The Budget review announced in January as part of my monitoring statement is not a fundamental review of budget allocations. Indeed, it will consider departmental budgets at the margins and will be based on an assessment of underspends in the current financial year. There will be an opportunity for my Executive colleagues to register key financial pressures as part of that exercise. If, as part of the review process, individual Ministers identify further savings by addressing costs associated with division, that would be welcomed by the Executive.
I thank the Minister for his response. Segregation in housing and education is a big factor in maintaining division in our society. As the economic guru in the House, will he consider, during the monitoring rounds or whenever, investing more in promoting more shared neighbourhoods and mixed housing, and increasing the capacity for integrated education?
I appreciate the title that has been conferred on me: economic guru. I do not know whether I merit it. However, it will be used in my election material, believe you me. The Alliance Party has dubbed me the economic guru of the Assembly. That should go down a treat in East Antrim.
A lot of the costs of division that have been identified are simply social costs rather than the costs of division. We are asking Ministers to look at how they spend their money, where there is duplication and where there is unnecessary spend to see whether it is possible to bring forward programmes. Education is a good example. The First Minister, my party leader, identified that. In a period of rationalisation, that is one way to meet the objectives to which the honourable lady referred. However, in meeting our obligations and making the best use of the capital that we have, we ought to be looking at how we can have fewer providers of education in Northern Ireland. It makes good sense socially and economically.
The key reason is the amount of reduced requirements from Departments in what was meant to be one of the toughest years of the Budget. This time last year, all Ministers told me that we did not have enough money and that some of their Departments were going to collapse, and so on, yet we had substantial returns in that year. It makes sense to look at the position at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year to see whether we can make adjustments at the margins. As I said, as we look forward, if Ministers can identify where they have been able to reduce pressures, let us identify those at an early stage so that we can better plan how that money is spent. That is just good budgeting. When money was plentiful, perhaps we did not need to do that. However, now that money is much scarcer, it makes sense to do it.
Will he tell the House how much division costs in this region? Does he have a figure and, if so, how much is it?
No, I do not have a figure. Figures have been bandied around. As I said earlier, many of the costs identified are not necessarily costs of division but may be attributable to social factors. I do not have a figure for that. However, I am more interested in how Departments and Ministers can tell me that the budget that I have allocated could be used better, or if I had some additional allocation, I could make longer-term savings through avoiding duplication or the provision of services twice when that is not necessary.
That concludes questions to the Minister of Finance and Personnel. I ask the House to take its ease for a couple of minutes.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair.)
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly notes with concern the number of housing developments where roads and footpaths remain unfinished and sewerage systems have not been completed to a satisfactory standard, despite developers having entered into surety bonds under the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and any preceding legislation; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to carry out a review of the bond system in relation to roads, footpaths and sewerage systems in new developments and to review when a bond can be invoked by the relevant authority to address this ongoing problem. — [Miss McIlveen.]
I welcome the opportunity to resume the debate that we began earlier and I thank all Members who contributed to it. I thought that it was a very well-thought-out debate; the arguments were interesting and something that we can all work on. I therefore pay tribute to the Members who brought forward the debate: the lady Member for Strangford, and the Member for Mid Ulster. I have noted the comments and concerns expressed by Members and welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate on surety bonds that guarantee the provision of completed roads for new housing developments.
Given that this is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, Members may have great expectations about my response. It is a far, far better thing that I do now — I will leave it at that.
At the outset, I would like to make clear the distinction between unadopted private roads, and unfinished streets and roads in new housing developments. The motion, and thus the debate, is restricted to the latter. I remind Members that the key existing legislation that govern the planning and eventual adoption of new roads in housing developments are the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980 and the Private Streets (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1992. The original intention of the private streets legislation was to reassure homeowners that the streets serving their new homes would be built to appropriate standards and to ensure that they could be adopted into the public road network when they were completed. To that end, the legislation requires developers to make provision for the cost of street works and to secure that by means of a bond. For the private streets legislation to work as intended, it is essential that all parties play their part and carry out their responsibilities. That includes my Department’s Roads Service, developers, planners, bond providers and conveyancing solicitors.
In the main, the current private streets legislation has served its original purpose quite well. That is evidenced by the fact that, over the years, the majority of roads in new housing developments have been properly planned, approved and constructed. In due course, those roads have been adopted by Roads Service and become part of the public road network. However, there have been exceptions, and there is no doubt that the economic pressures of recent years have increased the number of housing developments that have run into difficulties. That is where the legislation and the procedures for completing and adopting the affected roads have been tested.
The types of problems that would typically be encountered include developers proceeding without agreement or a bond; roads not completed in compliance with the determination; issues with sewers and drains; road construction not keeping pace with development; and developers ceasing work on site or, indeed, going into liquidation.
On the question of surety bonds, I can say that the private streets legislation already in place requires developers to enter into a formal agreement for the construction and subsequent adoption of new streets in housing developments. Developers must make prior provision to meet street works expenses for their developments, and they are required by law to:
“secure the due performance of the agreement by means of a guarantee bond”.
Those bonds are legally binding agreements and are typically provided by banks, insurance companies and the National House-Building Council. In the event of the developer not completing the bonded roads as agreed, Roads Service can initiate proceedings to access the bond moneys, arrange for completion of all required street works and then adopt the roads into public ownership.
When housing developments have run into difficulties, the challenge for Roads Service has been to work through those difficulties with the developer or, in some cases, the administrator or liquidator to try to negotiate the best outcome. It is often in the best interests of the parties if, rather than going down the enforcement route too quickly, an agreed outcome can be negotiated. It should also be noted that moving to enforce a bond too soon can have unwelcome consequences. For example, developers would be less likely to complete work themselves, and bonds could become more expensive and therefore harder to get.
However, in cases in which the construction of a private street is not progressing satisfactorily, Roads Service can issue a notice under article 11 of the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980:
“requiring the execution of all works which are reasonably necessary to bring the street into conformity with regulations”.
That would typically be within one year from the date on which the buildings are first occupied, but it could be a longer period, if reasonable. Ultimately, where the requirements of an article 11 notice are not complied with, Roads Service can proceed to carry out the works using its own contractors, recover the costs of the work and the expenses from the bond, and work closely with NI Water to bring the sewerage system up to an adoptable standard.
It is important to know that the private streets function, from application through to determination of the street layout and finally to adoption, is conducted within a prescribed statutory arrangement that includes opportunity for a developer to appeal the Department’s notices. In other words, the process takes time to implement and there are no shortcuts. Roads Service must also notify a developer at each stage of enforcement proceedings, and that often prompts a developer to carry out the necessary remedial works.
I recognise that many homebuyers have experienced unexpected and unwelcome delays in getting the roads in their developments completed. I want to assure Members that Roads Service is making use of the current private streets legislation and procedures in order to address the problems as quickly as possible. In the past three financial years, Roads Service has served 227 article 11 notices, of which 71 led to enforcement action. I believe that the current legal provisions for surety bonds for new housing developments are broadly adequate, if all parties comply with their responsibilities.
The adoption of sewers in new housing developments is processed by Northern Ireland Water under articles 161 to 163 of the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. The order provides for NI Water to enter into an agreement with any person constructing or proposing to construct development sewers and for the adoption of those development sewers at a future date, provided that they are constructed to the specified standard in accordance with the terms of the agreement.
In completing the adoption agreement, the developer is required to provide such security as NI Water may reasonably require for the discharge of obligations imposed on the other party to the agreement. That is the sewer bond, which may be used in the event of the other party defaulting on its responsibilities and failing to complete the construction of the sewers to the specific standard.
Under current procedures, responsibility remains with the developer for the construction and maintenance of the sewers in a development until a final adoption of completion certificate is issued by NI Water. It is possible that a developer could have maintenance responsibility for the sewers in his development for several years. That is dependent on the sale of dwellings in the development, which could take between two years and five years or more to complete. Where a sewerage system in a new development has not been adopted and a developer ceases to trade, NI Water will consider the use of enforcement procedures to adopt the sewers. That is a prolonged process involving much preparation before the final notice of intention to complete the works and recover the costs can be issued. For straightforward cases, the process can take a few months, but for more complex situations, it can run for up to two years.
I am sorry; I have to make progress. Thank you.
Since the establishment of NI Water on 1 April 2007, six referrals have been made to it for sewer-only bond developments where the developer is reported to be no longer trading. Those have been received in the past few months, and NI Water is in the early stages of the process to apply the terms of the adoption agreement. The initial work includes setting up communication channels with the developer, or, where possible, his agent, and his successor or assignee and the bondsman. In parallel with that, the status and condition of the on-site sewers have to be established, and an estimate of costs has to be prepared for the remedial works required to bring the sewers up to an adoptable standard.
Application of enforcement procedures is, of course, dependent on the developer having entered into an adoption agreement with NI Water for the adoption of sewers at a future date and the adequate bond security being in place. If that is not the case, NI Water has no power to take any action, and the sewerage systems in such developments will remain private and be the responsibility of the developer and his successors and assignees.
The administration and recovery of sewer bonds for adoption agreements authorised prior to 1 April 2007 by NI Water’s predecessor, Water Service, are administered by my Department’s Roads Service under a joint sewer/street bond. In the past three years, NI Water has resolved and adopted sewers in 110 sites across Northern Ireland. NI Water and Roads Service work closely under the private streets/sewer adoptions joint working group to take forward the adoption of streets and sewers where the developer is no longer trading.
I am aware that the Committee for Regional Development has established an inquiry into unadopted roads and that the inquiry will include a review of the bond system and how it works. I welcome the fact that Members raised the example of how the process works in the Republic of Ireland and other jurisdictions, and I suggest that that should be included in the Committee’s inquiry. I also recognise the roles of others in any such investigation, such as the Department of the Environment, the Department of Justice, local councils and their representative bodies, including NILGA.
In conclusion, I do not intend to carry out a separate review of bonds before the Committee inquiry has been completed. However, as the Minister for roads and water policy, I will ensure that my officials are available to the Committee in the process of the inquiry. I assure Members that Roads Service and NI Water will continue to enforce legislation in order to offer as much certainty as possible to new homeowners who find themselves in such situations.
Throughout the debate, a number of Members mentioned locations and particular developments. For the sake of expediency, I ask that Members with particular concerns in relation to housing developments or other cases write to me or e-mail me, so that I can investigate those concerns and bring forward a response.
At one point in the debate, the question, “Who is in charge?” was asked. I am in charge, and I am ready and open to make any necessary improvements. The inquiry established by the Committee affords me that opportunity. By working together, we can improve the system, not only to the benefit of Roads Service and NI Water but, most importantly, to the benefit of those who are directly affected — the homeowners of Northern Ireland.
