Anne Longfield's speech to Youth Justice Board Leader's Summit, March 23rd 2023

I want to start by looking back a couple of years to my time as Children's Commissioner.

Throughout my term, I made vulnerable children my biggest focus - shining a light on their lived experiences, and on the way different systems were frequently failing to meet the needs of thousands of young people and not giving them the opportunities and support they often need to succeed in life.

As part of that, I saw a youth justice system full of dedicated, committed people who were doing their best to help young people keep out of the criminal justice system.

But who were so often working with one hand tied behind their back because the system was disjointed, underfunded, overly bureaucratic and lacking the resource or structures to build the strong, long-term relationships we know are key to diverting young people away from danger.

So often the focus of the system wasn't on the outcomes for the young person, and the different parts weren't working together to ensure they made things better.

The system often focused on symptoms rather than the root causes, often intervened after crisis had already happened and was full of gaps - and we all know that where there are gaps, the most vulnerable young people will slip through.

Over the last few years, I've met and heard from so many young people and parents whose lives had been devastated because nobody was able to help when things started to go wrong. And no-one thought it was their job to keep a vulnerable young person safe - sometimes with tragic consequences.

I made it the theme of my final speech as Children's Commissioner, and I wanted to carry on that work.

That's why I launched the Commission on Young Lives in September 2021. I felt frustrated and angry at repeated failures to protect some of the most vulnerable teenagers from exploitation and harm.

All of us here will have read the countless serious case reviews of young people who have lost their life before it has even really started.

All of us will have met young people in the criminal justice system who we know would never have ended up there if they had had  help to prevent problems escalating.

We know their stories inside out - sometimes before we've even heard them - because they have been told so many times before.

Year after year.

The adverse childhood experiences at home or outside it, unmet needs, systems that are poor at identification and slow to offer support.

A tick-box culture, high thresholds, overworked professionals, underfunded and overstretched statutory services.

The gaps that have developed over many years for vulnerable children to fall through - in the education system, in the care system, in children's mental health service provision - are opened wider by distrust or professionals not being where they really need to be at the right time.

And we all know how those who harm children do their work.

How their business model - yes, their business model - relies on exploiting young people, knowing where to find them, and what to do to keep hold of them. They're well-coordinated, well-organised, well-funded, experts at identifying vulnerable children.

After all, their business depends on it.

The Commission on Young Lives published its report "Hidden in Plain Sight" last November. It set out a national plan for how we can put up a ring of protection around vulnerable children and transform the outcomes of the most marginalised teenagers.

I think our proposals are realistic, deliverable, and affordable. We make recommendations for better children's mental health services, tackling child poverty, boosting family support, a more inclusive education system, and a care system that moves beyond permanent crisis.

At the centre of our proposals are a new Sure Start Plus network - a Sure Start for Teenagers - and the recruitment of an army of youth workers.  I'll talk about both in more detail later.

We called our final report 'Hidden in Plain Sight' for a reason. These are problems that are hidden by the nature of their ties to criminal activity - but also in many ways are going on in plain sight.

We all know what is going on.

Teenagers being chased in broad daylight by other teenagers waving knives, machetes, or guns.

Homes where the young people involved in the drugs trade are the main breadwinner.

Communities where organised criminals seek out and groom very vulnerable children almost with impunity.

Families who don't know where to turn when they find a burner phone in their child's bedroom.

Police spending huge amounts of time and resources stepping in to cover for other struggling services.

Some schools becoming almost a branch of social services.

NHS staff treating teenagers arriving with knife or gunshot wounds.

A care system placing teenagers in dangerous accommodation miles from home.

A children's mental health service under-resourced and with increasingly high thresholds for support.

Our services are overstretched, so too little time and resource is spent on early help, including on diverting young people at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.

This crisis revealed itself to me on a visit to an estate in the North of England last year.

Nine gang members who lived on the estate were delivering a 'county line'.  They were around 14-years-old, and had stepped up into senior roles in an existing gang when the drugs market reopened after Covid.

These young boys wore balaclavas and were dishing out acts of violence and torching vehicles and buildings.

Everyone knew who they were, but nothing was happening to stop them.

All had been excluded from school, and all had been sent to a local Pupil Referral Unit with a very poor reputation, which none of them seemed to attend.

Families on the estate were at their wits end, terrified, worried their own younger children would start to emulate what they were seeing.

I've no doubt that some of these young people will end up in the secure estate, some perhaps won't make it to adulthood at all.

So often the young people who are caught up in this activity are from the most marginalised and poorest families.

Duncan Bew, the trauma surgeon, talks of the teenagers in his operating theatre with padlocks on the kitchen cupboards.

Disproportionately they are from Black and Minority Ethnic communities - in every part of the system the data speaks for itself.

But we know this is not a problem limited to the most deprived parts of inner-city Britain. It's middle class, leafy areas too.

County lines is a reality in every police force in the country.

Indeed, it has been estimated that there could be as many as 200,000 children in England aged 11 to 17 who are vulnerable to serious violence.

