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House of Commons Hansard
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25 June 2019
Volume 662

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered abolishing child imprisonment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.

For decades, what has been happening to the forgotten children imprisoned across England and Wales is state-supported and state-sanctioned child abuse. Worse still, those in this place who have the power to stop it have not done so.

At present, 727 children are in prison: 81% in youth offenders institutions and 19% in secure training centres. The lives of many of those children before prison were marked by significant harm and suffering. Up to 92% of children in custody have suffered prior physical or sexual abuse, or neglect, and nearly half have been in the care system. Children in custody are three times more likely than their peers to have suffered the death of a parent or sibling, and three times more likely to have unmet mental health needs. A quarter of them identify themselves as disabled, with one in five having special educational needs. Children who identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic are disproportionately overrepresented. When there is a reduction in the size of the overall youth custody system but a rise in the number of BAME people represented in it, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) put it well when he said that there is discriminatory practice and institutional racism in the prison system and that something is just not working.

Children in such institutions have significant needs, which would be better met in a nurturing, specialised and therapeutic system modelled on the secure children’s homes ethos in which child welfare is the overriding concern, as recommended by the End Child Imprisonment coalition. At present, 65% of children go on to reoffend within a year of release. A child-focused environment, with an end to the slash and burn of austerity stripping away support and mental health services, is likely not only to reduce reoffending but to stop reoffending in the first place.

In 2016, the Government committed to closing youth offenders institutions and secure training centres for good. They know that the findings of the Youth Custody Improvement Board, the Youth Justice Board and Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons—that those institutions are not fit for purpose and not safe for children or young people—were right.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Successive reports and inquiries have found that children’s prisons are unsafe and unable to meet even basic needs. The Howard League for Penal Reform reported that a child in Feltham spent 23.5 hours a day in a cell for 55 days in a row. Does she agree that we need to invest urgently in children’s centres so that children are not kept in such awful conditions?

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I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She cites one of the examples that I will consider.

Three years after that 2016 announcement, those institutions remain. Only this year, the chair of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse stated that she was

“deeply disturbed by the continuing problem of child sexual abuse in these institutions over the last decade.”

Report after report shows that life for children in prison consists of systematic denial of basic physical needs such as nutritious food, fresh air, exercise, and warm and comfortable shelter. Children live in environments permeated with violence, uncertainty and fear, where meaningful adult contact and education are limited or non-existent.

Adults living in such an environment would struggle. For any child, living with those heightened levels of anxiety and fear, with no trusted adult to confide in or to seek help from, will surely result in trauma and mental health difficulties. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that incidents of self-harm increased by 159% between 2014 and 2017, or that the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that up to three quarters of doctors specialising in mental health in prisons do not think that it is possible for them to provide adequate care because of the conditions in which they are working.

When children react negatively to such an environment, they are punished with segregation—solitary confinement, which the United Nations defines as being locked indoors for 22 hours per day—or pain-inducing restraint. Recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) led a debate on youth solitary confinement in which the Minister, as he may recall, said that

“children are never, and should never be, subject to solitary confinement in the UK.”—[Official Report, 2 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 339WH.]

Instead, he said, they are “segregated” or “removed from association”.

Such statements are repeated in ongoing and lengthy correspondence that I have had with various Ministers from the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education. As they tie themselves into semantic knots, the repetition of statements to the effect that solitary confinement is not used is simply at odds with the facts. In 2017, the Howard League advocated on behalf of that young boy who had spent 23.5 hours per day in his cell for 55 days in a row. Last year, an investigation by the “Victoria Derbyshire” show found that in the previous year, at least 40 children had been held in their cells for at least 22 hours per day.

Just this week, the children’s rights charity Article 39 informed me about two boys, one aged 15 and one 17. They both have serious mental health issues. They are waiting for medical care and are stuck in solitary confinement for between 22 and 23 hours per day. As they are confined to their cells, prison officers observe them in shifts through a perspex door. When the boys are allowed out of their cells, they are not permitted meaningful contact with their peers. Planned health appointments are missed due to staff shortages and doctors who do visit them can talk to and observe them only through a hatch. Reportedly, that level of confinement would be enough to induce a mental breakdown and possibly psychotic mental states. Article 39 told me about another young boy who was subject to solitary confinement. He was acutely psychotic and in need of urgent in-patient care and treatment, but he sat in his cell for more than four weeks until a suitable hospital placement was secured and he was transferred out of prison.

This year, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report stating that

“pain inducing techniques and solitary confinement…are…not compliant with human rights standards”.

The Committee called for such techniques to be banned. The report also states:

“Data…shows that children are restrained too often, with…thousands of unjustified restraints each year, and that separation is also used too often”,

adding that staff are too quick to use restraint or separation.

The permitted use of pain-inducing restraint is beyond comprehension. Prisons are the only institutions in which staff are trained and permitted to inflict pain deliberately on children. Adult staff are given a green light to cause significant harm to a child in their care. If a parent, foster carer or anyone else behaved in that manner, they would be deemed to be breaking the law and would be dealt with appropriately. In the stark and unforgiving world of children’s prisons, however, apparently it is okay for adults to cause significant harm to vulnerable and frightened children. In the past, I have worked with incredibly distressed and—some would say—violent children who have lashed out. I know that is difficult, but staff in those institutions are put in impossible situations. Their training and the option that they are given is always about restraint. Better training and support are needed for those staff as a matter of urgency.

