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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates

Youth Offending in Northern Ireland



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Dr. William McCrea
Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Blackman, Liz (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Campbell, Mr. Gregory (East Londonderry) (DUP)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
Davies, Mr. Quentin (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab)
Devine, Mr. Jim (Livingston) (Lab)
Dodds, Mr. Nigel (Belfast, North) (DUP)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Fraser, Mr. Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen (Jarrow) (Lab)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Joyce, Mr. Eric (Falkirk) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Mulholland, Greg (Leeds, North-West) (LD)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Paisley, Rev. Ian (North Antrim) (DUP)
Paterson, Mr. Owen (North Shropshire) (Con)
Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mrs. Iris (Strangford) (DUP)
Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
Walter, Mr. Robert (North Dorset) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
John Benger, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 109(4):
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)

Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Tuesday 23 October 2007

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Voluntary Sports Clubs

4.30 pm
1. Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): What assessment he has made of the effect of the implementation of the Security Industry Act 2006 on voluntary sports clubs. [159741]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Before I answer, I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. It is good to see you there; at least I know that I am not going to get an Exocet question from you.
Unpaid volunteers will not fall under the remit of the Security Industry Authority. The impact on voluntary sports clubs should therefore be minimal.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister for his reply. It was encouraging, because there is a great deal of misunderstanding in the sporting industry in Northern Ireland, particularly about regulation by the Security Industry Authority. Voluntary bodies believe that even their gatemen, just collecting a few pence at a country match, will be required to be trained and licensed at considerable expense. I am glad that the Minister has given his assurance. Will he write to me to indicate that voluntary sporting bodies, playing at their own grounds or perhaps on away games, will not require licences under the 2006 Act?
Paul Goggins: I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend on that and to write to him to set out in more detail the arrangements that will be in place. He might also be reassured to know that I have recently had a meeting with the Sports Council for Northern Ireland. I explained that my approach to the regulation of the security industry in relation to sport was to have a light touch and regulate only where absolutely necessary.
For example, if a sports club had a licensed premises at its grounds and a doorman at that establishment was employed not by the sports body but by a separate security company, that individual would need to be regulated and licensed. People who operated on the gate, sold programmes or were involved in general safety stewarding would not be caught. If we proceed in that way, we will get the right balance between regulation and ensuring that we do not impose unnecessary burdens on voluntary organisations.

Antisocial Behaviour Orders

2. Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): How many (a) interim and (b) full anti-social behaviour orders have been issued to juveniles in Northern Ireland since August 2004; and if he will make a statement. [159742]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Six interim and 18 full antisocial behaviour orders have been issued to under-18-year-olds in Northern Ireland since August 2004.
Lady Hermon: I am interested by that reply and grateful for it. Will the Minister confirm what assessment has been undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office to decide whether interim and full ASBOs are effective in turning young people—juveniles, in this case—away from a path of criminality?
Paul Goggins: There has been no specific assessment that I am aware of, but we are aware that a combination of ASBOs and a range of preventive measures such as acceptable behaviour contracts can turn around the lives of young people and others. It is clear that the hon. Lady’s constituents, like mine in Manchester and those of many other hon. Members, are sick and tired of antisocial behaviour and want action taken. I shall pay heed to her suggestion and examine what ongoing arrangements there are for assessing the effectiveness of ASBOs. I shall be happy to share my findings with her.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): How do ASBOs relate to the restorative principle that has been adopted in the Province? Does the Minister feel that the two processes go together, or is there some conflict between them?
Paul Goggins: In a later debate we shall come on to the youth justice system in Northern Ireland, which has at its core the restorative principle—and rightly so, because young people and indeed any offenders need to be made to face up to the consequences of their crimes, particularly the impact on their victims, and make reparations accordingly. Of course, ASBOs play an important role in limiting the activities of certain people, when necessary preventing them from going to certain places and so on. The ASBO does not have a restorative principle at its core, but it can be an effective part of a programme to manage the behaviour of people who have been acting in an unacceptable way.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): The Minister has partly answered my question, which is about the role of acceptable behaviour contracts in combating antisocial behaviour. Early intervention with such contracts is better than later intervention with antisocial behaviour orders. What assessment has been made of the success of acceptable behaviour contracts?
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I am surprised at the Minister’s saying that the ratio between Northern Ireland Housing Executive antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts is helpful. Many Members in Northern Ireland—I suppose, in fact, all of us—receive lots of complaints about antisocial behaviour by young people, yet it is incomprehensible that in three years only 24 interim or full ASBOs have been taken out. Why have so few orders been taken out when one of the major complaints by the public is of antisocial behaviour antics by young people?
Paul Goggins: The point is that there should be a healthy and high ratio between acceptable behaviour contracts and ASBOs. If there are more ABCs than ASBOs, it means that the preventive approach is being taken seriously—and, we hope, is succeeding. In those cases when it does not succeed, it will be necessary to move on to the full-blown antisocial behaviour order. That is the point that I was seeking to make. The Housing Executive has a range of other options, including terminating tenancies and so on.
The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the public are impatient for more to be done to deal with antisocial behaviour. I am certainly happy to make representations on his behalf and on behalf of others to those devolved Ministers who deal with housing and other aspects. For instance, the Minister responsible for local authorities has a key role, because the majority of antisocial behaviour orders have been made at the behest of the police rather than the other agencies. There is room for representations to be made to ensure that effective use is being made of that legislation and of the antisocial behaviour orders that go with it.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Can the Minister tell us how many of the acceptable behaviour contracts and antisocial behaviour orders that have been issued have been breached?
Paul Goggins: The breach of acceptable behaviour contracts is not a legal matter, but a matter for the organisation concerned and those with whom the contract was drawn up. If there is a breach—if the contract does not work—the individual can be moved on to an antisocial behaviour order. I cannot give a precise figure for acceptable behaviour contracts, because such information is for the agency concerned. I have resolved, in preparing for this afternoon, to look more closely at how we gather information on acceptable behaviour contracts, because it is important to hon. Members and others. I wish to see a greater gathering and use of that information, as that would be helpful.

Sentencing Policy

3. David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): When he plans to bring forward proposals for changes to sentencing policy in Northern Ireland. [159743]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Draft legislation to provide a new sentencing framework for Northern Ireland will be published shortly.
David Simpson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Over recent months, I have been in close contact with him on sentencing for sexual offences—a subject of great concern throughout the United Kingdom, especially to those who have been the victims of sexual attacks. The people of Northern Ireland would greatly appreciate quick movement so that the perpetrators of such violent and heinous crimes receive proper sentencing with no reduction.
Paul Goggins: Hon. Members will know that the issue has been of major concern to people in Northern Ireland. There have been a number of heart-rending and difficult cases in which people have been subjected to appalling attacks and, quite rightly, people want the Government to act to deal with the issue. It has taken some time to draft the legislation, but it is important that the work is done properly so that the law works in practice.
I hope very soon to publish a criminal justice Bill demonstrating the lengths to which the Government have gone to ensure that we deal with that matter and a range of related ones. I intend at the earliest opportunity to end automatic 50 per cent. remission for the most serious and dangerous offenders, particularly sex offenders, in Northern Ireland. I think that that will be warmly received.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Minister is quite right that there have been a lot of heart-rending and difficult cases, because of how the Government have dragged their feet on the issue of 50 per cent. remission. Can he confirm that between now and when the Bill is passed, one of the people who raped a young girl, videoed it on her mobile phone, sent the pictures to her mother and then rang her mother to torment her about the rape will be released under 50 per cent. remission? How many other sex offenders will be released early from jail as a result of that foot-dragging exercise?
Paul Goggins: I do not accept the allegation that the Government have dragged our feet. We have given the matter careful attention and will introduce a Bill to deal with it. I hope that people can have confidence in that. The hon. Gentleman refers to a horrendous case, but he knows that the legislation will not be retrospective; it will deal only with future cases.
However, I assure the hon. Gentleman—this is an important point—that very effective systems exist for dealing with sex offenders in Northern Ireland. In a recent case, an offender being allowed out of prison was immediately made subject to a sexual offences prevention order. As he could not give an agreed address, he was immediately put back into prison. Even now, without the change in legislation, people who pose a danger will be dealt with. Public protection is my No. 1 responsibility, and it is and should be at the heart of our criminal justice policy.

Kerb Crawling

4. Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): Whether he plans to introduce legislation on kerb crawling in Northern Ireland. [158744]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): An offence of kerb crawling will be included in legislation to change the criminal law covering sexual offences that we intend to publish later this year.
Dr. McDonnell: I thank the Minister, but is he aware that kerb crawling is still a major issue in the inner-city part of my constituency? Many months ago, his predecessor, now the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), promised us that legislation, and my constituents still complain to me—in particular, those going about legitimate business such as inner-city apartment-dwellers and others—about being accosted repeatedly by kerb crawlers. As they go to or from work in the evening or attempt to go out for entertainment and so on, they are approached by kerb crawlers, and they deeply resent it. We need legislation urgently.
Paul Goggins: I know that the issue is important to my hon. Friend, and that he has raised it in the past. We will change the law to introduce that specific offence. Of course, it is possible under existing legislation to deal with people who persistently behave in that unacceptable way. Antisocial behaviour orders, for example, could be used to deal with them. None the less, mindful of the representations made and the importance of the issue, we will introduce legislation in the context of a wider review of sexual offences in the near future.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): The Minister touched on the availability of ASBOs for dealing with kerb crawling and prostitutes plying their trade on the streets in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, South. Of all the interim or full ASBOs issued, how many have been issued to kerb crawlers or prostitutes?
Paul Goggins: I should have known better than to give the hon. Lady an open goal. I cannot give her the figure, but I shall write to her with the information.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I have listened to the response from my hon. Friend the Minister and hope that the constituents of the hon. Member for Belfast, South will be represented on the matter.
St. Augustine said that prostitution is as essential to civilisation as gutters are to a palace, but I rather hope that we can do something to stop the problem before it gets even worse. However, in view of the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007, will my hon. Friend be consulting with colleagues? It seems that many of those issues are touched on in that legislation, such as, principally, the protection of innocent—I am aware of the significance of that word—people being troubled on their way home from work.
Paul Goggins: As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have been reading my way into my new criminal justice responsibilities, but that piece of Scottish legislation has so far escaped me. I shall endeavour to look at it.
The serious point here again is about people behaving in a way that upsets others and affords them discomfort as they go about their day-to-day business. That should be dealt with, and it is important that the public receive reassurance. Again, I am happy to say to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South that we intend to deal with that matter, not least in view of the representations that he has made.

