§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on youth crime.
I am today publishing a White Paper entitled "No more excuses". It sets out the Government's new approach to tackling youth crime in England and Wales. It follows a period of intensive consultation, which began when we were in opposition. In May this year, I appointed a youth justice task force to advise me on the issue, and in September and October I published three consultation papers.
Reform of youth justice to make good years of mismanagement and under-performance is an urgent priority. In the past, the youth justice system has mimicked a bad parent, being indulgent one minute and harsh the next. Those are precisely the faults that foster youth crime, and they are compounded by the fact that the system suffers from endemic delays.
Many right hon. and hon. Members will have seen the problems in their constituencies. There are children whose misbehaviour goes unchecked and escalates into crime, and children who offend repeatedly, with no meaningful intervention, and come to court only for their cases to be adjourned time after time. When they are finally sentenced, many receive only a conditional discharge. There is no punishment, no chance for them to make amends for their crimes and no action to tackle the cause of their offending.
There must be no more excuses for youth crime. Before the election, we promised to halve the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders, as part of a fundamental reform of youth justice. The White Paper sets out how we will deliver those pledges. We will make a start through the crime and disorder Bill, which is to be laid before Parliament shortly.
One of the fundamental deficiencies of the youth justice system is that different agencies work to different, even conflicting, objectives. The crime and disorder Bill will make it clear, for the first time, that the principal aim of the youth justice system is to prevent offending by young people. All youth justice practitioners will be under a duty to take account of that aim.
To tackle youth crime effectively, we must recognise that young people often start down the path of offending when they are very young. Therefore, the Bill will provide new powers to protect children under 10 from being drawn into crime. Local authorities—after consultation with the police and the community—will be able to set up local curfew schemes for the under-10s, and a new child safety order will help to stop individual children under 10 from drifting into crime.
Many factors draw young people into offending. Not attending school, through truancy or exclusion; having delinquent siblings or friends; coming from a family with multiple problems; and, for older teenagers, being unemployed—all those factors increase the risks of juvenile criminality.
The Government are taking action to tackle the causes of juvenile crime across the board, by raising school standards; by fighting truancy and under-achievement; 1090 by combating social exclusion; by helping families at risk; and by giving the young long-term unemployed a pathway from welfare to work.
We know that the single most important factor associated with youth criminality is the quality of a young person's home life—crucially, the relationship between parents and children, and the level of parental supervision. The parents of young people who offend or who are at risk of offending need particular support and guidance. They should be made to face up to their own responsibilities. A new parenting order will therefore require parents to attend guidance sessions and to comply with requirements specified by the court to help them to control the behaviour of their children.
However, families are about much more than preventing crime. Families are the fundamental unit in society, providing mutual care and support and helping to shape the values of future generations. At the Prime Minister's request, I am chairing a new ministerial group looking at wider ways of supporting families more effectively and of promoting good parenting.
Young people, too, should face up to the consequences of their offending. The present rule of doli incapax— being incapable of evil—can stand in the way of holding properly to account 10 to 13-year-olds who commit crimes, yet young people of that age know that it is wrong to steal, vandalise or commit an assault. We intend to abolish that archaic rule to ensure that such young people are answerable for their offences.
Firm action is needed when young people begin to offend, but that does not happen at present, so we will replace repeat cautions with a new reprimand and final warning scheme to provide a consistent, graduated police response to youth crime, within a clear statutory framework.
A final warning will normally trigger a tailor-made intervention programme with the offender and his or her family, to tackle the causes of the offending. Once a youngster has had a final warning, the firm presumption will be that he or she will be charged with any further offence.
The Government will give the courts a much wider range of powers to help to change offending behaviour. Reparation and apology can bring home to young offenders the harm that their offending has caused. The crime and disorder Bill will provide a reparation order and make reparation available as a requirement of a supervision order.
There will also be a new action plan order providing an intensive programme of intervention with offenders and their families, combining punishment, reparation and rehabilitation, as an alternative to custody.
Custody is, however, necessary for the most serious or persistent young offenders, and for some young people, it may be the only effective way of preventing offending while they are awaiting trial. The courts' existing powers to remand young people to secure facilities are wholly inadequate.
