Tuesday, 12 January 2016

What to do about G4S?

I couldn’t watch last night’s Panorama investigation of Medway Secure Training Centre (STC). I’m working abroad this week, ironically at a juvenile detention centre where G4S were relieved of their contract in 2010. But I have seen excerpts and read enough about the programme to recognise that if this is not quite youth justice’s Mid Staffs moment , it is at least its equivalent of Winterbourne View. This was the private hospital near Bristol where an undercover Panorama investigation in 2011 revealed criminal abuse by staff of patients with learning disabilities.

It will be interesting to see whether what  emerged following  that programme five years ago are mirrored at Medway; residents too far from home, high rates of physical interventions , particularly restraint; agencies failing to pick up on key warning signs; management failure and a closed and punitive culture. Winterbourne view was closed within a month and major changes resulted, both in the treatment of people with severe learning disabilities (for example reviewing the appropriateness of placements in hospital) and in the regulation of providers (with stronger accountability and corporate responsibility for owners and directors of private hospitals and care homes and tighter inspection). Could we see analogous change in youth justice?

I have a particular interest in STC’s because, as some people won’t let me forget, I had a hand in their invention.  Working on secondment in the Home Office in the early 1990’s, I found myself advising ministers about how to deal with what they saw as a  national crisis caused by  persistent young offenders, which was made much more acute by the horrific murder of James Bulger by two ten year old boys. Despite my and others advice, Kenneth Clarke was determined not only to create new closed institutions but to open up their running to the private sector. I well remember his junior minister Michael Jack, during visits we made to existing local authority secure units and Youth Treatment Centres (after the STC's had been announced) wishing that the decision to create something new had not been taken so precipitately. Jack seemed to echo then shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair’s view that if new secure places were indeed needed, it was insane not to expand existing provision.

I remember too attending a meeting at G4S’s then headquarters in Broadway where they explained their ideas for the new STC’s. They suggested that professionally trained and qualified staff were not necessary as it was simply a question of developing the correct procedures and getting staff to follow them. Staff thinking for themselves was seen as undesirable.  If this was the approach they in fact applied when they won the first contract, it was to be exposed as grossly naïve when Medway faced all sorts of management problems when it finally opened in 1998.

What does the current scandal expose?  For the second time in two years G4S has been shown unable to care for vulnerable and challenging young people in an acceptable way. There surely comes a point when they or the government must recognise that this is institutional failure. Unfortunately new contracts have recently been signed and the company will continue to run Medway and Oakhill STC’s while handing over Rainsbrook to new operators in May. Assuming the contracts are not going to be rescinded, how can the safety and wellbeing of children be guaranteed?

First, at the very least the government need to look at the way G4S recruit, train, supervise and support their staff and insist on change if it is found necessary.  If there is a cost to the company, they should see it as a form of payment by results. The result of their current approach has been abusive and they should pay to fix it. The macro corporate renewal that was required after the tagging overbilling scandal needs to be replicated in their STC operation.


Second while G4S were at best foolish in appearing to shift the blame on other agencies for failing to spot the abuse before Panorama, the system of monitoring inspection and advocacy has undoubtedly failed. If the YJB’s days are already numbered, this latest debacle will almost certainly usher their demise when Charlie Taylor reports this summer. Funds should be diverted to enhance the child protection and advocacy systems within the STC’s.

Third, a much more thoroughgoing and independent review of custodial care of juveniles should be ordered, ideally led by a judge or lawyer. Mr Taylor’s youth justice review absurdly excludes issues about the age of criminal responsibility and the powers of courts.   Sir Martin Narey’s review of residential care is unclear in its scope and anyway compromised by his relationship with G4S and attempt to undermine the independent findings of inspectorates at Rainsbrook last year. Michael Gove is right that the best way to prevent scandals like this is to prevent children ending up in custody. He needs to ask how that can be achieved.

1 comment:

  1. This all assumes that these children need restraint in prisons. Do they? Frances Crook thinks not. What is the answer please?

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