Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:45 pm on 26th September 2011.
With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the review of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland.
As the House will recall, in line with the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, last November I commissioned an independent team of experts to review the youth justice system in Northern Ireland. I have now received the report, which I am publishing today. I will begin by expressing my gratitude to the review team — John Graham, Stella Perrott and Kathleen Marshall — for its work. I recall that, when I commissioned the team to undertake the review, I set an initial timescale that, in hindsight, was too challenging. I was happy to listen to the words of the Committee for Justice and to take the team’s advice then and throughout the exercise that more time was required to do justice to the final product.
Now that I have the report, I can appreciate the scope and breadth of the review and the thoroughness and care with which the team approached its task. It is evident to me that, in delivering on their terms of reference, the team members not only consulted widely but brought to bear their own expertise and experience and lessons from research. I am particularly pleased that, in a very balanced way, they have highlighted what is good about youth justice in Northern Ireland and where there is scope for improvement. They have acknowledged the extent to which we have embraced and developed restorative approaches, which have translated into inclusive, practical and effective arrangements within which victims can participate and young offenders can be held accountable for their actions. It is reassuring to know how highly that process is regarded. They have praised the way in which policing has been transformed and the extent to which a fundamental understanding around rights, mutual respect and equality is underpinning all that we do. They report on outstanding examples of professionalism and commitment and have singled out for particular praise the way in which the Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre is operated. However, the review also clearly identifies aspects that are less good.
The team says that our overall strategic arrangements are weak and that leadership and working together at the highest level are matters that need serious attention. It argues, with good cause, for a greater focus on a more joined-up approach to early intervention and on not letting vulnerable young people slip through important safety nets. It also calls for changes in the way the criminal justice system processes cases because of, for example, the impact of delay on victims and offenders and on confidence in the system itself. The team wants us to speed up the work that is already in hand on removing under-18-year-olds from Hydebank Wood young offenders centre, as was also recommended by the prison review and the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI).
The team’s analysis and thoughtful conclusions present us with an impressive piece of work that will help to shape our responses to youth crime and associated issues. Taken together with other initiatives, such as the recent publication of the access to justice report, the development of a new community safety strategy and the prison review, it underlines my commitment to an ambitious programme of reform of the criminal justice system.
I have considered how best to take forward the report and have concluded that I should subject it, in its entirety, to a full public consultation. I had considered consulting on only those aspects that evidently require it, but I decided that a selective or piecemeal approach would undermine the integrated and holistic nature of the report and generate unproductive debate on what should or should not be included.
I appreciate that a public consultation exercise will take time, but it will allow for the fullest consideration of the detailed analysis and recommendations in the report and will rightly give the widest possible audience an opportunity to comment on a fundamentally important matter. It is right to reach sound conclusions and a balanced consensus on the basis of a well-informed debate. It will also give me and my Executive colleagues the opportunity to reflect on the implications for our working arrangements. I have already shared the report with them. The Minister for Employment and Learning and the Minister for Social Development have responded by welcoming, in particular, the emphasis in the report on early intervention and prevention. I look forward to receiving comments from other Ministers soon. I do not, therefore, propose to comment in detail on all the recommendations in the report, other than to say that some are likely to secure universal agreement while others are more challenging. For example, I cannot see anyone objecting to joined-up working at all levels with a greater emphasis on early intervention and prevention. Nor can I see many objections to promoting the issue of parental responsibility or to finding ways of operating more efficiently in the interests of offenders, victims and justice. How we achieve those ends will be the real challenge. However, any proposal to increase the age of criminal responsibility is likely to evoke strongly held and entirely legitimate but polarised views on the subject. Indeed, the notion that the rights of offenders of whatever age need to be considered will be anathema to some, given the harm that they have caused. It is because those matters go to the very heart of our values and beliefs about children and how they should be nurtured that we need to have the widest consultation and the fullest possible debate.
I also want to say something about some of the overarching themes that emerge from the report. I am pleased that the review team has highlighted the absolute requirement for a strategic cross-governmental approach to youth crime and has noted that the issues that are associated with children and offending extend well beyond the boundaries of the Department of Justice. Tackling youth crime and the harm that it causes is not a matter for my Department alone. We are already working in partnership with others through initiatives such as collaborative working in disadvantaged areas, but we can do more.
The team has reinforced the importance of early intervention and the value of ensuring that young people, particularly those at risk, continue to have full access to universal services, including education and health. I think that all of us can intuitively and on the basis of sound evidence identify with those views. The team has also reminded us that the vast majority of young people make a positive contribution to society and do not engage in crime and that those who do should not be regarded as lost causes, with the lifetime’s loss of potential and cost to society that that entails. Rather, it is by demonstrating to those young people that they can have a positive future that we will have the greatest chance of helping them to turn their life around.