The techniques referred to as minimising and managing physical restraint are put into four categories: low, medium, high level and pain inducing. The exact details of those techniques are kept hidden from the public, as the Government state that they reflect those used in adult prisons. We do know that sometimes children are kept in holds on the floor for more than 15 minutes, on their front or back. There are reports of children losing consciousness, with blue lips, fingernails and earlobes, having difficulty breathing and vomiting. One boy’s wrist was described as “snapping like a pencil.” Despite the screams, the restraint continued.

Data for the last year from the Ministry shows that medical attention was required in 668 use-of-force incidents. Of those, 30 were so serious that the young people had to be admitted to hospital. In the past, some incidents have even resulted in death, either directly or afterwards when children, unable to take any more, have taken their own lives. I know the Minister will be familiar with the cases of Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood. Their deaths led to MMPR, which we know is comparable to restraint used in adult prisons but, as I said, we cannot see. We do not really know the true extent of the pain being inflicted on those children.

The children who have been significantly harmed and are no longer with us deserve to have their stories told. Their lives mattered. For children who are in prison now and future generations, a whole new approach is needed. I respectfully say to the Minister that secure schools are not the answer. After all, 20 years ago that was what secure training centres were supposed to be but, as today’s debate shows, they have evolved into something far uglier than their remit of excellence in care and education. Furthermore, having Medway as the experimental site for this new model is not only grossly misguided, but smacks of a lack of understanding of how culture, custom and practice infect an institution and never leave. Rebranding while the centre is still classed as requiring improvement for child safety will not lead to the improvements for which the Minister hopes.

The campaign to end child imprisonment, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, is formed by a coalition of groups with a deep understanding of children’s prisons, child development and children’s rights. Those groups are campaigning not just for the closure of those prisons and a more child-welfare-based model, but for a move from responsibility for children’s detention towards children’s services. They want a change in the law so that deprivation of liberty is always an absolute last resort, and to remove punishment and deterrence as reasons for imprisoning children. I would like the Minister to respond to the campaign’s asks, and to outline the Ministry’s timetable for phasing out those institutions. I would appreciate it if he could tell us when we can expect the findings and recommendations of the review of pain-inducing techniques that began more than a year ago.

We are debating the harrowing and frightening lives that some children have to endure day in, day out. Those are children for whom the state has sole responsibility. I urge the Minister to take serious action: abolish child prisons before more harm is done. It is not only his professional duty but his moral duty to do so.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this debate and on the conviction and professional knowledge she brought to bear on it.

I am afraid I do not have much knowledge of the prison estate; I am speaking for the specific reason that shortly after I become an MP, around the turn of the century, there was an upsurge of interest in precisely this problem and a great flurry of official and ministerial attention. As far as I can see, absolutely nothing was learnt from that time. The events centred on Feltham young offenders institution, which is close to my constituency. There were disturbances; there was a suicide caused by racially aggravated bullying, and many of the things we just heard about were reported in the press. I went there several times with other MPs, and there was an investigation and a report.

Seemingly, the problems had been solved, because the Government at the time and the prison authorities put in more staff; overcrowding among 16 to 18-year-olds was greatly reduced and we were told that the problem had gone away. But it is clear from reports from the same institution and others that many of those problems are still with us in exactly the same form or are considerably worse. It is worth rehearsing some of the main findings from that time, many of which seem highly relevant today. I want to test the Minister’s institutional memory, to know whether he is even aware that we are going round the same cycle as before.

One of the first major conclusions was the neglect of mental health. We heard from the hon. Lady how the dissatisfaction of professionals and the Royal College of Psychiatrists is a problem, as it was then. A second problem was the complete lack, or very flimsy provision, of education facilities, partly because prisoners were being constantly recycled through the prison estate—they had very short stays and there was no time to acquire qualifications. Those who were doing vocational training in workshops were denied access to equipment because of the fear of harm and self-harm. As a result, most young people were going out on to the streets functionally illiterate and without any practical qualifications, perpetuating their problems.

The third problem, which I think is exactly the same today, was a phase of extreme overcrowding. Professional staff were not there for a very long period and, as a consequence, young prisoners were “banged up” for 23 hours a day. They were also put together in very unsuitable pairings; I went into a cell where a young offender who was there because he had been found using cannabis during his first experience of it was put with a very violent rapist, and was clearly traumatised by the contact with his cellmate. It was patently obvious even to a visitor that it was inappropriate. It perpetuated the problem to have remand prisoners and sentenced prisoners mingling together and learning from each other in a bad way.

The situation then, which I think is now significantly worse, was that there was a disproportionate number of BAME prisoners—then overwhelmingly black, and now black and Asian in greater numbers. I think the Asian population has been affected by extreme religious tendencies that have got into the prison system. We have all those ills, which were supposed to have been cured but appear to be back again in force. The simple question I ask is: why have the lessons not been learned? Why do we not progress from one generation to another? As was very eloquently described, the young people concerned reoffend, and their children will in turn reoffend, unless we learn the lessons of the past.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this debate.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I am acutely aware of the issues the hon. Lady raised, as a result of our recent investigation into youth detention, solitary confinement and restraint. She also raised wider issues pertaining to the current provision of youth custody, including concerns about not only safety and the use of restraint and force, but segregation of children away from others, the lack of purposeful activity for children in custody, the lack of time out of their cells, the disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic children in custody—the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) referred to that—and the distance from home at which children are sometimes held.

