Justice Bill: Final Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 23rd March 2011.

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Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 12:30 pm, 23rd March 2011

I beg to move

That the Justice Bill [NIA 1/10] do now pass.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Minister wish to speak at this point?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker; I thought perhaps you wished to say something about procedure. I am pleased, as Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland, to present the Final Stage of the Justice Bill to the Assembly. It is perhaps fitting that, as Minister of the youngest Department, I should have the privilege of presenting the final piece of Executive legislation to the House today.

There have been bumps along the way with this piece of legislation; indeed, there was one earlier this week. However, with the commitment and help of many in the Chamber, particularly the Speaker and his staff, I am extremely pleased to present the Final Stage of the Bill.

I thank the Speaker and his team for their assistance, especially through that final bump, and record my thanks to the many officials in the Department of Justice who have played an important part in ensuring that this significant piece of legislation can be passed. It demonstrates the commitment of the Department and its staff to playing their full part in the devolved settlement, the end of whose term we celebrate today.

I need hardly remind the Assembly that, through the various discussions and negotiations for the devolution of policing and justice powers, the delivery of a Justice Bill emerged as a key goal for the new Department of Justice. When I first introduced the Bill, it had 108 clauses. As was pointed out to me by one of my staff, that was one clause for every MLA, although some MLAs did not give much consideration to their clauses while other clauses attracted the attention of many Members. At the end of the process, there are now 112 clauses, which makes this one of the biggest Bills that the Assembly has considered in this mandate.

It is certainly the most complex. No other Bill has required six groups of amendments to be discussed at Consideration Stage and take two days in which to do that. That was a record. No other Bill has required four groups of amendments at Further Consideration Stage. That was another record. Finally, earlier this week, for the first time ever, we had to have an Exceptional Further Consideration Stage, which is perhaps an unfortunate record to have achieved. However, I am extremely pleased that my new Department has been able to deliver such significant change in the period of less than a year since the Department of Justice was created and I was elected Minister on 12 April 2010.

To get the Bill to this stage today is testament to the hard work of the Committee for Justice and other Members of the House. I thank the Committee in particular for its detailed scrutiny of the Bill. If I recall correctly, there were something like 16 detailed scrutiny sessions of the Bill in addition to a number of preliminary discussions shortly after the Committee was set up in which consideration was given to what would be included in the Bill. I record my thanks to Lord Morrow, as Chairman, to Raymond McCartney, as Deputy Chairman, and to their other colleagues in the Committee for the intense work that was done on the Bill to make it the good piece of legislation that it now is.

The recommendations in the Committee’s report led to many constructive amendments at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage. I thank the other Members of the House who made helpful contributions during the very many hours — I am afraid that I was not sad enough to count how many — of debate on the Bill during its passage through the Chamber. The Bill, as it stands today, is a result of all those debates. I acknowledge that not everything that everyone sought made it into the final Bill, but it is a strategic, positive and highly significant piece of justice legislation.

I do not intend to outline in detail all the Bill’s clauses, but I remind the House of the main aspects of the legislation. It will improve the services that we provide to victims and witnesses, enhance community safety and engage communities in a better way, and allow us to do our business better and more effectively and efficiently in the current economic climate. It also provides some additional sentencing powers to improve public protection. The Bill creates an offender levy to provide for a victims’ fund to be used exclusively for funding services for victims of crime. It extends special measures for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, extends live video links to courts from psychiatric hospitals for bail hearings and widens the scope of vulnerable accused.

Community safety is enhanced through the creation of policing and community safety partnerships by bringing together the functions of district policing partnerships and community safety partnerships. That represents a pivotal move towards more joined-up working for the benefit of all our communities. After considerable debate on some specific details, the Bill provides a raft of new sports law legislation. It also provides new and additional alternatives to prosecution, such as fixed penalty notices and conditional cautions, along with a number of key financial reforms on legal aid. Criminal legal aid will, in time, be subject to means testing. Access to justice is also improved by extending the rights of audience for solicitors into the higher courts. Increased penalties are created for knife crimes and for the carrying of other offensive weapons, and breach procedures for sex offenders are being tightened.

As Members will be aware, I had hoped that we would have done more in the Bill. I had hoped to address ECHR concerns about the current law on indefinite sex offender review arrangements. I fully expect that issue and others to return to the Chamber in due course.

