Youth Justice Conference 2024: Ministerial speech

Given by Minister for Children, Young People and The Promise Natalie Don on 19 June 2024.

I really just want to say thank you all for having me here this morning. I’m really honoured to be back with you all this morning.

Last years conference I think was one of my very first engagements after taking on the role of Minister and I remember just standing here and being so so nervous speaking to your all but I think in the last year we’ve come a long way together and I genuinely look around this room now and see so many friends that I have had the real honour of working with.

Now, the last time I was here, I spoke to you about our preparations for the at the time planned Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill.  And at that time, the Bill was just going through Stage 1 of its progress through Parliament I believe, in fact, I was just getting ready for the stage 1 debate to be happening the following week.

And I think this conference was really brilliant at the time in supporting the Government team to make connections, and to get ready.

Now, last time, I spoke about how the Bill would, if passed, make significant changes for children and young people.  And I described how it would raise the maximum age of referral to the Children’s Reporter to 18; it would end the placement of under 18s in Young Offenders’ Institutions, how it would deliver changes to courts, victims’ experiences and to secure care.

And in so doing, it would tackle the inconsistencies in the way 16 and 17 year olds are seen, understood and supported – be that  across the children’s hearings or criminal justice systems.

But a great deal has happened since then and I’ve worked across the chamber, across parties and I think the Bill has really been strengthened through Parliamentary scrutiny. And equally., Parliament’s important work has often really benefitted from informed, expert input from partners and stakeholders in this room today. And that is all as it should be, and I’m so so grateful to those who played their part in enhancing that Bill’s provisions.

Now I am really delighted to say that the Bill was passed by Parliament on 25 April. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the two days in parliament when i was taking that bill through the chamber and I remember after we got through the many many amendments standing up for the opening of the stage three and I was holding back tears because I was jus so overwhelmed that we’d got to that point and so happy about the progress being made. From a purely personal point of view I really do know the difference that this will make to the lives of children and young people. And I spoke about my background before and I grew up in a certain environment and I was lucky enough to avoid involvement in the justice system but I have friends who ended up in young offenders institutions. And I saw the impact that this had on their lives.

Young offenders institutions are no environment for a child and I am so proud that Scotland is now making this shift and I’ll come on to speak about commencement in just a second.

The bill received Royal Assent earlier in June, so it is no longer a bill, we can now refer to it as ‘an Act'.

The Act is truly wide-ranging and ambitious, and its reforms as I’ve said will have an impact on many children, young people, families and on those who work with them.  We do face challenges around how we implement its principles into practice.  We want to do it as soon as it safely as possible, but we expect the introduction of the Act’s reforms to be phased.

Making sure that we are ready for that commencement is absolutely key. And I think it is therefore fitting that ‘implementing change and protecting rights’ is this year’s conference theme.

I think some of you might be a little uncertain about how best to prepare for commencement. And I hope that discussions across today and tomorrow will help with that – and I think they should help you to feel informed, engaged and supported on that agenda.

Capacity building and system-readiness are absolutely critical to success. And I would like to reassure all of you, as I reassured Parliament, that provisions within the Act will not be commenced until the systems and services are ready for that.

Commencement plans will be co-produced with partners. And I’d expect the Resourcing and Implementation Group, comprising of more than 30 delivery agencies and stakeholders, to meet again in the coming weeks.

Within the broader commencement programme, we’ll be prioritising ending the use of Young Offender Institutes for under 18s.  We want that to come in as quickly as is safely possible, and we’re going to make further announcements on that over the summer.

Those reforms are absolutely vital milestones towards our UNCRC commitments and to Keeping the Promise. It will ensure that, where a period of detention is required for a child, this happens in smaller, trauma-informed and child friendly settings – not in custody.

Adapting and preparing our secure care estate and staff teams – ahead of that commencement – is absolutely critical.

Secure accommodation providers must have the resources to be able to provide the therapeutic care, rehabilitation and reintegration services that children and young people require. They also need resources to keep all who live and work in secure care feeling safe, and feeling supported.

