Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)



  80. I am going to move on and it will be my final question to deal with the issue of the protection of young offenders from committing suicide and self harm in custody. Is it not fairly clear that prisoners on the juvenile estate need more staff and staff need better training and more appropriate practices need to be implemented and conditions need urgent improvement? Is the government going to take remedial action very quickly? The numbers of suicides are very high.
  (Mr Denham) They are high. There have only been two this year in the under 18 estate but that is clearly two deaths too many. We are implementing currently a three year strategy to reduce suicide and self harm which the Home Secretary announced in February 2001. That is being piloted at the moment in five institutions. As I said a moment ago it includes better screening, better risk analysis, more support for the first night in accommodation and so on. More generally there are other strategies in place, including counselling, support groups, psychological supports and a number of other institutions. The work that the YJB did with the prison service in 2001 looked specifically at juvenile self harm and suicide. I understand that the recommendations for its report are being implemented now across the under 18 prison service. I think there is a substantial programme of work in place. It might be helpful, Chairman, if I could write to the Committee giving more details in the area. It is not one that I deal with on a day to day basis but I think there is a fair amount in train but none of us is complacent and there is more we want to do.

  Vera Baird: Thank you. We will be very glad to receive your letter.


  81. Before we move away from the subject of juvenile justice, the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act abolished the principle of doli incapax which put the burden on the prosecution to prove that any defendant aged between ten and 13 understood that the offence committed was seriously wrong. Do you know whether the Home Office has made any assessment of the effect of the abolition of doli incapax on defendants of that age?
  (Mr Denham) No, I do not. Perhaps I could write to you on that, Chairman, but I do not have that information.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

  82. I want to go to a slightly broader question about the prevention and cure, so to speak, of crime amongst young people. Obviously the incarceration of children does raise very different issues from the incarceration of adults. I am sure the government is committed, as the conservative party is committed, to trying to find ways of getting at children much earlier to prevent them getting into the life of crime. Do you think we could create the most effective route through better education and training opportunities? Do you feel this is the best route?
  (Mr Denham) I think that education and training is one of the essential elements. There is quite a high correlation between young people, particularly young men who fall behind in their early years of primary education and future offending behaviour. There is quite a high correlation obviously between truancy and absence from school generally and offending. So ensuring we are successful with young people in schools has to be part of our own overall preventive strategy. At the same time I think what we need to recognise, also, is there may be reasons for those problems which are showing up in school, in the wider family, the wider community, the peer group the young people have got. The reason we are putting such an emphasis on trying to join up different services—education, probation, the police, social services and so on—is to make sure we try to address the problems that a young person has got in the round. I think that at the moment most people would accept that different agencies find themselves trying to deal with a part of a complicated problem and are probably less effective than they could be because of that. Education and training is critical but probably unless we deal with some of the other issues in the background as well we are not likely to be wholly successful.

  83. Coming on then to the cure, the children who do find themselves in prison. The Howard League report made some pretty astonishing findings about how poorly the access to education was which was offered to such children and indeed the quality of the education they were offered was often inadequate, particularly in the light of the fact many of them do have special educational needs.
  (Mr Denham) Yes.

  84. As they do not come under the Education Department at all they are still under the Home Office, so to speak, when they are offered any kind of education in prison it does seem as if the opportunity to get them out of the cycle of crime through education is being missed through the time they are in prison. Do you have any thoughts on how the situation could be improved?
  (Mr Denham) I think we are a bit disappointed in this area that some of the changes we have made have not been picked up more widely. The responsibility for providing education for young people in custody has been transferred to the Prisoners Learning and Skills Unit which is part of the Department for Education and Skills and they fund the Youth Justice Board now to provide education. It is on the back of that the majority of juveniles in custody now have access to 15 hours of learning a week and that will increase to 30 hours a week by the end of March. Special education needs are important. It is true that many offenders have learning difficulties or other disabilities and the DfES is developing a special educational needs policy in partnership with prisons and also juveniles in custody. I understand that special educational needs co-ordinators and learning support assistants with a ratio of one to ten are being appointed now in all young offender institutions which are caring for juveniles. I think there is progress in this area.

  85. Do you know, Minister, how many children there are under the statutory school leaving age in custody and how many are receiving full-time or part-time education in line with the national curriculum?
  (Mr Denham) The numbers under the statutory leaving age, I would have to come back to you on. I have the overall numbers of young people, I have the numbers, also, in the local authority estate but I am not sure I have precisely the number you are after. Could I perhaps come back to you on that?

  86. Do you have any feel for how many of the numbers you have are receiving full or part-time education which is covered by the national curriculum?
  (Mr Denham) The figures that I have overall tell me about the overall access to learning. I would rather check I think on those under the statutory leaving age and come back specifically with figures on that. I think that would be more helpful than me trying to extrapolate from the figures I have in front of me.

