Shadow Justice Minister Dan Jarvis has said that the Government’s proposed “secure college model” for young offenders is worryingly untried and untested. Young offenders have complex needs, and present challenges that demands “smart, evidence-based policies” that will deliver results, as well as value for public money. But the Government is bringing a policy before Parliament in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill that meets none of those tests.
Thanks to the hard work of the Youth Justice Board and Youth Offending Teams, both introduced by the last Labour Government, youth crime has fallen by nearly 40% since the late 1990s. I worked briefly as a youth offending team officer from 2007 – 2009, and Labour’s emphasis on preventative and rehabilitation work, used detailed risk and needs assessment, and support for young people was designed, planned and delivered by collaborative multi-agency professional teams (under the Every Child Matters legislative banner), which worked very well as part of an intensive, supportive needs-led provision.
I know that the complex needs that Dan mentioned arise due to young people being bereaved, for example, or having difficulties coping because of problems caused by additional education needs, autism, dyspraxia, attention deficit and hyperactive disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, or poor mental health.
My caseload was comprised of young people between the ages 8-18, and most were extremely vulnerable, the majority were faced with complex issues as I’ve mentioned, and also, with school exclusions being a leading risk factor, culminating in their referral to our agency.
The prevention and rehabilitation programs that Labour initiated led to a significant drop in the number of teenagers in youth custody, with many offenders now being rehabilitated using referral orders and restorative justice.
The youth justice system does need to deter as well as rehabilitate, however. There will always be a proportion of young offenders for whom a custodial sentence is the only solution. However, that doesn’t mean the best and only solution is to build Titan prisons.
As Dan Jarvis said: “Many leading experts have stressed that smaller establishments are more effective for young people. It’s easier to maintain control, they are less violent and there’s a much better chance of rehabilitation.
That’s why there has been little enthusiasm for the plans from the justice sector, with serious concerns raised by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, the Standing Committee on Youth Justice, the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust.
The Secure College’s location in the middle of the country also means families will have enormous distances to travel to see their loved ones, putting considerable strain on relationships with parents, all of which we know are crucial in rehabilitation.”
The Justice Secretary has thrown the future of Secure Children’s Homes into serious doubt, too. Small units are recognised as the preferred model of youth custody, housing the most vulnerable children and providing intensive support. Grayling’s outlined model is more akin to a large Victorian workhouse.
Those very vulnerable children would be lost and remain anonymous to staff in the planned 300-bedroomed teenage Titan prison, but Grayling has indicated that many will now be moved to Secure Colleges, boys as well as girls and children as young as 12. This would raise serious safeguarding concerns and the Chair of the Youth Justice Board has expressed concern about this idea.
Furthermore, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has been told that his plans to allow force to be used on children at the new “secure colleges” for young offenders are illegal and must be changed immediately, by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.
The Committee said the proposals in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to allow authorised staff to use “reasonable force where necessary to ensure good order and discipline” was a clear breach of international standards. Grayling has a track record of disregarding human rights.
Previously, the Committee warned Grayling that the Legal Aid cuts may breach human rights, and told Grayling that restrictions on legal aid would affect vulnerable groups. The Committee report said:
“We are surprised that the government does not appear to accept that its proposals to reform legal aid engage the fundamental common law right of effective access to justice, including legal advice when necessary. We believe that there is a basic constitutional requirement that legal aid should be available to make access to court possible in relation to important and legally complex disputes, subject to means and merits tests and other proportionate limitations.”
Chris Grayling is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, the chair of the all-party backbench Committee has said. Oscar Wilde’s cynical jibe was twice put to the justice secretary when he gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on 26 November last year and was then repeated by Dr Hywel Francis, a Labour MP, when he launched the report.
Earlier this week when the Justice Secretary unveiled detailed plans for the £85 million secure young offender unit in Leicestershire, which will hold up to 320 inmates between the ages of 12 and 17, he said it would put “education at the heart of custody” and would move away from the traditional approach of “bars on windows” when it opens in 2017. However, it’s very clear that Grayling’s proposals are traditionally authoritarian in nature, with the emphasis on a punitive approach, rather than a genuinely educational, supportive one. If the conservatives genuinely wanted to value and educate our young people, they most certainly wouldn’t have Michael Gove running the Education Department.
Staff would be subject to the same rules laid out in the Bill, prompting Labour Ministers to urge Grayling to scrap the Victorian-style proposals. Labour MP John McDonnell has compared the proposed Leicestershire facility with the notorious private jail HMP Oakwood in Staffordshire, claiming it would become an “Oakwood for children” and lead to riots and assaults.
This Bill reflects the Tory typism we’ve see repeated over and over, ad nauseam: funding is stripped from public services and private contractors then minimise the running costs and radically reduce the service, whilst making a lot of private profit.
I have grave concerns that because social services and other supportive agencies have been reduced, underfunded, or dismantled by this government, with few prevention-based projects to identify and to work with those at risk of offending, the lack of support will mean a significant rise in offending rates, and more children being detained in overcrowded and unsafe conditions. This is a government with an apparently never-ending supply of recipes for social disasters. And an absolute, brutal indifference to the welfare and well-being of the most vulnerable citizens.
In a report published yesterday, the cross-party Human Rights Committee said the idea that officials could use physical force on children to keep order in young offender institutions was unacceptable under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The report said:
“In our view, it is clear… that it is incompatible with Articles 3 and 8 ECHR for any law, whether primary or secondary legislation, to authorise the use of force on children and young people for the purposes of good order and discipline.”
Committee chair Hywel Francis said the MPs were “disappointed” that the Government did not appear to have examined international standards on the rights of children before publishing its Bill.
“Perhaps as a result there are a number of issues relating to secure colleges in particular that need examination and amendment, including making clear that force cannot be used on children to secure ‘good order and discipline’,” he added.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “MPs have recognised that allowing prison officers to restrain children violently, simply if they don’t follow orders, is illegal and will put lives at risk.
“It is symptomatic of the kind of institution that ministers are proposing – not a college with education at its heart, but a giant prison where human rights are infringed and physical violence becomes part of the rules.”
I agree absolutely. This Bill reflects the authoritarianism and callous, indifferent and very punitive approach towards vulnerability of any kind that has come to typify this government of bullies.
Paola Uccellari, director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, has added: “Allowing prison officers to use force to make children behave themselves is dangerous and carries a risk of injury. The Government is putting children’s lives at risk by pushing ahead with its unlawful plans. It must listen to parliamentarians and remove these powers to use force from the Bill.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We will consider the recommendations made by the Committee.”
Yes, Grayling gave the same response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights when concerns were raised about the Legal Aid Bill breaching Human Rights. But that Bill was passed by this government, nonetheless.
What this means, in basic terms, is that Grayling will push on with his plans, regardless of the fully justified fears and concerns raised for the safety and well-being of our vulnerable children and young people, and with a dismissive contempt from the Tories for their fundamental human rights.
There was a time when when Every Child Mattered. But that was before we knew this compassionless government of bullies.