Risk Assessment and Management of Sex Offenders

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Paul Goggins: The right hon. Gentleman makes his point. I was thinking of the other solution, which he is not pressing, but there we go.
I am pleased to see the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk present and making a contribution this afternoon. Again, I can confirm that the co-location of police and probation will begin from October this year, and reassure him that resources are in place for the new public protection arrangements. He is right to underline the importance of focusing on the high risks, not just on spreading resources evenly across those of varying risk, and we have the resources in place to do that.
The impact on the prison population is another important point. Because of the change in the framework that we have introduced and the introduction of indeterminate and extended sentences, it is important that we expand the number of prison places—and we are—and that we put in place the extra capacity for running sex offender and other necessary programmes.
Over the next three years, we are investing £14 million extra in running those new places and programmes. I can tell the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk that over the next two years we will be introducing 400 new prison places in Northern Ireland, which, in relation to the size of the Prison Service there, is a considerable investment. We want to see the Prison Service working harder and harder at resettlement, so as people pass through the prison system the risk of reoffending reduces all the time.
I have mentioned a number of points that the hon. Member for East Antrim raised. It should not surprise him or other members of the Committee that the number of people subject to registration as sex offenders is going up each year. Obviously, many people go on the register for a long time and may stay on it for life, and all the time the numbers are being added to, so they will increase over time. That means that more and more people are being managed and watched, and assessed and reassessed, in exactly the right way.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that many offenders recognise the risk that they pose. Part of our strategy should be to help them to manage their risk better, and that requires good two-way communication between the supervising officer and the individual offender. Many of them lead chaotic lives, and part of the purpose of strict licence conditions is to ensure that they keep to certain strict rules. If they do not, there is a consequence, which is that they may have to go back to prison.
On the supervision and surveillance available, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of somebody who was seen only once every three months. To be seen once over a three-month period, that individual would have to be at category 1—the lowest of the three levels. The requirement at category 2 is not less than every six weeks, and for the highest level not less than every four weeks, but it could be more if the situation required it. One particular case springs to mind, although I will not go into detail this afternoon, in which the supervision was extremely intensive. We will provide what is necessary for the most risky and dangerous to ensure that we manage effectively the risk that they pose.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about what happens when people change their behaviour. There is a process of reassessment within the MASRAM arrangements, so if people become aware of new or risky behaviour, they can be reassessed. If necessary, they can be placed in a higher category and dealt with accordingly.
The hon. Gentleman asked about disclosure of information. I agree: it is sometimes important that information is disclosed, perhaps to a head teacher or another key person in the community. Where that is felt to be necessary, the agencies concerned will first suggest to the individual that they self-disclose, because that would be the most sensible way to proceed, but if they will not and the risk remains, the authorities will take the necessary action. If the situation involves children, we can take child protection action, and if risky behaviour needs to be prevented, we can get a sexual offences prevention order. It is essential that we manage the risks.
The hon. Gentleman’s final point was an important one about rebalancing the criminal justice system. In the time that I have been doing this job, I have been attempting to do just that through the new legislation and the improvements that we are trying to make to the Prison Service and the probation service. It seems to me that, first, we have to take victims and witnesses more seriously than perhaps we have in the past. We now have a victims and witnesses strategy for Northern Ireland, which I launched last year. It is well resourced and is providing more support for those people at a vulnerable time.
Secondly, we need a sentencing framework that means that the courts can give out the appropriate punishment and, if necessary, send people to prison for longer and keep them there if they pose too high a risk. Thirdly, we also need to invest in the probation service to ensure that when people are back in the community they have every opportunity to lead a law-abiding life and to make a positive contribution, as opposed to their past offending.
This is not about being soft on offenders; it is about reducing risk, reducing crime and ensuring that fewer people are affected by crime. The hon. Gentleman very adequately summed up what we are all striving to do here. There is no question but that, through the MASRAM arrangements and the public protection arrangements, we are seeking to ensure that all the agencies involved share information and a common strategy to ensure that people are properly protected.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the matter of MASRAM (multi-agency sex offender risk assessment and management) and the management of the risk posed by sex offenders living in the community in Northern Ireland.