The review team has emphasised the need to have concern for victims and has praised, with good cause, the development here of restorative approaches that engage the victim and enable a young offender to take responsibility and make amends for their behaviour. Supporting victims during their engagement with the criminal justice system is also a priority for me. We plan to consult on a new strategy for victims and witnesses of crime early next year to ensure the ongoing strategic delivery of improved services to victims and witnesses, and I am pleased that the Committee for Justice has decided to undertake its own work in that area. We will work closely with it as it does so.
The review points to the need for greater efficiency in the criminal justice system to ensure that justice is delivered effectively for victims and young offenders alike. That is already the focus of the access to justice review and the speeding up justice programme, which seeks to build on the work that is already in hand to tackle delay. Along with greater efficiency, it emphasises the importance of having systems that are transparent, responsive, proportionate and fair.
Finally, the team reminds us why it is important to live up to our international obligations in relation to children. We do it not out of slavish ideology but because it builds in them a respect for the rights of others and protects them as they develop from the many negative influences to which they may be subjected.
I look forward to having a detailed debate on these and related issues over the coming months. In the meantime, I am pleased to begin that process with the publication of the report today.
I thank the Minister for the report and his statement. I agree that young people need to get an opportunity in life, and it is important that systems are put in place to allow that to happen. Many of them come from a broken home and need to have that support at an early stage. Therefore, I welcome the report’s inclusion of early intervention, which should be developed on a cross-departmental basis. However, I am concerned that the element relating to increasing the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 will distract from all the other issues that are highlighted in the report. We should not pursue the United Nations’ agenda on the rights of the child, because it does not have the right way to deal with it. The “hug a hoody” approach will not solve the problem, and the Minister should remove that from the consultation. If the Minister is going to consult on the age of criminal responsibility, will he look at proposals that will lower the age of criminal responsibility from 10? I agree with the report where it says that prosecution should be reserved for cases where it is necessary because of their nature. Indeed, more young people are now diverted rather than prosecuted, but to lift the age from 10 to 12 would remove individuals such as those who killed Jamie Bulger, who were only 10 years of age. That would be a retrograde step and will distract from all of this work. I ask the Minister to reflect on that.
I thank the Committee Chair for his positive remarks about early intervention. However, it is deeply unfortunate that the substantive point that he raised is about one of the 31 recommendations. It is also deeply disappointing that that particular issue was leaked to the BBC, when it was released in confidence to the members of the Committee on Friday afternoon.
I fear that the very fact that that was the first question to be asked distracts attention, as the Chair highlighted, from the key issues in the report about reforming the justice system in a meaningful way. The practical reality is that, if the age of criminal responsibility were to be increased from 10 to 12, it would remove something like 2·5% of the young people who are involved in the criminal justice system. It would take out 27 court cases in the past year, so we are talking about tiny numbers of 10- and 11-year-olds. When young people of that age come into contact with the criminal justice system, they are almost inevitably dealt with more by care processes than by criminal justice processes. To suggest that it is somehow a key issue in the report distracts from the real issues that we need to address as a society. Having said that I am putting the whole report out for consultation, I am putting the whole report out for consultation. I am entirely aware, if I was not already, that one particular contentious item should not distract from the work that needs to be done.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome the Minister’s statement on the report. Early intervention and prevention are key issues. One of the report’s recommendations is that all under-18s should be removed from detention in Hydebank Wood. Does the Minister have a time frame for putting that in place?
I thank Ms McCann for her positive remarks about early intervention. Significant work is being done to reduce the number of 17-year-olds in Hydebank Wood. At this stage, we are not at the point where we can say that there are none in Hydebank Wood, but there is a much higher proportion in Woodlands than was the case even a year ago. The report makes recommendations about reducing the number of young people remanded to the juvenile justice centre to free up some space, which would make it possible for some of the Woodlands staff to take on a greater number of 17-year-olds. At this stage, I cannot give Ms McCann a specific timescale, but I can say that, in that sense, the report is entirely in line with what is being said by the prison review team and a number of NGOs and with the direction in which the Department is seeking to move.
Does the Minister accept that, following the riots in London, there is a danger that some might think that this report is a little bit too skewed towards the defendant rather than the victim? Does he accept that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a legally binding commitment for the United Kingdom? Therefore, will he explain why Woodlands should not be used as a remand centre but for the purpose for which it was originally intended?
