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Next Steps for Youth Justice

Minutes of the Meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 17 October 2017 in Committee Room 3A, House of Lords

Charlie Taylor, Chair, Youth Justice Board


Lord Ramsbotham (in the Chair)
Lord Beecham
Lord Carlile of Berriew
Lucy Fraser MP
Viscount Hailsham QC
Baroness Howe of Idlicote
Baroness Masham of Ilton
Lord McNally
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
Victoria Prentis MP

Lord Ramsbotham opened the meeting by welcoming the speaker, Charlie Taylor, who had recently taken over as Chair of the Youth Justice Board (YJB). He was delighted that Tom McNally, the previous Chair, was also present at the meeting.  Charlie had been the headmaster of a school for difficult and disturbed children, where he achieved outstanding grades from OFSTED.  Michael Gove had brought him in to do a review of youth justice, as somebody with considerable experience of the people who were ending up in the system.   Thanks to the work of Lord McNally and his predecessors at the YJB, the numbers in custody had been much reduced.  However the young people remaining in prison had a multiplicity of problems.  Charlie’s report had been eagerly awaited, and now he was in a position to put some of his recommendations into practice.

Charlie Taylor began by thanking the meeting for its invitation. He continued: ‘This is a great opportunity to talk about some of the YJB’s priorities, and to tell you a bit about what the Government is doing in response to the review that I did last year.  It is a great opportunity to build on some of the fantastic work of my predecessor.  Almost the day you left, Tom, the numbers started to go up again, so I don’t know what sort of fairy dust you were sprinkling on the system.  They went up to over 1,000 earlier in the year, but they have now dropped off a bit.  It is a great testimony to Tom’s time within the YJB, not only that we saw a huge reduction in the custody population of children – if we saw a two thirds reduction of the adult population it would be marked fairy noisily out there I suspect – but also that  this has sailed through quite quietly.   Yet we have not seen huge increases in crime. In fact at the same time as that reduction was achieved, we saw fewer children coming into the system, and reductions in the number of children committing first offences.

There is a group of people who get credit for this.  The YJB has done great work in promoting advocacy, across many fronts, for seeing children first and offenders second, not only within the Justice department but within the Home Office, and other departments as well.  The police have changed the way that they operate, and are not chasing targets in the way they were in the past.  I also pay tribute to the great work done by Youth Offending Teams (YOTs). They engage with the most challenging, difficult and reluctant teenagers imaginable: children whose first reaction to anything is to pull the hood over their heads and refuse to talk; children who have been used to a myriad of different professionals coming at them with another clipboard and another questionnaire, asking them deeply personal questions about their lives. Youth justice workers have the patience, the strength, the resilience, the experience to keep going with these children and really support them to turn their lives around.

There are many great things happening out there, and it is always worth remembering that, when we have a secure estate where we know there are considerable difficulties, where we need to make some quite radical changes over the next few years to make improvements.  We are starting from a very positive base, but we should be in no way complacent.   The point that David made about the children who are left in the system is critical.  We are now seeing a greater proportion of children with mental health difficulties, who are in the looked-after system, who are exposed to violence and are the victims of crimes themselves, and who are also involved in more violent sorts of offences.  We know that substance misuse can be a very big issue amongst these children.  We also know that learning difficulties, and speech and language difficulties, are often things that can be over-experienced by this group of children. 

We recently welcomed David Lammy’s report, and despite the fact that we have seen a huge reduction in the prison population, and a substantial reduction in the number of black and ethnic minority children in the system, the proportion of those children has actually gone up over the last few years – up nearly to 50% now, and much higher than that in London.  David put it very well, when he released his review, when he said black and ethnic minority representation in the youth justice system had always been seen as a peripheral issue:  it now needed to be seen as a mainstream issue that we had to take on and deal with.  I am delighted to say that the one recommendation David made for the YJB, which was to commit ourselves to a full evaluation of the Disproportionality Toolkit that we invented for YOTs, has now been enacted and that evaluation is going ahead. We will continue to work with officials within the MoJ and also with David to think about some of the challenges he made for us across the system.  Like all good reports there was a spectrum of recommendations, from some blue sky stuff that gets people thinking, to some very practical things we can do in the near future.