Youth Offending in Northern Ireland

4.46 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the matter of youth offending in Northern Ireland.
I am pleased that we have an opportunity to discuss the youth justice system in Northern Ireland and to consider how it intervenes in the lives of young people who get into trouble. To start, it might be helpful if I say something about the legislative background, about the overarching aims of the youth justice system and about how the various agencies work together. I look forward to the debate because I know that people care deeply about the matter.
The youth justice system in Northern Ireland deals with people between the ages of 10 and 18. As in England and Wales, 10 is the age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland. If anybody wishes to discover the core purpose of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland, they need look no further than section 53 of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which states that its core purpose
“is to protect the public by preventing offending by children.”
The legislation makes it clear, therefore, that there is a link between the protection of the public and the prevention of offending by children. To make that link effective, the legislation requires that children be encouraged to understand the impact of, and to take responsibility for, their crime, so that they develop a better understanding of how much harm their behaviour causes. It also requires that professionals responsible for running services in the youth justice system pay particular attention to the child’s personal, social and educational development.
In any debate about young people and crime, it is important to acknowledge the fact that the majority of children and young people are law-abiding and behave in a way that they, their families and their whole community can be proud of. It is true also that the majority of young people who get into trouble for the first time, after quick intervention, move away from offending. In a typical year, the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s youth diversion scheme deals with about 13,000 young people, of whom some 80 per cent. commit no further offence and are of no further trouble. There is clear evidence, therefore, that when we make prevention a priority, we see real success.
For the interest of hon. Members, it is worth pointing out that the number of indictable prosecutions of children in Northern Ireland for more serious offences is less than half the rate for England and Wales. That is an encouraging sign that children there are not offending at that higher level of seriousness in quite the same measure as they are in England and Wales. Therefore, there is some encouragement that the system is effective.
What is a youth conference? Is it a cosy chat around the table? No, it is not. The young person comes into the conference arrangement with a parent and, where possible, the victim of their crime, as well as the professionals who are there to deal with them. During the conferences, there might be an opportunity for the victim to question the offender to find out precisely why they did what they did, and an opportunity for the offender to apologise. More than that, there is an opportunity for the offender to turn any such apology into something active by undertaking unpaid work or attending a particular programme or treatment programme that is relevant to their case.
Those who wonder whether the system is effective might be encouraged to know that in almost two thirds of conferences, the victim agrees to take part. Clearly, they have confidence in the approach. Indeed, 95 per cent. of the victims who have taken part said that they approved of the system and thought it an effective way of dealing with offenders.
I recently met a victim who took part in a conference. She had been assailed by someone and had her bag snatched in the caf√(c) where she worked. At the conference, she was able to deal face to face with the offender, find out more about his background and, more importantly, explain to him the impact that the incident had on her. Other action was taken as a result. It is an effective system, particularly for young people, who learn from what they have done and, we hope, move on and do not do it again.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What is the reoffending rate for people who go through the system and how does it compare with those for the other penalties available to the courts?
Paul Goggins: I am not able to give that information because the conferencing service is relatively new and there are no statistics yet. The hon. Gentleman and I, and others, will be interested to see what impact the conferencing approach has on reoffending rates. I return to section 53, which is about protecting the public by preventing young people from offending. We have to know that the approach is effective, and we will have that information in due course. Currently, we know that it has a high approval rating from victims, which is important, but we will be considering the system’s effectiveness over time.
Alongside the youth conferencing service, we have community services, including 20 projects run by the Youth Justice Agency. That range of projects includes ones that provide young people with opportunities to engage in reparation such as unpaid work; provide bail support to young people who are awaiting court appearances and need to have certain conditions attached to their bail; and operate diversionary work. Therefore, there is a range of other community organisations and programmes to support and sustain young people who are in trouble.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): I am pleased that the Minister is enthusiastic about youth conferencing. He will know well that the IMPACT community restorative justice scheme in Kilcooley in my constituency has been hugely successful at diverting young people from further acts of antisocial behaviour. Is it the Government’s or the Northern Ireland Office’s policy to assist and promote youth conferencing at the expense of schemes such as IMPACT, which has been starved of public funding?
Paul Goggins: No. There is no direct choice between the two types of scheme. Youth conferencing is an essential part of the statutory agency that is in place to deal with young people, but I am aware of the scheme to which the hon. Lady referred. I looked carefully at whether it is possible to make funding available despite the budget pressures we face, so that community restorative justice initiatives may not only pass through the accreditation process, which is important, but work in practice. I hope to be able to tell her soon that we are making progress in that direction, but I cannot confirm anything this afternoon.
The hon. Lady is keen to see a range of voluntary and statutory programmes coming together for the benefit both of the offender, in the best sense of that word, and the wider community. In that regard, the voluntary sector’s role is striking—it plays an important role alongside the statutory agencies in helping to turn the lives of young people around. Organisations such as Extern, the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, Barnardo’s and other agencies with which we are familiar are working effectively alongside statutory agencies. Some of those organisations have core funding, and some project funding. It is important that communities themselves take some ownership of youth offending issues and problems and that they help to turn the lives of young people around.
Following the 2000 review to which I referred, there was a commitment to improve the secure facilities that are necessary for the small number of young people who get into serious trouble. I am pleased to say that in January this year, the Woodlands juvenile justice centre was opened. It has an overall capacity of 48 places for the custody of young offenders when that is necessary and the court demands. Generally, the 48 places are not filled at any one time. Last year, for example, the average number of places filled was 25, although that has increased slightly this year. Hon. Members who have visited Woodlands will be impressed by the quality and commitment of the staff and the quality of the environment. It is necessary to invest in services that might turn young people’s lives around, including those who have been in serious trouble.
It is important to emphasise that any young person sentenced to custody by the youth justice system in Northern Ireland must also serve a period in the community under strict and close supervision. They are not simply given a custodial sentence with no support or further intervention, but given a whole sentence, part of which is served in custody and part in the community.
Lady Hermon: I draw the Committee’s and, specifically, the Minister’s attention to a worrying newspaper headline. I did not read the whole story, but I noted the lead paragraph. The Daily Mail of 23 October stated:
“Prison guards want to use batons against children as young as 15 because of a surge in attacks on staff.”
Will the Minister confirm that that is not policy or the wish of prison staff, particularly those at Woodlands?
Paul Goggins: I visited Woodlands only a few weeks ago and no such representations were made. In fact, when I questioned staff about the use of restraint and how they operate when faced with difficult and challenging children, I was reassured by their answers. They take those issues seriously and are properly trained to deal with difficult situations. They would regard resort to physical restraint as highly exceptional, although it is sometimes necessary, so the question of baton use or anything of that kind was not raised.
Clearly, co-ordination and collaboration between agencies is essential if they are to deal effectively with young offenders. Agencies passing children between them is a recipe for disaster, so there must be collaboration. I am pleased that the various agencies have come together to sign up to the charter for youth justice that was published in June, which sets down the common principles to which all agencies need to work. There are some areas where we need to improve. One particular area that will require maximum co-operation is shortening the time that it takes to deal with young offenders in the youth justice system. Although we have better and more effective ways of sharing information across the agencies, we have to do better.
We have set targets to reduce the length of time between a charge being made and a decision being taken on whether to prosecute or to do something more diversionary. We are going to reduce that time by some 44 per cent. over the next three years. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is an old phrase, but it is true and particularly true for young people who, if the system does not respond quickly enough, feel that people are not that bothered and that their behaviour and offending is not that serious. It is serious and we need to demonstrate with timely intervention that we take that responsibility seriously.
There are other areas on which hon. Members might touch during the debate, such as the relationship between the experience of young offenders and mental health problems, or the connection between the care system and the custodial system. All those things are well known and well understood. We all need to redouble our efforts to deal with those problems. I said earlier that I will be bringing forward a large piece of criminal justice legislation in the near future. I can confirm that the indeterminate and extended sentences will apply to young people in those rare cases where they are necessary, but there will also be other measures in that legislation that will apply to young people and, I hope, will help to restrict the use of custody only to those cases where it is absolutely necessary.
I can confirm that one measure that I will be taking, now that we have the Woodlands centre in place, is to introduce legislation that will prevent any girl aged 17 from any longer being held in a women’s prison. We now have the facilities at Woodlands to hold them in facilities for children and young people. I hope that that is something that the Committee would welcome.
We have a youth justice system in Northern Ireland that is still in its early stages as a modern system. It has reparation at the heart of its work, ensuring that people understand the consequences of their actions and face up to them. It is diversionary wherever possible, because if we can divert people from crime and from that kind of behaviour it is a good thing. In the end, it is incumbent on us all to take the issue seriously. As much as young people sometimes cause extreme difficulties and need to be dealt with, we should celebrate the fact that most young people do not cause problems in their communities. For those who do, our focused attention is absolutely essential.
5.3 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I formally welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea, although I rather regret the absence of your questions to the Minister on this occasion.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The Minister doesn’t.
Mr. Robertson: I am sure that we will have further opportunities to enjoy that experience.
Although the Committee may go on for two and a half hours, it does not have to, and I will not prolong it too much. I visited the Woodlands juvenile justice centre yesterday. I must apologise to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) for not informing her beforehand, but I was not exactly sure where it was. That is one of the problems caused by not visiting the Province as frequently as one would hope to.
Lady Hermon: I do of course accept the hon. Gentleman’s apology. I am delighted that a Member of this House chose to go to the Woodlands centre. Given that the Northern Ireland Office seems hellbent on devolving policing and justice within the time scale set down by the St. Andrews agreement, despite the fact that the parties of Northern Ireland are not in favour of that—my party certainly is not—I would be keen if the hon. Gentleman would encourage the 108 Assembly Members to visit Woodlands before that devolution.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so gracious about my omission. She asked me to encourage the 108 Assembly Members to make a visit, and tempts me into deep water, which I would rather not go into. The experience, to which I shall return, was useful and interesting. I thank the Minister and his officials for facilitating the visit, and pay tribute to the staff at the centre.
