'11 MILLION reflections on children in conflict with the law' is the title of a lecture given by Sir Al Aynsley-Green, Children’s Commissioner for England as part of the New Developments in Criminal Justice lecture seminar series.
Thank you for the introduction and for the invitation to give my lecture entitled ‘11 MILLION reflections on children in conflict with the law’. I have chosen that title quite deliberately, in conflict with the law, because of course many of them may not actually get into the formal justice system. So I want to look at the whole child’s journey and give you some insights into what children are telling me about their lives in this circumstance. 11 Million, why 11 Million? Well, 11 Million is the brand, the identity chosen by children for my organisation.
Two years ago I set up as the ‘Office of the Children’s Commissioner’, and when we started talking to children, they said oh, that is seriously boring, adult centric, suits, boots and adults, how can we relate to that, let alone have any sense of ownership? And so since participation is the bedrock of what we do in my organisation, we had a lot of discussions with children across the country over what they wanted, and the identity for their organisation that speaks for them. They came forward with the idea of 11 Million. Why 11 Million? Well, as you well know, there are actually 11 Million children and young people in England. Of course my job is to be the English children’s commissioner, although I do work with the UK commissioners. So 11 Million, and then we can see each of the figures, each containing a whole host of icons; each of those icons was chosen by a child, or a group of young people, to be an issue that is of concern to them.
I can tell you that this 11 Million brand and image is incredibly useful to us as an icebreaker. I was up in Lancashire at the end of last week talking to two, three and four year olds and produced this 11 Million picture. They didn’t understand the concept, but they could pick out an icon and start talking to me immediately and with great authority about the issues they were concerned about. So 11 Million is the brand, and in the top left hand corner you can see our web address, which is www.11million.org.uk. I might encourage you please to dial it up and you will see what we are up to there. The website is designed with the full involvement of children. They chose the company that we worked with to develop the website, and by the turn of next year, it will be very much more interactive to allow us to communicate with them. Last week we had success with my computer with a live web chat inviting children all over the country to type in their messages or their questions to me. It was really quite fascinating to sit there for three hours and just respond to these children calling in. So that’s the nature of our business.
How we work? Imagine a pyramid in three sections. The top is the annual theme with our proactive work, and we choose each year an issue to lead from the front, so try to change attitudes towards a single issue, either alone or in partnership. The issue is chosen by children and young people. The one for the current business year is being happy and healthy, and we are working in nine locations across the country with children from pre-school through to leaving school about what makes them feel happy, what stops them feeling happy, and what they think about being healthy.
We’ve just had a major residential where we invited over a hundred children to work with us for three days, and they organised the whole event with preceding weekend events themselves. They identified 14 issues that were of concern to them in their lives, and they voted on which one they wanted us to take forward in ’08 and ’09, as our proactive theme, and you’ll be interested to know they chose by a wide margin violence, abuse and bullying. That was what they voted on to be the most important issues in their lives, followed some way behind by respect and discrimination. And for those two issues, we’ve looked at our business plan for ’08 and ’09, and we are working as we speak with children for them to spend half of our project money on how we can drill down into these issues and find ways and means to address their concerns.
In the middle we have our responsive mode where we engage in the policy debate on a very small number of issues. I am a tiny organisation with a tiny number of staff for 11 million children in England, and so we have to be selective. We take between five and ten issues each year, again informed by children and young people to be of concern to them, and we try to work proactively with government and help to shape policy and expose issues. You won’t be surprised to know that two really big ones for us in terms of policy and the injustices to children are youth justice, and secondly asylum and immigration. So those are already two of our key spotlights. Then the third section at the bottom, the largest section and by far the most important is our listening function. My whole legitimacy is based on being able to relay to important people locally or nationally what it is that children and young people are really concerned about in their lives. So we’ve invested substantially in new technology to communicate with children and how to handle their input in my office.
