[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered use of solitary confinement for children and young people in the justice system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Speaker’s Office for granting this debate. I thank the Minister for coming to respond and all Members who have joined me for this discussion. May I also put on record my appreciation for the British Medical Association, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health for their tireless campaigning on human rights in the context of healthcare?
Two weeks ago I hosted a roundtable in Parliament with the BMA, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. They have issued a joint call for solitary confinement to be banned for children who are locked up in the UK. That call is based on evidence of harm, and they have urged the Government to act. Importantly, they have also produced guidance to help improve care for those segregated by prison officers until any ban is in place. The roundtable was attended by peers and MPs, including my hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
In response to a written parliamentary question that I tabled in January, the Government said:
“We do not use solitary confinement. Young people can be removed from association under careful control where they will not be permitted to associate with other young people.”
The Minister repeated last Friday that the UK does not use solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is defined under international human rights law as
“the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”
Many I have talked to have said they are not clear on the distinction between solitary confinement and removal from association. Indeed, YoungMinds says that regardless of the term,
“we consider any individual who is physically isolated and deprived of meaningful contact with others for a prolonged period of time to be in solitary confinement.”
Given what the hon. Lady has said about the definitions of solitary confinement, it would be helpful to know how many people she thinks are trapped in the solitary confinement system, so that we can get a feel for how big the problem is.
I will come on to that point. One point I will make is about the inadequate collection of data. What information we receive comes partly through the lens of healthcare providers and charities that are taking calls from prisoners in distress.
To continue the point I was making, I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the substantive difference between the international definition of solitary confinement and the Government’s definition of removal from association.
Let me outline the current situation. Under rule 49 of the young offender institution rules, a prison governor can authorise removal from association for up to 42 days. That can be extended further after application to the Secretary of State. I understand that, as we have just discussed, national data on the use of solitary confinement within the youth secure estate are not currently collected. That is concerning, as it means that no accurate data exists as to how many children and young people are being held in isolation and for what period of time. However, anecdotal evidence from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and others suggests that it is on the increase. Will the Minister clarify the situation on data collection? What steps can be taken to change it?
According to the recent BMA guidance, “The medical role in solitary confinement”, the use of solitary confinement in the UK youth justice system is much more widespread than we might realise. According to studies that the guidance flags, almost four in 10 boys in detention spend some time in solitary confinement—some for periods of almost three months. Some estimates suggest the duration of confinement can range anywhere from an average of eight days up to 60 or even 80 days. Children and young people are also increasingly being kept in conditions of solitary confinement—in cells or rooms for up to 22 hours a day—amid reports of staff shortages and increased violence. There is also evidence referred to by the Children’s Commissioner that certain groups may be more likely to experience isolation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that all the scientific and medical evidence points to the profound negative impact on the child, such as paranoia, anxiety and depression? Solitary confinement does not create a constructive pathway to rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point that goes to the heart of this debate. The use of solitary confinement in the justice system potentially increases harm and can impact on the young person’s life not only during a period of detention in the justice system, but in the longer term.
Black and mixed heritage children are three times more likely to experience isolation. Children with a recorded disability are two thirds more likely to experience isolation. Looked-after children are almost two thirds more likely to experience isolation. Children assessed as a suicide risk are nearly 50% more likely to experience isolation. The problem we have is that the policy is not without harm.
There is an unequivocal body of evidence on the negative health effects of solitary confinement. As has been mentioned, the symptoms observed include anxiety, depression, rage and aggression, cognitive disturbances, paranoia and, in the most extreme cases, hallucinations and psychosis. The experience can also trigger adverse childhood experiences. For children and young people—about whom this debate is most concerned—who are still in the crucial stages of developing socially, psychologically and neurologically, the health effects of isolation and solitary confinement can be particularly damaging.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is growing international consensus that solitary confinement should never be used for children and young people? The Government need to accept that this country is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I will come back to it. It is interesting to note that the use of solitary confinement was banned by former President Barack Obama in 2016. There are some lessons we can learn from what is happening in the USA.
If a young person is a danger to themselves and others, what remedies, whether elsewhere in the world or in our system, is the hon. Lady recommending? Solitary confinement, as she puts it, is presumably being put in place largely for safety reasons for the young person concerned and those in the same institution as him or her.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point about the possible reasons for removal from association, in terms of safety for prison officers or the young person. However—I will make this point in my concluding remarks—I think it is incumbent on the Government to look for alternative non-solitary confinement options that can be used in the youth secure estate. Other countries do not have the same kind of youth detention estate as us, yet they still have youth crime that they need to deal with.
There is evidence that the policy of solitary confinement can be counter-productive. Rather than improving behaviour, it can fail to address the underlying causes of some of that disruptive behaviour and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) has said, create additional problems with reintegration.
During the recent roundtable in Parliament, the Howard League highlighted the case of AB, which has been covered extensively in the media. AB was a 15-year-old boy in Feltham young offenders institution in my constituency who called an advice line run by the Howard League. The adviser who answered could tell that he was miserable and fed up. He had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had been locked, alone, in a cell at Feltham young offenders institution for 23 hours a day, for weeks on end. He was allowed outside only to shower and exercise. Understandably, he wanted to end his solitary confinement and was appealing for help.
