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Representing Victims of Terrorism in South Armagh
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FAIR Response to Victim's Strategy Consultation Document

Introduction

In introduction to our submission it must be stressed that while we are fully cognisant of the background of the Victims' Strategy and the Victims Unit we feel that in many ways this is not an acceptable starting place for the sector. Our submission therefore adopts a holistic approach to servicing the needs of the sector. A true Victims' Strategy must include both devolved and reserved or excepted matters, the continuing suffering of our members does not recognise departmental or administrative boundaries. The constraints placed on the strategy by its very origins will lead to the compounding of many of the problems we have worked to alleviate for a number of years. Therefore while we will address the issues and question raised in the Consultation paper we stress that the eventual framework and model used to assist victims must be radically different to the one currently being employed and proposed.

In relation to the background of the strategy we need stress that a balance must be struck between the strategic and responsive approaches. The victim's issues cannot be treated in a similar fashion to other government policies. Research has shown that three or four year plans have little relevance to a sector whose role and very existence is dictated by the evolving needs and opinions of victims. In order to adhere to a strategy, there must be a common starting place, such a place does not exist at present within the sector. Groups and individuals have different needs because they are at different stages of personal and group development, in many the capacity doesn't exist to implement or even benefit from a strategic plan. Issues such as trauma, mistrust, alienation and social exclusion are barriers to the plans we are presently reviewing. Sadly many of these additional barriers to progress have been placed by government policy.

Indeed the very existence of this project within the same framework of the process which allowed the release of terrorist prisoners, the inclusion of their representatives in government and the disgracing and destruction of the RUC, instantly excludes many victims. Therefore we call for the creation of a new paradigm at this time one which will detach victims work from the political institutions established under the Belfast Agreement. We hold to the principle that the victims must be dealt with independently of the Belfast Agreement framework. Otherwise the perception that victims measures are merely an after thought or a political initiative to balance the concessions to terrorism will continue. The strategy must not be influenced or constrained by the ethos, concepts or institutions of the Agreement. We would rather see a more acceptable and inclusive basis for the victims' work. Due to the instability of the institutions we would propose that an independent Commission accountable to the United Kingdom Parliament be formed to oversee victims' issues in a similar manner to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

Therefore there must be an appreciation that government initiatives are perceived negatively within the sector and there is an alleged political agenda at play which is often contrary to the needs of victims. It is imperative that the evolving needs and opinions of victims are constantly canvassed and appreciated. In order to succeed in the task those forming strategy and policy must not satisfy themselves with the Bloomfield or Social Services Inspectorate Reports which will be 4 years old by the time the victims' strategy takes shape. By the time it comes to the end of its prearranged course the basis of the deliberations namely Bloomfield, the SSI Report will be nigh on a decade out of date. Therefore we argue for a more incremental approach based as a continual appraisal of the needs of those victims the Unit purports to assist. The role of victims groups in this process is pivotal to this process and must be a direct interface between policy makers and the sector as a whole.

The nature of the OFMDFM and the clear political agenda, which drives it, does not instil confidence in victims. We would prefer an independent Victims Commission or Ombudsman to undertake this work using the victims themselves as their sole point of reference. The consultation process is a welcome step but it must not be a one off, as a self-help group we must urge responsiveness to the needs of victims to be placed above the strategic requirements of central government. A top down approach is not applicable to the victims' sector and the practicalities of continually assessing the needs of victims and the impact of these imposed strategies would lead to endless bureaucracy. Again the answer lies in victims groups and in dedicated support workers as have been established by our local District Partnership. These groups are a vital conduit for information and assistance and a major link in the strategy without them victims will regress and much of the valuable peace building and social exclusion work will be lost.

Vision Values and Meeting Needs

Victims themselves must dictate the vision developed if it is to give credibility to the whole process. While it will escape specific criticism because of its generality there are key concepts that are not included in the vision. The support and services ought to be not only proactive and sensitive but also responsive. However it is a more fundamental point that is lost in the haze of vocabulary. VICTIMS who are they, who is included? The definition of victim is of fundamental importance to the development of a strategy. There is a matter of high principle where we could never endorse a strategy, which will define terrorists as victims and thus legitimise their activities. In practical terms too there is only ever a finite amount of assistance both financial and practical and the more groups and individuals that are defined as victims and eligible for such help will lead to those who are in genuine need receiving less.

One of the constraints of government policy, namely sustaining the Belfast Agreement can be best seen in the very definition of victimhood. To properly define who a victim is would by inference apportion blame to those who created victims in the first place. It would also exclude those who were injured or the relatives of those killed during the commission of terrorist acts; namely the deployment of illegal force within the state. To do so would send shockwaves to the very heart of government in Northern Ireland because that is where terrorists can be most easily found today. In practical terms, where this is only a finite amount of practical and financial help available for victims, we the innocent victims are forced to suffer because of the definitions and parameters employed.