Some indices are good and some are bad, and some that are bad have resulted in crime increasing generally. In Northern Ireland, largely because of the troubles and almost 40 years of problems, there is relative poverty in many areas, which cannot help the situation. Again because of the troubles, the unemployment rate has been high, and I understand that there is still a problem with long-term youth unemployment, which also cannot help the situation. Against that background, overall crime in Northern Ireland is relatively low. I was heartened when I went to the centre yesterday to be told that some years ago most of the juveniles who were likely to end up in serious trouble were manoeuvred by the paramilitary organisations on both sides of the divide, but that is not so much the case now, which is encouraging.
It is sad to walk around the centre and see the need to incarcerate very young children. They are undoubtedly criminals, but it is a tragedy because when there is a criminal, there is a victim, and if someone goes to what is effectively a juvenile prison it is a tragedy for them and their families. As the Minister said, the whole situation is best avoided if possible. The emphasis of youth justice should be on avoiding crime in the first place, if that is possible, and certainly on avoiding re-offending. Under the justice system in Great Britain, the reoffending rate is far too high, and I wonder whether our corrective practices are working. A wider debate is necessary, but that is beyond the scope of this debate.
I was encouraged to see the strong emphasis on conferencing with a view to involving as many victims as possible, but what is the level of victim participation? I can well understand that victims may not want to become involved in the process, partly because it is relatively new, and partly because it is daunting and difficult for them. I cannot imagine being in that situation, which must be awful, but it is probably the best thing that could happen for the perpetrator of the crime.
It is important that young people not only are shown the effect that their crime had on their victim, but have it explained to them that at the end of the day they will lose out, because it is no kind of life to be locked away, to keep offending and to be removed from decent society. That is not a good option for the offender. I am confident that the conferences will address that point and try to get it across as clearly as possible to the offender.
I understand from the research that I did that many cautions are given to young offenders, either informally or formally. I agree that it is better if young people can avoid having criminal records, because that really will impede them in later life, but I am a little concerned. When we in this country many years ago started to issue more and more cautions rather than deal with offenders in perhaps a more appropriate way, it did not do an awful lot to help the crime rate. In fact, it probably fuelled it. There must be a balance between encouragement and avoidance of crime, but, at the same time, we owe it to victims and to society to ensure that people who commit crimes are punished in the most appropriate way.
Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest. These are important issues in all of our constituencies, as well as in Northern Ireland.
There is one aspect of youth crime that I am sure my hon. Friend will accept is added to the equation in the modern age in which we live: the badge of honour. As was illustrated earlier, there is instant gratification when rapes and other things quickly end up on videos and on the internet. I am sure that he will accept that we must all take that seriously and legislate against it. We must take a strong line, because some people enjoy offending constantly.
Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend puts his finger on a real problem. I believe that many offenders would be horrified to see the effects that they have had on the victims, and many would regret the way in which they are ruining their own lives, but there is a hard element who do not see the benefits of living a decent and proper life. Indeed, they go further than that and, as he said, are actually proud of the ASBOs and even jail sentences that may be slapped on them. That is the most difficult group to work with, and I do not have any easy answers to such problems. He is absolutely right.
I understand that there is also a diversionary youth conference. As far as I can see, it comes into play when an offender has been involved with the criminal justice system once, twice or several times. Has the Minister given any thought to a conference in which the offender is told, “Okay, you have offended once. You are not going to prison. Nothing terrible will happen to you on this occasion, but if you continue like this, something will happen”, instead of issuing informal cautions or even cautions on a first offence? The slap-on-the-wrist approach to first-time offenders has not worked, certainly not in Great Britain. We need to address that in this country, and particularly in Northern Ireland. Has the Minister given any thought to using the conference system a little earlier than it is used now, on the diversionary principle?
As I said, I visited the Woodlands centre yesterday. It does tremendous work with some very difficult children. The emphasis is on the safety of the children, many of whom are prone to suicide, and on the safety of the staff. The centre runs very efficiently.
There is also a strong emphasis on education. It was interesting to walk around and see the different things that the children are taught. The staff told me that when children arrive at the centre and are treated in that way, their behaviour often changes and becomes much better. The problem is what happens when they leave. Do they go back to the old culture and the old gangs? Will they be on the slippery slope once again? I do not have an easy answer to that. It became obvious yesterday that it is a problem.
The staff discussed a tie-in with the education system. If we can improve education throughout the United Kingdom—if we can make people a part of society, rather than having them drop out of it, if they can read and write properly and so on—there must be less chance of them committing crimes. It would not be an excuse for crime, but there must be less chance of them committing crime.
I raised the issue of devolution, but I do not wish to touch on it too much as I understand that there is an Adjournment debate at the end of our sitting that will address that matter. I do not want to become too deeply involved in that question. I have a few thoughts. Again, I thank the Minister and his team.
Lady Hermon: I wonder whether during his visit yesterday the hon. Gentleman sought or was given any information about the impact that the reclassification of cannabis has had on the number of young people who, most unfortunately, end up at the juvenile justice centre. Cannabis, of course, is the main drug of abuse in Northern Ireland, unlike the harder drugs, and its reclassification was bitterly opposed. Was any information or evidence given to him yesterday about its impact on juveniles?
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. We did not discuss that drug or that classification, although I entirely agree with her sentiments. It was a major mistake to downgrade cannabis. I do not care how many people in this place claim to have taken it—or deny having taken it—it was the wrong decision, and I absolutely agree with her on that. There is no doubt that drugs are a threat to young people—to their way of life and to their lives. We should be clear about the evils of drugs. If we address that problem, we shall have started to deal with crime. Again, I am grateful for that intervention.
I do not want to speak for any longer. Indeed, I have already spoken for slightly longer than I intended. It is an important subject, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of other hon. Members.
5.17 pm
David Simpson: I welcome you, Dr. McCrea, to the Chair. I know that, as usual, you will do a very good and fair job.
When we come to the issue of youth offending, controversy is most likely to arise over offences that are described as antisocial. We have already heard that when a younger person commits a serious offence there might be some debate about the penalty, but there is a general acceptance about what needs to be done. When it comes to antisocial behaviour, however, there are many different views of how it should be treated. Antisocial behaviour affects by far the greatest number of people, and it is what most people want to see tackled as it has the greatest effect on their everyday lives and quality of life.
It is impossible to debate the subject without mentioning antisocial behaviour orders. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry received confirmation of the number of ASBOs handed out in Northern Ireland in the 12 months prior to 15 January 2007. The figures that I have show that only 29 orders were issued, which poses many questions about their use. It certainly is the case that many local councils and other organisations in Northern Ireland shy away from investigating the use of ASBOs, often because of the cost involved in administering the process and also because it is often felt that such issues are properly dealt with through the policing route.
Even when ASBOs are used, we find that they have little or no effect. The anecdotal evidence from newspaper reports seems to suggest that that is the position in all parts of the United Kingdom. The Scotsman reported only a few weeks ago, on 21 September, that research commissioned by the Scottish Administration showed that around a third of ASBOs were breached and that six out of every 10 cases drew complaints of potential breaches.
Clearly, ASBOs are never going to solve the problem on their own and could only ever have been part of the solution. However, when there is such widespread criticism of their use, with the common view that they are held as a badge of honour, as we heard earlier in the debate, it seems that there needs to be a deeper look at how antisocial behaviour should be tackled. Many people hold the view that there must be a move towards a zero tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and more serious crimes. More and more young people are being dealt with through youth conferencing. In some cases that is the best way to deal with them and the issues involved, but a lot of people ask whether there is a better way to ensure that young people involved in such activities face stiffer penalties for their actions.
The actions must be different for different groups. The peak age for young offenders is about 17, with the types of crime being different among young men and young women. Girls are more likely to be involved in theft, which accounts for some two thirds of all crimes committed by girls, but just one third of those committed by young males.
It appears that the problems are not particular to Northern Ireland, and they do not appear to be going away. I refer again to Scotland—the hon. Member for Ealing, North mentioned Scotland and its legislation—where figures have shown that the number of persistent young offenders rose by 15 per cent. between 2005 and 2006. The problems that people face and the behaviour of young people there are not much different from the situation in Northern Ireland.
We need to take a much deeper look at the issue and go behind the statistics of clearance rates, which may not portray the reality as it appears to ordinary people in our constituencies. They do not always believe that a cleared crime in the police statistics is one that has been dealt with satisfactorily. While I accept that antisocial behaviour is not always classified as a crime, that does not provide much comfort to those who have been directly affected. In my constituency in recent weeks, an 80-year-old lady was dragged by the hair up an alleyway and robbed for £10. Another lady, in her 90s, was severely beaten in her home for £25. A gentleman in his 80s was badly beaten and robbed for a small amount of money.
It is an indictment of our society that young people are bent on that sort of life, although I concur that not all young people are guilty of such behaviour. I have been involved in youth work for more than 20 years. When one is involved for so long, one thinks that one knows what makes them tick—until, that is, one hears about an attack on an 80 or 90-year-old who has been badly beaten. That scourge of pure thuggery is an indictment of society today, especially when it comes to senior citizens, throughout the United Kingdom.
Many people perceive antisocial behaviour and offending by young people as a growing problem, which it is. The perception among the community is that the responses to it are not always the most appropriate for the type of behaviour, and that ASBOs have failed. I have said that not all young people are involved, which I accept, but a percentage of young thugs, whether men or women, are involved.
I must mention one other case. A friend, a man in his early 40s, who was out walking his dog five or six weeks ago was set upon by 12 young people, both male and female. He was so badly beaten that he could hardly be recognised. He had just walked past them, and then all he could remember was a thump on the head—he had a fractured skull. He was split open by bottles, badly kicked and abused and left unconscious about 3 m from a running stream. People discovered the incident only when his dog arrived home without him. Twelve young people were involved; no one was found. It happened at 10 o’clock, and the police arrived at 12 o’clock, so he spent two hours lying there without police or any other assistance.
