Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 24 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Jimmy Spratt (Chairperson)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Simon Hamilton
Mr Danny Kennedy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Alan McFarland
Mr Alex Maskey
Mr John O’Dowd
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr

Witnesses:

Mr Gareth Bell )
Mr Phil Tooze ) Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland
Mr Davie Weir )

Also in Attendance:

Mr Victor Hewitt ) Specialist adviser

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr McCartney):

I welcome Mr Davie Weir, Mr Phil Tooze and Mr Gareth Bell from the Youth Justice Agency.

Before the witnesses give their presentation, I ask Committee members to declare any interests.

Mr McCausland:

I declare an interest as a member of Belfast District Policing Partnership.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I remind Committee members and our guests to switch off their mobile phones, because they interfere with the recording equipment.

Mr Davie Weir (Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland):

The Youth Justice Agency was created in April 2003, and it is an executive agency of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). The agency’s aim is to reduce youth crime and build confidence in the youth justice system, and it caters for the needs of young people aged 10 to 17 who are in the criminal-justice system. We are accountable to the Minister through the NIO’s departmental sponsor. We do not develop policy, as that is a role of the NIO’s criminal-justice directorate.

We have a chief executive, Dr Bill Lockhart, who sends his apologies for not being able to appear before the Committee today. We also have four executive directors and two non-executive directors. There are four directorates in the agency. The first is the community-services directorate, which is responsible for the supervision of young people in the community and for contributing to the prevention of offending by children and young people. The community-services directorate supervises some 700 young people in the community at any one time.

The second directorate is the youth-conference service, which is responsible for diversionary youth conferences for young people who are referred by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) and for court-directed youth conferences for those referred by the courts. The youth conference service processes between 1,600 and 1,800 youth conferences a year.

The third directorate is custodial services, which includes the Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor. The centre caters for children who are committed, remanded and those who are subject to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). It is staffed to cater for 36 young people, although the numbers fluctuate widely.

The fourth directorate is responsible for corporate services, including human resources, finance, planning, communications, and so on.

The recently completed Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor is widely regarded as a state-of-the-art facility. It cost £16·8 million to build, which was funded entirely from the sale of land around the building. The centre costs £7·8 million a year to run, and it is staffed by 169 people: care staff; education staff; security staff; and support staff.

The community-services directorate maintains 17 centres across Northern Ireland to try to provide access for all young people in the jurisdiction. That costs £5·5 million a year to run, of which £1 million is devoted to funding external bodies that contribute to the work of the agency.

The current staffing level is 111. That is made up of people with a background in social work or in youth work, administrative staff and support staff.

The youth-conference service runs from five administrative centres across Northern Ireland, many of which are shared with community services’ facilities. It costs £2·8 million a year to run and has a staff of 42 professional social workers, youth workers, educationalists and people with a background in restorative justice.

Corporate services is housed in the headquarters building in Waring Street in Belfast. Its costs are £4·8 million, but that includes a number of costs that are simply allocated there for central purposes. It has a staff of 30 civil servants.

Our resource departmental expenditure limit for 2008-09 was £21·5 million in total. We anticipate that it will be £21·7 million in 2009-2010. We have had five years of unqualified accounts, and we have survived within budget in each of those five years. Last year, a Criminal Justice Inspection of corporate governance gave us a clean bill of health. A Criminal Justice Inspection also took place at the juvenile justice centre at Woodlands in Bangor and at the youth-conference service. Independent valuations by a number of bodies of various strands of service that are being delivered have taken place.

(The Chairperson [Mr Spratt] in the Chair)

Our key strategic areas in the delivery of justice are: the supervision and completion of orders; the involvement of victims, particularly in the youth-conference service; measures of satisfaction by victims and by young people; the objective of facilitating the reintegration of young people into the community; reducing offending through assessing risk, planning, intervening and reviewing; linking young people to education, training and employment opportunities; and contributing to the reduction of antisocial behaviour.

On safety, we implement a policy of no escapes from the juvenile-justice centre. We aim to reduce our already low level of restraint employed in the centre, and we aim to screen all young people for mental-health needs.

We aim to stay within budget, to publish our audited accounts, to retain our Investors in People status and to continue to monitor the development of training for staff.

