Article 39 and the National Association of Youth Justice (NAYJ) are delighted that the House of Lords has voted to allow local authorities to run secure 16 to 19 Academies, a new type of secure children’s home which will also operate as an academy.
Formerly known as secure schools, these new establishments will be registered with Ofsted as secure children’s homes and they will have to comply with children’s homes quality standards. They are intended to replace child prisons, which the government committed to phase out in 2016. However, when the government looked for an organisation to run the first secure school, it barred local authorities from the tendering process. This was later criticised by the Local Government Association when it gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry.
Last week, in an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Peers voted 193 to 168 in favour of local authorities being able to establish and maintain a secure 16 to 19 Academy, after lobbying by Article 39 and NAYJ.
The charities had warned Peers that the exclusion of local authorities from running this new type of secure children’s home risked repeating serious mistakes of the past, when private providers were contracted to operate secure training centres despite having no prior experience of looking after vulnerable children. They urged Peers to support the amendment to avoid another generation of children suffering great harm.
Two children, Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood, died following restraint in secure training centres run by G4S and Serco respectively in 2004, and the High Court was later to find that an unlawful restraint regime had persisted in the centres for at least a decade. In 2020 and 2021, inspectors activated the urgent notification process – reserved for grave concerns connected to children’s safety and well-being – in respect of the remaining two secure training centres run by MTC and G4S.
Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:
“We are delighted that this amendment passed since it should ensure that only those with track records of properly looking after very vulnerable children in similar settings can be put in charge of this new type of secure children’s home. It’s excellent that peers have recognised the highly skilled work undertaken in the best local authority-run secure children’s homes, and we hope this move will, over time, help to build back specialised care for teenagers in desperate need. We call on the government to support this child welfare clause through the remaining stages of the Bill. What we need next is a closure programme for child prisons and a national strategy with the requisite funding for supporting teenagers in crisis.”
Tim Bateman, Chair of the National Association of Youth Justice, added:
“This is a small but important step in ensuring that ‘secure schools’ will have the potential to function in a manner similar to other secure children’s homes, which at their best provide the highest standards of care for children deprived of their liberty of the currently available models. Preventing local authorities, who have years of experience, from running such provision is clearly illogical and makes it harder to integrate services for children while they are in custody and when they return to the community. It is hard to understand why the government, if it is committed to safeguarding the welfare of some of the most vulnerable children in society, would oppose such a measure and it is to be hoped that they will accept the clause from here on.”
- The change to The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill can be found in clause 162(8).
- The Bill is expected to return to the House of Commons in February 2022. It is not yet known whether ministers will seek to delete this child welfare clause.
- Peers voted on the amendment on 10 January 2022; the debate can be found here.
- When the Bill was first in the House of Commons, Labour MP Sarah Champion pressed for the same amendment.
- Ofsted reported last summer that 16 secure children’s homes have been closed since 2002. The family courts have issued a succession of judgments highly critical of the absence of appropriate secure placements for very vulnerable children.
- All but one of England’s secure children’s homes are run by local authorities (the other is run by a charity, though it does not look after children who are remanded or sentenced). Children may live in secure children’s homes after a family court has made an order depriving them of their liberty for welfare reasons, or because a criminal court has remanded or sentenced them to youth detention accommodation. Latest inspection judgements for England’s 13 secure children’s homes show that 69% are outstanding (15%) or good (54%) and 31% require improvement to be good.
- In July 2019, the government announced that it had selected Oasis Charitable Trust to run the first secure school, despite charity law at the time not allowing for such organisations to deprive children of their liberty. Government clauses in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seek to rectify this.
- Article 39 and NAYJ have consistently opposed the government’s choice of Medway secure training centre as the site of the first secure school (secure 16 to 19 Academy). The centre was latterly used as an adult prison after it was closed as a child prison following a 2016 BBC Panorama programme which exposed serious child abuse there. A serious case review, published in January 2019, found systemic failings both within the institution and in local safeguarding arrangements. At the end of last year, it was reported that the first secure school will not open until at least 2023.
- The Local Government Association’s evidence to parliament’s Justice Committee, in which it criticised the exclusion of local authorities, can be found here (September 2019).
- Article 39 and NAYJ are among the founder members of the End Child Imprisonment campaign, which in 2019 published a set of principles and minimum expectations for children deprived of their liberty.