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Children locked up 23.5 hours a day – MPs “shocked and appalled”

29 March 2021

Members of the House of Commons Justice Committee are “shocked and appalled” by the treatment of children at a privately run detention centre in Northamptonshire, they say in a report published today. They have called on the Ministry of Justice to consider taking back direct control of the Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre unless the private company currently in charge, MTC, makes substantial improvements. 

The Committee also questions why the Ministry of Justice has given MTC two more years to run the centre despite the poor performance by the company in managing the 5-year, £50.4 million contract. 

The Committee report said:  

  • children at the Secure Training Centre, just south of Rugby, were locked in their cells for 23.5 hours a day for 14 days;
  • one boy was only allowed out of his room for a total of four hours over a fortnight;
  • the children (defined as up to their 18thbirthday) received little encouragement to get up in the mornings and education provision was poor - some spent much of the day in their pyjamas;  
  • senior Rainsbrook management - and Ministry of Justice monitors working there - were unaware of these conditions, despite having offices just two minutes' walk from the cells;
  • the Secretary of State for Justice was at one point wrongly informed improvements had taken place and subsequently reported this improvement in good faith - in his own words he was “played for a fool”, and;
  • the management of the private, US-headquartered contractor, MTC, were not the only ones at fault – the Ministry of Justice also “failed in their management and oversight of Rainsbrook”, the Committee said. 

The Justice Committee’s findings come in a report, Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre, HC 1266, published at 0001 HRS on Monday, March 29, 2021.  

A public session of the Committee was held on March 9, 2021 where evidence was taken from the managing director of MTC’s UK arm, Ian Mulholland, three inspectors of conditions at the facility and rt hon. Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, and his senior officials.  

Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre can hold up to 87 male and female children aged 12 to 17. It has been run by MTC since 2016 and concerns have been raised about the quality of its services since then. 

The most recent concerns began to surface in February 2020 when inspectors found poor education provision, with many children refusing to attend lessons, high staff turnover and low levels of staff experience. The inspectors made 19 recommendations but, the report says, these were largely ignored.  

In October 2020, the inspectors (from Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and HM Inspectorate of Prisons) returned to Rainsbrook and found new and serious concerns. Newly-admitted children were being locked in their rooms for 14 days and allowed out only for 30 minutes each day for fresh air. The inspectors said this was “tantamount to solitary confinement” and “highly likely to be damaging to children’s emotional and physical well-being." The inspectors informed the Ministry of Justice.  

In November, the Secretary of State for Justice told Ofsted in a letter that improvements were under way. The Secretary of State had, the Committee report said, been misinformed.  

In December 2020, the inspectors went to Rainsbrook again, unannounced. They found that only limited progress had been made so they took the unusual step of invoking an ‘Urgent Notification’ which called attention to the serious situation outlined above.  

The Justice Committee said it was not confident in MTC’s ability to deliver recommendations repeatedly made over a period of years by the three sets of inspectors. 

The Committee recommended that MTC and the Youth Custody Service branch of the Ministry of Justice report to it by June 2021 setting out in detail what progress had been made. If by then substantial improvement was not apparent, the Committee report said, the Ministry should consider taking Rainsbrook “back in house.”   

The Committee also:  

  • expressed concern that the head of the UK arm of MTC had told the Committee he plans only to accept recommendations “we think fair and grounded” and said, rather, that Mr Mulholland should make a clear, public commitment to implementing the changes inspectors recommend; 
  • called on the Ministry of Justice to set out in detail what work they are doing to ensure that the recommendations made by inspectors are taken seriously and acted upon quickly and effectively; 
  • advised the ministry to confirm for themselves that what they were being told about conditions at the detention centre was true;
  • recommended that the Ministry of Justice consider having mobile teams of monitors who do not fail to see what is happening and do not fail to challenge bad practice;   
  • said it wants a clear explanation of why the Ministry of Justice chose to extend MTC’s contract by two years when the contractor’s ability to deliver was already in question and asked what ministerial involvement there was in making that decision and in signing it off.

Chair's comment

Sir Bob Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, said:  

“The children held at places like Rainsbrook have committed serious crimes and are not always easy to care for or handle. We know that. But these are children - and some of the most vulnerable members of our society. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It is clear this was not happening, and that is unacceptable in the extreme.  

“The experience of the inspectors over the past year has shown that some of the promises made by MTC are worth less than the paper they are written on. This, too, is unacceptable. But even worse, in a way, is that the competent public authorities - from the Ministry of Justice down - have failed in their oversight of this private contractor.  

“We welcome the work being done to address these failings. But the issues identified here are not new and a much greater sense of urgency is required. My Committee will be watching to try to ensure that change for the better takes place – and soon.” 

Further information

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