The Black Report:Chaired by Sir Harold Black

Children and Young Persons Review Group (1979) Report of the Children and Young Persons Review Group (Chairman: Sir Harold Black) Belfast: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 0 337 07200 0Ever since the establishment of a separate Northern Ireland legislature, Northern Ireland had tended to follow the trends elsewhere but nothing had been done about child care legislation since 1950 in spite of the heated debates during the 1960s in England and Wales and Scotland about the future of children’s services. So, when Sir Harold Black and his colleagues were invited in 1976 to make recommendations for the future of children’s services in Northern Ireland, there was certainly plenty of potential both to re-run old debates and to strike out in a new direction.

They did neither but, like the Hughes Report (Committee of Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels, 1986), the Black Report and its lessons for the rest of the UK were ignored outside Northern Ireland.

Key points

  • The key issues in child care are social and environmental, including the changing nature of society.
  • Children in Northern Ireland experience significant social disadvantage alongside the civil unrest but there is less delinquency than in other parts of the UK.
  • The family and extended family remain important and 40% fewer children are in care than in England and Wales.
  • The family is central to children’s care and needs support from health services, schools and community services.
  • The purpose of all intervention should be to make the family more competent and statutory services should take on a co-ordinating role to achieve this.
  • Removal of a child and loss of parental rights should only happen if there is no other way to safeguard the welfare of child.
  • There should be greater emphasis on prevention.
  • There should be Place of Safety Orders, supervision where no voluntary agreement is possible, Care Orders in exceptional cases and Parental Rights Orders but without the extensions in the English and Welsh 1975 Children Act.
  • The arguments for the welfare and justice models are “exaggerated and artificial” (p. 35).
  • Most offending is minor and limited and can be dealt with through cautions and juvenile liaison schemes encompassing voluntary diversion.
  • Juvenile courts should be reserved for serious offences or where the child is a danger to other people.
  • All but one of the existing training schools should become residential care homes.
  • The probation service should be retained to deal with criminal matters and the Central Personal Social Services Committee as a co-ordinating body.


In Chapter 1 Introduction, they describe how they were appointed in January 1976 to review the legislation, consider the future of the Northern Ireland Probation Service and make recommendations. They had 24 meetings, made visits to children’s homes, training schools and juvenile courts and looked at research from the UK, the US and Europe. In June 1977 they issued a consultation document before coming to their final recommendations.

In Chapter 2 Background, they start by arguing that the welfare versus justice debate has been divisive elsewhere but that it is a secondary issue; the key issues are the social and environmental disadvantages in children’s situations and the changing nature of society.

Income levels in Northern Ireland are the lowest in the UK; it also has high unemployment, a lower than average wage, a higher birth rate, larger families and higher dependency ratios. 35% of households with children in Northern Ireland have low incomes compared with 18% in the UK as a whole. There is chronic unemployment with unemployment rates around three times that in the UK as a whole. The province suffers from poor housing and new housing does not always meet families’ needs, not least because of the absence of community facilities. There have been improvements in education but there is persistently high school non-attendance, especially in urban areas, and Northern Ireland has lower provision of pre-school education and pre-school playgroups then in England and Wales.

Yet, in spite of ten years of civil unrest, the growth of paramilitary organisations and children being raised in abnormal conditions, the statistics on juvenile delinquency are lower than in the UK as a whole and have fallen during the civil unrest. The family and the extended family are still significant and 40% fewer children are taken into care compared with England and Wales.

In Chapter 3 A strategy for help, they start by pointing out that the needs of children are many and varied and argue that they can only be met by parents, the local community, voluntary organisations and other agencies working together. So they are going to emphasise prevention, a comprehensive and integrated approach, encouraging people to seek help voluntarily and co-ordinating that help to create the conditions in which families can become more competent in dealing with their own problems.

They start from the primacy of the family and see the health visitor as the key for young children and school as the key for school age children. The school’s primary role is education but it can also provide a base for other services and for pastoral care. The family and school need community support in the form of after school activities and community projects and they see the Youth Service of Northern Ireland acting as an integrating body – currently one third of young people are involved in youth groups. To achieve this there will need to be acceptance in the community that difficulties can be dealt with in the community.

