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I beg to move
That this Assembly, following the recent United Nations Committee on the Rights of a Child (UNCRC) Report, notes the concerns expressed regarding young people in the juvenile justice system; and calls on the Northern Ireland Office and the Executive to set out what actions they will be taking to address these concerns.
I take the opportunity to thank the Business Committee for selecting this motion for debate in the Assembly. Although the motion focuses on the Executive and the NIO, I welcome the junior Minister to the debate. It will be interesting to hear his response.
Young people who have committed a serious crime must go through the court process and receive a sentence that reflects the crime of which they have been found guilty. Today’s debate is not on the nature of sentences or what constitutes a fit sentence for a particular offence, regardless of who has committed it. The debate is on what happens to young people when they enter the juvenile justice system and how to ensure that they are less likely to commit further offences when they leave, rather than more likely, as research has shown that they are.
The rate of reoffending among those in the juvenile justice system is high. Research suggests that almost three quarters of young people under the age of 25 are likely to be reconvicted within two years of leaving the system. Research also shows that the one-year reoffending rate of youths discharged from custody is 70%. That suggests the system’s failure to address the underlying causes of young people’s offending or offer them a clear path to rehabilitation and a new life.
The juvenile justice system must be changed to ensure that it promotes the rehabilitation of young people in its care, and that cannot be achieved through a punitive or bullying approach. Young people of 14 or 17 years of age must not be abandoned to a life of offending, because an opportunity exists to change their lives by giving them the right support and chances.
A number of recent inspection reports have raised serious concerns about young people in the juvenile justice system. The inspections of Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre and Hydebank Wood young offenders’ centre identified a range of issues on which the centres fell far below the level of best practice, with Hydebank Wood seeming to contravene the basic human rights of young people.
I welcome the British Government’s withdrawal of their reservation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding holding children in adult prisons. Unfortunately, that seems not to apply to the 17-year-olds who are being held in Hydebank Wood young offenders’ centre. The centre is operated by the Prison Service and accommodates young men between 17 and 21 years of age. Although those aged 17 are held on a separate landing, they are in the same block as adults, and they are held in a facility run by the Prison Service and according to its rules.
The recent inspection report raised serious concerns, such as the lack of an adequate child protection policy and the fact that only 23 of the 39 staff who work with the young people had received any training in child protection. The report also highlighted a culture that, on reception, was described as “intimidating and inappropriate” for juveniles. The reception process included the routine strip-searching of all juveniles, with some searches being carried out by a single officer. Only 39% of the young people had been able to make a phone call to their family or a friend on their first night in detention.
The inspection also found little effective response to bullying, and inspectors stated that they witnessed an incident of bullying by a senior member of staff. Some bullying was not investigated, and over 39% of the young people said that they had felt unsafe while in the young offenders’ centre.
The inspection further identified the use of inappropriate punishment methods for young people, including lengthy confinement in cells and stopping their use of the telephone to contact family. One child was held for six weeks in conditions that could be regarded as cellular confinement and was unable to communicate with his mother for four weeks.
Of most concern was the notion of young people being confined to their cells for considerable periods of the day with very little provision for education or for useful, work-based skills. Only 15% of young people were taking part in education, and only 15% were learning a skill or trade. However, 62% of the young people said that they needed help with reading, writing and maths, for which many were on a waiting list. That does not simply contravene young people’s basic human rights; it is ineffective in ensuring that they do not reoffend and prevents them from finding the skills and support that they need to become usefully involved in society.
What steps will the NIO and the First Minister and deputy First Minister take to ensure that young people are either moved from Hydebank Wood to Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre or are provided with dedicated accommodation? The issue of ensuring that child protection policies are followed through on must also be addressed if we are to meet the needs of children and young people.
Between January 2006 and October 2007, 655 children and young people aged up to 17 were admitted to Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre. The proportion of young people sent to juvenile justice centres here is broadly similar to that in England and Wales, despite recognition that that figure is high in an international context. I am concerned that 48% of those young people were placed in juvenile justice custody under the PACE scheme. That indicates that, despite signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are not complying with the undertaking in it to detain young people only as a measure of last resort. PACE can be used to hold a child until a court appearance when they are charged with an offence and bail cannot be granted or a place of safety found. PACE is not widely used for that purpose in England. That is an issue that we must consider.
Another concern is the proportion of young people from care backgrounds who are taken into custody. In 2006-07, 30% of children aged 10 to 17 who were in custody came from a care background. Young people here who are looked after have, on average, twice as many admissions to custody as those from the general population.
An estimated 75% of looked-after children who enter secure accommodation already have a criminal conviction. If he can do so, the junior Minister must clarify with the NIO when it intends to deal with section 56 of the Justice Act 2002, because that allows for a child aged between 10 and 13 who is subject to a custody care order to be placed in secure accommodation rather than in a juvenile justice centre. Some of those issues were raised in last week’s Assembly debate on children missing from care, and the difficulties faced by children in the care system were highlighted.
