Good afternoon, Hazel, and thank you for being ready to join us early. Hazel Williamson is the chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers. I have just introduced you, but I think we need to do you the courtesy of allowing you to introduce yourself very briefly.
Thank you. I am very grateful, and I am delighted to be able to give some evidence today. Yes, I am Hazel Williamson, and I am chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers. I have been chair since September last year, and for two years before that I was vice-chair. My day job is head of Staffordshire youth offending service.
As a former Children’s Minister, this is something very close to my heart. I would like to ask you a little bit about custodial remand and whether you find that in practice, custodial remand is currently used appropriately for childrenQ .
In terms of custodial remand, we have seen a significant reduction under the previous legislation and the current legislation. Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, we have seen a reduction in remand. Some of the challenges that remain for remand are around those robust packages, and in particular suitable placements, for our children and young people. We know that placements is a national issue for children and young people, and finding the most suitable is really difficult. What we know about our cohort in the youth justice system now is that they have changed over the past 20 years. They are presenting with significant trauma and abuse, often as a result of exploitation. That makes it really difficult for our local authority colleagues to source an appropriate placement.
Q Some children may be living in dysfunctional families, but very many whom the criminal justice system comes into contact with are in local authority care. In fact, sadly, these children make up a large proportion of those who get involved with the police, both as children and as they become adults: if you look at the prison population, far too many of them have been in local authority care. In your experience, is it more likely that a child in local authority care will be put into custodial remand, or would there be a consideration that that would be a good alternative?
With remand into custody, we would always try to offer suitable alternatives wherever possible, whether that is a robust bail package supported by our youth offending teams or remand into the care of the local authority with that additional support. We know that in the custodial population, there are high numbers of children who have been looked after or are currently being looked after, along with other needs, but wherever possible we would try to work with our local authority to seek that suitable alternative to remand.
Q Finally, in terms of scrutiny of these decisions, what structures does your association think could be utilised or built on at a local level, or indeed at a national level, to make sure that remand decisions are properly scrutinised?
In particular, I would like us to record remand decisions more robustly in the courts. We need clear decision making; we need it to be clear why we have made those decisions. Also, we should take the opportunity to encourage regular reviews of remand and seek alternatives wherever possible.
I think on a national footing we need to be working closely with the Department for Education and our director of children’s services to develop a more robust placement process and improve the quality of the market for placements.
Q May I ask about secure 16-19 academies: the new initiative, delayed for various reasons, to try to break that link between being in custody and educational achievement ending up very low? Do they offer a way forward not managed by other provision? Do they provide a fundamentally different model from the current youth custodial provision?
We are obviously supportive of anything that improves youth custody. We know that outcomes for children who end up in youth custody are poor and have been for some considerable time. The recent inspection reports will detail that we do not yet have the significant improvements we need in youth custody.
As an association of YOT managers, we believe that children in custody—custody should be a last resort—should be placed in small, secure units close to their homes. We do not advocate large custodial establishments where children are placed far away from their home; we would advocate small custodial units. As for the academy trust, it remains to be seen what the detail is around the secure school and how children will manage as part of the routine within that environment.
Q Thank you. You do not sound entirely convinced that it will be a great initiative, but no doubt the proof of the pudding will be in the eating when we see these things established and starting to work. Do you have any views on the changes proposed to youth rehabilitation orders?
If we look at the proposal for an extended intensive supervision and surveillance programme, it did not have great results when it was previously piloted, and it was not piloted on a scale to allow an effective evaluation. We as YOT managers are not convinced that the extended ISS is the way to go. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that custody is the last resort for children and young people.
The other proposal in the Bill that we as an association have been discussing is around intensive fostering. Staffordshire youth offending team—my service—was part of one of the pilots. That scheme was extremely expensive and did not necessarily get the expected results for those children and young people. So while we absolutely support robust alternatives to custody, I think we need to be consulting with our youth offending teams to try to examine what we think will work with the cohort of children we are dealing with.
Q Finally from me, do the changes in the Bill on custody for children and options for children make enough good provision to distinguish between the needs of boys and the needs of girls in the system?
There has always been a disparity for our girls in the system. I am concerned overall that the numbers of children going into custody will increase with some proposed mandatory sentencing, and I am concerned that it will impact in particular on our girls and our black and minority ethnic children—particularly our black and mixed heritage boys. I am also concerned that it may impact on our children who are looked after. There are some particular groups in the youth justice system who I believe will be adversely affected by some of the recommendations in the Bill.
Q Thank you ever so much for this, Hazel. I have been around one of these secure children’s homes—it was a mixed-sex one—and I found it absolutely terrifying. I have visited places such as Strangeways that were nowhere near as horrifying as I found the secure unit. You said that you would rather they were small and located close to the child’s home. Can you define “small”? How many children? What would be the maximum?
I am not going to put a figure on it, but we know that we get better outcomes for children and young people who are placed in secure children’s homes that are generally run by people who are social work and social care-trained, and that provides a much more nurturing environment. It is a children’s home with security rather than a custodial environment overseen by prison rules.