Preparations are well underway for the successful transition of children, currently in Polmont, to move safely to secure accommodation placements on commencement. And to date, interagency discussions have focused on pathways and processes. They will only home in on individual children’s needs nearer those commencement dates.

Longer term work around the future of secure accommodation, as well as the wider spectrum of support needed beyond secure accommodation to meet children’s needs, are being considered. And the Reimagining Secure Care project, led by colleagues at CYCJ, is at the forefront of that.

The project has been running since December 2022, and is due to report next month and I look forward to considering the recommendations.  We’ll then work with providers and partners to develop a compelling, rights-respecting and trauma informed approach to serve Scotland’s children in the years beyond 2030.

Now, I’ve been so interested and happy to chair the Age of Criminal Responsibility Advisory Group and we can look forward to receiving the report on that at the end of 2024.

And that report will have 2 points of focus:

  1. i) on the operation of the 2019 Act since it was commenced in December 2021 and
  2. ii) on the implications of making a further change to the age of criminal responsibility.

And I’ve been really really impressed by the detailed and the conscientious analysis work that’s been carried out so far – by a wide range of partners.  And I think we can be really confident that this huge effort will generate really really compelling reports just before Christmas. And Ministers will then want to look closely at whether and when further reforms should be introduced within that area.

Now, as I know many of you will be aware, the Care and Justice Act will also bring about significant change within the Children’s Hearings System.

And those of you who were at last year’s conference will remember Sheriff Mackie’s speak on his group’s recommendations on redesigning the hearings system – to improve every child’s experience.

The Hearings System Working Group, led by Sheriff Mackie, published its final report in May last year. The Government responded just before Christmas  - taking forward the bulk of the 130+ recommendations. That involved either accepting them in full, or progressing them for more development r=or consultation.

For those elements of redesign that don’t need new law or structures, a Redesign Board has been set up to take forward the adopted recommendations. It has met 3 times already, and it will push its programme forward in the next 2 years. 

However, major elements of the redesign programme DO need new law.  A full public, sectoral and professional written consultation has been drafted. And it will launch shortly after the UK election -  to run into the autumn. We want the views, suggestions and insights of all key partners on this important work so I encourage you to take part and share far and wide.

Now, of course, the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Act is not the only piece of legislation which will have a positive impact on the lives of children and young people.

I had the great honour of being present when the Scottish Parliament passed The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in December of last year.  And this ground-breaking legislation makes Scotland the first UK nation, and first ever devolved government, to directly incorporate the UNCRC into domestic law.

The provisions in the UNCRC Act align with the commitments of the Promise and will have a direct impact on children’s lives.

The policy intent behind the UNCRC Incorporation (Scotland) Act is to deliver a proactive culture of accountability for children’s rights across public services in Scotland, ensuring that we respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights.

As with the Care and Justice Act, we are supporting partners to ensure readiness ahead of commencement next month. 

I am well aware that everything I have mentioned this morning, brings about some uncertainty and some challenges to resources and to the workforce.

Our Youth Justice Vision, published in 2021, has been updated to reflect this changing landscape. And I’m pleased to announce its re-publication today – I thank the Youth Justice Improvement Board and all who contributed to this refresh.

The update will set us fair for the remainder of this Parliament.  It acknowledges the positive improvements for children, young people, and their families delivered by your continued efforts, while recognising that there is still a road ahead of us.

The publication re-states the priorities around upholding children’s rights and ensuring active participation, that data and evidence is key to informing policy and practice development and it re-iterates the continued delivery of the whole system approach – including prevention and early intervention support.

While much of the content is around supporting children who have caused harm, there are important developments about providing an improved experience to victims, and the families of those who have been harmed. We need to see that their rights are also upheld in an inclusive, supportive way – including through the new ‘single point of contact’ service introduced by the Care and Justice Act. 

I want to close today really by thanking all of you again, for all that you do for Scotland’s young people in need or at risk, especially when they come into conflict with the law.

I think this conference will, allow for really thoughtful discussion and a chance to reflect on how we can prepare for some significant changes in the world of children’s rights, care and justice.  I hope the next two days will allow you to connect with other, to learn something new, and I really just want to wish each of you a successful conference.

Thanks again.

Back to top