Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are five groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 30, 32 to 36 and 74 to 79, which deal with fines and enforcement. The second debate will be on amendment Nos 31, 58 to 60, 69 to 73, 82 to 86 and opposition to clause 45 stand part, which deal with procedural arrangements and technical matters. The third debate will be on amendment Nos 37 to 51, 80, 81 and opposition to clause 38 stand part, which deal with the Prison Ombudsman. The fourth debate will be on amendment Nos 52 to 57, which deal with offences and penalties. The fifth debate will be on amendment Nos 61 to 68, which deal with the termination of a pregnancy in exceptional circumstances.
I remind Members who intend to speak during the debates on the five groups of amendments that they should address all the amendments in each group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on each group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points of the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Clause 1 (Application of Chapter)
We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 30, 32 to 36 and 74 to 79. Those amendments relate to fines and enforcement. Amendment No 5 is consequential to amendment No 6. Amendment No 14 is consequential to amendment Nos 11, 12 and 13. Amendment No 17 is consequential to amendment No 16, and amendment No 18 is consequential to amendment Nos 16 and 17. Amendment No 19 is consequential to amendment Nos 16 and 17. Amendment No 25 is consequential to amendment No 24. If all that is clear, I will call the Minister of Justice, Mr David Ford, to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.
In page 2, line 1, leave out subsection (3).
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List: Nos
1-30, 32-36 and 74-79.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Before dealing with the group, perhaps I could crave your indulgence a little to speak briefly about the progress of the Bill to date and, in particular, given that there are few other Members in the Chamber at present, to thank the members of the Committee for their assistance in progressing the work. In particular, I thank the Chairman and Deputy Chairman — Mr Ross and Mr McCartney — who have, as ever, displayed a significant commitment to ensuring that a complex Bill with a significant number of amendments has been scrutinised by the Committee and dealt with in a very positive way. It is also notable that this is the second successive detailed Bill in which the policy content at introduction and the significant number of amendments proposed by the Department have survived the Committee's scrutiny without significant impact. I am grateful for the Committee's support, although it is never without an element of challenge, which is exactly as it should be. Whilst the Committee is supportive of the Bill and my amendments, certainly in this group, it has tabled two amendments of its own: one in relation to the facility for clearing a fine through addiction or mental health treatment and the other in relation to the creation of an offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress. I am sympathetic to the Committee's thinking on those and look forward to debating them.
Amendment No 1 is a consequential amendment arising from my new clause 12A, the subject of amendment No 22, which I will speak to shortly. Instead, given the complexity of this section, I will speak to the amendments by policy topic, beginning with my changes to the vehicle seizure provisions. I will then proceed to the amendments tabled by Mr McCartney and colleagues and by the Justice Committee.
Amendment No 8 to the vehicle seizure provisions at clause 6 introduces an additional safeguard to ensure that a vehicle seizure order should be made only if the value of the vehicle, if sold, is sufficient to discharge the sum owed, including the likely charges and costs of the sale. On that topic, further adjustment to the vehicle seizure provisions is made by amendment Nos 27 and 29 to address comments made to the Committee by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Examiner of Statutory Rules on the regulation-making powers in clause 18. The amendments insert subsection (3A) to provide that:
"Before making a vehicle seizure order, the responsible court must, in satisfying itself that the order would be justified, reasonable and proportionate in all the circumstances of the case, have particular regard to the likely effect of the order on the debtor’s ability to earn a living."
As a consequence, paragraph (b) of clause 18(6) is omitted. Finally in respect of vehicle seizure, a minor and technical amendment to correct a small drafting issue in clause 6 is offered by amendment No 7.
Amendment Nos 16, 17 and 18 introduce new clauses 9A, 9B and 9C to allow the court to issue an arrest warrant for individuals who do not turn up for their fine default hearing. Currently, the fine default hearing process, under which offenders can be returned to court to have their default reviewed, can be frustrated by defaulters simply not turning up for the hearing. If the court is not satisfied that notice has been served, the case must sit in abeyance. The Bill will strengthen that process by moving from a notice-to-attend procedure to a summons process. To further strengthen attendance at fine default hearings, I propose a power to issue an arrest warrant in circumstances of non-attendance so that, when police encounter an offender whom they know to be in default, they will be able to arrest them and bring them to court forthwith or bail them to appear at a future default hearing.
There are safeguards attached to the use of the power that ensure that an arrest warrant can be issued only in certain circumstances. There are four factors: that there is no proof of service of the summons, nor that the defaulter is evading service, but the court is satisfied that a reasonable attempt has been made to serve the summons on the debtor; when the court is satisfied that the defaulter knows of the penalty and the possible consequences of not paying; when the court is considering the possibility of committing the defaulter to prison for failure to pay; or when the court is satisfied that issuing a warrant for the debtor's arrest, instead of reissuing the summons, is proportionate to the objective of securing the debtor's appearance before the court.
At the end of the new collection process, which will already have seen a series of collection options considered, the number of non-attenders at fine default hearings should be low. However, the power, should it be needed, ought to be available to maintain the integrity of the fine collection and default hearing process as a deterrent to those who are aware that they have to pay but might seek to frustrate the process and cannot be dealt with otherwise. My amendment Nos 16, 17 and 18, together with consequential amendment Nos 10, 15, and 26, will enable that to occur.
Amendment No 19 introduces new clause 9D to allow for the recovery of the costs of default hearings. Current practice is that fine default notices are served by post in the first instance before progressing to personal service by a summons server if postal service has been unsuccessful.
It is considered that existing provisions do not allow for the recovery of these summons server fees, currently set at £13 per summons. The costs are, instead, incurred by the Department, and, in the 18 months since default hearings have been implemented, costs have exceeded £350,000. Given the cost associated with personal service, I believe that the fee should be recoverable against the defaulter in appropriate circumstances. New clause 9D will allow the court to order the recovery of the costs of bringing a person back to court for the purpose of dealing with his default, where the court considers that that is appropriate.
I now move on to amendment No 22, which introduces a new clause 12A to provide for information sharing by the Department for Social Development with a court to support the provisions in the Bill that require offenders to provide income information to collection officers, so that the most appropriate collection option can be chosen. This amendment, together with consequential amendment Nos 1 and 30, will help avoid the situation whereby a collection officer can be frustrated in their attempts to secure income details where the debtor has failed to engage with the court or collection officer. It will allow the Department for Social Development to share social security information with the court or a collection officer so that the best and most appropriate use can be made of the power to make an application for deduction from benefits.
We intend to bring forward similar legislative provision to allow Revenue and Customs to share financial information with the court or collection officer for the purpose of deciding to make, or the making of, an attachment of earnings order. It was not possible to bring such a provision forward in this Bill because, as the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 is a reserved matter, conferring power on HMRC to share information cannot be done through Assembly legislation and so we must do it through Westminster. My officials are, therefore, working with their counterparts in the Ministry of Justice to progress a similar amendment through Westminster with a view to having the necessary provisions in place to coincide with the coming into operation of the relevant parts of this Bill.
My next amendment in this group is amendment No 79, which makes an adjustment to schedule 2 to the Bill to bring the prosecutorial fine provisions created by the Justice Act 2015 into the new fine collection and enforcement arrangements. This amendment will allow prosecutorial fines to be enforced in the same way as other fixed penalties and penalty notices already included in the schedule and reflects my original policy intent. Prosecutorial fines could not be included in the Bill at introduction, however, as the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, which created the new disposal, had not by then received Royal Assent.
Amendment Nos 33 and 77 to clause 24 and schedule 2 respectively then address omissions from the Bill at introduction to ensure that a supervised activity order cannot be considered as an option in default of a confiscation order given that, under clause 3(2), a confiscation order is outwith the proposed new collection and enforcement arrangements and to ensure that a warrant of commitment for default under the Bill is treated the same as a similar warrant under the Magistrates’ Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. Finally in respect of Part 1 and associated schedules to the Bill, amendment Nos 4 to 7, No 21, No 23, No 32, Nos 34 to 36, Nos 74 to 76 and No 78 are all minor and technical amendments to correct and improve the drafting of the Bill. That concludes my amendments to Part 1 and schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill.
I now wish to address first those amendments tabled by Mr McCartney, Mr Lynch and Ms McGahan and then those tabled by the Chair of the Committee for Justice. The first set of amendments are, I understand, designed to introduce protections to ensure that the fine collection arrangements cannot be outsourced to private agencies and to ensure that payment of a fine by deductions from benefits, bank account order or by vehicle seizure will not adversely impact on children or adult dependants of a debtor or extend the sanction to dependants of the debtor. I believe that the significant number of safeguards inherent in the provisions of the Bill already, supplemented by the amendments I am bringing forward today, make those Members’ amendments unnecessary. It is important to note that the new fine collection arrangements will be administered by collection officers in the fine collection and enforcement service. Under clause 2 of the Bill as it stands, collection officers must be civil servants from the Department. I do not intend to outsource these functions to any other body and, therefore, I am happy to give Mr McCartney and his colleagues that assurance. On that basis, I do not think that the proposed amendment to clause 2 is necessary.
Under clause 4, when making a collection order, a court may, if it thinks it appropriate, having first considered other available options such as granting time to pay or payment by instalments, order the collection officer to make an application for a deduction of benefits from the debtor. Subsection (2)(b) of clause 4, however, provides that that may only be done with the debtor’s consent. I understand the intention behind the proposed amendment to clause 4, but I hope the fact that the debtor's consent is required in that instance, together with the fact that a court would, as a matter of course, consider any representations made by, or on behalf of, a debtor in deciding whether an application for deductions is the right option, provides Mr McCartney with some reassurance. Again, I suggest that the amendment is unnecessary.
More generally, on default, collection officers will liaise with debtors to explore the person's income status, including living costs, other outgoings and number of dependants, as well as employment and/or benefits status, bank accounts and vehicle ownership and, in the first instance, will be able to grant extensions of time to pay or facilitate payments by instalments. If those measures do not prove successful, the collection officer can select an appropriate enforcement action, including exploring an application for deductions from benefits. Again, the intention is that deductions will be progressed with the offender's consent in the first instance, although consent will not be required if it is clear that they are not engaging with the collection process.
Those are not novel proposals, as provision for fines and other financial penalties are simply being added to the list of debts or charges that are already capable of being collected from benefits through the statutory third-party deduction scheme operated by the Department for Social Development. There are a number of safeguards in that scheme that ensure that essential living expenses are protected; place limits on the number of deductions that can be taken at any time; and establish a maximum financial limit that can be deducted per week. The provisions in the Bill do not alter any of those safeguards. The collection officer will not be able simply to impose on the debtor a deduction from benefits. Rather, the collection officer will apply to DSD, and an application may be rejected if DSD determines that an offender’s income is too low for a deduction for payment of a fine or other penalty to be made or if the offender already has the maximum number of deductions in place.
The Members' proposed amendment to clause 10 would require the court or collection officer to make a judgment on the debtor's benefit status and on the effect of a deduction, the level of which the court or collection officer is not responsible for setting, before making the application to DSD. That does not sound terribly practicable to me. A better solution is that set out in the Bill: that DSD, rather than the court or the collection officer, is best placed to determine whether to grant an application on the basis of the debtor's relevant benefit status.
In addition, clause 11 provides for detailed regulations to be made by DSD in relation to deductions from benefits that will include further safeguards by ensuring that payment from deductions for fines and other penalties will be placed sixth in the priority list for collection, behind housing and heating needs, for example, and only from certain income-related benefits. Those are income support, jobseeker's allowance, state pension credit and employment support allowance. For those reasons, I cannot support the amendments to clauses 4 and 10.
I have already outlined some of the protections around the use of the vehicle seizure powers. I imagine that such orders will be made rarely and, before doing so, a court must consider all the circumstances to be satisfied that making the order is justified, reasonable and proportionate in all the circumstances of the case. There will be full judicial oversight of the use of the order, and I believe that that is most important. The court will, as a matter of course, hear any representations made by, or on behalf of, the debtor and is likely to take into account the impact of making the order on the debtor's children or adult dependants.
I fully understand the intention behind the proposed amendments to clauses 6 and 18, but I do not believe that they are necessary. Nor do I think that the Members' amendments to clauses 15 and 17, which relate to the making of bank account orders, are needed. Where, rarely, an interim order is imposed under clause 15, only the amount of the outstanding fine will be frozen in the person's account. We do not want, nor will we seek, to have an offender's full assets frozen. Where an interim order is in force, in cases of hardship, clause 16 enables the debtor to make an application to have moneys released for essentials. Only the court will be able to impose a full bank account order, under clause 17, and an order will also only be made in respect of an account in the offender's own name; joint accounts will not be frozen.
I expect that the impact of the making of a bank account order on a debtor’s dependants would be a relevant consideration. I, therefore, oppose the amendments.
I also note the Committee’s amendments to create a power to allow an offender to clear a fine through addiction or mental health treatment through the creation of a work development and rehabilitation of debtors scheme and work development and rehabilitation of debtors orders. Unlike community-based sentences, by which a court may include requirements as to treatment for drug or alcohol dependency or as to mental condition, the imposition of a fine by a court is not designed to have a rehabilitative aspect. It is, rather, a pecuniary penalty imposed on an offender on conviction.
I am aware that arrangements exist in New South Wales, whereby persons who are suffering from mental health or drug or alcohol addiction problems can engage in certain courses or treatment as a means of satisfying the fine, but that is not an aspect that is associated with fine enforcement arrangements elsewhere in the United Kingdom or Ireland or, indeed, in any other jurisdiction of which I am aware.
While I understand the rationale behind, and have some sympathy with, the proposal, particularly as I share the Chair’s belief that there are benefits in tailoring court disposals to the individual's particular circumstances, I believe that further research and considerable policy development and consultation would be required to evaluate the merits of that approach and to identify any resource implications. Given the time available for the Bill’s remaining stages, it would not be possible to undertake and complete such preparatory work and make appropriate provision in regard to the Bill. I am, however, very interested in broader problem-solving and community approaches, and I know that the Chair is too. He is at least as interested in the new opportunities as I am, and, for example, he spoke of it during my Justice Committee appearance last week when we were discussing court estates.
Problem-solving approaches are in place in other jurisdictions, including other common law jurisdictions, and I know that the Chair paid particular interest to those points. I welcome that interest from the Chair and the Committee, and I would like to see more work done in the future to explore the benefits of such an approach for our justice system. However, I doubt if any existing problem-solving system can be applied here without great thought and very significant political commitment. I say that because, as the amendment recognises, many of the problems in society that bring people into the justice system will require commitment from Health, Education and, sometimes, other partners as well. The development of a Programme for Government for the next mandate is the opportunity to think strategically about the outcomes that we want for society, and I believe that problem-solving approaches will have a role to play in that.
I am not coming to this from a standing start. At the Justice Committee last week, the Chair referred to opportunities to look at different delivery models. While that is most welcome, it was a pressing need anyway, and the forthcoming OECD report, also referenced in the Fresh Start deal, will, I trust, have some interesting things to say to all of us. I have asked my Department to be involved in the OECD study, and I was grateful that one of the case studies in that process has looked at problem-solving approaches for justice. We should await the publication of that report, but I can say to the Chair and to members of the Committee that it is very much in line with my thinking and progress being made in the Department. If the political will is there to work differently for better outcomes, Justice will play its role in that.
I agree with Alastair Ross that there are many different ways forward that we should explore. We can be more creative, and we can look to community and problem-solving solutions. I will be keen to hear the comments that he will make during the debate today, following up the comments that he has made in other circumstances and, indeed, comments made at some of the series of seminars that have been run by the Committee. I trust that the assurances that I give of work being progressed in the Department, building on the OECD report, will ensure that he does not feel the need to press his amendment today, on the basis that the principle is accepted, and we need to work to see that better.
That concludes my comments, at this stage, on the first group of amendments.
Just before addressing the amendments, with your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I will make some more general comments about the Committee's approach during Committee Stage. First of all, I will say that it is perhaps unfortunate that, I suspect, today's media coverage of this Bill will centre on the group 5 amendments. It is disappointing because of the considerable work that members of the Committee, departmental officials and other stakeholders have put into the Bill to try to make reforms that will make a real difference. There is a lot of good stuff in the Bill that, unfortunately, will be lost in the media coverage today.
Nevertheless, the Committee supports the Bill and, in particular, the improvements it seeks to make to the current arrangements for the collection and enforcement of financial penalties, which are clearly not working and are creating excessive costs across the criminal justice system. The Committee welcomes the improvements that are anticipated by the Department, which include an increase in the current level of payment rates from 70% to closer to 80%, savings in police resources, which can be focused on other priorities, and a reduction in the committal rate to prison due to the non-payment of fines, with the resultant cost savings, assuming that the Bill completes its legislative journey and the new fine collection and enforcement arrangements are, indeed, implemented.
As well as the main clauses and a wide range of related amendments, the Committee considered proposals for a range of new provisions that are unrelated to the areas covered in the Bill. Those included proposals by the Department for changes to firearms legislation relating to fees; a new banded system to enable firearms dealers to exchange a firearm for a licence holder; the age of young shooters; proposals by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to increase the statutory maximum penalties for a range of animal cruelty offences under the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011; and a proposal originally made by Lord Morrow to enhance protection for the emergency services by covering attacks on front-line ambulance staff who are responding to emergencies. That proposal is similar to that for attacks on police officers and that is already on the statute books. The Committee also considered possible legislative changes to improve online protection for children following issues that were raised during its successful conference on justice in a digital age in October 2015, and a new offence that we are proposing on what is commonly referred to as revenge porn.