Q I was really disturbed that IICSA—the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse—showed that the reported incidents of sexual abuse in youth offending institutions and secure children’s homes are much higher than was previously understood. Is there anything in the Bill that would address that, or could anything be added that would be able to make an impact?
I think there is a missed opportunity in the Bill to really strengthen the rights of children, whether that is in the community or in custody. There is a missed opportunity in that we are not strengthening our welfare-based approach to how we deal with children and young people. We know that children are different from adults, and we should take a stronger welfare-based approach with our children and young people. I definitely think that could be strengthened in the Bill.
Q Thank you. You are not being drawn on this, so I will move on. I was surprised that the option of charitable status for secure children’s homes was potentially in the Bill. Who would benefit from that?
Q Finally, I know that the average price for a place in a secure children’s home is about £10,000 a week if it is a private one. Do you know what the cost is likely to be or currently is in a secure unit for a child?
It is slightly more. There is no doubt that paying for care for children where we want better results will inevitably cost us more. If we compare that with what it would cost for what is being proposed in the community, that also costs more. If we want better outcomes for our children and young people, we will have to invest, and invest a lot earlier.
Thank you, Hazel, for giving up your timeQ today. As Sarah has just said, some of these homes can be really quite scary places. I know that, because before being elected as a Member of Parliament, I worked for the NHS in a mental health setting, and a lot of my time was spent working in adolescent secure units. Could you expand a little on youth offending teams and rehabilitation for children who are given community sentences? How do you administer that, and what mental health provision is there in that?
In terms of how we administer any community order, we work together with children and their families, or their corporate parent if they are a child in our care. We develop a holistic package that includes health. There is no doubt that health across England is patchy, in terms of provision for youth offending teams. However, health is a statutory member of all youth offending team partnerships. We would certainly advocate that the health offer is strengthened nationally, so that all children, whichever area they live in, get the right treatment at the right time.
We know that children who come into contact with our service have a significant range of unmet health needs, in particular speech, communication and language needs. We know that over 90% of the children we work with are often operating at an understanding age of between five and seven years old. So when we ask a teenager to navigate a very complex environment, their understanding is much lower than their chronological age.
HeQ always is, Sir Charles; he always is.
Earlier, I believe that I heard you correctly when you were expressing a view on the proposed changes to the test for custodial remand. Did you say that you were concerned that it could lead to more children being remanded in custody?
No, that is not what I said. I believe that the Bill could lead to more children receiving custodial sentences. In terms of remand, we are pleased that the Bill strengthens the conditions for remand and that remand will be seen as the last alternative. However, in the courts arena we would like to see the reasons for remand being made really clearly recorded, and the decisions about it.
In particular, we are looking at mandatory sentences for some offences. What we have to understand is that the children and young people who we currently work with in the youth offending service are different from those we were working with 20 years ago. Youth offending teams have worked really hard to reduce the number of children and young people in the statutory youth justice system, and we have much lower numbers now. However, what we have is an increasingly complex group of children and young people, who have often experienced exploitation, in particular criminal exploitation, and significant trauma.
For me, what is a missed opportunity within the Bill is that join-up regarding how we work with children who are exploited by our serious crime gangs, and we need to be thinking about a much more welfare-based approach to how we work with our children and young people.
We are also concerned about the differences proposed for some of our 17-year-olds. We believe that, in terms of youth justice, they are a child until they get to 18. There is also lots of evidence about brain development, showing that it can take children until they are into their early or mid-20s to fully develop.
We believe that there is opportunity within the Bill for more custodial sentences and we are particularly concerned about our black and minority ethnic children, including our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children.
Q Thank you. It is helpful that you talked about maturity, because I have a question specifically on that. Clause 36(10) states:
“In this Chapter…‘adult’ means a person aged 16 or over”.
Do you think that generally—you have already alluded to some of this—the Bill gives sufficient consideration to research on maturity?
I know that there is mention of neurodiversity in the Bill, but it does not go far enough. We should treat children as children until they are 18 and they should be sentenced as a child until they reach the age of 18. In an ideal world, we would look beyond that, because many people do not develop fully, in terms of brain development, until they are in their mid-20s. The cohort of children and young people we are working with have suffered significant trauma. We know that affects what would be the brain of a teenager who had not experienced trauma; the brain develops differently, if you have experienced significant trauma and abuse. Virtually all the children we work with in our system have experienced abuse to some level or degree.
So no, the Bill does not go far enough, in my view. That links to our earlier conversation about being more welfare and rights-based. We need to think about the rights of children. They should be treated as children until they are 18.
Q Hazel, you did a grand job of answering my next question in your previous answer. Maybe you would like to speak a little bit more about this point. What are your concerns about offenders who commit crimes as a child being sentenced as an adult if they reach 18 before they go to trial? What should we do about that?
