Delays to building secure schools are leaving vulnerable young people, especially girls, in unsafe conditions, according to a report from MPs.
The report found that delays in building secure schools, alongside the closure of secure training centres, had left children with “substandard care”, amid concerns that highly vulnerable girls were being failed by custody provision.
The review by the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that girls made up just 3% of children in custody in the year ending March 2021, but were some of the “most vulnerable in the estate” as they were more likely to have experienced sexual or physical victimisation and relationship difficulties.
PAC added that delays in building new secure schools were leaving young people at risk in “unsafe” conditions.
The report found that when Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre – a secure centre which was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted in 2021 because poor practice was putting children at risk – closed at the end of last year, the prison service opened a specialist unit to accommodate girls at HMYOI (Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution) Wetherby at short notice.
The prison service continues to place girls in the Keppel Unit at Wetherby, despite the fact “provision is still maturing” there. PAC’s report found.
While there has been a long-term decline in the number of children in custody, the Government and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) also expect that this number will more than double by 2024, while the prison service faces “significant delays and cost increases” in opening its first secure school.
“We are unconvinced of the Ministry’s and HMPPS’s commitment to delivering the secure school vision of small, local, educationally focused establishments,” the PAC report said.
It added that the first such school may not open now until February 2024, over seven years after the Charlie Taylor review set out Government commitments to create secure schools with “ambitious standards” for all pupils.
The Taylor review planned for secure schools to be small, with 60-70 places, and “close to the communities they serve”.
Oasis Charitable Trust was appointed as the provider for the first such school in 2019, with HMPPS only realising later that legislation would be needed to allow a charity to run a secure school.
Plans for the second secure school have not been made.
PAC’s report said that using a provider to run a secure school was “untested” and that there were “insufficient safeguards in place”.
HMPPS now intends to work “in partnership” with the provider through a funding agreement, but the PAC report added that it was “still working out the essential details of this arrangement, including how it will incentivise the provider to accept the wide range of children that HMPPS would like it to accept, and how it would manage underperformance”.
HMPPS also said that it was “reviewing and actively monitoring” performance of Oakhill STC, according to the report, a centre in Milton Keynes where Ofsted inspectors found “frequent” violence and excessive use of force used in October 2021.
Inspectors found the environment to be “dilapidated” last year, with a report from a monitoring visit finding that children were spending up to 23 hours a day in their rooms in July and August 2021 due to inadequate staffing.
Inspectors described this practice, while it had ended by the time of their visit, as “wholly inappropriate”, adding that children’s experiences at the time “were bleak and barely met minimum standards of human decency”.
The latest Ofsted report for Oakhill STC rates it as “good” and notes that the “communal areas and kitchens in the children’s houses are cleaner and better decorated than at the last inspection” and that “children spend an increased average of 13 hours per day outside their rooms during weekdays”.
PAC found that the estate managed by HMPPS and the Ministry of Justice is “totally unsuited” to meeting the complex needs of children in custody, in an echo of the recent MacAlister review which found both STCs and YOIs to be “wholly unsuitable” for accommodating children in the criminal justice system.
In April 2022, 432 children between 10 and 17 years’ old were held in custody in the UK. PAC found that children from ethnic minority backgrounds and those with mental health or learning disabilities were over-represented.
Dame Meg Hillier, PAC chair, said: “The Government faces the double disaster of a growing number of children being held in custody while delays and spiralling costs jeopardise what were promised to be safe, secure facilities.
“Secure schools were heralded as the solution for the youngest and most vulnerable in custody. It’s time for the department to get a grip on the programme it announced its support for seven years ago.
“We urge the Government to understand the impact that custody has on children, particularly those held in unsafe conditions or those receiving substandard care.
“It is clear that the Government lacks a coherent strategy for youth custody which must have at its heart the need to reduce the number of children entering the criminal justice system and providing sufficient safeguards for those that do.”
The report recommends that the HMPPS should set out how it will measure how it meets the needs of vulnerable children in custody, set out a clear strategy for how it will improve outcomes through early intervention and set out how it will make sure capacity means that children can be placed in centres close to home.
It adds that HMPPS provide assurance that it has “firm control over the remaining timetable and costs to delivering the first secure school”, alongside the Ministry of Justice, and set out how the funding agreement would ensure high quality care at the first secure school, as well as specific plans for evaluating the Keppel Unit at HMYOI Wetherby.