Social work statistics in Scotland in 2017-18 showed an increase of 89% in the average number of residents from outwith Scotland in secure accommodation. That is a form of restriction of liberty, because placing children so far from their family reduces family contact and is clearly detrimental to their wellbeing. I very much endorse the call by the hon. Member for South Shields for children to be placed as close as possible to where they come from.

I have been assisted in preparing for this debate by a helpful briefing from the Howard League for Penal Reform, which historically has had a great deal of involvement in this matter. It was very useful to hear from the right hon. Member for Twickenham how far back these problems go, and how very often the attempts at reform have failed, so that we face the same problems today as we did 10, 20 or more years ago. The Howard League has highlighted the number of children from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds who have histories of care and high levels of health problems. We have children with disabilities held in the sorts of conditions that I have described, and it is simply not acceptable.

It is particularly depressing that the 2017 report by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) found that more than 40% of children in prison in England and Wales were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and that, despite the concerns he raised, that figure has now risen to 51%. That is something that we should all be ashamed of.

As I said, the Joint Committee on Human Rights carried out an investigation into youth detention, solitary confinement and restraint. I will say a little bit about our findings in a moment, but most important for the purposes of this debate is our overall finding that the UK Government must increase its

“efforts to coordinate and reconfigure resources, to ensure that there are enough specialised placements…so that each child can be placed in the most appropriate setting and as near as possible to home.”

We were really advocating for recognition of the fact that these offenders are children, and for a more holistic approach. That is what we have attempted in Scotland, as I will come on to in a moment, and with some success—although I will not pretend that some of the problems we are talking about today do not also occur within the Scottish system.

The focus of the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights was on solitary confinement and restraint. I must confess that we were greatly assisted by evidence from the Minister responding to today’s debate, who was admirably frank about matters, but some serious questions remain to be answered. Our report found “substantial medical evidence” of the significant

“physical and psychological impacts of restraint, particularly when used upon children.”

We were quite clear in our findings that restraint harms children, but it also harms the staff who are trained to inflict it; it undermines rehabilitation, which is the objective of detention; and it contributes to a vicious circle of problems that figure in continued offending by such children.

The Committee found that

“rates of restraint of children…are unacceptably high,”

and that those children’s rights were being routinely breached. We were very clear that the deliberate infliction of pain is

“unacceptable under any circumstances under rights legislation”.

We also stated:

“The use of restraint for maintaining ‘good order and discipline’ must be prohibited in all but the most exceptional of circumstances.”

We recognised that sometimes the behaviour even of children can be extremely challenging for staff, and we recognised the right of staff to act in self-defence when necessary, but we were quite clear that the deliberate infliction of pain on children was unacceptable.

In its report, the Joint Committee also looked at solitary confinement and made it clear that

“the use of separation from human contact is harmful to children if used for more than a few hours at a time and, beyond that,”—

as the hon. Member for South Shields said—

“it can amount to inhuman or degrading treatment that is a breach of children’s rights.”

The evidence we heard showed that incidents of separation—separating a child out from other children where there has been trouble or difficulty—can “drift” so that they end up in what amounts to solitary confinement, which can, in practice, be prolonged.

We were using the term “solitary confinement” to refer to

“isolation from normal human contact”

exceeding 22 hours per day, and “prolonged solitary confinement” where it lasts for more than 15 days.

We noted that many commentators, including all the witnesses that gave us evidence on the issue, disagreed with the Government’s assertion that solitary confinement is not used for children. We agreed with the Government that the guidelines do not permit solitary confinement, but we stated that although Ministers should not allow children to be intentionally placed in solitary confinement, that was, in effect, what was happening: incidents of separating a child out can drift and become severe isolation amounting to solitary confinement. In fairness to the Government, we said that the breach of children’s rights was not a policy decision of the Government, but it was within the Government’s power to prevent it by having closer oversight.

We made various calls, of which the Minister is well aware, on the Government to take immediate steps to ensure that the separation of children from human contact never becomes solitary confinement, and that every decision or review of a decision to extend a period of separation beyond 72 hours should be reported to the Minister, who should lay such information before each House. That might seem an extreme recommendation, but it was in recognition of the fact that we are talking about children and the long-lasting damage that can be done if they are placed in solitary confinement.

Depriving a child of their liberty is one of the most serious actions that the state can take. It must always be used as a last resort, and for the shortest possible time. As I have said, my colleagues in the Scottish Government are committed to reducing the number of young people in custody, and they have had some success in doing so. In Scotland, there has been progress on this issue over a long period of time. In the 1960s, after the Kilbrandon report, Scotland moved to a holistic system of justice for children, and the children’s hearing system was set up for all children under 16. The key difference was a move from an adversarial system to an inquisitorial approach, whereby children’s offending is dealt with by a lay panel, with the idea that we should look to the causes of children’s offending rather than subjecting them to the same criminal justice process as adults.