People who work with children in the care system daily, either directly or indirectly, have told me that secure accommodation is already under considerable stress. That is something that we see regularly and often hear on the news. Sometimes a bed cannot be found for even the most vulnerable of our young people. That is another issue that the Executive must take on board. I hope that the junior Minister will raise some of the matters highlighted today with his Executive colleagues so that they can address the pressures on secure accommodation for our most vulnerable young people.
We must draw attention to prevention. I have focused on the experience of young people in the juvenile justice system, but it would be much more effective to keep them out of that system and to reduce the rate of offending. It is vital to work with young people at an early stage in their communities to address behaviour that could escalate into offending. That means doing preventative work on the ground that addresses young people’s needs in their communities, families and schools. Often, young offenders have been excluded from school or are not in education, training or employment. They frequently have family problems, and some come from the most disadvantaged of communities.
In conclusion, I thank the junior Minister and his colleague, Mr Donaldson, for their personal interest in the issue, and I know that junior Minister Mr Kelly has visited some of the institutions involved on a number of occasions. What we need, however, is a response from the Executive that spells out exactly what pressure they are placing on the NIO. Go raibh míle maith agat.
I read through the report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the various submissions that relate to the juvenile justice system in Northern Ireland. The UNCRC has thrown up a number of recommendations that, I am sure, many people in Northern Ireland would find difficult to accept, as well as some that we acknowledge should be in place. I do not wish to detract from much of what was said by the mover of the motion; I will look specifically at the report. I was drawn to the very last recommendation in particular, which is that the state party should conduct an independent review of ASBOs with a view to abolishing their application to children.
It was interesting to see that Save the Children and the Children’s Law Centre submitted the ‘Northern Ireland NGO Alternative Report’, in which issues regarding ASBOs were raised. Alternative reports are a very important part of the human rights oversight procedure, and any NGO should undertake that role with the responsibility that it deserves. In this instance, I do not believe that the NGOs that were involved in the preparation of the report presented an accurate reflection of the facts regarding ASBOs. There are two types of ASBO: one is applied for through the civil courts, and the other is granted as part of a criminal sentence. That was not made clear in the alternative report. Later in the report there is a vague reference to their use in sentencing, but, when the report first defines ASBOs, it quite explicitly states that they are civil orders.
The NGO report categorically states that proceedings that relate to the breach of an ASBO do not attract the protections of the criminal justice system. That is quite wrong. If there is a breach of an ASBO, it is treated as the breach of a court order and is dealt with through the criminal courts, which is the same way that a breach of a non-molestation order is treated. The NGO report claims that antisocial behaviour is not a criminal act and, therefore, a child should not run the risk of a custodial sentence. However, it is the breach of an order that attracts a sentence, not the behaviour itself.
The report also claims that the ASBO procedure is a breach of a child’s rights under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as set out in the Human Rights Act 1998, as there is a denial of a fair trial. Again, that is inaccurate. Civil cases attract the fair trial rights outlined in article 6(1), and there is no case law to back up the NGO’s claim that stand-alone ASBOs breach that provision. In fact, the opposite is, perhaps, the case.
Furthermore, the NGO report equates an ASBO that could form part of a sentence with a release under licence. It claims that that is a condition that is normally imposed on individuals who have committed the most serious crimes. However, any individual who is sentenced to imprisonment and is released on a date before the completion of that sentence will be on licence for the remainder of the term in any event. The implication of the NGO report is that no such licence exists except in the most serious cases: that is patently incorrect and misleading. The NGOs did not advise UNCRC of the fact that a CJINI report in 2008 stated that ASBOs had been used sensibly and proportionately in Northern Ireland since they had been introduced.
The Beijing rules suggest that the ideal age of criminal responsibility is between 14 and 16 years of age. The recommendation of the UNCRC is that the UK should progressively raise the age of criminal responsibility to reach that so-called ideal. As a party, we have made it clear that, at this time, we do not feel that there is a need to raise the age of criminal responsibility. We certainly feel that raising it to 14, 16 or even 18, as some NGOs in Northern Ireland want, is wholly inappropriate and not in the public interest. Of course, there is no direct domestic sanction for failure to comply with that recommendation and no direct means for enforcement.
The UNCRC report and the NGO alternative report highlight the fact that there is a lack of understanding and, perhaps, a lack of information available to young people who are engaged in the youth justice process. It is imperative that young people understand the system, including what is happening to them and their rights. It is evident that a great deal of work has been undertaken to reform the youth justice system in Northern Ireland. I think that it is the will of everyone in this Assembly to ensure that young people who are involved in the system are treated in a manner that befits their age and, of course, their vulnerability. However, that should not, in any way, result in them failing to be held accountable for their actions.
I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to this important debate. However, criminal justice is not a devolved responsibility of this Assembly, so the competence of the motion has to be questioned.
It may well be that responsibility for criminal justice will be devolved at some point, but we are considerably undermined by the fact that no justice Minister is in place today to reply to the debate. There is a tendency for Members to let off steam and to treat the issue as a hobby horse. However, the public should be aware that, at present, the Assembly has no remit to impact on those charged within the criminal justice system, and we remain spectators in that matter.
