Rules of Engagement - Changing the Game?

By Linda Jack

| 17 January 2012

Yesterday the Centre for Social Justice published their latest report on youth justice "Rules of Engagement". I have to say I was personally delighted - the report provides a thorough and deep analysis of what needs to change in our approach to youth justice, having taken evidence from the field and young people themselves. What characterises it is a sense of real compassion and understanding that so many of the young people who get involved in offending behaviour do so because they have been failed by their families, their communities and the state. The report is underpinned with an appreciation that what really counts is the quality of relationship the young person has with the professionals working with them and the need to take a holistic approach to meeting their needs. It rightly acknowledges that "the system is often operating in a way that promotes rather than reduces offending" and that "there continues to be too much focus on functional process at the expense of life-changing outcomes".
 
I was particularly pleased to see the evidence-based recommendation that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 12. My own view, and Lib Dem policy is that it should be raised to 14 (in some countries it is 18) but this is self evidently an important step in the right direction and in line with the principles espoused in Positive for Youth. I like the emphasis on restorative justice, the call for the end of short sentences and the call for a statutory duty on public bodies to provide resettlement support for young offenders. I also very much appreciate the recognition of the importance of proper training for all professionals who come into contact with young people, be they lawyers, magistrates or police officers.
 
So what's not to like? Well, I do have some concerns. For example, there is an underpinning belief in the importance of joined-up approaches on the ground, but not the same recognition of the importance of joined-up policy more generally. For example, the report correctly identifies the need to address school exclusion in preventing offending, and calls for schools to be more accountable; but doesn't recognise that the current direction of Tory education policy mitigates against this, with the drive towards a more academic curriculum and the greater autonomy and lack of local accountability of academies and free schools. There is a recognition of the importance of making mental health services more accountable - at a time when the NHS is under severe threat from being fragmented and becoming far less accountable. The report rightly highlights the importance of involving the voluntary sector, but then places great emphasis on payment by results, a scheme which will exclude many small local charities from participating - and doesn't acknowledge the important role of local authority youth services and the impact the decimation of these services will have.
 
But, as someone who is well known in the Lib Dems for being a vocal opponent of the coalition, this is an area where there is for me a ray of hope that we may be able to make some real changes. In Kenneth Clarke we have a Justice Secretary who gets it - who is prepared to take a more liberal approach to justice issues. This report gives grist to his mill - as a Lib Dem on the Home Affairs Justice and Equality Parliamentary Policy Committee I will continue to urge my colleagues to push for many of the report's recommendations that are in line with our own youth justice policy "Taking Responsibility" passed last year. My biggest fear is that this is an issue where Labour may play to the gallery, ignoring what works and going for the Daily Mail approach to young offenders - I hope not. I hope that improving the life chances of some of our most vulnerable young people, reducing reoffending and making our communities safer is something that will garner cross-party support... but I'm not holding my breath!
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