Cases are complex, but these are children. The Howard League stated that it
“had no option to go for judicial review”.
AB’s case was heard last year at the royal courts of justice in London. The court found that his treatment was unlawful. It stopped short of finding it “inhuman or degrading”, but that is also being challenged. I am also very pleased that we have heard this week that the Joint Committee on Human Rights is launching an inquiry on solitary confinement and the restraint of children in the youth justice system. I hope that it will take some of these important issues further.
The Howard League received more than 40 calls last year from or about children in prison who were isolated. For those reasons and others, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) has pointed out, there is a growing international consensus, from groups including the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, that solitary confinement should never be used on children and young people. As I have said, Barack Obama, when in office, banned the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system. He said:
“It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
With Feltham young offenders institution in my constituency, I am greatly concerned that vulnerable children are entering a justice system, elements of which could result in additional long-term harm. Solitary confinement, as defined by international law—however it is referred to and whatever terminology may be used—should be abolished and prohibited. Until it is, the health needs of those subject to it should be met, and there is an essential role for doctors and, indeed, our prison governors in ensuring that that happens.
We should be clear that any mechanism that results in a child or young person being physically or socially isolated for prolonged periods of time should have no place in a humane justice system. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could address how he defines removal from association; what steps he is taking to get a full and accurate picture of the number of instances of it; what assessment his Department has made of the level of harm caused by it; what steps he is taking to create alternative, non-solitary confinement options in the secure estate for young people, with adequate resources and staff to meet their needs; and how he envisages us moving forward to end this practice in the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this important debate on a difficult issue that is worthy of further discussion after today. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond.
The number of children entering the youth justice system has continued to decrease in recent years. In 2016-17, juvenile convictions and cautions were down by 83% since 2006-2007, with first-time entries down by 85% in the same period. The number of under-18s in custody also fell by 70% during that time, and in February stood at 870. That represents a success story, and everyone involved in youth justice should be pleased by those figures. However, the decline in overall numbers has resulted in a concentrated cohort of young people in the secure estate, many of whom demonstrate complex and challenging behaviour.
I am pleased about the overall reduction but, as the Minister says, there is now a cohort of perhaps more difficult offenders. I admired the eloquence of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), but I do not think that she was able to answer my earlier question. If someone in a young offenders institution is a danger to themselves and others, what alternatives are there to removal from association?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Staff in young offenders institutions up and down the country are sometimes confronted with extremely difficult circumstances, with particularly troubled and violent young people. We have introduced an enhanced support unit at Feltham, and we are hoping to bring another on-stream elsewhere. We have found that the use of such units, where there is a higher staff-to-offender ratio, has worked in managing behaviour. Ultimately, the removal from association of a troublesome, very difficult young person is often the only course of action that a responsible governor can take.
The safety and welfare of children held in custody is one of my highest priorities. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston alluded to the fact that there are definitions of solitary confinement internationally, but there is not a sole definition. There are the Mandela rules, the Istanbul convention and a variety of others, but there is not one clear definition. I would like to be clear from the outset that I have been assured that young people are never subject to solitary confinement in this country. When a child in custody is putting themselves or others at risk, segregation can be used as a last resort for limited periods of time and under regular review, when no other form of intervention is suitable to protect both the child and others. Segregation should never be used as a punishment for young people.
When a young person is removed from association, they will be given as much access as possible to the usual regime, including education and healthcare. That is monitored on a regular basis by the youth offenders institute and the independent monitoring board, in order to protect the young person.
I welcome the Minister’s statement that solitary confinement is a last resort, but a very high number of young people and children in the criminal justice system have one or more mental health illnesses, learning disabilities, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, addiction and probably other conditions. Once those children are being punished in the criminal justice system, surely they need proper specialist medical care therapy, as happens in most other countries?
I acknowledge that the youth justice population has an over-representation of the issues that the hon. Lady has just outlined, although the diagnosis of each of those is broad and, in and of itself, not straightforward. I know that the appropriate care is made available to individuals who particularly need psychiatric input. I look at that on a regular basis, and I personally see it as my responsibility to ensure that that is the case. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me with evidence of where that is not the case, I would be more than happy to receive such a letter.
At an absolute minimum, young people in segregation in young offenders institutions will be given time in the open air, outreach education provision, healthcare, physical education and access to legal advice. Individual regime plans are agreed for each young person by a multi-disciplinary team, taking account of all those issues and any other relevant information. They are reviewed frequently on an individual basis—again, in the interest of the young person. All under-18 young offenders institutions have been given additional training on the use of segregation and the rules governing it.
I note with interest the recent inspection report from the independent monitoring board for Feltham YOI, which is of course located in the constituency of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston. The report noted that significant improvements have been made in addressing violence and praised the dedication and commitment of staff within the establishment. I take this opportunity to reiterate my thanks to staff at Feltham and across the youth secure estate for their continued hard work in looking after the young people in their care.
