Belfast Telegraph

Enjoy the brief rates holiday, we'll soon be paying the price of stalemate up at Stormont

Regional bill is likely to increase, while public service improvements are being delayed

By Alban Maginness

As Easter looms, the talks on the Hill present a gloomy picture of mutual antagonism and stubborn inflexibility. The sinister figure of Gerry Adams, scenting the imminence of an early southern election, is willing to sacrifice Martin McGuinness' Fabian-like approach of incremental change for the prospect of a quick knockout election in the North, or alternatively the prospect of direct rule in which Sinn Fein can confront the British Government directly and gratuitously blame it for the pain and suffering that direct rule is likely to bring to the North.

Throughout all this, Arlene Foster absurdly thinks she can ride out the storm with impunity.

We can at least enjoy our unexpected rates holiday for the next month, but we should steel ourselves for a surprise hike in the rates bill from the Department of Finance, as the civil servants attempt to balance the books without direction from our non-existent Executive.

Given the state of political uncertainty that there is, we could be in for a very nasty surprise as the regional rate - as opposed to the local government rate - is pushed up courtesy of Secretary of State James Brokenshire.

This will be the price we will have to pay because of the administrative paralysis brought about by the failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to reach agreement on an Executive.

But that is not all; because of their collective irresponsibility there will be further grief for people to endure. There are many other pressing public policy decisions to be taken, which will not be taken, because of this political strike by our leading parties. In this standoff both parties blame one another, but the reality is that both are to blame.

There is much to be done in our society, not just the carrying out of ordinary administration, but in bringing about improvements in health, education, housing and many other public services.

Within those services are dedicated and creative public servants, who are anxious to do bold and innovative things to further develop those services for the common good.

One area is the criminal justice system.

One such agency is our highly successful probation service, which plays a crucial role in the heart of the criminal justice system.

Indeed, recently none other than Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, after paying tribute to the invaluable work of the Probation Board, bluntly stated: "These are uncertain times. The current political situation, and in particular the delay in setting budgets, inevitably creates a difficult backdrop for front line organisations such as the Probation Board and our third sector partners."

This was a legitimate public observation from our most senior judicial figure, who is deeply concerned about aspects of the public service that can be significantly improved to the benefit of all.

An unusual public intervention, given the anxiety of our judges to avoid political contention, but it struck a chord with many in the community, who are concerned to improve our public services. It is a stark reminder that politics is to serve the public and not the other way round.

There is little doubt that the Probation Board is highly successful in dealing with offenders within the community, achieving a low reoffending rate of about 30%; significantly lower than in neighbouring jurisdictions.

But it has the potential do even better and in fact become a world leader, and it was this aspect that the Lord Chief Justice was referring to in his address.

What he highlighted was the innovative approach by the probation service to deal with offenders who would normally undergo short-term prison sentences of up to one year.

They have developed a new "problem-solving" approach to offending. The new Enhanced Combination Order pilot scheme - which was created at the request of the judiciary - means that, where possible, offenders are kept out of the prison system.

The truth is short prison sentences are less effective in addressing offending than community-based alternatives.

Probation, together with Victim Support, have successfully risen to the challenge and have produced an innovative, non-custodial alternative to prison, with a greater say for the victims of crime, in accordance with restorative justice principles.

Offenders were also subjected to a mental health assessment, which unsurprisingly indicated that about 66% were suffering from some form of mental health problem. Under this scheme they directly get the help they need.

This innovative scheme, deemed by the Lord Chief Justice as "extremely successful", is approaching its end after several months of productive work. Now the judges and probation are keen to roll it out across NI, but cannot unless there is approval from the Departments of Justice and Health for this to happen.

With the continuing stalemate at Stormont, the likelihood of this happening is zero.

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