It may have come to—perhaps it has gone past—the point when the Government have to consider zero tolerance, because all of us know the difficulties that antisocial behaviour causes in society. It is a growing problem. I have listened to the Minister talk about conferencing and the different centres that have been built, which is good. I visited a centre some time ago in Belfast, where the Housing Executive has a block of flats in which it caters for and helps young people who have offended or been used, as hon. Members have stated, by paramilitaries. Young girls of 12 and 13 have been used on the streets for prostitution. I visited the homes of those young people, and one girl of 13 had a child of 12 months in the corner. The Housing Executive was teaching those young people how to handle their finances, reintroducing them to society and helping them to go through all their difficulties. They have not only psychological but social issues when moving away from that way of life—from prostitution and from being used and abused on the streets. The Housing Executive was doing a fantastic job.
Therefore, there are centres and there is a lot of work going on in different organisations, which the Minister has mentioned. They are doing a good job, but there is a percentage of young people out there for whom that is a way of life. The only way to deal with the problem is to take a zero tolerance approach and send out the message—
Lady Hermon: I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. He has repeatedly asserted that there should be zero tolerance of what he has described as antisocial behaviour but what I think is pure criminality. I am concerned by the statistics that the Minister gave about the new Woodlands juvenile justice centre. It has cost a fortune, which I do not begrudge, and is capable of holding 48 young people. It is a regional juvenile justice centre and is the centre for Northern Ireland, but I think that the Minister said that it is almost full all the time. The hon. Gentleman talks about zero tolerance of that sort of activity, but does that mean that we should build more centres and criminalise those young people? Does his party have a strategy to deal seriously with such criminal activity by young people?
David Simpson: I take the hon. Lady’s point about the centre having 48 people in it, but crime is crime and antisocial behaviour is antisocial behaviour; they should be dealt with in the proper manner. Across the UK, with any other crime, if people offend, they do the time. If zero tolerance means building a new centre, then so be it, but we must deal with the situation. With the greatest respect to the Government—this applies to any Government—they have a great habit of putting a sticking plaster over a problem. They introduce another piece of legislation and the problem might go away for a wee while but then it starts again. We need to get to the root cause. If we have some form of zero tolerance, it will send a signal to those perpetrators that society does not want them any more, that they will be isolated and that the antisocial behaviour and attacks on senior citizens must cease. However, if young people who are causing difficulties want to be helped, a hand should be put out to help them.
It is long overdue that the situation was dealt with across the UK. People are screaming out for that; they want the situation resolved and dealt with. It is time that the Government looked at the situation and considered taking a zero tolerance approach.
5.33 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I sincerely welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. No doubt we will benefit from your long experience in the various Chambers. It puts me slightly off track that, for the first time, we are not in an adversarial situation, but perhaps that is a sign of the times.
Various speakers have said that there is a perception that the high levels of antisocial and criminal behaviour among our youth appear to be overwhelming our society. That is not the reality. I want to acknowledge what somebody said earlier about the considerable media hype over this matter. A small minority of our young people are engaged in antisocial and criminal behaviour, usually for a limited period only during their developing years. Generally, they are more amenable to correction and direction than older people in society who have become habitual criminals. We need look no further than the local newspapers to see that there has been a lack of confidence in the system for addressing young offenders. The hon. Member for Upper Bann spoke about offending rates and argued that sentences are too light, which I do not accept. On the other hand, however, people have readily acknowledged that detention is not reducing reoffending rates post-release.
We have come some way, of course, from the days when minors were tried in regular adult courts. Youth courts have undoubtedly been a positive step. In Northern Ireland, the age of criminal responsibility is 10. I submit that that is the lowest age in Europe, excluding Scotland, and it has been strongly criticised by the United Nations committee that monitors compliance with the UN convention on the rights of the child. I accept that the Minister has commenced youth conferencing and that the Youth Justice Agency has been a very positive move that has introduced some welcome and innovative contact between young offenders and their victims. My party supports the concept of restorative justice more broadly, although we believe that the Government’s regulations do not provide for adequate accountability or independent oversight, which are essential. Accountability and independent oversight will protect all who come into contact with community schemes, particularly minors. Will the Minister look at that?
“used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time and that children are separated from adults in detention”.
The UN committee also called for an urgent review of the conditions of detention, with particular focus on child protection. I wanted to highlight my concerns about that aspect of the debate.
Lady Hermon: I shall raise my voice so that the hon. Gentleman can hear me. Am I right in understanding that he is indicating that his party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, does not support ASBOs for serious antisocial behaviour? In Northern Ireland, they are handed out not willy-nilly, but to deal with serious intimidation that puts people in fear for their lives. Is he quoting UN protocols and declarations to say to people in Northern Ireland that ASBOs are not a good thing? Is that what the SDLP is saying?
Mr. McGrady: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. In certain circumstances, ASBOs are not at all a desirable way to deal with the underlying problems that often cause young people to commit crime. There is a mixed bag of approaches, but some people would like to call down ASBOs for young people as though they were a panacea that fits everybody. They simply do not, and it has been proved time and time again that they do not.
I do not suggest for a minute that we should tolerate or go easy on young people who break the law, but we should steer away from comments such as those made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann about zero tolerance. To me, zero tolerance is in no way a system of justice. It certainly does not help a young person to be rehabilitated or directed and encouraged not to reoffend, or to help to tackle the problem at source.
David Simpson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when zero tolerance was introduced in New York, it worked?
Mr. McGrady: The hon. Gentleman is much better informed than me about the crime scene in New York. I cannot answer his question until I do some research into the matter. Perhaps you will fund my trip over there, Dr. McCrea.
We need tough and intelligent strategies. We must recognise that those involved in antisocial and criminal behaviour are more likely to have learning difficulties, addictions and mental health problems. Quite often, young people who engage in such behaviour come from difficult backgrounds in which alcohol, broken homes and physical violence impinge on their lives. We must take that into account when we are talking about the formation of young minds. I do not equate a young so-called criminal of 13, 14 or 15 with an adult who has experience of life and—hopefully—a concept of right and wrong. God knows that because of their early lives, some of our teenagers in Northern Ireland have concepts of right and wrong that I do not understand, some of which come from our violent paramilitary society. Should we blame them for what we did to them? This is my concern. When I hear harsh words, I understand them, but I think that they must be tempered with an intelligent approach to the problem and some understanding of why children are where they are.
The recent report by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People pointed out—here I shall talk about funding to assist the plans—that we spend only 14.1 per cent. of our budget on children and young people’s personal and social services, compared with 24 per cent. in England and 26 per cent. in Wales. We could spend a lot more money to have equality, and it would make a huge difference to outcomes. Our priority should be to invest in that. As the Minister said, we need greater co-operation and co-ordination among all the bodies responsible for, and involved in, probation, housing, education, youth services, social services, recreation facilities and health services, as well as those responsible for justice and policing. The debate will heighten that and I hope that the contributions made by all hon. Members will encourage the Minister to carry forward the well-funded, well-invested schemes to which he referred. I wish him well in achieving that because there is a huge, sad waste of young people—limited though they are in numbers as a fraction of our young community. They are not something to be thrown away, but something to be nurtured, changed and brought back into useful situations.
5.45 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea.
We have heard about some horrific crimes that have been carried out by young people, so it is important that our justice system works to deter young people from offending and, if they have offended, to avoid any repetition. It is important to put that in context. The vast majority of our young people are well behaved and never get into trouble. A small minority of them cause problems for society.
In relation to the juvenile justice recommendations that came out of the criminal justice review, the updated implementation plan for June 2003 showed that huge strides had been made in implementing the review’s 26 recommendations. Recommendation 170 stated that children aged 10 to 13 who were found guilty of criminal offences should not be held in juvenile justice centres and that their accommodation needs should be provided by the care system. We were thus pleased to see that the Woodlands juvenile justice centre was opened in January. The centre provides accommodation for 48 boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 17 who have been placed in custody. The centre provides a safe, secure environment that aims to tackle offending by delivering anti-offending programmes and raising victim awareness.
Lady Hermon: May I check whether any Liberal Democrat Members have visited the Woodlands centre, or if any Assembly Members of the Liberal Democrats’ sister party, the Alliance party, have bothered to visit the juvenile justice centre in North Down?
Mr. Reid: I have not visited the centre myself, and I cannot answer for my friends the Members of the Alliance party. I am not aware of whether any have or have not.
The centre has a varied educational and learning centre that uses the nationally accredited AQA/NSP and GCSE exam base in a number of subjects. As a new centre, Woodlands has an excellent opportunity to be at the forefront of innovative intervention programmes to tackle youth offending. I hope that it will be at the forefront of tackling reoffending among Northern Ireland’s young people.
Of course, it is preferable to prevent children from offending in the first place. That extremely difficult task requires a number of agencies to come together for early interventions. The Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders has in place several worthwhile programmes to help young people who are at risk of offending. For example, the child and parent support programme aims to provide intensive support services to families whose children between the ages of eight and 11 are at risk of taking part in antisocial or offending behaviour. The programme aims to get involved quickly when children are at risk of offending, and to help them and their families to build positive lives and life experiences.
The association also has a mentoring programme that recruits and trains volunteers from the local community to act as mentors for children and young people aged between 10 and 17 who are at risk of offending or reoffending. Mentors act as role models to encourage young people who are in difficulty to make positive changes to their lives, such as though regular school attendance, taking part in further education and training, and staying out of trouble with the law. Mentor and mentee meet weekly for a year. Mentoring involves a relationship with a supportive adult who will help and encourage the young person to set and achieve goals, as well as taking part with them in social and leisure activities. The Mentoring and Befriending Foundation awarded the project its approved provider standard in 2005. In June 2006, the project won the award for outstanding contribution to working with young people in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.
Of course, the main aims of the criminal justice system regarding juveniles must be to avoid young people offending in the first place and to avoid them reoffending if they have got into trouble. Excellent work is being done in Northern Ireland to stop the revolving door of crime. I hope that the Government will ensure that that valuable work is supported.
5.50 pm