There are two fundamental things on the statute, in the Children Act 2004 that are critical for us. The first is I must have regard to Every Child Matters, the strapline for the government policy for children. And let me put my cards on the table immediately and say I am full of admiration for the thinking, the quality of the philosophy that’s embedded in every child matters. No other country in the world, I can tell you that, I've just been round the world, no other country in the world has such a comprehensive policy agenda for children. And I am very much in support of it, although recognising the huge challenges in making it happen at the frontline. And so I have to have regard to Every Child Matters, but equally important in my view is the second on the statute, which is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). I have to have regard for the UN Convention in my work. I am not set up as a human rights institution, and there was concern by that from many commentators, but I am using this phrase in the statute very widely. And so, wherever possible, we are embedding all of our work in the UN convention on the rights of the child, particularly since we know that there is such a low awareness of the UN convention. We have done research across the country, and I can tell you that less than 25% of children and young people know anything about the UN convention on the rights of the child. What is even more alarming to me, whenever I give a speech to professional staff, I ask an dip stick question; ‘how many of you know and understand the UN convention on the rights of the child?’ I can tell you it is a minority of full time professional staff working with children every day of their working lives who have read and understood, let alone use the UN convention on the rights of the child. I see these two foundation stones to be equally important. The government says well, we have Every Child Matters. Yes, oh government, you do have Every Child Matters. That’s a delivery and an outcomes framework. The UN convention is a moral compass which sets the scene for how society should view and regard children in our midst. So I do believe that Article 42, which says the government should make the convention known to parents and children, is not being fully implemented, although there are some stunning examples of what can be done such as the UNICEF rights respecting schools programmes, and please Google this for more information. I have been to some of the 150 schools in the country that have this as their core philosophy, not taught as a subject on a Friday afternoon for an hour, but actually embedded in how the school operates with children, even young children having responsibilities, respect as well as rights. I would like to see a rights respecting social care service, a rights respecting health service, a rights respecting youth justice process. I would urge you please, please use the UN convention on the rights of the child.
Just to illustrate the size of the mountain we have to climb in terms of public acceptance of the need for children to have rights, here’s a quotation from an article from Rob Diddle [?] in the Sunday Times back in September. ‘A child, Anop Singh has just been awarded £4,000 in compensation for having been placed feet first in a litter bin by a policeman. It’s gibberish he has learnt by rote from adults. Anop may be pig ignorant in most regards, but he sure knows his rights.’ I can tell you that as soon as anybody, let alone someone like me, stands up and starts talking about children’s rights, you get your head blasted off because adult society is totally against the idea, by and large, of children having rights. They see it as diluting or being in conflict with the power of parents and schools etcetera. They do not understand that it should be a very important instrument for their own benefit. There is special relevance to tonight’s audience, Articles 3 and 40. Article 3 says that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. Is that really the underpinning philosophy of the processes for children in conflict with the law? I don’t think it is. I have been to Canada and I have been to Sweden to see how those countries have embedded the UN CRC in the Youth Justice Act and in their policies. I don’t think we always follow the best interests of the child. We are much more concerned about protecting the public from these ‘evil children who cause such mayhem’. In Article 40, the right to be treated in a manner consistent with a child’s sense of dignity and worth, takes into account the child’s age and desirability of promoting reintegration and assuming a constructive role in society. Is Article 40 alive and kicking in many of our processes and operations?
Let me remind you of the past. In 1875 a little girl, a 13 year old girl called Emily Davies was sent to prison for 14 days, followed by 4 years in a reformatory because she stole a handful of apples. The magistrate sentencing her is alleged to have said, ‘it is not with any vindictive feeling that we are punishing you, but for the prevention of crime. Others will be deterred from offending to the dread of punishment.’ What happened? There was national media outrage led by worthy journals such as Punch, who talked about the lonely maid in prison. The media was outraged that a 13 year old child should be sentenced to such a stiff sentence. What is the attitude today? I'll pick up that point in a moment, but it took Thomas Blake, the courageous MP from Leominster who raised the issue with the Home Secretary and asked the Home Secretary to intervene. The Home Secretary declined to do that. What followed was an extraordinary national outpouring of anger with public meetings demanding this child should be released. The MPs were informed about it, they put pressure on the Home Secretary who climbed down and said it is not desirable that young children be sent to reformatories on first offence. Now, I think that’s an interesting vignette of the media approach and the courage of MPs to challenge the system to get a fundamental reform triggered by an individual case of little Emily Davies. So, scroll forward to the 21st Century. Have attitudes changed in terms of punishment to deter others from committing crimes?
A key question which may make you apoplectic and you may need resuscitation, but do we actually like children and young people in our society? I want to explore two facets of this, which I think are crucially important, one of which is the context in which youth justice is operating at the present time.
