Moved by Lord Harris of Haringey
To move that this House takes note of the case for taking action to address the problems of young people before they enter the criminal justice system in order to reduce the prison population, improve conditions within prison, and focus on the rehabilitation of prisoners, as set out in The Harris Review: Changing Prisons, Saving Lives.
My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this debate. I should make it clear that this is not out of any sense of self-promotion, but because I believe that the issues raised by the independent review that I led are so important. Indeed, I believe that they are important for the Government, because as they wrestle with the comprehensive spending review, they need to recognise that prison is a hugely expensive intervention and yet the benefits of this spend are questionable. It has a relatively low impact on crime, and indeed rates of reoffending are high, particularly among young adults.
Last year, I and my team were commissioned by the then Minister for Prisons to review the 83 self-inflicted deaths of young people in prison from April 2007 to the end of 2013. We also looked at the deaths of the four under-18s who died in the same period. Uppermost in our minds throughout the exercise was that every single one of the young people who died and whose cases we examined was someone’s son or daughter, sister or brother, partner or even parent. Each of the deaths represents a failure by the state to protect the young people concerned, which is a breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is a failure by the state which is all the greater because the same criticisms occur time and time again. Lessons have not been learned and not enough has been done over the years to bring about substantive change.
We considered an enormous volume of evidence that included submissions from 54 organisations and individuals. We conducted 26 hearings and consulted senior experts through a series of meetings and seminars. We visited prisons and young offender institutions, spending time at each one listening to the views of young prisoners themselves. The excellent charity INQUEST, which does so much valuable work supporting people who have had a loved one die in the custody of the state, helpfully organised for us two listening days with the families of those who had died. We surveyed young adults in institutions and received 50 audio submissions from prisoners following broadcasts that I made on National Prison Radio. Then there was the detailed examination of the 87 cases themselves.
Our conclusion was that all young adults in custody are vulnerable. Some had led chaotic lives and had complex histories, while others had been subjected to child abuse, or had been exposed to violence or repeated bereavement. Many had been in foster or residential care, and often their problems had been further compounded by mental health issues. In the 87 cases we examined, many of the young people’s problems and vulnerabilities, including their mental health issues, had been evident from an early age. Why did so many of them end up in custody?
“Throughout Billy’s life I tried to get proper care and support for him but all the doors were shut in my face. From the moment he was sentenced to imprisonment, I knew that they wouldn’t be able to look after him. They should have diverted him from the courts or made sure that everybody in the prison had training to deal with him”.
The same mistakes have been repeated time and time again. Nicholas Saunders was 18 when he died in April 2011. The pre-sentence review had recommended a community disposal but the judge decided that prison was the best option for him. The documents describing his vulnerability and a previous suicide attempt were not transferred with him when he was moved from HMP Woodhill to HMYOI Stoke Heath, where six weeks after the transfer he was found hanging in his cell from a ligature attached to a light fitting—despite a similar suicide, also from a light fitting, at the same establishment just a few years earlier.
In an earlier case, Joseph Scholes was 16 when he died in 2002. He had a long history of vulnerability, repeatedly told staff he would kill himself, and was never seen by a psychiatrist. When he did make a noose from a bed-sheet and hang himself from the bars of his cell, he left a message for his mother and father telling them he could not cope and that:
“I tried telling them and they just don’t fucking listen”.
We have heard the same stories time and time again over the past 13 years, and the cases do not stop coming. There were 69 self-inflicted deaths in the first nine months of this year alone, and 12 of those were of young people under the age of 24.
There are no simple and easy solutions to such deaths, but the weight of evidence shows the need to look broadly at the reasons for the deaths and how they might have been prevented by much earlier intervention. Our conclusion was that there must be a commitment to support vulnerable young people before and after their contact with the criminal justice system, and the objective of policy must be to assist them to become productive citizens.
I am pleased, therefore, at the hints that have been dropped by the Secretary of State for Justice that this is the direction of travel that he wants to follow, but on Monday our review will have been with the Ministry of Justice for seven months, and even now there is still no sign of the Government’s response. Last week, the grandly titled Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody met, but apparently it did not have the time to discuss the review at that meeting. Indeed, the review has yet to be presented to it, let alone considered. I know that the review raises some difficult issues and I know that the National Offender Management Service is extremely defensive about some of its findings, but if the Government do not act decisively, the distressing cases we considered will be repeated and more young lives will be wasted.
Indeed, there is already evidence of backwards movement. NOMS has been reviewing the ACCT process—the existing arrangements for addressing the needs of those considered to be at risk of self-inflicted death. The NOMS conclusion, I am told, is that these arrangements are overused and that it should be easier to take a prisoner off the process. Presumably this is intended to save money, but it runs directly against the research that was done for us on the clinical reviews of those who had died, which found that in many cases the young people had been taken off the ACCT process prematurely or inappropriately.
Let us be clear: prisons and young offender institutions are grim environments, bleak and demoralising to the spirit. The experience of living in a prison or a young offender institution is not conducive to rehabilitation. What is more, when this is coupled with the current impoverished regimes caused by staff shortages—a situation that can only get worse with the likely budget cuts that the Chancellor will impose in a month’s time—it makes the experience particularly damaging to developing young adults who are in those institutions.
It was clear to us also that young adults in prison are not sufficiently engaged in purposeful activity and that their time is not spent in a constructive and valuable way. Indeed, the current restricted regimes that we observed—again because of staff shortages—do not even allow for the delivery of planned core day activities that might help rehabilitation. We came across repeated examples of medical and mental health appointments being missed because there were insufficient staff to escort the patient—the prisoner—from their cell to the medical practitioner.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in the philosophy of prison. We recommended a new statement on the purpose of prison: its primary purpose should be rehabilitation, along with keeping prisoners and the public safe and secure. This will require leadership and that must start with Ministers.
Leadership in individual establishments is also critical. In some prisons, the governors have a positive vision of what they are trying to do, and that feeds through the culture of the entire prison. In others, the governors say all the right things, but they are not borne out by what you see as you go round the prison. As young prisoners said to us on at least one occasion, “It’s all different when the governor is on the wing”. And there are some prisons where the governors are completely overwhelmed by the administrative and managerial challenges that they face, so that concern for the welfare of individual prisoners seems to have been crowded out.
There is a disconnect between what those in charge think should be happening and what actually goes on in individual prisons. NOMS prison service instructions are by and large sound and, if implemented, would deliver good practice, but there is a yawning chasm between what they contain and what happens in practice. There are also some ominous gaps. In many of the 87 cases examined, the vulnerable young adults were going through a period of particular distress that might have passed if they had not been spending so much time locked inside their cells with nothing to do other than stare at potential ligature attachment points. But NOMS centrally does not know how many functional safer cells—those where ligature attachment points have been by and large removed—exist in individual establishments because it does not collect the data. Nor does NOMS know—again, because it does not collect the data—how many hours prisoners spend out of their cells on purposeful activity. There are other omissions. Frankly, we found it surprising that NOMS does not have a discrete policy on bullying or on the management of gangs.
So there are issues of leadership and issues of policy, but then there is the question of who takes responsibility for the individual prisoner and her or his journey through the prison. A central recommendation of our review was that the prison workforce needs to be trained and developed to a higher professional standard. There should be a new role: we called it the custody and rehabilitation officer, who would take personal responsibility for the health, education, social care, safety and rehabilitation needs of each individual prisoner. These officers would be suitably trained professionals with a small enough caseload—we were thinking 15 to 20—that they would know the individual prisoners well, would deliver the right package of services to assess their needs and deliver their support and rehabilitation.
Our central message was that much more needs to be done to support young adults not only after they come into contact with the criminal justice system but before they ever get into trouble. I repeat: these are young people whose problems have been evident from an early age, so why was nothing done long before they ended up in custody?
We looked at the work of the Government’s Troubled Families programme, which concentrates the efforts of all public agencies to resolve the problems of families whose problems, if left unresolved, are a drain on the state’s resources. Why is it not possible to adopt a similar approach to the needs of troubled adolescents? Reinvestment and redirection of resources to the health and welfare system to resolve the issues creating problems for the troubled child or adolescent before they ever enter the criminal justice system, or investment in effective alternatives to custody if they do get into trouble, will be money well spent and will reduce the numbers in prison so as to enable better support and rehabilitative efforts for those who do become prisoners.
Delaying action until the resource position is easier is not an option. It would mean young people continuing to die unnecessarily in our prisons and we will continue to waste countless millions of pounds on failing to rehabilitate those who could be rehabilitated, locking up those for whom a non-prison option would be more appropriate, and failing to intervene early enough to prevent people entering the criminal justice system in the first place. Our proposals were rooted in the impressive body of evidence we received and considered.
We recognise that they involve substantial changes and a significant shift in approach, but they are changes that are urgently needed if the waste of resource that is our present penal policy is to be stemmed and if—even more importantly—the tragic preventable loss of young lives is to be halted. Those who ignore the lessons of past failure are condemned to repeat them. That will be the fate of policymakers who fail to act on these recommendations. The 87 tragic cases considered by our review deserve as their memorial that this time it must be different. We owe them no less. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate and to lend my support to the recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and his team.
This is an outstanding report dealing with self-inflicted deaths of young people in custody. Like many serious and persistent young offenders, the young people concerned—as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, identified—often had a combination of problems and experiences such as physical or sexual abuse, family conflict, parental neglect, traumatic loss, exclusion from schools, drugs or alcohol misuse or mental health problems. I have highlighted these factors in previous debates; almost all the research that I have studied points to these factors, so I am saying nothing new. However, how we deal with such issues has a direct impact on the criminal justice system.
I declare an interest. I am president of Nacro, formerly the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. Its mission is to positively change lives, strengthen communities, enhance social inclusion, reduce crime and prevent new offending behaviour. All available evidence points to the fact that young adults require a distinct approach that takes into account their unique needs and vulnerabilities. The current strategy is grossly inadequate; for example, there is no specific system-wide provision for young adults, and the lack of provision for young women and minority-ethnic young adults is even more evident.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, rightly argued that tackling this problem requires a wide-ranging strategy, an approach I fully endorse. We need to ensure that vulnerable young people are diverted from the criminal justice system wherever possible, that custody is used for young offenders only when absolutely essential, and that custodial regimes can provide young people with care, support and rehabilitation that takes the particular needs of this age group into account.
