Justice Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 2nd November 2010.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Justice Bill [NIA 1/10] be agreed. — [The Minister of Justice (Mr Ford).]

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Earlier, my colleague Alban Maginness gave a comprehensive response to the Bill on behalf of the SDLP. I want to refer in particular to Part 3, which is about policing and community safety partnerships. The SDLP is anxious about any possible reconfiguration of the Patten arrangements. Throughout the peace process, those arrangements have been one of the anchors of political development. Even when the Assembly was suspended and not all parties were on board in supporting policing, the Patten arrangements stood us in good stead.

The district policing partnerships (DPPs) and community safety partnerships (CSPs) are an important part of the entire policing project and are an aspect of policing in which the public have great faith. The arrangements have led to stability and accountability, and it would be neither helpful nor healthy to tinker with them in any way that might reduce that element of accountability. I believe that, if the role of the DPPs or the CSPs were to be diminished in any way, there would be a danger that those who wish to exploit such a situation — the people who advocate violence — would take solace from it.

Today is a good time to pay tribute to the members of the first DPPs and CSPs, who, despite intimidation and harassment, had the courage of their convictions and ensured that those important accountability mechanisms became embedded as part of policing here. The SDLP is of the strong view that the Policing Board should have primacy of accountability for new partnerships. We believe that the partnerships should be democratically accountable in the way in which the current membership and composition of the DPPs is.

Notwithstanding what I said, we are in favour of fully integrated single partnerships that will enable local policing and community safety functions to operate and be delivered more effectively and efficiently. That can be achieved by building a model that ensures a clear accountability arrangement for the delivery of local services and improves the connections among the public, the police and the other agencies involved.

We are dealing with the Bill’s general principles, which, as I said, my colleague Alban Maginness comprehensively addressed on behalf of our party. I will leave it at that for today.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board.

My colleagues talked about some aspects of the Bill, but I will focus on areas that particularly pertain to policing. It is true that the public have high expectations of us and are relatively impatient. Some feel that, despite the Bill’s complexity and size, we ought to do more and that many things in our society need to be resolved. However, it may be better to get one Bill through first and see where we go from there.

The inordinate delay in delivering justice to anybody is the most important thing that I hope the Minister will tackle. Only today I heard about cases that were adjourned. They were not particularly large or important cases, but people went to give evidence, and the court then said that the case would be adjourned and that it was going to do something different and all the experts went away. The result of such incidents is that justice takes longer to be arrived at. I have had a look at all the work that Keir Starmer did with the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales, and, indeed, he was greatly associated with the board for many years. I am really interested to see whether there is a way that we can improve the timeliness of getting some form of decision.

I listened to Alban Maginness talk about the PPS. It seems rather strange that we do not have some sort of democratic accountability for that institution, given the importance of its impact on the flow of the delivery of justice. Perhaps the Minister will address that point in his summation.

I also listened to what Dominic Bradley said about the Patten initiatives. There is something of a danger in remaining fixated on things that were developed many years ago in completely different circumstances. Now that the board has taken control of the oversight of the Patten process, the only outstanding area in which we do not appear to be doing terribly well is neighbourhood policing and community engagement. Something is not working correctly in some of our areas, and many people will look at DPPs as something of a failure and a waste of time. They see them as something into which an inordinate amount of time and effort has gone for very little outcome, frankly. I accept that other communities that have not perhaps had such a good working relationship with the police in the past may find DPPs useful. However, there is no getting away from the fact that ensuring that we get community buy-in to policing and justice in general is central to our ability to develop our communities and democratic institutions. We have to find a way of resolving that issue.

I know that the Minister is aware that there has been lots of discussion on the board and in the DPPs about how and why the community safety partnerships and the DPPs should come together as proposed. There is general agreement that we do not want unnecessary duplication. However, as has been made clear by other Members — I wholeheartedly support this — direct involvement in the DPPs or whatever they will be called is fundamental to the continued good governance of the Policing Board. That is the only way that we can get local accountability, local interaction and confidence-building measures. I notice that the Bill states that some form of joint committee will oversee those matters, but I am not sure whether that has been worked out yet.

I am also mindful that a White Paper on policing is going through Westminster. Perhaps the Minister will think about the issues related to that when he is talking about the matter, or perhaps the Committee itself will take it up. The White Paper proposes the direct election of some form of policing commissioner as a way of restoring democratic accountability. Given that we have a Policing Board and various other bodies, that may not be appropriate, but there is something about how we get a wider range of people directly involved in our community engagement to consider. We may have to look at some way of ensuring that the DPPs or whatever they are called now — I have forgotten their name —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

We have moved to four-letter acronyms; I will never be able to manage those. I can do three-letter acronyms easily, but four letters are too difficult.

There is a serious issue about how we ensure that we get people involved. Perhaps directly elected people should come on board. I do not just mean that they should come from the councils — Paul Givan mentioned his concern about that in relation to the democratic deficit — but there needs to be some way of ensuring that we get balance on those issues.

I will move on to the issue of alternative forms of justice, particularly fixed penalties. I am on record as saying that I believe that that is the appropriate way to move forward, because many misdemeanours could and should be dealt with in a less bureaucratic manner. Of course, that raises the issue of how much we trust the police. The PPS has said that, because of the changes that have been brought through under Patten, the PSNI is a relatively inexperienced and new police service and that it has some concern about those issues.

After more than 10 years of change, we are now getting to the stage where there are appropriate oversight mechanisms for the PSNI, both from the Policing Board and the Police Ombudsman, and we really ought to understand that the professionalism that we require in the police is in place and we can therefore start to let them use their discretion a bit more. I realise that that is a significant step to take, given that certain people have had concerns in the past, but I was interested to hear the submission from the Sinn Féin Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, who stated that we were bringing the Bill forward in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland and that there is a basis to move forward on that.

If we were able to have some meaningful engagement, as we have on the Policing Board, we could reduce bureaucracy at the same time as increasing accountability and reducing risk, but it takes political will and political cover from all sections of the community to say that that is what we would like to do. Nevertheless, in my experience it would be a good thing, and it would certainly show all our diverse communities that we support the PSNI.

I am interested in the issue of taking more money from offenders — the offender levy. It is not clear to me exactly how that will work. Will it happen at the same time as other fines are imposed? Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position on that.

I will finish by saying that we are interested in the Bill as genuine and substantive legislation that will perhaps form the foundation of other legislation yet to come. I think it is what the people of Northern Ireland expect us to be dealing with up here. Although we have all had fairly benign and kind words to say at this stage in proceedings, when it gets to the Committee I am sure there will be some very detailed discussions about the whys and wherefores of things.

I will offer an observation from my position as chairperson of the human rights and professional standards committee. On closer examination, the detail of the law is absolutely imperative. That is what is judged. Therefore, the work that the Committee will undertake is not trivial. It is really important that we get the syntax exactly right. Many of the things that we wish we could do now we cannot do just because it is not drafted in current legislation. There is an excellent opportunity to do good work, and I am sure that the Committee, under Lord Morrow, will take that forward. The Ulster Unionist Party wishes it all the best.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

I became a member of the Justice Committee as recently as 13 September, and I am aware that there has been a considerable amount of work already carried out on this important and substantive Bill. When I spoke in the House on the Department of Justice addendum to the Programme for Government, I praised the Minister for the work that he was doing. Although I do not want to heap a lot of praise on him, I feel that he is to be commended for bringing this significant legislation before the House. That said, however, I have some reservations about the Bill, which I will come to shortly.

It has been said in the press and even in the House today that this is the first justice Bill to be introduced in Northern Ireland for some 40 years; in a technical sense that is true, but it is also a bit misleading. We have had no justice legislation in the House simply because policing and justice powers were removed from Stormont in 1972 and all policing and criminal justice legislation since then has been passed at Westminster. However, there has been no shortage of criminal justice legislation for Northern Ireland over the past 40 years. A series of criminal justice Orders was passed by Committee at Westminster, the most recent in 2008. That came at a time when the Labour Government were obsessed with criminal justice legislation. Such was the extent of that legislation that the criminal justice system struggled to cope. Although Northern Ireland legislation was tailored to some degree to meet our needs, it broadly reflected the prevailing mood of the Westminster Government of the day.

I am keen to ensure that we keep a close eye on all developments in England and Wales and that we do not allow our criminal justice regime to wander too far down a separate path. Under devolution, we have the opportunity to drive the vehicle and make the changes that we need to suit Northern Ireland.

I appreciate that at Second Stage we are meant to stick to broad principles and not get bogged down in detail, so I will keep my comments brief. I have no doubt that there will be plenty of time for detailed scrutiny in Committee, and I anticipate many hours of deliberation and discussion of the Bill.

