William Eichler 22 September 2017

Councils urge Whitehall to avert ‘tragedy’ in youth offending facilities

Council chiefs have called on the Government to take action to protect young offenders as inspectors say conditions in youth offending facilities are so bad they make a future tragedy ‘inevitable’.

At the beginning of this month, the responsibility for institutions holding young offenders passed from the Youth Justice Board to a new Youth Custody Service, which is based with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).

While councils have a statutory responsibility to protect young people and children, their ability to intervene once young offenders are in custody is limited, particularly now these institutions are under the control of HMPPS.

The Government has acknowledged the safety and wellbeing of these young people is a priority. However, the Local Government Association (LGA) has warned that Whitehall is yet to produce any concrete plans on how young people serving time in these institutions can be protected.

This is especially important given recent warnings regarding poor conditions in these facilities. A report published last July from the HM Inspector of Prisons found that not a single establishment inspected in England and Wales was safe to hold children and young people.

The number of children and young people self-harming had more than doubled in five years, the inspector found, and self-harm rates were running at 8.9 incidents per 100 children compared with 4.1 in 2011.

The damning report also discovered assault rates had dramatically increased since 2011, rising from 9.7 per 100 children to 18.9.

The Chief Inspector described the speed of decline as ‘staggering’ and issued the shocking warning that current conditions made a future tragedy ‘inevitable’.

The LGA has urged Whitehall to produce clear plans outlining how establishments will be made safe for children in the future.

‘Any local authority found to be running institutions where tragedy is “inevitable”, to use the Chief Inspector’s recent description of the secure estate, would quite rightly be under intense pressure and would at the very least be required to produce a plan with clear timescales for action to ensure that improvements are made quickly and children are kept safe,’ said Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board.

‘Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service were made aware of these issues in July, yet we still have no clear idea of what action will be taken, and by when, to rectify the situation and make sure our young people are safe in custody.

‘With inspectors also noting that the majority of previous recommendations relating to safety, respect, activity and resettlement had not been implemented, we can have little confidence that this latest report will be any different without a clear action plan in place.

‘This situation would not be acceptable for local authorities, schools or any other public institution charged with the care of children, and it should not be acceptable for HMPPS. Action needs to be taken to ensure that young people are safe in custody.’

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘The safety and welfare of every young person in custody is our absolute priority and we are clear that more needs to be done to achieve this.

‘But we also want custody to improve the life chances of children in our care and to deliver improvements to education and health services within youth custody.

‘That’s why we have created a new Youth Custody Service, with an Executive Director for the first time in the Department’s history – to make sure this vital area is given the priority and weight it deserves.

‘The new Director will lead the implementation of reforms to the running of the youth estate, including boosting the number of frontline staff by 20% - all of whom will be specially trained to work in the youth estate.’  

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