It is worth talking about another over-represented group, the Gypsy Roma Traveller group, where again, though they are a small proportion of the whole, the numbers are much higher disproportionately than almost any other group.   Thinking about what we can do to support those children when they come into custody, and within the justice system more widely, is really important.  I know Kate Green MP has been doing some sterling work in raising the profile of these children within the justice system.

I would like to say a bit about the structural changes there have been within the MoJ and then about how that affects the YJB and our role.  We have had, as people will know, a number of changes of Justice Secretaries over the last few years, and that has meant slight changes of emphasis in terms of direction.  Tom has worked with four, and I am on to my third or fourth.  There is also a sense at the moment that the opportunity for big grand reform of anything apart from our relationship with the European Union is probably off the table.  So some of the areas in my report that I was keen to promote, such as the introduction of panels similar to what happens in Scotland, will be on the back burner.  It will still be a priority and something that I feel very strongly about, but from a legislation point of view it is not something that is going to happen in the very near future.

The role of the YJB has also changed quite significantly over the last few months.  Critically, the YJB had a role in commissioning youth custody, and Liz Truss made the decision that she wanted that closer to home, run by her direct officials, and therefore that commissioning now sits within the MoJ.  Also she developed the Youth Custody Service, which has a role in overseeing all the different parts of youth justice custody, from secure children’s homes to YOIs and secure training centres.  I am very pleased that Mark Read has just come into post as director: his appointment was announced in the last few days. I have known Mark Read for a long time when he was director of policy looking at youth justice.  He is a former prison governor with a real understanding of the issues and challenges we face.  I also welcome the conversations we have had with Michael Spurr, Head of the Prison and Probation Service, who is adamant that he does not want to see things continue as they have been.  I take him at his word and I think we have a great opportunity to work with the new commissioning services to really push on standards within the secure estate.

That changes the role for the YJB.  There was always the potential for a conflict of interests, in that we have a role as set out in the 1998 Act to advise ministers on the youth justice system, but also we had a delivery function as well, in respect of the commissioning of youth justice services.  That put us at times in quite a difficult position. Because we are no longer doing the commissioning of service, that provides us with an opportunity to go back to our roots.  We were set up to do three things: to monitor the youth justice system and to take an over view.  In fact it is not a system, it is more a series of bits of policy and delivery which interact, or should interact, with each other.  We should also, critically, be the voice of children in a department which will always, inevitably, be an adult-facing department, and continue to push for a different response to, or set of requirements for children from the natural response, or set of requirements, for adults.  The YJB has done a terrific job over the years in carving out that space.  It is something that we should continue to be alert to, and to fight for, at every opportunity.

The second role is to advise ministers.  If you look at the 1998 Act, it doesn’t just mention the Secretary of State for Justice, or the Home Secretary as it was then; it talks about advising ministers across government.  That is critical.  For example, a very welcome green paper came out from the DoH recently, which talked about getting Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) workers into schools.  There has always been a sense that it has been very hard for schools to make referrals into CAMHS, and that has been a real challenge.  Some of the most needy children don’t always get the response that they require.  One of the things we are able to say, from the YJB, is: it’s fantastic that that is happening, but let’s not forget the children who are not in the school system at all.  These are often the children who get no access to mental health services, and yet are most likely to end up in the youth justice system.

Another of the things I am interested in is the effect of criminal records.  If you talk to anyone who has been an offender in the past, they will talk about the burden that is placed on them from having a criminal record.  Even people like Ted Cruz in Texas have talked about the burden placed around the necks, very often, of young black men, who are already a highly disadvantaged group.   I am interested in taking this further, and I get the sense that there may be fertile ground for us to work with over the next few years. One of the things I have introduced is a panel of former offenders, those who have formerly been in the youth justice system.  Some of these are in their twenties, and I tried to arrange for a boy from one of our establishments to be ROTL’d out for the day to come and join our board, but he wasn’t able to come.   There was a nerve-racking moment when we thought he might have been on his way and done a runner, but that was not the case.  But our aim is to get advice from those currently within the system, people who have recently moved out of it, and those currently in custody too, so that we can listen to their voices and have them within the MoJ making their case.  One of the things that cropped up very strongly was this issue of the criminal record, perhaps from a misdemeanour or an offence committed when very young, which could become a millstone round their necks much later on.