I particularly welcome the Bill’s focus on victims and witnesses; that has been expressed by the whole House. I welcome the Bill’s aims of reducing delay and ensuring speedier forms of justice where possible and its proposals to contain the soaring cost of legal aid. However, I also feel that it is a missed opportunity, as it might have addressed some key community concerns. People are worried about crime in the community, robbery, thefts and assaults, especially on the vulnerable and elderly in their own home and elsewhere. They are worried about antisocial behaviour, and they often feel nervous when they go out and are confronted by gangs of young people hanging around street corners, in our parks and shared spaces.

I know that the Minister will point to the statistics and tell us that crime levels are falling. He will also argue that some of the provisions in the Bill address those very matters. However, he must understand that the perception is very different from what the statistics tell us. We need to take action that will build public confidence in the criminal justice system. The Bill goes some way to addressing those concerns, and the Minister said that it will start to make a difference. However, it could do more than simply make a start; it could do much more to make a difference. Some important matters are conspicuous by their absence. Domestic violence is on the increase and needs to be tackled. We also face the growing menace of human trafficking, a matter that was debated in the House some weeks ago and must be tackled.

I want to look briefly at some of the key areas covered by the Bill, and I do so in the order in which they appear in it. The intimidation of victims and witnesses has gone on for far too long, and on far too many occasions it has prevented justice being done and being seen to be done in the Province. The Bill seeks to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, and we must do what we can to protect victims and witnesses.

I was interested in the offender levy and the victims of crime fund. Such schemes operate in England, Wales, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I understand the logic of the levy; however, we need to know more about how it will work. Perhaps we can learn from the experience of those jurisdictions. For example, we have the ongoing problem of fine default. Is it likely that fine defaulters — those who refuse to pay any money — will cough up between £5 and £50 towards a victims fund? How much will the levy generate, and how will it help victims? How will the scheme be administered? Many questions need to be answered as we go through the Bill. The Committee considered the levy at a meeting in June, before I was a member, when considerable scepticism was expressed.

The Bill contains a proposal to merge the district policing partnerships and community safety partnerships. Like others Members, I welcome that move, as it will produce a more effective use of resources. However, we need to be careful how those are set up and how they will seek to deliver. There is also the issue of how best to address the differing structure of local government districts and police districts. The police need to be fully committed to the new policing and community safety partnerships, and the attendance and performance of district policing partnerships leaves something to be desired at times. We may need to consider whether there would be merit in having a PCSP in each police district rather than in each council district.

I welcome some of the new provisions on sport, but I wonder whether disorder at sports grounds is on a scale that requires such extensive legislation at this time. Perhaps it is. I understand that similar provisions are already in place in the rest of the UK. I know that there can be problems on the pitch at some GAA matches and that Glentoran versus Linfield matches are not for the faint-hearted, but I remain to be convinced that we need to devote so much of the Bill to that issue. However, I welcome the new controls over possession of alcohol at sporting events.

Part 5 proposes the enhancement of a range of sentencing powers. That will certainly help to improve public confidence. We will no doubt go through those in some detail in Committee, but I am glad that the sentence for common assault is to be increased from three months to six months. We often hear of assaults on people going about their work — doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, teachers and so on — and I am glad that the penalty for such attacks is to be increased. However, I wonder whether that increase is severe enough and whether we need to go further. The Minister has already publicised the fact that possession of a knife on school premises will attract a four-year maximum sentence. That is also to be welcomed.

In proposing alternatives to prosecution in Part 6, the Bill continues a trend towards more fixed penalty notices and conditional cautions. The aims are laudable: to free up police time for front line duties and to unclog the courts. I can see considerable merit in the idea. It will introduce a useful element of flexibility to the system, but I wonder how it will work in practice. We must ensure that we do not become too casual in our attitude to the administration of justice. The draft legislation is complex, and the detailed arrangements will be set out in guidance, so we will wait and see.

Finally, I wish to say a few words about the legal aid proposals in Part 7 of the Bill. I fully agree with the Minister that change is inevitable and necessary in that area. The whole system is costly, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient. Legal aid costs were in the region of £104 million last year, while the budget sat at some £85 million. That is simply not sustainable. Means testing is a start. It already exists in relation to legal aid for civil cases, and, although I support the proposal that wealthy offenders should be required to pay back legal aid on conviction, surely proper means testing would ensure that wealthy defendants did not qualify for it in the first place.

I note that most of the provisions in Part 7 are enabling powers and that the detail remains to be worked out in guidance or subordinate legislation. I await, with interest, the remainder of the debate and look forward to engaging with my colleagues on the Committee and departmental officials on the finer points of the Bill. I welcome the Second Stage.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP 3:45 pm, 2nd November 2010

I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board. There are certain elements of the legislation that will impact on some of the areas in which the Policing Board has authority, such as the DPPs. The Member for Lagan Valley Mr McCrea mentioned that this afternoon. I also speak as a former member of the Justice Committee. I was a member of that Committee when it received a number of briefings on the legislation and what was to be included in it.

The Bill is a fairly significant piece of legislation. The road to the devolution of policing and justice was a long one. We had to make sure that we got it right. We wanted those powers so that we could have a tailored approach to issues specific to Northern Ireland. That is something from which we can benefit in future. It is also true to say that much of the Bill is a sort of catch-up, which demonstrates that, before we had the devolution of policing and justice, Northern Ireland was not keeping up to speed with some of the legislation that was being progressed in England, Scotland and Wales. The Bill will bring us up to speed with some of the advances that have happened in GB. Therefore, there is nothing particularly radical in the Bill. There are no big surprises. The biggest surprise that we have heard in the debate was that my colleague Paul Givan watches the GAA on television. However, since he is not here to defend himself, we shall sweep over that.

I do not want to go into too many details — the Committee will look at the Bill thoroughly — but there are a few issues that I will mention. The first is the use of fixed penalty notices as an alternative to going through the court system. There has been some criticism outside the Chamber of that as a soft approach, but it is not fair to say that. My colleague Paul Givan said that first-time offenders who go through the court system often receive just a warning and a slap on the wrist, so fixed penalty notices are not a softer way of dealing with what are described as — I do not like the phrase — lower-level crimes. Of course, those crimes are not victimless; they are very serious. Indeed, the impact of shoplifting, for example, on many small businesses can be quite dramatic. It is important that those are dealt with as serious crimes but, nonetheless, that the punishment fits the crime.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

I thank my honourable friend for giving way. Does he agree that the Committee must look at the levies for young people who are under 18? The Minister will be aware that I have raised that matter with him before in respect of antisocial behaviour. Does the Member agree that the Committee should look at that in the context of how those young people are fined, whether there should be parental responsibility for paying those fines and the outworkings of that? I am sure that there are also difficulties in that regard in his constituency.

(Mr Deputy [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

I thank the Member for that. I will come to the issue of offender levies, but he raises a point that I am sure the Committee will want to look at in quite a lot of detail during the Committee Stage. The Minister made a statement to the House recently about youth justice. That body of work needs to be progressed.

Fixed penalty notices are beneficial in the sense that we do not want to clog up the court system and police time with low-level crimes. As I said, I do not like using that term. We need to look at other areas of the United Kingdom in which fixed penalty notices are used. They are used in Scotland and England. It is important that we identify the areas in which they are used and see how effective they are and whether first-time offenders who are given a fixed penalty notice will have a criminal record. I suspect that they will not. We must also investigate whether the reoffending rates of those who are given a fixed penalty notice as opposed to going through the courts are any different and whether the use of fixed penalty notices is a deterrent to those who would involve themselves in the types of crime that we have discussed, whether it be shoplifting or some of the other types of crime that the fixed penalty notices will cover. If it proves to be the case that those are successful, perhaps the Minister will look at whether other offences could be included in that provision.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 4:00 pm, 2nd November 2010

Does the Member agree that the non-payment of fixed penalty notices causes a problem? Does he also agree that if we go down the route of introducing fixed penalty notices, individuals who fail to pay will have to serve a prison reception, which, in itself, adds a cost? It is important that we get this right, because last year there were 1,778 prison receptions for non-payment of fines.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

My colleague is right. Indeed, I serve on the Committee for the Environment, of which the Minister is a former member, and non-payment of fines was one of the biggest issues it faced, particularly around illegal dumping, and so on. There is a lot of concern in England about that. It is reported in the media that up to 50% of fixed penalty notices are not paid, which is in the region of £2 million in fines.

That issue has, perhaps, led to some in the retail sector in England saying that fixed penalty notices should be scrapped, and we should go back to the old system because the newer one is not working, which may be because the chasing up of fines is not enforced. Indeed, locally, the Northern Ireland Retail Trade Association’s ‘Programme for Prosperity’ states that crime against business is having such a negative impact on the economy that fixed penalty notices could be one of the tools used by the police to combat some low-level crime against retailers, such as shoplifting.

It is a startling statistic that some 50% of small businesses in Northern Ireland do not now bother to report shoplifting because doing so takes up so much time. It takes a long time for the case to go through the courts, and often the shoplifter gets a slap on the wrist, so businesses do not think that it is worth their while. If fixed penalty notices can be a short, sharp fine and have some impact, local retail organisations will support them.

