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Feltham A Young Offenders Institution

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prison’s recent invoking of the urgent notification process for Feltham A young offenders institution.

At the outset, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), who I gather has recently tendered his resignation as Secretary of State for Justice. I hope that you will allow me to answer in his place, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for tabling this urgent question and for the opportunity to respond on an important subject. I am also grateful to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons for its work and the scrutiny its inspections provide. I take the safety of all the young people in our custody very seriously, and clearly the urgent notification letter for Feltham A does not make comfortable reading. It is clearly a deeply disappointing and concerning report. Despite the significant efforts of staff at Feltham A, to whom I pay tribute, and the significant support and resources put in by the youth custody service and the Ministry of Justice, it is clear that serious underlying challenges remain. I have been clear that progress to address these issues needs to be swifter to deliver the safe environment that we all wish to see and that, as recent reports acknowledge, we do see in other parts of the youth custodial estate.

In addition to work already under way, we have taken a series of immediate steps, including placing an immediate temporary stop on new placements of young people into Feltham A, alongside additional resources and support for staff. The governor is still relatively new in post and is working hard to drive improvements in an establishment that has one of the highest and most concentrated proportions of violent offenders in the country. She and her team are dedicated to turning Feltham A around, and we will continue to support them in doing that. As required by the urgent notification process, we will formally respond with an action plan within the required 28 days.

I thank the Minister for his response and for notifying me of the letter yesterday.

Feltham young offenders institution was a prison left without a governor for five months last year, and the findings of the recently announced inspection have been distressing for the staff and all those involved with Feltham. There was talk of a dramatic decline in safety, which is a matter of great concern for us all. I extend my thanks to the POA trade union and the staff and management, who have been working at that prison in very difficult circumstances.

The problems at Feltham are long standing and the current situation should have been avoidable. The Government have much to answer for regarding why the decline has been so fast, with a steep rise in violence against staff, allegations of assault and levels of self-harm. The Government desperately need to get to grip with the causes of the rapid decline and to support the staff and inmates in turning the situation around. Given that we are talking about children—140 boys aged 15 to 17 are being held at Feltham A in the care of the state—will the Minister update us on why Feltham was left without a governor for five months last year, what the impact has been, and what assessment he has made of the root causes of the steep decline in performance?

The Minister says he has supplied resources, but why does he believe they have not been sufficient? What additional skilled resources does he intend to provide to support the staff and management to address the culture and behaviour management issues that are so significant? What support is there for those young people living in great distress at Feltham young offenders institution? How fit for purpose does he consider Feltham to be, how quickly does he plan to produce his action plan, and how will he keep Parliament and me informed, particularly over the recess?

I am as ever grateful to the hon. Lady. As she mentioned, I spoke to her yesterday, and we met again this morning. I am grateful for her typically measured tone, not seeking to score points but focusing on what needs to be done to improve the outcomes for young people at Feltham. I know her constituents will be grateful to her as well.

The hon. Lady raised a number of issues that I will address in turn. Her first point was about the gap—the interregnum—between governors. She is right that there was a gap. The previous governor was promoted to a prison group director role and the recruitment process took longer than anyone would have wished. One of the key reasons was that the governor, who has now been appointed, had to serve a notice period in her previous role. The view taken was that she was the right governor to do this job and that therefore it was appropriate to wait. She served her notice and is now in post. I emphasise that I have confidence in her. I believe that she and her team are doing a difficult job very well, as the hon. Lady alluded to. I recognise the constructive and positive relationship between the local branch of the POA and the governor and her team, and I thank them in the same way.

On the root causes, there are a number of challenges at Feltham. As I said, it has a very high concentration of very violent and challenging young people. At present, I believe, there are 110 young offenders in Feltham A, which has an operational capacity of 180. There is, therefore, significant headroom to give the staff greater opportunity to tackle the violence and the underlying challenges faced by those young people. The hon. Lady will be aware, because we met to discuss it earlier in the year, of the violence in April and of the incidents of assaults on other prisoners and on staff. There were a large number of incidents of self-harm and violence but a small number of perpetrators. We have some very challenging individuals.