In summary, the Justice Bill will have a positive and practical impact on all stages of the justice system, from dealing with offenders outside and inside courts to services for witnesses and victims, and from crime in the community to court procedures. I commend the Justice Bill to the House.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

On behalf of the Committee for Justice, I welcome the Final Stage of the Justice Bill — at last. I congratulate the Minister and his officials on their staying power. The Bill has definitely been more of a marathon than a sprint. At times, it tested us all, but we got there.

On a more serious note, the Bill has undergone some of the most detailed scrutiny and debate that the Assembly has seen in relation to a single piece of legislation. As I outlined at Consideration Stage, the Committee received 69 written responses from interested organisations and stakeholders, held 16 oral evidence sessions and an evidence event in the Long Gallery and considered the detail of the Bill at 16 meetings.

In his comments, the Minister said that he was not sad enough to count all the hours of debate. I am sad enough to tell him that there were more than 20 hours of debate in the Chamber. I am not sad enough to tell him how many hours it took in Committee, although I can assure him that it was a substantial number. As a result of all the debate, discussions and toing and froing, a substantial number of amendments were made and four clauses were removed.

Although the Committee supported the broad principles of the Bill, particularly those that will provide further support for victims and improved services for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, as a result of the careful and detailed scrutiny that it undertook, the Committee recommended a range of key amendments. Those were informed by the views expressed in written and oral evidence, and I again place on record the Committee’s appreciation of the time and effort taken by the organisations that contributed to the legislative process.

In its report on the Bill, which was published on 10 February 2011, the Committee outlined its recommended amendments, which were mainly to clauses and schedules relating to the policing and community safety partnerships and to the sports provisions. The Minister accepted a large number of the amendments and brought them before the Assembly for agreement at Consideration Stage.

In respect of the other recommended changes, including the removal of three clauses relating to alcohol at sporting events and the possession of drinks containers and one that placed a statutory duty on public bodies to consider community safety implications when exercising their duties, the Committee sought and received the Assembly’s support, which we very much welcome.

Inevitably, some groups will feel that the Bill does not go far enough, while others will think that it goes too far. I have no doubt that the community safety partnerships and others will be disappointed that the Bill will not place a statutory duty on public bodies to consider safety implications when exercising their duties. On the other hand, the sporting bodies affected by the legislation, particularly Ulster Rugby, will welcome the removal of a number of the sporting clauses.

It is clear that the Committee’s recommendations and subsequent amendments were underpinned by the evidence received, and I believe that they have improved the Bill, which, when implemented, will go some way towards delivering better and enhanced services to victims and witnesses, improving public safety, building stronger and safer communities, and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the justice system. However, I think that we would all acknowledge that it is just a start and that there is much further work to be done.

I shall finish by thanking Committee members for their commitment and diligence in scrutinising the Bill. In addition, on behalf of the Committee, I thank departmental officials and the Minister for their patience and the constructive approach that they adopted when working with us. In particular, I thank the Committee staff for their support and assistance throughout the process. I have no doubt that without their constructive attitude and hard work we would not be at this stage today.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin 12:45 pm, 23rd March 2011

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Beidh mé ag tabhairt tacaíochta don Bhille seo an tráthnóna seo.

We welcome and support the Bill, and I place on record my acknowledgement of the comments made by the Minister and the Chairperson. In addition, I acknowledge the work and patience of the many officials who assisted the Committee in its scrutiny of the Bill. The Minister mentioned the fact that the Department has been in place for only 12 months, so bringing the Bill to the House today has been a good piece of work. The way in which the legislation has been handled shows the Assembly’s maturity, and the Bill will certainly enhance the criminal justice system, which is something that we all want to see happening.

In itself, the Bill proves the benefit of transferring policing and justice powers to the North. In particular, we have shaped a piece of legislation to suit the needs of the people whom we represent, which is proof to those who doubted whether the Assembly was ready or in a position to accept those powers. Indeed, many Members argued that we did not have the political maturity to handle justice and to form a new Department. The Bill and, indeed, the past 12 months are proof of the opposite, and that is why we welcome it.

In a broader, shorter sense that we were not ready for it, the old maxim is that a thing is only impossible until we make it possible. The Bill is a good example of that. The Minister has already said that, in the new mandate, there will be a further justice Bill from the Department. We all accept that are gaps in some provisions of this Bill, but we have no doubt that those fortunate enough to be elected come May will face a piece of work in the second justice Bill, and I have no doubt that it will be completed with the same professionalism and support from the staff and the Minister himself.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

I concur with the sentiments and accuracy of the Committee Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson.