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. If I may, I shall start by reiterating what all hon. Members have said: for the vast majority of young people, the transition from childhood to adulthood goes smoothly. Those young people play a constructive part in society. They want to play a constructive part in society and to get on, do well and fit in with their neighbours. We have to recognise that fact, because too often debates such as this point to all the bad aspects of young people.
Before coming to this place, I had the privilege of teaching for 23 years. I take great pleasure in running into youngsters whom I taught who have now done well for themselves and their families. Their families are proud of them and their society can be, too. We must recognise that that is how most young people make their way through life.
However, that does not take away from the fact that there is a core of young people who, for whatever reasons, do not behave in that way. I reject the point made by the hon. Member for South Down that for a lot of these people, the reason is their background, their addictions, their parents or whatever. I can think of many young people who, despite the background they came from, lack of support at home and the circumstances in which they found themselves, rose above it and did not become involved in criminal activity. Sometimes we make excuses when we simply point to people’s backgrounds and say, “Well, they’re as much victims as the people against whom they perpetrate crimes.”
Mr. McGrady: The hon. Gentleman certainly has experience of dealing with young people. He has referred to the fact that many have come from very difficult backgrounds and overcome their difficulties. That is true and one cannot deny it, but none the less there are others who cannot overcome the deficiencies in their background or their homes and do succumb to expressing themselves in more violent or criminal ways.
Sammy Wilson: I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. For that reason, we cannot simply say that those young people are victims of their background and therefore we have to go easy on them. As I shall explain later, the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann made about zero tolerance should not be seen as negative, but should be seen in many instances as a positive contribution to those who perhaps have not had some of the advantages that other young people have had, whether it be discipline at home, being taught certain standards of behaviour or whatever.
I listened to the Minister’s description of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland and everything that is going on—the positive picture that he painted. I have to tell him that had he read some of the reports that the Northern Ireland Office has published, he would perhaps not have had the same cause for complacency. The recently published “Digest of Information on the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice System” raises an awful lot of warning signals for the Government about the attitude of the public towards how the criminal justice system, especially as it pertains to young people, is perceived in Northern Ireland.
Let me place some of the statistics on the record. One of my first worries is that only 40 per cent. of those surveyed indicated that they had confidence in the police’s ability to prevent crime. I do not want to get into detail on anecdotes, because the situation may be no different elsewhere in the United Kingdom and we could all give anecdote after anecdote about constituents coming to see us because they want the police to do something and want to co-operate with them. Nevertheless, I want to mention a delegation that came to see me just the other night at my constituency advice centre. A new play park has been built in an area that had fought long and hard for it, but it was being systematically destroyed by young people. Elderly people were going out and apprehending those young people. They had asked the police to give the matter some attention because those young people, some as young as 10, were drinking, but the police drove past in their cars and never apprehended anyone or even tried to do so, so people’s confidence in the police diminished.
The police say, “What can we do?” and “What’s the point?” Thankfully, people in Northern Ireland who used to have no respect for the police and were encouraged by their political representatives to have no respect for them and not to co-operate with them are now beginning to co-operate. The most damning indictment on the police in those circumstances is that just when people are turning to them and saying that they want the police to deal with issues, the police let them down. The statistic that I have mentioned is very worrying, and the Minister should be concerned about it, as should the Chief Constable.
Paul Goggins: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants to share with the Committee rather more information about public attitudes to policing and confidence in policing. He referred to 40 per cent. approval in relation to the prevention of crime, but he knows, as I am sure do other hon. Members, that overall confidence in the police is some 75 per cent. Those of us who represent English constituencies would be happy with 75 per cent. approval of policing. It is highly commendable that the police in Northern Ireland have such a high approval rating.
Sammy Wilson: I thank the Minister for that information. The statistics that I have from his Department indicate that 60 per cent. believe that the police do a good job. That is the most up-to-date statistic that I have, but if the figures have changed, I accept that, although I do not understand how they could be more up to date. The official statistics provided by the Northern Ireland Office indicate that a large number of people do not have confidence in the police, not for political reasons—I could understand if people were making a political point—but because of their observation of how the police deal with issues.
Let us turn to confidence in the criminal justice system. Again, these statistics are published by the Northern Ireland Office. Only 40 per cent. of those who were surveyed believe that the criminal justice system is effective in bringing to justice those who commit crimes. Even worse, only 25 per cent. of those surveyed believe that the criminal justice system is effective in dealing with young people accused of crime. If I were the Minister, I would be concerned about that.
Lady Hermon: I apologise to you, Dr. McCrea, and to the Committee for having to leave at 6 o’clock to catch a flight.
Will the hon. Gentleman say whether public attitude is affected by sentencing and the 50 per cent. remission, because I believe that people are discouraged from making complaints to the police because they think, “What’s the point? Offenders will get 50 per cent. remission anyway”?
Sammy Wilson: As I said in a question to the Minister, that issue plays a very big part in forming the public’s attitude. Another reason given in the Government’s statistics in the Northern Ireland Office report is the time—indeed, the Minister referred to this—that it takes to deal with those who have committed crimes. Only 35 per cent. of people believe that the criminal justice system is capable of dealing with crimes promptly. Again, I am sure that we all know of examples of people whose properties, personages or children have been abused and whose neighbourhoods have been wrecked—and still they see the perpetrators walking the streets a week, a month, three months or sometimes a year later, and things still have not been dealt with.
Another problem is the liberal tendency to move away from dealing formally with the perpetrators of crime. The Government report says of people who have committed offences that the vast majority receive only warnings or advice, and that some were given cautions—it was a ratio of about 4.5:1. The public ask, “What is the point?” Sometimes, of course, people take risks in reporting crimes to the police. Going to the police can be a risk for such people, especially as they will be identified, yet they feel that the system lets them down.
We now have an imbalance between dealing informally with those who commit crimes and dealing with them in a more formal way. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann described the latter as exercising zero tolerance. I note that the hon. Member for South Down interpreted zero tolerance as simply putting youngsters away and that we would therefore need to build more juvenile justice centres. It does not necessarily mean that. Zero tolerance often means dealing in a more formal way with those who have committed crimes.
The hon. Member for South Down referred to ASBOs. One does not have to give people a custodial sentence when giving an ASBO, but it certainly gives them a bit of a shock if an order is passed that prevents them from associating with certain people, going to certain places or whatever. That is where the system has gone wrong. We now use the softer ways of dealing with youngsters who have committed crimes. We give them warnings, talk to them, caution them and make them talk to their victims.
Interestingly, the report suggests that most victims do not want that. Only 27 per cent. of victims took the option of facing those who had perpetrated crimes against them. The vast majority did not want do to so. People have come to my advice centre saying that they did not want to talk to the youngster who burned down their garden shed, who broke the window or who continually bullied their children. They did not want to sit face-to-face with those youngsters; they wanted to see the police dealing with them. I want the system to deal with them in order to ensure that they know that they have done wrong.
Zero tolerance does not necessarily mean sticking people away, but it does mean dealing with them more formally. The hon. Member for South Down mentioned the background of some of these youngsters. Sometimes, when that firm hand is used may be the first time that they are made aware that what they are doing is wrong. It may be the first time that they realise that there are consequences to their actions or that a bit of discipline is imposed on their lives.
Zero tolerance does not even have to be negative for the perpetrator. It can have positive effects on them. I accept that that is not always the case, of course; some people will continue behaving as they wish. The notion that we should go through youth conferencing, youth diversion projects and all the rest is promoted by those who are employed in the youth justice industry. I do not think that anybody in this place or anywhere else will ever accuse me of having liberal tendencies—[Interruption.] It is an insult, that is quite right. I would regard it as such. Nevertheless, I point out that a whole industry has grown up. Let us consider the Youth Justice Agency. From 2001 to 2005, the numbers employed in the agency shot up by 66 per cent. from 186 to 283. We could go through a lot of other means and methods by which young offenders are dealt with and see that there is a thriving industry, so of course the people employed in it wish to promote such ways of dealing with young people.
In the meantime, the system does not really meet the needs of victims. It sometimes does not act as any disadvantage to the people who commit crimes. It has led to the situation that the Government’s own statistics have described, whereby people have become more and more frustrated with the system, which they believe should be there to protect them but does not. Once things start moving in that direction, we have a huge worry.
A number of things can be done. The hon. Member for North Down, who is now absent, pointed out that the Government could move on sentencing. As I said earlier in a question, I know that the Minister has said that he wants to ensure that he gets it right, but I do not know what is so complicated about framing legislation to reduce the 50 per cent. remission and leave it to the discretion of either a prison governor or another body. I cannot imagine that such legislation is so complicated that it takes a year and a half for the Northern Ireland Office to bring it forward, during which period 75 serious sex offenders will have walked out of prison, each serving only half their sentence. Some of them will have served less than three years for the most serious sex offences, and some will have gone on to reoffend, with terrible consequences for the people affected.
Sentencing is one area of concern, and ASBOs are another. I listen to Ministers in this Parliament, and members of their party, praising the Government for introducing ASBOs and saying how effective they have been in clearing up crime. I know that some Opposition Members are a bit sceptical about that, but I can only take what the Ministers and Labour Back Benchers have said about how effective ASBOs are. Yet in Northern Ireland, there have been only a handful of them. The authorities appear unwilling to use them.
I accept what the Minister said earlier: some of the bodies that deal with ASBOs, such as the Housing Executive and local authorities, are under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and it is the Assembly’s job to push them. However, for a long time, all those agencies and bodies were under the control of direct rule Ministers, yet what the Government claimed to be an effective measure for cleaning up neighbourhoods was not used in Northern Ireland. I think that when my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann referred to zero tolerance, he was thinking about greater use of ASBOs as well as acceptable behaviour contracts.
Of course, at the other end of the scale, there are occasions when the right thing to do is to get someone at an early stage and try to divert them in other directions. That will require spending public money on youth clubs and other diversionary tactics. I know that the Northern Ireland Minister of Social Development has felt a bit aggrieved that the Northern Ireland Office appears to be more interested in ensuring that she gives money to the Ulster Defence Association rather to some of the groups that help to divert youngsters away from antisocial activities. Perhaps this Minister would like to take that up and say whether there has been a whispering campaign such as the one talked about by the Northern Ireland Assembly Minister.
