Previous SectionIndexHome Page

29 Jan 2002 : Column 58WH

Young Female Offenders

1.30 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I was pleased to secure this debate, which was motivated by an urgent case involving one of my constituents.

I shall begin by making a couple of remarks about the spirit in which I am raising the matter. I shall refer to a particular constituency case, but I do not intend to use it as a stick with which to beat the Government. Following last week's events, I have a clear understanding of how we should raise constituency matters, which is to seek a constructive dialogue with the relevant Minister about the way in which improvements can be made. I shall listen to the Minister in a positive frame of mind and look for signs that things are being improved.

The fact that debate should be conducted in that manner was brought home to me on Sunday when I visited a Jewish hospital service on holocaust memorial day to raise money for Sheffield's hospitals. The curate from Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire hospital pointed to the way in which we currently conduct political debate, and there was some resonance from the audience at the idea that politicians should always seek to improve matters rather than raising cases in a way that is destructive rather than constructive. I shall raise a particular case, but I expect general comments from the Minister because it is difficult to comment on a case that is in progress. I shall look for helpful and hopeful signs about preventing such situations from occurring again.

The other reason why I want to raise a particular case is that my constituent's father, who has been heavily involved with it—he first came to me in 1997, soon after my election to Parliament—has analysed the system and passed his conclusions on to me, and I have found his comments about the difficulties of working with the system to be informative. Rather than concentrating on his specific case, he sees a wider public function in raising the matter, trying to learn some lessons and seeking improvements for the future. I have spoken to him, and he has spoken to my constituent who is currently in secure accommodation. They are happy that I should raise the matter in the spirit of seeking to improve matters for the future.

The case involves a constituent called Claire who turned 18 at the end of last year. She was convicted in 2000 at the age of 16 of threatening someone with a knife. It is clear that the event took place, and she was properly sentenced to secure accommodation through the criminal justice system. Her background of problems goes back to when she was 13, when she was off school for a period with clear behavioural problems that meant that no school in the local authority would take her. There was a long delay as the LEA sorted things out, during which she became involved with the kind of people who, sadly, seek to take advantage of young women in our society.

In spite of the best efforts of her parents—anyone who has sought to control a difficult 13 or 14-year-old will know that no parent can maintain 24-hour supervision—she had time on her hands and became involved with people against whom there was evidence of sexual abuse. She began self-harming, and a lot of her subsequent behaviour has a psychiatric component,

29 Jan 2002 : Column 59WH

which is clearly a large element in the way in which she has approached life. She has a lot of frustration and anger, much of which she has taken out on herself.

Claire went through two years of seeking to find appropriate accommodation, which takes us to the point at which I became involved. Her father tried to get various agencies to find the right accommodation for her, and other cases have since been referred to me that also fall on the borderline of not yet being a criminal justice problem: the individuals concerned have not yet committed the kind of offences that mean that they can go through the courts and be sentenced, yet they are clearly at risk and could put others at risk by some of their behaviour.

The difficulty is that that problem sits in the border between social services and education and health providers. In my constituency case, wherever my constituent's father turned, the matter seemed to be somebody else's responsibility. If the youngster was deemed to be at risk, the issue fell largely within the domain of social services; if the problem was that the youngster was deemed to require something to occupy them educationally, the focus fell on the LEA and whether it could find a suitable placement; if the problem was deemed psychiatric, it fell to health. A great deal of debate took place about trying to find a suitable placement. What the parents and the young lady needed was a secure environment in which a difficult youngster could develop and perhaps avoid some of what occurred later.

For a couple of years, when she was between 14 and 16, the young lady was held in various forms of accommodation—some psychiatric, some in the Sheffield area, some outside—but the difficulties continued. Her behaviour was tough, there were further suggestions of sexual abuse, and she returned to Sheffield in 1999, still clearly disturbed, and with none of the fundamental problems addressed. A few months later in 2000, having again become involved with inappropriate people and having acquired a heroin habit in the meantime—there were also suggestions of informal prostitution—she went over the top and threatened somebody with a knife. While no physical assault occurred, the attempt had clearly taken place and was properly prosecuted.