Many years later, the Taylor report made a recommendation for similar reforms to process in England and Wales. It recommended that all children who plead guilty should be diverted from court to a panel that would investigate

“the causes of the child’s behaviour, including any health, welfare and education issues, and put in place a rigorous Plan that will tackle the factors associated with the offending and give victims and communities assurance that the behaviour is being addressed.”

It is a matter of regret that that recommendation has not been taken up by the United Kingdom Government. Ministers in the Home Office and Ministry of Justice have frequently said that there are aspects of criminal justice policy in Scotland that are useful for the Government of England and Wales to look at in relation to good practice. If we go back to the process by which we deal with children who offend, it might be possible to reduce the number of children who need to be held in a secure setting and therefore reduce the sorts of problems that we are discussing. I ask the Minister to address that issue as well as the questions that have been specifically addressed to him by the hon. Member for South Shields.

Will the Minister explain to us why the Government are prepared to look at only some parts of the Taylor report, and why the UK Government are not looking at a system for England and Wales similar to Scotland’s children’s panel? I also want an assurance from the Minister that the Government—not just him—will take very seriously the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I am sure, given his evidence to the Committee, that such an assurance will be forthcoming. The recommendations were agreed unanimously among Members of both Houses, across all parties, and focused on restraint and solitary confinement.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for securing this important debate. She is a passionate campaigner for the rights and fair treatment of children, and the serious and substantial work she does is a credit to her. She made a brilliant speech and, along with the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) covered most of the pertinent points, including on solitary confinement and segregation, which was the subject of a lengthy debate in this place not long ago. I will come to that later in my speech.

Another pertinent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West was on the blurring of the lines. The Government are adamant that no child is subject to solitary confinement, but the line between segregation and solitary confinement is blurred. Although the Minister’s intentions are not to be doubted, we need further clarification. The other pertinent point made by all who have spoken was on the sheer disproportionality in BAME representation in our youth estate: more than 50% is the current figure, which is shocking and cause for concern.

It is widely recognised by innumerable studies, reports and testimonies that child and young offenders are some of the most troubled and challenged groups of people in our society. Although they face many of the same issues that all young people do, they also face challenges and have needs of a far more extreme and pressing nature, and their experiences are far from typical of those faced by other children. When compared with the general population and their peers, children in custody are far more likely to experience mental health issues. Figures published by the prisons inspectorate and information collated by the MOJ both state that around 1 in 3 children in custody suffered from emotional or mental health issues. That is worrying enough on its own but, from what we know about mental health issues in the adult estate and wider society, the figure is expected to be much larger in reality. In many cases, mental health issues are aggravated by substance misuse, with nearly half of children assessed as having a substance misuse issue on entering custody—that figure too will no doubt be higher in reality.

Children who have spent time in care, with all the emotional distress, the huge disruptions to their lives and schooling, and likely prior abuse and trauma that life in care brings, are also much more likely to end up involved in criminal activity, and they are disproportionately represented to a significant degree in custody as a result. Less than on in every 100 children in England are in care, but they account for around two in every five children held in secure training centres and young offender institutions.

The Government’s review of youth custody—the Taylor review, to which hon. Members have referred—found that around nine in 10 children held in custody had been excluded from school at some point. Forty per cent. of the under-18s surveyed reported that they had not been to school since they were 14 years old. Many young people in custody are also further hampered by a range of additional mental health challenges that affect their education and learning, with 30% of 10 to 17-year olds suffering from ADHD, more than 50% from dyslexia, and 20% from another learning disability. It is therefore no surprise that their educational attainment is much lower than the national average. The Taylor review further points out that half of 15 to 17-year-olds entering young offender institutions have the literacy or numeracy levels expected of a seven to 11-year-old.

Such a cocktail of challenges and disadvantages are at the core of the drivers of offending for many children and young people. However, despite the challenges, the youth custodial system is fit to neither hold them nor care for them. It is plagued by serious problems that the Opposition have repeatedly warned of, and it is incapable of both ensuring the safety of vulnerable young people and effectively rehabilitating them for life after their release.

We agree that all children should be safe, including those in custody, but on this Government’s watch we have witnessed a marked increase in violence. The Taylor review points out that the number of assaults each month per 100 young people in custody rose dramatically from nine in 2009-10 to 16.2 in 2014-15. Indeed, so bad is the level of violence that the chief inspector of prisons not only described worrying rates of violence and a staggering decline in safety in the youth custodial estate in his 2017 and 2018 annual reports, but was forced to declare that no young offender institution or secure training centre is safe to hold children and young people.

Just today the inspectorate published a report into Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution Werrington that found that violence remains far too high. That follows a report into the notorious Feltham prison, referred to by a number of Members, which also saw a significant increase in violence. The Government like to praise the reduction in the number of children and young people in custody yet, as a result of their cuts to staff and budgets, those still imprisoned are in much greater danger. They have, like with the adult estate, pushed the youth custodial estate into a spiral of violence, where neither children nor staff are safe.

Children and young people imprisoned in the youth estate are also significantly more likely to carry out acts of self-harm as the vital support once available to vulnerable individuals is eroded and becomes yet another victim of cuts. Self-harm rates in youth custody have soared in a matter of just a few years, almost doubling from 5.1 incidents per 100 children in the year to March 2012 to nine incidents per 100 children in the year to March 2017.