David Simpson: Does my hon. Friend agree that possibly one reason why more orders have not been handed out in Northern Ireland is their exorbitant cost? I have been given figures of £30,000 to £40,000 as the cost of a case from start to finish. One of the reasons could be financial restraints.
Sammy Wilson: I thank my hon. Friend for that information. I do not know whether the situation is any different in other parts of the United Kingdom—in England, Wales or Scotland. The one thing I do know is that it would help to reduce costs if the orders were used more often, given the learning curve and the costs of using them on a one-off basis.
This is an important issue that affects many people in Northern Ireland, where a small minority of young people can make life miserable for many people. It is something that the system needs to deal with, and which the Government accept has not been dealt with effectively.
6.12 pm
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I formally congratulate you on taking the Chair, Dr. McCrea.
I shall make a few brief comments on youth offending and justice. While I myself can swing at times from one extreme to the other, I believe that all justice must be tempered with humanity and rehabilitation, with a view to recovery and rebuilding vulnerable, broken young lives. When I see vandalism, nasty and wanton acts and pensioners in my neighbourhood and constituency threatened or disturbed, I, too, could have an emotional reaction and subscribe to a zero tolerance attitude, but I scratch my head and realise that there but for the grace of God go I.
I wish to draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that there are parts of my city that still suffer from severe social and economic deprivation. I speak primarily about Belfast, which is the place that I know and in which I live and work. There are parts of my city where educational attainment is very poor indeed. The statistics for some areas are that 20 per cent. of young people drift out of school. Officially, they leave at 16, but they probably disappeared from school at 14 or earlier. They leave without any numeracy or literacy skills at all. They can barely read, write their own name or count.
If we are to confront and focus on justice and youth offences today, we must separate the genuinely malevolent—those who reoffend and the vicious—from others who may seem similar. I understand people’s reactions to the former group, but there is another side to the matter, namely that we must not compound the social and economic deprivation that I see day in, day out by replying to it with a hang them and flog them sense of justice. We must focus and retain the harshest retribution for the genuinely malevolent and those who prove to be difficult to reform. We must use rehabilitation, care, support, education and skilling when appropriate for those who commit minor offences largely because of the circumstances in which they have been brought up. I worry that we sometimes mix the two—we must separate them.
I recall a few years ago a young man came to me in despair and great distress. He was from a disadvantaged background but had worked his way into university to study law. He had been out socialising a couple of nights earlier—I was not clear whether he had had a drink—but he was clowning around with some of friends, and one of them pushed him into a stationary car, the wing mirror of which sustained minor damage. Unfortunately, there was a local but fairly unfriendly policeman who decided to make an example of the young man. Despite offers of financial restitution to the car’s owner and anyone else who might have been inconvenienced, the policeman pursued the matter. Following discussions, the policeman was eventually persuaded to resolve the situation sensibly. The young man is now a qualified lawyer doing an excellent job in our city, but when I look back I can see that had he been dealt with harshly over a minor crime and been given a criminal record, he would never have been allowed to practise law. I ask you, Dr. McCrea, and the Committee, what was the best result? I go back to my point that we must understand and have an insight on youth offending. I am not saying that we ought to be lily livered about it, but we must understand and we must be pragmatic.
I am a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, as are one or two others on the Committee. We have done a lot of work on prisons, and one thing in particular jumps out at me. If there is one thing that is loud and clear concerning this issue, about which I know a lot, it is that an enlightened prison regime and attitude can often cut reoffending to well nigh zero—perhaps to 5 or 10 per cent.—whereas a harsh attitude and a brutal regime might create circumstances in which prison becomes a university. I urge the Committee, in dealing with this issue, not to take extreme positions, but to stay somewhere in the middle. We must understand the situation when an 80-year-old lady has her windows broken or her home damaged but, equally, when we discuss offenders, we must understand that any of us, but for the grace of God, could have been in their position in different circumstances. A lot of good young people commit offences out of stupidity, silliness or because of daredevil antics with friends. When we deal with young offenders and justice, let us not go overboard and treat them all as hardened criminals. That would be a major mistake. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s prison report will hopefully shed some light on the matter, perhaps not for young people but for adults.
6.19 pm
Mr. Fraser: I, too, congratulate you on your position as Chairman, Dr. McCrea. Let me start with something that the hon. Member for Belfast, South said. I sit on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee with him, and know that he is passionate about his constituency and the issues on which he has touched. I do not think that anyone on the Committee is saying that people should not be forgiven for what they have done. We all know from our own pasts that we need to move on when we make mistakes. That is not in question. What is in question is how far one should go to correct what one has done.
Having left the room to take a phone call, I walked back in when the hon. Member for Upper Bann was talking about zero tolerance. As I see it, zero tolerance is when a community or society says, “Enough is enough.” It is not about first-time offenders or people such as the individual whom the hon. Member for Belfast, South eloquently described as having made a mistake. It is geared towards young people who use crime as a badge of honour, as I discussed earlier. They know their rights and how far they can go, and that they will often get away with it. The point has been well made that on many occasions, the police are hamstrung as to what they can do to bring individuals to justice. Zero tolerance is an issue that is close to the hearts of people not only in Northern Ireland, but in my constituency, where people have been the victims of crime perpetrated by young people. Some of them cannot cope and have had their lives turned upside down because they feel that justice has not been served. Zero tolerance is about us saying that enough is enough.
As part of that zero tolerance, there is a responsibility on youngsters’ parents. Unfortunately, that point has not yet been articulated by any Member in the debate. We talk about young people aged 10, 11 and 12. They are technically still children, so where is the parental responsibility? That must be considered carefully. We all take a decision about whether to have children—sometimes it is taken for us—but having a child is an enormous responsibility. I have always felt that way, and I hope that the Minister will address the points about parents reneging on their duty. There should be a civil contract between a parent, a child and the community in which they live, because that contract means that we are all part of that society, and we all have responsibility in it.
In parts of my constituency and elsewhere in the country and, from what we hear, in Northern Ireland, there are people who fall through the system. However, I do not agree that they all come from the same background. The sad fact of life today is that someone from any background can go out on a Saturday night on a binge and decide that the peer pressure around them is such that they should crack a bottle over someone’s head, or damage someone or their property. They do so without any fear that they will be caught because they are in a group of 10 other people who are doing the same. I accept that such people are often slightly inadequate in terms of academic ability, but they are not short of doing what I described earlier—videoing it and telling all their mates what is going on around the corner, attracting attention and then marshalling themselves in such a way that when the police turn up, they are the ones who are intimidated, because they cannot cope. One or two police officers going out on a Saturday might come across a group of 15 or 20 teenagers. That must be the most intimidating experience that a professional officer has to contend with, but it is not something that any Member in the room would necessarily understand, having never been a police officer.
Of course, we need to break down barriers in society, and children and young people, whether they are youth offenders or just good, law-abiding children, need to understand that we were young once. The debate should focus partly on the fact that we have been there. There but for the grace of God go many people in this room, I am sure. Without this being a confessional for anybody, I think that we all accept that. We have all moved on and, I hope, made successes of our lives. That is terribly important. In the old days, a police officer would see us in the street doing wrong, and we would live in fear of that police officer telling our parents, because there was between the parents, the child and the community in which they lived, that civil contract, which has eroded. I fear that today, people know their rights and—forgive me for putting it this way—they get off on it: it is a high. Something in them says, “This is a drug; this is something on a Saturday night which gives me a great thrill, and I can dine out or booze up on it for the rest of the week until I offend next week.”
The hon. Member for Upper Bann was right about zero tolerance. In New York, which was a very good example, they said enough is enough and would not take anymore. They took a very firm hand, and I believe, had great success. Measures must be taken compassionately, however. No one who supports zero tolerance says, “Let’s lock ‘em all up for life and throw away the key.” That is a side issue compared with the real issue, which is that we will not tolerate any more antisocial behaviour.
The Minister mentioned that 13,000 youngsters are going through the youth diversion scheme as referrals. I have evidence that in 2004-05, the number was 14,726. Does that mean that the number of people going through the scheme has gone down as a consequence of fewer people offending? Is it being measured differently? Are fewer people being caught and put through the scheme? I may have misunderstood the issue.
On youth conferencing, in principle, I, like many others, think that if we have dialogue and people sit around a table and discuss the issues, that is positive. I, as a parent, would advocate it with my own children. When one sits around a table and discusses an issue, often the misunderstanding and prejudice that goes with it can be averted by one of the two sides, saying “Ah! I now understand what you are talking about.” For somebody to say sorry and repent of something that they have done is very therapeutic, but I see too little of it in society—and in Parliament. We, in the political game in which we all are players, should learn from that.
It is too soon to gauge the measure’s success, but any resultant decrease in youth crime will prove the value of that activity. There is no doubt that I was impressed by the Minister saying that 95 per cent. of the victims approved of the scheme. I should be interested to know what percentage of people committing the crimes approve, because if they regard saying, “I’m awfully sorry,” as a soft option, and offend again, it will have no effect at all. There must be clear guidelines about how the scheme operates so that we know that the people going through it are not seen—as they often are in this liberal society—as the victims themselves. They are the perpetrators, and we should be extremely firm on that issue.
The opportunities for young people in impoverished areas of low employment were mentioned, and that issue is important. We must recognise it and give young people a future in which they have a value and, returning to my point about the society in which they live, a contract of commitment. Every young child deserves a hand-up, but I should like it to be a hand-up not a handout. When we hand something out and they keep taking, there is a chance that they will keep taking for ever because it is offered to them. There must be a point at which we say, “Enough is enough,” so that we stop the cycle of crime, young people have an opportunity, the court system is effective, the process is efficient, and the deterrent is sufficient to stop those young people—however small that group may be—wreaking havoc on communities. I accept that they are a small group, but they have a disproportionately large effect on those communities. Zero tolerance towards those people and “enough is enough” is how I want the issue to go forward.
6.30 pm
Paul Goggins: This has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury was able to visit Woodlands yesterday and, as always, we were happy to help to make those arrangements. He spoke about the tragedy surrounding many of the people there, some of whom have perpetrated heinous crimes. It is important—this has been a recurring theme—to focus on family as well as individual children because without the wider family and the support that comes from that, life and its challenges are all the more difficult.
