Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Stephanie Roberts-Bibby, and I am the interim chief executive officer for the Youth Justice Board. It is great to be here today to give evidence to you.
Q I have a question about minimum-term sentences. We have a situation whereby if a young person commits an offence when they are under 18, but there is a delay in their coming to court and being convicted, they are then treated as an adult. What are your thoughts on that? Is that an opportunity missed in the Bill?
Absolutely. We would say that children who commit offences as children should be sentenced as children, and that, where possible, the court should take into account the age and maturity of the child at the time of the offence. I know that HMCTS has been working tirelessly—particularly at the moment with the covid pandemic—to make sure that children’s cases are held promptly and before their 18th birthdays.
We strongly believe that when the offence was committed as a child, that should be reflected in the length of the sentence, so they should be sentenced accordingly. We appreciate the logic for some of the tapering proposed in the Bill, but we feel that it fails to recognise that all children, who were under 18 at the time of the offence, had a distinct set of rights and vulnerabilities, and that the nature and length of time with which children and young people’s development takes place needs to be reflected. Indeed, evidence points firmly to brain development continuing up until the age of 25.
We wholeheartedly support the introduction of secure schools. We very much welcome the Government’s proposal to open the first secure school at Medway and we look forward to a further secure school as part of the Government’s commitment to an alternative to secure accommodation for children. We have been working closely with Oasis, which was announced as the provider of the first secure school. It is a very strong academy trust and will offer a different operating model from the secure environments that currently exist. While there is some great practice that takes place across the secure estate, we know from the data about the outcomes for children who have been in the current secure estate that those outcomes are poor and that further offending continues.
Q How important is the expertise of the people running secure schools? You have mentioned Oasis already. Who else is in the mix, and how do we ensure that that expertise is in place for the youngsters?
It is a concern that the market, as you would describe it, for providing a secure estate is quite limited. We would want to try to stimulate that market, to get the full range of providers that will be able to meet children’s needs. I think there is something about really understanding the complexity of children in the secure estate. These children are extremely vulnerable and, as a result, their behaviours can then be deemed as being extremely risky and posing a risk to others.
Our only concern about the delivery of the secure school is that link, at the moment, to the academy sector, particularly for children entering the youth justice system who have quite often been involved in practices whereby they have been off-rolled. For instance, we note the high levels—the prevalence—of exclusion of children. For example, we know from HMIP data that 89% of children at Feltham in 2018 had been excluded from school. We would be really keen to seek an assurance through the tendering process that academy trusts that are selected to open or run a secure school have the full range of skills, expertise, structures and ethos to support children to change in a secure setting.
Q If I may ask one more question, albeit in two parts, how do youth offending teams rehabilitate children who are given community sentences? Also, where there has been a tragic incident or a really horrific situation—a stabbing in a local area that has really rocked a community—what can the youth offending teams and the Youth Justice Board do? How do we educate the community and ensure that other youngsters are not caught up in it and are supported with their families as well?
Youth offending teams are critical in early intervention and prevention with children who may be on the cusp of offending. There are a whole range of sentencing options available, but before that point there are out-of-court disposals, which means that children can be engaged in a range of activities, interventions and indeed supervision that would help them to address their needs.
Regarding the latter, I think there is really something about us all committing to understand children’s development, some of the social and economic environments in which children are living, and some of the deprivation and the structural barriers that children in our communities are experiencing, particularly children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, who we know are disproportionately represented across the youth justice system. So there are a range of options available from youth offending teams.
One of the challenges that we hear about from the sector is its capacity to work upstream. Often, that is a result of funding, although this year the youth offending teams have had an additional uplift in their grant to help with some of the challenges that they are currently experiencing.
Very tiny. I have a number of youth groups in my patch, as no doubt all MPs have, that are trusted by youngsters and that have been there and built the relationships. How do the Youth Justice Board and youth offending teams work with the grassroots youth organisations?
If I start with our role as the Youth Justice Board, we work really closely with the voluntary and third-sector community. We have a regular stakeholder forum, where we come together with all of the voluntary sector to hear their voices and concerns, so that we can have effective oversight of the youth justice system.