The third priority is about promoting best practice – evidence-based practice.  The YJB has done great work on this over the years.  When I was in the DfE, I was part of a team that was introducing Teaching Schools.  These were schools that were hubs of expertise. They got a bit of extra government money, and developed expertise in training and in offering support programmes.  I think we have enormous expertise in our YOTs around the country, and I am keen to see how we can tap more into some of the great things they are doing out there.  Just one or two examples: in County Durham they are doing some really thoughtful, intelligent and joined up work with the local Police and Crime Commissioner and the local police about what you can do to support the most persistent and high-risk offenders.  Their data shows that they are really beginning to tackle a group that is often the hardest to change, and the most likely to end up in the adult system later on. 

When I went to Gateshead I was really struck by the liaison between YOTS and social care services.  There was almost a seamless join between the two.  What we know from the children who are left within the youth justice system is that there is such a huge overlap with social care that we must make sure that on a practical level there is read-across between systems, and also that within local authorities there is a real sense of taking responsibility across the board for these children.  When I was doing the review, one of the worries that were expressed to me was that once a child became a ‘justice’ child, the shutters came down, and it was very difficult to get other services to engage.  But as most people in this room will recognise, the solutions to getting children to stop offending are not justice solutions, by and large.  They are about getting children into education, family support, social care, giving them the training they need to go on to become successful adults, mental health support; those sorts of things are critical to supporting children to take a different path with their lives.  So seeing examples like Gateshead, where the YOT and social care services are hand in glove, was so heartening.  Sometimes it is about physical proximity as well, where they are housed in the same building and are very close and able to have those conversations.  Sometimes YOTS are stuck in a shed, or not exactly a shed but a redundant local authority building quite a long way from anywhere else.  You can feel that palpable sense of isolation when you go in.  I came across a case recently where a YOT did not get access to social care records for children within the same local authority.  That seemed to me an insane place to be.  So we need to challenge that sort of practice.  Very often it is just because people have got into siloed ways of working.  But if there is a crack to slip down, these children and their families can very often slip down it and be lost.

In Wales we are seeing some really good stuff, similar in thinking to what they are doing in County Durham, particularly in respect of the case-management work.  It is about stepping back and thinking about the systems around the child and asking what things can be done about that network to make a difference and support them.   I would also pay tribute to the third sector, which plays a hugely important part in supporting children within the justice system and making a real difference.  For example the Skill Mill programme which is getting children back into work, which started off in Newcastle, and is now gradually coming down through the country, into Birmingham, Liverpool and Nottingham.  It is really making a difference in getting children back into work, and older children into the habits of work.

I have deliberately saved the secure estate till last because I think it always gets the most airplay, and in fact most of our children are not within the secure estate.  But we absolutely recognise that there are some real challenges there; that things need to get better; and we will work with Youth Custody Service to do that.  I am also closely involved with the development of the two secure school pilots and I am pleased to say that things are progressing well.  Officials in the MoJ are having really good conversations with the DfE and I am feeling more and more confident that we can get to a really good place on secure schools and produce the sort of custody that is transformative to the lives of these children – that the children are getting a first class education but also a bespoke education which meets all of their needs, and helps them when they leave custody to go on to be successful adults.

That was a quick run around the work of the YJB.  There are a couple of other things like, for example, resettlement, which we can touch upon.  We know that resettlement is very patchy.  Some is really first class; children get lots of notice about where they are going to live.  But I heard of a case the other day where there was a social worker, in a car collecting a child from custody, on the phone to housing trying to work out where that child was going to spend the night.  If you wanted to set up a child to fail, to get back into the justice system, to go back into custody where at least that child would have the security of knowing where they would sleep that night, what better way to devise? So there is real work to be done about the best models of resettlement, signposting best practice and challenging poor work when we see it.  But I have probably said enough.’ 

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Charlie Taylor for such an interesting presentation and invited questions.  He said, on the matter of children’s records, he had a Private Members’ Bill on the reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1984. He had had a very disappointing meeting in the MoJ the other day, where officials said they were waiting for a Supreme Court judgement in June, which in his view was irrelevant.  The Bill was majoring on an excellent report from the Standing Committee on Youth Justice and he hoped to push that through.

