The Government is to press ahead with its plans for secure colleges for young offenders despite opposition from peers and claims from Labour they are an “accident waiting to happen”.
Shadow justice minister Dan Jarvis argued in favour of a Lords amendment in the Commons today that would have prevented the institutions from housing girls or children under the age of 15.
But the Government succeeded in overturning it by 316 votes to 194, a majority of 122.
A pilot college in Leicestershire, housing around 300 young offenders, is due to open in 2017.
Speaking against the Government’s plans, Mr Jarvis said his party did not only disagree with girls and under-15s being housed in the colleges, but with the idea as a whole.
He branded it a “step in the wrong direction” and said there was no supporting evidence for the scheme.
He added: “All the evidence explains that smaller units that are closer to home with a high staff ratio are more suitable particularly for girls and young offenders who have complex needs.
“This has all the makings of what would be an incredibly intimidating environment.
“We don’t think it’s sensible to place the most vulnerable offenders in an institution with such question marks about the reasonable use of force.
“Anyone and everyone who has scrutinised the secure college proposal has seen it for what it is – an ill thought through cost-cutting exercise with a veil of education draped over it. Throwing girls and the youngest children into the mix would be an accident waiting to happen.
“The other place has had the wisdom and the common sense to say so and this House should agree with them.”
Justice minister Andrew Selous said the Government was committed to ensuring the Leicestershire pilot did not have any girls or under-15s to start with.
But, he added, that did not mean girls or under-15s could not be safely accommodated on the same site further down the line.
He also said the institution had been designed to accommodate separate living quarters and that on no occasion would all 300 youngsters be milling around together at the same time.
In addition, he said, in light of feedback from peers, the site had been enlarged by two acres to ensure younger and more vulnerable groups had sports and recreational facilities near to their accommodation.
He told MPs that 68% of detained young people re-offend within 12 months of release, adding: “Carrying on as we are is simply not an option.
“We must have higher ambitions for turning around the lives of troubled young people who end up in custody.
“Putting education at the heart of youth custody, properly integrated with health and other support services, is the way to equip these young people with the skills and self discipline they need to build productive law abiding lives.
“Secure colleges will do this by being places of education first and places of detention second. We want to move away from the culture of bars on windows.”
In October, the plans were attacked by former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham and shadow justice minister Lord Beecham who called the prospect a “matter of grave concern”.
His worries were backed by Liberal Democrat Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, a leading QC, who said it could not be right to “experiment with the lives of girls and young boys in custody in this way”.