A cross-party group of MPs have condemned failures to provide suitable provision for vulnerable children in custody and called on government to ‘get a grip’. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which examines the value for money of government projects, say they are ‘unconvinced’ by government efforts to overhaul provision for children in custody.
Their report, published this week, examines delays by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation service (HMPPS) to provide secure schools to replace current provision for children in custody. The MoJ accepted the need to build more secure schools in order to meet the complex needs of vulnerable children seven years ago, but the first is unlikely to open until 2024. The PAC say this means many children are currently receiving ‘substandard care’ with this particularly impacting highly vulnerable young girls. According to the PAC, the delay is partly because the MoJ ‘failed to recognise’ the need for legislation to permit a secure school to be run by a charity. The MoJ originally estimated it would cost £4.9 million to refurbish and convert the former Medway STC site but ‘having developed its understanding of the requirements’ it now estimates that it will cost £40 million which is the same as the ‘initial capital… for building a brand new secure school’.
Children in custody are currently held in Secure Training Centres and Youth Offender institutions, which the recent MacAlister review said were ‘wholly unsuitable’ for accommodating children in the criminal justice system. The PAC is highly critical of the MoJ for failing understand what works in terms of early intervention. ‘The MoJ wants to focus on intervening earlier to deliver better outcomes for children,’ it says. ‘But it does not yet understand the most effective ways to divert children away from entering the youth justice system, such as through community resolutions.’ It says the ministry is ‘focused on developing and improving YOI provision’ despite recent criticism in the independent review.
The number of children in custody fell by 73% in the decade to 2021–22, from 2,040 to 560 children. In April this year there were 432 children aged 10-17 held in custody however, according to the report, the number of children in custody in the UK is expected to more than double by 2024. The PAC is concerned that ‘too many children are being held many miles away from home’. The idea for secure schools was to have small, local provision with children being housed closed to home.
Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: ‘Secure schools were heralded as the solution for the youngest and most vulnerable in custody. It’s time for the Department to get a grip on the programme it announced its support for seven years ago. We urge the government to understand the impact that custody has on children, particularly those held in unsafe conditions or those receiving substandard care. It is clear that the government lacks a coherent strategy for youth custody which must have at its heart the need to reduce the number of children entering the criminal justice system and providing sufficient safeguards for those that do.’
Dame Hillier MP said the government faces ‘a double disaster’ of a growing number of children in custody, as well as ‘spiralling costs’ jeopardising the safety and security of facilities.