Critics frozen out of MoJ as Grayling pushes ahead with child warehouse plan
Article updated – see below
If you want to get Chris Grayling's attention, you need to appear in the Daily Telegraph. That's what he reads with his breakfast cereal. Apparently it's the only newspaper he cares about.
Campaign groups took note of that as they tried to halt the creation of massive child prisons ahead of today's debate in the House of Lords. Their letter to the newspaper won the attention of Grayling's colleagues, Andrew Selous and Simon Hughes, who wrote to them to invite them in for a meeting.
But they didn’t invite all of them. The Howard League, of course, was rejected, along with a few others. The Howard League is persona non grata at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Grayling thinks they’re some sort of left-wing pressure group, rather than a critical voice from civil society. He imagines himself in a manner which is not dissimilar to a Chinese bureaucrat, conspired against by imaginary enemies.
We don’t know which other signatories were rejected, because the MoJ won't say. It could be Liberty, or the Prison Reform Trust, or Action for Children, or the Royal College of Psychiatrists, or any of the other groups who are intensely uncomfortable with the proposals.
When those barred from yesterday's meeting asked who made it in, officials refused to tell them.
"Thank you for your email," the MoJ reply said. "A selection of organisations working in the youth justice field were invited by Andrew Selous and Simon Hughes to discuss the secure college. In particular, ministers are keen to hear from those whose views have not perhaps been a matter of public record or as well-known, and/or who might not have had a chance to discuss matters with ministers previously. Therefore, we are keeping the cast list for the meeting to those who have received an invitation."
All the classic MoJ traits are here: secrecy, an aversion to criticism, pushing on regardless of the evidence.
One might ask why the MoJ invited critics to discuss it at all, but when it comes to the child prison proposal critics are all you're likely to find. The plans go against everything we know about what works: small, family-style residences with a focus on rehabilitation.
Instead, we are building warehouses, dubbed 'secure colleges', to house 320 people, far away from home, at a cost of £85 million. Use of force will be a central part of the regime, even though the court of appeal found it to be unlawful in 2008. Chris Grayling's draconian approach to penal policy means violence is making a come-back. Restraint will be allowed "to maintain good order and discipline where a young person poses a risk to maintaining a safe and stable environment" – a definition so broad as to be applicable for the most minor of indiscretions.
We know this is dangerous. Gareth Myatt, 15, choked on his own vomit when restrained. An inquest found he might be alive if the youth justice board had carried out proper safety checks into the restraints staff were trained to use. Around the same time, 14-year-old Adam Rickwood became the youngest person to die in UK custody when he hung himself after being restrained by four adult carers at Hassockfield secure training centre.
When the Howard League published an independent review of the use of restraint against children by Lord Carlile he found staff were too quick to resort to violence and that it was disproportionately used against ethnic minority children and those with learning difficulties.
Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, has put forward an amendment today demanding that "no secure college may be established until comprehensive rules on the operation of secure colleges, including the use of force and the treatment of young persons with mental or physical health needs, have been made".
The joint committee on human rights was similarly critical, demanding that the bill be amended "so that reasonable force can only be used as a last resort, only for the purposes of preventing harm to the child or others and that only the minimum force necessary should be used".
The list of experts queuing up to criticise the warehouse plan goes on and on. In his annual report yesterday, the current chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, said:
"This secure college will hold about a quarter of all children in custody and it will be challenging to provide these very troubled children with better education than that delivered in YOIs [young offenders' institutes], where provision has improved significantly.
"I am concerned that the plans do not yet provide assurance that they have considered and will be able to adapt to the changes in the size and complexity of the juvenile custody population."
Experts are particularly concerned that the institution will house children as young as 12 with much older teenagers, with some warning it is "a recipe for child abuse".
The children's commissioner raised the alarm over the size and distance from home of the institutions, the age of the inmates and the use of force. Universities and Colleges Union general secretary Sally Hunt said they would be "bad for young people, bad for justice and bad for taxpayers". National Union of Teachers general secretary Christine Blower said they took no account of young people's social or emotional needs.
But as ever, the MoJ presses on regardless. Where it does deign to meet its critics, it does so with the greatest secrecy. It continues to freeze out experts voices. And it presses ahead with plans which have been criticised by pretty much everyone. If the stakes were lower, the MoJ's predictability would be almost funny.
I've just been forwarded a letter sent to Selous this morning by one of the groups which was at the meeting – the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.
Director Richard Garside protest the absence of his colleagues from other groups, saying:
"I would like to put on record my concern that a number of the Telegraph letter co-signatories were not invited to yesterday's meeting. I hope the conversation that started yesterday might be continued with all interested parties at a future date."
The letter suggests ministers are prepared to move on the restraint issue. Garside says:
"I was also heartened to hear from you that the current proposals regarding control and restraint were open to revision."
He then suggests that the MoJ's open admission that reducing cost-per-capita is a primary motivation for the warehouse plan.
"The implications are clear: a few large custodial facilities holding most young prisoners, drawing in young people from many miles away. At our meeting yesterday your ministerial colleague Simon Hughes said that he would be keen to ensure young people are not bussed in from far and wide to populate the college. It strikes me as highly likely that bussing in will be the rule, rather than the exception."