Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. On behalf of the Committee for Justice, I very much welcome the Final Stage of the human trafficking and exploitation Bill. I again place on record my congratulations to Lord Morrow and his team as we enter the final straight for the Bill. No one should underestimate the perseverance, hard work and commitment that it has taken to get the Bill to this stage.
Lord Morrow thanked at length a broad range of people for their support, as well as those who carried out the scrutiny of the Bill. However, it was Lord Morrow who had the vision and identified the need to try to do something. It was Lord Morrow who set himself the task of bringing forward a private Member’s Bill, which are very rare and difficult to navigate through the Assembly.
People will often ask themselves this question: what did you ever achieve in politics? What was your legacy? There is no doubt that Lord Morrow will be able to look back on this Bill as one of the most significant achievements of his political career and as a legacy that will stand the test of time. It is a legacy that is about helping the most vulnerable and giving a voice to the voiceless.
I think that that is a commendation that Lord Morrow is worthy of in the way that he addressed this issue and the tenacity that he showed, at times in the face of obstacles that were put in his way. The Department gave resources to try to undermine the work that was being done.
On the one hand, I accept that there was an engagement with the Minister on these issues, but there was also an attempt, particularly on clause 6, which is now clause 15, to undermine that aspect of it. Despite all that, Lord Morrow was able to navigate the Bill through the Assembly because the strength of the argument was overwhelming and convincing for Members.
As I said on numerous occasions, human trafficking is a heinous crime that devastates people's lives, which the Justice Committee heard at first hand. It needs to be tackled robustly and from every possible angle, which the Bill does.
While the Bill underwent extensive scrutiny and consideration during Committee Stage and the lengthy debates, particularly at Consideration Stage, and while a large range of amendments were made to it, the principles that Lord Morrow brought to the Assembly and the core of the Bill have not changed. In bringing this Bill forward, Lord Morrow wanted not only to provide a more effective legal framework to tackle and provide a deterrent to human trafficking and slavery offences but to provide the necessary support and assistance to victims of human trafficking. The Bill is very much an overall package rather than just the one clause — clause 6, which is now clause 15 — that attracted so much publicity.
When Lord Morrow first briefed the Justice Committee, he outlined that he wanted Northern Ireland to lead the way in protecting some of the most vulnerable men, women and children. He wanted other countries to look at us as a model for tackling the scourge of human trafficking. He also wanted us to adopt a maximalist approach that was in line with the spirit of the EU directive, not just the letter of it. I have no doubt that the Bill achieves both objectives admirably.
The Assembly should be proud of the Bill. Indeed, during the recent Second Reading debate in the House of Lords on the Modern Slavery Bill, a number of contributors praised the Human Trafficking Bill. Lord McColl of Dulwich paid tribute to Lord Morrow and described the legislation as "excellent" and "ground-breaking". Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws stated:
"I, too, would like to see a greater synergy with Northern Ireland and what is being drafted in Scotland. I think it right that we have been ousted by Northern Ireland’s progressiveness on this."
Given the importance of the Bill and the interest expressed in it, the Committee spent a considerable amount of time undertaking detailed and careful scrutiny of all the clauses, with the aim of ensuring that Northern Ireland has the strongest possible legislation to tackle human trafficking. That was not an easy task, and some of the oral evidence relating to personal experiences was very difficult to listen to. Those personal testimonies were very powerful, and they will stay in the memory of the Committee members who heard them.
The Bill will consolidate and simplify the legislative framework on human trafficking and slavery offences, and it will introduce new offences and penalties to strengthen the ability of the police and the courts to deal with the perpetrators. The Committee welcomes that approach, as it does the fact that the new offences will be triable on indictment only and the fact that a prosecution is not dependent on reporting or accusation by a victim and can take place even if the victim has withdrawn his or her statement.
The Committee also welcomes the fact that the Assembly supported the inclusion in the Bill of clause 7, which provides for a minimum sentence for human trafficking and slavery offences. The Committee is clear in its support for a robust sentencing framework that reflects the gravity of human trafficking and slavery offences and that indicates the seriousness with which such offences are viewed in Northern Ireland. The provision will send a strong message to the perpetrators of human trafficking.
The Bill also recognises the importance of providing appropriate training and resources for investigations into, and the prosecution of, human trafficking and slavery offences and places a requirement for the strategy provided for in clause 12 to cover those issues, which allows for a comprehensive multi-agency approach. That is a necessary element of the overall package of measures to tackle human trafficking and slavery.
Issues relating to whether a Northern Ireland rapporteur or the UK-wide Anti-slavery Commissioner was more appropriate to provide effective monitoring and accountability arrangements were raised and discussed during Committee Stage. The debates at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage, as well as the debate on the legislative consent motion in the Assembly yesterday, also provided further opportunities to discuss the key issues, which I will not rehearse again.
Suffice it to say, the Committee supported the principle of having an independent body to monitor and report on the response to human trafficking in Northern Ireland. However, it is satisfied that the role and remit of the UK-wide Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner will provide for that and is therefore content for remit of the commissioner to extend to Northern Ireland. There is no longer any need for the Bill to provide for a separate rapporteur in Northern Ireland.
