Deterioration of provision
Today’s report on Children in custody: secure training centres and secure schools from the National Audit Office (NAO) will be an uncomfortable read for people in charge of these areas of provision at the MoJ & HMPPS. The publication is what the NAO calls “a factual report”, that is to say they don’t offer conclusions on value for money or evaluate the Government’s effectiveness in this area as they typically do in most of their reports. However, you don’t need to have the financial investigative skills of the NAO to draw some pretty horrific conclusions. I share some of the headline findings below.
In England and Wales, children aged between 10 and 17 can be held criminally responsible for their actions. In February 2022, there were 414 children in custody. Once children are sentenced to custody, the Youth Custody Service (YCS) determines where to place them in the secure custodial estate based on each child’s individual needs, the youth offending team’s placement recommendation, and the accommodation available. As most readers will know, the secure custodial estate comprises three types of institution:
- secure children’s homes (SCHs) that accommodate vulnerable children, typically aged 10 to 17, in small establishments with high staff-to-child ratios;
- young offender institutions (YOIs), which are bigger establishments, typically accommodating children aged 15 to 17, and are more similar in design to adult prisons. In the year ending March 2021, 73% of all children in custody were held in YOIs; and
- secure training centres (STCs) that are designed to be bigger than SCHs but smaller than YOIs. STCs typically accommodate children aged 12 to 17 who are too vulnerable for a YOI.
As the NAO points out, a number of reports from the prison inspectorate and others have highlighted a deterioration in the standard of provision for children in YOIs and STCs over recent years. The problems have been worst at the STCs with two of the three Centres (Medway & Rainsbrook) closed and the third, Oakhill, under an improvement plan.
Six years ago, the Taylor Review (undertaken by Charlie Taylor, now Chief Inspector of Prisons) recommended that the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) create secure schools as a new form of custodial establishment that provide enhanced educational and rehabilitation services to children in a therapeutic environment. In December 2016, the MoJ set out its intention to create two new secure schools. Work is under way to create one secure school, but it has not opened yet.
As promised earlier, I share below some key facts & figures from the report:
- Six per cent of children sentenced (673 children out of 12,217) received an immediate custodial sentence in the year ending March 2021. However, the average length of custodial sentences increased from 11 months to 17 months between March 2011 and March 2021. Of children in custody in the year ending March 2021, on average, 40% were on remand awaiting sentence, the highest level in 10 years. In that year, almost three-quarters of children remanded in custody did not receive a custodial sentence.
- However, this number is expected to double by September 2024.
- The cost of a place at Rainsbrook STC in 2020/21 was £156,298 per year.
- Failing conditions in STCs have meant HMPPS has moved children within the secure custodial estate, including to YOIs that it previously judged as unsuitable.
- The Ministry and HMPPS have only progressed one of the two secure schools that the Ministry committed to establishing in 2016.
- The cost estimate for converting the Medway STC site to a secure school rose from £4.9 million to £36.5 million, due mainly to significant design revisions after due diligence.
- Originally due to open in autumn 2020, the secure school is now expected to open in November 2023.
- The Ministry and HMPPS expect secure schools to accommodate all children regardless of level of need, but Oasis will ultimately decide which children it accepts. (The school is expected to provide 49 places.)
- The Ministry is considering re-opening Rainsbrook STC, potentially under the management of HMPPS.
As I said in the introduction, it’s hard not to be shocked at the Government’s inability to convert existing provision to a secure school within its original four year target. The new provision will be at least three years late and will have cost more than seven times the original estimate.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.