The motion is competent. Although the Member is right that justice powers need to be transferred at a later date, the Executive do have a responsibility. The Member’s colleague Michael McGimpsey is responsible for the health of all people, including prisoners and children in the juvenile justice system. The Member needs to check that fact.
I am grateful for the Member’s advice. However, the harsh reality is that this debate is an opportunity for political parties to grandstand, which some people appear to be good at, in advance of an election.
Juvenile crime and justice are emotive matters. With the rise in teenage crime, many people feel that the criminal age of responsibility should be going down rather than up. Some crimes carried out by comparatively young teenagers are horrific, and that is bound to prompt us to ask what is wrong with our society. We all have views on that. Some people blame the influence of television, be it satellite or terrestrial, computer games and the wider celebrity culture that now exists whereby little-known people make themselves famous through reality television programmes such as ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.
‘Stormont Live’ cannot be described as entertainment by any stretch of the imagination.
Many people feel that we have entered into a new culture that is not conducive to good behaviour and proper respect. On the other hand, it is important that we do not demonise young people or tar the vast majority of them with a brush that should be reserved for the criminal few.
The bill of rights for Northern Ireland will propose raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 16 and then to 18, prompting concerns that teenage criminals will escape prosecution. If the proposals in the final report of the working group tasked with making recommendations on the content of the bill of rights are passed, potentially no one under the age of 18 will be prosecuted for acts of criminality. That controversial move comes at a time when the public is calling for tougher measures to deal with violent youths and youth crime. That group recommends raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 16, with a view to increasing it to 18 over a period. A campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales has been consistently opposed by most sensible people. The murder of Liverpool toddler Jamie Bulger a number of years ago at the hands of two 10-year-old boys is often cited as an example of why the law should be retained in its present form. There are shocking crimes —
No; sorry. I have already given way. Even in Northern Ireland, shocking crimes such as rape are taking place. Those crimes are unacceptable and are regarded as such by the vast majority of people. Those serious crimes cannot be dealt with simply through some form of counselling or arbitration.
Some sanctions have to be in place so that young people or anyone of any age are aware of their responsibilities. That is the reason that the Ulster Unionist Party is opposed to the motion.
The SDLP supports the motion, and I am pleased to be taking part in the debate.
Incarcerating children is no solution to crime. Some regions of the UK have the lowest age of criminal responsibility, and some people might say that that is a crime in itself. Two or three months ago, there were 40 incarcerated children in the North of Ireland. I have visited the juvenile justice centre at Bangor, and that visit is not something that I want to repeat or would wish on any 10-year-old child.
Many Members referred to parental responsibility. I believe in parental responsibility, but some Members must realise that home is not a safe place for many children and young people. Although Members are right to say that juvenile justice is not yet a devolved matter, there is an onus on the Executive to accept responsibility for supporting parents, children and young people and to invest in our children and young people. The costs that are incurred must also be considered. It costs over £200,000 a year to keep one child in the juvenile justice system. Could that money not be put to much better use if it were invested in developing our young people and children?
I recognise the dilemma of trying to balance the needs of the community and dealing with antisocial behaviour, but locking up children is not the answer. If Members ever have the opportunity to talk to prisoners from across the prison population, they will hear that many of them were imprisoned for minor misdemeanours; in fact, some people are locked up for the non-payment of fines. Many of those people come out of prison as hardened criminals who know a lot more about how to abuse the system, and they engage in more crime than they did previously. There is little resettlement of and rehabilitation for released prisoners.
It is often said that a society is judged by how it treats its prisoners. How much more harshly will we be judged if we do not treat our children and young people properly?
In 2008, the North, as part of the UK, was subject to a state party examination on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The committee made a number of recommendations in its concluding observations. Among the committee’s concerns on juvenile justice was the age of criminal responsibility here. The committee said that 10 was too low — a view supported by the SDLP — and recommended that it be raised.
In response to the concerns of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in March 2009, the Scottish Parliament launched proposals to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12. Proposals relating to a bill of rights for Northern Ireland also highlighted the need to raise the age of criminal responsibility. Although I accept that there was a divergence of views at the Bill of Rights Forum, I believe in the basic premise that the age of 10 is entirely wrong.
Too many children are in custody or on remand. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child also recommended that alternatives to detention be developed. In its policy paper on juvenile justice, the SDLP proposed that alternatives be developed to prevent children and young people from coming into contact with the juvenile justice system. Children who are at risk of offending should be given appropriate support and intervention to prevent them offending. Custody should be used only as a last resort for children.
Children who are in custody do not have a statutory right to education, and the SDLP believes that a child who is in detention should have that right. Those children should also have access to the full Northern Ireland curriculum. If young people had such a right, they would be better prepared for reintegration into society. That would also have a positive impact on lowering reoffending rates.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to remove the reservation of article 37(c) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children in detention should be accommodated separately from adults.
It is imperative that we get this right. We are seeing already the resurgence of terror groups making judgements on our children and young people, and we see already cases of young people being exiled or beaten up in so-called punishment beatings. Surely that is wrong. Surely the onus is on the Executive and Assembly to invest to secure much better outcomes for the children who need our help most.