The Government should adopt the same approach for young adult offenders aged 18 to 24 as that for under-18s, which has produced a significant fall in the number of juvenile offenders in custody in recent years. This is not science; it is common sense. For example, the Sentencing Council could be asked to produce a set of overarching principles for sentencing young adults, similar to the old Sentencing Guidelines Council’s principles for sentencing juveniles, which helped to create a climate in which significantly fewer juveniles were sentenced to custody. Measures such as the restorative caution and the referral order, which have worked well for juvenile offenders, could be extended to young adults. The Government could set targets for reducing first-time entrants to the young adult criminal justice system, similar to those which helped to increase the diversion of juveniles from the youth justice process. They could also set targets to reduce the number of young adults entering custody, as the Youth Justice Board did for juveniles. The intensive alternative to custody sentence for young adults, which was successfully piloted a few years ago in Manchester, could be introduced nationwide.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, should take credit. The Youth Justice Board is one of the few success stories in the criminal justice field. He will not thank me, but let us work to increase his workload by ensuring that these nationwide objectives are also implemented for young adults. Unless we take measures of this kind, it will be very difficult for overstretched prisons to provide the regimes that vulnerable young adults need.
In almost all previous debates on this matter, I have argued that far too many young adults are still being put into custody for short sentences that serve little purpose. They are too short for sustained rehabilitation programmes, but they are long enough for young people to lose jobs and accommodation and to weaken their family ties—all of which makes them more likely to reoffend. This is a root cause of the repeat offending that clogs up our criminal justice system and our prisons. Many offenders return to prison repeatedly, in a pointless and depressing revolving-door process. Many of them would be better dealt with by community orders, which can provide a longer period of supervision, better support and more intensive work to change offending behaviour. If they were removed from the prison system, custodial establishments would have a more realistic chance of providing suitable, supportive regimes for those young people who genuinely need to be in custody. This is not a soft option; it is the right option.
The report from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has highlighted the way in which prison regimes have suffered as a consequence of the large reduction in the number of prison staff over the last few years. This is a result of spending cuts. Inaction now would be a recipe for future disaster. The amount of purposeful activity in prisons has fallen in consequence, as reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons have repeatedly made clear.
Since resources are so stretched, we need to make sure that we are using them in the best possible way. We need to rethink an approach that incarcerates so many young people and impoverishes regimes for those young people who genuinely need to be in custody. I have repeatedly urged successive Governments to legislate to make sentencing guidelines that take into account the capacity of the prison system. This proposal was first made by the Carter report on the prison system in 2007 and it still makes sense. At a time when all other parts of the criminal justice system have to work within the reality of limited resources, there is no reason why sentencers should be exempt.
Reducing the number of young adults who are unnecessarily imprisoned would enable the Prison Service to provide more constructive and caring regimes for a smaller number of young prisoners. These regimes should include increased opportunities for work, training and education, as well as healthcare provision that is at least equal to that in the outside community.
It is particularly important that the Government should implement the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for young adult prisoners to have a suitably trained custody and rehabilitation officer with a small enough caseload to give adequate support to vulnerable young people. As the noble Lord’s report proposes, young prisoners should also have individual custody plans based on a multidisciplinary assessment project.
Above all, we need a determined and co-ordinated strategy from central government to ensure that everything humanly possible will be done to avoid the tragic and all-too-often avoidable deaths of so many vulnerable young people in custody. Any nation that aspires to civilised values must surely treat this as an overriding moral priority.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, and his panel on their most impressive and wide-ranging review. It makes harrowing reading, particularly the individual case studies. These are young people whom our society failed. There is evidence in the individual cases of failure to take steps that might have prevented their deaths and the review makes practical recommendations aimed at preventing those failures. But, much more significantly, it concludes that the deaths are extreme symptoms of an attitude to the purpose of imprisonment that needs to be fundamentally changed.
One section of the report looks at steps that should be taken to keep young people out of the criminal justice system altogether. I must declare an interest: I have in my time sent quite a lot of people to prison, some of them to serve lengthy sentences, but I have an interest in keeping people out of prison. That is evidenced by my involvement, in one way or another, in a number of charitable organisations that help to do this: the St Giles Trust, Endeavour Training and Youth at Risk.
The review emphasises that, if there is to be change, it must come from the top down. The top is, of course, the Secretary of State for Justice. When responsibility for prisons was passed from the Home Secretary to the Justice Secretary the judges had reservations. We were concerned that the funding demands of the Prison Service might be met at the expense of the court system and the administration of justice, but it seems to me that there is something to be said for the same Minister considering the actions that will give best value for money in both areas. Value for money is critical. We are in a period of financial stringency and it is not realistic to expect Ministers to take actions that will increase overall demand for resources. Some of the review’s recommendations call for an increase in the resources devoted to looking after those in prison, but I suggest that these resources can and should be funded by a reduction in the overall size of the prison population.
As the review points out, the prison system costs in excess of £3 billion a year. The cost of a single place in a male young offender institution is approximately £40,000 a year. The substantial savings that can be made by a reduction of the prison population is obvious. How can this be achieved? There are three ways. The first is by diverting young people away from the criminal justice system. The second is by rehabilitating those in prison, so that they do not reoffend. The third is by reducing the length of sentences served by those who are sent to prison.
Most young people who end up in custody have a history, going back in many cases to early childhood, of disability or disadvantage. Many have mental health problems. Almost all have one thing in common: a lack of self-respect. They do not believe in their own worth because no adult has ever suggested that they were worth anything. Rather, they become used to denigration and abuse. If you do not respect yourself, you do not respect others. The Harris review emphasises young people’s need for peer example and approval. It is this that the charities with which I am involved, and many other charities, provide. They show young people that they are capable of achievement and that their worth is appreciated. I have seen in practice young lives literally transformed in this way.
Such organisations are having a hard time. Many of them rely on funding by local authorities but cash-strapped local authorities are withdrawing that funding. This is perhaps not the best day to emphasise the value of government support for charities that work with young people, but I do so none the less. Of course, those providing funding must be satisfied that it is being put to a use that is cost-effective.
Young people who offended under the influence of mental illness should not be given custodial sentences when what they really need is psychiatric help. It is critical that the sentencing judge is fully informed in such cases. The review draws attention to the fact that many defendants are being given custodial sentences on the basis of presentence reports completed on the day of conviction. This surprised me, for it was not my experience. I endorse the recommendation that a custodial sentence for a young adult is serious enough for a full and comprehensive written report to be prepared for the court.
I turn to rehabilitation of those in prison. It is a depressing fact that a large proportion of those who come out of prison soon go back in again, having reoffended. Anyone who has read the Harris review and some of the reports that it considered will not be surprised by this. The review paints a depressing picture of prison life today. Shortage of staff means that prisoners are spending a disproportionate amount of time locked in their cells. Opportunities for constructive activity are very limited. The review rightly comments that this is “impoverishing to the spirit”. It is a vicious circle because employment in such an environment is not attractive, so that some staffing vacancies are not being filled.
A fundamental recommendation of the Harris review is that there should be a change in attitude as to what prisons are there to do. They are there to impose the punishment of deprivation of liberty by holding prisoners securely and safely. That said, the prison regime should not itself be designed to be punitive. It should be primarily designed to rehabilitate. Restrictions should be the minimum necessary. Life should approximate as closely as possible to the positive aspects of life in the community. I hope that the Justice Secretary will endorse that recommendation.
I turn to my third and most controversial source of savings—reduction in the length of sentences served. The objects of sending people to prison are punishment, rehabilitation and protection of the public. I believe that we are sending people to prison for longer than is necessary to impose the appropriate punishment. The review provides the figures. On
My Lords, I welcome today’s debate and thank my noble friend Lord Harris for producing his excellent and ground-breaking report Changing Prisons, Saving Lives.
The issue of self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18 to 24 year-olds must be addressed, the rate of which increased in 2013 for this group, who make up 21% of the prison population. As the report states,
“all young adults in custody are potentially vulnerable”; and it goes on to ask,
“why were so many of these young adults in custody in the first place?”.
“some radical changes are needed if we are to bring about a reduction in the number of deaths of young people in our prisons”.
The powerful recommendations that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, sets out must be seen in the context expressed by his review that young adults in custody, and indeed those under 18 who share similar characteristics, are young, vulnerable and still developing individuals who need to be nurtured and supported safely to navigate through the complexities of their lives into purposeful, mature adulthood.
But why are so many young people sent to prison? There must be better ways to divert them earlier in their lives. I very much hope that the liaison and diversion services are fully rolled out across England by 2017. I ask the Minister to reassure me on this point. These services identify those with mental health problems, learning disabilities, autism, substance misuse problems and other vulnerabilities as early as possible as they come into contact with youth and criminal justice services and can lead to more community sentences and fewer custodial ones.
If fewer young people were sent to prison, there would be more resources devoted to keeping those unavoidably detained more secure and safe and enabling them to receive appropriate therapeutic or rehabilitative interventions. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said:
“Some of the young people had had chaotic lives and complex histories. Some had been subject to child abuse, been exposed to violence or suffered high levels of bereavement. Others had been in foster and residential care”.
The review states:
“Each of those deaths represents a failure by the State to protect the young people concerned”.
It points out that lessons have not been learned and not enough has been done to bring about substantive change and calls on the Government to make a number of key policy changes to help these vulnerable young people to become productive citizens, desist from crime and be kept safe while in custody. I welcome its call for,
“an inherent shift in the philosophy of prison”.
My noble friend Lord Harris has already set out the key recommendations and I support the call for the new custody and rehabilitation officer who would replace the personal officer and be a specialist, suitably trained professional, with a small enough case load so that enough time can be given to each vulnerable adult. It is especially important that one of the roles of the CARO should be to ensure that better links are maintained with the families of young adults, ensuring that they are involved in the management of vulnerability.
The review also recommends that young adults should be,
“able to spend a reasonable part of the day (8 hours or more) outside their cells, engaged in purposeful activity of a varied nature”, and that never again should access to books be denied as a punishment or used as a “perk and privilege”. The review is concerned that the IEP—incentives and earned privileges—scheme does not take into account the impact of what may seem like small privileges on mental well-being in the austere prison environment, and that fatal incidents occurred disproportionately among prisoners on the lowest level of privileges, which reduced protective factors such as association, activities and access to television. In evidence, the Criminal Justice Alliance said that,
“restricting books, television and artistic materials also limits the activities of prisoners who face being locked up for longer due to staff shortages. All of these factors may in the future be shown to increase prisoner vulnerability and a propensity to self-harm”.
