Skip to main content

Secure Estate for Young People

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020

What recent assessment he has made of the trends in the level of violence on the secure estate for young people. (902952)

Levels of violence in our youth estate are too high. We are determined to improve safety by investing in staff, education, psychology services and mental health support and by trialling secure schools, with the first to open at Medway. I was pleased to read parts of the inspector’s report after he attended Cookham Wood, Wetherby and Parc young offenders institutions as part of a number of scrutiny visits last month, in which he described all three sites as “calm and well ordered”, and he saw staff interacting with children in a “caring, patient and professional” way.

In January, inspectors found that children were being confined in their cells for up to 23 hours per day and were subject to restraint techniques that cause injury and serious harm to children. The Government know that, and yet they continue to permit the use of those techniques. This is state-sanctioned child abuse. The Charlie Taylor review was due to report on this last summer. Where is that report?

The hon. Member is right to point out a number of reports in this area. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons thematic report in January on the separation of children in YOIs made very difficult reading. Because of that, we took a number of immediate actions, including enhancing local and national oversight and establishing standardised monthly data collection on separation. We commissioned Charlie Taylor to conduct a review into the use of pain-inducing techniques, and we will be publishing that report very shortly.

I appreciate that, as the number of young people in the secure estate has reduced, the cohort has become often more difficult to deal with. None the less, during its current inquiry the Select Committee has heard compelling evidence that violence remains too high. One of the concerns about Cookham Wood, which the Minister referred to, is the shortage and regular redeployment of staff—the churn and the inability to build relationships. Will the Minister look again at the need for a serious approach—a proper strategy for staffing in all our prisons but especially in the secure estate, where the building of relationships is particularly important.

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee recognises an important point. We are ensuring at the moment that we do not send young people to custody unless they have committed the most serious crimes. As a result, more than 50% of the youth in our estate have committed violent crimes. That leaves us with a challenging cohort. We want to provide more bespoke, individual support with early interventions for those in our care. As my hon. Friend will know, we are committed to establishing secure schools, which would expand our focus on education and individual support.

We have increased staffing in the youth estate by 27% and we are professionalising that service with a new foundation degree to ensure that those who work in our youth custody services deliver the right support.

As children in the general population continue to return to school, those in youth offender institutions remain locked up in their cells for almost the whole day, without any access to education. An inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons last month found that children in Cookham Wood were spending just 40 minutes out of their cells. Can the Minister confirm that that was immediately rectified? The Children’s Commissioner for England found

“serious consequences for children’s rights, well-being and long-term outcomes”

and said that

“family and professional visits have been severely curtailed.”

As the Government prioritise returning children to school, will the Minister give me a date by which she expects all children in custody to have access to education, activities and family and professional visits?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions, which are on a very important subject. He is right to say that in the youth estate, as in the adult estate, we took severe measures when we realised that we were facing a pandemic. We took those measures to save lives. We were looking at 2,500 to 3,500 deaths across the estate, so we took drastic action that we considered very carefully, which resulted in a severe lockdown. Although every death is tragic, as a result of the lockdown we have suffered only 23 deaths in our prison estate.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify, as the inspector pointed out, that there was a lockdown in the children’s estate, with only a small amount of time out of cell. I am pleased to say that that time has increased as the lockdown has continued, and in YOIs children are now let out for between two and three and a half hours every day. In the secure children’s homes there is almost a normal regime, with 12 to 14 hours out of cell. We have published our national strategy for recovery, and visits and education will be some of the first things that return in the children’s estate.

These extra limits on contact must mean that now, more than ever, holding children in custody should be a last resort. One third of all children on the youth estate are being held on remand without a sentence. We know that two thirds of them will not receive a custodial sentence. With criminal trials slowly being restarted, what action is the Minister taking, along with the Lord Chief Justice, to ensure that children held on remand are prioritised for criminal trials?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that custody should be a last resort. I am pleased to say that it is a last resort, which is why we have a much smaller number of youth in custody at the moment: just over 700 across our estate. He makes an important point about remand, and I am pleased to say that, certainly in the adult estate, the judiciary have looked at and fast-tracked remand cases. I am also pleased to report that the Youth Justice Board has looked at those who are currently held on remand, and the youth offending teams will be reviewing whether any applications can be made to help those people who are on remand and can be released back into the community.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is vital that prison officers have the right skills to manage young people? How are we training prison officers who work on the youth estate to ensure that we cut future offending rates and increase rehabilitation?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the training of prison officers: it is important that they get the right training to help turn lives around. We have introduced a new youth justice specialist role, with funding for every prison officer in youth custody services to take up a foundation degree in youth justice. Thirty people have completed it and 400 have started the training.