Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:30 am on 21st June 2011.
I have received notice from the Minister of Justice that he wishes to make a statement to the House.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement regarding a meeting that I had with Alan Shatter TD, the Minister for Justice and Equality, under the auspices of the intergovernmental agreement on co-operation on criminal justice matters (IGA), which was held in Armagh on Wednesday 8 June. It was the third formal ministerial meeting under the IGA since the devolution of justice matters on 12 April 2010 and the first since the recent Assembly and Dáil elections, although I have met Mr Shatter on a number of occasions since his appointment.
The intergovernmental agreement is an agreement between the UK and Irish Governments and provides a framework for co-operation on criminal justice matters. It supports at least one meeting each year between the Justice Ministers in the North and the South, as well as a working group of officials from both jurisdictions that meets at least twice a year. The working group is supported by ad hoc project advisory groups, of which there are currently six. The advisory groups are tasked with considering criminal justice-related work strands of mutual interest. We inherited those arrangements. Of course, it is open to the Executive and the Assembly to review them.
As I have said in previous statements to the House, I am committed to keeping the Assembly informed of meetings that are held under the auspices of the agreement, on the same lines as North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meetings. The meeting with Alan Shatter on 8 June was constructive and provided a good opportunity to discuss a number of criminal justice issues of mutual interest. We were updated on a range of cross-border issues, including supporting public protection; management of sex offenders; support for victims of crime; youth justice; forensic science; and promoting social diversity. We also discussed the progress of the ad hoc project advisory groups that cover those areas of mutual benefit and noted, in particular, the effective channels of communication between criminal justice organisations on both sides of the border to ensure that the border is not exploited by criminals to escape justice.
Indeed, Members may be aware of media reports last week concerning the management and supervision of sex offenders in Northern Ireland, which are rightly acknowledged as being highly effective. Through the excellent working relationships and sharing of information between the two police services, and under the public protection arrangements Northern Ireland (PPANI), we already see instances in which the PSNI routinely invites its colleagues from an Garda Síochána to attend local area public protection panel (LAPPP) meetings in border areas. That degree of cross-border operational co-operation between the police and probation agencies on the ground should be supported and encouraged.
In addition, the meeting provided an opportunity to review the good progress that has been made against a work programme that I agreed in July 2010 with the then Irish Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern. Flowing directly from that work programme, I am particularly pleased to report that Alan Shatter and I signed a memorandum of understanding between our forensic science services. The memorandum of understanding has been developed to provide for mutual support in the event of sudden loss or damage to facilities. It is an example of the excellent co-operation at an operational level among criminal justice organisations on the island of Ireland.
That practical co-operation will benefit both jurisdictions and further strengthen working relationships that are already in place between the two forensic services. I am pleased to report to Members that the heads of the forensic science services in the North and the South meet regularly with their Scottish counterpart and also have in place heads of agreement to provide mutual support, which is similar to the memorandum of understanding that I signed with Alan Shatter.
Other successes over the past 12 months include agreement on a joint proposal to evaluate the use of the stable and acute risk assessment tool for sex offenders, as well as the organisation of a joint seminar for the two probation services to showcase the extent of co-operation in public protection. I welcomed the opportunity to join Dermot Ahern in making a few closing remarks at that seminar.
At our recent meeting, Alan Shatter and I agreed a new work programme, setting out priorities for cross-border co-operation over the next 12 months. I have attached a copy of the work programme to my statement for Members’ information. Planned actions to promote co-operation are captured under three areas: enhancing justice delivery; support for victims and witnesses of crime; and management of offenders. Some specific planned actions include exploring the use of fast-track and formatted probation reports in courts to speed up justice; considering the scope for a joint approach to implementing the proposed new EU directive on victims of crime; and exploring the potential of extending information-sharing to include related areas of public protection police work, such as child abuse, domestic abuse and missing persons.
Progress against all the actions in the 2011-12 work programme will be monitored by the working group of officials, who will report to Alan Shatter and me at our next ministerial meeting. It is my intention, Mr Speaker, with your continued agreement, to update the Assembly following that meeting. We are seeing that the devolution of justice powers provides real opportunities to enhance working relationships further between and across the criminal justice agencies. Operationally, criminal justice agencies in the North and the South are working closely together. I want to maximise that co-operation.
The IGA is an important framework for supporting co-operation among the various agencies. As we are all too well aware, crime does not stop at the border. I know that, by continuing to work together, we can help to make this island, North and South, a safer and a better place to live.