Given the various policy areas that are covered by the Bill and the proposed amendments, the Committee spent some time undertaking detailed scrutiny and sought a wide range of views to assist its deliberations. Written evidence was sought from interested organisations and individuals, as well as from the Department of Justice, the Department of Health, the Public Prosecution Service and the PSNI. The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Committee for Social Development also assisted the Committee in considering proposals specific to their respective Departments. The Committee received 21 written submissions, took oral evidence from a range of organisations, as well as officials from the DOJ and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and commissioned several research papers to assist its consideration of Part 1 of the Bill, which covers a new fine collection and enforcement system and possible legislative changes to improve online protection.
I thank the members of the Committee for their contributions to the discussion on and consideration of the Bill during the Committee Stage. I think that the detail in the Committee report demonstrates that we considered all aspects of the Bill and the range of proposed amendments in a full and thorough manner. I also thank all the organisations and individuals that provided very useful written and oral evidence and the departmental officials who provided additional information and clarification throughout the process.
Looking at the fine enforcement and collection element in Part 1 of the Bill and the related amendments that the Minister outlined in his speech, they will create an entirely new regime for the collection and enforcement of financial penalties. It has been clear for some considerable time, as I mentioned, that the current fine system is not fit for purpose.
A judgement delivered by the divisional court in March 2013 in five judicial reviews relating to the arrangements for imposing and enforcing fines and other monetary penalties in Northern Ireland ruled that the long-established practice for dealing with non-payment of fines and other monetary penalties was unlawful and that a fine defaulter must be brought back to court for a further default hearing before any penalty for default could be imposed. As a result, revised arrangements had to be adopted to address those defects.
Subsequently, a Public Accounts Committee report published in January 2015 on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service trust statement for the year ending March 2013 outlined that the value of unpaid financial penalties was significant and that the Comptroller and Auditor General raised concerns about the fine collection and enforcement measures and the system for dealing with fine defaulters. The PAC found that, despite the significant levels of outstanding debt, the Department of Justice had failed to coordinate a joined-up approach to fine collection, and, as a result, governance arrangements were unacceptable. That had contributed to a number of failings, including 6,682 paper warrants with a value of £1·1 million going missing, as well as suspected fraud.
Figures provided by the Department to the Committee in early 2015 indicated that the total outstanding debt at 31 March 2014 was £22·684 million, of which it was estimated that £7·335 million was impaired and unlikely to be collected. The costs associated with enforcing the current system are also significant, as it takes up substantial police time and results in a large number of very short terms of imprisonment, with the associated costs to the Prison Service and, ultimately, of course, the taxpayer. In these times of financial constraint, those are wasted funds that could be put to very good use, and it is unacceptable. It was therefore within that context and recognising the need to address the ongoing issues in the current system as soon as possible that the Justice Committee considered Part 1 of the Bill and associated amendments that it had sight of during the Committee Stage.
Prior to the commencement of the Committee Stage of the Bill, the Department advised the Committee of its intention to bring forward amendment Nos 1, 22 and 30, which will improve information access and sharing in the fine collection process, and amendment Nos 10, 15, 16, 17 and 18, which will provide a police power of arrest in circumstances of non-attendance at fine default hearings. That enabled the Committee to seek views on both proposals when requesting evidence on the Bill's provisions.
The Committee accepts the need for collection officers to have access to relevant employment, earnings or benefits information in certain circumstances to enable the fine enforcement and collection system to operate as envisaged. It was noted that the Department for Social Development was working with the Department of Justice to agree the level of access required to benefits information. An individual assessment will be carried out in each case, and it will be an offence for a person to whom the information has been disclosed to disclose it to another person or to use it for another purpose. The Committee agreed that it was content with the information access and sharing amendments.
The Committee is also content to support amendment Nos 10, 15, 16, 17 and 18, which will enable the police to arrest offenders whom they know to be in default, if they encounter them and either bring them to court forthwith or bail them for a future default hearing appearance. The original proposal has been amended so that it does not include a PSNI power of entry and search for such arrests. The amendments before us today are now a proportionate approach to dealing with those who may seek to ignore a call back to court.
During Committee Stage, the Department also provided information on and the text of other amendments to Part 1, and those are before the Assembly for consideration today. Most of them are minor and correct or improve the drafting of the Bill. Others, such as amendment No 19, which creates a power for the recovery of the fee for the cost of personal service by a summons server from the defaulter in appropriate circumstances in which the postal service is unsuccessful, amendment No 33, which ensures that a supervised activity order cannot be considered as an option in default of a confiscation order, and amendment No 79, which provides for prosecutorial fines created as a result of the Justice Act 2015 to be treated in the same way as the fixed penalties and penalty notices already included in schedule 2, make more substantive but necessary changes to ensure that the future fine enforcement and collection regime operates as intended.
I turn to amendment Nos 3, 20, 24 and 25, tabled by Mr McCartney and his colleagues. The written and oral evidence that the Committee received was supportive of the primary aims of the provisions to improve the fine collection system, particularly the move to a more civilian-based collection service, which will free up police resources so that they can focus on more strategic priorities, benefiting communities and the general public. Some issues were raised on the options available to secure the payment of fines through deductions from benefits, attachment of earnings orders, interim bank account orders and bank account orders and, in particular, on the potential impact on the families and dependants of fine defaulters.
When discussing with the Committee how deductions from benefits would operate in practice and the safeguards in place to ensure that dependants were not adversely impacted on, departmental officials said that the collection officer would request information on a debtor's financial circumstances by way of a means enquiry form, and that will cover income, outgoings and dependants. Deductions from benefits will be operated by the Department for Social Development under its existing third-party deduction scheme, which includes safeguards to protect the vulnerable and an appeal system through the social security appeals tribunal. The Department for Social Development controls include a limit on the number of deductions that can be in place and a maximum amount of 15% of the benefit being deducted at any one time. The collection of a fine will also sit sixth on the priority list for collection so that housing or fuel arrears and so on will be collected first and essential living expenses protected. The Department also said that deductions for fine payment would be restricted to income support, jobseeker's allowance, state pension credit and employment and support allowance and that benefits such as disability benefits, carer benefits, child benefit, child tax credit payments and other benefits provided to the vulnerable could not be accessed for the purpose of recovering a fine.
On interim bank account orders, the Department stated that they would freeze only the amount of the fine, and a requirement to notify the debtor of the possibility of an interim bank account order will be covered in regulations and guidance. A bank account order can be made only at a judicial hearing, and both interim and bank account orders will be made only for bank accounts held solely in the debtor's name. Joint bank accounts will not be frozen or accessible. The option for the debtor to make an application for a hardship payment will also be included in correspondence sent from the collection officer to the debtor.
The Committee, noting the safeguards in place, agreed that it was content with the provisions relating to deductions from benefits, attachment of earnings orders, interim bank account orders and bank account orders as drafted. The Deputy Chairman of the Committee, however, expressed reservations about the wider impact of the provisions and indicated that he and his colleagues would seek further assurances and commitments from the Minister today regarding safeguarding and protecting families, dependants and vulnerable people. While Mr McCartney will, no doubt, outline in detail the rationale for his amendments, it appears that they are a belt-and-braces approach to ensure that children and adult dependants of fine defaulters are not adversely affected by the fine enforcement methods adopted. I understand the rationale for the amendments and have sympathy for the motivation behind them, but, hopefully, the assurances that have been provided by the Minister today will reassure Mr McCartney and his colleagues.
I move on to the provisions and amendments relating to vehicle seizure orders. The Committee sought the advice of the Examiner of Statutory Rules regarding the range of powers in the Bill to make subordinate legislation. The Examiner drew the Committee's attention to the regulation-making powers in clause 18 and indicated that subsection (6)(b) was either intended to cover a matter of substance and import, in which case it should be fully set out in the Bill, or it should simply be left to the discretion of the court by omitting the regulation power from the Bill entirely. The Committee referred the matter to the Department for consideration, and amendment Nos 26 and 27 now provide for the issues that a court should take into account before making a vehicle seizure order to be included in the Bill. They include a recommendation from the Human Rights Commission that account should be taken of the impact of a vehicle seizure order on an individual’s employment to ensure that an individual is not deprived of their source of income in order to comply with the right to work and an individual’s right to employment and protection of income. The Committee is content with that approach and supports the amendments. Indeed, it would be somewhat self-defeating if we were to impede a person's ability to get to work.
Having noted that regulations will be made and detailed guidance provided in relation to vehicle seizure orders that will set out the built-in protections for vulnerable people and having received clarification from the Department of how the scheme will operate to ensure that the cost of it does not exceed the value of the seizure, the Committee agreed that it was content to support the provisions in the Bill and amendment No 8, which ensures that a vehicle seizure order will be made only if the value of the vehicle, if sold, will discharge the sum owed, including the likely charges and costs of the sale. Again, the Deputy Chairman expressed some reservations about the possible impact of vehicle seizure orders on families and dependants. I note that he has tabled amendment No 9 today, which seeks to ensure that this protection exists.
Finally, I want to outline the amendments that have been tabled by the Committee and the rationale for them. The Bill provides for the imposition of a supervised activity order that will require an individual to complete activities tailored to their needs and based on a personal assessment carried out by the probation service. The introductory sessions will include citizenship and money management modules. To assist in its consideration of Part 1 of the Justice (No. 2) Bill, the Committee commissioned research on fine collection and enforcement systems in other jurisdictions, including England and Wales, Scotland, the Irish Republic, Australia and New Zealand. That research highlighted that, in New South Wales in Australia, a pilot project that allowed certain disadvantaged people to clear their fine by undertaking unpaid work, courses or treatment for drug or alcohol addiction or mental health problems with the support of an approved organisation or registered health practitioner had provided an effective response to the offending behaviour. An evaluation of that pilot project by the Attorney General and the Department of Justice found that the scheme had helped to reduce reoffending in the fine enforcement system and secondary offending in the broader criminal justice system. It also engaged the individuals in appropriate treatment or activities such as mental health, drug or alcohol treatment that they might not have otherwise engaged in. The Department, therefore, recommended that the scheme should be rolled out across that jurisdiction.
Given the positive outcomes of that scheme, the Committee raised with the Department the possibility of extending the powers of the court to enable suitable offenders in Northern Ireland to be required to satisfy a fine by undertaking appropriate courses to address offending behaviour such as treatment for drug or alcohol addiction or mental health treatment as an alternative to supervised activity orders. While the Department indicated that it envisaged some difficulties with mandatory health solutions at that level of disposal, it undertook to consider the matter further. It subsequently advised the Committee that, while the court may include requirements on treatment for drug or alcohol dependency or for a mental health condition in community-based sentences, the imposition of a fine is a pecuniary penalty and is not designed to have a rehabilitative aspect, as the Minister has outlined.
The Department stated that the arrangements in New South Wales were unique in the sense that they can engage persons who are suffering from mental health, or drug or alcohol addiction problems, in certain courses or treatments as a means of satisfying the fine, which is not an aspect associated with fine enforcement arrangements in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland. The Department was of the view that considerable policy development would be required to evaluate the merits of this approach and identify any resource implications. While this would not be possible within the timescale of the Justice (No.2) Bill, the Department stated, as the Minister reaffirmed today, that it would be happy, in principle, to consider the proposal in more detail. It stated that it was willing to give an undertaking to do so and work with a view to potentially enhancing the fine collection arrangements at some point in the future.
The Committee believes that requiring offenders, in suitable circumstances, to satisfy a fine by undertaking appropriate courses or treatment to address the causes of offending behaviour such as drug or alcohol addiction, or mental health problems, is helpful to the Department’s stated aim of addressing offending behaviour and preventing reoffending. It also represents a form of the problem-solving model of justice, which aims to address the root causes of the offending behaviour rather than just punishing the crime, a model proven to assist in reducing reoffending and the associated costs to the justice system. It is one of the areas, as the Minister said, that the Committee examined during the innovation seminars that it held. Indeed, a representative from the Centre for Justice Innovation in London came over to talk about problem-solving in justice and how it would work by reducing the cost to the taxpayer and, crucially, improving outcomes for communities, victims and those who come into contact with the criminal justice system.
I thank the Member for giving way. He mentioned the justice innovation seminars, and I think that all agree that they were excellent and one of the best decisions taken by the Justice Committee. Is it realistic to look at implementing the policy suggestions and recommendations in the next mandate?
I think so. We have tried to look at examples happening elsewhere in the world that have realistic potential to be implemented in Northern Ireland. I listened to the Minister's comments, and I agree with what he said about many of the issues requiring cross-departmental support, particularly if we are getting to a point at which we believe that not all offenders need a criminal justice outcome. If, for example, and I made the point about this case in particular, an offender has a history of mental health issues, alcohol dependency or drug addiction, perhaps a health-based outcome or response is more appropriate in those circumstances. Mr Maginness, Mr Kennedy and I looked at that kind of system in operation in Brooklyn, where it gets support not only from across the political spectrum, republicans and democrats, but from the New York Police Department, the governor's office and the office of the district attorney. The reason for that is that it works. It works because it reduces reoffending and is improving outcomes in the system. It also reduces costs because it prevents people being sent to prison for short sentences.
I thank the Chair for giving way. On foot of the Member's point, it was, indeed, a very interesting and successful visit to Brooklyn in New York, where the problem-solving approaches were being successfully undertaken, and we could learn an awful lot from that. It is true to say that even the likes of Donald Trump would support this type of approach. The Chair has raised an important issue. I note what the Minister said previously, but it is very important that we pursue this and pursue it vigorously.
I thank the Member for that, and, of course, he is right in saying that Donald Trump is a supporter of this. For anybody with an interest in the current debates in the United States, whether on the republican or democrat side, the interesting thing is that everybody is talking about justice reform. When people talk about justice reform, they all talk about exactly the same thing: introducing problem-solving models into justice. That means that, rather than seeing justice as something that sits on its own somewhere, it becomes much more aligned and intertwined with healthcare and education systems, as the Minister said.
Justice systems right across the world are now looking at early intervention in education and appropriate medical intervention for offenders who have other addictions that are the underlying cause of offending. The US — in New York and Miami in the 1980s and 1990s — has undoubtedly been a pioneer in this area. Some of the judges whom we met — Judge Calabrese and Judge Ferdinand — were pioneers of this sort of work. It is working, and I note that, at Westminster, Justice Secretary Michael Gove is particularly interested in this, and I listened to some of the Prime Minister's comments in recent days as well. Momentum seems to be gathering, even here in the United Kingdom, to move towards that model of justice.
I listened to the Minister's assurance that the Department is keen to work on this. I hope that he is keen and that the Department, whoever the Minister is come May, is true to that and that we will see progress on this early in the next mandate. If that is the case, the Committee is agreed that it will not move amendment Nos 11, 12, 13 and 14 at this stage. I hope that, whoever the Committee Chair is come May, the Committee will also continue with this work and continue to press the Department. It is a valuable area that the justice system needs to go into, and it can improve outcomes.
On that basis, I conclude my remarks on the group 1 amendments. I will not be moving the amendments tabled in the Committee's name.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will speak on behalf of my party on the group 1 amendments. I thank all those who gave evidence to the Committee on behalf of organisations and the Department, and I also thank the Minister.
As the Chair said, there is good stuff in the Bill, and we broadly support its principles, but we have a number of concerns. I want to outline our firm belief that defaulting on a fine imposed for a minor or civic matter should not result in imprisonment if it can be avoided. We want a robust system to be put in place to protect the most vulnerable, because it is often the most vulnerable people who find themselves in custody as a result of a fine default. There are alternatives to custody, and, indeed, fine defaulters going to prison are often costly to the public and the criminal justice system, as the Chair outlined. Again, it is often the most vulnerable who end up in custody. We must realise the impact on families of imposing fines. We support the main thrust of the Department's intention to seek alternatives to sending people to prison for fine defaults.
Some 14,300 prison sentences have been given for fine default since the beginning of 2006. Non-payment of fines for not having a television licence resulted in 728 people receiving a custodial sentence. As the CEO of NIACRO stated, it is simply not a proportional response to this type of offence. Those people do not pose a threat to public safety and have not committed what could be termed a serious offence. The number of people going into custody for non-payment of fines is not sustainable and is at odds with a fairer justice system. Fine defaulters have made up one third of the prison population here. Clearly, change is needed and, indeed —
On a point of accuracy: at times, fine defaulters may have involved one third of admissions, but, given the relatively short time that they spend in custody, they have never been one third of the prison population.
Thank you. I accept the Minister's clarification. We welcome the Bill in the context of the numbers going to prison, but, as I said, we have concerns. The Bill contains proposals to recover fines by deducting moneys from benefit payments through a number of orders and the seizure of vehicles. We have proposed a number of amendments to ensure that family members and dependants are not unfairly impacted by that process. It must be understood that benefits are provided to give a minimum standard of living to families. Benefits are often the bottom line for many families. Without robust protection, these measures could result in further financial burden and distress for family members. Any deduction from an already low income may exacerbate the situation.