I am not quite sure of the relevance of the London riots to our work on long-term reforms to the justice system in general and, in the context of today, particularly the effects of the justice system on young people. Woodlands is designed to provide custody for those who require it before or after trial. The key point centres around an issue that has been discussed in this Assembly on numerous occasions: speeding up the justice system. There is no doubt that it is much more difficult for the staff of Woodlands to work with young people when they are in custody for short periods before trial. They sometimes go in, are released by the courts, and have to go back into the centre again. All that is disruptive to the good long-term work that is being done with those who are there because of sentencing. Speeding up the justice system is really needed for young people as opposed to adults.
I echo Ms McCann’s words about the Hydebank young offenders centre and ask you for a definite answer and definite timetable for when under-18s will be removed from that centre. It is important, Minister, that you show leadership on this issue today and give us a definite time frame.
I assure the Member that, if I could give a definite time frame, I would be very happy to. The reality is that, on the back of a report that is out for consultation, it is a bit difficult. However, I will repeat what I said to Ms McCann: that is the Department’s intention and direction of travel. However, there are issues with the way in which the court system affects the numbers of young people in Woodlands. There are issues with the resources that are needed to enable Woodlands to deal with, as the report highlights, the two or three extremely difficult-to-manage young people who would potentially be there at any one time if Hydebank were not available. I cannot give a definite time frame on those issues, but the direction of travel over the 18 months that I have had responsibility for the issue shows the direction in which we are seeking to move.
Minister, thank you for your statement. The report gives particular praise to the way in which Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre is operated. Given that praise, and appreciating that the Minister will not give us a timeline — perhaps like the Minister who spoke to the Chamber previously — will you give serious consideration to that recommendation?
Given the contents of the prison review team report, the representations made by a number of NGOs and the contents of this report, it is absolutely clear that we need to look to manage the needs of young people as efficiently as possible. It is clear that Woodlands is the centre that is providing appropriate services for the great majority of under-18s who need to be in custody, but it is also clear that we need to do further work on developing the skills and expertise there to deal with, perhaps, some building issues that might be required to manage a small number of particularly difficult offenders. I am also well aware, even from my personal experience, of the problems that exist at Hydebank Wood and why it is so beneficial that we seek a direction of travel that will make better and more efficient use of Woodlands. So, the commitment and necessity are there, but that does not mean that it can be done tomorrow.
The Minister has rightly highlighted that there will be no consensus on some aspects of this, such as the age of criminal responsibility, and we will vigorously oppose the potential changes to that. However, I want to ask the Minister about one area on which there should be greater consensus. The report highlights the concern that I am sure all of us have with delays in the system and quotes, for instance, the aim to reduce the 260-day period to a 120-day period. Has the Department any initial thoughts on how it can reduce the delays in the system?
I thank Mr Weir for that question, which highlights the serious issue of ensuring that young offenders go through the criminal justice system within a period in which, frankly, they can remember what the offence was. I have highlighted in the Chamber before that we have seen extremely good work done in the past year or so by the police and the Public Prosecution Service in improving their liaison and speeding up the timescale in which cases get to court.
The report raises the issue of whether there should be formal statutory time limits. In truth, we are not at a stage where we could have that because there would be sufficient difficulty in meeting such time limits at present. However, the report also points out — as did the team during private conversation — that it might be necessary to insert specific statutory time limits some distance ahead to provide the impetus to see that those necessary reforms happen. That is the kind of issue about which it will be interesting to see the consultation responses.
Go raibh maith agat, a chara. I thank the Minister for his statement. He said that the public consultation will take time: how long does the Minister think it should take?
I thank Mr Lynch for what is possibly the most straightforward question that I have had today. We have set a three-month consultation period to 31 December, so it is slightly longer than the standard 12 weeks. I am sure that those who wish to take the New Year’s Day bank holiday to finalise their reports will see that they are still well received on 2 or 3 January.
Does the Minister accept that one proposal in the report will cause great controversy? Many in the community and, indeed, Members on this side of the House will have enormous difficulties with the proposal in the report to increase the age of criminal responsibility. Will he confirm that if, after consultation, he believes that to be the way forward, such a change will require legislation and that legislation will require cross-community support?
It is my understanding that such proposals would require legislation. It is not my understanding that any legislation in this place requires cross-community support unless the appropriate mechanisms are engaged. However, we should not concentrate on that issue today. We should be looking at the wider issues in the report and the necessity of getting the appropriate reforms so that young offenders and their victims get better treatment from society.
I, too, thank the Minister for his statement and for commissioning the report from which it flowed.
