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Safety in Youth Custody

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2016

[Phil Wilson in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered safety in youth custody.

Thank you, Mr Wilson, for allowing time for this most important of debates. I am most grateful. The safety of our children and young people is of great and continuing interest to many Members of this House, and has been for many years. The question of safety has been discussed in numerous debates here and in the other place. In addition, it has been explored in numerous Select Committee inquiries—most recently by the Select Committee on Justice in 2013—and has been the subject of a tide of media attention, often following shocking revelations arising from the dedicated work of journalists. It is worth reflecting for a moment and asking ourselves why so many Members, people in our society, charities and third-sector bodies, and those in the media, are so tireless in their determination to protect the safety of our children and young people.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech, which I am listening to very carefully. Has she considered the situation of young adults? The Justice Committee is doing an inquiry about that at the moment, and we have learned that the development of the brain means that many young adults are still effectively children when they are sent into prison.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that interesting point, which I hope to cover later.

My belief is that, no matter what someone’s upbringing is, and whatever their political affiliation and perspective on law and order, there is a shared and enduring view that the safety of children and young people is of paramount concern. Each and every one of us believes that we must ensure that each and every child and young person is able to feel safe, wherever in the country they live. As we all know instinctively, each child and young person deserves to grow up in a nurturing, encouraging and, most importantly, safe environment. That is true in all settings—in the home, in schools or, as we are debating today, in our custodial institutions. The setting does not matter because whatever the circumstances, and whatever children and young people may have done in their short lives, regardless of whether they have been found to have acted criminally, they remain children.

We have always quite rightly held children and young people to be different from adults. Children and young people with their whole lives ahead of them are still finding their way in life and learning what it is to make their way in the world. As we sorely know, too many children and young people, especially those who find themselves in custody and in the care system, far too often find their way in life in the most desperate of circumstances. Too many live in unsafe homes or go hungry. Too many see horrific things that no person, never mind a child, should ever see. Too many suffer from mental illness that is often unrecognised and untreated, or have not received the help and support that might, in better circumstances, have lifted them away from criminal behaviour and supported them into becoming successful, loving and humane children and young people.

At this point, I pause and acknowledge that we could very easily spend all day debating the desperate circumstances that so many children find themselves in, but that is not the topic today. Today, I wish to discuss just one very important element of the safety of, without doubt, our most vulnerable children—those who are held in our custodial institutions. In leading the debate, we cannot ignore the scandalous revelations of the past weeks, broken by BBC’s “Panorama”, concerning Medway secure training centre, an institution managed by G4S. I am sure we all recoiled with revulsion at the scenes that played out on our screens during the programme: young people subjected to the most horrific maltreatment and children struggling to breathe as they were restrained by apparent professionals. Such scenes in a documentary about prisons in developing nations would have sent a shiver up our backs, but those scenes took place in a UK establishment that exists to care for children while they are held in custody.

I do not propose to discuss the “Panorama” allegations in any great deal as they are subject to an ongoing police investigation but, as we debate this important matter, the scenes that we saw on our television screens should remain vividly in our minds because they confirm one thing: complacency is never an option. The safety of our most vulnerable children—those held in custody in establishments throughout the country—is forever fragile and under threat. We must be forever vigilant. Further incidents are only a hair’s breadth of complacency away.

With those thoughts clear in our mind, it is worth reminding ourselves of what this House passed into law in 1998. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 did two important things. First, it stated that the youth justice system’s principal aim was to prevent reoffending by our children and young people. Secondly, it established the Youth Justice Board, which was given the job of making that noble aim a reality. The Youth Justice Board, in setting its strategic objectives for 2014 to 2017, recognised that an undeniable cornerstone of successfully helping children back into society is

“to promote the safety and welfare of children and young people in the criminal justice system”.

In recognising that safety and wellbeing is a fundamental cornerstone of the successful rehabilitation of children and young people, the Youth Justice Board acknowledged in clear and unambiguous terms what we all know instinctively as parents, as brothers and sisters, as aunties and uncles and as other family members: where children and young people feel unsafe, insecure, intimidated and under threat of violence, everything else becomes background noise. Efforts to help children to socialise, learn and become confident in themselves stop and begin to regress, as do efforts to teach children the values and principles of choosing to live respectfully, humanely and in a law-abiding manner in society and communities.

If the principal aim of the Youth Justice Board is to prevent reoffending, safety in custodial institutions is not only key, but imperative. Without it, helping children and young people to become respectful, humane and law-abiding adults is an empty hope. Everything else is simply background noise. The question is: what success is our youth justice system having in ensuring that children and young people are being held in a safe environment while they are custody? Sadly, from the statistics provided by the House of Commons Library, the picture is depressing and worrying. That remains the case for the use of restrictive physical intervention—in layman’s terms, when staff restrain children—incidents of self-harm by children, assault on children and young people in custody or, most damningly and depressingly, deaths in custody.

Thankfully, the number of children who have been committed to custody in recent years has steadily fallen. All hon. Members would surely welcome this improving position but, although the number of each type of incident has dropped over recent years, the number of each type of incident per hundred children and young people in custody—the most accurate measure—has steadily increased. Whichever way we look at it, those in custody are becoming proportionately more likely to find themselves in an unsafe environment. With the “Panorama” revelations of the past weeks in mind and the erosion of safety in our custodial establishment only serving to bring the issue into sharper focus, it prompts the question: what are this Conservative Government doing to improve the safety of children and young people, and to help them to re-enter society, equipping them to become law-abiding, respectful and humane members of our communities?

