Sue Berelowitz: Thank you for inviting me here to give evidence this morning. My name is Sue Berelowitz, and I am the deputy Children’s Commissioner for England and chief executive of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. I should add, given the context today, that I chaired our national inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups, hence I am able to talk about rape pornography, and I lead on our youth justice work, hence I am able to talk about those aspects of the Bill.
To start things off, may I ask about your opinion on the secure estate? In particular, there has been some discussion about reasonable force. When, in your view, is force reasonable and when is it not?
Sue Berelowitz: First, I would say that force is not reasonable when it is used for the purposes of good order and discipline, so we are concerned about the introduction of that in the legislation. Force should always, obviously, be a matter of last resort, and that is clear in the UN convention on the rights of the child. It is sometimes inevitable when the situation requires it, such as when a serious fight is taking place between two young people and they need to be separated quickly, but it should always be preceded by attempts at de-escalation. I have seen good examples of that on CCTV footage, and frankly I have seen evidence of force being used when there has been a failure to use de-escalation.
I recognise that there is a place for force, but it needs to be reasonable, and I would exclude the application of pain for the purposes of control. There are times when nothing else can be done to separate people, and to bring back safety, one may have to use a degree of force.
That is very helpful. I have heard some interesting arguments—we will probably come to them later—that one problem with providing a secure college for young people, where there is an educational focus rather than a prison focus, is that it may make it more attractive for judges to send people there. Presumably the counter-argument would be that if we made them really unpleasant, fewer young people would go there. What is your comment on this issue?
Sue Berelowitz: First, I think we should be under no illusions: a secure college is a prison, just as a secure training centre and a secure children’s home are prisons. They may go by other names, but prisons they are. They are, with one exception, which is down in Southampton, surrounded by barbed wire, and in all of them, the children are locked up and locked into their rooms. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that because they have another name, they are not prisons.
Education is laudable and of course children have to have education, whatever type of prison environment they are in at the moment. We would endorse that, but you need a holistic environment. To take your point about whether they should be made unattractive to prevent children being sent there, prison should always be a placement of last resort for children. The numbers have fallen substantially in the last couple of years, which is pleasing to all of us, and that is an indication that it is increasingly a placement of last resort, but about one third of youngsters in our prisons of one type or another are there on remand—they have not yet been convicted of anything—and sometimes they come out because they are not convicted. It is not always a placement of last resort.
I am worried about a number of aspects of this secure college, but clearly we would not endorse anything that made it an unhelpful or punitive environment. I visit children’s prisons of all three types every month, and I talk to children. In fact, we are the only organisation in the country that visits all three types of children’s prisons. There is no inspectorate or anybody else who does that. That is our particular mandate, so I have a unique overview of all three types of secure estate.
I have never yet met a young person there who did not come from a very troubled environment, who did not need a lot of intense support and who did not need help in forming relationships. Many of them are attachment disordered. We are already finding that too often they are long distances from home. This is particularly the case for children who are London-based and who are then placed in prisons such as Wetherby or Werrington, where I regularly meet London children. They very, very rarely get visits from home because it is too far for their families to travel, especially if there are other children in the household. Again, under the convention, it is a requirement that when children are placed in detention, they should be supported to maintain their family links. If they are not in their family of origin and are in care, they should be supported to maintain their care links. I am very worried about that.
There are a number of aspects to the development of a very large unit to which children will be sent from all over the place, but whatever kind of unit it is, of course it has to be a place where the children are well cared for. We are talking about troubled youngsters who need their close family ties to be maintained. They need education, but they also need mental health services, physical health services and paediatric services. We know that large numbers of children in the secure estate have neuro-disability disorders. We did research on speech and language difficulties, for example, and on learning difficulties and disabilities—there is a very long list, and I could go on. Epilepsy and acquired brain injury also feature.
These children need a whole range of resources, including good staff-child ratios, because many of them have grown up in extremely difficult environments. Anything between a quarter and a half have had episodes or long periods in care, or a whole lifetime in care. This means that they have been victims of neglect or abuse in their childhoods. They need reparenting, in a sense, in order to be able to come out and re-enter society in the way that we would all like. That means good staff-child ratios to help them build those relationships and to develop a sense of what empathy is all about. You need a lot of components in a unit in order to make it a properly child-centred unit, which will enable these troubled youngsters to come out and reintegrate successfully into society.
Thank you for coming today. There is a lot of evidence that a very high proportion of adults in prison have learning difficulties. Could you speak a little about children, and the support that they need if they have special educational needs? What do they need to flourish in this sort of environment?