There has been a lot of discussion in the debate about the offender levy. In principle, I support that money going towards the victims of crime fund, which will help victims, albeit the amount is so small that it will not, as my friend Mr Givan said, have a huge impact. Nevertheless, we should, in principle, support it. As other Members said, it is important that the legislation puts victims at the very heart of its considerations. Often, victims have been forgotten, so I am glad that the Bill seems to make them more central in the justice system.

It is also significant that there are to be changes in provisions regarding vulnerable witnesses and those who feel intimidated. My colleague Jonathan Bell, who sat with me on the Justice Committee and has vast experience in social work — as has the Minister because of his experience in a previous occupation — highlighted that as an area that needed to be addressed in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is significant that it is in the legislation, and I am sure that the Committee looks forward to considering it in more detail. I listened to Alban Maginness’s concerns over whether a supporting individual may have some impact on a witness. The Committee can look at that, but, in principle, I support the Bill’s direction.

Sports offences have been discussed. I share the views of colleagues who mentioned the huge step forward that the IFA has taken in recent years. Windsor Park is a much different place now than it used to be. The atmosphere at Northern Ireland games is second to none. A colleague of mine said that Northern Ireland fans were voted the best in Europe; indeed, they are among the best in the world. Having said that, I think that legislation needed to catch up with GB, and it is sensible to introduce it. At Committee Stage, however, it will be important to address any concerns expressed by Northern Ireland and other supporters’ groups.

Briefly, it is sensible to reform legal aid and to merge DPPs and CSPs. We need to make sure that we get value for money from all such bodies. Future work may include looking at what value for money we get from the new bodies when CSPs and DPPs are merged — this will also merge all the letters that confused previous Members who spoke and me. We must look at value for money and the outputs and future roles of those bodies. Indeed, the Policing Board should not escape that level of scrutiny to determine whether it is delivering value for money. If there is a better way to do things, it should not be off the table.

Nevertheless, we will certainly support the Bill, which contains a number of positive measures. Of course, Members across the Chamber would have liked other issues to have been addressed but, given the short timescale, it is important that this legislation gets through the House. As several Members said, we would have liked legislation to address the recent rioting, which is a serious issue that is specific to Northern Ireland. In addition, human trafficking, unfortunately, has become more prevalent in Northern Ireland. There is also the issue of domestic abuse.

The prisoner issue could also have been addressed in the Bill. It costs much more to keep people in prison in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Although we will never get costs down to the level of GB, perhaps we could build on progress that has been made already to reduce them. Those are the sorts of bodies of work that the Minister will want to bring forward in future years. Nevertheless, on principle, I am happy to support the Bill.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

I, too, am happy to welcome this stage of the Bill. As Mr Buchannan pointed out, it has literally taken my lifetime for any legislature in this part of Ireland to have the opportunity to debate any matter to do with justice policy —

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

It has been only 40 years.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

Then it has not even been my lifetime, although it might be yours.

The fact that we are now able to debate such matters is welcome. Nevertheless, it feels like — I am not sure which analogy to use — a broth of a Bill: one of those dishes that involves a hoke through the back of the cupboards for items that are about to go off and then, in order to save and make some use of them, putting them into the pot and giving them a good stew. I do not particularly blame the Minister for that; it is just a consequence of where we are, but so much of what is in the Bill feels like it could and probably should have been made law three or four years ago. It is a matter of regret that we are not discussing the more contemporaneous and pressing issues that we all feel deserve our attention.

The aspects of the Bill that are definitely welcome include updating our ability to manage victims and witnesses. As the Minister knows, he has my party’s support on many of those provisions, which we feel are long overdue, so we are more than happy to welcome those measures. Dominic Bradley dealt at some length with our party’s attitude to changes in police and community safety partnership architecture, with the proviso that I think we will all support: that we must not depart from the Patten accountability mechanisms. We must ensure that future legislation does not, by intent or by accident, de-Pattenise the architecture around policing and community safety. As the Minister knows, we will be paying attention to that at Committee Stage, and I suspect that other parties will want to express their opinion on that.

A number of the provisions relating to sport are timely, if a little out of date, given how things have evolved in the past few years, particularly around soccer on this island, North and South. Those provisions probably reflect where the debate was five or six years ago. Nevertheless, no matter on what side of the House we sit, it is worth acknowledging the IFA’s efforts to deal with behavioural issues among a tiny minority of people who supported the Northern Ireland team or certain clubs in the region. I have never been to a Glentoran v Linfield game, but I have been to a few Dublin v Kerry ones, and they can be rough and ready. However, on coming north in the mid-1990s, I began to enjoy Ulster Gaelic as a spectacle. The temperature was turned up a little bit, so maybe it does no harm that the body of legislation that we have is capable of reminding us all that when we go to watch or play a sport, there are certain basic rules within which we are expected to behave. I just hope that we never have to deploy the legislation —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

It is worth making a statement on that point. The Member said that we have to take on board and reflect the progress that has been made in the sporting venues and by the different sports. I wish to say to the Member in the gentlest possible terms that, although he talks about making sure that we do not de-Pattenise what has been achieved, our society has made huge advances. We need to make sure that we are not held hostage to a set of circumstances from the past, and, thankfully, now gone, but that we look to the future. I say that because the Member’s party has made a point of reiterating the point. It is important now that we look forward to the future of policing and justice, and how we build a society in which we can all co-exist.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

I think that we are talking about the same thing. Everyone wants the administration of justice in this part of Ireland to be a progressive thing that builds on itself and gets better every year. We are saying that we should not accidentally make policy that creates the opportunity not to build on where we are. There is, undoubtedly, an opportunity to have less bureaucracy. That is something that we will all be open-minded to and honest about, as long as the safeguards that we must keep in order to continue to build community confidence in policing and justice in this region of Ireland remain in place.

I will move on to the other sporting provisions. I noted in the Minister’s opening remarks a commitment to the principles and values of a shared future. As he well knows, those are commitments, principles and values that the SDLP shares. However, I struggle to find anything in the Bill that would really help us to build a better and shared future in this part of Ireland. There are a lot of very good common-sense provisions in the Bill but nothing particularly that allows us to say that it helps to deal with some of the significant issues. The absence of such provisions is most notable in the clauses that deal with sports offences. At no point in the Bill, for example, will we make it illegal to behave in a sectarian way. We will make it illegal to behave in all sorts of ways that some people could construe to be sectarian, but we do not define the issue.

As we get better at doing our job, it is long past time that we have the courage to legislate for the elephant in the room. We should be able to say that there are certain standards of behaviour, certain language and other things that are simply sectarian and that we are happy to legislate to make being sectarian illegal in the same way as, in the 1940s and 1950s, people elsewhere had the courage to legislate to make being racist illegal. We are not there yet. I know that several of us on the Committee for Justice will continue to engage with officials to try to push on that conversation. We may not get there with this legislation, but every time that we debate a matter of criminal justice, we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves that the greatest crime that has been inflicted on our society is a pervasive and invisible crime, and one that, if we do not tackle it, can undermine the very many great provisions that we will put into other aspects of our criminal justice legislation.

The Bill does not deal with things that we would like it to deal with. It does not deal with youth justice. I know that yesterday we discussed the Minister’s latest attempt at a review, and we want to acknowledge that progress is being made there, but we wish to see a little more. We can definitely get greater cross-departmental involvement in the youth justice review, and we can move the debate on.

I was in the Library this morning and picked up a book on youth justice in the South. It contains a foreword by Father Peter McVerry, who is synonymous with the childhood of anyone who grew up in Dublin. He is a Jesuit who, in the 1970s and 1980s, made a habit of trying to provide homeless boys in Dublin with some structure in their lives. As a result, he has become the pre-eminent campaigner and authority, certainly in the Republic, on youth justice issues. In his foreword to the book, which is a pretty good read on the issue, he talks about a hypothetical boy called John, a 14-year-old from inner-city Dublin who happens to be homeless.

He thinks about John’s day, were he to leave the hostel at 9.30 am and head off to a training course. That could happen in Belfast, where the hostel would probably be under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. If John were heading to a training course, he would be not be within the not in education, employment or training — NEET — category, and the course would be the responsibility of the Department for Employment and Learning. If John happened to get into trouble and was, for example, lifted by the police for shoplifting by 10.00 am, he would be, potentially, the subject of a fixed penalty notice under this Bill. However, under current legislation, he would fall into the criminal justice system. If, for whatever reason, he were detained, he would find himself under the responsibility of another organ of government.

That observation is relevant to the Bill because criminal justice in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Great Britain or anywhere is much more complex than merely the Department that is responsible for justice. A person on the fringes of society can be under the jurisdiction, so to speak, of a criminal justice process but be the responsibility of three, four or five different Departments that do not even agree with each other most of the time. During the Bill’s passage, it would be welcome to hear a positive acknowledgement from the Minister that we will legislate for youth justice in the very near future.