The Minister opened his response to the debate by referring to Dickens. I hope that, as a result of the debate, he will not be a Scrooge and we will see a change in how the Department carries this forward. It is worth noting that many Members used the debate as an opportunity to highlight the local issues in their constituencies. I have no doubt that we will see an increase in statements to the local press. Mind you, I do not think that I will miss that opportunity myself. Nonetheless, as someone who sits on the Regional Development Committee, I think that the debate has been a good opportunity to hear some of the issues from local constituencies, which will be an important part of the inquiry.
As mentioned by the mover of the motion, my colleague Michelle McIlveen, and the Chair of the Regional Development Committee, Jimmy Spratt, the Committee will be undertaking an investigation into surety bonds. The Minister, in closing, stated that he has no intention of carrying out a review at the same time, but I accept that he is taking the matter seriously. I hope that he keeps it at the top of his agenda and keeps on top of how the Committee deals with the review.
The examples given this morning are clear evidence that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. In her speech, Michelle McIlveen identified three areas where she felt that change could be made: a means by which residents could mandate the statutory agencies to carry out work; greater proactivity by the statutory agencies to protect residents; and ensuring notification of insolvency proceedings and orders. The motion is about protecting innocent purchasers and enhancing residents’ rights. That is exactly the kind of matter that the Assembly should be debating and taking action on.
I do not intend to go through the contributions of all the Members who spoke; if they really want to know what they said, the Hansard report will be available later. Each Member went through the issues, and everyone made a relevant contribution to the debate.
There are certainly many areas affected by this problem: I could name many in my constituency, but I will not bore Members who have no interest in Mid Ulster. However, as we heard in the debate, it is something that every constituency has a problem with. I accept the Minister’s desire to hear from as many people as see fit the need to bring the problem to his attention.
If the offer is there, I will ask the Minister to visit my constituency. A Member for Upper Bann referred to a “magic wand”. If the Minister wants to bring that with him, he can feel free to do so, given that he is the top dog. I genuinely mean that: if we cannot resolve some of the issues locally, I will make no apology about contacting you, Minister, and inviting you down.
This is about trying to ensure that the people who we represent and the residents in these developments have an equal right to, if nothing else, having their bins collected outside their homes and have a level of equality comparable to that of those who have gone before and the people who live in adjoining developments.
As a member of a local council, I am more than aware of the difficulties to which Members referred of bins not being collected and gaining access to those developments, so I will not reiterate them.
This has been a good debate. On many occasions, Members are blamed for not debating issues that matter to people often enough. Many people across Northern Ireland have had problems with this issue. I commend my colleague for bringing the motion to the Floor of the House and thank everybody for supporting it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes with concern the number of housing developments where roads and footpaths remain unfinished and sewerage systems have not been completed to a satisfactory standard, despite developers having entered into surety bonds under the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and any preceding legislation; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to carry out a review of the bond system in relation to roads, footpaths and sewerage systems in new developments and to review when a bond can be invoked by the relevant authority to address this ongoing problem.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses concern at the increase in human trafficking where people are brought in illegally and forced into a life of sexual exploitation, forced labour or domestic servitude; or are transported onward to other jurisdictions for similar purposes; and calls on the Executive to use all their powers to raise public awareness of this crime to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice and that victims are given the support and help they need.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá méadú ag teacht ar mhinicíocht na gainneála ar dhaoine fásta agus ar pháistí.
The incidence of trafficking of adults and children has been on the increase. Between 2009 and 2011, 73 victims were rescued by the PSNI. That is, by even the PSNI’s own admission at a recent Policing Board meeting, the tip of the iceberg.
Many find it difficult to admit that the crime of trafficking exists in Ireland. It is a crime that, without doubt, uses the border for its own insidious purposes. Recent investigations estimated that £500,000 is spent every week in the North on prostitution. The PSNI estimates that there are 88 brothels in operation across the North. Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation does exist in our communities. It exists in our cities, towns and villages. It may be concentrated in cities but let us be under no illusion: it happens right across our rural and urban communities.
Trafficking is a crime that exists on our doorsteps, and yet it is a crime that many find hard to see. The victims of human trafficking have no voice. They cannot afford that we avert our eyes from such a disturbing and horrific crime. It is an essential first step in beginning to rescue the victims of trafficking and to bring its perpetrators to justice that agencies and the public accept that it does happen on the island of Ireland in 2012.
We need an all-Ireland sex offender register, which we still do not have. We also need North/South co-operation at every level and a public awareness campaign aimed not only at professionals but at communities in order to raise awareness so that they can recognise risk factors and see what may be on their doorstep.
By and large, women and children are victims of trafficking. However, there are also male victims, and we must do everything that we can to expose that. I pay particular tribute to groups such as Women’s Aid and other far-sighted organisations that were alerting us to the issue when many others were turning a blind eye, including our police services. Many years ago, I attended a conference in Newry organised by women’s groups from across the island of Ireland at which the issue was highlighted, and those groups spoke out about the trafficking of women.
Trafficking is not only about sexual exploitation but about forced labour and domestic servitude. Those aspects of trafficking are just as hidden and just as repulsive. Any campaign must address all aspects of trafficking in a holistic manner. In the North, one of the first confirmed cases of child trafficking was for forced labour, which remains a real concern. We already know that that can be concentrated in particular industries. Raising awareness among workers and employers in those industries of the risk that some people who work in them may be trafficked is critical. There must be zero tolerance of human trafficking.
As a member of the Policing Board, I remain particularly concerned about the lack of prosecutions for trafficking. The PSNI has clearly indicated that the crime that it has uncovered to date is the tip of the iceberg. The police need to do much more to develop their response. The role of the PPS and the judiciary is also critical. I call on the Minister of Justice to consider the need for an inquiry into the lack of prosecutions and for a more focused piece of work on how organisations might work together to ensure that offenders are brought to justice. I also call on him to ensure that there is an all-Ireland sex offenders’ register.
Human trafficking is a crime to which we cannot close our eyes. The evidence is that the number of people who are trafficked is growing. That means that victims — women, children and men — are suffering unnecessarily. It is critical that the Assembly respond. Is coir í seo, agus ní féidir linn ligint orainn féin nach bhfeicimid í, nó tá fianaise ann go bhfuil lion íobartaigh na coire seo — idir mhná, pháistí agus fhir — ag fás i rith an ama. Go raibh maith agat.
I beg to move the following amendment: At end insert
“regardless of whether they are co-operating with the law enforcement authorities; and further calls on the Executive to meet the obligations set out by the Council of Europe convention (2005) and the new EU directive (2011) on action against trafficking in human beings by addressing the demand for sexual and labour exploitation, increasing penalty levels, adopting a victim-centred approach and implementing effective preventative measures.”
I am grateful to the Members concerned for tabling a motion on an issue of such importance. The amendment adds to and strengthens the motion in the areas of prevention of human trafficking; prosecution of those responsible; and protection of victims.
The Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings and the 2011 EU directive clearly outline a victim-centric approach that seeks to protect victims while calling for the implementation of effective policies and programmes to prevent trafficking, as well as calling for increased penalty levels. Human trafficking is the third most profitable illegal organised trade in the world today. It is a modern-day slavery that generates profits from human suffering. It represents a vulgar abuse of the fundamental human right of freedom.
I welcome the recent news of the first conviction for human trafficking in Northern Ireland. I commend all those who were involved in the process that brought about that conviction. I hope that it serves as a warning to all those who are currently involved in or facilitating human trafficking that they will be pursued by the full rigour of the law and that our society will not tolerate such horrors.
Human trafficking represents one of the greatest evils that society faces. Victims can be male or female. Children have also been identified here as victims of human trafficking. Through media reporting, the Blue Blindfold campaign and public seminars, there is increasing recognition that human trafficking is a problem in Northern Ireland. Not only is Northern Ireland a country of transit for human trafficking, acting as a point of access to its neighbours, but it has become a destination country for the crime.
According to various research recommendations, the approach to tackling human trafficking can be dealt with under the three Ps: prevention; prosecution; and protection. Prevention of human trafficking is essential. It represents a low-risk, high-profit trade. As with any trade, supply and demand drives the process. The demand for sexual and labour exploitation must be eliminated in order to stop the supply of human beings as commodities.
As Ms Ruane mentioned, many women who work in brothels here have been trafficked from abroad. Section 15 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which amends the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, is a positive step in that regard, as those who knowingly or unknowingly use trafficked prostitutes can be prosecuted.
More co-operation between countries of origin, transit and destination is needed to block known channels and stop the flow of vulnerable people to wealthy countries like ours. Countries of destination should network more to share statistics, research and information.
Prevention also comes from public awareness. While policies and strategies are important, the fight against human trafficking also occurs on our streets. If members of the public are aware of illegal activity or suspect that there is a brothel in their local area, for example, they must report that to Crimestoppers or the police. While it may seem as if an individual is participating willingly in activities such as prostitution or illegal labour, often they are in fear of violence by their traffickers, have been forced into debt or drug dependency, and are being threatened by their captors that, if they go to the authorities, they will be imprisoned and deported. Public awareness is crucial: if you suspect, report.
Once human trafficking has been detected, we must ensure the prosecution of those responsible and the protection of their victims. The prosecution rate for human trafficking is still far too low in the whole of the UK. The average sentence for human trafficking-related charges in the UK is just 4·69 years. Often, fines and sentences against offenders cause little damage to such a lucrative trade.
Article 19 of the 2011 EU directive stipulates that member states shall take necessary measures to establish national rapporteurs or equivalent mechanisms to assess trends and gather statistics in close co-operation with civil society organisations, generate reports and measure the effectiveness of anti-trafficking actions. I recently attended a human-trafficking seminar in the Hague and was very impressed by the work of the Dutch rapporteur, who submits to their Parliament annual reports with recommendations for action.
So that perpetrators can be brought to justice, we need collaboration between government organisations and NGOs to combat human trafficking and organised crime networks. Better partnership is needed between NGOs and the voluntary and community sectors so that they can continue to work as the eyes and ears.
The protection of victims of human trafficking is paramount. Victims have a 45-day recovery and reflection period. Once that is over, if they are not willing to co-operate as witnesses for prosecutions, they are deported. First, that reflection period is too short, particularly given the fact that many victims have been totally traumatised by working in the sex industry and being brutalised by their traffickers. Secondly, the deportation of victims of human trafficking re-victimises them. Returning a victim of human trafficking to their country of origin after they have been abused as slaves is inhumane and can place them in serious danger back in the grip of traffickers. They may also be ostracised by their families upon return.
