Child jails plan looks doomed

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The building of five child jails - Michael Howard's answer to out-of- control young offenders - appears doomed.

A year after the first of the privately run secure training centres was supposed to be up and running, two are still bogged down in planning difficulties and no contract has been signed with any company to build or run the other three.

In fact, tenders are having to be resubmitted to meet new specifications for daily regimes for the 12- to 14-year-old inmates. According to Whitehall sources, the two "divorced" groups working within the Home Office had not agreed basic regime standards before the first tenders went out and costs are now being revised upwards.

It now looks certain that none of the five mini jails - a key component of the Home Secretary's 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act - will be built before a general election. With Labour opposed to them - preferring to build more local-authority secure places - a question mark now hangs over the entire project. If contracts are signed before an election, a victorious Labour government would be called on to amend legislation and buy them out.

Jack Straw, Labour spokes-man on home affairs, said yesterday: "We will certainly inherit a mess. But it is not possible to say exactly what we will do with these places until we are in government and until we know the full story and the terms of the contracts."

The scheme has met with a storm of protest from opposition and penal reform groups who believe that asking private commercial firms with no experience of caring for difficult young people is indefensible.

Yesterday probation officers and penal reform groups called on the Government to "abort this misguided proposal". Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "It is not surprising that this scheme is in extreme difficulties. It went ahead despite all professional opinion. The Home Office is now realising that the centres will be extremely expensive to run and will do nothing to reduce crime."