Lord McNally speaks at a Policy UK forum on youth justice

Lord McNally, Chairman of the Youth Justice Board (YJB), delivers his speech 'Young People and the Justice System - Delivering a Positive Outcome'.

Some months ago, when this conference was being discussed I and the organisers assumed that by now Charlie Taylor’s report would have been published and that the process of consultation following publication would be well underway. The then-Secretary of State, Michael Gove, had made it clear, following the publication of Charlie Taylor’s interim report, that he saw the future not in terms of child prisons; but in terms of secure schools, where rehabilitation would be education led. He had the backing of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, who saw as part of his political legacy fundamental reforms of our penal system.

Harold MacMillan was once asked, when he was Prime Minister, what it was which most kept him awake at night? “Events, dear boy, events” was his reply.

Well this summer we have a positive Tsunami of events which have provided us with a new political landscape, a new Prime Minister and a new Secretary of State for Justice. Liz Truss, has very sensibly, taken the time to read and inwardly digest the Taylor report.

So our conference today is still looking through a glass darkly in contemplating the future for youth justice. That does not make our deliberations valueless. On the contrary, because reform is still work in progress and not a done deal, what we say now can still influence the content, speed and direction of travel.

When Michael Gove asked Charlie Taylor to commence his work I and the Youth Justice Board voiced our support both for education-led reform in the secure estate and for devolution of funding and oversight to regional government in carrying out work in the community.

In so doing I raised the question of how we were going to move from our present structures to Charlie’s sunlit uplands of reform. A “Big Bang” approach could put at risk much of the progress of recent years, progress which has seen significant falls in the numbers entering the criminal justice system and the numbers held in secure estate.

I believe that we now have the opportunity to carry forward reform of the youth justice system which sets out the clear ambitions for reform and also sets out the road map by which we will travel on our way to achieving those reforms.

I am entirely pragmatic about what should be retained and what should be reformed, so long as we keep in sight the goal of a youth justice system at least as successful as that created by the last great period of reform, following the passing of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act.

The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales was created from the 1998 Crime & Disorder Act and came in to being in the year 2000. Its creation followed the National Audit Office’s ground-breaking report in 1996, “Misspent Youth”. It was that report which identified the central problem of youth justice at that time as being that it was the responsibility of many agencies and departments, but the priority of none.

Over the sixteen years in which the YJB has been operating, we have gone from a shambles of a ‘system’ to a pioneering, child-focussed, coherent model of strong central leadership combined with multi-agency co-operation - delivered through local youth offending teams who are holistic in their approach and deeply rooted in the communities they serve.

The success this model has achieved so far is indisputable in terms of the numbers. At its peak the youth justice system in England and Wales had around 148,000 children in it; now it has around 38,000. And the numbers of children in custody stands at its lowest ever – just 861 in July this year compared to the peak figure of 3,200. There is no reason why these figures should not continue to fall so long as we make the right decisions now.

That does not mean resisting change; but being prepared to look at the challenges we face, some of which are as a result of our earlier successes and some as a result of the harsher climate for public finances in which we all live.

Youth justice work isn’t only about the numbers. We aspire to prevent young lives being blighted by crime; to see instead those young people improve themselves and their prospects, and make a positive contribution to society. Against this benchmark our success has also exposed significant challenges that are far different, and far greater than those the youth justice system was originally designed to meet.

Smaller numbers mean children in the secure estate being held in many cases a long way from home. It means that because we are putting in to custody only the most difficult cases, the population of the secure estate is more complex and challenging. In addition the re-offending rate of those few who are in custody is too high. This shows that, for them, custodial provision as now applied isn’t working. The number of children in the system itself, although smaller, highlights worrying trends such as the over-representation of black and minority ethnic background and those who have been in the State’s care. Some of the influences and triggers in their lives which make children vulnerable to offending have long been understood - drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, inadequate parenting, poor housing etc. But there are factors at play now only being more fully understood - the extent of child sexual exploitation, the impact of social media, the growth of gang culture, radicalisation and a belated awareness of real mental health needs among those in or on the cusp of the youth justice system.

