10 January 2006

Minister's call to SDLP on community justice schemes


10/01/2006 - 08:48:04

A minister in charge of controversial community justice plans in the North today challenged its critics to come up with better proposals.

Northern Ireland Office Minister David Hanson threw down the gauntlet after the nationalist SDLP called on the Criminal Justice Inspectorate to refuse co-operation with the British government’s proposals.

Mr Hanson said: “I would say to the SDLP, if there are schemes operating as there are now – 14 to 15 privately-funded schemes in nationalist areas and five or six privately funded schemes in loyalist areas – then what do they think we should do about those schemes?

“Should we let those schemes operate without any minimum standards or should we not put in place minimum standards?

“That is what this discussion is all about. That is what these proposals and guidelines are about.

“Now they may not think what we have proposed is tight enough – in which case come to me with positive suggestions about it.

“Don’t come to me and say don’t inspect the schemes – which is what the latest statement says – because then I’ll say at the end of February there are no guidelines. However the schemes will still be there.”

Restorative justice schemes operating in loyalist and republican neighbourhoods bring the perpetrators of low-level crime face to face with their victims to agree an appropriate penalty.

Sinn Féin and other supporters of the schemes argue they are a viable alternative to the expulsions and so-called punishment attacks meted out by paramilitary groups.

Unionist and nationalist critics, however, fear republicans in particular want restorative justice organisations to act as an alternative to the police in their neighbourhoods.

The programmes are currently funded by American philanthropists but, with the money due to dry up soon, supporters would like them to be officially state-sanctioned, receiving British government funding.

Under draft guidelines, the British government last month envisaged the majority of state- funded restorative justice groups referring a case they would like to handle to an advisory panel featuring the Police Service of Northern Ireland and representatives of the scheme, Probation Board or Youth Justice Agency.

However, in republican areas where people refuse to engage with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), there would be no obligation on those running schemes to deal with police officers directly.

Instead they could alert the PSNI about cases they would like to deal with by contacting the Probation Board or Youth Justice Agency who will pass the proposal on to the police.

The PSNI would consider if there needs to be any action – such as fingerprinting – before referring a case to the Public Prosecution Service which would ultimately decide if a community restorative justice scheme should handle it.

Unionists, however, have accused the British government of devising proposals which would put police involvement in restorative justice at an arms length.

In a fresh offensive against the plans, the nationalist SDLP also warned the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) yesterday that its credibility could be damaged if it took on an inspection and accreditation role under the scheme.

SDLP Policing Board member Alex Attwood argued: “The CJI would be giving validation to restorative justice schemes even when the protocol does not cover 95% of restorative justice work.

“The protocol does not create independent complaints schemes. The requirements around training and human rights are inadequate.

“The commitment of restorative justice schemes to assist the police is vague and evasive.

“The CJI has a critical role in investigating criminal justice institutions in the North. That is the role given to it following the Good Friday Agreement.

“It would be going into dangerous waters if it assumes a role in monitoring and accrediting restorative justice schemes, when the schemes are established on such weak and shoddy principles.”

Mr Hanson said the SDLP and other critics needed to be clearer about their vision of community restorative justice.

“At the moment it is not illegal to run a community restorative justice scheme,” the Criminal Justice Minister said.

“So the question for the SDLP and others is: are they saying to me I should make it illegal to operate these schemes?

“If the funding comes from American philanthropists or any other charitable source, should I ban that charitable activity?

“Or are they saying I should put in place regulations to make sure they operate within the criminal justice system?

“Alex Attwood asked me to publish these documents. I have done it. He asked me to give the political parties a chance to comment upon it. I have done it. He has asked me to consider the points he is making. I will do it when he has made them.

“I don’t think to date I have had a submission from the SDLP – they may have sent one but I haven’t seen it in front of me on my desk.

“So I would say to Alex, by all means ask us to kill off inspection but if we do not have Kit Chivers inspecting these schemes, they are going to operate without those inspections and minimum standards.

“My challenge to Alex and others is come up with minimum standards you think they should operate under.”

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