It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank the Chair of the Justice Committee, Robert Neill, for his customary eloquent delivery. I commend the work of his Committee, of which I used to be a member, and thank all the hon. Members who have given some tremendous contributions today. I will do my very best not to repeat anything that has been said. Overall, I strongly agree with the key issues highlighted in the report as being the most salient to progress restorative justice. It clearly identified the key blockers to restorative justice in England and Wales.
It is excellent that all offences and all points of the criminal justice system are to be treated the same, in terms of victims’ access to good-quality services, in line with many countries in mainland Europe and elsewhere, such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia. I am glad that there is the caveat that there needs to be scrutiny of properly trained staff, especially for specialised areas such as domestic abuse and sexual offences. We know that victims can and do benefit when restorative justice is offered and facilitated with supportive systems wide of restorative justice, but there is a danger that it can become a profit-making industry unless quality assurance is built in. I am concerned that, unless a clear timeline is set out soon for progressing local and national developments, with a clear cross-party, long-term action plan, tighter legislation, mandated resourcing and, ideally, milestones in places, there will be a major time gap between the initial pump-priming and the ring-fenced funding, which was introduced three years ago.
Current and emerging projects need to be sustained and grow; they cannot wait for more short-term planning or occasional one-off funds. New systems need three to five-year core budgets to flourish. Many new local services, initially resourced when police and crime commissioner funding began, were not sustained as funds were subsequently diverted when the ring-fencing of funding for restorative justice within the victims service funding was removed.
Restorative justice provision is not joined up, except in a few best-practice areas in England where provision was strong already and where there were restorative justice advocates in police and crime commissioner offices, and in service areas that persevered, so this has been personality-driven. A solution that would lead to more regional best practice would be to mandate that police and crime commissioner area restorative justice steering groups are established across sectors, which should definitely include the third sector, to join up knowledge and share and co-fund delivery capacity. That is evidenced in best-practice models such as Cambridgeshire, Avon and Somerset, and the already-mentioned Thames Valley. There needs to be a clear pathway from early intervention restorative approaches and diversionary activities to high-end restorative provision for victims, offenders and communities, with a well advertised and clearly signposted single point of contact for anyone to access on a local and regional basis.
Although the police have an important role to play in engaging with and advocating restorative justice, their core job does not give them the time or the expertise to deliver much more than level 1 or 2 restorative justice, except in specialised roles, so training everyone beyond that level is sometimes a false investment. The focus only on restorative justice conferences is limited for victims, offenders and families, as not everyone can safely meet their offender and many do not want to, although they may want to understand the other side’s perspective better to move forward.
We also need to teach restorative skills at an early stage in schools to all pupils and staff working with children, young people and families so that society can benefit from those principles and skills over time. That would empower individuals and communities to act restoratively themselves without depending on agencies, and it would prevent the escalation of problems and allow them to be resolved quickly.
In Wales, the Welsh Government recognise that, for their education reform, a restorative justice approach is best practice for preventing harm and responding in schools. Involving Families First and recognising the whole restorative team around the family and in social services is best practice. Often the same families are known to all agencies and have the greatest needs. They frequently cause the greatest harm to each other and others and are a drain on resources, so targeted and joined-up work is essential.
The Crime and Courts Act 2013, which was welcome, the antisocial behaviour powers, the Ministry of Justice restorative justice capacity building and the victims’ code all promised great things and were long-awaited, but they were introduced alongside an unprecedented rapid upheaval and huge cuts across the criminal justice system, so no wonder the situation today is patchy. Access to restorative justice is an inconsistent postcode lottery for victims and offenders, and there is no guarantee of quality. That meant that it was highly unlikely for the brand-new provision to be sustained beyond the initial flurry of political statements and activity. Only pre-existing, long-established restorative services and the larger private or third-sector restorative justice providers have been able to gain or maintain training or delivery contracts.
The report highlights that the third sector might be better placed to increase capacity, so the issue of the growth of local provision is a key point. Restorative justice is suffering in the same way that other innovations have suffered from the concurrent break-up of systems. Probation service and community rehabilitation company delivery of restorative justice is dependent on tendering from private providers. Police and crime commissioners have been introduced, and victims’ services have been retendered across several areas with different providers, so the courts and witness services sometimes have different providers from those of the victims’ support services.
Cuts to the Ministry of Justice’s budget were spread across NOMS and all community and police services, and prison staffing was cut at the same time. Prisons are full beyond capacity, so the capacity of prison offender managers to contribute to restorative justice has been pushed to the limit. Restorative justice is less of a priority when mandatory tasks are hard to complete.
Will the Minister provide details of the Government’s timelines? When will they be ready to introduce a legislative right for victims to access restorative justice services? Will he consider threading restorative justice through any new legislation and victims services across the criminal justice system, so that it is an embedded principle as systems change, rather than a separate, optional add-on, which it risks becoming? Does he agree that there needs to be a more radical rehabilitative and restorative justice mindset? The risk is that the UK will have the highest rate of imprisonment, cycles of family breakdown and inter-generational offending.
Restorative justice is about rehabilitation and relationship building, as well as repairing the harm for all. It is about social justice as well as criminal and community justice.
Link to this speech