Moving forward with a programme of reform which banks the successes which have been achieved whilst being radical in the face of the very real challenges facing the system is going to require the political dexterity akin to solving a Rubik’s Cube. In approaching this task I have already made it clear that I want the YJB to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Since 2010 the ambition in certain parts of Whitehall has been to abolish the YJB. Not surprisingly, Parliament has been reluctant to buy such a pig in a poke. The sensible approach would be to use the experience and expertise which is in the youth justice system to craft the responses to new and existing challenges and, as part of that process, deciding what kind of central body would be needed in the new circumstances thus created. Such an approach would remove the big question mark hanging over what comes next between now and a reformed system.

Such a gradualist approach would not only give scope for full use of the learning which is already in the system; but also blend in the other useful advice available. It is worthy of note that this year so far, in addition to Charlie Taylor’s work:

  • Dame Sally Coates published her review of education in adult prisons
  • David Lammy MP began his review into black and minority ethnics in the criminal justice system
  • My colleague Lord Laming published his review of the over-representation of looked-after children in the criminal justice system
  • a review of custodial provision in the youth secure estate by the Youth Custody Improvement Board has just started
  • and Ian Acheson’s review into extremism in prisons was published with Government’s response last month.

The YJB has been and continues to be closely involved with all of these - and individuals on my Board have also been members of the review teams themselves, lending their considerable expertise to help address the challenges posed and, which is so very important, making sure that the specific needs of children and young people under the age of 18 are taken into account. You would be amazed how often we still have to bang on Whitehall doors to remind departments that the needs of children are separate and distinct to those of adults and that their needs cannot simply be add-ons or optional extras to wider policy reforms.

I am convinced that we can achieve the kind of holistic, multi-agency, end to end reform of the youth justice system which is needed. Such reform is essential if we are to have a fighting chance of achieving the common goals of preventing children from offending, sparing future victims the trauma of crime, realising long-term rehabilitation, and relieving the tax-payer of spiralling costs.

Recommendations take time to consider and act upon, so it is right that the new government pauses to consider the landscape as a whole, rather than rushing to take piecemeal decisions. Fixing a bit here, and tweaking a bit there to gain short term savings and results won’t address the root causes of the issues we face and will only lead to more serious problems in the future.

And the truth is that useful work is already underway. The building blocks of reform are being prepared for assembly. The priorities for action can already be discerned:

  1. Early and effective prevention and intervention;
  2. Well planned and supportive resettlement activity which is sustained through the gate; and
  3. A workforce that can operate seamlessly across custody and community.

It is worth looking at all three areas in turn: First - early intervention: Since becoming Chairman of the YJB some two and a half years ago, I have seen and heard countless examples of where, if someone, or some service, or some facility, or some help had been around sooner; a young person could have been saved from being a victim of crime or an offender.

Early diagnosis of mental health issues and early identification of toxic influences in their immediate environment can save children from the serious impacts these have on their personal and social development. They affect all areas of their life from education, employment, relationships, behaviours and vulnerability to violence and crime. We need prevention and intervention services that can address risk factors, share data quickly and safely, promote resilience, and provide the right support at the right time.

I am pleased to say the new AssetPlus framework has almost completed its rollout across all youth offending teams, and is already showing early signs of enabling better diagnosis and treatment for children. The next step will be to embed it in the youth secure estate to help staff and officers there understand more about the children they are caring for, and provide better, targeted support for them whilst they are in custody.

The YJB is also ensuring that vulnerable children are not inadvertently overlooked by government’s renewed efforts to improve access to and provision of mental health care. We are seeking targeted funding and initiatives for under-18s on the cusp of and in the youth justice system itself. To enable frontline staff to spot the signs of child sexual exploitation we have designed and delivered enhanced training. And we have also pursued the less obvious issues such as the emerging patterns of adolescent to parent violence. As well as raising awareness of this ‘taboo’ we, with others, have produced guidance that helps local social services to safely and effectively work with affected families.

The YJB is actively supporting Lord Laming and the Prison Reform Trust to get the recommendations of the ‘Children in Care’ review implemented by the relevant departments and agencies. Most looked-after children have suffered terrible childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect or family dysfunction, all of which make them vulnerable to offending. We are also working with the Home Office to tackle gangs and youth violence for children and the communities they live in.

