Skip to main content

Deskilling" youth justice social workers a threat to reducing reoffending, MPs told

Recent successes in reducing crime and reoffending rates across England and Wales could be jeopardised by cuts to the youth justice service and by the marginalisation of the social work role, MPs have been warned.

The second evidence gathering session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Work heard from a senior social worker in a youth offending team, Iain Brown, who said there was a serious risk of “deskilling” social workers who had made a big impact on crime rates among young people.

“One of the dilemmas after ten years of good outcomes – a reduction in crime, a reduction in first time entrants to criminality among young people aged ten-to-18, and a reduction in reoffending, which is all good news – is that as social workers we feel we are being marginalised within youth offending teams (YOTs). The reason is that YOTs are being placed under the same scrutiny as everyone else through austerity measures, being told to do more with less.”

Mr Brown told MPs, including Paul Goggins, himself a former youth justice social worker, that the decision to ascribe ‘looked after’ status to all children and young people who commit offences was undermining the expertise of his colleagues.

“The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offender Act means any child put into custody or serving a sentence becomes looked after and are visited by a social worker from local authority children’s services. But we have qualified, dedicated, well-proven social workers within the youth justice service who can do the same job, and now have to see colleagues from children’s services coming in – even though they are already doing a demanding job themselves – to do that work.

“That isn’t common sense and my colleagues are feeling deskilled by having to accompany a fellow social worker into a young offenders facility or children’s home to carry out a review that they could carry out themselves.”

Mr Brown endorsed the view of Mr Goggins and his Labour colleague Ann Coffey MP that other sectors of social work, particularly in England and Wales, could learn from the multi-agency approach that statistics suggest has proven so successful in youth offending teams.

Mr Brown told the Westminster inquiry: “I’ve always thought that if safeguarding teams have what we have, then that would have a significant impact. For example, access to multi-agency staff – experts you can speak with straight away – easier access than going through mainstream services to therapeutic, educational or sexual health support within their teams. If I go back to my Scottish roots, that’s what they do there – and who knows, it might work here too.”

A report published by the National Audit Office in December 2010 into the effectiveness of increased investment in youth justice under the previous Labour government found that while reoffending rates among the most serious young offenders had not changed, the number of first-time entrants into the criminal justice system was the lowest since comparable records began in 2001. The number of young people held in custody fell by 14% over the previous five years, despite the adult prison population growing by the same figure over the same period.

The NAO report, The Youth Justice System in England and Wales: Reducing offending by young people, that the proportion of all young offenders who reoffend fell from 40% in 2000 to 37% in 2008, with the volume of their reoffending dropping by 25%.