Northern Ireland Assembly: Private Member’s Business: Crimes Against Older and Vulnerable People (29 November 2011)
I thank Mr Givan and his colleagues for tabling the motion. It is important and timely.
I agree with his comments about the Lord Chief Justice, in that I think that he has done admirable work in trying to reach out to the community and in trying to take into account the views of the community and of politicians. He has done so in a fearless fashion and without any interference with his personal integrity as a judge, or, indeed, the independence of the judiciary. That is a very important step. The creation of the unit in relation to sentencing is a very positive step and will be of great benefit to the development of sentencing policy by the judges. Of course, civil society, including ourselves, will have some input into that. That is very important. Of course, there are boundaries between us and the judiciary that should not be interfered with in any way, and I think that is recognised by all in the House.
Any crimes against older people or the vulnerable are so shameful that they must be marked out and characterised by severe sentences to deter those who carry them out. That is a clear message that should come from the House. However, it should also be pointed out that crimes against older people are relatively rare — I emphasise the term “relatively”. Indeed, violent crimes in particular are more likely to be suffered by those between the ages of 16 and 24. Indeed, Northern Ireland is one of the safest places to live if compared with other jurisdictions.
It is important to try to reassure older people that they do, in general terms, live in a safe community and in a society that is cognisant of their issues and fears. There is a tremendous fear of crime among older people. That is borne out by successive surveys of older people. We have to try to address that issue of fear of crime itself. Indeed, Age Concern, as a result of a survey, indicated that older people felt that that could be addressed by more police on the beat; better street lighting; more effective policies against antisocial behaviour, and I know that the Department of Justice has embarked on that; less media sensationalisation of crime, which tends to build up fear; and more work to help young people understand the needs of older people. If those things were put into effect, I think that we could reassure older people. Clearly a message has to go out that tougher sentences are important in relation to that type of violent crime.
I cannot agree with mandatory sentencing in that context. I do not believe that you can simply have a mandatory minimum sentence and believe that that inflexible instrument will cure all. I do not believe that that is a good way of approaching sentencing.