It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing a timely and much-needed debate on this subject, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.
It is agreed that the safety of children in custody is paramount. The investigation by the BBC broadcast on 11 January, which uncovered serious and shocking incidents at Medway secure training centre, must be my starting point. Those incidents have once again highlighted the need for urgent action specifically at that centre, but they are also indicative of failures across secure training centres and the prison estate as a whole.
For those hon. Members who have not viewed the programme, I should say that it makes for extremely disturbing viewing. There are allegations of guards unnecessarily using restraint techniques, hitting a teenager, pressing heavily on young people’s necks, using intimidating language and taking concerted action to conceal their behaviour by avoiding CCTV cameras and misreporting incidents. That is simply unacceptable. Since the broadcast, four G4S staff members have been dismissed and four other staff members have been suspended, including one person employed by the healthcare provider.
As hon. Members may be aware, the Labour party called on the Secretary of State to take immediate action to put all G4S-run prisons, secure training centres and detention centres into special measures and to prevent G4S from being considered for bidding for other Government contracts. He responded that the allegations must be treated with the “utmost seriousness”, and police and child protection teams are investigating. However, we should not believe that that is the end of the matter. Running a centre such as Medway requires staff who are well trained and properly motivated and who have a full appreciation of their role in the youth justice system, as the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) mentioned.
Just last September, G4S was stripped of its contract for managing a separate STC—Rainsbrook, in Northamptonshire—following an inspection revealing that there had been a doubling in the number of assaults since the last inspection; that 15 young people had required medical attention following assaults, with one requiring hospital treatment; and that the number of assaults on staff was higher than at the previous inspection, averaging nine per month. Let us not forget that G4S is still the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.
Such incidents raise serious questions as to whether G4S is a fit and proper organisation to run youth facilities. However, the debate is about not only what happened at Medway, but youth custody generally. Unfortunately, the problems underlying recent incidents are echoed across the prison estate. Ministry of Justice figures show that deaths, incidents of self-harm and assaults in prison are at their highest level in a decade, with assaults up 13% in a year, serious assaults on prison staff up 42% in a year, self-harm up 21% from last year and seven prison murders in the last 12 months—the highest number recorded since 1978.
In 2012, the Prison Reform Trust and INQUEST jointly published a report entitled “Fatally flawed: Has the state learned lessons from the deaths of children and young people in prison?” The report considered the deaths of 143 children and young adults between 2003 and 2010. It concluded that many young people whose deaths were self-inflicted shared common traits and that successive Governments had not learned the lessons from those deaths.
A further INQUEST report in March 2015 studied the deaths of 65 young people and children between 2011 and 2014. It concluded that institutions had not learned the lessons from previous deaths, stating:
“The vulnerabilities of young prisoners have been well documented, yet they continue to be sent to unsafe environments, with scarce resources and staff untrained to deal with, and respond humanely to, their particular and complex needs.”
The report concluded that “too many deaths occur because the same mistakes are made time and again.”
Last July, the Harris review published its report “Changing Prisons, Saving Lives: Report of the Independent Review into Self-inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18-24 year olds”. Soon after the report was published, another report, from the Children’s Commissioner for England, revealed that a third of young offenders experience isolation and segregation for up to 22 hours a day, particularly in larger institutions. The report found that the children who are isolated are nearly 50% more at risk of suicide. It called for an end to solitary confinement and urged that large secure units for children be replaced by smaller units.
Overcrowding and a widespread lack of staff resources across the Prison Service is leading, not surprisingly, to widespread problems. Temporary staff are used to fill quotas, but they often do not have the requisite experience to carry out such a challenging yet important role. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, prison officers simply lack the time to do anything more than carry out the most straightforward security functions, with no time to talk to inmates or to assist in their rehabilitation. There is no time to spot mental ill health, or drug issues. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) has already mentioned how concerned he is that prison staff do not have time to follow through in flagging up issues that may affect a young individual. There is insufficient time to escort inmates to and from the classes and programmes on offer.
Instead, long periods of lock-up and inactivity lead to increasing frustration, making violence more likely. The Government proclaim that they recognise the importance of rehabilitation. If what I have been saying sounds familiar, it is because Labour has long said that prisons should be measured by their success on rehabilitation, and our manifesto at the general election stressed the importance of increasing the amount of time prisoners spend learning and working. Nowhere is that more important than in youth justice, where young lives can be turned around, with the right intervention.
The Government must understand that a fundamentally different approach to youth justice and custody is needed. Young people and children need to be supported and helped. The idea that young offenders should be punished, locked away and forgotten about or, worse, mistreated, is morally reprehensible and entirely counter-productive. However, just months ago, the Chancellor announced cuts of £9 million to the Youth Justice Board, despite warnings from the Local Government Association, the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services that that would lead to an increase in the number of young people in custody. Coincidentally, the £9 million that is being taken away almost exactly matches the amount that the Government have wasted on a failed procurement process to outsource fine collection—a clear case of misplaced priorities and ideology taking precedence over sound, evidence-based policy making.
The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 states that the principle aim of the youth justice system is the prevention of reoffending. However, currently two thirds of offenders under the age of 18 reoffend within a year of release. Behind every one of those figures is a victim, or victims, of crime. How can young people be rehabilitated when there are so many failings within the youth justice system —when it is not even a safe environment for them?
The media reports of what happened at Medway clearly demonstrate a deeper crisis in our youth custody system. Government cuts and a refusal to address the issues properly are creating a perfect storm of overcrowding, understaffing and poor resources. First and foremost, we urge immediate action to put all G4S-run prisons, secure training centres and detention centres into special measures so that the safety and competence of each facility can be urgently assessed.
The Government have the power, under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to intervene in contracted-out STCs. Therefore, as we outlined in our recent letter to the Secretary of State, we urge the Minister to put in management teams alongside existing staff at those facilities—teams with experience of working with vulnerable children. The reforms to youth justice made by a Labour Government, requiring agencies to collaborate in preventing youth offending, reduced both youth crime and the numbers of young people in prison. We would further extend that model by piloting a new approach for 18 to 20-year-old offenders. That would incentivise local authorities, the police and the probation services to work together, to identify those at risk of engaging in criminal activity and to divert them on to a more constructive path.
I want to pose the following questions to the Minister: how many children are currently in Medway STC; and have any been sent there since 30 December? What action did the Ministry of Justice take between 30 December and 8 January? Since 2010, how many times have contract breaches occurred at secure training centres run by G4S under contract with his Department? What was the budget of the Youth Justice Board in 2009-10 and 2014-15; and what is the estimated budget for that body in 2015-16? Has the Minister considered writing to the local safeguarding children board to see whether it will order a serious case review of the allegations regarding abuse at Medway secure training centre? I also remind him of the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) in her intervention.