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Lord Avebury: My Lords, when the chairman of the Youth Justice Board, Rob Morgan, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, and the Children’s Commissioner for England, Professor Al Ainsley-Green, visited Feltham Young Offender Institution last Tuesday, they jointly called for an honest debate about alternative ways of dealing with young offenders who commit low-level and less serious crime. They said that more than 3,350 children and young people are being held in custody today. The youth justice system has just a handful of bed spaces left. We simply cannot put up a sign saying “No Vacancies”. Action is urgently needed to stop custody for young people going into meltdown.
As with adults, but even more so with children, the courts ought to consider whether, by awarding custodial sentences, they may be increasing criminality by exposing vulnerable people to bad influences, particularly when they know that the places to which these offenders are sent are bursting at the seams. They also know that in those circumstances it becomes increasingly difficult for prison and YOI governors and staff to give adequate attention to those who get into trouble because they are suffering from a range of mental health, substance abuse and communications problems and disabilities.
In the case of speech, language and communication, they have not even got as far as systematically assessing the problem, six years after it was highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, when, as Chief Inspector of Prisons, as he described, he visited HM YOI Swinfen Hall in November 2000. He told your Lordships how he brought in Professor Karen Bryan of the University of Surrey to assist him, and her survey revealed alarming rates of disability in speech, language and communications among the young offenders in every test that was applied. The noble Lord—the Chief Inspector, as he was then—recommended that further research should be conducted to establish the extent of these problems more generally and their impact on prison careers and re-offending.
It stood to reason that prisoners with those impairments were more likely to leave prison with unresolved problems that could lead to re-offending. Professor Bryan suggested—and the noble Lord endorsed this—that appropriate screening should be developed, validated and included with educational entry tests throughout the prison system. The noble Lord then commended Dr Bryan’s analysis to the Director-General, and said that the DfES needed to think about remedial education for these disadvantaged young men.
In a debate on prisons in July the following year I asked whether the matter was being pursued. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, did not make any comment in his winding-up speech, I wrote to him the following day asking him about taking the recommendations further. Beverley Hughes MP, who was then Minister for Prisons, replied that there was no standard approach to screening for these impairments, but that Professor Bryan’s findings had been incorporated in something she called “the health needs assessment toolkit”. A principal education officer had been
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appointed to survey education and training at YOIs with a remit to look at learning disabilities.
Four years on from the original recommendations, however, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, told me on 12 January 2005 that they had still to study Professor Bryan’s report, and would then consider any action that might be appropriate. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and I had both tried to prompt the noble Lord, Lord Warner, in Questions on 27 March, but he then wrote to say that there was no money in the Prison Service health budget up to 2003 for speech and language posts, and that since then it was entirely a matter for PCTs, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has explained, to decide how the available money should be spent. There were no plans to fund these posts centrally.
As the noble Lord also explained, no provision had been made to replace the speech therapy funding provided by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, which ceased in July 2005. I wrote again to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, saying that we seemed to be back to square one, with every PCT deciding its own policy on speech and language problems, in spite of the evidence of the prevalence of these difficulties and the bearing they were likely to have on the propensity to reoffend. The noble Baroness replied that no screening was undertaken of young offenders for speech and communication difficulties per se, but that the Government preferred a general learning needs assessment to identify all learning difficulties or disabilities. This process, a key part of the learning and skills delivery arrangements for all offenders, would lead to referrals to appropriate health or education professionals.
I wrote again to the noble Baroness on 18 June asking her how, as part of the general assessment, speech and language difficulties would be assessed and by whom—bearing in mind that there was no funding for those posts, as the noble Lord explained—and how, if PCTs were unwilling to fund SLT services, as we heard, they would be provided for offenders identified by the general screening as needing them. I also sent her an account of research by David Moseley et al on behalf of the Learning and Skills Development Agency—mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham—which showed that training in oral communication for prisoners in general cut reconviction rates within the first year after release from 44 per cent to 21 per cent. It is surely reasonable to suppose that for inmates with speech and language difficulties the benefits could be even more spectacular.
As the noble Lord said, unfortunately, while PCTs have to pay for SLT as part of health services, in the current climate of cuts and reorganisation it is bound to have a low priority. Werrington now has a part-time speech and language therapist and at Brinsford the local PCT has carried out a needs analysis but as yet they have no service. Managers are making out a business case for SLT in their local YOI, but I am not aware of any instances where this process has led to the delivery of a service. Why, in any case, should it be necessary to reinvent the wheel in each of the 15 PCTs which serve the 11 male and
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four female YOIs? If there is an overwhelming case—there is no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made out such a case—it applies throughout the estate and management effort ought not to be spent on proving it 15 times over.
I simply do not understand why the Home Office, which, one would think, must be desperate to find effective ways of lowering reconviction rates, has dithered and procrastinated for the past five years over an approach which would certainly produce immediate and possibly very substantial benefits to the prisoners concerned and to society as a whole. Up to 90 per cent of juvenile offenders have below-average language skills and two-thirds are below level 1 literacy. These young people do not have the skills to cope with verbal interventions aimed at reducing reoffending. Therefore, all juvenile offenders should be assessed, using known techniques, and remedial SLT provided for those who need it, using ring-fenced money, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, demanded. It is partly because of the failure to apply the lessons of six years ago, and of the other work reinforcing the pioneering study by Professor Bryan and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that our adult prisons are overflowing today.