Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Motion made, and Question put,

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 24 January, pursuant to Order [7 November 2000].



Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

18 Jan 2001 : Column 626


Motion made,

Line 37, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 46, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 48, at the end insert the words:--
'(4A) notwithstanding paragraphs (2) and (4) above, where more than two committees or sub-committees appointed under this order meet concurrently in accordance with paragraph (4)(e) above, the quorum of each such committee or sub-committee shall be two.'--[Keith Bradley.]

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Cleansing Services Group

7.24 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): In the early hours of 30 October, there was an explosion and subsequent fires at the chemical reprocessing plant owned and run by Cleansing Services Group Ltd. at Sandhurst in Gloucestershire. Because the site flooded soon after, as it is prone to do, the hazardous chemicals could not be removed from the site for some time. Many people have since complained of feeling ill, and two were detained in hospital for a while afterwards.

The site has emitted obnoxious odours for years, and I and many others, including local councillors Mark Williams and Paul Ockelton, have repeatedly warned about the unsafe running of that plant. We were largely ignored, yet, sadly, we were right. The chemical works are built on a flood plain. The company has shown a disregard for its neighbours and the environment, and the agencies have been unable to control it effectively.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he is not allowed to make a speech when presenting a petition. He has solely the right to present the petition.

Mr. Robertson: The petition was compiled by the chairman of Sandhurst parish council, Mr. Andrew Warren, and contains about 2,100 signatures.

The petitioners therefore request

To lie upon the Table.

18 Jan 2001 : Column 627

Young Offenders (London)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Keith Bradley.]

7.26 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce an Adjournment debate on a subject in which I have expressed considerable interest over the years. Indeed, essentially, I am coming back to a subject which I raised in an Adjournment debate in May 1999. I have followed it up through interest in and contact with people who work at Feltham prison, as well as prison visitors and others.

However, I want to put the matter in a wider context. I am sometimes criticised by my dimmer critics in Twickenham for taking an interest in an institution in an adjacent constituency which is not part of Twickenham. However, all of us--and certainly those of us who are concerned with London--have an interest in the workings of the young offenders institution. Although we have just had a debate on police numbers, there is a fear of crime. Crime is not simply a matter of police numbers and detection by the police, but involves the way in which the relatively small numbers of persistent young offenders are dealt with. It concerns whether they are caught, how they are punished and whether they are subsequently rehabilitated or reoffend. That relates very much to the way in which the young offending regime operates.

I am aware that, since I introduced my last Adjournment debate, there have been big changes, some of which have made headlines, including the riots at Feltham and the tragic death of Zahid Mubarak. However, there have been positive developments in the youth justice system, such as the creation of teams to deal with young offenders, the appointment of the Youth Justice Board and a whole new approach to under-18 offending. I want to try to incorporate some of that in my speech.

My main message for the Minister, to which I hope he will respond, is that the message that I get back from the prison is that there is a tale of two parts. In certain respects, there have been big steps forward and big improvements, but, in others, there has been stagnation or regression, which relates largely to age categories. Everybody concerned acknowledges that there has been a big step forward concerning the care of under-18s or former juveniles. A separate wing has been created, more recreation has been provided, and there is a gym and proper education provided. When I last spoke on the matter, few of the 16-year-olds were getting any education, which is now being remedied. There is a much more positive approach to the rehabilitation of that age group.

I am sure that the Minister would accept, however, that for people in that age group, everything is far from perfect. Even now, there are far too many of them in Feltham prison. I believe that the prison's capacity for the under-18s is about 180, but there are far more than 200 there. As a result, a separate unit for them has had to be created among that for the older prisoners, where they have none of the better treatment that they get in the other unit.

As I am sure the Minister knows, there are also problems, such as the disciplinary regime. Despite the fact that many under-18s are enjoying better recreational

18 Jan 2001 : Column 628

facilities, there is a marked recourse to smashing up cells. There is obviously still a lot of anger and violence in that age cohort. None the less, the feedback that we are all getting shows that there have been a big step forward and great improvements.

The older young offenders--the 18 to 21-year-olds--constitute the other side of the coin. They are affected partly by the improvements that apply to the lower age range. The younger offenders get gym, and there is therefore less gym space and time available for the older offenders. Many continue to be locked up for 22, and sometimes 23 hours a day, partly because of staffing problems, to which I shall revert in a moment. Conditions are difficult, and there are little problems, which I hope that the Minister can perhaps solve through intervention.

In an overcrowded, pressurised environment, an hour out of a cell provides little recreation. The young people naturally want to ring home, and there are simply not enough telephones to do that. Those are simple problems, but the environment is difficult for 18 to 21-year-olds. That is the big story that has emerged in the past couple of years.

Among the other issues that I raised 18 months ago, one of the main problems that Sir David Ramsbotham, the chief inspector, highlighted was hygiene and cleanliness. I believe that substantial improvements have been made, and that much has been done to alleviate simple problems such as changing clothes, and ensuring that people have regular changes of mattress if needed. However, many of the problems to which I referred continue to exist. That is worrying. I shall itemise some of them.