Statutory action should be co-ordinated through school-based care teams and district child care teams. The former would identify problems because teachers are often able to identify problems which it is not their responsibility to deal with; they would consist of a counsellor, educational welfare officer, educational psychologist and social worker and be the first point of referral from the social services department or the police; they would have no executive function but focus on early identification, keeping parents informed and resolving problems. The first school-based care teams could be set up in secondary schools where they are most clearly needed and then extended to primary schools where problems are often first identified. The latter would act as co-ordinator of responses and services, supervise the school-based teams, take a strategic view and deal with difficult cases. Professionals would need to work together and to help this there should be joint in-service training and a greater emphasis on interdisciplinary work in initial training.

Preventive work would be developed by redrafting the statutory provisions relating to under fives to encourage wider provision than at present and by developing voluntary intermediate treatment schemes which are clearly defined and for which children undergo careful selection because they are not a panacea. But the starting points for everything should be reinforcing the key role of the family and co-ordinating responses.

In Chapter 4 Care and protection, they argue that the removal of a child and loss of parental rights should only occur if there is no other way to safeguard the welfare of the child, before summarising the existing provisions and saying that, after considering the alternatives, they have decided to retain juvenile courts with adequate representation for the child and guardians ad litem where there is a conflict between the parents and the child.

They summarise the English and Welsh and Scottish legislation before saying they have adopted the principle of minimal interference. So they want to retain Place of Safety Orders with the additional requirement to notify the parent as soon as possible; they want Supervision Orders to be used only where voluntary agreement is not possible; they should last for a maximum of three years but not past the age of eighteen or sixteen in cases of truancy.

They recommend Care Orders be much the same as the existing Fit Person Orders with the additional grounds of breakdown of a Supervision Order and neglect or ill-treatment as set out in section 1 of the English and Welsh Children and Young Persons Act 1969. There would be no criminal Care Order and a Care Order would last to the age of eighteen with a review every three years plus six monthly reviews by the social services and the district child care team.

They recommend a Parental Rights Order for children in voluntary care but without the extensions included in the English and Welsh Children Act 1975 and that any decision should be taken in “full consideration to the need to safeguard and provide for the welfare of the child” taking account of the “wishes and feelings” of the child. They also recommend adding a restriction preventing parents from immediately removing a child from foster parents if they have been in care for over six months.

They recommend that residential care should only be used after an adequate assessment of the needs of the child and note the needs for a variety of provision, especially for adolescents, and for adequate education for children in care. They also recommend improve co-ordination and an integrated approach between voluntary providers, more training for staff and independent visitors for children not in touch with their family or friends.

They note that the current child protection legislation focuses on what happens after neglect and ill-treatment have taken place and suggest that it needs to be extended to preventing neglect or ill-treatment.

They do not recommend any changes to the legislation on children cared for in the temporary absence of parents but suggest the government review the legislation covering leisure centres and other activities. They recommend a relaxation in the regulations relating to the employment of children to take account of the raising of the school-leaving age.

In Chapter 5 Welfare or justice, they review the history of separate provision for juveniles from the Parkhurst Act 1835, noting that juvenile courts started in the US in the 1870s and were formalised by the 1899 Illinois Juvenile Court Act but that, around the same time, the three Scandinavian countries chose instead to raise the age of criminal responsibility. They summarise developments in the rest of the UK during the twentieth century before commenting that, in part because an earlier review had been shelved because of the war, the Children Act 1908 had only been replaced in Northern Ireland by the Children and Young Persons Act 1950 (Northern Ireland) which had introduced most of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 provisions while the Children and Young Persons Act 1968 (Northern Ireland) had added most of the changes recommended by the Ingleby Committee (1960).

They then review the arguments for the welfare model and for the justice model before concluding that both models are “exaggerated and artificial” (p. 35). Any strategy must take account of:

  • the complexity of situations,
  • the ubiquity of delinquency – it may be general among young people but it is not for the most part habitual,
  • the trivial and transient nature of most delinquency,
  • the deleterious effects of prosecution and conviction,
  • the widespread anxiety about a small, troublesome minority of serious, persistent offenders,
  • the desirability of dealing with young people in the community rather than in custody.

They argue that juvenile offenders need care and assistance, that most of their offending is minor and limited, that the impact of ‘treatment’ is uncertain, that prosecution and conviction can be counter-productive and should be avoided if possible and that any intervention should be based on protecting society. Accordingly, they do not recommend any change to the age of criminal responsibility.

