Youth offender staff divided over relaxation of minimum standards

Neil Puffett
Tuesday, January 22, 2013

National standards governing the way services deal with young offenders are set to be relaxed, with changes due to come into effect in April

Seven jobs face being axed at Monmouthshire's youth offending service. Picture: Arlen Connelly
Seven jobs face being axed at Monmouthshire's youth offending service. Picture: Arlen Connelly

The government is attempting to cut red tape from all areas of public life and the youth justice system is next in line.

National standards governing the way services deal with young offenders are set to be relaxed, with changes due to come into effect in April. The final version will be informed by feedback from youth offending teams (YOTs) that have been trialling the standards since last year.

Key areas of change relate to how often YOT staff should have contact with offenders and how regularly young people should be assessed. The requirement to make initial contact with a young person following a court order has been extended from one to three days and staff will now use “perceived risk” to determine the frequency of visits to young people on bail, rather than conducting such meetings once a month. Meanwhile, the minimum timeframe for reviewing assessments of young offenders has increased from every three months to every six.

But opinion on the changes is split. Mike Rees, board member of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers (AYM), says the plans must not lead to erratic standards across YOTs.

“If flexibility is going to be used, it is critical that it is used consistently and we have appropriately qualified staff that are effectively supervised in the application of those standards,” he says. “Any use of flexibilities must be well-reasoned and shouldn’t happen because of a lack of resources.”

Lesley Tregear, youth justice service manager in Warwickshire, says her team and other YOTs in the region have decided to stick to the old standards. She argues that the changes could result in safe­guarding issues, potentially increasing the likelihood of young people posing a risk to themselves or others.

“We all welcome a look at bureaucracy, but it can’t be at the expense of safety,” she says. “A lot of YOTs will be forced to work above the minimum standard to ensure risk and safeguarding issues are managed properly.”

Resource worries
Tregear also fears that the new standards could “paint a false picture” of the level of resources needed by YOTs. “The Youth Justice Board and Ministry of Justice could say that you don’t need to be working above the new minimum and don’t need quite the level of funding you are getting,” she says.

But not all professionals view the new standards as a significant change. Simon Page, head of integrated youth support in York, says the relaxed standards will not alter the “fundamental” work of his service. “The fact we will have more leeway with doing assessments is handy because sometimes you want six or seven days to do something that previously we were supposed to do in five days,” he says.

“But the principle of doing good quality assessments and planning and intervention work doesn’t go away because national standards are relaxed – you still need to do it promptly enough to determine the plan and intervention.”

Eddie Isles, YOT manager in Swansea, says his service is taking a flexible approach to the proposed standards, providing greater levels of contact where deemed necessary. However, he concedes that the ability to do this depends upon resources available. Isles argues that in addition to relaxing some standards, the government should consider introducing some new ones.

“We are relatively well resourced so are able to deal with issues around early intervention and prevention, but there is very little said about those areas in national standards,” he says. “If there were national standards requiring more involvement in early interventions, it may have a beneficial effect of reducing young people’s involvement with the criminal justice system.”

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