The Alliance Party welcomes the debate and has no difficulty in supporting the motion. The motion is competent; there are plenty of precedents for the House’s debating subjects that are not its immediate responsibility. Even beyond that, issues that relate to offending in Northern Ireland require a joined-up response from government agencies, both devolved and non-devolved.
The Department of Education and its Youth Service have a clear responsibility to deal with offending through how they interact with young people. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department for Social Development, which is responsible for housing, also have cross-cutting responsibilities in that area. It is not simply a criminal justice issue but one that affects a wide range of Departments and us all. That is why it is important that the Executive respond, and I welcome the presence of junior Minister Kelly in the Chamber.
Thus far, I have found much of the debate to be frustrating, owing to some of the comments that Members have made and tangents that they have followed. The motion does not ask the House to endorse all the recommendations in the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s report; it asks that we take on board the report and respond to it. The motion is pitched at a wholly appropriate level.
Members have become distracted by talking about the age of criminal responsibility. I have no appetite for changing that. That is not on the agenda; it is a large red herring. The issue is not so much the age of criminal responsibility — we cannot run away from the fact that young people must be held to account when they commit offences — as what happens when young people are held to account for offences and the state’s approach, whether it be custodial sentencing or something else, such as the use of youth conferencing facilities.
It is important that we avoid making generalisations when talking about young people. Young people and their contribution to crime are feared. Not all young people are a threat. Sometimes, young people’s actions can be wrongly perceived as a threat when they are simply behaving as young people do and, in many respects, finding themselves. Equally, it is important to bear in mind that young people are the most likely victims of crime, so the issue cuts both ways.
The focus must be on rehabilitating rather than punishing young people. We want to avoid a situation in which young people needlessly get criminal records that compromise their future life opportunities and that entail a cost to society as a whole. We can reflect on the contributions made to society by people in many respectable walks of life who got into trouble when they were young. We can point to many famous cases.
Members rightly talked about the levels of reoffending among young people and the need to manage as effectively as possible the process of dealing with them. Aspects of what we do in Northern Ireland are world-class, and it is important to highlight that. The Youth Justice Agency is a truly pioneering agency that is setting the pace. Youth conferencing is very successful. My constituency office borders the Youth Justice Agency’s community services office in Bangor, and I am fully aware of the work that people such as Phelim Breen and his team do. Restorative techniques can make a difference to young people.
Likewise, I have concerns about the police’s ability to issue cautions. Sometimes, cautions can be the most effective response to crime, but the current protective relationship that the police have with the PPS means that their flexibility to respond is not as clear-cut as it should be. In some cases, there is no flexibility at all, and that represents a missed opportunity.
The bottom line is that, in some cases, people need to be taken into custody, and we should not run away from that fact. The simple governing motivation behind that is the protection of society, and we have no choice. My party’s view is that people under 18 years of age should be sent, by default, to Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre. I have visited both Woodlands and Hydebank Wood young offenders centre, which have very different regimes. The Youth Justice Agency governs one, and the Northern Ireland Prison Service governs the other. I am impressed by what I have seen at the Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre, where there is a more appropriate regime for young people who, unfortunately, have to be placed in custody.
This is an important debate, and it should lead to other debates in the Chamber. Responsibility for this matter lies not only with the justice system, but across all Departments.
A report from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child states that childhood lasts until a person reaches 18 years of age. In some circumstances, people who have a disability or who are in care have their rights extended until they reach 21 years of age. In 2005, it was estimated that 434,780 children under the age of 18 were living in Northern Ireland. Those are background facts. As with most reports, it contains recommendations that are necessary and some that are unnecessary.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to ensure that it is in line with England should be looked at, but to raise it to 14, as has been suggested, is possibly going too far. There are suggestions that could be beneficial, but other recommendations in the report are not only unnecessary but harmful, such as outlawing the right of parents to moderately smack their child for bad behaviour. An abuser will not stop beating a child because smacking has been outlawed. That will affect the everyday parent who taps a child on the leg or the hand to reinforce a point. The money that has been spent already by Patricia Lewsley is a waste of precious resources, and I told her so at a meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. However, that is for another day and another debate.
It is important to realise that Northern Ireland has implemented many effective reforms of youth justice. New ways of dealing with children who offend have been developed, including the youth conferencing service, which is an alternative to prosecution that allows young people to take responsibility for their actions. That process also gives victims an opportunity to say how they have been affected and to develop an agreed plan to redress the harm that has been done. New reparation and community responsibility orders have also been introduced to provide the courts with further alternatives to custody. Those orders encourage children to take responsibility for making up to their victims for their actions or by doing community service.
The Anti-social Behaviour (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 introduced anti-social behaviour orders or ASBOs, as they are generally known. Since then, of the 40 ASBOs reported to the Northern Ireland Office, 17 have been made in respect of children. There has been a five-fold increase in funding for projects that work with young people who are at risk of involvement or further involvement in crime, as well as an increase in support for voluntary and non-governmental organisations to enhance capacity to advocate on behalf of marginalised young people. Custody for children is regarded as a last resort and is reserved for serious and persistent offenders only. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of children is governed by laws that take account of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children can be detained only under specific circumstances laid down in law.