Victims of both genders must be provided with specialised refuges and have access to medical, psychological, social or legal support and immigration advice. The rights of victims must be protected and promoted. Victims of sexual exploitation have suffered multiple rapes and abuses, which is a violation of their rights, their freedom and their bodies. Trafficked individuals who have been clearly identified as victims should be considered for the right to remain on humanitarian grounds, so that they may receive support and rehabilitation and be able to claim compensation from their traffickers. Although immigration is not a devolved matter and the responsibility for their immigration status falls within the Home Office remit, they constitute a very small number of people and would not open a floodgate of immigration. Trafficked victims should be treated as a special group, as outlined by the Palermo protocol and Council of Europe convention.
Our approach to human trafficking must be victim-centred to make sure that our response does not criminalise them. Removing the threat of imminent deportation would enable more victims to come forward and seek assistance. I recognise the gravity of human trafficking. I have proposed an Assembly all-party group (APG) on human trafficking, which will meet on 14 February at 4.00 pm in room 29. I look forward to seeing many of my fellow Members there as a continuing commitment to the motion. We hope that the APG will instigate a cross-departmental response to the problem. There will be opportunities for networking with other jurisdictions of the UK and other EU member states that have their own working groups.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion today. It builds on a motion that David McNarry tabled some time ago. That highlighted the issue then, and it is appropriate that the House debates the issue again.
We are told that, every year, human trafficking accounts, on a global scale, for around 2 million to 4 million people who are trafficked outside of their borders or internally in their own country. If we put it in that perspective, the scale of the crime that is being committed is atrocious. The nature of the crime is atrocious for the individuals who are being brought in to that type of criminal activity.
There are four main reasons why people are trafficked: sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude and the harvesting of human organs. Thankfully, Northern Ireland, to date, has not had an example of trafficking due to the harvesting of organs. Shamefully, however, there have been incidents in Northern Ireland of the other three, primarily in regard to sexual exploitation.
The issue is not unique to Northern Ireland; it is a global phenomenon. Many countries across the world have to introduce new legislation or amend existing legislation, particularly immigration laws, to close the loopholes that are being exploited by organised criminals. When the police came to the Justice Committee, they told us that they were satisfied that the existing legislation in Northern Ireland is strong enough to enable them to carry out their job. If it is necessary for further legislation to be brought in, beyond complying with the EU directive, I believe that everyone in the House will be willing to put that legislation through the House. To date, however, the police have said that it is not necessary.
The police are dealing with the issue. It is an issue that should unite us, but I cannot ignore the comments that came from the Member for South Down Caitríona Ruane. She said that the police had turned a blind eye to the issue. That is a shameful comment. On an issue like this, when we should be united, she cannot hide her feelings towards the police. The police told the Committee that police officers have spent sleepless nights worrying about individuals who are being exploited as a result of human trafficking, so the comment that was made by the individual earlier in the debate was regrettable.
The true extent of the problem in Northern Ireland is still unknown. Five years ago, the issue was not on the radar. Sadly, today, it is becoming more and more prevalent. A piece of work needs to be done to truly identify how serious the problem is. Last year, 23 victims who had been involved in human trafficking were rescued. Five of them had been involved in forced labour and 18 had been sexually exploited. The majority of those rescued were from the Chinese community. That demonstrates that some of the organised gangs involved are local to Northern Ireland. However, organised criminal gangs are involved on a global scale, and gangs have been operating from Asia, mainland Europe and the UK mainland, not just from Northern Ireland. That example demonstrates the scale of the problem and the range of individuals involved.
The Justice Committee takes the issue seriously. This week, the Committee will be briefed again on how the Department handles those issues, and I know that it also takes the issue seriously. Ultimately, a criminal offence is being committed by the gangs who exploit individuals, but the demand is created by ordinary people. It shows the absolute depravity of some in our community that they involve themselves, particularly in prostitution. Individuals are trafficked and then forced into prostitution — they have no choice. It was shocking to hear the police tell us that the age of those involved ranged from teenagers to people in their 70s. It is just disgusting that such a spectrum of individuals feels that that type of activity is acceptable.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about human trafficking, which is modern-day slavery. It is the forced movement of men, women and children for a variety of purposes, which can include sexual exploitation, labour and forced criminal activity. Members who attended this afternoon’s briefing by the Serious Organised Crime Agency learned that it is a £32 billion industry. It was referred to as hidden but not invisible.
It is extremely important that we have the opportunity to discuss the issue to raise awareness. It is all too easy to turn a blind eye to such subjects. However, given that human trafficking is estimated to affect between 2 million and 4 million people globally, we must confront it.
It is difficult to accept that it happens in Northern Ireland, but we must face up to the problem. Some work has been done on human trafficking since a motion was tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party in September 2010. The Department of Justice published a report on prostitution, which has obvious links to human trafficking. As well as that, Barnardo’s and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) combined to look specifically at child trafficking, which is a small but growing problem in Northern Ireland. The Blue Blindfold campaign also successfully raised awareness among key groups throughout the United Kingdom of the nature and extent of human trafficking. I encourage Members and the public to visit its website to learn more about human trafficking and the ongoing ordeal of its victims.
I want to mention specifically the work of the Policing Board. On 1 September 2011, its members focused on the work that the PSNI had been doing to combat human exploitation and, most notably, human trafficking. We heard about the financial benefit that criminals can gain from human trafficking, and that was evidenced by the fact that a crime gang caught by the police in 2010 was discovered to have spent £100,000 on advertising escorts over an 11-month period. The board’s Human Rights and Professional Standards Committee has also considered the issue, and Conall McDevitt, as its chair, may choose to expand on its work.
I am also aware that the police work locally in a number of areas to combat human trafficking through meetings and events. That excellent work should continue and be rolled out across Northern Ireland. As far as I am concerned, the Policing Board will continue to support and assist the PSNI in tackling that crime.
During Question Time in October, I questioned the Justice Minister on the action that he was taking against human trafficking. He outlined the work of the Organised Crime Taskforce, of which he is chair, as well as co-ordinated intelligence-led operations such as Pentameter 1 and Pentameter 2. Perhaps he will update us on those areas of work today.
There is an obvious European element to the motion, given that the crime of human trafficking is transnational, and the amendment reflects that. Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson fully supported the 2011 European directive and has also written to the Justice Minister and the Secretary of State for Justice, Ken Clarke, to seek assurances that the UK is doing all it can to help victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
I conclude by reiterating the importance of the topic. We must continue to raise awareness of human trafficking and especially bear in mind the victims of this crime. Rescuing those victims is not enough; adequate support also needs to be provided. As yet, we have not seen any convictions for human trafficking, but I hope that it will not be long before we do. I support the motion and the amendment.
I thank the Member who proposed the motion. I also thank the Member who proposed the amendment, which the SDLP supports. The amendment enlarges on this very useful motion and brings in an added dimension of international protocols and European law. That is important in dealing with the problem. The problem is an international one, but, specifically, it affects both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland as well as Britain. It is important that we add that European dimension and strengthen co-operation between North and South. I know that there is good co-operation between the Gardaí and the PSNI on the issue, and I hope that that can be usefully developed to prevent the transiting of people from one jurisdiction to the other. Northern Ireland is used as transit point for the importation and trafficking of people to the South and to Britain and vice versa. Unfortunately, as Anna Lo pointed out, Northern Ireland has also become a destination point for human traffickers. That is a very disturbing development.
The Police Service’s figures show a significant increase in the recovery of victims of human trafficking. There are not large numbers, but those figures indicate that the problem is, in fact, increasing. We should be concerned about that.
I thank Mr McNarry, who originally brought the issue to the House some time ago. He had the prescience to see that human trafficking was a growing problem. It is important that we keep a firm eye on the issue and see what further resources we can add to the fight against what Anna Lo has called “modern-day slavery”.
It is good to note that there was a recent conviction in relation to human trafficking. That highlights the issue and indicates the purposeful way in which the PSNI is attempting to deal with this problem. I reject any criticism of the PSNI in this area. It has made considerable efforts to try to deal with the problem and has trained and specialist officers to deal with people who find themselves in such difficulties.
One of the issues that needs to be looked at carefully is the national referral mechanism. We need to see how we can strengthen that mechanism, so that genuine victims of human trafficking can be given assistance, support and help to deal with the trauma of being trafficked. We can then try to integrate them into our community and give them worthwhile work, training and education. However, alternatively, if they genuinely — I emphasise that point — want to be repatriated, we can ensure that that is done in a humane and supportive manner, so that those vulnerable people are not simply sent back to the people who originally exploited them.
Many of the people who have come here did so under the false impression that they would get work. They did not know that their ultimate destination would be criminal exploitation. So, it is very important that we reassure people who are in such a position that they will be given support —
I, too, am pleased to take part in this important debate. Sadly, the topic is frequently in the news, so it is time that we took the appropriate action.
I think of “victim A”, a young girl from China, who was orphaned as a child and, subsequently, sold into prostitution at the age of 14. Like so many trafficking victims, she fell prey to a fraudulent scheme that promised employment and a better life abroad. Victim A’s journey started in rural China, continued through Hong Kong and eventually ended in Belfast. She quickly learned that, instead of working at a proper job, she was to perform sexual favours for her trafficker — the man she believed would provide employment for her — and his friends. She was routinely raped in an effort to break her spirit, humiliate her and degrade her. Once in Belfast, victim A eventually escaped her life of exploitation, but she still lives with a deep sense of shame as a result of the terrible acts that were committed against her.
The impoverished family circumstances of a young Bosnian girl, to whom I will refer simply as “victim B”, led her to search for work abroad. Victim B responded to a newspaper advertisement for what she thought was a housekeeper position in the United Kingdom. Her traffickers cleverly and swiftly put together her travel documents and arranged transport to Northern Ireland. Upon arrival, her life was turned upside down as she came to terms with the reality of her situation. Helpless and without any English, victim B was subjected to frequent beatings and was made to work long days without any time off. Her employers denied her the opportunity to phone her family in Bosnia, leaving her utterly alone and without a lifeline. Even the children for whom she was caring treated her badly and shouted abusive slurs at her. A few years after her arrival in Belfast, while taking the children to a local playground, a concerned acquaintance was made aware of her situation and the police intervened. She was taken to a safe place and received aftercare support to help her to rebuild her life.
It is the horror of stories like those that has led to today’s debate. They demonstrate the importance of the United Kingdom’s becoming a signatory to the EU directive on human trafficking. After some controversy over whether the UK should opt in, the UK took the right decision to sign up to important obligations that will help the victims that I have spoken about and that should help to prevent trafficking. Now we all need to ensure that we meet those obligations.
One of those obligations is to prosecute trafficking crimes committed by UK nationals abroad. The Westminster Parliament introduced such powers for England and Wales in a Bill in the House of Lords on 12 January. I understand that the changes that will be made to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 by the Bill in question will, in effect, leave the current law in Northern Ireland as it stands. It is, of course, for this Assembly to extend the legislation to prosecute offences that are committed abroad. Therefore, I ask the Minister of Justice to set out his timetable for bringing those changes into effect here.