In recent years, there have been a number of expert reports that have explored the safety of children and young people in custody. Inquest, alongside the Prison Reform Trust, released a report in 2012 raising important questions about the number of self-inflicted deaths in our custodial institutions. More recently, in 2015, Inquest released another report raising unsettling questions about deaths in our institutions. The Howard League for Penal Reform released a report in 2011 exploring the questions of restraint in our institutions—that work has become especially resonant following the “Panorama” revelations of the last week. I pay tribute to each of those organisations alongside so many others that I have not been able to mention which, through their continuing and valiant efforts, are successfully keeping the question of safety so firmly on both the parliamentary and public agendas.

Does my hon. Friend agree that probation and pre-sentence reports should consider the impact of maturity on a young person’s ability to cope with prison? There should be up-to-date information on local alternatives to prison, which should also be considered. We should consider transforming sentencing policies; radically restructuring the training of the judiciary; and introducing far-reaching and well-resourced alternatives that are well staffed by individuals who are properly trained to address the complex issues that confront many young people. We should develop a criminal justice system in which prisons for young people are used as a last resort, as the Harris review said. Does she agree?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, to its credit, has remained committed, as it has under previous Governments, to continuing scrutiny of the safety of children and young people in custody. Today, I will focus on one element of the Government’s responsibilities —their responsibility to ensure that restraint in our institutions is limited to an absolute minimum and is used solely when all other avenues fail. As I said earlier, although it is only one element of the Government’s responsibilities, restraint is arguably one of the most important. When children and young people are unnecessarily restrained, they will inevitably feel unsafe, threatened and intimidated. In such circumstances, everything else is background noise, progress ceases and children regress.

In 2012, the previous coalition Government set up the independent restraint advisory panel, which, among other things, was responsible for rolling out across all custodial institutions a new restraint system called “Managing and Minimising Physical Restraint.” That was the coalition Government’s commitment to improving the unsafe environment of all those in custody. By setting in train that cultural shift in which unnecessary restraint would become unacceptable, they displayed laudable ambition, for which I commend them.

As seems to be the case with many initiatives under this Government, despite laudable ambitions and promises of much-needed cultural shifts, the ambition and promises have not been borne out in reality. As has recently become clear, the much-needed change on the ground has been, and continues to be, painfully and unacceptably slow. In November 2015, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons published a report on behaviour management and restraint of children in custody, which objectively measured the Government’s progress in rolling out their new restraint system. Depressingly, Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, offered a damning indictment of progress under this Government:

“The implementation…is taking place against a backdrop of a substantial fall in the number of children in custody, the decommissioning of beds…and staffing shortages… This has caused significant delay in the roll out”.

It is not only Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons that has challenged the Government on their complacency in driving improved safety in our custodial institutions. The Joint Committee on Human Rights recently conducted an inquiry into the UK’s compliance with the UN convention on the rights of the child. Children in custody was one area that the Joint Committee rightly considered to be deserving of scrutiny. Although the Joint Committee welcomed the Conservative Government’s progress in recognising children’s rights in law and policy, it said in no uncertain terms that there is no room for complacency and that much more needs to be done. On child custody, the Joint Committee said:

“We remain very concerned about the use of force on children in custody and believe that the recent provisions with regard to secure colleges in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act cannot be considered compatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Worryingly, despite those critical remarks not only from the Government’s own independent inspectorate but from a cross-parliamentary Committee, the Government continue to act with disturbing complacency. In response to an urgent question granted by Mr Speaker following the “Panorama” revelations, the Justice Secretary offered nothing more than cursory assurances about the safety of our children and young people in custody. There were no firm guarantees and no commitment to action. One line of his response underlines that the Government’s commitment to laudable ambition is backed up by little to no substance:

“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.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 573.]

Why do I say little to no substance? Well, the Justice Secretary failed to mention the financial backdrop—a 5%, or £13.5 million, in-year budget cut to the Youth Justice Board, the very institution that he believes will be front and centre in helping the local council to respond to the scandalous revelations of the past week. He also did not mention that £9 million of the £13.5 million cut, the lion’s share, is to be found by cutting the youth justice grant, the very grant that is used by local councils to fund their local youth justice teams.

The Justice Secretary recently announced the Taylor review of youth justice. The stated purpose of that review, due to report in summer 2016, is to explore whether the youth justice system remains fit for purpose in these modern times. Following today’s debate, it will be clear to the Government that, despite their ambitions and the Justice Secretary’s warm words, many believe that there is a distinct lack of substance and that there is wide-ranging evidence of complacency. That serves no one, particularly not our children and young people, who so very much need our help and support, especially to ensure that they are safe while held in our custodial institutions. I urge the Justice Secretary and the Minister to reflect on today’s debate and on the recommendations of the Taylor review later this year.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), and I am glad that she has secured this debate. As I mentioned in my intervention, the Select Committee on Justice, including the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer), has been investigating the experience of young adults in custody. A key point raised in that inquiry is that the distinction we make between young adults and youths is meaningless. The development of the brain is such that, at times, there are many people who are much more mature for their age and many people who are less mature for their age. Although those people will be treated as young adults in the prison system, they should be treated as if they were much younger. That is an important point that the hon. Member for Bradford South needs to take into account.

Yesterday we held an important informal seminar that was attended by a number of parents of people who were under 18 when they first committed their offences, some of whom have died in custody. It was very sad and moving to listen to their testimony. There were also young people who had been in custody, and it was clear that some of them should really have been treated as youths during that period.

One of the key points to come out was the issue of mental illness. I do not think that the prison system understands mental illness in its complexities or recognises it in individuals when they present with it. We even heard examples of where people had presented with some form of mental illness to start with and their records had been flagged up, but where nobody had had the time to check what the flag meant. If someone had checked that, they would have seen that there was some mental illness attached to that person and would have taken different action while they were in custody.

As I am sure the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston would agree, it was a very moving experience to listen to those testimonies from individuals and to hear the real experience of people who had been through the loss of a son or a daughter—in many cases they were sons rather than daughters—and the reasons for that. The point the hon. Lady made about mental health is a very good one, and it is one that we need our prison system to be more flexible in identifying, picking up and dealing with.

