Shadow minister for children Tim Loughton talks to Andrew Mickel about youth crime, early intervention and a national citizen service
“We’ve had so many youth crime action plans, or differently named things. Youth justice and the plight of young people in the criminal justice system has been a disaster in the last few years. And that stems from the fact that this government has actually demonized young people.”
Loughton’s views on youth justice seem more nebulous than those on the Bill – he talks of the failure of existing punitive policies, and how that is evidenced by the number of children who are locked up, little of which is going to come as news to those working in the field.
But a working group has now been set up among the shadow ministers responsible for youth justice to review the whole system, including whether there will continue to be a role for the Youth Justice Board. The fact that the review will need to cover three departments itself is a source of “confusion”, according to Loughton. The results of that group will be revealed next year.
From Loughton’s point of view, early intervention is going to be key, with many policies taking a more traditionally Conservative, paternalistic approach. That includes keeping families together and having father figures in children’s lives, and drawing out clear parameters of acceptable behaviour for young people. He points to intensive fostering, as piloted by NCH in Hampshire, as a way to do this.
“As a last chance for kids who are about to go to jail, there is an offer that they are placed with specialist foster carers with a very strict rewards and penalties system. It’s clearly understood what would happen if they transgressed. That is a very useful investment that if not in place would cost a fortune to keep people in the youth justice system, which is the biggest waste of money in this country.”
He also points to the announcement made by David Cameron last year of national citizen service, to be offered to all 16-year-olds. “In the form we’ve been researching at the moment it will be a six-week course, at which there’ll be at least a week at out-of-bound residential stuff, working with groups of other young people from different ethnic backgrounds, different social backgrounds, different sides of the track.
“Part of it is mixing up young people, giving them experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have, and then doing some citizenship stuff working with community groups doing some volunteering. At the end there’ll be a rite-of-passage passing out parade, or something similar. It will be about a recognition that you’ve grown up.
“It’s going to be voluntary, but on the basis that you’d be crazy not to want to do it, because it’s going to be that attractive.”
While the national citizen service is a flagship youth policy, the voluntary sector’s work at providing diversionary services – he says Ray Lewis has done “enormous good work” with the Eastside Young Leaders Academy in Edmonton, east London – is flagged as something that can built on.
From Loughton’s end, then, the talk is of moving away from the existing high expenditure on custodial sentences and on to early intervention and diversionary programmes. But he is just one of the three shadow ministers involved in the review. A fuller picture of what youth justice under the Tories would look like won’t emerge until next year.