Imprisonment should be the last option, not the first. Another shocking statistic is that between 1978 and March 2014, 26% of all the deaths of young adults aged 18 to 24 were within the first week of their arrival in prison; 46% died within the first month and 86% died within the first six months. The National Offender Management Service—NOMS—must urgently identify and keep a record of the number of certified “safer cells” both in use and available for use across the prison estate. Tragically, all the children and 78 of the 83 young adults whom the review looked at died as a result of hanging through utilisation of a ligature point, such as a window, light fitting or upturned bed, within their cells. Proper use of safer cells must be an immediate and achievable priority.
Other noble Lords will, I am sure, highlight the plight of certain groups within the young adults in custody—women, BAMEs and those leaving care, all of whom have particular vulnerabilities that I would like to raise but time does not permit me to. I will just point out that 27% of the adult prison population are care leavers, despite the fact that less than 1% of under-18s enter local authority care annually.
Finally, I ask the Minister to look at the findings of a report published last week by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness. Mindful Nation points out that:
“Nearly half the prison population have depression or anxiety … suicide rates are considerably higher than in the general population”, and that in the year after release prisoners who have these conditions are more likely to be reconvicted. Given the evidence of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy—MBCT—preventing recurrent depression, it could be very useful for helping those in prison, especially the young adults this debate is concerned about.
It would be far better for young people to be diverted away from imprisonment at a much earlier stage, but if this cannot always be the case, greater efforts must be made by prisons and the politicians who dictate policies to ensure that the young are kept safe and are successfully rehabilitated.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for bringing this important debate to the Chamber. I declare my interest as chief executive of Turning Point, a health and social care charity and social enterprise which works with people with complex needs—including mental health, substance misuse and learning disabilities—many of whom are young people. In a sense, we are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff which works with the results of failure, I guess.
I reiterate the call in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on deaths in custody of 18 to 24 year-olds that more needs to be done, in and out of prison, to ensure that the number of self-inflicted deaths is reduced. Indeed, I agree with all the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, the noble and learned Lord,
Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, and the noble Baroness, Lady Healy of Primrose Hill. We need to start looking more carefully at this group of young people, and the requirements for sufficient numbers of appropriately trained staff in young offender institutions and prisons; a wider range of better-resourced residential placements outside the prison system for young adults in conflict with the law; adequate sharing of information across and within agencies; and mechanisms to monitor, audit and follow up recommendations from investigations and inquests.
It is important, as many Peers have mentioned, that one reads the stories of these young people to understand the impact of the failure to provide adequate services properly. One case study sticks in my mind after reading through the Inquest and T2A report Stolen Lives and Missed Opportunities. It is that of Alex, a 15 year-old mixed-race boy who was found hanging in his cell by his shoelaces in 2012 and, sadly, died while in custody. Alex was placed in long-term foster care at five years of age after being sexually abused by a member of his maternal family. He suffered trauma from the abuse later on and became difficult to manage due to his complex needs: ADHD, attachment issues and educational difficulties. He had a total of eight different social workers from the age of five until his death. In 2011, he received a 10-month custodial sentence. This was his first time in custody but, due to his age and vulnerabilities, he was sent to an institution where he was one of the youngest children.
On the day of Alex’s death, he was in a clearly heightened state of distress and had made a disclosure about his sexual abuse to a prison officer for the first time. It was found that adequate support was not given. The failures included: having no named social worker; a lack of communication with external agencies; no support for Alex’s specific mental health needs; not having an adequate level of support for him or other vulnerable looked- after children; and that youth offending workers did not have enough responsibility for Alex’s care needs while in custody—and before he arrived in custody, there was no evidence of an appropriate forensic psychiatric assessment. When you look at that case, you can see the litany of errors. There was no adequate psychiatric assessment when he could have been diverted from custody and subsequent fatal actions. This is clearly a tragedy and one which could have been avoided.
It is a welcome statistic to note that the number of young adults in custody is declining, but there are still too many with complex needs entering the prison system. We know that management of young adults requires a distinct approach. Those who remain in custody are some of the most vulnerable, troubled young adults with complex needs such as family discord, substance misuse, mental health difficulties and learning disabilities. They are often the victims of exploitation, abuse and trauma, underpinned by poverty and inequality. We need to change the cycle that exists between poverty, complex needs and prison so that the number of people entering the criminal justice system with complex needs is reduced. My view is that young people with the needs that Alex had and who end up in prison should be seen as a “never” event. It is a crisis, not something that we should accept as a given.
It is therefore clear that we need to intervene early, but there is a significant group of young people who we still too often ignore. The noble Baroness, Lady Healy of Primrose Hill, made this point about children in care but I wish to emphasise it. There are 69,540 children in care at any one time, with 6,000 leaving each year. We know where they are and when they leave. Statistics released by the Department for Education show that as of
Children in care are there because of abuse and neglect; that is not an excuse for their criminal behaviour but the pattern that leads to that behaviour is clearly established, well before they come to the attention of the criminal justice system. Such children are four times more likely than their peers to have mental health difficulties, less likely to do well at school than their peers and more likely to experience even more abuse and/or neglect when in care. There are clear patterns that health and social care professionals can work with.
It often strikes me as odd that we know where these children in care are. For example, in Stoke, I am told there are 500 kids in care at any one time. I do not think it is beyond the wit of women or man to create a life care plan for each of these young people within the population of a county, town or borough such as Stoke. Such a care plan should start with understanding the dreams, desires and wants of that young person. They are not unlike my kids or kids that any of your Lordships might be privileged enough to have. What do they want to do? How do they want to do it? Using the private sector, public sector and voluntary sector resources in such a town, it should be possible to create a life care plan for each young person, which they are involved in and engaged in. It could be reviewed annually, or on a six-month basis, so that that individual gets attention and knows that they are surrounded by the kind of soft boundaries within which they can experiment, not unlike most middle-class children. That is surely possible, and if it were to happen, we would have fewer cases of children needing the criminal justice system in the first place. Where children have the complex needs that Alex had, they can be signposted and approached with the appropriate individual health and social care interventions. They are an ever smaller proportion of the 500 or so in a place such as Stoke.
Sweeping that to one side, let us look at the cost. Some 72% of children released from custody reoffend in one year, according to Barnardo’s. Doing nothing is not only immoral but expensive, as is carrying on what we are doing. If we know this, we need to do something about it and address the stock and flow problem that currently exists. It is surprising, and a bit sad, that the learning from the report of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is similar to that from the report I did with the Independent Commission on Mental Health and Policing, which I chaired. The conclusions are similar, and frighteningly so: a lack of clear communication between agencies; a lack of adequate resources to staff these agencies; and those involved in criminal justice, health and social care not being fully trained to deal with complex needs. Indeed, the criminal justice system, just like the police system, is being used as a care resource rather than a resource of last resort. This is not the care that these young people should be getting. As I say, we need to change the cycle. The thinking that got us into this state cannot be the thinking that gets us out.
One way of doing this is through more community or residential-based institutions which work with children and young adults who are in the stock, as it were, of prison and young offender institutions, to progress them back into the community and keep them there. As I say, I think that is perfectly possible—I know the noble Lord, Lord Younger, is going to shut me up in a moment, but I will continue for one more minute. It is possible to provide the care that these individuals need.
I close by reiterating my support for the noble Lord’s report. Prevention needs to be funded adequately and children in care need to be prioritised, because the maths is obvious. If we can deal with children in care, we can make inroads into this problem. On behalf of Alex and many others, there is no excuse. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is an excuse remover: we know where these kids are, we know where they come from, we know what the challenges are and we know we can put the services in to prevent them ending up like Alex. Let us just get on with it and do it.
My Lords, I welcome the very thorough and wide-ranging review conducted by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. The Bishop to Prisons, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, regrets that he cannot be in his place today and contribute to this very welcome debate. The Harris inquiry took every opportunity to talk to young people and to the families who have tragically lost their children while they were in the care of the state in prisons and young offender institutions.
That terrible toll has of course been the subject of more than one inquiry. Fatally Flawed was a joint report by INQUEST and the Prison Reform Trust into deaths between 2003 and 2010. In 2014, the Youth Justice Board issued its report, Deaths of Children in Custody. In late 2013, the National Offender Management Service launched a consultation on integrating 18 to 21 year-olds into mainstream prisons. The main reasons were, first, that concentrating this relatively volatile age group into dedicated establishments increased the tensions and risks and, secondly, that integration would enable young adults to be placed in resettlement prisons relatively near to their home area and to receive better resettlement services. As far as I am aware, there has not yet been an outcome from this proposal, and the findings of the Harris review about the specific needs of the 18 to 24 age group must place some question marks against it.
The Harris review emphasises that young people continue to develop physically and neurologically into their mid-20s in ways that affect not only their behaviour but their ability to cope with custody and separation from their families. They have particular care and support needs, therefore, and the review proposes a new role of custody and rehabilitation officer: a person properly trained to work with young people, with awareness of mental health and risk issues, replacing the personal officer scheme, which is not working effectively in most establishments. The key may not be that that entire proposal should be embraced but that there should be staff trained sufficiently to manage this age group. The needs of care-leavers tend to be especially acute.
The Harris review rightly emphasises the impact of lack of purposeful activity in this age group. It draws attention to the persistent evidence of inspection reports that purposeful activity and time out of the cell are seriously inadequate. At the simplest level, the impact of a lack of time in the fresh air—just 30 minutes a day in many adult prisons—is significant for the health and well-being of younger people. The review notes a similar shortfall in rehabilitation and resettlement work. It also observes:
“NOMS management have no proper means of assessing whether sufficient care is being given to vulnerable young adults or, indeed, whether minimum standards are being met”.
Those convicted of crimes need to have as much access to rehabilitative work as possible, not least so as to prevent crime, and the impact and suffering caused to victims of crime.
Finally and importantly, I add a warm tribute to the hard and effective work of custodial prison staff. Many young people are given support at crucial moments by staff who have learnt to spot signs of anxiety or low mood. Many lives are saved by a timely word or action. The review mentions the valuable role of prison chaplains. They play an important part, not only in offering the resources of faith but as part of the team in the assessment, care in custody and teamwork processes which are used actively to support those at risk of suicide or self-harm.
The Harris review confirms the growing sense that, just as childhood continues to the age of 18, so the process of physical, neurological and psychological maturity to adulthood goes on from there into the 20s, and that the penal custody system should take account of that.
