July 2008 Monthly Archives

Topical Debate: Bercow Review

July 21, 2008

Debate on the Bercow review of services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has long been a champion of those who struggle to communicate and this report does him enormous personal credit. He is also groundbreaking in pushing the Government to be bolder in going for earlier intervention and adopting the policies of prevention.

I want to address my brief remarks to one specific section and that is young offenders, 7,000 of whom enter young offender institutions every year, two thirds
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of whom will reoffend at enormous cost to society. The key to getting them back on the straight and narrow, as it were, must lie in improving their literacy and social skills and their prospects of securing some employment in the future. We must be honest in recognising that these skills are not being picked up in schools, because far too many of these children are not engaged in the school process at all.

To be fair to the Government, they are investing in this area. Spending on education in young offender institutions has risen from about £18.5 million a year in 2001-02 to something approaching £63 million in 2006-07. But the question is whether we are getting results from that investment. Are we paying sufficient attention to the evidence from the research of Professor Karen Bryan and others that perhaps two thirds of the inhabitants of those young offender institutions cannot engage with the education process because they simply do not have the literacy and communication skills required? Are we wasting money and time? It feels as though it is time to think again, because on the one hand we have the huge cost to society of reoffending and the growing cost to the taxpayer of education in these institutions, set against the relatively small cost of earlier intervention in speech and language therapy to ensure that more of these young people can access these programmes. The research of Karen Bryan and others, dating back to 2001-02, shows that reoffending has reduced by 50 per cent. in those small pilots of children who have benefited from speech and language therapy. That is a big number, and it suggests that we need to build on that research.

We are getting warm words from the Government. There was a reference in response to this excellent report in the youth crime action plan, but the reality that has been brought out by other speakers is that the provision of speech and language therapy falls between Departments. There has been no systematic research on the impact of speech and language therapy on reoffending since 2005. I asked the Minister how many full-time therapists were working in the custodial estate and he did not know. I can tell him. He does not need to refer to the officials. It is one, and that is inadequate.

There appears to be some paralysis in the system because the Government tend to take the view that provision should be driven at a local level, and my political instincts lead me to have some sympathy with that view. It is a good theory, but the problem is that it is not working in practice.

Even if the Government cannot bring themselves to cut through the inertia and apathy by spending a tiny amount of money—speech and language therapy costs £33,000 a year across 17 institutions, so we are talking about a sum of less than £1 million that could make a difference—and to drive this from the centre, surely there is more that they can do in two key areas. As a bare minimum, we should be investing more in systematic research to improve our understanding of whether speech and language therapy can be deployed on a bigger scale in young offender institutions and in larger scale prisons.

We need a bigger scale study of the impact on reoffending of wider provision of speech and language therapy. We see no movement from the Government on that at all, just inertia.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend poses legitimate challenges to Ministers. Does he not agree that if, at present, significant numbers of those communication impaired young offenders attend educational and training courses only in an entirely perfunctory and tick-box capacity and gain little or no benefit in the process, the Government should be willing, if not to increase overall resources, to top-slice the education budget in young offenders institutions and ensure that some of the money is used to good effect rather than to nil effect?

Mr. Hurd: That is an extremely helpful intervention and reinforces the point that I was trying to make. We are spending £63 million a year on those institutions—£8,000 per pupil—and the fundamental question is whether that money is being spent wisely or whether a fraction of it could be diverted to improve the efficiency of that spending.

At the very least, we should be investing in more systematic research and sending a much stronger signal to primary care trusts and the governors of these institutions about the need to identify and meet demand. It is difficult to add anything to the words of Lord Ramsbotham, a previous inspector of prisons, who said:

“In all the years I have been looking at prisons and the treatment of offenders, I have never found anything so capable of doing so much for so many people at so little cost as the work that speech and language therapists carry out.”

Those words were uttered some time ago; the Government have not responded. I have to say to the Minister that the apathy on his Benches is failing offenders, failing victims and failing taxpayers.

5.41 pm