The impact of Covid has made it worse: an increased lack of readiness for school, speech and language development problems, a rise in children's mental health conditions, and increased poverty. Youth workers talk to me about an explosion of incidents - more frequent and more extreme.

Yet a recent NAO study concludes that Government has still not developed a full understanding of the challenges involved in supporting vulnerable adolescents.

It argued the lack of a strategic approach means that government cannot yet say whether its current spending plans will effectively address the needs of these children and their families in the most effective way.

And without a strategic approach to planning, there is a risk of gaps in the provision of support, or that support from different programmes overlap.

I do welcome the positive steps Government have taken. The Supporting Families Programme, the Serious Violence Duty, Violence Reduction Units.

There is also some funding for improving youth clubs as part of the "youth promise".

There's the start of Family Hubs, a promising first step to provide joined up support but nowhere near what is needed to get back to where we were with children's centres in 2010.

And there are of course so many committed people and organisations who are already making an enormous difference, turning around young people's lives. And areas doing their best to do more to join things up.

But these things don't happen of their own accord.  They need a programme of change to build a system that is consistent and purposeful. They need leadership and more support from the top of Government and a national strategy.

We know that crime has again become one of the biggest concerns for voters, particularly antisocial behaviour.

And I've been encouraged to hear politicians starting to talk confidently again about policies that move beyond increasing police numbers and being tougher on criminals.

We are even starting to hear that phrase 'tough on the causes of crime' again.


Because government has wasted too much time over the last decade almost unlearning many of the benefits of investing in early help that were being developed in the first decade of this century.

Not everything was perfect - and one success of the last decade has been the huge drop in number of boys in the secure estate - but there was an important recognition that diversion and early help works and is so often life-changing.

Earlier today I was at a roundtable with Keir Starmer and Yvette Cooper, and it was encouraging to hear them recognising the importance of prevention. I think this is an area both the government and opposition should be signed up to - it should cut right across political parties.

We know that while children in need of additional help represent a small proportion of the overall population, they comprise most children involved in county lines, exploitation, serious violence, and the justice system.

We know that there are hundreds of thousands of children and young people in England growing up in households and situations that leave them particularly vulnerable to harm, exploitation, and crime. And that most of these children are neither in care nor receiving any help at all.

Clearly, most of these young people do not become involved in the criminal justice system.

However, those who do almost always have a childhood and early adulthood that is precarious.

Diverting these children and young people away from harm, exploitation, and the youth justice system should be at the heart of any government's plan to tackle crime.

I'm encouraged too that the Youth Justice Board has promoted a Child First approach to youth justice.

This is an important development, but I don't believe it is yet understood or implemented consistently across the entire youth justice system.

The key now is to ensure that the principle is carried out in practice and is achieved as quickly as possible through further embedding practice which understands trauma, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and restorative approaches, and through culturally competent engagement.

I welcome trauma-informed and restorative practice becoming embedded into the youth justice system, though it is still the case that many children and young people who are already suffering from trauma before an arrest or conviction are being further traumatised by their experiences in the youth justice system.

The courts system and prison system are still often failing to treat children as children or adapting to the needs of the children in a trauma-informed way.

However, the welcome and much needed move towards a more therapeutic approach to youth justice includes what I believe should be a ground-breaking commitment for a new secure school, established by Oasis, who hosted the Commission on Young Lives.

The first secure school - Oasis Restore - is placing emphasis on therapeutic care, mental health provision, and trusting interpersonal relationships with support staff.

Instead of focusing on punitive justice and security, it prioritises healing psychological trauma and preparing children for a life and career after their release, bringing the treatment of children in the justice system in line with the modern understanding of psychology and mental health.

This is the way forward.

I'm also encouraged by the increased focus on resettlement from custody. There has been some promising success in some areas, like London and the West Midlands, but much more needs to be done, as evidenced by the shockingly high reoffending rates.

Until all partners, including health, family services, education, and accommodation, play a full part the risks of reoffending after custody will remain high.

However, we are still trailing behind more forward-thinking approaches of other countries who have adopted ideas such as family-style youth courts that are making their systems more child-centred.

So, at the heart of youth justice reform must be an explicit understanding of the role of trauma, adverse experiences and the disadvantage, and the intersections and compounding elements which when combined increase a child's likelihood of entering the youth justice system.

I want to see a truly trauma-informed system across the entire criminal justice system, from police to courts, from YOTs to custody, rehabilitation, and resettlement.

We need to acknowledge that custody should be a last resort and that children who are placed in custodial estates are generally those with the most complex and significant issues and traumas.

And acknowledge that the age of criminal responsibility remains very low in England compared to other European countries. It should be raised to 14.

Most importantly, we also need to put the engine of government behind a relentless focus on prevention, improving wellbeing and specialist help for those vulnerable children who need it.

It's amazing to think that the number of children in custody is now less than half the size of an average secondary school.

