Month: July 2016

More official evidence of child prison dangers

The Ministry of Justice has today released its latest statistics on safety in prisons.

In relation to boys and girls (aged 15 to 17), the data shows:

  • There were 393 self-harming incidents in 2015
  • Of the children who self-harmed, 171 were boys and 1 was a girl
  • 712 children were victims of assault in prison in 2015 (the number of assaults children suffered is not published)
  • There were 341 assaults on staff by boy prisoners in 2015.

The information released today also indicates that the child who passed away in Cookham Wood juvenile young offender institution last year died of natural causes.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, says:

“Today’s statistics add considerable weight to Charlie Taylor’s findings that prison officers work hard to protect children but do not have the skills, the expertise or the proper environment in which to achieve this. Behind each of these numbers is a distressed and frightened child who we have the power and the knowledge to help. One day we will look back in astonishment that we ever believed prison was a fit place for children.”

On the indication that a child died of natural causes in 2015, she added:

“What kind of society allows a child to die alone in a prison cell in an institution built to punish adults? This may have been comprehensible if it had occurred in 1815, but not 2015.”

Charlie Taylor is undertaking a review of youth justice for the Ministry of Justice. His interim report was published in February 2016.

Serious child protection concerns at child prison

Today’s inspection report on Wetherby juvenile young offender institution, which includes a specialist unit for children who find it impossible to cope in a mainstream prison, raises a catalogue of child protection concerns.

There were 272 boys in the prison at the time of the inspection. In the main prison, 29% of boys had formerly been looked after by local authorities; in the specialist Keppel Unit this was 42%.

Inspectors warned that:

  • Only one of 21 safety recommendations made at the last inspection, in January 2015, had been achieved
  • Two suicidal children were “kept for long periods in cells bare of furnishings and personal belongings”. One of the boys was made to wear strip-clothing at night. Inspectors said, “These sterile conditions gave too much priority to mitigating risk rather than providing a humane environment that promoted [children’s] wellbeing”
  • Two children had been strip-searched while held under restraint. The report explains, “This is one of the most invasive procedures that can be carried out by the state and an alternative should always be sought.” Neither of the incidents had been referred to the local authority for independent scrutiny
  • Inspectors could not assess whether strip-searching was appropriate (and therefore lawful) in the segregation unit, as its use was not recorded in the strip-searching log
  • The deliberate infliction of pain on children during restraint continued, despite repeated objections from the prisons inspectorate
  • Planned restraint was “rarely filmed’. This is especially alarming since body-worn cameras were one of the main child protection measures introduced in response to BBC Panorama’s undercover filming of physical abuse in G4S-run Medway secure training centre
  • 31% of children held in the main prison said staff had victimised them: 30 reported insulting remarks and 19 physical abuse
  • 38% of children held in the specialist unit said staff had victimised them: 6 reported insulting remarks, 6 physical abuse and 3 felt intimidated and threatened by prison officers
  • Life for children in the segregation unit was tantamount to neglect: “It consisted of a daily shower, 30 minutes’ exercise in a cage-like yard, meals delivered to the cell and a telephone call every other day. Only two out of seven residents on the unit at the time of the inspection were receiving education. None of the boys had sufficient activities to occupy them in their cells and radios were only issued to them during the inspection”
  • Only a quarter (26%) of children in the main prison said they could speak to an advocate when they need to
  • Less than a third (31%) of children in the specialist unit said they could speak to an advocate when they need to.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, says:

“How much more evidence do policy makers need that prisons are incapable of looking after children? This report tells us two children were held down by prison officers as their clothes were wrenched off their bodies; officers continue to deliberately inflict pain on children; 25 children reported physical abuse; officers working in the segregation unit do not even record strip-searches; suicidal children are kept in degrading conditions; and boys are allowed only 30 minutes outside in the fresh air each day, if they are lucky.

“Five months ago, Charlie Taylor issued his interim findings from his review of youth justice. He said his ambition was for smaller custodial establishments close to children’s families and communities. This latest inspection report should turn that ambition into a reality, and bring an end to the intolerable harm suffered by vulnerable children.”