Mr Barry McMullan from NIACRO gave evidence at Committee Stage, and he said that people default on fines because they do not have the money. If you are a single person in receipt of £73 a week in jobseeker's allowance, it would be ridiculous for a court to impose a £300 fine and expect the person to pay it within 28 days.
As we all know, the person will often take the option of going to prison for a few days, at a heavy cost to the public and the criminal justice system. I acknowledge that the numbers going to prison have already decreased and are now down to a couple of hundred.
This brings me to our amendments. I want to acknowledge the Minister's letter of clarification. Indeed, he has reaffirmed it this morning with regard to amendment No 2 to clause 2. I accept the Minister's intentions. However, not all future Ministers in the Department may have the same intent. If, for example, a profit margin were to be realised in the future, a Minister might legislate to outsource to a private company. We cannot go on the assurance from the current Minister, even though I believe in his sincerity.
We ask for support for amendment No 3 to clause 4. The court is in a better place to make the decision than the debtor concerned. People who may have issues with budgeting and finance may not be in a frame of mind to make this kind of decision, which could have an impact on their dependants. They could be vulnerable or have substance abuse issues. Their desire to pay may not reflect their capacity to pay. The consent people give may not be informed consent.
We will not move amendments Nos 9 and 28 to clauses 6 and 18, respectively, on the basis that the Minister, following advice from the Human Rights Commission, will bring forward amendments to these provisions at Further Consideration Stage.
The Minister referred to clause 11, on regulations that may be made by DSD, in connection with clause 10. As yet, we have not seen these regulations. Basically, the Minister is asking us to take it in good faith that they will be fit for purpose. I ask the House to support our amendment.
The Minister's comments on clause 15 do not resolve the issue for us. As I said earlier, the total outstanding fine may not differ much from the debtor's total balance.
We argue that our amendment to clause 17 is needed to introduce consistency.
Just to finish, we are not moving amendment Nos 9 and 28 and ask for support on amendment Nos 2, 3 and the others.
In group 1, there are two sets of amendments, one brought by Sinn Féin and the other by the Committee. I think that the Committee amendments are very appropriate and timely. They highlight the need, which the Chair has led on vigorously, in and out of Committee, to develop a new strategy for offending, a strategy that involves problem-solving, where you take the individual not simply isolated in the criminal justice system but at large in society. That is an innovative approach. It is to be welcomed, and we have to do more work on it. The Minister has properly recognised that and that it is probably the direction in which the Department will go.
The Committee has been very supportive of the approach. These amendments reflect the Committee's consensual thinking on problem-solving. Let us take, in particular, those who are addicted to drugs or are alcohol dependent. It is very important that we look at them and see how we can help them. How can we rehabilitate those unfortunate enough to have these dependencies? Therefore, this has been a very valuable exercise. I understand that the Chair, having been reassured by the Minister that the Department will do further work on this, will not move these amendments. I think that that reflects the view of the Committee. The Committee sought to try to push the Department, so this has been a worthwhile exercise. I think that most Committee members are in agreement with that. My party and I certainly are.
The visit to the United States, in particular to Brooklyn, to try to see and understand the actuality of how another jurisdiction deals with these issues was a very worthwhile undertaking. Of course, we look at the American criminal justice system and see it as heavily punitive, and, of course, it has been. I do not know how many millions there are in prison in the United States, but certainly it is a very substantial number of people. With those pressures and the expense and so forth, people in the United States are looking for a different approach and solution to criminality. Therefore, the United States is now innovative in its approach to criminal justice. I do not want to go on any further; it is probably more appropriate simply to highlight the issues that have been raised by the Committee under the imaginative chairmanship of Mr Ross.
The amendments brought by Sinn Féin are worthy amendments. I would call them belt-and-braces amendments, because the Minister has included within the Bill safeguards in relation to fine defaulters to protect their families and dependants and so forth. I understand what the Minister said about the safeguards in the Bill, as it currently is, being sufficient protection. However, if we are serious about protecting people and the dependants and families of those who are affected, I think that it is helpful that we write those protections into law more clearly. That is, in essence, what the Sinn Féin amendments are attempting to do and, therefore, my party and I support them. I understand the Minister's assurance that collection officers will be civil servants and that he has no intention of outsourcing the collection process and having private companies as collection officers carrying out that process. However, I am not content with that, because I think that it should be in law. Of course, there will be regulations in relation to the collection officers, and those regulations will be governed by what we put into statute.
I appreciate the Member's giving way. Clause 2(1) says:
"The Department of Justice may designate civil servants in the Department to be collection officers".
I was merely quoting Mr Lynch, more or less.
This is primary legislation, which can be changed only by the will of the Assembly to move away from collection officers being civil servants in the Department. Therefore, there is no prospect of that change happening without the will of the Assembly changing. I suspect that the Members sitting to my right in the Chamber imagine that they would have a veto over such changes and, indeed, those sitting behind me would also wish to oppose such changes.
"The Department of Justice may designate civil servants in the Department to be collection officers for the purposes of this Chapter".
It does not mandate; it does not say "shall". This is the problem when we try to develop law and bring about good legislation: sometimes, we are not zealous enough in writing in protections.
I will try not to be like a jack-in-the-box. Whilst the provision says that the Department "may designate civil servants", there is no provision for anybody other than a civil servant to be designated.
I understand that point, too. I accept the Minister's assurance that, if he were to become Minister again, he certainly would not outsource collection officers, but another Minister might say, "Well, I'm going to save some money here. I'll outsource". Therefore, civil servants would be replaced by private companies. That is a real possibility under the Bill as drafted.
As a general principle, when any Minister, be they liberal or otherwise, says that something is not necessary, there is no cost to put it into legislation. That is the general principle. The Minister might be right, but if you write it into legislation very clearly that this cannot be outsourced, it is clear and unequivocal.
Mr McCartney has very succinctly described what I was attempting to explain, so I will not deliberate any further, save to say that we will support Sinn Féin on that aspect of things. We have great sympathy with Sinn Féin in relation to the other amendments. It is a belt-and-braces exercise, but, in the circumstances, it is necessary to give those protections and reassurance to the public.
This is a good section of the Bill. It deals with fine defaulters, which has been a constant problem. It was highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee and others, particularly the Prison Service, whose resources are stretched because it has to accommodate fine defaulters. Quite frankly, sending fine defaulters to prison is an archaic way of dealing with them. It is a waste of public resources. We fully support the intention of the Department and the Minister in relation to this part of the Bill and welcome, in general terms, the provisions.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to address issues in the Bill. I am a fairly recent new member of the Justice Committee.
This is worthwhile and important legislation, but I share the view expressed by the Chairman: much of the very good legislation that we are scrutinising today will be lost in later debates on more emotional/controversial issues. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to the work of the Minister and his Department, the Chair and members of the Committee and the Clerk and those who service the Committee and provide essential advice.
The group 1 amendments look at the arrangements for the collection and enforcement of financial penalties. It is clear that work is required in that area, given the considerable financial cost involved. There is much importance attached to trying to improve a system that is in clear need of reform.
On Amendment No 2 and Sinn Féin's concern about the private outsourcing of collection, I have listened closely, as other Members have, to the Minister's comments. I am satisfied that he has given a clear commitment that there will be no privatisation or outsourcing on his watch. I understand the points made by Mr Lynch and Mr Maginness, but in the legislation it is clear who the collection officers should be, and that will remain the case for the foreseeable future.
On the Sinn Féin amendments concerning the impact on the dependants of a debtor should benefits be deducted, my party is not persuaded that they are necessary. There are sufficient protections built in that cover a range of criminal justice matters, so we are not inclined to support the amendments tabled by Sinn Féin in that area.
The Chair of the Committee set out very accurately the original intention of amendment Nos 11 to 14, which is to address reoffending by satisfying the debt of a debtor who has a drug or alcohol addiction and agrees to a programme of counselling. I join with what others have said on that, particularly the Chair and Mr Maginness. I was part of the visit to the Brooklyn area of New York and saw at first hand the very innovative and creative work being done to address relatively low-level crime being committed in conjunction with drug and drink addictions. There is much that we can learn from the work that is happening there and in other places. I know that the Chair is particularly interested in that. I welcome very much the fact that the Minister has indicated that that is something that the Department will want to carry forward in the new mandate. Simply, there has to be a better way of dealing with people who find themselves, for whatever reason, in a situation where relatively low-level criminal behaviour is taking place to satisfy either a drug or drink addiction. That can be better addressed by government and other agencies working together with the Criminal Justice Agency.
So I hope very much that the clear signal has been sent to the Department, whoever is the Minister, that that is what the direction of travel should be.
Amendment No 22 was tabled by the Minister. It relates to the disclosure of social security information. I am happy to support amendment No 22 and amendment No 27. They are sensible changes and improvements to the current legislation.
As the debate progresses, and as we move through the various stages, I hope that we will see the level of consensus shown in the work of the Committee as it scrutinised that of the Minister and his Department. That was very welcome. It is an example of the Committee working well with the Department and the Minister to the benefit and improvement of legislation that needs to be in place.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward this legislation and for the way in which he and departmental officials worked with the Committee to do that, and I place on record my thanks to the Chair of the Committee and my Committee colleagues for the way in which we have worked in respect of this matter. These are very complex and difficult areas of the law for each and every one of us to work with, and we have taken a very businesslike approach to it. As others have said, and I concur, the Chair has been innovative in the way in which we have done our business. That was welcome; indeed, it is potentially a model for other Committees to look at for how they do business. It may well be an important legacy that the Chair leaves to the Assembly in respect of these matters.
Most of the amendments in group 1 are of a technical nature and seek to tidy up the Bill in certain areas. So I do not think that it is necessary to talk for particularly long about this group, as others have said. Many of the amendments are in direct response to the consultation with the Committee and from the very good communications and working relationships that, as I have said, existed between the Committee and the departmental officials. Again, I place on record my thanks to our Committee officials who worked tirelessly and very long hours to help us in the production of reports and the procurement of witnesses. They do so in all the activities that they undertake, not only those in respect of this Bill. As we come to the end of the mandate, it is vital that we place on record a word of sincere thanks to Committee officials and departmental officials for the work that they have done.
Amendment No 7 ensures that the seizure of property must make a return to meet the debts of an individual. That is a sensible approach. I particularly welcome amendment No 27, which requires the court to consider whether the seizure of a person's vehicle may disproportionately impact upon the debtor's ability to earn a living. There is not much point in taking away your car, van or some other vehicle, if it is your only means of doing your work. The justice system must always look forwards to rehabilitating offenders. Making it more difficult for debtors to earn a living would clearly be counterproductive, so that is a welcome change. In addition, the aim of the police being given the power to arrest someone who has failed to attend a default hearing is to improve attendance rates at such hearings, and amendment No 19 will help ensure the recovery of costs of hearings. We have heard some of the figures in the Chamber today. In economically difficult times, it is only appropriate that the Department recovers the cost of such administration, whether that be a small amount or a large amount, because it all adds up.
Information sharing is another area that was referred to this morning. I believe that it will be greatly facilitated by the passage of the Bill, particularly between DSD and collection officers. That is the most appropriate means of collection, whether officials can ascertain the information. I welcome the Minister's announcement that the DOJ intends to bring forward provision to also allow information sharing with HMRC.
I will move on to the amendments that have been proposed by Mr McCartney and Sinn Féin. There is a great deal of interest in them. Indeed, at first glance, they might appear to be perfectly sensible. However, in reality, I do not believe they are applicable to the Bill. I understand the Members' concerns about outsourcing collection, but I genuinely do not believe that, as the Minister stated, the employment to do so would be by anybody other than civil servants. I think the Bill, in designating the Civil Service and Department to be collection officers, makes that very clear. Therefore, I do not think that it is necessary to make the changes that are proposed in amendment Nos 2 and 3.
The remaining Sinn Féin amendments are, again in my opinion, unnecessary, although, again, I understand the concern regarding dependants of claimants who may have benefits deducted or assets seized. There is also provision to avoid such conflicts of interest. For one, benefits may be deducted in the first instance only if the claimant directly agrees, as set out in clause 4. In the end, the court already needs to consider the ability of the debtor to continue their lives and not to be disproportionately affected by deductions, which, as the Chair stated, are maximised at 15%. I would very much expect dependants to be considered an unavoidable living expense.
Moving on to the amendments that were proposed but not moved by the Chair of the Committee for Justice, I welcome the Minister's openness in pursuing, as ever, innovative means of rehabilitation in the justice system. I welcome the comments that Members brought back from the visit that they made to look at those, but it is not just in the criminal justice sector where there are innovative ways to improve and streamline justice. Coming as I do from a background in employment law, I think it is important that alternative dispute resolution is available across the spectrum. Obviously, on the civil side, I think that there are immense savings to be made through those areas of innovation. I have absolutely no doubt that our current Minister is innovative, forward-thinking and very content to look at, examine and, where appropriate, bring forward many of those alternative ways to deal with the criminal and civil justice systems through innovation and rehabilitation.
I welcome the Department's amendments, as well as their intention, which is to tidy up the Bill, and the response to comments that were made by the Committee, which has helped us to get on with the job of reforming this important part of our justice system. I do not believe that anything should be lost in today's debate in commending the work of the Committee, the Department and the Minister, who is delivering justice for everyone.
I was not sure that I was quite accurate, but clearly I was prescient when I started off my remarks by referring to the significant agreement on the measures that were introduced by the Department — at least, in this group of amendments — and the acceptance that there had been in the Committee of the amendments that were put forward by me to tidy up matters, particularly as they were raised during Committee discussions. It is very noticeable that hardly anything was said about the substance of the original proposals or the amendments that came forward to them from the Department. It is clear that that reflects the good work that was done by my officials, before they got to Committee Stage and in conjunction with the Committee and its officials. I really do not think there is anything that needs to be said in response to add to what the Chair and I said at the start of the debate.
There is clearly a very significant issue in the amendments that were outlined by Mr Ross and the very specific support for the concept of problem-solving and finding different ways of courts operating.
I certainly welcome the support that came from all sides of the Chamber.
It was noticeable in particular that Messrs Ross, Maginness and Kennedy all took the opportunity to tell us how impressed they were by their trip to Red Hook community court in Brooklyn. I am afraid that I will have to upstage them slightly and say that, three years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in Red Hook community court and speak to some of the staff there. I also visited the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan and, indeed, the court in Washington DC, and I saw similar work being done in all three. Given the snow that was around at the time that the three representatives of the Committee visited, if they had gone to Washington, they might never have got back, so it is probably as well that they did not. The most fascinating bit for me was that I had the opportunity to sit on the bench in Manhattan. I am not sure what court rules on allowing strangers to sit on the bench are like in New York, but I sat beside the judge as the judge dealt with a string of relatively minor offenders and did detailed case management. That was supporting the work being done by others — the equivalent of our probation service — who were managing the day-to-day work with offenders through a regular review and by ensuring that matters were not left to go wrong. That is an excellent example of how judicial case management can add significantly to work being done and how problem-solving has a part to play.
Nice try. I appreciate the point that the Member makes. The reality is that work has been ongoing in the Department of Justice and, indeed, by some of our partners across the justice system. I suspect that there may well be announcements in the fairly near future, including some that are based on discussions that I had with one of the justice agencies last week on that point. If you can calm your exuberance a little, Mr Kennedy, we may be able to show something moving on. It is not easy to reform the system in that direction. It requires considerable input from the judiciary, from a variety of agencies and from the management of the Courts and Tribunals Service, and it costs money to make some of the changes. I absolutely accept the Chair's point that we need to look at the practical effect of reducing reoffending to save costs in the future. That is why we are seeking to make that innovation.
I also had a conversation a couple of years ago with a district judge from inner London who is responsible for family courts there. The judge was specifically developing a problem-solving model to look at the needs of those with alcohol and drug dependencies in the context of the family courts. That is a massive challenge that includes significant input from people on the health and social care side as well from those in the justice system.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I would also like to talk about my travels and what I have learnt over the past year. The furthest that I got was Magilligan, where I went to look at some of the issues. On a serious note and given what my colleague Danny Kennedy has said, are any of the issues that you looked at three years ago linked to what we are doing at the moment with the justice innovation seminars?
I appreciate Mr Douglas's point. The reality is that there are a variety of approaches in many areas of the justice system that build on broadly similar concepts that are applied slightly differently in different places. It is a bit like some of the early intervention work that is done by a number of agencies with young people who are in danger of getting involved in the justice system. In one month, I remember seeing three projects in three different areas of Northern Ireland run by three different organisations. They were all built on the concept of establishing personal relationships, and that was what was helping young people. In the same way, there is almost an element of a personal relationship with the judge in the case management of some of the processes, and that is very significant. We have examples that are being developed, but it is not always easy to get them done. That work is being done in the Department and with partners across the justice system.
In this Building and in this Chamber, we may be fixated on the end of a mandate and a new mandate, but I assure Members that those who work in the Department of Justice will not be fixated on the mandate; indeed, when the Assembly ceases its present term, they will have six weeks entirely free of us to get on with necessary policy work without interruption by questions, Assembly debates and all kinds of things. I trust that whoever is sitting in the Department of Justice and on the Committee for Justice will see that a lot of good work has been done. The key issue for the next mandate —
I thank the Minister for giving way. We asked him in Committee last week what were his big ideas in making a pitch to the Executive for the next Programme for Government or Budget arrangements. If a lot of preparatory work has been ongoing for the next Programme for Government, is he suggesting that, in that Programme for Government, there should be a problem-solving approach and that Health and Justice will come together to fund that model to improve outcomes for offenders?
