Ministers 'risking human rights breach' as mentally-ill children face 'extreme' restraint techniques

Posted On: 
18th April 2019

Ministers should take immediate action to end the use of "extreme or controversial" restraint techniques on children held in detention by the state, a powerful committee of MPs and peers has said.

The Ministry of Justice has been urged to sharpen its oversight of the controversial restraint methods.
Credit: 
PA

A new report by the Joint Human Rights Committee said the continued use of "pain inducing" restraint techniques means the Government is at risk of breaching its international obligations to avoid the "inhuman or degrading" treatment of young detainees.

Around 2,500 children are currently detained by authorities in England and Wales, with some held in hospitals for therapeutic care while others are kept in custody with criminal convictions.

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But the committee warned that there are "thousands of unjustified restraints" taking place each year in these institutions, including children who are held in the face-down or face-up "prone" position or subjected to lengthy stints in solitary confinement.

Committee chair Harriet Harman said the use of such techniques could have major long-term impacts on children being held by the state.

"Restraint or separation might seem to solve immediate problems in custody or hospital. But both cause short term and long term harm to children," the senior Labour MP said.

"They can contribute to a vicious circle of problems which can continue into the longer term future and even affect life chances into adulthood. Restraint can be painful, cause injuries, be distressing at the time and cause long term psychological harm.

"It can make a child’s time in detention counterproductive, inhibiting the provision of care, suggesting to children that violence is a way to solve problems, and can compound and reproduce the harms associated with early childhood exposure to abuse neglect and violence.

"In some contexts the use of these techniques can amount to inhumane and degrading treatment and should be banned."

The latest NHS figures show that 818 mental health, learning disability or autism in-patients under 20 were subject to a total of 17,476 uses of physical restraint last year - figures which the committee has warned could be an under-estimate.

Meanwhile 399 young patients were subjected to 2,994 uses of so-called "prone" restraints, which see children held on the floor, potentially for lengthy periods. Use of the technique is currently under review by the NHS and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Among its recommendations, the committee calls for pain-inducing restraints to be banned in young offenders institutions "in all but the most exceptional" circumstances -  and has urged regulators to do more to "rigorously regulate" the use of such methods.

Ms Harman added: “We realise that staff often face difficult situations. They must be supported to use better alternatives wherever possible.

"Increased staffing, better training and facilities and a better mix of staffing and skills should increase the range of alternative options so that restraint and separation really are the last resort.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The safety and welfare of young people in custody is our priority and we are clear that restraint and segregation should only be used as a last resort where children are putting themselves or others at risk.

“We have asked the chair of the Youth Justice Board, Charlie Taylor, to undertake an independent review of pain-inducing restraint techniques and expect his report this summer. We will carefully consider both reports and respond in due course.”

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The "unequivocal" report was welcomed by campaigners the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Chief executive Frances Crook said: "The findings of the report are in keeping with the experience of the Howard League’s legal team: our lawyers have continued to receive a high number of calls concerning children who have been restrained and isolated in custody. In the past year we have received around 40 inquiries concerning these issues.

"We are conscious that even the children who have the wherewithal to contact us are often worried about complaining or making a fuss. We are therefore particularly pleased that the committee has highlighted the need for a complaints system that children and their carers can have confidence in."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Ed Davey meanwhile told PoliticsHome: “Detaining children and young people in inappropriate conditions and using pain-inducing restraints on them can have seriously damaging long term effects.

"The evidence spells it out in black and white; a cell is never the right place for a child.

“The existence in 21st century Britain of child detention and pain-inducing restraints is shocking in itself but that these methods have been supported by Conservative Ministers is appalling."