With that, I will leave my remarks there.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me in at the last minute. I am glad that he has raised the issue of the mental health of prisoners, because the prison ombudsman’s report, which I think came out today or yesterday, has highlighted that very issue—in relation, obviously, not only to children in prison, but to adults as well—and the lack of mental health services for prisoners. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should be a priority for the current Government to address what are clearly failings in the current system?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I do not want to make this a party political piece; it is a duty of all Governments to identify the need for mental health services and to take that issue forward. She makes a valid point.

We also met some people who were dealing with this issue—for example, an organisation called A Band of Brothers—by taking young people in, giving them a role in life and helping them to overcome some of the difficulties they had experienced, including some of the mental health difficulties. I am therefore not saying that it is a forlorn hope that mental health will be dealt with: there are many different ways of dealing with it, and we saw some of those yesterday. I hope that the report we produce will be able to address some of them in the future.

I would like first to thank the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for securing this debate in Westminster Hall today. As hon. Members will know, the Medway Secure Training Centre is in my constituency, and for me it was heart-breaking and horrifying to witness the “Panorama” programme and watch the activity that was taking place. We knew this programme was going to be broadcast, but what I saw was not what I had expected to see. I say that because, on an individual level and prior to becoming an MP, I did a lot of work with looked-after children, particularly children with foster carers or in children’s homes, so I understand not only some of the challenges that some of our young people face when they are looked after, but the upbringing that some of them have had prior to arriving in a place such as the Medway Secure Training Centre.

I know that we will not go into detail, because the investigation is ongoing and there are still questions that need to be answered, but one of the concerns for me is about how we can support the workers in these particular institutions to enable them to carry out their role in a safe manner, to make sure that the young people under their control are looked after and safe. Having worked with some very challenging young people and experienced what I would call situations that have not always been pleasant or easy to manage, I know that the people working in the service and dealing with young people are in an incredibly pressurised environment. It is extremely intense, and sometimes we do not quite know how we will deal with a particular situation.

I absolutely accept that that is not an acceptable excuse for how some young people are treated when they are in our care. However, as an outcome of this process I would like to consider how we support the officers who work with these young people to do that job effectively, including from a mental health perspective, because obviously some of the things they might be subjected to and the backgrounds of some of the young people they deal with might be awful for them to understand.

In Medway, we have three secure units up at the Medway Secure Training Centre site. One of the challenges I have seen, both as a constituency MP and as a local councillor for the ward where the unit is, is that we have struggled to recruit people into the youth justice element of the secure centres—because, fundamentally, working there is very different from working in an adult prison and the pressures are much more strenuous. I would welcome it if the Government looked at ways to support those officers far more effectively—that would probably have national implications—and also to encourage people to come into the service and work. As we know, however, we are struggling to recruit social workers and other such workers.

Does the hon. Lady agree that if prison is to be justified as a last resort, it must operate in a small, rehabilitative and therapeutic environment, rather than having big prisons? What we need is a well structured induction programme, adapted to suit each individual—many children do not see anyone in the first 24 hours after they go in—with thorough background checks carried out; risk assessments; well attended safeguarding and daily morning meetings, allowing for effective and robust measures to be applied; strong monitoring of bullying and support for prisoners who are victimised—

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; she makes a valid point. My concern is about the support given to those particular officers. Unless someone has been in that environment and worked with some of these young people, it is very difficult to understand some of the pressures—it might be something as simple as shift lengths—and how intense the environment is.

I was contacted by a number of people who work within the service after those revelations, who are concerned that the public view will now be that people who work in the youth justice system are all like that, which we know is completely untrue. In fact, they include some marvellous people, whom I have had the privilege to meet.

I am sure we can reach cross-party agreement on this, but I wonder whether professionalising the work of these staff—who, as the hon. Lady has outlined, work in very challenging conditions—and trying to recruit people who want to go into the profession would raise public perceptions and help to raise standards.

Absolutely. We must value the work that people in these centres do; in fact, it can be one of the most rewarding things that anyone can do.

As someone who had worked in commerce, my experience of working with young people who had such terrible backgrounds and were facing such severe challenges was one of the best things I have ever done. The staff do go through a training programme, but again there are things that perhaps cannot be learned quickly, and things come up along the way. Every single child—young person, I should say—is different. Every single young person has a completely different set of circumstances that has led to their being in the system. I absolutely agree that this should all be about outcomes.

Does my hon. Friend have a view on whether institutions for young people are a valid option or whether greater integration of young and adult institutions is a better option?

Speaking from experience, I absolutely believe that institutions are the right place for some young people. For example, it may not necessarily be easy for them to be in a family. It is absolutely right that we have institutions where adults can be mentors, there to look after those young people on a daily basis and to work with them to rehabilitate them. My personal view is that young people should not be integrated with the adult prison service. They have different requirements, and sometimes the offences are different for particular reasons.

My biggest concern is that all these young people will eventually become adults. Whether they are looked-after children who have had a difficult background in different institutions, or whether they are unfortunate enough—maybe through fault of their own—to end up in a secure training centre, for me there is nothing more important than ensuring that we are doing all we can to ensure that the outcomes for those young people as adults are improved. The Government’s aim is to achieve that. I welcome Charlie Taylor’s review of the system. I would like to see a review in particular of the Medway centre and some of the safeguarding. I point out that I definitely have not seen all the footage and I have not been privy to the information that “Panorama” picked up during recording, but the centre is broken up into different units, and I believe that we are only looking at one element. I would like to hear some of the better stories that have come out of that centre, which I am sure exist.

Fundamentally, I welcome the debate and the review that is taking place. From a local council perspective, I was impressed as a local Member of Parliament by the immediate response that my local authority made to deal with the allegations. The local authority is carrying out due diligence in following through on the investigations in the local authority-designated officer review and in co-operating completely with the police.