There are, of course, other issues that must be addressed to ensure that we are doing all that we can to protect victims here. I plan to publish a Bill shortly to do just that, and I hope that Members will be able to support it. The Executive may already have plans to tackle trafficking more broadly. I understand that, in a letter on 1 February, the Home Office set out its plans for ensuring that other provisions are met through secondary legislation and other means. Will the Minister do the same here and set out his plans for meeting the needs of victims and for ensuring that everything is done to eradicate this crime here?
Section 15 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which has been referred to, makes it an offence to purchase sex from a prostitute who has been forced, coerced or deceived. I spoke in support of that measure in the House of Lords when the Bill was debated in 2009. I understand that prostitution for sex is the main type of exploitation in Northern Ireland, and the traditional means of women operating on the streets is giving way to brothels operating off streets in flats and residential homes. I understand too that young women are being sold into prostitution here from Africa, eastern Europe and south-east Asia to potentially have sex with between 10 and 12 and, indeed, up to 40 men a day.
Whereas the trafficking directive focuses on prosecuting traffickers and providing better care for the victims of trafficking, it is important that we also have a robust prevention strategy. I want to raise with Members the possibility that the law in Northern Ireland should go beyond the provisions introduced —
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. With my colleague Caitríona Ruane, I support the motion in my party colleagues’ names, and I support the amendment, which was tabled by the Alliance Party and spoken to by Ms Anna Lo.
It is clear from the debate so far that there is unanimity across all the parties against this pernicious crime that has been inflicted on far too many people in the community that we represent. In the interests of maintaining that unanimity, it is important that I address Mr Givan’s mistaken — I would say — interpretation of Caitríona Ruane’s comments. Caitríona Ruane did not specify the PSNI or any other police organisation but referred specifically to police services and did so in the past context.
As a previous member of the Policing Board, I think that it is quite clear that we all fully understand that, in the past, a blind eye was turned, not only by police services here and elsewhere but by a lot of people across society. People had the view that that is something that goes on. As a representative for South Belfast, I can say to the House that, even when debates of this nature were raised at Belfast City Council, all parties agreed that the days had to come to an end when a blind eye was turned to prostitution happening at the back of City Hall or in parts of south Belfast.
I am pleased to say that, in recent years, the Police Service here and the Garda Síochána have begun to take the crime seriously. That is right, and, in doing that, they have been given our full support. I remind Members that, not that long ago, the police were telling us that that type of human trafficking was not such a big problem, until Operation Pentameter exposed the extent of the problem that faced all of us. I am glad to say that the Police Service here was then very responsive and has been very proactive in trying to tackle that crime, to detect where it is happening and to bring people to justice.
As other Members have said, it is early days in getting to grips properly with that type of crime. Members have mentioned that the crime is one of sexual exploitation, forced labour and domestic servitude. All of the Members who have spoken are clear in their abhorrence of those types of crimes, and they are resolute in ensuring that all of the relevant organisations, including the Police Service, the Public Prosecution Service and all of the other statutory agencies, step up to the mark to do what Ms Lo described as being prevention, prosecution and protection of victims.
In the interests of maintaining the clear unanimity that exists across the parties here, it is important that we move forward on that basis. I was pleased to hear the Chair of the Justice Committee make his personal commitment, and I have no doubt that it would express the Committee’s view to say that the House will implement additional legislation if necessary. We have had a history where prostitution, as it was called, was the done thing. It happened, and, as I said, everybody let it go on and did not pay much attention to it unless, of course, they were a victim. Tragically, the nature of that has changed dramatically, and we hear reports from the police that there is not a village or a town in the North or across the island where that type of activity is not going on in the types of apartments or hotels that Members have referred to. The extent of the crime that is going on does not bear thinking about.
That applies equally to domestic servitude and forced labour.
Since April 2011, there have been 26 identified victims of human trafficking in Northern Ireland, 18 of them victims of sexual exploitation. Using police information, it is important that we get to grips in the debate with what is happening outside the doors of the Assembly. It is not easy listening, but I want to use police information to describe the average day in the life of a young lady who has been trafficked into this country for sexual exploitation.
It will start with a man — it is usually a man — who will go on to a website where he will find pictures of this woman. He will also see a list of services provided by that woman. He will go to meet her in an apartment, a hotel or some other establishment, where he will use the services that she provides. He will then leave that establishment and will have the opportunity afterwards to submit something like a restaurant review of his experience with the young lady. We have to get away from how the media portray that: this is not ‘Pretty Woman’; this is not a glamorous, happy hooker as appears in a number of Sunday newspapers. This is rape for profit; this is a high-yield, low-risk crime that needs to be dealt with urgently.
Victims of human trafficking are often too scared or simply unable to come forward. In Northern Ireland, we cannot get away from the fact that this is now becoming big business. The average cost of engaging the services of an escort — let us face it: “escort” is a euphemism for prostitute — is now £97 for half an hour. It is estimated, and conservatively so, that £25 million a year is spent in Northern Ireland by people who use such services. They are not punters or customers; they are men who pay for sex and who exploit women, and it is important, now more than ever, that we do not just sit back and allow that to continue unchallenged.
I thank the Chair of the all-party group on ethnic minorities for giving way to the outgoing Chair on this issue, as I will not have another opportunity to speak in the debate. Does the Member agree with me that as well as focusing, rightly, on the traffickers, we also need to focus on those purchasing such services? Although many may feel that this is somehow a victimless crime that women choose to take part in, might even perceive it as legitimate work, those women have no choice; they are exploited and coerced into the industry. Therefore, far from being a victimless crime, it is one of the most disgusting in our society.
Thank you. I thank the Member for his intervention. I absolutely agree. Personally, I would probably have slightly more conservative views than others on this issue. The fact is that, in my view, once money is exchanged, the game changes. I refuse to accept that any form of prostitution is done under the banner of consent. If you went into a school today and asked a boy or girl what they want to do when they leave school, which of them will say that they want to be a prostitute? Nobody does this because they want to. This is exploitation that is driven, unfortunately, by demand. I entirely agree with the Member that something has to be done to raise awareness and to reduce demand for such acts.
We are here; we are having the debate; we are looking for solutions. I am glad that the Minister is here to listen to what is said.
Human trafficking is a crime. What is taking place is a heinous, disgusting, lurid, lewd crime, and it needs to be dealt with under those circumstances. We should be looking at having a traffic community partnership, where there is an Organised Crime Task Force-led objective and a police-led objective, in order for them to bring with them the groups that are doing a fantastic job.
I find myself agreeing entirely with the proposer of the motion. The work that Women’s Aid does is to be applauded, as is the work of the Belfast Migrant Centre. There are so many fantastic groups out there, but there needs to be a more together, joined-up focus on taking the issue forward. This is a debate in which we are not asking for more money, because the groups are funded. DOJ does a fantastic job on that, for which I commend the Minister. However, there is a severe issue with how we are going about co-ordinating. It needs to be police-led. We need to look at human trafficking for what it is: it is a crime, and it needs to be dealt with as a crime. I exhort the Minister to take those comments on board and, hopefully, act on them.
This is not the first time that the Assembly has spoken about this issue, and, in fact, it is not the first forum to have dealt with it. The key question, which Caitríona Ruane spoke about, is whether we can sort out this problem without first sorting out the problem of prostitution. That is the real issue. What is Northern Ireland’s attitude to prostitution? What is the PSNI’s policy on prostitution? Is it legal to have a brothel because it is easy to maintain and monitor if you have some legalised basis for it? I know that the PSNI was trying to resolve the issue some time ago. I do not know whether it has come up with what exactly it is going to do, but perhaps the Minister will be able to fill us in.
What goes on in our society was mentioned. I think that the real problem is that many people in Northern Ireland do not actually think that the issue exists. I had to leave the Chamber and come back because I was at an all-party group meeting dealing with young people and sexual orientation. Some of the issues raised there concerned how people get pregnant and what their attitudes to sex are. We sweep all those things under the carpet in this place. We can look at young people in care and at how taxis are turning up to pick them up and take them off to places. That is absolute exploitation of our young people for similar purposes.
Those of you who were at the SOCA meeting today will know that what the agency’s representatives were saying was really instructive. People here talk about the PSNI. It is not the PSNI but SOCA that takes the lead on these issues. I was talking to its head, and he was able to tell me that it is all about being intelligence-linked. These are serious organised crime syndicates that are exploiting people, because it takes a certain amount of sophistication to bring people from one part of the world to another. He was able to tell me that intelligence has increased by some 50% in the past year, but we really need to find out exactly what is going on in our own society.
I heard the exchange between two colleagues about human trafficking being illegal and an absolute heinous crime. That is a position that I myself adopt. That may be surprising, as some people think that I am the arch-liberal in this place. That may be news to the Minister, but I will issue a statement later. Look at what happens in Amsterdam, which has got a particularly free approach to the issue and where prostitution is licensed. My understanding — again, this comes from SOCA — is that the Dutch are considering reversing that decision. It is a fundamental bit in their society, yet they are going to change it. They are not going to legalise it or license it. They are going to outlaw it, because it is absolute exploitation. It is a crime and should be stopped. We should not be turning a blind eye to it.
We have to confront the fact that in Northern Ireland prostitution does go on. There are prostitutes. There are brothels. There are issues about sex that we are all apparently afraid to talk about. While we do not talk about them, people get exploited. On this particular issue, it is not really enough for the House to talk it, because it is the second time that we have done so. We want to see those agencies that can have an impact on it do something. We want to see action on this.
I have probably said enough about my support for this motion, and other issues have been put forward, but I note the extension that Anna Lo is seeking through the amendment, and I concur. I think we should be going further and adopting other protocols. We should be taking a lead on this issue. I support the amendment as wholeheartedly as I would have supported the motion.
I support the motion and the amendment. I welcome that there is unanimity across the House on the issue. I do not need to repeat what has been said well by others; that this is right up there among the class A group of heinous crimes. It is happening right under our noses, and too many people in our society seem quite undisturbed about that.
I wish to add some detail that has not yet emerged in the debate. We have talked a lot about women being forced into sexual exploitation in this region as a result of being trafficked here, and that is indeed true. It is also true that there are people working in car washes in this region who are basically slaves. Maybe that is something that everyone should think about the next time they fancy getting their car washed cheaply. That is happening right here, right now. Those of us who are members of the Policing Board and who are able to receive updates on this matter are told that it is not unconnected to prostitution. There is evidence that there are women who are trafficked here for sexual exploitation who, in downtime, are sent to wash cars.
The immediacy of this crime cannot be over-emphasised. It is very present. I am never able to get my head around the fact that there are more people in slavery in the world today than there were at the height of the slave trade. That is a fact, yet we seem to be able to carry on as though it were someone else’s problem.
