Stick together

NS & Fellows' Associates round table - Teachers can predict which children are likely to offend. Pr

The Scottish Executive's Criminal Justice Plan, published in December, emphasises the importance of a seamless collaboration between public authorities and other organisations to develop and implement joined-up solutions. At the final in a series of round-table debates on community justice, held in Edinburgh, there were signs that this was starting to happen, but that there was still much to do.

"How can we work together more effectively to drive forward a multi-agency community justice agenda in Scotland?" the participants were asked.

The former community project leader and academic Bob Holman implied, as others later confirmed, that much of the problem lay with juvenile offenders. "What works is being alongside young people to keep them out of the justice system," he said. "The police in Scotland want to do that. But there's so much antisocial behaviour that they can't." Turning to the skills required to keep young people out of trouble, he noted: "Most social workers are case managers, not case workers. Kids need locally run community projects." His view was that such projects also had to involve non-offenders. "Kids learn from each other."

David Strang, chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway and president of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, favoured community policing and working in partnership. "Community involvement will result in reduced demand. There's a huge emphasis on promoting this. What can we do with local youth initiatives? We should invest in that end. We should begin as early as possible. Teachers can predict which four-, five- or six-year-olds are likely to offend. We need to get smarter. We can't start too young."

John McInnes QC, sheriff principal for South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway, is responsible for the introduction of youth court pilots in Hamilton and Airdrie. He commented: "There are many ways in which the public can be protected. Youth courts are dealing with persistent young offenders."

Persistent offenders were not amenable to a single solution, thought Fergus McNeill, a senior lecturer in social work at Glasgow University. "We must build communities which accept that children must be given a chance. We are dealing with a climate of public insecurity and fear."

One of four participants with a background in social work, the Scottish justice minister, Cathy Jamieson, said her approach was about effective intervention and diversion. "I have been able to make significant additional resources available for fast-tracking, which is being evaluated at the moment. There are a whole range of professionals who can contribute to solving the problems." The drawback, she continued, was that those suffering from antisocial behaviour were not sympathetic. "We must ensure that we don't lose public confidence. If a young person is getting involved in serious offending behaviour, the worst thing we can do is condone it."

Steve Knighton, director of government for Northgate Information Solutions, pointed out how his technology services company had been working with many organisations to get people to co-operate. "It's the right way to move forward," he said. "But who takes the lead?"

"We need to be seen to do something quickly, but in the understanding that the longer-term approach will probably be more effective," said Rory Mair, chief executive of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. "Short-term action mustn't get in the way of long-term solutions. Do you have a debate at the outset or suggest solutions at the beginning and [have] some partners feel threatened and defend their turf? We have got to be careful not to make people 'dig in'."

The director of the Advocacy Safeguards Agency, Adrienne Sinclair Chalmers, felt there were clear analogies between what they were discussing and the health services, with their multi-agency working. "We have to remember that a child in trouble has to engage with us, too. They don't feel anyone's listening to them. If a young person feels someone is listening, it can tremendously improve the levels of engagement."

"We do have a greater knowledge of a lot of young people," said David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum. "In Drumchapel in Glasgow, we have worked closely with the community, which came up with a good basis for a project. There are many ways to engage more effectively with communities. There is a large degree of consensus." But Liddell also suggested that not everything was rosy when it came to working in partnership. "The past 20 years haven't improved things in many areas. For example, social work and health have been defending their own kingdoms. We need to acknowledge what we do and work together. We can't just achieve by multi-agency working. There are deep structural flaws which make that difficult. The issue is that the one who shouts loudest gets the resources."

There needs to be a national debate with a local contribution, said Mair. "I'm not saying local government has been entirely good about that. People go to their local council and say an elderly relative is not getting the care they need, and all the agencies deny responsibility. We have got to come up with a mechanism that resolves this."

Edinburgh University's Michael Adler, professor of social and political studies, felt it was a daunting task. However, pointing out that Scotland's incarceration rate was actually slightly lower than England's, he said: "The easiest way to bring down the prison population is to have more community action." This struck a chord with the sheriff. "I entirely agree," McInnes said. "Far too many of these people are serving six months or less. There's nothing useful that can be done in that time. We must be much more offender-centred than punishment-centred. If somebody hasn't got a job and can't write, he's much more likely to offend."

The minister also agreed. "A lot of what we're saying is contained in the Community Justice Plan," she observed. "A lot of short sentences are too short to trigger care arrangements. We need to reduce the number of very short sentences." She said that too often, the Scottish government heard from the community that it understood the problems, but still wanted something done about them. "We need to explain to hard-pressed communities that people aren't just getting away with it." However, she said, some communities took a much harder line: "Get them out of my sight for a period of time."

Adler felt prevention was an even bigger issue. "Do we take seriously commitment to prevention?" The abolition of things such as child poverty might help, but Scotland could not afford to wait, he said. "We need a focus, to pay off more quickly. We have here a jurisprudence system of which we're proud. One way is to work with what we have. Whether that's enough remains to be seen."

"Yes, we can begin to identify the key issues," said Jamieson. "We also have to face up to the fact that many people in poor and disadvantaged communities do not get involved in offending behaviour. But we also have to recognise that some people know exactly what they're doing and use it to get involved in serious crime. There is no simple solution."

"What sort of Scotland do we want? What sort of leadership do we need?" asked Strang. "We need to develop new thinking to break down stereotypes and polarisation." Who is shaping the agenda for the professionals to carry out, he asked. "There's a huge emphasis on community planning partnerships. We have to manage these across local and national boundaries." And, he added, we must strive to overcome our pessimism. "Generally, older folk think things are going out of control. I take a much more optimistic view."

Participants

Ruth Wishart (Facilitator) - Broadcaster and journalist
Michael Adler - Professor of social and political studies, University of Edinburgh
Adrienne Sinclair Chalmers - Director, Advocacy Safeguards Agency
Bob Holman - Retired social worker and academic
Cathy Jamieson - MSP; Scottish minister for justice
Steve Knighton - Director of government, Northgate Information Solutions
David Liddell - Director, Scottish Drugs Forum
Rory Mair - Chief executive, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities
John McInnes QC - Sheriff principal, South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway
Fergus McNeill - Senior lecturer in social work, University of Glasgow
David Strang - Chief constable, Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary