The work of the Office for Criminal Justice Reform - Justice Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)

JONATHAN SLATER AND CATHERINE LEE

3 MARCH 2009

  Q40  Alun Michael: Your role, as I understood it from your earlier remarks, has as one of its key objectives to get alignment so the different bits of the system are working together. That is clearly quite challenging. What are you doing about that?

  Jonathan Slater: It is challenging. Apologies if this is disappointing, but I am just saying that we are in the middle of reviewing what arrangements we can put in place to improve the status quo at the moment, rather than me reporting back to you on the outcome of that. I would not expect, as I say, this to lead to significant transfers of resources from one department to another. What I would expect it to lead to is a reprioritisation of activity in accordance with some new demand on the system, which, of course, is what happens in practice at the moment because it has to. What I would be hoping is that it be done on a more planned and transparent basis.

  Q41  Alun Michael: I appreciate it is difficult to express into practicalities. We had evidence from work that was funded by the Esme Fairbairn Trust about the lack of knowledge of sentencers, particularly judges, of what actually happens—what a community sentence means—which seemed to imply that judges ought to get out more and find out what is going on. That is an example of enlightenment. One of the suggestions out of that work was that that should become mainstream work within the criminal justice system, that sentencers ought to get out more and ought to have a better appreciation of community sentences, understand them better and use them more effectively. Are you doing any work on that?

  Jonathan Slater: There is an area of work that we have taken on under the banner of community justice in which efforts that have been taken over the last few years to improve the engagement between sentencers and the public at large are expanded.

  Q42  Alun Michael: I am more concerned about sentencers. Can I put it to you that you ought to take that Esme Fairbairn funded work—so it has not cost the department anything—and use that as a model for getting justices and judges in every part of the country out experiencing community sentencing, engaging with it and improving the alignment, back to your word, of the criminal justice system in that regard?

  Jonathan Slater: Yes, I will bring in Catherine in a moment to make sure I am satisfying your question, but the reason I referred to community justice was that on Friday I was up in North Liverpool with Judge Fletcher looking at the way that he has sought to engage much more actively with local communities than is typical, and that is a responsibility we have been given in OCJR to promote widely.

  Q43  Alun Michael: With respect, that is one of the projects that was funded by the Esme Fairbairn Trust, is it not, in Cheshire and Liverpool?

  Jonathan Slater: No, it is funded from within the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Justice has the lead financial responsibility, responsibility for courts. We are working on proposals to expand that good practice that one sees in relatively small numbers of courts, building on the pilot in North Liverpool, Selford and eleven other magistrates' courts, with proposals to expand that more widely across the system for precisely the reason that you mention.

  Q44  Alun Michael: Has that changed sentencing in those courts that you refer to?

  Jonathan Slater: It is too early to evidence.

  Q45  Chairman: It is not too early in Liverpool: it has been going for quite some time now.

  Jonathan Slater: I was going to say it was too early to evidence an impact on reoffending rates, but I take the point. I have not seen comparative data on sentencing outcomes before and after. Certainly Judge Fletcher would argue, if he were here, that it enables him to demonstrate—

  Q46  Chairman: Do not worry, we have met him. Can I ask a broader question? Is the National Criminal Justice Board capable, by its very nature, of putting together and putting before ministers proposals for radical shifts in the way money is spent within the system, or is it actually the forum where people would fight to the last ditch to prevent such radical shifts from taking place?

  Jonathan Slater: I joined OCJR as the Chief Executive only last April, so I am not able to give a well-informed historical perspective, but I am told—

  Q47  Alun Michael: It is a whole year.

  Jonathan Slater: Yes, it has been a fascinating 12 months. I am told that the agencies that come together at the National Criminal Justice Board work much more collectively now than they did. Certainly, I do not see raised voices arguing about the last penny at that meeting at all. No, I see evidence of agencies seeking to collaborate. Clearly, if you have got your budget, you want to make sure that you are not just giving away for the sake of it, but, equally, I see lots of examples of people transferring resources between each other in order to improve the efficiency of the system as a whole. For example, one of our roles is to provide information to all LCJBs about where inefficiencies exist. I was looking at an example in Leicestershire of agreement across the system for the police to get more resources because it would benefit CPS if they were to invest more effectively pre-charge. It would be of benefit to the CPS and so a transfer of funding took place accordingly. My job is to negotiate investment in new projects across the system in which each agency provides funding for the benefit as a whole, and our job is to make sure that people put in funding where they will make a further benefit as a result, or, in London, to see, again, the funding that the police have given the CPS, in order to improve the effectiveness of the service they get and its efficiency. So we are seeing people working collaboratively and transferring funding much more than we did in the past.

  Q48  Chairman: To whom are you looking to achieve greater public confidence in the criminal justice system? We had evidence earlier which suggested it was the police who were expected to do the most to improve public confidence in the system rather than prisons, probation, youth offending teams. To whom are you looking to achieve it?

