Since the creation of our youth justice reform programme in 2017, reports by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons have highlighted improvements in the youth secure estate. It is encouraging to see that our reforms are starting to have an impact on the ground, but there is more to do, which is why we are continuing to invest in system-wide reform further to improve safety and outcomes, and why we are expanding frontline public sector staff capacity at young offender institutions. That is why this is a priority for me and for the Secretary of State.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion to a ministerial role. Many children and young people in custody have poor educational attainment. What is he doing to ensure that children in custody have access to good education?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Her work with young people, on both their health and welfare, is well known.
Education should be at the heart of youth custody and must meet the needs of young people. It is there to prepare them for employment, an apprenticeship or continued education when they are resettled back into their communities. We are building more flexibility into the core day, which is designed to ensure that all children receive an individualised education programme tailored to their needs. We are working with each YOI on plans for improving delivery of education to those young people who are unwilling or unable to participate in the mainstream regime.
I also welcome my hon. Friend to his new role. Does he agree that, although these reforms are welcome, they form only part of the solution? Can he outline what work his Department is doing to support community-based projects, which can play a crucial part in preventing more young people from entering the youth justice system in the first place?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I agree that support in the community plays a vital role in our efforts to reduce the number of those entering youth custody. I am clear that custodial sentences should be handed down only when absolutely necessary, which is why we have provided £72 million to the Youth Justice Board for the youth offending teams that deliver youth justice services and for community-based interventions.
The hon. Gentleman highlights an extremely important point, because we know the evidence shows that first-time offenders, particularly youth offenders, often display a multitude of challenges in their background, including in their mental health. I have already had informal discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). She and I have regular bilaterals scheduled to discuss exactly this sort of issue.
Howard League research shows that children aged 16 and 17 who are living in children’s homes are at least 15 times more likely than other children of the same age to be criminalised. What discussions have Ministers had with other Departments about reducing the number of care leavers in our justice system?
I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to point to my future intentions. Having been in post for just shy of three weeks, I have not yet had any formal discussions; I have had the informal discussions I mentioned. I intend that bilateral meetings with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will be part of my regular meetings programme.
I, too, warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. With nearly 80% of young offenders who are sentenced to a short term of imprisonment going on to reoffend, prison is not working. It is not working for them, or for the victims of crime, which means there are more victims of crime. Will he consider a presumption against short-term sentences and instead consider a rigorous community system with a focus on rehabilitation?
Although it is right that sentencing decisions should always rest with the judiciary and a custodial sentence should always be an option where the nature of the offence absolutely merits it, given the persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences are not the most effective way to secure rehabilitation and reduce reoffending, we will be looking at what more we can do to provide alternatives and to highlight that short custodial sentences should be used only as a last resort.
I, too, welcome the new Minister to his position. May I recommend to him the Lammy review? In it he will see that there is tremendous concern that the youth prison population now is 43% from a black or ethnic minority background. Will he look closely at its recommendations and can I meet him soon?
First, I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his work on that review, which is well known to this House and beyond. It is an excellent review, with an excellent report, which was one of the first documents I read upon my appointment. I considered all its 35 recommendations carefully and I am absolutely delighted to agree to meet him.
The last inspection report on Oakhill said that there is no evidence that the 80 children held there are adequately cared for. Oakhill is managed by G4S. I have been asking parliamentary questions about whether G4S is meeting its contractual obligations there and the answers are revealing:
“The Contract for Oakhill STC is between the Secretary of State for Justice and STC Milton Keynes Ltd (the Contractor), of which G4S is their Operating Sub-Contractor. We therefore do not have information on the proportion of contractual obligations that G4S has met.”
Does the Minister agree that that is yet more proof that outsourcing and privatisation should be ended in our prison system?
It is a pleasure to answer the shadow Secretary of State from the Dispatch Box. He highlights an extremely important issue. I believe there is a role for the public, private, and voluntary and philanthropic sectors in our justice system. He highlights the issues at Oakhill. Ofsted’s findings in the inspection report on Oakhill at the end of last year are unacceptable, and we took urgent action to address the concerns raised. We are robustly monitoring performance against the contract, and I am clear that all options remain on the table.