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Number of children in custody set to double by 2024

Forty per cent of children in custody in March 2021 were on remand awaiting sentence, the highest level in 10 years, a report by the National Audit Office has warned.

However, in that year, almost three-quarters of children remanded in custody did not receive a custodial sentence, the report into children in custody highlighted.

The average number of children in custody has fallen by 73% from 2,040 children in 2010-11 to 560 children in 2020-21, reflecting the decline in the number of youth offences. However, The Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service expect the number of children in custody to more than double by September 2024, driven by court recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and government’s plans to recruit around 23,000 additional police officers.

“They expect children aged 15 to 17 in young offender institutions (YOIs) will double, from 343 in July 2021 to 700 in July 2025,” said the NAO report.

The NAO highlights how some groups of children are increasingly over-represented in custody. In the year ending March 2021:

  • On average 53% of children in custody were from ethnic minority groups, compared with 32% in the year ending March 2011.
  • The proportion of black children in custody increased from 18% to 29%.
  • Boys made up 97% of all children in custody in the year ending March 2021.
  • While the number of girls in custody is very low, they have some of the most complex needs as they are more likely to have experienced victimisation (sexual and physical) and relationship difficulties.
  • Around one-third of children in custody report a known mental health disorder.
  • The rate of self-harm incidents per 100 children and young people has increased by 90% among children and young people in custody between March 2015 and March 2021.

The government originally contracted out secure training centre provision, but HMPPS considers that the management of the STCs has failed to meet good standards since 2017. Four STC’s were initially established, although Hassockfield STC closed in 2015. Government withdrew from its contract with G4S in Medway and brought the STC under the management of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service in 2016. Rainsbrook STC was run by G4S until 2016, when MTC Novo (later MTC) took over. G4S runs Oakhill STC.

In every year since 2017, Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons have rated all three STCs as ‘requiring improvement to be good’ or ‘inadequate’. Inspectors highlighted significant failures in management and reported concerns for children’s safety and welfare. Medway STC closed in March 2020, followed by Rainsbrook STC in December 2021. Oakhill STC remains open, but it too has been issued with an ‘urgent notification’ following a poor inspection report in October 2021.

The Ministry and HMPPS acknowledge that STC failures have heightened pressures to place children in YOIs that are less suitable for children with complex needs. HMPPS’s data shows that when Medway STC closed, more than one-third of the 35 children were released, around one-third were moved to a YOI, around one-quarter were moved to another STC and a small minority transferred to the adult estate as they were already – or approaching – 18 years of age. When Rainsbrook STC closed, around one-third of the 33 children were transferred to a YOI and a very small minority were transferred to equivalent provision at a secure children’s home or Oakhill STC, despite escalating concerns about Oakhill STC.

“HMPPS currently has considerable capacity to meet increased demand, with a 60% occupancy rate in its secure custodial estate. But the Ministry and HMPPS acknowledge that many establishments are outdated, too large, far away from children’s families and poorly linked to community services,” said the report.

As at January 2022, the MoJ had developed draft proposals to improve provision and meet the expected increase in demand for custody places by 2024. The proposals centre on three activities – opening two secure schools, improving existing provision at YOIs and STCs and possibly re-opening Rainsbrook STC. HMPPS has funding and initial approval to open the first school at the former Medway STC site following its refurbishment. It is seeking final approval for its full business case. It does not yet have the budget to progress the second secure school.

The cost estimate for converting the Medway STC site to a secure school rose from £4.9 million to £36.5 million, due mainly to significant design revisions after due diligence, the report adds. Although it was originally due to open in autumn 2020, the secure school is now expected to open in November 2023.

HMPPS has appointed Oasis, which runs 52 academies in England, to run the school, which is expected to provide 49 places. The MoJ and HMPPS expect secure schools to accommodate all children regardless of level of need, but Oasis will ultimately decide which children it accepts.

The Ministry is considering re-opening Rainsbrook STC, potentially under the management of HMPPS.

“It considers that re-opening Rainsbrook STC by late 2023 could help meet the expected increase in demand for youth custody places. HMPPS’s draft proposals include re-opening Rainsbrook as an STC because it believes it could take too long and cost too much to open it as a secure school, as converting a site entails significant capital costs. HMPPS told us it would intend to learn from the challenges it encountered in bringing Medway STC directly under its management,” the report concludes.

Children in custody: secure training centres and secure schools

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