I am slightly worried that the provision for solicitor advocates was dropped from the Bill, not because I think that it is a particularly brilliant idea — I think that it is a common sense idea, to be honest — but because I do not understand why we are not debating it. It appears, from the evidence that the Committee has received, that the reason is that there is a concern among some senior legal advisers to the Executive about the compatibility of such a clause with a European directive. However, it is worth noting that England, Scotland and Wales have legislated successfully for solicitor advocates without finding themselves — certainly not knowingly — in conflict with any European directive. To my knowledge, there has been no significant challenge in any of those jurisdictions to any possible practices of solicitor advocacy. Therefore, I welcome an indication from the Minister in his summing-up speech that we will be able to deal with that issue through the legislation. That would show openness to reform in the legal system. We all share that goal.

The Bill deals at some length with fixed penalty notices and alternatives to custody. Those proposals are generally welcome. I represent South Belfast, which includes the Holylands area, and nearly every weekend, there is an opportunity to see, at first hand, the potential value of such disposals in the criminal justice system. Those disposals will work, and Mr Givan makes a fair point. If there is an opportunity for those fines to be collected, and they subsequently fail to be collected, we should not end up with a revolving door prison solution because of the approximately 1,800 people who are committed to prison for non-payment of fines in this region every year. My understanding is that a very significant number of them do prison time without ever making it to prison.

It is not appropriate to put the system on the record of the House, but I have been told that a person who presents himself for committal on a certain day of the week and at a certain time will be released before the close of that day having fulfilled his sentence. That is bizarre. I am told that that approach still clogs up the same amount of processing time and still places a significant burden on the criminal justice system to administer this technicality of getting someone into prison and then releasing that individual. It begs the basic question: should we lock up people who are guilty of nothing more than not paying a fine? We all feel that we should be talking more about the policy of legislating more for alternatives to custody, the role of probation and the role of other disposals in our system.

We will deal with our specific concerns on fixed penalty notices at Committee, as we will with other disposals that are outlined in the Bill.

We all support the Minister in his attempts to bring some reform to the legal aid system. What is being legislated for in the Bill is not the substantive reform that we will be looking forward to discussing with the Minister in the months ahead, but, undoubtedly, it makes some sense. A major issue in legal aid is family law. In fact, family law per se is a significant issue. If I were to start making too deep a comment about it, I would be pulled up for straying from the Bill. However, it is worth noting that the House must return to that policy area at an early stage.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP 4:15 pm, 2nd November 2010

There is much in the Bill that is useful, and other aspects of it are not ambitious enough. Over the past 13 years in Craigavon and Ards, I have seen the work of community safety partnerships and district policing partnerships at close hand. It is logical to bring those together and to see the collective benefit that both can bring.

I will pick out only the Bill’s highlights. I agree with the comments that my friend from South Belfast made a couple of moments ago on solicitor advocacy. [Interruption.]

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I will not be distracted or put off.

For many years, certainly over the past decade, I spent a lot of time with young people in court. They were represented by their solicitors, who, in general, did an excellent job on their behalf. The House had the chance to be innovative and to look at solicitor advocacy. I spoke to one solicitor in Newtownards in my constituency of Strangford whose legal aid bill runs at, I think, £40 an hour. That is massively cheaper than barristers. If we can get a high level of representation from solicitors and get access to justice from solicitors at £40 an hour, should we be paying massive figures to barristers when the same service can be provided at another cost?

Schools, hospitals and everything else can only get their slice of the cake after the legal aid budget, which all Members will agree is bloated, has had its slice of the cake. Therefore, if there was a way to proportion those resources better, we should have taken it. I hope that, at some stage, the House will come back to look at solicitor advocacy.

We see the legal aid budget. When policing and justice was devolved, it rightly came to the House with the expectation that we would have an accountable structure. Before devolution of policing and justice, we had the information on who the barristers who were claiming public money were. If memory serves me correctly, since the devolution of policing and justice, at least one barrister lifted £1·4 million of public money in 12 months. However, under the accountable structures in the House, we still do not know who that barrister is. Is there any other area where someone could lift £1·4 million of public money and still not have to declare their identity to the House? That is a sore that is beginning to fester because of the lack of information.

We have to seriously ask: is it genuine access to justice for the people of Northern Ireland that one individual can lift £1·4 million in one year and have their anonymity protected, for whatever reason? There may be legitimate reasons for that. However, it is time that those reasons were explained in detail to the House and that the issue of that person’s identity was resolved, otherwise the House’s ability to hold people to account will genuinely be called into question.

I am glad that victims have been addressed in the Bill. However, like everything else, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we will wait and see what comes out. There is every reason why those who have perpetrated crimes against innocent people should have their assets levied and used to help the people whom they have traumatised through their crimes. That will receive universal support.

Mr McNarry made some interesting points about football, sport, chanting, sectarianism and alcohol. It is worthwhile pointing out to the House that many football clubs have already made this a priority, in advance of the legislation. My son plays for Ards Rangers, and its players must sign a policy document before they can play for the club saying that they will not use racist, sectarian or bad language. They must also sign up to the FIFA plan on racism and sectarianism. Children come into that system at four, five and six years of age and learn how to play properly.

I want to put on record my congratulations to Ards Youth, Ards Rangers, Ballywalter Rec and all the teams within the Irish FA that have brought that policy right down to the earliest level and are training children how to play properly. On a bigger level, Linfield Football Club, of which I am a season ticket holder, has had a points plan in place for years to reduce sectarianism and to ensure that it keeps to the UEFA rules on that. Larger clubs are to be commended for the actions that they have taken in advance of this legislation.

There is one thing that does concern me, and it may be something that we cannot legislate for. A lot of the young men and women in my area of Strangford have put away £20 or £30 a week to go to the Northern Ireland football match against Serbia. The Northern Ireland fans won an international award for being the best in Europe, because of the lack of sectarian, racist and offensive chanting, because they clap other teams off the pitch when they are heavily beaten, and because of their general sporting nature. We should celebrate that. However, some fans who had already paid for their tickets and booked their flights, hotels and coaches to and from the match, have been banned through no fault of their own from attending the match by FIFA, and now they cannot get any of that money refunded. That is absolutely shameful. What are those people to do? Are they to travel and not get through? I appreciate that we cannot legislate for that, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Member is straying slightly from the detail of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I just wanted it written into the record that we should support what people are doing in advance of the Bill. When they have done it, the innocent should not be penalised.

One issue that should have been brought into the Bill is rioting, about which I am concerned. I have checked the Bill, and I cannot see it in there. People who riot in other parts of the United Kingdom are liable to get a severe sentence. However, we seem to have let that slip in Northern Ireland and in the Bill. We have to raise the law in relation to rioting and say to people that if they go out deliberately, with petrol purchased in advance — and I do not care what section of the community they are from or where they are from — to injure public servants in the Police Service or anything else, they can expect to face the same severe penalties as in other parts of the United Kingdom. That should be included in the Bill.

If someone pushes a concrete block on top of a female public servant in the police, they should face the severest penalties.

The House will have to come back to that. Hopefully, we will not need to. However, we have to deal with the situation as it is, not the situation as we want it to be. Rioting has occurred. Rioting is dangerous and puts people’s lives at risk. Those who choose to engage in rioting, regardless of which section of the community they come from, must realise that we, as a society, will not tolerate such behaviour. The severe penalties faced elsewhere by those engaging in such behaviour should be faced and feared by those who riot here.

I agree with what my friend from south Belfast said about youth justice. I would have liked it if some of the issues that were included in yesterday’s debate had been brought forward, particularly that of the voluntary youth sector, which has done a huge amount of work in reducing young offending. Colleagues who I used to work with, such as Liz Greer and others, did a massive amount of work in that area. That is not included in the Bill as yet, but a review is under way. Hopefully, at some future stage, we can include the good work of not only the community-based statutory services but of the voluntary sector.

I welcome the provision to allow witnesses proper protection when they go to court. Looking back over 20 years, I remember children being brought in to the High Court. I saw young children, who had been the victims of rape, having to give evidence. Progress has been made, but the Bill provides for continued progress. We owe those young people a huge debt of gratitude for their courage in being able to give, in court, the necessary information on the personal and intimate trauma that they suffered. Many victims told me afterwards that the Court Service was, by and large, extremely accommodating and helpful. Nevertheless, that is still a very difficult process, and one which I had hoped many of those perpetrators would not put their victims through. Having seen young people aged 11, 12 or 13 go in to a separate court to give video evidence of personal injury and trauma, I know that no service can be good enough to give them the assistance that they need. Providing help for those young people is included in the Bill. For that, the House can rightly declare that it has done something of immense value.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance 4:30 pm, 2nd November 2010

I support the Bill. Stephen Farry commented comprehensively on a number of aspects of the Bill. Therefore, I will concentrate on one issue that is of great interest to me and to the residents of south Belfast.