The meeting also provided an opportunity for me to update Mr Shatter on two key initiatives in my Department — the development of a reducing offending strategy and the youth justice review — while I received an update from him on the development of Ireland’s White Paper on crime.
Finally, the intergovernmental agreement is not intended to provide for discussion of cross-border security issues. However, I have cause to discuss such matters regularly with Mr Shatter, and I used the opportunity of our being together to briefly discuss some general wider cross-border security-related issues.
I thank the Minister for his statement to the House today. He touched on the management of sex offenders. First, I seek an assurance from the Minister that information under the notification requirements in both jurisdictions is, indeed, passed on to the relevant authority should there be any movement of offenders and that appropriate management of those offenders takes place.
Secondly, do disqualification orders for those sentenced for child sex offences apply equally in both jurisdictions? What is the Minister’s view of the 278 cases where a disqualification order was not put in place in this jurisdiction even though there was a presumption that that would happen? Does he share my serious concern about that matter? What efforts are being made by the judiciary to urgently review all of those cases and to ensure that no risk is posed to the public?
I thank the Committee Chairman for his couple of related questions. I have every confidence that the arrangements for the management of sex offenders North and South, which is particularly facilitated by the specialist group under the IGA, ensure that all appropriate information is passed between agencies, regardless of the border. The reality, of course, is that both jurisdictions have legislation in place that requires sex offenders to notify the police or the Garda Síochána of their details if they move across the border, so the primary onus is on the offender. However, it is clear that there is high-level co-operation between the agencies.
Mr Givan also asked about disqualification orders. I should make it clear that the issue of the 278 orders that he mentioned is one for the judiciary to follow up on at this stage and to address why there has not been a statement on why orders were not made in those cases. The examination of that arose because of action I took in the wake of the McDermott case last autumn. I am glad that the judiciary is now following through on those issues. I hope to be able to report to the Committee on the detailed position in a couple of days’ time. The precise detail of how a disqualification order is applied on a cross-border basis will be part of the report that I give to the Committee.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. In terms of the work programme, what discussion did the Minister have with the Justice Minister in the South about the management of offenders, given that there have been some very damning reports about prison conditions, particularly where vulnerable people are concerned? Did he have some discussion with the Minister about how the Departments could work together more to ensure that there are fewer lock-ups; more education facilities; better access to health facilities for prisoners, particularly vulnerable ones; and improved prison conditions?
I thank Ms McCann for her question, although I fear that it is outside the precise scope of the IGA meeting. The management of the two prison services is not regularly covered in the operation of the IGA. However, she made a number of points that will clearly come through as we work on the strategic efficiency and effectiveness programme and when we see the final report on prisons from the Owers review team. She made some entirely valid points about the need to ensure that there are the highest possible standards of management in the Prison Service.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I note a number of comments that he made about effective communication channels to make sure that criminals do not escape justice and the excellent co-operation on forensic science at an operational level on the island of Ireland. If there is to be enhanced co-operation, why must it be only at an operational level? Should we not be able to share information on DNA, fingerprinting and all the other good things that the forensic science services look at on a cross-border basis? Is there any reason why that information cannot also be shared with other police jurisdictions in Great Britain?
I fear that Ms McCann is not the only person who is trying to drag me significantly away from the precise detail of the IGA. The reality is that questions of co-operation between jurisdictions on the sharing of information are beyond the scope of co-operation on criminal justice matters as currently dealt with through the IGA. There are perfectly reasonable questions to be asked about the level of co-operation, which, in some cases, can extend to European matters, as well as cross-jurisdictional issues in the UK and cross-border issues on this island.
I support the fullest possible sharing of information to deal with organised crime. That is why we see the positive work that is being done by organisations such as the Organised Crime Task Force and the strong co-operation between a number of different agencies, for example, between the two revenue and customs organisations and between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána. Those are examples of excellent co-operation, but no doubt there will always be occasions on which Members will suggest that we could further improve that co-operation.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and the meeting that took place between him and Mr Shatter, the Justice Minister in the South. I also commend the work programme that was agreed between the two Ministers and the two jurisdictions, although it could be further enhanced. On 23 March 2011, the previous Committee for Justice met representatives of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), who indicated that there could be further co-operation in the collection of evidence, the interviewing of witnesses, etc, by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I ask the Minister and his southern counterpart to consider seriously the initiation of a study that would see further co-operation and allow agencies on either side of the border to deal with issues such as fuel and money laundering. That would have good and practical implications, North and South, in dealing with organised crime.