If they have committed the offence as a child, they should be sentenced as a child. During covid, there have been some delays in court processes, which has meant some children being sentenced as an 18-year-old when they committed the crime as a child. Going back to our earlier conversation, we know that brain development does not change just at age 18. For me, if you committed the offence as a child, you should be sentenced as a child.
Q At the more serious end of offences, do you have any concerns about the Bill’s proposals for reducing the opportunities for adults who committed murder as a child to have their minimum term reviewed?
We have talked about this as an association. We have concerns when there are not opportunities to have terms reviewed. What we know is that there will be significant changes. For example, the brain of a child who was sentenced to a long term at 17 will have matured significantly by the time they reach their mid-20s, so we should be enabling that review to happen along and through their sentence.
Q Thank you. Hazel, your teams around the country do a tremendous job in the most difficult of circumstances. I hope you will pass on our thanks to them for the work they do. I would like to ask a general question. What do they consider to be the greatest challenges facing youth offending teams as they are trying to deliver adequate services for our young people?
What YOT managers say to me is that the biggest challenge is around funding. Youth offending teams have absolutely reduced first-time entrants; we have reduced children and young people going into custody. We are also reducing the reoffending rates for many of our children and young people. The assumption, therefore, is that youth offending teams do not need to be funded as much as they were previously.
However, youth offending team managers have been saying for some time that just because the numbers have reduced does not mean that we are not working with a complex group of children and young people. For many youth offending teams, the numbers they are working with have not reduced; it is just that the children are in a different space and place. For example, we might not be working with as many children on statutory orders, but we will be offering some kind of prevention and diversion to keep them out of the criminal justice system.
It is not always the case that because first-time entrants are reducing and the numbers of children involved in the criminal justice system are reducing, youth offending teams are not doing the same amount of work they have always done. Funding is really an issue, as is understanding the context and the numbers of children that YOTs are trying to work with across the country.
Q Thank you, Hazel, for all the work you and your colleagues do across the country; I know that it is appreciated across the House. I have two brief questions. First, you mentioned the question of sentencing of people who were under 18 at the age of the offence, but over 18 at the point of sentence. You also made reference to maturity, as did the shadow Minister. Would you accept that, even if someone is over 18, the pre-sentence report can and does take into account maturity and the judge can reflect that in passing sentence?
Absolutely, and we know that, but children and young people who commit those offences as children should still be sentenced as children. We can use the strength in our youth offending teams, because we have seconded probation staff working with us, so we can have quite a balanced report for those children and young people, and support them with the transition from youth offending teams into probation. Age and maturity should absolutely be considered across the whole system, but our children and young people who commit offences when under 18 should be sentenced as children.
Q But should the court not sentence the person before the court, with regard to their maturity, condition and everything else at the point of sentence, rather than at a hypothetical time in the past?
What we know about sentencing is that people will make significant changes between the time they committed the offence and where they are at any given point in time. We have been working with children who have been awaiting sentence in the Crown court, and who are now past their 18th birthdays. They will have made significant changes up to the point where they are sentenced, and they were still children at the time they committed that offence.
Q If your point is that they can change, surely the pre-sentence report delivered at the point of sentence will reflect that change, and that would be the appropriate approach to take. We will no doubt debate that extensively during line-by-line consideration.
Secondly, some new youth sentencing options, and sentencing options more widely, are made available in the Bill. Can you give us some commentary on how youth offending services and courts can make a success of those new sentencing options?
Okay. In terms of ISS, I have already indicated that its extension will require some resourcing. Intensive supervision and surveillance is already in place across the country for youth offending teams, and it is utilised to prevent children from receiving custodial sentences. I think that is already in place. There are concerns that the pilot of an ISS extended to 12 months did not give the results it needed to.
In terms of the intensive foresting arrangements, again, I go back to the fact that it is really resource-intensive and expensive, and it will require very close join-up with our local authority colleagues, who will be required to provide the foster carers to support it. On GPS—some trials have been taking place for GPS monitoring for our children and young people—there is some thought that it will certainly prevent some of our children and young people from being involved in those more violent crimes, and will reduce the risk of them being exploited. That is not the case from what we are seeing with children and young people who are subject to GPS monitoring and tagging. We also know that those children really struggle with the equipment, in terms of practicalities and charging the equipment. We know that GPS does not work for a lot of our children and young people in areas where it has been piloted.
As youth offending teams, we want to look for suitable and robust alternatives to custody for our children and young people. There is no doubt that it has to be done in partnership, but it will require some significant resourcing.
Hazel, thank you for that. When people ask—[Interruption.] Bloody hell, I am wrestling with my wretched mask—my mother-in-law made it and I wear it in honour and tribute to her. Hazel, when people ask me, “How should I prepare to give evidence to a Committee?”—be it a Select Committee or a Bill Committee like this—I shall say, “Watch Hazel Williamson.” That was crisp, concise and informative. It really was a masterclass, and it is appreciated by us all at the start of a very long afternoon. We are trying to find our next witness, who is being asked to appear 25 minutes early. If we cannot find our next witness, colleagues may go and have a cup of tea and stretch their legs. Thank you, Hazel.