The crime and disorder Bill will therefore pave the way for powers for the courts to direct that 12 to 14-year-olds and 15 and 16-year-old girls who are charged with serious offences—and who have a history of absconding or offending on bail—are held on remand in secure local authority accommodation. The Bill will also enable the 1091 courts to direct that particularly vulnerable 15 and 16-year-old boys also held in local authority secure accommodation when a place is available, rather than remanded to prison.
For the minority of young offenders whose crimes require that they are sentenced to custody, public protection is best served if sentences and regimes work to change anti-social behaviour and equip those youngsters for a law-abiding life on their release. The crime and disorder Bill will establish a new detention and training order in place of the current sentences of detention in young offenders institutions and the separate sentence of a secure training order. Detention under section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 will remain available for 10 to 17-year-olds convicted of the most serious crimes.
The detention and training order will be made up of 50 per cent. custody and 50 per cent. community supervision, with provision for shortening or extending the custodial element to encourage young offenders to make good progress against agreed sentence plans. Orders will range in length from four months to two years, and young offenders will be placed in the most suitable accommodation for their circumstances.
At the moment, we do not have effective local or national structures to tackle youth crime. The crime and disorder Bill will rectify that, establishing local, multi-agency youth offending teams charged with planning and supervising community interventions. To provide better national direction, the Bill will establish a new national youth justice board for England and Wales, which will ensure consistent standards and monitor local performance. The national board will also set and oversee standards for secure accommodation.
I have spent a good deal of time over the past two years studying at first hand the operation of the youth courts. Over the summer, I visited courts across the country and discussed problems and solutions with all those involved, including young offenders. Despite the obvious commitment of the people working in the system, the unavoidable conclusion is that it is simply not operating effectively. Offenders are rarely asked to account for themselves. They are bystanders in the process, at best bemused by the obscure theatre of the occasion. Parents are not confronted with their responsibilities; victims have no role; and the public are excluded.
I am convinced of the need for fundamental change. For example, we are already encouraging magistrates to allow victims into court to see that justice is done. We will be asking youth court magistrates to use their discretion to lift reporting restrictions following a young person's conviction when that is in the public interest.
I want to go further, and integrate the best aspects of restorative justice into the youth court system. There has been a wide welcome for some remarkably successful schemes that bring young offenders face to face with the human consequences of their crimes. These schemes can bring significant reductions in reoffending. Victims, too, can benefit from this opportunity—if they want it—to tell offenders how the crime has affected them, the innocent parties.
Confronting young offenders with the damage they cause is much tougher than the present alternative. Today, young offenders are spectators in legalistic, adversarial 1092 court proceedings and frequently all they hear is lawyers making excuses for their offending. With the restorative approach, there is no way for youngsters—or their parents—to hide from their personal responsibilities in committing their crimes.
The White Paper proposes a radical new approach for young offenders coming before the youth court for the first time. First-time offenders pleading guilty would normally be referred, after conviction, to a youth panel. The panel would draw up a contract with the young offender and their parents, which could last for up to a year and would tackle the causes of the offending as well as punishing that offending. Under the contract, the offender would be obliged to make reparation. If the contract were broken, the young offender would end up back in the youth court and could be sentenced for the original offence.
Those changes would require primary legislation. The Government will introduce that at the earliest suitable opportunity once the crime and disorder Bill has been enacted and in light of comments in the House and from parties outside it regarding the details of our proposals.
Currently, there is no system of quality assurance to guarantee that legally aided lawyers in youth courts possess the right skills and experience for that work. Moreover, what those lawyers are paid depends on the length of time that they take to complete cases—which, unquestionably, can provide a perverse incentive, and so add to delay and expense.
The Government believe that a better approach might be for lawyers to provide services under block contracts. Such an approach would provide flexibility and a consistently higher quality of legal representation. Such contracts would also discourage delay. Pilot trials will be run by the Legal Aid Board.
Delays in the youth court system impede justice, frustrate victims, and only encourage more crime. A young offender who commits an offence today will have to wait, on average, until the middle of next April to be sentenced. That is wholly unacceptable. No parent and no teacher would wait that long to deal with misbehaviour by their children or by the pupils in their charge. Our first priority is to halve the time that it takes between arrest and sentence for persistent young offenders, to ensure rapid justice for individuals from whom the public most need protection.