In the short time available, I want to raise a substantial point. We need to acknowledge, and colleagues from all sides have done so, that the PSNI, the guards, the English, Scottish and Welsh police services, and, indeed, police services across the European Union have upped their game over the past decade in dealing with human trafficking and modern-day slavery. I hope that the reports that we will continue to receive will be positive about the progress that has been made in better understanding how to undermine and bring the perpetrators of this type of organised crime to justice.
The Human Rights Commission published a pretty important scoping study on this region in 2009, which made a series of very specific recommendations on services provision. Those recommendations go beyond the criminal justice side of things, because a lot of damaged people are rescued from brothels and other places. One very specific recommendation was that:
“a multi-agency approach led by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety along with the PSNI, should be established to co-ordinate services for victims of trafficking to and within Northern Ireland.”
I understand that we have made some progress on doing that, but not nearly as much progress as I think the House would want to see.
It is probably not fair to say that we have done our bit; it is probably fair to say that we have done some of our bit. However, there are other Departments in Northern Ireland that are right under our nose, as is the problem, and they really need to step up to the mark. They could start by picking up on the recommendations made by the Human Rights Commission, which then goes on in its report to talk about the role that non-governmental organisations will have to play. There is a huge role to be played there too, which is something I spoke to the Minister about briefly. I have to leave the House early, but I think that he is going to pick up on that point in his closing remarks.
We need to understand that every trafficked individual needs a support plan, and that support plan needs to go beyond treating them as a witness to a crime. It needs to understand that, if they are treated as a witness to a crime, they help put someone behind bars, and if they are then handed over the UK Border Agency, as happens more often than not, they will simply be made criminals themselves.
The chances are that they will be deported, and the intelligence is that many women in that situation go back into slavery. That is the safest thing for them to do, because they have just been sent back to the very place that they were taken from. So we have an awful lot more to do.
I hope that, following the debate, more than just the Department of Justice will begin to wake up to its responsibilities. I hope that we can use the collective advocacy of the all-party group to push for services —
When I entered the Assembly in 2010 to replace David Simpson MP, my maiden speech was on human trafficking. I say that to highlight not my record but the fact that the subject will not go away. The Assembly should never allow it to go away, not while people are being bought and sold or traded.
On Friday night, I had the honour of attending a major conference in Portadown on anti-human trafficking. It was organised by David Simpson MP and jointly hosted by the Mayor of Craigavon. We honoured Kate Richardson from Portadown on her return from her epic transatlantic rowing achievement, which was a challenge that she undertook under the banner of Row For Freedom to raise awareness of the growing worldwide problem of human trafficking. We were joined by many groups, including the A21 Campaign, the Craigavon Stop the Traffik ACT group, the International Justice Mission and Women’s Aid, as well as the PSNI and the chairman of the Westminster all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking, Peter Bone MP. The conference was also attended by 200 concerned local people who wanted to help to tackle the scourge and end the misery of people across the world, including victims here in Northern Ireland.
Among the messages to emerge from that conference were the truly international nature of the crime, the appalling treatment that victims endure and the level of ignorance of human trafficking. One senior PSNI officer said that the brutal trade centred on victims, usually females who are, in effect, raped for money. However, the crime is much broader than that.
Money and the making of it are the only motivations of those behind trafficking. The criminal gangs who trade in human misery and suffering are often the same gangs who trade in counterfeit DVDs, fuel laundering and all manner of criminal activity. Indeed, this criminal enterprise brings together people not normally associated as natural partners, but they are prepared to work as one for financial gain.
Progress has been made, and the beginning of prosecutions and convictions is to be welcomed. Also, the PSNI announced recently that it would visit people suspected of paying for sex with trafficked women. As detective superintendent Philip Marshall said, they are not clients or punters; they are exploiters or rapists.
On Friday evening, we were also heartened and encouraged to hear from the PSNI that Northern Ireland was well placed in the United Kingdom when it came to how we tackle the crime. However, despite the efforts of many people, we remain a long way from turning back the tide. Indeed, we simply do not know how deep the waters are.
The Member, rightly, highlights adult trafficking, as did other Members, but does he agree that the issue is much broader? In the first nine months of 2011, seven children were identified as having been trafficked. We must ensure sure that practitioners and professionals on the front line are aware of that. They must know how to target the problem and make progress in tackling it.
I thank my colleague for her intervention. Indeed, my next paragraph refers to young girls and boys. UNICEF estimates that, at any one time, there are about 5,000 child sex workers in the United Kingdom. Most of them were trafficked into the United Kingdom. Some 75% are girls, but there are young boys as well.
Does my colleague accept that many of the people who become victims of human trafficking simply go missing and go off the radar and are not heard of again? Does he also accept that we in this House should be voices for those people who have gone missing? We should be not only disappointed and shocked at what we hear today but angry that this is happening not in darkest Africa but in civilised western Europe.
I thank my colleague for his intervention. These issues are very much to the fore, and they were brought out at the conference. As my colleague said, people are going missing. They are brought into houses and locked away in single rooms that may have no windows. They have a mattress on the floor, and the doors are locked. At the conference, I learned that there are locks on the outside of the doors and scratches on the inside of the doors, which are marked with the victims’ nails and blood and everything. Sometimes, when DNA tests were done, they showed that the nails and blood did not match up to the victim who was in the room. That shows how horrific the whole thing is.
As has been mentioned, we also have those who are trafficked into forced labour and held in virtual slave camps, as well as those who are held in domestic servitude. There is also the shocking spectre of organ harvesting, which, I think, my colleague Mr Givan mentioned. Thankfully, we have not had any examples of that in Northern Ireland, but how can we be sure that it will not happen at some time right here on our doorstep?
The whole criminal enterprise requires that the Assembly —
I congratulate Caitríona Ruane and her colleagues for securing the debate this afternoon, and I welcome the motion and amendment. They have, rightly, attracted strong opinions in every part of the Chamber. They have also attracted what must be the nearest thing to unanimity that we have seen for some time. On the basis of that unanimity, I do not propose to respond to everything that every individual said, but I will refer to some of the issues that were raised in the context of work that the Department is doing. I think that that would be helpful to the House.
There is absolutely no doubt that the different organisations that are represented in the Organised Crime Task Force are extremely well aware of the problem of human trafficking and that they are committed to tackling the issue and to ensuring that victims are rescued. They are also committed to ensuring that the victims receive the support and care that they need. They do that alongside dealing with those who perpetrate such crimes. However, a debate like this is useful in helping to raise awareness, although there is no doubt that there is perhaps a greater awareness in Northern Ireland than in some other areas.
Human trafficking is simply, in many senses, a part of organised crime, although it is probably the foulest of all such crimes. It is clear that those who carry it out are engaged in a range of other organised crimes. My three key objectives in tackling trafficking are in line with the motion: supporting the victims; bringing the traffickers before the courts; and raising public awareness. Given what was said, I should, perhaps, concentrate on the first and the last objectives, although Members should be well aware that the Department is fully conscious of the issues that are involved in bringing traffickers before the courts and in supporting the police and other agencies. Members will undoubtedly be very grateful, as am I, for the fact that, last week, we saw the first conviction for human trafficking in Northern Ireland.
As the motion highlighted, we need to acknowledge that trafficking is an issue not solely for women but for men and children. Nor is it simply an issue of sexual exploitation, although that is probably the largest element. There are also issues of labour exploitation and domestic servitude. As has been highlighted, the different areas may overlap.
We know that 18 victims were trafficked into Northern Ireland for sexual exploitation and five for the purposes of forced labour in 2010-11. As a result, we have seen two children supported by social services. I believe that, contrary to the impression that was given at times, the Police Service and the UK Border Agency are genuinely proactive in addressing the area. There may be concerns about what happened in the past, but we see very strong engagement by the Police Service. That engagement is evident in the involvement of those who get specific training at local district level and of those in the organised crime branch. Through such co-ordination, they ensure that they maximise the efforts of the specialist expertise and the local, on-the-ground knowledge of what is happening in each district across Northern Ireland. That specialist training for the organised crime branch includes training in the recognition and investigation of human trafficking.
We have seen very positive relationships developed by the police with a wide range of organisations and community representatives to help those who come in touch with trafficking. A strategy has been developed for brothel searches to maximise the opportunities to obtain the trust of potential victims. One of the key issues is that those who do not trust authorities in their home country may have great difficulty in dealing with police officers when they come into contact with them here. We are working hard to develop a victim-centred approach. After that, comprehensive care plans are put in place involving both the voluntary sector and social services as regards the duties to children; although I note the point that Conall McDevitt made about the Human Rights Commission report of three years ago and the serious issues about the services that are provided and the different agencies that have responsibilities there.
The services provided for adult victims include safe and appropriate accommodation, help with day-to-day living and travel costs, information in a language that they can understand and help to access emergency and non-emergency healthcare, which may be sexual health services, general GP services, dental or specialist medical treatment and access to other services around support, immigration and counselling. I cannot praise too highly the work done in that respect by Women’s Aid and Migrant Helpline, services that are available to all adult victims of trafficking and not just those who co-operate with the police, although I accept the point about wider coverage, which I will come to. I thank Women’s Aid and Migrant Helpline for their work. I am pleased to confirm that, just this week, I renewed their contracts providing the services.
Conall McDevitt and Anna Lo referred to the subsequent treatment of victims of trafficking and the issue of what is in practice only a 45-day period of reflection. Of course, that issue is not devolved, but, if I can take my ministerial hat off for a minute, I accept that there are real issues as to how that is seen overall. I will ensure that the agencies that have responsibility to the Department of Justice do their best to ensure that confidence is built with victims to ensure that they can use that period of reflection wisely.
The motion refers to the fact that Northern Ireland is both a destination and a transit camp, and a number of Members mentioned that. That is why it is extremely important that we develop good working relations with neighbouring jurisdictions. For example, people from an Garda Síochána and other agencies in the South are represented on a number of OCTF subgroups, including human trafficking and immigration. Indeed, Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris said that the relationship is not just one of co-operation; it is of joint working.
Last week, I had a tripartite meeting in this Building with the Irish Justice Minister, Alan Shatter and the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill. One of the topics that we discussed was human trafficking; it is an issue that features at virtually every meeting of the intergovernmental agreement on co-operation on criminal justice matters North/South. When I met Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Police Services Authority, the PSNI and the UK Border Agency at Loch Ryan in the autumn, serious attention was given to dealing with trafficking across the North Channel. I certainly propose to attend the next meeting of the interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking convened by the Home Office.
