Lord McNally’s speech to the troubled families conference 2015

Lord McNally’s speech at the Westminster Briefing Circle's troubled families conference in London.


As many of you will know, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) has an overarching vision for every child and young person to live a safe, and crime-free, life; and to make a positive contribution to society. The work we do is targeted towards the safety of young people and their communities; and to help ensure that they are given the support they need to turn away from crime.

Together with our national partners and agencies, and through our local youth offending teams, the YJB has made good progress in achieving its aims over recent years. The latest statistics show that there were 75% fewer first time entrants to the youth justice system, compared to a decade ago. The population of under-18s in custody has consistently fallen since 2008, and currently stands at less than 1000. These significant reductions demonstrate the success of the multi-agency approach, through the local YOT-model.

Going upstream and downstream

When taking up the role of Chairman, I set out my personal desire to see the current youth justice system going further in tackling the problem of youth offending by going upstream and downstream of the actual period of offending.

Over the last year our downstream efforts have been a priority. We now have new resettlement consortia pilots across England, to effectively support young offenders from the time they start their custodial sentence, through the gate, and through to their reintegration back into the local community. This resettlement project offers young offenders improved employment, training and education opportunities; support to find suitable accommodation; and support to build on the progress they make, whilst in custody, to address substance misuse.

But I am now keen that we make similar progress in our upstream efforts – working closely with our partners across the sector to do so. It is a very simple reality that, by the time a young offender stands before a youth magistrate, we may be ten years too late in addressing some of the issues involved in the boy or girl committing an offence. Many young people who offend are likely to already suffer from multiple disadvantages.

Just this month, the Early Intervention Foundation estimated that nearly £17 billion a year is spent on addressing issues that affect many children and young people nowadays. These often include mental health; homelessness; poor educational attainment; the impact of gangs, especially in our major cities; and issues such as child sexual exploitation and youth crime. Quite a check list. And this, single year, figure merely represents the impact on the tax-payer. The wider, social or economic costs incurred, when lives are blighted by the consequences, are not included.

The Troubled Families Programme

The coalition government’s Troubled Families Programme is intended to address this. Its focus, to tackle family problems that, left unchecked, often have more serious consequences – including offending behaviour - resonates well with the YJB’s own ambitions in this respect. I commend the Communities Secretary for his statement to the House yesterday, that the programme has successfully targeted 120,000 families since 2010. That is a significant milestone. I also warmly welcome his announcement that an extra £200 million will be provided to extend the scheme to help 400,000 more families between now and 2020. Investment in such an important area can only be a good thing – and stands to save us so much more in the long run.

Focus for future early intervention efforts

For upstream interventions going forward, there are some key issues that are of particular concern to me and my board, and where we believe early actions would result in better outcomes in the future for children and young people at risk of entering the youth justice system as a whole.

Staff and training

The first of these key areas is support and training for those frontline staff and practitioners, who regularly work with children and young people. I cannot stress enough, how all agencies involved, must understand the needs of this age group; and apply it to the way they communicate, and engage, at every contact they have. Especially from the time the young person is at risk. Staff who work with young people, need high quality training to recognise mental health issues, learning difficulties, speech, language and communication needs.

They should also be able to recognise when children, who present as offenders or at risk of offending, are in fact victims themselves – of exploitation or abuse. I saw a good example of this on the Prison Reform Trust’s website, in their case studies section.

A 15 year old boy called Patrick was given a custodial sentence for stabbing someone at a party. He himself had known violence from his relatives most of his life. Even when he was just 7 years old, and heard his beloved father had died, he was slapped for crying about it. Patrick’s response, when asked about being in prison, was ‘sometimes you’re better off inside than outside’.

All too often, for young people who become offenders, home is where the hurt is. And frontline staff should personally be supported to be resilient and able to deal with the challenging or emotional demands young people can often make. These can sometimes conflict with those of their family. Their family ¬could be a destructive, as well as positive force. And, if that is the case, young people may need specialist support to help get them out of a toxic environment.

There is continuing scope for more upstream engagement with young people. For example, there is a real need for departments, local authorities and agencies to be enabled by a new government, of whatever colour, to deliver more progress on looked after children and mental health issues.

Mental health

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, not least because the 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 cannot emphasise too often to policy makers that children are not simply small adults.

Encouragingly, however, 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.

Reducing the prosecution of children in care

Another area, where there is clearly a need for 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 people have contact with children services during their life, they account for some 24% of the youth custodial population. I particularly welcome the Prison Reform Trust’s initiative in establishing a 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. My colleague, Lord Laming, will be chairing the study – which will commence in due course.

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.

The YJB, like the Troubled Families Programme, recognise that no one service, agency or institution can solely address the complex, and often deeply entrenched behaviours of an individual or family. We also know that we need to strengthen and extend partnership working further with employers, schools, local authorities, and mental health services, if we are to reduce further the number of young people re-offending.

For any early intervention, with a young person or with a family as a whole, success lies in the same principles and approach:

  • using data and local intelligence to identify individuals and families with greatest need
  • working out what help is needed
  • working across services, collectively addressing need, rigorously and relentlessly
  • having a ‘key worker’ holding the ring for both young people, families and services
  • having a well-trained, consistent workforce, as I have described earlier

I am very pleased to see that, increasingly, local YOT teams and troubled family practitioners are working together, on this basis. In Liverpool, for example the YOT team is supported by the local programme in gathering local intelligence on drug related crime, domestic violence and child sexual exploitation. They are also training staff to work more successfully with families, embedding a ‘whole-family’ approach to reducing youth crime and re-offending.

Cheshire West and Chester have developed integrated, multi-disciplinary teams to address the issue of troubled families and the challenges they face. Early monitoring there suggests a 54% reduction in domestic violence, and 23% reduction to children’s social care.

To ensure that this best practice is understood and replicated across England and Wales, we are now seeking to establish the YJB as a centre of knowledge and excellence in practice. Working closely with the Early Intervention Foundation, the Education Endowment Foundation and the College of Policing, we will be harvesting ‘what works’ on the ground in youth justice, and helping local practitioners and front line staff to learn from it.

The need to continue and increase partnership working

Given that all contributors to the youth justice system have to work within reduced spending limits, we now, more than ever, have to encourage and practice a joined up, partnership approach. But that is surely where the holistic partnership philosophy comes into its own.

Where we can collectively make the greatest difference to young people and their families, using our combined resources, knowledge, people and skills to best effect. A collaborative approach towards shared goals will demonstrate that, where we intervene early and imaginatively with young people on the cusp of criminality, that intervention can divert them from crime. And where we are successful in this area, we will have a positive impact on the prevention of offending.


I am conscious that we must, as ever, carry public and political opinion with us. So in advocating the policies I have outlined today, I do so in terms of a triple whammy.

If, together, we are successful we:

  • save victims the trauma of future crimes
  • save the tax-payer footing the bill for the costs of a life of crime, involving multiple returns to custody through the revolving doors of our criminal justice system
  • give to society, someone who will make a positive contribution to their own lives – and to the lives of others