Earlier this month, we saw that the rate of self-harm had doubled at Feltham, some cases of which were extremely serious and involved ligatures or significant cuts. The chief inspector of prisons warned that the

“care for children in crisis was inconsistent”

and that there was no action plan to address the rise in incidents. That is not helped by the fact that more than one in five children feels that it is easy to get illegal drugs into their young offender institution that are proven to aggravate mental health conditions and contribute to rates of self-harm. Nor is it helped by the excessive lock-up of children and young people inside their cells for much of the day—they are often allowed out for as little as 30 minutes for showers, telephone calls and exercise outside.

Thirteen years on from the independent Carlile inquiry into the use of restraint and solitary confinement, children and young people are still being subjected to those degrading and downright dangerous conditions. The internationally recognised Mandela rules state that solitary confinement—I make the point again that the Government call it segregation, and perhaps the Minister in responding could be clearer on what he sees as not the textbook differences but the practical differences between the two—has a devastating effect on physical and mental health, particularly among groups with mental health issues. Despite that, and even its acceptance in the Prison Service rules, in October last year the Children’s Commissioner found that the number of episodes of segregation in youth custody in England and Wales has increased in the past four years, even as the overall number of children detained has fallen.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has also raised worrying concerns that the use of force in the youth estate remains too high, with disproportionate force employed against children. So widespread is the use of force and restraint that the UN Committee against Torture took the step of asking the Government to ban all forms of restraint that inflict deliberate pain on children. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us on the Government’s response.

Finally, to a topical issue, the failures in the youth justice system and youth custodial estate are having a particular impact on BAME children. The failure to tackle needs, the drivers of offending and deep mistrust of the justice system among young people—particularly BAME children—are entrenching disproportionality in the system. Two years ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) published his landmark review on the treatment and outcome of those from a BAME background in the justice system. He found that, within the youth justice system, the proportion of those from BAME backgrounds rose from 25% to 41% in the decade from 2006 to 2016. That is a worrying American level of disproportionality that, as he says, leaves the UK sitting at

“the extreme end of the developed world in relation to disproportionality.”

We have heard today that the figure now is higher than 41%. That disproportionality should worry us all, particularly as a greater number of BAME children in the youth justice system live in poor housing, are disengaged from education and are more likely to suffer from mental health issues than their non-BAME counterparts.

The evidence we have heard is clear: the youth custodial estate is in dire crisis, the victim of years of underfunding and neglect by the Government. The Minister faces serious questions over the failure of the youth estate and the Ministry of Justice to keep children safe, treat them humanely, and properly prepare them for release. He must answer our questions and answer for the Government’s failure. He must also set out, as a matter of urgency, a plan to ensure that all children in the youth custodial estate are safe from violence and self-harm; a commitment to end the use of painful restraint techniques and solitary confinement; an explanation of the difference as he sees it between solitary confinement and segregation; and what the Government will do to reduce the unwarranted disproportionality of outcomes for BAME children. We have heard much about that in the last two years, but we have seen little in practice.

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I thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for securing a debate on this important subject. I know of her commitment to pursuing the subject and ensuring that it continues to be spoken about in this House, and rightly so.

Depriving a child of their liberty is an action that should be undertaken only as a last resort. It is not a responsibility that any state ever takes lightly. All parties would accept their responsibility for our youth justice system and this area, having served in government. I draw a slight distinction for the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), although one place I hope to visit—I am always happy to learn from the Scottish experience where possible—is HMYOI Polmont, which would be interesting as a comparator for how the English and Welsh system operates.

I am deeply committed to improving outcomes for children who offend. As all speakers have set out, children who enter the youth justice system are some of the most vulnerable in our society and are disproportionately represented in other at-risk groups with multiple and complex needs. It will not surprise my shadow, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), to know that I take issue with a number of his points, but I share his view. He set out eloquently the characteristics and context for that cohort of young people who end up in custody. For instance, of 555 children surveyed in YOIs in 2017-18, 16% considered themselves to have a disability, 30% reported emotional or mental health problems, and 45% had been, at some point, in local authority care. It is a key priority for me and this Government to ensure that such children receive the support and interventions they need to fulfil their potential and live a crime-free and constructive life.

The principal aim of our youth justice system, and indeed our justice system, must be to protect society. I argue that we do that most effectively by breaking the cycle of reoffending and enabling effective rehabilitation. To deliver a youth justice system that understands and addresses the underlying causes of offending—a range of bases and other factors, and past trauma buried somewhere in that young person, which the shadow Minister was right to allude to—must be key. We can then ensure that every child has the opportunity to turn their life around and move on from their previous offending behaviour.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable). It is always a pleasure to hear the leader of the Liberal Democrats speak in Westminster Hall, and although I am not sure that my institutional memory is as long as his, he rightly highlighted the context and stated where we have come from. Colleagues who are Members of the House for long enough so often see the same initiatives and ideas come round for a second time—I am not suggesting that the right hon. Gentleman has been here for that long, but he makes a valid point.