The hon. Lady was right to mention resources and the need for skilled resource. There has been a 31% uplift in the budget for Feltham A, with £3.5 million going in, and it has an opportunity to draw down further moneys from a second £5 million pot across the youth custodial estate. There are also 90 more staff across Feltham. The experience mix and band mix are broadly the same as they have been over time, but the hon. Lady was right to allude to the importance of experienced staff. We are bringing in extra senior and mid-level experienced resource to help drive change, both at the top level and to support those staff. I believe that seven senior staff have already been seconded, and there will be further changes in the coming days. Andrew Dickinson, the governor of Wetherby, is also taking on a role in supporting Emily, the prison governor. It will be a mentoring role, but he will also play a key role in monitoring the action plan. His institution got a good inspection report and we want to learn the lessons from that.

The hon. Lady raised two other points, which I will address swiftly. On fitness for purpose, current Government policy is to move away from the existing youth offender institution model and towards a secure schools model. Like the Minister who spoke before me at this Dispatch Box, I will not bind a future Government, but that is the current policy. In terms of keeping this House updated, I anticipate that the action plan will be ready within 28 days. I or my successor will write to the hon. Lady and the shadow Secretary of State when it is ready, so that they are kept informed, and we will continue to keep the hon. Lady, as the local Member of Parliament, informed throughout the action plan process.

I was glad to hear the Minister refer to the good report for Wetherby, but may I press him further on what is being done with an equally difficult cohort of individuals at Wetherby? What is Wetherby doing right that Feltham has been doing wrong?

I will focus on what Wetherby has been doing right, as highlighted in the recent report. The governor of Wetherby is doing a lot of work to ensure that his staff and new recruits get not only up-front training but continuous training over a 12-month period, which makes a real difference to them. It has a strong and effective regime and the governor is focused on continued access to that regime; that is hugely important. The Keppel unit also does very important work in helping some of the most challenging people in the prison to tackle the underlying causes of their trauma, offending and behaviour. I believe we have a lot to learn from Wetherby and that Andrew Dickinson will help the governor of Feltham in playing a key role in making progress.

Two years ago we stood here for an urgent question on the crisis in our prisons after the chief inspector warned that not a single establishment inspected was safe to hold children and young people. Does the Minister accept that the chief inspector issuing an urgent notification for the first time in the youth estate highlights how the Government are overseeing a dangerous collapse in safety for children in custody, and that that shows, unfortunately, how little the Government have done in those two years?

The general prison crisis is bad enough, but we are talking about children—children in dangerously unsafe conditions. The chief inspector warns that in Feltham the

“speed of this decline has been extraordinary”,

violent incidents are up by 45% since January 2019, and self-harm has increased fourteenfold in two years. When was the Minister first aware that the situation was spiralling out of control? What has been done since then? Will he agree to report to this House before seeking to end the temporary ban on children being sent to Feltham?

Later today we will get yet another Justice Secretary—the fifth I will have faced in just three years. I am sorry to say that I am sick of the warm words, sick of the speeches giving the impression that something is being done, and sick of the media stunts that serve as a springboard for leadership bids. Does the Minister agree that the chaotic approach to leadership in the Ministry of Justice deepens the crisis caused by unacceptable prison cuts? Finally, does he agree that whoever takes over as Justice Secretary must go beyond empty rhetoric and finally make the safety of young people in custody an urgent priority?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, if not for his tone. This may be the first time I have faced him directly across the Dispatch Box for an urgent question, and it might also be the last time—who knows? He asked a number of specific questions. He will be aware that, following his comments in 2017, the chief inspector said subsequently that it is no longer the case that there is no safe institution. It is important to draw that to the attention of the House and to mention again the Wetherby report. It is clear that this is not a systemic problem in the youth custodial system. That said, none of that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, detracts from the fact that what has been reported from Feltham is a cause of deep concern and must be addressed as a matter of priority.

