Lord McNally, Chairman of the Youth Justice Board, delivers a speech at the annual Youth Justice Convention 2016
This is my third address at the Youth Justice Convention as Chairman of the Youth Justice Board. As all three of my predecessors - Norman Warner, Rod Morgan and Frances Done - can testify, it is a job which fully matches the old Metropolitan Police recruiting slogan: “Dull it isn’t!”
I want to thank my Board, each Member of which is vastly experienced in their own fields, for their willingness to bring that experience together in a collegiate and constructive way to create one of the most impressive examples of teamwork that I have ever seen. Together we work with YJB staff in central administration, in communities through Youth Offending Teams, and in secure establishments across England and Wales.
It is that engagement, both individual and collective, that gives us the wider knowledge to speak with authority about the future, as we await the publication of the Taylor Report and the Secretary of State’s own ideas on the road map for the way ahead.
One thing I have been very clear about throughout my term of office is that, whilst I see need to reform the youth justice system to better equip it for the challenges which lie ahead, in no way are we dealing with a failed system or one ripe for abolition. Indeed it would be difficult to cite a better example of success in any department of government. The Youth Justice Board was created by the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act following the ground-breaking 1996 Report - Misspent Youth. That report identified the core problem of youth justice as being that whilst it was the responsibility of many departments - it was the priority of none.
The YJB has provided that priority and leadership at both national and local level. What is more it has been both the example and the pathfinder in championing holistic, interdisciplinary solutions to the problems presented by young offenders and those on the cusp of offending. Since 2010 the YJB has seen a cut of nearly two thirds in its budget. It has been able to absorb such draconian cuts because that period has seen a dramatic fall in the number of young people entering the criminal justice system and a similar fall in the number held in custody. The fact that today we have a little more than twenty three thousand new entrants in to the system and less than nine hundred in custody, compared with eighty thousand plus new entrants and three and a half thousand in custody a decade ago, is evidence based proof of the effectiveness of the YJB approach.
Of course I do not claim that these outcomes are the achievements of the YOTS or the YJB alone. They have been the work of many hands. But it is one thing to concede (as we happily do) that these outstanding outcomes are the work of many hands. It is another to claim that they would have been achieved without the leadership of the YJB and YOTs. I often hear from those with long experience of young offenders that it would be an act of vandalism to return to a pre- 1998 regime which would allow youth justice services to be gradually sucked back in to general social and welfare provisions, with the resultant loss of focus and specialism.
The hard truth is that we all have to be smarter and more flexible in how we manage our funding. But there is already ample evidence that the 1998 Act, far from being the straitjacket complained of by some, is a flexible piece of legislation, which allows ample room for initiative and innovation in how services are structured and delivered without losing the statutory underpinning which has made the difference over the last sixteen years. So we are proud of our successes, and rightly so. But that does not mean we sit in our fox- holes ready to resist all change to our status or structure. On the contrary our approach to successive Secretaries of State has been: “We are the YJB. We are here to help you”.
If I have one regret over the last three years it is that that offer has not been accepted as readily or as openly as it could have been. Too often we seem to have been shouting over a high wall in trying to influence government. Too often policy makers have seen us as rivals rather than as willing collaborators. Too often ministers seem to have gone for the quick fix of an external consultant rather than use the collective expertise and wisdom which sits round the table at the Youth Justice Board. No organisation has a right to continue on the basis of past record alone. We have to prove our relevance looking forward.
The first challenge is to tackle the persistently high level of re- offending. Even here, however, it is worth noting that although the percentage rate of reoffending remains stubbornly high, it refers to much smaller numbers. When I went to school two thirds of 900, which is what we face today, was a whole lot less that two thirds of three and a half thousand, which is what we faced ten years ago. So the fact is that there are fewer re-offenders committing fewer crimes.
