Thank you. I am very pleased to have been asked to address you all today, as Chairman of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (YJB). I congratulate Baroness Massey and the APPG for Children for their efforts in producing this timely report on ‘Children and the Police’.
Relationships between Children and the Police
The report, ‘Children and the Police’, has put forward many recommendations that merit due consideration and response. But in the time allotted for me to give you the Youth Justice Board’s views, I have chosen to focus on some of the key issues the report highlights, which are of particular concern to the YJB.
The first of these considers the current relationships between children and the police. I am pleased to note that this report recommends the need to establish mechanisms for involving young people in police-work, in order to promote good relationships between children and the police.
Whilst efforts have been made to do this in the past, the types of young people, targeted to work with police, have not been representative – proportionately, or otherwise - of those who most commonly come into contact with the police.
It is, in my view, essential for Police and Crime Commissioners, and those who work in the policing areas that they are responsible for, to listen to - and hear from – young people who are the real end-users of the services that they provide. The insight and intelligence that they can gather by doing so, would be invaluable to them, and significantly improve the practices and priorities in local areas.
There is also more scope for more upstream engagement with young people. There is an opportunity now, for the police to be enabled by government to continue to deliver the Safer Schools Partnerships programme. I echo the APPG’s for the Home Office to examine how the police can do so and find a means through which this can be done without taking funds from the shrinking budgets of local police forces.
I turn now to the recommendations made by the report in regard to police training. I cannot stress enough the need for the police, and all agencies involved in the criminal justice system, to have a solid understanding of the specific needs of children and young people. But they also need to apply this to the way they communicate and engage with this age group.
Police need to treat young people as children, first and foremost. Among the most crucial reasons for doing so are so that they can identify vulnerability and recognise when children themselves are actually victims - even if they present as offenders.
Detention in police custody
Detention in police custody is another issue, rightly raised in the APPG’s report.
And I hope that the Home Secretary and Education Secretary take up the APPG’s recommendation, to jointly write to all police forces and local authorities reminding them of their statutory duties in this regard.
Police need to be able to secure the effective transfer to local authority accommodation post charge. But it is a duty on local authorities to provide appropriate accommodation; and to make this available when required.
Identification of children’s needs and vulnerabilities
I turn now to APPG report’s recommendations which specifically require action of the YJB. There are 2 of these and I will address each in turn.
Recommendation 20 states:
The Department of Health should ensure that all liaison and diversion schemes provide dedicated and tailored support to children and young people, and engage with the Youth Justice Board on this matter.
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 are often bandied about in regard to the extent of the needs of young offenders who fall into this category. But, as the Mental Health Foundation correctly says:
There is still a scarcity of research data on the precise nature and prevalence of mental health disorders among young people caught up in the criminal justice system.
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. There has been Lord Bradley’s follow-up to his ground breaking report. Lord Bradley will be addressing the YJB convention next month.
The YJB, working in collaboration with the Welsh Government to address mental health issues for children and young people, published a guidance document entitled ‘Addressing the Mental Health Problems of Young People in the Youth Justice System in Wales’ two weeks ago.
I have already used this work as a calling card for dialogue with ministers in Whitehall departments, to see if we can identify areas for action in England as well. I recently had a very encouraging meeting with Norman Lamb MP.
Mental health issues in the criminal justice system, including young offender’s mental health, now seems to be on the political radar.
But it is too easy for them to fall through the cracks, not least because the effective pilot that the Health Department ran - to enable the successful liaison and diversion of young people with mental health issues – has been combined with the overall service which caters for more adults than it does young people. I believe the needs of young people needs a distinct focus and effort.
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. The police, especially, need to be able to access appropriate accommodation for mental health evaluations to take place. The use of police cells as a proxy for that is happening far too frequently now. It is not acceptable to the police, and cannot continue.
Reducing the prosecution of children in care
The second recommendation directed toward the YJB, recommendation 24, states:
The College of Policing should work with the Youth Justice Board and local criminal justice boards to develop a protocol which will reduce the prosecution of children in care…
An area where there is clearly need for careful research, and evidence-based reform, is in addressing the appalling number of young people who are - or have been – looked-after children and who then end up in the criminal justice system.
It is a harsh fact that, though less than 2% of young children have contact with children’s services during their life, some 24% of the youth custodial population are, or have been, looked-after children.
Last month I particularly welcomed the suggestion of the Prison Reform Trust for a more comprehensive study to examine how we deal with looked-after children, and to identify the measures needed to help end their over-representation in our criminal justice system. And I have met with them since then, to explore further how this study will take shape and when it will commence.
This work will, in my view, contribute substantially to the need to reduce the over-criminalisation of young people in the care system. I see no reason not to adopt a ‘nationwide protocol’ to support effective practice in this field, to ensure this does not continue. It is essential that we do all we can to provide some life chances and opportunities to children who are already disadvantaged by not being with their parents or living in a stable home.
I am very pleased to note that the report recognises the complexities of the tasks that front-line police men and women face on a daily basis.
It makes many helpful recommendations to the police, and to the other agencies involved in the criminal justice system. In doing so, it recognises that we all strive to achieve common objectives.
I see it as a clarion call to us all, to work together to cut crime off at its headstream and divert young people to a life of positive purpose.