The intolerance of society to children and young people – these are the signs I see everywhere in public spaces – no dogs, no children, no ball games, and a new one for me in a public space, you are being watched. I think this is symptomatic of the schism between the young and the old in our society where the older generations are in fear of children and young people, especially those they see gathering on street corners. They don’t know how to handle them, and there’s a lack of dialogue between the generations which I fear for the future stability of our society. And of course this is in breach of Article 15 which says that children have the right to meet together as long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others. Yet how often do we see adults clamouring for kids to be moved on from hanging around street corners, but how few adults have asked them why they are there. Nothing to do, nowhere to go and nobody likes us is what I hear when I ask them. So, I just want to plant in your mind the contemporary context of children in adult society, and I think this seriously colours how we view children who are in conflict with the law.
What does the media have to say? Well, here are a couple of screaming headlines from the tabloid media a little while ago with some other headlines – YOB UK, YOB Britain. A further collection, all of these headlines occurred on one day in a range of national newspapers. The YOB generation, children as young as 13 binge drinking, half of all pupils admit breaking the law. Well hang on, how many of us break the law regularly by exceeding the speed limit? Let’s have some sense of perspective here, but the screaming headlines perpetuate the view that children are miscreants, are breaking the law and are out of control in our society. I fear this is a very pernicious development. Young People Now, that’s the journal published in 2004, the facts that 71% of media stories are negative towards children, especially young people, but only 8% of those reporters actually bothered to talk to children themselves for their views. They’re prepared to pontificate, but not prepared to actually engage with kids to hear what they’ve got to say. Children were referred to as thugs, yobs, evil, loud monsters, heartless, feral – what a dreadful word – sick, menacing, inhuman, under the banner of hoodies. I've got a hoody which I wear with pride. How many of you have got hoodies by the way? Well, wear them with pride too, because the fastest way to stop the kids wearing them of course is for the wrinlies to wear them.
Well, here is Article 16, and breach again the rights to privacy and protection from attacks on the way of life, their good name, their families and their friends. Local newspapers are especially vitriolic and are I think even more important in colouring how local societies view children in their midst. The naming and shaming of young people with a photograph on the front page of local newspapers, the endless portrayal. When do you ever see anything where we celebrate children in our society? Which is why last Friday we ran for the first time 11 Million Takeover Day. Several thousand children across the country engaged with us and key organisations. 450 organisations worked with us on Friday to show how by working with children you can demonstrate their value and celebrate their contributions as citizens today. So I do believe the demonisation of children is a major issue for society which affects the public support, particularly for adolescents. I suspect that this is certainly driving political pressure and the direction of policy. Where are there any votes for someone who is seen to be soft on young offenders or the cause of youth generally? This causes serious anger, alienation and frustration in young people themselves who are incandescent about how they are portrayed repeatedly in this way in the media. So isn’t it time we had some mature debate to address the balance and celebrate the fact we have fantastic kids in this country who, given the chance and being asked, listened to and respected can actually contribute to our communities?
That’s point one. Point two is the culture of violence, which again I fear is colouring childhood and colouring our reactions to crime in general. I am particularly concerned over the marketing and celebration of gratuitous violence. The violent video games that even ten year olds – I know from talking to them – know all about. Who is holding the chief executives and the organisations producing these violent video games to account? There may be a lot of debate in academic circles as to whether looking at violent videos and games actually influences behaviour, but where is the evidence that it’s beneficial to children? So I think there’s a big issue about the marketing of gratuitous violence.
We see aggression in sport, but having said that, I am in admiration of for example the Football Association that is going to great lengths through its youth clubs and its local clubs etcetera to stamp out aggression in football. Violence in the home, 12 million recorded episodes of violence against women last year, 2 million against men, and 3 quarters of a million children probably experiencing violence in the home as part of domestic violence. How does that colour their views of society? Child abuse, we are all concerned about child abuse of course, but what about bullying, and what role model do we give children for bullying in our own workplaces and the examples we set? And certainly bullying in and outside schools is one of the most important issues that affect children, which explains why they voted for us to do much more work in this in our work plan for next year.
So here are two societal contexts in which I think we should nest the conflict with the law and the approach to youth justice.
Children in conflict with the law, just a few statistics which my team have given me - 150,000 or so into the youth justice system each year, up to 3,000 under 18s were in custody ,and a wide range of differing statistics about the incidence of mental health problems in these young people. One shows that 96% of male young offenders on remand had at least one psychiatric disorder. Other data overall says that between 46% and 51% of children in custody have mental health problems. 35% of males, 45% of females in the secure estates are drug dependant, around 50% have literacy levels below the age of 11, and there were 1,300 or so incidents of self-harm recorded in 2004/2005. The point of showing you this data, apart from the horror of the numbers, is to illustrate the vulnerability of these young people. Now, I'm not being dewy eyed about this. Please don’t misunderstand me. Young people who commit crimes and misdemeanours must be held to account and suitably punished, but these statistics speak for themselves that this is a very selective group of highly vulnerable children, and what have we done to allow them to get to this position of being incarcerated with these sorts of backgrounds to their health?
