Lord McNally speaks at event to improve prospects for children and young people

Lord McNally, Chairman of the Youth Justice Board, speaks at the 'Transforming Youth Justice in the UK' forum organised by Inside Government.


Thank you very much for inviting me to close today’s conference. I am sorry that I could not be with you for the whole day. Your agenda has covered exactly the one that the Youth Justice Board and its senior executives are wrestling with and I spent the morning with my colleagues doing just that.

As you know, the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, has asked a respected educationalist, Charlie Taylor, to take an overview of the youth justice system and to report recommendations to him by next Summer. This means that for the fifth time in seven years the future of the YJB is in play. I make no complaint on that, although it is ironic that what has been perhaps the most successful part of the criminal justice system finds itself under such continuous review.

My response has been to say that my intention is that the best ideas for the future of youth justice will come from the YJB itself – hence my meeting this morning with colleagues and our ongoing engagement with all who work with young people. In that approach we adopt no dog in a manger attitude to change or reform. On the contrary we will be seeking achievable solutions to the challenges which face youth justice services which are compatible with our vision for youth justice:

  • championing a child-centred and distinct youth justice system
  • developing a centre of excellence approach
  • driving continuous improvement

So that every child and young person lives a safe and crime- free life, and makes a positive contribution to society.

That is the bar we set for ourselves and which we believe any future structure for youth justice will also have to clear.

Today’s, as I have said, your agenda has been addressing many of the issues now facing us – ranging from discussing the role of the police to that of the voluntary sector. It has highlighted what I believe to be at the core of the success of the youth justice system – multi agency working.

The successes to date

The YJB was created from the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act and came in to being in the year 2000. Its creation followed the 1996 ground-breaking report, “Misspent Youth”, which identified the central problem of youth justice at that time as being that it was the responsibility of many and the priority of none.

In its fifteen year history the YJB has provided that priority by giving leadership and expertise at national level, whilst at the local level a cross disciplinary, holistic approach to youth offending is delivered through local authority based and supported youth offending teams (YOT).

During that time we have seen the number of first time entrants into the criminal justice system fall from over 110,000 at its peak to a little over 20,000 today. At the same time the number in our secure estate has fallen from a peak of over three thousand to about one thousand today – less than forty of them girls.

The number of reoffenders and re-offences is also falling. Although there is no doubt that the reoffending rate, against which we are measured, remains high. However, when the numbers in the system have been so radically reduced, there needs to be some recognition that the remaining cohort is a more heavy concentration of complex needs. In recognition of this the YJB has been working with youth offending teams to help support them to break this rate down, through a targeted toolkit which helps YOTs to analyse their data to gain a clear picture of the issues to be address locally and take actions to reduce reoffending. It is this kind of targeted and individualised support which we believe delivers results.

Review of the system

As I have said, I find it ironic that a youth justice system that has been, by any measurement, a resounding success, has undergone almost continuous review for the last seven years. Even more so when you consider that, in response to repeated requests for cuts in budget and resources since 2010, the YJB itself has delivered cumulative savings of over half a billion pounds through its improvements to the management of contracts of the secure estate, decommissioning of places, and reductions in its staffing level.

The YJB has been clear that the system cannot sustain further ‘salami slicing’, and that radical reform is needed if we are to sustain the successes of the last fifteen years. We have been working closely with Charlie Taylor to ensure that what we know has worked over the last 15 years is sustained as we develop and resource a system for the future.

Success creates opportunity. As the numbers of young people we have in the youth justice system has fallen dramatically and continue to fall - down from 72% since the record peak of 2006/7 – we have huge opportunities for reform. But we also have a responsibility – and it is the YJB’s responsibility to ensure that some of the most challenging and vulnerable young people in England and Wales do not return to being the priority of no one.

We consider it essential that we preserve the best, most successful elements of the present system - namely strong local leadership coupled with partnership working across the police, local authorities, health and education services. If we lose this holistic approach we also stand to lose the commitment to provide these crucial services, together with the necessary financial investment, for effective safeguarding and successful rehabilitation of those in the youth justice system.

Addressing the current challenges

Whilst there is much to celebrate in the system from the last 15 years, there remain some serious challenges to address, many of which have become more marked and more apparent as the size of the cohort of young people in the system has dramatically reduced.

The over-representation of BAME young people

One such challenge is to address the over-representation of BME young people in the youth justice system. Research reports show that 40% of young people in custody are from black and ethnic communities, and the YJB is focused on ensuring that this issue receives system-wide attention. We are working with YOTs in the areas where we see the highest levels of BME children in the youth justice system, to better understand and tackle the issues that contribute to their over-representation. We are also working in partnership with the voluntary and community sector on this issue, and engage with opportunities to shape and influence the broader issues of over-representation of minority ethnic groups across the Criminal Justice System. I have been hugely encouraged by the real appetite of partners across the system to tackle this issue. At our recent Youth Justice Convention in Leicester we had the benefit of an address by Baroness Young, whose report on 18 to 24 year old black and ethnic minority young people in the criminal justice system had many lessons for the under 18s in the system too. We are members of Baroness Young’s task force and our Chief Executive, Lin Hinnigan, and Board member, Tony Sewell, are engaging with the communities as the YJB takes forward its own initiatives in this area.

