As it has been some months since we last debated the Government’s plans for secure colleges, let me briefly remind Members of our ambition for secure colleges to transform the experience of young people in custody. At present, 68% of detained young people reoffend within 12 months of release—that is the highest reoffending rate of any group of offenders. Despite that poor outcome, we are paying on average about £100,000 a year for each place in youth custody—the figure rises to more than £200,000 a year for places in secure children’s homes, though the reoffending outcomes are no different. So it is clear that carrying on as we are is simply not an option. The Government believe that we must have higher ambitions for turning around the lives of troubled young people who end up in custody, and that putting education at the heart of youth custody, properly integrated with health and other support services, is the way to equip these young people with the skills and self-discipline they need to build productive, law-abiding lives on release.
Secure colleges will do that by being places of education first and places of detention second. We want to move away from the culture of bars on windows, and foster one of engagement and personal development. Our intention is to test the secure college model by opening a secure college pathfinder in Leicestershire in 2017. This purpose-built facility will, for the first time, provide detained young people with a secure learning environment in which education has been designed as the core of a regime tailored to the specific needs of young people.
I understand the aspiration to try to provide something that is educationally rather than penally driven, and we all hope it works. Does the Minister accept that there is a risk that it will not quite work? So would it not be sensible to phase things in, starting off by involving just boys over 15 and then expanding the scheme only if it actually works?
The intention is not to introduce girls and children under 15 at the start. We have engaged throughout this process and we intend to carry on doing so. We will, through a competition to be launched next year, invite potential operators to demonstrate how they would deliver innovative education and rehabilitation services to these young people. So I am disappointed that we are today discussing Lords amendment 74, which excludes girls and under-15s from secure colleges, denying them access to the substantial benefits that we believe the secure college model will deliver for detained young people. I recognise the arguments that have been made during the passage of the Bill, both here and in the other place, about the particular needs of girls and under-15s detained in custody. I recognise also the need for establishments to put in place appropriate protections to ensure that these more vulnerable groups are kept safe. Those are valid arguments, and the Government are extremely mindful of their responsibilities to these vulnerable young people.
The lack of any improvement over 40 years by any Government in reducing recidivism condemns us as politicians. We welcome any fresh initiative, but can the Minister tell us whether there is any model, anywhere in the world, where the system he is introducing has worked?
As the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, we have lamentably failed to reduce reoffending over a very long period. In addition, we spend a huge amount of taxpayers’ money per place to achieve very poor results. I have seen good education in our current establishments, but I believe we can do better. The time is ripe for us to try something different, based on sound principles, putting education and health at the heart of what we are doing, and making appropriate interventions, all of which will be in place. We are confident that secure colleges can not only meet the needs of girls and younger children in custody, but improve on the education and reoffending outcomes that current facilities achieve.
As the hon. Lady may know, we are going to run a competition, which I will describe shortly, to find an education provider. But we are committed to increasing the amount of time in education and we want innovative responses to raise standards further because, as she will know, the results at the moment are simply not good enough.
As I have said, at this stage the Government have plans only for a single secure college pathfinder that will open in 2017, and it has been designed so that it is capable of housing about 300 young offenders aged 12 to 17. It is true that the majority of the young people in this first secure college will be boys aged 15 to 17, but that does not mean that girls and under-15s could not be safely accommodated on the same site and provided with the tailored services required to rehabilitate and educate them. Girls and boys aged 12 to 17 are already safely accommodated together in secure training centres, as well as in secure children’s homes.
Our designs for the secure college pathfinder have been specifically developed to ensure that if girls and under-15s were to be placed there, they would be accommodated in separate and smaller living units, entirely distinct from the accommodation for the majority of older boys. In our consultation on our plans for secure college rules, we also proposed a rule that girls must be separately accommodated from boys.
The Minister has more or less taken my speech away from me, because to a large extent my concerns have been allayed and it is good that he is running a pilot for boys to see how that works. But how long does he think an individual youngster has to spend in that set-up in order to gain education. In other words: is there a minimum time?
Obviously, how long children spend in these institutions is not up to us but up to the courts. What I say to the right hon. Gentleman is that significant improvements can be made in a short period—I have seen huge advances in a child’s reading within an eight-week period. So significant advances in education can be made in relatively short periods and, of course, many children are sentenced for considerably longer than that, as he will well know.