Our key operational issues are to reduce offending and to provide models to support the introduction of the Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland (PPANI). We are working on the development of a priority-offending team for young people who are at highest risk, on improving our IT network, and we are working for staff health.

The Chairperson:

I am sorry that I have only just been able to join you, but I was in the Assembly Chamber. I declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Mr O’Dowd:

In your comments, you said that, as part of your service, you screen young people for mental-health illnesses. Screening is good, but what happens after that, and what budgetary commitment do you have to assisting people with mental-health illness? What resources are in place for assisting young people with an illness such as a personality disorder?

Mr D Weir:

I shall answer part of your question, and Mr Tooze will answer the other part. We have a tiered assessment model for the young people whom we supervise in the community that presents criminogenic needs and the risks that they pose to themselves and others. Our strategy is to develop closer links with child and adolescent mental-health services in the community.

The principle is that, because we are responsible for supervising them, that does not reduce children’s entitlement to services from other mainstream services. There is always a struggle for resources for child and adolescent mental-health services, but our link is to provide access for the children whom we are supervising where a need is indicated to the community-based mental health services. The situation is slightly different for young people who are in custody.

Mr Phil Tooze (Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland):

Yes, it is slightly different. We screen every young person who comes into the centre on reception. We do a fairly thorough risk assessment of all the needs of the young person, because we are dealing with young people rather than adults. To meet those needs, we have four psychiatric nurses, one of whom is usually on the rota at all times in the centre.

We have a full-time forensic psychologist, and a consultant psychologist who comes into the centre weekly. Those staff meet our everyday needs. In conjunction with that, all our staff are trained as care workers rather than as prison staff. There is a difference between our centre and a prison-type establishment. We try to meet the needs of many young people that way.

Many young people who come into custody have significant mental-health needs as a result of a range of causes, such as substance abuse, self-harm or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We tend to meet that side of keeping young people in custody without too much difficulty. Young people are often with us in the centre for only a matter of days or weeks, so it is very difficult to predict what will happen to them. Some 70% of our population are remanded rather than sentenced. We must work with our community-services team in order to ensure that there is a link with those who plan services in the community.

Mr Hamilton:

I want to ask about your capital budget. The Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre is your major capital programme, and it does not appear that you envisage anything significantly beyond that in the forthcoming years. I just want to confirm that that is the case and that there is nothing else in the pipeline, even on a smaller scale.

Mr Gareth Bell (Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland):

We will adopt a new case-management system next year, which will involve the procurement of software and some IT equipment that will enable us to transmit information across our network. That will cost £690,000, as we explained in our letter to the Committee. Our baseline capital budget is £200,000 a year, which is spent on replacement IT, vehicles, plant and equipment. The one potential problem, which we highlighted in our letter, concerns the recommendations of the recent review report on the use of constraint. We may require security equipment costing £250,000, which is obviously in excess of our baseline budget.

Mr Hamilton:

While we are on that grid, there is an estimated £1 million in capital receipts for the most recent comprehensive spending review (CSR) period. Can you tell us what that amount relates to, and whether, in the current climate, it is an achievable and realistic figure? If it is neither, what pressure would that put on your budget?

Mr Bell:

That figure relates to the Whitefield House site at Blacks Road in Belfast, which is an old 1970s building. It is still operational, and we still have people working there, but it has been identified for disposal along with two other NIO properties. A project team from the criminal-justice directorate will be responsible for those three sales.

We had originally planned to sell Whitefield House this year, but it has been subsumed into the forthcoming project. For the purposes of our finances, that sale has been re-profiled to the final year of the CSR. The latest information on the value of the property reveals that we may not realise the full £1 million, and that will have an impact on the budget of the future justice Department. We may retain Whitefield House and transfer it to the Department when we leave it, but it will still be an issue for the Department as a whole.

The Chairperson:

Will you declare an interest, Mr Paisley Jnr?

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I am a member of the Policing Board.

Mr McCartney:

Thank you for your presentation. In your response to the first question, you said that your budget was adequate, which is sound. In your experience, is there any duplication among yourselves, the Probation Board and the Prison Service, and have you identified any areas in which any such duplication could be reduced?

Mr D Weir:

There is a legislative overlap between our organisation and the Probation Board, which is responsible for the preparation of pre-sentence reports to the youth court and for the supervision of young people, as are we, in the 10- to 17-year-old age group who are subject to probation orders. We are working to address that situation by way of a pilot project in greater Belfast, in which the Probation Board team that focuses exclusively on the young people in the 10- to 17-year-old age group is working with us.