In terms of values we welcome for the first time a statement of intent that will bind those dealing with victims. When it comes to the strategy and the action that stems from it we believe that it must be:

ACCEPTABLE
must be seen to be independent and victim-friendly

ACCESSABLE
understandable, open and including capacity building to allow groups to benefit

ACTIVE
must produce results that better the experience of victims

ACCOUNTABLE
transparent and answerable to victims

Meeting Needs

The refusal to acknowledge a meaningful role for victims groups and dedicated support workers in the process of recognising needs informing others and addressing these demonstrates a gross oversight by the Victims' Unit. They falsely portray themselves in the role that groups like ourselves have occupied for several years. The groups have been the engine for change and have lobbied hard for much of the help we have all benefited form. For example the umbrella group Northern Ireland Terrorist Victims Together paid their own way and went to Brussels to meet the Commissioner to outline difficulties under PEACE I and to fight for special assistance under PEACE II.

Indeed we have little faith in the Unit fully and fairly corresponding our opinions to those in a position to help us. The reliance on the Victims Unit to 'inform its partners... .of the needs and requirements of victims' is a major problem. The organisations best placed to deal with this are the victims support and self help groups. They were after all established because of the demands of victims for a voice and to service the specific needs of their members. The number of groups and their differing emphases bear testimony to the difficulties involved in understanding the needs and requirements of victims.

We do not believe that any unit established within the framework of the present political arrangements and directly answerable to an executive which includes members of SF/IRA, a group responsible for creating victims, can properly fulfil its stated role namely 'to inform its partners..... of the needs and requirements of victims '

There are many needs and preferences of victims which we believe, based on past experience, would be ignored, distorted or procrastinated in order to preserve the political equilibrium of the devolved institutions. To take but one example JUSTICE, this is a priority for our group, many of the members of which have never seen it in relation to the murder of their loved ones.

The pursuit of Human Rights and Justice has been a priority for our group, yet to be successful there would be political repercussions. If an independent body were to fulfil the role now assumed by the Victims Unit, then there would be greater freedom to pursue the full range of victim's needs and requirements. Another example is the issue of trauma - while the Victims Unit are willing to treat the symptoms of trauma, the real causes, namely the elevation and promotion of those responsible for their suffering through the current peace process is a no-go area. Many of these issues may never be solved, but they must be dealt with in a responsive environment, not constrained by politics.

Yet again we are driven to the conclusion that the best approach would be through victims groups, as a conduit for individuals needs and opinions. The work already done by such groups is invaluable yet sadly under appreciated. These grass-roots groups have succeeded when all others have failed; they have won the trust of victims. In recent years the political process has done much to alienate the victims, and the involvement of our politicians and churchmen in what is perceived to be the appeasement of terrorists has led to a situation where victims feel excluded and there is a crisis in confidence amongst them. To a lesser degree this malaise is felt within the wider pro-union law abiding community who look to the victims and their treatment as a form of indicator.

Victims groups have fulfilled a vital role in understanding these attitudes and rebuilding many of the bridges destroyed by the appeasement process. The work done in building trust and countering social exclusion stands in glowing comparison to much of what has transpired in the last number of years. Much of what we have done is to secure lasting and true peace, yet our reward is to be branded as rejectionist and against peace. As a result many victims do not trust the present arrangements or those involved with their implementation. Rather they trust the groups they established to further their cause and demand that these groups remain central to any and all strategies that are proposed.

While their continuing place is hinted at in 2.5, there is clearly little appreciation for the wide-ranging and vital roles which they play. The mention of bus runs and shopping trips are frankly patronising and only serves to underline the lack of understanding that the OFMDFM has of victims groups. Without a full understanding of our role there cannot be a full and fair place created for our work in the strategy - this is clear from the beginning. No amount of positive statements like 'respond flexibly' or 'reduce their social exclusion' can help without a clear plan which has at its heart the grass roots group and workers already in place working to realise these concepts.

Implementing Policies and Priorities

While the role of the Interdepartmental Working Group is welcome it must interact more closely with victims and their support groups. As outlined earlier the primacy of groups must be recognised and their role fully accessed. In terms of the question at hand they:

Are in constant contact with the victims

Can continually, cheaply and consciously canvass the evolving and widening needs of victims

Represent individuals in order to end the cycle of retraumatisation

Provide a continuity of contact for the departments, agencies or other bodies i.e. one worker has at his fingertips the case notes of hundreds of victims

Raise awareness directly and create ad hoc partnerships with relevant agencies

Already have the trust, support and relevant information from the victims

These are some of the benefits of having well-resourced victims' groups in place on the ground acting as a direct go-between for victims and government. However the role and importance of encouraging and developing groups has been neglected in the Victims' Unit strategy. The neglect is far from accidental and such wilful neglect will if allowed to go unchecked lead to the development of a strategy, which would spell the demise of groups as we know them.

As part of our wide-ranging consultation for our response we as a group submitted our proposals to individual groups and NITVT the umbrella organisation for discussion and feedback. This was necessary to ensure that smaller groups were aware of the issues and had an opportunity of having their opinions and preferences heard and included. The fact that groups have not received enough funding or support to allow them to take the time to consider the issues and make a response show in graphic horrifying detail the way in which victims and their groups are being treated. We were the only group to provide facilitation in order to garner a wider range of opinion and did so at considerable expense and effort to our organisation. Consultations are useless unless groups have the capacity to take part. Capacity in terms of funding, workers, time, premises communication skills administrative support and an endless list of other vital resources denied to the sector.