What we have committed to is separate living accommodation. When I visited a secure training centre recently, I saw young children—both girls and boys—happily learning how to put up wall paper and to cook banoffee pie. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the accommodation will be separate. The whole set up and design of the secure college will be such that it will be possible to have considerable separation if and when we need it. I hope that he is reassured by that.
The Minister may be aware that when the Bill was in Committee, we heard from a number of experts, including charities, doctors and other people working with young people and offenders, and they said that the way that the secure colleges had been set up as large institutions was completely unsuitable for young people.
I hope that I can reassure the hon. Lady on that point. I understand the concerns that she raises. Is she aware of how the secure college is designed? We will, for example, have 12-bed units for the more vulnerable groups, which could include girls and children under 15. There are 20-bed and 10-bed units. We believe that it will be possible to offer that proper support. The set-up will allow smaller groups of young people to foster that sense of community, belonging and close relationship with those that will be looked after.
I will just finish this point and then I will let the hon. Lady in, not least because her mother is one of my constituents. There will be no occasion in which all 300 or so young people will be milling around together in any part of the secure college. I hope that that allays the hon. Lady’s concerns.
I share the concerns of my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi. Nobody involved in rehabilitation or education has said that this is a good idea. The Minister did not quite answer the question of my hon. Friend Kate Green about whether the teaching staff will be qualified teachers. Moreover, what sort of ratio of children to teachers does he expect in that learning environment?
As I think the hon. Lady knows, we will be running a competition, and we will be looking for innovation and creativity from providers. We will assess the bids very rigorously on the basis of the best quality of education, so we are a little way off from being specific on that at the moment. The hon. Lady will have heard me say very clearly that this is an institution that will have education at its core, and that we would not be doing this if we were not absolutely determined to do better than is currently done on the education front.
Now, if colleagues will allow me, I will make a little progress. Both measures will ensure that girls, and boys aged under 15, receive the tailored support that they need in secure colleges. Throughout the passage of the Bill, and indeed the development of our plans for the secure college pathfinder, we have actively engaged with interested Parliamentarians in both Houses and wider stakeholders and experts, including both NHS England and the Department for Education. In the light of the feedback that we have received from peers, we have made changes to the plans to enlarge the site of the pathfinder by two acres to ensure that the younger and more vulnerable groups have sports and recreational facilities near to their accommodation, and that there is greater separation between the larger and smaller units on the site. I am therefore satisfied that the secure college pathfinder would be able to deliver a distinct regime that caters for the specific needs of girls and under-15s while always keeping them safe.
I thank the Minister for giving way a second time; he is being very generous. We all hope that everything works out as he anticipates. What assurances can he give us that the contract that would be signed would be such that if there were a decision not to go ahead with extensions, the taxpayer would not be financially penalised?
I am not sure whether the contract would specifically relate to the number and type of young people who were on the site, so I think that those would be separate issues. However, there is a strong argument for not discriminating against girls and young people. As a father of three daughters, I would not want to think that we were in any way discriminating against girls. That is an important principle.
I should stress that although the other place has proposed amendment 74, the Government have been clear that no final decisions have been taken on who will be accommodated in the secure college pathfinder. That will be determined in the light of analysis of the make-up of the youth custodial population ahead of the pathfinder opening in 2017. We have also given our commitment that girls and under-15s will not be placed in the pathfinder from its opening, and that any decision to introduce them would be carefully phased.
I hope that Members will agree that girls and under-15s should not be prevented from benefiting from the enhanced opportunities and facilities provided by secure colleges. Members should acknowledge the careful consideration that we have given to these matters, and the efforts we have made to ensure that girls and under-15s could be accommodated safely in the secure college pathfinder. For those reasons, I urge the House to reject Lords Amendment 74.
Lords amendments 127 to 130 are minor Government amendments consequential to earlier amendments made by this House to extend the secure college provisions to Wales. Those amendments were necessary to ensure that principals of secure colleges were treated under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 in the same way as those in charge of other types of custodial establishment.
The purpose of amendments 127 to 130 is to ensure that the Welsh language text of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) 2014 Act is consistent with the English language text of the 2014 Act as amended by Schedule 5. That is necessary because the two instruments are legally separate. I can assure the House that the effect of the amendments is unchanged from the English version seen earlier, and I ask Members to agree to Lords Amendments 127 to 130.