I never cease to be amazed by the ability of some Members to read my scribbles from across the Chamber, but Mr Ross is absolutely right on that point. I cannot give a commitment on what will be in the Programme for Government, particularly when it is an issue of joining up matters, but I highlighted in my opening remarks the work that was being done in the context of the OECD report. It is absolutely clear that that is not a Justice-alone issue; it is an issue that requires joining up.
If we are to have an Executive who will function in a better joined-up way, it will be necessary to look at some of the early intervention work and ensure that we use the opportunity presented by a difficult budgetary situation to build partnerships and find better ways of joining up so that we get the outputs that we need and recognise the benefits that one Department's work can achieve for another. There are real opportunities, but, if anyone in the Chamber at the moment is representing their party in the discussions on the Programme for Government that will take place after the election, I hope that they bear in mind Alastair Ross's words about the need to make specific improvements in how things move forward. I will give way.
Continuing, Minister, on the theme of how you deal with drug and alcohol courts in particular and delivering services quickly, it is all about the joined-up nature of it. While I listened with great interest to the experience in New York, it seems that, in other parts of the United States — I have some experience of this — the need for swift justice and the need to assist the person with the issue quickly are important and are recognised. However, if the services that the person is being sent to get are not there, this is just an exercise in sweeping the problem under the carpet. The situation in many states in the United States is no different from here in that mental health and alcohol and drug rehabilitation services are stretched, sometimes more stretched than ours. There is a genuine need in any future Programme for Government to require not just that the Department of Justice delivers at the front end but that, much more importantly, the Health Department delivers at what is, essentially, not the back end but the most important element of this.
I appreciate the point, although I am a little cautious about giving a commitment on behalf of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. We have seen examples, specifically in the listing of domestic violence cases at Londonderry court, where the district judge has made listing arrangements in such a way as to ensure that support services are available. There are clearly issues in how perpetrators are referred to appropriate programmes as well as in how victims are referred to the support provided by groups like Women's Aid. Those are key issues to ensure that we get a joined-up approach, but, at this stage, those are for the Department of Justice and its associated bodies and are not those that apply across the justice system, as the Member said.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I know that we have spent more time on this than, perhaps, anybody had anticipated. He talked about the pilot project that Judge McElhone is running in Londonderry — with mixed results, to be perfectly honest. The support required from other agencies is not quite there yet, although we are definitely moving in the right direction with that.
May I make a suggestion? Following his announcement earlier this week about closing courthouses, the Ballymena courthouse would provide an excellent opportunity for a pilot drugs court, given that the Railway Street facility is there and there may be a particular problem around that area. He could think innovatively about what we use the remaining court estate for.
I will certainly take note of that suggestion. I accept that it is a perfectly serious suggestion, although I have to be cautious about how buildings are used. The key issue, however, is one for the judiciary, and the key point is that he has specifically named the district judge in Londonderry. Mr McElhone's efforts have been very significant, and I have had recent discussions about how we replicate and build on that kind of work in different parts of Northern Ireland. Progress is being made, but, as ever, perhaps not as fast as we might wish.
Having disposed at considerable length of the points on which everybody seemed to be agreed, I will refer to the amendments that Mr Lynch spoke to and which stand in his name and those of Mr McCartney and Ms McGahan. I note also that Mr Maginness supported much of what was said by Mr Lynch. I have a significant concern about some of the points made, and I go back, in particular, to some of the terminology used. Clause 2 specifies that collection officers will be civil servants. If there were to be any attempt to change that, the future mythical, wicked Tory Minister could just as easily amend the proposed addition, which is unnecessary, as what is already in the Bill. Such an amendment could go through only with the support of the House, and I have no doubt that Members of the SDLP and Sinn Féin, probably joined by Members from Alliance and other parties, would, if necessary, table a petition of concern. Indeed, I did not sense any enthusiasm for that, even from those who cited Donald Trump in support of other aspects of the Bill. I see no prospect whatever of that change being made, but the reality is —
If it has no prospect of happening, why table it? That is the reality. I believe that it is unnecessary and without benefit. Having been criticised in the past by the Committee for adding unnecessary legislation, I will fire that back at its Deputy Chair: why propose something that is unnecessary and merely spells out, in slightly different words, what is already there?
Other issues raised about protections are covered by the points that I made about existing DSD regulations. An amendment to DSD regulations makes it clear that fine collection would come in at the end of the list of other issues that need to be covered. It seems that, for some — I accept that Mr Lynch did not quite say this — there cannot be any question of taking deductions from benefits at a lower level because of the potential impact. At times, there is also a significant impact on those imprisoned for fine default. We are looking at ensuring that fines are paid on a lengthened timescale and with reduced amounts each week or whatever provision can be made to assist people to pay. This does not seek to take a punitive and excessive sum instantly. We are looking at how we can do this in the most reasonable way, providing protection for dependants at the same time as ensuring that, if fines have to be levied, fines are levied and can be paid.
I accept why Members from Sinn Féin and the SDLP seek to make changes, but I believe that they are not adding anything to the existing protections. Whilst I have sympathy with their desire to be seen to be protecting vulnerable people, I believe that the views expressed elsewhere by Mr Ross, Mr Kennedy and Mr Dickson are accurate and the provisions are not needed. Therefore, I welcome the Chair's assurance that he will not press his amendments, on the basis of the work that is being done. I believe that the Committee and the Department are working in partnership on innovative methods that seek to ensure that the justice system works more effectively. I welcome his assurance that he will not press those amendments. I commend to the House the amendments that stand in my name, which I believe are entirely agreed by the Committee. I am afraid, however, that I must ask the House to reject the amendments that stand in the names of Mr McCartney and his colleagues.
Amendment No 1 agreed to.
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 (Collection officers)
Amendment No 2 proposed:
In page 2, line 14, after "officers" insert<BR/>
", however, regulations under this provision may not provide for the outsourcing of those functions to agencies or private companies". — [Mr McCartney.]
Question put, That the amendment be made. The Assembly divided:
Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mr Diver, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Ms Hanna, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCrossan, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Boylan, Mr Lynch
Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Cochrane-Watson, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Patterson, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Dickson, Mr McCarthy
Question accordingly negatived.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 4 (Additional powers where collection order made)
Amendment No 3 proposed:
In page 3, line 25, after "satisfied" insert
"that any deduction from benefits would not have the effect of extending the sanction to dependants of the debtor,". — [Mr McCartney.]
Question put, That the amendment be made. The Assembly divided:
Ayes 36; Noes 58
Mr Agnew, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mr Diver, Mr Durkan, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McCrossan, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Boylan, Mr Lynch
Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Cochrane-Watson, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Patterson, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Dickson, Mr McCarthy
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment No 4 made:
In page 3, line 32, leave out "sum due" and insert "outstanding amount". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Amendment No 5 made:
In page 3, line 33, leave out "sum due" and insert "outstanding amount". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 5 (Collection officer to contact debtor in default)
Amendment No 6 made:
In page 4, line 34, after "applies" insert
"or which is treated by a provision of that section as if it were a benefit to which that section applies". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 6 (Powers of collection officer in relation to debtor in default)
Amendment No 7 made:
In page 5, line 20, leave out "(2)(a) or (b)" and insert "(2)". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Amendment No 8 made:
In page 5, line 39, leave out from "is" to
"amount’ on line 40 and insert ‘(if sold) would be sufficient to discharge the outstanding amount and the amount of any charges likely to be imposed and costs likely to be incurred in connection with executing a vehicle seizure order in relation to the vehicle". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Amendment No 9 not moved.
Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 7 (Referral to the court: collection officer’s report etc.)
Amendment No 10 made:
In page 6, line 34, at end insert
"(3) The collection officer’s report is admissible in proceedings before a court as evidence of the facts stated in it; and a court may, for example, take the report into account in deciding whether to issue a warrant under section 9A.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 9 (Powers of court on referral of debtor's case)
Amendment Nos 11 to 14 not moved.
Amendment No 15 made:
In page 8, line 20, at end insert
"(8A) Where the court issues a warrant of committal under subsection (1)(i), the length of the period of committal as pronounced by the court is to be reduced by the length of any period during which the debtor has, in the case to which the hearing under this section relates, been remanded or committed in custody under section 9C (but not under subsection (7) of that section).". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 9, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 16 made:
After clause 9 insert
"Power to issue arrest warrant where debtor fails to attend hearing referral of case
9A.—(1) This section applies where, in the case of a debtor who is an individual?—
(a) a summons is issued under section 6(10) or 8(3), but
(b) the debtor does not appear before court as required by the summons.
(2) The court before which the debtor was required to appear may issue a warrant for the debtor’s arrest if?—
(a) it is not satisfied that the summons was served on the debtor or that the debtor is evading service but is satisfied that a reasonable attempt has been made to serve the summons on the debtor,
(b) it is satisfied that the debtor is aware of the liability to pay the sum due and of the possible consequences of defaulting on the payment,
(c) it is considering the possibility of issuing a warrant to commit the debtor to prison under section 9(1)(i), and
(d) it is satisfied that issuing a warrant for the debtor’s arrest instead of reissuing the summons is proportionate to the objective of securing the debtor’s appearance before the court.
(3) On issuing a warrant under this section, the court must endorse the warrant for bail so as to direct that, once arrested, the debtor must be released on entering into the recognizance specified in the endorsement.
(4) A warrant under this section may be executed only by a constable.
(5) A warrant under this section is not to be regarded for the purposes of Article 19(1)(a)(i) of the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 as a warrant issued in connection with or arising out of criminal proceedings.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 17 made:
After clause 9 insert
"Arrest under warrant under section 9A
9B.—(1) This section applies where a debtor is arrested in reliance on a warrant issued under section 9A.
(2) If the debtor enters into the recognizance specified in the endorsement to the warrant, it is not necessary for the debtor to be taken to a police station; and if the debtor is taken to a police station without having entered into the recognizance, he or she must be released from custody on entering into it.
(3) If the debtor enters into the recognizance, the hearing of the debtor’s case under section 9 on the referral under section 6 or 8 is to take place at the time and place specified in accordance with provision made in the recognizance.
(4) If the debtor does not enter into the recognizance, the debtor must as soon as is practicable be brought before either a magistrates’ court or the Crown Court, whichever is next sitting; and, pending that, the debtor may be kept in custody at a police station.
(5) If the debtor is brought before a magistrates’ court and it is the responsible court in the debtor’s case, it?—
(a) must at that sitting hear the debtor’s case under section 9 on the referral under section 6 or 8, or
(b) if it not possible for the court to do so at that sitting, must adjourn the hearing on the referral to such time and place as it specifies and must remand the debtor in accordance with section 9C.
(6) If the debtor is brought before a magistrates’ court but the Crown Court is the responsible court in the debtor’s case, it must commit the debtor to the Crown Court in accordance with section 9C.
(7) If the debtor is brought before the Crown Court and it is the responsible court in the debtor’s case, it?—
(a) must at that sitting hear the debtor’s case under section 9 on the referral under section 6 or 8, or
(b) if it not possible for the court to do so at that sitting, must adjourn the hearing on the referral to such time and place as it specifies and must remand the debtor in accordance with section 9C.
(8) If the debtor is brought before the Crown Court but it is not the responsible court in the debtor’s case, it must remit the debtor’s case to the magistrates’ court which is the responsible court and must remand the debtor in accordance with section 9C.
(9) Where a debtor has entered into the recognizance, the outstanding amount may, before the hearing on the referral of the debtor’s case, be paid to the police or the court; and on the payment being made, the warrant ceases to have effect.
(10) Where the debtor has not entered into the recognizance, the outstanding amount may, before the debtor is brought before the court under this section, be paid to the police or the court; and on the payment being made, the warrant ceases to have effect.
(11) Where the debtor has been dealt with as mentioned in subsections (5) to (8) pending the hearing on the referral of the debtor’s case, the outstanding amount may, before the hearing on the referral, be paid to the court.
(12) The police, on receiving a payment under subsection (9) or (10), must send it to the court.
(13) If, at the time of the commencement of this section, Part 1 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 (single jurisdiction for county courts and magistrates’ courts) has yet to come into force, this section, pending the commencement of that Part, has effect as if after subsection (5) there were inserted?—
“(5A) If the debtor is brought before a magistrates’ court but another magistrates’ court is the responsible court in the debtor’s case, it must adjourn the hearing on the referral to that other court at such time and place as it specifies and must remand the debtor in accordance with section 9C.”.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 18 made:
After clause 9 insert
"Remand or committal under section 9B
9C.—(1) For the purposes of the remand or committal of a debtor under section 9B(5) to (8), the court must either?—
(a) remand or commit the debtor in custody, by committing the debtor to custody to be brought before the responsible court at the end of the period specified by the court (but see also subsection (7)), or
(b) remand or commit the debtor on bail, by remanding the debtor on bail subject to such conditions as the court may specify for the debtor’s subsequent appearance before the responsible court.
(2) A reference in this section to being remanded or committed in custody is to be read in accordance with subsection (1)(a); and a reference in this section to being remanded or committed on bail is to be read in accordance with subsection (1)(b).
(3) If the debtor is remanded or committed in custody, the court may give its consent to the debtor being remanded or committed on bail.
(4) The period for which the debtor may be remanded or committed in custody must not exceed?—
(a) in a case where the debtor consents, 28 days;
(b) in any other case, 8 days.
(5) The period for which the debtor may remanded or committed on bail must not exceed 28 days.
(6) If the debtor is aged under 18, he or she may not be remanded or committed in custody.
(7) If the debtor is aged 21 or over, the remand or committal of the debtor in custody may, on an application made by a police officer not below the rank of inspector, be made by?—
(a) committing the debtor to detention at a police station, or
(b) committing the debtor to the custody of a constable (otherwise than at a police station).
(8) The period for which the debtor may be committed under subsection (7)(a) must not exceed 3 days beginning with the day following that on which the debtor was committed.
(9) The debtor may not be committed to detention at a police station under subsection (7)(a) unless there is a need for him or her to be so detained for the purposes of inquiries into a criminal offence; and if the debtor is committed to such detention?—
(a) the debtor must, as soon as that need ceases, be brought back before the court;
(b) the debtor is to be treated as a person in police detention to whom the duties under Article 40 of the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (responsibilities in relation to persons detained) relate, and
(c) the detention of the debtor is to be subject to periodic review at the times set out in Article 41 of that Order.
(10) The debtor may not be committed to the custody of a police officer under subsection (7)(b) unless there is a need for him or her to be kept in such custody for the purposes of inquiries into a criminal offence; and if the debtor is committed to such custody, he or she must, as soon as that need ceases, be brought back before the court.
(11) The court may order the debtor to be brought before it at any time before the expiration of the period for which the person has been remanded or committed.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 19 made:
After clause 9 insert
"Costs relating to referral of debtor’s case
9D.—(1) The costs of the hearing of a debtor’s case under section 9 (including any costs incurred in connection with any matter preliminary or incidental to the hearing, but not including any costs incurred by the debtor) are to be defrayed in the first instance by the Department of Justice.
(2) The costs to be defrayed under subsection (1) are to be such rates or such amounts as may be generally or specifically approved by the Department of Finance and Personnel.
(3) The court hearing the debtor’s case under section 9 may, in addition to any other order which it may make at the hearing, order the debtor to pay the whole or any part of the costs referred to in subsection (1); but, if the debtor is an individual aged under 18, the amount of any costs ordered under this subsection may not exceed the outstanding amount.
(4) The payment of an amount imposed by an order under subsection (3) is enforceable in the same manner as a fine or other sum adjudged to be paid by or imposed on a conviction of the court (and this Chapter applies in relation to that amount accordingly).
(5) The costs of any proceedings under section 9B involving the debtor are to be regarded for the purposes of this section as costs of the hearing of the debtor’s case under section 9.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 10 (Application for deduction from benefits)
Amendment No 20 proposed:
In page 8, line 32, at end insert
"(2A) The application may not be made in a case where any deduction from benefits would have the effect of extending the sanction to dependants of the debtor.". — [Mr McCartney.]
Question put and negatived.
Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 11 (Deduction from benefits: further provision in regulations)
Amendment No 21 made:
In page 9, line 15, after "make" insert
"further provision about applications for deductions from benefits; and the regulations may in particular make". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 11, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 22 made:
After clause 12 insert
"Disclosure of information
12A.—(1) The Department for Social Development, or a person providing services to that Department, may disclose social security information to a court or a collection officer for the purpose of?—
(a) facilitating a decision by the court or officer whether or not to make an application for deduction from benefits, or
(b) facilitating the making of the application by the court or officer.
(2) In subsection (1), “social security information” means?—
(a) information which is held by the Department for the purposes of functions relating to social security,
(b) information which is held by a person providing services to the Department in connection with the provision of those services, or
(c) information which is held with information of the description given in paragraph (a) or (b).
(3) A person to whom information is disclosed under this section commits an offence if the person?—
(a) discloses the information to another person, or
(b) uses the information for a purpose other than a purpose referred to in subsection (1).
