Jeremy Beecham on the government’s doomed attempt to make a case for secure colleges
You are the Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice, the first non-lawyer for centuries to serve as Lord Chancellor. You are concerned at the high cost of detaining young offenders in a variety of institutions, and at the rate of re-offending on their release. You want to improve their education. You are told about Glen Parva - a redundant 1970s Borstal near Leicester. In the course of preparing a Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, a plan is developed to build a secure college on this site, to house some 320 youngsters, boys and girls from the age of 12 to 17, as a pilot scheme, to be followed on elsewhere if successful.
The plan proves highly controversial. It is pointed out that the number of young offenders in custody is falling, so that this one institution will house close to a third of the total. This means many of them will be held far from home and family, and no overnight accommodation is planned for the site. Since the number of girls in custody in England is very small, around 50, these problems become more acute for them, and there are serious misgivings any way about a mixed gender institution. Even if assurances are given that the girls will be housed in a separate building within the complex. Concerns are also raised (and partially addressed) over the limitations of the site, in terms of open space and recreation.
Critically, it is pointed out in debates in the Lords that while the emphasis on education is welcome the new secure college cannot emulate Eton. It will not have annual cohorts of entrants able to pursue a yearly curriculum. The youngsters will come at different times and remain for different periods.
The proposal is heavily criticised by a wide range of organisations, from the Standing Committee on Youth justice to the Prison Reform Trust, the NSPCC to the Children's Rights Alliance. But you are the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, and you are not persuaded.
The Bill goes forward, notwithstanding grave reservations from all sides of the House, including the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham. A Labour amendment to prevent colleges from housing boys under 15 and girls is carried by one vote but overturned in the Commons. The Lords re-instate the amendment in December by 304 votes to 240.
Fast forward to June 2015, when it is disclosed that the letting of contracts has been postponed and a reply to a written parliamentary question reveals that £5.6million has been spent on the project.
Then last Friday, a written reply to a tame - and presumably planted - question from a Conservative MP discloses that the project has been abandoned. Curiously, the main reason advanced was the fall in numbers in youth custody which had been highlighted a year ago. Happily you are no longer Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice and will not have to answer for this fiasco. It may however, appear in a future edition of The Blunders of Our Governments, the best-selling book by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.
Lord Jeremy Beecham is a Shadow Justice Minister and a Labour Peer in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham
Published 13th July 2015
This blog first appeared at The Huffington Post politics blog