My Lords, first, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for this challenging report. I found it extremely timely and urgent, and he was right. The way he spoke this afternoon reinforced that.
There are of course all the individual relationships and how they are handled, to which speakers in this debate already referred. However, we cannot overlook what comes to me from this report. It is an indictment of society as a whole and its leadership—that cuts across party lines; I am not making party points here—that we can have a situation of this kind in 2015, in a country that keeps talking about how successful it is, if perhaps not always, as an economic force and of all the material achievements of our society, while in the face of all that is this story which society chooses to push under the carpet and refuse to acknowledge as a grave challenge which cannot be tackled with enough urgency. I thank the noble Lord for giving us the opportunity to see this so clearly.
I had for a number of years the privilege of being the president of the YMCA in England. I got very fascinated by its work in detention centres, particularly for young people. I was interested in all its work, but I was very interested in its important social housing programme for the young and vulnerable. Let me give two examples of perturbing situations I came across. One was a retired chief constable with quite a reputation who worked as one of our volunteers in a detention centre. He had a story about talking to a young chap with whom he had been dealing in the centre. This chap began to cry and he said to him, “But why are you crying? You are about to be released”. The youngster said, “That is why I am crying—I am so frightened of the world outside. Whatever I might have encountered here, I am terrified of going back into society and all the immediate pressures and realities that will face me. I am just not equipped to handle them”.
In the context of this consideration, the issue of mental health comes out. Of course, it comes out throughout the whole penal system and in much else of society. Here I must declare an interest because one of my daughters led a team of counsellors for a number of years working with women with mental health problems in deprived communities. The thing that repeatedly infuriated her—she used to get really worked up—is that her work was officially recognised and appreciated, and she would be sent more and more people from border authorities, the health service, the police and all sorts of sources. They were asked to cope with the situation. However, the money did not come, too. She said, “If you look at mental health practically here, and the work I am trying to do with my team, we see ourselves as the forgotten factor in the health service and the rest”. That is a social responsibility that comes home very strongly.
The other example is simply that I went to visit a team working in quite a big young offenders’ institution in the Midlands. They were very worried because their contract—I am uneasy about this contract culture generally—was to get people into jobs. Working with youngsters, they very quickly recognised how complex the situation was, and they would say, “For some of these youngsters, the very last thing to do is to push them into a job—they are not equipped for it. They need help and support, and they need preparation to work outside”. That threshold between the institution and the outside world is terribly important, but they were told in firm terms that their contract was to get people into jobs, and they were not to start using the money on consultation work and discovering that people were not ready for jobs. That was not their job. They were told explicitly that if they did not concentrate on that, somebody else would get the contract who would. That kind of situation has to be faced.
It is good to hear the noble Lord emphasise the fact that we need a total culture change in our penal system. The culture should not be dominated by considerations of custody, although of course that is important, or by considerations of punishment, although of course we need to make it clear that some activities and practices are not acceptable. It should be dominated by a culture of rehabilitation.
To go back to the YMCA for a moment, we had a chap that I liked immensely, a senior superintendent in the police in the north of the country, who was central to many activities of the YMCA, not only in the north but nationally. He once confided in me, saying, “I always think that the moment when a person is sent down is absolutely crucial—it is a very lonely moment indeed. People react in different ways, some with bravado, some with fear and apprehension, and some clearly totally broken at that point. In an ideal society, that is the very moment when somebody should take the elbow of the sentenced person and say, ‘Come on, this is a terrible mess, how are we going to sort it out?’”. The right reverend Prelate made the vital point that what are indispensable are friendship and support—to have an identifiable friend, walking with that person through the sentence and the threshold and back into the world, and back into a full and positive life. These people are so often victims themselves. When I talked to them, I thought that it would be amazing if with such a nightmare story they were not in trouble. So why are they in this situation, and how do we help to rebuild?
My Lords, this timely debate, initiated by the review of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, invites discussion of a pretty broad spectrum of prison issues. I should like to narrow it down a little for a moment, and focus on two areas that I regard as worthy of more attention than they are sometimes given. The first is the question of whether prisoners of voting age should have the right to vote. Remand prisoners are allowed to vote as it is, of course, but the right to vote is withdrawn from all others. My second topic is the conditions under which we incarcerate many of our 85,000 prisoners, and I will come to that in a minute. First, I should declare two interests. The first is that I am an ex-chairman of the Prison Reform Trust, and the second is that a member of my family was, until recently, a probation officer in Wandsworth prison.
On voting rights, I have never understood the high passions that are aroused in some quarters at the very thought of giving prisoners the vote. It seems self-evident that the more a prisoner is treated as a responsible citizen while incarcerated, the more likely that prisoner is to behave as a responsible citizen on release. My preference is that the right to vote be given to all prisoners, other than those who will never be released, provided they are properly qualified to exercise it under the same rules as the rest of the voting public. But I realise that this may be asking too much of a Government who have set their face against such a move for so long, so as a start I suggest that all prisoners should be entitled to vote within a year of release, providing they are properly qualified to do so, and that those serving sentences of less than a year should not have the right to vote withheld at all.
I dare say that some prisoners would say that the right to vote is not very high on their worry list, but I believe that anything that can help prisoners, many of them with personality disorders, to adjust to the concept of life outside as a responsible citizen must be desirable. This would at least be a step to lessening the appalling rate of reoffending in this country, especially by prisoners of younger age, in the signal it gives to prisoners that the outside world has not given up on them.
The fact that we would in initiating this change be moving towards conforming with EU requirements is, in a way, neither here nor there, but if it takes some of the tension on the issue out of our relationship with Brussels, so much the better. Surely if we do it, we should make such a change voluntarily and not with ill grace. Anything we can do to reduce reoffending must, of its very nature, be encouraged. As a postscript, I add that Britain is almost alone in western Europe in imposing a complete ban on prisoner voting. While we still have one of the highest reoffending rates in Europe, not to mention one of the highest per capita prison populations, prison is not working.
As to the condition of our jails, I wonder if noble Lords saw the recent prison inspector’s report on Walton prison. It was described as dirty, overcrowded and unsafe. There were 10 deaths there in 14 months, three of them suicides. The routine for prisoners was described as “chaotic and unpredictable”, and prisoners’ accommodation was described as,
“dirty, overcrowded and poorly equipped”.
There were some positive findings, and I am not suggesting that the problems there are necessarily replicated everywhere else, but one things stands out to me when considering the life of a prisoner in our older jails, and that is the number of prisoners sharing cells built for one only.
When I last asked a Question about this shared accommodation, the Answer was that no less than 20,000 prisoners are sharing single cells. This is a wretched state of affairs. I was, though, delighted to hear some distinctly encouraging intentions from the Ministry of Justice about the prison estate, and I sincerely hope that that promise is fulfilled. I hope that the Minister will be able to encourage some optimism. At present, such is the size of the prison population and such is the shortage of prison staff that many of these prisoners sharing cells will be locked up together pretty well all day and all night. What could possibly be worse for young men and women, many of them with mental health problems and personality disorders, as they prepare in cramped and squalid conditions to meet the world outside?
Surely, if we believe in the Churchill maxim that a country should be judged in term of fairness and decency by the way it treats its prisoners, we fail his test. More power to the elbow of those who have expressed their determination to improve the prison estate and to enable our prisoners to lead a less cramped and disfiguring life in preparation for release. Prisoners’ punishment is their loss of liberty, and every effort thereafter should be devoted to releasing them at the end of their sentence as responsible citizens of this country. I support the Motion.
My Lords, there is a great deal of evidence in this debate of the need for action and change in the way in which young prisoners are treated. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, on his report and on instigating this debate, as well as on producing unanimity on all the main issues under discussion—so far, at least. I look forward to hearing from my noble friend Lord McNally, who is now chairman of the Youth Justice Board. The YJB has done a great deal of positive work, particularly in the area of reducing the numbers of young people held in custody and in improving the way in which they are treated. Shortly we shall also hear from the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, who some time ago now produced a seminal report on the issues arising from mental illness occurring when people are in custody.
In June 2014, sponsored by the Michael Sieff Foundation and the National Children’s Bureau, I had the privilege of chairing an all-party parliamentarians unofficial inquiry, which took evidence into the youth justice system and which contained Members of all political parties in both Houses, including, significantly, the current Solicitor-General, Robert Buckland QC, who had very clear views that are consistent with everything that has been said in this debate. We produced a report recommending numerous changes in the youth justice system, some of which I shall refer to in a moment.
The point of mentioning all those reports is to show how much learning there is, and how much advocacy there has been, for change in the youth justice system. I urge upon the Minister that the Government need no more evidence of what is needed by way of change. Indeed, in listening to this debate, if all the Minister did was to listen once again to the eight-minute speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, he would see a summary of the changes in policy that are required.
Of course, one of the main issues is overcrowding, not in the youth justice system but in the adult system. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, mentioned some numbers, as did the noble Lord, Lord Fellowes, a few moments ago. As they gave those figures I recalled that when I first became a Member of another place in 1983, many MPs at that time were expressing outrage that the prison numbers had reached 35,000. I do not notice that our country is a much more lawful place now, with 84,000 people in custody, than it was in 1983, when there were 35,000. Perhaps there is something to be learned from that simple statistical comparison.
Very specifically on the youth justice system, I will start with a kind of metaphor. If a child is ill and needs a routine elective operation, inevitably it is sent to a paediatrician before a decision is made as to what treatment should be given. The paediatrician is not someone who simply has the label “Paediatrician” attached to him or her, but has to have learning, education, experience and qualifications, all specific and expert to the paediatric advice which they give.
One of the conclusions that was reached by the parliamentarians’ inquiry to which I referred a few moments ago was that that sort of experience does not exist in the youth justice system. Yes, of course there are some very expert people, but it is pure chance whether a real expert is involved in a case. Somebody can be called a youth justice although they have no education, knowledge or training in youth justice—at least worth the name.
A solicitor or a barrister can prosecute or defend in a youth court without having any understanding of, or training in, the specific requirements of dealing with young people. Over my 45 years at the Bar, nothing has changed in that respect. My first ever contested case as a barrister was in the Camberwell Green juvenile court, as it was called, when I defended a young person charged with an offence of criminal damage. I had no idea what I was doing. Happily for the young person concerned, the result of the case was favourable, but I had absolutely no idea, and have none now, how that result was achieved, because I had no material training.
