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Secure Youth Estate: Violence

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2024

The number of children in custody has fallen by nearly 70% in the last decade, but that means that those in custody are more complex; 71% of them are detained for violent offences. Although the rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults declined by 7% between July and September 2023, compared with the same period in 2022, the rate of assaults on staff increased. That is why all sites have a safety strategy reflecting local drivers of violence. That includes tackling the use of weapons, and training staff in conflict resolution. Much has been done, but there continues to be more to do, and we remain focused on doing it.

Those strategies are clearly not working. There were 320 assaults on staff between July and September 2023, of which 24 were serious. That is a 9% increase, year on year, in assaults in the children and young people’s estate. When will the Minister put in place a proper plan to cut violence in the youth estate and keep staff safe?

The plan we have put in place is working, but there is more to do. The hon. Gentleman highlighted statistics that, as he will accept, I acknowledged from the Dispatch Box. We believe that our approach to tackling violence and to conflict resolution in our youth estate is right, and we will continue to press forward with it to reduce rates of assault on our hard-working and dedicated prison officers and staff.

The Government have decided to change the use of Cookham Wood youth offender institution to an adult prison. That follows a lack of progress in improving young people’s access to education, and increased violence on the prison estate. The behaviour management method of keeping young people in their cells has failed. This decision puts a spotlight on the wider crisis in adult prisons. When the young people are transferred, how will the Minister ensure that the practice of keeping them in their cells, and the cycle of violence, will end?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for her question about Cookham Wood. As she will be aware, a number of specific local factors at work in Cookham Wood led to the urgent notification, and the challenges in addressing that. As for those young people and their transfer to other institutions, a number of them will be released before Cookham Wood closes. Those still in custody will be assessed individually, and they and their families will be engaged with to ensure that they are placed in institutions that are best suited to their needs, and that give them the greatest opportunity to progress and make positive life choices for when they are released.

It is a shame that the Minister did not address the violence specifically. Violence is a challenge across the youth estate, not just at Cookham Wood. Recently, a girl with challenging behaviours and complex needs at Wetherby YOI was restrained and then stripped—not once, but twice—by male officers. In the context of rising violence and extreme self-harm, does the Minister believe that is acceptable, and what alternative provision does he have in mind other than the Keppel unit in Wetherby YOI?

I did address the point about violence on the estate in response to the original question from the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). The hon. Lady asked specifically about a case highlighted by the chief inspector of prisons in his recent report.What happened there was clearly against policy. It was clearly wrong and concerning, but I do have to correct her: the individual involved was at no point strip-searched. That was inaccurate reporting. At all times, the modesty of the individual was protected with a blanket, so I am afraid that what was said in reporting that it was a strip search is not correct. Clothes were removed under a blanket in order to protect life where there was imminent risk to it. Those officers made a difficult decision in the circumstances to protect life. It is right that we look into the specifics of what happened, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and I have done. I think we just need to be a little cautious at this point about accepting everything that was reported as fact.