To ask the Secretary of State if he will make a statement on safety in prisons and secure training centres.
The safety and welfare of all those in custody is vital, so we take seriously all reports of the mistreatment of those in our care.
On 8 January, the BBC and other media outlets reported allegations of verbal and physical abuse directed towards young people detained at Medway secure training centre, an establishment managed by G4S. The allegations arise from an undercover investigation for a “Panorama” programme which will be broadcast this evening. It must be stressed that investigative reporting is vital to keeping government honest, and I am grateful to the BBC for the work it has undertaken.
We must treat these allegations with the utmost seriousness. Kent police and the Medway child protection team are now investigating matters on the basis of information shared with them by the BBC, and the police will decide in due course whether criminal charges should be brought.
It would be inappropriate for me to comment further on the specific allegations while these investigations are under way, but I can assure the House that my Department and the Youth Justice Board—under the determined leadership of my right hon. and noble Friend Lord McNally —will do everything we can to assist the police and the local council. Our immediate priority has been to make sure that the young people in custody at Medway are safe, which is why Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and Ofsted visited the secure training centre this morning. They are meeting representatives of G4S, Medway council and the Youth Justice Board to ensure that all necessary action is being taken to ensure the wellbeing of young people at the centre. Inspectors will speak directly to the young people detained at Medway to satisfy themselves that everything is being done to ensure that people are safe. I will also be meeting G4S this week to discuss the allegations and to review its response.
I am under no illusions about the fact that our system of youth justice needs reform. Although youth offending is down, recidivism rates are high, and the care and supervision of young offenders in custody is not good enough. That is why I asked Charlie Taylor, the former chief executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, to conduct a review of youth justice. He will report back later this year with recommendations on how to improve the treatment of young people in our care. But it is not just youth justice that needs reform. We need to bring change to our whole prison estate. There is much more to do to ensure that our prisons are places of decency, hope and rehabilitation.
Violence in prisons has increased in recent years. The nature of offenders currently in custody and the widespread availability of new psychoactive substances have both contributed to making prisons less safe. There is no single, simple solution to the problems we face, but we are determined to make progress. We are trialling the use of body-worn cameras and training sniffer dogs to detect new psychoactive substances. We have made it an offence to smuggle so-called legal highs into prison, but ultimately the only way to reduce violence in our prisons is to give governors and all those who work in prisons the tools necessary more effectively to reform and rehabilitate offenders. That is the Government’s mission and one I am determined to see through.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question on a most serious and troubling topic involving the mistreatment of children in custody. I am sure the Secretary of State and the whole Government take their responsibilities seriously, not least their duty of care under the Children Act 2004. I am grateful for the steps that have already been taken, which the Secretary of State mentioned, but perhaps he could have met G4S sooner, as I am sure the Government have had some notice. Perhaps he will tell us when he first had notice of these allegations.
As the Secretary of State said, these are serious allegations involving seven members of staff at Medway secure training centre. I also put on record my thanks to the BBC “Panorama” programme for bringing these matters to light.
The allegations involve matters such as slapping a teenager several times in the head; using restraint techniques; squeezing a teenager’s windpipe so as to cause problems in breathing; boasting of mistreating young people, including using a fork to stab one in the leg; equally seriously, the concealing of behaviour by deliberately doing it outside the sight of CCTV cameras; and covering up violent incidents to avoid investigation and the possibility of sanctions against G4S.
Deborah Coles, director of the charity INQUEST, has said that in any other setting the treatment “would be child abuse” and that
“this points to a lack of accountability and culture of impunity.”
Adding to the seriousness of this situation, it is clear that these allegations have come to light only following the investigative journalism the Secretary of State mentioned, rather than following any monitoring or oversight from the Youth Justice Board or Ministry of Justice. Perhaps he would say what the Youth Justice Board monitors have been doing, as they are supposed to be an essential protection in these circumstances.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that a full independent investigation of the circumstances of the abuse will take place and that this will not be swept under the carpet or blamed on a few rogue officers? Any culpability or negligence by G4S management must be exposed. We must also be told whether the Ministry of Justice knew about the alleged abuse before the story was broken by journalists. If it didn’t know, why didn’t it know?
Sadly, this is only the latest in a long line of failures and mismanagement from G4S. In addition to inspection reports at Oakwood prison and the removal of the contract for Rainsbrook STC last September, there have been investigations into a number of deaths in custody or detention, including those of Gareth Myatt and Jimmy Mubenga. There was a debate in the House last week on the appalling healthcare at G4S-run Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. The Secretary of State may wish to confirm that the Serious Fraud Office is still investigating G4S over fraud in the prisoners tagging contract.