Neighbourhood Policing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Committee do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]
6.35 pm
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I very much welcome the opportunity to debate an issue that is brought to my doorstep and office every week; perhaps even every day. I am talking about the demand made by good, law-abiding people for the rapid availability of, and accessibility to, a policeman or woman when circumstances require police protection and support. If one goes to my constituency or anywhere in Northern Ireland, one will meet people who think that the rapid access to, and availability of, ordinary community policemen and women is not adequate to meet the demands placed upon them by people breaking the law or engaging in antisocial behaviour.
The Police Federation says:
“Effective policing has always been the preserve of those working closely within the community”
that they serve. According to all of those who know more about community policing than I do, policing is delivered best when working in partnership with the support of a local community. At the core of the matter is a good neighbourhood policing strategy and policy, which would deter those who are tempted towards crime, reassure residents and make them feel safe in their own homes.
Policing in Northern Ireland has undergone a tremendous transformation, but there is a way to go before the final piece of the jigsaw—becoming a truly community-based policing service in name and in practice—is in place.
I should put on the record that I believe that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is doing an excellent job. Overall crime has fallen compared with last year, but those statistics, good as they are, mean little if the public do not feel safe in their homes and if they do not feel a connection at a neighbourhood and street level to the police officers who serve them. I have found that many elderly people in particular cannot put enough locks on their doors to make them feel safe. It is also important to note there is still an element of under-reporting of crime in Northern Ireland, because people genuinely feel that they do not want to waste police time on relatively minor crime. I therefore suggest that the statistics may be read with a degree of caution.
People in their homes, on their streets and in their neighbourhoods are plagued by antisocial activity. Sometimes, that activity gets worse. In the Belfast, West constituency, which is adjacent to mine, the recent deaths of Harry Holland and Bap McGreevy were a direct result of antisocial turning to violent behaviour and eventually to murder. Against that background, old people do not feel safe in their homes, perhaps understandably.
People are deeply frustrated at poor response times and the time it takes for police to get to their homes when there is a break-in, attack or threat.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a high level of frustration from the general public on the overall budget that was received in Northern Ireland for policing and that the reduction of the budget meant that it was not possible to put in place community support officers for the community policing that he mentioned?
Dr. McDonnell: The hon. Gentleman has, as in earlier debates, read my mind. I will come to the points that he raised later, but I agree with him entirely. The frustration that he referred to is building in many cases into anger and resentment, and we should do what we can to avoid that, because a lot of the good work that has already been undertaken by police in difficult circumstances is being negated as people become apathetic or think that contacting the police is a waste of time. That is not an attitude that I want to condition. Equally, I do not want to encourage the wasting of police time on trivia, so we have to get the right balance in that regard.
I can only remark on the tremendous change that has come about in my constituency in the Markets area, which I know well and where there have been difficulties over the years. Indeed, the transformation that has taken place and the work that allowed it has been tremendous. That started a number of years ago because a small team consisting of a sergeant and eight constables were dedicated to working in what was a predominantly nationalist area with a bit of a republican and militant reputation. That was done at a time when there was little or no faith in or support for the police, and even those who were well disposed towards the police felt that discretion was the better part of valour and kept their mouths and doors shut. Those officers set about building trust, support and respect in that community. Ahead of and perhaps in parallel with broader changes on the overall policing picture, they created a situation in which there was tremendous good will and growth of relationships. Indeed, they have even now built relationships with some of the people who in the past would have been declared enemies.
However, I raised that issue this evening because I am concerned that there are signs that that goodwill is beginning to diminish, and that is a direct result of community police officers either not existing, or where they do exist, being very stretched. After all that we have come through in Northern Ireland, I do not think that we should allow that to happen. Urgent action must be taken to enable local officers, where possible, to be responsive to community needs. Action must be taken to ensure extra resources at a community level, and that included man power, women power or other resources that will ensure rapid response.
The Patten commission has taken policing a long way, but the next leg of the journey for me, for many of the people I represent and many whom I do not represent is to get the final piece of the jigsaw in place, and that is effective neighbourhood policing. I warmly welcome the statement that the Minister made at the end of May, in which he also emphasised those issues. I hope that my contribution this evening reinforces that theme and strengthens the efforts that he made at the end of May to recognise the need for investment at a grass-roots level, the building of trust and that that is all an essential part of a process of making our communities safe. I believe, just like my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Upper Bann, that central to the whole thing is the need to have police community support officers in place. That will go a long way towards reassuring the people I represent and who come to my door and those who feel insecure in their homes that something is happening.
