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Review of the youth justice system

Minutes of the Joint meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Affairs and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children held on 26 April 2016 in Committee Room 17


Charlie Taylor, Youth Justice Review
Gareth Jones, Chair, Association of Youth Offending Team Managers

Dominic Grieve QC MP (in the Chair)
Lord Carlile of Berriew QC
Wayne David MP
Lord Fellowes
Lord Harris
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
Baroness Howarth of Breckland
Earl of Listowel
Lord McNally
Fiona Mctaggart MP
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
Christina Rees MP

Dominic Grieve welcomed everyone to the meeting. He explained there was shortly to be a division in the House of Lords so some parliamentarians would have to leave before the end of the meeting.  He welcomed the two speakers. Charlie Taylor was Chair of the independent review of the youth justice system, commissioned by the Secretary of State Michael Gove to examine the nature and characteristics of offending of young people aged 10-17, and the arrangements and effectiveness of the structures to prevent it.  Charlie Taylor would present the findings of his interim report and Gareth Taylor, Chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, would be invited to give a brief response.

Charlie Taylor:  Thank you very much for inviting me here today. I very much welcome the opportunity to share my thinking on the youth justice system, and some of the ways we can improve things over the next few years.  The review has been running since September last year and I have spent much of my time travelling round the country, hearing from people working in youth justice, about their work and the challenges, and the opportunities to do even better.  In February we put out an interim report that particularly focussed on the secure estate, but also raised questions about other parts of the system. In addition, Michael Gove has also asked me to look into courts and sentencing and make recommendations in this area too.

And we know we are starting from a strong base. Since 2006/7, there has been a reduction of 66% in the number of children proceeded against in the criminal courts, from 126,500 to just 43,000. This is in line with the number of children entering the criminal justice system over the same period (a decline of 81%).  It is not easy to be certain what has caused these declines, but we know that the police are no longer required to chase targets in a way they once were. And the habits of teenagers seem to have changed, with fewer out on the streets in the way that they once were. There is also better integration of services now than there has ever been, driven by Youth Offending Teams co-ordinating with the police, probation and health.

But many challenges remain. We know that, although there are fewer children in the system, those young people left typically have longer offending histories and practitioners consistently tell us that they have a range of complex problems and welfare needs. Although these young people are in the system because of their own actions, we must recognise that many of them are also themselves victims.   It remains particularly concerning that the rate of custody for children from minority ethnic backgrounds, particularly black boys, has not fallen at anything like the rate that it has for other groups. Looked-after children make up 40% of the Young Offender Institution population. The children who remain in the youth justice system are also more likely to have mental health problems and learning disabilities. Half of 15-17 year olds in Young Offender Institutions have the literacy or numeracy level expected of a 7-11 year old and 85% have been excluded from school at some time.

And though there are fewer children, many of those who are left have high rates of reoffending. For those leaving custody it stands at 67%, for children receiving Youth Rehabilitation Orders the rate is 64% and Referral Orders are at 39%. These reoffending rates are some of the highest in the criminal justice system and we must do more to address the small number of prolific offenders who cause so much damage in their communities, but also whose behaviour is often a manifestation of a number of profound difficulties in their lives.

My own back ground was as a head teacher of a special school for children with behaviour difficulties, and in my visits to the secure estate I have been struck with the differences between what happens in custody and what happens in the best special schools, pupil referral units and alternative provision.   Though I have been hugely impressed by the work of governors and prison staff, many of whom show exceptional commitment to the welfare and rehabilitation of children in their care, and at times great courage in the face of violence and intimidation, I feel they are operating in a system that is often loaded against them. The difference between the levels of autonomy that I would have had as a head teacher to run my school, and those of a YOI governor, are huge. In areas that heads would take for granted, such as the ability to recruit and train their own staff, to set the regime for their institution, including the management of behaviour, and their ability to improve the quality of education, YOI governors have little or no say.

That is why I recommended that we open a new generation of secure schools. These will be smaller – around 50 to 80 places - and will be closer to the communities that they serve. Children in the North West of England in custody are generally housed in Wetherby in Yorkshire – a round trip of more than five hours for parents or youth offending team workers from, for example, Liverpool.   Where children are incarcerated nearer to home, it will be possible to retain ties with the adults who will help them to resettle seamlessly and effectively when they come out.

I have been really pleased by the response to this recommendation, and we have seen a number of organisations and schools coming forward, interested in the opportunity to open a new sort of custody that focuses on education in its widest sense.  This would be somewhere that provides a personalised programme for each child that equips them with the skills, knowledge and understanding to go on to be successful adults, whether it be teaching them to read, learning a trade or applying to university.