The review made 294 recommendations, some of which pertain to youth justice. Almost all the recommendations have been taken forward with the introduction of new legislation as necessary, including the establishment of the Youth Justice Agency in 2003 as an executive agency within the Northern Ireland Office; the provision for a more effective focus on offending by children; further emphasis on community-based rather than custodial interventions; the closure of unsuitable facilities for children; and the building of a new state-of-the-art juvenile justice centre. Those recommendations have been implemented already.
We should remember that the young people in question are not adults and should not be treated as such. Nevertheless, they know that what they have done is wrong and that they should face the consequences.
A few Christmases ago, a young man was stabbed in Newtownards and another young man was injured. That incident could have been prevented if the cautioning that had occurred earlier had been acted on. There have been occasions when the police have cautioned a young person and there have been no consequences. Those young people may feel untouchable until, suddenly, they face a future in prison. The juvenile system worked in the case of the stabbing in Newtownards. The young man went through rehabilitation, went back into the community and came to realise that what he had done was wrong. Through a correct balance of restriction and rehabilitation, he now knows what society will and will not accept. Such young people should not be treated like 10-year-olds; they know what is right and what is wrong. The simple fact is that the longer we ignore bad behaviour in society, the worse it will become.
That is why I believe that the system and restrictions that we have in place are not an offence against human rights; they are a way of safeguarding other people’s rights, while saving and rehabilitating the young person’s life. When wrong is done, it must be acknowledged and punished.
I support the motion. I recently visited the Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor, and it is worth noting that we have some very dedicated people working in the juvenile justice system in Northern Ireland, at Woodlands, Hydebank Wood and other facilities. They work hard to deliver services and support of a high standard. Their work is critical, and conditions are often difficult. A factor that makes their jobs challenging is the relatively high numbers of children in custody in Northern Ireland, even when the children are held only for short periods.
According to both our standards and those set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, custodial sentences for juveniles are supposed to be measures of last resort, restricted to occasions when an individual is deemed to be a risk to the community or to themselves. The best interest of the child is supposed to be the guiding principle. However, that is not the case in practice. Despite being a recently built facility, Woodlands often struggles to accommodate high numbers of children in custody, including 17-year-olds.
Custody is not the ideal arrangement for many young people who end up in those facilities. It is also expensive, as other Members have said. It is not a good use of resources; a better use is the funding of support and community-based diversion programmes for young people, which keep them out of custody and away from the criminal justice system.
The behaviour of children and young people in Northern Ireland is becoming increasingly criminalised, no doubt helped along by Mr Nolan plc. The age of criminal responsibility in this country is 10. On that subject, we must draw an important distinction between responsibility and criminality. All those under the age of 18 must be treated as juveniles at every stage of the criminal justice process. We need to ensure that no child under 18 is treated as an adult, irrespective of the circumstances or gravity of the offence. In difficult circumstances, when a particularly shocking offence has taken place, there is a temptation, and often an overwhelming desire, to “lock them up and throw away the key” — to use the most punitive measure possible. However, that is why we have set up a criminal justice system: to provide an independent perspective that delivers justice, rather than vengeance, which is often the temptation.
The solution to that situation is to keep children out of the criminal justice system by ensuring that we do all that we can to keep them away from offending behaviour. There must be a greater emphasis on early intervention, alternatives to formal prosecution and sentencing, support for families and young people in crisis, and community-based diversion and activities for young people. We also need to see more intervention when young people are in custody to prevent the revolving-door syndrome, where people come out and go straight back in again. We also need to be honest about the role of the education system in alienating young people. If a child is told at the age of 11 that not much is expected of him or her, which course do we expect them to choose, further education or further rejection?
On my recent visit to Bangor, I heard from a number of young people that the education that they received in custody was the best that they had ever encountered. Learning disabilities, dyslexia and dyspraxia were diagnosed and dealt with, and children received education at a level and in subjects that kept them interested and encouraged them to progress.
I support the motion and hope that the Executive will work quickly to address those concerns.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this motion.
I have serious reservations about the entire criminal justice system. There is a perception in our community and society that people are not justly punished for their crimes. There is a complete focus on the rights of the people who perpetrate crimes, and little focus or regard for the victims of crimes.
Those people deserve a voice. Seventy per cent of the juvenile offenders who serve custodial sentences reoffend. The issue is that if we try to change the juvenile justice system by saying that people should not be put in prison, we are saying to society that — [Interruption.]
The people to whom the Member is referring are children aged 10 and over. As regards the criminal justice system letting victims down, does the Member accept that the Public Prosecution Service is, to a large extent, letting people down when it withdraws cases at the last minute, including those relating to terrorism?
I thank the Member for giving way because I am conscious that Members have only five minutes in which to speak in debates such as this. If the Member had been present in the Chamber for the start of the debate, he would know that when I moved the motion, I said that anyone who commits a crime should be dealt with by the courts and punished accordingly. I tried to highlight the issue of how society treats people who have been convicted of a crime.
If we were talking about the treatment of adults, Mr McCrea, like other Members, would be complaining about the system. We want to ensure that preventative measures are put in place so that juvenile offenders do not reoffend. However, the Member is right to say that juveniles who offend should be convicted and should be given the proper punishment.
