An accident of birth

There is an interesting parliamentary procedure called a ‘Ten Minute Rule Bill’ that allows MPs to raise subjects they deem to be important, but that are not currently part of the legislative process. In some ways it is like a junior version of a Private Members’ Bill, but with even less chance of success.

Yesterday, a Bill was presented in the House of Commons with support from all three of the main political parties in England. This was the Criminal Records (Childhood Offences) Bill, presented by its sponsor, the Conservative MP, Theresa Villiers.

In her speech about the aims of the Bill, Teresa Villiers said,

‘A key problem is that we have no distinct criminal records system for children. Apart from some limited differences providing for slightly shorter rehabilitation periods and other timeframes, children are subject to the full rigours of the disclosure system that I have outlined. Records relating to under-18 offences are retained for life. I believe that the childhood criminal records system in England and Wales is anchoring children to their past and preventing them from moving on from their mistakes. It is acting as a barrier to employment, education and housing. It is therefore working against rehabilitation, undermining a core purpose of the youth justice system. The current rules also perpetuate inequality. The Government’s race disparity audit concluded that ​children from a black and minority ethnic background are sadly more likely to end up with a criminal record. A system that is unduly penal in its treatment of such records has a harder and more disproportionate effect on BME communities. Similar points can be made about children who have spent time in care.’ https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2018-10-10/debates/1205F56C-ECAF-4272-81F7-BA1E629CA816/CriminalRecords(ChildhoodOffences)

I entirely agree. In September 2009, almost a decade ago, I wrote a piece for the TES in my regular column at that time. It was headed 93,601 – the number of 10-17 year olds gaining their first criminal record. https://www.tes.com/news/93601-number-10-17-year-olds-gaining-first-criminal-record

In that TES piece, I pointed out that some 700,000 young people gained a criminal record between 2000 and early 2008; not including those handed a caution or other out of court disposal. Fortunately, attitudes to dealing with petty offending have moved on from the days of Labour’s target culture and in 2016-17 there were just 49,000 proceedings against young people either in a court or by way of cautions for an admitted offence. This is still way too high, but half the level of a decade ago. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/676072/youth_justice_statistics_2016-17.pdf

Those children from a decade ago are now adults, but as I said in 2009, and Theresa Villier’s Bill sought to highlight, they carry the stigma of being an offender with them into their adult life. Not only must they declare it on an enhanced disclosure for a job as say, a teacher, but it can also affect their ability to travel to some countries that require visas, such as the United States.

My solution was that any summary offence, and most either way offences, including theft, should be removed from the record after a period of say five years free of offending.

I hope that the government will find time to either insert a clause in an appropriate piece of legislation or take up this Ten Minute Rule Bill and provide parliamentary time for it to proceed. Carrying a criminal record for the rest of your life should not be a matter of when you were born, but of the severity of your criminal behaviour.

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Upturn in average number of young people in custody

There has been a small but disappointing increase in the average number of young people up to the age of 18 being held in custody over the past eighteen months. Although the figures from April 2016 to February this year are provisional, they show the first upturn in annual average numbers held in detention since 2007/08. The provisional number for 2017/18 to February was 996 compared with 3,208 in 2007/08 and an all-time high since 2000 of 3,235 reached in 2005/06 at the height of the New Labour Target Culture when young people were being criminalised at an alarming rate. The data is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/youth-custody-data

Sadly, with the increase in knife violence witnessed recently, I suspect that the average number of young people in custody will only continue to increase over the short-term. Youngster from London make up by far the largest number from any one region, accounting for a quarter of the total of young people locked up in February 2018. By contrast, only 25 young people from Wales and 32 from the South West were being held in custody.

The change in policy on remands in custody for young people some years ago means that in February this year only 216, or about 20% of the total population in youth custody, were on remand. That may well still be too high a number, but there are still some serious crimes where custody following charge may be inevitable for public protection. If you add the total serving sentences for serious offences that will likely transfer into the adult prison estate when they are old enough to the remand population this group totals about 500 of the 870 under 18s in custody. There are fewer than 400 of this age group on Detention and Training Orders, almost the lowest number since well before 2000.

Only 28 of the under-18s in custody were classified as female, down from a peak of 241 in August 2007. This is approaching a 90% reduction, a percentage not achieved for the adult female prison population during the same period. Proportionally the number of BAME (Asian, Black, Mixed and Other) young people in custody has not declined in line with the reduction in the number recorded as White, so that in February 2018 there were 470 young people in custody classified as White and 385 as BAME compared with 1,754 White and 778 BAME in custody in August 2008.

The Youth Justice Board had not commissioned any bed space in the Eastern Region and only had nine custody bed spaces in use in the North East Region.  The 137 beds in the London Region are almost certainly not enough to allow young people to be kept in custody close to home. The same will almost certainly be true for the small number of young women in custody. Regular visits are very important to those in custody and their families and this can be a real issue now that numbers in custody are so much lower than a decade ago.

We must aim to ensure numbers in custody are as low as possible and that sentence lengths take into account the mental and physical age of the young person committing the crime as well as the seriousness of the offence. Ensuring their continued education and training and mental well-being are also important factors to take into account while in custody.

