The Crime & Disorder Act 1998 revolutionised the way children and young people are prosecuted. It introduced a joined-up alliance of judges, prosecutors, police and youth offending services that had a statutory duty to promote the welfare of the child and prevent re-offending. This was to be achieved by early intervention in the circumstances of the child to divert them away from the criminal justice system before they became attached to it. As a result, over the past 20 years, there has been a huge drop in the number of children being prosecuted with a similar drop in, those who are, being detained in a custodial setting.
Over those 20 years the drop has been more than 50% which may surprise the public given the widespread belief that child crime is ever on the rise. One would imagine that drop has resulted in significant savings to the Ministry of Justice annual spend on children and young people. It has certainly seen the evaporation of once busy urban youth court lists. However, where I practice, this has resulted in the remaining Youth Courts being closed down. This includes Balham, Camberwell and Greenwich Court buildings. There is now no physical Youth Court building across most of South London including the London Boroughs of Wandsworth, Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham and Greenwich, with a combined population of over 1.5 million people.
This has left the youth justice system with a residual hard kernal of challenging cases. These involve some of the most emotionally damaged and educationally neglected children in our society. Ideally, the savings brought about by the broader reductions would have been recycled to address the more entrenched issues of the children remaining in the criminal justice system.
However, during that time we have all witnessed the emasculation of local youth services. Specialist secure accommodation served by highly trained social workers have now gone. Stamford House in Shepherd’s Bush and Orchard Lodge in Penge, were closed long ago. Most children on remand are sent to Secure Training Centres (“STCs”) which can have notoriously poor reputations for educational standards and minimal intervention. For my clients remanded awaiting trial the nearest STC has generally been in mid Kent. If they are remanded to secure accommodation they now face an appallingly long commute to their hearings in London whilst their families, who are usually in receipt of little income, have to travel very far to maintain marginal contact with them. For our especially vulnerable children, the nearest specialist secure accommodation is the Vinney Green Secure Unit in Bristol.
That is why it is all the more shocking to read the recent all party Justice Committee Parliamentary Report into to the utter mismanagement of Rainsbrook STC near Rugby. This STC holds up to 87 children (boys and girls) aged 12 to 17. It is run by MTC a US based global company offering custodial services in the US, Uk and Australia.
To paraphrase the Committee’s findings:
The service has been consistently rated in need of improvement. In spite of promises by successive MTC managers the situation at Rainsbrook had so worsened by December 2020 that inspectors issued an Urgent Notification at the centre.
A Parliamentary Committee took evidence on 9 March 2021 from the managing director of MTC’s UK arm, from three inspectors of conditions at the facility, and from Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, and his senior officials on what happened to result in that Urgent Notification. What they heard was so shocking that they produced a report on issues that the Secretary of State and others need urgently to address after five years of promises that have resulted in little improvement to the care of children. The litany of inaction and what one inspector called “utter incompetence” at Rainsbrook year after year provides a cautionary tale of how badly an arms-length relationship between the Ministry of Justice as a client and MTC as the company hired to deliver on contract can fail to deliver basic standards of care to vulnerable children.
MTC, a US-based private company that runs a number of prisons in the United States, began running Rainsbrook in May 2016 after winning a five-year, £50.4 million contract to do so. It had previously been run under contract by G4S. Concerns had previously been raised about the quality of services at Rainsbrook; those concerns have continued during MTC’s period as contractor at every inspection since 2016. In 2020, however, the Ministry of Justice decided to extend MTC’s tenure by the maximum two years to June 2023.
HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) jointly conducted an Annual Inspection between 17 and 21 February 2020 and reported in April 2020. Among the concerns raised were: high staff turnover and low staff experience level; children not managed equitably when they arrived at Rainsbrook (boys and girls being treated differently); and poor education provision, with many children refusing to attend lessons. The inspectors judged Rainsbrook as ‘Requires improvement to be good’—exactly the same judgment made at the previous three inspections in October 2018, June 2017 and October 2016. The inspectorates made 19 recommendations in April 2020; nine to be actioned immediately and 10 within three months. These were largely ignored.
Six months on, between 26 and 29 October 2020, Ofsted, CQC and HMIP returned to Rainsbrook and found new and serious concerns. Most alarmingly, for their first 14 days at the centre, children were allowed out of their rooms for only 30 minutes a day, spending the remaining 23 and a half hours locked inside. The inspectors noted that there was “no rationale to support this practice”, which was “tantamount to solitary confinement” and “highly likely to be damaging to children’s emotional and physical well-being”.
The joint inspectors notified senior managers in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Youth Custody Service (YCS). At an urgent meeting with the Ministry of Justice and Youth Custody Service on 5 November 2020 the inspectorates received assurances that immediate actions would be taken to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children.
On 18 November, the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland QC MP, wrote to Ofsted saying improvements were under way. Mr Buckland had been misinformed, or in his own phrase “played for a fool”. The inspectors made another (unannounced) monitoring visit on 10 December 2020 and found that leaders and managers at Rainsbrook had made limited progress.
They took evidence on 9 March 2021 as to what had happened, and they heard from Angus Mulready-Jones, Lead for Children and Young Adults, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Nick Stacey, HM Inspector, Ofsted, Christine Williams, Deputy Director of Social Care and Regulatory Practice, Ofsted; Ian Mulholland, Managing Director, MTC; Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Helga Swidenbank, Executive Director, Youth Custody Service (YCS), and Jo Farrar, CEO, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).
They were shocked and appalled by what they heard and were deeply concerned about MTC’s ability to manage the Rainsbrook contract. In their view the failures identified over five years are not, though, the responsibility only of the provider, MTC. The Youth Custody Service and Ministry of Justice, as the contracting authority, have a responsibility to ensure that the contracts they let are delivered effectively and to prevent such situations from occurring. They concluded that, in this case, they had failed to exercise their responsibilities as a contracting authority, and they considered that departmental oversight has been inadequate, contributing to the appalling and consistent failures at Rainsbrook.
The safety concerns are so grave that on 16th June 2021 the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland announced that the MOJ would take immediate action to move all children currently held at Rainsbrook STC to alternative provisions. This damning indictment of accommodation and services for such highly vulnerable children who have already been badly failed either by their families or the state, or both, is shocking; even for those who have become inured to the effect of cuts and a general lack of care for damaged children in our society.
The answer to such complex human issues are not to be found solely in the private sector. We know that the State lacks the time, skills and motivation to effectively supervise these contracts. Unfortunately, meaningful financial sanctions have not historically been applied in these situations. Thus, a combination of poor training, poor management and low pay follows which in turn contributes to high staff turnover and a lack of respect for the essential skills needed to intervene in these hard cases.
The huge savings generated by early intervention and successful diversion must be re-invested in highly specialist skills and services to address the needs of these failed children.
Greg Stewart, Senior Solicitor Advocate and Director at GT Stewart Solicitors & Advocates
Just For Kids Law is a member of the End Child Imprisonment Campaign