Youth offending has fallen—to 38.4% in the latest youth justice statistics —thanks to successive Governments’ efforts to improve education, social care and mental health support. Clear guidance to the judiciary that custody should be an absolute last resort for children has also seen numbers fall by 78% between 2008 and 2019. There are now fewer than 700 children currently held in young offender institutions, secure training centres and secure children’s homes. This is an unprecedented low, and down from a peak of 3,200 in October 2002.
This is a success that as a society we should be incredibly proud of. These early interventions have meant that thousands of children each year avoid heading into adulthood as criminals, into a life of crime that is much harder to break once ingrained. This Government’s efforts to support children and upgrade their life chances continue at pace—whether that be the additional funding being put into our schools or the extra support now available to children’s mental health services.
But we know there is far more still to do, particularly for those who still enter custody—a much more concentrated mix of children with complex issues, over 50% of whom have convictions for serious violence. We are spending £5 million putting each prison officer who works in the youth custody estate through a specialist degree programme, giving them a greater understanding of child and adolescent development. We have also increased the number of staff in young offender institutions by a third in the last four years.
We are investing in the development of enhanced support units (ESUs) to provide specialist psychological support and services for children with the most complex needs, with ESUs now at Feltham and Wetherby YOIs. We are also working with NHS England on a new integrated approach to strengthen the provision of health care and support (“SECURE STAIRS”) which is rolling out across the youth secure estate.
But there are elements of practice in youth custody which, frankly, have not been good enough. Today I have published two reports on the use of restraint and separation in the secure youth justice estate.
Staff in the youth estate are trained to use behaviour management and de-escalation techniques and only resort to physical restraint when there is no alternative and either their safety or that of children is at further risk.
However, keen to ensure those prison officers working with children were receiving adequate training and were using such techniques appropriately, the Government commissioned Charlie Taylor, then the chair of the Youth Justice Board, to carry out an independent review into the use of pain-inducing restraint.
In his report, Charlie Taylor references a number of incidents in which he believes the use of a pain-inducing restraint potentially saved a child’s life. He is therefore clear that staff must retain the ability to intervene safely when there is a clear and imminent risk of serious harm to a child, themselves or another member of staff. However, he also found instances where it was used inappropriately and, now, I want to ensure the use of such restraint is proportionate and reasonable and only used when there is no other alternative.
That is why the Government have accepted all 15 recommendations in Charlie Taylor’s report, and the youth custody service has developed a programme of work which will implement them. Techniques that cause pain, albeit in order to prevent further serious harm, will no longer be taught alongside other methods to manage behaviour, to make it even clearer that these are a last resort designed only to protect children or staff from further injury. This will ensure that such techniques are only used when there is no alternative in order to prevent serious harm and therefore protect children and staff from trauma wherever possible. A panel will also be established to carefully scrutinise incidents in which a pain-inducing restraint has been used to ensure they are being used appropriately and that the welfare of children and staff is a key consideration.
The second report I have published today builds on our initial response to the thematic report on separation in young offender institutions, which HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) published in January.
The findings in the report made for some challenging reading at the time and I was pleased with the exceptional effort from the youth custody service in acting so swiftly to address the regime provided for separated children.
It is extremely unfortunate that at the point at which we were starting to see improvements for separated children we went into a period, that because of coronavirus, has forced us into a situation where all children in custody have unfortunately had to spend more time behind their doors than we would wish.
I accepted the overarching recommendation for a new system of separation to be implemented, which was called for by HMIP in their thematic report. As we look to restart aspects of daily life for children in custody I am determined that we do not return to the practices of old. This new, child-centred policy will draw on best practice from other establishments to ensure consistency across the youth estate.
Inappropriate use of these techniques must not happen again. Our response to these findings will help to ensure all children in custody have all the support they need to turn their lives around.
I will place a copy of both reports in the Libraries of both Houses.