Ministers ignored own report to close Airborne Initiative

Key points

• Social work inspectors’ report praised youth rehabilitation centre weeks before closing it

• Inspectors called in as a result of embarrassing BBC documentary which critics say is reason centre was axed

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• Scottish Executive withdrew 600,000 of funding from Airborne Initiatives

• 11 of Scotland’s most dangerous young criminals back on the streets

Key quote

"[changes implemented by the Airborne Initiative] are encouraging and reflect the considerable commitment from the board, management and staff group, particularly when so many of the changes have been implemented in a short time frame" – Social work inspectors’ report on Airborne Initiative, December 2003

Story in full THE Airborne Initiative for young offenders was the subject of a positive report by Scottish Executive inspectors just weeks before it was closed down by ministers, a leaked document seen by The Scotsman has revealed.

Eleven of Scotland’s most dangerous young criminals are now back on the streets after the Executive withdrew almost 600,000 of funding from the centre at Braidwood House, Lanarkshire, forcing it to close with the loss of 26 jobs.

In the report, social work inspectors refer to a list of improvements implemented by Airborne, which they describe as encouraging, giving staff the clear impression that the unit had a future.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister, yesterday insisted ministers were right to withdraw funding from the group, but there were signs that cracks have started appearing within the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition over the controversial decision.

Robin Harper, the Green MSP, tabled a parliamentary motion which was signed almost immediately by two Lib Dem MSPs and they are likely to be joined by other party colleagues and even some Labour MSPs in the next few days.

Donald Gorrie, a Liberal Democrat MSP, said: "It’s not some liberal, soft, well-meaning outfit. I think there is an agenda led by the views of some civil servants which doesn’t give fair scrutiny to this organisation."

His fellow Liberal Democrat MSP, Robert Brown, added: "It is imperative to give support to successful projects such as Airborne, which deal with the most difficult clients, and to help support the public at large. The Executive should think again about this decision."

The report stated: "Airborne has implemented a number of changes in relation to discipline, health and safety, substance misuse, staff training and supervision and case recording.

"These are encouraging and reflect the considerable commitment from the board, management and staff group, particularly when so many of the changes have been implemented in a short time frame.

"All are clearly works in progress and form part of a fuller action plan for future change."

The inspectors’ report, commissioned by the Executive, is dated 20 December, 2003, and yet funding was abruptly withdrawn from the pioneering rehabilitation unit in early February.

Critics believe the project was axed after ministers were embarrassed by Chancers, a fly-on-the-wall documentary which showed inmates taking drugs and absconding. Although the Executive insisted the centre failed to perform, insiders believe the decision to close was political and linked to Mr McConnell’s high-profile policy on youth crime.

Executive insiders say that inspectors from the social work department were sent in to investigate shortly after the programme was aired.

"The moment something negative appeared on TV about Airborne, the inspectors were sent in," said a source. "I understand the social work department had never done a formal visit of Airborne until September, and yet ministers suddenly wanted to take a look. This is no coincidence.

"It’s a disgrace that ministers have never ordered an inspection before. They had a duty of care to staff, offenders and the public to complete regular and comprehensive inspections."

Despite assurances from the Executive that the decision to shut Airborne was in no way connected to the television programme, the first line of the report confirms that inspectors were called in as a direct result of the documentary.

The report states: "Following concerns raised by the broadcast of the television programme Chancers, based on the filming of a course being run at the Airborne Initiative ... social work services inspectorate were asked to visit Airborne with a view to providing an independent report to ministers."

Staff at the initiative are furious at the Executive’s handling of the affair, after they spent at least 20,000 on training and improvements to meet the demands set down by inspectors.

"This report was clearly telling staff that they had a future," added the source. "This is far from a damning report.

"What is the point in commissioning a report if it is to be totally ignored by ministers? "

The document praised the work done and said inspectors had found evidence Airborne had made substantial efforts to implement changes.

A spokesman for the Executive confirmed that there had been only one social work inspection on Airborne, which took place in September last year - the same month as the BBC documentary was broadcast. The Executive has no plans to publish the inspectorate’s report.

Earlier this week, a campaign was launched by a group of 23 senior figures who have appealed to Mr McConnell save Airborne. Opponents of the closure, who wrote an open letter to The Scotsman, include Lord Prosser, a retired judge, Ian Rankin, the author, and Sir David Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales.

The First Minister defended the decision to close the initiative, saying: "The project was not value for money and was not cost-effective, and the money will be far better used in other projects elsewhere in Scotland."