The young lady, then 16, was sentenced to secure accommodation. The judge had difficulty in finding a suitable placement for her and felt, he said, that there was nowhere he could send her. Indeed, he delayed sentencing and held her on remand in New Hall prison. While there, unfortunately, she attempted suicide, and the difficulties clearly continued. Eventually, a place became available, and she was transferred to Medway secure training centre. I was pleased to find from the Youth Justice Board proposals, to which I shall refer later, that the expansion of secure training centre places for young women is part of its agenda for the coming year. After the difficulties in finding appropriate accommodation in the non-criminal justice system—I recognise that that is not the Minister's responsibility, although the borderlines are often blurred—there were further difficulties in finding appropriate placement in secure accommodation once that became necessary.

29 Jan 2002 : Column 60WH

The young lady spent some time in Medway. She committed violent offences while she was there, and there is no doubt that it was a difficult time. She has been transferred again to New Hall prison, awaiting the end of her sentence, which is approaching. That is another reason for my raising the matter now. The catalogue of events is disturbing, but we need to think through some of the difficult cases and see how people, particularly young women, arrive in such circumstances.

The case brought to mind another, which again was raised with me soon after I had first been elected to Parliament. A Sheffield woman called Irene Ivison campaigned for a long time after the death of her daughter, and wrote a book, "Fiona's Story". Fiona Ivison was 16 when she was murdered while working as a prostitute in Doncaster. In a sense she had followed a similar trajectory to Claire's—her home environment had been such that her parents were keen to keep her and were doing all they could, but she rebelled comprehensively, became engaged with the wrong people, and turned her back on home. At a vulnerable and difficult age, she took the path towards drugs—heroin addiction—and casual prostitution, and she ended up murdered in a car park in Doncaster. Irene Ivison, who has since passed away, properly spent some years asking how a civilised society can prevent our youngsters from being drawn down that path. From her account to me, I know that the difficulty lay in finding someone with the authority to intervene and who could find the appropriate placement for that youngster. That is not a universal problem, but cases are occurring and have occurred for many years. As a civilised society, we should deal with such difficult cases and find appropriate placements in the system.

In terms of the Government's response, I was pleased to see that the Youth Justice Board issued a statement last March about its four-year plan. One of the three main priorities was the provision of more appropriate accommodation for young women outside the prison service so that they were not placed with adult offenders. It is important to draw a clear distinction in that respect. The new deal for young women includes several welcome proposals about placing people appropriately, especially girls, including phasing in new units in the secure training centre. What progress has been made on that? Some individuals who are going through the system cannot wait any longer. My constituent is reaching a different stage, but other Claires and Fionas will come into the system, and I hope that we can offer them more hope for the future through the kind of care that could put them back into society as individuals who have broken the cycle of self-destructive behaviour.

My constituent raised several key points about the way in which the system works. First, progress must be made on appropriate placements. The transfer from Medway back to Newhall was unwelcome, and some time was spent struggling against it. There is a lack of flexibility in the system, especially in relation to difficult youngsters who also have psychiatric problems. That is a risk in the Medway environment as it is currently configured.

Secondly, it is important to facilitate joined-up working. Many agencies, including social services, education, housing authorities and criminal justice authorities, are already involved in such cases, and now we have the Youth Justice Board and the youth

29 Jan 2002 : Column 61WH

offending teams. I understand that the underlying logic of the latter two agencies is to bring everything together. However, there still is not the necessary authority to deal with a situation in which, for example, an educational placement is required. As teenagers get older, such placements may be in local colleges of further education, which are now outside local education authority control. From a youth justice point of view, someone should have the authority to say, "It is vital that this individual has a placement at college and therefore we will secure it", or, "It is essential that we get a certain form of housing so we will secure it." That is left to the parent of the youngster or to the professionals involved.

My constituent said that all the professionals involved in the case have been utterly committed to trying to resolve it; they have been excellent, and no problems have arisen in that respect. However, although they are trying to do their best, they do not have the necessary authority. Joined-up working can fall apart if there is no authority to tell agencies that a service must be provided and agencies have no reciprocal commitment to do so. That one element can endanger the whole situation. A youngster who has been placed in the right housing with the right probation support may fall apart because they do not have the college place that they need. If one brick is taken out, the wall is not stable.

