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Prisons: Secure Colleges

Volume 762: debated on Thursday 18 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what contracts have been let for the proposed secure college.

My Lords, contracts for the construction and operation of the secure college pathfinder have not been signed. We are now considering the next steps.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, and I am very glad to note that there is a pause. What the troubled young people concerned need more than anything else is long-term contact with a responsible adult. This is being denied to them, and becomes less likely the larger the establishment. This need has been recognised by both the Department of Health, in particular its children and young people’s mental health and well-being taskforce, and by the Department for Education, which has legislated for local home authorities to be responsible for the delivery of health and social care and education plans for those with learning difficulties. Could the Minister please encourage his Secretary of State to take advantage of the Chancellor’s budget cuts, ditch this whole proposal and listen to the advice which is already being acted on by other ministries?

As the noble Lord and the House will know, there is a new Secretary of State. He is looking at the whole question of the custodial estate, in particular the youth custodial estate. He will of course consider all the factors which featured in the debate about secure colleges. At this stage, I can say that a considerable focus of his attention will be on education, which lies at the heart of secure colleges. It is very important that these young men—and they are mostly young men—have proper access to good education.

My Lords, the Minister’s reply is matched for opacity only by the very similar reply given yesterday by his colleague Mr Selous to my honourable friend Dan Jarvis. That reply said that:

“The Coalition government legislated for secure colleges and we are now considering the next steps. We remain clear that education should be at the very heart of youth custody”.

What next steps are the Government contemplating? Is it a possibility that the Government will resile from their ill-informed and ill-advised policy of establishing a massive secure college on the Glen Parva site in Leicestershire?

The difficulties that exist with youth custody are well known, such as reoffending. Of course, as the House will be aware, the good news is that the number of those in youth custody has reduced from 3,000 to 1,000. This means that those in various forms of youth custody present real problems and real challenges. The secure college pathfinder was a solution favoured by the last Government. We have not ruled out using a secure college. It has not yet received approval at Treasury level, but all of the ideas which it incorporated have not been abandoned. They contain many sound approaches to providing the right answer to this difficult problem.

My Lords, when my noble friend makes his recommendations to his Secretary of State, will he emphasise the importance of treating young prisoners as human beings and not as statistics? By that I mean that after they come out of education they have to go back into education seamlessly, which means very close correlation between the local education authority and the prison. Therefore, if you have only one gigantic one you hugely increase the distances to be dealt with, which in itself is a handicap in delivering a good programme.

My noble friend makes an important point about the continuity in respect of educational gains which can be attained by secure colleges. He will of course be aware that one of the difficulties with this particular cohort is that they very rarely had any continuity in their education before they went into a youth custody institution. One hopes that not only the habits they will acquire in youth custody but the appetite to learn can be consolidated by the sorts of links he describes.

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind the very pertinent point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham? Whatever the structure, a key element in combating recidivism is the relationship between the young offender and another more mature mentor. In many cases, this can assist in killing two birds with one stone. Some of the people who have proved to be very adept and effective at this are themselves ex-offenders, or indeed, ex-members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, both of which groups find it very difficult to get jobs when they come out of prison or the Armed Forces. It is good for the young people, but it is also an opportunity to provide employment for two groups of people who find it particularly difficult to be employed.

The noble Lord makes a valuable point. The use of appropriate mentors and role models is extremely important, particularly in a cohort that has very often lacked such role models and mentors in the past.

My Lords, following the theme of the importance of continuity of relationships for these young people, is the Minister aware that the policy of the Children’s Minister in the other place, Edward Timpson MP, has been to restrain the removal of children in local authority care from their local authority area and local family community to a children’s home perhaps hundreds of miles away? That is his policy; can the Minister reconcile it with this policy, which, given that about 50% of these young people will have experienced care, will mean that many will have to be placed a long way away from their local authority, community and family if this plan is proceeded with?

Of course I understand the noble Earl’s concern. He has been a consistent supporter of those at this level of challenge to the community. Of course, there are challenges with the limited number of people who are now in custody because, by definition, there will not be a suitable secure children’s home or secure children’s training centre in every part of the United Kingdom. However, it is a principle that will be very much borne in mind.

My Lords, the House is aware of my interest as chairman of the YJB. Is the Minister aware of how grateful YJB staff are for the widespread support in this House for the work that they do? Is he also aware that, as indicated by the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, there is increasing and welcome co-operation among Whitehall departments —health, education and justice—to make sure that young people who receive education while in custody continue to get education, training or job opportunities once they go through the gate?

I am very happy to acknowledge the joined-up thinking to which the noble Lord refers. I pay tribute to him as the chair of the Youth Justice Board for all the valuable work that the Youth Justice Board and he do in helping with these great difficulties that confront the Government. I think that the YJB is joining in with a stocktake generally of the youth offending teams. I know that education is a major concern across government, and it is something that the Secretary of State will have very much in mind.