Over time, as secure schools develop, I would like to see responsibility for funding and commissioning to be passed to the regions. We need to get away from the moral hazard created by the current situation where local authorities are responsible for the cost of often expensive care provision, but if that child goes into custody then central government pays, and the LA has no influence over the quality of secure provision in which their children are so often housed.   Given what we know about these children and their families – that, so often, if there is a crack to slip down, then down they will go - the response must, at all times, be streamlined and coordinated.

I am interested in how youth offending services are responding to the changes in offender population, with fewer children, but also with less money. Some team leaders have described, depressingly, that when a child is referred to them, they are unable to get access to other services, which are often appear closed to children who offend.   And yet we know that many of these children and their families are in dire need of help. We need a response that deals not just with the child as an offender, but looks at the whole system around the child and puts in place a thorough and co-ordinated response.

Other local authorities have created a much more integrated service with social care and the troubled families’ initiative that seeks to address the needs of the family and not just the child.   In Surrey the YOT has been integrated into a youth service that addresses the needs of children who are out of school, have mental and other health difficulties and require support to get into work, training or school and includes those who have offended.  They have got rid of the artificial barriers that can exist between services.

I have also been concerned by the lack of engagement by some youth offending services with schools and colleges, which should be essential partners in helping to prevent children from offending. If children are busy and fulfilled during the day, tired in the evenings, have somewhere safe to live and have good physical and mental health then are likely to reduce or stop offending.   When I visited Holton in Cheshire last week – Gareth’s patch - I was particularly struck by the commitment of the YOT to engage local education services and get children into school, college or training.

Whilst the review will not prescribe how services should be set up – that is for local areas to do - I am keen that we give people the freedom to deliver in a way that gets the best outcomes for children in their areas. This is especially the case where money continues to be tight and the ongoing challenge for local authorities is to use limited budgets to create streamlined and effective services.  We know that ultimately it is the quality of the worker that can so often make a difference, and children respond to the same person holding them in mind and giving them the individual support to change.

I know that one of the most effective parts of the YOT model has been the multi-agency component, and I am keen that we continue to retain these strong relationships.   And remember how far we have come; twenty years ago it would have been almost unthinkable to have had social workers and police officers sitting at next door desks.

There is a lot of interest in the Government’s ambition to devolve more responsibility and money to the regions, and we have seen some ambitious thinking from some areas about how this could be achieved.  The review will seek to support greater devolution of youth justice services, and reduce central prescription and this will necessitate a reduced role for the centre. We know that the Youth Justice Board has been instrumental in continuing to keep the profile of young offenders high, in a government department that is predominately focussed on adults, and we are working out how to continue this essential work in a more devolved environment.

This is an exciting time to be working in this field. We have an ambitious, reforming Secretary of State, who with the endorsement of the Prime Minister, is keen to create a more effective youth justice system, that seeks to rehabilitate, educate and support young offenders, to reduce the suffering that is caused by crime, and to allow them to go on to be successful adults.

Dominic Grieve thanked Charlie Taylor for his presentation, to which he invited Gareth Jones to respond.

Gareth Jones began:  I am head of service in Cheshire West (Holton and Warrington) in the North West of England and we are also taking on responsibility for Cheshire East. So there will be four local authorities across a large and complex geopolitical area, of all political tones and hues.  Charlie very kindly came to see us last week.  We in the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers are very keen on the YOT model as well.  We think it is very effective. The reason that there are less than 900 young people in custody, compared to the three and a half thousand all those years ago is because of the persistent hard work that has been done over fifteen years.  I am old enough to remember what the system used to be like.  If a child became an offender, everybody pushed them away from those universal services to which they not only had a right but an expectation.  Children who lack basic education are not going to be able to take advantage of those opportunities in life that grow positive citizenship and all those really good things that we  want for our children.

We know that a lot of our children are very skilled.  They are very skilled at offending.  That is one of the things that we want to challenge, so that their skill sets are utilised into something more positive.  We are also worried.  Charlie may remember the words of Callum, who was released seven days earlier from Wetherby.  Charlie was surprised when Callum told him there was ‘too much education’.  What he meant was that he could not sit in a classroom for two hours, even with his medication for ADHD.  He also said that the other young people could not do it either, and started to ‘mess about’.  Before you knew it the play fights became real fights and the staff who were trying to educate were breaking up fights.  Everybody had to go back to their cells and the session was worthless.  The other problem is that the preponderance of education in the secure estate regime makes it very difficult for the other professionals to do their work – the substance misuse workers, some of the health professionals, the YOT workers, the links to home.  All of these things need to be addressed in the new secure schools.

As an association we are really pleased about the positive locality recommendations.  We know that when our children are in Wetherby their parents can’t go to visit them.  It’s not a matter of whether or not they want to. It’s virtually a physical impossibility. In terms of positive resettlement, and of having a consistent approach to what happens in custody being taken back into the community, it’s a non-starter. That has all been done to save a hundred million pounds a year, which is what has been happening over the past four or five years.   The frustration that we have, in community settings, is that that money, which could have been reinvested into some of the things that Charlie has been talking about, has disappeared into the great black hole of the public finances.   We are also worried at the idea of the devolution of funds.  If there isn’t enough money in the first place, all this will do is to shift the responsibility for failures to the local area, from the centre. 

