10 January 2006

SDLP in clash over neighbourhood justice schemes


10/01/2006 - 18:51:00

The British government and the SDLP clashed tonight over claims the party had failed to submit proposals for state funded neighbourhood justice schemes in Northern Ireland.

SDLP Policing Board member Alex Attwood urged Northern Ireland Office minister David Hanson to go back and check his facts after he said he had received no proposals from the party on restorative justice.

Earlier Mr Hanson said the SDLP and other critics needed to be clearer about their vision for the schemes.

“At the moment it is not illegal to run a community restorative justice scheme,” the minister told PA.

“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.”

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 supporters of the schemes argue they are a viable alternative to paramilitary expulsions and so-called punishment attacks.

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 receive Government funding as officially state-sanctioned schemes.

Under the draft guidelines, the Government envisaged the majority of state-funded restorative justice groups would refer a case they would like to handle to an advisory panel featuring the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and representatives of the scheme, Probation Board or Youth Justice Agency.

However, in republican areas where people refuse to engage with the police, 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.

Unionists have accused the British government of trying to put the police at an arms length in the proposals.

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly accused the SDLP of whining about the proposals to undermine efforts to further secure policing changes needed in Northern Ireland.

Mr Attwood tonight said the Government was well aware of what the SDLP believed was wrong with the protocol and what needed to be done.

“The SDLP has met the Minister twice on this issue, had three meetings with senior officials, and handed over a written preliminary analysis of the draft protocol together with a range of supporting documentation,” he said.

“Yet the Government still claims that it doesn’t know what the problems are and what the SDLP has proposed to remedy those problems.

“The SDLP trusts that the minister will go and check with his own office and with his own officials and withdraw his comments which do not reflect the facts.

“The SDLP set out last October the standards we wanted on community restorative justice, including an independent statutory complaints system and dedicated oversight body for Restorative Justice schemes.

“We provided this to the British government and are publishing it again today so that people can see it for themselves.

“The SDLP hopes that the minister, rather than trying to obscure the deep concerns around restorative justice, fully faces up to the problems and dangers.”

The West Belfast MLA also claimed the minister had condemned himself by saying he was trying to achieve minimum standards for restorative justice.

“The SDLP has been clear that maximum standards are required around issues such as human rights and relationships with the police,” he countered.

“It comes as a startling admission from the Minister that the government’s approach is to create minimum standards when maximum standards are required.”

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