What the hon. Lady is saying from her experience and her contact with the Medway centre is very important. In general terms, does she agree that it is partly about the ethos and professionalism of the members of staff, but also partly about the ratios between the young people and the members of staff? Generally speaking, the more staff who can devote time and attention to young people, the better things are.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Personally, I still think it is a matter of the individual young person’s needs. There is no system that fits all. I am not so sure that the issue is ratios; it is about the particular care plans around those particular children or young people, the reasons why they are in the centre and the individual support they need. That is obviously just my view, but staff build up relationships with young people who may have been exposed to some desperate situations and who may have seen and witnessed things that have affected their development. Some of the challenges affecting the young people—whether those are mental or in terms of decision making—are not always evident when the staff start working with them. It is harder for young people, because adults can articulate things more easily. Sometimes it is a big challenge for young people to articulate some of the things that have happened to them and some of their thought processes.

My honest belief is that there is not an easy solution. I am pleased that this issue is on our radar, but I wish that it had not had to be brought forward by BBC “Panorama”. I am desperately sad that young people have been affected by what has been shown to have happened there, but we have an opportunity to move forward and do what we can. As an MP who has three secure units in my constituency, I will be taking an interest in the issue, not just because of my interest in looked-after children and wanting the very best outcomes for our young people, but because I want a constituency where my constituents are happy that what is going on in our patch is right. I welcome the debate and I welcome the information that will be released in the coming months by the review.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing this important debate. Today’s debate was anticipated by the exposure by “Panorama” of the Medway secure training centre earlier this month. The prison abuses it broadcast, which we have discussed today, are shocking and to be condemned, and I thank Members for their valuable and knowledgeable contributions.

It is important to acknowledge that youth justice is a devolved policy area, and the Ministry of Justice is responsible for justice policy in England and Wales only. My brief contribution to this debate will therefore acknowledge the importance of promoting the safety of children and young people in the criminal justice system more generally, and I will refer to how youth justice is administrated in Scotland to provide some experience of an alternative strategy that the UK Government may wish to consider.

If we are to prevent young people from going down the wrong path in life, we must be proactive in making timely, appropriate and effective interventions to address offending behaviour at the outset. That will keep our communities and children safe from crime, including protecting young people when they are detained. We must ensure that action is taken by all agencies so that adequate safeguards and structures are put in place to prevent abuse.

The hon. Member for Bradford South rightly questioned the safety of young people in these institutions. It is only fair to acknowledge that children and young people facing the desperate circumstances that she referred to rightly deserve the safety and wellbeing that can and should be provided by these institutions. As she said, that is key to their rehabilitation. We must ensure that young people are at the heart of that. This could be a moment in time in their lives, and they could move on to much greater things with the right support. I hope that all Members in the room acknowledge that.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly emphasised that young people are in many ways still children. He took the time to emphasise the impact that mental health can have on young people’s experiences in the institutions, and that point should be highlighted.

The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) spoke of her personal experience, as the Medway centre is in her constituency. She spoke of the heart-breaking and horrifying experience she had learning of these things. I am sure that no Member in this room takes any pleasure in or would choose to politicise such an important and truly atrocious example of bad practice. I am sure there are many more examples of good practice across the country, but we must in this instance take stock of bad practice and look at what we can do across the country to make the experience better and to ensure that these young people go on to better and positive destinations.

The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) said that safeguarding young people and children should be at the heart of the work we do. She also made the constructive and important point that bullying should be monitored. These children and young people experience the day-to-day issues other young people face, and institutions must ensure that their experiences are not damaged by bad practice or bad management in those institutions.

As I mentioned, youth justice is a devolved matter in Scotland. The youth justice strategy for Scotland from 2015 to 2020 focuses on taking a whole-system approach, improving life chances and developing the capacity for improvement. An holistic approach to youth offending and rehabilitation allows us to reverse negative trends and curb the statistics, to prevent offending from happening again. Indeed, in Scotland, there has been a substantial reduction in offence referrals to the Children’s Reporter, as well as in the number of young people committing crimes and the number of 16 and 17-year-olds in custody. Partnership working has been crucial to that, and it will remain integral to the delivery of the strategy, with consideration of course given to the role of alternative measures.

The Scottish Government’s vision is to promote Scotland as the best place for children to grow up. That was outlined in 2008 in “Preventing Offending by Young People—Framework for Action”, marking a significant shift towards prevention and early intervention, combined with procedures to manage high risk and build community confidence. In particular, the children’s hearings system is a unique feature of the Scottish youth justice system, providing special protective measures for children and dealing with offending alongside the child’s needs and best interests. Fundamentally, the hearings recognise that children and young people who offend and who require care and protection are equally deserving of being considered as children in need.

In conclusion, all children and young people have the right to be cared for and to be protected from harm, and we cannot forget that. They must be allowed to grow up in a safe environment, and the duty of child protection is shared among all of us in society, not just core professionals. In the case of the Medway secure training centre, that duty was completely breached, and I hope the Minister will take my points on board and ensure that further action is taken. I thank all Members for their contributions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing a timely and much-needed debate on this subject, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

It is agreed that the safety of children in custody is paramount. The investigation by the BBC broadcast on 11 January, which uncovered serious and shocking incidents at Medway secure training centre, must be my starting point. Those incidents have once again highlighted the need for urgent action specifically at that centre, but they are also indicative of failures across secure training centres and the prison estate as a whole.

For those hon. Members who have not viewed the programme, I should say that it makes for extremely disturbing viewing. There are allegations of guards unnecessarily using restraint techniques, hitting a teenager, pressing heavily on young people’s necks, using intimidating language and taking concerted action to conceal their behaviour by avoiding CCTV cameras and misreporting incidents. That is simply unacceptable. Since the broadcast, four G4S staff members have been dismissed and four other staff members have been suspended, including one person employed by the healthcare provider.

