08 January 2004

S2M-762 Youth Justice

Scottish Parliament
Thursday 8 January 2004
[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]
Youth Justice
The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business this morning is a debate on motion S2M-762, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on delivering a quick, effective youth justice system.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Today, I am struggling with a disadvantage, as I have forgotten to bring my bifocals, so I can see either my notes or the clock. In some ways, that is like the issue that we are discussing: we have to look out to the community at large and we have to look in closely at the detail. I do not envy the ministers their job in tackling what is a complex issue, in which we can only glimpse some of the issues some of the time—trying to see the whole view all of the time is difficult.
I say to ministers that the Audit Scotland report was valuable. Bill Butler referred to a decline in the number of referrals to children's panels since 1974. That is correct. However, the minister's update makes it clear that, between 1995 and 2000-01, the number of persistent offenders with 10 or more offences rose by 5 per cent. That increase drives the debate and the public's perception of the impact of youth crime. Bill Butler's speech was interesting and well worth hearing.
In his follow-up report, the Auditor General makes some interesting points on the subject of complexity. He also praises the Executive for accepting 35 of his 38 recommendations, which I, too, welcome. A table in the report shows that, of 19 agencies that are involved with youth justice teams, 11 are funded by the Scottish Executive and eight are funded by other sources. That gives us an immediate handle on the kind of complexities that exist.
Social workers are vital to an effective youth justice system. The Auditor General highlights the worrying rise in social work vacancies. In 2000, the figure was about 6 per cent, but by 2002 it had risen to 15 per cent. I recognise that that is partly because we are trying to have more social workers and I do not say that the Executive has failed, because it has created more social worker jobs. However, the figures highlight the issues that we must address if we are to make good progress.
There are other worrying statistics about social workers. For example, the Auditor General's follow-up report says that
"half (50%) of children on supervision are seen by social workers less than once a month."
That begins to open up an understanding of the issues in the debate. The question is not whether the kids go to the children's panel, to the youth courts, to the juvenile courts, which have disappeared for some reason, or to the adult courts. There are important discussions around that, but the really important thing is that the disposals are available and resourced, whichever way through the system the young people who have become offenders have arrived at those disposals. The fact that 50 per cent do not see a social worker more than once a month is particularly worrying in that regard.
The problem is also geographic. In January 2003, the Auditor General highlighted the fact that there were 220 unallocated cases in Glasgow. There were others across Scotland, but there is clearly a specific geographic problem that needs to be addressed. Of course, he also said that social workers see some children frequently, so the system is working well in some places. However, I am not as complacent as Margaret Smith is about the fact that 75 per cent of young people on statutory supervision are receiving support; I do not think that that is good enough.
Margaret Smith: I hope that Stewart Stevenson will acknowledge that the first thing that I mentioned was the 25 per cent of young people who are not getting the services that they require, which is unacceptable. I made the comment about the other 75 per cent simply because I do not believe that we should lose sight of the fact that a lot of people are working hard. As he has just said, some people are getting a good service from social work departments, but I agree that the 25 per cent figure is absolutely unacceptable.
Stewart Stevenson: We have got that message and we must focus on the young people who are not getting the support that they need. People are working very hard; nobody is denying that. However, we must work cleverer rather than harder, because it is probably not possible to work harder to any great extent.
We need a quick and effective youth justice system. Such a system would be to the benefit of victims, communities, witnesses and, of course, offenders. I welcome the fact that my colleague Stewart Maxwell reminded us that the children's panels system is not about offenders, but about the welfare of children. One thing that divides most of us in the chamber from the Tory members is that we believe that good welfare support for children is in the interests of the community as a whole and will deliver social justice for all.
It is worth remembering that our friends who praise us merely reinforce us in our habits. Our critics are, in reality, our dearest friends, because they show us how to improve. The Auditor General is the ministers' dearest friend and I hope that, in the summing-up speech, we shall hear some responses to his comments.

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