We often have situations in which a child is subject to both a youth-conference order and a probation order. The objective is to have greater efficiency in the supervision of that young person and to ensure that the various orders or plans that he or she is subject to are managed coherently. The pilot scheme will kick off on 6 April and run for two years. During the second year, it will be reviewed to identify whether there are increased efficiencies in the model. We are working closely with the Probation Board on that front.

Mr Tooze:

The custody system in Northern Ireland is probably far more efficient than in anywhere else in the UK. We take the majority of juveniles in the system; the only juveniles who go to the youth court now, or who have to go to the youth court, are those with cases in which, statutorily, they cannot come to us. There are certain 17-year-olds who cannot come to the juvenile-justice centre because of legislation. That usually happens if they have had a juvenile-justice-centre order, are 17 and cannot come to us, or they are remanded over the age of 17 and cannot come to us.

We now take all young women under the age of 18, so there are no young women now placed in Hydebank Wood at all. The vast majority of 15-year-olds in England and Wales is held in Prison Service custody. Currently, no 15-year-olds are held in Prison Service custody in Northern Ireland, and very few 16-year-olds. There is not really an overlap of prisons. As regards efficiencies, our set-up is comparable to the system in England and Wales.

Mr Attwood:

I have just one question. The specialist adviser to the Committee told us a week or two ago that, when one examines the range of submissions from the various policing and justice organisations, quite a number of them, understandably, are trying to make a pre-emptive bid for additional resources, given that the focus of our investigation is the financial arrangements after devolution. In your submission from Mr Lockhart, you are definitive in saying that you do not see the need to raise any specific requirements for additional funding within or beyond the current CSR period allocation. You did not have any unsuccessful bids in the spending review, and you were lucky in that regard. You convey a high level of certainty that your budget is fit for purpose over the next two years. Can you confirm that there is no issue, as you see it at present, contrary to that assessment?

Mr D Weir:

We do not identify any issues concerning capital spend. The centre is very new, and that is our one large capital investment. As regards staffing and resources, we feel that we are adequately equipped to deal with the young people who are referred to us. Our premises, and so on, are leased, and we have long leases, so we know our expectations.

Mr Bell:

I shall expand on that. The one issue for us at an agency level is the proposed capital expenditure — if we have to do it — which is to install security equipment and CCTV coverage at the centre. However, we have spoken with the NIO and, on the scale of things within the NIO’s overall capital expenditure budget, £250,000 is not a lot. That is why that has not gone forward as a bid from us, because the NIO feels that it can meet that expenditure.

The other point that I will make about our current budget is that, had we been sitting here two years ago, we would have been saying that yes, we are under funded, because we were rolling out youth-conference services across the Province, but we were still getting funding as a service that was rolling out. However, we did get quite a reasonable uplift in the current CSR period, and that is why we are confident, more or less, that we have enough money.

The Chairperson:

Mr Alex Maskey, will you declare any interests?

Mr A Maskey:

I am a member of the Policing Board.

Mr McCausland:

You said that you are adequately staffed, which is the current situation. Looking ahead to the next few years, do you anticipate any substantial rise in the number of young people whom you will be dealing with, and, as a result of that, any impact on staffing?

Mr D Weir:

A significant rise in the numbers in custody would have an impact. However, we are investing time, energy and some resources in prevention. Sorry, I know that I am not quite answering your question, but part of our role is to prevent young people from entering the criminal-justice system. Demographics show that Northern Ireland’s youth population is not growing. Therefore, unless there is a massive upswing in the numbers admitted into custody, we are well within capacity.

Mr Tooze:

Even then, it is not significant. We are limited in our capacity. We are a 48-bed centre, and we are already staffed and resourced to look after 36. The highest level that we have reached in the two years since we opened is 42. At present, we can cope with fluctuations within that sort of range fairly comfortably. Therefore, even if the worse came to the worse, and courts changed their sentencing culture to give more custodial sentences, there would be some, but not an enormous, impact.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I am very impressed by the Youth Justice Agency and the work that it has put into reviewing services over the past couple of years.

