What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Policing Board about the introduction of community-based restorative justice systems.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the Northern Ireland Policing Board on
The Minister said that the draft guidelines for community restorative justice were put out to consultation in December, but can he tell us why they contain no requirement for all groups to endorse Northern Ireland's police and criminal justice system? Should not that be a fundamental condition before any further development of restorative justice in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman should perhaps go back to the guidelines and read them in detail, because he will find that the draft guidelines unambiguously specify that the involvement of the police and other statutory criminal justice organisations in the operation of the schemes is essential. There is no room for two-tier policing in Northern Ireland and we are committed to monitoring and developing those guidelines to ensure that the schemes that operate, independent of Government, are linked to the policing and criminal justice system. That is important. If the hon. Gentleman has comments to make on the guidelines, the consultation runs to the end of February and I would welcome his detailed comments.
The guidelines make it clear that no one currently involved in paramilitary or criminal activity should be involved in any scheme. One of the issues that we have put in the guidelines for consultation is the question whether individuals who have had criminal convictions in the past should be involved in the schemes. I am seeking views on that issue in the consultation, because some individuals may have criminal convictions from 30 or 35 years ago, are not now involved in criminality and may wish to be involved in those schemes. I will reflect on that issue when the consultation is completed.
I know that the hon. Lady has several schemes in her constituency which are doing very positive work. She will know that recommendation 168 of the criminal justice review recommended that positive restorative justice schemes should operate. The intention of the guidelines is to lay down some minimum standards so that any schemes that are funded independently of Government operate at a standard that we would expect. I would hope that the Policing Board would make comments on the guidelines, but would also recognise the inherent value of restorative justice schemes to Northern Ireland for the prevention of crime in its communities.
Will the Minister assure the House that the same vetting procedure will apply to those involved in restorative justice schemes as is used, for example, to assess personnel for the police, so that only people who believe in the rule of law are admitted to the schemes? That would give the community the confidence in the CRJ schemes that it does not have at present.
As I said in my answer to Mr. Lancaster, we have made it clear that nobody who is currently involved in any criminal or paramilitary activity should be involved in the schemes. We are consulting on the question whether individuals who have previous convictions should be involved in those schemes. As I said earlier, it is possible to have a criminal conviction from a considerable time ago that may or may not affect the involvement of an individual in the schemes today. That is one of the issues on which I seek views in the consultation and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and others will supply their views during the process.
For a number of years, people have not been arrested for being members of the IRA. If they are members of the IRA will they be able to partake in the scheme?
As I have already said, the guidelines make it clear that nobody involved in paramilitary activity or criminality can be involved in the scheme. Membership of the IRA is involved in paramilitary activity, so I would want to reflect on that point, but it is clear to me that current involvement in paramilitary activity is not compatible with the operation of the scheme.
Can the Government categorically confirm that all restorative justice schemes will involve direct co-operation with the Police Service of Northern Ireland? The Minister says that no one involved with paramilitary organisations will be allowed to participate in the schemes, but he knows very well that not all people involved with paramilitary organisations actually have criminal convictions, or have been proved to have them, so how will he ensure that the restorative justice schemes operate within the law and not as a form of vigilantism with a sheriff's badge?
The guidelines that I am producing for consultation were not drawn up out of the blue; they were drawn up in conjunction with the PSNI, the criminal justice agencies and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland. The criminal justice system and the police are integral to the operation of the schemes. At present, none of the schemes is funded by the Government, but they operate to support the reduction of crime in our communities. We have to ensure that there are minimum guidelines, and the minimum for us is that no paramilitary activity or criminality is involved and that individuals respect and comply with the rule of law and work with the agencies to tackle crime. That is central to our conditions for the guidelines. [Interruption.]
Order. Miss Widdecombe, there is far too much noise in the Chamber—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady is not the only one; there are a few others.