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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP 4:45 pm, 19th January 2016

I rise on behalf of the Committee. The Committee noted the Department's intention to largely protect the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Youth Justice Agency, the Probation Board, the range of policing bodies and the voluntary and community sector by subjecting them to a budget reduction of between 1·5% and 2·9%, rather than applying a 5·7% reduction across all areas. The Committee took the opportunity to explore a range of issues, including the likely impact of the further proposed 1·5% budget reductions on the voluntary and community organisations that provide services such as victim support and NIACRO, the ability of the Probation Board to continue to deliver its statutory services and the cost of legacy-related work to the Department and the PSNI.

I welcome the decision to limit the reduction in the PSNI's core budget to 2%. That will enable the Chief Constable to address the ongoing resilience challenges faced by the police and undertake recruitment to ensure that he has an appropriate number of officers and the necessary funding to deliver front-line policing, including community policing and the protection of public safety. The provision of an additional £32 million for security funding provided in the Fresh Start Agreement, whilst ring-fenced for specific purposes, will also help ease the PSNI budget position. However, given the ongoing budget pressures, there is a clear need for the PSNI to continue to examine all areas of its spending. Whilst there are, clearly, security considerations in some aspects of their work, I believe that there is, undoubtedly, an opportunity for shared services with other aspects of the public sector.

When considering the Justice budget last year, the Committee raised concerns regarding proposed cuts to funding for the voluntary and community organisations that provide front-line services, such as the drug arrest referrals, which the Minister will be well aware of in his constituency, harm-reduction services and rehabilitation and preventative programmes for offenders. The Committee highlighted at that time that the aim of those organisations is to help keep people out of prison and out of the criminal justice system. The Committee was of the view that the reduction or closure of such services would most likely result in increased costs for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the courts and, ultimately, the Prison Service. It advised the Department of Justice that a cost-benefit analysis and an analysis of the likely impact on, and cost to, other areas of the criminal justice system should be carried out before such decisions were taken and stated that, otherwise, it would result in a false economy and greater costs in the long run. Unfortunately, the Department did not provide evidence of such an analysis before proceeding with the budget reductions.

I and other Committee members met representatives from NIACRO and Extern, last week. Both organisations provide interventions to reduce the risk of reoffending and often work with offenders who have committed serious offences. They are concerned about the direction of travel of the partnership relationship between themselves and the Department of Justice and about how funding will peter out in years to come. Both organisations pointed out that, even though they are charities, they are providing core services with high-risk offenders and are essential to the overall delivery of services, rather than what could be classified as "add-on" services. However, no analysis of what funding is provided, how funding is used, what is delivered for the money and what the impact would be, if the service was not delivered, has been carried out, as far as we are aware. We must come to the recognition that, sometimes, there are services that government cannot deliver. I think that this is a clear example of a service that government could not deliver, but it is important that we have the right partners who can do that.

I think the Minister will be glad to hear that the Committee has looked at how we can operate in reduced climates. It is not just about asking for more money; it is about how we do more with the money we have. With that in mind, we looked at the budgetary pressures and difficult challenges, and we saw them as an opportunity to do things differently and adopt new and innovative ways of working and delivering services.

When I took up post, I initiated a range of work to look at new and innovative approaches that could be adopted, reforms that could be brought into justice and ways in which we could improve the delivery of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland in the context of reducing budgets. We identified a range of areas, including online dispute resolution, problem-solving courts, improving efficiency in the courts and identifying where we could save money but, crucially, improve outcomes for victims and offenders. When looking at reducing legal aid, in particular, we need to have something viable in its place. I think that the online dispute resolution system, as used in the Netherlands and Canada, is a clear example of where we can still get good outcomes for citizens but at reduced cost to the taxpayer. That is where innovation in justice can deliver real outcomes. Next month, the Justice Committee will be assessing the information gathered, identifying new initiatives and ways of working and looking at how they can be adopted in Northern Ireland. We will make a series of recommendations for the Justice Minister.

Finally, I do not think that you could ever expect a speech from a Chairman of the Committee for Justice with no reference to legal aid. The Committee has spent considerable time on legal aid, since the devolution of policing and justice in 2010. We have never lived within our means when it comes to legal aid. I have no doubt that the Committee for Justice in the new mandate will also have to spend considerable time looking at that issue.

The additional allocation of £15 million provided by the Executive for legal aid is of course welcome to meet the pressure and will help to address some of the forecast pressure. However, given the current budgetary climate and the funding pressure on all areas, the present position where the cost of legal aid continually exceeds the available budget, requiring resources to be diverted from other areas either in the Department of Justice or by the Executive, is not sustainable. Concerted efforts must be made to reach a satisfactory resolution. The Committee is disappointed with the current situation where members of both legal professions have come off record, resulting in a considerable backlog of cases in the Crown Courts and the Bar Council's recent decision to suspend dialogue with the Department of Justice. The Committee urges both professions and the Department to continue discussions with a view to reaching agreement regarding legal aid fees whilst recognising the budgetary constraints that apply to all areas. We run the real risk of, next year, having a huge backlog in the courts and a double hit with regard to pressures on the legal aid budget. That will leave either the Department or the Executive in a very difficult financial position.

It is clear that the Department of Justice continues to face a difficult budgetary climate in 2016-17. Funding will have to be carefully managed to ensure that key priorities and targets can be delivered to the required standard and front-line services protected. It is absolutely clear that new and innovative approaches will need to play a part in this, as doing the same is no longer an option.