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Prisons: Oakhill Secure Training Centre

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they intend to respond to the report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons into Oakhill secure training centre that proposed its temporary closure.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons inspected management, care and control functions at Oakhill in October 2007. In her report, the Chief Inspector of Prisons criticised standards and suggested that the Youth Justice Board might consider emptying the centre briefly. That was not a formal recommendation and the board decided to pursue other options at that time. Following some improvement, Oakhill’s performance recently deteriorated and the board has now served notice of rectification on the operator.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Does he agree—I think he does—that this is a sad state of affairs? The Youth Justice Board says that it has been trying to sort out Oakhill secure training centre for the past four years. For that length of time, the Government have therefore knowingly placed some of the most disadvantaged and difficult children in this country in a setting that is neither safe nor appropriate. In those circumstances, does the Minister not accept that the Chief Inspector of Prisons was quite right to recommend that children should not be held there for the time being? Why did the Government not accept her recommendation and why are 30 children still there today?

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness’s point about safety. Clearly, the safety of the young people in that centre is absolutely paramount. The matter has been carefully monitored since the centre was opened. Interventions have taken place. However, while improvements occurred as a result of the interventions, it is clear that they have not been sustained, hence the rectification notices that have been issued. That is a sign of the Youth Justice Board’s serious intent in this matter.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that when the Chief Inspector of Prisons, who is not a lady prone to exaggeration, describes,

“staggering levels of use of force by staff”,

including 535 occasions in the nine months before the inspection involving,

“the highest level of restraint, requiring at least three members of staff, with one holding the child’s head”,

the centre is not a safe place and should not stay open a moment longer?

My Lords, clearly the chief inspector’s report was important and it has been taken seriously. As I said, after its publication, there were definite signs of improvement, but the problem was that by the spring it was clear that the improvements had not been sustained, which is why the rectification process has been instituted. I certainly pay tribute to the chief inspector for her help with this matter.

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm the name of the subcontractors at Oakhill, about which I have heard considerable disturbing reports?

My Lords, I hope that the Minister’s heart goes out to the staff working in these difficult environments, as well as to the children. Are the staff working closely with the child and adolescent mental health services and getting full support from them? Also, are the staff, as is required in children’s homes, receiving regular individual supervision from a senior management figure?

My Lords, the recruitment and retention of staff at the secure training centre have clearly been identified by the chief inspector and Ofsted as matters of concern. Although training programmes have been instituted and every effort has been made to ensure that proper co-ordination takes place between the centre and other appropriate local services, there is clearly a long way to go, which is why we wish to see urgent improvements.

My Lords, is the Minister saying that the staff were not adequately trained when they went to work there? If that is the case, does that not add to the risks that these young people face? Can he say a little more about why things went wrong as a guide to understanding what needs to be done to put it right?

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to the reports of both Her Majesty’s inspectorate and Ofsted. They identify a number of issues in relation to recruitment and selection practices, the importance of the role of front-line managers and the need for that to be strengthened, and the fact that, although training programmes may have been instituted, they were not sufficiently regular or ongoing. However, I repeat that the safety of children is absolutely paramount. This centre is monitored on an extremely regular basis and, if it were felt that the safety of children was being compromised, further action would be taken.

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge the creative role that Grendon Underwood has played in the field of adult prison establishments over recent decades? Does he agree that the problems that have regularly recurred in young offender institutions and similar establishments point to the need for creative experiments on different methods and approaches to those who are detained in such establishments?

Yes, my Lords, I think that we need to be innovative. I also pay tribute to young offender institutions and secure children’s homes, and indeed to the other three secure training centres, all of which have recently received ratings of at least “good” from Ofsted. An enormous amount of good work takes place and I do not think that we should let the problems at this particular secure training centre undermine our general appreciation of what is being done in our youth justice system.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the question is not just the safety of these young people but the fact that these establishments should reflect the highest standards of childcare practice in the country?

Indeed, my Lords. That is why it is worth informing the House of the overall Ofsted ratings for the other three secure training centres: Medway, good; Rainsbrook, outstanding; and Hassockfield, good. Good work is being undertaken in those centres. Undoubtedly, there is a real problem with Oakhill, the centre in question, which is why it is so important that the rectification process is taken forward.

My Lords, the chief inspector noted in her report that all young people are routinely strip-searched on arrival at Oakhill without any risk assessment. What evidence is there of items found in these searches that would justify that practice? Will the Minister confirm that the question of strip-searching is being closely monitored no less than that of training?

Yes, my Lords, the question of strip-searching is being monitored, but I am not in a position to go into detail on the noble Lord’s first point, nor do I think it appropriate for me to do so.