  Jonathan Slater: I would be looking to the CJS to work collaboratively, speaking increasingly with one voice—I am not suggesting that that is where we are, I am suggesting that is the objective—to the public, particularly to victims of crime, in providing a more joined-up service than in the past but working with them collaboratively. The service cannot be a responsibility given to one agency. We are negotiating plans with each of the Local Criminal Justice Boards collectively about how they might go about the task of building public confidence in their work.

  Q49  Chairman: Do you assume that willingness to co-operate with the criminal justice system in reporting crimes, appearing as a witness, and so forth, is a function of public confidence in the criminal justice system, or is it a function of something else, as was suggested to us in some evidence, such as age, social position, and so forth; that there is not necessarily a direct relationship between people's confidence measured by asking them what they think of the criminal justice system and actually whether they are willing to engage with it when a crime has been committed in their area or which they know about?

  Jonathan Slater: Confidence in the criminal justice system is, of course, very complex, as your question implies. Certainly you will find differing levels of confidence depending on factors like age, class, and so on, but that is not to say that one cannot improve public confidence across the piece, all be it that it is at different levels, by some fairly straightforward things, including providing much more transparency about what the system does. There is a very strong correlation between knowledge of the system and confidence in it, recognising the variations that you have described. Does that answer your question?

  Q50  Chairman: Have you given any thought to the impact of the media on confidence? Is there any work within the framework of the organisations that you bring together which addresses media attitudes to the criminal justice system?

  Jonathan Slater: Clearly, particularly in circumstances where most members of the public do not have much engagement with the criminal justice system day by day, the media is a source of a lot of information. There is a significant role for Local Criminal Justice Boards to play in using regional and local media to get out the facts more effectively, and there is plenty of opportunity for them so to do. Equally, our advice to local agencies is that there is plenty that they can do to directly communicate with the public, often through the police. As you say, the police, going back to your previous question, are, more typically than other members of the CJS, engaging with the front line or with the public all the time, there are more of them, but getting out the facts and being responsive can build confidence, whatever the stories might be in the national media, but, as I say, using the regional and local ones in particular, you can get a lot of information out across the system.

  Q51  Chairman: Generally speaking, police have a fairly active media policy which is usually directed, I suppose not surprisingly, towards demonstrating what a lot they are doing, and it includes taking television crews to scenes of dawn raids and all this sort of thing, but if that is the only part of the criminal justice system that is engaging with the media, does that not give a slightly slanted picture?

  Jonathan Slater: I was focusing particularly on the work that they do, which is generally more facing the front line, but clearly you are right, it is important that each agency engages effectively with the national media. To take one thing that we do in OCJR, there is an annual justice awards ceremony that we run, seeking to identify excellent practice, people who have provided a really excellent service for victims, or whatever. The Mirror, just to give you one example, invites its readers to vote amongst the different participants and sponsors the award in the way that I am implying, which increases the profile. That is just one example of the sort of thing that might be done, but it is important for all agencies to work in that way, of course.

  Catherine Lee: I was just going to add, building on that, that is very much the national picture, but we know that actually confidence can be most driven up and most effective by local media coverage, which is why part of the money that we provide to Local Criminal Justice Boards for their support is to pay for a communications officer who actually works across agency in the local area, to liaise with the media, to promote campaigns, to try and get messages out about how the criminal justice system is operating in their particular area.

  Q52  Mr Turner: What added value do you expect the Victims' Champion to provide here?

  Jonathan Slater: It seems to me that she can provide a number of roles. She can be a very immediate voice of victims nationally. I would expect her to come along, for example, to talk to the National Criminal Justice Board about what she thinks from her perspective are the sort of priorities that the Board should be focusing on in their work in a more immediate way than without having such a person in place. We have statutory roles to review the Code of Practice that was rolled out in 2006, but again, having someone like the Victims' Champion in place can provide a really direct challenge to make sure that the voice of victims is heard in a way that would not have been done so to the same degree without it. It is a more immediate, high profile voice to act as a challenge to us all in the work that we do.

  Q53  Mr Turner: What is the difference between the post of Victims' and Witnesses' Commissioner and the recently quoted Victims' Champion?

  Jonathan Slater: The Victims' Commissioner was legislated for in 2004, as you will be aware. An unsuccessful attempt was made to appoint one subsequently. Subsequent to that, the decision was made to invest the money in direct services to victims. Having moved on and made some significant successes there, in particular the funding of Victim Support now as a national organisation, we have reviewed the 2004 legislation which sets out, when you look at it in detail, a requirement for the Victims' Commissioner to operate as if they were a non-departmental public body with an office, a set of annual accounts, quite a bit of overhead of the sort that might have been appropriate when there was not a national voice for victims. Victim Support at the time was a series of over 70 individual charities, but now you have got a national victim support organisation. So rather than spending money on a national office to support a commissioner, focus instead on using the resources that might have been used for direct services and appoint a voice. The legislation is what the legislation is, so that is why we have appointed a Victims' Champion and that is why ministers are seeking parliamentary approval to amend the 2004 Act to tackle the issue that I have just described, and in the meantime, to avoid losing momentum, a Victims' Champion is what we have.