Sue Berelowitz: We are very pleased that, for those children who already had education, health and care plans in the community, those plans will follow the children into prison. That is a big step in the right direction. Given the statistics, we should assume that all children in prison have difficulties of one kind of another. About 60% have learning difficulties or disabilities, and there are high numbers with attachment disorders or attachment difficulties. Something in the region of about 45% have acquired brain injuries. Speech and language disorders are at around the 60% mark. We are talking about a range of different problems—some neurological, some acquired or developmental—but they all need to be addressed. It is not surprising that some of these youngsters end up in prison. We all know now about neurological development in very early childhood and the development of the infant brain. In my experience, a lot of the children in prison lacked love in their early lives, so their brains have not developed as well as they should.
Sue Berelowitz: You need a number of things. The residential or wing staff—whichever term one wants to use—need to have a very sound understanding of child development and child protection. They need to have the right personal qualities in order to be able to engage with young people. They need to want to work with young people. I think we are nearly there in the children’s secure estate; most prison officers now choose to work there, which is a big advance. They need to have some innate qualities to do with wanting to work with children.
They need to be trained in de-escalation, in restraint management, and in managing their own feelings, sometimes, because these are not easy children to work with, and they need to be supported in that. Then you need the mental health staff. You need good mental health teams.
This may sound a ridiculous thing to say, but those mental health teams need to be trained in child and adolescent mental health. I say that because I visited a prison a couple of years ago—I will not name it—where they had a mental health team of five in a young offenders institution, and not one was trained in child or adolescent mental health. They were all only adult-trained, and they were applying adult assessment tools to the children. We brought that to the attention of the Youth Justice Board, so it was all changed very quickly. It seems obvious, but it is not always happening. You need proper mental health staff, trained in child and adolescent mental health.
The teaching staff need to be trained. They need to understand special educational needs. You need psychologists on site. You need very good supervision for all the staff. By that I mean the sort of one-to-one oversight work that happens with staff, so that they are helped to work with awareness, in terms of their responses to the young people, and work in what I would call a mindful way with the young people. It is quite a long list. I could go on to speech and language therapists, but the general gist is that you need a combination of generalists, who would be the wing staff, and then the specialists, and they all need to work together and to share information.
A final question. I think that the maximum time that the children and young people are likely to be in this facility for is 79 days. Do you think that moving them is likely to perpetuate their chaotic lifestyles and disrupt attachment even further?
Sue Berelowitz: Most of them have come out of very chaotic lifestyles. They desperately need stability. I have seen some children flourish in the secure estate. I am not against the secure estate; it just has to be run well. So, yes, if children are going to be placed there, it needs to be with good reason. I would not like to see prison sentences extended, but where a child is sentenced and sent somewhere, very good use needs to be made of that time.
As I understand your evidence, I think we have got to the stage where, sadly, no one disputes that there will be a limited number of cases in which children or young people have been involved in offending on a scale that means that there has to be form of custody. That has always been the case, in your career, and in my career before I came here.
We understand that. Sometimes within that secure regime it will be necessary, as a last resort, to use a degree of force. I think your view was that it is generally not to be done for coercion, but it is legitimate to use it if there is disruption of such a kind that it is either a threat to other individuals or it makes the running of the establishment impossible. That is the sort of level that we are talking about.
Sue Berelowitz: May I add something to that? It is also very important to look at the context. I have been to places where there is very little use of restraint because the environment is such that the general atmosphere is one of good order and control, and therefore you do not get a lot of disruption. Where the environment does not facilitate and enable that, you get a lot of restraint being used. I would be concerned if people said that they had to use restraint because young people were being very disruptive. You have to look at the whole context. I will give you an example.
A couple of years ago, I was at a secure training centre, a relatively small environment that did not have a separate segregation unit. On that day alone, I saw three children brought down, under restraint, to the health wing, which was being used as a segregation unit. The noise levels across the whole prison were just extraordinary, as were the levels of aggression and tension. Restraints had gone rocketing over the previous month because things had got out of control. The leadership was just not in control, so nobody felt safe. You have to have both of those together.
I agree with you. As you said earlier, a lot of the environment relates to the quality of the staff, and what we agree is the complex range of interventions that these young people have. I do not know whether your experience is like mine when I was a legal practitioner, but sometimes you need a critical mass, in terms of the professional expertise of the staff and the level of training that can be given, which you cannot always achieve in a small establishment. I sometimes found that it was difficult in smaller establishments to achieve that greater awareness, and to bring in that range of expertise. Is that not something that we need to take into account when deciding on the best way, and on the optimum size for these establishments?