Before we came into government, information was not even collected to show how long it took to deal with persistent young offenders. In contrast, over the past few months, we have been collecting such data. I can now tell the House that it takes, on average, 142 days—five months—from the date of first arrest to sentence, during which time the victim receives no justice, and there is neither punishment nor intervention to prevent reoffending.
With the Lord Chancellor, I took immediate action after the general election to combat some of those delays. Provisional data for last month show that the average time to complete young offender cases, once they reach court, is 60 days, compared with 68 days in October 1996. The average number of adjournments also has fallen.
I welcome those improvements, but they can be only a start. In areas that have already introduced fast-tracking schemes, the results are clear. In north Hampshire, 1093 for example, the average time between charge and sentencing for young offenders has dropped from 133 days to 89 days since last October. That dramatic change has been achieved in only one year.
The crime and disorder Bill will provide for fast tracking for all persistent young offenders. There will be mandatory time limits for all young offender cases, and stricter time limits for cases involving persistent young offenders. Time limits will be backed by demanding performance targets. The Bill will also implement many of the recommendations of the Narey review of delay in the criminal justice system, to streamline procedures, improve case management, and so expedite justice for both juveniles and adults.
One of the most depressing things about visiting this country's adult prisons is seeing and hearing how many inmates started offending as children. By nipping youth crime in the bud, we will be preventing today's young offenders graduating into tomorrow's career criminals.
Our manifesto committed us to tackle youth crime and its causes. The White Paper sets out how we will do that. The measures that I have announced should deliver a youth justice system that prevents youth crime and punishes it; deals directly with offending behaviour, rather than simply processing cases; reinforces responsibility; delivers justice for victims and for offenders; and provides value for taxpayers' money. I commend the White Paper to the House.
§ Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)
I start by thanking the Home Secretary for his courtesy in allowing me to have a brief prior view of both the White Paper and his statement. He knows that I have not yet had time to study the White Paper, but I was grateful for the opportunity to read it.
I know that the Home Secretary will accept that Members in all parts of the House are concerned about high levels of crime committed by young people under the age of 18. Such crime is damaging to the community, but, far more important, it is damaging to the young people themselves and to their families. Most hon. Members agree that, overwhelmingly, such young people need to focus on the difference between right and wrong and that they do know the difference but choose to ignore it in their behaviour patterns. The Home Secretary will have no difficulty with the part of the Bill that deals with doli incapax.
Like the Home Secretary, we accept the principle of parental responsibility. Indeed, he will have noted that our manifesto stated that, if we were re-elected, we would introduce parental control orders, which sound similar to the ideas that he has outlined today. We also accept the principle of partnership—the Home Secretary's youth offending teams sound similar to the child crime teams also proposed in our manifesto. Does the Home Secretary accept that there is a broad similarity of approach even if, as we will no doubt discover when we debate the Bill, there are differences of detail?
Does the Home Secretary accept that not only do parents have responsibilities but society has a responsibility, and that adults must set standards that are good templates of behaviour for young people, rather than the opposite which is too frequently the case?
We will support any and all measures in the proposed Bill that will fairly and effectively help to reduce the level of youth crime, but I have some detailed questions for the 1094 Home Secretary. What are the measures that he envisages will "break the habit", as mentioned in paragraph 3.11, of young people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs?
Will the Home Secretary consider a form of parenting order based on truancy which, as the White Paper correctly states, is an indicator of subsequent criminality? In many cases, parenting orders after the criminal conviction may be too late to be effective. Paragraph 4.11 talks about parenting orders being made against parents who have been convicted of failing to send their children to school, but this is a different matter which I hope the Home Secretary will consider.
Will the Home Secretary be cautious about encouraging the use of local authority care proceedings in the event of the failure of child safety orders, given that the local authorities' record in terms of children in care and offending is—I will be delicate—doubtful?
The White Paper and the statement contain several references to correcting or addressing the "causes of offending"—as in, for example, paragraph 5.19 of the White Paper. Does the Home Secretary accept that he has to decide whether he believes in personal responsibility, as he suggests by, for example, wanting to replace doli incapax, or whether young people who offend are somehow doing something that they cannot avoid doing because they are overwhelmed by circumstantial forces? He will have the whole House with him on the first interpretation. When we debate the Bill, I hope that he will be a little more precise about dealing with the causes of crime.
