Ministers last week backed a move towards crime prevention and community sentencing, signalling a change in tone from the Blair government’s more punitive agenda.
The convention hosted the launch of a youth justice unit to be responsible for sector policy and the Youth Justice Board. It will also cement the joint responsibility of the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice for youth justice, announced in June when Gordon Brown became prime minister.
The move was seen as promoting a more child-focused approach to youth justice but concerns have been raised since over alleged conflicts between the two departments.
Children’s secretary Ed Balls said the unit would deploy 30 staff from the DCSF and the Ministry of Justice and be led by Diana Luchford, formerly head of the MoJ’s youth justice and children unit.
“The scale of the challenges of youth offending can’t be addressed by the criminal justice system alone but the full range of children’s services,” he added.
He placed particular emphasis on the role of schools, announcing that the DCSF would consult on councils taking responsibility for the education of young people in custody.
Both Balls and MoJ youth justice minister David Hanson emphasised a heavy steer towards community sentencing rather than custody for the majority of young people.
Hanson said the number of children and young people in custody – currently about 3,000 – was “simply too high”.
“We have to make the case for community sentences as important and effective, not a soft option. There are clear alternatives to custody,” he said.
However, Mike Thomas, chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, collared both ministers on the issue of prevention funding for youth offending teams, which has not been confirmed beyond March next year.
He warned that about 1200 YOT staff could lose their jobs, with some leaving already because of funding uncertainties.
“We are laying off staff as we speak, and once staff start to leave it’s difficult to recover. It’s good that prevention is very big on everyone’s agenda but what we need is confirmation of resources,” he told ministers.
Both Hanson and Balls said talks were continuing and that a decision would be made as soon as possible.
Balls also confirmed a shortlist had been drawn up for the new chair of the Youth Justice Board, a post Graham Robb has filled on an interim basis since February.