We do agree absolutely in terms of the over-representation of looked-after children, and black and minority ethnic children.  It does seem that over the last five or six years we’ve picked the white kids up but not the black kids.  What is going on there?  I think that’s about a lot more than the efficiency and effectiveness of some YOTs.  I think there is something much more structural going on.  And if I am right, the devolution of funds is going to make that less likely, rather than more likely, to be addressed.

Charlie talks an awful lot of sense, and our colleagues have enjoyed his unfailing efforts to get around the system.  If there are going to be any criticisms of the review it certainly won’t be lack of preparation.  But there is one area where there should be a stronger voice, and that is the voice of the child who is the youth justice system.  They are the complex ones, with multiple needs.  If Mike Leigh made films about some of them we would have the whole population crying, because their lives are so horrendous.  These are the children we have got left in the system.  I don’t think there is an issue about more complex cases.  We just don’t have the straightforward ones any more. But my funds have been reduced dramatically because I don’t have the work.

The work is only counted in the statutory section.  So more of the work in our area is done through our prevention services, in the diverts, where we have twice the number of starts. We are keeping those children out of the system.  That’s the bit that the Ministry doesn’t regard as core work. That’s the reason why my funds have been cut, and that’ll be the bit I have to cut when I have to make sure that the judges and magistrates are happy with the sentences they impose.  So there does seem to be a huge disconnect with some of the work that is being done by colleagues round the country, and what Charlie wants, and what we all want; because if we stop some of our investment at the moment, some of these really good results are not going to be there.  I and some of my colleagues are very concerned. We have had another 12% cut this week from the Ministry and the Youth Justice Board, who, God bless them, tried their best to keep it away from the front line.

There is no strategy to my strategic planning.  Where the vacancies are, that is where I will cut.  That is the ridiculous situation that is being seen right across the country.  I am also very clear that we are also fully in favour of different governance models for the YOTs.  But I will have a quick pop at Charlie here: there are lots of very good YOTs that were not quoted in your interim report, with traditional models of governance, that have really high quality and cost effective services, and mine is one of them.  We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.  I think I had better stop there.

Dominic Grieve thanked both speakers and opened the floor to questions.

Lord Warner said that he had written the policy paper for a previous Labour government on reforming the youth justice system, bringing in the YOTs and the YJB.  He strongly supported what Charlie Taylor was trying to do, but wanted to bring a bit of historical perspective.  It was easy to forget the shambles of youth justice in the 80s and 90s, when none of the agencies worked together.  It changed because there was a model the professionals across the agencies bought into, and because the youth courts changed their behaviour. Some of those problems were reappearing. Keeping strong YOTs and a strong central body that could argue for resources were important to avoid slipping back to the problems of that earlier era.

Charlie Taylor appreciated the historical perspective, and agreed that enormous strides had been made. The challenge was to build on those successes but also to adapt to a changing world.

Baroness Howarth wanted to focus on the balance between education and welfare for children in the youth justice system. Education could not make the difference for children who were in emotional difficulty, if their heads were not in the right place.  She backed the proposal for smaller units but worried about whether the resources would be available to provide the mental health services and therapeutic support that would be needed.

Charlie Taylor agreed, and said that he would say more about this in his final report. Coming from a special school background he had made assumptions that education would be perceived in its broadest sense. This was not just about cramming kids with Shakespeare.

Gareth Jones added that there were already some such institutions, local authority secure children’s homes.  There were not enough of them.  But he knew of one in Nottingham, dealing with children with very damaged histories, where the GCSE results were fantastic.  You could do both.  The needs of the child, rather than of the institution, had to come first.

Lord Fellowes asked how the speakers would set about correcting the imbalance between black and minority ethnic children and the others.

Charlie Taylor responded that this was a complex and difficult issue.  The Secretary of State had asked David Lammy MP to look at this too, and he would be reporting later this year.  The PRT’s work with Lord Laming would also factor into this as well.  There was no silver bullet solution to the overrepresentation of black boys and children in the care system. Every part of the youth justice system should respond to children in the right way.  He hoped the creation of secure schools would assist in countering some of the faulty assumptions at work.

Lord Carlile strongly supported this work. He shared two reflections from his own experience. The first, from the Edlington case, was about information sharing. Although the various authorities had thought they were sharing information, in fact they were not. Education and health were not talking to each other, and no-one was talking to housing.  The second point was from a parliamentarian’s enquiry which he had chaired.  The youth courts were in urgent need of modernisation. Above all they needed to be professionalised. Many lawyers and judges in youth courts had no special expertise, yet in sex trials judges had to be ticketed.  Why not in youth courts too?