I confirm that victim involvement in conferencing is running at about 63 per cent., so almost two thirds of victims are participating, although there is no compulsion on them to do so, and it would be quite wrong to try to force victims into that against their will. It is important that they are properly prepared and supported, and not victimised again through the conferencing process. I have emphasised that to the professionals involved when I have met them.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to reconviction rates, which came up a number of times. The latest published figures for reoffending rates by juveniles in Northern Ireland show that during the first year after sentence has been carried through there is a 45 per cent. reoffending rate for those who have been in custody, and a 23 per cent. rate for those who have had community disposals. We keep pressing down on those figures, but in relation to similar figures for England and Wales, they offer some encouragement. There is no complacency, but there is some encouragement.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann spoke movingly about a number of horrendous cases in his constituency, which aroused tremendous feeling, especially in relation to the abuse of older people. The Northern Ireland Office’s community safety unit has tried to assist practically by providing elderly people with new locks that are safer and more robust. I recently began the roll-out of additional CCTV facilities in 19 locations, which help. We are consulting more widely with the community about what more we can do to give decency and respect to older people and to ensure that they are safe. The hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently about that.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about antisocial behaviour orders. Since August 2004, 52 orders have been made, and I know of only nine that have resulted in a conviction for breach. Again, most of them seem to be working at least reasonably well, and they often come at the end of a long line of other interventions. Often, as the hon. Member for North Down said, people who engage in such activity are engaging in criminal activity and will, rightly, be dealt with appropriately on criminal charges. We must bear that in mind.
I said that an average of 35 people are going through the Woodlands centre at any one time, although the figure is higher on some days and slightly lower on others. Throughout 2006, 178 children were admitted, so although there are 35 at any one time, a greater number pass through during the year.
Mr. Robertson: When I was there yesterday, I was told that although the centre can take all the girls that should be inside, it cannot always take all the boys. In other words, some of the boys will end up in, for example, one of the units in Maghaberry. Is the Minister addressing that problem?
Paul Goggins: Obviously, we keep a close eye on that. Maintaining adequate facilities in any eventuality and at the same time making effective use of resources is a continuing pressure that Ministers have to deal with. We need to ensure that there are sufficient places. As far as I know, that has not been a significant pressure in the system, but it is something that we will need to keep an eye on, particularly regarding the commitment on 17-year-old girls. Having made that commitment, we will need to ensure that we are able to follow it through. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will keep a close eye on that.
I did not get to New York either, if I can say that to my hon. Friend the Member for South Down. However, I did meet Giuliani and Bill Bratton when they visited the House of Commons a few years ago and talked to them about zero tolerance and the programme that they operated. It was about not turning a blind eye to crime when it happens, but dealing with it in the most practical and immediate way possible. I made that point earlier. When young people get the impression that we are not really bothered and that things will all take a long time, they are given a terrible message. We need to deal with them urgently.
Giuliani and Bill Bratton also emphasised the need for speedy action and to allow intelligence relentlessly to pursue criminality across the city, and that did have an impact. Others have tried different approaches elsewhere and have also had success, but clearly the success in New York was acclaimed and I know that a number of hon. Members have seen the results.
Mr. Fraser: I agree entirely with the Minister’s point about zero tolerance in New York. However, the society, the community and the community leaders decided to make a heavy financial investment to get the results that they achieved. Will he assure us that he is considering that in terms of his future financial commitments?
Paul Goggins: I would point out, would I not, that there has been a tremendous increase in the amount spent on law and order and extra police officers—that is common across the United Kingdom. However, the hon. Gentleman is entirely right that that was about gathering together the public resource to deal with criminality. The job of police officers, officers on the underground and those anywhere else in the system was to prevent and deal with crime. Everyone worked together as a team. That is the kind of approach that we need to develop and foster so that everybody involved in public life sees the defeat of crime as part of their overall job, whether they are a school teacher, a social worker, a health visitor or whatever.
Sammy Wilson: I thank the Minister for dealing with the point about the length of time that it is taking to process cases. Given the fact that, on average, the processing time for non-scheduled offences in Northern Ireland is now 320 days—nearly one year—what steps are being taken to squeeze those times down so that some connection is seen between someone doing the crime and being brought to the court, or whatever?
My hon. Friend the Member for South Down again emphasised that the majority of young people are law-abiding and make a positive contribution. He discussed the lack of confidence that there sometimes is in the community, which is out of proportion to the level of criminality. Confidence in the criminal justice system and policing is an issue to consider, and I shall come on to that later in response to the comments made by the hon. Member for East Antrim. We need to do all that we can to raise confidence so that there is a parallel between the real level of crime and people’s confidence.
I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for South Down that community restorative justice is separate from the restorative processes run by the Youth Justice Agency. Community restorative justice schemes must be accredited, and they are subject to ongoing inspection, which includes close attention to their practices and the past of the people operating them. We do that with great care and take it seriously, and my hon. Friend knows the protocols that have been drawn up. Such schemes are separate from the restorative scheme in the conferencing services that I described, which are run by the Youth Justice Agency.
My hon. Friend spoke forcefully about the need to get right the balance between the needs, rights and interests of children, and the rights of citizens to lead their lives peacefully without the fear of crime and the disruption that comes with it. There is a balance to be struck, and we must constantly seek to do so. He also referred to breaches of antisocial behaviour orders, the consequences of which are less for juveniles than for adults. Five years is the maximum penalty for adults, while for juveniles it is two years. I emphasise that those are the maximum penalties, but they are different for juvenile and adult offenders. Custody should be a last resort and we should not push children into prison earlier than is necessary but, regrettably, in some cases it is necessary to keep young people away from the community and in secure surroundings. At the very least, society is then protected from them, and such surroundings are an environment in which people can work intensively with those individuals and attempt to turn their lives around.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute gave strong support to early intervention and praised the staff at the juvenile justice centre at Woodlands—I join him in doing so. I assure him that family work is an important aspect of what is done there, and I shall say something more about that in a moment. Specifically, I can confirm that the criminal justice review recommended that 10 to 13-year-olds should be held in the care system rather than the custodial system. We put in place custody care orders in the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, but we have not yet commenced them. The matter is complex and we need to do things properly, but I assure him that we have not lost sight of the orders.
I turn to the hon. Member for East Antrim and his vast tome of unhelpful facts for a Minister. It is clear that his views are different from mine on some matters, although not all, but I do not accept the charge of complacency and I shall not accept it as long as I am in this job. The issues that he raised—the urgent need to address antisocial behaviour, to ensure that people have confidence and to have systems that work—are a constant focus, and rightly so. I articulate a positive view of the youth justice system not because I am complacent or believe that everything in the garden is lovely. Far from it. I know that there is an issue to consider, but we have in place a good system and structure, with a good philosophy, a good core aim and highly committed staff. In a difficult area, we have people, structures and systems that can make an impact on the lives of young people who would otherwise cause people disruption, mayhem and heartache.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. We need to increase confidence in the criminal justice system, and one of the Northern Ireland Office’s key targets in the next three years is to do something to shift public confidence in the right direction. I shall watch the figures as closely as he does to see that we get that improvement. It requires a range of action, such as through legislation, which I shall bring forward soon. It requires initiatives such as better support for victims and witnesses in the court system, on which I announced some developments a few weeks ago, so that people can give their best evidence in court and therefore increase the chances of securing a conviction and more satisfaction for victims and witnesses.
I agree that there needs to be a firm hand and that young people need to see the consequences of what they have done. I believe that the way of achieving that that has been developed in Northern Ireland is appropriate. An offender can sometimes learn a very hard lesson by facing the impact that they have had on the life of their victim. When done in the right way, it can make a real difference.
The hon. Gentleman commented on a criminal justice industry. Of course the number of staff employed by the Youth Justice Agency will increase as we expand, for example, the conferencing service, which we have done over recent months and years in Northern Ireland. I make no apology for that; it is about making an investment so that we can make a difference.
I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I assured the hon. Member for Upper Bann, that, even under the current legislation, when people whom we know are dangerous are coming out of prison, arrangements are in place to deal with and manage them effectively. We will, for example, take out sexual offences prevention orders when that is appropriate and keep a very watchful eye on people.
There was an exchange between the hon. Gentlemen about the cost of antisocial behaviour orders. We have not yet established a clear figure in Northern Ireland. Obviously, that is work in hand that we need to do. In England, the average cost has been about £2,500—sometimes less, sometimes more—but I agree that it is important that we know the cost.
I say to the hon. Member for East Antrim that there is absolutely no whispering campaign. I had three constructive meetings with the Minister of Social Development. They were cordial and friendly and we exchanged views and information. Of course, the Secretary of State announced that there had been engagement between the UDA and General de Chastelain in the way that he always would if there was that kind of engagement. That is the level of the engagement and discussion, which is always purposeful and constructive.
May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South, who made an extraordinarily thoughtful contribution to our debate, that the key to what he was saying was about finding what works with each individual and not assuming that one size fits all? We need a youth justice system that does precisely that and can assess what the appropriate action is and then follow it through. For some young people, something short, sharp and shocking might make the difference. Perhaps it is about education or family work. We have to find what works for the individual. However, that is about not misplaced sympathy for offenders, but ensuring that we minimise the chances of them reoffending and protect the public in so doing. It is about tough action to ensure that we improve public protection.
The figure of 13,000 that I cited is a broad figure taken across years, but I will examine the figures carefully and write to the hon. Gentleman to ensure that he has a proper explanation of the particular totals for each year in so far as is possible. That is for the youth diversion scheme.
I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that 63 per cent. of victims participate in the youth conferencing service. Of the victims, 95 per cent. give approval, and there is 94 per cent. approval in terms of the young people who participate. That is encouraging. Of course, there is a consequence for not complying and participating, which means going back to the Public Prosecution Service or the courts as appropriate. There is no option to ignore it and do nothing. If young people are doing the conferencing, they have to do it seriously.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the matter of youth offending in Northern Ireland.