I thank Mr Maginness for his welcome for the statement and his support for the work that is being done under the IGA. The picture that I am getting at the moment from a variety of organisations, including the Organised Crime Task Force, in which SOCA fully participates, is that the highest possible level of co-operation is ongoing between the revenue and customs organisations in the North and the South. I am determined to have the highest level of co-operation.
If Mr Maginness is suggesting that investigations should be carried out on a cross-border basis, there would be issues as to how that might happen that would be of concern to people outside the Department of Justice. However, it is not something that I or any of my officials are opposed to. The issue is how to ensure that we get the best possible practical co-operation and the means for it without disrupting good working relationships, if some were concerned about the precise methods that were used.
I also welcome the Minister’s statement and his continued practice of keeping the Assembly up to date with the work that he does with his colleagues in the Republic. I also welcome the memorandum of understanding between the forensic science services, on which perhaps the Minister will give the House a little more detail. I particularly welcome that, as Forensic Science Northern Ireland is based in my constituency of East Antrim. Will the Minister tell the House whether he has any other plans for similar arrangements with the other forensic science services in the rest of the United Kingdom?
I thank my colleague for his welcome for the continuing arrangements. As I said at the outset, the IGA, although it is something that I inherited from direct rule Ministers, is directly analogous to the NSMC. At some stage, the Assembly may decide that the IGA should be replaced by a justice strand of the NSMC, but, until that day, I will ensure that the Assembly is kept informed in the best possible way, through statements to the House and interaction with the Committee for Justice.
My colleague asked specifically about the forensic science memorandum of understanding and about co-operation elsewhere in the UK. We have the heads of agreement, which were signed by the heads of the agencies, including the head of the Scottish agency. However, because of changes to the governance arrangements in England and Wales and significant movement towards privatisation of forensic science services there, it has been much easier to co-operate with those agencies that are still part of the state set-up in Scotland and Ireland. If I see that there are benefits to be had from wider co-operation, I am open to that, but at the moment, we have made significant advances through the co-operation between the three jurisdictions where the state agencies are able to manage that level of co-operation through good working arrangements and memorandums of understanding.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I refer him to the strengthening arrangements that are being put in place for the management and monitoring of sex offenders. I welcome strengthened relationships that ensure that there is better monitoring of them on a cross-border basis.
While it is useful to see that there are those good relationships between North and South, and in the full sharing of information between Northern Ireland and other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, has the Minister either sought assurances or can he give the House any confidence that the same strong levels of linkage are there between the Republic of Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom to ensure that, in this chain of monitoring of sex offenders, there is no weak link?
I thank Mr Weir for his question. However, it now appears that I am responsible for the justice system in the Republic and the other two UK jurisdictions as well as in Northern Ireland. My empire knows no bounds.
The simple answer is that I can give no direct assurances as to arrangements for co-operation between jurisdictions for which I have no responsibility. However, I have no reason to believe that the co-operation is any less than would be the case where it involves us. There have been occasions recently when sex offenders have moved from England to the Republic and fairly speedy action has been taken on both sides of the Irish Sea to deal with that particular problem. The issues are in hand, but outwith my responsibilities.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas sin.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and his outline of the meeting with his colleague in Dublin. I am particularly interested in the section where he says that a part of the remit was dealing with public protection and:
“the effective channels of communication between criminal justice organisations on both sides of the border to ensure that the border is not exploited by criminals to escape justice.”
With that in mind, has the Minister done any exploratory work on loopholes, particularly with regard to head shops and legal highs? Substances banned in Derry may be bought by nipping across to Letterkenny, and vice versa. Has the Minister plans to try to close such loopholes?
Last week at the Committee, the Minister’s officials spoke of trying to enforce the law in the North on ticket touting. It was pointed out that all you have to do is go to Donegal, where it is not illegal to sell tickets at above face value. Has any exploratory work been done on those issues?
I thank Mr McCartney for his question. There is clearly a range of issues with regard to which the border can be somewhat permeable. Nonetheless, the specific issue that you make most of about head shops and so on is one on which significant efforts were made in the South last year to deal with, for example, the production of new illicit substances that are chemically marginally different from others. My understanding is that the matter is being followed up at a UK level. It is not something for which we have legislative responsibility. However, I will ensure that I get the detail as to exactly what progress is being made in London either to the Committee or to Mr McCartney.
I also thank the Minister for his statement. Does he agree that criminal justice co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic must be mutual, meaningful and genuine? Does he also therefore agree that the Smithwick tribunal must be given the time and resources necessary to complete its important task? Did he raise that issue at his meeting with Mr Shatter?