I agree with some of Alex’s points about the agency’s living within its budget and appearing to be fit for purpose. When the draft Criminal Justice Order ( Northern Ireland) 2008 takes full effect, will it have an impact on the role that your organisation plays and the pressures that it faces?

Mr D Weir:

The agency is preparing for that through, for example, the way in which we respond to pressures that may come from young people who are subject to electronic monitoring. We are looking at what that may mean if there are, for example, call-out costs at weekends. We do not anticipate that that will involve enormous numbers, and staff have demonstrated that they are flexible. Therefore, we can respond to those sorts of pressures. We have also set up pilot local-risk-management panels. However, those panels involve the same staff, with the same young people. We are simply employing a slightly more sophisticated model of assessment and supervision. At present, we do not anticipate that that will have a big impact or that it cannot be accommodated in the existing system.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I do not want to compare chalk with cheese, but the message that the Committee has picked up in a written submission from the Probation Board is that the draft Criminal Justice Order will have quite a sapping effect on its role. Why will it be different for the Youth Justice Agency?

Mr Tooze:

Part of the Probation Board’s problem is caused by changes involved in the ending of 50% remission. Therefore, the draft Criminal Justice Order, when it becomes law, will have a significant impact on adults. In the juvenile-custody population, a juvenile-justice-centre order requires six months in custody and six months’ supervision, which means that that change will not affect the majority of young people who get sent to our centre.

Remand accounts for 70% of our centre’s young people. The two or three who are subject to section 42 detention orders under the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 are already dealt with by lengthy sentences, which means that the Probation Board would probably become responsible for their supervision on release. That aspect does not impact on us.

Mr Hamilton:

The spreadsheet of spending areas in the papers presented to the Committee refers to “agency programme expenditure external funding”. That funding has grown fairly significantly, from under £1 million to more £5 million, towards the end of period to which the spreadsheet applies. What does that relate to? How secure and fundamental is that funding to the agency’s work?

Mr Bell:

For clarification, the £5 million referred to should have been bracketed, because it covers all four items and is carved up each year as part of the agency’s internal budgeting exercise, during which we decide on our priorities.

We will soon complete our budgeting exercise for next year, and, for instance, that £885,000 will be around £900,000. The rest of it will be in the running costs. The breakdown was not available when the spreadsheet was being prepared.

Mr Hamilton:

How secure is that external funding?

Mr Bell:

That external funding is funding that we provide to bodies outside our agency. It is not external funding that we receive.

Mr Hamilton:

What programmes receive that funding?

Mr D Weir:

There are a number of programmes. We have a contract with the Extern organisation, which provides intensive support for young people. It can take up to 10 young people, and it provides 15 hours supervision a week for each young person. There are also contracts in place with a range of voluntary youth organisations, which provide individual mentoring to young people as a component of their youth-conference order or plan. For example, we make a small contribution to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, because a number of our young people registers with it. We are in partnership with Barnardo’s, Action for Children, the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO) and Extern in the delivery of services and in the promotion of employability of young people who are our clients. We access their services in order to secure and strengthen their position in the community, and we contribute to efforts that are made to prevent young children aged 10 to 13 from offending. We contract out those services.

The Chairperson:

Does your agency, as part of the NIO, pay VAT? That question was also asked of the Prison Service.

Mr Bell:

The agency pays VAT on the majority of its expenditure. There are certain contracted-out services on which it is allowed to reclaim VAT, but there will be a reduction in our overall expenditure with the move to the Northern Ireland Civil Service VAT regime.

The Chairperson:

No other member has expressed a wish to ask a question. Earlier, we heard from representatives from the Prison Service, who peddled the Treasury/NIO line on budgets, and so on. If the devolution of policing and justice powers were to be happening in a short time, would you be informing us of any pressures that you are under — pressures that you have not told us about already. If you come along here in 12 or 18 months’ time and tell us of another £1 million or £2 million that you have not informed us about today, you will not find the Committee well disposed to you. Can you assure us that your agency is not peddling an NIO/Treasury line? It is a serious question.

Mr D Weir:

We have no skeletons in our cupboard.

The Chairperson:

Are you saying that there is nothing hurtling down the track for which you will be coming looking for money in the foreseeable future?

Mr D Weir:

We are equipped appropriately to deal with what is coming to us.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your evidence. We may want to correspond with you or speak to you again after the Committee has had more considerations.

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