Victoria Atkins is Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice.
This Government is determined to make our streets safer, from the recruitment of 20,000 more police officers, tougher sentences for sexual and violent criminals, our work to tackle violence against women and girls and investment in practical measures such as CCTV and street lighting. But we are not confining our efforts to catching criminals – we want to prevent harm from happening in the first place.
To do this, we must confront a difficult topic: offending by children and young people. The reality is that eight out of ten prolific offenders began their criminal careers as children. To deliver the reductions in crime we all want to see, we must tackle youth offending now.
There is no single route to youth offending. The Government’s Beating Crime Plan, however, highlights risk factors including school absence, poor mental health, substance misuse and domestic abuse which increase the chances of children becoming ensnared in criminality.
If we can break this cycle and prevent young people from getting mixed up in a life of crime, we can reduce the number of victims of crime, build safer communities and save the taxpayer £17 billion a year.
Today, we are launching our new £60 million “Turnaround” early intervention programme which will support up to 20,000 more children in England and Wales. It will help youth offending teams focus on children who are teetering on the edge of criminality, to prevent them from spiralling into a career of crime. We want young people in school learning English and maths, not on our streets causing damage, behaving anti-socially or even being dragged into gangs.
This is part of a hard-headed calculation to invest more in tackling youth offending nationally, providing £300 million over three years to youth offending teams to deliver local services well. This is an increase of nearly £100 million additional funding compared to 2021/22 levels and will allow local areas to deliver more and better interventions to make communities safer.
Good examples include the ‘Sports Barn’ in Blackpool, which I visited this week, where youth workers offer families and children a range of sports providing fun, healthy alternatives to hanging around streets causing problems. Another example is found in Buckinghamshire, where the council places youth offending staff and volunteers in schools to reach at-risk children directly, which is driving down exclusion rates and increasing the support accepted by young people to turn away from crime.
I spent nearly two decades working in the criminal courts before I was elected to Parliament. In fact, it was a 12 year old boy who I will call ‘Billy’ who proved, all too sadly, the necessity of this work. I turned up at court to represent him and he was alone – there was no grown up was there to support him as required by law.
When I asked him whether his parents were coming to court, he said “I’ve never known my dad and my mum will be flat-out drunk on the floor.” It was 9.30 in the morning. With a criminal conviction at the age of 12, and the difficulties he faced at home, his downward spiral into a life of crime could be predicted with depressing certainty.
The Turnaround scheme is the first Government scheme specifically for early intervention programmes, allowing local authorities to provide such schemes more consistently across the country now. This will end the so-called ‘postcode lottery’, so ensuring funding reaches areas who need it most to ensure location does not prevent a child like Billy receiving potentially life-changing – and crime reducing – interventions.
Whilst the driving factor behind the funding announcement today is to cut crime and protect the public, it also makes economic sense. The cost of not intervening early to prevent children following the wrong path often means they end up using costly services including police, children’s social care, courts and even prisons. Safer streets also provide businesses with confidence to invest and grow, improving job opportunities and local propensity. By tackling youth offending we can save the taxpayer billions a year.
The Turnaround scheme will develop on our wider youth work across the country which includes the Supporting Families programme we have boosted by £200 million and our ten-year, Youth Endowment Fund, which I developed and launched in my previous role as Minister for Safeguarding.
We are also investing an additional £2.3 billion into NHS mental health services by 2024, which will help around 345,000 more children get the support they need. Providing long-term catch-up support of almost £5 billion in our Education Recovery Plan, so every child can fulfil their potential and providing £300 million for our Start for Life offer which focuses on the first 1,001 critical days which sets the foundations for lifelong emotional and physical wellbeing.
As Prisons and Youth Justice Minister, my number one priority is cutting crime and protecting the public. Taking the right preventative action to stop vulnerable young people from falling into a life of crime is one of best ways to achieve this. This work will help young people to steer their lives away from crime and keep our streets safer, as part of our determination to level up and improve our neighbourhoods.