Today, young solicitors and barristers prosecute and defend in youth courts and they still have no such specific understanding or training. One of the recommendations of our inquiry was that no justice—whether a full-time district judge or a part-time justice—should sit in cases without such training. I greatly value the work of youth justices and am delighted to see a very distinguished one, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in his place, but there is currently no requirement that they should have any real expertise in what they do. Indeed, there is no requirement that someone who is regarded as a youth justice should always sit on a case involving a young person.
Furthermore, we recommended that what I think in the trade is usually called “ticketing” should be applied to lawyers, whether they be solicitors or barristers, who appear in the youth court because it is a specialised area. Understanding what has happened in a young person’s life is much more difficult than most other things that advocates do. The Bar Standards Board, to its credit, has set up a review of this matter with an in-depth investigation into the ticketing issue. The Law Society has been much less compliant and shows real resistance to any form of expertise ticketing in this area because, of course, it would limit the number of solicitors who are able to appear in such cases. I hope that it will soon change its mind.
If we had experts dealing with these cases, surely we would be able to ensure that better, more constructive non-custodial disposals were achieved. We advise that youth scrutiny panels should be established by the Youth Justice Board and local authorities to focus on diversion measures so that these trials can be avoided if possible. However, when they come to court, we advise that there should be comprehensive case assessments and family group conferences, where the real problems that affect the young person’s life can be assessed. As has been said repeatedly, the young people who find themselves in court have almost always had chaotic lives. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, emphasised, for many of these young people custody is the most comfortable place they have ever been, and we do not want that to be perpetuated.
My final point is about the rehabilitation of offenders. Young people who have been in trouble as teenagers are sometimes unable to obtain jobs because their records follow them. I urge upon the Minister that the Government should examine that carefully and try to ensure that, when young people who have been in trouble become adults, after a reasonable time they are no longer saddled with a criminal record.
I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Harris on securing this very important debate about his fine report on 18 to 24 year-olds who have died in tragic circumstances in prison. I commend his crucial recommendations, which must, I believe, be implemented.
In this short debate, I shall, not surprisingly, concentrate on the development of liaison and diversion services related to the recommendations of my own report—I am grateful for the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, about that—and other reports that are complementary to it. I believe that my recommendations dovetail very clearly with the findings of my noble friend Lord Harris. Taken together, they can make a real contribution to tackling this appalling situation.
Crucially, as noble Lords have already stated, the need for early identification and assessment of mental health, learning disabilities and difficulties, and other complex needs, and where appropriate to divert those people out of or away from the criminal justice system, is absolutely essential. They need to be passported at that point to appropriate specialist services, whether that be in-patient services or community-based services.
The report of my noble friend Lord Harris looks specifically at 18 to 24 year-olds. But we must ask ourselves what could be done earlier with children to undertake crucial identification and assessment before they find themselves in the criminal justice system, or at least hitting against it. An example of this is what we do in our schools. I am not suggesting that everyone who works in a school should be a specialist in mental health problems or learning disabilities. However, what basic awareness training could be implemented for our teachers, canteen staff and caretakers so that they are aware of the issues that they see in children and can help to passport them quickly into other appropriate services? We should not have to wait—if I can caricature it as such—for a child to go from the front of the class to the back of the class, out of the classroom, out of the school, into the park and into trouble. Why can we not identify that problem earlier in the system so that they perhaps do not end up in the youth justice system?
As the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, rightly pointed out, excellent work has been undertaken by the Youth Justice Board and the youth justice services to reduce the number of children in custody. Even so, look at some basic facts from the youth justice system: young people with a mental health condition are three times more likely to be in the youth justice system; they are six times more likely than other young people to have a diagnosable conduct disorder; they are more likely to have a moderate learning disability; and they are more likely to have a speech and communication need or traumatic brain injury. Data from the previous youth point of arrest screening indicate that children on a current care order were significantly overrepresented in the youth justice system.
As we have a national rollout of liaison and diversion services, we have to look at the essential specific needs of children and young adults in that programme. It is clear that the success of such schemes is highly dependent on the existence of effective diversionary infrastructure of services. Although the extra investment over the next five years in children and adolescent mental health services is welcome, there is still a huge shortfall of services across the country, whether that be in-patient beds or services in the community. There is a shortage of therapy programmes and timely referral to them, and there is poor provision for learning disability and speech and language services across the country. With limited resources, thresholds for access to such services are raised and, therefore, become a barrier to effective diversion and liaison schemes.
As we heard from noble Lords, such schemes must take into account maturity. When children move from children’s services to adult services, the age barrier can be a real deterrent to effective continuity of care. The Centre for Mental Health set up the Bradley Commission and we looked at the issue of maturity. Our first recommendation was that:
“National government should foster a whole systems approach to ensure all young people aged 15-24 years who require specialist intervention should experience continuity of care”.
I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on such a proposal.
The rollout of the liaison diversion service is interlinked with other important initiatives about assessment and identification—for example, street triage and the consequent reduction in the use of police cells for children. It is welcome that the Government intend to ban the use of these cells by July of next year, but we need further investment in places of safety away from the criminal justice system to ensure that people in mental health or other crises have the appropriate environment in which an assessment can be carried out effectively.
The key issue around liaison diversion is that it should start at the earliest opportunity—often when young people come into contact with the criminal justice system at the police station. The information that is gathered about their complex needs must then be shared along the criminal justice pathway from the police station to the court and to prison, if that is the appropriate next step, or, more effectively into the community. There has to be continuity of care. If they end up in the prison system, they can link very effectively to the new officer that is recommended in the report by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. That information must be shared in the system and dealt with in the system. Services must then be in the system so that when the individual comes back into the community they have the effective services that they need for effective rehabilitation to ensure that they do not reoffend.
To achieve all this, we need to build up those services, not just for people who find themselves in the criminal justice system, but for the community in general. We need better mental health services, better alcohol treatment services and better drug treatment services because offenders are only a subset of the community while they have offended. They need to return to the community and still need those effective services. Some 53% of rollout of the liaison diversion services has been achieved so far. I believe that 100% rollout can be achieved by 2017-18 with the Government’s commitment to that investment through the comprehensive spending review.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to raise some of the important issues covered by the excellent review of the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I am grateful to Jessica Mullen from Clinks which is an organisation working in partnership with the Young review, and Katharine Sacks-Jones, who is director of AGENDA, the alliance for girls and women at risk. I am grateful to them for their comments and contributions. I am currently chair of the steering group for AGENDA and I have chaired the Young review since October 2013.
Supported by the Black Training and Enterprise Group and Clinks, the Young review set out to examine how existing knowledge and experience could be harnessed to improve outcomes for young black and/or Muslim men in the criminal justice system. Our report was published last year. I hope the Minister and indeed other noble Lords have had the opportunity to read at least the executive summary of the report, and I would be happy to brief anyone who would like to know more about our current programme of work.
The Young review is now into a second, three-year phase funded by charitable trusts and is embarking on the challenging task of implementation. The initial review was born out of a sense of frustration about a lack of progress and the low priority given to disproportionality, race and ethnicity in the criminal justice system. We were also mindful of the changes that were about to take place through the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda. For too long, many of us have been aware that young black men are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and at every stage, young black and minority ethnic men report the least positive perceptions of that process and of prison life compared with all other groups. Contrary to popular belief, only approximately 1% of Muslim offenders are in prison for terrorism-related offences, but it is of concern that the percentage of young Muslim men in the criminal justice system has almost doubled since 2002.
The Young review was pleased to be able to submit evidence in writing and in person to the Harris review into self-inflicted deaths in custody. We support the noble Lord’s position that all young people in custody are vulnerable in one way or another. We would also describe black and/or young Muslim men in prison as vulnerable, particularly because of the impact of racism and discrimination on their experiences of ethnicity, faith and culture.
It can be difficult for the public to identify young offenders as vulnerable, but front-line professionals know all too well that the same person can be both victim and perpetrator. We often find with these young men that they have very poor experiences, which many noble Lords have pointed out in the debate. They have been picked up by the police over and again, they have been preyed on by adults, or they have been in the care system. The noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and my noble friend Lord Adebowale reminded us that care leavers are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and it is an issue which has been examined by my noble friend Lord Laming and the Prison Reform Trust. This is not intended to be an excuse for such behaviour, but if we are serious about reducing the number of young people going to prison, we need to develop a much more informed understanding of their experiences and the ways in which they shape their perceptions and world view. Only then can we challenge offending behaviour and give them the support they need, helping them to build resilience and to desist from criminal activity.
At the same time, we have to demonstrate seriousness about tackling the systems which produce racism, stereotyping, discrimination and stigmatisation, as well as the lack of opportunities that so many in these communities face. I will cite one striking example. A young man I spoke to during the course of the review, one of whose parents had died when he was a small child and the other with serious mental health issues, had been sent away to a state boarding school from where he would run away as he was desperate to see his one remaining parent and his younger brother, for whom he felt responsible. He got involved in criminal activity and was in and out of prison for several years. A local community-based organisation that works with offenders and their families helped him to sort his life out, and he left prison with some hope of turning it around. He applied for approximately 50 jobs and could not get an interview, not even for basic manual labour. He decided to become a self-employed builder and decorator. He bought a car and called to fix insurance for the vehicle. When he admitted to having a criminal record, he was quoted a cost of £12,000 a year. Of course that was completely out of his reach, and indeed it would be even for some of us. Sadly, that young man returned to prison. Aspiration needs hope, and without that, it is hard to see how we can change people’s outlook.
It is difficult for all former offenders to find work, and it is an issue that the Government urgently need to address, but research demonstrates that those applicants whose names appear to indicate a candidate of black or minority ethnic origin will have to submit more than twice as many applications for a job even to get shortlisted. The levels of prejudice and stigmatisation faced by Muslims are bad and getting worse. How can it be that we have reached a position where lawyers feel it necessary to advise their male Muslim clients to cut off their beards so that they do not look too much like extremists when they are facing trial? While for many of the Muslim offenders and former offenders that we met their faith was a source of strength, they were acutely aware of the stereotypes and stigma attached to being an offender and being a Muslim in prison. The current view of Islam perpetuated in sections of the media and elsewhere can shape the ways in which adherents are regarded and consequently treated. Training and professional development for those who engage with Muslim offenders is urgently needed, and this is an area where former service users can make a useful contribution to better understanding.