Read the full report.

G4S custody officer charged with assault of a child

Kent Police announced today that a former G4S custody officer has been charged with the common assault of an imprisoned child. The officer worked at Medway secure training centre when it was managed by security firm G4S.

Nine other officers have been bailed pending further investigation. Two more officers were arrested for offences against children but released without charge.

Criminal investigations were launched following BBC Panorama undercover filming of physical and emotional abuse in the centre. Panorama’s programme, ‘Teenage Prison Abuse Exposed’, was broadcast on 11 January. It later transpired that formal complaints about children’s treatment in the prison had been submitted to the Youth Justice Board as long ago as 2003.

Medway secure training centre has been under government control since 1 July 2016.

Medway Safeguarding Children Board has not yet decided whether it will commission a serious case review into the harm suffered by children at the prison. Article 39 wrote to the Chair of the Board, John Drew, last month. We shared information we have obtained about serious injuries and asphyxiation warning signs during the use of physical restraint in Medway (and other child prisons), and urged Drew to launch a serious case review.

Peers warn Government Clause 15 could be voted down

Clause 15 of the Children and Social Work Bill was debated in the House of Lords last night (11 July), and received strong opposition.

This part of the controversial Bill introduces a fast-track procedure for the removal of the majority of primary and secondary legislation, passed since 1933, related to children’s social care.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie explained:

“The Government have not made a case as to why Clause 15 is necessary. The Minister needs to explain to noble Lords precisely what problem this proposal is designed to address. As to the underlying premises of Clause 15, frankly, who knows? Suggestions have been put forward by several people and organisations. They vary from requirements in primary and secondary legislation blocking the delivery of effective children’s services to the suggestion that it might make it more attractive for private companies to get involved in the delivery of social work services.

“No evidence has been published by the Government to support the notion that legislation is an impediment.

“…Is it the case that all legislative duties in respect of children’s social care are potentially problematic? I think not, because the Government’s Red Tape Challenge concluded in 2014 that only five regulations needed to be scrapped, three of which were already redundant, and 14 separate regulations were actually improved as a consequence of that consultation. Despite that, the breadth of legislation that can be exempted by Clause 15 is extraordinarily wide.”

Lord Warner had proposed an amendment requiring an independent review panel be established, prior to the fast-track procedure being used, but stated during the debate:

“Rather unusually, I would prefer that Clause 15 were removed from the Bill altogether than that the Government accept the amendment in my name and that of the noble Baroness…

“One is entitled to be a little suspicious about what the Government are really up to with Clause 15. Of course, I am the sort of chap who takes for granted that Ministers are well intentioned when they bring measures before your Lordships’ House, but could it be that what lies behind this provision is a short-cut way of outsourcing whole chunks of services? Ofsted seems to be claiming that up to 25% of children’s services are inadequate. Rather than working with some external turnaround capacity to improve matters, is there a new-found enthusiasm within DfE for trying to get quicker results by removing legislative impediments to outsourcing?

“Personally, I have no particular objections to outsourcing if that can be shown to have a beneficial effect for children after trialling. I have been trying to probe what the DfE is up to with the transfer of children’s services to trusts. On the answers that I have received, this is clearly an expensive process, it can be very time-consuming, accountability can become extremely blurred and at present there is no body of evidence to support it as a general remedy for failure. Moreover, the DfE has still to publish the report that it commissioned in 2014 from LaingBuisson into developing capacity and diversity in the provision of children’s services. I know from my involvement in that work that it did not suggest that creating a market in children’s services would be easy.

“What we need, in writing, are the primary and secondary legislation blockages that are stopping innovation and why in those cases you cannot use the Secretary of State’s power of direction or an amendment to the statutory guidance. That is the issue, and [the Minister] has not come anywhere near tackling that proposition.”

Baroness Walmsley explained:

“These clauses, to my mind, fundamentally undermine rights that have been enshrined in children’s social care legislation following intensive debate in Parliament. They are to be removed at our peril…

“The noble Lord, Lord Warner, mentioned Professor Eileen Munro. He is quite right that she never suggested that we needed to repeal primary or secondary legislation; she just asked for less onerous guidance. Innovation has been done effectively through waiving statutory guidance in some authorities. Importantly, outcomes have been monitored and reported on and it is from such reports that lessons are learned. That is the way forward.

