As Shadow Justice Minister for Youth Justice, on Wednesday 19th November I had the pleasure of speaking at the Youth Justice Board's annual convention in Telford. The event brought together youth charities, justice experts and Youth Offending Teams from across the country.
I spoke about the new challenges in youth justice, about the Government's ill-thought through approach, and Labour's ambition to stop youth crime before it starts by tackling the issues that destabilise the lives of all our young people.
Here is my speech in full.
Good morning everyone, it’s a pleasure to be here.
I want to start by thanking Lord McNally, Lin Hinnigan and the Youth Justice Board for inviting me to speak to you.
I understand you had my opposite number Andrew Selous speaking for the government yesterday,
But I’m very happy to actually be here today.
Not least because it wasn’t that long ago that we feared there would no longer be a Youth Justice Board – and no more Youth Justice Board conventions!
But I’m very thankful that Ministers did listen and reverse their plans to abolish the YJB. Thinking back to that decision three years ago, it’s hard now to understand why we ever came so close to abolition.
Just look at what’s been achieved.
When the Labour Government created the Youth Justice Board in 1998, around 100,000 youth crimes were being committed every year.
The system was failing.
Some people were resigned to the prospect of crime going up and up, and never coming down.
Well, that’s been well and truly disproved over the last decade.
Since 2002, the number of young people entering the justice system for the first time has dropped by almost 70%.
The number of young people sentenced to a spell in custody is down by more than 60%.
And the number of young people behind bars is half what it was just a few years ago.
That success is a testament not only to the YJB, but to every Youth Offending Team and the many different agencies working with young people.
Many of whom are represented here in this room.
So the first thing I want to say to you today is this – because it’s not often I get the opportunity to say this to so many people in one go:
Having met with many of you and your colleagues across the country, I know how challenging working with young people at the sharp end of our criminal justice system can be - tackling difficult social issues, enabling restorative justice and helping young people get their lives back on track.
So I’m proud to speak to you today on behalf of a party who created the Youth Justice Board, who fought to protect the Youth Justice Board, and that are ready and eager to work with you to build on your success.
Because we all know that not everything is perfect in our youth justice system, and we still have some way to go.
With that in mind, there are three key things I would like to focus on this morning:
• A view on the new landscape in our youth justice system, and how the challenge has changed.
• A reflection on the current government’s approach, particularly their proposed reforms to youth custody.
• And what the youth justice system would look like under a Labour government in six months’ time.
Let me start with some context.
According to the National Audit Office, offending by young people costs the UK economy around £11billion each year.
And that's without including the unquantifiable emotional costs to victims of crime.
So my aspiration for youth justice is simple: To stop youth crime before it starts.
That includes being ruthless on reoffending, and helping young people turn their lives around if they do have a brush with the law.
Above all, it means tackling the issues that can destabilise the lives of all young people and push some towards offending behaviour.
Trying to prevent them ever coming into contact with the YJB in the first place.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.
It’s the story of a young man called Daniel.
He was in his late teens when he was sentenced to serve three years in prison.
But his story does have a positive ending.
During his time in custody, he found out about educational courses and began studying to catch-up with the key subjects he missed out on at school.
With support from the Prisoners Education Trust, he completed his qualifications through a distance learner course.
When he was released, he was provided with a bursary, a mentor and support to resettle into normal life.
Today, Daniel has turned his life around and is working as a personal trainer.
The reason I share his story, is because for me it represents a great success but also a great failure.
Success because it underlines how education and employment can reduce reoffending and help get young offenders back on the right track.
But failure because Daniel’s problems really began when he was excluded from school just before he took his GCSEs.
I think of those several wasted years between his exclusion and his sentencing.
What more could have been done to stop him from going into that downward spiral?
And it speaks to a truth I’ve come to realise as Shadow Youth Justice Minister.
I spent all my professional life before coming into Parliament working with young people, and I’ve seen them do truly exceptional things.
I’ve now been in this job for just over a year –
And the more I’ve looked at it, the more I’m convinced that the important thing about youth justice, is that it is one of the areas in government that acts as a barometer for how well we’re doing in other parts of government.
Are we giving our young people the education and skills they need to succeed in the future?
Are there enough jobs and opportunities open to people from all backgrounds?
Are mums and dads getting the support they need to help raise a family?
How effectively are we tackling forces like drugs and alcohol that can disrupt young people’s lives and lead them down the wrong path?