I particularly welcome Part 6, which relates to fixed penalty notices. Fixed penalty notices have the ability to seriously discourage people from partaking in the offences of drunkenness, breach of the peace, disorderly behaviour, obstructing the police, criminal damage, petty shoplifting, and indecent behaviour, which is limited to incidents of urination in the street.

In my constituency of South Belfast, the number of occasions in the past few years on which fixed penalty notices could have been used to quell riotous behaviour is clear. We all recall the disgraceful scenes on St Patrick’s Day two years ago, when drunken young people created mayhem in the Holylands, costing the PSNI £35,000 to police the area throughout the day and to make numerous arrests.

Since the students returned during fresher’s week in September this year, there have been 16 arrests, although only one of those was of a student, so we obviously cannot blame everything on students. However, over 50 reports were made to the PSNI about antisocial behaviour by students in the area. The long-suffering residents of south Belfast — not only those from the Holylands area, but those from Stranmillis, Annadale, Belvoir and many other areas — have asked for years for effective actions to deal with antisocial behaviour. I thank the Minister for responding to their calls for effective measures, which will give them back some peace and tranquillity in their neighbourhoods.

Residents have also experienced a great deal of frustration after reporting antisocial behaviour incidents to the police or to Belfast City Council, only to find that no legal action was taken or that it took a long time for prosecutions to be progressed through the legal system. The fact that the penalty notices in the Bill will deal with offenders instantly will, I hope, help to restore some sense of control to local residents and let them see justice being done.

The prospect of being fined £40 or more will also make many think twice before becoming drunk, urinating in the street or engaging in the other forms of antisocial behaviour that are covered in Part 6 of the Bill. It is obviously much better to deter crime by encouraging people to behave responsibly, rather than hauling them through the courts. The penalty notices will also remove up to 2,000 cases from prosecution each year, which will free up police and court time to deal with more serious offences.

Finally, I commend the Minister, his staff and the Committee members for bringing forward this very comprehensive Bill so swiftly.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

At this stage of the debate, everything has been said at least once. Before I make my remarks, I declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

I welcome the Justice Bill and like other Members from my party, I commend the Minister for the speedy process that has led us to this stage. The Justice Bill is a vital piece of legislation for all those involved in the criminal justice system and for the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. For that reason, we must take the opportunity to ensure that the Bill is as good as it can be, and the debate is significant in that respect.

The main issue that I want to address is in Part 5 of the Bill, which concerns the treatment of offenders and, more specifically, knife crime. The Bill creates the same sentencing powers for two additional offences for knife crime: possession of a knife with intent and possession of a knife on school premises. Both offences are punishable with up to one year’s imprisonment summarily or four years’ imprisonment on indictment for knife and weapons offences. I welcome those provisions and commend the Minister for addressing the issue of knife crime. The extension of the length of sentence that can be used for the possession of a knife with intent is much needed given the recent incidents of serious knife crime in Northern Ireland. The provision that deals with possession of a knife on school premises fills a gap in the law as regards that offence.

Very recently, the Assembly supported a motion that called on the Minister to bring forward a strategy to deal with knife crime, and the sentencing powers outlined in the Bill are the first step in that strategy. However, I urge the Minister not to be content with his work, and to push on with the formulation of an effective strategy to reduce knife crime throughout Northern Ireland. Indeed, I seek assurances from him that he intends to do that.

The Minister is on record as saying that the provisions of the Justice Bill complete the knife crime sentencing package. Although that may be the case, I remind the Minister that, aside from sentencing, work needs to be done to change the culture and attitude around knives, especially among young people. A criticism of the Bill’s knife crime provisions may be that they do not go far enough. Education and early intervention are vital in deterring individuals from crime. In that regard, the police have done an excellent job in tackling drugs. I encourage those involved to do something similar to address knife crime.

I welcome the Bill’s increase of the maximum penalty for common assault to three months’ imprisonment. I sincerely hope that that will act as a very real deterrent to people who use violence against others in society. Police statistics show that 7,386 incidents of common and aggravated assault occurred in Northern Ireland in 2009-2010. That statistic highlights that the issue is a serious one.

In conclusion, I welcome the provisions in Part 3 for a new arrangement for district policing partnerships. As a member of the Policing Board, I am fully aware of the importance of involving the public in a two-way dialogue with the police. Partnership between the two is essential. There is little argument that the current system, in which DPPs and CSPs exist alongside each other, is far from ideal. I hope that the new proposal on policing and community safety partnerships can deliver an improved model. However, I ask the Minister to assure me that he sees the primary function of the new PCSPs as being a mechanism to obtain the views of the public and to act as a forum for discussion and consultation. I look forward to hearing some answers from the Minister on those issues.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I welcome the general support for the Bill that has been expressed by Members throughout the House. I did not suspect that we would have had such unanimity when we got to Second Stage. That unanimity started with Lord Morrow and Raymond McCartney, who spoke as the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Justice, respectively. They indicated the Committee’s broad support for the Bill, which I appreciate very much. I want to put on record the appreciation that I and my officials have for the positive level of engagement that Committee members have had in considering the proposals thus far. I look forward to the Committee carrying that role forward to Committee Stage. The support that the Committee has given to date bodes well for the future.

The debate has been interesting, wide-ranging and, at times, challenging, in respect not just of the Bill but the justice system as a whole. Indeed, at times, I began to think that more was being said about what is not in the Bill than what is. Those comments were largely couched in references to what should have been in the Bill, and, therefore, I presume that they were within the premise of a Second Stage debate.

I welcome Members’ contributions and will attempt to deal with the many and varied questions that have been asked. I intend to deal with as many as possible, but, inevitably, I will miss a few. I will undertake to write to Members if there are any points that I have not covered. I will not refer to every Member who agreed with the Bill’s provisions; otherwise, I would merely be cataloguing significant agreement.

Rather than referring to Members’ contributions, it will be best if I try to deal with the issues raised in the sequence of the Bill’s provisions and group those under themes. That will be more helpful to Members than if I were to move back and forth around the Bill. It should also assist Members better as we seek to move forward. I will consider each of the Parts in turn, giving a little detail of the provisions and dealing with the points that have been raised. At the end, I will say a few words about some of the items that I planned to include in the Bill but that did not make it in the end. Lord Morrow, in particular, was interested in a number of those.

First, I will deal with a number of the overarching issues. Some Members have concerns that the Bill is a read across from what has happened in other jurisdictions. I do not believe that that is correct. There are cases in which we have drawn on best practice in England and Wales and other places. However, the Bill is grounded firmly in the needs of Northern Ireland.

Some elements follow on from consultations that were carried out before 12 April, but that is not a criticism, because the Hillsborough agreement highlighted the fact that we need to learn from the best of what is happening elsewhere without, I might add, slavishly following it.

In the Bill, we have built on previous work and developed it in a devolved context. The work on PCSPs, to give them their correct title, is a good example. There are important policy areas that need addressing, and, although to some extent this is a miscellaneous provisions Bill, the provisions are not scraps from the table.

We have learnt from other jurisdictions, England and Wales among them. The idea of an offender levy was drawn from Australia and New Zealand. Where we have drawn from other jurisdictions, however, the provisions have been shaped to meet the needs of Northern Ireland. The sport provisions are another such example, and they cover the key sports for Northern Ireland. We are providing flexibility in how the alcohol powers might be delivered. The fixed penalty scheme has been included to address volume crime or minor matters that should not go to court.

There is experience to be learned from in England and Wales. We have learnt from their experience and from their mistakes, and we have consulted locally to ensure that the Northern Ireland voice is heard.

Mr McCartney raised the equality impact assessment. I want to make it clear to the House that, in the first case, the screening that was carried out on individual provisions led to the conclusion that a full EQIA was not needed. All the screenings that were done indicated that there were no significant adverse impacts. However, I recognised that there was value in an overarching assessment of the Bill as a piece. The full and detailed impact assessment has been published. The consultation on the Bill closes this week, at almost exactly the same time as the Bill goes to the Committee, and all the information will be available to the Committee from an early stage in its deliberations.

I will now deal with some of the individual provisions. As I said in my opening statement, the offender levy will be a means of making offenders accountable for the harm that they cause. It will be a statutory, mandatory and monetary order imposed on adult offenders. It will be applied to a range of court disposals and non-court-based penalties and will be set at a fixed but tiered rate of between £5 and £50, proportionate to the disposal or the penalty given. In answer to Basil McCrea in particular, the levy will be assessed and paid along with the fine. It will not be something that lags behind. Indeed, it will be given priority over the taking of the fine.

The levy will be used directly for a victims of crime fund, which, in full operation, could realise around £500,000 per annum. Allocation of that fund will be prioritised by the Victim and Witness Task Force (VWTF). The levy will add to the funds available for victims’ services. Although we have to acknowledge that all budgets are under financial pressure in the times that we live in, the fund will certainly not be used as a replacement for existing statutory funding but will be in addition to that statutory funding.

