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Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 7:30 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, these amendments from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and my noble friend Lord Dholakia return to the question of restorative justice. The noble Lords have been outstanding exponents of the importance of restorative justice and we appreciate the contribution that they have made in the House, nationally and internationally in this matter. The Government support the principle of restorative justice as part of an effective response to crime. It offers a crucial opportunity, not only to assist in the rehabilitation of offenders by making them face the consequences of their actions and seek to make amends for the damaged inflicted on others, but to give victims a greater stake in the resolution of offences and in the criminal justice system as a whole. Indeed, victim satisfaction rates have been extremely positive. Additional work in this area will enable us to realise the benefits of restorative justice further. We already have encouraging evidence around its impact on reoffending rates and anecdotal evidence that it encourages offenders to seek further necessary interventions, such as drug and alcohol treatment.

As I mentioned in Committee, we are committed to delivering greater use of restorative practices across the criminal justice system and we are putting a great deal of time and effort into building up the capacity of youth offending teams, probation trusts and prisons to provide restorative justice services, investing over £1 million in order to do so. We just heard reference from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, to the Thames Valley restorative justice partnership. It is developing training materials and guidance for using restorative justice in the adult system as part of our response to more serious offences. Its experience is invaluable.

These amendments take a three-pronged approach to adding restorative justice to the current legislation. The first would make restorative justice a statutory purpose of sentencing alongside the existing purposes of punishment, reduction of crime, rehabilitation, protection of the public and making reparation to offenders, as set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The second would create a new restorative justice requirement for a community order or suspended sentence order, while the third would add the words "restorative justice" to the existing activity requirement.

We fully share with noble Lords the importance of embedding restorative justice in the system. However, we are not persuaded that these amendments are quite the right route towards this. Noble Lords will no doubt accept that the statutory purposes of sentencing are outcomes for judges and magistrates to have regard to when considering what sentence will be appropriate, given the particular offence and the particular offender's circumstances. Restorative justice is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself; it is a process through which victims and offenders come together; it is not an outcome that stands alone. It would not be appropriate to add it to the list of purposes, although we have sympathy with the noble and learned Lord's intentions.

In response to the second amendment, we believe the law already provides scope for restorative justice. Restorative justice occurs now, under current law.

The third amendment turns its attention to the activity requirement, which allows the court to consider the use of restorative justice when it has been advised that the victim and offender have agreed to take part and provision is in place to deliver such a requirement. We accept that the amendment simply adds a specific reference to restorative justice and mediation into the current section of the 2002 Act that sets out the details of the activity requirement. However, we do not feel that increasing the use of restorative justice is about imposing further legal duties at this stage. It is about supporting a culture change in the mind of practitioners to develop and deliver effective restorative justice practices and building capacity across the system, all of which must be rooted in local need and responsive to local crime and reoffending. We appreciate what noble Lords themselves have done to promote that culture change.

The Government have several areas of work in train to help to promote the same culture change and boost provision across the system. Within this, we are introducing neighbourhood justice panels to bring local victims, offenders and practitioners together. We are in the process of creating a clear national framework for the use of out-of-court disposals, which will include the use of restorative justice to improve its use and effectiveness. Through the National Offender Management Service, we are providing £1.13 million of training, guidance and support to staff and volunteers in probation trusts and in prisons to enable more post-sentence restorative justice processes. In the youth system, we are providing £630,000 to enhance the training of referral panel members and YOT workers so they can facilitate restorative justice conferences where suitable. We have recently published our victims' strategy, which contains proposals in this area, including giving victims, for the first time, the right to request restorative justice in the victims' code, which we hope will provide a much stronger emphasis on making restorative justice available to more victims of crime.

The Government are also about to consult on the use of community sentences, which will include a specific reference to restorative justice, looking at how to develop restorative justice across the range of the criminal justice system. Of course, respondents to that consultation may recommend new provisions. I hope noble Lords will contribute their wisdom to that process.

I can go further, because my noble friend Lord McNally has authorised me to invite the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, to meet him and ministerial colleagues to see how his ideas on restorative justice fit in with what we are proposing. I hope that other noble Lords will play a part in this as well. I hope that the noble and learned Lord sees that as a useful way forward, so that restorative justice finds its proper place in our forthcoming consultation. I welcome the noble and learned Lord's willingness to engage in this matter, and that of other noble Lords. I am extremely happy to ensure that his proposals on that move forward. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be content to withdraw the amendment on that basis.