As hon. Members may be aware, the Labour party called on the Secretary of State to take immediate action to put all G4S-run prisons, secure training centres and detention centres into special measures and to prevent G4S from being considered for bidding for other Government contracts. He responded that the allegations must be treated with the “utmost seriousness”, and police and child protection teams are investigating. However, we should not believe that that is the end of the matter. Running a centre such as Medway requires staff who are well trained and properly motivated and who have a full appreciation of their role in the youth justice system, as the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) mentioned.

Just last September, G4S was stripped of its contract for managing a separate STC—Rainsbrook, in Northamptonshire—following an inspection revealing that there had been a doubling in the number of assaults since the last inspection; that 15 young people had required medical attention following assaults, with one requiring hospital treatment; and that the number of assaults on staff was higher than at the previous inspection, averaging nine per month. Let us not forget that G4S is still the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

Such incidents raise serious questions as to whether G4S is a fit and proper organisation to run youth facilities. However, the debate is about not only what happened at Medway, but youth custody generally. Unfortunately, the problems underlying recent incidents are echoed across the prison estate. Ministry of Justice figures show that deaths, incidents of self-harm and assaults in prison are at their highest level in a decade, with assaults up 13% in a year, serious assaults on prison staff up 42% in a year, self-harm up 21% from last year and seven prison murders in the last 12 months—the highest number recorded since 1978.

In 2012, the Prison Reform Trust and INQUEST jointly published a report entitled “Fatally flawed: Has the state learned lessons from the deaths of children and young people in prison?” The report considered the deaths of 143 children and young adults between 2003 and 2010. It concluded that many young people whose deaths were self-inflicted shared common traits and that successive Governments had not learned the lessons from those deaths.

A further INQUEST report in March 2015 studied the deaths of 65 young people and children between 2011 and 2014. It concluded that institutions had not learned the lessons from previous deaths, stating:

“The vulnerabilities of young prisoners have been well documented, yet they continue to be sent to unsafe environments, with scarce resources and staff untrained to deal with, and respond humanely to, their particular and complex needs.”

The report concluded that

“too many deaths occur because the same mistakes are made time and again.”

Last July, the Harris review published its report “Changing Prisons, Saving Lives: Report of the Independent Review into Self-inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18-24 year olds”. Soon after the report was published, another report, from the Children's Commissioner for England, revealed that a third of young offenders experience isolation and segregation for up to 22 hours a day, particularly in larger institutions. The report found that the children who are isolated are nearly 50% more at risk of suicide. It called for an end to solitary confinement and urged that large secure units for children be replaced by smaller units.

Overcrowding and a widespread lack of staff resources across the Prison Service is leading, not surprisingly, to widespread problems. Temporary staff are used to fill quotas, but they often do not have the requisite experience to carry out such a challenging yet important role. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, prison officers simply lack the time to do anything more than carry out the most straightforward security functions, with no time to talk to inmates or to assist in their rehabilitation. There is no time to spot mental ill health, or drug issues. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) has already mentioned how concerned he is that prison staff do not have time to follow through in flagging up issues that may affect a young individual. There is insufficient time to escort inmates to and from the classes and programmes on offer.

Instead, long periods of lock-up and inactivity lead to increasing frustration, making violence more likely. The Government proclaim that they recognise the importance of rehabilitation. If what I have been saying sounds familiar, it is because Labour has long said that prisons should be measured by their success on rehabilitation, and our manifesto at the general election stressed the importance of increasing the amount of time prisoners spend learning and working. Nowhere is that more important than in youth justice, where young lives can be turned around, with the right intervention.

Does the hon. Lady agree that some of the young people who arrive at these institutions are there only for short periods, depending on the challenges that they have had before arriving at the centre, and that we should perhaps consider what happened to them before they arrived at the centre or the unit? In some cases, the young people are there for just a short period, and finding the opportunity to complete a really good rehabilitation is sometimes a challenge.

I agree. I think a partnership approach is needed. The hon. Lady spoke about the local authority in her constituency and its important role in youth rehabilitation and the care of children. The whole approach must be one of across-the-board partnership. I agree that sometimes a short time in prison does not allow for any beneficial turnaround.

On that point, taking preventive measures was one of the recommendations in the Harris report about how to stop young people going into custody in the first place. Perhaps my hon. Friend will ask the Minister how many of the Harris recommendations have been implemented.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.

The Government must understand that a fundamentally different approach to youth justice and custody is needed. Young people and children need to be supported and helped. The idea that young offenders should be punished, locked away and forgotten about or, worse, mistreated, is morally reprehensible and entirely counter-productive. However, just months ago, the Chancellor announced cuts of £9 million to the Youth Justice Board, despite warnings from the Local Government Association, the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services that that would lead to an increase in the number of young people in custody. Coincidentally, the £9 million that is being taken away almost exactly matches the amount that the Government have wasted on a failed procurement process to outsource fine collection—a clear case of misplaced priorities and ideology taking precedence over sound, evidence-based policy making.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 states that the principle aim of the youth justice system is the prevention of reoffending. However, currently two thirds of offenders under the age of 18 reoffend within a year of release. Behind every one of those figures is a victim, or victims, of crime. How can young people be rehabilitated when there are so many failings within the youth justice system —when it is not even a safe environment for them?

The media reports of what happened at Medway clearly demonstrate a deeper crisis in our youth custody system. Government cuts and a refusal to address the issues properly are creating a perfect storm of overcrowding, understaffing and poor resources. First and foremost, we urge immediate action to put all G4S-run prisons, secure training centres and detention centres into special measures so that the safety and competence of each facility can be urgently assessed.

