Britain criticised over children in custody

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The Independent Online

The United Nations has demanded urgent government action to reduce the numbers of vulnerable children behind bars in Britain.

The UN's scathing critique of this country's failure to respect the human rights of young offenders follows the deaths of 27 children in custody since 1990, including two this year. About 2,700 people aged 10 to 17 are held in British jails, at an annual cost of £283m. The incarceration rate will be condemned by Jap Doek, the chairman of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, at a conference in London tonight.

His report says: "Urgent action is required to remedy the plight of children in custody. Two have died in custody this year, many are classed as too vulnerable for Prison Service custody and there are continuing and grave concerns about children's access to education, health care and child protection." Warning that children's human rights are being violated, Mr Doek will say: "My committee recommended in 2002 that detention should only be a last resort. Yet the UK still locks up more children than most other industrialised countries. Why is this tolerated?"

His comments, at a conference by a coalition of children's organisations, will intensify pressure on the Government over detaining juveniles. The Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) says 3,337 young people deemed unfit for custody were still sent to young offenders institutions last year.

In April, 15-year-old Gareth Myatt died being restrained at the Rainsbrook secure training centre in Northamptonshire. In August, Adam Rickwood, 14, found hanged at Hassockfield secure training centre, Co Durham, was the youngest person to die in custody. A report by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee says locking up young people is almost pointless, with 75 per cent reoffending within two years.

Carolyne Willow, the national co-ordinator of CRAE, said: "Children should be removed from Prison Service custody where possible. Locking up vulnerable children does damage to their family relationships, education, health, self-esteem and emotional development. Juvenile justice has become a political commodity."

CRAE also criticises the Government over the detention of 60 asylum-seeker children last year and the legislation threatening jail for young people who destroy their travel documents before arrival.

* Plans by Home Secretary David Blunkett to try some terror suspects without a jury were attacked yesterday by Ken Macdonald, the director of public prosecutions. He said: "We do not want to fight terrorism by destroying precisely those things terrorism is trying to take away from us. Open liberal democracies fail if they try to protect themselves by becoming illiberal, closed and repressive."