Thirdly, we must try to remove delays in the system. Delays of several months may be relatively insignificant in cases involving older people, but very significant in rapidly evolving situations involving 13 to 16-year-olds. I have heard about two such delays. One concerned the provision of education at the crucial time when Claire first started having major difficulties at around 13 or 14. The second was an inappropriate delay in the provision of psychiatric assessments, which were essential at the time that they were requested. She has now had the assessments, but there was a long wait, which affected the decisions that were taken about her future placement. We want to remove delays in the system in all Government services, but in dealing with vulnerable youngsters, those delays can be the difference between a constructive and a difficult future.

The final element was the involvement of psychiatric care in the criminal justice system. If one digs under the surface of such cases, one finds that many young women who end up in secure accommodation have psychiatric problems related to drug abuse, self-harm and other forms of abuse, particularly sexual. There is concern that such care has been slow to develop. The criminal justice system has reacted, but the necessary psychiatric involvement has been slower than is helpful.

I recognise that the Minister, quite properly, will not comment on a specific case that is still going through the system, but I would like to discuss the case in private, if there are difficulties. We are dealing with a situation that is critical for the youngster involved. One of the options is long-term detention in a secure hospital such as Rampton, but there are not sufficient facilities to safeguard both the individual and others. Once someone has undergone formal sentencing and comes out, how do we progress? Do we need placements in society where help can be provided? An 18-year-old coming out of custody would have to choose between a long-term secure non-therapeutic hospital and a social placement with inadequate support. Both options would cause fear.

29 Jan 2002 : Column 62WH

As well as addressing the teenager's case, I hope that the Minister will consider individuals who have come through the system. They may settle down, but they need a soft landing, which will require more intensive work than is currently offered. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response, and I hope that we can offer a future that will ensure that my constituents' problems will not arise again, although I accept that there is no easy solution.

1.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) for enabling us to draw conclusions about a disturbing case. I am also grateful for the way in which he has dealt with it. I feel more constrained than he did because he has permission to give the details that he has given us today. We must be careful when referring to individual cases, but I want to deal thoroughly with his points, and the issues that arise from the case.

I assure the hon. Gentleman, the young person concerned and her parents that I have read all their recent letters, including the detailed history that outlines the difficult circumstances with which they have had to contend and the difficult experiences that the young person has had, which undoubtedly have had a bearing on her current difficulty. I have also had reports from the Youth Justice Board, the probation service, the Prison Service, and the Home Office. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, in dealing with the problems presented by the child, the parents have felt badly let down by a fractured system. They felt that no one was prepared to take responsibility for the issue, and they were grappling with some serious issues, largely on their own. They are very well-meaning people, as I remember from the father's most recent letter. The hon. Gentleman said that, and praised the father's recent efforts in the current situation on behalf of his daughter, but, as he says, what counts is results. I understand that he is looking for those.

There will be a case conference in the next week, and the Home Secretary and I have asked to be kept fully informed. We shall closely monitor the situation. The hon. Gentleman is welcome to speak to me at any time on the specifics of the case on behalf of the parents.

The hon. Gentleman raised general issues from the case, with which I would like to deal. He asked what progress had been made towards a variety of different kinds of placement to meet the needs of different young people and towards the provision of appropriate placements. I shall deal with that later, if I can. Other issues that he raised include: whether lack of co-ordination, such as that which the family experienced early on, is improving; the fact that no one appeared to have authority to take the lead and make sure that things happened; delays in the system, especially in relation to psychiatric assessment; and the involvement of psychiatric care in the prison and criminal justice system.

On the core of the hon. Gentleman's argument, the Government's position is that the use of custody for juveniles under 18 should be a last resort. We have done a lot—I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to this—through our youth justice reforms to try to

29 Jan 2002 : Column 63WH

strengthen, and widen the variety of, effective non-custodial options for the courts. That is continuing, and is very important. However, as he outlined, a small number of young people are serious risks to themselves and to others, and they present a variety of difficult and complex problems. We are dealing with such a situation in this case.