Since my appointment last summer, I have been following the performance of Feltham and, indeed, all the other youth custodial institutions in my portfolio. I have held a number of meetings both with the governor and with the director of youth custody service, to discuss progress in Feltham and what more needs to be done. As I have made clear, considerable additional resource has been put in, so this is not a matter of spending or resource, and a considerable number of additional staff have been put in, so it is not down to that, either. It is important that we put that on the record rather than indulge in rhetoric about cuts, which do not apply in this case. The smile on the hon. Gentleman’s face suggests that I have a point. I continue to take a very close interest in the issue, particularly in recent months, and I have engaged with the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and kept her up to date.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the temporary ban on placements will be brought to an end and how the House will be involved. That is an operational decision to be made by the director of the youth custody service. I am not able to bind my potential successor to how that is handled, but I am sure that whoever stands at this Dispatch Box with that responsibility will wish to keep the hon. Lady and, indeed, the House informed on that important issue.

The hon. Gentleman concluded with comments about leadership at the Ministry of Justice and the number of Secretaries of State and Ministers. I have to say that his characterisation of how the Ministry of Justice works certainly does not accord with my experience of working there every day. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), who has recently departed the role of Secretary of State for Justice. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the number of Ministers, but I suspect that their departure and the churn rate has little to do with his performance as their shadow and rather more with other factors. This Government and whoever leads the Ministry of Justice are entirely clear in their view that we must do everything we can to ensure that any children detained in custody are accorded care and support of the highest quality and are safe.

Why are young men locked up in their cells for the greater part of the day, with all the pent-up frustration that that gives rise to, when they should enter their cells with relief at the end of the day because they are so knackered, having been involved in vigorous activity?

My right hon. Friend makes his point in his own unique way. Access to a full regime is important. Young people in custody need access to sporting, educational and other facilities. There is more we can do to address that need in Feltham, although I am encouraged by a lot of the work being done there, on sport in particular. I visited four weeks ago and saw “boats not bars”, which is about using rowing machines in the gym, and the work that Saracens rugby club is doing. A whole range of sporting and other activities are undertaken at the prison, but my right hon. Friend is right to highlight that there is always more that can be done.

I visited Feltham with the Justice Committee earlier this year, and I am saddened, although not wholly surprised, by the inspection report. According to the report, self-harm has risen by 218% in the past two years, assaults on staff are up 150% and 40% of children said they felt unsafe during their time in Feltham. There is clearly a rising epidemic of violence at Feltham, and no child should be left in these conditions. I have heard what the Minister said, but what specific and urgent steps will he now take to rectify this situation?

The hon. Lady is right, and I spoke to the Chairman of the Justice Committee this morning to discuss his visits, the Committee’s work and the urgent notification. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the violence and self-harm. I would sound a slight note of caution—it is only a slight one—on the incidences of self-harm; it is also important that we look at the number of individuals involved, because some individuals might be prolific self-harmers who account for a very large number of incidents, so there will be a small number of individuals. That is in no way to detract from its significance, but it is important that we are clear about that.

The hon. Lady asks about specific steps that are being taken. First, as I have made clear, we have placed a temporary block on the further placement of young people in Feltham; its capacity is 180, but about 110 young people are there at present, so there is room within Feltham for the staff to stabilise the situation and work on improving matters. The second step has been an urgent review of cell buttons—call buttons. That was highlighted in the report; it may appear to be a small issue, but it is extremely important that when someone buzzes for help or they need help that call is answered, so we have undertaken a review to check that the buttons are working effectively.

