Devolving the costs of maintaining young people in custody to councils will not improve service delivery, warns Dean Woodward
The vast majority of the costs associated with young people serving custodial sentences are currently met by the Youth Justice Board.
And the YJB has the economies of scale to negotiate value for money, and the strategic overview of the imprisoned population.
All of this could radically alter with plans from the YJB to give local authorities control of their entire placements budgets. But are any advantages of this planned devolution likely to be overshadowed by the associated risks?
There are two types of risk. Firstly, looking at the bigger picture, youth custody rates have risen consistently over the past 10 years in England and Wales and there is no indication that this trend will alter.
More young people are being sentenced to custody and their sentences are getting longer, resulting in an ever expanding youth prison population, as demonstrated by the growth in privately run secure training centres.
Therefore, had the budgets been devolved in 1999, they would not be representative of the costs of custodial placements today, and local authorities would be facing a considerable shortfall.
Secondly, custodial rates within YOTs fluctuate. The smaller the YOT’s custody population, the more susceptible it is to fluctuations; when you are managing a YOT that has very few young people a year entering custody, the scope for financial variance is extreme.
At present, the budget for the local authority’s contribution towards remand placements is generally held centrally by local authorities within their general placements budget rather than within their Yot budget.
This is in recognition that the bigger the budget, the more protection there is against any fluctuation in numbers.
The placement budget is usually a large percentage of the entire children’s budget, and there is a direct relationship between the numbers of young people in care and the department’s overall expenditure.
In looking at the possible benefits of devolving the custodial placements budget, one must start by considering whether this is seen as a way to improve the delivery of services to young people, or simply as a way to improve financial management.
The benefits stemming from a change in the funding of custodial placements would be expected to be significant to compensate for the financial uncertainty at stake. Is this expected to be a catalyst for reducing the numbers of young people going into custody?
If ‘yes’, what is the thinking behind this? If ‘no’, what possible service delivery benefits can be achieved?
What would the strategy to bring the budget down be if it was going to be overspent? How will the YJB manage the conflicting targets of the commitment to respond to young people who breach their orders and a YOT’s projected overspend?
Personally, I do not envisage any financial benefits from this plan, and am worried about the possibilty of the costs of placing young people in custody spiralling as the funding becomes fractured among local authorities.
I cannot forsee any improvement in the delivery of services to young people as a result of this plan, and would welcome further exploration of devolving budgets will contribute to a YOT’s service delivery.
Dean Woodward is learning difficulties and disabilities project director, inclusion and standards division, Lambeth Council’s children and young people’s service