Sue Berelowitz: That is not my experience, with all due respect. In particular, if I look at some of the secure children’s homes, some of them are very small indeed. They have high staff-to-child ratios—higher than the other forms. Those staff tend to be well trained and get a lot of continuing professional development. You are talking about people with high levels of awareness. In terms of the specialist staff, they bring them in from the outside.
I was at a unit two weeks ago, and happened to be there on the day that the child psychiatrist was there—he is in every Wednesday—and there is a psychologist. They are community-based, but they are there every week and available on call. There are other members of the mental health team. There is a nurse based there permanently. In terms of size, you can have—and places do have—the right amount of expert and specialist support, even when they are very small. They just do not need to be there all week.
It is a matter of fact and degree. It is not so much the legal framework of the regime; it is the way that it is operated by the people who are there, largely.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, in my first intervention. I hope I have got the etiquette right. I agree with the Secretary of State that the figure of 69% of young offenders reoffending is far too high. Do you think the secure college will have any impact on the rate of reoffending by young people?
Sue Berelowitz: It is of course difficult to predict entirely. The figure I have seen is closer to 73%. Whether it is 69% or 73%, it is worrying and not good enough. I am concerned if children are not placed in an environment where they can repair some of the damage that they have already suffered. Under article 39 of the convention, children have the right to rehabilitation.
Whatever they have done to others they tend to have done because of what they have suffered themselves. If they are to reform themselves, they need help with that. Being placed in an environment that is impersonal, and where there is not a lot of good-quality adult-child contact, is not conducive to children being able to repair the damage that they suffered in their early childhood, develop a sense of empathy, begin to experience what a good-quality relationship is between adult and child, and so on. You need very good staff-to-child ratios.
I will go back to the issue of children being a long way from home. It is always the case that, for some children, home can be a very damaging environment. They might be sent far away for very good reasons. However, many of them need to return to where they came from. Helping them to maintain or develop good relationships with their local community, their families or their care placement is important for them to be resettled well when they come out.
Of course, release on temporary licence is very important. Ideally, they would be doing ROTL close to home, so that it would be linked to work experience, apprenticeships or education and training that they might take up on leaving, rather than have all of that happen a long way from home, and in a sense have to start again when they come out and are sent back to their local community. There does need to be that close interaction.
There are some good models of that. The enhanced resettlement projects that are now taking place in a few youth offending teams around the country are a good example. The YOT is working with the young person from early on in their sentence, particularly on detention training orders, to plan for what happens when they come out, and there is good continuity. You do need to have that local connection in order to do that.
I completely agree. The relationship between the trainer and the offender in any such institution is critical. As a former outstanding teacher myself, I know that those relationships are based on character depth and discipline. I would die with a 79-day school year; I do not know how you establish those relationships in that period of time. The Secretary of State also mentioned that we do not have that expertise in the public sector and we will have to go to the private sector to get it. Does that expertise to run the educational side of this exist in the public sector at present?
Sue Berelowitz: I see some very good education being run in some of our children’s prisons and it is salutary, and sometimes quite upsetting, to speak to the children. For example, I have in mind a young lad who said to me, “I couldn’t read or write when I came in here at 15, but now I am on level 4.” He was tremendously proud that he could read and write, and it is regrettable that they have to go into prison for that to happen. We have plenty of fantastic public sector educators, both in and out of our prisons, and I am sure that some of them would be more than able to run such an educational establishment.
However, I go back to my point that children need to have education as a critical component, but it should not just be education itself, because you are running prisons, not a school. Running a prison is a very different experience from running a school and we should not conflate the two. They are not the same thing and that worries me. That is why I think the terminology is so important, if the college is seen as a school and not a prison, because it is a prison that includes a lot of education on site.
Sue Berelowitz: There are others who are better experts at this. I know that there are some very interesting models in Spain that have been looked at and were posited a couple of years ago. I can point you to some people to whom you can talk to get more detail on this. I am better talking about this country than others.
Recent figures demonstrate that by far the largest number of children in custody are male. What assessment has been made of the impact on women and girls who will go into these institutions? Do you think there will be a particular impact?
Sue Berelowitz: There is anyway an impact, absolutely. There are very few girls in prisons. There is a sort of mythology developing that we do not have girls in prison any more. Of course we do; they are just not in YOIs, but in STCs—those that take them—and secure children’s homes. They are among some of the most troubled youngsters I meet in prison. I do not ask them what they have done or about their stories, but they tend to tell me quite a lot and it is rare that I meet a girl who does not have an early history of really shocking violence and abuse, usually sexual abuse of one kind or another.
