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Feltham Young Offender Institution

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given by my honourable friend the Member for Charnwood. The Statement is as follows:

“I am grateful to the honourable Lady for tabling this Urgent Question and for the opportunity to respond on this very important subject. I am also grateful to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for its work and the scrutiny its inspections provide. I take the safety of all the young people in our custody very seriously, and clearly this urgent notification letter for Feltham A does not make for comfortable reading. It is clearly a deeply disappointing and concerning report.

Despite the significant efforts of staff at Feltham A, to whom I pay tribute, and the significant support and resources put in by the Youth Custody Service and the Ministry of Justice, it is clear that serious underlying challenges remain. I have been clear that progress to address these issues needs to be swifter to deliver the safe environment that we all wish to see—which, as recent reports acknowledge, we see in other parts of the youth custodial estate.

Therefore, we have already taken a set of immediate steps in addition to work already under way, including placing an immediate temporary stop on the new placement of young people to Feltham A, alongside additional resources and support for staff.

The governor is still relatively new in post, and she is working hard to drive improvements to an establishment that has one of the highest and most concentrated proportions of violent offenders in the country. She and her team are dedicated to turning Feltham A around, and we will continue to support them to do that.

As required by the urgent notification process, we will formally respond with an action plan within the required 28 days”.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating that Answer. The state of the Prison Service in a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe has long been a matter of concern. The chief inspector’s report on Feltham cites concerns about the safety and care of 15 to 18 year-old prisoners, with very little time spent out of their cells and an alarming increase in self-harm, physical restraint and attacks on staff. What steps will the Government take to remedy this situation and ensure that it is not repeated elsewhere?

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s observations. We have developed a clear process to respond to urgent notification letters. Senior officials, led by the executive director of the Youth Custody Service, will be directly involved in the work to ensure that immediate action is taken, along with a more in-depth plan to ensure that we see sustained improvement to the establishment in the long term. Of course, as part of the process, the department will publicly respond to the chief executive within 28 days.

My Lords, I listened very carefully to the Minister. He said that steps were being taken to curtail new entrants to Feltham A. Is he aware that many of the people in Feltham A have family in the community who are seriously concerned about what is happening to those individuals? What method is being used to inform the near-enough families of the people in Feltham about what is going on? Has the Minister any plans to disclose for a proper way of establishing control and discipline, so that a proper programme of rehabilitation, education and training can take place?

My Lords, education, training and rehabilitation are all critical elements of youth custody. To succeed, they require motivation. When motivation is lacking, it becomes extremely difficult to implement what is required.

We seek to improve the situation at Feltham A, in particular. The staff to prisoner ratio in Feltham A, and across all the youth capacity, is normally one to 12, based on full occupancy. The decision to reduce the operational capacity at Feltham A has meant that that ratio has been improved to one to eight.

As regards communications, families are able to keep in regular contact with inmates in the youth custody regime, and I do not understand that there have been any particular difficulties reported on that front at present.

My Lords, this incident reminds me that when I was chief inspector, I used to have to inspect Feltham every year because it was such a troubled organisation. Can the Minister tell the House how many hours the individuals in Feltham A spent out of their cells and how many of them are occupied by day?

My Lords, Feltham A has had a progressive regime in place since early May to account for the fact that the prison is able to deploy only about 100 staff against a target of 151, due to temporary absences. Given the limited staff available, the progressive regime is designed to provide young people with greater consistency and predictability by laying down a weekly timetable whereby they are facilitated with a scheduled day and evening each week with a guaranteed minimum commitment from staff to them—that is, time out. However, it is fair to say that the regime has been disrupted, and we are now moving away from the progressive regime, with an increased use of other means of delivering out-of-cell time. I cannot give precise figures because it is in flux at present.

My Lords, I visited Feltham just over a year ago. At that time, I was told by the prison officers who showed me around that the police unit based at Feltham had been withdrawn; as I understand it, the unit was looking at gangs within Feltham and how they relate to the wider community. Was what I was told correct? Was the police unit withdrawn, and might this have had an impact on the deterioration in behaviour that we have seen in recent months?

My Lords, I am not aware of the withdrawal of a police unit from Feltham and therefore cannot comment on that point. But I undertake to write to the noble Lord and I will place a copy of the letter in the Library.

My Lords, the young offender estate has been troubled for a great many years. It is full of very troubled young people. As others have indicated, the institutions are overcrowded, and inmates are kept in their cells for far too long and are doing insufficient purposeful activity, be it learning to read or write, coming to terms with their offending or finding things to do that they might usefully do when they leave the YOI. Is not the churn of governors, not just prisoners, another problem that the YOI estate suffers from? Far too many senior members of staff at these places are in post for far too short a time; they can never get to grips with the many problems that they face. If we could keep them there a little longer, we might see the young offenders leaving the estate with something purposeful and socially responsible to do.

I note the observations of my noble and learned friend. It may not be appropriate to generalise about the state of the youth custody regime. It is clear, and it should be acknowledged, that there have been real operational difficulties at Feltham A over several months—of that we can have no doubt. Indeed, there was a hiatus when a Feltham governor was promoted and, unfortunately, the incoming governor had to work out a period of notice before moving into post. Again, that created real difficulties. But there are also areas of success in the youth custody regime: for example, I will mention in passing Wetherby, where —my noble and learned friend made a good point here—a well-established governor has been in place since October 2016 and has therefore had the time and space to settle a once-troubled establishment. So I agree that continuity and consistency are important if we are to deal with these issues.

My Lords, does not Peter Clarke’s shocking report reveal two things: first, that the Ministry of Justice has been asleep on the job and is not the right department to be running youth custody institutions; and, secondly, that issues concerning children in custody should be part of children’s policy, not penal policy, and should be run by the government department that is responsible for children?

I cannot accept either proposition put forward by the noble Lord. The ministry has certainly not been asleep on the job. Our dedicated staff of civil servants and the immediate staff in these establishments apply themselves to the very demanding tasks with regard to the youth custody regime. We must remember that we are dealing with young people in the age group of 15 to 18 who, in some instances, have a tendency towards violence, may be disturbed and do have other problems. Earlier, I mentioned the very real issue of securing motivation before you can effect rehabilitation.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that I recently visited Feltham and saw these young offenders. They are unbelievably difficult to look after. I saw high-quality teachers struggling just to get them to go into the classroom, let alone pay attention to what they were trying to teach—so it is not surprising that we get these difficulties.

I acknowledge the point made by my noble friend. The issue very often is not the availability of staff or resources, or the ability to provide education and rehabilitation, but the underlying need to secure the appropriate motivation in what is often a difficult and disturbed cohort.

My Lords, what training is given to the inmates to enable them to get a job when they are released, and what help is given to them to get a job?

Again, we attempt to provide a regime of education and rehabilitation. I regret having to repeat the point I made earlier: underlying this is the need to secure motivation. It is a case not just of making training and opportunity available, but of trying to persuade those in this difficult cohort to embrace the opportunity they are given on these occasions.