29 September 2005

S2M-3317 Youth Justice

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 29 September 2005

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

Youth Justice

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3317, in the name of Miss Annabel Goldie, on behalf of the Justice 2 Committee, on its 9th report in 2005, "Inquiry into Youth Justice". ... ... ...


... ... ...


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I come to the debate as a grumpy old man.

Hugh Henry: Hear, hear.

Stewart Stevenson: Thank you, Hugh. That is because I, too, had my travel interrupted. I left Linlithgow at 6.02 am and got here at 7.40 am, so perhaps the disruption did not intrude too much.

Reading the Justice 2 Committee's report, I am reminded of a quotation from Barnett Cocks:

"A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled."

Let me illustrate my grumpiness on that. When I looked at the summary of conclusions and recommendations, I played the game that I often play when I want to get a quick sense of what is in front of me: hunt the verb. Among the various recommendations, I see one on coterminosity. It says:

"effective planning ... must therefore be developed."

That is not too bad. Another recommendation is on the role of local authorities. It uses the phrase:

"we invite the Executive to consider".

The recommendation on the involvement of the voluntary sector says:

"We recommend that the Executive asks each ... group to explain".

For the role and remit of strategy groups, the wording is:

"we suggest that the Executive considers".

We read that:

"education services have a critical role".

That is good. Under the heading "Multi-agency delivery arrangements", the report says:

"We invite the Scottish Executive to undertake some evaluation".

And so it goes on. That is a bit light on solutions, although there are a lot of suggestions for new work for the Executive. That will make the Deputy Minister for Justice very happy because, of course, he is underemployed and needs such suggestions.

I return to the point that my colleague Kenny MacAskill made. The challenges are genuinely difficult. What the Justice 2 Committee has come up with reflects that difficulty, which we all face.

Article 24 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which was signed on 2 December 2000 in Nice, is on the rights of the child. Paragraph 2 states:

"In all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institutions, the child's best interests must be a primary consideration."

I should also mention article 15, which is headed "Freedom to choose an occupation and right to engage in work". In many respects, we are all failing our children in relation to meeting our duties under the charter and our obligations to wider society. In fulfilling those duties, we benefit—we benefit from children who are engaged.

The numbers are interesting. I am slightly surprised that other members, particularly the minister, have not already cited them, because they contain some good news. The number of prison receptions went down by 22 per cent in the period from 1996 to 2004 and the decline was continuous. The figures for young offenders are even better: over the same period, the number fell by 38 per cent, to 1,908 from 3,058. Interestingly enough, receptions for drug offences are down by nearly half. Therefore, there is good news out there. Even receptions for fine defaults are down by 40 per cent for adults and by 61 per cent for under-21s in that period. That is something to build on. However, the average numbers in prison have gone up—we are putting more serious people away for longer. That is against the background of the suggestion on page 27 of the report that there are perhaps half a million no-offence referrals, in which children touch the system. Others have mentioned the need to act at that point.

I agree with what Margaret Mitchell said about the need to address people's literacy and numeracy when they come into contact with the justice system. I think that the issue should be addressed earlier, because it is clear that low levels of literacy and numeracy will cause problems for children later.

The national standards for Scotland's youth justice services, which were developed and published in the minister's name, illustrate much of the problem of multi-agency working, because they include long lists of targets and of the interactions that there have to be between the police, the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, social work, the reporter again, the children's hearings system and the council.

The danger is that, by looking at things in that way, we might lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with a young person. The key thing that we lose sight of is responsibility. We lose sight of who is responsible, who has to do what and who has to deliver to support our young people and to ensure that they do not get into trouble. We also lose sight of what that costs us to do and, equally important, what it will cost us as a society and in our budget if we do nothing—the problem, as well as the solution, has a cost. I am not terribly clear what the balance between those costs is.

I smell something of the classic comment from The Economist 10 years ago:

"The British Civil Servant - a man"—

or woman—

"who cannot be bribed to do wrong nor persuaded to do right."

I believe that the report is somewhat symptomatic of that approach. I do not know who gets fired if things do not work. Political accountability is clear, but the minister does not run things; he sets the strategy, but who gets fired if things do not work on the ground? I am still no clearer.


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