The whole manner in which this consultation process was handled speaks volumes about the inability of the Unit to understand or respond to the needs of the victims. It also highlights the real need for the groups to be appreciated and given the resources to expand and become more professional. The development of the capacity of individual groups needs to be a key focus of any strategy, alongside the sponsorship of effective umbrella organisations, which can look after larger issues such as justice and human rights. The strategy must include the facilities to promote development and empowerment of victims' groups through advocacy, support and unity of purpose. The strategy must:

Develop and maximise the capacity and potential of victims' groups

Resource groups properly and in a guaranteed consistent transparent manner

Encourage advocacy and provide representation over a wide range of issues

Recognise the worth of practical social inclusion projects such as social activities

Deal with all needs on an equal, transparent, non-political fashion.

Only when the centrality of groups is established and supported can other levels of the strategy be developed. Trauma Advisory Panels and other groups representative of victim's opinions and needs provide other sources of input to the policy formers. Liaisons with Local Strategy Partnerships and others who administer victim's programmes and budgets or provide services to victims must from part of the interaction.

The draft Action Plan while welcome refers to the needs often of society as a whole and many of the issues and expenses stemming from this are already the duty of government to address. To label their natural responses as doing something for the victims is duplicitous. Victim's needs must be raised with those dealing with these areas and victims must have an impact on the actions of government. However care must be taken that the existing responsibilities of government departments are not offloaded as victims needs and therefore funded from a budget specifically created for victims. The need for a Victim's Commission to ensure this does not occur is clear and by inference so is the Commission's independence from government.

Funding

The variety of sources while being a facet of the system does pose difficulty in the identifying of potential sources and the accessing of said funds. The NI Memorial Fund is a good concept but has considerable logistical difficulty. However as the only real source of direct funding help to individual victims we would advocate more resources for this work and an increase in government assistance with the administrative side of the work. It is often not the money but the recognition that victims require and the placing of criteria while necessary must be done with extreme caution. It is seen as the state rejecting victims and often leads to a great sense of hurt when criteria are cited to support a refused application. It is a difficulty that can never be fully addressed but would be alleviated by providing more resources.

In relation to PEACE II the strategy must include mechanisms to eliminate the difficulties of PEACE I. As a group we have suffered because of these and have been vocal in articulating not only where the problems lie but how they must be addressed. The issues we have raised directly with the Victim's Unit do not need articulation in this paper but stand in public record. Our proposals are with the Unit as they have been lodged with the political parties and every body responsible right the way to the Commissioners in Brussels. In short funders must be accountable and regulated, their practices must be open to public scrutiny and the monopoly held by certain IFBs must be broken, in order to ensure that the problems of the past are not perpetuated. Core funding is vital to the sector if we are to attract and retain profession educated and able staff. The uncertainty in the sector has seen the loss of a number of graduates and will lead to the decline in the ability of the sector to service the needs of victims.

The greatest problem facing the area of funding is the encroachment of service providers, professional businesses and consultants. Their ability to develop a business type plan for the work due to the deployment of a particular model or programme devised not by but imposed on victims gives them a natural advantage in the area of applying for funding. Groups must be responsive to members needs and cannot plan as effectively or strategize; we are like amateurs playing in a professional league. The sudden appearance of all manner of unregulated and frankly dubious service providers in direct competition to the existing groups is a real problem. They will take money that would otherwise go directly to victims for example the case of Banbridge District Partnership who spent the equivalent of a befriender or some other vital worker's salary on an academic to do a piece of research.

Service providers if they are necessary are necessary to plug the gaps in statutory provision and therefore ought to be funded directly by the government in the same way that at times the government will pay for the use of private health services when the NHS cannot cope. The duplication of services is also a fear and the role of a strategy is to eliminate such duplication and competition. There ought to be a clear distinction between support and self-help groups and the businesses, which are currently offering services.

The issue of funding has been explored in length in other publications by our group and they ought to be considered in parallel with this submission. However in summary some practical ways of improving the process would be:

Funders should be made aware of the value of a range of social activities, and other programmes used by the groups.

Independent Commission to flag up complexity and range of issues in sector.

EU PEACE II money - it is unclear as to whether the Unit will have capacity to distribute funding if they employ another funding bodies is this an additional costly tier of bureaucracy?

Victims Support Worker and Co-ordinator similar to the post under Armagh District Partnership be created across the country

User friendly language in funding forms.

One stop funding shops dedicated to victims.

Funding workshops to train groups in: filling out forms formulating ideas

The list of practical changes that could be made are endless, in the long-term the issue of sustainability needs attention and must be a focal point of the strategy.

Increasing Awareness

Firstly all issues must be treated in the same fashion, for example if a group needs to speak out about their opposition to amnesty that must be given an equal platform to those who choose to highlight needs of a less emotive variety. Again the provision of resources to groups to allow them the freedom to develop programmes to raise awareness themselves is the first step. Providing training in communications public relations and media work would from an invaluable part of a programme aimed at empowering victims and promoting the value and use of self-advocacy. Such ability and opportunity would be therapeutic and would assist in the process of healing.

Victims Commission as will be expanded upon later would have an extensive role raising awareness of victims issues. The independent and holistic approach taken by a Commission would be best geared to not only raise but meet the needs of victims. The Commission could also promote the cause of victims legally by championing their rights. Finally it would also be their role to educate the IDWG and other frontline agencies.