Lords amendment 131 concerns the process for approving secure college rules. In its third report of the session, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee recommended that if the Bill is to enable secure college rules to authorise the use of force for the purpose of ensuring good order and discipline, those rules should, to the extent that they authorise the use of force, be subject to the affirmative procedure. The Government were pleased to accept that recommendation on Report in the Lords and consequently ask the House to support this amendment.
As the first set of secure college rules will contain provisions authorising the use of force, an effect of this amendment would be to make the entire first set of rules subject to the affirmative procedure. That will give Parliament additional oversight of the first set of secure college rules. The Government’s consultation on their plans for secure college rules closed on
This debate is about sparing girls and young children—the most vulnerable offenders—from a flawed, expensive and potentially dangerous institution, with which the Government should not be going ahead. I listened very carefully to what the Minister said and will respond to some of his specific points in a moment, but would not the Government’s proposal for secure colleges be a step in the wrong direction for our youth justice system? It is a plan without any real supporting evidence.
Even the Government’s own impact assessment accepts that their plans are untried and untested and the Government have not been able to produce a single independent expert to vote for the proposal. The NSPCC, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and nearly 30 other leading children’s charities have publicly condemned the plans as “expensive and dangerous”.
Let me be clear: improvements need to be made to youth custody. Reoffending is still too high and education can and should play an important role in the rehabilitation of young offenders, so I welcome the efforts that Ministers are making to improve the delivery of education in young offenders institutions where it is not good enough. At a time when the youth custody population is falling, however, Labour does not think that construction of a new type of prison is the correct way to proceed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one aspect of rehabilitation is being able to keep in contact with family and close ones? It is proposed that this college will be in Lincolnshire and there will be only one in the whole country, so my hon. Friend can imagine the travelling that the parents of the children will have to do to visit. That completely defeats the object of rehabilitation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All the evidence explains that small units that are closer to home with a higher staff ratio are more suitable, particularly for girls and young offenders who have complex needs.
Let me respond now to some of the Minister’s points about the accommodation of girls and young children. We know that girls and children under the age of 15 are overwhelmingly in the minority in the youth custody population. In 2012-13, 95% of children in custody were boys and 96% were aged between 15 and 17. If those ratios were reflected in the 320-bed secure college, the Government would be accommodating fewer than 20 girls and about a dozen younger children together with nearly 300 older and troubled teenage boys. That has all the makings of an incredibly intimidating environment with real safeguarding concerns for the most vulnerable offenders and it is why large facilities such as young offenders institutions only accommodate boys over the age of 15. It also helps explain why, as I have just said to my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi, all the evidence shows that small units closer to home with a higher staff ratio are most suitable for girls and young offenders with complex needs. Ignoring the evidence in deciding the composition of the secure college would create a near impossible task for the college principal as the regime would inevitably need to be designed to cater for the needs of the majority, making it all the more likely that the needs of the minority would slip through the cracks.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Ministers have not carried out an equality impact assessment on how girls and younger offenders would fare in a secure college. That was confirmed in a written parliamentary answer to me on
“We note that the Government does not appear to have carried out any equality impact assessments of the proposed secure colleges policy, and we recommend that such assessments should be carried out and made available to Parliament at the earliest opportunity.”
I remind the Minister of his Department’s response to the Committee’s report. It claimed:
“We believe that the pathfinder Secure College, an establishment” comprising
“distinct accommodation units and capable of supporting different regimes for the various groups of young offenders, will provide…an individualised service.”
My simple question for the Minister is as follows: how? How will those warm words be delivered in reality? The House has been given no credible information about what life inside a secure college would be like for those young people.
We know that young people in custody have complex needs: mental health issues, learning disabilities, drugs, alcohol and problems of domestic abuse and family breakdown. However, the Government have proposed no credible plan for how the secure college would cater to those needs. They have not explained how they will be able to deliver better results at a cheaper cost than has been possible in other youth custody environments or how they would do so when the average time young offenders spend in custody is only 79 days.
Right hon. and hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. Let me remind the Minister of the Secretary of State’s letter to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights earlier this year. Describing the secure college proposals, he said:
“The Bill establishes the secure college in law. Beyond the legal framework, the legislation does not specify details of the regime to be delivered within the secure college.”
The most obvious example of that is the secure college rules.
