The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (David Hanson) has made the following Ministerial Statement.
The House will recall that on 25 July 2006 I gave a commitment to consult further on the draft protocol, which is designed to provide a framework for regulating community-based restorative justice schemes in Northern Ireland. Consultation on the draft protocol—which ran in parallel with an equality impact assessment (EQIA)—has now ended, and I wish to inform the House of the next steps.
The extended consultation has afforded a full opportunity to all interested parties to make known their views, and I am pleased that some 32 organisations and individuals across the statutory and voluntary sectors, including many key stakeholders, have chosen to do so. I am particularly grateful to the chair and honourable Members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, who have conducted a very thorough inquiry into the draft protocol, drawing evidence from a wide range of interests. I shall make a separate and detailed response to the committee’s report in the next few weeks.
Many respondents recognised that the draft protocol represented a more robust framework which, in large part, addressed previously expressed concerns about key issues such as the scheme’s relationship with the police, the suitability of those working in schemes, the handling of complaints and the inspection regime. In the light of the responses, I have decided to make a number of revisions to the previously published draft of the protocol in recognition of some of the points put to me.
These changes include:
providing further clarification that accredited schemes must deal with only low-level offences referred to them by the Public Prosecution Service, and must provide directly to the PSNI the information which the police require to consider a reported offence or undertake further investigations;
requiring schemes to operate in accordance with the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in their interaction with young victims and offenders;
removing the provision for an advisory panel, which had been intended to act as a forum for considering whether cases were suitable for referral to schemes but had come to be viewed as having the potential to contribute to delay in processing cases;
requiring schemes to maintain full records of all criminal and anti-social behaviour incidents they deal with, in order that the Criminal Justice Inspectorate can ensure that schemes are correctly identifying the offences they must report to police; and
setting up a multi-agency review panel whose function will be to share information, examine the outcome of referrals to schemes and their effectiveness for particular classes of offence and offender, and, on request, provide advice to the inspectorate in support of its inspection of the work of individual schemes.
I have also carefully considered the views expressed by respondents on the draft equality impact assessment report. Having examined these in detail, I do not consider that there are any further opportunities to consider mitigating options that would not in themselves impact adversely on public confidence in the overall process.
I now firmly believe that in this finalised protocol we have a structure that will provide for effective engagement between community-based schemes and the criminal justice system in dealing with low-level offending, which makes clear the centrality of the police in the process to be followed, and which includes stringent safeguards to protect the rights of both victims and offenders.
Accredited schemes’ compliance with the protocol will be closely scrutinised to ensure that its requirements are fully embedded and that the necessary procedures are operating effectively. Compliance testing will be undertaken by means of inspections carried out by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate, and the chief inspector has assured me that he will not hesitate to identify schemes which do not maintain the high standards set out in the protocol.
I am therefore today publishing the Protocol for Community-based Restorative Justice Schemes, and inviting expressions of interest, by 6 April 2007, from schemes wishing to adopt the protocol and thus begin the process of seeking formal accreditation.
I have placed a copy of the protocol in the Library of the House.