Drawing conclusions from the data around self-inflicted harm and death is challenging and complex. For one thing, information on faith is not uniformly collected across the criminal justice system, which makes comparisons difficult. We would also want to draw attention to the challenges of using the data on self-harm as proxy measures for vulnerability in the group on which we focused. The data appear to show that overall, black and minority ethnic prisoners—incidentally, they are not disaggregated in the data available—are less likely to take their own lives than their white counterparts. However, the data also show that those in the 18-24 age group are more likely to take their own lives than older prisoners in the same group, so we cannot say with confidence whether young BAME men are less or more likely to commit suicide than young white men of a similar age.
The disproportionately negative outcomes that BAME offenders experience in a range of areas will almost inevitably affect their well-being. The other point to note is that BAME covers an extremely diverse group and it is possible, although it is not able to be proven, that young men in some of these sub-categories, as it were, may be disguising outcomes for others. We simply do not know, and therefore we need the data to be broken down and cross-referenced within the system in order for us to fully understand who is vulnerable and what the risk factors are within this broad group.
During a constructive meeting with Andrew Selous, the Minister responsible for prisons, he expressed his desire to support the aims of our review and made several useful suggestions. Will the Minister take back to the MoJ this issue of data as it continues to cause unnecessary complications in our analysis? Another point is that it has been suggested that boys and men find different ways to self-harm than girls and women. Again, that is something that people are exploring through various pieces of research.
I want to say something about women and girls by referring to AGENDA, which is an alliance for women and girls at risk. It is concerned with the most vulnerable women in society—particularly but not exclusively, those who have survived domestic abuse, child sexual abuse and the mental health issues arising from such experiences. Many of these women are ending up in our prisons. Female prisoners account for a disproportionate amount of self-harm on the prison estate. In 2014, 26% of all self-harm incidents in prisons in England and Wales were attributed to women, despite them representing only 5% of the prison population. It is true that rates of self-harm have been falling among women prisoners, but as the previous levels were so high, this is not really a cause for celebration. The figures remain shocking and unacceptable.
Many of us would agree that an awful lot of women in prison should not be there. Sometimes they are arrested, or put in prison when other people have committed crimes against them, and they seem to be taking the blame. This was made clear to me by a number of women who shared their experience of domestic abuse. When they called the police because they were being attacked by their partners, the women got arrested while their partners were not necessarily arrested. This is not good enough. Some very vulnerable women are ending up in prison when it is obviously not the right place.
With regard to the voluntary sector, it is true that it has played an enormous and substantial role in developing and driving forward local intervention strategies and solutions to some of these issues. But, as noble Lords will be aware, the voluntary sector is in quite a perilous state. As it anticipates more cuts to services, and not quite reaping the rewards that it thought it might through the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda, we are in for quite a difficult time. There needs to be a sense that the Government are on top of this and have a strategy for dealing with it. If we do not support the voluntary sector we will be in a whole heap of trouble. As noble Lords have said, many women and young adults could be diverted from prison in the first place, thus saving the justice system significant costs and preventing so many lives being blighted.
My Lords, I pay tribute, as other noble Lords have already done, to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and his team. Added to the large library of reports and books on the whole criminal justice system, his report has brought into focus what for many of us is the real, focal issue that he is trying to address, for beyond the question of self-harm, attempted suicide and, tragically, suicide in our detention centres and prisons, he has raised fundamental issues. What is the purpose of imprisonment? What is the purpose of the criminal justice system? What is the purpose of the way in which the courts deal with young offenders?
At this stage in a long debate, I have two points simply that I want to put to the House. First, I want to raise again this issue of the purpose and our dealing with those who are offenders and are imprisoned.
David was 18 years of age, convicted of a very serious offence and put in prison. Within six months of his incarceration, he attempted suicide and, but for the fact that it was discovered in time, he would definitely have become one of the statistics of death. To cut a long story short, he served the remainder of his sentence under certain conditions. On his release, he returned to society but was a scarred and mentally tortured man. Time passed and, because of his experience at the hands of those responsible for him, those scars remained. However, unknown to us, another experience in prison had affected him: the care and attention given to his particular needs by a member of the prison staff who, in a voluntary capacity and in his extra time, saw something in David’s life that was worth helping. Three weeks ago, I visited a community organisation in a certain estate in the City of Belfast, which helps children likely to be in contact with the criminal justice system. At its head and leading it is David. The response of the community to that organisation has been phenomenal.
Now, I know that you can take individual cases and use them to prove a wide range of conclusions. I am simply trying to illustrate, from my own pastoral experience, what can happen when someone takes care to show an individual interest in the possibility of another human life. That took place in David’s case. He is not looking for praise, plaudits or honours; he is doing something that was conjured into his life by someone within the system who was prepared to take that extra bit of interest.
The contributions to this debate have already illustrated that there are things wrong with the system, which need to be fixed. However, I say earnestly to the Minister that it is not that we do not know that something is wrong; it is the fact that we have been told so often that something is wrong. The report by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has focused us once again on some of the major issues, but surely the case of David shows that, even within a failing system, success stories are possible.
I come to the second point, which I shall put briefly to your Lordships’ House. We have listened to noble Lords who, in their professional career, have sent people to prison. I was greatly touched by the speech by my noble and learned friend Lord Phillips. One of the points he brought to our attention was that information that people in the system should have received was not passed on when it was needed most. That is where the system has fallen down—and for many of us it has fallen down once too often. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who was recently in a position to tell us about the situation in my own part of the United Kingdom, knows very well that the Davids of this world, living at such a troubled period in our history, came into a system which at times was almost unable to cope with the problems we faced.
Nevertheless, I venture to suggest that David’s case shows the system is not beyond redemption; something can be done. What we are trying to suggest today—and I hope the Minister will say something about it—is that, despite the problems in the system, it is the attitude that we need to look at more than anything else.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, as he gives us a glimpse of optimism and of redemption. All of us who work in the criminal justice system can think of personal examples of individuals whose lives have been changed by the intervention of others, which is one reason why I am a great supporter of mentoring.
Like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for both securing the debate and producing a report that could, if listened to, be a genuine landmark in advancing the case for prison reform and effective rehabilitation. Although the report is an independent review into self-inflicted deaths among 18 to 24 year-olds in custody, the noble Lord has, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, pointed out, taken on the broader challenge set out in the report’s title: “changing prisons, saving lives”.
The Motion before us sets out the core messages of the report: to address the problems before young people enter prison via an effective programme of treatment and diversion; to reduce the prison population; to improve conditions in prisons; to work upstream on diversion, and on rehabilitation in custody and post-custody so that prisoners have an option of a meaningful and law-abiding life.
I declare my interest as chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. I thank my noble friends Lord Dholakia and Lord Carlile for their kind comments. As I listened to this I thought about what a source of advice this House is to the Minister. There is my noble friend Lord Carlile’s report on youth courts and the report by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, on mental illness. There is the report by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on BAME. I am very pleased to be working closely with her on that. There is the report before us today from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, pointed out, coming down the track is the report on looked-after children from the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the committee on which I have the pleasure to serve.
As noble Lords will know, the YJB has responsibility for young offenders aged over 10—our age of criminal responsibility—until they reach the age of 18: adulthood in the eyes of the law. The Harris report’s remit did not cover the under-18 secure estate, but the noble Lord did examine the four deaths in the youth estate between 2000 and the last self-inflicted death in 2012. In addition, the YJB willingly gave both oral and written evidence to his committee. We made available to it our study of all 16 such deaths that have occurred in the last 15 years in the youth estate, which was published in March 2014 and entitled, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said, Deaths of Children in Custody: Action Taken, Lessons Learnt.
The responsibility to keep young people in our care safe is paramount in the Youth Justice Board’s duties. But I am also aware—this is why I was eager to take part in this debate—that there is not some magic transformation at the age of 18. I recently attended a presentation based on work being done at University College London on brain development, which showed a wide variation in timings of maturity, between the early teens and the age of 25, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, said. That is why I so welcome the Harris report. The YJB recognises that young adults, much like children in our youth estate, have specific needs, entitlements and potential. These must be addressed and supported on an individual basis to mitigate their risk of self-harm and suicide, and to support their time in custody and rehabilitation.
The Harris review endorses the benefits of a multiagency and holistic approach to address the needs of those in the criminal justice system for which the YJB has been the pathfinder these last 15 years. I am proud that we now have barely 1,000 young people in custody in the secure estate, fewer than 50 of whom are girls. That compares with nearly 4,000 10 years ago. As the Harris report advocates, that has been achieved by going upstream to tackle the causes of offending. As a result, the number of people in custody and first-time entrants is now at an all-time low.
I pay tribute to the way in which police forces and police and crime commissioners have bought into early intervention and diversion. Our other partners—children’s and social services departments, probation services and health and education—have all embraced this holistic approach to diversion. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that his approach will greatly influence the approach and policies of the YJB in the months and years ahead. I agree with him that the troubled families programme often overlaps with ours with regard to the challenges posed by young offenders. However, this is a report for all ages—under 18s, under 25s, over 25s. Its recommendations make sense far beyond its narrow remit.
There is much in the report to approve of but I shall touch briefly on just one or two matters. First, I will not try to go further than the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, on mental health services and, particularly, liaison and diversion services. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and others, that I think there is a little glimpse of optimism. The Minister, Alistair Burt, is building on the record of my colleague Norman Lamb in putting mental health care high on the agenda. The Youth Justice Board is working closely with NHS England to bring forward a programme of early intervention.
Secondly, on education, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made major commitments to make life in prison meaningful through better education and training. The big problem here is the gap between those high ideals and the harsh reality of delivering a safe environment in which to carry out those education and training programmes.
I also draw attention to a matter that has been raised by a number of other speakers—namely, if there is one thing which really gives me concern since I became chairman of the YJB, it is the disjoint in information as a young person passes through the criminal justice system. We have a fear—particularly, I suspect, on my Benches—of the big brother state that knows all too much about us. The reality is that people too often have to make fundamental decisions about the welfare, vulnerability and needs of a young person with incomplete knowledge about what has happened previously and who has dealt with that young person previously. A major priority should be to ensure that the journey of the child into young adulthood is accompanied by as full a record as possible of their vulnerabilities and needs, what has happened to them and what should be done for them.
On staff skills, I associate myself with what has been said by one or two speakers, most recently the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. I sometimes leave the secure estate in absolute awe of what the staff do. It is not an easy environment and the young people they are dealing with are not all lovable, yet staff do tremendous work. It is important that we take responsibility for saying that nobody should have to go out to work thinking, “Is this the day I am going to be seriously injured doing my job of trying to keep order in a YOI or prison?”. We have to address that issue.