The rules are crucial. They will not only determine the regime delivered in the secure college but dictate important issues such as the reasonable use of force. The Minister knows that there has been a chorus of concern about that and that the Equality and Human Rights Commission and others have warned that the Bill might even be unlawful as it is drafted. The Opposition do not think that it is sensible to place the most vulnerable offenders in an institution with such question marks about the reasonable use of force. We do not think that that is a good way to legislate.
The Minister also talked about plans to house girls and the youngest offenders in distinct accommodation units, which makes the design of the secure college very important. I invite all right hon. and hon. Members to look at the proposed plans for the secure college, as it does not take an architect's eye to see that this is not “a school with a fence around it”, as the Secretary of State has described it. The plans are all but identical to the plans for a young offenders institution to be built on the very same site that the Government cancelled earlier in the Parliament. Although there might be plans for distinct accommodation in the secure college, the Bill contains no requirements for separate facilities in any future secure colleges.
Indeed. One of the fundamental problems is that there is no credible evidence to support the proposal and no independent experts who are prepared to put their names to it.
Let me ask the Minister for a number of guarantees. If separate facilities are his solution to the issue, why are they not provided for in the Bill? Even if they were, fencing off girls and the youngest offenders is not the answer. It is likely that they would still be in the minority in the separate areas and they would also be cut off from the facilities on the main site for most of the time. There would also still be times when girls and children as young as 12 would need to be moved and escorted across the main site. That would be a recipe for intimidation and it is precisely why youth custody has moved away from accommodating different age groups on the same site. Such sites are more difficult to run and mean that children have to spend more time locked up and fenced off for their own protection, hindering any hope of rehabilitation.
Let me finish by putting it on the record that if we are elected in five months’ time, the next Labour Government will not wish to go ahead with this poorly thought through proposal. The Government have said that they want to cut the cost of youth custody, but wasting £85 million of public money on a vanity project that will do little to rehabilitate young people is no saving at all. Last week, Leicester city council refused a planning application that looks likely to delay the project. Will the Minister say when he expects construction to start and whether the final contract will be signed before the election?
Anyone and everyone who has scrutinised the secure college proposal has seen it for what it is: an ill thought through cost-cutting exercise with a veil of education draped over it. Throwing girls and the youngest children into the mix would be an accident waiting to happen. The other place has had the wisdom and common sense to say so and this House should agree with them.
The Minister is aware that I am strongly against the creation of his secure college. Of all the witnesses we saw in Committee, not one was in favour of creating this prison for children. Indeed, most considered it a joke as it goes against the evidence and recommendations on rehabilitating vulnerable young children. The Government’s proposal for a secure college will introduce a new and dangerous kind of child custody. The Government plan to detain girls and boys aged between 12 and 17 in a 320-bed prison.
There is no doubt in my mind that if these plans go ahead, younger children will be extremely vulnerable. It is inevitable that they will experience higher levels of intimidation by older children and that their needs will be relegated because of a focus on the majority. Evidence shows that girls and younger children are likely to withdraw by refusing to engage in educational programmes or other activities in that environment, which completely counters the professed reason for creating this prison. There has been no impact assessment, so it is impossible to comprehend the implications for those groups.
Currently, young offender institutions only hold boys over 15 because it is recognised that larger institutions are unsuitable for younger children and girls. Girls and under-15s are currently held in secure training centres or secure children’s homes, which are smaller and have a higher staff-to-child ratio. Why cannot that tried and tested model be allowed to continue?
The reality of the secure college is that girls and younger children will still be sharing the same resources. Yes, they may have segregated use, but they will still see, hear and be intimidated by older boys. The vast majority of girls in the penal system have a history of sexual abuse. Imagine what it will be like for them in a testosterone-fuelled environment of boys trying to out-macho each other for fear of appearing weak. The Minister said that he has daughters so I am sure he can imagine how it will be for those girls when they try to sleep at night. How will they move on from the horrors that plagued their earlier lives or be able to develop as individuals when they are outnumbered by 19 to one?
The idea of a giant prison for children is a bad one. We have excellent youth offending schemes that have very positive results in rehabilitating young people. However, I have been in Parliament long enough to know that once the Government have decided on something, they plough on regardless. I beg the Minister to do the right thing and allow Lords amendment 74 to stand.
The notion of a secure college is flawed. Nobody except Ministers thinks it is a good idea—no educationalist, nobody who works in young offender institutions, nobody who works in the criminal justice system and nobody who campaigns for improvements in the way we treat children and young people in the criminal justice system. It seems to be based on a notion that going off to boarding school is a good thing, but this is not going to be like Eton. It will bring together large numbers of young people from very disturbed backgrounds who have committed serious offences. That is not a good idea.
