Straw said the powers were needed in “two or three cases” and named Sefton youth offending team, Merseyside, which probation inspectors recently labelled “very disappointing” and in need of “drastic improvement”.
“I am determined to step in where youth offending teams are failing our young people,” said Straw. “While many teams undoubtedly do a very effective job, we must be able to address areas where problems arise. By directing local authorities to revamping YOTs, imposing targets for improvement, and even sending in teams of youth justice experts to help improve practice I believe we can turn them around.”
The 157 youth offending teams around England and Wales have been set up over the last 10 years to bring together probation, police, health, education and social services staff to tackle young offenders.
The Local Government Association criticised Straw’s announcement, saying it had been made without consultation. “Youth Offending Teams are doing crucial work preventing and dealing with crime carried out by children,” said the LGA’s Les Lawrence.
“Proposed changes to give intervention powers to national government are completely unnecessary. It is scaremongering to give the public the idea there is a problem without a proper explanation and where, as is acknowledged, the vast majority are actually doing excellent work in very difficult circumstances.”
The intention to bring in legislation this autumn containing the new powers was highlighted in a 12-months progress report on the government’s flagship £100 million youth crime action plan published today. It was launched by three cabinet ministers, Straw, the children’s secretary, Ed Balls, and the home secretary, Alan Johnson.
Balls and Johnson wrote to local authorities urging them to set up family intervention projects, targeted at ‘problem families’ with children who are at risk of becoming persistent offenders.
Balls said that so far only half of local authorities – 75 – were taking part in the scheme. So far there are 2,000 families in the intensive family support programme with 42 new projects set up since the publication of the youth crime action plan 12 months ago. Balls hopes it will expand to cover 20,000 problem families within the next 18 months.
The circular from Balls and Johnson yesterday urged local authorities to expand and accelerate the family intervention programmes in their area or risk losing the extra money that is available.
The scheme uses a key worker to deliver intensive support to particularly chaotic or challenging young people and families, with non-negotiable elements and sanctions if behaviour does not change. The programme costs between £5,000 and £20,000 per family.
The action plan has also seen the involvement of 26,000 young people in extra activities on Friday and Saturday nights and the introduction of street teams of youth workers to 65 local areas. Operation Staysafe removes vulnerable young people from the streets at night and takes them to a place of safety.
Ministers say they intend to clarify further local relationships between children’s trusts which bring together all services for children and the youth offending teams.
Further action has yet to be taken to provide incentives for local authorities to avoid sending young offenders into custody. Measures being looked at include making them more aware of the costs of incarceration involved. However, the revised youth action plan makes clear that ministers do not intend to make it mandatory for a formal review process to take place before a child can be sentenced to a youth jail.
One pilot scheme involving these “custody panels” run by the LGA and the Howard League showed a 42% drop in the number of children jailed as a result of the initiative.
One key part of the youth crime action plan was the promise of comprehensive packages of support – including housing and education – for young people leaving custody. Extra funding for this initiative is promised over the next two years but has yet to be announced.ends