(4) It is not an offence under subsection (3)?—
(a) to disclose any information in accordance with a statutory provision or with an order of a court or of a tribunal established by or under a statutory provision or for the purposes of any proceedings before a court,
(b) to disclose or use any information which is in the form of a summary or collection of information so framed as not to enable information relating to any particular person to be ascertained from it, or
(c) to disclose or use any information which has previously been lawfully disclosed to the public.
(5) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (3) to prove that the person reasonably believed that the disclosure or use was lawful.
(6) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (3) is liable?—
(a) on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine or both.
(7) Nothing in this section authorises the making of a disclosure which contravenes the Data Protection Act 1998.
(8) In this section, “information” means information held in any form.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 13 (Attachment of earnings order)
Amendment No 23 made:
In page 10, line 32, leave out "regarded" and insert "treated". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 13, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 15 (Interim bank account order)
Amendment No 24 proposed:
In page 12, line 21, at end insert
"(e) make provision for a formal assessment in which the impact of any order upon a debtors dependants is given due regard.". — [Mr McCartney.]
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 17 (Bank account order)
Amendment No 25 proposed:
In page 13, line 36, at end insert
"(e) make provision for a formal assessment in which the impact of any order upon a debtors dependants is given due regard". — [Mr McCartney.]
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 18 (Vehicle seizure order)
Amendment No 26 made:
In page 14, line 14, after "require" insert
"(even though the collection officer’s report is, by virtue of section 7(3), admissible at the hearing)". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Amendment No 27 made:
In page 14, line 14, at end insert
"(3A) Before making a vehicle seizure order, the responsible court must, in satisfying itself that the order would be justified, reasonable and proportionate in all the circumstances of the case, have particular regard to the likely effect of the order on the debtor’s ability to earn a living.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Amendment No 28 not moved.
Amendment No 29 made:
In page 14, line 36, leave out paragraph (b). — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 18, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 19 to 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 22 (Interpretation etc.)
Amendment No 30 made:
In page 16, line 27, at end insert
"“statutory provision” has the same meaning as in the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954;". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 22, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
We shall continue. We now come to the second group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 31, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 58 to 60, 69 to 73 and 82 to 86 and opposition to clause 45 stand part. These amendments deal with procedural arrangements and technical matters. Opposition to clause 45 is consequential to amendment No 31, and amendment Nos 70 and 72 are consequential to amendment No 31. Amendment Nos 73 and 83 are consequential to amendment No 52. Amendment No 82 is consequential to amendment No 59. Amendment No 84 is consequential to amendment No 58. Amendment No 85 is consequential to amendment No 59, and amendment No 86 is consequential to amendment No 60. As some of the amendments in the group are minor, technical and consequential, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group them for the Question according to the clause that they affect. I call the Minister of Justice, Mr David Ford, to move amendment No 31 and address the other amendments in the group and his opposition to clause 45.
I beg to move amendment No 31:
In page 17, line 9, at end insert<BR/>
"(2) The Department of Justice may by order make such consequential, supplementary or incidental provision as it considers appropriate in consequence of, or for giving full effect to, this Chapter.
(3) An order under subsection (2) may amend, repeal, revoke or otherwise modify any statutory provision.".
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List: Nos
58-60, 69-73 and 82-86.
I begin by speaking to amendment No 59, which closes a potential lacuna in the direct committal for trial provisions in section 9 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. Section 9(3)(b) and (c) of the 2015 Act provide that the direct committal arrangements do not apply where the court is to proceed summarily with an offence under article 45 of the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 or under article 17 of the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. There is, however, a question over whether section 9 of the 2015 Act will enable offences caught by article 45 of the 1981 Order and article 17 of the 1998 Order to attract the direct committal arrangements where the prosecution decides to proceed on indictment. My policy intention was that those cases should be capable of being directly transferred where it is decided to proceed on indictment, and I therefore believe that there is merit in amending section 9 of the 2015 Act to put the matter beyond doubt.
I move on to my amendments — amendment Nos 59 and 82 — which introduce new clause 44B and new schedule 4 to the Bill. I am sure that Members recall the amendments tabled at Further Consideration Stage of the previous Justice Bill by Mr Frew, Mr Poots and Mr McGlone that sought to make changes to the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004. The Members' amendments were subsequently withdrawn in response to a commitment that I would table departmental amendments to this Bill. I am pleased now do so in the form of new schedule 4, which makes changes to the 2004 Order that have been consulted on with stakeholders and considered and agreed by the Committee for Justice.
The first changes are in the form of amendments to young shooter provisions that will permit a person of 12 years of age or older to be in possession of a shotgun in a police-approved clay target range while under the supervision of a person who has held a shotgun on certificate for at least five years. That will enable young people to have access, from a sensible age, to shotguns and to learn clay target shooting in a controlled environment.
Other changes will allow the Chief Constable to grant a firearms certificate to a 16- or 17-year-old for the acquisition and possession of a firearm, be that an airgun with a kinetic energy in excess of 1 joule or a shotgun, for sporting purposes or for pest control under supervision. A further reform to the current arrangements for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds will allow them to have access to a shotgun in the same circumstances as an adult can at present. Even without a firearm certificate, they may shoot for sporting or pest control purposes so long as they are under appropriate supervision by a person aged at least 21 who has held a firearm certificate for that type of firearm for at least three years.
The amendments introduce a new system to enable a firearm certificate holder to exchange a firearm for another firearm within a band or group of firearms covering air rifles, small quarry rimfire rifles, fox calibre centrefire rifles and larger centrefire calibre deer rifles through a firearms dealer. A licence holder will also be permitted to trade in a firearm without replacing it, which is sometimes referred to as a "one-off transaction", and dealers will be authorised to carry out such transactions, which they cannot currently do.
Schedule 4 also includes a new schedule of fees that has been the subject of extensive stakeholder consultation and replaces schedule 6 to the 2004 Order. The new schedule of fees sets out the recent revision of the existing fees as well as some new fees for clarity purposes. The new fees include a new fee for existing arrangements for one-on/one-off exchanges of shotguns and exchanges of firearms of the same type and calibre, for example, and a new fee for the variation of a firearm dealer's certificate. The fee, however, is set at nil until further work has been carried out to cost it. Finally, an amendment is made to reciprocate an arrangement whereby a Great Britain firearm certificate is recognised in Northern Ireland in the same way as a Northern Ireland certificate is recognised when the holder travels to Great Britain to shoot.
Given the sweeping changes being brought in by schedule 4, some old and irrelevant provisions in sections 103, 104 and 105 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 are repealed by new clause 44B in amendment No 59.
That is an overview of the changes to the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 that my new schedule 4 provides for, but the summary nature of my description should not take away from the work involved in bringing forward those changes. I am grateful to the stakeholders, the Committee and the Members who have a particular interest in shooting for their positive engagement on my proposals and for their continued assistance in developing this agreed suite of changes.
Amendment No 60 will enable my Department, by order, to fix fees to be taken by the accountant general for the recovery of the costs of administering funds in court. Having the authority to fix fees will mean that the Department can satisfy a key recommendation of the Public Accounts Committee, namely that the Court Funds Office establish:
"fair and equitable arrangements for recovering its costs from clients."
Given that the clients of the Court Funds Office are among the most vulnerable in society, it is important to ensure that those with a small fund do not contribute a disproportionate amount towards the administration of their fund. In addition, the introduction of a fee regime will result in a sustainable cost-recovery mechanism that is not dependent on external economic factors. Therefore, the amendment to the Justice (No. 2) Bill will enable the Department to introduce a cost-recovery mechanism that is fairer for Court Funds Office clients and is sustainable during periods of low interest rates.
I will now speak to amendment No 31, which relates to the ancillary provision-making powers in the Bill. Members will remember, some in great detail, the debate about the supplementary, incidental, consequential and transitional provisions in the previous Justice Bill, now the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, and, in particular, the order-making powers in what was clause 86, which the Committee thought were too broadly drafted. Clauses 45 and 46 of this Bill, as drafted at introduction, raised similar issues, and, being fully alert to the Committee’s concerns in that regard, I stated my intent at Second Stage to table amendments at Consideration Stage to reflect the agreed way forward and the revised construction that was secured for the last Bill. I will, therefore, oppose the Question that clause 45 stand part of the Bill at the appropriate point in proceedings, while amendment No 31 inserts a more tightly drawn power to clause 23 to ensure that the ancillary provision-making powers can only be operated in much more restrictive circumstances and only in relation to the fines and enforcement provisions in Part 1 of the Bill. That amendment, together with additional consequential amendment Nos 71 and 72 to clause 46, follows the model developed with the Committee’s assistance and accepted by the House at the Further Consideration Stage of the 2015 Act. I trust that these adjustments will, therefore, meet with similar support today.
Amendment No 69 is a consequential amendment to the regulation- and order-making provisions in clause 46 arising from the new Prison Ombudsman's near-death investigation powers, which are due to be discussed in the debate on the next group of amendments, and two consequential amendments to the commencement provisions in clause 47 so that any order made under amended clause 23 and the animal welfare provisions in new clause 40A can be commenced by order. Amendment Nos 72 and 73 will allow that to happen.
Last and somewhat oddly, given that we still have so much business still ahead of us today, I will speak to amendment Nos 83, 84, 85 and 86, which would amend the long title to reflect the new provisions regarding animal welfare, direct committal for trial, firearms and the Court Funds Office.
Order. The Business Committee agreed that the sitting should suspend for lunch, and this seems a suitable time to do that. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when the next Member to speak will be Alastair Ross, the Chairperson of the Justice Committee.
The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 1.19 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —
First, I will cover the Minister's intention to oppose clause 45, which enables the Department, by order, to make any supplementary, incidental, consequential, transitional or other provision necessary to give full effect to the provisions of the Act, and to replace it with amendment No 31, which the Committee for Justice supports. When speaking on the first group, Mr Maginness, who is not in his place, mentioned that, sometimes, we are not zealous enough in making sure that legislation does not go too far. I am quite sure that all members of the Committee — I know that Mr Kennedy missed this the last time with the Justice Bill — would agree that we were incredibly ferocious in making sure that the Department was not given too much power. I know that the Minister will remember that; there was almost a showdown at one stage between the Committee and the Minister.
The Committee, when scrutinising the Bill, raised its concerns about clause 86 in that Bill and the wide-ranging powers that it provided. The Committee was of the view that powers should be provided for an exact purpose rather than being broad and general in nature and, at that point, we agreed to oppose its inclusion. During the passage of that Bill through the Assembly, the clause was removed and replaced with one providing much narrower and more specific powers following a robust and, at times, heated debate with the Minister. He will, I am sure, be glad to know that we will not rehearse all the arguments against such a clause today.
In light of the Committee's position on clauses such as clause 45, the departmental officials, when briefing the Committee on the principles of the Justice (No. 2) Bill, indicated that they intended to revisit clause 45 with a view to bringing forward an amendment to reduce its scope. They subsequently advised the Committee that the intention was to remove clause 45 from the Bill in its entirety and to replace it with a power to make ancillary provisions under more restricted circumstances limited to Part 1, which covers fine collection and enforcement.
When considering the proposed amendment, the Committee sought clarification from the Department on the extent of the powers it provided and examples of when such powers are likely to be needed. The Committee welcomed the confirmation provided by officials that the amendment will provide the power to make consequential, incidental and supplementary changes by way of secondary legislation only to Part 1 and will not enable the Department to bring in anything new or different. The Committee noted the type of circumstances in which the Department will be allowed to use the powers.
Given the Committee's opposition to such clauses, we certainly welcome and support the intention to remove clause 45 and introduce a much narrower power to make ancillary provisions restricted to Part 1, as provided for through amendment No 31. That replicates the model developed in the previous Justice Bill and addresses the Committee's fundamental concerns with such clauses.
Turning to amendment No 58, the Department advised the Committee of its intention to bring forward an amendment to address a possible gap in the direct committal for trial provisions in section 9 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. It had received advice that section 9 of the Act may not be sufficiently explicit to enable offences that are caught by article 45 of the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 and article 17 of the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 to attract direct committal arrangements where the prosecution decided to proceed on indictment. Given that the policy intention was that those cases should be capable of being directly transferred where it is decided to proceed on indictment, the Committee is content to support amendment No 58, which will put the matter beyond any doubt.
Turning briefly to amendment No 60, back in December 2015, the Department provided the Committee with the results of a consultation that it had undertaken on fee options to enable the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service to introduce a new full cost recovery charging model for 2016 to ensure that the cost of administering the Court Funds Office is met by fees charged to service users rather than the general taxpayer and advised that a change to the relevant legislation by way of an amendment to this Bill will be required to introduce the required authority. The Committee agreed that it was content for the change to be made to the fee structure for the Court Funds Office and therefore supports amendment No 60.
I will now cover amendment Nos 59 and 82, which deal with changes to the firearms legislation. This issue has been in the sights of the Committee for some time, so I am glad that it has been brought to the Chamber today. Indeed, the Committee has been considering proposals from the Department to increase firearms licensing fees and to make a range of other amendments to the firearms legislation that applies in Northern Ireland, including the age of young shooters, since as far back as May 2012 and has invested considerable time and effort in scrutinising that policy area. Whether that is the silver bullet that solves everyone's concerns is still questionable, but the Committee has had its resident experts on the matter, none more so than Mr McGlone, although it is fair to say that all the Committee members now know a lot more about the various guns and calibres than we ever thought we could or perhaps will ever need to know.
At this point, I will pay tribute to Mr McGlone. I know he has left the Committee, and I thank him for his contribution, not just on this issue, but it is always easier to defer to somebody who knows considerably more about a subject than you do. Mr McGlone, along with Mr Frew and Mr Poots at times, has certainly led the Committee in dealing with and resolving the issue, hopefully to the satisfaction of most of the organisations. We are most grateful for that. He has also made a wider contribution to the Committee, and I just want to put that on record.
I do not intend to cover the amendments in detail, particularly the new banded system that will enable firearms dealers to exchange a firearm for a licence holder within a band as long as certain conditions are met, as I am sure that Mr McGlone, Mr Frew and others will do that. However, I think it is important to set out the background to the Committee's decision to support amendment Nos 59 and 82.
During the three and a half years that the Committee has been considering the proposals to change the firearms legislation, it has taken a wide range of written and oral evidence from all the key firearms stakeholder organisations, including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Gun Trade Guild Northern Ireland, Countryside Alliance Ireland, the Ulster Clay Pigeon Shooting Association, the Federation of Shooting Sports and the Northern Ireland Deer Society. The Committee also discussed the proposals with the Department of Justice and PSNI officials on numerous occasions.
From the outset, it was clear that there was a wide divergence of views on the proposals, and the Committee encouraged the Department to engage with the various stakeholders and to undertake meaningful dialogue with a view to presenting an agreed set of changes. Following a protracted period during which little progress appeared to have been made, in June 2015 several MLAs tabled amendments to the Justice Bill at Further Consideration Stage on firearms fees, the age of young shooters and a banded system. That shot across the bows brought matters to a head, and officials advised the Committee that, following further discussions, a level of agreement had been reached between the Department and the main firearms stakeholder organisations on fees and bands. As a result, the Members did not move the amendments to the Justice Bill to enable the Department to bring forward legislative amendments as part of the Bill that is in front of us this afternoon, hence the amendments that have been tabled.
The Committee received a range of written submissions on the firearms amendments and took oral evidence from representatives of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), the Gun Trade Guild Northern Ireland and Countryside Alliance. While some issues required further clarification, there was broad agreement on the proposed new banded system and the fee structure. However, those organisations remained opposed to the Minister's intention to reduce the minimum age for supervised shooting with a shotgun to 12 years of age for clay target shooting only in a club approved by the PSNI, and they suggested that that should apply to shooting clay targets and any other lawful quarry.
They also considered the proposed introduction of shotgun clubs as creating a totally unnecessary level of bureaucracy. As the Minister outlined, he does not agree with that position and believes that the amendment on the age of young shooters that is before the Assembly today is appropriate and is accepted by a number of other firearms stakeholders. Whilst there is still opposition from some of the firearms organisations to the proposed change to the age of young shooters, the Committee is pleased that an accommodation has been reached regarding the banded system and the fees and is content, therefore, to support amendment Nos 59 and 82.
The rest of the amendments in this group are largely consequential to other changes to the Bill. The Department advised the Committee of most of those amendments and provided the draft text of them before scrutiny of the Bill was completed. The Committee had no other issues to raise.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as na dlíthe a thabhairt os ár gcomhair. Thanks very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for bringing the legislation before us today. I also thank the Chair of the Committee for Justice for his very kind remarks. An expert is not something I would ever associate myself with being just because I do something, but thank you for giving me the title momentarily today.
I, too, will speak in support of amendment Nos 59 and 82. Specifically, I place on record my thanks to the Gun Trade Guild Northern Ireland, BASC and, indeed, Countryside Alliance for their expert input. Without them, we would not have been where we are. We could probably have been here much earlier, had the course of dialogue and the practice of working together been adopted, but, anyway, we are where we are, and we have made considerable progress.
I thank those officials who engaged positively with the Committee for their efforts in presenting the amendments to accommodate shooters; people of the shooting fraternity and those involved in shooting sports. The contribution of those sports to the local economy should be clearly put on record. The shooting fraternity and those involved in shooting sports in the countryside input £28 million directly to the local economy. We have heard from a range of stakeholders, including clay pigeon shooters, at the Committee.
