My Lords, this amendment contains two aspects which cause concern. One is the use of force—a matter of grave concern when dealing with young offenders—and the other is secure colleges, a new idea from the Government that fills us with despair and gloom.
This is one of the most sensitive and difficult areas of all offender management. The secure college rules sanction the use of “reasonable force” in three circumstances, and proposes a fourth. These are: to prevent injury to the young person or others; to prevent escape from custody; to prevent damage to property; and, lastly and worryingly, to maintain good order and disciple—otherwise known as GOAD.
Noble Lords have listed their own versions of such circumstances, including the last resort of,
“maintaining a safe and stable environment”.—[ Official Report , 21/07/14; col.1046]
A comprehensive list was given by my noble friend Lord Marks, with such conditions as minimum force, minimum duration, minimum necessary and no techniques involving pain. All are agreed that force must not be used as a punishment, although it will most likely feel and seem a punishment to any young person who has the misfortune to experience it. It is highly undesirable and unjustifiable in almost every imaginable case that young people should experience this.
The acid test of really good management of young people who are characterised as being among the most damaged, the most difficult and often the most disturbed in their age group is that situations should not be allowed to reach such a point where force becomes an issue at all. Adolescent units in psychiatric hospitals present parallel situations, just as they often do in secure prisons, and control depends on very skilled management by well trained professionals. I have seen such examples in both situations—in prisons and in hospitals—where professionals do not need to have recourse to restraint because violent situations are anticipated and pre-empted. Once the possibility of force is accepted, it will be used.
The GOAD sanction seems the most concerning, partly because of the type of language used, including what is described as MMPR—managing and minimising physical restraint according to approved restraint techniques. GOAD—good order and discipline—is much broader, open to subjective interpretation and likely to be most widely used for that very reason. It is extremely worrying.
We do know that the JCHR recommended that only the first three circumstances of the college rules should apply, and that good order and discipline should not be included. It said categorically that secure children’s homes do not use force to maintain a safe and secure environment, and they have the same clientele. However, the MoJ has announced that it intends to allow the use of “reasonable force” to,
“maintain good order and discipline”— which begs the question, of course, of what is “reasonable” where a young person is perceived to be posing a risk to,
“maintaining a safe and stable environment”.
The criteria are going to be so important.
Also, the MoJ does not consider it “necessary or appropriate” to set out in the Bill the circumstances in which custody officers are authorised to use force in secure colleges, and states categorically that,
“the Bill is clear ... a custody officer must be permitted by the rules to use force”.
This must be clarified further if the Government are to have some idea of the sort of regime they are sanctioning and for there to be confidence and trust in how these difficult and vulnerable children are being managed.
The JCHR’s most recent report on the Bill concluded that:
“We are concerned by the vagueness of the Government’s references to ‘maintaining a stable environment’ and protecting the ‘welfare’ of the child and others as permissible justifications for the use of force. The law is clear that the use of force on children … can never be justified for the purposes of good order and discipline”.
So there is a clear and currently unresolved difference of view, with each side apparently absolutely clear on the rightness of its position. However, what is clear is that the children and young people being dealt with here are recognised as being particularly troubled and vulnerable. If force is used on them, it confirms to them that violence is acceptable because that is what is being used by the authorities. Different standards and criteria are being used when it is deemed fit. I sincerely hope that such double standards will be rejected out of hand by the Government.