There are also proposals in a Bill that I have waiting for Executive approval, which deals with notification orders for those who cross the border into Northern Ireland. At the moment, an Garda Síochána will inform the PSNI if somebody who is subject to notification requirements in the Republic crosses the border. That will place an individual requirement. When we consider that we also have issues of people moving between Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, there is no particular benefit in a single sex offender register for Ireland. The important issue is to join up the connections in every part of these islands.
We also have to consider the issue of tackling demand in the OCTF strategy. Members referred to the fact that it is a criminal offence to pay for the sexual services of a woman who is subject to force. I hope that that will make anybody tempted in that direction think seriously about it and the fact that that simple act will give them a criminal record. People should be extremely careful of their responsibilities in that respect. I have also asked the Home Office to review the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to include construction, hospitality and the catering industry alongside agriculture and fisheries, which will provide protection for some victims of forced labour.
The Department has been active in seeking to raise awareness of human trafficking, particularly among the general public but also with the relevant agencies. That was why, in January of last year, we relaunched the Blue Blindfold awareness campaign, which Members have referred to, encouraging people to find out about human trafficking and to report their concerns to the police or to Crimestoppers. That campaign has a very high recognition level, considering the relatively limited sums of money that were available to spend on advertising. I urge Members, as others have done, to go to the Blue Blindfold website and get the information about the signs to look out for. If Members ensure that they are informed, they can assist their constituents who have concerns.
The key issue of OCTF’s work across a number of crimes is that of changing the mindset. That covers all kinds of organised crime, but is, I believe, absolutely key in connection with the foul crime of trafficking. People need to be informed about what their exploitation is doing.
There were references in the debate to the increased penalty levels; in fact, Anna Lo quoted the average sentence that somebody might receive. Holding someone in servitude can receive a maximum sentence of 14 years, and I suspect that, across the range of offences, that is adequate. Members have to recognise that sentencing is, of course, a mater for the judiciary. However, the fact that we have now had a conviction for human trafficking, and other cases are in the pipeline, shows that things are moving.
I welcome the fact that the Committee Chair gave the commitment of the Committee to legislate further if required. We are looking at the EU directive, and I am pleased to say that, as the law stands in Northern Ireland, we have very little to do to deal with it. Opting into the directive will ensure that the UK as a whole remains at the forefront of world action in this area. We require two relatively minor changes to primary legislation, which would include extending powers to prosecute UK nationals who commit offences anywhere in the world and dealing with trafficking within the United Kingdom. Those changes fall within the competence of the Assembly.
In answer to the point raised by Lord Morrow, consultation will, I hope, begin shortly, after I have discussed the issue with the Justice Committee and the Executive. It is possible that we will have amendments to our law in place, in line with the EU directive, by April of next year. That is also in line with the proposals for England and Wales. We are not, in that sense, lagging in any way behind other UK jurisdictions. The consultation will allow people to give wider opinions as to how they see the problem and make any further suggestions for what they believe may be necessary.
In her proposing speech, Caitríona Ruane called for a public inquiry. Measures are already in place to monitor our response to human trafficking, including those of the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which has the cheery acronym of GRETA. It has responsibility for ensuring that member states comply with the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Northern Ireland was inspected as part of a UK-wide inspection in October last year, and we await the report of that evaluation. I assure Members that if the report makes recommendations, I will take them to the relevant justice agencies to ensure that we maintain our position at the forefront of dealing with this crime. The fact that we have opted into the EU directive and are fully involved with the Council of Europe convention are indications that this jurisdiction is moving forward. Therefore, I am not sure what an inquiry would add to that.
I turn now to the motion and the amendment and the remarks made generally around the Chamber. This is something about which we can say that, with the slight query that I raised about the penalty levels as opposed to the judicial application, there was unanimity in the debate, and I have great pleasure in maintaining that unanimity in my response. I hope that I have shown that many of the points covered in the debate are issues on which the Department is taking action, and will continue to take action, to ensure that we protect the vulnerable, deal with victims and take action against the perpetrators of this crime.
In conclusion, I would like to praise the NGOs that work most closely with us, particularly Women’s Aid and Migrant Helpline, but also other voluntary and church groups across Northern Ireland that are raising awareness in their areas. I add my words of praise for the police, not just the PSNI but the cross-border co-operation that we receive from an Garda Síochána and the co-operation that we receive across the Irish Sea from police services in Scotland, Wales and England. I noticed that, unusually in debates such as this, there was praise for the Department and the actions being taken. I was a trifle shocked by that but am grateful to have received it. I am happy to notice that the House has recognised the positive work being done by the Department and the various agencies that co-operate on the matter. That is a sign that we can collectively take a degree of pride in. I was slightly disappointed by the comments of Sydney Anderson, who spoke immediately before me, because I understand that, at the meeting in Portadown to which the Member referred, Peter Bone, the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking at Westminster, said that Northern Ireland was at the leading edge of work within these islands. We should collectively take pride in that. We should certainly not suggest that we do not keep up our efforts in that area.
I thank the Sinn Féin Members for tabling the motion and my party colleague Anna Lo for moving the amendment. I welcome the unanimous sense of repulsion from the House today for this brutal crime and the united commitment to ensuring that we tackle the problem in as robust a manner as possible.
The UK Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823 and the Slavery Abolition Act was delivered in 1833, so it is a brutal horror that, in 2012, the House must face what has rightly been described as modern-day slavery. It is an international problem, and it is a problem for humanity. It is one of the most disgusting crimes in society, as Members have rightly said. It is believed that over 12 million people are trafficked internationally every year, 79% of whom are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation, with the vast majority being women and girls.
My party colleague Anna Lo has rightly described human trafficking as a crime that generates profit from human suffering and represents a vulgar abuse of the most fundamental human right of freedom. I thank Members for supporting that view today. I welcome the first conviction last week for human trafficking offences, and I, too, commend the work of the PSNI and the Organised Crime Task Force. I welcome the reassurance that we have received today from the Justice Minister that Northern Ireland will set an unerring commitment to bring the full force of the law to bear on perpetrators of such inhumane criminality.
As many Members have agreed, we are not only a transit country for human trafficking but a destination point for this heinous crime. My party’s amendment seeks to emphasise the three-strand approach to improving our response to human trafficking — prevention, prosecution and protection — and has delivered a number of important messages that Members throughout the House have supported.
We must tackle the demand for sexual exploitation, and there has been unanimous agreement in that regard. We need a greater public debate and greater public awareness in order to prevent this brutality and to better understand the full extent of the crime. Any members of the public who suspect that illegal activity of this kind is taking place must report it to Crimestoppers or the police.
We must also improve our prosecution rate for the perpetrators of abuse and ensure that we have appropriate protection in place for the victim. We need a victim-centred approach that gives people who have been brutally violated medical, psychological, social, legal and immigration assistance, as has been mentioned, so that they can make the fullest possible recovery and feel safe and secure enough to make a full contribution to the prosecution of the crime. I, too, agree that we need to give serious consideration to our moral responsibility to work towards removing the threat of imminent deportation for victims of human trafficking, and we have to work with other institutions to meet our obligation by way of more robust legislation, be it from Europe or Westminster.
The Assembly and Executive must take seriously their responsibility to respond to this international and brutal crime in the most robust manner possible. My colleague Anna Lo has established a cross-party working group to ensure that we deliver a united response, and I encourage all MLAs to consider contributing to the group’s work. We have to work together to combat human trafficking and organised crime, and I welcome the House’s unanimous support for the motion and the Minister’s commitment to work to that end.
Go raibh maith agat, Mr Deputy Speaker. From listening to the debate, I think that everybody is united in their condemnation of this vile crime, and I am glad that everyone is sending out a very clear message to the perpetrators.
Before I start summing up what Members said, I want to say that it is worth remembering that human trafficking is a hidden crime. Members talked about the fact that it is not something that is in your face. A lot of people, therefore, do not even realise that it is happening on their doorstep and in their communities. Although we have debated the issue in the House before, I think that it is very important to keep it on the political agenda. People need to know that human trafficking is happening not just in another country or thousands of miles away but in the North of Ireland today. That is an important point.
The brutal nature of the crime cannot be overstated, and Members talked about that as well. We also heard about some of the human stories. A number of Members mentioned the Blue Blindfold campaign, and to get it into the heads of Members in the Chamber and people in our communities what human trafficking really means, I want to read out the following quote:
“Try to imagine being promised a good job abroad. You’re taken thousands of miles away from home to a strange country. The job doesn’t exist. Your passport is taken from you. You’re intimidated, petrified, penniless and trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. And you’ve no idea what your rights are. You could be sold on to become forced labour on a farm, in a cannabis factory or as a domestic slave. If you’re a teenage girl, you could be tricked into forced prostitution and made to have sex with 40 strangers a day.”
— some Members talked about even children being the victims of such crimes —
“You’re held against your will, physically and emotionally. Try to escape and you, or worse, your entire family face the threat of violent retribution, even death.”
That is what the victims of human trafficking are thinking and going through day and daily. People in our communities need to wake up and to see that that is happening on their doorstep.
I want to look back on some of the points made by Members. My colleague Caitríona Ruane, in opening the debate, put forward some very glaring statistics. For example, from 2009 to 2011, 73 victims were rescued from human trafficking by the PSNI, which said that that was just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, £500,000 is spent on prostitution in the North every week, and 88 brothels exist across the North. Those statistics make it clear just how common and prevalent it is. We heard that women, men and children are all victims. My colleague paid tribute to Women’s Aid and the other voluntary organisations that do sterling work in supporting victims, and I think that it is worth mentioning that again.
Anna Lo, in moving the amendment, referred to human trafficking as a global issue and said that it is one of the greatest evils facing the world today. I think that she is right about that. Human trafficking is the third largest source of income for criminal gangs, next only to arms and drugs. In fact, some gangs are actually switching from drug dealing to human trafficking because it is safer, in that there is less chance of getting caught or of being given a long sentence if they are caught.
Prevention, prosecution and protection are very important. We then went on to the issue of supply and demand. We really do need to eliminate demand. I think that other Members spoke about that as well. People who engage in prostitution know that some women and young girls are being forced into it, and that is rape. That is what it is, so let us call a spade a spade. Those people, in my view, should be charged with rape. People who know that and are willing to do it should be charged with that offence.
Members called on members of the public to not be afraid to lift the phone and ring the PSNI if they suspect that that is happening to someone close to them. At the very worst, you will look silly, but you could be saving somebody from this crime. So, it is very important that, if people have any suspicions at all, they ring the police.
The prosecution rate is still too low. Anna, I think that you said the average sentence was 4·6 years. The Minister talked about 14 years being the maximum sentence: we need to see those sentences being handed down to stop this happening and to send a very clear message to people who are engaging in this vile crime.
Paul Givan mentioned the scale and the nature of the crime. He also said that in some cases, although maybe not here in the North, human trafficking had been used to harvest human organs. He talked about the demand being created in society and said that we need to tackle that demand.
