Roseanna Cunningham tackles youth crime and family courts

At a debate on youth justice at the SNP Conference today Shadow Justice Minister, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, said the SNP would deal with the problem of youth crime and disorder that blights our communities. Ms Cunningham promised a twin track approach that would tackle serious offenders as well as early intervention programmes to stop youths starting on a life of crime, Speaking in Inverness Ms Cunningham said,

“The SNP has led on this issue for some two years now, beginning with the issue of parental responsibility, which struck a chord with the public in the run up to the Westminster General Election.

“That policy evolved in response to the very real problems being faced by ordinary people in communities the length and breadth of Scotland.

“Whether the Executive likes it or not, and there is evidence it can't make up its mind one way or the other on this issue, the fact is that the perception of people is that crime, particularly youth crime, is on the up. This is borne out by the facts. People are not making things up, they are not imagining the problem – it is very real.

“And it does affect many, many communities – large and small, rural or urban, rich or poor – though let's face it, the communities most under siege are those poor communities already having to deal with poverty, poor housing, lack of opportunity.

“There is no doubt that tackling poverty and the many difficulties that it brings with it, lies at the core of dealing with this issue. But until that, we cannot afford to ignore people when they bring their concerns to us. Make no mistake, telling people that the problem is somehow in their minds, that it is not real, is effectively to tell them to go away and not bother us with their trivial concerns.

“That is no way for any elected representative to behave – yet it is frequently how the Justice Minister behaves – that is, when the First Minister lets him out on his own, which is less and less frequently these days.

“I get letters from people describing youth disorder, vandalism, intimidatory behaviour – all the same complaints which have been raised with many other MSPs regardless of what part of Scotland they represent. The misery which this causes, the fear amongst young and old, is costing people their quality of life.

“It cannot be right that old people are afraid to go out of their homes in the evening.
It cannot be right that big groups of youths can monopolise the streets, behave in an aggressive manner often fuelled by alcohol or worse. It cannot be right that communities go on being blighted by vandalism – and if it is not right, then we must endeavour to deal with it.
“Yet, month after month, year after year, this Executive – and before it this Labour government – has sat on its collective hands. Working party follows action plan, follows consultation, follows Advisory Group – the list is endless. The rhetoric is there but what is missing is any real action.

“The problem of youth disorder and the effect that it is having on Scottish communities that the SNP raised years ago – and was derided for – has now been discovered by Jack McConnell.

“His response? Well, he makes slightly incoherent speeches but so far, we have only had grand verbal gestures, while the reality is the Justice Minister trying to move 16 and 17 year olds out of the court system and into Children's Panels – the same Children's Panels that are under-resourced, do not have the necessary range of disposals and can barely deal with their current workload.

“And Jack wants Youth Courts he says, except that the existing provision for Juvenile Courts is rarely used. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that on youth crime, the First Minister is 'all mouth and no trousers'.

“The SNP has been in the forefront of this debate from the start. There is a balanced way to approach the debate which is to recognise that a 'one size fits all' policy simply will not work.

“Much of the worrying behaviour of groups of young people, however intimidating it may seem, does not cross the line into criminal behaviour. Then there is the group of young people who have begun to offend and for whom early intervention and alternatives to custody are indeed the most useful and effective way forward. But we also have to recognise that there is a hard core of serious, repeat offenders throughout Scotland, who seem to believe they are untouchable. For them, the only answer is to get tough and to get tough sooner.

“We have come up with practical proposals which will make a real difference. We need Children's Panels to be properly resourced; young people need early education in civic behaviour; we need a network of early intervention programmes across Scotland which would support vulnerable youngsters before they set out on a life of crime. Parents must take more responsibility for their children's offending behaviour; serious, repeat offenders must be confronted with effective sanctions up to and including custody, which is why we have called for the number of secure accommodation places to be increased. For all of that to work properly, we need to see more police on the beat, something else the SNP has been saying for years.

“There is no magic wand. But if we take real action and take it soon, we can begin to turn things round. That is what the SNP promises for Scotland after May 2003. Action, not words.”

Scottish National Party Deputy Justice Minister, Michael Matheson MSP, who seconded the motion, added:

“Youth disorder is damaging communities across Scotland. The vast majority of young people do not get involved in youth crime, however there is a minority of young people who are causing havoc in our communities.

“The SNP have been leading the debate on tackling youth disorder, our twin track approach of early intervention to reduce offending, and dealing robustly with persistent young offenders, will deliver an effective strategy for making Scotland a safer place to live.”

And in a debate on Family Courts, Ms Cunningham told Conference that both the debates on youth crime and family courts were linked and that other countries could be looked to for ideas on best practice. Saying she favoured a system which combined both civil and criminal matters in a single court, which would deal with them in a coherent, combined fashion, Ms Cunningham told the Conference:

“Such a Unified Family Court would include all family matters, domestic violence cases and all juvenile law violations. The system would serve not only to provide a suitable place to deal with family matters but also solve the burden on the Children’s Hearing System. The ethos of the court would identify with the three principals of the Children’s Hearings but yet be in better position to meet the demands placed upon the existing system by modern society.

“Instead of doing what Jim Wallace wants us to do, which is treat 16 & 17 year olds as if they were just children, such a new court would provide a more sensible bridge into the adult criminal courts, which would inevitably follow from a failure to rehabilitate at the earlier stage. At the same time it would be a recognition that often, the problems being played out in criminal behaviour, do have their origins in more than just the 'badness' of the individual.

“You only have to look at the latest Barnardo's campaign, which I would personally fully endorse, to see how such a court might better deal with the issues raised than our system currently does.”