Earlier this year the government unveiled plans for one of the most ill-thought through policies of this Parliament. It’s called the Secure College – a new Titan prison for young offenders.
It sounds good in theory. It’s supposed to be a new institution that will ‘transform youth custody’ by prioritising learning. In reality it’s a flawed, expensive and potentially dangerous idea.
That’s why Chris Grayling suffered a humiliating defeat once the plans reached the House of Lords. But despite concerns across the justice sector, ministers are determined to press ahead regardless. They have voted down peers’ objections and are now determined to ram the proposal through before Christmas.
Today is the final debate in parliament and the last chance to amend the plans before they become law. I’ve written about why Labour opposes the Secure College before, so here’s ten quick reasons why the project shouldn’t go ahead.
1. Untried and untested
There are no examples of the Secure College model succeeding anywhere in the world. Even the government’s own impact assessment accepts it is a leap into the unknown as it has never been tried before.
2. Flies in the face of evidence
Like most of Chris Grayling’s pet projects, his plan to create one of the biggest child prisons in Europe has virtually no supporting evidence. It also defies all the existing evidence that shows the institutions that are most successful in turning young people’s lives around are smaller, with higher staff ratios, and closer to home so that young people can resettle in the community.
3. Not a single independent expert supports it
The government has failed to find a single independent expert to vouch for the Secure College. By contrast, the NSPCC, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and nearly 30 other leading children’s charities have publically condemned the plans.
4. It’s not what Grayling claims it is
The justice secretary said the Secure College would be more like ‘a school with a fence around it’ than a typical Young Offenders Institution. The first designs published over the summer however were all but identical to plans that ministers cancelled earlier in the Parliament for a YOI on the very same site.
5. It’s a waste of public money
This isn’t a good use of taxpayer’s money. The Secure College would cost at least £85million, but it’s not clear how it will be paid for. Several reports have exposed failings in existing Young Offender Institutions over recent months. Ministers should be investing in improvements in our existing youth estate rather than squandering money on a vanity project.
6. The plans could be illegal
There are big legal question marks about rules allowing the reasonable use of force within the Secure College. The Equality and Human Rights Commission and other experts have warned that the proposals could even be unlawful as they are currently drafted.
7. It won’t deliver better education for young offenders
The central premise of the Secure College is that it will deliver education and rehabilitation above and beyond anything that’s been achieved before in the youth justice system – and at a much cheaper cost. But ministers haven’t been able to confirm basic details like whether the staff will be properly qualified or provide any credible plan for how they will make their warm words a reality.
8. Parliament is being asked to sign a blank cheque
Chris Grayling has admitted that “the legislation does not specify details of the regime to be delivered within the secure college.” With no guarantees in law, the plans will be open to competition and corner-cutting once the contract is put out to tender.
9. Even the Lib Dems have seen this sham for what it is
Nick Clegg was a big fan of the Secure College when it was first announced. Something’s changed though. As opposition to the proposal has grown, the deputy prime minister has disappeared. Simon Hughes avoided saying a single word about the Secure College when giving a recent speech about Lib Dem justice policy.
10. It would jeopardise the safety of girls and the youngest children
This is the key point that the House of Lords blocked. Girls and children under the age of 15 are in the overwhelming minority within the youth custody population. They are also the most vulnerable offenders. The government plan however is to house them together in the Secure College with nearly 300, older, troubled, teenage boys.
This would be an accident waiting to happen. Even the chair of the Youth Justice Board has warned ministers against this. It’s why large facilities like Young Offender Institutions only accommodate boys over the age of 15.
For these reasons, I hope the House of Lords will hold firm and vote to keep girls and young teens out of the Secure College. If not, Labour are clear that we don’t wish to go ahead with this flawed project. The Secure College is a bad idea that should never have made it off the drawing board in the first place.
Dan Jarvis is the shadow justice minister and Labour MP for Barnsley Central