In his contribution, Ross Hussey mentioned the Blue Blindfold campaign. I agree: if you want to get some information and to have your eyes opened, you should go onto the campaign’s website, which provides startling facts, some of which are very difficult to read.
Alban Maginness mentioned the co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána and made the point that the North of Ireland is used as a transit point. It is also important to mention that the victims are not always foreign nationals; there are Scottish, Welsh and English people and people who live in the South of Ireland who are subjected to this crime and trafficked into the North. So, it does not just happen to people from countries far away; it happens internally as well.
Mr Maginness talked about people being repatriated to their countries and said that it was important that they go willingly and are not forced to go back, because sometimes when they are forced to go back they are forced into such slavery again.
Maurice Morrow told us a vivid story about “Victim A”, who was a 14-year-old girl from China, and the brutality and suffering that she was forced to endure after being forced into prostitution. He also talked about “Victim B”, a Bosnian girl who went into a housekeeping position. Those types of stories need to be told, because we need to realise that this is happening to real people.
In his contribution, my colleague Alex Maskey also talked about the blind eye that had been shown to the problem. Some of the PSNI representatives who gave evidence to the Committee said that, prior to 2007, people did not think that human trafficking was happening here. Although some were saying that it was happening, people did not believe it. Most people were, perhaps unwittingly, turning a blind eye to the issue. Now, it is a very real problem and everybody is working together to tackle it. It is very important that we continue to work together like that.
David McIlveen explained that prostitution is a big business and said that £25 million a year is spent on such services. He said that something has to be done to reduce the demand for prostitution and that there has to be a holistic approach to that.
Basil McCrea said that all forms of prostitution are forms of exploitation. David McIlveen said that as well, and I agree. No woman would choose to go into prostitution. Women become prostitutes because of their financial situation, and anyone who would say any different would need to talk to some of the women affected directly and find out their reasons.
Conall McDevitt said that trafficking was in the class A of heinous crimes. He also mentioned some of the people who are involved in the local car wash industry. I was not aware of a lot of that information, but it was very disturbing to hear that.
Sorry, I will not be able to go into great detail, then, about what the Minister said, but he did say some very positive things about how he will combat that. I was glad to hear him say that. We just need to send a very clear message: this is a heinous crime and its perpetrators have to be brought to justice.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses concern at the increase in human trafficking where people are brought in illegally and forced into a life of sexual exploitation, forced labour or domestic servitude; or are transported onward to other jurisdictions for similar purposes; and calls on the Executive to use all their powers to raise public awareness of this crime to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice and that victims are given the support and help they need, regardless of whether they are co-operating with the law enforcement authorities; and further calls on the Executive to meet the obligations set out by the Council of Europe convention (2005) and the new EU directive (2011) on action against trafficking in human beings by addressing the demand for sexual and labour exploitation, increasing penalty levels, adopting a victim-centred approach and implementing effective preventative measures.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
I assure all those present that I will not take 15 minutes to build a case. I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate calling for the completion of Millennium Way in Lurgan. I will start way back in 1976. To be more precise, in fact, I will start on 11 May 1976, when the then Minister with responsibility for the environment, a Mr J D Concannon, better known to those who remember as Don Concannon, wrote to the then MP for Armagh, the late Harold McCusker, concerning the construction and completion of Millennium Way.
Mr Deputy Speaker, if you will just permit me, I would like to read a short section of the letter for us to get a flavour for the fact that that stretch of road has been promised to the people of Lurgan since 1976. The letter states:
“Dear Mr McCusker,
You will recall a recent telephone conversation with my office on behalf of the Lurgan Chamber of Trade when you requested details of the current programming of the Lurgan through-pass. The provisional five-year major works programme presently being considered by my Department incorporates the entire Lurgan through-pass from Edward Street to the Gilford Road. The programme’s start dates are: Edward Street to Union Street, 1978-79; Union Street to Malcolm Road, 1980-81; Malcolm Road to Gilford Road, 1980-81.”
Members will be aware that it is the Malcolm Road to Gilford Road section that we are speaking about, and that, to date, has not been constructed. I have no problem in making this letter available to the Minister for his perusal so that he can add it to the file that is sitting in the Department gathering dust, and, after these 30 years, I imagine that the dust is probably quite thick.
In all seriousness, however, for 30 years traders and elected representatives have, in my opinion, been given the runaround by being given promises and commitments, as was the case in the letter that I just read out, that were, unfortunately, to no avail.
I am aware that Minister Kennedy is familiar with this scheme. When I met him back in November, along with members of the Chamber of Trade and Lurgan Forward and Mr Joe Johnston, principal of Lurgan Junior High School, the Minister expressed a desire to have the matter drawn to a conclusion and the road completed, but the funding of the scheme was where the difficulties lay. However, I would like to take this opportunity to impress upon the Minister the need for the completion of Millennium Way.
Lurgan suffered greatly at the hands of IRA terrorists for too many years, having been bombed on two occasions, when the very heart of the town was ripped to pieces. It has received bad press because of the divisions in the town. As a result, it still suffers from the effects of the Troubles, coupled with the economic downturn.
Business owners who have remained faithful to the town are keen to try to assist regeneration and are keen to progress. However, the current situation with regard to access and the bottleneck caused by the railway lines means there is a need for the completion of Millennium Way, which ultimately will give traffic the opportunity to bypass the town centre entirely. That would, undoubtedly, open it up for more businesses and shoppers, and it will give those willing just to travel through the town to another destination an opportunity to bypass the town centre. It is notable that the Chamber of Trade has been consistent since 1976 in calling for this. It remains committed to it and must be commended for its efforts.
The completion of the final phase of Millennium Way would open up further development opportunities in the town and on the outskirts, as it would open up development sites within the town boundary.
Furthermore, it would assist in achieving what the public realm works seek to achieve: to make Lurgan’s town centre more pedestrian-friendly. At present, there is gridlock in the town, particularly at rush hour, with queues backed up. The link road would give motorists who have no reason to travel via the town centre the option to bypass it. Phase 1 of the public realm works has been a huge success in changing the aesthetics of the town. We are delighted that phase 2 is imminent, as it will further enhance the town visually and bring about a sense of completion. However, given the significant funding that has been given by DSD and OFMDFM for the public realm works, it is of utmost importance that DRD buy into that opportunity to make real change in Lurgan. Often, in the House, we talk about collaborative working and the need for a joined-up approach. That would be a joined-up approach that would deliver for traders, road users and the general public.
In addition to the business folks who desire completion, so, too, do the parents, pupils and principal of Lurgan Junior High School. The school has 618 pupils, all of whom have to access the school via Toberhewny Lane. It, too, is a complete bottleneck, particularly at school drop-off and collection times. The access has serious health and safety implications owing to a lack of space, and the Millennium Way project would give the school an additional access point. Furthermore, in the past couple of years, SELB, along with Sport Northern Ireland, Craigavon Borough Council and the Big Lottery Fund, spent significant money on developing two state-of-the-art 3G pitches, both of which have to be accessed via the school. That leaves the school vulnerable, particularly when the pitches are being used after school hours. If Millennium Way were completed, direct access to the top-of-the-range 3G pitches would be available, which would bring significant benefits to those who use those excellent and much needed facilities.
In conclusion, the cost of that work has been indicated by the Minister to be about £6 million or £7 million. In the grand scheme of things, that is not a significant amount; it represents a minute percentage of the Department’s overall budget. Therefore, in tabling the Adjournment topic, I urge the Minister to sanction the completion of Millennium Way in Lurgan as soon as possible before the town is further affected by the economic downturn and daily significant traffic problems.
I support the Adjournment topic. As the previous Member to speak said, it is a long-running issue in Lurgan; it dates from as far back as 1976 and, perhaps, beyond. It is an important factor in Lurgan’s redevelopment. As has been pointed out, through the decades —perhaps even the centuries — Lurgan has seen significant troubles and events from all quarters. However, it has undergone regeneration, and its town centre is a fine example of how towns have benefitted from the town regeneration scheme, which is sponsored by DSD. It now has significant plazas and street improvements, which greatly enhance the look of the town. It is a place where businesses should be supported in developing and moving forward.
However, as with all such development, infrastructure is required. Not only has the first phase of the Millennium Way project eased traffic congestion, it has opened up the area known as the backlands of Lurgan to further development. Although, unfortunately, the recession has affected that area, that is investment for the future. A significant proportion of land that was once not open to development is now available for future development. Phase 2 is an opportunity to open up further land for future development for commercial use, business use and, perhaps, housing. Therefore, Millennium Way is not simply about a road; it is about opening up Lurgan to future development and encouraging businesses that are already there and others to come along in the future.
It is a long-running issue. I am acutely aware of the financial pressures bearing down on Departments. On at least one occasion, I had the previous Minister for Regional Development Conor Murphy in the town to have discussions with Lurgan Forward, the company that has been very active in promoting the project, to look at options for how to move it forward.
One option being explored was to open up land so that a private developer could contribute to the road project. Unfortunately, as I said, the recession has hit us, and that is no longer an option.
However, if the Minister can identify funds in his limited budget, the development of the Millennium Way will significantly improve infrastructure in Lurgan and allow the town to develop further. Its development would be a vote of confidence for businesses already there and allow other businesses to come into the town centre and the outer areas. As Mr Moutray said, it would also ease traffic congestion around Lurgan Junior High School and address a number of other major issues.
I support the motion. The Minister will, no doubt, be aware of the issues. It is important that we raise the profile of the project once again and, if they are available in the Department, moneys be directed to it.
I thank the Member who tabled the Adjournment topic for enabling us to debate an issue that, as we have heard, is of great importance to the people and businesses of Lurgan.
Upper Bann MLAs had the opportunity to meet representatives of Lurgan traders here at Stormont last June. We heard their concerns at first hand. Indeed, we need only take a short drive down Lurgan Main Street to see those concerns for ourselves. It is not good for a town to have so many businesses that have closed and businesses that are going through tough economic times. Lurgan has been especially hard hit. The traders told us that, in some cases, their properties’ rates exceed the rents and that they find it incredibly hard to get tenants for their premises. I commend the longstanding work of the Craigavon Industrial Development Organisation (CIDO), which I visited recently along with party colleagues. It is working very hard to bring new small businesses to Craigavon borough and incubate them.
The benefits of the completion of the Millennium Way have long been clear. Indeed, over the years, those benefits have been raised a number of times with successive Regional Development Ministers in the House by Upper Bann MLAs in broad agreement. The completion of the project would provide an economic corridor for Lurgan. It is an important element of moving Lurgan forward, socially and economically. Its completion would provide important opportunities for existing and new businesses to expand in Lurgan, generating local economic growth and creating much-needed jobs.
