The Independent View: Liberal Democrat MPs should vote against secure colleges which would put younger children and girls at risk

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails” said Nelson Mandela. Well, what would it reveal about the state of our nation if we were to hold our youngest children and some of the country’s most vulnerable girls in unsafe conditions where they felt fearful, intimidated and isolated?

On Monday, Liberal Democrat MPs will cast the deciding votes on whether this becomes a reality.

The Commons will consider an amendment made by the House of Lords to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill on “secure colleges” – the new form of child custody introduced by the Bill. These will be very large institutions (there’ll be 320 beds in the first one) which Chris Grayling, the Tory Justice Secretary, is adamant must hold girls and boys between 12 and 17 years of age.

No organisation with expertise in either the justice system or working with vulnerable children and girls supports holding girls and under-15s in secure colleges. A quick look at the child custody population tells you why. Last year 96% of children in custody were aged 15 or over, and 95% were male. If you apply these proportions to secure colleges, at the most there’ll be 16 girls and 13 children under-15 held alongside 290 older boys.  This is madness.

Not only is holding girls and younger children in such a minority unsafe, it will be extremely intimidating and make it really unlikely they will engage with education and other programmes intended to assist rehabilitation. It’s worth reminding ourselves how deeply vulnerable these children are. One survey found that one in three girls in custody had experienced sexual abuse, another that 60% had spent time in care. The idea of putting these children in a hyper-masculine environment as part of a 5% minority is beyond awful.

Reflecting the seriousness of these concerns, leading women’s organisations issued a joint statement this week urging MPs to accept an amendment made by the House of Lords to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill that prevents the Ministry of Justice holding girls and younger children in secure colleges  But in reality, it’s Liberal Democrat MPs who will choose; the Tories are likely to vote against the Lords amendment, Labour for it, leaving Lib Dems with the deciding votes.

In government, the Liberal Democrats have had some significant successes in protecting children in and from custody – ending the practice of detaining children for immigration purposes and overseeing a continued decline in the child custody population. Monday’s your chance to build on this good work and keep girls and younger children out of secure colleges. I hope you seize it.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Penelope Gibbs is the Chair of the Standing Committee on Youth Justice

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • BRENDAN JOYCE 1st Dec '14 - 9:40am

    I would like to contact you with a few issues and questions which cannot easily be fitted into this comment box .

    Do you have an email address on which I might contact you please ?

    Thank you.

    Brendan Joyce , Party member , Thirsk, North Yorks

  • This does indeed look awful. It just tells you how awful the Tories are. If you are committed to reducing public spending a a share of GDP to historic lows – whilst paying increasing amounts to the Tory voting base of pensioners – this is the sort of decision you end up with. It just begs the question of why the Lib Dems have tolerated 4 1/2 years of this stuff and will happily swallow 5 more years of it so long as they get some concessions.

    No doubt Clegg will feel proud because he’s managed to negotiate a situation where we have a 75% Tory government rather than an 80% Tory government.

  • Geoffrey Payne 1st Dec '14 - 12:39pm

    It is disappointing to see another article that says that we know what the Tories will do and what Labour will do, but not sure about the Lib Dems.
    Surely it is obvious that the Lib Dems will vote for the Lords amendment? Surely we should be clear that our role is to put a break on Tory extremism? It is not in the Coalition Agreement so surely the Lib Dems can vote according to how they think?

  • The term, “secure college”, is such an obvious euphemism that my eyebrows rise instantly. It suggests, somewhat implausibly, that these institutions are intended to be an improvement on the existing facilities, and will offer some kind of rehabilitation, in addition to the rape, violence and insanitary conditions so adored by the tabloids. A more accurate and transparent term is “borstal”. For that is what these institutions appear to be. Why not be upfront and call them “borstals”? After all, we know what borstals are or were. They were portayed quite infamously in “Scum” and “Scrubbers”, minus a few thousand swear words. So the public is familiar with the package. The term, “secure college”, seems to be aimed at keeping human rights lawyers off the government’s back, and has little or nothing to do with education (apart from education in crime and drug-taking, that is).

  • No doubt these will be run by G4S or some similar hated company…

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