Why does the Home Secretary believe that 17-year-olds should be offered the incentive of release earlier than the courts have determined, but that 18-year-olds should not have a similar incentive? Who will assess the risk to the community in these early releases? I have asked the Home Secretary twice before, and now give him another opportunity to tell the House, whether young offenders under the age of 18 are to be included in the tagging proposals that he announced to the House a little while ago.
How many new jobs will youth offending teams they entail? How many existing jobs will they replace, in what areas, and what will be the cost? Will parenting orders be served on parents who do not have custody of the young people as they live apart?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Opposition welcome the practice of restorative justice, but will he guarantee to the House that victims of crime will have a final say on whether they wish to meet or have anything to do with those who offended against them?
What obstacles in the magistrates court rules— mentioned in paragraph 9.6 of the White Paper—does the right hon. Gentleman want to remove? Will he refute suggestions that he will fine police forces if he thinks that they are acting too slowly?
I realise that I have asked a number of detailed questions, and I should be grateful if the Home Secretary would write to me on those that he is unable to deal with today.
In government, we showed that we recognised the importance of continuing to press down on youth crime and, where practically possible, to create circumstances that reduce the temptation to offend. I assure the Home 1095 Secretary that we will bring the same constructive and responsible attitude to the consideration of the crime and disorder Bill when it appears.
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive response to my statement. I hope that he will take it as something of a compliment when I say that those of us who spent years in opposition debating these issues from that side of the House—the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is still in the same place, and he remembers those debates—now recognise an altogether different approach by Conservative Members. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) argued with anyone who opposed him, even about what time it was, as well as about issues such as crime and punishment. I should much prefer that the whole House was united on that issue, and I will forbear to mention the previous Government's record over 18 years.
I accept what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of responsibility and the fact that society—I commend him on his use of that word—has responsibilities. I look forward to many more occasions on which the word society and the idea of community that it embraces are used by Opposition Members. He asked 11 questions and I shall rattle through them as quickly as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about our proposals to break the link between crime and drugs. A large part of what we are proposing in respect of youth crime is to do with the fact that perhaps 60 or 70 per cent. of the youngsters who come before the courts have some sort of drug habit, so that is woven into all our approaches. We are also proposing the drug treatment and testing order to try to break the vicious circle between drugs and crime. Much of the intervention that is involved at the final warning stage, the youth court stage and when youngsters are committed to custody, is about breaking that drugs habit.
The right hon. Gentleman asked an important question about whether the parenting order could be used as an enforcement for parents who are keeping their kids out of school. The answer is yes. We tried to cover that in paragraph 4.11 of the White Paper, but if he feels that we have not dealt with it adequately, we shall be happy to hear his representations.
It is fair to say that the majority of local authorities deal with care proceedings very sensitively. It is the abuses that we hear about, and it is important that more control is exercised there. However, the final sanction for people who do not face up to their responsibilities as parents is for the state to intervene as parent. I can think of no other final sanction. I wish that it did not have to be used, but sometimes all of us have to accept that the state, through the local authority, must step in and remove parents' rights because they are not accepting their responsibilities.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the causes of offending. The Labour party and I are committed to the notion of getting youngsters to acknowledge that, if they steal from a shop, they have committed the theft and not some extraneous forces. That has to be the only way in which we can run a justice system. Set against that, we must recognise that external factors may tempt 1096 youngsters into that condition. There is no contradiction there. Indeed, it was the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) who said that the best answer to young adults who commit crime was to provide them with jobs. He was not diminishing their responsibility for their crimes but suggesting a constructive way to get them away from crime.
The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire asked about early releases for under-17s. There is bound to be some difference in the detention regimes for under-18s and over-18s. We think that it is worth building some incentive into the detention and training order for young people subject to detention to ensure that they go straight at an earlier age. If they break their release conditions, they can be taken straight back into detention. Electronic tagging will apply to 16 and 17-year-olds in the Prison Service, which includes those in young offenders institutes.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the number of new jobs that are likely to be created, and the overall cost. The overall cost for the package is estimated at £22 million, which is relatively small for the changes that we are making. Over time, we hope that it will be offset by savings. If we can get the delays down, we can save money. I do not in any sense regard the establishment of young offender teams as an opportunity for job creation in the local authority sector. It is about making better use of existing agencies and resources, although there may have to be some expenditure changes at times.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether parenting orders should be available for parents who do not have custody. They should be available for parents with care and control. If parents have no involvement in the upbringing of the child, the idea is redundant.