In the interests of sustainability other sources of funding need to be located and existing ones perpetuated. To that end we call for the establishment of victims offices in Washington and Brussels tasked with raising awareness internationally or victims needs and issues and also attracting funding. In the wake of the 11th September and the war on terrorism such a project is in step with international opinion and would ensure that victims in Northern Ireland are treated similarly to victims across the globe.

Partnership Approach

While in principle we support the concept of partnerships which will result in a joined-up approach we would however be against the creation of additional tiers of bureaucracy staffed by civil servant unaccountable to anyone. Partnerships must never become monopolies and must be overseen very carefully to ensure that government does not link up with then promote specific voluntary/community sector groups. Issues such as statutory partnerships with voluntary groups who are also IFBs could lead to favouritism and government sponsorship of certain groups. In short again such matters need to be regulated by a Victims Commission.

The establishment of a communication model and a method of user consent for referrals between the two, which will meet the needs of the user group and reduce stress on the client. The centrality of victims' groups and support workers is again key. They must be the point of contact and reference for the statutory sector for the reasons already stated.

Structures

The structures proposed by the Victims Unit are unwieldy and cannot service the whole need of the sector. In a document drafted by civil servants it is no surprise that the role of mandarins is increased and the concept of accountability and transparency eliminated. Endless tiers of bureaucracy have been crested and yet the strategy cannot properly claim to include all areas. It is a product of a devolved administration and therefore the key issues reserved have been ignored.

While they recognise the confusion that exists the strategy proposes little remedy. The duplication of services and the existence of two units must end the replacement of these two units by a Victims Commission is the only answer. The other issues mentioned represent irrelevancies, few victims have even heard of the Touchstone group and those that have rarely use polite language to express their contempt for them. Unless victims groups are directly included and canvassed, an easy tack with today's communication revolution, no initiative will have their support.

Victim's Commission

There must be recognition of the areas of overlap between the two units and necessity to create one, which will oversee a holistic approach. Victims need a champion - a strong independent voice to promote and protect their rights and to represent their interests. They need a body which can advise the authorities and challenge them when necessary - a watchdog and an engine for change; something outside of government to assist in the joining up of policy across existing government departments and statutory agencies. That is why FAIR has decided to call for the establishment of a Victim's Commission. As part of a victim led strategy we propose a Victim's Commission, as we believe that the role and responsibilities are too great for one person. Only a representative Commission can address the range of opinions, needs and priorities within the sector. This must be central to the work that is ongoing to develop an over-arching victim's strategy. This must follow a clearly set out vision for the victims of Northern Ireland, together with strategic policy aims and specific goals to make that vision a reality. It must also put in place the mechanisms which are needed within Government to ensure that victim's issues remain at the top of the Executive's agenda and are taken forward in a joined-up way.

The consultation process must be extended beyond this document as victims needs are constantly evolving and in many areas increasing. The strategy must be victim orientated and there must be a commitment to wide-ranging debate and discussion before proposals on the strategy are finalised, including an opportunity for victims and the organisations that represent them to influence the way forward. The process must also include informal meetings with key stakeholders in the process, such as the main victim's organisations, representatives of the statutory sector, the legal profession, organisations that provide services, and the judiciary. At the same time research must be carried out into the issues at stake. An inter-departmental group comprising senior representatives of all the Northern Ireland departments, together with the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Court Service ought to be established to advise on the role and remit, scope and delivery of the strategy. In addition, input to the development of proposals must be forthcoming from funders, statutory agencies in a transparent inclusive process where the ideas of those participating can be challenged and explained in a meaningful fashion.

Working in partnership with key stakeholders from the outset is the only way to instil a sense of ownership in the project. There must be an inclusive and participative process to develop the proposals contained in this consultation document which is now being published for widespread public consultation.

The Position of Victims in Northern Ireland Today

It has often been said that victims represent the past, but they are also part of our present. We have a duty to recognise the value and importance of the sacrifices and the suffering of those who are left behind. We must also recognise victims as citizens in their own right and ensure that the conditions exist to enable them to enjoy a happy, safe and secure life. We must ensure they are able to live fulfilled lives and to develop as individuals and within groups.

Victim's needs: Victim's rights

All victims have a basic range of needs. They need to be recognised, to develop in a secure and stable environment, to have a reasonable level of socio-economic provision, to be cared for and protected, to be educated to fulfil their potential, to have access to health care. However, many victims have additional needs in relation to their development. Some need greater protection; others need special education provision; some need special health care provision; others need help when the family structures around them break down. However, the arrangements for meeting these welfare needs must be seen in the broader context of victim's rights. Northern Ireland has embarked on a new era of recognition and protection of human rights for everyone. Human rights and equality of opportunity are the watchword of policy makers at present. we have a Human Rights Commission to promote a culture of rights. The Human Rights Act 1998 has added a further dimension by making the rights and freedoms in the European Convention on Human Rights enforceable in our own courts. Work by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to consider the scope for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland will further help to develop a culture where respect for rights becomes second nature. Rights and responsibilities have become part of our every day language in Northern Ireland and that is the way it should be.