The list goes on.
I heard one of the most powerful testaments to this during a recent visit to my own local Youth Offending Team in Barnsley.
Tom, the manager, described how most of their work focuses on what he terms as ‘The Toxic Trio’:
- Mental health problems
- Drugs and substance misuse
- And domestic abuse.
He said all three are linked to most of the cases that his team have to respond to on a daily basis.
It’s young people struggling with these issues who are most likely to come into contact with the youth justice system.
And this is the crux of my point about the new landscape within our youth justice system.
Because as offending and custody numbers have come down, the challenge for our generation has changed.
We all know that the cohort of young people in the justice system is now a lot smaller, more violent, and has more complex needs.
That is clear when we look at the profile of the 1,150 young people currently in custody:
• 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;
• Three quarters have an absent father;
• 84% have been excluded from school;
• And a third have a recognised mental health disorder.
This represents deep societal problems that reach far beyond my justice brief.
The last Labour Government understood this.
That’s why we ensured our reforms to youth justice came alongside broader social action that benefited all young people – Sure Start, smaller class sizes, and greater investment into health, housing and family intervention projects.
We also trebled investment in offender learning, and prioritised mental health problems in our justice system through the Corsten and Bradley reports.
Now, we need to go further.
I understand you had Lord Bradley speaking here yesterday on addressing mental health and learning difficulties in the justice system.
Five years on since his review was published, I agree with his assessment that progress has been made but there is much progress we still need to make.
That was made all the clearer by Lord Toby Harris‘ comments last week.
Too many young people end up in the criminal justice system simply because they don’t get the support they need early enough.
So we need urgent action to address the crisis in child and adolescent mental health services, as highlighted by the Health Select Committee’s report a fortnight ago.
I’ve had countless cases as a constituency MP of young people desperate for help but come to me because they cannot get an appointment.
No young person should end up detained in a police cell because there are no specialist mental health beds available for them to go to.
And let me give you another example.
We all know the young people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds are sadly far too over-represented in our youth justice system.
In 2011, 29% of offenders in youth custody were from black and ethnic minorities.
New figures that I have uncovered in recent days show that today, that proportion has jumped to 38% - a near 10% spike in just three short years.
This is all the more concerning at a time when the youth custody population is falling as a whole.
So as Shadow Youth Justice Minister, I want to know why young people from these backgrounds are so over-represented in youth custody, and I would like to see Ministers urgently putting policies in place to address it.
We also need more early intervention to support the most vulnerable children.
Only a fraction of young people will ever have contact with children’s services during their life, but looked after children represent nearly a quarter of teenagers in custody.
Let me give credit where credit is due to the government.
Under the leadership of Louise Casey, the Troubled Families programme has reached 117,000 families, and helped turn around 69,000 families afflicted by youth crime, anti-social behaviour and other social challenges.
It’s just the type of smart, targeted intervention that we need to help stop youth crime before it starts.
Sadly, there are few other areas where I can be generous to the Government.
We’ve had two years under this Justice Secretary now and the results are all too clear to see.
- Prisons in crisis.
- Our probation system in meltdown.
- And a surge in absconds by serious and violent criminals.
It all stems from a reactionary and un-enlightened approach – one more interested in grabbing short-term headlines than evidence-based policy making for the long term.
So much of this is evident in the government’s flagship youth justice reform - the proposed creation of the Secure College.
We have been very clear as an Opposition that we don’t think this is the right way forward for youth custody and we don’t support it.
That doesn’t mean I am satisfied with the performance in existing Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres.
Indeed, we’ve had very concerning reports in recent months exposing appalling conditions at Hindley, Brinsford and Glen Parva.
But this provides all the more reason why we should be focusing on improving conditions in our existing youth estate –
Not wasting £85m on an untried and untested vanity project.
Chris Grayling claims his secure college will transform the education of young offenders.
Let me be clear - education can and should play an important role in the rehabilitation of young offenders
The problem is that I’ve yet to come across a single independent expert who thinks this is a good idea.
It goes against all the evidence which shows smaller units closer to home are far more effective.
And most importantly, it is supposed to deliver education and rehabilitation above and beyond anything we have ever seen before, and at a much cheaper cost.
But Ministers have produced no credible plan for how this will be delivered.
For me, that sounds simply too good to be true.
So we were encouraged a few weeks ago, when the House of Lords voted against the plans to accommodate girls and the very youngest children in the secure college alongside older teenage boys. – something that the government has failed to carry out even the basic equality assessments for.
