Hammersmith and Fulham Council will slash the budget of its young offending team by 63 per cent over the next three years.
Critics fear that the cuts, full details of which were buried in official statistics, will leave vulnerable youngsters without desperately needed support and lead to an increase in youth crime, with more youngsters in detention centres and out of school. Police in the borough fear a fall in incidents involving young offenders could be reversed.
Spending on young offenders in 2010 was £689,306. By 2013 it will be 63 per cent lower at £255,173. Figures published in November gave details only of a 26 per cent cut over the next two years to £510,346. But calculations show that the third year projections reveal an even larger cut of 37 per cent for 2012-13. The council says that only administrative tasks will be affected.
In the past seven months incidents involving the under 18s, have fallen by 33 per cent in Hammersmith and Fulham, against a London average of an 8 per cent drop.
Professor Bill Whyte, director of the Criminal Justice Social Work Development Centre for Scotland, said that the severity of the cuts would leave young people who are “prolific” offenders without vital support.
“The consequences could be catastrophic – more young people in detention centres or in care or excluded from school – which is already too high and is very costly. Unless some of the work is picked up by social services these offenders will be even less likely to receive the support they so crucially need, and that is horrifying.”
Inspector John Ballard, who is in charge of integrated offender management at Hammersmith police station and works with the youth offending service, fear that his team’s work will be undermined by the cuts. “At the moment we are the second best borough in the capital when it comes to preventing youngsters from committing crime. In the last four weeks we’ve convicted six young offenders.
“But with these cuts we’re going to have to fill gaps. We’re constantly looking of ways to change the behaviour of these offenders. With a lot less people we have to be realistic – crime will increase.”
Youth offending teams were set up under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to cut the risk of young people offending or reoffending, and to support offenders and the cuts come only five years after an official inspection of the council’s service found that it only met bare minimum requirements.
The report said: “Despite the quality assurance system in place in the young offending service, the inspection found that a number of cases that had been reviewed by managers had not met basic requirements.
“The young offending service had an underdeveloped approach to evaluating the impact of its work with children and young people.”
Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister, said: “Cuts of this scale will inevitably lead to reduced frontline staff and a reduction in service quality.
“If judges in youth courts don’t have confidence in youth offending programmes, they’ll be forcing offenders in to custodial sentences where a community sentence might usually be appropriate. Cutting prevention teams, which helped to drive cuts in the number of young people first committing a crime by 43 per cent over the last Parliament, is simply counterproductive.”
The council is cutting spending in an attempt to reduce its £122 million debt, which means that it has to pay more than £4 million a year in interest payments. Councillor Greg Smith, the Conservative cabinet member for residents’ services, denied that crime will increase because of the cuts: “It would be overly simplistic to argue that spending less results in a worse service or an increase in crime. There are many examples where this council has cut wasteful spending while delivering a much better service through innovation and modernisation.”
But Inspector Ballard, a police officer for 28 years, said that it was illogical to suggest that cutting the young offending team budgets would not have an adverse effect on crime rates.
He said: “We will be doing everything we can to fill those gaps but we are going to be doing a lot more with less people. We have to be realistic, there will be more administration done by staff. A logical person would argue that point when you are trying to reduce the budget by such a large amount.”