Given the concerns raised over many years and in many areas about G4S, we urge the MOJ to review all its contracts with that company to see whether it is fit and proper to manage major public contracts. In the meantime it is our belief that G4S should not be considered for bidding for other Government contracts. Can the Secretary of State give me those assurances today?
There are serious questions—I think the Secretary of State acknowledged this—that go beyond G4S. We have to see this in the wider context of a rise in violence in prisons. Figures show that 186 prisoners took their own lives over the 23-month period to September 2015, which means that, over the last two years, on average, a prisoner has taken their own life every four days. Last Friday, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons told “Newsnight” that there were more murders and suicides than there had been in 10 years. We need a cultural shift across the entire secure estate.
To begin that process, we ask that today the Government take immediate action to put all G4S-run prisons, STCs and detention centres into special measures to assess the safety and competence of their operation. The Secretary of State has powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to intervene in contracted-out STCs. We urge him to do so and to put in management teams alongside existing staff, particularly those with experience of working with vulnerable children. It is clear that the measures currently in place are not working. It remains for the Secretary of State, who has said that he wishes to reform our prisons, to take action now.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising these questions in a serious and sombre way. He is absolutely right to say that the allegations involve children and that we have a duty of care towards them. We must ensure that those who are in our care are treated appropriately and responsibly. “Panorama” informed the local authority on 30 December and appropriate steps were taken by the local authority to ensure that an investigation could be initiated. Of course, Kent police were also informed at the same time, and because a police investigation is necessarily taking place, we have to respect due process.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the allegations that he has listed are very serious, but they are allegations, and it is important that we give G4S and those involved the appropriate time and space to respond in a way that is congruent with the seriousness of the allegations. It is because I take the allegations seriously that I do not want to rush to judgment or do anything that could be used to enable those who might be guilty of serious offences to wriggle off the hook.
I had the opportunity to meet the editor of “Panorama”, as well as the programme’s producer and the director who was responsible for this investigation, on the eve of the publication of the allegations in The Times and elsewhere on 8 January. It was as a result of that conversation that I had discussions with members of the Youth Justice Board and that we took the steps that I outlined earlier in my statement. It was also as result of that conversation that the roles of the YJB monitor and of Barnardo’s, which also visits the establishment, were enhanced to ensure that the safety of the children at that centre could be guaranteed to the best of our ability.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that G4S has, in a number of other ways, at times in the past, let the Ministry of Justice and those in our care down. It is also important to stress, however, that there are other institutions run by G4S that continue to do a good job, and it would be quite wrong to make a blanket allegation against the organisation of the kind that I know the hon. Gentleman did not make but that others might be tempted to.
The hon. Gentleman was also right to make reference to the remarks of the outgoing chief inspector, Nick Hardwick. I thank Nick Hardwick for the superb work he has done. His candour and honesty in that role serve only to underline the scale of what we have to do to ensure that children and young people in custody and everyone else in prison are in a safe and decent environment, and nothing will stop us making sure that safety and decency are at the forefront of the changes that we bring to our prison and secure training centre estate.
The Secretary of State will know that the Justice Committee is investigating the treatment of young people within the estate, and all those who are looking into this issue will welcome his measured approach. Does he agree that the Taylor review should not only deal with the present issue but have no constraints placed on either the areas it looks at or its opportunity to consider the learning that is now available on the questions of maturity and of the appropriateness of having very young people in the same establishments as hardened and much older people? Will he also tell us when Charlie Taylor is likely to be able to deliver his report?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those questions. I have stressed to Charlie Taylor that he should consider there to be no limits on his review. I know that my hon. Friend’s points will be well taken by Charlie, and I hope that we will see the fruits of his report in two to three months’ time.
Like all hon. Members, we on these Benches were alarmed to see the reports emerging over the weekend about the Medway secure training centre, so we congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on raising the issue today and the Secretary of State on his response. Three questions arise. First, will any review of procedures and practices at training centres include not only Medway and not only contracts involving G4S but similar centres including those run by Serco? Secondly, what improvements can be made to the system of inspection to prevent similar incidents from arising in future? Finally, are any procedures—even something as simple as providing a telephone number—available to the children in those centres to allow such behaviour to be drawn to the attention of outside authorities without having to rely on undercover journalists?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He is absolutely right: although there is understandable focus and attention on G4S, not least because of some of the mistakes the company has made in the past, what should concern us is the safety of children and young people, rather than the reputation of any particular organisation. There should be no limits on our capacity to investigate wrongdoing, wherever we find it. He rightly says we need to consider and reflect on inspection and monitoring to make sure it is fit for purpose. I have absolute confidence and faith in Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, but we do need always to keep under review the powers available to our inspections.