  87. Perhaps you would come back with that and also figures on how many have special educational needs and what provision is made for that?
  (Mr Denham) Yes.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  88. I wonder if I could just ask a supplementary. When you are doing it, Minister, it would help me, certainly, if you could indicate what difference there is in the treatment of children in custody in terms of education and children not in custody having regard to Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention and Article 14, the effect of discrimination. If you take those as standards it would help very much if these figures could be related also to the difference in practice between what children receive by way of education who are not in custody and children who are in custody and what the justification is for any difference between them?
  (Mr Denham) Right. We will do that, certainly. I have to say that I do not think I will end up justifying a difference in practice on the basis of any principle. We are making progress in this area but we would all recognise, for example, that the same provisions have applied for some time for young people who are excluded from school. It is only in the last year, since September indeed, that we have been able to guarantee full time education to those permanently excluded from school and that has been driven by the deliberate act of government policy recognising the need to provide more effectively for those young people. There are areas where if there is a shortfall in provision it is more likely to arise from the fact that government has not made the progress we want to yet.

  89. Would you not be very vulnerable to legal challenge on that basis by someone who said "Look, I am a victim of discrimination"? How do you justify it?
  (Mr Denham) I imagine we may have been legally vulnerable certainly in the area that I have talked about, exclusion from schools. The reality is governments have recognised the problem and dealt with it.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

  90. Before we move off this topic, you have said that the welfare, care and needs of young people in young offender institutions are central to what the government wants to achieve. Are you prepared to say the government will take action to provide that the Children Act applies in these circumstances?
  (Mr Denham) Again, that is currently subject to legal challenge so I would rather stay off that one if I may. Whilst I recognise that there is progress still to be made, when we have talked about implementing the spirit of legislation, I think if you look at the work that we have done that I have promised to write to the Committee about, on self-harm, if you look at the work that we have done to improve educational provision, the refurbishment of facilities at Feltham, for example, I think that is a recognition that the Government is aware of its responsibilities to young people who are in its care in the young offender institutions and I believe that will remain the same whatever the final determination is about the legal position in relation to the Children Act.

Baroness Whitaker

  91. I want to talk about physical punishment. Could I clarify some parts of the Government's position on this? First of all, do you acknowledge that physical punishment is a human rights issue for children or do you view it as a different area?
  (Mr Denham) We certainly believe, and I think this is the established position, that physical punishment is covered by the European Convention on Human Rights and that has been tested against the domestic law as it then was of reasonable chastisement and it was ruled that the European Convention limited the use of reasonable chastisement so clearly there are issues of human rights around the issue of corporal punishment, yes.

  92. Have you talked to children about this? Can you tell us what they said?
  (Mr Denham) Yes, I have. What I will say is that in my experience it is pretty low down children's list of priorities compared, for example, with their experience of being victims of crime more generally in the streets. I think that is quite important, to get the priority in this area right.

  93. Would you put the physical punishment of children within the culture of responsibility or do you think it helps in the agenda of respect of rights? How does it sit with our values?
  (Mr Denham) Let me be quite clear. Personally I abhor smacking. I have got two children and I have never smacked either of them, so I am not going to appear in front of this Committee defending as it were the benefits of smacking. However, we have taken a view as a government that this is not an area in which we should seek to criminalise activities by parents because that is unlikely to assist in moving things forward. I personally would put the emphasis much more strongly on the positive measures we can take as a government through programmes like Sure Start, for example, to promote good parenting. An intrinsic part of that work is to support parents in understanding alternatives to corporal punishment as a way of disciplining their children.

  94. That is very interesting. I was thinking of asking you later about government initiatives to support families who would like to have less violent forms of punishment. Perhaps you could say a little bit about that.
  (Mr Denham) Sure Start is probably the largest programme aimed at supporting parenting of younger children between 0 and five and that will be extended in future. We also support the National Parenting Institute, the ParentLine service, all of which you will find on examination gives support to good parenting, parenting that avoids the need for corporal punishment. It may be an opportunity to say that one of the things I find slightly disappointing about the UN approach here was how much of the emphasis of the UN approach was about the somewhat arcane wording of a piece of Victorian legislation and how little of their approach was the extent to which governments have programmes in place to support good parenting which might have the effect of minimising the use of corporal punishment. That is personally where I think the debate and the discussion should be.

  95. You differentiate between the obligations of those who stand in the place of parents and teachers, who are not allowed to smack What is the basis of this?
  (Mr Denham) Because the view of government has been that this is at the end of the day a parental responsibility and therefore, as the law stands at the moment, the decision, for example, to allow a child minder to smack is one that should be consciously taken by a parent; it is not one that should simply go by default, so there are responsibilities on parents who exercise corporal punishment and so there is that differentiation between parents and others.