A number of Members — Alastair Ross, Tom Buchanan and Paul Givan in particular — raised the payment of fines and whether it will be possible to gather the levy appropriately. In recent years, fine default reforms have started to drive up early payment rates, they have reduced the number of warrants issued and they are reducing default rates on fines. We have a very successful fine collection scheme, which has led to a 30% reduction in the number of warrants issued to police. That equates to more than 7,000 more fines being paid without the need for police intervention. That is an indication of positive work being done on fines, and that work can carry forward into the offender levy.

As I said, a number of Members felt that there was a need to ensure that the money would not be absorbed into wider budgets. I assure Members that the victims of crime fund will be maintained entirely separately. For example, Lord Morrow highlighted independent sexual violence advisers, and that is exactly the kind of scheme for which the fund is designed — developing new methods of supporting victims. There will be close scrutiny of budgets, but the victims of crime fund will remain separate.

Some Members also raised the issue of prison earnings. Prison earnings are used as an incentive and form part of offenders’ rehabilitation. Where an offender levy is charged against prisoners, the levy will be deducted, and prisoners will be notified of the weekly deductions for that levy so that they are aware of where it is being applied against them. Similarly, there will be a clear statement in court so that the victim and the offender are both aware that the levy is part of the measure being taken against the offender.

Mr Ian McCrea raised the issue of an offender levy for those under 18 years old. That was considered in the public consultation. However, there was a general feeling that, in many cases, parents would end up paying, and that it would not have any real effect on the offenders themselves. The majority of those consulted took the view that the levy should apply only to adult offenders.

The standard way to deal with young offenders is through the youth conferencing system, which is about making young offenders accountable and bringing home to them the harm that they have caused. I believe that that system is working well, though, of course, that is an issue that will be followed up in the youth justice review.

I think that every Member who spoke raised the issue of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses and victims. The aim of the provisions for vulnerable witnesses is to improve the legislation to enable them, by way of special measures, to give the best possible evidence in criminal proceedings.

A number of Members highlighted the trauma that young people or those who have suffered a sexual offence can, in many cases, go through in giving evidence. It is entirely right that we should seek to make whatever efforts we can to make that traumatic process less damaging. So, among other things, those provisions will raise the upper age limit under which a young witness is automatically eligible for special measures from 17 years to 18 years, while allowing a young witness’s views to be taken into account when special measure applications are being made, subject to certain safeguards.

The provisions mean automatic entitlement for adult complainants of sexual offences to give video- recorded evidence in chief and formalise the presence of a supporter in the live-link room when a witness is giving evidence. They also allow for intermediaries to be made available to vulnerable defendants.

There was a specific question on that issue from Mr Maginness about ensuring that those measures apply to the right people. He wanted assurance that there would be discretion on the part of the courts with regard to adult victims of sexual offences giving video-recorded evidence in chief. I confirm that that is the case. With regard to Mr Maginness’s concerns about the supporter and the live link, it is expected that a volunteer from Victim Support’s witness services would act as a supporter for an adult witness, and a volunteer from the NSPCC’s young witness service would act as a supporter for child witnesses. Those are subject to training and other issues, including how to behave in the video room.

To improve court services, we are extending the use of live links in court proceedings. The aim of the live-link provisions is to extend the range of matters that can be dealt with by a video link, whereby evidence is given from outside the courtroom via a live television link into the courtroom. The live-link provisions will be extended to allow the definition of a vulnerable accused to include physical disability and physical disorder, and will allow live-link connections between courts and psychiatric hospitals. They also include technical improvements to fill gaps in existing law, where those are beneficial.

When used for defendants, live links help to avoid the need for remand prisoners, some of whom may have a history of dangerous offending, to be moved around the country. I welcome the general endorsement of Members for the provisions to extend the use of special measures and live links. I can advise Mr Elliott in particular that live-link facilities are already available in 18 out of 20 courthouses, and special measures facilities are available in 14 of the 20. The Juvenile Justice Centre, the Young Offenders’ Centre and Maghaberry Prison also have live-link facilities. I think he will agree that that is a good spread throughout Northern Ireland.

Live links are a cost-effective and secure means for patients and prisoners to participate in hearings without the cost and risk associated with transportation to and from court. There will be savings for the Prison Service and for health and social care organisations. There is an additional capital cost for health and social care in setting up live links with psychiatric units. We understand that that is already in the Programme for Government and that the budget has been agreed.

As part of the Courts and Tribunals Service’s business modernisation strategy, we are committed to considering the feasibility of a specialist domestic violence court. We are considering what form that court may take and will evaluate the potential benefits.

Mr Basil McCrea referred to the concern that victims have about delay. The Criminal Justice Board is spearheading a new programme on speeding up justice, which includes close working between the PSNI and the PPS on issues such as shorter files for many cases, and quick out-of-hours prosecutorial advice. A new delivery group, which I will chair, will monitor progress across the system as we move to a more victim-focused approach to speeding up justice.

Tom Buchanan rightly highlighted issues about tackling crime and antisocial behaviour and their impact on local communities. We need to acknowledge that there are falling crime levels, but we also need to acknowledge that every crime has an impact. I will be consulting soon on a new community safety strategy to help to create a safer, shared community through providing local solutions to crime and antisocial behaviour. Officials will continue to liaise with the Committee on that, and I believe that there is considerable scope to increase community confidence.

Also on the issue of victims, Alastair Ross and other Members highlighted the importance of dealing resolutely with human traffickers while being sensitive in the approach to their victims. I believe that we already have that in place. Women’s Aid works with the Department, and it has huge experience in looking after women who have been subject to abuse. Migrant Helpline has a wealth of experience in dealing with trafficked victims, especially victims of labour exploitation, and it is highly thought of right across the UK for the good work that it does. Both those organisations work in partnership. At this stage, I do not see the need for legislative change, but I will bear in mind any proposals put forward.

One area that probably attracted most attention today concerned plans for restructuring district policing partnerships and community safety partnerships into policing and community safety partnerships. The aim of the PCSP changes is to provide a more joined-up approach with better local delivery and accountability, targeting the real issues of concern in local neighbourhoods by integrating the roles of community safety partnerships and district policing partnerships to create one single partnership for each district council.

PCSPs will comprise councillors, independent members and representatives of designated statutory and voluntary organisations. They will contain a policing committee, comprising councillors and independents, which will perform specific functions inherited from the DPPs. As a whole, they will deal with all the other functions of DPPs and CSPs and will report to the relevant council, the Department of Justice and the Policing Board. I believe that the restructuring will make better use of the resources available for partnership working and, therefore, will direct more of the funding to projects and initiatives on the ground.

Basil McCrea referred to the proposals for an elected police commissioner in different areas of England and Wales. I must say that having 10 MLAs on the Policing Board and a significant number of councillors on each DPP, and, therefore, on each PCSP, is significantly more democratic than the proposal for a single elected police commissioner, which is being discussed across the water.

In the context of the discussion around PCSPs, Mr Maginness, Dominic Bradley and Mr McDevitt all expressed concerns about what they see as a potential diminution of the Patten report, feeling that the critical partnership between the police and the community may be reconfigured in a less effective manner and that the Policing Board is being diminished. However, that is not the case. DPP mechanisms will continue with the policing committee as a key part of the partnership. At the same time, we have looked at wider models, and I stress to Members that, in their development, proposals to bring together DPPs and CSPs have been consulted on at length and in some detail with key stakeholders before and after public consultation. The Policing Board has been instrumental in the policy development to date, and it will continue to be so.

I believe that there is no diminution of the Patten responsibilities. What we are seeking to do is to establish a wider partnership that will fully involve the range of other agencies to provide the kind of joined-up thinking that a number of Members have emphasised at different times during the debate.

Mr Buchanan asked about the potential to configure the partnership areas to reflect the existing police district command areas. The simple answer to that is that current legislation governing DPPs states that there should be a DPP for each council area as well as the subgroups in Belfast. I believe that that is the appropriate provision to maintain for future partnerships. It will obviously be an issue of potential change if changes come forward under the RPA. However, those important proposals for partnerships in the justice field cannot wait until the RPA issues and wider community planning issues are resolved. We need to forge ahead with those proposals to secure the greatest benefit from the partnership on policing and community safety issues.

As Stephen Farry noted, the arrangements have been developed with an eye towards changes in community planning. They will tie in well with whatever arrangements come out of the review of public administration.

I suspect that the second largest group of comments were about sporting provisions. The aim of that package in the Bill is to help to deter disorder and to promote a safe and welcoming environment at key sport events.

Proposals include new offences inside grounds — the major grounds for football and GAA, and Ravenhill for rugby — and of offensive chanting; missile throwing; unauthorised pitch incursions; and possession of alcohol, bottles, fireworks and flares at matches. There is also a new offence of possessing alcohol on dedicated match buses.

For football, there is the new offence of ticket touting and the creation of court orders to ban attendance at football matches in Northern Ireland. A number of issues arose from that. Mr McNarry set the ball rolling by suggesting that the Department was targeting football unduly. That is not the case. I note, for example, that similar legislation across the water is targeted entirely at association football or soccer, or whatever one wants to call it, whereas the Bill deals with the three key sports in Northern Ireland.