We have seen considerable successes in the youth justice system over the past decade and, as has been said, there has been a reduction of nearly 90% in children entering the system for the first time, from just under 100,000 in 2007-08 to around 14,400 in 2017-18. The total number of children receiving a caution or sentence has decreased by 82% from around 146,500 in 2007-08, to around 26,700 in 2017-18. Importantly, we have seen an unprecedented reduction in the number of children in custody, which has reduced by nearly 70% from a monthly average of around 2,900 in 2007-08, to just under 900—it is often lower—in 2017-18.

I will return to those statistics, but one issue raised by a number of right hon. and hon. Members was disproportionality. The justice system must uphold the principles of equality and fairness for all, and in 2017-18 BAME children made up 45% of the youth custody population on average. I am committed to reducing disproportionate outcomes for BAME children in the system, and I share the concerns voiced by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) in his 2017 report. Since my appointment almost exactly a year ago, I have worked closely with him. He has been constructive and has welcomed the significant progress in implementing his reforms. It will not surprise hon. Members, however, to hear that he is always clear that he thinks we need to do more and do it faster, but I put on record my gratitude to him for his engagement.

We recognise the need for systemic change, and the principle underpinning that approach is the “explain or change” system. On occasions, there may be a rational and reasonable explanation for something, and we can furnish that where appropriate. If we cannot explain, we should look to make changes that address disproportionate outcomes for BAME children in the justice system. The shadow Minister may be aware that I met his colleague, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), to discuss that and the work being done on it, and I am grateful to her for the constructive nature of those discussions.

When a crime has been committed, we have a duty to consider the needs and background of the perpetrator, but also those of the victim and wider community. As such, it is right that courts have the powers they need to sentence children appropriately. With the exception of the hon. Member for South Shields, I note that no one called for the abolition of imprisonment in this context, and I will come on to speak about what should be defined as an appropriate custodial setting. As is her want as Queen’s Counsel, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West chose her words exceptionally carefully when referring to custodial settings, and it is an important point.

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Does the Minister think that it would be beneficial for the system in England and Wales to follow the lead of Scotland in limiting and doing away with short-term sentences as far as possible? That has worked for adults across the system in Scotland, and reduced reoffending. I know it has been looked at by the Government, but does the Minister accept it is a good idea?

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The hon. and learned Lady gently tempts me. She will be aware of the clear statement that I, the Secretary of State, and others have made about the effectiveness or otherwise of short sentences. I have often said that a short sentence can be long enough to disrupt family life, education, relationships and home, but too short for any meaningful attempt to grapple with the underlying problems and needs of an offender. There is a particular challenge for young people under 18, because there is already a significant presumption against custody, which must be a last resort.

The offences that attract a custodial sentence—I leave this as a reflection on the nature of the cohort of young people who are in prison—include the possession of an article with a blade or point, common assault and battery, possession of other weapons, robbery, burglary in a dwelling, assault, and actual bodily harm. Those offenders make up the bulk of those sentenced to custody, including with short sentences, and I think that many in this House and beyond would still consider such offences very serious. The hon. and learned Lady will be aware that the Secretary of State set out his intention to bring forward proposals for discussion and consultation on how we approach short sentences, and I suspect that if she is patient, she may see that develop further in the coming weeks.

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Is the Minister aware of the success of the violence reduction unit in Scotland, and the diversionary schemes that take a holistic approach to knife crime? Those have succeeded in hugely reducing knife crime in Scotland, particularly among young men, not by locking them away but by taking a holistic approach to the problem. Surely that approach should also be followed south of the border.

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I enjoy taking interventions from the hon. and learned Lady, and although I am always somewhat nervous about what may be coming in my direction, she was kind in that last intervention. She rightly highlights the experience in Scotland. We are aware of that, and I take a close interest in it. The debate on the efficacy and future of short sentences is alive, and I am sure that she and other hon. Members will participate in it.

The youth justice system offers courts and other decision makers a range of flexible sentences that can be used to address a child’s behaviour and offending. Those range from informal diversions to cautions, community sentences and custody for the most serious offences. The Government believe that there will always be some children for whom custody may be the appropriate and necessary sentence, but we are equally clear that it should always be a last resort, and for a period of time in line with the seriousness of the offence.

In 2018, 26 sentences were given to children for murder—by “children”, I mean those under 18 who fall into the care of the youth justice system, for which I am responsible—and 44 for wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. In 2017-18, 32% of custodial sentences given to children were for violence against the person and possession of weapons—that goes back to the offences I mentioned earlier. Notwithstanding the point made by the hon. and learned Lady, we believe that those offences involve significant public protection concerns that must also be carefully considered in any future approach.

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10. Custodial sentences are available for children from that age, although their use is restricted, and the courts have a statutory duty to consider a child’s welfare during sentencing. Children under 12 will only ever receive a custodial sentence for the most serious offences where neither a community sentence or fine can be justified. Furthermore, we recognise that needs can differ among different age groups, and the sentencing guidelines reflect that. For example, detention and training orders are not available for under-12s, and can only be given to children aged 12 to 14 if they are considered to be persistent offenders. Returning to the definition of “child”, about 95% of those who receive a custodial sentence are 16 and 17-year-olds.[Official Report, 11 July 2019, Vol. 663, c. 3MC.] That is still a small number. I take the underlying point that the hon. Member for South Shields is making, but we should be clear about the age that is predominantly reflected in those who receive custodial sentences.

