Speech to the Howard League conference on 'Re-imagining Youth Justice'

On Wednesday 2nd April I spoke to a conference organised by the Howard League for Penal Reform on 'Re-imagining Youth Justice.' You can read a copy of my speech below.

Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Let me start by thanking Frances Crook and the Howard League for inviting me to speak to you today.

There are few organisations that can claim to have as long or as proud a history as the Howard League,

with a record of influencing and campaigning on justice policy that stretches all the way back to 1866.

It even influenced me in my early days as a young student.
But I have a confession to make.

Because when I first heard of the Howard League, I must admit I thought it was called the Howard League, because it had been founded by the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard…

If that had been true I suspect that history I just mentioned would not only have been much shorter, but rather different…


Let me outline the three things I would like to talk to you about today:

One, what our ambitions for youth justice should be.

Two, why I think this Government’s approach is falling short.

And three – most importantly – how we can do better for all our young people full stop.

Because I believe our ambition for youth justice policy should be to stop youth crime before it starts.


Before I say a word about each of those, let me set out some context.

Because we should start by acknowledging that progress has been made.

A generation ago, in 1997, more than 100,000 youth crimes were being committed each year.

Seventeen years on and that figure is down 38%.

We should be proud of that.

It is testament to the hard work of the Youth Justice Board and Youth Offending Teams across the country, which the last Labour Government created.

But everyone here today will recognise that we still have a long way to go.

Re-offending rates are too high, and around 70% of young offenders go on to commit another crime within 12 months of release from custody.

And there are still too many young people in our society who are vulnerable to being drawn into offending behaviour.

We saw that in the Riots of 2011.

More than half of the 3,000 people who appeared in court for taking part in that summer disorder were younger than 20 years of age.

More than a quarter were children under the age of 18.

Some were as young as 10 years old.

And it reminds me of two examples that have shocked me and have stayed with me since I was appointed as Shadow Justice Minister.

The first was an attack captured on CCTV in London.

The footage shows a teenager casually cycling down an inner-city road.

He passes a shop and sees someone inside he recognises - or thinks he recognises.

He takes out a gun, and coolly shoots through the shop window.

His target was most likely a member of a rival gang. Instead the boy hit an innocent bystander, and killed them.

The second example was another piece of footage I was shown on a visit to a Young Offenders Institution.

It showed two inmates creating a diversion to distract custody officers.

Then, with staff looking the other way, another group of offenders attacked a young boy sitting alone at a table.

The attack was unprovoked, there was no clear motive, and they beat him with ferocious violence.

But like the shop window shooting and the Riots of three summers ago, what was striking was the way it was carried out –

With a total disregard for the consequences - either for the victim or for themselves.

It vividly illustrates some very disturbing elements that exist in parts our of society –

What I describe as a casualisation of violence.

That in part is the youth justice challenge.

Our ambition cannot just be based on numbers – we have to face the nature of these crimes.

That’s what our ambition should be.


Let me turn to this Government’s approach, and why I fear it won’t get us there.

We’ve had four years of this Coalition and 18 months for this Justice Secretary to set out his ambitions for justice policy.

And I speak to you today fresh – if that’s the right word – from more than 30 hours of debate in Parliament on the Criminal Justice & Courts Bill.

So I’ve just been treated to a close up look at this Government’s approach to youth and criminal justice.

What I’ve seen is an approach that is reactionary, unenlightened, and more interested in grabbing short-term headlines than evidence-based policy making for the long term.

So much of this is evident in Chris Grayling’s proposed creation of Secure Colleges as the preferred institution for young offenders.

Let me be clear – education can and should play an important role in the rehabilitation of young offenders.

But even Ministers accept that these proposals are untried and untested.

We’ve yet to see any meaningful detail on how education will be delivered.

There is little information about what health and wellbeing services will be provided, or how they will be paid for.

Ministers are claiming secure colleges will be able to deliver first-class education and rehabilitation at below the average cost of youth custody.

My worry is that this sounds simply too good to be true.

And there are very real concerns that the proposed legislation is so poorly drafted.

It may allow secure college staff to use reasonable force to maintain good order and discipline –

Something that was ruled to be unlawful by the Court of Appeal in 2008.

That’s why I was very clear on behalf of the Opposition when we debated these issues in Parliament last week.

If the Government wants our support, they need to get their house in order and lay out a proper, evidence-based case for why Parliament should have confidence in these Secure College proposals.

And here’s the real irony.

Because for hours on end last week, I sat listening to Ministers extolling the virtues of education in rehabilitating offenders…

How knowledge and learning could help get young people back on the right track…

Of the importance of greater literacy skills in finding a job after release….

Then, just hours later, I heard the same Ministers defending this Government’s plan to ban prisoners receiving books in our prisons.

You couldn’t make it up.

Let me tell you how a Labour Government will be different.

We’ll reverse the book ban for a start.

Yes we need to do all we can to stop illicit substances being smuggled into our prisons.

But that doesn’t mean the answer is to stand in the way of prisoners being able to read –

Not when over half of 15 to 17 year olds in YOIs have a reading age of a 7 to 11 year old.

So Labour will review the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, so that we make sure there are no other obstacles in the way of reducing reoffending.

Our policies will be led by evidence, not ideology.

If civil servants present proposals to me that are not properly thought through or backed up with robust evidence, I’ll tell them to go away and think again.

We’ll be led by the latest scientific research.

Like recent studies into neurological development among young people.

