Outsourcing youth justice services

Sean Creaney
Thursday, January 7, 2016

David Cameron pledged in his new year’s message that reforms to children’s services will be as radical as his transformation of schools project.

Despite such reforms being met with criticism, advocates claim that the academy strategy has improved outcomes for children in “failing schools”. It seems a higher quality, better value-for-money way of proving services to children and families (at less cost to the taxpayer!) is what Cameron is currently exploring.

It is not necessarily far-fetched to consider the idea that the reform Cameron speaks of may involve also the commissioning out of youth justice services. This is especially so considering the announcement that in April this year responsibility of West Mercia youth offending service will be transferred to the police and crime commissioner. Some have argued critically that the youth justice review is a smokescreen for the acceleration of such outsourcing of services.

Youth Justice Review

Charlie Taylor, the man in charge of Michael Gove's youth justice review, said at the Youth Justice Convention that he will be publishing a report in early 2016 on his preliminary observations following discussions with youth offending services and many other key stakeholders. He said how he welcomes comment following publication of the report.

Neil Puffett in a recent piece for CYP Now outlined where Charlie Taylor's attention will be directed. In addition, Taylor spoke at the convention about many issues including the overrepresentation of looked-after children and black, Asian minority ethnic individuals in the youth justice system. Indeed as David Cameron also said in his new year’s message, men from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to receive a custodial sentence than their white counterparts. These issues are unacceptable and require attention. The youth justice review then is certainly timely and important.

However, at the time of writing it excludes the minimum age of criminal responsibility, courts and sentencing, leading to critics questioning whether it is a review at all. That said, those conducting it should develop recommendations for courts and sentencing where appropriate.

Outsourcing

Some have argued that the review is a prelude to another Transforming Rehabilitation-style service marketisation exercise. Such accusations have not been denied, unlike the youth justice stocktake that was suspected to be “about privatisation” but, interestingly, refuted by government.

If outsourcing is to happen providers must be driven by ethical, principled and evidence-based decision making. They should also have experience, hire qualified staff that genuinely care, observe minimum standards, operate transparently and be genuinely accountable. If not there is the likelihood of poorly specified, very long-term contracts being awarded to unsuitable, unaccountable “volume-providers” purely on the basis of cost.

It is important to acknowledge also that the issuing of financial incentives to such service providers on the basis of crude short-term measures of reoffending (where a simple yes/no indicator of criminal activity is used) is most inappropriate. Measuring success is very complex especially as factors overlap and intersect as frequency and/or severity may reduce but offending may continue.

Youth Offending Team Model

Putting the idea of “wholesale takeovers” or a “pseudo privatisation” agenda aside, one could argue that the youth offending team model should be retained not least because of demonstrable intelligent information sharing and efficient, somewhat limited, use of recourses. Many examples of best practice exist to justify the model being kept not least the recent comments made by HMI Probation describing work at Cheshire West, Halton and Warrington youth offending service to be consistently of a high standard.

Sean Creaney is an advisor at social justice charity Peer Power

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