Britain: young offenders lack language skills

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Oct 29 13:45:34 UTC 2006

David Ramsbotham's debate on SLT and young offenders

27 Oct 2006

Lord Avebury: My Lords, when the chairman of the Youth Justice Board, Rob
Morgan, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, and the Childrens
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 Lordthe Chief
Inspector, as he was thenrecommended 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 suggestedand the noble Lord endorsed thisthat appropriate
screening should be developed, validated and included with educational
entry tests throughout the prison system. The noble Lord then commended Dr
Bryans 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 Bryans findings had
been incorporated in something she called the health needs assessment
toolkit. A principal education officer had been appointed to survey
education and training at YOIs with a remit to look at learning

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 Bryans 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 whombearing in mind that there was no funding for those posts, as
the noble Lord explainedand 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 Agencymentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbothamwhich 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

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 four female YOIs? If there is an
overwhelming casethere is no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham,
made out such a caseit 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


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