There is a telephone line that enables people in STCs to call Barnardo’s. Barnardo’s was visiting the site three days a week, but that has now been doubled and its volunteers and professionals visit six days a week. We will, of course, do everything we can do to reassure young people that if they are victims of abuse, they will be heard.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response this afternoon, which I found very helpful. I was shocked and appalled to hear the allegations of abuse of young people by staff at Medway secure training centre, a borstal in my constituency. I understand that the allegations result from an undercover BBC “Panorama” investigation and I, too, thank the BBC. I am extremely concerned to learn, however, that the BBC revealed these allegations only at the end of December, with the investigation having run from October to December. I question why authorities were not alerted immediately. Last Thursday, I had a long conversation with Paul Cook, the director of children’s services at G4S, so that he could update me on the immediate action that has been taken at Medway STC following these allegations. Will the Secretary of State assure me that following the conclusion of the police investigation, the Youth Justice Board will review the safeguarding processes and measures in place at Medway STC so that I can be sure, as a constituency MP, that young people placed there are being looked after?
I take seriously the points that my hon. Friend made, and I will talk to Lin Hinnigan, chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, again later this afternoon in order to take them up. As for the nature of the investigation, I had the opportunity to talk to Mr Plomin, the producer-director of this programme, and he explained to me that in investigative journalism of this kind it normally takes between two to three months to establish and marshal the evidence necessary to build a case worthy of investigation. That is obviously a matter for the BBC, but it should be stressed that this “Panorama” producer-director was involved in the investigation into Winterbourne View as well, so he is someone with a track record in uncovering unacceptable practices.
Yvonne Rose Bailey, a constituent of mine and the mother of Joseph Scholes, specifically raised with me over the weekend the issue of Joseph’s death more than 10 years ago in custody at Stoke Heath. She drew to my attention again the request for an inquiry into deaths that have occurred in STCs and in youth custody. Having been a Minister in the Department, I know that this is difficult, but will the Secretary of State look again at the purpose of an inquest into the deaths that have occurred?
Knowing the right hon. Gentleman’s experience, I take his request very seriously and I will come back to him on that.
A number of my constituents are employed at Rainsbrook STC, near Rugby, where the YJB has taken decisive action by transferring the contract from G4S to MTCnovo—that will take effect in May. For the benefit of my constituents, will the Secretary of State confirm that that transfer is proceeding satisfactorily? For the benefit of the House, will he confirm that the change will prevent the kind of distressing allegations that we have heard today?
The transfer from G4S to MTCnovo should reinforce some of the changes that are already taking place, which ensure that children and young people are better looked after. I had the opportunity to visit Rainsbrook, where I saw that staff were taking very seriously some of the unhappy practices that had been reported in the past and were determined to improve the care of young people.
Despite what the Minister said earlier, why should organisations with such a dubious record, to say the least, be given such responsibility, as we all agree that the safety of children is of the utmost importance? Why should such work be outsourced in the first place?
There are two related points. First, there are institutions that are run by G4S, which are the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, that are well run, that have been inspected and that every respectable observer believes are run in the interests of the inmates in a way that ensures that inmates do have a chance to turn their lives around. More broadly, it is fair to say that, within the secure estate overall, there needs to be a balance between the innovation that can be brought by outside organisations, and the rigour that proper inspection and proper monitoring can guarantee. That balance is always a difficult one to strike.
Today, Ofsted and HM Inspectorate of Prisons have published a report into the G4S-managed Oakhill secure training centre in my constituency. They have awarded the centre a “good” rating and found that young people there feel safe and are being helped in their education. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the staff for all their hard work in raising standards?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. We should stress that the overwhelming majority of people who work with offenders—young and old—in secure training centres, young offender institutions and prisons are idealistic figures who do an exemplary job. We take very seriously the allegations that were listed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) precisely because the majority of staff, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend, do this work because they want to improve the lives of those with whom they work.
In the light of what we have found out from the BBC, will the Secretary of State look again at the Harris report into deaths in custody, because the original response from the Government was lamentable? Will he look again at the 30 or more recommendations that were rejected, as some of them could be implemented tomorrow and would save an awful lot of the problems that he is now having to confront?
I am grateful to Lord Harris for his report, and we accepted more than half of his recommendations. I know that he will appear before the Justice Committee tomorrow, and there will be an opportunity for him to reflect on where we might have gone further. I will look with care and attention at the evidence he gives.