The proposed Bill of Rights provides a new vision for victim's rights. It will explicitly recognise that victim are inherently worthy of respect, entitled to human dignity and are holders of fundamental rights of their own. They must be respected as having their own rights, including the right to be consulted about matters affecting their lives. International Standards state that the State has specific responsibilities. It is our contention that during the past thirty plus years the government has never fully discharged its responsibilities. At present the treatment of victims in Northern Ireland is clearly at variance with international standards. There must be a shift away from an approach based only on needs. There must increasingly be a rights-based approach which more pro-actively emphasises the important role which victims play in civic society and the fact that our society is enriched by their active participation in it.

Why do victims need special mechanisms to represent their interests?

The need for victims to have special mechanisms to represent their interests has been well documented. They are a unique group of citizens whose voice often goes unheard because:

they have been specifically alienated from the political process, which has included those responsible for their victimhood

they have very limited economic or social power, and the traumatic effects of the troubles have compounded their social exclusion

they are particularly vulnerable to manipulation, ill-treatment or abuse by those more powerful than themselves;

they are less likely to have access to independent advice and advocacy in situations where their rights have been breached;

there is little effort to ensure that due regard is paid to the concerns of victims in policy making;

they are subject to restrictions or particular rules and regulations which do not apply to other social groups, this discrimination is best seen the area of funding.

The victim's strategy must put mechanisms in place to ensure that victim's rights and needs are co-ordinated, monitored and promoted within Government. To that end we are committed to the establishment of an independent Commission who can act as a completely impartial and influential champion for victims outside Government.

What would a Commission for Victims do?

The concept of having a Victim's Commission or Ombudsman has long been advocated by victims who have felt alienated from the existing structures and have need for representation at the highest levels. The range of possible roles for the Commission for Victims is discussed more fully later. However, it is clear that in Northern Ireland, victims need a champion, those whose specific and exclusive focus is on the unique needs and rights of victims. They need a strong, influential and independent voice to represent their interests, to promote and protect their rights, and to challenge government and all those responsible for and working with victim to do better. They need a spokesperson to promote a victim-focused, holistic and co-ordinated approach, and to act as a watchdog and an engine for change. The Commission should promote the participation of victims in society and ensure that they are consulted on matters affecting them. They should analyse the impact of government policies on victims and ensure that the systems already in place to safeguard victims do not let them down. Above all, they should be known to victims in Northern Ireland and be shown to listen to them, so that they can represent them and put forward their views, concerns and interests at the highest level.

What added value would a Commission for Victims bring?

In addition to the role which government has in relation to safeguarding and promoting victim's wellbeing, many agencies and organisations both inside and outside Government have a role in relation to victims. The aim in establishing a Commission for Victims is not to usurp the role of these or to add another tier of bureaucracy, nor to merely duplicate or take over existing functions. We believe that to really add value, the Commission must perform new and distinct functions, as well as making existing systems work better. The Commission should also monitor and promote better co-ordination of existing functions carried out by central government, local government, the statutory, voluntary and private sectors. Crucially, they must ensure that all those functions are actually accessible to victims. On a practical level, the Commission could add value to existing or forthcoming arrangements in the following way:

by independently monitoring the forthcoming victim's strategy;

by advising public authorities in the exercise of their duty to promote equality of opportunity for victims;

by developing mechanisms for consulting with victims;

by reviewing and collating information and statistics on victims in Northern Ireland;

by promoting policy initiatives for the effective implementation of International standards pertaining to victims

by raising, for example, through the media, the profile of victim's needs and rights, promoting citizenship and making victims aware of their rights

by ensuring that arrangements for investigating complaints work effectively; and

by carrying out investigations into matters affecting victim's rights.

The Commission's role in ensuring that there is a wider awareness of victim's rights within the wider community will also ensure that those working with victims are better informed and empowered as they pursue the attainment of their victim's rights whenever they are breached by statutory agencies. While we are willing to learn from international models, we are also committed to ensuring that the model adopted in Northern Ireland will be seen as a model of best practice, and will be specifically geared to the needs of victims here.

The roles of other organisations

The Commission for Victims will not work in isolation. Many existing statutory and non-statutory organisations already carry out a range of functions affecting victims. For example, the police and the social services authorities work together after the incident occurs; there is also referrals to statutory or voluntary trauma or counselling services; self help groups maintain a central role in the work.

We do not think that the Commission should simply replace or duplicate any of these organisations, because this would not add value to the existing arrangements. For example, the centrality of support groups is unquestionable and provide an instant response to the daily needs of victims and a direct interface with other service providers. For the most part, the Commission's role should be to work in partnership with other organisations to ensure that their functions are co-ordinated, and to make sure that they are accessible to victims and understood by them. However, we believe the Commission could have an important role in monitoring and reviewing what these organisations do and in identifying gaps and recommending appropriate action or mechanisms for filling them; and ensuring that those with a statutory duty towards victim discharge that duty properly.