It is also clear that custody is used sparingly. Although proportions of sentence types have remained stable, the overall numbers are much lower than they were 10 years ago. For example, in 2017-18, just under 1,600 immediate custodial sentences were given to children, in comparison with about 15,500 community sentences. The proportions were 7% and 68%. In 2007-08, there were nearly 5,800 immediate custodial sentences, but the proportions were 6% and 68%, so they have been relatively consistent.

I am clear that custody needs to be in the right environment to rehabilitate children, which goes to the shadow Minister’s point. I have never shied away from the fact that, as I said in my evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in many cases we are not delivering the best outcomes for children. That is why we are committed to reforming youth custody and ensuring it is a place of safety and learning that is able to rehabilitate the young people who need to be there.

As the hon. Lady and the shadow Minister said, HMIP inspections of YOIs have identified safety and purposeful activity as key areas for improvement. The shadow Minister referred to what the Chief Inspector of Prisons said in 2017-18. He is a decent chap, and I know that he would want to be clear for the record that the Chief Inspector of Prisons subsequently moved away from that and does not maintain that there are no safe institutions. However, he was right to highlight what was said at the time. We have taken several steps to address these issues and in 2017, following that, we began a comprehensive reform programme to ensure that the services provided in custody are aligned with the increasingly complex needs of the children in our care.

Since 2017, the number of operational frontline staff in the YCS has increased by almost 40%. We have recruited more psychologists, healthcare staff and frontline officers, who are being appropriately trained in mental health and trauma-informed approaches. Earlier this year, the YCS began implementing a new evidence-based behaviour management strategy and integrated care framework, and we have built two new enhanced support units for those with the most challenging needs. We are also working with education providers and devolving additional funding to commission more educational, vocational and enrichment activities.

The ability to work with children displaying complex needs requires a very specific, very important set of skills. We are therefore also investing to improve the quality of our staff training. We have introduced a new youth justice specialist role tied to a foundation degree in youth justice to teach the latest in effective practice in youth work and rehabilitation. More than 400 staff have enrolled so far, and we are aiming for every prison officer in the YCS to have undertaken that training by 2023.

There will always be a need for a degree of security and a form of custodial setting. Alongside improving the existing estate, we are changing the fundamental approach. Last year, we announced the creation of the country’s first secure school, to be developed in Medway in Kent, which the hon. Member for South Shields referred to. I have huge respect for her, but respectfully disagree. I believe that secure schools are the right way to proceed to ensure we move away from the concept of a prison with education to that of a school—an educational setting—with a degree of security. I believe that that strikes the right balance.

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Does the Minister appreciate that that is what secure training centres were intended to be at their inception almost 20 years ago, and that it has not worked? The Government are going down the same track with the secure schools model.

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I would argue that secure schools are not a rerun of secure training centres. The Government recognise that there is a need for a secure custodial setting as part of the youth justice system, but we believe that education should be to the fore. The hon. Lady will have seen that, unlike for secure training centres, we are looking to education providers, rather than to established organisations dealing with custody and security, to run secure schools. We are very clear that, with the investment we are proposing, we can redesign and improve the Medway facility, achieving value for money for the taxpayer and adopting a different culture and approach in that setting.

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I am conscious that the Minister is coming to the end of his comments. One of the key questions I asked was this: what is the timetable for phasing out YOIs and secure training centres, as the Government promised in 2016?

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We have made it clear that we will open Medway as the first secure school, with a second one to follow. However, we wish to assess at each stage how well the system is working, how effective it is, and whether any improvements are needed along the way, so it would be wrong to set a date for a full and complete replacement and roll-out. The hon. Lady would not expect me to do that without testing the new model to ensure it adapts to reflect the experience, as it is completely different from the secure training centres. As I said earlier, all Governments must accept their share of responsibility for the system today. In a moment, I will address the questions that the shadow Minister asked.

We will give the leaders of secure schools freedom and autonomy, similar to the freedom enjoyed by headteachers, to create relationships, care and practice centred around the needs of the children. This new model of youth custody draws on the ethos and practice of schools, with the structure and support of the secure children’s home model. I look forward to announcing the provider of the first one at Medway very shortly.

Despite the successes, children leaving custody are the most likely to reoffend in the whole criminal justice system. Reoffending rates are far too high for children sentenced to custody for six months or less. That relates to the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West. We believe that short periods in custody can have a negative on a child’s rehabilitation. It can disrupt family relationships which, as the second Farmer review showed, can be fundamental to supporting rehabilitation and reducing future offending.

The Secretary of State for Justice set out in oral questions earlier this month the persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences do not work, and that community sentences can be more effective in reducing reoffending and keeping the public safe. I know that Members of all parties share that view, and I hope we will continue to see progress.

Let me turn to some of the questions that hon. Members asked. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West talked about the need for young people entering custody to be placed as near to their home as possible. She is right that, occasionally, there are needs that mean that that cannot happen. In cases where there has been gang-related violence or serious youth violence, there may be a genuine need to separate some young people in the custodial estate. She is right that that goes to the heart of maintaining family and other relationships.