As I indicated, what is now clause 15 of the Bill attracted the most attention, the most comment and the most controversy, and much of the written evidence received by the Committee focused on it. We listened to oral evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals, including some who are, or were, involved in prostitution, and held informal meetings with a victim of trafficking for sexual exploitation and a sex purchaser. We visited Sweden and met with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to discuss the findings of its report on a review of legislation on prostitution, which recommended the adoption of the Swedish approach of criminalising the purchase of sexual services.
The Committee agreed to support the inclusion of the clause, believing that criminalising the purchase of sexual services will curtail demand and lessen the incentive for human trafficking for sexual exploitation, thus reducing it and making Northern Ireland a hostile place for such activity. That stance was subsequently supported by the Assembly with an overwhelming majority. The Bill is much stronger as a result of the inclusion of the clause.
The Committee also accepted the importance of ensuring that support services be put in place for those who are in, have exited or wish to exit prostitution, and it is therefore pleased that the Bill includes such a requirement. One of the key strengths of the Bill is the assistance, support and protection that it will provide to victims and possible victims of human trafficking and slavery. This includes a statutory defence for victims of slavery and human trafficking who have been compelled to commit offences; support and assistance whether criminal proceedings are taken or not; the establishment of an independent guardian to assist, represent and support children; and the extension of the provision of special measures to victims of trafficking during the investigation and court processes. All these measures improve how victims are supported and treated and are very welcome.
Finally, I will move on to the commencement provision in the Bill. The Committee was the catalyst for the changes made at Further Consideration Stage. I am very pleased that, as a result, the vast majority of the provisions in the Bill will come into effect either on Royal Assent or within six months of it, and the requirement for the Minister of Justice to commence provisions with which he is not in policy agreement has been removed.
I would like to finish speaking as Chairman by thanking the members of the Committee for their commitment and diligence in carrying out the scrutiny of this Bill. I have been privileged to be the Chair of the Justice Committee and to oversee the scrutiny work for the Bill. The inquiry report that the Committee published into the experiences of victims and witnesses of crime was very important and will subsequently be legislated for in a forthcoming Bill, but this Bill is up there as one of the highlights of what the Justice Committee has had to deal with.
Some Committee members came to it, maybe, with different views and some, maybe, with hostile views, but as we listened to evidence, and as we sought to do our scrutiny work and get into the detail of it, I believe that people opened their minds and were prepared to listen to that evidence. As a result of that work — I believe that the Committee played a critical role in facilitating that — we were able to get to the point where there was overwhelming support for this.
The Justice Committee is very blessed in its membership. Undoubtedly, most of its members are some of the brightest in this Assembly, and they bring a particular skill set to the Committee.
I note that Edwin Poots has only just joined the Committee.
It would be unfair to apply that to him.
There are times when Committee members will raise issues that I do not necessarily agree with. Indeed, I may not always agree with the manner in which an issue is raised, but it is important that Committee members have the right to do that. At times, I have found that, even though I may not have always appreciated some of the tactics deployed, it unearthed issues that some of us had not thought about and revealed elements of the Bill that, maybe, we needed to consider and tighten up. Beforehand, I might have taken a very supportive role, but, as a result of some of the questioning, we were able to tease those issues out.
The Committee is one of the best in the Assembly because it nails down what the real issues are and puts its mind to focusing on those specific issues and tries to find a way to effectively deal with them. Other Committees can learn from how the Justice Committee carries out its work. Some may say I am biased on this issue, but the Committee is a model of good practice. It is a good Committee, because we get support from the Department of Justice officials. They supported the Committee as we scrutinised the Bill, and, as Chairman, I want to place on record my thanks for the work of the Minister and his officials in dealing with this.
I want to pay particular tribute to the work of the Committee staff and to Christine Darrah, the Committee Clerk. We, unquestionably, have been given the most professional support that was necessary, above and beyond what people may well expect in terms of the capacity that exists in this place to provide that advice to Committee members. There was not an issue that Committee members raised, from any perspective, on which Christine and her team in the Committee office were not able to provide information to allow us to deliberate on these issues. They did so, at all times, entirely impartially. I could not tell you what any view is of the Committee staff in respect of this Bill. I do not know; I have never sought to find out, and none of the staff have ever sought to tell me whether they supported the Bill or were against it. That is the entirely right way for officials to conduct themselves and provide that information so that Committee members can deliberate and come to the right position once they have sought that information. So, I want to thank especially the Committee staff for all their work on the Bill.
Finally, let me put on record my appreciation to all those organisations that came to the Committee and engaged with it. We produced a report of some 1,300 pages. We engaged extensively with individuals and organisations, and there is a broad body of work by the Justice Committee that I have no doubt many other jurisdictions will use as a reference point as they consider these issues.
At the very end of my contribution, let me reiterate my thanks and appreciation as an individual MLA on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party to Lord Morrow. We are immensely proud of him for the way in which he has conducted himself over the past two and half or three years on an issue that I know has consumed every fibre of his being and every aspect of his day in dealing with this. As a party, we are immensely proud of the way in which he has conducted himself and has brought this legislation forward for approval. I commend the Bill to the House.