Children are dying, children dying in prison in the 21st Century. Here are two of them, Adam Rickwood and Gareth Myatt, 14 and 15 year olds. You may recall Adam died by committing suicide after he had been physically restrained by a very painful blow to the nose as part of the restraint process in prison, and Gareth Myatt died during restraint. Now, is it not appalling that we have children dying in prison in the 21st Century? Where is the outrage about this? We know that 29 children have died in custody since 1990. I did hear a perhaps apocryphal story that someone said oh well, we’ve only had 29 dead children, as though that is of cause for celebration. Any child who dies in the secure estate must be a source of great concern. In terms of restraint, again, there are varying statistics. The ones here are from Lord Carlile’s report. The large numbers of occasions in secure training centres, YOIs, and secure children’s homes when restraint is being used. Now, we don’t have much information on what those figures actually mean in terms of the severity of the occasion, or the severity of the restraint. But we do know that some 200 to 300 children required medical treatment after being restrained in these locations and several have required oxygen supply after being asphyxiated during restraint. So there are big issues about the culture in our services. Now again, I am not dewy eyed to believe that we can just talk to some of these very troublesome and very troubled young people. There is a big issue of how one maintains good order and discipline in these establishments, but is this the right way to tackle what’s going on? I'm delighted that the issue has been exposed because it is a proxy for the whole issue of the safeguarding of children in custody with high levels of self-harm, intimidation, violence and abuse. What is the culture in the institutions which allows this to be continued?
So our views on restraint are first of all it must be unacceptable for children to be dying under restraint in the 21st Century. The research evidence is not particularly robust, but it does suggest that restraint is ineffective. It may be effective in the short term, but what does it do for the long term relationships of these children in their experiences, and it may well be inappropriate. In our view it should only ever be used as a point of last resort, and what we really need is some hard evidence based reviews of what techniques are safe and effective, and how they should be applied. I also draw to your attention the fact that prison officers have asked for the power to use batons in the secure estates, I think primarily adult estates. But again, what does that tell us about the culture of the police, of the prison officials and how they see themselves controlling these difficult children?
The Carlisle Inquiry last year of course said some of the treatment of children in custody would in another setting be considered abusive and could trigger a child protection investigation. So why is the estate immune until recently for the issues of child protection? So what I'm leading up to say is the evidence which comes through is that our processes are at odds with the UN CRC. There is no focus on children’s needs and best interests; it’s dominated by a punitive adult centric approach, a low age of criminal responsibility. I've just been to Sweden where 16 is the age of criminal responsibility. They are aghast that we have an age of ten. Of course it’s eight in Scotland. Naming and shaming as proposed in the respect agenda, more young people being criminalised at younger ages for lesser offences, with a high incarceration and re-offending rate with grotesquely inadequate support for mental health, and adequate support for learning disability. Now, I know the government is trying to address seriously the issue of mental health, but it’s five years since I met up with Norman Warner when I was working at Department of Health (DH) to highlight the importance of mental health issues for young offenders. There are efforts being made, but we are coming from such a low starting point, that it will take a long time to bring it up to anything like satisfactory resources for the needs of these children.
And it’s not just me being critical, here are the accounts of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner. ‘The overall impression obtained was of a detention system that placed too much emphasis on punishment and control, and not enough on rehabilitation’. The European Commission on Human Rights said ‘Imprisonment for breaching an ASBO is an extremely heavy punishment for behaviour that is not recognised as being criminal’ So our concerns from 11 Million are first of all the system is not overtly explicitly UNCRC compliant in contrast to other countries I visited, and neglect the best interests, needs and the welfare of children at the expense of protecting the public. The low age of criminal responsibility, the highest numbers incarcerated, excessive criminalisation, overrepresentation of some groups for ethnic minorities are very much overrepresented in the statistics, and within that are some subsets such as gypsy, traveller and Roma children, and the prevalence of mental health problems and learning disability.
