Secure home sell-off plan condemned: Bottomley defends proposals to privatise care of disturbed and dangerous children

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The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT plans to privatise secure homes for disturbed and dangerous children met with almost universal condemnation yesterday.

Children's charities and welfare organisations added their protest to that of the opposition parties, indicating that there may be few bids for the task of building and running new homes.

Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, had hoped to attract the interest of children's organisations which had experience in young people's care when she unveiled her proposals today. But Michael Jarman, director of child care at Barnardo's, said: 'The locking up of children in secure accommodation is a public policy issue - it is not a charitable task.' He said he believed he was reflecting the views of most of the big charities.

Children's charities including the Save the Children Fund, Barnardo's, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, had immediately joined forces to condemn similar plans by the Home Office last March to set up new detention centres - possibly privately run - for persistent young offenders aged 12 to 15.

There are currently about 300 secure places around the country, most of them in homes run by local authorities, with plans to provide another 65. They mostly hold children who frequently abscond or who are so disturbed they are considered a danger to themselves or others. But about 30 per cent have committed serious offences such as murder, rape or arson and are detained under Section 53 of the Children and Young Persons' Act. By contrast, the children the Home Office now seeks to detain are those who have been convicted of a total of three less serious but nevertheless imprisonable crimes and who cannot be dealt with in the community.

Mrs Bottomley was said to have opposed the home office idea, prompting some to speculate yesterday that in reaching her decision to put new secure homes out to tender, she had come under cost-cutting pressure from the Treasury .

But she showed no reservations when confronted with the disapproval. Interviewed on Radio 4, she said: 'Some of the worst scandals I have had to tackle have been in local authority homes, whether Staffordshire, Leicestershire, the recent Islington cases, or Birmingham. It is not the ownership of the homes that matters. It is good quality and ensuring that the child gets the care, the discipline and the education they need.' Rigorous regulation and inspection would ensure their smooth running.

But Mr Jarman said it was difficult to see which organisations would have the experience needed to deal with disturbed and delinquent children.

David Blunkett, Labour health spokesman, said the Government had learned nothing from its 'farcical' privatisation of the prison service and should instead develop the local authority homes.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: 'Making profits out of needy children is probably the worst way of making money I can think of.'