Let us think about many of the young people who are in custody. Many have spent time in care and are likely to have had an absent parent. They have probably experienced neglect or abuse, and the prevalence of mental illness is high. Some 86% of young people in the criminal justice system have been excluded from school, 23% have learning difficulties and 36% have borderline learning difficulties. Boys aged 15 to 17 in prison are 18 times more likely to commit suicide than children of the same age in the community, and 11% of children in prison have attempted suicide. Simply trying to put knowledge into these young people without addressing their fundamental issues is doomed to failure. Young people need to be in the right place psychologically before they can start to learn. Simply trying to shove knowledge into young people who are disturbed, who have come from bad backgrounds and whose mental health is rubbish will not work; they need to be in the right place if they are to learn.
The average length of time spent in custody is 79 days, so how are those young people really going to learn a great deal in that period? The Minister talked about young people learning to read in a short period of time. There might be some successes in basic literacy and numeracy, but I do not see how it can work for their wider education process. We will be putting them in a college many miles away from home and the other support services they will need after their time in custody. They will then, after 79 days, have to reintegrate into their old school, or into a new school, and into those support services, which will not be on the doorstep to help them with their drug problems, mental health problems or all the other issues that young people face.
In Committee it was indicated to us that the teaching staff will not necessarily be qualified teachers. We are not sure about that, because the Minister will not tell us. The Government cannot just say that they will leave it until they have had a competition for people to apply to run the institution. Surely to goodness they need to lay down some firm guidelines on the qualifications and experience that those who will be working with the young people should have.
Why on earth will the Government not look at models that actually work? They should look to Scandinavia, where learning environments are in the community, where people down the street will not even know that the house on the corner is a youth custody premises, and where young people are treated holistically so that not just their education is dealt with, but all the other problems that have lead them to offend and have messed up their lives. They need that whole range of support services. We need that sort of therapeutic community, not a place where 320 young people will, as my hon. Friend Sarah Champion said, vie for attention and to prove who is the most macho.
I do not believe that a secure college is a place for 15 to 17-year-olds, but it is very definitely not a place for girls and younger children, who should be in the community. The therapeutic programmes that work for young people are those that are close to the community and that are small and specific. As my hon. Friend said, so many of the young women who end up in the penal system have suffered sexual abuse and other forms of physical abuse. The Government should rule out ever putting them in a place with 320 young boys, which would make the experience awful for them.
I do not believe that we will change reoffending by locking up 320 young people together. I do not believe that we will change educational outcomes for those young people by doing that. I really wish that the Government would accept the Lords amendment, but I also wish that they would reconsider the whole proposal. If nobody thinks that it is going to work, why are the Government arrogant enough to believe that it will? Surely they should start listening to the professionals, to those who work with young people and understand them, and not go ahead with the college, and they should certainly never contemplate putting young children and women into that place.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions. The Government are committed to improving outcomes for young people in custody. As I said, 68% of young people reoffend within a year of leaving custody, at an average cost of £100,000 a year to the taxpayer. We simply cannot be satisfied with the status quo and need to try something new. Education needs to be at the heart of the offer we put in front of those young people, and so does health.
We have engaged with parliamentarians, stakeholders, practitioners, experts and young offenders themselves on our plans and, in response to Parliament’s concerns, have amended the Bill to ensure that secure college rules are subject to the affirmative procedure to the extent that they authorise the use of force. We want to continue that dialogue as we implement our vision for secure colleges.
I say to Dan Jarvis that our vision is to have, rather than just a prison with some education in it, a building that is designed as a school—the plans have changed considerably since the first version. We do not think that it is right to educate those young people somewhere with bars on the windows; we think they deserve a better environment in which to learn. The published plans have changed hugely and, as I have said, there will be a considerable health offer within the establishment. Girls are already taught and looked after alongside boys in secure training colleges and children’s homes. We do not expect a delay. Blaby district council supported the proposals unanimously and the local further education college is very supportive of what we are doing.
On the equality impact statement, in according with the Ministry of Justice’s duties under the Equality Act 2010, we considered the impact of the proposals set out in the Government response to the transforming youth custody consultation in January 2014. That was made clear in the parliamentary question, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, on