I am grateful to Ms Ramsey for clarifying those points. I apologise that I was not here for the start of this important debate. I asked to speak in the debate because it is about an important matter; and you, Mr Speaker, kindly agreed to allow me to speak.
The issue is not about divergence over what should happen; it is about the way in which we should go about making things happen. Regrettably, many 14-year-olds create a lot of mayhem in our society. They must be punished and be seen to be punished, and I make no apologies for using the word “punished”.
I thank the Member for giving way. Will he acknowledge the fact that youth conferencing, community restorative justice and other practices have been proven to reduce recidivism and offending behaviour more so than custodial sentences?
I thank the Member for her intervention. She is right, and I agree with her. The problem is that the public do not see that. People lack trust in the criminal justice system. They do not understand the situations in which sentencing is not appropriate. When offenders are released either early or at the weekend, the crime rate often rises. The Assembly must address the problem of public trust and confidence.
We simply cannot say that all our attention should be focused on the perpetrators of crime. The victims of crime are just as important, if not more so, and they are being failed fundamentally by every single element of the criminal justice system. It is not right that 40% of files are returned to the police and that no further action is taken. It is not right that people get off with minimal sentences and are allowed to go out and reoffend. It is also not right that a person in the state’s care is not recognised as having a mental-health problem or attention deficit disorder and that their condition is not dealt with. Society must deal with those issues.
It is not good enough to simply point the finger at the juvenile justice system and say that it has to improve. The issue is fundamental to democracy: respect for law and order is the very basis of why we are here. If we cannot convince the people of Northern Ireland that we are up to the job, this place is finished.
It is time that we started to talk about those issues, stand up for victims and put perpetrators in jail and make sure that they serve a proper sentence that people know about. I oppose the motion.
I shall speak a little lower and hope that the House can hear me. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate. I thank the Members who tabled the motion; it has been an interesting debate.
As Danny Kennedy pointed out, the administration of juvenile justice is a reserved matter and responsibility lies with the NIO. However, the junior Ministers have responsibility for the co-ordination of policy on children and young people’s issues, so we have a particular interest in the subject. Dolores Kelly and other Members mentioned that. It is also a matter that the Executive and the Assembly will want to consider in due course, when policing and justice moves across and becomes our responsibility.
It must be recognised that for young people who are engaged with the juvenile justice system, offending behaviour is only one aspect of their lives, and it is an outcome that has been impacted upon by many factors. There are very real issues around education, health and links to the care system that require urgent redress through prevention, intervention and rehabilitation. Some Members have made opposing points, but we are united on the fact that we are dealing with understanding what prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation entail. Therefore, we must ensure that we remain aware of the issues and maintain and enhance the relevant links across Departments and with the NIO to effectively tackle those challenging issues in a holistic way.
On several occasions, I have met the Minister of State with responsibility for criminal justice, Paul Goggins, and I have discussed concerns regarding the handling of children in the youth justice system. The most recent meeting took place on 20 April 2009, and I was encouraged by some of what he said about the improvements that are taking place or are planned. Some of those issues were raised during the debate.
It is important to recognise the risk factors and underlying causes that can often manifest in criminal or antisocial behaviour, to inform future consideration around support and intervention. Children with experience of the care system are often the most vulnerable in society and, as a result, many of those children go on to offend. I noted with interest that officials from the NIO are working closely with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the context of early intervention. That point was raised by a number of Members.
NIO officials and the Department of Health are also working together with the objective of ensuring that children from the care system only go into custody for the same offences for which children not from care would go into custody. I am sure that Members will be glad to hear that figures of admission from care to custody show that a marked decline took place from 2008 to 2009. The percentage of admissions is now at 19%, compared with 35% in 2008. That work must be developed and continued with appropriate resources.
The implementation of a number of individual proposals that are contained in the Care Matters strategy has begun already. The Criminal Justice Order 2008 provides for a care order to no longer be suspended on the making of a juvenile justice order. That ensures that social services has an ongoing duty to provide support and care for young people in those circumstances.
DHSSPS and NIO have also jointly funded an initiative that seeks to target young people who are on the edge of criminality. That joined-up approach is welcome, given the many diverse factors that can contribute to young people’s being engaged in the juvenile justice system.
I understand that a number of inspectorates, including the Education and Training Inspectorate, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority, the Office of Social Services and Criminal Justice Inspection are discussing taking forward a thematic piece of work to ensure co-operation and joined-up working on areas of common interest with input from the Equality Commission, NIHRC, NICCY and our officials in the children and young people’s unit of OFMDFM. It is a welcome development that the agreed theme will be vulnerable and marginalised children and young people.
As some other Members have done, I recently visited Hydebank Wood young offenders centre and Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre to see, and speak directly to, the young people there. I did so as a result of concerns following the CJI report on prisons. We have met officials from the NIO and the Criminal Justice Inspection to discuss the number of juveniles who are being held in Hydebank Wood and aspects of the regime there that are highlighted in the report.
