnerable children must now wait many weeks before a guardian can be their advocate in those important cases.

There are parallels between the training of prison officers and the training of those who work in residential childcare, those working in children's homes. I recently visited the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care—we do not have an equivalent in this country—which provides free training and consultancy to Scottish children's homes. We discussed the prevalent philosophy on the Continent—social pedagogy—which has been in place for many years. In children's homes on the Continent, staff receive two to three years' training, based heavily on child development. The other side of the training is in means of engaging with young people, including, for instance, music or crafts. My noble friend Lady Stern referred to the admirable work of Camila Batmanghelidjh with Kids Company. Her astounding work with young people is based on that approach of combining a good understanding of child development with a means of engaging young people.

The point to take from that is that social work is very different from residential childcare work. Residential childcare workers live day by day with the children for whom they care. They can be very troubled children with whom some sort of working relationship must be formed if the childcare workers wish to make good the deficits that these children have when they come into care. Historically, in this country, we have not recognised the importance of that caring role.

In residential childcare, 68 per cent of children have mental disorders and 63 per cent have conduct disorders. Yet, in the past, there has been a situation where 80 per cent of the staff have no relevant qualification for such work. Now we are beginning to move towards a better situation with a National Vocational Qualification Level 3, but that is still a very long way from what happens on the Continent.

There is a parallel here with what happens in the Prison Service. A year ago, at a YoungMinds conference—YoungMinds is a charity for children's mental health—I spoke with a clinician who had visited many prisons in her work. She said that it was so regrettable that many sex offender programmes were not, in her view, effective because the prison officers administering them were simply not skilled enough to do the job well. I hope that she is wrong.

I visited Wandsworth Prison with a number of Cross-Bench colleagues. We were very impressed at the enthusiasm of the prison officers working in the sex offenders' wing. But when one considers the level of training of prison officers, there must be a question of how well they can deliver such complex services.

The Secretary-General of the Prison Officers' Association spoke to Members of your Lordships' House recently. He reminded us that prison officer training has decreased from 11 weeks to eight weeks. He spoke about the people with whom he and his colleagues dealt. Some of them were career criminals but many were the most inadequate, poor and impoverished people in the land. He was asked what support his officers received for working in such an environment, in having close relationships day by day, week by week with such people who were troubled and who we know have very high levels of mental and personality disorders. His response was that they received "none".

That is so reminiscent of what happens in residential childcare where there is the inability to form partnerships that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, spoke about earlier and the need to form partnerships with different agencies. But if the front-line staff working with the most troubled and damaged people have such a poor level of training, it is very hard for them to co-operate and to trust outsiders who come in with graduate level qualifications.

I hope that in looking at the national offender management Bill, we will keep very much in mind the identity of prison officers and take this perhaps historic occasion to review the training that they receive. Perhaps the noble Baroness can say whether there will be a review of the training of prison officers. When Martin Narey spoke to parliamentarians, he acknowledged that the difference between eight weeks' training for prison officers and three years' training for probation officers is very large for two groups of professionals who are supposed to work with each other.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, will have had some forewarning of my next question regarding young offender institutions. The White Paper, entitled, Justice for All, states:

"Young adult prisoners aged 18-20 present particular challenges for the correctional services and we have yet to respond to their specific needs and difficulties . . . Currently, there is no specific provision for 18-20s and the recent concentration on regimes for under-18s has put the relative lack of provision for young adult offenders in stark contrast".

I would be grateful if the Minister could outline the progress being made in terms of improving the regime, thus acknowledging the concerns raised by the Government.

To conclude, if prison officers are to treat offenders with humanity, they need the skills to work in the prison environment and to develop close relationships with what are often damaged people. That I believe is an end in itself, just as having highly skilled and well qualified staff in children's homes is similarly an end in itself. We want that for children because we recognise the deficiencies and abuse they have endured before they go into homes and we think that they should have the best, most qualified, thoughtful and reflective professionals to work with them. To a degree we must think the same of prison officers.

It is also a means to an end. If we are serious about having good rehabilitative programmes, we need a seamless service that puts offenders back out in the community, settling them down and getting them into work. Skilled prison officers are necessary to deliver it. Any educationist will say that children learn through modelling and that that is the best way to teach any subject. A good example is the best lesson. If we can show prisoners, perhaps for the first time in their lives, a model of humanity in the form of adults who treat them with respect, who respond consistently and who will not be vindictive, when they go back out on to the streets there is the hope that they will begin to treat others with more respect and dignity than they have experienced in their own pasts.

I look forward to the reply of the noble Baroness.