The Commission's functions

The model which we are actively considering involves the Commission having the following functions:

Oversee the development and implementation of a victims' strategy

ensure that all Government Departments and Public Authorities recognise the particular circumstances of victims and play their part in ensuring that barriers to social exclusion are overcome;

develop and secure the implementation of policies and practices designed to meet the identified needs of victims in a strategic manner across the devolved administration;

ensure that Government Departments adopt a committed and co-ordinated approach to victims' needs, working in partnership with voluntary and community organisations;

meet the commitments on victims' issues contained in the Programme for Government;

ensure that services provided for victims reflect their particular needs, are equal to those offered to others and that barriers to access are overcome;

promote and facilitate an increase in the standard of services being provided to victims and to seek to address any identified gaps in service provision;

secure appropriate funding and ensure that any grant aid is distributed and monitored collaboratively by the statutory sector;

increase awareness among the public (especially victims and their representatives) to the approach of the devolved administration in meeting the needs of victims;

determine how best statutory agencies can work with those in the voluntary/community sector; and

increase awareness in Government and the wider public sector regarding the needs of victims and to encourage a sympathetic and understanding approach to meeting those needs.

Promoting rights, advocacy, advice, and watchdog functions

to promote a culture of victim's rights and respect for the views of victims, acting as an advocate for victim's rights and needs generally.

to make victims aware of their rights and the rights of others.

to engage actively with and consult directly with victims and organisations working with or on behalf of victims.

to advise the Secretary of State, the Executive, and the Northern Ireland Assembly generally on matters affecting victim's rights.

to receive and comment on draft legislation and policy from a victim's rights perspective. This would normally take place as part of any consultation by public authorities in compliance with the statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity contained in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

to independently monitor and report generally on the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights and other relevant victim's rights standards which the United Kingdom has ratified, including any victim's rights which may be included in a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

in relation to Government departments and public authorities, to keep under review the adequacy of existing legislation, policies, procedures and services affecting victims, and, where the Commission considers it necessary, to make recommendations for change.

to monitor what private and voluntary sector organisations do in relation to victim's rights and, where the Commission considers it necessary, to make recommendations to these organisations and/or the appropriate Government department or public authority.

Ombudsman

To provide advice to victims in relation to their rights or about making a complaint.

To receive complaints from victims who feel that their rights have been denied, or their welfare is at risk, and to assist victims to bring those complaints to the appropriate investigating authority. Where appropriate, the Commission could represent a victim in making a complaint.

If the Commission receives a complaint and there is no appropriate authority to deal with it, they could decide to investigate the complaint. The Commission may also make recommendations to the appropriate agencies or departments on which authority should investigate similar complaints in future.

To review the arrangements used by public authorities to investigate complaints made by victims in relation to their rights or welfare, and to make recommendations and take appropriate action when necessary. This could include reviewing the procedures used by such organisations, and their handling of individual complaints or investigations.

To carry out investigations or inquiries into matters affecting the rights or welfare of victims.

To provide assistance, including financial assistance, to victims in connection with legal proceedings in respect of alleged breaches of their rights, in strategic or other appropriate cases, having due regard to the need to avoid unnecessary duplication.

To bring proceedings in their own right involving the law, policy and practice relating to the protection of victim's rights generally, or where the Commission believes that a victim's rights have been denied.

To intervene in legal proceedings on any matter or in any proceedings in any court, tribunal or inquest involving law policy or practice relating to victim's rights in Northern Ireland. An 'intervening' power would allow the Commission with the approval of the court to take a positive role in the proceedings, to support the victim in seeking a conclusion in his/her favour.

To act as an amicus curiae or 'friend of the court' on any matter or in any proceedings in any court, tribunal or inquest involving law, policy or practice relating to victim's rights in Northern Ireland. An amicus curiae does not have a partisan interest, but is there at the request of the court, to assist it to reach a proper conclusion either by offering assistance in the resolution of legal problems in which he or she has special expertise, or by presenting the arguments in favour of one side which would not otherwise be represented.

To represent victims in court proceedings in strategic or other appropriate cases, having due regard to the need to avoid unnecessary duplication.

Research and good practice

To publish, promote and commission research on victim's rights and needs.

Drawing on governmental and other statistics and information, to compile and publish information and statistics in relation to victim's rights and needs.

To make recommendations and issue guidance on the development of good policy and practice in relation to victim's rights and needs.

To issue guidance on how best to consult victims.

To promote understanding of, and education on, victim's rights and needs.

To prepare an annual report for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Westminster Parliament on victim's rights and needs falling within the responsibilities of each legislature.

The Commission could also be given the function of reviewing the role, functions, powers and remit of their office, and making recommendations to the Secretary of State on any changes he or she thinks are necessary. Such a review could be scheduled to take place three years after the Office of Commission is established.

The Commission's powers

The Commission for Victims should work in partnership with other organisations wherever possible, through bridge-building, disseminating good practice, and promoting and encouraging dialogue. However, this should be backed up with well-defined powers to ensure that the Commission can do his or her job effectively.

The model which we are actively considering involves the Commission having the following specific powers:

Where the Commission believes that a public authority is acting in a way that is not compatible with International standards, or believes that existing policies, procedures and services affecting victims are inadequate, the Commission could write to the authority recommending the actions he or she thinks the authority should take, and setting out the reasons for the Commission's opinion. The authority would be obliged to respond within a set time, detailing the steps it would take or, if it disagreed with the Commission, its reasons for doing so. If the Commission remained dissatisfied, he or she could make a report to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Westminster Parliament.

