As Children’s Commissioner, it is my job to make sure that children’s views, voices and experiences are listened to and understood. I firmly believe that all children and young people deserve and have the right to live in a safe and loving environment. Ideally this would be in a family home but, where that is not possible, there needs to be a meaningful alternative. An alternative that is a place of stability, care and love, where children are safe and able to thrive.
Unfortunately, for too many children, this is very far from being the case.
For children living in Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs) it is important that this is a safe environment for them. My office’s regular statutory visits to YOIs, including a recent visit to Cookham Wood, have found that the great majority of children in custody are being detained in unacceptable and unsafe conditions.
Children told us they were worried about safety, weapons, dangerous gate slips (where boys who are being kept separate slip through gates, leading to attacks), poor education and a chaotic regime.
In this context, I am extremely concerned about the possible introduction of an incapacitant spray (pelargonic acid vanillylamide or PAVA) into under-18 YOIs or any other part of the children’s secure estate. I have written to the Youth Custody Service to register my concerns.
As Children’s Commissioner, my primary role is to promote and protect the rights of children. Everyone below the age of 18 in our society has a number of legally protected rights that reflect the unique vulnerability of childhood. These include the right to play, to learn, to have a family life, and to be protected from violence apply to every child in this country, no matter their circumstances.
The introduction of pain-inducing spray into places where children live is not compatible with the freedom to be free of violence or inhumane treatment under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children in custody are still children, and should be treated as such.
The population of children in custody are some of the most vulnerable and high-needs children in the country – many have been in care, or have acute mental health needs, and most have experienced huge adversity and trauma.
The experience of trauma and violence while in the children’s estate will have a further scarring effect on the lives of all these children, including the third of children living in the children’s estate on remand who have not been convicted of a crime and may never be.
I believe that all YOIs should be closed, as the Ministry of Justice has committed to doing, but in the meantime, I want a children’s estate that is safe both for the children who live in it and the adults who work in it. I believe the introduction of PAVA would be entirely counter-productive.
It seems likely to increase tensions, while infringing on the rights of children without addressing the underlying causes of violence and conflict within the children’s estate. It is unacceptable for children to experience violence, or to live constantly under the threat of violence, as a solution to the failures of the service of which they are in the care.
The decision to make the children’s secure estate a more brutal place for the children living there should not be taken lightly. I will continue to raise the issue with Ministers and the Youth Custody Service.