Charlie Taylor said he was not sure of the details of the case but he understood that the judgment needed to work its way through before there would be any commitment to this reform.

Lord Ramsbotham said that he hoped the MoJ would take on reform of the Act themselves.

Victoria Prentis MP said that the Justice Select Committee had done some work on the effects of criminal records gained early in life, and found that they imposed massive later burdens in respect of education, insurance, housing, and of course jobs.  She thought it important to press on at least with the preparatory work, despite the judgement.  The difficulty the Committee had found, however, was that this fell between two departments.  How did the speaker suggest taking this forward?

Charlie Taylor responded that broadly this was a Home Office policy, but the MoJ dealt with its effects. He thought there was an opportunity for a coalition of the willing, though the court case would have to play out, and patience would probably be required.  The original DBS (as it now is) system came about as a result of the Ian Huntley case and the Laming Review.  While we could understand where that was coming from, there were some unfortunate unintended consequences, and people did not always understand the way the system worked.  Doors could close for children who had done something quite minor.  There was a sense that the pendulum had swung too far.

Lord Ponsonby wanted to ask a bit more about the new secure schools. Would new legislation be required, or could they be accommodated within existing structures?

Charlie Taylor said that the details had not been worked through yet, but it sounded from discussions with ministers and officials that legislation would neither be possible nor required.  It was critical that head teachers of secure schools had as much autonomy as heads of mainstream schools. The ethos, culture, and provision of services would be crucial to making them work. He had been heartened by the levels of interest and enthusiasm shown by many education providers.  The children he had seen while he was doing his review, and their back stories, were very familiar to him from his special school days.  Although there would be some functional issues, like security, to be worked through, this was not as far out of the comfort zone of schools as some might have thought. 

Lord Carlile was concerned that some of the extremely good practice mentioned concealed some awful practice across the country.  When he had compiled the Edlington report, about two little boys who were at serious risk, it was clear that not only were the statutory services  not communicating with each other, but that they believed they were not permitted to do so.  So there was no early triage.  Was there any sign of improving practice?  And were the police and CPS also involved in decision-making, so that better solutions might be found?

Charlie Taylor wished he could give some reassurance that this could not happen again elsewhere.  Such reports helped to push things up in people’s consciousness, however.  One of the few positives to have come out of the Rotherham and Oxford cases was that local authorities’ thinking about adolescents was changing.  There was a sense that when children became 14 or more, the authorities tended to think there was not much more they could do.   Support systems were designed for younger children.   Nowadays the idea of a 14-year-old girl being charged with prostitution was unthinkable, although a boy of the same age might still be charged with possession of drugs with intent to supply, even though he was palpably being groomed. CPS practice seemed to vary across the country, particularly where sex offences were concerned. Where there was a therapeutic service, as for example in Birmingham, the child would be referred there.  However, elsewhere the child could be channelled through the courts.

Lord Beecham was concerned to hear about the high proportion of Roma children in the system.  Were other groups disproportionately represented?  What about girls and young women? And finally, he wondered whether there was any appetite to look at the age of criminal responsibility.

Charlie Taylor said that Roma and Traveller children represented 7% of the whole population within the secure estate.  This was a high proportion, but the most overrepresented group was boys -98% of the prison population but 50% of the general population. Black boys were particularly over-represented.  There had been an increase in the number of Asian children, particularly from South East Asia, in recent years.  Girls thankfully remained a small proportion.  There were only about 30 girls locked up, but for quite serious high-end offences.   Another thing to be thought through for secure schools was how girls should be accommodated. One of the few places to take girls, Medway STC, had managed good integration between boys and girls, but it remained a challenge.   People from East Asian and Indian backgrounds would probably be among those least represented. 

As regards the age of criminal responsibility, that had not been part of his remit, although people had lobbied him about it.  The Bulger and Edlington cases still had resonance, and there was some strong evidence out there, although it might be politically difficult to achieve change.

Lord Carlile added that when he had conducted his parliamentary inquiry, he had resisted attempts to raise this issue, which would have been the main headline had he done so.  This was an important issue, but should not be added on to something that might otherwise succeed.

Charlie Taylor noted that there was a Private Members’ Bill going through the Lords on this at present.                                                                          

Victoria Prentis MP said that there had recently been some responsible reporting in the press because of sexual activity in schools at very young ages.

