Northern Ireland Grand Committee
Wednesday 29 November 2000
[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]
Juvenile Justice Centre Estate
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the matter of the Review of the future of the juvenile justice centre estate, published by the Northern Ireland Office in March 2000.
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Ingram: It might help if I first set out some reasoning relating to the subject of our debate.
Mr. Ross: On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam. We are here to consider the future of the juvenile justice centre estate in Northern Ireland, but in response to a parliamentary question yesterday, the Minister published a long written answer, which makes it clear that, regardless of what is said here today, he has already made up his mind. What is the point of this Committee proceeding at all? Is not his behaviour an outrageous abuse of the procedures of the House?
The Chairman: Nothing disorderly has happened. I have only just seen the document, but it is not disorderly in terms of the motion before the Committee. I have no power to suggest that Members should not refer to it, if they so wish, during their deliberations.
Mr. Ingram: You may not be aware of this, Mr. McWilliam, and there is no reason why you should be, but the fact is that the issue in question has been a matter of extensive consultation during which many representations were made.
The Chairman: If the Minister is saying that I have not read all the relevant papers, I am sorry, but I have.
Mr. Ingram: I am saying only that there is no reason why you should necessarily know all the detail, Mr. McWilliam. Knowing the way in which you go about your business in the Chair, it would be characteristic for you to be well aware of it. I meant only that there was no good reason for you to be aware of the full minutiae of an issue that goes back more than four years. It has been a matter of consultation and the purpose of setting it out before the Committee was to allow ventilation of opinion about the conclusions of that consultation. It could have been dealt with simply by a parliamentary answer. I regret that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) feels that this Committee is an inappropriate place in which to debate matters about which decisions have been taken. A decision had to be taken at some stage, and it was taken. It could have been presented as a parliamentary answer. I am sorry that Opposition Members fail to see the benefit of expressing their views here.
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): Something unusual is going on here. The Northern Ireland Grand Committee has not met as frequently as we would have liked, and now the debate has been pre-empted by the Minister's decision. It is also unfortunate that we are meeting today when Northern Ireland business is taking place on the Floor of the House. That will cause difficulties, because we cannot be in two places at the same time. The business on the Floor of the House is important to the nature of democracy and its functioning in Northern Ireland as a whole, whereas the issue that the Minister wants us to debate here is a narrow one. Will there be a Grand Committee every time the Minister wants to discuss matters of this weight? If so, I would be delighted.
I am also disappointed that no provision was made for questions at this sitting. As we do not have much of a hearing on the Floor of the House, could we not have questions at all such Committee sittings?
The Chairman: Order. Before I call the Minister to speak, I should say that the right hon. Gentleman did not raise a point of order. It may be convenient for him if I say that I shall suspend the Committee for 15 minutes to enable hon. Members to take part in a Division if there is one. If I know that there will be a double DivisionI have no means of knowing that, but the usual channels may be able to give me a nudge in the right directionI shall suspend the Committee for 30 minutes. Unlike in Westminster Hall, there is no injury time here, so any suspensions will come out of the time for debate.
Mr. Ingram: I am at a loss to understand how the right hon. Gentleman could lay on my shoulders the suggestion that I knew the order of business in the Chamber today and its relation to Northern Ireland when we planned the Committee. That could not have been known. We planned the Committee some time ago, as I thought that he was aware. [Interruption.] If I heard the right hon. Gentleman's comment from a sedentary position correctly, I suggest that he talks to the people who talk to us as we arrange Committees. Such matters are usually consulted about some time in advance.
A request was made that the Committee meet not here but in Northern Ireland, so we could as easily have been discussing this or another issue in Northern Ireland today. That puts matters in stark relief, as we could not have known what the business on the Floor of the House would have been. All such matters must be dealt with through the normal courtesies that prevail between the Government and Opposition Whips.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): When I was a Whip, I regularly sought from the usual channels the dates and details of the order of business before the House. That is a reason why I recently asked on the Floor of the House when we would meet. Even today, those who apparently object to our meeting in Northern Ireland cannot find time to meet us here. There must be more movement from the usual channels in consultation, because some of the business today is relevant to Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said, we have limited opportunities to ask questions in the House, as can be seen if one analyses the Order Paper.
Mr. Ingram: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's thorough comments. Obviously, such discussions must prevail between the usual channels if a way forward is to be found. The matter of why there are to be no questions is not for me, so I should not rule on it. I accept the importance of questions. We have never ducked the issue and will give full recognition to it. Before our proceedings began, someone asked why there was to be no Adjournment debate. I had no answer; people may not have applied for one. Perhaps questions should be asked about that as well.
Attendance or non-attendance is a matter for hon. Members. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman takes it up with those parties to which he alludes. Those who do not participate today may find themselves arguing against the presence of Grand Committees in Northern Ireland. I am sure that he can open up such lines of communication.
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): I do not hold the Minister responsible for the clash between our proceedings and the debate on the Floor of the House on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. That is an unfortunate coincidence, but it is not his fault. There should have been questions, however.
I want to ask for further clarification on your ruling, Mr. McWilliam. I support your decision to have a 15-minute suspension if there is a Division and a 30-minute suspension if there are two. However, the debate deals with matters of great interest in Northern Ireland and is in many respects more important than the Divisions. Could we not have a suspension for the entire period of the debate?
The Chairman: Does the right hon. Gentleman want to move a dilatory motion? If so, I am tempted in the circumstances to accept it, but my guidance to the Committee would be that we have the documents and an interesting parliamentary answer, which I have read. To answer the point about which Minister is responsible, the Leader of the House is always responsible for the business on the Floor of the House. On the question about the usual channels, I have not been involved in such matters for a very long timesince 1987so I can take no responsibility for that.
Mr. Ingram: Perhaps we can now get down to the substance of what we are here to discuss. I welcome the opportunity to set out the detailed reasons behind my announcement today on the future of the juvenile justice estate in Northern Ireland. I reiterate that the normal practice would have been simply to release the information by parliamentary answer, but in this case we can, through the process of debate, draw out the reasoning that led me to my conclusions.
While the announcement deals with a new building, it is not essentially about bricks and mortar. It is about providing a more sensitive environment for young people who are among the most disadvantaged and socially deprived in our society. It is an area of work that deserves close attention. The work that has already gone on with those children in Northern Ireland must be applauded. It is a difficult, never-ending and thankless task, which is critical not only for the young people themselves but for the communities in which they live.
Hon. Members will know the history of the treatment of juveniles who offend or who are at risk of offending and how that has changed in recent years. We used to have a system in which young people could be convicted of not very serious offences and yet spend a considerable period in a training school. That punitive approach was misplaced, damaging and ineffective. It was no way for a modern society to address the needs of young people who offend against it. A new approach was required and that is what we have progressively developed and delivered over a four-year period.
Custody is now reserved for only the most serious and persistent offenders. In addition, the type of sentencing used for young people has been changed from a semi-determinate order to a determinate sentence, usually of shorter length, half of which is served in custody and the remainder under supervision in the community. That is designed to help to steer young people away from offending and to give them encouragement and support to achieve a normal adult life. I am pleased that those changes have had the desired effect. The number of young people in custody has reduced significantly and the length of time that they spend in custody has also reduced. However, because of the serious nature of the actions of juveniles who receive custodial sentences, it is important to provide secure conditions, for the protection of both the public and the juveniles themselves.