Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 15th June 2015.
My Department is engaged in a wide range of work to reduce offending by working to rehabilitate people who have offended in order to build a safer society. In September last year, I approved the creation of the new reducing offending directorate to focus on ensuring effective collaboration and partnership-working across the justice system in order to reduce offending. Establishing effective ways in which we can support desistance is central to the work of the new directorate. I will shortly publish a strategy that outlines my Department’s commitment to promoting desistance from crime. Research indicates that there are several factors that can support the process of desistance, including securing and engaging in employment, maintaining relationships with family and community, and having hope and motivation to change.
In prison custody, the needs of the individual are balanced alongside their risks to create a dynamic personal development plan that focuses on improving their motivation and capacity to address their offending behaviour. Complementary to that ongoing work is the establishment of a partnership between the Prison Service, Belfast Met and North West Regional College, which will work to improve educational attainment and the employment prospects of prisoners.
The opening of the Burren House facility has also provided a low-security pre-release facility to test the capacity to work in the community and engage with employment or learning opportunities.
My Department is also thinking innovatively about the best ways to support offenders in gaining future employment. In recent weeks, we have seen the creation of an in-house cafe in Hydebank and the establishment of a social enterprise to employ young parents who have offended.
That is just a flavour of the significant work that my Department has been undertaking to reduce offending and to protect the public. However, I recognise that more can still be done, and my Department will continue to explore innovative and effective ways of reducing offending and making Northern Ireland safer.
I thank the Minister for his answer. He referred to the partnership between the Prison Service and Belfast Met and the North West Regional College: is that a new model for the delivery of learning and skills?
Yes, it is a significant new model. In a sense, it is similar to the work that is being done around healthcare, where the expectation is being delivered that healthcare is better provided by the South Eastern Trust, a specialist health and social care provider, than by the Prison Service in-house. On exactly the same basis, the new contract, which will result in the creation of 33 new jobs to provide learning and skills opportunities with the two colleges in the three prisons, is a key way of building on the skills that exist in FE colleges and putting them to the best use of those who are in the care and custody of the Prison Service. A range of issues is being covered, including academic and vocational training, from numeracy and literacy essential skills through to degree-level work. Those are now being done in the prisons. Some of the practical issues are showing positive results, even at this early stage.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answers up to this point.
Has any valuation been done of the potential detrimental impact of the financial cutbacks in his Department on key stakeholder organisations such as NIACRO and on its programmes to help reduce offending?
Mr McGlone highlights yet another effect of the difficult financial circumstances that we are in. There is no doubt that the cutbacks in grant funding have a detrimental effect on the services provided by some of our NGO partners, with NIACRO and Extern being two of the key ones in the rehabilitation of offenders. That comes after four years in which grants to the voluntary sector were, by and large, protected and in circumstances in which the most significant cuts from this point, as I frequently say, will be made to the core of the Department. Nonetheless, it has not been possible this year to continue to fund at the level that we were funding at last year. Of course, that was also complicated by the issue of European social funding, with NIACRO not being successful in its bid for its ongoing work.
Reducing offending and, indeed, reoffending can often be achieved by reviewing the severity of the sentences available to the judiciary. How regularly does the Minister do that?
It is probably safe to say that, on virtually every occasion that a Minister produces the possibility of further offences being created, the appropriate sentences for the new offences are a consideration for my Department, in order to ensure that matters are kept in balance between offences of a broadly similar nature. There is ongoing work in the Department to keep an eye on that and to review those kinds of issues as they relate to other jurisdictions, particularly those within these islands, to ensure that there is broad comparability. I stress the words "broad comparability", not necessarily absolute equivalence.
Can the Minister give an update on what wider work has been done across government on reoffending? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Lynch correctly highlights the point that reducing reoffending is not an issue that can be handled by my Department alone. As I pointed out, housing, health and social care and employment and training are all key issues. We seek to work in partnership with other Departments, as, for example, we have done with DEL and the two colleges over the issue of job skills training and routes into further employment. That requires a joined-up approach, and that is an issue on which the Department is seeking to work alongside other Departments that have direct responsibility for providing those services.
I thank the Minister for that. Does he agree that it is difficult to get the level of offending now, due to the number of crimes going unreported because of the lack of bringing criminal cases to a conclusion?
I am not sure that there is necessarily a great issue about reporting or, as Mr Elliott in essence suggested, of the reporting getting worse. It is no doubt the case that some criminal offences have historically gone significantly under-reported, domestic violence being the most obvious example. In recent years, hate crimes have clearly been under-reported, which is why we have been seeking to encourage increased reporting to ensure that they are addressed appropriately. However, as far as the generality of crimes is concerned, I am not sure that there is any greater under-reporting now than was the case a few years ago.