Government deletes Bill clause which allowed councils to run new secure children’s homes

On Monday night (28 February), the government refused to accept a Lords’ amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which would have allowed local authorities to run a new type of secure children’s home.

Labour pushed the matter to a vote at around 10pm; the government succeeded 314 to 190 votes.

Secure 16 to 19 Academies (the name now given to secure schools) will be a legal hybrid of secure children’s homes and 16 to 19 Academies. Providers of secure 16 to 19 Academies will be required to meet the nine quality standards for children’s homes set out in regulations, and Ofsted will register and inspect the establishments.

Back in January, following lobbying by Article 39 and the National Association for Youth Justice, Peers voted to amend the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to give local authorities the power to establish and maintain a secure 16 to 19 Academy. That amendment has now been removed from the Bill.

The Bill changes charity law to allow charities to detain remanded and sentenced children for the first time. This move follows the awarding of a contract to Oasis Charitable Trust in 2019 to run the first secure school, not now expected to open until 2023. Local authorities were prevented from applying at that time because it is government policy that academies are run independently.

Article 39 continues to strongly oppose the location of the first secure 16 to 19 Academy, the former site of Medway secure training centre. This was a child prison run by G4S which was forced to close following a BBC Panorama exposé of serious child abuse there. It is a prison building, most recently housing adult prisoners (during the first COVID-19 lockdown), with two adult prisons nearby.

Local authorities are the only organisations in England with proven expertise in managing secure children’s homes which care for, protect and educate remanded and sentenced children. Latest inspection judgements for England’s 13 secure children’s homes show that 85% are outstanding (23%) or good (62%). All secure children’s homes looking after remanded and sentenced children are run by local authorities as part of their children’s services (there is another secure children’s home run by a charity but this only looks after children sent there by the family court).

Secure training centres, established in 1998 with only one centre remaining and itself subject to a recent urgent notification after serious whistleblowing allegations were brought to Article 39, have been an unremitting child protection failure. They were outsourced from the start. Two children died in 2004 following restraint, the High Court found there had been a regime of unlawful restraint across a period of at least 10 years and three of the four centres were closed mired in scandal. 

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“Very depressingly, this was a vote won on the basis of ideology over the rights and interests of children. A responsible government would not proactively exclude the very organisations who have long track records of looking after and protecting extremely vulnerable children.

Running secure accommodation is a highly skilled area of work which is fraught with risk and carries with it a very long history of serious harms to children. Ministers claim there is nothing preventing local authorities applying to run secure 16 to 19 Academies but they were actively excluded when Oasis Charitable Trust secured the first contract.

Governments are able to change policy whenever they wish. Having councils written into the Bill would have given security and clarity. That’s now missing and all we can be sure of is that Ministers want charitable trusts to run this new form of secure children’s home for remanded and sentenced children. That is a radical break with many decades of local authorities being responsible for this specialist provision.”

During the debate, the Justice Minister Tom Pursglove MP insisted that local authorities will be able to apply to run secure 16 to 19 Academies, pointing to the forthcoming schools White Paper which is due to be published within months. There is speculation that local authorities are to be allowed to run multi-academy trusts.

The Minister failed to answer Sarah Champion MP’s question as to why local authorities had been excluded from the secure schools tender process in 2019, and why if the government welcomed applications from local authorities in the future it did not want this written into the legislation.

Sixteen secure children’s homes run by local authorities have closed since 2002. Ofsted has reported that:

“At any one time, around 25 children each day are waiting for a secure children’s home place and around 20 are placed by English LAs in Scottish secure units due to the lack of available places. The limited number of secure children’s homes places means that, even when children get a place, they will likely end up living far away from home.

In July 2016, the report from the review of children’s residential care undertaken by Sir Martin Narey for the Department for Education recommended that: “The Department for Education need to consider how they might encourage alternative providers from the voluntary and private sector to enter the secure care market”.

Read the debate here (Hansard).