I am sure that the other Members who have visited both those establishments will have seen a clear difference in the way that the juvenile justice system works in Hydebank Wood, which is run by the Prison Service. There are also the beginnings, at least, of transfers and secondments from both establishments in an effort to affect the culture that exists in both areas. I am pleased that the criminal justice inspection programme for the next three years includes a key theme that focuses on the most effective way to deal with young people in the criminal justice system.
As regards the concluding observations that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued in October 2008, we are working closely with Executive colleagues and the NIO to progress those issues, which transect several Departments. The 10-year strategy for children and young people and associated action plans will be the main vehicles that will be used to work towards the realisation of children’s rights and to progress the committee’s concluding observations as far as possible. Our key challenge in delivering the strategy is to ensure that it delivers for all children and young people here. Therefore, we recognise the need to take appropriately targeted and resourced action to improve the lives of the most marginalised and vulnerable young people, especially those who are involved with the youth justice system.
The strategy has been endorsed fully by all Departments, the NIO and the Court Service, which is an active participant in its delivery. Representatives from key Departments and from both the NIO and the Court Service sit on the strategy planning and review group, which was set up as one of the implementation groups for the strategy. Its role is to advise on and monitor the strategy action plans. The strategy planning and review group has now signed off the most recent three-year action plan, which will shortly go to the OFMDFM Committee for consideration prior to seeking Executive proposals.
It has been agreed with the group that the action plan will be a living document that is open to review and amendment. A key element of that review and development will be a focused piece of work on the concluding observations, with a view to developing additional actions around them. However, it is important to recognise that some of the issues that were outlined in the concluding observations are being addressed already. The exercise will focus on gaps that still exist.
We have analysed the UN committee’s recommendations. Our officials will meet their counterparts in relevant Departments to discuss the recommendations and to identify priority action areas that are relevant to their responsibilities. We also intend to engage a wide range of children and young people to seek their views on the current actions and ask them to identify issues that are important to them. We have developed a young people’s version of the concluding observations, and we will produce a young people’s version of the action plan to facilitate that consultation.
That programme of engagement will culminate in a conference for young people that will take place in November 2009 — the twentieth anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child — and will help to inform the development of any additional actions that are required.
I must emphasise that although Jeffrey Donaldson and I, in our capacity as junior Ministers, will encourage ministerial colleagues to consider those views fully, we cannot make commitments to produce specific actions on behalf of other Ministers. Ultimately, it will be up to the relevant Departments to proceed with additional actions on the issues that are outlined in the UN committee’s report. That also applies to the NIO in cases when concluding observations are relevant to reserved matters.
I am grateful to the junior Minister for giving way. I am interested in his assertion that neither the junior Ministers nor, indeed, OFMDFM will be able to, if you like, enforce, ask or insist that other Departments bring forward actions. That seems to go to the heart of OFMDFM’s problems: as the Department with lead responsibility, it appears to have a carrot, but no stick.
The Member would probably shout at me if I said that OFMDFM should have that power over other Departments. Certainly, there are a few things that we might want to say to DHSSPS. OFMDFM has a cross-cutting ability to bring Departments together. Of course, there is also a ministerial subcommittee to deal specifically with that. In that subcommittee, there are subgroups, one of which deals with vulnerable children and is led by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Therefore, we have an ability to convince people that this is the way to go. I do not think that the Member would argue that we should be able to tell Ministers exactly what their Departments should do.
However, the reason for having a ministerial subcommittee is to ensure that there is a joined-up approach and collective responsibility for the matter. As many Members said during the debate, the issue is cross-departmental. At the beginning of the debate, Mr Kennedy said that we do not have any power. We do have power, and that power is to act as a ministerial subcommittee and put forward issues that can be dealt with. Ministers must be given the ability to deal with those matters in their Departments.
I join with the Member in calling on the Executive, who have worked hard to tackle those issues collectively, to continue in that mode.
Ultimately, it will be for the relevant Departments to decide whether to take additional action on the issues outlined in the UN committee’s report. It is important to highlight that although the NIO is responsible for juvenile justice at the moment, the complex issues driving our young people to engage in criminal or antisocial behaviour cut across the remit of several Departments. At this stage, I am happy to provide feedback to Paul Goggins on the House’s concerns about children in the juvenile justice system and the UN committee’s recommendations. In fact, I will forward the Hansard report of the debate to him to ensure that he recognises the varying points of view.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. Some Members, including the Member who spoke previously, are passionate about the issue. That passion is shared by everyone. Despite Danny Kennedy’s comments that the debate is not about political point scoring, Basil tried to score a few.
The debate on criminal consent will continue. At the moment, the NIO is responsible for that topic. Everyone supports the protection of society; and it is important to say that, because one could get the impression after a debate such as this that some people were suggesting that we hang or shoot offenders whereas others did not want to put anyone in jail. That is not the issue: the issue is about protecting children and young people before they enter the system, and protecting them once they are in the system if there is no alternative to that for them. Indeed, a rehabilitation facility must be incorporated in order to prevent recidivism. We must tackle the reasons for imprisonment and recidivism as well as the issue of custody. It is important to deal with the whole matter.
