Cost of custody should be devolved
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
The current system of placing children in prison operates under a perverse financial incentive. Local authorities, which are responsible for a range of prevention and early intervention work to divert the young from crime, are essentially rewarded for their failures. If children are sentenced to custody, they no longer pick up the tab for their welfare.
This is why the Youth Justice Board is consulting on devolving the costs of custody to local authorities. The argument goes that councils will be inclined to devote more of their energies to community alternatives if they have to foot the bill for custody. But as we report this week, while the principle behind devolution is attractive, in practice it is strewn with complexity.
A move in this direction is necessary but a better solution would be to devolve costs not to local authorities but to children's trusts, so that all the agencies that are partners in trusts and in youth offending teams have a proper stake in keeping children out of prison.
But whichever way a transfer of costs is implemented, it would play unfairly on those areas with high deprivation and crime rates, which cannot just turn the custody tap off overnight. Therefore, local areas should be allowed to spread the costs over a number of years to absorb sharp local fluctuations in jail sentence levels. They could pay a recharge fee at the end of each year based on their custody rates in previous years, and be reimbursed or charged extra year-by-year depending on performance.
In the current system, not a single council prioritises reducing child custody in their Local Area Agreement. One way or the other, devolution of costs is going to be essential to summon the will to reduce prison numbers.
What if Ed Balls moves on?
Speculation about a Cabinet reshuffle after the 4 June European elections was starting to surface at the time of writing, with Children's Secretary Ed Balls implicated in some of the rumours.
Balls' move would be a blow to the sector. Beverley Hughes, children's minister for the past four years, would be a natural successor to ensure "continuity of care" for the Every Child Matters project. But any new incumbent would need to have strong relationships with others in the Cabinet, given so much policy is shared with other departments. If there is to be a new Children's Secretary, they must have the strongest possible credentials.