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A cross-party approach is needed to get sustainable reforms in youth justice

4 min read

The Government must pursue a cross-party approach if we are to get sustainable reforms in youth justice, to help also deal with the changes in culture and behaviour management we urgently need for the well being of the young boys, their rehabilitation and the chance of a better future, says Seema Malhotra MP.

On Monday, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice triggering the rarely-used Urgent Notification process for the children’s unit of Feltham Young Offenders Institution, Feltham A. This occurred after an inspection last week found an “extraordinary” decline in safety, care and activity for the children held there.   

In his letter, Clarke disclosed that 40% of children said they had not felt safe at some point in Feltham, A, that self-harm had tripled since January, that the number of violent incidents had risen by 45% since January and that around two thirds of children reported victimisation by staff. In addition, just 25% of children reported that their emergency cell bell was normally answered within five minutes, and only 45% felt that there was a member of staff they could turn to.  

This is a matter that should concern us all and that requires urgent and ongoing scrutiny of how Ministers are responding. We need confidence that the situation is going to be different in another six months. 

This is why I secured an Urgent Question Debate yesterday and I am grateful to colleagues who came to take part. 

Fundamentally this is about children - and children who are in the care of the State. Feltham A is home to around 110 boys aged 15 - 17. They have complex needs and histories, many have witnessed or been involved in violence. But they are still children.  

Ministers have much to answer for as to why the decline has been so fast. As I made clear to the Minister, this is not the time to be defensive or to pass the buck. Last year, Feltham YOI was left without a Governor for five months - an unacceptable amount of time. The new Governor and management have had an uphill battle, and the staff have been working in very difficult conditions. 

The Government needs to get to grips with the causes of this rapid decline as a matter of urgency. The incoming Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, must respond quickly with a clear action plan and the skilled resources with the experience necessary to support the staff and to turn the situation around.  

In Minister Argar’s response to my Urgent Question, he sought to made clear that the Government was taking the necessary steps and quickly. I have requested that Parliament, the Justice Select Committee and myself be updated regularly on progress as there is no room for further failure. These are also consequences of the Tory cuts to the prison staffing and budgets - with consequences years on. 

There are also bigger parts of the equation. The Government is moving to a secure schools model of youth justice. We want to know in detail how this will work and how quickly the transition will happen. Secondly there is a fundamental question about whether Feltham is fit for purpose.  

The Government has a wealth of ideas and experience in Parliament: my constituency neighbour, the Labour MP Ruth Cadbury, suggested providing a therapeutic regime for boys held in Feltham, the Conservative MP Eddie Walsall highlighted the fact that many of these boys have entered the justice system through the care system, and the Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse raised the need for a trauma-informed justice system.

The Government must accept that it is time to pursue a cross-party approach drawing on insights from across the House if we are to get sustainable reforms in youth justice to help also deal with the changes in culture and behaviour management we urgently need for the well being of the young boys, their rehabilitation and the chance of a better future.


Seema Malhotra is Labour MP for Feltham and Heston.

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