The junior Minister is very generous.
It is proper to consider how to prevent reoffending and how to deal with people who reoffend. Does the junior Minister accept that the victims are concerned that justice is not being seen to be done? We must decide how to tackle that issue, too.
I agree with the Member. Sometimes, it is a matter of emphasis and the passion with which we speak. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. We have to deal with the fact that people, especially young people, go to jail for various reasons. Such issues must be tackled, and that is the collective responsibility of elected representatives and Departments. However, we also have a duty to protect young people when they are in institutions. David McNarry remarked earlier that I have experience of such institutions: never knock experience. I was in some of those institutions when I was very young. There is a lot to be learned. My trip to Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre was a good experience.
There is very good practice there. It is not the practice of all institutions, and there is a lot to be learned, but lessons are being learned, and it will take a joined-up approach to address the issue.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank all Members who contributed to the debate for doing so. I think that it was Danny Kennedy who said that Members were letting off steam. Sometimes that is no bad thing; although, in some cases, there can perhaps be too much of it.
Junior Minister Kelly, who is present in the Chamber — and I extend a fáilte, a welcome, to him — made a contribution that is significant to those of us who brought the motion to the House. The motion requests that the Executive look at the report of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, and we wanted to know what actions the Executive would take to address the concerns raised in it.
A number of Members raised issues, particularly about the age of criminal responsibility. Stephen Farry said that that issue was a red herring, and Dolores Kelly said that no 10-year-old child should be incarcerated and criminalised. Michelle McIlveen focused on ASBOs and on her party’s view that, whether the age of criminal responsibility is 10, 14, 16 or 18, if one has done wrong, one should be accountable. I take the point that has been made by many Members; if one is the victim of some wrong, it is difficult to acknowledge that the perpetrator of that wrong is only 10 years old and that their circumstances are such that we should forgive, forgive, forgive.
The motion was obviously introduced by Sinn Féin —
I am trying to make the point — and I hope that I am making it successfully — that Michelle McIlveen’s point about the ASBOs and the age of responsibility was, in my view, well made. However, we are not agreeing that children should be incarcerated and criminalised at the age of 10, and Dolores Kelly touched on that issue. The debate on the age of criminal responsibility is one that should perhaps take place some other time.
My colleague Sue Ramsey introduced the debate, and the junior Minister outlined what the Executive can and cannot do. Sue made her point very forcibly in her remarks, and, in an intervention, even pointed out when one particular Member, in my humble view, was not addressing the motion. I thank Sue Ramsey for making that intervention and for bringing the debate back to the motion.
Our motion does not ask that all the Byron Report’s recommendations be accepted. It asks what the Executive can do. It is important to note that junior Minister Kelly told us what the Executive are doing. There is some debate about what the Executive can do and what powers they have. Policing and justice powers have not yet been devolved, but it is important that we know what we can do. A Member to my left made the point that every person around the Executive table should be encouraged to take part in the debate, and we subscribe to that. That is what the debate is about.
Sue Ramsey and others said that the issues of children from a care background are difficult, and Miss McIlveen talked about ASBOs. All those issues are addressed by the motion, and although we do not have devolved powers for policing and justice, it is important, as we did yesterday, to have an opportunity to let off steam or to articulate our points of view.
In my opening remarks, I mentioned the substantial number of young people who are involved in juvenile justice or care systems, but are not in education or employment. The Minister for Employment and Learning has entered the Chamber, so I will reiterate that the purpose of the motion is to encourage collective responsibility. My colleague Carál Ní Chuilín mentioned the issue of health, and the Department for Employment and Learning also has an important role in ensuring that young people have the skills to make proper choices, not the wrong choices.
I will comment briefly on other Members’ contributions. Danny Kennedy’s remarks about what is happening to young people were valid. As a legislative Assembly, we have a responsibility to know what we can or cannot do, even at the risk of having repetitive debates that might not be competent. However, Carál Ní Chuilín and Stephen Farry made the point that the motion is competent. It is important to discuss the issues that Danny Kennedy raised in relation to young people.
Junior Minister Kelly talked about meeting Paul Goggins and the possibilities that arose from that meeting. He mentioned a conference on young people that will be held in November 2009, although I am not sure where it will be held. All the issues that have been mentioned are live, and it will be important to listen to what young people have to say.
Like other Members, Dawn Purvis visited Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre and was impressed by what happens there. She made the distinction, as did other Members, between Hydebank Wood, which is run by the Prison Service under the aegis of the NIO, and Woodlands, which is operated under a different system. It is my understanding that what is being done at Woodlands is the preferred model of provision. However, the point was made that Woodlands is under pressure and is struggling to accommodate the numbers of people who are in custody there.
Other contributions added to the debate, but not all were focused on the motion. However, my party welcomes the contributions that were made to the debate, and we look forward to hearing what the Executive will do, in whatever capacity, on this issue. Go raibh maith agat.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly, following the recent United Nations Committee on the Rights of a Child (UNCRC) Report, notes the concerns expressed regarding young people in the juvenile justice system; and calls on the Northern Ireland Office and the Executive to set out what actions they will be taking to address these concerns.