The Government have the power, under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to intervene in contracted-out STCs. Therefore, as we outlined in our recent letter to the Secretary of State, we urge the Minister to put in management teams alongside existing staff at those facilities—teams with experience of working with vulnerable children. The reforms to youth justice made by a Labour Government, requiring agencies to collaborate in preventing youth offending, reduced both youth crime and the numbers of young people in prison. We would further extend that model by piloting a new approach for 18 to 20-year-old offenders. That would incentivise local authorities, the police and the probation services to work together, to identify those at risk of engaging in criminal activity and to divert them on to a more constructive path.

I want to pose the following questions to the Minister: how many children are currently in Medway STC; and have any been sent there since 30 December? What action did the Ministry of Justice take between 30 December and 8 January? Since 2010, how many times have contract breaches occurred at secure training centres run by G4S under contract with his Department? What was the budget of the Youth Justice Board in 2009-10 and 2014-15; and what is the estimated budget for that body in 2015-16? Has the Minister considered writing to the local safeguarding children board to see whether it will order a serious case review of the allegations regarding abuse at Medway secure training centre? I also remind him of the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) in her intervention.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on bringing this important debate before the House. She said that complacency is never an option in such matters, and she is absolutely right. I assure her that that is exactly the attitude we have in the Ministry of Justice. We also made the broader point that, if we want people to behave well in custody, we should treat them well. She is absolutely right as far as that is concerned.

The hon. Lady spent quite a lot of her speech talking about “Managing and Minimising Physical Restraint”—understandably, following the shocking revelations we saw in the “Panorama” programme. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons described “Managing and Minimising Physical Restraint” as a significant step forward; but of course we acknowledge that more needs to be done. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that detailed action plans are being agreed with individual sites on its implementation, and additional training and support are being provided. We want to get things to a really high standard, and of course it is not good enough just to have good training; we must ensure that the officers on the ground actually implement what they have been trained to do.

The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), who spoke for the official Opposition, mentioned the Youth Justice Board budget. The YJB has, as part of general Government savings—as, unfortunately, the country continues to live beyond its means—reduced its administrative expenditure by restructuring to become more efficient; but in doing that, it has been able to focus more resources on monitoring in the youth estate, despite falling numbers of people in youth custody. It is important that that should be on the record.

The Minister said there was more monitoring of secure children’s centres in youth custody services. If that is the case, why and how did what we saw at Medway on the “Panorama” programme happen?

The hon. Lady asks the central question of the whole debate. I can tell her that I have thought long and hard about it since the “Panorama” revelations. I do not know whether she was in the House for the urgent question when my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice set out in some detail the considerable monitoring arrangements we have. Yet the fact is that they did not detect mistreatment and prevent it from happening. As the Minister responsible for youth justice, I have absolutely fully taken that on board and can assure her we will continue to review seriously how we monitor to ensure we do not find out that terrible things are happening from an investigatory television programme. I will elaborate further during the course of my speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who is a valued member of the Justice Committee, rightly drew attention to the issue of mental health. I can tell him and other Members who properly drew attention to that issue that a comprehensive health assessment is completed for every young person on arrival in custody. This includes an immediate assessment of needs during the first day or night, followed by a more comprehensive assessment as part of their induction programme. If an alternative placement is deemed appropriate, this will be referred back to the youth justice board placement team for consideration in consultation with healthcare professionals.

I can also tell the House that each site has healthcare teams and in-reach teams that provide appropriate treatment for young people with mental health issues. I get the seriousness and importance of this issue and will continue to work with colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure we keep a relentless focus on mental health.

When he gets back to the office, will the Minister look at the transfer of people and how often the transfer of the information about their mental health does not actually follow them on time?

My hon. Friend raises an important and serious point. Yes, of course I will look into that matter. We have to have a joined-up system as far as health needs are concerned. He makes a valuable point.

My hon. Friend also made points about young adult provision. I know the Select Committee is looking at that at the moment, but I can tell him that a Government consultation on the management of young adults was paused while the Harris review was completed. This is now being reconsidered as part of our wider prison reform strategy work and alongside the youth justice review, about which I will say more in a few moments.

The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer), who is also an extremely diligent and engaged member of the Justice Committee, asked a general point about the threshold for custody for children. The threshold is high and the courts must state in open court why a youth community sentence with high-intensity supervision and surveillance is not appropriate. I will point out, as have others during this debate, that the under-18 youth custody population has halved in the past five years.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) for her contribution to the debate. She is not only the local Member of Parliament who represents Medway, but a ward councillor in that area, so she has detailed local knowledge that we all respect. I have had frequent dealings with her since the revelations came to light. I also thank her for praising the vast majority of decent staff who work very hard in a challenging environment. She was right to put that on the record, and I do so as the Minister as well. We will be relentless in dealing with staff who fall below the very high standards that we rightly expect of them and will continue to demand.

I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for her contribution. She pointed out that my domain as the Minister extends to England and Wales, and not to Scotland, but generally we take a serious interest in what happens in criminal justice matters and in the youth estate north of our border with Scotland. I have spent time with Scottish academics and others trying to learn what we can from the Scottish prison system, so I thank her for her contribution this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Neath, who speaks for the official Opposition, asked me a large number of questions, which I will do my best to answer this afternoon. I will write to her if I do not answer them all—she posed her questions just before my own contribution, so I will not manage to answer all of them. In general, I repeat what the Secretary of State for Justice said during the urgent question:

“the care and supervision of young offenders in custody is not good enough.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 573.]

We recognise that. That is why the Secretary of State has commissioned the youth justice review. There will be an interim report in due course and a final report in the summer. It is the right thing to do.

The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) asked her hon. Friend the Member for Neath to ask me how many of Lord Harris’s recommendations had been implemented. The answer is more than half, but I would ask the hon. Member for Cardiff Central to look at our wider prison reform strategy, more of which will be unveiled over the coming months. She and others will see much in that that speaks to the important points that she and others have raised this afternoon.

