In the Media

Youth Justice Board reprieve must make it stronger

PUBLISHED December 6, 2011

Let's hope its near death experience will encourage the Youth Justice board to become more progressive and more independent, says Rod Morgan

There is joy in their offices off Vauxhall Bridge Road, in the corridors of the House of Lords and among most of the penal pressure groups: the Youth Justice Board (YJB) has been reprieved. This is surprising, for it was never greatly loved until, it appears, its abolition was announced.

The protesters feared that its replacement by a unit within the Ministry of Justice would mean the gradual erosion of independent focus on youth justice issues within Whitehall. Losing the joint sponsorship of the YJB by the Department for Education was bad enough. Incorporation by a prison service-dominated national offender management service would have been catastrophic.

The YJB has never been allowed to express much of an independent voice and has not done so. The current board finds favour with penal pressure groups and among liberal opinion in the House of Lords because we have, in Kenneth Clarke and Crispin Blunt, ministers who are trying to reduce the number of young people entering the justice system, which the YJB echoes.

It was not so under New Labour who closed what it called the "justice gap" by setting targets for offences brought to justice. Publicly questioning the wisdom of those policies was regarded by Labour home secretaries as treachery and punished, as I found out.

How long will Clarke and Blunt last as youth unemployment and social tensions mount? And if they go, will a progressive YJB voice still be heard? Its existence did not seem to act as a constraint against the excessive resort to custody for young people following the August riots.

One can mock talk of the "big society", particularly during a period of stringent public expenditure cuts. But it's about more than volunteering. It means devolving responsibility for budgets and priority setting, and restoring to professional decision-makers the exercise of discretion.

It also means relieving frontline staff of excessive bureaucracy; the strictures of the Munro report regarding social workers ticking boxes, instead of forging relationships with clients, apply as much to youth justice.

The YJB has not exactly been a progressive guide in this regard and the existence of a central policy quango sits uncomfortably with a policy of localisation.

Furthermore, support for the YJB's survival from Youth Offending Team managers needs to be treated with caution. Their status within local authority structures has been bolstered by their trumpeted accountability to the YJB, yet rather than becoming the multidisciplinary teams working in close partnership with children's services that was originally envisaged, YOTs may have actually become criminal justice silos.

The arguments for and against abolition of the YJB were finely balanced. We must hope the close call has made it a braver rather than a weaker vessel.

? Rod Morgan was chairman of the Youth Justice Board between 2004 and 2007 © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds