I beg to move
I am glad to rise today, although much earlier than I — or, I suspect, the rest of the House — anticipated. That is the way things go sometimes. I open the debate by noting that, as Members will appreciate, the passage of this Bill has been a long journey for me. It is nearly three years since I decided to take it forward. It will be no surprise to anyone when I say that I am glad that the process is reaching a successful conclusion today. In my opening remarks I want to explain what underpins my desire to bring this Bill forward, before outlining my heartfelt thanks to the many individuals who played a significant role in seeing the Bill come this far.
Members may be aware that I am a practising Christian, like many others around the House today, and I have always strongly believed that every person is made in the image of God and therefore has an intrinsic dignity that must be respected. Human trafficking is a horrific abuse of a person made in the image of God. The process of bringing this legislation to the Assembly has made it abundantly clear to me that every Member of this House, regardless of their faith or lack of it, agrees that human trafficking is a heinous crime which needs to be tackled in this Province, even if there is some disagreement on how best to achieve that goal.
For me, taking action was very much motivated by my Christian faith and principles. I am not ashamed to say so. Others seeking to tackle this crime derive their motivation from another source. When I heard that this crime was taking place in Northern Ireland, I wanted to see what I could do to bolster our response as a country. As a Member of the Assembly, I was in a position to make a difference, so I looked into the subject and sought to see whether we could improve our response.
I brought this Bill forward because I believed that we in Northern Ireland could have a better legislative framework to tackle human trafficking and exploitation. From the start of the process, I had three main aims for the Bill. First, I wanted to improve support services for victims of trafficking and exploitation to ensure that those who have suffered from these crimes are appropriately supported and cared for. Secondly, I wanted to reduce demand for human trafficking and exploitation in Northern Ireland through a variety of measures. Thirdly, I wanted to ensure that perpetrators of these heinous crimes are effectively punished.
The Bill that we will vote on later today looks different in some respects from the Bill that I first introduced to the Assembly. The positive changes that have been made throughout the legislative process in the Assembly ensure that the Bill meets the aims that I set for it from the outset. I am also pleased that the Assembly has been able to agree on legislation that goes much further than the Modern Slavery Bill at Westminster. It is rare for us in the Assembly to lead the way in the United Kingdom in policy, but we clearly are doing so through this Bill, and parliamentarians at Westminster recognise that.
At this juncture, I urge Westminster parliamentarians to consider introducing the changes that we are making through this Bill during the passage of the Modern Slavery Bill. That is especially the case with regard to the introduction of guardians for trafficked and separated children and the statutory guarantee of support for victims of human trafficking. If the Assembly passes this legislation today, as I very much hope it will, victims of human trafficking will be better provided for in Northern Ireland than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom. The British Government would do well to reflect on that as the Modern Slavery Bill continues its passage through Westminster.
I urge Westminster to follow us in criminalising the purchase of sexual services. We, of course, have followed others in doing so, including Sweden, Norway, Iceland and now Canada. I will not dwell much today on the debate on clause 15. A lot of time has been given to it throughout the process, and it clearly has been the most divisive aspect of my Bill. However, I made that proposal because I believe, on the basis of the evidence that we have seen in other jurisdictions, that it is the most effective way of tackling human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and the exploitation of individuals involved in prostitution. I do not believe that this approach will solve everything, nor have I ever suggested that it would. In reality, as with many complex social issues, there is no perfect way of tackling the issues involved, but the evidence clearly suggests that the approach modelled by Sweden is the best available. It recognises the abuses involved in the prostitution industry and seeks to reduce the core driver for prostitution — the demand for paid sex. I can understand why certain Members opposed that approach. Some of the arguments made had some merit, but, on balance, I and the vast majority of Members of the House felt that it was the right way for Northern Ireland. It is an irony that what is allegedly the most controversial part of my Bill received the largest majority in voting: of those who voted, nearly 90% voted for it. That speaks for itself.
Before I close today, I want to put on record my thanks to a number of individuals for the work that they put in on the Bill. First, I again convey my thanks to the Minister of Justice and his civil servants for how he has worked with me throughout the passage of the Bill. I think that it is safe to say that the Minister and his team were sceptical when I first announced that I wanted to introduce the legislation. I can, of course, understand why that might have been the case. After all, I was a member of another political party and was looking to introduce legislation that affected the Minister's Department. However, I am very grateful that the Minister, over time, came to the view that he could support many aspects of my Bill, and he and his civil servants have worked constructively with me on its contents even though he disagreed with aspects of what I was proposing. It is to his credit that he was willing to put aside party difference to work with me on something as important as this subject. I can sincerely say that the Bill before the House today has been significantly improved as a consequence of the Department positively engaging with me on its contents. I also want to give special mention to one particular civil servant in the Department of Justice: Julie Wilson. She will no doubt be pleased to see the back of me after the Bill completes its passage through the Assembly. She had to deal with the complexities of working on the Bill when there was no real blueprint for how to go about it. She conducted herself with constant professionalism throughout and was always helpful to me as I sought to engage with the Department. It is very clear to me that she is a real credit to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The Minister, as, I am sure, he will agree, is very fortunate to have her in his Department.
Secondly, I thank the current Health Minister and his predecessor for their positive engagement with me on aspects of my Bill. Both Minister Poots, as he then was, and Minister Wells were fully supportive of what I was trying to achieve through the Bill and did their utmost to help to ensure that the best provisions could be drawn up. I am grateful to them both for their support in this matter. I should further add that the civil servants in the Health Department did an excellent job in seeing good provisions come before the House.