As we leave here to electioneer, I do not intend to endanger the Lord Morrow in any way in his constituency by saying that he has led this Committee very well. I am sure that he knows where I come from and, in saying that, I express the sentiments of all the Committee members.

I also thank the Minister for his energy and diligence in bringing forward this Bill. He seems very well served by his officials, who probably spent more time with the Committee, in explaining the substance and workings of the Bill, than some members of it. In conclusion, it has been very challenging. It has shown the way in many aspects for the new Assembly when it comes to meet in this House. In the end, justice has been served, in the passing of the Bill in the right way and in the manner in which it has been brought through, and by all the Members and the decisions which the Assembly has taken, with which the Minister may have differed. However, as he said, he lives to fight again, and so does this House.

I offer my congratulations to everybody on the way in which the Bill has been put through, not least to the members of the Committee and to the very good staff that the Committee has. It was a remarkable Committee for me to serve on, because we started from scratch. We had to engage in a heavy and quick learning curve. No matter; we are where we are, and good luck to it.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

This is a very good example of collaboration and co-operation between the Minister and the Justice Committee, and also a good example of opposition by the Justice Committee on some provisions of the Bill. That is not in any way contradictory. There is a synergy born of opposition and collaboration. That goes to make good legislation or, as the Minister might prefer, to make good legislation even better. It depends on where you are coming from.

Serving on the Justice Committee has been a considerable experience for all of us. When the Committee was set up in the first instance, I felt that it might not be a great experience. However, it has proven to be a good experience for all of us on the Committee individually and collectively. I want to pay tribute to the Chairperson, Lord Morrow, and to the Deputy Chairperson, Raymond McCartney, both of whom discharged their duties in a fair and hard-working manner.

However, there were differences of opinion, as there always will be in politics. There are some reservations that I have on the Bill even yet. I regret, for example, that we did not address, timely and effectively, the issues of sex-offender notification, the register and dealing with the whole issue of the decision by the Supreme Court on the right of review. That was unfortunate, and we should have dealt with it.

The merger of district policing partnerships with community safety partnerships was welcome, and I hope that they will work well in the future and, at the same time, retain the essence of Patten’s view on the policing partnerships, which he saw as a very important element in making policing acceptable and accountable to local communities. That strengthened the Bill, and it is important that that is part and parcel of it. I wish those new policing and community safety partnerships well. There is a lot of work to be done, but there will be a lot of benefit to local communities and to policing as a result of that merger.

We have been innovative with alternatives to prosecution. I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward those alternatives, because they will keep people out of the criminal justice system, at least at an early stage. Hopefully, people will mend their ways as a result of those alternatives to prosecution.

The provisions on sports matches are good. Amendments were made that reflected very fairly the views of sporting organisations, particularly Ulster Rugby and the IFA. Those were good amendments that were made by the Committee.

I am concerned about clause 80. I am not sure whether the clause number has been rejigged in the Bill, but it is the clause about eligibility for criminal legal aid. We have to look very carefully at the subordinate legislation that will arise out of that. The power to introduce that is a good and proper one and should be supported by all. However, we have to look very carefully at the subordinate legislation to make sure that access to justice is guaranteed to those most in need of legal representation.

I welcome the provisions on rights of audience for solicitors. Again, the good work of the Committee and the fact that the Minister listened to the Committee brought about an improvement whereby those who will become solicitor advocates will have the proper experience and training at their disposal.

It is regrettable that the firearms clauses were introduced so late in the day. There is a lesson for us to learn: we should not rush legislation but should take time over it and scrutinise it as carefully as we can, particularly legislation on something as sensitive as firearms. However, we have learnt that lesson, and I hope that the Assembly will take it on board in the future.

Finally, I congratulate the Minister on his hard work on the Bill. I also congratulate the officials in the Department, who worked very hard and were almost a permanent feature at the Committee. I also thank the Committee officials, namely the Committee Clerk and those who assisted her in the Committee’s work. Without that work, the Committee would not have been able to do its job as well as it did.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Business Committee has agreed to suspend the sitting for one hour for lunch today. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The debate stood suspended at 1.00 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair) —