Lord Hailsham asked whether the speaker thought the story of the social worker trying to find a child released from custody somewhere to sleep was an isolated incident, or whether there was a systematic failure to address the issue of rehabilitation.

Charlie Taylor thought that the response was patchy.  Housing was a big challenge for London boroughs, whilst Wales had made housing a key criterion in resettlement and had done very well.  He was keen that the YJB should push this, in the coming months, as it was so important. Secure schools within local communities should also help to make transitions more seamless.

Baroness Masham highlighted the current problem of the theft of mobile phones by young people on mopeds and wondered what could be done.  She also recalled an Irish Traveller who had told her of his appreciation for being taught to read and write in a YOI.

Charlie Taylor agreed strongly with the latter point.  In his review he had criticised the teaching of reading and writing in the secure estate, which had not kept up with literacy teaching in schools. He wanted the YJB to push forward on this.  As regards mobile theft, some young people were being caught and dealt with. There were two worries: first that the children on mopeds were a danger to themselves and others; it was difficult for police to deal with them, without injuring people. Secondly, moped theft was still relatively easy. A Home Office group was examining ways of making them harder to steal, as cars are nowadays.

Baroness Howe recalled her days as a Juvenile Court Magistrate. She remembered that schools used to turn a blind eye to misbehaviour as they were often glad not to have disruptive children in class.  What was the modern practice?

Charlie Taylor responded that he still heard stories of children being quietly exited from schools, or parents being persuaded to ‘home educate’.  Nevertheless the exclusion rate was much lower than it had been.  It was also worth saying, re the moped stories and knife crime as reported in the press, that although any increase was worrying, we still remained at a much lower base than many years ago. By most measures (in regard to smoking, drinking or drug-taking) ONS figures demonstrated that children were better behaved than in the past. He mentioned Stephen Pinker’s book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’, which talked about reductions in violence over the last few hundred years.  It was true that exclusion from school potentially funnelled children into the justice system, however he still maintained that behaviour in school was far better than it had been 20 years ago.

Lord Ponsonby queried the situation with regard to knife crime.

Charlie Taylor agreed that knife crime figures had gone up, and the murder rate for children, but it was worth holding on to the fact that these increases were from a very low base, and rates were nothing like as bad as they had been in the past.

Anne Finlayson, Cookham Wood IMB, wanted to raise the plight of the small number of boys with severe mental health problems currently held in YOIs.  Had the YJB got plans for the management of those boys which would better meet their needs and reduce pressure on prison staff?

Charlie Taylor mentioned the enhanced support unit being developed in Feltham, and the Keppel Unit in Wetherby.  He was less sure of the situation in Cookham Wood but would find out. He also mentioned the situation of children on the autistic spectrum, for whom the experience of prison was particularly trying.   Ultimately the development of secure schools would better meet the needs of these children.  Meanwhile the decision of NHS England to divert more funding to mental health support within the justice system was to be welcomed, although more needed to be done.

Lisa Ogden, SLT, said that providing therapeutic treatment for vulnerable and traumatised children would do something, but ultimately it was about systems.

Charlie Taylor agreed.  We needed to develop a mentally healthy culture in the secure estate.  The best secure children’s homes, like Barton Moss, and our best pupil referral units, exhibited a deep understanding of the ways to work with traumatised children. There was some way to go in our YOIs.

Kim Taylor, SLT at Feltham YOI, said that they were the first prison to get accreditation from the National Autistic Society, and some officers and young people were specially trained to support one another.

Charlie Taylor said that this was a good example of an institution adapting itself to the needs of children who were there rather than following behind them.

Lord Ramsbotham said that, sadly, time had run out.   In closing he mentioned that he also chaired the Criminal Justice and Acquired Brain Injury interest group, and last week the organisation Headway had shown him an ID card which they were issuing to people with a brain injury, which not only had their photograph on it but also a description of the injury and the symptoms that resulted from it. This had been authorised by the police, and would hopefully prevent many unnecessary arrests.  He had given it to David Lidington as an example of a good and useful development.

He thanked Charlie Taylor very much for his presentation, and said he hoped he would return next year to give the group an update on progress in this important area.