As I have also said, additional senior level resource is already going in, to bring additional experienced resource in, but also to support the governor in delivering on the action plan and driving forward rapid improvements. Andrew Dickinson, the governor of Wetherby, will be playing a key role in that; we have seen the positive inspection report he got at Wetherby and it is important that we draw on those lessons to work with the very able governor we have in Feltham.

In terms of the buildings, a programme is already under way for works to improve showers and other facilities, and I have asked the director of the youth custody service to undertake a review of the overall state of the estate there, to identify if any capital or other works are urgently needed.

Finally, we need to ensure that, as swiftly as we can, we address the challenges the chief inspector highlighted on how particular policies were applied, especially the keep-apart policy; while that has an important role to play in tackling gang-related or other violence, it must not lead to a curtailment of the regime and the active regime, which can play a key part in keeping young people active and keeping a lid on tensions and violence.

Notwithstanding the context my hon. Friend has set out, the high levels of self-harm at Feltham are particularly concerning. What is he doing to improve the mental health of young offenders?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of mental health, and healthcare more broadly, for offenders and particularly young people. The levels of self-harm are deeply concerning, and we need to do more to drive them down. More broadly, we are seeking to have better liaison and diversion services, which divert those who genuinely have a mental health need and, where that can be better treated in the community, to have that option. We are also working on our health and justice plan, which is about improving the mental health and physical healthcare pathways for all those who enter custody.

I thank my fellow Hounslow MP my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for asking this question today. I visited Feltham as the Hounslow lead member for children’s services in around 2003, not long after another murder there. The Howard League has today re-released its July 2018 report on Feltham. For 30 years, there have been critical inspections of the regime at Feltham and nothing has got any better over those 30 years. Does the Minister not agree that to lock up in a prison environment 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, who are children, is fundamentally wrong? We are the only equivalent country that does this. Yes, some of them have committed terrible crimes, but they are children with mental health problems or addiction problems, or they may be neurodiverse or have learning disabilities. Should we not learn from other countries and provide a better therapeutic regime to support these children to turn their lives around?

The hon. Lady takes a keen interest in this issue, not just as a local MP but from formerly serving on the Justice Committee, and she highlights the important point that a large number of the young people—female offenders and others—who end up in custody are victims as well as perpetrators of crime and that, as well as justice taking its course, we must make sure that the help they need is available to them, whether mental health help or a range of other interventions, to tackle the underlying trauma. We have seen in the past 10 years roughly a 70% reduction in the number of under-18s being sentenced to custody—the figure is down to about 700 at the moment—so liaison and diversion work. However, it is right that the courts still have the option of sentencing to custody, especially for very serious assaults, violent offences and sexual offences, but the current Government’s approach to this policy is to move towards secure schools: moving away from essentially a prison with some education to an environment that is a school with a degree of security, which is necessary given the nature of some of the sentences and some of the crimes committed. So we are seeking to address this with a cultural change in how we approach dealing with young people who commit these crimes.

A significant proportion of the young people who find themselves in these institutions will have had experience of the care system, so does the Minister agree that councils and the Government should do more as corporate parents to prevent those children from ending up in the institutions in the first place?

My hon. Friend, who comes to this with a considerable degree of knowledge from his previous roles before he was a Member of this House, is absolutely right. A large number of the young people who end up in custody have been in care or in contact previously with the social care services of local councils. Our youth offending teams within councils do an extremely good job, and I recently visited Lewisham’s team who do an exceptional job and I pay tribute to them for their work. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of local authorities taking their corporate parenting role seriously. When I was a councillor before I was a Member of this place, we had an approach in which each councillor became a corporate parent receiving anonymised reports on individual looked-after children to better understand the responsibilities all local authorities and councils have in this respect, and I would recommend taking that level of interest.