I thank Mr Anderson for his question. The Smithwick tribunal did not feature specifically on the formal agenda, but I raised the issue privately with Mr Shatter before the meeting began officially. He assured me that the necessary arrangements are in place to ensure that the Smithwick tribunal will do its work within a reasonable timescale and that, if necessary, the timescale will be extended, as that had caused a certain amount of concern on this side of the border. He has received an assurance from Mr Justice Smithwick that he is capable of doing the work within the required timescale and will seek additional time if necessary. The PSNI and the Historical Enquiries Team have also given significant assistance to the Smithwick tribunal, so I believe that we are doing all that we can in this jurisdiction.
I also thank the Justice Minister for his statement. He will be aware of the recent report on the Kingsmills massacre. He referred to cross-border operational co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and an Garda Síochána. Extradition procedures between North and South remain difficult due to Irish concerns over the British judicial process. To what extent does that mutual support extend to historical cases?
Mr Hussey’s question is entirely legitimate, but it is outside the responsibilities that I assumed on 12 April 2010. I am unaware of any difficulties regarding any extradition cases in either direction across the border, but if there are concerns, I will happily listen to what any Member has to say and see what the position is. The difficult issues as to how we deal with many incidents that happened in the past are beyond the current scope of the IGA, but I believe that the Assembly needs to start to take them seriously.
I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the developments on information sharing. Does he agree that there should be no hiding place for child abusers or people engaged in domestic violence on the island of Ireland?
I thank Mr Eastwood. He is absolutely right. There should be no hiding place for people engaged in any sort of criminal activity anywhere on the island. We need to ensure maximum possible co-operation among all relevant agencies. I am determined that crimes such as domestic violence and child abuse, which would not always have been regarded as the highest priorities for cross-border co-operation, come within the ambit of the current arrangements.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the original 2002 intergovernmental agreement between the then NIO and the Department of Justice in the Republic. I note that that agreement remains largely unimplemented, and there are gaps, specifically the absence of arrangements for lateral entry between the two police services and a real conflict over pension rights for PSNI officers and garda officers seeking to transfer to the other service. Will the Minister update the House on any progress on that issue? Does he intend to prioritise it in the months ahead as an area that must be implemented, particularly now that we have lost 50:50 direct recruitment to the PSNI?
Mr McDevitt is being as creative as other Members have managed to be this morning. The issue of lateral entry to the Police Service or to the Garda Síochána is a significant concern, but practical work is ongoing with the recruitment of 40 specialist officers by the Police Service.
The key problem with lateral entry is, as the Member correctly highlighted, the issue of pensions. That is an issue for every state institution in the United Kingdom relating to every state institution in the Republic of Ireland. It is not an issue for only the PSNI and an Garda Síochána; it is an issue that goes way beyond that, and it is beyond the ability of the Department of Justice to resolve. I wish the issue to be resolved, but other minds have supposedly been tackling it for many years, and we do not see easy movement for people in any part of the public sector, North/South or east-west. I do not think that we will be able to resolve the issue within the Department or the IGA, although I wish that it could be resolved so that we could maximise the opportunity for officers to move, North or South.
I want to ask the Minister about the targets set for meetings between him and his counterpart in the Republic and their officials. I remind him that those targets are for one meeting a year between the Ministers and two meetings a year between officials. Given the millions of pounds that are earned by all kinds of criminals, does the Minister believe that those are serious targets? Would he forgive me for thinking that there must be more meetings between North and South Korea?
I thank Mr Dallat for the question, although the term “target” is not entirely accurate. What he stated is, as I understand the IGA, the minimum requirement. I have ensured that we have got to the point where we have a formal ministerial meeting at least twice a year, the various project advisory groups are meeting frequently and officials are meeting somewhat more frequently than the twice a year specified in the agreement. That is an indication that the Department of Justice is taking the IGA seriously and implementing it.
To the best of my knowledge, I was the only Minister from the Executive who had a meeting with his counterpart from the South in the time between the Dáil election and the Assembly election. Admittedly, that was an informal meeting; nonetheless, it was a face-to-face meeting between the two Justice Ministers. It was essential to ensure that we got off to a good start in our relationship with the new Justice Minister in Dublin. I had a good working relationship with Dermot Ahern, and I have already established a good working relationship with Alan Shatter. I assure Mr Dallat that if the agreement says one meeting a year, that is not the number that I am looking at.