Justice is traditionally portrayed as blindfolded. She carries the sword of retribution and a set of scales to represent balance. I accept and share the concerns about increasing the age of criminal responsibility. In the interest of balance, if we remove criminal responsibility for another two years, we must be mindful that there are people who will take advantage of that. We cannot do that without examining the current deterrents and, perhaps, bringing forward new legislation to create new offences of encouraging, promoting or causing someone below the age of criminal responsibility to commit a criminal act, because that will happen.
I have no intention of talking any more about that specific recommendation. No doubt, the Member and others will wish to comment during the consultation.
I am sure that the Minister agrees that, over the next 12 weeks or so, an informed debate is needed and not one based on hysteria. With that in mind, does the Minister think that it is a cause for serious misgiving that the report makes no apparent reference to the work that was commissioned by Mr Basil McCrea, in his time as Chair of the human rights and professional standards committee of the Policing Board, into children and young people’s interface with policing and criminal justice in Northern Ireland? Will the Minister give a commitment to the House that that work will be addressed during the consultation period and in his Department during his reflection on the outcome of the consultation?
I thank Mr McDevitt for that point. I am not sure that his presumption is right just because the specific report of the board is not mentioned. I understand that Alyson Kilpatrick, the board’s human rights adviser, who had a hand in helping to write that report — Mr McCrea may or may not nod in agreement — was closely engaged with the work of the review team. There is absolutely no doubt that she, along with officials and members of the board, will have a comment now. It is certainly something that I expect the Department to take strong note of, because the Policing Board has a significant function in that area.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Although the report praises the improvements in policing in recent years, it is also unduly critical of the police. Does the Minister agree that we need to see policing that is not only fair but robust against youth crime?
We need to see policing that is robust and fair in all respects. However, we also need to ensure that we do not unnecessarily criminalise young people if there are alternative and more informal ways of diverting them from the path of crime.
In his statement, the Minister said of the review team that:
“They have praised the way in which policing has been transformed and the extent to which a fundamental understanding around rights, mutual respect and equality is underpinning all we do.”
Is it true that that has more to do with a box-ticking exercise and very little to do with curbing crime? Will he explain to the House how he will instil the confidence of the law-abiding community when he comes forward with proposals that have very little to do with looking after the rights of victims but more to do with the criminal?
I remind Lord Morrow that it is an independent report that I commissioned: it is not a statement of departmental objectives by the Minister. However, the manner in which the review team addressed its responsibilities has taken account of a wide range of issues, including the best method by which we protect society by encouraging young people not to get involved in crime at all or to desist from crime if they are engaged in it. We need to look at the matter in a holistic way and not in a knee-jerk way where we look at small areas of the report. I trust that when Members have seen the report in full detail they will recognise its value as a whole.
In his statement, the Minister said that tackling youth crime and its causes is not a matter for his Department alone and that his Department is already working in partnership with others through initiatives such as collaborative working in disadvantaged areas. Will he give the House more detail on the work in the disadvantaged areas referred to in the report?
I am happy to go into whatever detail the House wants at an appropriate stage. As Mr Spratt correctly stated, the report merely highlights the fact that it is not a matter for the Department of Justice (DOJ) alone. For example, the collaborative working in disadvantaged areas project has involved the Department of Justice, the police, the Department for Social Development as regards neighbourhood renewal, Belfast City Council at local authority level and some other agencies looking at how resources are spent, how they best address the problems of disadvantaged areas, and how co-ordination ensures that there is not a multiplicity of resources in one area while other aspects of life in that community are neglected. It is simply getting good value for money by ensuring that each Department knows what other Departments are doing and ensuring that they work together to achieve those objectives. From what I have seen over the past year, very positive results have come through to ensure that we get best value for money and the joined-up approach that we talk a lot about in the Chamber but rarely see on the ground.
I welcome the Minister’s statement on youth justice. Is it hoped that more resources will go into youth counselling and the probationary service to ensure that fewer young people are convicted of crime? The emphasis on diversion is welcome.
I am tempted not to say that I thank the Member for the question, because the issue of resources is clearly going to be a difficult one for us. I have just talked, with regard to collaborative working, about making best use of the resources that we have. However, there is no doubt that it will not be possible to do all that we will hope to do, given the financial pressures that we are under. Having said that, I am happy that this year’s DOJ budget has protected front line services across the Department and its agencies, regardless of who delivers them. We have been encouraging that level of collaboration. Such bodies as the Criminal Justice Board have ensured a better joining up between the different agencies, and such measures as speeding up justice have helped to provide more resources to go into the front line diversionary activities. However, it is an ongoing challenge of which we have to be very conscious.