But our success has presented us with a more complex cohort of offenders. That is why the YJB cooperated so enthusiastically with Charlie Taylor. With the small numbers now involved we have a real opportunity for a step change away from child prisons to an education- led, more therapeutic approach to dealing with children who offend. Unfortunately there will be no blank cheque from the Treasury for such a step change. But we can start to push that agenda by some judicious piloting as well as other reforms in the existing secure estate.
We can also start now on making sure that youth justice has a skilled and dedicated work force with the training opportunities and career prospects to make youth justice work a lifetime choice, with opportunities to move from secure to community and back as a career develops. The YJB is already providing such certification of skills and we can do more to encourage skills enhancement.
We need to make sure that the Government’s welcome commitment to tackle mental health involves specific policies and programmes to address the needs of young offenders and those on the cusp of offending. Such initiative needs to go below the sometimes too high bar of specific mental health diagnosis to address learning difficulties, autism and other conditions which go for too long undiagnosed and untreated.
The YJB is already following up on the specific recommendations in the Laming Review’s Report which come within our responsibilities, as well as encouraging action in other areas such as by calling for a national protocol to prevent criminalisation of children in care for minor offences committed in the context of their home.
We are in dialogue with a number of individuals and organisations to address the over- representation of black and minority ethnic young people in our criminal justice system - something the Prime Minister herself set as one of her own priorities on her first day in office. A significant step there would be to recruit many more people from our black and ethnic communities to help guide, teach and mentor these young offenders, both in the YOTS and in the secure estate.
In another part of criminal justice we have been supportive of experiments in the youth courts to see if problem solving courts could play a constructive part in diversion and preventing re-offending. We likewise have championed the use of restorative justice in both the community and the youth estate.
Beyond our statutory duties we have opened dialogue with organisations in sport and the arts so that these disciplines can be used to provide a pathway away from crime. We have also encouraged employers to take a chance on young offenders and housing bodies to keep in mind the special needs of the young homeless. You will be hearing first hand later today from my fellow Peer, John Bird, Lord Bird of Big Issue as he should have called himself, about the plight of the young homeless.
Courts, custody, community - the case for change is being made in every part of our youth justice system. And the Youth Justice Board is in the vanguard of those calling for reform. I truly believe we have it within our grasp to achieve as radical a change in the approach to young offenders as was made with the creation of the YJB. The problems we face demand nothing less than such a step change.
That would be the case if the challenges were those we are already familiar with and find all too often below the surface of youth offending: the dysfunctional family, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol abuse, an undetected mental or learning disability, truancy or exclusion from mainstream education - the list is not endless and of course there are those who commit crime with none of these factors being present. But they are all too often present in a variety of toxic cocktails and they make an overwhelming case for upstream early intervention. And we have to add new challenges, or challenges less well understood in years gone by, which now have to be high on our list for action this day, such as child sexual exploitation, people trafficking, cyber bullying and grooming, the growth of gang culture and the threat of radicalisation.
The YJB and the YOT structure cannot meet all these challenges alone. But it will be a brave minister who dismantles the tried and successful in the face of the severity of the problems we face. These challenges, old and new, still need a multi- disciplinary response. That is why I have called for a ministerial committee on youth justice which will bring round the same table MOJ, Health, Education, Home Office, Communities, and Work and Pensions. We need to go upstream to deal with some of the toxic influences which so often create the young offender. We need to deal with far more of those who do offend, in the community, with preventative measures which are effective. And post-sentence we need in place support measures to give the young person a chance of leading constructive and crime-free lives.
I end as I began, with thanks to you all. In visit after visit, in the community and in the custodial estate, over the last three years, I have ended such days in awe of the work you do. It is your work which gives the children in our care the chance to live constructive and crime free lives. It is your work which helps their voice be heard. I sometimes think the terms Youth Justice Board and Youth Offending Team present too severe an image. What you do is work with children - children who are often damaged, difficult, dangerous and difficult to love. But they are still children and they deserve all the care and support that society can provide. That is what you do - and you should be very proud of a job well done.