“I question the necessity for this part of the Bill. In particular, I want to ensure that the Secretary of State can be assured by independent experts that the benefits to children’s rights will be greater than the risks. The key word here is independent because, according to the Bill, the only people who have to be consulted are the Chief Inspector of Schools and the Children’s Commissioner. I point out that both of them will already have been appointed by the Secretary of State. Although I have every respect for the current incumbents of those offices, we need more independence than that. That is why I support this amendment. Innovation should be encouraged within a framework of fundamental rights and entitlements within the law.”

The Earl of Listowel said:

“My Lords, before speaking to my amendment in this group I make clear that I support those noble Lords who call for the clause to be removed from the Bill. This is not the time to erode the rights of vulnerable children.”

Lord Ramsbotham added:

“My Lords, I return briefly to Clause 15, which is a classic example of regulation too far. I agree with everything that has been said so far. It is inappropriate and ought to be struck out of the Bill.”

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville said:

“My Lords, I shall speak against Clause 15 and support the arguments of the noble Lords, Lord Watson, Lord Warner and Lord Ramsbotham. Clause 15 allows local authorities to be exempted from certain legal requirements and regulations and to test different ways of working. It is important, however, that they do not dilute accountabilities, fragment responsibilities and create a two-tier system of quality and standards. All vulnerable children deserve the same level of care.”

Lord Wills, fearing the Government would not act in the face of such opposition, proposed an amendment which would require consultation with children and young people:

“The Minister will be aware that there is unease outside your Lordships’ House as well. I recognise that innovation can be crucial to the improvement of public services and I suspect, although I hope to be proved wrong, that the Government will not be unduly swayed by all the compelling arguments that we have heard against the clause.”

Baroness Pinnock explained:

“At the heart of this clause is a dichotomy. On the one hand, children’s social work is probably the most regulated of all public services and has the most legislation surrounding its practice. On the other hand, if we take the clause at face value, it appears to allow any innovation within those regulations to be set aside. I asked civil servants what the criteria are for innovative practice, what the boundaries for it are and whether anything is off the table. The answer was that there are to be no limits. I found that quite disturbing. It is not as though we are dealing with anything mechanical here; we are dealing with the most troubled and vulnerable children in our society, who deserve our protection.”

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath interjected as the Minister proceeded to respond to concerns:

“My Lords, I am no expert in this area, but I still have not got hold of an example of what the provision is that stops innovation taking place. Is it about reporting and bureaucracy, or is it to do with an actual statutory responsibility? I am unclear about that. The Minister must be aware that, at this rate, he has no chance of getting this through the House of Lords as it stands. It is a question of what he wants to convince the Committee and then the House at some point. Is it about allowing local authorities to do the right thing with fewer bureaucratic controls, or is it saying that one can actually stand down part of the core legislation? That is what I am unclear about.”

Responding for the Government, Lord Nash first dealt with wide concerns that Clause 15 could be used to usurp the current ban on profit-making in children’s services, which is only in regulations. (Lord Ramsbotham and others are seeking to enshrine this in primary legislation). The Minister said:

“Before I go into detail, I would like to return quickly to our discussion about profit of last week. I could not help reflecting that I might be the only noble Lord present who has spent most of his life, until recently, proudly in pursuit of profit. That fact may itself raise wider issues, but I say again that we have no intention of revisiting the settled position on profit-making in children’s social care or of using Clause 15 to circumvent that position. I gave that assurance at Second Reading and do so again now.”

The Minister then explained how Clause 15 could be used:

“I will try some more illustrations. I do not suppose they will get me very far but since I have more to say, perhaps people could bear with me. I shall illustrate this point with two examples. First, it is felt that on some occasions applying the full gamut of care-leaver regulations associated with children on remand, who automatically become looked-after when in custody, is not always the best option for those children. Local authorities are interested in developing a service that better responds to their needs, informed by the young person, which, where a local authority can make a professional decision, would ensure better and informed choices without an unwanted service automatically being triggered by legislation. A real-life example of that was given to us by one of our partners in practice local authorities. In this instance, the young person was returning to live with their grandmother. Applying the burdens and processes associated with looked-after children placements unnecessarily overcomplicated matters for both the authority and, most importantly, the young person and their family.