Specifically with regard to the amendments, I see that paragraph 2(2)(b) of the new schedule 4 to the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 makes a change for a person who has attained the age of 21 and has held a firearms certificate for three years. I raised that issue in the Committee. I asked for clarity around that specifically, as it may apply to the supervision of a young person on a clay pigeon shoot or, as has been mentioned, in a shotgun club. Maybe the Minister would put on record that, in fact, there are people who are specialists — experts, if you want to call them that — and known coaches who come from the UK and will not have a firearms certificate but will have a shotgun certificate. In the UK, you do not need a firearms certificate to possess a shotgun, but you obviously require a shotgun certificate. We do not want a situation. All that I am asking for is clarification from the Minister that, in fact, that firearms certificate for a shotgun does include someone who comes into the country, say, from England, and is an expert shot and may be an expert coach in clay pigeon shooting and that, in fact, that phrase covers them in their supervisory capacity.
The other items include the category bands applicable to firearms. Those have been worked out well. Eventually, we got there. Some of them have made a whole lot of common sense before now and it is good to see those bands there. The one wee thing — and, again, perhaps, the Minister would advise us on this — is that some firearms dealers whom we spoke to thought that the bands were already in place. There is a wee bit of confusion out there, among a small number of people. There is the whole issue of training for those firearms dealers in what the new legislation will be, how it will work and how, in fact, they will work it with, for example, one-off/one-on transactions. The fees with that will be very important to ensure that it does not get a wee bit glitchy. It is common sense to us and all that, but those firearms dealers will require training.
There is very little need to say anything further. The Minister has introduced the capacity for young shots to be introduced on clay pigeon shoots. The issue has been raised with us as to whether the situation with regard to young shots — particularly game shots, who are outside the remit of clay pigeon shooting but are nevertheless very enthusiastic about their sport and commencing their sport — should be kept under review with a view to potentially extending the scheme for young shots to people who are not engaged with or associated with clay pigeon shooting but are engaged with normal country sports, as we would know them, in the fields and out in the countryside. I ask that the Minister would clarify whether, in fact, that would be kept under review with a view to potentially extending and expanding it further.
Again, I wish to place on record my thanks to the officials at the Committee, the Clerk and all the staff who have been very helpful to me personally over the last while. I appreciate that, at times, trying to keep me right is a big task. Thanks very much to Christine and all the staff and, latterly, on this scheme, to the officials from the Department for their cooperation and assistance in drafting this legislation.
I am minded of the phrase, "It's all been said, but it hasn't been said by everyone". I will attempt to be brief yet constructive. Generally, a lot of the action from the top guns and hotshots happened before I came to the Committee. Clearly, the measure on firearms legislation was a targeted one.
I acknowledge and pay tribute to the detailed consultation with stakeholders. I accept that, while some are not completely satisfied, I think that everyone will acknowledge good progress. That has been very helpful. I am happy to indicate that we will support amendment Nos 59 and 82. I am also content to support amendment No 60, which is in relation to issues of cost recovery.
The Chair very well outlined the original problems with clause 45. At one stage, I think that it was referred to as the "Henry VIII amendment", one of whose most famous sayings was, "I don't intend to keep you very long". That was to one of his unfortunate wives. I inform the House that it is not my intention to dwell here. I do not underestimate the work that has gone on between officials in the Department and the Committee to arrive at satisfactory outcomes so that progress can be made on this batch of amendments.
Again, I will be brief. I support the Minister in the actions that he has taken. I commend, once again, officials, particularly those in the Department, for the very complex work that they undertook. I also acknowledge the work of Mr McGlone in respect of these matters. Nevertheless, while supporting the Minister, I still have concerns about the age of young shooters; my personal preference would be to see it being older rather than younger.
With regard to cost recovery, given all the pressures on budgets, particularly police budgets — much of the time in respect of licensing is carried out by the PSNI — it is important that we give serious consideration to how we can maximise the recovery of costs for what is a sport for many and vermin control and farming issues for others. I am happy to support the Minister in the proposals that are made today.
I will concentrate on amendment Nos 59 and 82. Before I do that, I refer Members to the European Commission directive 91/477/EEC on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons. That should be in our sights today is because it could do harm to some of the amendments that we are putting through. We have worked hard and done well on those amendments.
This is a good example of how government and politics should work alongside stakeholders. Once everybody got to grips with that issue and saw where their place was, you got an effective partnership, which came up with these amendments. I commend everyone who took part in that, including the Minister and his officials. Whilst it came kicking and screaming, the PSNI has a massive part to play too. We have always wanted a more agile system with common sense in it. That is important as we go forward. This can be used as an example of how it should be done in future, not only in the Department but throughout government. I refer the Minister to the directive. I am sure that he knows where it was born out of and the measures contained in it.
The problem, I believe, is not so much to do with licensed firearms but with firearms that are on the black market having been brought in from eastern European states. It is those firearms that do harm with regard to terrorist actions and individuals who wish to do harm to persons.
I suppose that the trigger for all of this came in the Justice Bill, when Patsy McGlone, Edwin Poots and I made the bold step of tabling amendments. We met the stakeholders, who desperately wanted to resolve the issue that had plagued their industry for many, many years. I believe that we are at the point where the stakeholders — the firearms dealers and the enthusiasts who take part in the sport — are in a far better position for it. When you look at the controversial nature of gun law in some states and countries around the world, you can understand why any Minister would want to apply the safety catch. It is not required in this regard because, in Northern Ireland, there are approximately 59,500 firearm certificate holders, with roughly 2% of them being female. The average age of a firearm certificate holder in Northern Ireland is about 53. I know that some Members showed concern about the age at which you will be able to shoot under supervision here, but I reassure the House that I do not see that as an issue at all; in fact, I would like to go further and make it younger. There are roughly only 35 firearm certificate holders between the ages of 16 and 18. We are dealing with a very specialised group of young people who take this sport very seriously and could well wish to compete in competitions throughout the world, including the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. It is important that their skills are honed and that they can use them in the appropriate manner to practise and compete where they can to bring back silverware for Northern Ireland. We should be proud of our young sportspeople and give them as much encouragement as possible.
Schedule 4 is technical, and some members of the Committee either were not interested or left it to people who were interested or maybe it just went over their head. Sometimes, when the officials came to the Committee, only three members were talking, and, other than that, you could have heard a pin drop. It is an important issue for us, the three Members who took this on board. We worked with the officials, and we put pressure on when we had to. When we had to be constructive, we were, and I believe that we have a very good piece of legislation. It is not all that we want, and it is not all that the stakeholders want, but they realise more than anyone that nothing can be achieved unless we all work together.
On schedule 4, whilst we would like to have gone further on the age, we recognise the position that the Minister is in and where he has moved to. We also recognise where the stakeholders and the clubs and dealers were and where they have moved to. There has been compromise on both sides. Some of the wording in the amendment has come from the stakeholders and specialists, and one phrase that I want to place on record is " appropriate supervision". That should reassure Members, because you have to attain the age of 21 and have held a firearm certificate for a shotgun for at least five years. That is you getting to a suitable age, and it means that you are through the vetting process twice. I think that that has tightened the law and helped with supervision, and I welcome the fact that anomalies on the other side of the legislation have been corrected.
The amendment on the banded system is common sense. When you talk to firearm dealers, especially, and firearm holders, you hear that this could have been done years ago. I am glad that it is being done now. Common sense has been injected into the system. I believe that it will free up police time and that the burden that it places on firearm dealers is one that they will be able to cope with. As long as the amendments and changes are made and put through the system to the PSNI, this will be a system that works very well for people who hold firearms.
These are positive changes. I welcome the work that has been done over the last number of months, and I welcome the spirit in which the Minister and officials came to meet stakeholders and produced the legislation. We wish that we could have gone further, but, alas, we are where we are, and everyone is in a much better place. Issues relating to fees have plagued this country for too long. They are being resolved, along with these changes. There has been agreement and compromise: some fees have increased, some have changed and, in some cases, there are no fees. It is in a much more fit-for-purpose state, and I think that everyone will welcome the changes. I do not wish to speak on any of the other amendments. The Chair of the Committee has outlined the position of the Committee very well, so I will finish.
As is frequently the case with some of the complex Bills in the justice system, a lot of detailed work is done and, once the Committee has done its work, nobody, apart from me, as Minister, referencing it at Consideration Stage and the Chair of the Committee responding, wishes to say anything about it. That is a sign of the good work being done through our processes, which differ from other places, and it leaves us with only two issues to be discussed today: clause 45 and firearms.
As was the case with clause 86 in the previous Bill, the opposition to clause 45 is not so much firing shots across my bow as the Committee feeling it necessary to give me a good mugging, like a gang bludgeoning me with blunt instruments. As the Chair has acknowledged, in fairness, I have accepted the Committee's view on this. However, in case there is too much agreement, I have to repeat that clauses like this are not inserted for no good reason. They appear in all kinds of Bills from Departments, including Bills that are much less significant in their consequences on other legislation. I give Members the gentle reminder that, in the lastd Bill, it was necessary to include an amendment to Lord Morrow's private Member's Bill — the human trafficking Bill — to allow national charities to do work in support of trafficked children. Those national charities were not on the Northern Ireland charity register, so, due to the way in which the legislation was originally passed, they would not have been allowed to act. Had we not had that Bill coming forward, we would have implemented clause 45-type provisions in Lord Morrow's Act, as, indeed, others occasionally have to do. Even in previous Justice Acts, we have never had to use those provisions for anything that emanated from the Department, but that does not mean that there is not a need for some precaution. Having been suitably blunt at the Committee, I have no doubt they it will find some way of resurrecting that point for the next legislation, wherever that may emanate from.
It was noticeable that two of the three key proponents of the views of some with firearms interests spoke in the debate and made their points, as they always do. Unlike the Chair, however, I did not attend every Committee meeting at which they made those points, but I am well aware of the lengthy detail sent on to my officials. I believe that what we have now is a reasonable and workable compromise.
It accepts the fact that there are different views amongst stakeholders on this issue, including different views amongst those who regard themselves as representing the same shooting interests. After all, the entire issue of how we deal with young shooters, which appears to be where most of the contention came from, started over the issue of young people from Northern Ireland competing in clay pigeon shooting competitions.
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a young man who had won a competition for people from different areas on these islands when it was held across the water but who was unable to defend his title a year later in Northern Ireland, because, although he was a year older, he was still younger than 16. I accept that that was an issue, and those points were made to me, shall I say, in a very generous and open way but, nonetheless, with reasonable force by representatives of the Ulster Clay Pigeon Shooting Association, and those points were quite understandable. So, I took them on board.
I also had to take on board concerns about safety issues and, in particular, concerns raised by the Chief Constable. In specific response to one of Mr McGlone's points, those issues will be kept under review, because all our legislation is kept under review; but that is not a commitment that there will be an early and immediate move to change things. It is a commitment that we will keep matters under review in order to protect public safety while recognising the points made by so many stakeholders about young people, in particular, in those controlled and well-supervised atmospheres.
On a specific second point, which was made by Mr McGlone, my understanding is that the Committee received a letter stating quite clearly that those who hold the appropriate shotgun certification in GB would be counted as qualifying for supervision in Northern Ireland. That is my understanding. I do not have a copy of the letter despite the voluminous papers I have in this folder; but, if that is not the case, I will see that it is sent very speedily to the Committee and to the former member of the Committee who has just raised the issue. However, I think it is currently available.
The issue of people thinking that the bandings have already been changed is, unfortunately, a result of the way that so much of the business in this place gets reported. An issue is raised at Committee, and somebody makes a suggestion. Departmental officials say they will look into it, and it then gets reported not just as, "This is going to happen", which is perhaps presuming the will of the Assembly, but as, "This has already happened", which is definitely presuming the will.
The Department can make sure that dealers, who are the ones that need to know, are informed of the status, on the presumption that this amendment is likely to go through fairly soon. Although, I must say that there is one particular small firearms dealer who, any time I meet him, tends to have a copy of the legislation with him to ensure that the Minister does not bluff him with anything that is being said. So, I am not sure how many of the dealers will need anything more than a copy of the legislation, but I think it is right that the Department should do its best to ensure that people are well informed, because we are placing some additional duties on dealers, which are of benefit to them in running their business but are also an obligation regarding the duties they have to perform on behalf of the justice system. So, we need to ensure that we support them in that respect.
Mr Frew also made a specific point about the current draft EU directive. This issue has been discussed between my officials and the Home Office. Indeed, the Home Secretary has written to me, and I have written back to her. It clearly is an issue. As Mr Frew said, we are all well aware of why there is concern across Europe about tightening up firearms legislation. We need to ensure that we do not obstruct legitimate trade and activity by farmers and sportsmen in the interests of public protection, but we also need to ensure that we get public protection right. That was the tenor of the letter that I wrote to the Home Secretary on the issue, and I wait to see what emerges from her engagement at the Council of Ministers and with the Commission.
We all agreed that the initial proposals from the Commission went somewhat wider than was a reasonable interpretation in the jurisdictions that already have a good regime. However, this is a point I made previously in the Assembly and in press releases: I see far too many appeals in firearms cases in which the PSNI remove a firearms certificate and firearms from holders because of carelessness in the way in which the firearms are being looked after. As far as I am concerned, there are significant issues and obligations on those who hold firearms to show that they will adhere to the conditions of their firearms certificate, that they will secure all their firearms properly when they are in use or not, that they will secure ammunition properly and that they will not, as sometimes happens, leave guns or ammunition accessible to burglars or whoever. I find it amazing the incredibly large number of people who always put their shotgun away in the cabinet, except on the one occasion that their house got burgled. It really is amazing the frequency with which that is the case.
I repeat that this is a task that falls to the police, with appeals then falling to the Minister of Justice. Each case is discussed on its merits, but, as a general rule, I do not believe that there is any excuse for people not adhering to the conditions of the firearms certificate. I urge those who have contacts with those who engage in shooting to put out that message. That is the argument that we need to deploy if we are to follow Mr Frew's argument that we do not need to go as far as, in some respects, the EU directive goes. We need to show that those who hold firearms in Northern Ireland are looking after them properly, are securing them properly, are not misusing them and are living up to aspects of the law. It is then much easier to make the argument that we do not need every aspect of the directive. However, if people are being careless and weapons are being stolen, it is very easy for people to say that conditions need to be much tighter.
Another point in that area that attracted relatively little attention, although it did attract a lot of attention early on, concerns fees. We are obliged to operate on the basis of cost recovery, and I accept that the other side of that is that people who are paying for a service have a right to expect it to be a proper and efficient service. Changes are being made in the PSNI that are improving that service, but it is appropriate that those who hold firearms are the people who should pay for the necessary systems of licensing and who should ensure that that work is done properly and efficiently. The cost should not fall to the general taxpayer. We have reached a reasonable compromise there, as we have done with other aspects.
Having mentioned none of the other amendments in the group, I commend them all to the House.
Amendment No 31 agreed to.
Clause 23, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 24 (Supervised activity orders)
Amendment No 32 made:
Amendment No 33 made:
In page 18, line 25, at end insert<BR/>
"(10A) But the references in this Article to a sum adjudged to be paid by or imposed on a conviction do not include a reference to an amount payable under a confiscation order under Part 4 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Amendment No 34 made:
In page 18, line 26, leave out from "means" to end of line 28 and insert
", in relation to a supervised activity order, means a probation officer with responsibility for supervising the carrying out of the requirements of the order.”.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 24, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 25 (Restriction on detention of children for default in paying fines, etc.)
Amendment No 35 made:
In page 20, line 22, at end insert
"(5A) In section 5(3) of the Treatment of Offenders (Northern Ireland) Act 1968 (power of court to detain young person in youth offenders centre for default), for “Article 47” substitute “Article 46C”.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 25, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 27 (Limitations on remission)
Amendment No 36 made:
In page 21, line 23, leave out "1998" and insert "2008". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 27, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
We now come to the third group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 37, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 38 to 51, 80 and 81, and opposition to clause 38 stand part. This group deals with the Prison Ombudsman.
Amendment No 43 is consequential to amendment No 42. Amendment Nos 46 and 51 are consequential to amendment No 45. Amendment No 48 is consequential to amendment No 47. I call the Minister for Justice, Mr David Ford, to move amendment No 37 and to address the other amendments in this group.
Clause 29 (Main functions of Ombudsman)
I beg to move amendment No 37:
In page 22, line 14, at end insert<BR/>
"or on the Ombudsman’s own initiative (see sections 35A and 35B)".
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List: Nos
38-51 and 80-81.
Amendment No 37 one of a small set of amendments that will allow the Prison Ombudsman to instigate investigations on his own initiative. Before addressing those amendments in more detail, I wish to speak on amendment Nos 39 and 41, which adjust existing clauses 30 and 32. Those clauses deal with investigations into complaints and deaths in custody.
The amendments reflect a suggestion by the Attorney General and add a general power to defer investigations where the ombudsman considers it appropriate to do so. Originally, the Bill limited deferral of investigations to when there was a related criminal or health and safety investigation. The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that all the grounds on which deferral might reasonably take place are covered. Such grounds for deferral may include an ongoing criminal investigation, a health and safety investigation, where a matter under investigation is the subject of a pending application for judicial review, or for any other reason.