The allegations made by the BBC in the “Panorama” programme on 11 January were profoundly disturbing and have quite rightly generated concern about the safety of young people detained at Medway. Let me put on the record, as the Justice Secretary did, my thanks to the BBC for the work it has undertaken to bring the serious allegations to light, although it should not have taken an investigatory television programme to do so.

We take all allegations about mistreatment of children in custody extremely seriously and make sure that they are swiftly referred to the local area designated child protection officer for immediate action. Although it would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific allegations while the investigation by Kent police and Medway Council is under way, I can assure Members that we place the highest priority on the safety of the children and young people committed to our care in custody.

It may be helpful for me to outline in further detail the action taken since the contents of the “Panorama” investigation were first reported. First, G4S suspended all seven staff members named by the BBC on 30 December 2015 and referred the allegations to Medway Council’s local authority designated officer, who is responsible for overseeing safeguarding concerns about children across the local authority, and to Kent police. G4S has subsequently dismissed five staff members, and three more are suspended.

Kent police and Medway Council’s child protection team have launched an investigation that will determine whether there is any evidence to justify criminal proceedings against anyone involved. Five members of staff have been arrested and bailed while police inquiries continue. It is important that the police are now able to complete a full and thorough investigation into each incident and to pursue all necessary lines of inquiry. I can assure Members that the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board will support and co-operate with their inquiries to the fullest possible extent.

Our immediate priority has been the safety of the young people in custody at Medway. As the Secretary of State indicated in his statement to the House on 11 January, we are meeting Lin Hinnigan, the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, regularly to make sure that all necessary action to ensure the wellbeing of young people at Medway is being taken. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and Ofsted also visited Medway on 11 January to meet representatives of G4S, Medway Council and the Youth Justice Board, as well as the children detained there. The findings of HMIP’s report are being considered carefully by the Secretary of State and me.

The YJB, which is responsible for commissioning the youth secure estate, has also taken immediate steps to safeguard the children and young people placed in Medway. It might be helpful for me to outline those steps to the House. The YJB has, with immediate effect, ceased new placements of young people to Medway until further notice—that addresses one of the shadow Minister’s questions. The YJB sought urgent assurance from the G4S director of Medway that the centre had safe staffing levels following the suspension and dismissal of staff. That assurance was received on 31 December and is being kept under review. The YJB has increased both its monitoring activity at the centre and the presence of other of its staff members, including senior managers.

I am concerned that the allegations were not readily identified by the checks and systems that we already have in place. It is clear that my Department and the YJB need to work together to make sure that monitoring in the youth secure estate is more effective and robust. We expect the highest standards from all the providers who operate the youth secure estate. We expect staff to want to work with children, to have the skills and training to engage with children positively, and to act with professionalism and integrity throughout. We expect our providers’ management teams to rigorously supervise their staff and drive a positive culture throughout their organisations.

There will be children in Medway and other secure training centres who are repeat offenders, but it seems to me that the real culprit here is G4S, which is a persistent offender in failing to deliver Government contracts to the required standards. I am concerned about whether G4S should be awarded any further contracts, or should even be bidding, until all the outstanding issues with the company—the Serious Fraud Office inquiry and the investigation into Medway—are resolved. Will the Minister please address that specific point?

I hear what the hon. Lady says and, given what has happened, I understand the strength of feeling on this issue. Nevertheless, I repeat what I said earlier: it is important that we allow Medway Council and Kent police to investigate fully what are, at the moment, allegations, albeit extremely serious ones. We should wait for the results before we do anything else.

The YJB has increased the availability of the independent advocacy service provided by Barnardo’s. It will now be available on site six days a week, compared with three days a week previously. All youth offending teams that are responsible for those currently held at Medway secure training centre have been contacted and asked whether they have any concerns about individual children or young people. The YJB will consider, on a case-by-case basis, any specific action that needs to be taken to meet the particular needs of each individual child or young person, including, where appropriate, reviewing their placement at the centre. The YJB has also contacted the families of each child and young person at all three secure training centres to explain the actions we have taken and to give them a contact point at the YJB.

I shall outline the key safeguarding and monitoring arrangements that already exist in secure training centres, which we have now reinforced at Medway in the light of the recent allegations. First, YJB monitors are appointed at all STCs to monitor and report on the performance of the establishment. Monitors will investigate and report on allegations made against custody officers and, where necessary, suspend and revoke custody officers’ certificates to work. Barnardo’s staff are also in place at all STCs to provide independent support and advice to young people through its independent advocacy service. Young people can raise any issues or concerns through either the YJB monitors or the advocacy service provided independently by Barnardo’s. There are clear processes in place that enable staff to raise concerns.

The YJB’s service specifications and commissioning arrangements for the secure estate make it clear to providers that there is an expectation that children’s welfare and safety is paramount when they are in custody. That expectation has been strengthened and reinforced in the specifications for new STC contracts and as part of the provision in young offender institutions. All persons in charge of secure establishments have a statutory duty to ensure that their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. They must also participate as a member of their relevant local safeguarding children’s board. In line with statutory safeguarding guidance, each secure establishment must have an annually reviewed safeguarding policy and a member of the senior management team with responsibility for implementation of the policy. The policy should promote safeguarding and wellbeing by covering issues such as child protection, risk of harm, restraint, separation, staff recruitment and information sharing.

Each local authority has a designated officer to whom concerns about children’s safety that arise from the behaviour of adults must be referred. That is in addition to the requirement for those working with children to report to the local authority any concerns about a child they believe to have been harmed or at risk of harm. All safeguarding managers in young offender institutions are expected to attend the Working With Young People in Custody training programme, which includes modules on child protection and safeguarding. The head of safeguarding will be supported by an establishment-based qualified social worker from the local authority.