This is a landmark report and an opportunity for reform. These times of austerity are not the easiest times. However, it behoves us all to reflect that, during the timescale covered by this report, all three parties have been in government at one time or another. Like the noble Lords, Lord Fellowes and Lord Harris, who also quoted Churchill—when he was a Liberal—I believe that,
“the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country”.
That is doubly true when it comes to the treatment of the young. As I said in opening, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and his colleagues for their work. It is now incumbent on all of us with responsibility in these areas to heed their wise advice.
My Lords, 400 years ago John Donne proclaimed:
“No man is an island … any man’s death diminishes me”.
We are indebted to my noble friend Lord Harris and his team for their careful investigation into the circumstances which led to these untimely deaths; the way they have identified the failings of the policies and institutions within which they occurred; and the recommendations they propose to improve upon an unacceptable toll of young lives. It would be churlish not to pay tribute to Ministers for establishing the review and for reaching across the political divide and appointing my noble friend to chair it.
I regret I must qualify that tribute somewhat in the light of the Government’s reaction to the recent Supreme Court judgment which outlawed the segregation of prisoners—that is, placing them in solitary confinement for more than 72 hours—including young offenders. The Government have laid an order to amend the prison rules to extend this to 42 days and have embarked upon a consultation process as part of a review of the policy, which will conclude in the new year. That will be a matter of concern for Members of your Lordships’ House.
The background to the problems identified by the report lies in the way our criminal justice system involves a low level of the age of criminal responsibility and a high level of incarceration, with the prison population virtually doubling in the past 20 years, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, pointed out. We have, or are close to having, the highest prison population relative to population of any advanced country, with commensurately high costs, both direct and indirect. It is clear that conditions in too many of our prisons and young offender institutions are unsatisfactory, with overcrowding and staff shortages, and that in turn these systemic failings are reflected in unacceptably high and costly levels of reoffending.
I must again pay tribute to the Government for recognising that rehabilitation is the key to improvement in this area, with the additional bonus of reducing costs, although arguably the policies of the previous Lord Chancellor conflicted with the aspirations he voiced. There are welcome signs that Mr Gove may take a more rounded view.
An important strand running through the report and the submissions of bodies such as the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust is the need to recognise that sentencing policy and custodial practice should reflect the reality that 18 to 21 year-olds are not all of a piece in terms of their developmental maturity, a point made by several Members of your Lordships’ House in this debate. To adopt an old-fashioned phrase, sentencing needs to be tailor-made, not merely handed down from the judicial shelf, and the same approach is required in respect of what is provided by way of healthcare, education and all that is needed to promote rehabilitation. Particular attention is needed in respect of issues such as literacy and numeracy, and facilitating and encouraging family contact, physically and remotely by telephone or Skype, where this is appropriate. That was one of the main issues which persuaded many of us—and perhaps, in the event, Mr Gove—that the secure college concept for young offenders aged between 12 and 17 was ill advised.
It is clear that the system is struggling, with poor outcomes whether young adults are housed in separate establishments or mixed with adult offenders. The inspectorate found that local mixed prisons are finding it difficult to cope, although paradoxically it also found that young adults felt less safe in prisons without adults. Nevertheless, the Prison Reform Trust supports separate provision. There is clearly a debate to be had on this difficult issue and perhaps the Minister could indicate how the matter might be carried forward and eventually resolved.
The report alludes to staffing numbers and the current pressure on staff, which no doubt contributed to the tragic loss of young lives which triggered its commissioning. But there are also questions about the level of skills and the training required to secure the capacity to detect and deal with emerging symptoms that can lead to self-harm and worse. The training of prison staff, the report states, lasts eight weeks in England—the shortest period in Europe. In Norway, it is two years. Is there the potential to devise specific qualifications for employees in this sensitive area, especially for the newly proposed post of care and rehabilitation officers? I join other noble Lords in commending that recommendation of the report. Would it not also be right to pay special consideration to the health needs of staff who are working in what are clearly highly stressful conditions?
There is also a need to review what is happening to these young people before they begin their journey through the justice and custodial system. The report points out that the unhappy 87 young people whose cases it examined had exhibited problems from an early age and, as my noble friend Lord Harris reminded us, asks reasonably, “Why did so many of them end up in custody?”. Programmes such as the Government’s troubled families programme may help in this context but there is surely a need for a more holistic approach involving health, children’s and education services working collaboratively at local level to identify, and seek to tackle, early signs of behavioural and mental health problems. However, I fear that another large cut in resources for those already overstretched services will follow the comprehensive spending review and the local government finance settlement in December. The Ministry of Justice has an interest in these matters; I hope the Minister can assure us that he is discussing the issue with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury. The deeper the cuts in these services, the greater the eventual cost to the Ministry of Justice’s budget and to society as a whole.
The report makes some interesting suggestions about how overall management and evaluation of the service could be conducted. I am uncertain about the proposal to vest the responsibility in the Justice Committee but, in any event, I would argue for peer review—by which I do not mean another report from my noble friend—within the service, including experts and scrutiny by local authorities, for example by the combined authorities involved in the devolution process now under way. In the north-east, we undertook such an exercise in respect of the mental health of offenders some time ago. The present system of independent local oversight does not appear to be effective.
The report contains a host of recommendations, many of which have been raised in this debate. Time and the patience of the House do not permit me to refer to more of them, nor can the Minister be expected to cover today every issue that the report raises or each proposal it makes. We look forward to the Government’s detailed response to the report and hope, as my noble friend Lord Harris intimated, that it will not be long delayed—and that we can find a way to discuss it in detail, ideally in conjunction with the Justice Select Committee. I hope that in their response, the Government will look at what seems to be the best practice in other jurisdictions. In that context I invite the Minister, as I invited his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to look at the experience of Finland. In the mean time I reiterate my thanks, and I believe the thanks of the whole House, to my noble friend Lord Harris and thank all Members who have contributed to this important debate.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, in thanking all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I would especially thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, for convening it and I welcome it as an opportunity to highlight the Government’s approach to the important issues which his report raises.
I also specifically thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody for its review into the self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18 to 24 year-olds, which was published in July of this year. I pay tribute to its thorough and comprehensive work. The noble Lord and his colleagues have given the Government a great deal to think about by their recommendations, which are being considered with the utmost care. As the noble Lord stated, there are no easy answers to these questions and the recommendations require a considerable level of care and attention.
Noble Lords may be aware—the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, referred to this—that the recommendations are being considered in the context of a Justice Select Committee inquiry into young adult offenders in the criminal justice system, announced in July, as well as the Secretary of State’s wider prison reform considerations. The Government will respond to the recommendations of the Harris review once the interim chair of the panel on deaths in custody is in position.
This debate is not the forum for the Government’s response to the review, but what has been discussed today will certainly contribute considerably to the Government’s ongoing considerations. The Government have been clear in their commitment to make prisons places of reform, rehabilitation and redemption. In the future, prisons will not merely be places of punishment but will give those who find themselves incarcerated the chance to change.
This debate has ranged far and wide, dealing not simply with 18 to 24 year-olds but with the life journeys of many young offenders before they reach that age. It has dealt, to some extent, with older offenders, who now make up an increasing proportion of our prison population. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, this House represents a significant source of wisdom for the Government.
Crime is falling overall. Nevertheless, we know that more must be done to divert individuals even before they enter the criminal justice system. Progress has been made on this front. The newly expanded troubled families programme is now gearing up to work with another 400,000 families during this Parliament. The programme helps families struggling with multiple issues, which now include parental offending, by co-ordinating services better to get to the root cause of their problems. Where crime is an issue in these families, it means we are getting a better idea of the reasons behind it, and thus a better chance of intervening early to try and stop it happening again. I note the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, about the focus being perhaps on troubled adolescents as much as on troubled families.
We know that 41% of prisoners observed domestic violence as a child and that 24% had, at some point, been in care as children. The noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, emphasised the problems that those who have been in care can encounter and the fact that they so often find themselves in prison. He will be aware that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is currently leading a Prison Reform Trust review into care leavers, and we are expecting that report in 2016.
I also pay tribute to the work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in the Young review, published in December 2014, which looked at improved outcomes for black and Muslim young men. I am glad that she had a satisfactory meeting with my ministerial colleague Andrew Selous and note her observations about the importance of statistics to inform trends. The next publication of statistics on race and the criminal justice system is scheduled to be released on
The percentages I referred to demonstrate the significance of the work, which has been led by my colleague, the Minister of State for Children and Families, aimed at improving child protection, supporting children in care and speeding up adoption—all measures which in the long term will be likely to impact positively on rates of offending, by reducing the conditions in which we know that offending behaviour flourishes.
Once an offence has been committed, diversions away from the criminal justice system may apply. Liaison and diversion services, now operating at police stations and courts across half the country, identify people of all ages who have mental health issues, learning disabilities, substance misuse issues and other vulnerabilities such as debt or homelessness when they first come into contact with the criminal justice system. Here, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Bradley. As he knows, and by way of response to a question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Healey, this is being trialled across more than 50% of England. Further rollout is under consideration, and similar services for referral to mental health and learning disability services have been developed in Wales.
Reports from liaison and diversion services help to inform charging or disposal decisions by the police and inform magistrates and judges when sentencing. One theme that has emerged from the debate is the importance of continuity of information and the efficient transfer of information about individuals, so that those sentencing or dealing with young offenders have all the information at their fingertips. Liaison and diversion services can also identify the available treatment and support options, which may allow diversion away from custody.
I turn to reducing the prison population—a theme mentioned by several noble Lords. Many offenders are not subject to those diversions and, unfortunately, end up in front of the courts. I should confirm that the principle of judicial independence is vital and sentencing decisions must lie in the hands of magistrates and judges alone—although, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, emphasised, it is most important that timely information is available for sentencing tribunals to enable them to sentence on the best possible information. It is not appropriate for Ministers to influence the decisions in individual court cases, beyond setting the framework within which courts operate.
The noble and learned Lord sentenced a number of people for long periods in his distinguished time as a judge. As a much more junior judge, I have sentenced offenders to prison for shorter periods. He correctly identifies that sentences have been getting longer. There are a number of reasons for this. There is the possibility of media pressure. I think that there was also something of an arms race between political parties on the matter. No political party can claim innocence of that. There was a stress on trying to be tough with offenders. I think that it is probably safe to say that at the moment there is not an inappropriate battle between parties to sound unnecessarily firm on offenders. I genuinely think that there may be an opportunity for there not to be an undue escalation of prison sentences simply to respond to some perceived political imperative.