We have some additional concerns, the over-use of ASBOs. 46% of them are for children, children between 10 and 17. Now, again, there’s a lot of debate about the use of ASBOs. I'm not against them in principle. I have met some young people who tell me their lives have been turned around by having the ASBO applied to them, and making them see the error of their ways but again we also know that many of them are applied to children with learning disabilities or with mental health problems who are unable to understand the terms and conditions of the ASBO, inevitably leading to a breach, which then becomes a criminal offence. Why?
The naming and shaming of children, the imprisonment of unaccompanied asylum seekers often for documentation difficulties - I can spend two hours or more telling you about our concerns over the asylum system. I see parallels between the cultures of asylum and immigration and our cultures of youth justice. The high rate of re-offending in prison is just not working for these children, and we forget too that children are often the victims of crime and anti-social behaviour, and under 16s of course are not counted in the British Crime Survey.
So what have we done? Well, we’ve spoken out publicly in Panorama and elsewhere against ASBOs. We have spoken out against the high numbers in custody, and I have used my precious power of entry, one of the really important powers I have as Commissioner is I can enter any premises, other than a child’s home, and nobody can stop me, to interview a child in private. I have used this power as I'll explain in just a moment. I have used it to listen to children and young people. As a consequence I have regular meetings with Ministers and officials trying to shape their thinking. We have opposed for example the proposal to withdraw housing benefit from anti-social offenders. What is the point of reducing benefits from families who are anti-social? They need different kinds of help and support. We have argued for a change in regulations on the use of restraint. We now know of course there's the government review of restraint in all the settings, which we certainly welcome.
What I want to leave above all in your thinking tonight is seeing the world through the eyes of children. We adults think we know what has to be done, but how often do we actually listen to the experiences of children who are in the system and have been in conflict with the law? I want to articulate a concept, the child’s journey, and we used this when we produced the National Service Framework for the NHS, asking staff to take a child in a circumstance and say what are the milestones you expect that child to go through in its journey, illness, abuse or whatever? In each milestone asked about the needs of the child and its family, and then the competencies to meet those needs, and above all seeing alternatives and prevention. So the milestones I offer you for being in conflict with the law begin with the first contract with the police. There may well be problems before that that we need to explore, but the first real important issue is the first contact with the police. What actually happens when children are confronted by the police? I'll give you some of their words in just a moment. And then we have the contact with the YOTS, and I'm the first to admire much of the work that many YOTS I've been to are actually engaged in. I think they are doing a very difficult job, and a lot of them are trying very hard to deliver good support. The magistrate’s court, what happens in the magistrate’s court and what do children think about being in the magistrate’s court? I have recently sat in the family court with Judge Nick Creighton to see what happens in the family court, and I very much hope I'll be able to go to the criminal court or the youth court to see what it’s like there too. I hear what children tell me and I need to go and see for myself. Then the contact with the prosecution service and the youth and the crown court, the incarceration experience, the release and the revolving doors. So I would argue those are the important milestones. Let’s just look at what are those experiences through the eyes of the children of those milestones, and then ask ourselves what are their needs and their competencies at each of those milestones. This is relevant to Article 12 of the UN CRC which says children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them, and to have their opinions taken into account. How often do we actually ask children what they think about their circumstance and what they think should happen to them? But children across the whole country tell us that less than 25% of them feel they are respected by adults, let alone be asked for their views, let alone be listened to their views of what they think should happen to them. This applies in every circumstance in which children are to be found. I think if we need to understand the needs of disadvantaged children, we have to get off our butts and go and meet them on their territory. We can’t expect those kids to come to us in a stuffy adult office and be able to communicate with us effectively. So I spend a great deal of my time all over the country, in the inner city, in the remote and rural parts of the country and in every circumstance actually listening to kids on their territory.
