My Lords, I support the amendments tabled by my noble Friend Lord Ramsbotham about delaying proceedings on this matter, to give us more time to consider the detail before anything is put in place. I wish, as always, that I could support the Government, because of their tremendous achievement, which must be repeated again and again, in taking 2,000 children out of custody in the past four or five years. Because of their humane achievement in bringing the number down from the all-time high of 3,000 children in custody—a number that was deplored by Members on all sides of your Lordships’ House—to, potentially, only 1,000 by this Christmas, I wish in my heart to support the Government as far as possible. I would also like to support them because the idea of basing an approach on education is, of course, immensely appealing.
There are, however, in these provisions shortcomings that have already been described. My concern is particularly about the risks that young people may experience in such a setting. In a recent visit to a young offender institution—I shall try not to repeat what I said in Committee, but I will repeat this point—I was given the example of 15 young people attacking two. When I first visited a YOI 15 years ago, there might have been three or four people attacking one or two, but with the gang culture now, it is normal—and a great source of worry and consideration to the governor and the prison officers—to have members of different gangs in prison, and to have to think about how to stop large numbers of boys beating up small numbers of boys. That is one aspect of risk.
Because the Government have been so successful in reducing the number of juveniles in the secure estate, we now have only the most troubled and challenging young people there. That may help to explain why it is difficult to reduce the reoffending rate further. It also means that those people are putting each other at greater risk than was the case in the past. Moreover, I learnt in an early experience of speaking to a prison officer that, contrary to expectation, people tend to be more challenging the younger they are, rather than it being the older ones who are most challenging. The older ones seem to have developed some sense of what one does and what one does not do, but the young ones just do not have that sense, so they can be very difficult to manage.
May I take your Lordships back to 1998, and the setting up of the first secure training centre at Medway? Some of your Lordships may remember Lord Williams of Mostyn coming to this House shamefacedly following the riot there, when in the space of just two hours, eight or nine 12 to 14 year-olds caused hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of damage and injured three of the staff. I think—perhaps the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong—that the main issue was that the quality of staff was not appropriate to the needs of those young people. It had not been thought through beforehand what kind of staffing was necessary to meet their needs. So my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham has a very good point: we as parliamentarians should think extremely carefully about these vulnerable young people, who can be so damaged.
I am reminded of another example which, again, occurred under a previous Administration—namely, the setting up of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. It was established as a secure centre for children and their parents on the plan of a prison; indeed, it was identical to a prison. One could go into the reception area of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre and have very much the same experience as going into a prison. A mother with an eight year-old child would have to walk through a barred gate. One has to ask oneself what the child thought of the experience of walking into a prison through a barred gate. Who gave any thought to what it would be like for children to be placed in that setting, run by a prison governor, if I remember correctly, and manned by prison officers? This caused outrage for 10 years.
The former Children’s Commissioner, Professor Aynsley-Green, repeatedly produced reports on this setting and very gradually the environment was ameliorated considerably over time. But how much better it would have been if consideration had been given well beforehand to what the needs of children and families kept in a secure setting would be—infants, eight year-olds, 16 year-olds with their mothers—and whether a prison would be suitable accommodation for them. This issue needs to be given the closest attention and most careful thought because we are talking about some of the most vulnerable young people in our society.
In conclusion, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, talked about the health and mental health needs of these young people. Many of them will have experienced the care system. In many cases, before they went into the care system, they experienced repeated trauma throughout their lives, had dysfunctional families and were betrayed by the people they most trusted. There was no help available from within their families and they were very damaged by the time they entered care. In those circumstances it is vital that the proposed setting has a very good team of mental health professionals to support young people and the staff who work with such vulnerable young people. I share others’ misgivings. I wish that I could be more generous towards the Government because I applaud them for what they have achieved elsewhere for these young people. I hope that the House will support my noble friend’s amendment to give us more thinking space.