Should victims have a final say on whether they are to be involved in the process? Unquestionably, it should be up to the victim to decide whether he or she wishes to be involved. The examples of restorative justice that I have seen suggest that victims want to be involved and just want the person who has committed the crime to say sorry. Often, that is enough, but getting that out of a youngster under the current system is difficult.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
May I put it to the Home Secretary that the measures that he has announced will be especially welcomed by those parts of our community where law-abiding people's lives are made miserable by out-of-control youths? Will he confirm—he touched on this earlier—that the strategy is not meant to be seen in isolation, and that the best way of stopping youngsters going into anti-social activity is to provide them with a purpose in life? That requires investment in sports facilities, training and education, and, ultimately, in getting them into work. What progress has been made on setting up secure training units, a subject much announced by the previous Government but on which we have not so far seen results?
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those questions. He is right about the importance of giving youngsters a purpose in life. This morning, the Prime Minister and I saw the excellent mentoring programmes run by the Dalston youth project in Hackney, which deals with young offenders. To pick up a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, it is 1097 about getting youngsters at risk of drifting into offending away from crime at an early stage and providing them with mentors—adults who are willing to give them advice and guidance. One of the terrific things that mentors told us was that it has not only been important to youngsters subject to it but added something to the lives of those who provide it.
I have already announced the establishment of a secure training unit at Cookham Wood. The contract for that has been let, and it should be running next year. I have agreed to have a competition for the contract for the other four, which will all go ahead.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
We welcome the emphasis on prevention and the new statutory duty, but does the Home Secretary recognise that the agencies with most to offer, especially the youth service, are under the greatest threat from local government cuts?
In a paper endorsed by Sir Stephen Tumim last year, we called for the less adversarial youth justice system that brings together offenders, families and victims. We warmly welcome the steps that the right hon. Gentleman has announced in that direction. Does he accept the Audit Commission's recommendation that savings achieved by improving the youth justice system should be ploughed back into prevention projects and positive opportunities for young people?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, while it is right that the courts should have the power to ensure that young offenders can be remanded in secure local authority accommodation, 15-year-olds should never be sent to adult prisons? If they need to be detained, it should be in accommodation suitable for their age group.
Does the Home Secretary recognise that some measures, especially the curfews, in this generally useful package look a little like gimmicks, and that even the parenting orders will not work if the problem is criminality in the home background or if parents are at their wits' end, having tried everything to stop their youngsters offending? It would be a pity if gimmicks obscured the good features of the package of proposals that he has announced.
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful for the two cheers from the right hon. Gentleman. Of course, it is de rigueur for a Liberal spokesman—it is always a man, by the way— to call for more spending. He never says where it is to come from.
My answer to the right hon. Gentleman is to refer to the Audit Commission report. It pointed out that more and more was being spent on dealing with fewer and fewer offenders. We are spending £1,000 million. I have accepted the need for some more spending, which should be carefully targeted, but the existing system is not only ineffective and replete with delays but inefficient. We have to get people working together. The reason why it is important to have a single statutory aim for everyone is that we must ensure that they are all focused on the common objective of reducing offending.
For example, social workers believe that their objective is the welfare of the child and that the welfare of the child is not necessarily dealt with by punishing the child. That is not a view I take, but it is their view. We have to break that view.
1098 The right hon. Gentleman said that 15-year-olds should never be sent to prisons. I greatly regret that adult prisons have to be used for 15-year-old boys. We intend to ensure that they are not used for 15-year-old girls. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), the Minister responsible for prisons and probation, has already announced a series of major improvements in the way in which 15 and 16-year-old boys will be dealt with within the prison system. We shall set up new regimes specifically for them in the light of the report of the chief inspector of prisons.