Secondly, as I highlighted at Second Reading, there is a widespread view that adoption and fostering panels do not always add value, and can often delay the process of approving prospective carers. These panels are only advisory, with the ultimate decision resting with the local authority. Local authorities explain that they think they could get to the same decision quicker without the panel in some circumstances. The freedom likely to be requested would be to remove the requirement always to have the panel in place for all cases, and for the agency decision-maker, who currently makes the decision, to continue to exercise their professional judgment. In straightforward cases, the decision would be made quicker to allow the best solution to be progressed faster so that children get the support they need…

… the department will look to evaluate the use of the power so that we understand the impact, where there is a case for permanent changes to the legislative framework—changes that would of course come back for further scrutiny to this House.”

“I would like to provide reassurance that children are at the core of this provision. In most cases, we would expect local authorities to have consulted children affected by any change and in fact many of the possible changes that local authorities have discussed with us originate from requests from children, as I have already said. For example, in the case of independent reviewing officers, children have fed back to our partner in practice authorities that they do not like additional people who they do not know to be present at their case reviews discussing intimate information. More specifically, in the case of North Yorkshire, just over 400 children and young people are looked after. The vast majority are very settled and achieving well. Older young people in this position tell the authority that they find regular formal reviews unsettling and that they would like to be treated like their non-looked-after peers. There is then a much smaller number, on average 20, who are not currently settled and require regular in-depth reviews. This is one area in which a request for use of the power to innovate may well be made to make more effective use of the experienced cohort of independent officers.”

There was then a promise to set out where primary and secondary legislation is stopping the delivery of effective children’s services:

“I am delighted that so many noble Lords have referred to excellent examples of innovation by various local authorities, but of course just because some innovation is taking place without changes to legislation does not mean that others will be able to innovate without making such changes. Of the examples that we have been discussing with local authorities, all need exemptions from secondary and in some cases primary legislation. I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, setting out what primary and secondary legislation blockages are in place before Report.”

A meeting with local authorities and others was also promised:

“…in view of noble Lords’ concerns and suspicions about our motivation, the best way forward—in addition to writing to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and sharing that letter with all Peers—is to have what I suggested. I hope that all noble Lords who are interested will come to a meeting with a number of local authorities and individuals where they can explain in detail why they need this power, and noble Lords who feel that they can achieve the same objective without using it can talk about that. We can have a detailed, granular discussion about specific examples, rather than a high-level discussion, which is always, in my view, rather dangerous. I commit to organising that, and I hope that all noble Lords will attend.”

Another example of removal of entitlements, in this case fostering allowances, was given by the Minister:

“I give another example to illustrate the use of the power. Local authorities tell us that a carer who is either a family member or friend is often thought to be the best placement option for a child in care, but the requirement that they become an approved foster carer after a 16-week grace period can be difficult to achieve, especially where family and friends have no real desire to be local authority-approved foster carers generally. We discussed in Committee last week the important role that grandparents can play. This is exactly the sort of area where use of the power could make better use of the strengths they bring.

Exemption from this requirement could mean local authorities being able to place a child with the person to whom they have the greatest attachment. There could still be an option for the carer to become an approved foster carer if they wish, but the exemption would give flexibility for the carer and a better chance of achieving the most suitable option for the child being selected.”

The Minister rejected an amendment tabled by the Earl of Listowel that would entitle a child, or their representative, to request that their legal rights be reinstated, where these had been exempted. Lord Nash said:

“… requiring a local authority to reinstate existing processes and procedures upon individual request would considerably weaken a local authority’s ability to assess the effect of the power… In order to test and evaluate exemptions properly, I feel it is right that local authorities should not be subject to an infinite range of requirements in respect of different children, but can use their professional judgment in response to the child’s request.”