The power to call for persons and papers. This would ensure that the Commission has a right of access to general information and papers on legislation, policy, procedures and services; and also to specific information and papers, for example, details of a specific complaint which has been made, and how it was handled, including the outcome of any investigation. The Commission should only be allowed to have access to confidential information about victims with their consent.

The Commission could be given access to all public and private institutions for victims. In using this power, appropriate safeguards would be required including the need to have due regard to the wishes and right to privacy of the victims concerned.

The power to assist victims, including financially, in connection with legal proceedings in respect of alleged breaches of their rights in strategic or other appropriate cases, having due regard to the need to avoid unnecessary duplication.

The power to bring proceedings in his or her own right involving the law, policy and practice relating to the protection of victim's rights generally, or where the Commission believes that a child's rights have been denied.

The power to intervene as a third party in legal proceedings on any matter, or any proceedings in any court, tribunal or inquest involving law, policy or practice relating to victim's rights in Northern Ireland.

The power to act as an amicus curiae on any matter or any proceedings in any court, tribunal, or inquest involving law, policy or practice relating to victim's rights in Northern Ireland.

In using any of the above powers, the Commission could be required to have due regard to the right of victim to confidentiality, and to the rights of others, affected by any action the Commission may take. Where there is a conflict between the rights of victims and the rights of others, the Commission could be required to give priority to the rights of victims. The Commission, like some other public authorities, could ask a Court to grant an injunction if he or she were obstructed. It is clearly important that there should be an effective and proportionate sanction to prevent situations arising where a party wilfully obstructs the Commission in the performance of his/her duties.

The sanction would be to provide that the Commission would be able to certify to a court - most probably the High Court - that obstruction had taken place preventing the performance of his/her duties. Where the High Court is satisfied that such obstruction has been established, the court would be able to deal with the obstruction as if it had been a contempt of the court itself. This alternative sanction would also send a strong signal that the Commission was not to be obstructed. It would, arguably, be a more proportionate sanction and one where the court would have a greater measure of flexibility in determining the appropriate level of sanction to impose.

How the Commission for Victims will work with other organisations

The role of the Commission for Victims should complement the work of other statutory authorities. They could have an umbrella role in respect of victim's rights, and where appropriate would work with other organisations on victim's issues. Therefore, it would be important for the Commission to establish from the outset, good working relationships with these organisations and a clear understanding of who does what.

To achieve this, the Commission for Victim could be required to draw up an agreement, known as a Memorandum of Understanding, with each of the statutory organisations affected. Each Memorandum of Understanding would set out clearly how the Commission and the other organisation would work together in the best interests of victim. The Commission could be required to publish these agreements in a clear and straightforward format that can be easily understood by victim. The Commission could also retain a monitoring and watchdog role to ensure that all those charged with responsibility for victim and their rights execute that responsibility and duty appropriately.

Many of the functions are new, however, some currently fall within the role of the Human Rights Commission, which deals with the human rights of everyone in Northern Ireland. A Memorandum of Understanding between the Commission for Victim and the Human Rights Commission would describe how each will operate with regard to victim's rights, in order to avoid overlap and duplication. In addition, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would enter into discussions with the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that there is no overlap in relation to the discharge of statutory functions by any two bodies.

The Commission's remit

We have suggested a broad possible role for the Commission for Victim, with an extensive range of functions, however we need to consider the remit of the post more carefully. Decisions of this matter may be fleshed out through wide-ranging consultation. Within this overall role, the Commission could take an overview of welfare issues. However, we suggest that the Commission should not take over the functions of existing victims groups, statutory authorities such as Health and Social Services Boards and Trusts, and other service providers. The Commission will, of course, need to consider how to ensure that he or she is accessible to victim who are particularly vulnerable or who have particular needs. There are a number of specific issues to be considered.

Reserved and excepted matters

As a result of devolution, most public authorities are accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly through one of the eleven Departments of the Northern Ireland Executive. However, the responsibility for some key authorities and services has not been devolved to the Assembly, and remains with the Westminster Parliament. These are known as excepted and reserved matters. Many people believe that for the Commission to be effective as a champion for victim, their remit should include every public authority with which victim may come into contact, and every matter which affects their daily lives. Therefore, the Commission's remit should include the justice system and the compensation issues of victims. This chapter suggests what the role and remit of the Commission for Victim could be. Final decisions will not be taken until we have carefully considered the views put forward in consultation. We would welcome your views on any aspect of the Commission's role, and on the following issues in particular. The real added value of a Commission will come from having an overarching, co-ordinating role in relation to all matters affecting victim's rights, including complaints. It is also argued that the Commission could not be effective in promoting rights generally, if he or she did not have the experience and knowledge that comes from investigating individual cases.

Appointment and accountability arrangements

The appointment and accountability arrangements for the Commission for Victim are very important. A balance must be struck between independence and accountability. On the one hand, the Commission must be sufficiently independent to carry out his or her functions properly, in the best interests of victim. The Commission must be free to operate without interference from Government or public authorities. He or she must be able to set an agenda and priorities that are victim-centred, and responsive to the views of victim themselves. On the other hand, the Commission will hold an important public office. He or she will have responsibilities that are set down in law, and will be responsible for spending taxpayers' money. Therefore, the Commission must be accountable for his or her actions to elected representatives.

Appointment arrangements

Who should appoint the Commission?