These preventable issues are among the most prolific reasons and root causes of why children end up in the youth justice system, often having already experienced several of them. These create the dangerous cocktail of challenges that children then present. Whilst the YJB and its many partners in the sector are making every effort to tackle them now, much will depend on the future shape the system takes.

Next is rehabilitation: Going downstream, the current system’s ability to support the rehabilitative work that takes place during custodial sentences has been challenged by not really knowing what works for children in terms of resettlement and work experience. The YJB established pilot ‘consortia’ in London and Manchester in 2014 to address this. We have since been working with experts from NACRO, Beyond Youth Custody and local authorities to identify and act on gaps we have found.

YOT workers and staff in the secure establishment now work together more closely to understand and address the health and educational needs of each individual in their care, planning a programme that covers not just the time spent in custody but also supports that child on release.

Again, this requires a multi-agency and holistic approach which has to be implemented early on in the sentence. Children aren’t able to leave a secure environment and immediately fend for themselves. There has to be a support structure in place for them to successfully transition from custody back into community - without having to resort to re-offending to meet their needs -needs that are among the most basic, such as food, a safe roof over their heads, a useful occupation that gives them not just an income, but also a sense of purpose, pride and achievement. And a support network in the community of positive role models and mentors. Only when each of these factors can be addressed for the long-term will it be possible to see a child break their offending cycle for good.

And finally we come to the third, and perhaps the most important element - the workforce. For it is those on the front-line who will ensure the success of any future reforms, in the community and in the secure estate.

Society is asking us to deal with some incredibly damaged children, and those who work with them are often acting ‘in loco parentis’ on the State’s behalf. Having visited a number of the institutions responsible for the care and rehabilitation of young offenders, I have seen first-hand the dedication with which many of the staff carry out their duties and the positive effect that their work has. It is difficult, demanding and staff bear high risks - for themselves as well as the children - all day every day. I want to be clear that these staff deserve our praise and thanks.

But we won’t solve the problem of the secure estate - or indeed get a grip on prevention and resettlement work - until we resolve the recruitment of more quality, trained staff who can be retained in the youth justice system across both custody and community.

These men and women need much more support. They need high quality training so they understand the complexities they are dealing with. They don’t all need to be doctors or educationalists or social workers, but they do need to be able to spot signs of mental health needs, substance misuse, learning difficulties, speech, language and communication needs. They need to be able to recognise when children, who present as offenders, are in fact victims themselves, of exploitation or abuse. They need to be able to see, hear and talk to children, and know when to do which of these things in any given circumstance. Above all, they need to be able to build positive relationships with the children themselves.

Since 2012 the YJB has been developing a suite of professional, accredited qualifications called the Youth Justice Professional Framework (YJPF). The YJPF is designed to provide practical and tutorial training in key youth justice areas, and caters for all aspirations from Certification to Post Graduate degree level.

Designed to be taken up by staff already working in the system as well as those with an academic interest, the modules enable practitioners to develop; they support personal resilience and give them the tools to engage constructively and supportively with challenging young people.

These formal qualifications have been positively received and the evaluation of impact, although early days, looks encouraging. Well over one thousand practitioners alone have now attained the Effective Practice Certificate; and the YJB itself is also funding a pilot cohort of 20 staff from YOIs to ensure that we grow the kind of skills we need across custody and community.

But there are no silver bullets to address these or all of the challenges in the youth justice system - reformed or otherwise. This is work for the long haul and it will be a rocky road to the sunlit uplands. Tangible results don’t happen overnight; and there is no shortage of those who would offer the 20/20 perfection of hindsight when things go wrong. But blame doesn’t get us anywhere. It doesn’t provide relief for those who are suffering, and it doesn’t provide solutions to the problems.

Some will say ‘education’ is the answer. Some will say ‘better mental healthcare’ and so on. You have heard me refer to the ‘dangerous cocktail of challenges that children in the system present’. A cocktail is composed of multiple ingredients. And so the solution - which we hope will come through the reforms - must seek to comprise the same.

That said, we certainly now have that all important political will across a range of fronts that affect children in the youth justice system. So when government has deliberated and come to its decision, those of us in the youth justice sector will be more than happy to help take youth justice reforms forward, building on success; but not afraid to take on new ideas and new solutions where they meet the needs of the children who are in our care.