The Minister additionally refused to exclude the corporate parenting principles from the list of legislation that could be exempted by local authorities in future, should Clause 15 be passed.

Summing up opposition to Clause 15, Lord Watson said at the end of the debate:

There is deep-seated resentment and opposition to this and it will not go away through the amendments in this group just being withdrawn or not moved today.”

Article 39 continues to lobby for the removal of Clause 15 from the Bill.

Read the full debate.

Review of children’s residential care

Article 39 congratulated our friends at Every Child Leaving Care Matters yesterday, when their sustained lobbying for Staying Put for 18 year-olds leaving children’s homes was officially recognised by Sir Martin Narey’s review into residential care. Staying Put is the term given to young people’s right to stay in their foster home until the age of 21, introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014. Young people leaving children’s homes have no equivalent right.

Sir Martin does not recommend that all 18 year-old care leavers be entitled to stay in their care placement until the age of 21, but instead argues for significantly increased support (subject to funding). He also urges Ministers to work with leading figures in Every Child Leaving Care Matters, who are care leavers themselves, in introducing this new support. This is a great step forward.

There are other findings in the report which should bring new and increased respect for residential care, including recognition of the very positive role it can play in supporting children to live in families (when this is best for them and concurs with their own wishes and feelings).

However, other observations and conclusions in the Narey Review present potential risks to children’s rights.

First, Sir Martin recommends the Department for Education consider how to encourage “the voluntary and private sector to enter the secure care market”. All but one of the country’s 14 secure children’s homes are run by local authority children’s services; the other is run by a charity and legislation already permits not-for-profit organisations to manage such homes. So this recommendation seems principally about enabling profit-making in secure children’s homes. There is no acknowledgement in the report of the chequered history of private companies running other locked establishments, including the serious abuse allegations at G4S-run Medway secure training centre, which have so far led to 11 arrests and the multinational selling its UK children’s business.

Second, there is a recommendation that the Department for Education, in consultation with Ofsted, “reconsider their guidance” about the use of physical restraint and locked doors in children’s homes. The guidance is presently very clear that there may be occasions when restraint can be lawful and justified to prevent a child leaving a children’s home. This advice is longstanding, and can be traced back to guidance on permissible forms of control in children’s residential care, dated 1993. That was introduced because of fear and uncertainty over discipline, following the abolition of corporal punishment in children’s homes in 1991. Recent guidance, like that issued in 1993, also makes clear, “The locking of external doors, or doors to hazardous materials, may be acceptable as a security precaution if applied within the normal routine of the home”. In a section on pedagogy, Sir Martin refers to Derbyshire children’s homes “apparently” reducing the use of physical intervention “to the point where they are said to have all but disappeared”. Article 39 hopes that any initiative by the DfE and Ofsted to examine the use of restraint and locked doors in children’s homes learns from positive, non-coercive practice. The Medway Improvement Board’s recent report on G4S-run Medway secure training centre will also be relevant, since it eloquently makes the case for moving away from coercion.

Third, the Review encourages local authorities and others “to be cautious about following any hard and fast rule about placement distance and to recognise that the right placement for a child is more important than location”. This sentiment is already reflected in law, so the risk is that this recommendation could undermine recent efforts to ensure children are placed as close to their home ties and communities as possible, when this promotes and safeguards their welfare.

Fourth, the Review accuses the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust of exaggerating the criminalisation of children in care. Sir Martin has undertaken some useful factual checks which indicate, for example, that the police are not always called out for misbehaviour but also for welfare reasons. However, we believe he missed an obvious and important opportunity to explore the potential for residential care staff having colleagues specifically trained in de-escalation to call in during crises, which could then avert police officers being brought to homes.

Finally, we are disappointed that Sir Martin has the impression that children’s rights are associated with “indulgence” and inexpert care. There is consistent acknowledgment in the Review of child abuse and mistreatment in residential care in the past. What is missing, however, is an awareness of the pivotal role that respect for children’s rights has played in transforming children’s homes from the often bleak, regimented and cruel institutions of the past to the positive, nurturing homes of today.