The right hon. Gentleman described the proposals for curfews as gimmicks. If he had been to the places that I have been to, such as Yardley in Birmingham, Redditch, and Hamilton in Scotland, and many other places where young children under the age of 10 are out at 11 or 12 o'clock at night without adult supervision, he would not think that curfews were gimmicks. He would think that they were sensible and straightforward, and would wonder why they had not been imposed before.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I welcome the proposals that my right hon. Friend has brought to the House. May I draw his attention to the work of the Burslem youth consultative panel, which has just reported on offending and what young people want? My right hon. Friend talked about how different agencies came together. Will he look at crime prevention? If the views of young people can be brought in at local level through the Burslem youth consultative panel, perhaps we can learn nationally from the work that the panel has done.
§ Mr. Straw
I will certainly take that on board. I do not have direct knowledge of the consultative panel to which my hon. Friend refers, but I know of some others. I know that excellent results have been achieved. Where young people are brought in and offered responsibility, they typically take it with open arms.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as anyone that in many cases one of the root causes of offending among young people is the fact that they have no self-esteem outside that provided by their peer group. Does he have any proposals to ensure that some of the gangs that roam the streets are directed towards more constructive purposes? It can be done. There is no doubt that the areas in which such gangs rampage suffer most from their activities. It is interesting that, almost without exception, those at a national conference of gang leaders in the United States asked for some way of getting themselves back into the legitimate system.
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. On visits to young offenders institutions and adult prisons, once one has cut through the bravado, one sees young people who lack any sort of self-esteem and often lack much in the way of formal education. That is why, despite the Prison Service's best efforts, the number of suicides in prison remains at a worrying level. Youngsters who, outside, would have been cocky beyond belief get inside and realise that they have thrown their lives away.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that programmes aimed at targeting some of those youngsters and moving them away from criminality can be effective. There is a project in my constituency in exactly the sort of area he 1099 describes: it is highest crime area in the constituency, and the poorest area. It also has the highest levels of unemployment. A project called Youth Works has specifically targeted four or five known young offenders; that work has helped those young offenders, but—much more important—it has ensured that the level of property crime has dropped dramatically. The costs to one of the housing associations of repairing houses has been reduced from £400,000 to £100,000 in a year.
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
I welcome the Home Secretary's statement today and I am sure that my constituents will, too. However, I am sure he is aware that social services departments across the land are expressing concern about an increasing minority of young offenders being placed in expensive secure accommodation. Will he comment, if not today, on a future occasion, about the resulting increase in costs, for which social services departments cannot budget?
§ Mr. Straw
There is a problem with social services secure accommodation, because it costs more than £2,000 a week, whereas a place in a young offenders institution costs a quarter of that, at £500 a week. One reason for setting up the national board for youth justice is to ensure much more effective planning and management of the secure estate, and, as part of the comprehensive spending review, we are conducting an audit of such accommodation. Although we have to maintain high standards of quality in secure accommodation, there must be opportunities for savings—after all, it costs £100,000 a year to keep one youngster in such accommodation— and we hope to achieve that. We are also looking at the charging arrangements.
I also say to my hon. Friend that the problem with the current situation is the young offender who simply cannot be remanded in custody and who, for months and months, commits scores—sometimes hundreds—of offences while on bail. When that young offender finally gets put into secure accommodation, everyone breathes a sigh of relief, but, typically, by that stage the habit of crime is ingrained, so the overall cost to the public purse will be much greater. If we can get that small hard core of persistent offenders into secure accommodation earlier, we may be able far more effectively to do something for them and for their victims.
§ Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)
The Home Secretary is well aware of my long-standing interest in the subject of youth justice from the number of times I have raised it in the House. I welcome much of what he has announced, but will he deal specifically with a number of questions?
First, on the issue of restorative justice, does the Home Secretary intend to issue some guidance to chief constables to reinforce what he said to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) about victims being given the final say on whether to meet the perpetrators of crime? That relates particularly to elderly people, because pensioners may be unwilling to meet those who have committed crimes—indeed, to be confronted by young offenders may be the last thing they want.
1100 Secondly, will the Home Secretary agree to publish in due course the legal advice that he and the Lord Chancellor have been given on the question whether the proposals in the White Paper—especially those relating to the abolition of doli incapax—will be acceptable in European law? I worry that the Government's proposals to import the European convention on human rights into United Kingdom law may cut across some of the things the right hon. Gentleman is trying to suggest in the White Paper.