At grassroots level, which you referred to with youth offending teams, local authorities can subcontract or co-commission services to the voluntary sector, although again we know that in latter years some of those organisations have not necessarily been able to sustain themselves. However, those services are really critical to understanding the context in which children are living: the services they need, and the services that are able to get alongside children and help them. We also have a youth-affiliated network in which we hear from children and hear their voices. They are often the go-to services when children are in crisis, are feeling vulnerable, or do not know what to do.
Fine. Thank you, that is helpful. Clause 36(10) of the Bill says thatQ
“In this Chapter—
“adult” means a person aged 16 or over”.
Given the wealth of evidence on maturity, do you think that the section and other provisions of the Bill that address sentencing 16 and 17-year-olds are appropriate?
I go back to my original answer in which we are clear that the age in law for children is up to 18. We absolutely promote a child-first youth justice system which means that children up to the age of 18 should get treated as children, as they are in law. The evidence base in the debate about maturity strongly suggests that brain development continues until the age of 25, and indeed some evidence shows that it may extend to 28 for males in particular. We would absolutely continue to champion the idea that children should be sentenced as children until their 18th birthday.
Q The Alliance for Youth Justice said:
“There is no evidence that the threat of harsher custodial sentences deters children from offending, no evidence that contributes towards rehabilitation or promoting long-term positive outcomes. Meanwhile, there is abundant evidence that imprisonment is extremely harmful to children and disrupts their healthy long-term development.”
How do you think the changes to youth sentencing proposed in the Bill will impact reoffending rates?
A number of changes are presented, and I want to pick out some of those. We are broadly supportive of the proposals relating to youth rehabilitation orders. We are supportive of anything that prevents children from being drawn further into the youth justice system. That would include offering them greater support in the community, and making sure that they get their needs addressed. There is no evidence to show that punishment changes behaviour. What we know changes behaviour is pro-social identity, and giving children a positive image of themselves where they can build on their strengths, and aspire to contribute to our society and our economy. We are very clear that we would not want to see the Bill result in more children being pulled into the youth justice system, and indeed we would want to see children continuing to be referred into the services that rightly should be there to meet their needs and prevent them from offending, as we have seen in the last 20 years since the youth justice system was established.
Q The number of children in custody has come down quite considerably in recent times, but it still stands at around 500, which is tremendously high. How significantly will the changes to youth sentencing in the Bill increase the number of children in custody? Will we see more children in prison?
We really support the proposals and changes to remand. I will start with that point, if that is okay. We welcome the proposal that there be a statutory duty for the court to consider the child’s welfare and best interests when applying the prospect of custody test. We know that at the moment only a third of children in custody on remand go on to get a custodial sentence, which raises the issue of why so many children are being remanded in the first place. So we very much support the proposals around remand.
We particularly support the changes that would say that only a recent and significant history of a breach, or offending while on bail, would result in custodial remand. We recommend that those definitions be tightened or specified. We would recommend that “recent” refer to a six-week period, and “significant” refer to a situation where there is a potential to cause serious harm or injury. We are very supportive of measures that would reduce the number of children being drawn into the system, particularly into custody, so we support the recommendations around remand, but those measures in isolation will not reduce the number of children in custody. There still needs to be work in the community around appropriate accommodation for children, with holistic services that meet their needs. At the moment, there is a misalignment between the priorities of the criminal courts and available community provision for children’s social care accommodation.
We also think there is limited time to build an appropriate bail package. As we all know, there is more to do, although there is ongoing work around vulnerable children and reducing the likelihood of their being exploited.
We very much welcome the changes to the detention training orders, but some of them could result in an increase in the number of children in custody. It might be helpful if I talk through each of those changes. I am conscious of the time and that I am talking very fast, but I think those changes are quite significant. We welcome the fact that there will be more flexibility with their sentences, rather than the rigidity that we have now. However, there is a challenge that the fixed lengths mean that children may miss out on the opportunity to be enrolled in school, for training or for an apprenticeship.
We have some concerns that the findings of the impact assessment that the Government completed may mean that individuals making an early guilty plea may end up with longer sentences than they currently receive. While there would be no additional children’s sentence to detention training orders under this option, that would increase the capacity at any given point of the number of children in the secure estate. We have estimated that to be a potential 30 to 50 places, costing £5.3 million to £8.5 million per year.