Partly because there is greater awareness and partly because of our inquiry, we now know that many of the girls in our prisons have been victims of sexual exploitation, which has sometimes contributed to or been the actual cause of their offending behaviour. I would add self-harm. In terms of self-harm, it is worrying enough with the boys, but in terms of the girls, I have a couple of girls in mind whom I met a couple of weeks ago, and there was sometimes really grotesque self-harming taking place. These are girls with very high levels of need, so there is an impact on them of being in prison, as with the boys. Sometimes, given their life histories, it is important for them to be in a contained and closed environment, because they are so unsafe in the world outside that the only way anybody can work with them effectively is to put them somewhere where nobody else can get to them.
That is why sometimes children are sent to welfare beds in secure children’s homes, but it makes it even more important that the right work is done with those girls to make sure that they are supported in their mental health needs. With the ones I met last week—I met the psychiatrist as well—it is difficult to describe the extreme extent of their psychological needs and their self-harming, and the challenges that this posed to all the staff in that very small unit. They are in a very small secure children’s home and the psychiatrist is on call 24 hours a day for three of the four girls because of their extreme self-harming. In his view, they needed to be there rather than in a mental health facility and he felt it was the right placement, because I talked it through with him in some detail. Their needs are very, very acute and cannot be forgotten.
I would be very concerned about girls being put in a large environment with a lot of boys because of issues of sexual violence, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and misogyny. You get hypermasculine environments in these places. A lot of the boys have come from a world in which you have to be hypermasculine to make it on the street. Whatever their internal vulnerabilities, they are hidden inside that outer shell. The power imbalance is huge. Even if they are in separate wings in STCs, which of course they would need to be—although they can be on mixed corridors in secure children’s homes—they come together for education, for example. Again, I have been in places where you can hear boys making truly inappropriate comments either directly to the girls or in passing, which is absolutely not in anyone’s interests at all. It worries me that small numbers of girls could be included in this wider, hypermasculine environment.
Sue Berelowitz: I would like not to see them in secure colleges. My preference is for them to continue to be placed wherever they need to be placed based on their offences, which is in small units, such as the small, secure children’s homes that I visit or STCs. STCs need to be much more gender-aware than they are at the moment. The size of secure children’s homes means that there are high levels of watchfulness and vigilance, because staff are always around, so it is less likely that girls will come under the power of boys and all that goes with that. They are exceptionally vulnerable.
I will ask you briefly about the most effective way of delivering education to offenders, but I want to return to the question that Mr Neill asked about scale. What do you think is an ideal size for a secure college?
Sue Berelowitz: If I can leave aside whatever something is called and just talk about a good size for a children’s prison, it needs to be small enough and with high enough staff-to-child ratios such that children do not feel lost and there is a degree of intimacy—if I can put it like that—so that it does not feel impersonal. These children have grown up in very difficult circumstances for the most part. I would not want to have 25 or 50. There is a secure children’s home that takes 25 children, which is almost bordering on what our secure training centres look like. The STCs are not an unreasonable size—the biggest takes around 90 children—which means that you can break the population down in smaller houses. The overall size feels manageable, and it is not daunting when you walk on to the site. Places like Hindley, for example, are also broken down into units, but when you walk into the Hindley site—it is the biggest children’s prison in Europe, but there are plans to re-role some of it—it is a very intimidating environment. The environment is equally as important as the size and staff-to-child ratios. There needs to be a degree of intimacy. Some children’s homes have as few as 10 or 12, and they tend to work well with troubled children, because of the amount of intense care that children can get.
In terms of the most effective way of delivering education, you mentioned an example in Spain, but you said that your particular experience and expertise relates to this country. Are you able to recommend a model of best practice, or to give an example of how it is being done well in this country?
Sue Berelowitz: I have seen good examples in YOIs, STCs and secure children’s homes. It is always down to the quality of the leadership. There needs to be a good head teacher who understands the needs of the children. There need to be good education plans for every child, which need to be predicated on a thorough assessment of every child’s needs—whether they have special educational needs, what their learning style is and so on. It needs to be recognised that, sometimes, their education has been disrupted and will continue to be, because of court appearances and so on, so that needs to be taken into consideration. Good plans need to be made. I have met girls who have said to me that they are fed up with doing hairdressing. Our children’s prisons, of whatever variety, are magnificently equipped with hairdressing salons and hairdressing is a very good profession, but not every girl wants to be a hairdresser. They also need to do maths, science, English and everything else.
I am afraid that that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions of this witness. I am sorry to be so precise. I thank you on behalf of the Committee.