The all-party group on the prevention of adverse childhood experiences can state without any doubt that young people who experience adverse childhood experiences are much more likely to end up in prison. Does the Minister agree that many more of our organisations and services need to be trauma-informed, so this does not just start with the Prison Service once young people are in custody but starts much earlier? We might or might not see the Minister again at the Dispatch Box, but will he drive this agenda within his own party because we need many more trauma-informed services across the board?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who I know takes a close interest in this area. Who knows what the announcements in the next day or two will bring, but I assure her that, regardless of them, I will continue in whatever capacity to take a very close interest in it. She is right about trauma-informed services: often by the time a young person ends up in custody in one of the YOIs or secure training centres that I am responsible for, it is almost as though they have got to the end of their relationship with the state; they will have been through a long process and had relationships with many state bodies on the way and each of them will potentially have failed them, resulting in their getting to that point. It is absolutely right that a trauma-informed approach is adopted throughout the voluntary and state systems, so that we do everything we can to address the underlying trauma suffered by those young people and to help them break the cycle of offending and have an opportunity for a productive and positive life.

At Chelmsford Prison, we have also had a high level of violence and some tragic suicides, but when I have spoken to staff recently, they have told me how the situation has improved for a number of reasons: reducing the number of prisoners; more staff; more training for staff; investing in equipment to identify and stop drugs; and investing in improved environments to make the prison a less horrific place to be. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that the new Justice Secretary has whatever resources they need to ensure that our prison staff can be safe and that violence can be reduced?

My hon. Friend is a strong champion for Chelmsford Prison. I believe that she has visited it on almost a dozen occasions, and I know that the staff there are grateful for the close interest she takes. She will forgive me if I am not at this point tempted into making spending announcements—especially in the absence of a Chancellor of the Exchequer at the moment—but I think both sides of the House would agree that it is important that our prison officers and others who work in our prisons in the custodial estate have the support and the tools they need to do their job effectively.

I understand that the suicide rate for boys aged 15 to 17 in custody is about 18 times greater than the rate for their counterparts in the community. Why is that?

The hon. Gentleman highlights an important point that links in with points made by other hon. Members—namely, that those in the cohort of young people in custody are not only the perpetrators of serious crimes but often the victims of crime who in many cases suffer from mental health challenges or a range of other issues. If we overlay that with the constraints of a custodial environment, that is extremely challenging, which is why we are working hard to divert young people and others, where appropriate, away from custody into community sentences and towards the support and medical support they need. Within custody, we are working to improve conditions and ensure that the support is there to drive down the self-harm and suicide rates, but it is also vital that we remain focused on the longer term and on the current Government’s approach to changing the nature of youth custody, where it does have to occur, and moving towards a secure schools model.

The problems at Feltham are nothing new—as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) said, young men were being transferred to Wormwood Scrubs for their own safety or the safety of others 10 years ago—but this is on a completely different scale. The situation has escalated far more quickly, whether in relation to the rise in assaults or to privation, particularly the time spent in the cell. When that was perceived as a problem more generally, the previous Prisons Minister set up the 10 prisons project, which involved regular and active engagement between the Minister and the institutions concerned, and it had an effect. I know that we are short of Ministers at the moment, but will the hon. Gentleman look at that and see whether he or his colleagues can take some responsibility, because this is on another level? People who read these reports regularly will not have seen one as shocking as this for some time.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to mention the 10 prisons project. It involves the adult male estate and is tackling other issues, but we are seeking to learn lessons from it that could be applied to the youth custodial estate as well. Where something works well in that context, it is absolutely right that we should look at it. He is also right to talk about the importance of direct and personal engagement by the Minister and the director of the service in turning round challenged institutions. I hope that I have sufficiently alluded to that fact in references to meetings with the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston and to my regular meetings with the director of the youth custody service, which are almost fortnightly at the moment. I am taking a personal interest in the operation of Feltham, and indeed the whole estate, and I also speak regularly to the governor herself. She leads a dedicated team who are working in difficult circumstances involving violence and self-harm. I have confidence in her and her team, and they know that as long as I am the Minister, I will do everything I can to support them. I am also sure that the Ministry of Justice will continue to do everything it can support her and her team.