Here is an example in the West Midlands on a canal boat. Here are a group of young men who really are on the cusp of disappearing into prison. I spent the afternoon talking to them and listening to their experiences, and I have to say I was pretty horrified by what they had to say about their lives, how they felt they had been unsupported, coming from chaotic families. Families are crucially important as you may well know for prevention of crime, and also how they felt they were not being listened to for their views and for what they thought should happen to them. Do you know the one thing they asked for? Somewhere to go and something to do. This is the theme repeatedly across the country. Go and talk to the kids on the street corner. Why are you on the street corner? We are there because we feel safe, and there is nowhere to go and nothing to do, which is why I applaud Ed Balls with the youth strategy for giving money to local authorities to give places for kids to go that they want to go to, not the places that we adults think they deserve. So if we are going to start getting into prevention, I really do believe we have to listen to these kids, and above all, give them alternatives to hanging around on the street corner and causing mayhem. So, please get out and listen to them on their territory to hear what they’ve got to say. In their words, first milestone, relations with the police. Now, these are anecdotes. I don’t claim that this is qualitatively robust in terms of statistics, but this is what children are telling me as I tour the country. Some very good reports first of all. The police come to our school, they talk to us and they help us. I do give generous credit and admiration to some police forces that really are trying very, very hard to relate to kids in schools and to work with them. Sadly however, that does not seem to be the norm for many other children across the country. A little poignant Post It came on our chart at our residential when we were just debating these issues. This was from a nine year old who said police should be there to protect us, but they don’t. What the kids want are more policemen to help us and to keep us safe. Safety and the threat of not being safe are really important issues that are hanging over like a black cloud the lives of children and young people. All they do is move us on. That came from a 13 year old girl. Even a group of three girls will be moved on by the police and they will not be allowed to stand on the street corner. They raided my family’s caravan at midnight. I was arrested, DNA, finger printed, and held in a cell for 48 hours and nobody said sorry when they realised a case of mistaken identity. Nobody said sorry. It is a repeated theme that comes across to me from children.
I just highlighted the special circumstance of gypsy, traveller and Roma children. I have been to meet many of them, and we have resolved to look at their issues in more detail early next year, because they are by far the most disadvantaged of many groups of children. Their outcomes are appalling in terms of education, in terms of criminality, and in terms of teenage pregnancy. So I think we need to start understanding the lifestyles of these children, but for a young girl of 13 to tell me that her caravan was raided at midnight and she was arrested, there was mistaken identity, but nobody said they were sorry when they realised they were wrong.
One of the boys on the canal boat I showed you just now told me this story. He was at school in the playground at lunchtime and he gave his friend some chocolate. The duty teacher saw him pass something to another boy, he was dragged to the headmaster’s study, the police were called, he was strip searched, but all they found was his chocolate, and nobody said sorry. I had a mental health problem. This came from a 17 year old girl. I had a mental health problem and became violent. I was strip searched. Her description of how she was strip searched I thought was really quite horrifying. I was put in a cell, and now I have a record. They tell me I will never be able to get a job to help other kids with mental health problems. In their words, on my listening tour, I spend three days in their territories all over the country, when I listen to children, I meet with senior staff over breakfasts and suppers, but above all I listen to children.
I went to the west midlands visiting Worcester recently, and there I heard some very, very encouraging news indeed about YISP, Youth Inclusion Support Panel. I spoke to the young people, they weren’t selected to come and meet me, they happened to be there that day. I was visiting the YOT building, and they told me this YISP was absolutely fantastic. These are 9, 10, 11, 12 year old largely boys. ‘It’s changed my life’. Because someone listened and has given them a tailor made programme to address their interests, whether it’s fishing or whether it’s motorsport, whatever it is, and giving them some sense of self-respect, ‘it’s given me something to do and somewhere to go’. ‘If I hadn’t come here, I'd have been in prison’. ‘People here listen to you and understand, and many more kids should be able to have this’, was the universal conclusion. Listening to young people and my power of entry to premises. I've been to YOIs and STCs. Magistrates don’t understand us and don’t talk to us. That’s a pretty blanket statement, and I do know of magistrates who try very hard to relate to children, but I hear frequently about how in the court system the children feel they are pre-judged by the magistrate’s clerk before they even set foot inside the court. How many magistrates actually make it their business to try to understand the child’s background and issues? Now of course, there is a huge issue over capacity, time and training but that’s a comment which I hear not infrequently.
‘There’s no problem getting any drug I want’. That came from a group of 16 year old girls in an STC, and they told me of their fury about how they looked forward to their mums and dads coming to visit them. They weren’t allowed to cuddle them, and when they sat in the visiting area, they had to sit with a chair’s distance between them to stop drugs being pushed. ‘Yes’ they said, ‘there’s no problem getting any drug I want in this place’.
‘I tried to commit suicide, and felt worse on suicide watch’. ‘I would like a second chance, but how do I get it?’ ‘I'm back in because nobody gave me any support outside’, and most poignantly of all, ‘I am safer inside than outside’. Now, you might say well, these kids would say that wouldn’t they, because they’re in serious trouble. But I think you have to listen to what they are trying to say and understand why they are saying it if we are going to improve the system.
