Macho talk drowns out legislation

From hooded tops to community sentence uniforms and Labour’s new
buzzword, “respect”, youth crime has set the tone for Tony Blair’s
third term as prime minister.

The same cannot be said for youth justice legislation, which was
absent from last week’s Queen’s Speech.

A draft bill was included in last year’s Queen’s Speech but never
published. It followed on from proposals in the 2003 publication
Youth Justice – The Next Steps, whose key elements are totally
out-of-keeping with the current political mood. These include
establishing Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Orders as a
first-choice alternative to custody for serious or persistent
offenders and measures to treat 17 year olds on bail and remand as
juveniles, not adults.

Some have been quick to draw the link between the absence of a bill
and the government’s macho rhetoric on youth crime.

Chris Stanley, head of youth crime at rehabilitation agency Nacro,
says: “It’s almost like there’s another election around the

Chris Chaston, senior police officer at young people’s charity
Rainer, believes there is bound to be a suspicion that the omission
is politically motivated.

But Pauline Batstone, chair of the National Association of Youth
Offending Team Managers, says the heightened rhetoric reflects
politicians’ experience on the doorsteps during the election
campaign. “The public have concerns but many of these are based on
perceptions, not reality,” she says, adding that the government is
reacting impulsively rather than examining what is really

The Home Office line is that youth justice legislation remains work
in progress: “We are still working on provisions for youth justice.
We are planning to legislate on them when time allows in
parliament. We haven’t set out a timetable for when that will

But a source close to the department says there was no reason for
it to be excluded from the Queen’s Speech: “They had more or less
got it ready.”

That the next Queen’s Speech is 18 months away will concern the

According to Stanley, the Youth Justice Board will find the
omission “disappointing”, given its commitment to cutting the use
of custody.
Batstone adds: “YOT managers would see it as a bit of a kick in the

While some of the government’s proposals are opposed by the sector
– notably plans to extend custody to 12- to 14-year-old
non-persistent offenders – the consensus had been that ministers
were listening.

For instance, proposals on reclassifying 17 year olds on remand and
bail were earmarked for the draft bill in response to the
consultation on The Next Steps.

There has also been praise for the proposal to simplify community
punishments by replacing eight sanctions with a single juvenile
rehabilitation order, which judges can tailor to the

Stanley adds: “There was a long consultation. The Home Office
incorporated some of our views. It was good piece of legislation
and would have had a good impact on reducing custodial

The absence of a youth justice bill is exacerbated by the
government’s failure to publish its youth green paper, originally
due last autumn.

With its promise of reformed advice services and new activities for
young people, it provides a potential balance to ministers’
hardline on crime and disorder.

Stanley says: “The way we combat the sort of things the tabloids
are complaining about is in the green paper. It’s not about
punishing young people; it’s about understanding the underlying
issues and trying to solve them.”

He is confident that publication is not too far away, but there is
much less optimism about the youth justice bill.

Chaston says: “We are hopeful that it will see the light of day
because there is a consensus around it.”

But Batstone says the best that can be hoped for is that elements
of the reforms are included in other legislation.

There will be disappointment if the government waits until the
November 2006 Queen’s Speech to legislate on youth justice.

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