'More trusting, less prescriptive' - Taylor's new vision for the YJB

Youth Justice Board chair Charlie Taylor says slimmed-down national standards reflect a more mature youth justice system that needs the freedom to innovate to improve the lives of the most vulnerable young offenders.

The week CYP Now meets Charlie Taylor, he has attended Prime Minister Theresa May's serious youth violence summit and followed up with discussions at Number 10 on what the Youth Justice Board (YJB), which he chairs, will do to ensure commitments made by departments on how to tackle the problem are kept.

Taylor's busy week not only illustrates the extent that his views are valued by those at the top of government, but also highlights how the role of the YJB has changed over the past year.

Since Taylor took over as chair in April 2017, the YJB has seen its budget, workforce and responsibilities significantly shrunk. A key change has been the removal of the board's responsibility to commission youth custody places. This was formally transferred to the Youth Custody Service in January 2018.

Taylor backed the change, likening the board having commissioning and oversight powers as "in effect being asked to mark your own homework".

"I was pleased when that happened as it gave the YJB the freedom to really give full, frank advice across government and to other agencies," he says.

In addition to advising ministers, the board's focus is now on monitoring the youth justice system, gathering evidence and commissioning research on what works, identifying and sharing best practice, and giving young people a voice.

"Our job is to advise the government, not just the Ministry of Justice (MoJ)," says Taylor. "If the solution to serious youth violence does not sit in justice alone, then it's incumbent on us to ensure the right people are around the table talking about it."

Serious youth violence

That was the case for the recent youth violence summit, which was attended by cabinet ministers from across the government as well as senior police officers, the Mayor of London and leaders of youth charities.

"That it had the top brass around the table, with important decision makers coming together, was really encouraging," says Taylor. "The Prime Minister recognised that you can't arrest your way out of this problem, which was an encouraging thing to say because politicians are under huge pressure - it is very easy for them to go down an enforcement route and be knee jerk."

The commitment to develop a public health approach to tackling youth violence that came out of the summit is to be applauded, says Taylor, who sees similarities between this and the way youth offending teams (YOTs) work.

"When you look at how Glasgow has used the public health approach, there's an enforcement angle - no one was denying that - but it's also about having services working together and collaborating and sharing information so that children and families get the support they need," he says.

"It is easy to say, but the reality is it is challenging, particularly in councils where budgets are difficult, but I see it already happening in YOTs around the country."

He cites Lewisham YOT as an example of a borough that is working closely with the police to develop a joined-up approach to tackling youth offending that sees it through a public health prism.

"Where you have children starting to offend, dragging them through the courts is just pulling them further into the system," he explains.

"Professionals coming together and thinking about the needs of the family - I see that around the country; but I still hear YOTs say that once a child starts offending ‘we can't get social care on board and the door shuts on other services'.

"A serious case review last year highlighted how a boy who was a social care case and at risk of offending was pushed towards an offending response, meaning that other agencies weren't able to rally round and give the support that child needed."

Despite such cases, Taylor believes there is "a real enthusiasm" among agencies working with vulnerable young people and those at risk of committing crime to work collaboratively and holistically to tackle the underlying causes of offending.

New national standards

To underpin collaborative working and encourage more innovative youth justice practice, the YJB published in April revised national standards for how YOTs and others should work with children in the youth justice system.

A draft version of the standards was consulted on last year, and came in for criticism from some youth justice organisations for being "vague", lacking detail and removing some mandatory requirements.

The standards condense the previous 10 standards down to four, covering "out of court", "at court", "in the community" and "in secure settings" - with a fifth new standard "on transition" added.

The YJB claims that much of the detail lost from the standards is retained in case management guidance that can be used as a fall back if needed. It means that while services are still accountable for achieving good outcomes for children, the standards give YOTs greater flexibility in how they achieve these.

Taylor says the changes better reflect the "more mature" youth justice system that now exists compared to when the previous standards were written in 1998, at a time when New Labour was being "prescriptive" about "how to do things".

"We have fantastic professionals - they don't need the YJB to be as prescriptive as we were in the past," he says. "We can now step back from that; we don't need to mandate every bit of how you do your job; by doing that, you get in the way of innovation.

"We have great people who want to get on and do things differently, but if you have standards that constrain that… given you have County Lines and different sorts of challenges coming people's way.

"The old standards were very detailed about what had to be done when. I just felt we don't have to be at that level any more. This is readable and simpler, and people get their heads around it.

"There's also the principle of trusting professionals: we're not going to micro manage every part of your job from the centre because I can't understand the context in Greenwich or Cumbria as well as the people working there."

The new standards "lay down the principles of what fantastic youth justice services look like and underneath that is the detailed case work guidance", he says, adding that the board acted on "more than half" of the suggestions made in response to the consultation on the draft standards.

Corporate priorities

Tackling serious youth violence is one of the board's six priorities - other issues in the programme include developing secure schools; safety and security of children in custody; transitions of young people to other places; improving local practice; and black and minority ethnic (BAME) young people in the justice system.

On the first of these, Taylor says the first secure school - the model for which was one of the key recommendations of his government-commissioned 2015 review of youth custody - will be crucial in developing a new way of thinking about how secure detention operates.

He says a head teacher is shortly to be recruited for the school, which is set to open in 2021 on the site of the Medway secure training centre.

"When I recommended the creation of secure schools, I looked at who was doing the best for those [most vulnerable] children and found that the best pupil referral units were really getting to understand children and making a difference.

"There's fewer children in custody, but we're still not getting the outcomes we need - we need to think differently about the way custody operates."

One of the groups more at risk of going into custody are vulnerable BAME young people. Last year, the proportion of young people in custody of BAME heritage rose above 50 per cent of the total in the secure estate, and Taylor expects "that will likely go above that level in the near future".

He says while the overall number of BAME young people in custody has fallen in the past decade, it has not fallen as quickly as that for white children. A key area the board is examining is around arrests, where the disproportionality is greatest.

"We're working with the police to get better data about arrests - and where young people are not arrested," he says. "We're also using a toolkit for officers to measure levels of disproportionality in their area compared to the demographics of their area.

"What are the diversion roots being used across the system and are they being applied proportionally?

"David Lammy [Labour MP for Tottenham who undertook a review of disproportionality in the justice system] talked about BAME children not wanting to plead guilty to minor offences and we certainly see that sometimes - where if they admit an offence they will get diverted, but if not then they get pulled into the court system."

Taylor says it is a long-term issue that is linked to distrust of the police in some communities resulting in less effective policing.

"I think we can do meaningful work around arrests and out-of-court disposals, and ensure the system is fairer," he adds.

Taylor's review of pain-inducing restraint in custody

Taylor has spoken to experts on the use of the techniques, visited all young offender institutions (YOI) in England, spoken to officers who have used it and boys that have been subject to it, and reviewed CCTV footage of incidents where pain had been applied.

Taylor says the "fascinating review to do" hasn't come to "any settled conclusions" and admits to being "pulled in lots of different directions".

"It's a complicated issue and I'm getting a huge number of opinions," he says.

The issue is particularly contentious because it comes at a time when violence in the youth estate is rising - as illustrated by recent riots at Feltham YOI.

"We know there are very high levels of violence, self-harm and restraint in custody, and that's an enormous concern," says Taylor.

"The custody service has nearly a full contingent of officers - the first time for a very long time - but there are lots of new and inexperienced officers.

"Having been in custody a lot recently, the courage and dedication of individual officers never fails to amaze me. I watched an incident where a small female officer threw herself in the way of two boys fighting - it was an astonishing piece of courage, anyone sensible would have run away."

He says there needs to be a cultural change in how society sees the role of custody, so that it "prepares children for life as a successful adult, not as a successful prisoner".

"The government has said that over time it wants more secure schools, and move away from the traditional YOI model so that it feels more like a therapeutic facility focused on turning lives around," he adds.

Ensuring custody officers - "or carers" - have the skills, training and experience to decide when it is necessary to use pain-inducing restraint and when alternative approaches can be employed is key to achieving that, he says.

"We want to see a significant reduction in restraint, but we also want staff to feel safe enough to be confident to deal with situations in the right way," he adds.

The report - due for publication in "the summer" - will be delivered on time, he says, but in reference to Brexit adds: "Politics sometimes gets in the way of stuff like this."

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