The report also noted, however, that too frequently staffing levels within the establishment affected the daily regime and the ability to provide sufficient purposeful activity and time out of room. I share those concerns and am encouraged that, across both sites at Feltham, recruitment is swiftly improving. As of the end of March, there were 105 prison officers booked on to entry-level training. I believe that every child and young person should have access to and be engaged in meaningful activities, including education and physical activities. The regime should be purposeful, meet the needs of the cohort, keep young people occupied and active all day and deliver the highest quality education. That needs to sit alongside effective behaviour management, so that young people can be out of their rooms and able to participate safely in the regimes and activities provided.
That is why we have developed a new approach to behaviour management, which includes the roll-out of the custody support plan, to provide each young person with a personalised officer to work with on a weekly basis in order to build trust and consistency. We are also implementing a conflict resolution strategy, applying restorative justice principles to help resolve conflict. However, while acknowledging the work that is continuing to be progressed to address safety in youth custody, as demonstrated in the latest inspection reports from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons for Werrington and Parc young offenders institutions, I am clear that levels of violence within the youth estate are too great, which is why we are reforming youth custody to reduce violence and improve outcomes for young people.
Investing in our workforce is a cornerstone of those reforms. We continue to be impressed by the dedication and pride that our staff show in their work with young people, as evidenced by the fact that more than 200 frontline staff have voluntarily enrolled on a youth justice foundation degree funded by the Ministry of Justice. We want to build on that success and ensure that working in youth justice continues to be seen as the respected and rewarding profession that it is.
We know that many establishments have struggled with staffing, especially in the south-east, which is why we are increasing frontline capacity in public sector young offenders institutions by bringing in more than 100 new recruits and introducing a new youth justice specialist role. We have started recruitment for those additional frontline posts in order to relieve the immediate operational pressures, alongside additional psychology roles in the YOIs. In addition, we are developing a bespoke recruitment campaign and process for the youth custody service, to target those with a passion to work with young people. The first phase of this—a new website and targeted marketing material—was launched last week.
We will develop strong leaders, building the workforce required to create a therapeutic and aspirational culture in our establishments. Our reforms will empower the leaders, giving them the freedom to deliver the right suite of services to meet the needs of the young people in their care. We are working closely with NHS England to implement Secure STAIRS, a framework for integrated care in the youth secure estate, which aims to co-ordinate the services of health and non-health providers into a coherent package, supporting trauma-informed care and a whole-system approach.
I am a strong believer in the benefit that sport and physical activity can provide to children in custody. As well as the obvious health benefits, it can provide young people with a sense of achievement, enhancing self-esteem and transforming lives. For those reasons, I commissioned Professor Rosie Meek of Royal Holloway, University of London to conduct an independent review into the role of sport in the justice system, to identify best practice and make recommendations for improvement. Professor Meek’s report will be published shortly and I await its findings with interest.
We are also looking to support organisations that want to work with young people in the youth justice system and seek opportunities to build on existing collaborations between establishments, sports clubs and providers. For example, Saracens rugby club’s Get Onside programme, which runs at Feltham for young adults, is a shining example of how sport can engage young people. The young adults who have been through this 10- week programme, which uses the ethos of rugby to teach skills such as leadership and teamwork, have shown notably lower rates of reoffending than their peers. That is just one example of how sport can help young people lead a better, more productive life, away from crime.
Finally, we continue to work on our proposal to develop secure schools. Our model will be informed by best practice from outstanding alternative provision schools, and secure schools will be set up, run and managed in a similar way to free schools.
I am encouraged by a lot of what the Minister has said and I urge him to keep up the good work in his Department and with these institutions. Does he agree that, given that solitary confinement has a clear definition in this space, and no young people are subject to solitary confinement in the UK, that pejorative phrase should not be used in such debates? Where removal from association is used as a last resort, we obviously urge that those young people benefit in the future from the sort of regime that the Minister is outlining.
Yes, it is always important to use language appropriately. As I tried to point out at the start, use of the term is difficult when internationally no clear definition is agreed upon. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston can be assured that I look at this issue all the time. I cannot talk about individual cases, because one is still running with the courts, but we consider the issue all the time. There have been other cases where difficult decisions have to be made. I am assured that at all times we are thinking about the child at the centre of the case, and the children being held with the child who is showing such troubling behaviour.
Secure schools will be operated on a not-for-profit basis by child-focused providers with strong leaders who will have the freedom to provide integrated services based on individual need, with education and healthcare and, if I get my way, sport at its heart.
I am under no illusions about the challenge we face. We are talking about some of the most challenging, often damaged young people in the country. However, our reforms will support establishments to provide better levels of care and enable more young people to engage in purposeful activities, outside their rooms, and work towards a brighter future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston on her speech, and thank my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Woking (Mr Lord) and the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) for their contributions. I will take away the points about the collection of data and the numbers of children who could be affected in this way, and I will be happy to receive any correspondence on the issue from any parliamentary colleague.
Question put and agreed to.