Q You are managing to get a lot on the record, but I would like to put one other question before I run out of time. Do you think the changes to youth sentencing will disproportionately impact any particular communities?
We would suggest that some of the changes may further disproportionately disadvantage black and mixed heritage boys—that is indicated in the impact assessment that is currently being completed. We would be very keen to work on some mitigating actions that might prevent those unintended consequences disproportionately affecting those children further.
Q I will not need all that time, because most of the points that I was going to raise have been helpfully raised already by colleagues. To return to the question of secure schools, I think you expressed in your answers at the beginning support for the proposed introduction of secured schools and gave a bit of flavour as to why you support them. Can you talk about the benefits that may be delivered by increasing the range of organisations that can be brought into the business of providing these services with the change being contemplated here?
We would see the benefits very much related to the skills, experience and expertise that multi-academy trusts could bring into a secure school setting. As you may know, the secure estate is split into three different sections: secure training centres, secure children’s homes and young offenders institutions. The custodial element of those organisations is very strong and probably strongest in the YOIs and the STCs. The introduction of a very different model that accounts for children’s needs will not mean that they will not be secure; it will mean that they have a focus on education, mental health, and a trauma-informed approach to working with children who have complex needs, which is very much needed.
Q Do you have any particular observations on measures we might consider to reduce offending, either in the Bill or, indeed, beyond it?
Gosh. We could probably provide you with a significant amount of evidence on that and I would very much welcome the opportunity to do that in writing to the Committee.
We would suggest coming from the perspective of the child first and using the evidence base that has been developed recently, which focuses on children, their personal and social identity and their strengths, rather than being deficit-based. The evidence, which equally applies to adults, is that if you look for good and build on good, much more is achieved than if you tell people that they are no use and no good and cannot contribute to society.
We know that with children, the earlier we intervene, the better—early intervention and prevention, and targeting services upstream. That is a challenge for youth offending teams at the moment. They have statutory caseloads and trying to balance intervening earlier is really difficult. Some local authorities manage to do that better than others. There is a massive evidence base and we can share the evidence after the Committee today.
Q My final question is on the remand review. What is the Youth Justice Board able to do to support the remand review and its subsequent implementation?
We have been working really closely with the Ministry of Justice on the remand review. We are very keen to understand the data better and to have a look at the trends across the country. One of the things we would really welcome as, dare I say, an amendment to the Bill is for there to be a decision why bail is and is not granted. There is still a lack of evidence on what needs to change for more children to remain in the community, and we want to avoid perpetuating cycles of evidence.
You asked about what more we could do around the remand review. There is certainly something more we could do around trying to knit the system together better, through our heads of regions constantly having discussions with the sector around remand. We are doing quite a lot of work at the moment on developing alternative models for accommodation. We are working across London. We are investing in a pathfinder project to try to develop a different model for children, to prevent them being taken into the secure estate on remand.
If you do wish to furnish the Committee with further written evidence to support your comments, that would be most welcome. I think Mr Cunningham had a further question.
Q Yes, in view of the fact that we have some time left. You talked about the secure schools system. How can we ensure that secure schools learn from the systemic problems in other parts of the youth custodial estate, including secure training centres? How could Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons assist with that?
As I understand it, the inspection framework for a secure school will be Ofsted, quite rightly, because it is a secure school rather than a prison. Of course, there is a role that HMIP might play in helping to share and disseminate best practice. As is the case when Ofsted does an inspection in the secure estate, HMIP is part of that broader inspection team. There is a role for it to share best practice as it sees and finds it.
Q I have an open question for you. One of my colleagues who was supposed to be serving on the Committee asked what the principal challenges in the youth justice system are.
Some of the principal challenges come from the fact that services for children sit across everyone’s responsibility but no one’s responsibility. There is absolutely something about us continuing to reach out across the Government. We very much see joining services up as some of the leadership space that we are in and will continue to be in, so that children who are vulnerable to offending are seen and are not slipping through the gaps in service provision.