Reducing the over-representation of looked-after children

In another area of challenge, the over-representation of looked-after children in the youth justice system, we are indebted to The Prison Reform Trust, who established the Laming Review into how we keep children and young people in care out of custody. The YJB has given evidence, statistical and other support, including examples of effective practice from across the youth justice sector, to the Laming Committee and I am honoured to be a member. It is a harsh fact that, though less than 2% of young people have contact with children services during their life, they account for some 24% of the youth custodial population.

Mental health issues

The prevalence of mental health issues amongst children and young people, who come into contact with the youth justice system, has long been a matter of great concern to me.

A wide range of figures is often bandied about in regard to the extent of the needs of the young offenders who fall into this category. A high proportion of those with mental health issues are assessed and supported within the criminal justice system; including young offenders.

But it is too easy for them to fall through the cracks. Many young offenders suffer from not being treated as children, in instances where their mental health is a significant, and contributing, factor towards their behaviour and actions. Encouragingly, there is a growing, cross-party, consensus for the need to give greater priority to mental health needs throughout the criminal justice system. And some useful initiatives are already underway. The fruits these bear will, I hope, have a positive and effective impact on the future management of such young offenders.

In 2009, Lord Bradley recommended that the mental health needs of offenders need to be recognised and addressed earlier. I very much welcome the introduction of Liaison and Diversion Services commissioned by NHS England. These services have built on the success of early liaison and diversion services overseen by the YJB, and enhance the youth justice services ability to divert young people from the justice system, and into the right treatment. I hope to have a meeting with the Health Minister, Alistair Burt, to see if some of the £1.5 billion that the Government has committed to the improvement of child and adolescent mental health over the next five years can best benefit young offenders and those on the cusp of offending.

Accompanying that approach on mental health is our continuing attention to health needs in general. In 2012 the YJB partnered with the Department of Health to develop CHAT – a Comprehensive Health Assessment Tool which is now compulsory in the secure estate.

Closing the gap between custody and community – resettlement

It is our aim at the YJB to ensure that we create greater integration between custody and community settings, so that we can really talk about youth justice services shaped around the needs of the child. The resettlement of young people as they leave custody is key to the success of an overall system. Over the last year the YJB’s resettlement project has taken forward some innovative and important ideas, working with employers, local authorities and youth offending teams to explore how, together, we can improve existing practices to enable longer and lasting resettlement outcomes. We have launched four new resettlement consortia to build on the lessons learnt from the YJB’s pilot in 2009, and launched two new employer forum pilots – Turn Around to Work.

The YJB Cymru resettlement programme in Wales continues to work with the Welsh Government to improve young people’s access to education, training and employment, healthcare provision and suitable accommodation on release from custody to improve outcomes and reduce reoffending.

Working with partners to deliver improved outcomes

I see partnerships as one of the key ways in which outcomes for children and young people can be achieved. I have always considered sport and the arts as two of the most important means through which young people can be engaged in activities that help them stop offending and re-offending behaviour. Both sport and the arts provide young people with an all-important sense of their own self-esteem, confidence and pride in achievement. The Summer Arts College programme, run by Unitas and now funded by the Arts Council England, has consistently been achieving results for the young people who attend it, and has also inspired many of the YOTs around the country to innovate on similar lines. I am also looking forward to a meeting with the Director of the Arts Council, Darren Henley, next week to discuss how we can collaborate further.

Over the last year, the YJB has been working with the sports sector, to encourage national organisations to develop structured activities which can help divert young people away from crime, help with their rehabilitation, and can provide qualifications and employment opportunities to help them get into work.

With this in mind, the YJB is a founding member of a new initiative, called the ‘National Alliance of Sport for the Desistance of Crime (NASDC)’, of which I am proud to be one of their first Ambassadors.

I encourage those of you in the room who work on similar projects to engage with the YJB so that together we can continue to improve the prospects for children and young people – as I said at the beginning, it is the partnership approach which YJB has championed since our conception, which is what I believe delivers results. J.K. Rowling said ‘no story lives unless someone wants to listen’.

The stories that many of the children and young people tell us, when they come to us to us are still all too common. The themes that prevail as underlying causes for much of the offending and re-offending behaviour these children exhibit are well known: the dysfunctional families, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, inter-generational unemployment, poor housing, a parent or sibling already in the criminal justice system all crop up time and again. They are not matters for the YJB alone. But it is our responsibility to ensure that the voices of these young people are heard, and continue to be heard by successive governments and that the structures and policies we put in place for the future does indeed provide the opportunity for fulfilling and crime free lives which should be the right of every child.