So, what would I like to see? We’d like to see more preventative measures, more use of restorative justice. I attended the Winchester Restorative Justice Conference recently and was seriously impressed to hear of police and other services from Essex and from Thames Valley describing the success of their restorative justice programmes. They had on the podium young men who had been causing mayhem in the neighbourhood, with the victims, speaking with authority on how they thought this restorative justice approach had been satisfactory.
I was alarmed to hear that there is by no means universal acceptance of the philosophies of restorative justice across the country. Now, I'm not sufficiently well informed to know whether that’s true or not. Wider use of community sentences, alternatives, better support in prisons, support around re-offending, and above all, a therapeutic approach recognising children’s needs and vulnerability and addressing the root causes of bad behaviour, which often begin in infancy.
So what do we want to change? Early intervention, this is why as much as the prison policy I'll describe shortly is so welcome. Working with parents and families – we have to work with parents and families. These children don’t exist in a vacuum. More positive activity for young people and the need to engage with young people – what more can we do? An increase in the age of criminal responsibility, a child welfare approach to youth crime, and putting children first, respecting their rights and their best interest. I’d like to see the UK complying with international benchmarks. I told you’ve I've been to Canada and I've been to Sweden. I am seriously impressed by the Canadian attitudes in the youth justice act of 2006 for example, and hearing from the senior staff about how they want to change the systems. More appropriate governance and local targets, Roger Morgan, as he stood down from the Chair of the YSB, of course exposed the issue of the low hanging fruit of the offences brought to justice target, where performance-related pay for chief constables depends on the recording of crime, and what is more simple than targeting children and young people to up those crime statistics? Restorative justice and more therapeutic support for young people who sexually harm others. I just put that in as a subset because we are very concerned about the fact that many sexual abuses are perpetrated by children and young people. There is a complete or near complete dearth of clinical services to support them as vulnerable children. We want proper use of custody, no more deaths in custody, training, sharing good practice, reduce re-offending, and much better support on release, recognising that it’s not just a question for probation service, it’s the whole system in terms of the community in terms of housing, substance misuse services, employment and education, and ideally looked after status for offenders on release.
So, coming to the conclusion, I think there is a stunning opportunity which we need to seize with what is happening in government at the present time. We have a new Prime Minister and a major change in the machinery of government, with for the first time ever a Secretary of State at Cabinet level responsible for integrating all aspects of children’s services. We have never had that before, and Ed Balls is a man I admire, I think he is an honest man, and he is trying his best to get to grips with some intractable problems. There is changing rhetoric. Listen to Ed when he says that every ASBO is a failure of society. It’s a stunning change in the rhetoric about ASBOs. There is the opportunity with the YJB re-organisation that’s going to be very important to see who is appointed to the senior positions. I welcome the new targets on reducing crime and the willingness of the sector to consider ways of working. I have met some people who are prepared to look out of their boxes and think of new approaches to restore to justice, and there is serious evidence of good practice. Sadly, the good practice may not be known about only ten miles down the road, so how we disseminate that is a big issue. And then international evidence, what can be done by looking at other countries, and I come back to Canada and to Sweden.
So the policy context is stunning in its enormity and in its implications. We have every child matters, a social exclusion action plan, which I welcome in terms of identifying young mothers and families at serious risk even before the child is born, and intervening with support for those families. I know there is a lot of controversy about Sure Start but I urge government to stay true to its colours and let Sure Start have its run and not be sidetracked by short term results from academics.
Look at the Secretary of State’s speech on the 14th of November at the YJB conference. I thought there was some really, really important milestone pronouncements in that speech, which I welcome. The forthcoming children’s plan announced in the next few days, the youth crime action plan, the youth justice unit that the DCSF is setting up, the ten year youth strategy, raising expectations, new targets and violence reduction strategy, all of which is to be welcomed, together with the major investment in CAMHS. Yes, government has listened, government has invested in CAMHS, but the point I made before is serious – we’ve come from such a low starting point, it will take years of ongoing investment to get to anything like adequate services.
I can go on looking at all these policy initiatives, all of which are part of the context of children in conflict with the law, which I very much support. I am pleased with the delivery agreement 14, the path to success, with the intention of reducing the percentage of 16 to 18 year olds not in education, employment or training. Why do we have the highest number of NEETS in the developed world in this country? What has gone wrong with our school education that gives these children such low expectations of what they can do with their lives? And raising those expectations is a crucially important and difficult issue against the low expectations of families very often in the homes in which these children are living.