Given that offenders have access to a private phone line, weekly meetings with their social workers, and regular visits from Barnardo’s and NHS nurses, and that all the staff are approved by the Youth Justice Board, does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the face of it, it looks as though there is little more that can be done?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for stressing the range of services that exist to help ensure that young people are kept safe. When an allegation or a series of allegations such as those in the “Panorama” report are made we must of course take them seriously. It is also important to stress that the Youth Justice Board, the Ministry of Justice and others have continually striven over the years to try to ensure that young people are kept safe in custody. Of course we can never do enough, but he is quite right that there have already been interventions that have been designed to ensure that young people are safe.
I am sure that we will all watch “Panorama” with great interest, but, whatever we see, we have all known for years that there were problems with these institutions. That is why we have the recidivism rates to which the Justice Secretary referred. We must not be allowed to scapegoat the staff. They do an exceptionally difficult job, very often picking up the failures of other parts of the public services—the education system, the care system and the social work system. When he comes to give the remit to the inquiry that he has announced today, will he make sure that the work of all those different parts of the public services and others interacts with these young people before they end up in detention and is given proper scrutiny as well?
That was a typically thoughtful intervention from the right hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. Ideally, we should prevent young people from getting into custody in the first place. Obviously, there are some people for whom custody is an appropriate response, but we should seek to intervene much earlier in the lives of these young people—whether that is through ensuring that they have appropriate education, that there is intervention from social workers in their family circumstances or that the criminal justice system is much more thoughtful in the way in which it treats them.
I congratulate both the Opposition Front Bench team on raising this urgent question and the Secretary of State on his response to it. Following on from that very thoughtful question, does he think that, given the high recidivism rates among young people in institutions—even well-run institutions—the whole system is not fit for purpose? Will he ensure that his review is as thoroughly wide ranging as it can be, and will he give a date to this House on when it will report?
Again, I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There are a range of aspects of the way in which youth justice operates that need reform and to change. I will write to him and share with the House a date by which we can expect Charlie Taylor’s report, in order to satisfy the desire which I know is felt across the House for as much urgency as possible in dealing with this problem.
Ah! I call Mr Nigel Keith Anthony Standish Vaz.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for reminding me of my names.
I welcome all the steps that have been taken by the Minister. He has acted swiftly to deal with a serious set of issues. When he meets the chief executive of G4S this week, can he ensure that a Home Office Minister is also present? G4S has a number of contracts with the Home Office relating to the removal centres. That would help enormously in dealing with this issue.
That is a helpful suggestion. There is a joint Minister for the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice. We will do everything possible to ensure that there is as much sharing of information and as much agreement as possible about a way forward with our colleagues in the Home Office.
As my right hon. Friend will be aware, one of the communities that suffers daily persecution in prisons is the trans community. As the Women and Equalities Committee is about to publish its trans inquiry report later this month, will he confirm that young trans people will be included in the review of youth justice?
Given that there are currently record numbers of assaults in prisons, that a third of the deaths in prisons are self-inflicted, and that this year has seen a bigger increase than any other year in violence in our prisons, what is the Minister doing to make young people who are in prison because they have been offenders safe while they are there, in our care?
Neither I, the Youth Justice Board nor the Ministry are in denial about the scale of the problem that we face. One reason why we initiated this review, which started in September, was that we realised that there was much that needed to be done to improve the care and welfare of young people in custody and those who come into contact with the criminal justice system. One reason why I have responded as I have done today is that I am determined to ensure that Charlie Taylor has all the support he needs to make radical suggestions, if necessary, to transform the opportunities available to those young people. But as has been pointed out by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), there are so many different parts in the criminal justice system that relate to the fate of young people and for which this Government are responsible, from social work through education to the secure estate, that we need to be clear that when we come forward with proposals, they are coherent and meet the need of the hour.
Locking up young offenders has consequences of all kinds. Do events such as the one in question further persuade the Secretary of State that there is merit in monitoring low-level drug and alcohol offenders, rather than in sending them to prison?
My hon. and learned Friend has a detailed knowledge of the criminal justice system. It is appropriate and important that the option of custody is always available. There will be some young offenders for whom a custodial sentence is appropriate, but it is also right, in particular where we can keep people out of custody and deal with drug, alcohol or substance abuse or mental health problems, that we make sure that there is an appropriate intervention that keeps them out of the sometimes tough and brutal environment of prison, but only if we can be certain that the intervention is getting their life back on track.
Given the severity of the allegations being made and the seriousness with which we should take the safeguarding issues presented to us, can the Secretary of State inform the House whether the officers concerned at the detention centres are being replaced by temporary personnel while the investigations into safeguarding take place?
