Friday, 1 June 2018

Here We Go Again : Another Type of Youth Custody A Step Closer

The ‘How to Apply Guide’ published today sounds like it’s to help young people or their parents get a place in one of the Government’s new Secure Schools. It’s not of course. It’s guidance for organisations who want to run one of two new custodial establishments first proposed by Charlie Taylor’s Youth Justice Review 18 months ago. When the review was published, I thought the schools the least promising of his recommendations. Despite mountains of evidence about the ineffectiveness of custodial institutions, Taylor seemed to feel obliged to invent yet another species.  

Approved schools, Detention Centres, Borstals, Youth Treatment Centres, Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), and Secure Training Centres (STCs) have all started with high hopes and proved more or less expensive failures. The Coalition’s absurd plan for a huge Secure College was quickly killed off by Michael Gove before he announced Taylor’s review.  So good on the Ministry of Justice for setting out a vision and consulting on the shape of their “schools with security”. But the nagging question remains. Do we really need another variant of a fundamentally failed model?

Of course, there's a strong case for a very different youth secure estate than the one we have .  It should be smaller, no more than 750 places in my view, and  comprise a network of  high quality establishments "akin to special residential schools or secure children's homes" (to quote from the vision document ). No children should be  in prison establishments.  But are plans for secure schools a step in that direction - or will they, like STCs before them, serve as much to replace existing therapeutic units than to shrink the use of prison places?
The new schools will be run as Academies, but reassuringly providers will be not for profit company with a licence to run a Secure Children’s Home (SCH) and integrated with a health provider. Justice Minister Phillip Lee wants a more innovative and tailored approach to the care and education of young people. Back in the 1990s, that’s just what STCs were supposed to provide although contracting private sector security companies was always an unlikely way to achieve it. This time we are promised “child-focused providers in full control of the education they deliver”.  

The question therefore is why not simply extend the number of places in SCHs rather than create a rival to them ?  The quality of care they provide for children in custody is far superior to Prison YOIs or the STCs. The number of SCHs has fallen from 17 to 14 since 2010 and the beds from 311 to 254.  More are needed in any event- children whose liberty is restricted on welfare grounds are not uncommonly placed in Scotland due to lack of places in England.   So why not have a coherent but measured expansion of the best we’ve got.

The reason is part money, part ideology. The largest SCH, Aycliffe in County Durham has 42 beds, the smallest just 7. The 70 places in each of the Secure schools could mean lower per capita costs and rightly or wrongly ministers will think the Academy model won’t be saddled with inflated local authority overheads and governance structures. The Ministry of Justice is asking for views on the major cost elements in the schools “to help us to determine the budget.” If respondents are honest about how to meet the ambitions set out in the guidance, the new schools will certainly not be cheap. The MOJ don’t seem to be asking about the appropriateness of the Academy model.

When STCs were proposed a quarter of a century ago, it was argued to be “insane to set up these new centres at the same time as the local authorities are having to close some of their facilities for disturbed young people in communities throughout the country”. That was then Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair.  It didn’t stop his government extending the insanity. But maybe this one should.

It should also think seriously about Blair's more fundamental warning that ‘the last thing you want to do with those persistent young offenders is to put them alongside 40 or 50 other persistent young offenders and lock them up for a considerable period of time'. Charlie Taylor had some ideas about reducing numbers : an end to short custodial sentences, fewer secure remands and stronger restrictions on detention for under 16s. Why not consult on that as well?  

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