We believe that appointment by Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State (this is the arrangement for the Northern Ireland Ombudsman). This would be a fitting tribute to the sacrifice of the victims and the crown would be regarded as being independent enough of political constraint.

The appointment process should be in accordance with the Code of Practice on Public Appointments with selection on the basis of merit. The appointment arrangements for the Commission could include the authority to dismiss him or her, for example, on the grounds of incompetence or misbehaviour. Victims should be involved in the appointment process. A process of wide-ranging consultation with the victims themselves could best manage this.

The Commission's term of office

The length of the Commission's term of office is important. If the term is too short, the Commission may not be able to build up the necessary experience and expertise, and may not have enough time to bring about real and lasting change. On the other hand, the priorities and focus of the Commission's office are likely to change over time. If the term is too long, opportunities could be lost to ensure that the Commission's skills and expertise continue to match the priorities of the job. We believe the term ought to be 2 years. Reappointment is desirable as it would allow an effective member or members of the Commission enough time to make an impact. On the other hand, we agree that having to seek reappointment could distract the Commission, and make it harder for him or her to be completely independent, to counter this there should be only one period of reappointment.

Accountability

The arrangements for ensuring that the Commission is accountable should be well defined and clearly understood, without compromising the independence of the office. There are a number of key issues to be considered.

Reporting arrangements

To ensure accountability, the Commission could report back regularly on how he or she has carried out the role, and on the use of the financial and other resources at his or her disposal. The Commission could provide annual reports to the Westminster Parliament (also as a point of information to the Assembly) on how he or she has carried out his or her functions. In addition, the Commission could be accountable to Parliament's Public Accounts Committee for expenditure, and be required to appear regularly before the Northern Ireland Select Committee or any other committee established by Parliament to focus on victim's matters. It is important to involve victims in the accountability arrangements. Wide-ranging consultation and evaluation could again do this. As explained earlier the role of victims groups as a conduit for such opinions is vital.

Complaints about the Commission for Victim

As with any public office, it will be important to put in place arrangements for people to complain if they feel they have been treated unfairly by the Commission for Victims, or that the Commission has not done his or her job properly. The role of the Northern Ireland Ombudsman could be broadened to deal with complaints about the Commission for Victims. This would also mean that the Commission for Victim would automatically be bound by the statutory equality duty set out in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which requires public authorities to promote equality of opportunity and good community relations.

Conclusion

The victims issues cannot be treated in a similar fashion to other government policies. The role of victims groups in this process is pivotal to this process and must be a direct interface between policy makers and the sector as a whole. We would prefer an independent Victims Commission or Ombudsman to undertake this work using the victims themselves as their sole point of reference.

We believe the definition of victim is of fundamental importance to the development of a strategy. To properly define who a victim is would by inference apportion blame to those who created victims in the first place. The refusal to acknowledge a meaningful role for victims groups and dedicated support workers in the process of recognising needs informing others and addressing these demonstrates a gross oversight by the Victims' Unit.

If an independent body were to fulfil the role now assumed by the Victims Unit, then there would be greater freedom to pursue the full range of victim's needs and requirements. The strategy must develop and maximise the capacity and potential of victim's groups. Victim's needs must be raised with those dealing with these areas and victims must have an impact on the actions of government. However care must be taken that the existing responsibilities of government departments are not offloaded as victims needs and therefore funded from a budget specifically created for victims. The need for a Victim's Commission to ensure this does not occur is clear and by inference so is the Commission's independence from government.

The Victim's Commission as will be expanded upon later would have an extensive role raising awareness of victim's issues. The independent and holistic approach taken by a Commission would be best geared to not only raise but meet the needs of victims. Victims need a champion - a strong independent voice to promote and protect their rights and to represent their interests. As part of a victim led strategy we propose a Victim's Commission, as we believe that the role and responsibilities are too great for one person. All victims have a basic range of needs. we have a Human Rights Commission to promote a culture of rights. Work by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to consider the scope for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland will further help to develop a culture where respect for rights becomes second nature.

The Commission's role in ensuring that there is a wider awareness of victim's rights within the wider community will also ensure that those working with victims are better informed and empowered as they pursue the attainment of their victim's rights whenever they are breached by statutory agencies. The Commission must be able to ensure that all Government Departments and Public Authorities recognise the particular circumstances of victims and play their part in ensuring that barriers to social exclusion are overcome; increase awareness among the public (especially victims and their representatives) to the approach of the devolved administration in meeting the needs of victims; increase awareness in Government and the wider public sector regarding the needs of victims and to encourage a sympathetic and understanding approach to meeting those needs.

The Commission could be given access to all public and private institutions for victims. In using any of the above powers, the Commission could be required to have due regard to the right of victim to confidentiality, and to the rights of others, affected by any action the Commission may take. Where there is a conflict between the rights of victims and the rights of others, the Commission could be required to give priority to the rights of the child.

The role of the Commission for Victims should complement the work of other statutory authorities. They could have an umbrella role in respect of victim's rights, and where appropriate would work with other organisations on victim's issues. The Commission's remit should include the justice system and the compensation issues of victims. This chapter suggests what the role and remit of the Commission for Victim could be. The real added value of a Commission will come from having an overarching, co-ordinating role in relation to all matters affecting victim's rights, including complaints.

 



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