So we will be continuing this argument in Parliament in the coming weeks.
Let me turn now to how a Labour government would be different.
We will not be continuing with secure colleges for a start.
When it comes to youth custody, our focus will be on raising standards in our existing youth estate.
Especially at a time when many specialist facilities are being lost as surplus YOIs and STCs are decommissioned.
And we will work across government.
That’s the approach we are taking in Opposition - just as many of you have to work with other agencies in your own day-to-day roles.
I’m working closely with my colleagues in our Home Office, health, education, Business, DWP and local government teams.
Because youth justice can’t just sit in a silo if we want to stop youth crime before it starts.
Our policies will be based on evidence, not ideology.
We’ll look at what’s successful and learn lessons from what works.
That includes drawing inspiration from the work Labour councils are leading across the country.
Like Manchester City Council, where they have redesigned their local criminal justice system.
Their targeted approach has more than halved repeat offending in the 18 to 24 age bracket. And some of the most serious offences have fallen by 80%.
It’s particularly powerful, as we all know offending and reoffending among young adults is one of the most difficult issues facing us today.
Not only is 19 the peak age of offending, they are also the age group with the highest rates of reoffending in the country.
Overall, young offenders between the ages of 18 and 25 account for:
- a third of people going to prison,
- a third of the probation caseload
- and a third of the overall social and economic cost of crime.
There are two issues which help contribute to this.
The first is that many young men do not fully mature until after the age of 18.
We know from scientific research that many teenagers are not able to evaluate risk and moderate behaviour until their mid-20s.
The second is that there is currently no specific approach for young adults – even though offenders in their early 20s are among the most prolific.
At the moment however, youth justice system provides mentoring and support up until the age of 18,
But this support then falls off a cliff when a young person enters into the next age bracket.
That’s why Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Justice Secretary, and I are committed to changing this.
So I can tell you today, –
If elected in six months’ time, the next Labour government will explore how we can expand the remit of the Youth Justice Board and Youth Offending Teams to cover 18, 19 and 20 year olds.
We will look at how we can end the sudden break at the age of 18, and give young adults access to the same multi-agency support that has already proved so successful with younger age groups.
Let me be clear.
The most serious crimes will always need a custodial sentence.
But I believe this change is the right thing to do, building on the success that the YJB has led over recent years.
But it’s also the smart thing to do.
Get this right, and it could help lead to fewer criminal offences, smaller prison numbers and save money in the public purse.
It’s an idea I want to see succeed.
We are also looking at further devolution within the justice system.
Local authorities are already obliged to cover the cost of custody for offenders on remand.
This has incentivised many councils to do more to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place.
The Institute for Public Policy Research are among those who have proposed building on this by devolving the budget for youth custody to local authorities.
This would create a system that rewards local agencies who reduce levels of youth crime by allowing them to keep the financial savings this would deliver.
As my colleague Sadiq Khan has said, this is a promising suggestion and one we will consider piloting if we are in Government next year.
And in Restorative Justice Week, let me underline our commitment as an Opposition.
We’ve been clear that we want to put restorative justice at the heart of the criminal justice system.
Because as the evidence in Northern Ireland has shown, justice that includes a restorative element can not only reduce reoffending, it can lead to higher victim satisfaction too.
That’s the kind of youth justice system we want to deliver.
Building on success.
Ready to reform and innovate to tackle the challenges of the future.
But always based on sound evidence.
And working in partnership with experts and practitioners at the coalface.
Let me end with this thought.
It’s a quotation I came across over the summer whilst I was editing a book with other shadow ministers.
This is the quote:
‘Values are changing and the impact of the change is always felt most of all by the young.’
That is taken from the report of Labour Party’s youth commission….only it’s a report that was published over half a century ago in 1959.
It reminds me that as well as all the phenomenal opportunities there are for young people today, this is also a tough time to be growing up.
Youth unemployment still too high.
The struggle to get on the housing ladder.
Patchy adolescent mental health services.
The pressures of living in the internet age.
Yet when I think about what is right with Britain today, I’m always most optimistic when I’m talking to our young people.
So we need to think how we best support those young people who are facing the greatest challenges and being buffeted most by change.
That’s how we’ll make the next Labour government a government that equips all our young people for the future, and I look forward to working with all of you to help make it a reality.
Thank you very much.