At the moment, about 170 girls are in custody. The hon. Gentleman may know that there is a ministerial commitment to remove all 15 and 16-year-old girls from Prison Service custody by the summer. I am glad that he referred to the Youth Justice Board's commitment to create 64 new places for girls in secure training centres during this year. That will help us to achieve our objective.

Obviously, the provision of secure psychiatric health sector accommodation for young people is especially relevant to this case. I share, as does the Home Secretary, the hon. Gentleman's concern about the need for sufficient secure psychiatric facilities for young people with mental health problems in custody. In any given area, as he will know from the details of the case, securing those resources for young people needing psychiatric treatment in secure facilities is the local authority's role. However, the Government clearly have a responsibility to see that the level and quality of that provision is sufficient, and I would not pretend otherwise. The Home Office, the Youth Justice Board and the Department of Health are trying hard to address that.

There is a scarcity of such provision. Although we are trying to address the problem, it arises largely because we started from a very low base in 1997. Sufficient attention had not been given to children and adolescent mental health services in general nor to the specialist services that the young people who end up in custody need in particular.

The Youth Justice Board is making great inroads into the general quality of the secure estate. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it now commissions secure places for young people in custody. General standards and provision in custody, including access to mental health services, are beginning to change significantly. I hope that that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that.

Through the Department of Health, the Government have also put in an extra £85 million between 1999 and 2002 to develop a national approach to those services. I know that we must do more, but we had to start somewhere. The Department of Health is considering whether a national commissioning route for adolescent forensic mental health services is the best way forward. Although the cases are serious, they are relatively few in number. Does it make sense for individual local areas to have to go all over the country to find something suitable? Should there not instead be a national system? As well as looking at the case for such a system, the Department of Health is commissioning an extra 28 beds in 2002, 24 beds in 2003 and a further unit for London after that.

There is progress. Resources have been allocated, the problem is being carefully considered and there are plans to increase the number of beds for adolescent forensic services. As a result of my visits to youth

29 Jan 2002 : Column 64WH

offender institutions and skill training centres, I am aware of the need. There is still unmet need in the system, and I accept that we must make more progress. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no lack of political will or attention; the problem is the size of the gap that we are trying to fill and the fact that it cannot be filled in a short time. However, we are resolved, jointly, to do it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned lack of co-ordination, authority and so on. We have tried to address that through the Youth Justice Board, which is beginning to work for people now in the system. I accept that the system was entirely different during the late 80s and early 90s for the young woman to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. That is why we changed it. The youth justice reforms were instituted to introduce effective multidisciplinary working. We have some way to go in making sure that the connections between custodial and non-custodial routes exist, because that is the route that an offender will take—from the community into custody and back into the community. We focus on the need to ensure that the connections between the agencies, which in a sense are artificial boundaries, do not allow young people to fall through the gaps. The hon. Gentleman will know that the inspectors of probation and prisons have produced a report called "Through the Prison Gate". We are working on a report being done by the social exclusion unit, which again points to the need for effective case management, because we need to strengthen those links.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's points, which raise general issues that we need to address and are addressing, but this is such a difficult case that it would be hard even in a perfect system to deal with some of the issues. For instance, there was a delay in the psychiatric assessment. There were also a number of points at which different psychiatrists could not agree on the root of the young person's problems. That had knock-on effects in relation to where she could appropriately be placed and within the law. Was the problem fundamentally one of mental health? Was it a treatable mental health illness? We need psychiatrists to help us to answer those questions, but until we have a view we cannot legally decide on the most appropriate placement. Since the hon. Gentleman is nodding, I appreciate that he is aware of those problems without my going into further detail.

In conclusion, I shall do what I can on this case and the hon. Gentleman will keep me informed. In general, by transforming the approach to youth justice, focusing on multi-agency working, developing custodial provision in all sectors and developing child and adolescent psychiatric services—in particular forensic secure psychiatric services—in the way that I have outlined, we are trying to make progress. I agree that we would like progress to be faster, but we are going in the right direction. I am sorry that this family has had a very difficult experience. I hope that families will not have the same experience in the future. That is my intention.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page