The justice secretary, Michael Gove, is considering whether to scrap government plans for a super-prison for teenage offenders costing almost £100m that Labour has described as a “modern-day borstal”.
It is understood the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is looking at alternative options as departments come under pressure to make spending cuts.
The “secure college” plan was jointly announced by Chris Grayling and Nick Clegg under the coalition, which passed enabling legislation at the end of the last parliament. However, a Lords minister revealed on Thursday that the plan still does not have Treasury approval and cast doubt on whether it would proceed. A source at the MoJ confirmed Gove had placed it under review and no decisions had been taken.
This position is a clear contrast to the government’s stance before the election. It had already appointed a contractor to start work on the 320-place jail in Leicestershire this year ahead of it opening in 2017.
Asked when construction would start, Lord Faulks told peers: “As the noble lord and the house will know, there is a new secretary of state. He is looking at the whole question of the custodial estate, in particular the youth custodial estate. He will of course consider all the factors which featured in the debate about secure colleges.”
Pressed on whether the government was in fact performing a U-turn and planning to axe the college, Faulks said: “The secure college pathfinder was a solution favoured by the last government. We have not ruled out using a secure college. It has not yet received approval at Treasury level, but all of the ideas which it incorporated have not been abandoned. They contain many sound approaches to providing the right answer to this difficult problem.”
If the project is cancelled, it will please children’s charities that have criticised the plan to hold 320 young offenders on the same site. A coalition of 29 organisations wrote to the Telegraph last October saying the project amounted to a borstal and was dangerous.
Dan Jarvis, Labour’s shadow justice minister, urged Gove to listen to concerns. He said: “The secure college is an idea that should never have made it off the drawing board. This is an untried and potentially dangerous institution without any support from a single independent expert.
“I am asking Mr Gove in good faith for the secure college to be scrapped, as Labour called for last year. That would be the responsible decision – both in the interests of rehabilitating young offenders and saving public money.”