As many Members know, there is now a higher concentration of violent and high-risk offenders in the youth secure estate who present complex risks and needs. The level of violent incidents remains a concern, and one to which there is no single, simple solution. For that reason, we have in place a wide range of measures to manage safety and stability. That begins with the placement of young people. The YJB actively manages where young people are placed to support custodial providers, who in turn manage their regimes locally to keep children safe. In young offender institutions in particular, we are working to use more mental health support and psychological services to better manage and support those detained. We are also implementing a range of tools for staff to manage conflict more positively and deal with challenging and complex children. All the while, we have a zero-tolerance approach to violence and are seeking to increase children’s engagement in education to give them a greater opportunity of making progress during custody and on release. For example, in young offender institutes we now require 30 hours of education a week, which is a significant increase.

I welcome many of the positive proposals that the Minister is making, but will he give us a commitment that, if it is clearly demonstrated that certain organisations that run STCs are in breach of their duty of care to young children, they will be formally excluded from future bidding processes?

As I said earlier, for now, we should wait for the result of the investigation by the local authority and the police. I have already said that we have the power to strike off someone from being a custody officer. We have statutory powers and we are not afraid to use them in pursuit of our serious duties regarding the care of these young people.

The managing and minimising physical restraint policy that I mentioned earlier sets out that robust local governance arrangements should be in place to enable those running secure establishments to identify any poor practice. A weekly use-of-force meeting takes place in all establishments using the MMPR policy, and it is regularly attended by a YJB performance manager. During the meeting, which is attended by senior managers in the establishment, along with the YJB, CCTV footage of all incidents is reviewed, anything that happened in the lead-up to an incident is discussed, and any training that might be required to handle incidents better in future can be identified. Those arrangements were already in place at Medway. If there is an incident that warrants referral, we would expect an establishment to refer it to the local area designated officer at the local authority. If that is not done by an establishment, the YJB’s performance managers can make referrals themselves.

As the Secretary of State made clear in his statement on 11 January, it is a matter of record that there have been earlier examples of where G4S has let down the Ministry of Justice and those in our care. But there are also examples of innovative and high-quality institutions run by G4S. I recognise in particular that unacceptable incidents and practices were identified in Ofsted’s inspection of Rainsbrook last year. In that case, the monitoring arrangements in place were effective. The YJB monitor was aware of each of the incidents as they occurred, took the appropriate action and highlighted them to the inspection team. The YJB immediately required G4S to address the issues swiftly and effectively. G4S put in place new leadership, and the YJB agreed an action plan to improve recruitment and training.

I am pleased to tell colleagues that Ofsted’s latest inspection of Rainsbrook shows significant improvement, with improved findings for both safety and care of young people. Although the report identified two serious incidents of staff misconduct since the previous inspection, in both cases, G4S took action and dismissed the members of staff involved before the latest inspection took place.

Although the problems at Rainsbrook have been identified and welcome steps have been taken, the Government allowed G4S to renew its contract at Medway. Will the Minister explain why it was allowed to renew that contract when it has a history of problems running a secure training unit at Rainsbrook?

There was a competitive bid to run the contract. Ministry of Justice officials, who are wholly independent from Ministers, scrutinised all the bids using set criteria. They demanded higher standards than we currently have in the STCs. We are satisfied that there was a robust, proper, independent and legal process.

Following the re-tendering of the Rainsbrook STC last year, we selected a new provider, MTCnovo, to take over the running of the centre from May 2016. The YJB put in place an enhanced monitoring plan that aims to support G4S to continue to make the required improvements, as well as supporting MTCnovo as it takes over delivery. We are clear that standards must continue to rise before MTCnovo takes over the contract.

Although youth offending has fallen, reoffending rates have remained high, particularly for those leaving youth custody. We acknowledge that violence in custody has risen and that we are dealing with an increasingly challenging cohort of young people in our custody. As I said earlier, there are no simple solutions to that, which is why the Secretary of State and I agree that the youth justice system requires reform.

As Members will be aware, we asked Charlie Taylor, the former chief executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, to conduct a review of youth justice. He is looking at the evidence and current practice in preventing youth crime and rehabilitating young offenders; how the youth justice system can most effectively interact with wider services for children and young people; and whether the current arrangements are fit for purpose. The review will publish an interim report shortly and conclude this summer.

I recognise and share Members’ concern about the allegations featured in the “Panorama” programme, but hope I have reassured colleagues that young people’s safety and wellbeing will remain central to how we look after young people in custody. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood said, the vast majority of those working in the youth justice system display high levels of professionalism and dedication in working with young people from particularly complex and challenging backgrounds. They are committed to the rehabilitation and support of the young people in their care.

Will the Minister please consider introducing a duty of candour for custodial institutions, as has been introduced in the health service?

I am aware that a duty of candour has been introduced in the NHS to good effect, I believe. I commit to look carefully at the lessons learned from its introduction in the NHS to see whether one could be applicable to the youth justice system.

I am clear that the provision of safe, decent and secure environments is an essential foundation for achieving our objectives to protect the public and reduce reoffending. We will continue to challenge the youth justice system to provide the best possible support and the highest levels of care for young people in youth custody.

I thank all Members who spoke in this debate. Their contributions reflect the seriousness and importance of the issue of ensuring the safety of children in custodial institutions. We all acknowledge the need for high professional standards when looking after our children and young people in custodial institutions. I ask the Minister to take very seriously the concerns that were raised about the continuation of G4S’s contract.

When looking at the issue of child safety in our custodial institutions, the concerns about children with complex needs or mental health problems must be looked at in detail and treated appropriately, particularly those pertaining to the issue of restraint in our custodial institutions. It is important that the Minister addresses our concerns about the cuts to the budgets of the Youth Justice Board and local authorities. Thank you, Mr Wilson, for treating me kindly today. I thank all Members present.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered safety in youth custody.