The Minister may well be right that the issue of increasing the age of criminal responsibility might overshadow other worthwhile parts of this report, but is he not the author of his own misfortune by the folly of including that in the terms of reference? He must have known that there would be huge opposition to it, in light of something that happened in the living memory of us all — the horrendous murder of James Bulger by Thompson and Venables, two 10-year-old boys who showed criminal craft way beyond their years. Is it something the Minister should have appreciated would never command the support necessary? Therefore, will he now withdraw that absurd and wrong proposition?
I am not sure how I can be the author of my own misfortune when the issue of the review of the youth justice system was a specific agreement at Hillsborough Castle in February last year. Although I had some input into the work of that agreement, I was not party to its final stages. Similarly, the age of criminal responsibility was not an issue that was a specific matter of terms of reference; it was to be a wide-ranging review of the youth justice system. It is, perhaps, therefore inevitable that the age of criminal responsibility was included in that review. However, when Members look at the report, I trust that they will see how limited an amount of it dwells on that issue.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. Given the amount of evidence that shows that locking up our children is not an effective form of preventing crime or of providing good outcomes with regard to reoffending, I welcome the proposal to review the age of criminal responsibility. I am disturbed by the Committee Chairman’s hang-a-hoody approach.
The Minister referred to the efficient use of resources. Given that most of the actions that can be taken to prevent offending are outside the Minister’s remit, what work is he undertaking with the Health Department and the Department of Education to address early intervention and early education strategies? Has the Minister considered pooled budgets with those Departments?
I am not sure which of the eight questions to answer. I cannot find a quick, slick phrase, but my policy is neither hug a hoody nor hang a hoody; my policy is reform a hoody. If somebody could give me a short word beginning with “h” that means reform, I will happily adopt it.
Mr Agnew rightly raises resources and collaborative working between different Departments. The report has been circulated to other Ministers so that they can look at how it works. There are other fora, such as the Executive’s subcommittee on children and young people, which enable some of that collaborative working to be done. Mr Agnew is right: if we are going to deter young people from the path of crime, it is not going to be done by the Department of Justice and its agencies when they get to the point of crime. We need much closer involvement and engagement with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education, in particular.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome the report. I look forward to the appearance of the review team before the Committee.
The Minister said that there are 31 recommendations and that there is a 12-week consultation. Will the Department be working on any of the recommendations as the consultation progresses so that we will be in a better position to meet the many challenges that the Minister has outlined when we reach the end of the consultation process?
I take the point that the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee has made. There are issues in the report on which the Department can engage. Indeed, the Department is already engaged on some of those issues, and I highlighted the issue of seeking to remove young people from Hydebank Wood. The Department will certainly not be sitting back until early January and doing nothing. We will not take decisions that are clearly the subject of the main areas of consultation. However, we will continue to work on a number of reforms on things like speeding up justice and the best ways in which young people can be looked after at Woodlands. That work will ensure that the general thrust of the report can be carried through as fast as possible.
I also thank the Minister for his statement. The report notes that, although there are many youth strategies, there is no early intervention strategy, nor is there a children’s strategy. The authors of the report also noted that they were “impressed” by David Trimble’s announcement of a children’s strategy in 2001. When does the Minister expect to see such a strategy in place? Is he talking to the other Departments and Ministers to get a strategy in place as soon as possible?
I tried to make it clear in my statement that the report has been circulated to other Departments, and I also highlighted that the youth justice system cannot be dealt with by the Department of Justice alone. We have done our best in the DOJ to promote co-operative and collaborative working, as I highlighted when I referred to some of the work that we are doing in disadvantaged areas. We cannot write the children’s strategy for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, but we can ensure that we have the best joined-up working on the issues of youth offending and the reform of youth offenders.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. During his response to my question, the Minister of Justice seemed to indicate that — I am sure that he did not mean to — any legislation that he may bring to the House to raise the age of legal responsibility would not require cross-community support. Point me in the right direction if I am wrong, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it is my understanding that all legislation that comes before the House can be subject to a petition of concern, which automatically triggers the requirement for cross-community support. Therefore, the Minister has, technically, slightly misled the House in stating that that is not the case.
The Member is correct that cross-community votes can be triggered in a certain way. However, I am not sure that the Minister has misled the House in any way, and if anyone has any doubt about that, they can check with the Speaker. As Members will know, there is a mechanism through which a petition of concern can be entered and, as a result, cross-community support would be required.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, I believe that my response was that not all legislation required a cross-community vote, but that it was possible for particular mechanisms to be triggered. That seems to be, more or less, what you have just told the House.
I concur with that, but I am not sure that it is a point of order. We have reached the end of the questions to the Minister of Justice on his statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments before Question Time commences at 2.30 pm.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)