Thirdly, I thank all the members of the Committee for Justice, who scrutinised the Bill while it was passing through the Assembly. I know that it was not easy for members to deal with some of what was discussed. The subjects of prostitution and human trafficking are not easy to handle. However, the Committee did a superb job in scrutinising the legislation and suggesting improvements that could be made to it. All members from across the parties gave the subject the attention it deserved. I believe that the Committee has shown itself to be one of the best, aside from the Committee for the Environment of course. It has proved itself on many occasions during the Bill.
I do not want to forget the work of the Committee staff. Having been Chair of the Committee for Justice, I know how exceptional they are. I am sure that the Committee would want to pay tribute to them for their work on the Bill. I also want to give a special mention to Paul Givan for his work as Chair of the Committee. I know that he will soon step down as Chair, but I want to thank him for his hard work on the Bill. He showed a sure hand in considering the legislation, and I have no doubt that he is destined for greater things in the months and years ahead. I wish him well. I hope that he enjoys his private Member's Bill process as much as I have, as he brings forward his Bill in the coming months. The one thing that I will say to him is that he has plenty of work ahead of him; I can tell him that from experience. I also want to mention the Clerk of the Justice Committee, Christine Darrah, who was totally professional in all her dealings with me during what seemed an eternity. It is almost three years since I started on this journey. I suspect that many got weary of me. At times, I felt weary; not of them, but in another way.
Fourthly, I thank the Attorney General and his staff for their assistance in bringing the Bill forward. The Attorney General was consistently available to me throughout the passage of the Bill and ever willing to consider the legal issues that arose with regard to it, and I hasten to add that there were many. I greatly appreciated his wisdom and insight with regard to the provisions of my Bill, alongside those of his staff. We in the Assembly are fortunate to have someone as bright, intelligent and gifted as the current Attorney General.
Fifthly, I pay tribute to the Bill Office, particularly Éilis Haughey and Damien Martin. The process of bringing a Bill before the Northern Ireland Assembly is a complicated one. Éilis and Damien did a fantastic job guiding my team and me through the process here at the Assembly. They were constantly helpful from start to finish and were always willing to help out in any way that they could. I am very grateful to them both for their work on this matter. Having such high-quality staff in the Bill Office really makes a difference in guiding legislation through this place. I must also name the person sitting to your left, Deputy Speaker: Patricia Casey. At the very early stages, her guidance, advice and support was invaluable as she sought to steer me and, at times, maybe settle me down when I thought that things were not going forward. I put on record my appreciation of Patricia also.
Sixthly and finally, I thank the many NGOs that helped to support me throughout the passage of the Bill. A considerable number of them contributed to the consultation on my Bill and gave evidence to the Justice Committee on its contents. I am thankful to every NGO that contributed to the process. Without a doubt, the Bill has been improved by their input. I single out a couple in particular. I am extremely grateful to Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) for its excellent briefings and advice throughout the many years of the Bill's development. Its expertise assisted me greatly as I sought to understand the issue of human trafficking here in Northern Ireland. Dr Dan Boucher, Mark Baillie, Louise Gleich and Claire Wilson-Thomas were superb. They were very professional. They did a mountain of research. Whatever words I might say about them here today will fall far short of what should be said.
To Members who are contemplating taking through a private Member's Bill I say this: make sure that you have the right team around you. I was, to some degree, envious of Departments because they seem to have unlimited resources. A private Member does not have that; they must gather their own team around them. Fortunately, I was able to do that. I gathered some of the best expertise available in relation to this matter.
I also thank Women's Aid, Ruhama and Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment (SPACE) International for their support with regard to clause 15. Those organisations do invaluable work supporting women in prostitution not only here in Northern Ireland but in southern Ireland. They are engaged in work that seeks to see society change for the better. I found the support of Sarah Benson, Geraldine Rowley, Rachel Moran, Louise Kennedy and Noelle Collins to be of great value throughout the process. I am so thankful to them that they were willing to so positively engage with me to see clause 15 become a reality. Their expertise and commitment were total. It was apparent when we spoke to them that nothing was too much trouble for them. They applied themselves to producing and providing a lot of assistance to get the Bill to the stage it is at today.
I record my gratitude to the Law Centre and the office of the Children's Commissioner. I am aware that the Children's Commissioner is not an NGO but a quango of a sort, but it seems fitting to consider it here too. The Law Centre and the office of the Children's Commissioner provided valuable expertise with regard to the introduction of a guardian for separated children. I hope that they take pride in knowing that they played a critical role in seeing that provision become law.
Furthermore, I mention Gunilla Ekberg, who is a world authority on the issue. She was an adviser to the Swedish Government when they were taking similar legislation through, and I was able to bring Gunilla on board with me. I knew that I was in the company of someone who had a deep knowledge and understanding of the issue. I am eternally grateful to her for all the expertise she brought so willingly. She gave of her time unstintingly.
To conclude my remarks today, I make one thing clear: legislation, in and of itself, will not make a difference if it is not effectively supported and enforced. Today may mark the end of the passage of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, but the most important part will begin once it comes into force. It is my hope that its provisions will make a real difference to some of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland, whether they are victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation or forced labour or other forms of trafficking. I will watch closely as the PSNI seeks to enforce the new offences and the Departments of Health and Justice seek to roll out the provisions in the Bill, assuming, of course, that the House votes for the Bill at this stage. I know that the Department of Justice and the PSNI will continue in their work to tackle these crimes. I hope that my Bill will assist their efforts in this area.