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Youth Justice Statistics

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 10 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the finding in the Youth Justice Statistics 2019-20, published on 28 January, that more than half of all children in custody in 2020 were from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background.

Sorry—it is so long since I have been in the Chamber. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The over-representation of ethnic minority children in the youth justice system, including in custody, is a real concern to the Government. We want people to have confidence in our justice system, and a justice system that is fair and open, with no person suffering discrimination of any sort. We continue to prioritise the understanding and tackling of disproportionality within the youth justice system, which includes practical work on diversion and better support for front-line justice services.

I thank the noble Baroness for that response and apologise for my hasty intervention. Not only are children in the criminal justice system disproportionately black, Asian or from a minority ethnic background, they are more likely to be in care and extremely likely to have autism-spectrum disorders and communication difficulties. Just over 40% will reoffend within a year, and self-harm has gone up by 35%. This is compelling evidence of systematic failure and institutional racism. Does the Minister think that this national scandal is an acceptable way to treat children? What joined-up work is being done across government, police and all agencies to effect radical change? Scotland recently stopped treating under-12s as criminals and has moved away from an adversarial system, putting welfare above punishment. Will the Government urgently look at this more humane approach for England and Wales?

I am aware that my noble friend the Minister sent a comprehensive response to the Question from the noble Baroness when it was dropped due to Prorogation. However, I will answer the main point of her question. Of course this needs to be a cross-governmental issue: the youth justice system alone can only partially address the inequalities. It is important that we look at poverty, mental ill-health, educational attainment, school inclusion and looked-after children, where many young people from ethnic minority backgrounds also fare worse.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register. The Government have had many decades to address disproportionality in relation to ethnic minorities in the youth justice system, with many young black boys’ futures being blighted. Many in your Lordships’ House know of the disparity. When will the Government start to take action and stop commissioning more reports to look into the problem in the justice system?

I understand the noble Baroness’s keen interest in this and all the work that she does, but we are working to strengthen further our understanding of how we can ensure that children from ethnic minorities can be diverted from the formal youth justice system where appropriate. We have secured funding to support ethnic minority children at risk of entering the criminal justice system through sports and other activities, and we are undertaking practical local initiatives on out-of-court disposals.

My Lords, the criminal justice system at every stage disproportionately impacts black people. For example, if you are black, you are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police for drugs, but you are just as likely as white people to be found with drugs. Largely due to minor drugs offences, there are more African Americans in jail than in university in the United States. What are the comparable figures for the United Kingdom? If the noble Baroness does not have the answer to hand, perhaps she could write to me and place a copy in the Library.

I thank the noble Lord. I do not have those figures with me, and I will certainly write to him and place a copy in the Library.

I refer to my interests in the register that are relevant to this Question. In particular, I refer to my presidency of the Prison Reform Trust. In view of what the Minister rightly said about the concerns in relation to the statistics referred to in the Question, does she not think that this could be a good opportunity to take positive action, at least to start dealing with the very worrying situation that the statistics reveal?

The noble and learned Lord is absolutely right, and that is exactly what the Government, and particularly the Ministry of Justice, are doing. We are looking at the report and putting in place pilot schemes in particular, as well as other measures, to make sure that we are tackling this problem, which we understand is of great concern.

My Lords, I remind the House that I sit as a youth magistrate in London. I am in no doubt that the noble Baroness has sensed the exasperation of the previous questioners. In February 2021, the Justice Committee published the report Children and Young People in Custody. The Government responded to this in April 2021, listing the various measures they had already taken—but they did not include a timetable setting out how they would implement the remainder of the recommendations that have not yet been implemented. When will the Government publish such a timetable?

I thank the noble Lord and thank him for the work that he does with the magistrates’ service. The Youth Custody Service has refreshed equality plans across its establishments, providing effective practice briefings and training, with a focus on diversity and inclusion. The Youth Custody Service has also put in place a project to improve recruitment and promotion opportunities for ethnic minority staff, and it is embedding a diverse leadership model. So, as noble Lords can see, we are working on it, and I will certainly write to the noble Lord and give him an idea of the timescale for delivery.

The Youth Justice Board’s analysis of how BAME children are treated makes very salutary reading. Even taking into account all the factors, black children are more likely to be remanded in custody, rather than the alternatives available. They are also more likely to receive a longer custodial sentence than other children. So, in respect of remand, what steps are the Government taking to ensure parity of esteem and treatment for black children? Secondly, as a result of Covid, the Government decided to mix those remanded in custody with those serving a custodial sentence. Have these damaging arrangements now ended, and, if not, when will they?

My Lords, we are aware of this concern and are examining it in the context of a departmental review into the use of custodial remand for children, which is shortly to be published. The reforms in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which aim to limit the use of custodial remand for children, also have the potential to help reduce the racial disparity in remand decisions.

It is impossible to look at these figures for the disproportionate number of ethnic minority children in custody without drawing the conclusion that the criminal justice system is institutionally racist. However, the problem starts with the police because of their stops and searches. So what is the Ministry of Justice going to do, and how will it approach the Home Office to try to clear up the whole mess?

My Lords, the Government fully support the police in the fair and proportionate use of their powers and the lawful use of stop and search. However, we remain clear that no one should be stopped and searched based on race or ethnicity, and extensive safeguards exist to ensure that this does not happen.

Is my noble friend aware of any geographic or regional variation in the disproportionate sentencing of ethnic minority children?

I thank my noble friend for her question. The number of children being sentenced has decreased considerably over the past 10 years. However, we recognise that this decrease has fallen unevenly for children of different ethnicities—which is a matter of concern, as I have said. I do not have the data for different localities at this time, but I will be very happy to respond in writing to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I sat on the David Lammy review into racism within the criminal justice system in 2017, which that laid bare the shocking data that 45% of youth incarceration was black, Asian and minority ethnic. Fast forward to 2021, and that has increased to 55%—going the wrong way. Given that we have a thoroughly discredited Dr Sewell race report, I make a plea to the Government to sit down with me and other interested parties and begin to formulate a comprehensive race equality strategy to deal with this and other issues.

I am very happy to take that offer to sit down with the department back to it, and I will be in touch with the noble Lord.

My Lords, I just remind all noble Lords that the recommended time for a question is 30 seconds. If we could all make an effort to keep to that, I will do my best to ensure that Ministers are equally brief.