These have shown how the human brain continues to evolve through early adulthood, and is not fully mature until a person reaches their mid-twenties.

That’s the sort of insight we need to be mindful of in youth justice.

How can we most effectively cater for 18 to 20 year olds in a way that is distinct from the support we provide to young children and adult offenders?

And we will work across Government.

In Opposition, I’m working closely with my colleagues like Steve Reed in our Shadow Home Office team,

As well as other colleagues working in health, education, DWP, local government and civil society.

We want to continue that collaborative approach in Government.

Because youth justice can’t just sit in a silo if we want to stop youth crime before it starts.

And that’s the key point I want to make today.

There are currently around 1,700 children under the age of 18 in youth custody – that’s 1,700 too many in my eyes.

Not because there isn’t a role for custody – there has to be.

Youth justice does need to be about rehabilitation.

But it also needs to be about punishment, protecting the public, and giving justice to victims of crime.

We should be mindful however, that no child is born wanting to break the law.

Every teenager who offends represents a failure for all of us to help that young person to take part in society and achieve their potential.

And it’s brought home by the fact that the peak age of offending overall is 19.

So if we can help a young person get into their early 20s with a job, education, a support system and prospects, they’re much less likely to offend in future.

That’s what we need to aspire to.

Because when a young person enters the youth justice system, the battle’s half lost.

Not completely – and I’m not giving up on any young person –

but the challenge of rehabilitation and getting young people moving back in the right direction becomes much greater once an offence has been committed.

My goal is to help stop young offenders from ending up on the Youth Justice Minister’s desk in the first place.

And that means thinking about how we bring out the best in all our young people.

It means recognising the factors that can destabilise young people’s lives and push them towards offending behaviour.

Research shows that the majority of youths in custody are themselves victims of abuse.

Let me share some figures with you.

- 71% of young offenders have been involved with or were in the care of social services;

- One in four boys report suffering violence at home

- One in 20 report having been sexually abused

- Three quarters have an absent father.

- 84% have been excluded from school.

- And a third have a recognised mental health disorder

The struggle many of these children have experienced so early in their short lives can, in some cases, contribute to violent criminal behaviour.

The last Labour Government understood this.

That’s why we made the reforms to Youth Justice that we did,

Why we trebled investment in offender learning,

And prioritised mental health problems in our justice system through the Corsten and Bradley reports.

And we took broader social action that benefited all young people.

We introduced Sure Start, smaller class sizes, and put greater investment into health, housing and family intervention projects.

I’m proud of what we achieved.

But we need to pick up that baton and run with it if we want to stop youth crime before it starts.

Or let me put it another way.

Tough on youth crime – yes.

Tougher on the causes of youth crime – yes, absolutely.

Let me spell out what I mean by that.

We know that young people who are not in education or employment are 20 times more likely to offend.

So we need to be tougher on long-term youth unemployment and support the 912,000 young people who can’t find work.

Not because young people are going to run out and commit crimes if they don’t have a job,

But because going to work, having something to get up for in the morning; that’s what helps create a stable environment.

It’s appalling that the number of young people stuck on the dole for over a year has almost doubled on David Cameron’s watch.

That’s why Labour’s is calling for a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, which would ensure there is a paid job for every young person under the age of 25.

We also need to be tougher about standards in our education system where schools don’t do enough to equip young people for the challenges ahead.

We need to get tougher with those who tell us that an education that doesn’t include university degree isn’t worth having.

That includes getting serious about vocational education in the way Tristram Hunt and the Shadow Education team have proposed.

We need to empower our schools, colleges, universities, preparing young people for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

We need to get tougher on drugs and alcohol, where they blight the lives of young people and lead them down the wrong path.

And we need to get tougher with ourselves about letting young people with mental health problems slip through the net.

Mental health is an issue that has been neglected for far too long.

That applies to people of all ages.

But investment in child and adolescent mental health services in particular has been decimated,

many young people are struggling to get support they need.

That’s why Labour’s Mental Health Taskforce is looking at levels of mental health training in our schools and how we can support staff in our classrooms.


These issues are particularly relevant to young people in the justice system, but they reach far beyond that.

The challenge for the next Labour Government is to ensure we can unlock the potential of all our young people.

I’ve spent all of my professional life before coming into Parliament working with young people, and I’ve seen them do exceptional things.

When I was in Army, I commanded young soldiers who were as young as 16 and 17.

Many of them were from similar backgrounds to many of the young people we’re discussing today, and would have had contemporaries who’ve come into contact with the youth justice system.

The Army gave them a purpose – a focus for their efforts.

It also gave them training, mentoring and self-belief.

We need to think how we give that to all our young people –

How we them every opportunity to compete in a complex, fast-moving and ruthlessly competitive world.

A world in which many of the jobs they will go on to do don’t currently exist.

It’s about what happens at home and how we bring up our children.

It’s about the type of communities we want to live in.

And it’s about the type of society we want to be.

That’s the broad, ambitious vision I’m working towards as Shadow Justice Minister.

I don’t pretend that I have all the answers with me today, or a full manifesto in my back pocket.

And I don’t pretend we will always agree on everything.

But the message I leave you with is this - we need to look beyond what happens solely within the criminal justice system.

When it comes to young people who offend, we’ll focus on effective rehabilitation and breaking the cycle of reoffending.

But if we really want to re-imagine youth justice, if we want to stop youth crime before it starts, then we need to imagine how we can do better for all our young people.

Thank you very much.

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