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Government must end use of pain-inducing restraint techniques and solitary confinement of detained children

18 April 2019

The use of pain inducing techniques and solitary confinement of children in detention must be banned, says a new report by the UK Parliament's Human Rights Committee. These cause physical distress and psychological harm in both the short and longer term, and are clearly not compliant with human rights standards.

Chair of the Committee Harriet Harman MP said:

“The UK is under international and domestic legal obligations to ensure that children are not subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The Government must comply with its legal obligations and ensure that children in detention are not subject to solitary confinement or unnecessary or disproportionate uses of restraint.”

The Committee's inquiry considered the use of restraint and separation in a range of settings where 2,500 children are detained at any one time: some for care, treatment or welfare reasons, and some because of criminal offences. Most are highly vulnerable, many have multiple challenges. The use of separation and restraint engages rights under the European Convention on Human Rights: Article 2, the right to life; Article 3, prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment; Article 5, the right to liberty and security, Article 8, the right to privacy and family life.

Report conclusions

  • the use of restraint for the purposes of 'discipline and good order' in Youth Offenders Institutes (YOIs) must be prohibited in all but the most exceptional circumstances;
  • the use of prone (face-down) restraint is distressing, potentially dangerous, and its use as anything but a last resort is not compliant with human rights standards for children;
  • the use of separation from normal human contact is harmful to children if used for more than a few hours at a time, and it can amount to inhumane or degrading treatment that is a breach of children's rights;
  • incidents of separation can 'drift', with children ending up in what amounts to solitary confinement, and while this is not a policy decision by the Government, it is within the power of Government to prevent it. Where isolation from normal human contact exceeds 22 hrs per day, this is ‘solitary confinement' as defined in international law; where it exceeds 15 days it is ‘prolonged solitary confinement'. It is unlawful to subject children to solitary confinement.

Report recommendations

  • pain-inducing restraints in YOIs should be banned and the use of restraint for the purposes of ‘good order and discipline' must be prohibited in all but the most exceptional of circumstances;
  • restraint must be more rigorously regulated by governing health bodies and regulators, including by annual publication of statistics for each institution (broken down by patients' diagnoses, age and justification for not using an alternative method);
  • all use of separation in all institutions is regulated and monitored, with data published annually by institution;
  • decisions and reviews of decisions to extend periods of separation of a child should be reported to the responsible Ministers on a monthly basis for certification and laid before Parliament for publication; 
  • there is a need for more staff who are better trained, and a better mix of skills to relate to children and to de-escalate incidents without resource to restraint or separation
  • there is a need for more places in appropriate institutions and more places closer to homes so that family can help with care and rehabilitation
  • the process of complaints, resolution and redress needs to be improved to give children and families confidence that it is worth trying to enforce their rights including by greater transparency about disciplining staff who breach their rights.

Committee Chair Harriet Harman MP said further:

“Our inquiry received unanimous evidence from medics, inspectors, lawyers, and staff who work in detention, that restraint and separation are harmful to children and should be avoided if at all possible. This was brought into stark relief by the harrowing evidence we heard from young people, and from parents who told us about the impact on their children.

“Restraint or separation might seem to solve immediate problems in custody or hospital. But both cause short term and long term harm to children. 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.”

Variety of institutions considered during inquiry

The inquiry considered several different types of institution which, taken together detain around 2,500 children at any one time: some for care, treatment or welfare reasons, and some because of criminal offences. Each type of institution has its own terminology and rules governing the use of restraint and the use of separation from human contact.

  • Around 1,200 children with mental health issues are detained in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) Tier 4 units, under the mental health legislation.
  • Around 250 autistic children and children with learning disabilities are detained in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs), CAMHS units or other inpatient units, under the mental capacity legislation or mental health legislation.
  • Around 900 children are detained in the Youth Secure Estate under custodial sentences for criminal convictions: 650 children aged 15–17 in Youth Offenders' Institutes (YOIs); 130 children aged 15–17 years in Secure Training Centres (STCs); and 120 children aged 10–14 years in Secure Children's Homes (SCHs).
  • Around 100 children aged 10–14 years are detained in Secure Children's Homes (SCHs) for welfare reasons. 

Data shows that children are restrained too often, with thousands of unjustified restraints each year, and that separation is also used too often – with rates of restraint and separation even higher for BAME children. The issue is that staff move too quickly to use restraint or separation.  

Harriet Harman MP said:

“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.”

The inquiry found that for all forms of restraint and separation (whether acceptable or not) data collection is incomplete and there is good reason to believe that these practices are under-reported. Data is presented in ways that make it harder to interpret and the use of different definitions makes it harder to compare between different types of institutions. The report recommends that data collection must be improved, and data about all types of restraint and separation should be published.

Finally, the report concludes that not enough is done to ensure that children in detention are aware of their rights, or what to do if these are breached. Families often do not have full access to evidence that would help in appeals. The Committee recommends more involvement from families in decisions about the children, more proactive roles for independent advocates, more effective debriefs after incidents, and publication of data about appeals and their outcomes.

Further information

Image: MoJ