Amendment Nos 40 and 44 adjust clauses 30 and 34, allowing the ombudsman to inform the police of a suspected criminal offence in relation to any investigation that he is conducting. Members will note the current draft of the amendments stipulates that the ombudsman "may" draw to the attention of police any matter requiring criminal investigation. My policy intention is to standardise this requirement across all the functions of the ombudsman. Accordingly, I intend to introduce a small technical amendment at Further Consideration Stage to change "may" to "shall" so as to require the ombudsman to draw to the attention of the police any matter relevant to any criminal investigation. That was the policy intention in developing these amendments and is entirely consistent with the ombudsman's current practice.
While conducting an investigation to which clause 30 applies, the ombudsman will be required to draw to the attention of the police any matter which, in his opinion, is relevant to any criminal investigation. The ombudsman will also be required, during an investigation, to draw to the attention of any body or person any matter which, in the ombudsman's opinion, calls for action to be taken by that body or person. This requirement will also apply to investigations requested by the Department of Justice under clause 34.
Amendment No 49 adjusts clause 37 to add the Attorney General to the list of bodies to which protected information may be disclosed for the purpose of directing inquests.
I return now to the aspect that I opened this group with, clause 29, which, together with amendment Nos 45 and 46 to insert new clauses 35A and 35B, and a consequential amendment to clause 40 by amendment No 51, will allow the ombudsman to instigate, on his own initiative, certain investigations in defined circumstances. These amendments are in response to a recommendation by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which was subsequently supported by the Justice Committee during their helpful scrutiny of the Bill, and which I too am happy to support.
The provisions on own-initiative investigations will apply to those matters about which prisoners and/or visitors to prisons may complain. This would, for example, allow the ombudsman to initiate an investigation where he considers that the number or frequency of events of a similar nature requires investigation. However, such investigations would not be limited to cases where an eligible complaint has been made to the ombudsman. These provisions are intended to reinforce the independence of the ombudsman, who would be empowered to instigate his own investigation in situations where he has concerns. In such circumstances, he would be required first to raise the issue with the Department. This will ensure that no duplicate investigations are planned or under way so as to ensure best use of the available resources.
I now wish to speak to amendment Nos 42 and 43 to clause 34, which provides for investigations in cases of near-death that meet agreed criteria. Those amendments are in response to Justice Committee deliberations on the clauses that I support. The intention is to place a duty on the Justice Minister to request the ombudsman to conduct an investigation in defined circumstances. Such circumstances will be set out in regulations and will be subject to affirmative resolution in the House. The process of developing the regulations will allow time to reflect on some of the detailed considerations that will be needed, such as the need to clearly define near-death. At present, my officials are working to identify appropriate legal definitions that might assist in this regard. The clear policy intent is that the Bill and subsequent regulations will require the Minister to request the ombudsman’s assistance in cases of near-death.
Finally, on my amendments in this group, I offer two very minor changes to clause 37 and schedule 3 to change references to the Public Services Ombudsperson to Ombudsman. That reflects the change in title agreed on 30 November 2015 during the Consideration Stage of the Public Services Ombudsman Bill.
I now wish to speak to the amendments to the Prison Ombudsman provisions that have been tabled by Mr McCartney, Mr Lynch and Ms McGahan, the first being their amendment to clause 29, which is also about own-initiative investigations. While I am sympathetic to the Members’ thinking, I am concerned that this proposed amendment would expand the role of the ombudsman without providing any necessary safeguards. A future ombudsman could treat this as carte blanche to investigate any aspect of the prison experience, which has never been the role envisaged for this office, either in the past or at present.
The amendment I brought forward contains important safeguards by limiting that power to those matters within the ombudsman’s complaints remit, happening within 12 months of commencement of the Bill, which form part of a concerning pattern of events. An own-initiative power was not included in the original proposals, as it is not part of the "as is" arrangements. Indeed, the current office holder has stated that that is not a power he would seek. I note that the current provisions will allow the ombudsman to approach the Department with concerns and that those concerns can be addressed by an investigation requested by the Department under clause 34. As the amendment from Mr McCartney and colleagues does not contain the safeguards provided for in my new clauses, I do not support this amendment.
Let me now turn to those Members’ amendment to clause 36, which will compel a person to assist in any investigation and make it an offence to refuse to assist an investigation. I understand the Members’ intentions, but I do not believe that their amendment will actually enhance the arrangements. Including such a power in legislation would not necessarily ensure that any unwilling witnesses would provide useful evidence, even when faced with the threat of a level 3 fine — currently £1,000 — for their non-compliance. The Prison Ombudsman himself considers that such a power would be cosmetic and, as it is not a power that he seeks, I do not support this amendment.
I now wish to speak to the stated intention, again of Mr McCartney and his colleagues, to oppose the Question that clause 38, "Guidance to Ombudsman in relation to matters connected with national security", stand part of the Bill. The Secretary of State has a legitimate interest and role in matters relating to national security in Northern Ireland. This is not a devolved matter and is not, therefore, in the Assembly’s gift to determine. The issue is not unique to this Bill; it has been reflected in other recent legislation, including the Reservoirs Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 and the Public Services Ombudsman Bill. Indeed, the Reservoirs Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 confers significantly greater powers on the Secretary of State, stating that she may direct the devolved Department not to include information on national security grounds. We can contrast that with the rather more modest provision in this Bill, which states that the Prison Ombudsman has only to "have regard to" the national security guidance. "Have regard to" means exactly that: the ombudsman must "have regard to", but need not comply with, such guidance.
The Public Services Ombudsman Bill provides that the Secretary of State may give written notice to the Public Services Ombudsman about any document or information saying that, in her opinion, disclosure of that document or information would be prejudicial to the safety of the United Kingdom. The ombudsman, then, cannot disclose that document or information. This is also a much more sweeping power than is proposed in this Justice Bill. The proposal in the Bill is consistent with the current arrangements, which have been in place since devolution and which stand in prison rules. Omitting it from the Bill would result in poor legislation, with no change in significance in working. I therefore strongly support that the clause remains part of the Bill.
I appreciate Mr Maginness's point. The power currently subsists in prison rules on the basis that there is no statutory basis for the Prisoner Ombudsman at present. Since we are putting the Prison Ombudsman into statute, I believe it is appropriate that the powers should be defined in statute, and not rely on prison rules, which are a separate area that are largely about the running of prisons, rather than the role and function of the ombudsman that we are setting up in this Bill. So I believe that there is a specific reason why, in the Bill, we should have the functions and powers defined properly.
I turn now to the Members’ last amendment in this group, which concerns powers in schedule 3 of the Bill and state that a person holding office as ombudsman may, and I emphasis the word "may":
"be removed from office by the Department, if the Department is satisfied that the person ... has been convicted of a criminal offence".
This part of the schedule permits removal rather than requiring it, and in assessing such a situation, relevant factors would be considered, which would have to include a robust risk assessment by the Department. These powers would be exercised proportionately, and only after due consideration of the particular circumstances and factors. We can clearly give examples in our own heads where something would be so minimal as to not make it appropriate to consider removal, and something would be so significant as to effectively require removal. The important issue is that the power exists without a specific direction, so that appropriate consideration can be given to the particular circumstances of the case. In light of this, I do not believe that the Members’ amendment is necessary and I do not, therefore, support the inclusion of amendment No 80 in the Bill.
I will briefly speak on Part 2 of the Bill, which creates the office of Prison Ombudsman and sets out the main functions of the office, which are to deal with complaints, death in custody investigations and investigations requested by the Department, and the proposed amendments.
There was a clear divergence of views in the evidence received by the Committee on the proposed model, remit and appointment arrangements, to place the Prison Ombudsman on a statutory basis. The current Prisoner Ombudsman supports the provisions in the Bill, but the Northern Ireland Ombudsman, the Ombudsman Association and NIACRO all raised issues regarding the proposed model. Concerns were raised regarding the cost implications of establishing the office as a separate entity, with the Northern Ireland Ombudsman proposing that the role of the Prisoner Ombudsman in relation to prisoner complaints could be combined with that of the new office of Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman. All three organisations also raised concerns regarding whether the office of Prison Ombudsman, as provided for in the Bill, meets the required standards of independence given that the Minister of Justice will appoint the office holder, the salary will be paid through the Department of Justice and the Department has a role in approving the terms and conditions of staff in the office. Suggestions were therefore made that the office should be created under separate statutory arrangements which ensure the appointment is not made by a member of the Executive.
The Committee discussed the concerns with the current Prisoner Ombudsman, who indicated that he strongly welcomes the proposals to place the office on a statutory footing, which he believes will be of benefit in a range of ways, including demonstrating the independence and impartiality of the office and increasing the confidence of other statutory bodies, such as the Police Service and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, in relation to sharing information. He noted that the Bill legislated for the "as is" position, which he views as the correct approach to take, and stated that since he took up post over two years ago, no one has ever tried to interfere with his independence. As far as he was aware, the proposed arrangements are not much different from ombudsman offices in the UK and other western European jurisdictions.
Having considered the issues raised, along with the views of the current Prisoner Ombudsman on how the office operates in its current form, the Committee agreed that it was generally content with the provisions that will place the Prisoner Ombudsman on a statutory footing by creating the office of Prison Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and set out the main functions. Some members, however, outlined reservations with several of the provisions, and I turn to those now.
In relation to the power to compel witnesses, amendment Nos 47 and 48, which Mr McCartney has tabled, provide a power to enable the Prison Ombudsman to compel a person to assist any investigation and make it an offence, liable to a fine not exceeding level 3, if that is refused. That issue was raised with the Committee by the Human Rights Commission, which considered that the effectiveness of the ombudsman’s investigations would be augmented by empowering the office to compel witnesses for interview.
When we discussed the proposal with the current Prisoner Ombudsman, however, he believed that it would be a cosmetic change and would affect very few deaths in custody or complaints that he investigated. In fact, he stated that 99% of prison staff voluntarily assist with his investigations and indicated that, even if he had this power, a person could turn up and say nothing or add no value to his investigation. In his view, the powers to obtain and disclose information already provided for in the Bill are rigorous, given that the office will have the statutory authority to obtain documents, enter premises and require people to cooperate, and the legislation creates an offence of intentionally obstructing an investigation.
When pressed by members of the Committee on whether the lack of a power to compel witnesses could limit investigations in the future, the ombudsman stated that he did not think that the power was necessary at present, but it could be useful in the future. Whilst the Committee agreed that it was content with the provisions as drafted, Mr McCartney advised members of his intention to bring forward an amendment to provide the ombudsman with the power to compel witnesses.
In relation to the guidance on national security matters, some members of the Committee raised reservations about clause 38, which requires the Prison Ombudsman to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State in relation to any matter connected with national security, and they have indicated their intention to oppose that clause. The Committee raised the matter with the current Prisoner Ombudsman, who was clear that he does not believe that the Secretary of State has the power to prevent him carrying out an investigation. He further added that, whilst national security guidance has been in place since the devolution of justice powers in 2010, it has never been invoked in any way. He is content with the guidance indicating that, while he must have regard to it, his view is that it does not impede or shackle him or any future Prison Ombudsman from carrying out any investigation. The Committee, therefore, agreed that it was content with clause 38.
The Committee also considered a range of amendments that the Department indicated it intended to bring forward and which members viewed as potentially enhancing the arrangements provided for in the Bill. In terms of the power to defer investigations where the ombudsman considers it necessary to do so, the Committee agrees that this is a sensible proposal and therefore supports amendment Nos 39 and 41.
The second amendment aims to standardise the requirement of the ombudsman to inform the police of a suspected criminal offence as part of any investigation he is conducting, rather than just as part of an investigation into a death in custody, as is currently required by the Bill. That anomaly was brought to the attention of the Committee by the Human Rights Commission, and we are content to support amendment Nos 40 and 44, which standardise the requirement for the ombudsman to inform police of a suspected criminal offence as part of any investigation he is conducting.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
The third amendment allows for the arrangements to provide for investigations in cases of near-death in custody which meet agreed criteria. When the issue of extending the Prison Ombudsman’s statutory functions to include investigations into near-deaths in custody was raised, the Department stated that the Prisoner Ombudsman currently investigates near-deaths in custody at its request, and it considered that such investigations could be addressed in the future by a request from the Minister to carry out an investigation under clause 34.
However, having considered the matter further, the Department subsequently advised that it was proposing to bring forward an amendment that would place a duty on the Minister of Justice to request the Prison Ombudsman to conduct an investigation in defined circumstances which will be set out in regulations that will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Given that it has been recent practice for the ombudsman to investigate near-deaths in prison custody, the Committee is content to support amendment Nos 42 and 43 and will scrutinise the detail of the arrangements when the secondary legislation is drafted.
In the written evidence received by the Committee on Part 2 of the Bill, a suggestion was made that the Prison Ombudsman should be provided with the power to carry out investigations on his or her own initiative, similar to what is proposed in the Public Services Ombudsperson Bill. Noting that, under the current provisions, the Prison Ombudsman has to receive a complaint or a request from the Minister of Justice before he can undertake an investigation, the Committee agreed that it would be appropriate for the ombudsman to be able to initiate investigations of his own volition.
This will emphasise his independence and enable him to investigate if there appears to be a systematic problem. The Minister subsequently indicated that he would table amendments to provide for this. I know that Mr McCartney has also tabled an amendment on this, and I will be interested to hear the difference, as he sees it, between the two sets.
On other minor amendments, the Committee is also content with amendment No 49, which adds the Attorney General to the list of bodies to which protected information may be disclosed, and the minor drafting amendments as proposed by the Minister.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I welcome the fact, as I think everybody does, that the Minister has taken the opportunity to put the Prison Ombudsman on a statutory footing. We all recall that, in times past, a Prisoner Ombudsman left his post, and one of the reasons he cited for no longer being able to continue was the fact that it was not on a statutory footing, which, he felt, limited his ability to carry out a particular piece of work. The two subsequent ombudsmen have both reiterated that the office should be put on a statutory basis. I do not think that anybody will question the integrity of any of the people who have carried out the role. The incumbent was in front of the Committee and talked about it being satisfactory in his experience, but I think that when we frame legislation we should not do so on the basis of the experience of a particular person at a particular time. We have to look to the future. That is why I believe that some of the amendments that we propose will tighten the office and make it better as we take it forward.
Amendment No 38 is obviously similar to amendment Nos 37 and 45 tabled by the Minister. I believe — this is where there is a slight parting of the ways — that the ombudsman should have the power to initiate their own investigations. I do not think that we should limit the scope of that power. The Minister, in amendment No 45, says that the matter should be within the previous 12 months; I do not see why it should be time-bound.
A good way of showing why it is necessary for the ombudsman to have this power is the recent fire in Erne House. There would have been no investigation carried out, had the Criminal Justice Inspection not done an unannounced inspection. Obviously, the investigation is ongoing, but the report will highlight other issues relating to the current state of relationships in Maghaberry. The Department did not see fit to call an investigation; nor did the Prison Service or the management of Maghaberry. In my opinion, that is where this power would be of great significance, and it is not just about the ability to call an investigation. Many issues will come into the public domain as a result of the independent investigation, and we would have been better served if the ombudsman had had the power to do that. It will be interesting to hear the Minister reflect on those issues. For me, this is the opportunity to give the ombudsman the capability to carry out investigations, to deal with complaints and to ensure that there are good accountability mechanisms in our prisons.
I turn to the idea of compelling someone to give evidence. I heard Tom McGonigle's evidence. He said that there were no issues, and that is fine; I would not question that in any way. It is a good state of affairs when people are cooperating with all investigations. However, the powers of investigation will widen, even under the Minister's terms, and none of us can predict the future. That is why it is best that we provide for the ombudsman to have that power to use if he or she sees fit. All other similar types of ombudsmen in other situations —
I hear what the Member is saying, and I have looked at amendment No 48. However, to deal specifically with amendment No 47, how do you compel someone to assist? I am looking for a bit of elaboration on that. It has not been unknown for people to sit there absolutely silent and say nothing when they are under investigation. How do you compel someone to assist if they simply refuse to do so? How do you determine that they are not assisting you? I agree entirely with the thrust of your second amendment, but, on the first one, I want to hear how that would be done.
If someone is of a mind that they are not going to cooperate, that is fine. I have heard Alban Maginness talk previously about normative behaviour; in other words, a person who does not have to cooperate now might not come forward. They might feel that they have information and, if they are asked to come forward, they will come forward, but, if they are not asked, they might just sit back and allow things to happen. If there are 12 people and only six come forward, the ombudsman will invite the other six to come forward, but they may say, "We do not have to, so we are not going to do it". If you compel them, you at least create a situation that allows him to come to conclusions, and we have heard before about conspiracies of silence.
With respect to Mr McCartney, the compulsion is not for them to come forward; the compulsion is for them to assist. That is the bit that I am not sure of.
I accept that you cannot compel anyone to cooperate, but you can compel them to be part of the investigation process. Say, for talk's sake, it is a prison officer. If a prison officer refuses and is fined, I am sure that there will be disciplinary procedures that might affect his or her career. At least there is some sort of incentive or weight put on them so that they do not just feel, "I do not want to cooperate, so I do not have to do it". That is why this is important as we go forward. The power may never have to be used, but, if you are carrying out an investigation and there are people who do not want to come forward, it is good that you can say, "I want you to come forward. I need you to answer these questions, and, if you do not, you might be charged and subsequently fined, and it will have an impact on your career".