We had a discussion earlier about sex offenders. My wife reports to me—it makes my life a lot more difficult—that two or three times a week, she observes people whom she suspects of having ulterior motives lurking around a school that is less than 100 yd from where I live. Maybe she is totally wrong, maybe it is a bit unfair or maybe it is just a suspicion, but there are not enough police human resources to monitor that situation, intervene or just show a presence—if nothing else, to scare off those who might have ulterior motives.
My friend the hon. Member for Upper Bann made the point that there is a shortfall in the region of £100 million in the PSNI budget bid. I would not want to see a penny wasted, never mind a pound, but we must recognise that gap as penny-wise and pound-foolish. Some of it has to be bridged to reinforce the tremendous progress and success that we have had in policing and to clinch the deal and bring it all together at street level.
Police community support officers not only serve communities but form an integral part of them, and they are vital to a range of community safety strategies for dealing with antisocial behaviour and fostering community cohesion and protection. The PCSO budget should be a defined resource in its own right. The police should not just have an afterthought, “If we do get some money, we’ll allocate it there.” It should not just be part of an overall budget that is vulnerable to somebody else raiding it.
The delivery of a first-class policing service in Northern Ireland is central to all the political progress that we have made, and the further reduction of crime there is directly related to the amount of funding that we can find and devote to the delivery of community policing. To enable our dedicated policemen and women to do a better job, whatever resources are available must be put into front-line services, at community and neighbourhood level, whenever they are available.
It is not fair that time and again comparisons are made—even if in a genuine effort; I am not questioning the motives involved—with parts of the UK such as the north-east, the north-west, the midlands or wherever. We are still in a difficult situation, and there are still threats to policemen and women. Only last night there was a very nasty attack on two policemen in Fermanagh. As we move through and out of the post-conflict situation, it is not reasonable to say that we are comparable with those areas. We still have a major security threat, albeit from a small number of individuals.
The police budget is too tight overall, and the vulnerable part of it is the community and neighbourhood part. If we neglect that now, it will lead to a penny-wise and pound-foolish strategy further down the road. It will allow crime, antisocial behaviour and violent behaviour to grow, and lives will be lost.
The community end of policing is about having a local, dedicated team of officers for a specific geographical area. Those officers should be well equipped and trained with good communication and conflict resolution skills at neighbourhood level, so that they can help when kids are in trouble and being difficult, or attempt to resolve antisocial behaviour.
Foot patrols are essential, and we see few of them around Belfast, if any. Some mobile units are useful, but policemen or women, or both, on bicycles create a visible presence. Visibility is everything in making people feeling secure. It connects the police with the community and involves people in the community in fighting crime and taking on responsibility.
Another issue that I want to raise is a particular problem in the south Belfast district command area, which takes in Belfast city centre. Almost all the available policing sources go to the city centre at weekends as units are deployed to tackle all sorts of antisocial behaviour such as alcohol-fuelled assaults and the whatnot that now passes for social life on a Friday and Saturday evening. That siphons policing from the neighbourhoods, and it is not possible to deal with break-ins on Friday and Saturday nights. The criminals are wise to that and effectively have a free-for-all on those two evenings. We need to do something at a neighbourhood level to ensure that the neighbourhood is not robbed to cover the city centre. There might be an option to create a dedicated city centre policing service. I am sure that our brains and strategists could consider that.
In conclusion, I thank you again, Dr. McCrea, for the opportunity to raise these issues. I want to make it clear that I am in favour of efficient and effective spending of tax money. I am not saying that we should throw good money after bad, but there is a big gap in our policing service and people are distressed about it. The situation might not cost lives in all cases, but it does cost lives from time to time as violence spirals out of control. I urge the Minister to use whatever influence he has with the Policing Board to ensure that we continue to build on and strengthen the tremendous progress that we have made in policing in the past couple of years. Community confidence is rising and people want to participate in and support policing, but that will be frustrated if we do nothing and allow nothing to happen.
6.52 pm
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