First, extreme violence and tension often exist in the prison environment. I was struck by a passage in the visitors' annual report. It reads flatly until one assimilates what it is trying to convey. It states:

That reflects a typical month. The problems have existed in the prison for many years, and they culminated in the murder of Zahid Mubarak last year. Clearly, they are part of the culture that has not yet been eradicated.

Secondly, all prison reports have referred to the problem of severe overcrowding, and the sharing of cells that were designed for only one prisoner. I have had trouble with the arithmetic; perhaps the Minister will be able to bring us up to date. I understand that there are currently just over 600 prisoners because one of the wings is out of action. However, I believe that the plan is to increase the numbers again to approximately 875. That would be 100 prisoners in excess of the official capacity. In human terms, that means that approximately 60 cells, which were designed for one inmate, will be shared, in some cases as dormitories. Over the past couple of years, efforts have been made to introduce basic privacy in those shared units, but considerable tension exists in them, and the position is unsatisfactory.

Some of the e-mail correspondence that I have received from prison staff suggests that the third problem has become worse. It relates to staffing. It is not simply a matter of numbers or money. There is a high rate of

18 Jan 2001 : Column 629

long-term absenteeism for sickness. The figures that the Minister recently provided in a parliamentary answer suggest that the rate of absence is about 18 per cent.; prison staff tell me that it is somewhat higher. Staff are under extreme pressure and many respond by going on long-term sick leave. The remainder are therefore asked to pick up the slack and are under even more pressure. That leads to higher sickness rates. There is a vicious spiral of extreme tension, demoralisation and low staff morale. Such a serious issue cannot be accommodated by hiring more people and providing more money. It clearly relates to the management of the institution.

Another problem has arisen in the past year. I was startled when I was told that there have been five governors in the past year. Two were temporary because of the gap between permanent appointments. However, with such a rapid turnover of senior management staff, it is difficult to get the continuity and commitment necessary to make such an institution work.

There are two recurring themes. One is the treatment of the health needs of prisoners. I know that an attempt has been made to strengthen the health unit in the hospital, but it is most alarming that it takes the best part of three months to place the large number of prisoners who are psychologically disturbed in a national health service psychiatric institution, because of the shortages of staff and the difficulties of vetting. In that three-month period, many of them are vulnerable to self-harm.

The other factor, which I do not want to make too much of, is that in the past there has been a serious imbalance between the proportion of ethnic minorities in the prison population, which is roughly 50 per cent., and the proportion in the staff, which is about 10 per cent. All the staff I have ever met have had a positive approach and have treated prisoners in a non-racialist way. I do not think that people associated with the prison have ever alleged that that is a major issue. However, such an imbalance between the composition of the staff and the inmates is a problem, but perhaps the question of why there is such an imbalance in the prison population should be posed to magistrates. Progress in building up the role of ethnic minorities in the staff seems to be slow, and that clearly requires further attention in the long term.

Can progress in dealing with the under-18s be carried forward to the older young offenders? There is now a jarring contrast between the two, and it is not merely academic, because 17-year-olds become 18 and they progress from a much-improved regime to one that is much worse. The disparity between the two regimes must be dealt with, and I would be interested to hear how the Minister proposes to do that.

The staffing problem merges into the general problem of professional staff and labour shortages in west London, which manifests itself in various ways and applies to police officers, nurses and teachers. However, there is a specific problem of high rates of long-term sickness and absenteeism, possibly connected with management leadership. How is that problem to be addressed?

Will the Minister take a personal interest in dealing with the difficulties that some visitors have pointed out to me? Simple, practical measures could often, with a little

18 Jan 2001 : Column 630

money and resources, make a considerable difference to the quality of the environment in which these prisoners live--for example, having access to more telephones and having electricity in the cells so that they can have televisions. I am not arguing for a Butlin's holiday camp environment, but it is generally accepted that such facilities are important to prevent self-harm and suicide, especially in the early stages of incarceration.

My final point is more fundamental. How do the Government see the role of institutions such as Feltham in the long term? What is envisaged in 10 to 20 years' time? It is the largest institution of its kind in Europe. Our experience of these young offenders institutions is that they are not succeeding in their fundamental objective of rehabilitating prisoners. There is an enormously high rate of reoffending, which is partly due to the nature of the institution. What is even more important is that 70 per cent. of the prisoners are non-violent offenders. Is there not a better way of dealing with this problem than incarceration in an institution such as Feltham, with its problems of overcrowding, and with its pressures and violence?

I know that the Government have carried out pilot schemes on alternatives. One thing that slightly worries me, which the Minister can perhaps comment on, is that magistrates are using their increased flexibility of powers by giving custodial-plus-training sentences in preference to community service. Because the training element is attractive to magistrates, they are referring more young people for custodial sentences, whereas that may not always be the most appropriate approach.

I should be grateful for the Minister's response on the long-term picture. Will there be a major role for prisons of that kind? Clearly there are very violent people who have to be locked up to protect society, but is not there a way to achieve an environment in which the numbers held are much smaller and the pressures exerted much less severe?

Next Section

IndexHome Page