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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

Crisis talk

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

The Home Office "loves a crisis" was perhaps not the smartest comment by its super smart Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft.

What I think he was getting at, during a session of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, was that officials in the department relish the focus, challenge and concentrated effort that a crisis brings compared to the long, hard, tedious graft of 'business as usual'.

But whatever satisfaction his staff may have had from handling the refugee emergencies in Afghanistan and Ukraine (the two crises that he cited) it was not the right phrase to use. The 12,000 Afghans still stuck in hotels in the UK and the thousands of Ukrainians and their would-be British hosts tangled up in Home Office red tape as they wait for visas certainly wouldn't appreciate it. I'm sure Rycroft regrets the remark; he did later apologise.

What it reflects is the dilemma faced by senior managers: how to champion the work of the organisation they lead without minimising its flaws. The Home Office is to some extent still haunted by John Reid's description in 2006 of the department's immigration directorate as "not fit for purpose". The label served its own political purpose at the time but it had a longer-term effect on reputation and morale which was damaging.

The Permanent Secretary was determined not to fall into that trap but he overdid it in the other direction. He lauded the programme to hire an extra 20,000 police officers as an example of a project that the Home Office was on track successfully to deliver. In fact, some forces are struggling to meet their recruitment target. If they don't find the requisite number of officers by next March they will lose funding.

So desperate has the Metropolitan Police become that it has paid for a glitzy, flashy advert showing police work at its most exciting. It has also offered police officers who transfer from other constabularies a 'signing-on' bonus of £5,000, a move that has angered neighbouring chief constables and police and crime commissioners who fear an exodus. When I interviewed him for Policing TV, Andy Cooke, the new Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services, appeared unconvinced that the bounty would work, describing it as a "bold" idea. "Good luck to them," he said.

It would have been far more sensible for the Government to build up the capacity of police forces gradually, to ensure they were able to absorb recruitment demands without jeopardising standards and risking overloading other parts of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the Government doesn't do 'sensible'. As more officers are in place, more suspects will be arrested, more investigations launched and there'll be more work for police staff, forensic scientists, the Crown Prosecution Service, the criminal courts, victim services, defence lawyers, probation and prisons. A more measured, step-by-step approach could have helped the whole system cope with those pressures and recover the ground lost during austerity. Instead, there is a danger that record court backlogs and delays for victims, witnesses and defendants will barely shift or get worse.

One area where delays are keenly felt is youth justice. In 2010-11, it took about three months (96 days) from an offence taking place to the case being concluded in court. The latest set of annual figures, for 2020-21, show that it's now taking over seven months (219 days) for 10 to 17 year old suspects to be dealt with. Covid has clearly had an impact, but the trend was upwards before the pandemic.

Delays in youth justice really matter. Claudia Sturt, the Chief Executive of the Youth Justice Board, believes they "harm children and adolescents much more than adults". Seven months in the life of a teenager is a long and potentially pivotal period in their development. Rather than waiting for a charging decision or court proceedings, work could, and should, be taking place to address the issues that underpin a young person's offending. But the longer the process drags on, the more 'teachable moments' are missed.

Sturt likened it to being "left on a trolley in A and E". Addressing a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Penal Reform Group, she said children were in "legal limbo" with the added danger for 17-year-olds that if they turn 18 by the time their case is dealt with they could fall into the "pernicious snake-pit of the adult prison estate". Sturt should know; she was a prison governor who used to run Belmarsh.

Delay can have a particularly damaging effect on children held in custody. Although the overall number detained has plummeted over the past 15 years, from almost 3,000 to under 450, the figure is expected to double by 2025. A growing proportion haven't even been tried: in 2020-21, 40% of 10 to 17-year-olds were on remand. And of those remanded, a record 74% did not eventually receive a custodial sentence. "You could argue that 30% of children in custody don't need to be there," said Sturt.

After Labour came to power in 1997, it pledged to halve the average number of days from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders, from 142 to 71. The target was reached within four years - and bettered in the years that followed. You have to be careful when setting targets that you don't create perverse outcomes and enable people to game the system. But a target can have a galvanising effect, driving institutions in the right direction. A target to cut youth justice delays, so that punishment and rehabilitation more swiftly fit the crime, could help reduce re-offending rates among young people. They are highest among those leaving custody, with almost two-thirds of under-18s convicted or cautioned again within 12 months of their release.

Youth justice is slipping towards a crisis, albeit a crisis of a different kind to that which Matthew Rycroft had in mind. Not a sudden, wretched situation which needs urgent action but a combination of events that over a long period has caused lengthening delays and increasing uncertainty for troubled and vulnerable young people. There is a shortage of appropriate custodial settings and specialist staff, and a general failure to rehabilitate children with the most entrenched problems and challenging behaviour. That's not a crisis that any civil servant would "love" to have.

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