My Lords, I have two amendments in this group—Amendments 117A and 117B. I should have said at the outset today that the amendments in my name are all supported by my noble friends Lady Linklater, Lady Harris and Lord Carlile, who has just spoken. My noble friends would have added their names to the amendments had Monday not been such a busy day.
My first amendment is to the same effect as Amendment 109 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Beecham, and would prevent girls and younger boys—that is, those under 15—being held in secure colleges. The proposal for the first secure college at Glen Parva, just east of Leicester, is, as my noble friend made clear, a pathfinder proposal. It is intended to be experimental. I suggest that it cannot be right to experiment in this way with the lives of girls and young boys in custody. Widespread and deeply felt concerns are unanimously expressed in the many specialist briefings we have received, notably from the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and the British Medical Association, to whose impending report the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred earlier. All oppose holding girls and younger boys in the same institutions as older boys.
The numbers alone are extremely telling. As we all are now aware, there are only 1,100 offenders in custody in the secure estate. We have made it clear many times how far we regard this as a great achievement of this Government in the field of youth justice—a point which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, made earlier today. However, only about 45 of those young offenders are girls and, although the relevant numbers may vary, I think that fewer than 40 are under 15.
In the consultation paper on the proposed secure college rules, the Government have made it clear that they propose that there should be a rule to ensure separate accommodation for girls and boys. As my noble friend Lord Carlile just mentioned, the Government have also made it clear that the plans for Glen Parva disclose an intention that girls and younger boys should be housed in separate blocks, segregated from the main body of the secure college by a fence. However, they will share with the older boys the main education and health block at the site.
At the meeting the other day which my noble friend the Minister helpfully held with Peers to discuss secure colleges, a point was made that officials had seen co-education working well within the secure estate—boys and girls working together on, I think, decoration. That may be. However, the risks posed of occasional but very serious incidents occurring in such circumstances are severe. Furthermore, I do not believe that the Government have taken fully into account the inevitable feelings of intimidation and isolation likely to be felt by a small number of girls in an institution containing a large number of older boys. They will be a tiny minority at best, and the same goes for vulnerable younger boys. Nor should one forget that a large proportion of the girls have been victims of sexual abuse by older men. It is entirely wrong, I suggest, to force through this mixed education experiment. I believe that the experiment itself is unacceptable in this regard.
Places are available in secure children’s homes for this very small group of children. My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, speaking for the Opposition, were in rare accord in that both spoke well of secure children’s homes and of their future. The Government assure us that they intend to keep open secure children’s homes. They are small and provide a nurturing environment. Many provide a highly successful educational content. During the Recess I visited Clayfields House, a secure children’s home in Nottinghamshire. That home has secured a remarkable success with children in avoiding reconviction upon release. At Clayfields they provide not only education, achieving truly remarkable exam results in very short periods of time, but also effective vocational training, arranged by a local private sector employer, in motor mechanics and construction trades. It is a facility shared by the secure children’s home with local schools and others.
I fully appreciate that secure children’s homes are expensive, but we are talking here about housing a very small number of children in an appropriate environment. We are talking about turning around the lives of a group of extremely damaged children. If we do not spend now the resources necessary to ensure that they are held in suitable surroundings and given the opportunities afforded by a period of personal attention and tightly focused education, helping them towards gaining employment later, then we face the far greater financial burden of considerable extra expenditure in the future as they spend their lives in and out of the criminal justice system and dependent on the public purse for social services and welfare benefits.
My second amendment in this group is similar in terms to one that I tabled in Committee, which was kindly mentioned with approval by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. This amendment sets out the principles that should underlie the foundation of any secure educational establishment. I say again that we are completely in support of the Government’s intention to introduce more and better education for young offenders in custody. The present educational services in Feltham and other young offender institutions are inadequate and ineffective. The lack of education and training for the world of work is one reason for the appallingly high reoffending rates for young people. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that young offenders who are in custody are, for the most part, deeply troubled young people. Very often, their contact with the education system prior to their being sentenced has been limited at best.
The evidence convinces me that the best way in which to provide education for young offenders and improve their chances of rehabilitation is to provide establishments that are small enough to guarantee individual attention from staff; are easy to visit for their families; are designed to assist rather than impede continuity of supervision following release; and offer education and other facilities that are sufficiently focused and supportive to ensure that the different needs of individual offenders with different problems, and who are sentenced and due to be released at different times, can be suitably met.
In this regard, I have added to my Committee stage amendment the need to ensure adequate mental and physical healthcare facilities for young offenders. The need for such extra attention to these issues has been highlighted by the BMA briefing on its impending report on these issues, and my noble friend Lord Carlile has spoken about that. The BMA points out, tellingly, that the state takes over responsibility for these offenders precisely at the point when their needs are most acute. The BMA’s support for the principles of these amendments is only one area of support among many. I again ask the Government to reconsider their proposals, to look at the principles advocated by all those who have done years of research upon this subject, to think again about the Glen Parva proposal and to reject the idea that girls and younger males under 15 should be held in detention in that institution.