Upper Bann MLAs from across all parties have helped to support the Lurgan branch of the YMCA, which is engaged in the construction of a new purpose-built centre. Once constructed, the centre will be on the edge of the Millennium Way. Access to it would benefit greatly from the completion of the project. The Ulster Unionist Party in Upper Bann has lobbied the Minister for Regional Development since he took up his position in May 2011. We have made the case for Lurgan, and I am hopeful that the project will be completed under an Ulster Unionist Minister. Last October, I asked the Minister for an update in a question for written answer and had two meetings with him at which this important issue was discussed. In answer, the Minister advised me that the preliminary design of the Millennium Way scheme had been completed and planning approval obtained.
I am aware that funding is a stumbling block. Having been given the opportunity to speak on the issue today, I again urge the Minister to ensure that Roads Service completes all the necessary steps to progress the scheme through the statutory processes so that, when funding does become available, it can commence immediately.
I am sure that other Members will join me in welcoming the Minister’s announcement last Friday of a £3·6 million investment in rail infrastructure in the borough. That will totally transform and modernise facilities at Portadown railway station. The Ulster Unionist Party is delivering on the issues that matter for the people and businesses of Craigavon borough. I press the Minister again to do all that he can to progress the completion of what I have called the economic corridor of the Millennium Way. I hope that its completion will not be a long way off.
I commend my colleague from Upper Bann for securing the debate. It highlights an issue that is important for the development of Lurgan not only for commercial reasons but for obvious traffic management reasons. Is it churlish of me to say that it would be quite a landmark achievement if an Ulster Unionist Minister were to complete the road, given that, some 30 years ago, the MP for the area of upper Bann stopped the work when money was available? That fact is in the archives of the ‘Lurgan Mail’, and I have articulated it on previous occasions. Let us hope that the Ulster Unionists finally finish the work that the people desired some 30 years ago.
Members who know the area well will be aware that there is substantial brownfield development on both sides of the main street in Lurgan. Millennium Way would go some distance to freeing up and providing additional opportunities for economic and commercial investment in the town centre. I am sure that colleagues referred to the traffic congestion problems that people who travel along the main street in Lurgan experience. A lot of that — I am sure that the Minister has been lobbied about the issue on numerous occasions — is caused by the unique situation in Lurgan in relation to the William Street crossing and the fact that the railway station cuts off a main part of the town and the arterial route from the M1.
Many years ago, Craigavon Borough Council and the Department had a temporary requirement for land; I think that it is where the Classic Mineral Water Company factory is located. Some land was set aside to provide a better road between William Street and Edward Street to avoid some of the town centre. I ask you, Minister, to resurrect some of those proposals and look at how that could be achieved, given the modern-day requirements of travellers.
The traffic signalling in Edward Street is another problem that adds to travellers’ difficulties. Many years ago, traders in that area campaigned against a roundabout, but it would be useful if a survey could be carried out to look at whether the traffic lights are an advantage. Many people say that they are a disadvantage because, as Millennium Way is not completed, people continue to use the main streets in Lurgan. There can be a huge traffic backlog because of the various traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and the railway. I would be very grateful, Minister, for your Department’s urgent appraisal of the whole traffic situation and the development that is required to get Lurgan back on its feet with the completion of Millennium Way.
I congratulate my colleague Stephen Moutray for securing the debate. As an MLA for Upper Bann, I have a desire for that stretch of road to be completed. It has been promised for many years, as has been outlined by my colleague.
It is a timely debate, given the further spend that is due to be made in Lurgan by the Department for Social Development (DSD) on the completion of the public realm works, to which Members have referred. In a previous role in Craigavon Borough Council, I was involved in the public realm phase 1 in Lurgan and Portadown. The overarching aim of the works was to help to make the towns more accessible to shoppers and the public. Phase 2 for Lurgan, which is imminent, will see the completion of the public realm works. However, it will not achieve the aims of making the town less busy for vehicles and more appealing to pedestrians unless Millennium Way is completed. That will allow an alternative route for traffic that wishes to bypass the town. The current layout does not lend itself to that because of the bottleneck that is created by the railway crossing. Traders, motorists and developers have lobbied for the road’s completion for many years. The fact that it has been promised is somewhat disheartening for traders who are struggling in the economic downturn.
It goes without saying that Lurgan, like many towns throughout Northern Ireland, is struggling economically, with many businesses having closed and many vacant properties existing in the town centre. However, if the completion of Millennium Way were to take place, it would assist in regenerating the town and bring about new development opportunities. The stretch of road in question would open up development sites that lie within the town boundary, allowing for business growth and expansion. Additionally, the conservation rules within Lurgan town centre are undoubtedly hampering growth and locking much land that is available to the rear of the town centre properties. However, if Millennium Way were to be completed, I believe that it would open up new lands and greater opportunities that would allow existing businesses to expand and would assist in attracting new businesses to the area.
The Department for Regional Development needs to take its lead from DSD, which is delivering in Lurgan and seeks to bring about real change to the aesthetics of the town. However, ultimately, unless the completion of this road complements the DSD project, it will not meet its aim of making the town centre more accessible to shoppers and the general public.
Millennium Way, if completed, would help to alleviate the serious traffic problem that has existed for many years. Its completion will assist in opening up land for development, thus fostering economic growth in the town, and would help existing businesses that wish to expand but cannot, owing to the stringent conservation legislation that exists in the town centre.
On the back of all that, I call on the Minister to dig deep and allocate funding for this much-needed project, so that this road can be completed as soon as possible. After 30 or 40 years — or what my colleague said — it is well overdue.
I thank the sponsor of this important debate, and the Members who contributed to it. I very carefully noted the comments and concerns expressed by Members and I, too, welcome the opportunity to debate the completion of Millennium Way in Lurgan. I am heartened, not only at the cross-community support, but at the cross-party support that we heard across the Chamber.
Millennium Way, which currently extends from Edward Street to Malcolm Road on the west side of Lurgan town centre, was completed a number of years ago as part of a comprehensive development plan. In addition to opening up land on that side of the town centre for development, the new road also provides a high-quality distributor road, and an alternative route, allowing motorists to avoid the congestion that occurs on a daily basis along Market Street and High Street, especially during times of peak traffic flow. I understand that there has always been an expectation that Millennium Way would be extended southwards, from Malcolm Road to the junction of Gilford Road and Banbridge Road.
As Members outlined, I received considerable representations about the extension of that road from elected representatives, traders and local businesspeople, and from the principal of Lurgan Junior High, Mr Johnston; and I have taken the opportunity to meet local traders and elected representatives to discuss their concerns.
I can fully understand the benefits that an extension of Millennium Way, from Malcolm Road to Gilford Road, could be expected to provide, including the relieving of peak hour traffic congestion on the road network in that part of Lurgan. In addition, that improvement would also improve the attractiveness of Millennium Way as a through-traffic route generally.
Following the publication of ‘Shaping Our Future — the Regional Development Strategy for Northern Ireland 2025’ and the ‘Regional Transportation Strategy for Northern Ireland 2002-2012’, the Department developed three transport plans, including the ‘Sub-Regional Transport Plan 2015’. The proposal to extend Millennium Way in Lurgan is included as one of a number of proposed highway improvement schemes in the ‘Sub-Regional Transport Plan 2015’. Roads Service, with the help of its technical advisers, has developed plans for the scheme and initially received planning approval in December 2006. However, funding was not available at that time and the scheme did not progress. Roads Service has confirmed that an application to renew the planning approval was submitted and was subsequently validated by the Planning Service in January 2012, just last month.
I can confirm that the traffic and economic assessments that have been undertaken indicate that the scheme would provide good value for money, with transportation benefits, including peak-time traffic benefits on the road network in that part of Lurgan, exceeding the costs involved in providing this improvement. However, the limited funding that has been available for capital improvements has been fully committed to a programme of major improvement schemes on the strategic road network, and, as indicated in my Department’s 2008 investment delivery plan for roads, current funding levels do not enable Roads Service to promote improvement schemes that are on the non-strategic road network. I advise that neither Millennium Way nor its extension to Gilford Road form part of the strategic road network. However, as I have indicated on other occasions, the timing of future road improvements will be dependent on the resources that are available to develop and construct those schemes. In due course, the funding levels will materialise from the investment strategy for Northern Ireland 2011-2021, which has been published for consultation.
I assure Members that I acknowledge the arguments they made today describing the need to extend Millennium Way from Malcolm Road to Gilford Road. I am convinced of the merits of that scheme, as I am convinced of the merits of other schemes about which I have received similar representations. As the Minister for Regional Development, I want to see improvements across the road network that will enhance safety, reduce journey times and provide value for money. However, there are sizeable pressures on the Executive’s capital funding and on the capital budget of my Department. As a result, unfortunately, difficult choices will have to be made over the next few years to deliver the best services and infrastructure in the areas of water and sewerage, roads and public transport.
When the funding is confirmed, I intend to consider the spending priorities across my Department. I will explore opportunities to bring forward non-strategic improvement schemes such as the extension of Millennium Way in Lurgan. I point out that the regional development strategy understandably gives preference to the needs of the strategic road network. However, I understand the frustration and the calls that I have heard not only today but since taking up my post as Minister last May.
It has been a very long time indeed since Don Concannon wrote to the late Harold McCusker MP. Therefore, I understand the frustrations of local representatives and particularly of the traders in Lurgan about this issue. Indeed, that point was made by the Member who secured the Adjournment debate, Mr Moutray. He also mentioned the fact that Lurgan Junior High School would greatly benefit from such a scheme.
Mr O’Dowd highlighted the fact that the scheme could provide significant regeneration to Lurgan and would open up the town and ease traffic congestion. I accept and agree with those points.
I thank Jo-Anne Dobson for her contribution and for her ongoing representations on behalf of people in Lurgan and the Upper Bann constituency generally. Along with her colleague Mr Gardiner, who is unfortunately unable to attend the debate today, she continues to press the case for the extension of Millennium Way at all times and at every opportunity. I assure her that we are moving forward as best we can with the statutory approvals that are required. Indeed, I mentioned the renewal of the planning application in my speech.
I was slightly concerned by Mrs Kelly’s rather churlish attitude. She seemed to blame the Ulster Unionist Party, but I can be responsible only for the period in which I am Minister. I tactfully suggest that others had responsibilities in the past but did not bring the scheme forward. I will investigate the issues that she raised about the land belonging to the Classic Mineral Water Company and the traffic lights.
I assure her and other Members, including Mr Anderson, who supported the case for the scheme that, as roads Minister, I am in the business of improving the overall network. I understand the significant benefits that the scheme would bring to the traders in Lurgan and the town in general, and I will seek to do whatever I can, within the existing financial constraints, to bring forward the scheme as quickly as possible.
Adjourned at 5.21 pm.