‘There is an alternative’

Prisons minister Paul Goggins can’t escape his past. His former job
as a social worker is the yardstick by which many judge his current
actions and decisions. The more generous consider him the human
face of a government that has little tolerance for anyone in
trouble with the law. But others who have heard him speak find him
too authoritarian for someone with a social care background.

Many people believe that the government’s talk about crime has been
too punitive, but Goggins says: “We shouldn’t be saying any more
and we shouldn’t be saying any less.”

He believes the government’s messages and policies “should remain
balanced” and insists that custody should be reserved “for the most
serious and persistent offenders”.

“We try wherever possible with children and young people to
prevent, divert and intervene in the community. That’s a consistent
message that I’ve been giving out for two years and that message
will be consistent up to the general election.”

He had not, however, heard Alan Milburn, Labour’s general election
co-ordinator, talking last year about British “yobs” in the same
breath as international “terrorists”. On hearing it for the first
time he winces slightly, but then agrees with Milburn that indeed
“there is terror in some of our estates” and that the actions of
some young people do “terrify people”.

High on his agenda are community alternatives to custody. “I want
to see fewer children in custody,” he says, pledging “every
assistance” to the Youth Justice Board in meeting its aim to reduce
youth custody by 10 per cent within three years.

Those who knew Goggins in the past would not be surprised by his
passion for community responses. During the 1980s, in Salford, he
worked in teams that offered alternatives to custody. “We could
divert people away from custody in our projects and the sentencers
locally were happy about that because they could see the benefit of
it,” he says.

That decade is often seen as a progressive one for youth crime –
the number of children given custodial sentences dropped
dramatically from 7,700 in 1981 to just 1,500 at the end of the
period. But Goggins’s view is that, although there were many
initiatives and ideas, there was also confusion. He recalls: “It
was a hotchpotch in some respects. We couldn’t describe it as a
coherent system. You still got the rhetoric of the short, sharp
shock of the 28-day detention centres for juveniles.”

Since 1997 the system has become more coherent, he says, adding
that the forthcoming draft Youth Justice Bill should make it easier
for the courts to use community sentences, and more difficult to
lock up children. This would be helped by the government’s plan to
introduce the option for sentencers to choose an intensive
surveillance and support order. Under this, more young people could
be kept out of custody, and instead be monitored and supported in
the community.

“We want to give it real status in the system so that sentencers
understand that it is a credible and robust alternative,” Goggins
says. “We will also make sure that the law governing the use of
custody for children is tighter in terms of its reservation for the
most serious of offenders. We will go on making that absolutely

The bill will also, he says, give sentencers more confidence in
less severe community sentences by helping them to get the
“right mix”.

In relation to racism in the prison system and the Zahid Mubarek
Inquiry, Goggins says he is determined to “leave no stone unturned
to tackle any form of racism”. But, although he intends to listen
to the recommendations of the inquiry, he says lessons have already
been learned at Feltham Young Offender Institution, as indicated by
a recent Prisons Inspectorate report.

However, he is keen for there to be more staff from ethnic
minorities in the prison service. “We don’t have the proportions we
want yet but we are getting there,” he says.

And the high proportion of people from ethnic minorities in the
criminal justice system is an issue, he adds. “As a society we have
to make sure that equality means something in practice.”

It has long been known that many prisoners – both child and adult –
have mental health problems. Does Goggins think their needs can be
met by prison services? On this he is confident, saying most “can
be helped, treated and supported” while inside.

He adds: “Simply because a juvenile has a mental health problem
doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in custody. Our task is to make sure
they get the right support and treatment when they are there.”

Less emphasis should be on removing prisoners with mental health
problems from custody, he believes, and more on making the right
judgement about where it is best for them to be. “Whether they
should be in that accommodation [prison] and receiving mental
health treatment and support or whether they should be out of that
system and in a secure mental health institution. Where that’s
appropriate, that’s where they should be,” he says.

He also recognises that more support needs to be available in the
community and says that he is working with colleagues in health and
education to ensure the government has a joined-up approach.
“Children with mental health problems who have committed offences
come across all our departments. It is important that we work
together very closely. I work closely with Margaret [Hodge] on
this,” he says.

Given Goggins’s strong belief that the government is moving in the
right direction, it is hardly surprising that he takes issue with
anyone saying otherwise. In response to criticism from Jaap Doek,
chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child,
that there are too many vulnerable children in UK jails, he doesn’t
mince his words.

If it were left to Doek, he says, children with any vulnerability
would be removed from custody. “His argument is that no children
with dyslexia should be in prison service accommodation,” he says.

“Where children are extremely vulnerable of course we would be
looking for the most appropriate accommodation. But to say that all
children who have any degree of vulnerability should be outside the
system overstates the case, and I think that is what he does,” says

Yet there is little overstatement in the fact that there are more
children in prison in the UK than in any other country in the EU –
something one would hope, as a former social worker, Goggins would
find difficult to overlook.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.