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An 'Unreasonable and Irresponsible' Plan - The House of Lords Slams Government Plans for Children's Super-Prisons

01/08/2014 11:10 BST | Updated 30/09/2014 10:59 BST

Last week the House of Lords considered the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill as it makes its way through parliament. There are a number of controversial aspects of this Bill - mandatory prison sentences for knife crimes have caught the public's attention. Plans to change the rules on judicial review have got Peers, lawyers and children's charities very worried.

Now, in a debate which took place over two days, Lords from all sides of the political divide lined up to share their concerns about the innocuous sounding 'secure colleges' - children's super-prisons by another name.

The term 'secure colleges' is completely misleading. The Bill contains no details about the education that will be provided to children who are in trouble with the law. It doesn't make clear what the staff ratios will be, or what sort of training they'll be required to have. Tellingly, the only staff mentioned are custody officers and there are no references to teachers, social workers, psychiatrists or counsellors. The Government's justification for a huge new children's prison focuses on the need to save money by driving down the costs of looking after children in custody but would involve spending at least £85 million in capital spend to set the prison up.

One of the few detailed provisions in the Bill opens the door to staff working for private companies to use force to ensure children obey their orders, but does not contain the rules for when this would be allowed. Amendments from Peers to protect children's human rights and make sure force could only be used in strictly defined circumstances were dismissed by the Government as being unnecessary. Since 2000, two children have died after being brutally restrained by staff in privately-run facilities. In total, sixteen children have died in custody, all in large institutions which are proven to be ineffective in keeping children safe from harm. Giving staff at secure colleges licence to use force against children to make them do what they are told risks more deaths and serious injury.

Although Peers pushed the Government with amendments calling for more detail on how the secure college would actually work, the Government refused to budge. Lord Faulks, who spoke for the Government, made it clear that they would leave this to the contractors who will run it as they:

"Want secure college providers to have the freedom to deliver innovative education that is imaginative and appropriately tailored to the young people in the establishment...The form that this education takes, the number of hours that are spent in the classroom or the workshop, and how it is delivered, cannot be helpfully pinned down in secondary legislation." [Hansard: 21 July 2014 : Column 1034]

The Government is pursuing a sort of reverse commissioning - ask a private company how they can set up these prisons as cheaply as possible and then write the rules to suit them. In effect the Government is asking parliament to write it a blank cheque to introduce an untested, hugely contested, super-prison for girls and boys as young as 12. No wonder the Lords were concerned. There were challenging questions, amendments and stinging criticism of the Government's plan from across the House.

Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, said that the plans were:

"So underdeveloped that it is both unreasonable and irresponsible of the Government to expect Parliament to rubber-stamp it" [Hansard: 23 July 2014 : Column 1173]

The Labour spokesperson Lord Beecham said:

"Given the paucity of evidence of support for the project during the consultation exercise, with the Children's Commissioner, the Chief Inspector of Prisons and a host of organisations expressing serious concerns and objections, this is completely unacceptable." [Hansard: 21 July 2014 : Column 1015]

The Liberal Democrats were united in their criticism of the plan. Lord Marks suggested "the Government may wish to reconsider the whole future of the secure college proposal", with Lord Carlile urging the Government to "go back to the drawing board" on a plan his colleague Baroness Linklater condemned as "entirely inappropriate and inadequate". [Hansard: 21 July 2014; Columns XX to XX]

The Conservative Lord Cormack worried that it was a "very vague proposal" and said that the Government needed to "think again very carefully indeed".

Baroness Howarth, a previous Chief Executive of Childline, warned:

"In my time, I have run these huge establishments as a director of social services... I have closed them. I have run small establishments. I have seen what works. I have no doubt that this fashion will be regretted in the future if it goes forward."

We couldn't agree more. These plans need to be filed away in the 'bad ideas based on no evidence' basket as soon as possible.

For more information about the impact of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill for children's human rights go to www.crae.org.uk