 

 

 

Supporting music for young people

Over the weekend I attended two charity events in the music world. In many ways they were a microcosm of society today and reflected some ofthe wide divisions even in a city such as Oxford. Saturday’s event was in aid of The Young Women’s Music Project (YWMP). This is an  educational charity that is described in their own words as offering twice-monthly free workshops for women aged 14-21, which provide an inclusive and supportive space for young women to make music together, learn new skills, express themselves, and grow in confidence.  In their music workshops, they make and record music, plan and hold gigs and events, and discuss relevant issues affecting young people. YWMP is trans inclusive.

YWMP also brings cutting-edge projects, gigs, exhibitions and talks to Oxford in high profile institutions such as Modern Art Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum, in partnerships with hospitals, schools, and organizations for vulnerable young people such as VIP+ and Readipop. The projects helps young people to challenge issues affecting them in a creative and productive way, such as class, race, sexuality, gender, mental health, and consent. Their web site can be found at: http://www.ywmp.org.uk/about

YWMP’s event was a supper evening in Silvie, a bakery café on Oxford’s Iffley Road. (https://www.facebook.com/Silvie-1089930287738590/) and included poetry and music from some of the young women the charity has helped. This is a small scale charity working with many young women for whom music can matter, where creating performing or supporting on the technical side. The last is a space still mainly occupied by men.

Sunday night’s venue was on the other side of the city at Lincoln College. The college were hosts of a concert by young, and in one case very young, musicians sponsored by the charity, Awards for Young Musicians. This charity aims to help by supporting those with a talent for music, but not the financial wherewithal to be able to develop their potential. Three musicians with a collective age of just 37 and supported by the charity entertained the invited audience with a variety of classical music pieces. One of the players lives on the Isle of Wight and travels every Saturday to the Royal College of Music, a roundtrip of seven hours every Saturday, and this on top of his practice time. (www.a-y-m.org.uk). A different audience, two very different settings, but a common theme.

Both charities are well worthy of support and are trying to keep alive the great tradition of music for all our young people and not to restrict it just to those whose families can afford it. Music was one of the great success stories of the post 1944 Education Act world in which I received my education. However, ever since the 1990s, music in schools has been under an increasing threat of being marginalised. This is despite the recognition of the importance of the arts in schools that occurred when the National Curriculum was first introduced.

The present utilitarian Philistines of Sanctuary Buildings that have devised the EBacc seemingly have no real feeling for the arts in schools. The loss of cash to local authorities in favour of schools and academies has also not done music any favours, as disorganised MATs and stand- alone academies are more of challenge to persuade to work together on developing extra-curricular activities in areas such as music than in the days when the value of central funding for music services was fully recognised as a valuable part of State education in England. Hence, today, the importance of charities such as the two highlighted here. There are, of course, many others. But, if you are interested in supporting music for young people these are two I am happy to commend to your attention.

 

 

Fewer children in secure units

Data from the DfE shows a fall in the number of children held in secure units at the end of March 2015 (SRF 15/2015). Now one must always be wary of figures for a single date because there may have been fluctuations during the year in the overall numbers. However, by comparing the same date over time it is clear that the number of children being held in secure units, especially as a result of an interaction with the criminal justice system, is on a downward trend. In 2010, 161 children were detailed after coming into contact with the criminal justice system in one way or another. By 2015 that number was down to 117 with a further 88 children placed in secure accommodation on welfare grounds. Of these 82 were children from England and six were children from Wales.

An encouraging sign is that the number of young children below the age of sixteen in secure accommodation at the census date has fallen over recent years. Although this number is still too high, it does seem to be going in the right direction. The number of 16 and 17 year olds in secure accommodation has increased. There needs to be some understanding of whether this is because of the actions of the courts, and the Youth Court in particular, or whether it is due to some local authorities resorting to a short period in secure accommodation for young people at risk of exploitation.

Indeed, the use of secure accommodation on welfare grounds may well be worth re-visiting. Is there any evidence that it can actually make a difference to lock up a teenager for say a month. Does it break their habits or do they return to the behaviour that caused concern as soon as they leave the secure accommodation?

Of course, these are figures for young people in secure accommodation as a result of the actions of the State. There are others that find themselves in confinement as a result of being trafficked by adults that have no concerns for their welfare, but merely see them as objects with a commercial value. Even after the recent series of trials in the courts it seems unlikely that the exploitation of young people, both girls and boys, for commercial gain through sexual activities has stopped.

Indeed, the prosecution of historic cases must not deny the resources of both the police and local authorities to following up current cases. In this respect schools have a vital part to play in identifying patterns of behaviour that may lead to a child becoming at risk of exploitation. Whatever academies and their sponsors may think of local authorities, they have a duty to cooperate in monitoring and reporting pupils at risk. There is a concern that some of these children are regarded as a nuisance by some schools and placed on an alternative education programme that may have far less hours of tuition than a normal school day. If that is the case then, out of sight must not mean out of mind.