Finally, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, the Home Secretary suggested that Conservative Members had changed their attitude. I should point out that many Conservative Members have been campaigning for many years for tough measures to be taken against young criminals, especially repeat offenders.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, when the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who was in the Chamber earlier, was opposing what became the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 through 180 hours of Committee debate, the Labour party was opposing our tough measures? Does he accept that his change of attitude, which has been so brilliantly satirised on television over the past few days by Messrs. John Bird and John Fortune, shows that it is the Labour party which has been brought to agree with us?
§ Mr. Straw
I know that there are many more opportunities for watching television in opposition than in government and I am afraid that I missed Mr. Bird and Mr. Fortune; I shall have to get a tape out of the Library.
The Minister of State has done sterling work and no one has been more energetic in fighting crime and trying to shift the policy towards crime prevention. He has left the Chamber because he is addressing the annual general meeting of Victim Support in my place. I hope to go to the meeting after the statement and I shall tell those present that, of course, victims have to have an absolute right to determine whether they are involved in the process. The explicit answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is: yes, we shall issue guidance, as he requests.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, for good reasons, it is never the practice of Ministers to publish legal advice that they have received either from the Attorney-General or from their legal advisers. We are convinced that our proposal to remove the concept of doli incapax is fully consistent with the European convention on human rights. Interestingly, there was a period in the divisional court— when C v. the Director of Public Prosecutions set the law—when doli incapax was effectively abolished. That did not lead to injustice for young offenders, but made for a little more efficiency.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
My right hon. Friend mentioned publicity in respect of certain types of juvenile crime, which causes me some concern. Perhaps he will take on board the concerns that I and many others in the profession have that such publicity can create heroes as well as portray villains. Does not any publicity have to be approached with great caution?
§ Mr. Straw
It does, but I also think that communities have a right to know, particularly about older 1101 young offenders such as 15, 16 and 17-year-olds. Some young offenders who are dealt with by youth courts are over 18 when they come up for sentence, and the public have a right to know the identity of offenders in that age group—as well as that of some of the younger offenders. It would go against the European convention on human rights and the United Nations convention on the rights of the child to require the names of children accused, but not convicted, of offences to be made known—and I do not support that.
In many cases, it is right for the names of the accused who have been convicted to be made known. I do not think that that will make them into heroes, but we must introduce an element of shaming people. There is nothing wrong with that—it is what kept many of us in check when we were at school; it is an important element of social control, which is what we are about.
Another problem is that the youth courts have retreated into what I have described as a secret garden and have become secret and unaccountable; too few people have known about them. That has reinforced their inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
§ Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)
I welcome many of the measures that my right hon. Friend has outlined, particularly the one involving working with parents and having parents at counselling sessions. Does my right hon. Friend accept that a disproportionate number of young offenders have spent a large part of their lives in care? Obviously, they are emotionally damaged; they have often been abused and feel alienated. Will my right hon. Friend work with other Departments to try to introduce special measures to help that group of vulnerable young people, and to try to divert them from crime and show them that the rest of society cares?
§ Mr. Straw
Yes is the answer to my hon. Friend. She has raised a very important point. The high proportion of youngsters from care who are locked up at 15, 16, 17 or 18 is depressing. It is a serious comment on the nature of residential care provisions for young people. My hon. Friend will know from the Secretary of State for Health's statement following the Utting report that we take the subject extremely seriously. We have to raise the standards of residential care for children, particularly those who are most vulnerable.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)
Does the Secretary of State share my view that the tradition of policing by consent is extremely important in this country and that it is a matter of great concern that many young people come into contact with the police only in a crisis when they are already committing crime? Does he have any plans to enhance the police's community role so that they have more contact with young people before those youngsters commit crimes, and, therefore, see them in more co-operative circumstances?
§ Mr. Straw
The police are doing a great deal in many areas to improve their connections with local communities. These days, being community police officers is no longer seen by police colleagues as a slightly eccentric task for those who have been put out to grass, but as part of police officers' core activities.
