Article 39 and the National Association for Youth Justice are supporting an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which would allow local authorities to establish and maintain a new form of secure children’s home, and would also prohibit profit-making companies from running this type of establishment.
The amendment has been tabled by Sarah Champion MP and is expected to be debated in the House of Commons today (15 June).
Four and a half years ago, after repeated abuse scandals in child prisons, the government committed to phasing out juvenile young offender institutions and secure training centres, replacing them with a network of secure schools.
Secure schools will have to register with Ofsted as secure children’s homes and follow the same quality standards as England’s other secure children’s homes. These quality standards are set out in the Children’s Homes (England) Regulations 2015. The schools will also be run as 16 to 19 academies.
Clause 138(4) of the The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill defines a secure 16 to 19 academy as a secure children’s home.
Despite local authorities being the only organisations in the country with any experience of running secure children’s homes for children who are remanded and sentenced by the courts, they were excluded from applying to run the first experimental secure school. The contract for that went to Oasis Charitable Trust.
Along with many other organisations, Article 39 strongly opposes the government’s choice of former Medway secure training centre as the location of its first secure school. Following sustained concerns about the mistreatment of children in the centre, in 2016 a BBC Panorama programme exposed serious child abuse. A serious case review published three years later showed sustained child protection failures by G4S and other agencies working within and outside the prison. An Improvement Board established in the wake of the abuse revelations found that 35 separate whistle-blowing letters had been sent to the Youth Justice Board over the preceding seven years in respect of this one institution. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found 44 alleged incidents of sexual abuse between January 2009 and December 2017.
The Local Government Association told Parliament’s Justice Committee that it was disappointed that councils had been kept out of the process for bidding to run the first secure school, highlighting their considerable expertise in both community-based youth justice services and running secure children’s homes.
Data obtained by Article 39 from the Residential Care Leadership Board (following an FOI request) shows that 15 secure children’s homes in England were closed between 2003 and 2018.
Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:
“The government’s 2016 commitment to close down child prisons was momentous but the pace of change is intolerably slow. Once ministers acknowledged that children could not be kept safe, and their lives could not be turned around by these punishing institutions, they should have worked at speed to produce a strategy and a timetable for implementing their closure programme.
“It is right that government invests in new secure children’s homes given how many have been closed and the very high level of need among teenagers especially. Family courts are having to authorise children’s deprivation of liberty in unregulated accommodation because of the scarcity of provision. Then there are children languishing in prison cells who would unquestionably receive qualitatively better care, help and support in secure children’s homes designed to meet their needs, keep them safe and get to the root of their offending.
“It is inexplicable that councils are excluded from running secure schools. Despite the new name, these establishments will legally operate and be run as secure children’s homes and it is within local authorities that the expertise lies – in supporting children and their families within the community and in running secure children’s homes.
“As for profit-making, successive governments experimented with allowing large multinationals to run secure training centres. The legacy there is that two children died in the most appalling circumstances following restraint, many thousands were unlawfully restrained and numerous official investigations confirmed systemic child protection failures. Ministers have said secure schools will not be run for profit. They could show they really mean this by a simple amendment to the legislation.”