Much more participation and positive activities – I can tell you there are many thousands of young girls who want to be Girl Guides today and they can’t. Why? Because adults are not volunteering to work with them. It’s all very well having a policy for youth facilities, but unless adults get out there and work with kids, it will fall flat on its face. Reduce the proportion of young people using drugs and alcohol, the under age conception rate, a proxy again for social disadvantage, and the first time entrance to the criminal justice system.
So how are we going to invest in a mechanism of change if we think the change is needed? So these things are important, pooling budgets, incentivising the workforce codes of practice, the capacity of the workforce is crucial of course too, and so on. The extract from the delivery strategy says to ensure the decisions they take in responding to young people are proportionate and are based on the best interest of the young person, the victim and the community. This sometimes includes an informal or restorative intervention rather than a formal disposal. That’s a very interesting statement, isn’t it? What does it actually mean?
Well, the potential to reduce first time criminalisation. I took part in a Radio Four morning programme recently where the subject was a 13 year old boy who had stolen 49p worth of sweets from a corner shop. From a respectable middle class family, he had never done anything like this before in his life. He was arrested, he was DNA’d, finger printed, he was charged, and now there’s a record against this boy. For goodness sake, what are we doing? We are criminalising a child who had a single episode of a misdemeanour. Another boy, 15 years old told me only a few weeks ago he was celebrating his GCSEs. He got drunk, he shouldn’t have got drunk, he created some disturbance in the town centre. He was arrested, finger printed, DNA’d and charged. What are we doing in terms of criminalising so many children for relative misdemeanours? So, reducing the first time criminalisation is important.
Removing the offences brought to justice target with this perversion in the way of the incentive, good practice with the emphasis on prevention, that has to be the key, but will the resources be there to make prevention work? Aand is there the capacity of trained people to make prevention work? And putting the onus on the police to contribute through taking responsible decisions on dealing with low level misdemeanour. I have been to places where this is already happening, but I have also been to places where this is not happening.
So what are we going to do? We’re going to support the current judicial review on the excessive restraint, we are going respond to the government’s review of restraint, and of course all four UK commissioners are at this moment producing our submission to the UN committee which will hold the UK government to account next year for progress on implementing the UN CRC. I have no doubt there will be many good words said about the progress of the last seven years, but I am equally confident there will be ongoing scathing criticisms about the failure to apply the UN CRC above all to the areas that I see the greatest injustices in asylum and in youth justice. So we are going to carry on having a dialogue, and we want to involve young people and we want to bring their voice to the government.
So to wrap up, I'd like you to remember the Victorian outrage and the story of Emily Davies and how the newspapers of the day saw her as a vulnerable child, and not as an inherently evil monster that deserved punishment and control. I'd like you to remember the courage of Thomas Blake, an MP who stood up for the vulnerability of the child in his constituency, and the other MPs who were equally outraged by what was going on. I do feel there is an urgent need to review youth justice, and the journeys of children in England and Wales. I commend to you this concept of the journey with the milestones and the consideration of needs and competencies. I do think we should be more compliant with human rights conventions, and I do want people to work with us to change society’s views of young people, which is why as I say we had 11 Million Takeover Day last Friday with astonishing success.
I was at Manchester United football ground on Friday seeing how people were working with young people for 11 Million Takeover Day. And above all, can I give you a plea? Please try to see the world through the eyes of the children you are dealing with, and not through your own eyes, which almost certainly are influenced by your own background and your experiences. My last point is it takes a village. Here is Hilary Clinton’s stunning book reminding us that in this context tonight I would argue, children in conflict with the law should be everybody’s business, parents and the importance of parenting, and support for parents; families, schools, faiths and local communities as well as government. There’s a limit to what government can do unless at the community level we are prepared to actually nurture our most precious asset, which is our children and young people.
So finally, we support developing a system that is child centred and puts the rights and the best interests of a child at its heart. I would welcome your thoughts on this on how we might work together in partnership to achieve this, and my ultimate challenge to government, well done for what you have done so far, wonderful words of policy, but are you going to make it happen, and how do you get systems to change their spots against the enormity of the cultural baggage which is there to be changed? So, children are a living message to a time we will not see. That is a thought provoking comment from Neil Postman. The children we are talking about, when they are adults we will have dropped off the perch, they will be our successors in society. Every child in England is special, even those who are causing trouble. Every child really should be seen as a human being, a citizen, who has some worth, if only we can find it, and each is one of 11 million. I tried to show how children really are at the heart of my organisation. Can we make it so in the youth justice system too? So thank you for listening.