I want to echo comments that were made by Mr McNarry and many others about the good work that has been done by the IFA in recent years to target sectarianism and other bad behaviour. There is absolutely no doubt that what is now seen at Northern Ireland international football matches is a huge improvement on the position some years ago. I noted that Jonathan Bell, in particular, referred to the work that is being done by the IFA right down to local teams and youth teams.

Almost all supporters want their experience of attending a match to be family friendly and enjoyable, so that they can show support for their team in a happy atmosphere. Our community safety unit is a key partner in the Unite Against Hate campaign, which is supported by the GAA, the IFA, Ulster Rugby and the Northern Ireland international soccer squad, among others. It is not the case that the Department unfairly targets football. All three sports are included because they link directly to DCAL’s safety legislation. Sectarian chanting may well be limited largely to football. However, pitch incursion and alcohol, for example, are wider issues. Although the Department intends to apply, for example, alcohol powers flexibly to tackle problems as they present themselves, particular issues relate to football. Therefore, the banning regime will apply solely to that sport. That contrasts with England and Wales, where the entire package relates to football.

With regard to concerns about ticket touting, I agree with Mr McNarry that it is regrettable that the segregation of fans is still required for safety reasons at a small number of matches. We all agree that, hopefully, that will not be required in the future. In the meantime, however, it is important to be able to deal with situations as they arise. Some Members feel that the package is overkill and suggested that the problem does not exist in sport in Northern Ireland. However, the package has been developed jointly with DCAL. I particularly appreciate Minister McCausland’s support and the joint working that has taken place to date. I am pleased that the Bill complements the safe sports grounds initiative. Together, they will enhance supporters’ enjoyment of major sporting events in Northern Ireland.

There was considerable support for our package in public consultation, not least from the three sporting bodies. The Assembly debated the matter pre-devolution and called for stricter powers. I am pleased to bring that forward now. Mr McNarry and Mr McDevitt both raised the issue of sectarianism and whether it should be mentioned specifically in the legislation. Currently, it is not. In the creation of the legislation as proposed, I believed it to be more effective, given the difficulty of definition, to cover that issue by reference to race, colour, nationality and religious belief; basically following the section 75 model, which will cover our needs. The word “sectarianism”, as we might refer to it locally, has not been defined in law. However, I will take that issue on board as the Bill proceeds through Committee Stage, with a view to improving the legislation in that area, if possible.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:00 pm, 2nd November 2010

I appreciate the Minister’s giving way. On the point that sectarianism is not defined by law, can the Minister tell the House whether he believes that it is time to start a serious debate on doing just that, so that we do not simply rely on sectarianism being caught in a general body of discriminatory behaviour and we actually move to specify what sectarianism is, and what it is not, in a legal sense?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I am grateful to the Member for giving me a chance to take a sip of water. I agree entirely with him. Yes: we should seek to define sectarianism in a way that makes it absolutely clear where the Assembly stands on behalf of all Northern Ireland’s people. I have no difficultly with that point at all. The practical reality is that it would take some time to agree that definition. In the context of taking the Bill forward, I believe that adequate cover is provided by using the section 75 categories, which I described, to ensure that we can make progress into the future. However, it is an issue that, I suspect, needs to be addressed; regrettably, not just in the field of sporting events.

I believe that that largely covers points that were raised on sporting matters. Most Members who raised them are not in the Chamber. Therefore, I take it that no one else will want to intervene.

I will now deal with the treatment of offenders. The Bill is largely not about new sentencing powers, because there was a major overhaul of sentencing in the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. The focus of the Bill is on victims, community safety and doing our business better.

Having said that, I am taking the opportunity to make a small number of improvements to sentencing arrangements. The aim of the sentencing provisions, or “Treatment of Offenders”, as Part 5 is titled, is to adjust and to improve existing sentencing powers that address problems that are caused by gaps or inconsistencies in existing laws. The first provision is an increase in the maximum penalty that is available to Magistrate’s Courts for the offence of common assault from three months’ imprisonment to six months’ imprisonment. There is also a clause to increase the maximum penalties that are available for the offence of possessing a weapon on school premises — for example, a knife — to four years’ imprisonment. A number of Members commented on those two points, and their comments were generally favourable.

The third provision is an increase in the maximum period of sentence deferment to 12 months, with one exception, which is for interim driving disqualifications. That will allow a judge to see, for example, how someone responds to a programme that addresses behavioural problems or addiction before passing final sentence, and that could give an offender the motivation that he or she needs to address the problem. Some Members suggested that that could increase difficulties for victims. I am not sure that that is necessarily the case. I believe that the clause will provide a way of ensuring a longer period on trial for any individual who receives that deferment.

Part 5 also includes an enhancement of the powers to address a breach of licence by a sex offender who lives outside the jurisdiction and a provision to extend the court sentencing powers by including the offence of hijacking in the public protection sentences regime.

There are three somewhat technical amendments. The first concerns closure orders, which, for up to three months, close premises that are being used for activities that relate to certain prostitution or pornography offences. The second is to fill an existing gap in financial reporting law, which will include the offences of money laundering, corruption and fraud within the remit of a financial reporting order. The final technical change will allow Northern Ireland to comply fully with the EU framework decision on the mutual recognition of fixed penalties. I suspect the fact that no comments were made about any of those points indicates how technical they are.

I welcome Members’ support for the points that I highlighted earlier, particularly about knives and offensive weapons. That completes our package of sentencing powers in that area, and it means that sentences will be even higher than those in England and Wales.

Mr Elliott and other Members raised the deferment of sentences. I believe that there are real prospects for getting offenders’ behavioural issues sorted out and for better engagement by allowing for the longer time before sentencing and that, in the end, it will be a better prospect for victims.

Jonathan Bell raised the issue of what he saw as inadequate sentencing for rioting. The law does take sentencing for rioting extremely seriously. It is possible to get a public protection sentence with the maximum penalty of life. Attacks on police or firefighters, even at the lower end of seriousness, can attract up to two years in jail in the Crown Court. An assault occasioning actual bodily harm could attract a sentence of up to five years in jail. We will continue to keep the law under review to ensure that appropriate sentences are available to courts.

A number of Members raised issues about the plans for alternatives to prosecution. The aim of the alternatives to prosecution powers is to create new diversionary disposals; to create wider fixed penalty notice powers to deal effectively with minor offences outside the courtroom, thereby maximising the time that is spent on front line policing duties; to contribute to reducing avoidable delay in the justice system; to assist in the rehabilitation of offenders; and to improve the response to victims. Offenders will retain the right to ask to have their case heard at court.

Fixed penalty notices will be available to first-time or non-habitual offenders from the police without direction from the Public Prosecution Service, thus offering the opportunity to discharge liability for the offence by paying a fixed penalty within 28 days. The penalty will be fixed at £40 or £80, depending on the offence. The eligible offences are simple drunk; breach of the peace; disorderly behaviour; obstructing police; indecent behaviour; criminal damage, the guidance for which will state for damage that is valued at less than £200; and petty shoplifting, the guidance for which will state for a first-time offence involving goods of up to £100 in value. Failure to take action will result in the notice being registered as a court fine, with the value uplifted by 50%.

Conditional cautions will enable prosecutors to attach rehabilitative and reparative conditions with which the offender must comply or face reconsideration of prosecution for the original offence. Various forms of guidance and codes will be produced to deal with each of those options. My Department can issue guidance to police on the fixed penalty notice scheme. It will state that damage offences should be limited, as should petty shoplifting, as I outlined. I will develop and lay before the Assembly a code of practice for conditional cautions. The Director of Public Prosecutions will also produce guidance for prosecutors on the type of offence for which conditional cautions might be usable.

I welcome Members’ acknowledgement that alternatives to prosecutions are not about being soft on the offender. I note in particular the comments made by Conall McDevitt and Anna Lo, wearing their South Belfast constituency hats, about certain elements of antisocial behaviour. As Anna said, antisocial behaviour does not occur in the Holylands alone. I think that the alternatives will have importance in other places, including, dare I say it, South Antrim. The alternatives are largely aimed at first-time and non-habitual offenders. Being caught and interviewed by the police will have a sobering effect in its own right. That will be reinforced by the need to make immediate restitution for their actions through paying a financial penalty or by making reparation to a victim.

I agree with the point, which was made by Tom Elliott, that England and Wales were overly ambitious about fixed penalty notices. There were proposals to extend them to a much wider range of offences. There was a realisation that they were going too far and bringing into the regime matters that should have gone for prosecution. We have learnt from that. Although our proposals will have a big impact on releasing police resources, we are being careful about the choice of offences suitable for fixed penalties. In that context, Cáral Ní Chuilín suggested that more work be done on restorative justice and that it was a place where alternatives may not fit or work. I agree. We have restorative approaches where those are appropriate. There are issues that are part of our youth justice system, and the Bill will increase the options by way of the conditional cautions that we are creating.

