Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill
Speech to the National Youth Justice Advisory Group Annual Conference
June 13, 2012
It’s a pleasure to be here today – parliamentary commitments have stopped me attending in previous years. That’s been a source of regret to me because youth justice, and getting things right for young people who are at risk of falling off the right path, is a central concern for me as Cabinet Secretary for Justice. Everyone of you in this room knows that extending second, third and more chances to young people isn’t always comfortable or easy, but it is important. I hope these two days will be an opportunity to develop that hard work further – but also a chance to take stock and celebrate some of the successes.
At the root of everything we do has to be the belief that working with young people to tackle offending behaviour has to be the right thing to do. And it’s the right thing to do not because of any particular moral viewpoint or political stance, or because we’re soft touches. It’s the right thing to do because for the great majority of young people coming to the notice of the police, we know that proportionate, timely and measured responses are more effective in tackling future reoffending than punitive approaches alone.
I know Professor McAra and Professor McVie will be speaking later. The work they have done on the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime has been important in providing the underpinning evidence for the approach this Government has taken to youth justice issues. The more we resort to formal measures in dealing with children, the greater the risk we draw them further into the system. So we need to use those measures very carefully, and in a way that tackles the needs, not merely the deeds, of all young people who offend.
And such an approach is the right thing to do because as Cabinet Secretary for Justice much of my time is taken up with how we manage the record number of prison numbers in Scotland. A number that continues to increase when recorded crime is falling. There is only one group that has broken this trend, and that is the number of young people in prison. So far from being the easy way out, working with young people to understand the causes of their offending behaviour, and not simply ascribing offences to underlying badness, has to be the way ahead.
I know your programme looks at Eilish Angiolini’s report into women’s offending tomorrow. Again, a more holistic system of dealing with women’s behaviour must be the way ahead. I will be publishing the Scottish Government’s response to the report before the summer recess.
Other approaches have been tried but they have not worked. In the past we’ve seen punitive approaches increase the number of people in custody and too many young people written off too early in life by a system that was not proportionate or understanding in its responses to early offending behaviour. There’s still more to be done to get that balance right. This Government has brought forward changes to the law and to the approach and support for youth justice aimed at shifting practice further. For many in this room that won’t have gone far enough. But there were many who warned that that shift would lead to disaster. There still are communities struggling with anti-social behaviour and youth offending but it’s worth reflecting on the facts. The Apocalypse has not befallen us. Rather offence referrals have fallen for the fifth consecutive year – down by over 50 percent since 2006-7. And the number of recorded crimes and offences committed by children and young people under 18 decreased by 12 percent between 2008-09 and 2009-10, and by 18.9 percent between 2009-10 and 2010-11.
Those are good trends – but they represent the persistence, expertise and hard work of the professionals in this room. They also represent lots of stories of lives turned round and of youngsters growing up and changing their behaviour.
I am not going to speak in detail about the Whole System Approach; I know that many of you attended the event in Aberdeen recently where I spoke in depth about it. However, I do want to say that it is a priority for this Government to see it implemented across Scotland.
Finding a way to make the child, their needs and addressing their challenging behaviours the centre of our decision-making, in line with Getting it Right for Every Child, must be the right way ahead. Too rigid a focus on formal measures, performances and targets doesn’t work – it’s what saw the number of so-called ‘persistent offenders’ soar at a time of falling crime.
And that’s not to say that court or prison is not the right option for the minority of young people who commit the most serious offences, and are continually a menace to their communities. Every violent crime leaves a terrible impact on victims and their families and there’s nobody in this room who doesn’t feel how tragic some of those examples are. The point is that we need to focus our resources on the small number of the most dangerous and risky young people. Risk management and the protection of communities and the vulnerable is rightly a part of our approach but applying it indiscriminately is counterproductive.
I am aware that the majority of Local Authorities are engaged in implementing this approach with their partners. Structural reform is always on the agenda but EEI and whole system shows what can be achieved by leaders on the ground. However, I think we all recognise that the real challenge here is making the approach sustainable, particularly in such challenging economic times.
I am heartened to see that it is likely the approach will be implemented across all of Scotland. Particularly at a time when in many local authority areas, services have been restructured. In some cases, this has seen youth justice teams absorbed into wider service areas and third sector services will be feeling the pressure as keenly as anyone. But it’s important that all of us keep our eyes on the prize of early intervention and the responsibility to prioritise the preventative work that brings the greatest rewards.
That means the youth justice specialism will continue to be valuable, and it is my expectation that local authorities and partners recognise the value of this specialism being retained. And it is not only in local authorities, partners across the board are facing tighter finances and restructuring. Most notably the Police and Crown Office, Procurator Fiscal Service and Courts are all undergoing substantial reform.
The main focus has got to be on delivering better outcomes for young people, but in the current financial climate we can’t ignore the efficiency savings this approach can deliver. It is now more important than it ever has been to consider realigning services so that we can work more effectively.
As the Aberdeen results have shown - where savings are not immediately recognised, we have seen that by taking unnecessary bureaucracy out of the system, organisations have been able to redirect their resources to more appropriate work.
I am aware that there are others who are perhaps not at the forefront of development and implementation of the approach, but who are nonetheless adding their support.
I would like to extend my thanks to the National Development Team for their efforts to look again at the national youth justice standards for Scotland. We now have a published set of standards reflecting the current key priorities for youth justice in Scotland. I understand that they have also published guidance for practitioners, which I’m sure will be of great benefit as we continue to move forward with this important agenda. There’s a challenge to the Development Team and the National Youth Justice Advisory Group to keep making the case for the youth justice specialism in a way that is persuasive to decision-makers.
It’s a good time to be making that case. Anyone watching the brilliant performance of Paul Brannigan in ‘The Angels’ Share’ will reflect on how that young man has changed his life. Life has imitated art here – a young guy doing stupid things met others who understood his background. Their imagination and persistence helped him take the opportunities open to him. The conveyor belt doesn’t often take you from Polmont to Cannes but in Paul’s case it has. Paul Brannigan’s individuality and abilities shine through – but we can’t make things too comfortable for ourselves here. The stories Paul has about growing up in Glasgow are hard, difficult stories. But they are also the reasons why we need to keep working with our young people in flexible, imaginative ways to help them into positive choices and positive destinations. I wish you well in your efforts to continue that work.