Lord McNally's speech to Westminster Legal forum July 2016

Lord McNally, Chairman of the Youth Justice Board, delivers a speech on oversight and standards within a future Youth Justice System

From the beginning I have seen the job of the Youth Justice Board as cutting crime off at its head stream. That task has been performed with great success over the last 16 years which has meant that the number of children in custody and the number of first-time entrants to the system are now at their lowest ever.

Before the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998 which established the Youth Justice Board, youth justice services were the responsibility of many Ministries and agencies, but the priority of none. The YJB provided the foundations for that priority by pioneering a cross-disciplinary, holistic, and multi-agency approach to children in the criminal justice system - a foundation that endures today through local community-based Youth Offending Teams. I acknowledge that the successes achieved are not the YJB’s alone - many hands, including the police, the magistracy, children’s services, probation, charities and voluntary agencies, have played a significant role and still do today. We have also worked with the troubled families units so that we can go upstream of the offending behaviour to help the dysfunctional families that are so often the root cause behind the crimes committed by children.

With this remarkable success, however, have come significant challenges. The reduction in numbers has exposed serious issues which continue to bring children into the youth justice system, and which contribute considerably to the high rate of reoffending by those who can’t seem to break the cycle. That is why the YJB so warmly welcomed Mr Charlie Taylor’s review into the youth justice system, and agreed with many of the findings of his interim report. He has taken an impressively thorough and inclusive approach to the task, and heard from not just the YJB but also many stakeholders across all aspects of the youth justice system. The overwhelming view has been that there is an undoubted case for reform, but that case is built on success, not failure.

Thus far, and as his interim report published earlier this year shows, Mr Taylor has proposed a much more devolved youth justice system, with the regional authorities controlling budgets and having far more opportunity for initiative and innovation in both the secure estate and the community. That offers a really exciting prospect for youth justice, although I believe that there will still be a need for some central oversight about the “what”, even if a thousand flowers are allowed to bloom regionally about the “how”.

One of the YJB’s roles is to centrally monitor and oversee youth justice in England and Wales to ensure that the high standards we set, and expect of our delivery partners, are met. To help us fulfil this important duty, we work closely with a number of inspectorates who regularly review each of the establishments in the secure estate, and local youth offending teams. Their assessments are made against nationally agreed criteria, standards, and positive outcomes that should be achieved.

I believe those carrying out inspections or monitoring are in a key, impartial position to share good practice and evidence of what works. They should make recommendations as to how, as well as what needs to be improved. Together, good, cohesive inspection and monitoring should identify and treat issues before they become problems. It should address failures and improve the services delivered. Peer review and peer pressure have their place, but they cannot be the full answer. Of course we all make mistakes sometimes, and we must strive to learn from them. I am well aware that I speak today against the background of the expose by Panorama of unacceptable behaviour by staff at Medway Secure Training Centre; and the criticism by the Improvement Board, set up by the Justice Secretary, of the YJB for ‘’failing to join up the dots’’ from the plethora of inspections and scrutiny to which Medway was subject.

The YJB is not afraid to take criticism and make whatever improvements are necessary. Like others, we have now examined closely what went wrong and taken remedial action.

That said, I am constantly in awe of the work done by the many men and women who, in our secure estate and in the community, tend to children who are difficult, damaged and sometimes dangerous, both to themselves and to others. It is thanks to the efforts of the staff in youth offending teams and in our secure estate, these same children are also capable of quite remarkable redemption and of grabbing the second chance that is offered to them with both hands.

But we still need local and national agencies who monitor and inspect to work together more closely and share data in a more timely way. To facilitate this the YJB has been rolling out AssetPlus to YOTs. Although still early days, frontline practitioners are already reporting improvements in the quality of child assessment, and the ability to identify new and emerging concerns. Delays between discovery and disclosure must also be removed. It is the children who suffer if it takes weeks or months to disclose any problems found with a child’s welfare or care - because a report needs to be written up and signed off first. Partners should be encouraged to be candid friends, and need to get better at responding more swiftly, instead of first prioritising the boxes that need to be ticked to cover their own bases.

The Taylor Report is likely to lay the foundations for an ambitious agenda for reform. Mr Gove has already caught its spirit, telling us in May that he wanted to change ‘junior prisons’ into ‘secure schools’. It is an ambition that I fully support, but the reforms that Mr Taylor and Mr Gove espouse must also recognise that we are only at the start of the journey. There is a long and steep climb to be done before we reach the sunlit uplands.

This publication will mark the beginning not the end of the process. Importantly it must also be consulted on - the collective experience of what works from local and national delivery partners in the current youth justice system will need to be consolidated and built on before that agenda can be taken forward. Such reforms will require legislation. They will require significant finance. They will require a dedicated workforce that is skilled and able to work seamlessly across custody and community. They will require local authorities and their partners to be able to take on the delivery of all youth justice services in their area; from prevention, intervention and out of court disposals work through to sentencing, placements and establishing secure schools – all of which they will be responsible for. No mean feat, considering this has not previously been asked of them.

The task before the YJB and its partners now is to ensure that, together, we manage any changes proposed in a way that continues to prioritise the safety and welfare of children, who are all too often the victims as well as the perpetrators of crime. The transition period, as we move towards a devolved youth justice system and a custodial estate of secure schools, will need to focus as much on continuing to deliver the right care and services now, as well as the work needed to achieve the future ambition. It must be effective, and continue to meet the needs of the children at risk of entering the youth justice system, as well as those who are already in it. And this period too will require resourcing financially, and with the much needed multi-agency skills and expertise that exist within the current system.

But that does not mean that we cannot start to implement some of the principles that Mr Taylor has already set out, like putting education at the heart of rehabilitation. It also does not mean that we cannot press for the changes that the YJB, together with many stakeholders in the youth justice system, have already called for. Children need faster access to better mental healthcare now, not later. The over-representation of black and minority ethnics and children in care needs to be addressed now, not later. The increase of violence and the use of force in the youth secure estate needs action now, not later.

These have been prevailing issues, but the piecemeal cuts to the youth justice system have done nothing to help address them effectively. And it would be naïve to think that wider political events over the last fortnight won’t have a major impact on what were some very carefully thought through intentions and plans. It may well be that the long road to reform of the youth justice system has just got longer and more rocky than anticipated.

But unless and until there is a fully functioning, dedicated alternative, the YJB will continue to maintain and develop its clear, expert and child-focussed approach towards the welfare of children in our care. Without central oversight of nationally mandated standards; without an independent body to champion the voice of the child; without a co-ordinated system to provide support and improve local delivery and practices, the youth justice system will break. The successes of the last 16 years could be lost to a disparate set of services that are patchily effective, self-supervised, and more focussed on governance and delivery - rather than the distinct needs and best interests of the child.

In short it would be a return of the dark days when children were the responsibility of many, but the priority of none – and it would be an act of vandalism to allow that to happen.