This is the third year in succession that I have had the honour and pleasure of addressing this conference. It says something about the volatility of our politics that I do so with the third Secretary of State for Justice now in place during that period. I have already sent to Liz Truss my good wishes and told her of the sincere desire of the Youth Justice Board to work with her constructively on the reform and improvement of our youth justice system.
The urgency of that work was brought home by an article in yesterday’s Times by Rachel Sylvester. In it she said this about the present state of our youth justice system:
The system is catastrophically failing to end the vicious circle of criminality. More than two thirds of young offenders break the law within a year of their release. A culture of violence and intimidation pervades the youth estate.
It is difficult to refute the fact that our youth justice system still faces some serious challenges. But we do so not from a base line of catastrophic failure, but one of considerable success.
A decade ago, at its peak, the youth justice system in England and Wales had around 148,000 children in its care. The figure is now 38,000. And today the figure held in custody in our secure estate stand at its lowest ever, with under in custody against a peak of 3,200. It is true that reoffending remains stubbornly high. But two thirds of 900 is a whole lot less than two thirds of three thousand plus. So there has been progress in the volume of reoffending, but not in headline percentages.
That does not mean that I am complacent about the percentage rate of reoffending. On the contrary, we have to tackle this stubborn statistic with urgency and imagination. We must, at all costs, resist the temptation, given the fall in overall numbers to say, “It’s working - why try and fix it?” To take this view would be to ignore the real challenges which the system still faces.
Smaller numbers and the ensuing reduction in the size of the secure estate has meant more children being held a long way from home.
It means that because we are detaining in custody only the more difficult cases. Each part of the secure estate cares for complex, damaged and sometimes dangerous young people who themselves have a cocktail of challenging issues to overcome as part of their rehabilitation.
These result in a reoffending rate which are unacceptably high; but consequently it means addressing the fact that custodial provisions, as now applied, simply aren’t working.
In addition, within the smaller group in custody there are worrying trends which have to be addressed:
- There is an over-representation of young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
- There are a disturbing number, perhaps as high as 40%, who are or have been in the care of the State as looked after children.
Some of the influences and triggers in the lives of young offenders have long been understood - poor and inadequate parenting, exposure to domestic violence, poor housing, school truancy, drug and alcohol abuse etc.
But there are also other factors in play which are only now being more fully understood:
- the extent of child sexual exploitation
- the impact of social media
- the growth of gang culture
- the influence of extremist radicalisation
- a belated awareness of real mental health needs among those in or on the cusp of the youth justice system.
These are the issues which Charlie Taylor has had to address in his review, the final draft of which is now sitting in the new Secretary of State’s pending tray.
I pay tribute to the thoroughness with which Charlie Taylor went about his task. I think the Secretary of State is right to give herself pause for thought before deciding what to do next. In looking ahead she will not be short of advice.
In addition to the Taylor report, she has the benefit of Dame Sally Coates’s review of education in adult prisons, David Lammy MP is looking into black and minority ethnic over representation in the criminal justice system, Lord Laming has published his landmark review into the factors influencing the over-representation of looked-after children in the system, the Youth Custody Improvement Board has just started its work to seek out measures to make our secure estate safer and more fit for purpose. So there are plenty of things to think about in the context of the youth justice landscape.
We do know, from the interim report published in the Spring, that Charlie wanted to replace the present secure estate with a patchwork of secure schools, which would be education led and plugged in to the main education network. This would mean that young offenders would continue to benefit post custody from suitable education or training. Charlie also wanted to see a devolution of powers and budget for youth justice services to the new regional authorities.
My main caveat about Charlie’s interim report, which will remain when the final report is published is “How do we get from where we are now to Charlie’s sunlit uplands?”
If we are to have any chance of achieving lasting reform we need to address some immediate problems immediately. We need a clear series of objectives for reform and an equally clear road-map for how we are going to deliver those reform. I would humbly suggest that it would be worth retaining the experience and expertise of the Youth Justice Board if progress is to be made on all these fronts.
Since 2010 it has been the ambition of certain parts of Whitehall to abolish the YJB without being clear about how they would address the challenges I have just referred to. Not surprisingly, Parliament has remained sceptical about putting the cart before the horse in such a spectacular fashion.
I have always been completely pragmatic about the ultimate fate of the YJB.
However I am convinced that the sensible way forward is to use the skills which are in the youth justice system now to craft the responses to the new and existing challenges we face in the future. As the shape of new structures and responsibilities emerge it will become clearer what kind of central oversight will be needed in the new circumstances that reform will create.
In moving forward we have to be brutally frank about the challenges we face here and now. The youth offending teams (YOT), which have continued to pioneer multi-agency working and the holistic care of young offenders at the same time as the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), local authorities and the partner bodies who fund and underpin YOT delivery have seen their budgets squeezed.
These pressures have already meant amalgamations, reorganisations and restructuring of YOTs. It is interesting that much of this innovation has taken place within the context of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act which established YOTs. The truth is that the 1998 Act has already demonstrated its flexibility as long as one remembers Lord Ramsbotham’s own dictum: “There can be flexibility about the how as long as one is very clear about the what”.
Likewise in the secure estate we must immediately address the question of safety and security for both staff and children. It is no use having wonderful ambitions for education if a climate of fear and intimidation prevents good work being done. That is why I look forward to working closely with the Youth Custody Improvement Board as they set about their work.
I am pleased to say that in all these areas the approach of the YJB has been one of constructive input, often aided by the direct participation of my Board Members who have a wealth of relevant experience to help with the task at hand.
In addition the Youth Justice Board has been working in other areas where action is needed as we move forward.
The new AssetPlus framework has almost completed its roll- out across all youth offending teams. Early feedback demonstrates that it is already enabling better diagnosis of children and their needs. The next step will be to embed it in the secure estate to further enable the seamless work we believe is needed with children across custody and the community.
I also want, with suitable safeguards, to be much more open with the data we collect. It is absolutely essential that, as a child moves through the system, those responsible for assessing their needs and vulnerabilities have to hand the fullest picture possible in terms of information about that child. Such an open data policy would enable academics and other experts to study the system with an eye to what works and what does not.
We also hope to bring forward ideas about how better the voice of the child can be better heard within a system which, for them, can all too often be mystifying and frightening.
We are actively working with police and other agencies to see how we can be more effective in response to gang culture, child sexual exploitation and extremism.
Our Youth Court Issues Group is actively examining how we take forward the concept of problem solving courts.
The YJB has just completed a three year study of re-offending among our cohort. The outcome has been a YJB designed toolkit to directly tackle the problem of reoffending.
We are in dialogue with employers’ organisations, sports and arts bodies to explore how they make a direct contribution to rehabilitation and have piloted programmes in London and Manchester aimed at helping young offender in to the world of work.
We are also in discussion with ministers about how some of the new funding promised to mental health can be directed to young people in or on the cusp of the criminal justice system.
The key to a healthy youth justice system is a well-motivated staff with the qualifications to do the job. Since 2012 the YJB has been developing a suite of professional accredited qualifications called the Youth Justice Professional Framework. Over 1,000 practitioners have now attained the Effective Practice Certificate.
I list these activities and initiatives because uncertainty is unsettling and it would be all too easy for YJB to hide in a fox-hole awaiting its fate. That would be a waste of time and experience. No-one wants to return to the pre- 1998 days when youth justice was the responsibility of many but the priority of none. I am convinced that we can achieve the kind of holistic, multi-agency, end to end reform which the youth justice system requires.
I am determined that in that process the YJB will be part of the solution and look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague responsible for youth justice, Dr. Phillip Lee MP as they lead us in this important work.