It is always a pleasure to be cross-examined by the hon. and learned Lady and, indeed, by the whole of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I have read its report carefully, and I will be responding to it on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government very shortly. I can speak only for this Government. I do not know whether I will still be a Minister in five weeks’ time, but I can speak as one today. We will be responding very shortly.

The hon. and learned Lady mentioned the Taylor review recommendation about children’s panels. That is certainly an interesting idea. The principles underpinning it—understanding and addressing the root causes of offending—are absolutely valid and the right ones to look at in the context of the youth justice system. However, to implement the idea exactly as suggested would, to my mind, represent a significant change to the approach in this country, which still puts a judge, or a sentencer, at the heart of sentencing. As she will have seen from our response, we did not accept that recommendation, because we recognised the broader impact it would have on how our justice system operates.

The shadow Minister, and possibly also the hon. Member for South Shields, mentioned doctors’ access to patients. Doctors can always access patients directly where there is a medical need and the doctor makes that medical judgment.

The hon. Lady and the shadow Minister mentioned restraint. The training around restraint is very clear: it points to de-escalation, and the non-use of restraint is the priority. The training is there to provide officers with the skills to use. On pain-inducing techniques and restraint more broadly, as both hon. Members alluded to, the Taylor review has been under way for a while. One hon. Member—I think it was the shadow Minister, but it may have been the hon. Lady—asked when we can expect that review to be published. I will not comment before it is published, but we have said that we anticipate it will be published by the summer. I look forward to being able to do that and respond in due course, if I am still in this post.

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The Minister is being generous with his time. He seemed to indicate that pain-inducing restraint was used only for de-escalation. He will have heard from my opening comments that there is testimony from children saying quite the opposite. This is causing children pain. Has he seen the MMPR? Is he confident that it is not causing children harm? Would he want it used on any of the children he knows?

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The point I was making—forgive me if I was unclear—is that the training given to officers emphasises de-escalation as the key and the first step to be taken. It is only when there is no alternative that there is escalating use of different techniques. However, the hon. Lady made her point very clearly. As I said, I will wait until I have seen the Taylor review and we are able to publish it. I suspect that this issue will return to the Chamber in some form at that point.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members, particularly the shadow Minister, raised removal from association. We are clear that that would not be defined as isolation, not least because there is meaningful human contact with officers, medical professionals and, indeed, education professionals, who throughout any period of removal from association bring learning activities to an individual’s cell and work with them. There is no removal of meaningful human contact for the entirety of that period. There is human contact, but the shadow Minister is right that there is a definitional point to be considered. We discussed legal definitions and their different interpretations at length in the Joint Committee on Human Rights. He understandably elevated his point by saying that, although we can argue about definitions, he has concerns about numbers and the operation of removal from association.

The shadow Minister also mentioned the assault rate, the segregation rate and a whole range of other factors. I urge a degree of caution with respect to statistics expressed as numbers per 100. I mentioned in my testimony to the Joint Committee that, as the numbers go down, it is largely only those who have committed very serious, often violent offences who are sentenced to custody. They are a very concentrated cohort. As the shadow Minister alluded to, they are challenging and challenged individuals in terms of their backgrounds and experiences, but they are a much more concentrated group who are much more prone to violent offences than previously. That is a challenge. It does not necessarily negate his point, but I wanted to put a bit of context around the statistics and how they are interpreted.

The shadow Minister mentioned budgets and funding. He is a fair and decent man, so I know he would recognise the role played in the financial situation by the previous Labour Government’s mismanagement of the national finances.

This has been a very important debate. We need to think differently about how we deal with children who offend. We must ensure that we place at the heart of the system the need to break the cycle of reoffending before those young people become adults, and we must understand the trauma they have often experienced, which may well be a driving factor in their offending behaviour. The courts should have available to them a wide range of sentencing options for all those who are at the age of criminal responsibility, to ensure that we adequately address children’s offending behaviour. Sometimes, as a last resort, that may warrant a custodial sentence.

I am clear that the term “under 18” encompasses children at many different stages of development, so a different type of sentence, cognisant of the individual circumstances of the person, will be necessary in each case. However, I am also clear that custody should be available as a sentencing option in only the most serious cases. The youth secure estate requires real reform to ensure that custody, where it is used, is used effectively. I will bear very much in mind the comment by the right hon. Member for Twickenham about remembering my history and where we have been before in seeking to ensure that any future change is meaningful and achieves the results we would all wish for.

Let me conclude by thanking you, Mr Hosie, for your chairmanship. I thank all those who contributed, and I thank the hon. Member for South Shields for bringing this important debate to the Chamber.

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I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who took part in the debate. In the early stages of the Minister’s response, he seemed to suggest that I did not feel there should be consequences for crimes committed. Let me clarify that that is not my position at all. He seemed either not to have heard me or to have misunderstood the points I was making. Just to clarify, I advocated abolishing child imprisonment and putting in its place secure children’s homes, because that option is in keeping with all the knowledge and understanding we now have about children’s development.

It is disappointing that the Minister’s views on restraint and solitary confinement differ so vastly and wildly from the testimonies of children themselves and of those who work in this environment day in, day out. It is safe to say that I am happy that this House has considered abolishing child imprisonment, but I am not happy that we are not moving forward with it. It is something I shall be revisiting with the Minister imminently.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered abolishing child imprisonment.