Although I welcome the general endorsement for alternatives to prosecutions from, amongst others, Mr Givan, I need to refer to his comments on sentencing and on the role of the judiciary. Members will appreciate that we, as the legislators, need to be careful, even in general terms, in what we say about the responsibilities of the judiciary. We are under a duty to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary. Our role is to ensure that the right legislation arrangements are in place. The Lord Chief Justice’s recent initiative to bring more transparency to sentencing will help to demonstrate the range of considerations that judges need to take into account, and the Department’s consultation on sentencing guidelines mechanisms seeks to build further on that.

Members were broadly supportive of the proposals for the reform of legal aid. The changes are to provide a rule-making power for a means test for the grant of criminal legal aid and a separate enabling power to allow courts greater power to recover costs from legally aided defendants who are convicted. The provisions also remove the restriction on the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission from establishing or funding services under litigation funding agreements. There are a series of miscellaneous amendments, which fill the small gaps in the existing law. That issue did not attract a huge amount of comment. There was broad support for the proposals in the area, and Alban Maginness, in particular, noted that they were overdue.

Agreement about the importance of ensuring that there was fair and effective access to justice was forthcoming from a number of Members. Lord Morrow, Mr McCartney and Alban Maginness drew attention to the need to set any new financial eligibility threshold for criminal legal aid at a level that will not diminish access to justice. Tom Buchanan also pointed out the need to ensure that, if they were wealthy, defendants should not be supported by taxpayers. I agree with those points and with the underlying principles that any means test must ensure that those who genuinely need financial support to secure effective access to justice should have access to that support. However, Mr McCartney noted the importance of the full equality impact assessment of any fixed means test.

The detail of the operation of any fixed eligibility threshold in criminal legal aid will be the subject of further public consultation and scrutiny by the Justice Committee, as subordinate legislation will be required to implement it. I take this opportunity to confirm that a full equality impact assessment will also be carried out.

Mr McNarry asked whether I would provide the Assembly with figures on eligibility and costs. I have commissioned detailed research on the impact of introducing a fixed eligibility threshold to establish what proportion of people in Northern Ireland would have to contribute to defence costs, depending on the level of the threshold. I will be happy to share the results of the research with the Assembly. I expect to have those results next month.

Mr McNarry also asked about support for those victims of domestic violence who seek non-molestation orders. A number of other Members raised domestic violence, and the issue has been raised with me by Women’s Aid also. I have asked my officials to examine whether it would be possible to adjust the arrangements for civil legal aid in such cases to allow a victim of domestic violence immediate access to legal aid to seek a non-molestation order before a means test is carried out to ensure that person’s immediate safety, with any possible contribution being pursued at a later stage. I hope to be able to bring a proposal on that to the Assembly and, subject to the approval of the Justice Committee and the Assembly, it should be possible to take any necessary subordinate legislation through the Assembly early next year. I believe that that will answer Members’ concerns.

A number of Members asked why the public purse should pay the defence costs of those who can afford to pay their own. I agree; those costs simply should not fall to the public purse. That is what the provisions for the recovery of defence costs orders (RDCO) are intended to achieve. Each case would be assessed individually. Our intention is that only convicted defendants who have ample means to pay for the cost of their defence will be the subject of an RCDO. Members asked about the timescales for the introduction of those and whether they can be applied retrospectively. The Bill will provide the enabling powers for subordinate legislation, which will require consultation and scrutiny by the Justice Committee in the normal way, but it is hoped to bring forward that subordinate legislation during 2011. As Members are aware, there is a general presumption that legislation should not be retrospective, particularly when it imposes a penalty on any individual.

Mr McNarry asked why civil legal aid could not fund itself, given that cases are usually settled or won. It is not the case that most civil cases result in payment of damages. Many other actions are funded by legal aid; for example, some court orders to protect victims of domestic violence and court actions to secure proper access to children after divorce. However, we are proposing to facilitate the setting up of a civil legal aid fund for money damages cases, which would be largely self-financing. The provision in the Bill removes an existing prohibition that would prevent government contributing to the start-up costs for such a fund.

Jonathan Bell also made a number of points on legal aid. Although I accept that legal aid expenditure must be cut, it is not quite accurate to suggest that solicitor advocates would necessarily be paid at lower rates than barristers. There are a number of different rates, and I will write to him setting out the detail of that. The publication of the list of high-earning barristers that he referred to has been delayed because of issues raised by the Bar, but I understand that those issues are close to resolution. In addition to those points, the review of access to justice in Northern Ireland, which is under way, will look at other areas of civil legal aid and consider whether we are getting the best value out of the available resources.

Part 8 deals with a number of miscellaneous matters to make improvements to the powers available to courts, along with several other business improvement matters. The miscellaneous provisions include opening up the court tiers to which a compassionate bail or repeat bail application can be made; adjusting the membership of the Crown Court Rules Committee and the Court of Judicature Rules Committee; allowing a Magistrate’s Court in criminal proceedings to consider applications for witness summonses in respect of any evidence likely to assist a party to the proceedings in presenting their case; allowing court rules to be made specifying the circumstances in which the disclosure of information relating to family proceedings concerning children is permitted; improving arrangements for appeals and the proceeds of crime law; adjusting the processes around the preparation of Northern Ireland Law Commission accounts; allowing Access Northern Ireland to issue a copy of a criminal record certificate or basic disclosure to an employer where that employer was specifically identified within the application; and repealing an existing offence under the Vagrancy Act 1824; and creating a more modern equivalent free-standing offence and penalty for being armed with a weapon with intent to commit a serious offence.

In my opening speech, I mentioned that a number of items that I had intended to bring forward in the Bill had not been included. Those were proposals relating to solicitor advocates, adjustments to court funds legislation, and provisions for enhanced powers for the police in relation to cross-border travel of sex offenders and how reporting and monitoring might be improved. There are two additional issues relating to some late changes that I made to my sports law package, and some further engagement with the Executive relating to clause 34.

Lord Morrow, along with a number of other Members, commented on the removal of the solicitor advocate powers. I was certainly disappointed that those clauses were not in the Bill on its introduction. I was advised that the clauses as drafted may be outside the competence of the Assembly. My officials are working with the Attorney General’s office, and my aim is to bring back at Consideration Stage a provision that allows for solicitor advocacy in the higher courts, but addresses any concerns about competence, particularly about European legislation. That may involve putting additional procedures in place, which we are considering. The Law Society is understandably disappointed that the clauses were removed from the Bill. It has been advised that I hope to table an amended clause in due course.

Also, with respect to what is not in the Bill, Mr Maginness referred to the relationship between the Public Prosecution Service and the Assembly and to wider issues of sentencing, and Ms Ní Chuilín referred to restorative justice, as I highlighted earlier. On the first of those, I have been in discussion with the First Minister and deputy First Minister about the new arrangements grounded in the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which we inherited. I assure Mr Maginness that we intend to consult in the new year on the right balance of arrangements, as we are currently consulting on the other issue that he raised, that of sentencing guidelines mechanisms.

On restorative justice, Members should bear in mind that this Bill is only a part of wider work. In meetings recently, I have been glad to hear first hand of the work of Community Restorative Justice (Ireland) and of Northern Ireland alternatives. I am aware, too, of how the Northern Ireland model of youth conferencing, with restorative justice at its heart, has been recommended by independent experts for adoption elsewhere. Probation Board and Prison Service staff have also been trained in restorative practices. I look forward to further discussion on the role of restorative approaches, including their reference to victims of crime.

Other issues that were highlighted as not included in the Bill are youth justice and family law. I am open to hearing Members’ comments on family law. I suspect that if they want a consultation, we are too late for this Bill. I announced a review of arrangements for youth justice only yesterday, so it would be difficult to include any provisions in the Bill if we are to have a meaningful consultation on them.

I indicated at the outset that if there are matters that I have failed to address — and I am sure that there are, given the breadth of today’s debate — I will respond to Members. There will also be further opportunities during the Committee’s detailed scrutiny of the Bill. I am grateful to all the Members who have contributed in this helpful debate. I am pleased by the broad support given to the Bill, especially by members of the Justice Committee. Clearly, bringing such a large Bill to fruition within the current Assembly mandate will be a significant challenge, but Members’ comments today give me confidence that it can be achieved. I will pay particular attention to all that has been said in the debate.

I am confident that this first Justice Bill before a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, the first such legislation in almost 40 years, will be a major step forward for Northern Ireland. It comes in the wider context of capitalising on the benefits of devolution and, not least, as has been highlighted, on the importance of a partnership approach with other Departments and sectors as we tackle offending. This is a significant step for devolution and for this Assembly. It is also a significant step for community safety, victims of crime and setting in train a process to deliver a better justice system for all the people of Northern Ireland. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Justice Bill [NIA 1/10] be agreed.