However, we recognise that judges and the public need to have confidence in community sentences. Where offenders are assessed by courts as being of no danger to others, we will aim to increase the use of electronic monitoring. We are committed to delivering a new generation of GPS tags, the technology for which is currently being tested. A comprehensive review of the electronic monitoring programme is under way to make sure that an efficient service is delivered. We are confident that the resulting system will provide the highest levels of technology available. The ability to locate and track offenders will be a valuable tool, allowing us to keep a closer watch on them without having expensively to imprison them.
The law makes it clear that custody should always be the last resort for a sentence. The custody threshold test, which all recorders and magistrates are taught about and is set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, requires a court to be satisfied that the seriousness of the offence is such that only a custodial sentence is appropriate. Only if community orders or fines are considered inappropriate can the court impose a custodial term.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, made the point that sometimes sentences are too short and that in the time when a young offender is in prison, nothing much can be achieved. At various times, Governments have tried to specify the length so that it is not too short or too long, but it is a relevant factor and sentencing tribunals should very much bear it in mind.
When an offender does go into custody, it is important that we rehabilitate that person so that they do not return to prison. That is why the coalition Government took steps to introduce supervision for offenders released from short sentences. In the past, such offenders were released at the halfway point of their sentence with no supervision and no support. It is perhaps not surprising that this group had high reoffending rates. Following the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, these offenders are now subject to a year of supervision in the community, designed to break the cycle of offending that leads to short custodial sentences in the first place.
I entirely accept what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said about the importance of self-respect in young offenders and what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said on the importance of someone showing a bit of interest, as in the case of David which he told the House about.
There are some hopeful signs about young offenders. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, spoke of the significant reduction in the number of young offenders in custody at the moment. Probably, the general population would be unaware how small that population is: 1,000 of them, with a very small number of young girls—approximately 50. So there are hopeful signs.
Noble Lords discussed improving conditions within prisons. Where the courts consider the crime to be serious enough, of course prison must be the punishment. When offenders are punished by being sent to prison, the loss of liberty is the punishment. However, we have a duty to make prisons safe, secure and dignified so that offenders can be rehabilitated within them.
I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the work of the Prison Service. I am grateful for the observations of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth in that regard. In challenging conditions, the men and women who work in and for prisons do a fantastic job, keeping society safe from those who would pose a danger and rehabilitating inmates so that they can once again contribute to society.
In the context of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, it is of course a tragedy if any young person commits suicide. It is also a real shock to the staff who work in these young offender institutions. They take a long time to recover from these instances, often knowing the young offenders well. The work they do goes unnoticed, but it is absolutely vital to the function of our criminal justice system and deserves recognition.
The noble Lords, Lord Carlile and Lord Fellowes, referred to improving conditions, and we know that there is much to do. The Secretary of State set a clear direction in this area. Major estate reforms will remove those facilities that no longer suit the needs of a modern Prison Service from our estate and free up funds for the construction of modern prisons. In these new builds, we can design out the flaws in existing structures that facilitate drug-taking and violence. Such a project is already under way in north Wales.
Furthermore, we continually work to make prisons as safe as possible for both offenders and staff. One improvement in this area is the Serious Crime Act 2015, which brought in two new offences: being in possession of a knife or other offensive weapon in a prison without authorisation; and the throwing of items over a prison wall without authorisation. The Act will reduce the incidence of violence in prisons and increase our ability to safely and securely rehabilitate prisoners.
We also recognise the significant problems caused by psychoactive substances known as “legal highs” in prisons. They have been linked to specific acts of violence and erratic behaviour. Therefore, we introduced a number of measures to tackle the use of psychoactive substances in prison. Operationally, we deploy a robust range of security measures to reduce the availability of legal highs. More than 500 specialist dogs work in prisons, searching cells, visitors and perimeters. Closed visits through a glass screen may be used and we are exploring the use of body scanners to reduce the threat posed by drugs smuggled into prisons, including the threat presented by so-called plugging. There has been a major push on communications to ensure that governors and staff are aware of the associated dangers, and that prisoners are aware of the consequences of taking psychoactive substances.
The Secretary of State clearly set out his commitment to liberating offenders through learning. Time spent in prison must be used advantageously. We must offer prisoners the chance to obtain the qualifications and skills that will equip them to lead successful lives outside prison. This is a vital part of the Government’s reform agenda. We know that one in five prisons has an inadequate standard of education and two in five require improvement. The Secretary of State commissioned Dame Sally Coates to chair a review into the quality of education in prisons which will report in the spring. In the mean time, we have a number of steps and measures under way to improve support for prisoners with learning disabilities, develop more creative teaching methods and collect better management information.
Supporting offenders into meaningful employment is a vital aspect of the Government’s approach. This supports those who have committed a crime to provide an effective contribution towards society, helping to break the cycle of offending. Of course, we do not want to push them into a job, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, but we are keen to increase the number of employers who engage with prisoners and offenders to offer them employment opportunities. We hold an Employers’ Forum for Reducing Re-offending, chaired by the CEO of Timpson, James Timpson, which brings together employers who support the employment of offenders to share their experiences and promote the benefits of employing offenders to other businesses. We have also built up a relationship with Halfords that is also worthy of note. I have had a chance to meet representatives from both Halfords and Timpson, and they both stress how often these employees turn out to be extremely good, very keen to have the job and stick at it and soon completely absorbed into the working community.
I am very grateful for the Minister’s response on that point—and of course a lot of positive work is done and results are achieved. However, would he pick up the point that one must not drive out the imperative of recognising that some of these youngsters are just not prepared or ready for work and need expenditure in terms of the support that needs to be provided to enable them to join the workforce?
I entirely accept that—not everybody is ready for that sort of job, as is recognised by the potential employers. But some are, and if they are it is certainly an advantageous step to take.
Before I turn to the subject at the heart of the report from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I would like to deal with the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fellowes, about prisoners’ votes, but it is a complex one. I hope he will accept the fact that, at the moment, the Government do not believe that prisoners should have the vote, but I recognise that there are different views on that issue.
As to the subject at the heart of the report from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, whenever a prisoner, of whatever age, takes their own life, it is a dreadful and tragic event. We recognise that prisons hold a particularly vulnerable population, so the prevention of such deaths is a priority for the Ministry of Justice, and NOMS. Staff do an incredible job of keeping prisoners safe and prevent many prisoners from taking their own lives. Every day, prisons manage around 2,000 prisoners deemed to be at a heightened risk of suicide or self-harm. We know that the factors that are associated with self-harm and self-inflicted deaths can become more pronounced in prison, but there is no single factor which explains why self-inflicted deaths in prisons have increased, and no simple solution to solve it.
All prisons are required to have procedures in place for the identification, support and management of those at risk of harm to themselves, known as the ACCT process. I note the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on that matter; a review of the process will report by the end of this month. We work closely with health providers to support prisoners with mental health conditions. NOMS has a long-standing and close partnership with the Samaritans, whose volunteers support prisoners to become listeners, providing trained peer support to fellow prisoners who are experiencing distress. On the issue of mental health, NHS England has developed national specifications for health and justice services. All health services for prisons must focus on delivering improved health and well-being for offenders. Learning lessons is crucial to reducing self-inflicted deaths. We welcome the work of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
There is a great deal more to be done, and a great deal more that I should like to say in response to the report, but time is against me. The report from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, requires and will receive a detailed response. It is unfortunate that the final review could not be presented at the recent ministerial board—he referred to that in opening—but I understand that the two members of the review team were present, and there was a long discussion on deaths in custody, with contributions from the director of NOMS and an external expert on suicide. I assure the noble Lord and the House that the Secretary of State has given the review careful consideration and the contents of his report and what noble Lords have said in this valuable debate will greatly assist the Ministry of Justice. I thank all noble Lords.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. It has been a very important and thorough debate, and I am grateful to everyone. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, put it very usefully when he said that the Government need no more evidence, and I listened with interest to the long list of reviews that the Secretary of State has commissioned. All of those will no doubt have to be considered before a final decision can be taken on these matters.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, highlighted the importance of defining the purpose of prisons—a matter which was also set out clearly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers—and highlighted the importance of recognising that the sentence of the court is the deprivation of liberty and we must now focus on ensuring that prisons deliver what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, talked about: a chance to change in prison.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, also highlighted the importance of individual care and attention. That was also articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and my noble friend Lord Beecham, both of whom endorsed, I think, the principle of the custody and rehabilitation officer and a more professional approach to these matters.
My noble friend Lord Bradley talked about the importance of effective information sharing, a theme which was picked up by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Adebowale and Lord McNally. My noble friend also highlighted the importance of liaison and diversion. That point was picked up by my noble friend Lady Healy of Primrose Hill. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth rightly spoke about the importance of maturity and brain development, a point which came across in so much of the evidence we received. It has got to underpin so many different aspects of government policy. The noble Lord, Lord Fellowes, reminded us of the importance of the physical condition of the prison estate. I know that it is a matter that the Secretary of State has considered.
My noble friend Lord Judd spoke movingly about the fear that some prisoners have about leaving prison and highlighted the need to rehabilitate—a theme which I hope the Secretary of State will also pick up. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, rightly focused on issues of race, religion and gender. Those must underpin our work in this area. I was interested in the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Beecham about a greater role for local government and, in particular, for combined authorities in the oversight of the criminal justice system and prisons. I hope it will be possible to take that forward.
I conclude by thanking the Minister for responding so thoroughly to many of the issues without actually telling us anything about the final direction of travel. He told us—and I would have been shocked if he had said the opposite—that the recommendations of my review are being considered with the utmost care. It would indeed be shocking if the Ministry of Justice, having commissioned this report, was not considering it with the utmost care. The Minister listed a large number of reviews, and they will all, no doubt, have to be considered. He made one point I found puzzling. He said that it is necessary to wait for the appointment of an interim chair of the independent advisory panel. That post has not been advertised and, by its nature, is interim. Surely it would be much better, given that the post has been vacant for a month, to advertise the permanent post. It is surprising that that has not happened.
The Minister said that he wants to see that prisoners have the chance to change in prison. I hope we will also see that the Government are trying to ensure that the young people who are not yet in prison—who have not yet encountered the criminal justice system—have a chance to change before that.