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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing time for the debate, whose title is so broadly cast that, at first sight, I did not think that he would concentrate so much on Feltham. However, I welcome any attention being paid to that institution. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen) for the concern that he shows for the matter and I also welcome interest when it comes from neighbouring Twickenham.
I would take issue with those of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who uncharitably mock his interest in Feltham. The more London Members who are concerned about what happens there, the better it will be. As London Members, we all have constituents who sadly end up in that place and we all have constituents who have an interest in Feltham making its contribution to cutting crime. That, and reducing recidivism while holding prisoners in safe and decent secure conditions, have to lie at the heart of Feltham as an institution. That is what it is all about, and I acknowledge our debt of gratitude to all those who work at, with and in Feltham to that end.
I of course include staff in that, but I include, too, the board of visitors, which I am glad the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the more than 20 voluntary sector organisations that spend time in Feltham contributing to the regime and to building the links between the institution and the wider community, which are so important to ensuring effective resettlement and reintegration in the community.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions about progress at Feltham. Real progress has been made since he last addressed the matter in the House, but there is no room for complacency and we still have a way to go. There is a distinction, to which he drew attention, between Feltham A and Feltham B in terms of the quality of the regimes for under-18s and over-18s. Undoubtedly, progress has been made on the regime for under-18s--he drew attention to several aspects of that--as a result of a not inconsiderable investment in new youth justice resources, which has characterised the Government's approach to ensuring that young people are effectively diverted from crime and have their criminal activities properly addressed by the police, the courts, the probation service and prisons. It is vital that all those agencies, as parts of the criminal justice system, work together. They work best when they enable the voluntary sector and the community to make an input to reducing reoffending and creating effective reintegration to the community.
So that no one is in any doubt, let me make the point that our view is that the courts should be able to remand or, on conviction, sentence young people to young offender institutions when they believe that the offences committed by and the circumstances of a young person merit that. It is our responsibility to ensure--as we will--that enough places are available for young people to be held in safe, secure and decent conditions. My response to the hon. Gentleman's question about the future of institutions such as Feltham is that there will be a continuing role for institutions that can hold young people in such conditions, whether they are on remand or have been sentenced.
I must add, however, that it is important to provide the courts with a range of options. That has been a hallmark of the Government's approach to youth offending, and it is why we have placed such emphasis on the role of the youth offender team. The team is important in the context of disposal, which involves probation services, social services, the police, the voluntary sector and health authorities working together to ensure that young people's needs are met, and that the incidence of offending is reduced.
We also introduced those youth offender panels to divert first-time offenders who admit guilt from the criminal justice system. Ours is a dual approach, which recognises the importance of ensuring that there is adequate provision for secure holding while also investing in the availability of sentencing options that can be delivered in the community, and which involves an ever-closer working relationship between those responsible for secure accommodation, or custody, and the probation service. We want to ensure that, whatever the courts decide, matters involving education and health are addressed.
We should of course ensure that there is effective transmission to the national health service and the wider mental health care system, and that such transmission is expedited. That is being achieved through ever-closer working relationships between the NHS and the prison health-care service. However, we should also do all that we can to reduce the number of incidents of self-harm at Feltham. Mandatory suicide awareness training for all staff was completed at the end of December, and a "buddy" scheme will shortly be introduced. Listener training has also been completed.
The question of facilities in general is important. The Prison Service has been working actively with the Youth Justice Board to alleviate pressures at Feltham, and to bring the population of under-18s within the establishment's capacity of 240. The number has been within that total since November, and we intend to do all we can to ensure that it is not exceeded. We have achieved the reduction by redesignating remand to "sentenced" accommodation at Ashfield and Onley, and creating an additional 90 "sentenced" places at Hollesley Bay.
It is true that we now need to concentrate more on provision for the over-18s, and to seek resources accordingly. That is not going to be easy, but we shall certainly be focusing on it. Hon. Members should not forget, however, that our achievements in relation to under-18s were made possible by a considerable injection of resources. Nevertheless, the director general is seeking to find new resources for over-18s at Feltham, and I support him 100 per cent. in that.
We are working at Feltham to build on the staff's determination to address various issues, which undoubtedly include racism, institutional racism, the importance of the RESPOND--racial equality for staff and prisoners--programme and, as the hon. Gentleman said, the importance of ensuring greater diversity among staff. As he will be aware, the Commission for Racial Equality also is taking an interest in Feltham.
There are also issues of recruitment and sickness at Feltham. Throughout the Prison Service, however, management is placing a new focus and emphasis on addressing the sickness issue. Sickness levels are unacceptably high and we have to ensure that they are reduced. It is a challenge for management and for unions.
There are real recruitment and retention issues in the south-east, largely because of the cost of accommodation. That point was made to me very forcefully by Feltham staff when I last met them to discuss the issue. Therefore--with colleagues at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the office of the London Mayor and others--we are working on who will be designated as key workers. We should ensure that prison officers are among the key workers for whom extra assistance is being investigated to alleviate accommodation problems in the south-east, particularly in London.
So there have been some real improvements, but challenges remain. Everyone, however, is determined to tackle those challenges. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's very well made point on management continuity at