Seven individuals have been suspended. It is my understanding that staffing is at an appropriate level, but during my conversation with the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board I will seek to satisfy myself that we have exactly the level of both staffing and monitoring that we need to keep people safe.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend referred to body-worn cameras, which are proving to be a vital tool in tackling crime on our streets. Does he agree that they have an important role to play not only in our prisons, but in secure training centres?
Absolutely. I was fortunate to be here when the Policing Minister pointed out the important way in which body-worn cameras can help in crime detection and in keeping officers safe. The same applies in the secure estate.
In 2012 G4S failed to provide security for the London Olympics and the Army had to save the day. It has had to repay £110 million for overcharging for security tags, and £4.5 million for overcharging for facilities management at UK courts. Surely its luck is up and it cannot be offered any more Government contracts.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to those past failures by G4S, but I would stress that there are prisons and other facilities run by G4S that do meet a high and exacting standard. Although it is understandable that criticism of G4S will be heard again in the light of these allegations, and that it will become more intense if the allegations are sustained, it is nevertheless important that we take a step back and recognise that it is also the nature of our youth justice system that needs to change.
On Friday I attended the packed and moving funeral of the son of one of my constituents. His death in custody is currently under investigation. Will my right hon. Friend join me and my constituent in campaigning together for our young people, and indeed all people, in prison to be better looked after?
I know just how closely my hon. Friend has taken this case to heart. Both the conversations he has had with me and the correspondence he has had with the Department are testament to the fact that he has been moved by the case and is determined to see reform as a result. I can only say that I will do everything I can to ensure that families do not have to live with the tragedy with which the family he so ably represents have had to live.
Does the Justice Secretary think that it is time for a review of the vetting and barring scheme that the Government introduced in the previous Parliament, to see whether it is actually providing the most suitable people to work with young people?
I know that the hon. Lady has a number of concerns about changes to the vetting and barring scheme. If she has specific concerns about how it might have failed in that area, I would be interested to hear them. More broadly, I absolutely take her point, and it will be the subject of the conversations I have with the Youth Justice Board and others.
The Secretary of State will know that I admire his passion for reform in the Prison Service, particularly in youth justice. Having been a shadow Prisons Minister many years ago, and having faced exactly the same challenges in youth offending and how we look after young people, I find the situation today depressing. Does it not often come back to the absolutely essential principle that we need those children to be looked after and supervised by highly qualified, well-paid, well-trained and well-supervised people? Have this Government not become far too dependent on half a dozen companies that do not have the greatest track record when it comes to recruiting and training those sorts of people?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have the greatest respect for his passion on these issues. I think that he hits a number of nails squarely on the head. I do not want to pre-empt the results of Charlie Taylor’s review, but I think that it is important that we review the qualifications and professionalism of those who work in youth justice. One thing that I should say, however, is that it is appropriate for me to thank the chairman of the Youth Justice Board, Lord McNally, for the work he has been doing. It is on his watch that the number of young people in custody has diminished and youth offending has fallen. Even as we recognise that there is progress to be made, it is important that we also thank those who have worked in this area in the past few years.
We can all be assured that the noble Lord has heard that message in real time.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s words today, and I think that most of us would agree that it is absolutely essential that we have reform, particularly in youth justice. Will he consider introducing the duty of candour in the prisons estate, particularly in young offender institutions, because young offenders are extremely vulnerable? The duty of candour was introduced in the national health service only last April. I think that it would be worth while looking at that, because of the need to safeguard young people in custody—sadly, there will always be a need for that. It is absolutely essential that we have that duty, so will he please give it consideration?
I will ask Charlie Taylor to reflect on the hon. Lady’s thoughtful recommendation.
I served on the Committee on the Bill that became the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, where we argued against the inclusion of the use of restraints to preserve good order and discipline for youth offending, and said that instead force should be used only where there is a danger to staff or the child. Unfortunately, the Minister in Committee ignored this, even though the UN Committee Against Torture had said of the UK:
“The Committee is concerned that the State party is still using techniques of restraint that aim to inflict deliberate pain on children in Young Offender Institutions”.
Does the Secretary of State now regret this decision, and will he amend the legislation accordingly?
The principles behind MMPR—minimising and managing physical restraint—are designed to ensure, exactly as the hon. Lady would hope, that physical restraint is used only when there is a danger to other prisoners or to the individual themselves, but of course there will be occasions when physical restraint is used inappropriately, and in those circumstances disciplinary or other action may need to be taken.