  Q54  Mr Turner: You have got rid of the Victims' and Witnesses' Commissioner or you have not appointed one?

  Jonathan Slater: An attempt was made to appoint in 2006 unsuccessfully.

  Q55  Mr Turner: What was wrong with it?

  Jonathan Slater: I am not sure there was anything wrong with it. Ministers were not satisfied by the calibre of the candidates that they had at the time.

  Q56  Mr Turner: Something must have been wrong with it.

  Jonathan Slater: What I am suggesting is that it is just as important, I would think, now as it was then that there should be a strong, independent voice of victims playing the roles that I have described. It is not true now, I do not think, but this will be a matter for Parliament, that the sort of bureaucracy associated with the post makes sense in the light of role of Victim Support: seeking parliamentary approval to tackle that thing which no longer seems right but not accepting the absence of a commissioner; instead getting on with the appointment of somebody in the meantime to play that role but in a non-statutory way.

  Q57  Alun Michael: Can I follow up on a couple of things to do with the victim. I am surprised what you have said about Victim Support. It has been a very effective organisation for about 15 years, in my experience. Firstly, the purpose of the Victims' Commissioner. I am sitting on the committee dealing with the Coroners and Justice Bill, which includes this, and I have put forward some amendments on that to suggest that one thing that the Victims' Commissioner might do is to act as a single point for complaints: because at the moment, we have heard in evidence, there are something like ten different bits to the criminal justice system, each of them with a different way of making a complaint, which means that the complainant, particularly if it is a victim, has to understand the criminal justice system, which given that, I suspect, you do not and I do not, is a bit of a big ask for victims. Would you agree: it would be a good idea to give a role to the Victims' Commissioner in not undertaking the investigation but co-ordinating the system to make sure that if a victim has got a complaint they get the complaint answered without having to have a degree in criminal justice system organisation?

  Jonathan Slater: In case the point I was making about Victim Support was not properly expressed, I was not seeking to imply for a moment that Victim Support has not been a very effective organisation for 15 years; I was making the point that it has become a national organisation since the 2004 Act and that the proposition for a national office to support a commissioner is not as valid now as then. That was the only point I was seeking to make, significant or otherwise. In respect to your question about complaints, as you know, given your membership, the Government's proposals are not to change the brief of the Victims' Commissioner from that set out in the 2004 Act to avoid a situation in which they might get overwhelmed by dealing with complaints. I take your point about co-ordination rather than handling complaints, but I think the Government's view is that the role set out in the 2004 Act, keeping the code of good practice under review, and so on, is sufficient for the Commissioner to be very well occupied.

  Q58  Alun Michael: Looking at the levels of satisfaction, the British Crime Survey shows that there has been a marginal increase in victim and witness satisfaction over the last couple of years, going up from 58% to 60% but compared to that the satisfaction of people who are engaged in restorative justice (and I am referring to the victims in this case) over 90% and 73% plus actually felt safer as a result of an incident of restorative justice. Given your co-ordinating role, are you promoting greater use of restorative justice within the criminal justice system in the interests of victims?

  Jonathan Slater: That is a task that we have recently taken on. Ministers share your view about the benefits to victim satisfaction in particular of restorative justice. It is a bit more difficult to demonstrate evidence on reoffending, but there is excellent evidence, as you say, about satisfaction levels. We are just kicking off a project now to identify really good practice, where we can find it, of restorative justice and encourage Local Criminal Justice Boards to invest more in that area in the light of this objective.

  Alun Michael: It would be helpful if we could have a note about that, because that might relate to some of the work we have been doing as a committee, Chairman.

  Chairman: Indeed.

  Q59  Mr Heath: At some time we must explore the hierarchy between champions and SARS and commissioners as to exactly who does what. I am going to move to Local Criminal Justice Boards, if I may, and I am going to start, as a former audit commissioner, with what your commission had to say back in 2003 when they said that there were three challenges facing the Criminal Justice Boards: engagement, governance and performance. I wondered to what extent you feel they have successfully addressed those challenges since 2003 and are they still the relevant challenges for today or are there new challenges?

  Jonathan Slater: They are certainly all relevant challenges. I would say that Local Criminal Justice Boards could demonstrate significant improvements in each of those three things over the last five years, all be it that performance is inevitably variable, as the Audit Commission would always rightly point out, but Local Criminal Justice Boards could demonstrate how they have worked to increase the number of offences brought justice, reduced discontinuance, increased, all be it not as much as they would like, levels of satisfaction. So I think there is a performance agenda that they could talk to that we have supported them very actively on.


 
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