This big drop in the YOI population should in theory have freed up more resource for even more preventative support in schools, children's social care, mental health care, and family support, so that number becomes even smaller.

This was a missed opportunity. But one I hope Government - or a future Government - will learn from.

However, unpalatable as it may sound politically, young people in the youth justice system are frequently victims themselves and have experienced significant adverse childhood experiences.

For too many children, the point at which they enter the criminal justice system is a moment when interventions have come too late or have failed.

Many children in custody, or adults who have been in prison, talk about multiple times in their life when they needed help but didn't receive any.

Some describe being on a conveyor belt, unable to get off, knowing which direction they were heading but unable to be diverted away from an almost inevitable journey towards custody.

Youth justice services should be a key part of the process of preventing children entering the criminal justice system in the first place, and of diverting those who are involved away from further or escalating crises.

In my view, strong youth provision is essential to prevention and diversion. Youth justice work should be flexible and should include working within the community, having a presence, reclaiming areas, and reaching out to young people who otherwise may not want to come to them.

That is why we have put delivering long term, relationship and place-based work to support and build the resilience of young people and their communities - providing positive alternatives and activities to those that wish to exploit them - at the heart of the Commission's recommendations.

It is clear to me that only a national strategic priority to reduce the number of children at risk, backed up by the resources to do so, will be capable of delivering the scale of change and improvements needed.

At the heart of the Commission's recommendations for delivering this is a new Sure Start Plus Programme - a "Sure Start for Teenagers" network of intervention and support that reduces the risks vulnerable young people face and encourage them to thrive. A new network of early help and support for vulnerable children, young people and their families.

Embracing an 'invest to save' ethos I believe Sure Start Plus should be a universal offer that is established initially in the areas of greatest need through local hubs operating in and around secondary schools.

The Hub would be a mechanism for bringing services together and providing co-ordinated bespoke services and activities for teenagers and their families who need it.

Sure Start Plus would bring together statutory services for families with teenagers such as therapeutic and family support, intervention for families who are struggling, and specialist help for parents suffering from addition, poor mental health and domestic violence.

Family workers would be on hand to help parents who are worried that their teenagers might be being groomed or enticed into gangs and families would be able to work with professionals to develop parenting approaches and skills to keep their teenagers safe.

For young people, the Sure Start Plus Hub would provide education and health support. Its Hub co-ordinator would work with local secondary schools, children's services, health, local community groups and the police to build support systems for teenagers, especially those at risk.

It would identify young people who need extra help - in school and at home.  It would co-ordinate help and support from specialists including education psychologists, mental health counsellors, language, social and emotional support and behaviour, decision making and coping skills and out of school activities - sports, arts, volunteering, and adventure.

Crucially it would be a place where long term relationships with youth practitioners could be built, providing valued guidance to help teenagers set goals, build confidence, navigate problems and develop solutions.

It would work with community groups to develop, co-ordinate and deliver youth activities in and around the school and in the wider community before and after school, weekends and holidays.

And work strategically and collaborate with early years provision, children's centre and with Family Hubs.

My vision is a network of Hubs that endures and becomes part of the fabric of a local community, lasting for decades, adapting as society changes.

Alongside this, I'd like to see a major programme of recruitment of youth workers, starting in the most disadvantaged areas. They would work with young people in and around schools to develop positive activities and support long-term, intensive relationships and support for teenagers at risk of violence and exclusion.

Youth Practitioners would integrate with pastoral staff in school and youth justice teams to provide universal and specialist support.

I believe these proposals and issues cut across political parties.

And the cost? We are already spending billions on crisis.

The Independent Review of Children's Social Care estimated the lifetime cost of adverse outcomes for all children who have ever needed a social worker is £23bn a year. It has been estimated that between 2010 and 2020 the social cost of serious youth violence across England and Wales was at least £6bn, but more likely £11bn.

As someone who helped deliver Sure Start Centres in the early 2000s, I know how well-respected and valuable that programme was before it was dismantled.

It won't be cheap to build a network of Sure Start Plus, but I believe that politicians can be more creative about raising funds - from using the confiscated proceeds of crime, to a windfall tax on social media companies and mobile phone providers, to using National Lottery money more effectively.

Fundamentally though, it requires Government to reassess its priorities and to put education, schools, and vulnerable children at the centre of its plans for levelling up and growth.

I am encouraged by the consensus among Parliamentarians we have talked with that the current system is failing thousands of vulnerable children. And the interest in the development of a Sure Start programme for teenagers.

To succeed though we will need the engines of government fully behind it.

The Commission asks a pointed question in its introduction: why are gangs and criminals are so much better than some of our systems and services at identifying and scooping up vulnerable young people?

It doesn't have to be this way.

We can go on paying out billions on social failure, on overcrowded prisons, talking tough, and trading statistics on police numbers.

Or we can invest in the ideas and systems that can divert more young people away from serious violence and crime and develop a youth justice system that finally switches off that conveyor belt that takes young vulnerable people on a journey to prison and lost life chances.



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