I have gathered from visits around the country that police officers are often involved in youth work. For example, in one town in Norfolk, a police constable 1102 dealt with a minor epidemic of youth crime by establishing a youth club in the area. That is one of many good examples of community policing. Let us not forget that the police run attendance centres, which are much neglected, but are often as effective as, if not much more cost-effective than, dare one say it, some activities run by social services departments.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
My right hon. Friend has announced that at least 60 per cent. of young offenders are drug takers, which is a worry, particularly in my constituency where young kids on drugs have got into crime. When they are sentenced, get bail or whatever, they have to wait three, four or five months before they are detoxed. All the time that they are still on drugs, they cause havoc. Has my right hon. Friend any answers to the problem of how to get those kids through the detox treatment and back on the right road? I am aware that not all of them go back on the right road and that many of them, having been detoxed, go back on to drugs, so I know that it is not an easy task.
§ Mr. Straw
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he is doing in his area and more widely in respect of young drug addicts. I have visited his constituency and seen that work. We are extremely concerned about the problem, and I do not pretend that there is an easy answer, because the demand for detoxification outstrips the supply.
We believe that there could be a more efficient delivery of services and better co-ordination between some of the drug action teams. That is one reason, out of many, why we are beefing up the national drug action strategy with the appointment of Keith Hellawell, the former chief constable of West Yorkshire, as the anti-drugs supremo and Michael Trace as a deputy. He comes to the task with a different experience; Hellawell has the background of a police officer, whereas Trace has the background of someone who has dealt on the front line with drug addicts in prison. Both will be able to advise the Government on some imaginative improvements to the current system.
§ Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)
When the Home Office ministerial team is considering the causes of crime and being tough on crime, does it have discussions with other parts of government? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that national youth organisations have a critical part to play in tackling the problems of youth crime? If so, would he care to comment on a written answer that I received this afternoon which says that the cadet forces of this country have had their budgets cut by £2 million in the current financial year? Will that help or hinder the policies that he set out in his earlier remarks?
§ Mr. Straw
In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, we discuss such matters with other Departments. I chaired a ministerial group that dealt with youth justice and provided ministerial input into our proposals. In addition, my senior policy adviser, Norman Warner, a former senior official and director of social services in Kent, has been chairing a youth justice task force which has involved practitioners from everywhere.
As for the written answer that the hon. Gentleman has received, he will know that we are working within the budgets set by the previous Administration, so I suggest 1103 that he directs his question about those cuts at the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) who is sitting along the Bench from him.
§ Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that major contributions to youth crime include truancy and suspension, particularly the use of indefinite exclusions from schools? What action will he take to deal with those specific issues?
§ Mr. Straw
My hon. Friend is right. Unquestionably, if a child is truanting—especially if he or she is then permanently excluded from school—there is a very high risk of that child offending.
Some children have to be excluded from school, but unquestionably many schools are permanently excluding too many youngsters, and it is too convenient for them to do so. I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment—with whom I have been discussing this crucial issue—in saying that schools must examine their internal procedures to try to reduce the number of youngsters who are excluded. In the case of the hard core of youngsters who are excluded, local authorities and schools must ensure that good arrangements are made to provide them with education and other interventions during the period when they should have been at school.
§ Mr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)
Nowhere will the Home Secretary's statement be more welcome than in my constituency, where these problems rank very highly. However, I should be grateful if the Home Secretary would be more specific about the way in which he envisages the use of local authority secure accommodation, not only because of the cost implications, which have been mentioned, but because of the scarcity of such accommodation. To the best of my knowledge, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent between them have available 14 such places, which are already being fully used under the present regime. There is a problem not only of cost but of supply.
I should be grateful if the Home Secretary would elucidate the criteria that will be used to determine how places are used, and what measures he would propose to expand them, because obviously more will be needed.
§ Mr. Straw
Some more local authority secure accommodation is coming on stream. In previous Parliaments, there was agreement between the parties on the principle that more was needed, and a scheme was established in 1991 to bring more on stream. It is now producing about 200 extra places, which is quite a high proportion.
The problem is partly one of supply and cost, but it is also a question of organisation. There is no effective co-ordination of the current arrangements, and the charging regime can cause local authorities not to use secure accommodation when they should do so. That is why we are establishing the national youth justice board and giving it the responsibility for carrying out an audit of accommodation and for ensuring its proper co-ordination and perhaps its management.