Policing and Justice

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Committee do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]
6.50 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I welcome this opportunity to debate the devolution of policing and justice, given that the political minds of Northern Ireland were beginning to focus on—[Interruption.]
The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman may continue with his remarks. There is some concern about the situation outside, but we have not been given any further instruction. The House is still sitting so we shall continue.
Mr. McGrady: This debate is timely given that, in recent days, primacy for matters of national security in Northern Ireland passed from the Police Service of Northern Ireland to the Security Service—a development that, in certain circumstances, could impact adversely on future policing and political stability.
I and my colleagues want justice and policing powers to devolve to the Northern Ireland Assembly as quickly as possible, and certainly by May 2008. However, there is some political resistance to taking that step from those who argue that such devolution should occur only when there is a sufficient level of community confidence. Yet, as we speak, the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein share policing responsibilities on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which itself enjoys and will continue to enjoy far more power and authority on policing matters than any future policing Minister. If community confidence is already sufficient to share extensive, sensitive, onerous policing responsibilities, it follows that there should also be sufficient confidence to agree an early date for the transfer of legislative responsibilities.
If and when gradual devolution of justice and policing powers happens, there will be a number of important requirements for deepening confidence and stability. The absence of those requirements might carry policing risks with it, and I hope that the Government will use their best efforts to safeguard against those risks.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Northern Ireland Assembly is at a very early stage in its development, and there has been no indication yet that there is the confidence within the Assembly and between the parties that is necessary to exercise even the powers that it has currently. We have not even started the legislative programme and are still wrestling with the budget. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it would be premature to add to the melting pot of the Northern Ireland Assembly one of the most contentious issues—policing and justice?
The parties have participated in various other bodies, such as the policing body. It seems to me that that did very well, as the hon. Gentleman and I both know. Furthermore, as I just said, the Policing Board will have much more authority over policing activity than any justice or policing Minister. There is an override, but the difficulty is the day-to-day practice of policing. Therefore, I do not think that he should have that worry at this stage.
Perhaps by the end of this year some of the difficulties that need the consensus of the Assembly, of which I am not a Member—I do not know whether there would be more consensus if I were—will have tested the mettle of the participative parties of the Executive and others with regard to the need to grasp difficult nettles, if they are considered to be difficult, and to proceed. We need proper devolution of as much as possible to the people of Northern Ireland, and I certainly think that policing and security are basic, fundamental administrative requirements of any half-decent devolved Administration. However, in that context, certain safeguards are required. I would like to mention three that come to mind.
The first, which is dear to all our hearts, is that there should be financial guarantees about future policing and justice budgets. Given the ongoing spending constraints, there will be a temptation for the Exchequer, either at the point of devolution of justice powers or after a transitional funding period, to claw back funds to London. I would like to think that the Minister will, as far as he can, ensure that that does not happen.
During the years of conflict and violence, differences over the police and policing were essential elements of community division and instability. The Good Friday agreement, the Patten report, the policing institutions and the leadership given by many parties to the early formation and development of the Policing Board fundamentally changed and are changing policing. Still, embedding confidence in policing, deepening the accountability of the police and demonstrating civilian and responsive policing need time and guaranteed funding not just over, say, a three-year transition period following devolution, but for a longer time. I hope that the Minister will consider that.
Secondly, my party strongly believes that, following devolution, there should be no reduction in the role and authority of the Policing Board, the police ombudsman or the district policing partnerships respectively. Those three institutions are, in fact, the architecture of a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland. They have been the cornerstone of stability and progress in the uncertain times of recent years. That is why there was agreement of the political parties, which was expressed in the Assembly’s Committee on Preparation for Government in the late summer of 2006, that there should not be encroachment on the authority and role of the policing institutions following devolution. That was a welcome and important point.
However, we have concerns that there might be a tendency to claw into the Ministries or Departments of the Assembly more policing powers or influence. That should be resisted, and policing should be left to the institutions that are there and any new justice Minister, policing Minister or whatever the parties agree that it should be.
Thirdly, the new regime of participative policing and justice should have a strong, up-front north-south dimension.
Sammy Wilson rose—
Mr. McGrady: I knew the mention of a north-south dimension would precipitate an intervention.
Sammy Wilson: I was trying to catch the hon. Gentleman’s eye before he left his second point, which was important. At one stage, he and I served on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and I suppose that we have a certain fondness for the board and believe that it has good work to do. On his point about not interfering with existing institutions, would he give us some indication as to the role of an Assembly Committee that shadows a policing Minister? What would be the role of that Committee vis-√ -vis the role of the Policing Board? What would be the responsibilities of each party?
Mr. McGrady: The hon. Gentleman rightly touches on a very difficult authority issue. Like me, he served on the Policing Board in the earlier difficult years, and we formulated many controversial policies and consequences. However, the Policing Board and its associated institutions should be safeguarded for their good deeds and for their degree of independence.
I am not an institutional or constitutional expert on what the powers of the devolved Ministry would be. Assuming that it has the authority that is currently exercised by the Northern Ireland Office, the Department of the Assembly would, because of its expertise, simply monitor the overarching policies and budgets of the provisions for police and security in Northern Ireland. At least, I assume that that is what will happen.
I turn again to my third requirement. I like to think that the transfer of justice would be predicated on a strong north-south dimension. I hasten to add—I thought that this prompted the hon. Member for East Antrim to speak—that that should apply not in a political context, but in a very practical context. As we know, there is at present a British-Irish intergovernmental agreement for co-operation on justice. However, that agreement apparently falls completely with the devolution of justice.
We believe that in the period to May 2008, or whatever point it may be, agreements should be sought on a number of matters. First, the current elements of the intergovernmental agreement should be retained. I believe that further areas of co-operation should be developed between now and then, and that other areas should be brought into play. That has nothing to do with the constitutional position vis-√ -vis the north and south of Ireland, and nothing to do with inter-party policy requirements; it is simply a practical matter.
I would like the Minister to take note of the need for an all-Ireland criminal assets bureau, modelled on the criminal assets bureau in the south but suitably amended. We need to deprive criminals of their wrongful gains across the island of Ireland, but the issue has become more acute with the end of the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland. It has been subsumed into the Serious Organised Crime Agency, so we no longer have the independence to address that which that organisation knew best in Northern Ireland. That matter will not be devolved. I urge the Minister to think long and hard about the strategic merits of that proposal.
We should also have an all-Ireland law commission to research and promote the harmonisation of laws across the island. When at other forums, I was touched to hear about the provision of police training that would cover all of Ireland, at the new police college at Cookstown. The college would be good for the training of several police forces not only on the island of Ireland but further afield. I would be interested to hear the Minister confirm whether the funding for the college is ring-fenced and whether planning can proceed to a conclusion.
On the same theme—the devolution of justice and policing—it will be essential to have a sex offenders register covering the whole island. With an invisible land boundary, it would not make sense not to have one. The sooner that is implemented, the better. Another aspect would be an all-Ireland intelligence agency, serviced jointly by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana; united, they could combat crime and terrorism north and south. That could be an important development for better and more effective co-operation.
I appreciate that it is ultimately for the parties in Northern Ireland to determine their approach to the devolution of those powers. However, I think that it would be appropriate now and in the interim for the British and Irish Governments to address some of those issues with the parties in Northern Ireland for more effective delivery of policing and intelligence.
Perhaps at this point, Dr. McCrea, you will forgive me for mentioning out of context the appreciation of most of the community of Northern Ireland to the outgoing police ombudsman, Mrs. Nuala O’Loan, who will leave her post in a few days’ time after seven years. She will be succeeded by Al Hutchinson, who is a very experienced retired oversight commissioner for policing in Northern Ireland.
I shall try to conclude my remarks to allow the Minister time to respond. I have had to do a quick bit of arithmetic, as I anticipated having more time.
Nevertheless, it would be appropriate at this time to record our appreciation to the police ombudsman for seven years of difficult work. The work that has been done in that office has been a leading model worldwide with regard to the shape of the powers and mechanisms for police complaints. It is a measure of her success that she leaves the role at a time when more than 80 per cent. of the community, both Catholic and Protestant, as confirmed by the public attitude survey, believe that they would be treated impartially and fairly by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. That is a huge achievement in a short space of time.
There are a couple of other points that I would like to have made, Dr. McCrea, but in order to give the Minister ample and copious time to reply, it is appropriate for me to say only a little more. I am not a member of the Assembly, but I am looking forward to its accepting full responsibility for the totality of lives of the people of Northern Ireland. One of the great achievements that have come out of a terrible morass has been policing and how, despite the difficulties recorded in the earlier debates on young offenders, we now have a great chance to go forward as a community that is content with itself, if not with performance rates, which can always be improved. Part of that would be the totality of the community’s ability to direct its own future and the evolution of justice in policing. Perhaps in the fullness of time, foreign policy, budgets and all the rest will be devolved, but that might lead to a charge of a united Ireland, from which I shall refrain.
I am grateful for the chance to have had an Adjournment debate. I was very excited when I was told that I had won the raffle, or whatever it is—until I found out that I was the only who made an application. My enthusiasm diminished greatly, but the debate is nevertheless appropriate and timely, and I hope that the Minister will be able to make a substantive contribution.
The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, may I thank Members for their exemplary calm at the sounding of the alarm? I am led to believe that it was a fault in the heating system which has now been resolved. I am sure you are happy to know that.
7.10 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Another mystery solved. Thank you, Dr. McCrea.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Down on obtaining this debate in the competitive circumstances that he described. I suspect that this will not be the last time we discuss this important issue in the House. I can confirm to him and to other Members that the procedure for moving forward on the devolution of policing and justice is that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, which is taking evidence, will produce its report and assessment by February next year. The report will go to the Assembly, which will, through the good offices of the Speaker, pass it to the Secretary of State. The report will include an assessment of the likelihood that the Assembly will make a request, which is initiated by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister putting a motion to the Assembly, and the procedure moves from there.
That is the formal process, and we have already heard varying opinions about the likelihood of it being done in the time scale set out under the St. Andrews agreement. Some Members would like it sooner rather than later, and others would like it later rather than sooner, but in the end what matters is that an agreement is reached between all parties on that very important issue. My view is clear: if people wish responsibly to govern their own community, as I think they should, policing and justice responsibilities should be included, as well as the other considerable responsibilities of health and education.
It has been clear to me in the past few months that the overlap between police, criminal justice and other areas of public policy is considerable, and in the interests of a coherent policy, it is important that the same people organise the governance of all those different aspects. No doubt we will return to those issues and read the temperature over the next few weeks and months.
My hon. Friend asked for the financial guarantees. I am not in a position to give him precise pounds and pennies, which he will understand. However, I assure him that during the recent comprehensive spending review, the Northern Ireland Office and the current and previous Secretaries of State fought very hard for resources for Northern Ireland, not least for policing and criminal justice, because the majority of the budget of any future justice department will go to policing. Although I cannot give my hon. Friend precise figures, the funding that we have obtained and will be able to pass on to a devolved department of justice is robust, substantial and will enable effective policing to continue in Northern Ireland in the years ahead.
The way in which the budget is spent, however, is for the Chief Constable to determine in consultation with the Policing Board; it is not for Ministers to decide its priorities. Operationally, the Chief Constable takes the lead, as he is accountable to the Policing Board, which is how it should be. I can assure my hon. Friend and other Members that there will be no diminution in the roles of the Policing Board, the police ombudsman or the district policing partnerships. In fact, those bodies are being reinvigorated by representation on the Policing Board of a broader swathe of opinion from the community. Over the next few months, and certainly by February, all the DPPs will be reconstituted in a fully representative way. I hope that he takes heart from that. It is important that the DPPs and the Policing Board exist as part of an accountable, transparent policing system. They make the Northern Ireland policing system one of the most transparent and accountable in the world.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he agree that one of the key elements of building confidence in policing in the community is having the community police officers that we were promised, from April of next year? Will the NIO give the go-ahead for that?
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Nuala O’Loan for her work as the ombudsman. She is a fearless worker and absolutely committed to the job, and she has played an enormously important part in ensuring that the Northern Ireland policing system is fully accountable. Equally, I see in Al Hutchinson a man of great background in whom people can have confidence, because he understands policing in Northern Ireland from the work that he has done and his experience elsewhere. I pay tribute to Nuala, and I look forward to working with Al Hutchinson in his new role.
My hon. Friend made a number of points about north-south co-operation. The intergovernmental agreement is an agreement between sovereign Governments, but post-devolution it will be important that the detail of that agreement as it relates to Northern Ireland is worked out by the devolved Government. There is no point deciding the detail from London; it should be done in Northern Ireland. I hope that local Ministers will deal with that after the devolution of policing and justice.
On asset recovery, there has been a lot of collaboration between the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Assets Recovery Agency, and I expect that to continue when the Assets Recovery Agency is merged with SOCA in April next year. We have high-profile commitments on resources for asset recovery work, and it is important that we maintain them. I assure my hon. Friend that we will.
As for sex offenders, although there are no plans for a common register, there is now a protocol between northern and southern authorities to ensure that information is shared about particular dangerous people and sex offenders who move across the border. We can build on that, and it will add to public protection.
I am determined that we shall proceed with plans for the police college. We are still considering the detail of the CSR 2007 settlement, but I am utterly confident that that project will go ahead. It has a role to play in training police officers from the Garda Siochana, as well as the PSNI and other forces, in a state-of-the-art public sector project in Cookstown. I know that my hon. Friend supports that.
My hon. Friend touched on national security. As we move forward to a normal situation in which national security is accountable UK-wide, as is the case in England, Wales and Scotland, we need clear systems of understanding. The Chief Constable has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Security Service in which his five key principles of how PSNI will work with it are central. He is determined that they will be put into practice, and so am I. We are moving toward a situation in which the normal system of national security will resume rather than the abnormal one that we had during the troubles.
I can confirm that although there is discussion about when policing and justice should be devolved, the St. Andrews agreement is clear that we should be working to May 2008. As far as the Northern Ireland Office is concerned, when May 2008 comes, we will be ready should the request come.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Seven o’clock.
 
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