Justice Minister Dr Phillip Lee’s speech at Youth Justice Convention

Dr Phillip Lee shared his views on tackling youth offending at the Youth Justice Convention today.

It gives me great pleasure to be here this morning.

The Youth Justice professionals I have so far met have been among the most passionate and dedicated people with whom I have had the honour to serve.

I looked at the list of speakers you will hear from over the next 2 days and felt slightly nervous to be in such expert and esteemed company.

But the list also tells me a lot about the strengths of the youth justice system – it is one of partnership and coalition, of different disciplines coming together to work side by side with youth workers, mental-health workers, speech therapists, psychologists and residential managers all having important roles to play.

I want to start by paying tribute to your service. It is among the most valuable that there can be. You affect young people’s lives. You try to make them better. You offer hope where, too often, there has been none. You strive to make our society safer. I know that the task can often seem thankless. So let me thank you.

There has been some good progress since the turn of the century. The numbers of young people serving custodial sentences has been cut by two-thirds. Brilliant initiatives have been established up and down the country that are turning young offenders’ lives around. I have already visited some of these and intend to visit more in the near future

But it is all too clear that, overall, our youth justice system is not where we want it to be. And it is not where our society needs it to be. Over a third of young people released from custody will commit another offence within a year that results in their return to custody. Reoffending rates are even worse for those on short custodial sentences. Violence has gone up with rates of assaults increasing by 79% and rates of self-harm by 46% over the last 5 years. Significant challenges remain, particularly around the provision of appropriate mental health.

The changes made since 2000 did not go far enough. We are not yet equipped to deliver the outcomes we want. And successful initiatives are still too few and far between.

The world has changed – and continues to change. We are seeing:

1. An internet age driving greater access to more worrying imagery on line. In the extreme, the sexualisation of youth is manifesting itself in younger conviction ages for rape.
2. New and worrying patterns of drug use , particularly of psychoactive substances
3. Increasing rates of radicalisation. I know you are considering this over the next two days.

In short the youth justice system is not delivering as it needs to: for young people, for our society.

I know that you are as committed as I am to putting this right. So let me take this opportunity to set out the government’s vision and priorities for a youth justice system that works for all of us, from now and into the future.

It is vital that we have the right governance structures in place to empower front line staff and to create a robust inspection regime; that we promote early intervention and have an estate that works for the young offenders and a focus on education, in and out of the classroom.

It is vital that our YOIS, STCs and secure children’s homes are places of safety, security and reform and that in both the community and custody offenders have the supervision and support they need to turn their lives around.

We recognise that the young people have specific needs and need a system that is tailored to meet these. Many of the young offenders in the system have been victims of crime themselves, have mental health problems and a poor track record in education.

We want a youth justice system that will set young people on a positive path that is good for them, good for our communities and good for the future of our country.

Delivering this vision requires us to recognise that each young person has different needs. And that their environment is crucially important.

I am committed to creating the environment – in custody, in the community, and in the transition between the two - in which young people can take their second chance and which keeps our society secure.

That environment has some vital elements.

The Justice Secretary and I have a strong interest in work to tackle youth offending much further upstream in the system.

Too often the justice system seems to be the backstop that picks up children who have fallen through the gaps in other agency provision. By the time they get to us many chances to address their needs have been missed and problems are more entrenched.

The number of first time entrants to the youth justice system has reduced significantly – but we must review our approach to prevention to ensure we tackle the root causes of offending. The pressures on young people are changing and the way we work with them must evolve and adapt accordingly.

I am particularly interested in improving the diagnosis and treatment of child and adolescent mental health.

As a GP I have direct experience of mental health problems in young people and the challenges there can be in getting appropriate and timely treatment.

In particular, we will build on the good work of Youth Offending Teams and work with Department of Health to ensure their investment in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services meets the needs of young offenders.

I have seen first-hand through visits to teams working in the community – for example in my visit to Ealing Youth Offending Team – the importance of effective health interventions.

I have noted with interest the therapeutic approaches being trialled in Wales and the recent HMIP report on the work of Southwark. Both youth offending services start with the need to build good relationships with young people and their families.

I hope this type of approach can be supported more widely.

The cross-government commitment to invest more money in CAMHS services is welcome and I will be working to ensure that NHS England and local commissioners develop their services in partnership with youth justice colleagues so that they are focussed on meeting the needs of young offenders and those at risk of offending.

Our system must also be focused on developing the skills of young offenders but I believe we cannot underestimate the value of physical activity.

On every visit I have been on to a secure setting, the governor and staff have pressed the need for opportunities for sport and physical exercise within their current regimes and I believe we have to make some changes to ensure there is sufficient time for sport and exercise alongside high quality Maths, English and Vocational Education.

I would like to encourage more sports clubs to work with young offenders in custody and then supporting them to continue to participate in sport when they leave. Leeds Rhinos support PE at Wetherby one day a week and Saracens Rugby Club does some great work with young adult offenders at Feltham with their ‘Get Onside’ program that uses Rugby as an engagement tool and also provides a mentor to support them on release.

It is also great that boys in Wetherby can participate in army cadets training and also start their Duke of Edinburgh award but I want to see more of this.

I hope to support governors and directors to have the confidence and freedoms to enable this type of activity more regularly and on a greater scale - where appropriate working with community partners who can assist.

I will be exploring if we can expand and extend this fantastic work.

Improving custody for children and young people is a key priority. The reduction of numbers of young people sentenced to custody are again a great success - there are currently only around 900 under 18s in the estate. However, the young people that remain have high levels of need.

In line with the principles set out in our White Paper on Prison Reform, we will empower governors and other custodial providers. They must have the scope to deliver improved services that will better meet the needs of the small number of young people given custodial sentences.

I expect to be able to say more about the detail of what we will do to improve custody and tackle levels of violence before Christmas but from a personal perspective I believe there are some obvious quick wins that would help to improve the behaviour of young people in custody.

For example by developing the capability of existing staff.

I was really pleased to learn that the YJB and Unitas have developed a Youth Justice Effective Practice Certificate (YJEPC) to promote professionalization of staff working with children and young people in the youth justice system.

We have seen some of the best results where communities shoulder some of the burden and where young people are able to keep in contact with those who will be supporting them afterwards.

We are not, in fact, talking huge numbers and we must do more to encourage voluntary organisations and employers to work with young people in and from custody. To build their confidence, to give them job skills and to employ them on release.

We are working closely with the YJB to consider the governance arrangements in the system. It is vital that there is a good balance between enabling flexibility and innovation in local services – both in the community and in custodial settings – whilst ensuring that standards and performance remain high.

Creating this environment is not something that we can do alone. government will enable it. And I am very grateful to Charlie Taylor for his work to support this. I look forward to publishing his report shortly.

But it is very clear that delivering depends on you – on our youth justice sector working hand-in-hand with our communities up and down the country.

We are all dedicated to making youth justice better. All of your experience, all of your achievements will count. And I believe passionately that we will get there. Above all, by persisting – it will take time - and by working together.

This conference is a valuable contribution and I am encouraged to see so many of you here.

I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead to achieve the goals we share.

Thank you for your time and I wish you an excellent convention.


Ministry of Justice

Dr Phillip Lee MP