In Chapter 6 The control of delinquent behaviour, they set out the options for dealing with minor offenders, namely:

  • cautions, if they admit offences, given in the presence of a parent or guardian; these would be followed up with additional supervision from the school based care team,
  • juvenile liaison where diversion is a positive response to the child’s situation.

The only cases which would go to juvenile court would be serious offences or where the young person was a danger to the public.

Any decision could be moderated by the young person’s previous history of offending or their plans to make amends. The district child care team would co-ordinate the approach but, if there was a disagreement with probation, both would present reports.

The court would have the options of absolute discharge, conditional discharge, binding over, a fine, compensation, to defer sentence, supervision, an Attendance Centre Order, including weekend attendance, or a single determinate order for up to two years with remission. They recommend a single custodial unit for up to 120 children and young people and that the other training schools become residential care homes.

They argue that juvenile court panels should be representative of the community and that courts should be conducted in a manner intelligible to children and their parents. In any case a child in Northern Ireland cannot be sentenced to custody without legal representation and there is free legal aid.

In Chapter 7 The probation service, they recommend keeping the probation service as a separate service specialising in dealing with offenders and criminal courts administered by a representative committee rather than the Northern Ireland Office; it would manage the custodial establishment.

In Chapter 8 Planning and resources, they recommend that the existing Central Personal Social Services Advisory Committee be the co-ordinating body and stress the need for adequate resources: staffing and a wide range of residential facilities, including those for assessment and accommodation for adolescents.

In Chapter 9 Summary and list of recommendations, they stress the need for children to have a “stable and secure environment with caring adults” (p. 56) and summarise their recommendations as:

  • a focus on prevention and co-ordination,
  • judicial determination in care proceedings,
  • dropping the statutory preference for foster over residential care,
  • offering domestic style residential care,
  • juvenile courts for the very few serious and persistent offenders, and
  • recognising the importance of voluntary bodies,

before giving a detailed list.


At only 57 pages, the Black Report packs a punch belied by its length; well written and thoughtfully argued, it rises above the controversies of the 1960s and unwittingly lays the foundations for the even more radical twenty-first century implementation of restorative justice by the Youth Justice Board of Northern Ireland (Jacobson and Gibbs, 2009). One difference from virtually all other UK reports is that they looked at international research rather than relying on local prejudices in coming to their conclusions.

Instead of seeing the family as the locus of problems, as Crime – a challenge to us all (Labour Party Group, 1964) had done, it sees the family as a resource to be respected and supported. It then seeks to mobilise the resources with which families most often come into contact – health services, schools and community services – as the primary sources of support for families with statutory services relegated to a coordinating function. In so doing it anticipates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by ten years. It also anticipates the Convention in arguing that children have a right to due process and legal representation in any decision to remove them from home or to take away their parents’ rights.

The framework they set out for dealing with delinquency – using the juvenile courts only where cautions and voluntary interventions through juvenile liaison schemes are ineffective or inappropriate – is effectively the same framework as is now used in Northern Ireland – using the courts only where restorative justice is not practicable. In fact, they recommend that one of the considerations in whether or not to bring a young person before the juvenile court is whether they will make amends and they regret that their scheme may not entirely meet the needs of victims, which the existing scheme now does.

The authors share many of the sentiments and address many of issues raised in the Kilbrandon Report (Committee on Children and Young Persons, 1964) but, both in the clarity and breadth of its thinking and in the shape of the framework for dealing with children and young people which this report laid down, it stands alone among official reports on child care in the UK.


Committee of Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels (1986) Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels (Chairman: His Honour Judge William H Hughes) Belfast: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office See also Children Webmag June 2011.

Committee on Children and Young Persons (1960) Report of the Committee on Children and Young Persons (Chairman Viscount Ingleby) Cmnd 1191 London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office See also Children Webmag March 2011.

Committee on Children and Young Persons (1964) Children and young persons, Scotland: report by the committee appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland, etc. [Chairman: Lord Kilbrandon] Cmnd 2306 Edinburgh: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office See also Children Webmag April 2011.

Jacobson, J and Gibbs, P (2009) Making amends: restorative youth justice in Northern Ireland London: Prison Reform Trust

Labour Party Study Group (1964) Crime — a challenge to us all: report of the Labour Party Study Group (Chairman: Lord Longford) London: Labour Party See also Children Webmag May 2011.

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