  Baroness Whitaker: I think the view of the European Commission is slightly different, if I am right, that Article 8 is not engaged in such a case.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  96. I think the position is that when it is state schools it is quite clear that they cannot administer corporal punishment in breach of the Convention. When it is private schools it is pretty clear too, that there is a positive obligation on the state there, and when it is with regard to parents, if it reaches a certain degree of severity then the state would also be responsible for that. While I have got the floor could I just add one question, which is this. Mr Denham, I do not know whether you are aware of this but, looked at through non-British and Irish eyes, we are very much out of step on corporal punishment vis-a-vis the rest certainly of western Europe. Corporal punishment is known I think as le vice anglais by our continental counterparts, so when you say you are disappointed by the UN Committee it may be a cultural matter, that they really are looking at us as being out of step with most other advanced democracies.
  (Mr Denham) The reason I was disappointed was more that, given certainly my view that it would be desirable to minimise the use of smacking, the really practical question is, are we doing things that would minimise it and supporting parents to bring up their children in different ways, and very much it seems to be looked at in terms of what was in the legislation alone and the relationship between that and the UN Convention or the ECHR rather than that broader context. I think that is significant because, having had the chance to discuss this issue, for example, with the Swedish Children's Minister last May I was given the very strong impression that this was a law that had never been enforced in Sweden, and so it is other mechanisms that brought this about. One of the difficulties that I have in this area is that I do not think we have a particular tradition in this country of passing legislation that we do not intend to implement and it may be that other countries have used symbolic legislation to give a sense of direction in a way which we are not used to doing, certainly in my time in the House of Commons. Usually, if legislation is passed, we expect somebody to enforce it.

Baroness Whitaker

  97. Minister, we do have a problem with domestic violence in our society. I am sure nobody would support a concept of reasonable chastisement of a husband or a wife—but do you think there is any connection between violence against women and violence against children?
  (Mr Denham) I will have to familiarise myself with all the evidence but a number of things are clear. One is that in relationships where there is domestic violence there is a much higher than usual chance of the children subsequently being the victims of violence. I believe that I am right in saying that there is quite a strong correlation between boys being brought up where their fathers abused their mothers and the likelihood of them carrying out domestic violence later in life, so the correlations are there and it is why domestic violence is a very important issue to raise and for us to make a lot more progress on than we have done so far. What concerns me, because I have not seen the evidence here, is that the sort of mild smack that most parents have in mind if they are talking about smacking their children is not of the same order that we see in domestic violence, nor have I as yet seen evidence from any organisation that suggests in a sense that there is no distinction and once there is a smack you are in the same category as the person who is beating up their wife in the home or beating up their children. I think it is quite important that we do not tend to lump this in as all being indistinguishable violence and therefore all bad in the same category because I think we lose contact then with the common sense of most people in the world outside who do not understand what we are talking about.

  98. It is very interesting you say that because there was a MORI poll in 1999 in which 73% of those polled said that they would back a change in the law to abolish physical punishment if they could be sure that parents would not be prosecuted for trivial smacks. Like you, Minister, I abhor physical punishment but I would not swear that I have never delivered the odd clip on the ear.
  (Mr Denham) Certainly the results of the Government's own consultation in 2000 was that it would be better and it was the preference of parents for us not to change the law in this area. One of the great difficulties, and I think that some of the devolved administrations are looking at this themselves, is trying to write a law that would adequately define what it was you meant was acceptable. There are some real difficulties in doing that. People are talking about should it be legs or should it be hands or around the head or whatever, or what age. It creates its own problems and whilst the MORI poll may well reflect a view that is out there amongst parents one of the things that I think we need to consider is how easy would it be to construct a law which drew those types of distinctions and which people could understand. The Government's view is that as a result of the ECHR ruling in a case that was taken to them the law is sufficiently clear as it stands.

  99. There is a related matter which is commented on by the UN Committee, the absence of separate statistics for crimes against children. Would the Government consider collecting data on crimes of violence committed against children that were reported to the police, including perhaps whether there is the defence of reasonable chastisement, under the Human Rights Act?
  (Mr Denham) We certainly need to do more to capture statistics about young people as victims of crime but I would say, having talked to a lot of young people about this, that smacking is not the issue they are talking about. They are talking about other types of violence, the way they suffer from anti-social behaviour, their fears of getting around on transport and so on, and that is an issue which is a very important issue because it indicates that if we are talking about listening to young people we really do need to listen to them. There has been a lot less pressure on government to deal with young people and support young people as the victims of crime than there have been in lots of other circumstances. I think that is reflected in the fact that although crimes are recorded by the police, whatever the age of the victim, they are not recorded by age. It is not a question, as the UN Committee put it, of the crimes not being recorded. They are recorded, but the data systems the police have do not enable us to distinguish by age. We are improving the data systems with the police. In time we will be able to do that but I have not got a deadline for it. The second problem we have is crime survey, which is distinguished from recorded crime where individuals are asked about their experience of crime. That, for I suppose historically methodological reasons, has only been 16 upwards. We are doing a one-off extension of that initially which will capture 10-15 year olds and that is under way at the moment and we should have the results next year. My personal view is that we need to do much more in years to come to focus on young people as the victims of crime and I think we will need the data to back that up.

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