The UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture’s report on detention in the UK – concerns raised about the treatment of young people in custodial settings

The United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) has published a report on its visit to various UK detention facilities (the SPT Report). The National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), a network of 21 independent monitoring and inspection bodies in the UK, whose role it is to prevent torture, including ill-treatment in detention in the UK, has responded to the SPT's findings (the NPM Response).


The SPT is the treaty body established under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) to which the UK is a signatory. Under the terms of OPCAT, the SPT is tasked with visiting places where persons are or may be deprived of their liberty, and making recommendations to state parties regarding the protection of persons deprived of their liberty against torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. As such, the SPT is supposed to be granted unrestricted access to all places where persons may be deprived of their liberty. Conducting its first ever visit to the UK in September 2019, the SPT Report details the SPT's observations on the NPM, on certain UK's detention centres and facilities, and sets out recommendations required for compliance with the UK's obligations under OPCAT.

The SPT Report provides significant observations and recommendations as to a wide range of detention facilities in the UK, predominantly in England. Ranging from young offender institutions to police custody, immigration removal centres to adult prisons, the SPT Report provides wide-ranging recommendations for the improvement of the UK's treatment of those whose liberty has been deprived. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the issues identified in the report, the SPT's main findings are transcendent of the pandemic. The SPT Report identifies three overarching issues with the UK detention systems:

  • Legal and institutional framework – The SPT Report raises particular concerns about (a) the lack of a maximum length of immigration detention (leading to de facto indefinite detention whilst awaiting deportation), and (b) the age of criminal responsibility which is set at 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and at 12 in Scotland. The SPT Report urges the UK to introduce a maximum time limit for immigration detention and to raise the age of criminal responsibility in line with international standards (the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that the age of criminal responsibility be no lower than 15 or 16 years). The SPT Report also highlights the lack of separation between those prisoners held on remand and those sentenced (despite the former still having the presumption of innocence) and the impact of austerity on, amongst other things, the adequate staffing on detention centres and increased waiting time for prison healthcare.
  • Overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system – The SPT Report notes with concern the overrepresentation of BAME individuals in detention, particularly those of Black Caribbean origin. The SPT Report urges UK authorities to take targeted action in response to this issue and tackle the causes of racial disproportionality, including to ensure that stop and search is not based on someone's race.
  • Health care in places of deprivation of liberty – The SPT Report also expresses concern regarding lacking healthcare provision in detention centres, particularly given the high prevalence of self-harm. The SPT Report urges the UK authorities to adopt a proactive approach to offering healthcare services with a particular emphasis on the training of healthcare staff and the proper documentation of detainees' conditions as well as increasing beds in psychiatric institutions.

In relation to children and young people, the SPT Report notes that, in addition to concerns regarding the age of criminal responsibility and the overrepresentation of BAME children and young people in the criminal justice system, the limited resources regarding mental health had a particularly adverse effect on children and young people. The SPT Report urges the UK authorities to enact a national policy to ensure appropriate access to mental health resources is afforded to all, in particular younger individuals in the criminal justice system. The SPT visited certain institutions for children and young people and expressed concern regarding the level of incarceration (up to 23.5 hours a day), the increase in the use of force and the poor handling of complaints in some instances. The SPT also stressed its previous findings as to juvenile centres, urging authorities to address outstanding issues and, in particular, bettering the involvement of children and young people in their detention process and re-consider segregation policies for this population, especially for those with mental health issues.

The SPT Report also underlines the precarious nature of the NPM which lacks a clear statutory basis. The SPT Report strongly urges the UK to provide a formal legislative basis containing a clear definition of the NPM's powers, functions, roles and responsibilities, which could also aid in ensuring the NPM's independence and ensure that the NPM can fulfil its role to combat mistreatment of those detained, as soon as practicable.

The NPM worked closely with the SPT during its visit. The NPM Response calls on the UK government to consider the recommendations raised in the SPT Report and to take swift action on the SPT's findings. The NPM Report echoes the SPT's main recommendations:

  • Detainees in police custody should be made routinely aware of and be proactively offered access to their rights and entitlements.
  • A national strategy to increase the number of beds in psychiatric institutions should be enacted.
  • Segregation in prisons should be used only as a last resort and for as short a time period as possible.
  • The introduction of time-limits for immigration detention should be strongly considered.

A particular point of concern for the NPM is the need to improve standards more broadly across young offender institutions. The SPT visited the HM Young Offender Institution Cookham Wood and noted its concern that some children were kept in their cells for 23.5 hours a day and that some complaints were not fully addressed or appropriately inclusive of children.


The SPT Report and the NPM Response are to be welcomed in that they shine a light on the state of detention in the UK, and the improvements needed. In order to make tangible and deliberate progress in combatting ill-treatment in the UK's detention facilities, the issues highlighted by the SPT and the NPM must be addressed by the UK government as soon as possible. Specifically, placing the NPM on a statutory footing, and providing it with a clear legislative mandate would be a welcome step forward to ensuring the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of those whose liberty has been deprived. In this regard, it is of particular importance that due consideration is given to the needs of children and young people in detention. The SPT Report provides a range of recommendations relevant to young people but of particular concern – and importance – is the impact of lacking resources on young offenders' mental well-being and the overrepresentation of BAME children and young people in the criminal justice system. The SPT's call to raise the age of criminal responsibility are helpful and it is to be hoped that the government will carefully consider, and implement, the recommendations made by both the SPT and the NPM, particularly those regarding the welfare of children and young people in custody.