Wayne David MP spoke as Shadow Youth Justice Minister.  Whilst he strongly agreed with the report’s recommendations he was concerned that implementation would require significant extra resources.  Was there any indication about whether these would be forthcoming?  His background was in youth work, which had been severely hit financially, and would require a significant injection of funds.  Dealing with children with complex needs required dedicated professionals with rounded expertise who could act quickly.

Charlie Taylor said that there were continuing discussions with ministers and with the Treasury about resources. It was probably too early to say anything. As regards the value of the individual response, one of the objectives of the Troubled Families initiative had been to involve one professional with each family, rather than an array of workers from different agencies.  Often the same few families were involved, with both welfare and youth offending issues.  It was important to remove the distinction between a ‘welfare child’ and a ‘justice child’. There was just a child who needed support. 

Christina Rees MP mentioned Hillside, a secure children’s home in her constituency.  They were hoping to build a Step Down unit, to help children make the transition to independence.  She wondered about resources for that, and also for the care and support such children would need on their return to the community.

Charlie Taylor responded that he had visited Hillside, which he found very impressive. It had a mixture of justice and welfare places. It was very outward-looking, working closely with the local community, and with schools, which helped particularly gifted children to succeed. He was very conscious of the need for Step Down provision, especially in respect of institutions such as Feltham, for example, which was in effect a category B prison. To go from there straight out into the community at the age of 16 was tough. We tried to avoid doing this for adults, for whom we had open prisons. One way to do this might be to devolve the custody budgets to Wales and the regions, to promote local solutions.

The Earl of Listowel said that this was music to his ears, especially the point that it was the worker who made the difference.  He encouraged the development of organisations that provided reflective space, through CAMHS, so that staff could reflect on their emotional responses to the children in their care.  So often this was seen as a luxury.

Both speakers agreed.

Lord Ponsonby asked, from the perspective of a youth court magistrate in London, whether the report would make any recommendations about sentencing options. At present there was a fairly restricted palette. He also asked whether Charlie Taylor had any views about how YOTs might evolve, following positive experience working with a new tri-borough YOT.

Charlie Taylor said it seemed sensible to pool resources, now that there were fewer children in the system. As regards sentencing, he recognised the problem. Other magistrates had told him they felt boxed in by somewhat inflexible sentencing options.  He would be exploring this further.

Gareth Jones added that in his YOT they had found that working with a bigger geographical area had brought some benefits, for example in working with girls.  Sometimes austerity forced you into creativity: sometimes it forced you to the wall. There was nothing stopping YOTs developing further. There was a lot of good practice to share – though often too few staff available to send to joint safeguarding groups to share it.

Dominic Grieve MP then welcomed questions from observers.

Mary O’Shaughnessy, who worked with young people in trouble, said how much they valued pre-employment courses where they could get their hands dirty, and CITB had funds to support this, but many struggled with compulsory GCSE maths and English requirements.

Charlie Taylor responded that there was always a risk that we did not set our expectations and ambitions high enough for this group of young people. It was right that we expect the same of them as of their peers.

Nick Wilkinson was head of youth justice in Kent and a retired police officer. In Kent there were 1300 other LA’s children, and almost a thousand unaccompanied child asylum seekers. It was important to understand the potential impact of such demographics on youth justice further down the line.

Charlie Taylor agreed and said Kent was a good case in point. This was a diverse county, with different needs in different areas, and also the additional challenge of unaccompanied asylum seekers. This would inevitably have an impact on resources.

Gemma Buckland, from the Justice Select Committee, said that Mr Gove had asked in March that young adults also be looked at.  Could Charlie Taylor comment?

Charlie Taylor responded that he had just written to the Secretary of State about this and would prefer to let him comment.

John Kemmis, from the Care Leavers Foundation, said how encouraged he was about what Charlie had been saying about education.  The biggest issue for the children, however, was their mental welfare.  There was still significant expertise, although the number of secure children’s homes had diminished. In his own review, five years ago, he had been struck by how the smaller YOIs for girls were much more rounded. He also said how important it was to provide a ‘half way stage’ before young people were returned to the community.

Charlie Taylor said he completely agreed.  He had been encouraged by the number of institutions and organisations expressing enthusiasm for the special schools idea.

Baroness Howarth returned to Lord Warner’s point, which she felt needed re-emphasis. It was important that we retained a central grouping to coordinate and monitor everything that was going on across the regions, to ensure the direction of travel was right.

Dominic Grieve MP thanked both speakers once more and announced that the next meeting for the All Party Group on Penal Affairs would be held on Tuesday 24th May, when the speaker would be Lord Laming, Chair of the Care Review. The AGM would be held on Tuesday 12 July, when the speaker would be the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove MP.