Jeremy Beecham on the government’s ill-thought through plans for secure colleges for young offenders
“Government plans for the largest children’s prison in Europe are bad for children, bad for justice, and bad for the taxpayer”. Not my words, but those of 29 signatories to a letter in The Daily Telegraph, and including chief executives of leading children’s charities, the President of the Royal College of Psychiatry, the chair of the Association of Young Offending Team Managers and other experts.
No-one would argue with the intention to improve the education, and thereby the life chances, of young offenders. But the Coalition’s proposals – within the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill – for a secure college housing a third of young offenders in custody bear all the hallmarks of yet another Grayling gimmick. With a site in Leicestershire going begging, the Lord Chancellor’s latest brainwave was to engage a building firm to design a college housing boys and girls aged 12-17; and then start a tendering process which would lead to potential operators effectively writing their own job description. As a consequence, precious little information would be provided on costs or the precise way in which the institution would be managed.
Last week, Ministers finally published its consultation on the rules governing the establishment, including the revolutionary and transformative suggestion that inmates should be entitled to at least one hot shower a day. The consultation however, will conclude after the legislation is enacted, so that Parliament will have no opportunity of considering the outcome or the government’s response.
There are serious problems with the proposals, including housing all 45 girls now in custody in England in one place, potentially far from home and remote from the local authority services with which they should be in contact. Nor will be any overnight visitor accommodation on site. Also worrying is the prospect of having 12-15 years olds in the same institution, even though they will be housed in separate units.
Furthermore, it is entirely unclear how the educational component (which underpins the government’s rationale for the plan) will work, given that the population will be constantly changing. At Second Reading, Justice Minister Lord Faulks said: “a sufficient bank of time in a secure college would be intended, with an individually tailored plan”. He failed to reply to my questions on what sort of time he was talking about and who would ultimately determine its allocation?
And there is much concern, expressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission amongst others about the use of force “to maintain good and order and discipline”. The JCHR recommend it only as a last resort and “for the purpose of preventing harm to the child or others and to the extent that the minimum force necessary should be used”.
Our country criminalises children at a much younger age than most and appears reluctant to learn from the experience of others – for example Spain, where Diagrama run the best children’s custody centres in Europe. Or even US, where the Missouri model – with facilities containing no more than 50 beds – is becoming widely adopted. Lord Faulks described the secure college plan as enabling the government to “trial a new approach to youth custody”. But it’s an odd sort of trial that encompasses a third of the total potential number of relevant young offenders.
These half-baked proposals have attracted very little support, and embody the Tories’ typically slavish attachment to outsourcing. They are being pushed through with scant regard to the proper processes of parliamentary scrutiny. Yet another lamentable example of Grayling’s propensity to rush to misjudgement.
Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham
Published 22nd October 2014