I might be picking this up wrongly, Mr McCartney, but, as I read it, that bit is covered by your amendment No 48. There is that power to do whatever is required with the person who refuses to assist. We are probably talking about two slightly different things there. I absolutely agree with amendment No 48; it is just amendment No 47 that I am not clear on.
Perhaps that is something that we can clear up at Further Consideration Stage. Before you can indict someone, you have to have the power to call them forward. You cannot convict someone of not assisting if you have not got the power to bring them forward in the first instance. That is the lead-in from amendment No 47 to amendment No 48. That is why we feel that it is necessary.
I want to turn to amendment No 80 before I go to clause 38. I know that the Minister has said that amendment No 80 is not necessary. I will say to him what I said in the earlier part of the debate: if it is not necessary, why stand in its way? It would send a clear message on the wider departmental policy on desistance. It would say very clearly that you are legislating that, if a person in post is convicted, it has to be something that would prevent that person from doing the job, rather than a blanket approach. If you are convicted of an offence that has no relevance to the job that you do and does not impede or in any way call into question your ability to do that job, that should not be a reason to lose your job. I accept that the Minister says that that is not the intention of the way that this is framed, but I just think that this not only makes it tighter but sends a clear message on desistance.
Clause 38 is on guidance on matters connected with national security, as it is written here. It is interesting that, when we have questioned the ombudsman and prison officials about this in the past, they have always found it very difficult to spell out exactly what the powers are and what they will do.
Interestingly, when opposition was initially raised in Committee — by Alban Maginness, I think — we were struck by the fact that Tom McGonigle said that it was not an issue and had not been an issue. Therefore, you are saying that, if it has not been an issue, why does it have to be put into legislation? The Chair mentioned this when he spoke, and I do not want to misquote Mr McGonigle, but he certainly gave us the impression that he was more or less saying that, even if he was given guidance, it would have no substance or bearing and nor would it prevent him from carrying out an investigation.
The Bill states:
"must have regard to any guidance".
None of us can second-guess what would happen if that was taken to court. I could make the case that, if guidance was issued not to carry out a particular investigation, the ombudsman said no and the Secretary of State challenged that and took it to court, a judge would be in a good and proper position to say, "You must have regard". That you must have regard is clear.
I appreciate the Member giving way. My understanding of this is quite simple: "must have regard to any guidance" is a long way short of "must follow directions". You have to consider the guidance and weigh up the factors. However, the very fact that it is couched as "have regard to" is a clear statement that it is not a direction that you must follow. If you must follow, it says — as, dare I say it, the Reservoirs Act says — you "must follow".
I am not over the detail of the Reservoirs Act, but you can understand that if, when drawing a map, someone asks you not to include a particular installation. You can see a logic to that.
I am making the point that, in relation to this issue, the British Secretary of State would have the power, perhaps, to go to court outside the purpose of this legislation. However, we are legislating, therefore we have the right to question whether or not this is necessary. We are told that it is not, but, if guidance was offered to the ombudsman that said, "Do not investigate this because there are British national security interests involved", and that went to court and a judge read that "you must have regard to", to me there is only one interpretation of what that regard would be, namely that you do not carry out that investigation.
I appreciate the Member giving way again. You actually have the two issues the wrong way round. In the context of reservoirs, you said, "Please do not" but that is not the import of the way that the Reservoirs Act is written, which is the specific direction, "you shall not". In this case, we are talking about guidance, and guidance cannot say, "Do not do something". It is guidance. The Bill states specifically that somebody "must have regard to". It does not say that they have to follow it, because if it was the case that they had to follow it, it would say that they must follow it. It says they, "must have regard to", and that means they must consider it carefully and seriously and weigh it up against all the factors, but they do not have to go with the guidance on the basis of their judgement.
I was not giving the Reservoirs Act as it is legislated. I said that you can understand a case being made why, if you were asking someone to do something, "shall" would enter into it literally. Neither you nor I, nor anybody in the Assembly, can ever say that we are going to second-guess what a judge would say. You may have a view what guidance means. I might have a view, but I have absolutely no doubt that, if guidance were to be given to the ombudsman that says, "You should not carry out this investigation", you cannot say that that is not guidance. I could give guidance to you that says, "You should not cross the road without looking left and right". That is a clear instruction. If you have to have regard to that, it is difficult for you to sit and say that a judge in a court would not interpret that in a way that would instruct the ombudsman not to carry out an investigation because of British national security interests. We cannot have a situation, whether it pertains to death in custody or anything else, in which anyone would have the power to say to anyone that they should not be investigating in those circumstances.
We have had this discussion on numerous occasions, because when people ask the question: "What is Britain's national interest?" they are told, "We can't tell you, and why we cannot tell you is because it is in Britain's national interest to not tell you." We cannot have that circular argument going on. This is why, if the ombudsman is quoted, as he has been quoted by you today, as saying that it has never been used and does not need to be used, then, in our opinion, it should be legislated for. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
I will try to be as brief as possible. The SDLP welcomes placing the office of the Prison Ombudsman on a statutory basis. It is something that we have sought for quite some time, and it arose specifically out of the Hillsborough Agreement in 2010. So, it is good that we have made progress in relation to that and that there is a consensus on the issue. It is right and proper that his office is put on a statutory basis. The ombudsman welcomes it, and his predecessors also sought to achieve it.
The own-initiative aspect of the Bill is also to be welcomed. The Minister introduced that aspect, and we are very supportive of it. It is important that the ombudsman can look at an overall situation and see whether there are patterns developing or a systematic issue that needs to be addressed. It is right and proper that this particular power be introduced by the Bill. So, we welcome that and believe it to be an important step forward.
"compel a person to assist in any investigation under this Part."
We are not convinced that this is a right and proper amendment in relation to these matters. It is very difficult to conceive of a situation where you could compel a person to assist in an investigation. You might be able to compel someone to attend somewhere or arrive at some office, or whatever, but you could not compel a person to assist, as Mr McGlone said. I am grateful to Mr McCartney for responding constructively to the points raised by Mr McGlone. So, we are not supportive of that amendment.
"A person who intentionally obstructs the Ombudsman in the carrying out of an investigation under this Part commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale."
I hope I am quoting that accurately. The addition that Mr McCartney is seeking to make is:
"A person who refuses to assist an investigation under this Part".
We think that there is merit in this, and we are therefore supportive of the amendment. It is important, however, to note that, throughout the contribution of the Prisoner Ombudsman — as he is known, although he will not continue to have that name — he said that 99% of people cooperated with him and that he was happy enough.
Nonetheless, I think that there might be some merit in the additional aspect that Mr McCartney has raised.
In relation to that point, we are unhappy with the inclusion of clause 38. It does not seem necessary to us to include it in the Bill if, in fact, the power already subsists in the Prison Act. We are very wary of the whole issue of using national security as a broad brush and restricting or, effectively, obstructing investigations. We are very wary when we see those references in any legislation. Maybe that is just because we are politically neuralgic about national security, but we have seen national security used in the past as an umbrella and in a fairly blanket fashion. Despite the Minster's persuasive observations on clause 38, it seems to us that they are not totally persuasive — I will put it that way — and we feel that we must oppose the clause and support Sinn Féin's opposition to it. I am not sure if there is any —
I appreciate the Member giving way yet again. I could understand you having the concerns that you have just expressed about clause 38 if there were a specific direction. I really do not understand why it is of such concern to you in the context of merely having regard to guidance. That seems to me to be the fundamental issue: it is a low test. Those of us on this side of the House should be concerned not to get entirely caught up with the problems that arose at Stormont House before last Christmas over other aspects of national security creeping, multilayered, into a proposed Westminster Bill. This is a very different situation at a much lower level than what was being suggested there. That is why I might be tempted to suggest to you that perhaps you are getting just a little neuralgic.
Well, we need a doctor to decide that, do we not? Is there a doctor in the House?
I hear what the Minister says, but experience leads us to the conclusion that, wherever national security issues arise, even in an arcane way, there is some usage made of them, which we believe negatively impacts on transparency and proper investigation. I remain to be totally convinced, no matter how persistent the Minister may be on the issue. I think that I have covered all the points that I should have covered, so I will conclude.
I join others in giving a broad welcome to the legislation that we are considering in that it will place the office of the Prison Ombudsman on a statutory footing. Other Members, including the Minister, have covered the points at issue. It is not my intention to linger on them except to provide commentary on our view on the various amendments and clauses.
Amendment No 37 relates to clauses 35A and 35B and is linked to amendment Nos 45 and 46. We will support the Committee view on that. Amendment No 38 is a Sinn Féin amendment and is in competition with the Minister's amendment No 45. We think that amendment No 38 is more widely drawn, and we will oppose that and instead support amendment No 45, which deals with own-initiative investigations. Amendment Nos 39 to 44 are relatively non-contentious and can be supported. We have said that we will support amendment No 45.
We will oppose amendment Nos 47 and 48, which are Sinn Féin amendments. Amendment No 47 would:
"compel a person to assist in any investigation under this Part."
Mr Maginness drew attention to one of the weaker points of amendment No 47, which is that you can compel someone to attend, but it is enormously difficult to see how you can compel a person to assist. We will also oppose amendment No 48, which states that anyone:
"who refuses to assist an investigation under this Part or a person who intentionally obstructs an investigation under this Part commits an offence and is liable under summary conviction to a fine".
The ombudsman is on record saying that he does not require those powers, and, in many ways, what is proposed in the amendment is a cosmetic change — I think that that was the Minister's description of it.
Amendment No 80 would enable someone convicted of a criminal offence to remain in the post of ombudsman pending a risk assessment and an adjudication on the relevance of the offence to the post. Obviously, our preference is that an ombudsman would not have a criminal conviction, but we believe that it can be handled through the existing provisions and, therefore, will oppose the amendment.
The group 3 amendments are about the Prison Ombudsman. A lot of things have been said, and I will try to keep this as short as possible. First, I thank the Chair and Deputy Chair for their leadership through this process. I also thank other Committee members. Stewart Dickson said earlier that it has been a good process and that there has been good engagement on the Justice Committee. The way that we have conducted the business is a good model for other Committees. I also thank organisations such as the prison review oversight group, which spoke to us about a range of issues, and the independent visitors, who helped to feed into some of the recommendations and amendments. Finally, I thank the Minister and his officials, as well as the Justice Committee officials led by Christine and her team. They have done an excellent job.
We have a small number of amendments.
The Bill places the ombudsman on a statutory footing, as has been said. Since the first appointment in 2005, the ombudsman has, I believe, operated very effectively and efficiently on a non-statutory basis. I think that we are getting a continuation of the role. As a Member said earlier, there have been difficulties in the past. I do not think that they have been related to that office but maybe to some outside interference.
I believe that the Bill further enhances the standing of the office. The ombudsman is a recognised brand and also has that reputation of 10 years of continuous work. Independence will be reinforced. That is a key aspect of the Bill. Maybe I will say a few words about that later.
It is worth noting that the ombudsman works neither for prisoners nor against prison officers. Sometimes, we get confused over that because the ombudsman's role is to act as an honest broker. If you are an honest broker, people respect you. An honest broker examines the facts and reports on them as he sees fit. I see that as the role of the ombudsman.
The ombudsman is more than just a complaints handler or someone for people to whinge to. The office is established to help to ease tensions in the prison and provide a way for prisoners to deal with the problems that they face. Certainly, the discussions that we have had with prison visitors and oversight people have indicated that there are tensions within some of the prisons, particularly Maghaberry. The role of the Prison Ombudsman is to try to ease those tensions when there are difficulties and, in many ways, people need that independent voice and ear. I have visited a number of prisons over the past number of years. Last year, 90% of my experience was very good. To be quite honest, 10% was bad at times.
I just want to highlight a couple of amendments. I will turn to amendment No 37 to clause 29. I want to try to link it, as Danny Kennedy has done, to amendment No 45 and new clause 35A. Amendment No 37 inserts the words "the Ombudsman's own initiative". The Bill introduces a duty and obligation on all parties to cooperate with the ombudsman. I certainly agree that it should be an offence if anyone intentionally obstructs an investigation by the ombudsman.
The oddminsman — sorry, ombudsman. It is getting a bit late in the day for me: three days in a row. As I said before, I know another big word, "delicatessen".
It has nothing to do with this, but anyway.
The ombudsman has the right of entry to prison premises and the juvenile justice centre. He also has powers to access documents for investigations. As he has told us before, that has not been a big problem in the past, but I think that that will give him added power if it comes to the point when he needs to access documents for those investigations.
Currently, the ombudsman is appointed under prison legislation. The change in arrangements further demonstrates his independence from those he has the power to investigate. I think that it has to be completely separate from the prison structure and departmental hierarchy. A very important point is that he will enjoy the same independence from the Department because the Minister appoints people to the Policing Board, the Probation Board and Criminal Justice Inspection, and they have that sense of independence. That is an important point.
Amendment No 45 creates new clause 35A on own-initiative investigations. The clause includes not just prisoners but persons visiting a prison. I had a very poor experience recently while visiting a prisoner. As an MLA, I was a bit disappointed with how I was treated. I did not go to the Prisoner Ombudsman; I went straight to the governor, but not everybody has direct access to a governor. To be honest, the governor was able to reassure me, and we got the problem sorted out. It was a bit of a blip, but it was an unfortunate situation for him. It is good that the Prisoner Ombudsman can investigate the situation where families and others are visiting a prison.
The Prisoner Ombudsman can also investigate facilities, or, I should say, the lack of them, at a prison. That is very important. The Bill will also enable the ombudsman to investigate health and education, which are a very important part of prison life. Those of us on the Justice Committee who went to Maghaberry prison saw some of the education facilities that people were able to access, but others were not able to access them. We heard from the prison review oversight group — I have spoken to prisoners as well — about the major problems that many prisoners find in prison. Additionally, there are mental health issues. The Chair alluded to that earlier. It is another important aspect.
I could not stand here today without quoting the Bible. There is a verse that says that it is "the little foxes, that spoil the vines". I say that because the ombudsman will be able to investigate not just major issues but other issues that many people would term "insignificant" but which are vital for prisoners. I went to see a prisoner who was distraught because he was expecting a Father's Day card, but it did not arrive until a week later. It is unacceptable that someone in prison is looking for a Christmas card or a Father's Day card and it is late. Those things create tension between prisoners and prison staff. Part of it is because of the reduced numbers of prison staff and the difficulties that they had with manning the prison. To be fair to the prison staff, that situation, from what I know, has been addressed; they took prison staff off letters etc and placed them on the landings.
In conclusion, we support the Minister's amendments, and we will be opposing the others. We were told at the Committee that the changes will not require additional staff and that the cost will be minimal. I think that people mentioned to us that it may be done through websites and literature or whatever. Maybe the Minister, in his winding-up speech, will address those points.
Again, there is significant agreement on the issues covered in this group of amendments. What is particularly welcome is that everybody who spoke welcomed the fact that the Prisoner Ombudsman is now to be put on a statutory basis. The role of the Prisoner Ombudsman to date has not been limited in any respect. I have not had any complaints from the current ombudsman, Tom McGonigle, or his predecessor, Pauline McCabe — the two who have been in post during my time as Minister since devolution — to suggest that limitations were being placed on their role. Pauline made very clear her belief that it was important that, as soon as possible, that should become a statutory role, with a full statutory underpinning of the basis on which the Prisoner Ombudsman would work.
I do not know whether Pauline and Tom are glued to 'BBC Democracy Live' watching this at the moment, but they probably ought to be because the input from the two of them has been significant through the work that they have done and what they have done to make the case for what we are doing in the Chamber this afternoon as we progress the issue of a statutory basis.
Alban Maginness reminded us that this was part of the Hillsborough Castle Agreement in 2010, and you might say that it has taken rather too long to put it in place. I do not think that there is any difference between what the ombudsman has been doing since and what will be done in the future, but the statutory basis makes it absolutely clear what the function is. There will be no prospect of the future mythical, wicked Minister, who was referred to earlier and is not nearly as nice as me, coming along and getting in the way.
I was quoting other people praising me.
Sammy Douglas made the point that it is vital to ensure that the independence of the Prison Ombudsman is recognised in statute, not just in practice by the Department of Justice and the Prison Service. I can confirm to him that, to the best of my knowledge, given the way that the office functions currently, any additional costs will be minimal. The same team will continue to do the same work in the same way to the same high standards, but they will have a firm basis in law on which to do that work. I am pleased that, even though we are about to have a bit of a discussion and, potentially, a vote or two on factors on which we disagree, at least we have got to this point and there is widespread recognition. The important issue is that the principle is agreed, and, indeed, the principle has been agreed for a significant period. Mr Douglas visited Maghaberry recently, and his comments on that experience were a significant reminder of what we all need to do. To aid rehabilitation and reform, we need to ensure that everybody who visits a prison and everybody who is incarcerated in a prison has the best experience possible in the circumstances
Let me turn to the less-agreed points in what we have just been discussing. First, I suspect that the relatively easy point is the removal from office. I appreciate the efforts of Mr McCartney to tie down the precise basis on which that would happen, but I do not believe that those details are required. The arrangements for the terms of office and potential removal are exactly the same as those that apply to other bodies and to other individuals, such as the Police Ombudsman and the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice. The test in the law, as it is drafted and as it stands for them, is that it has to be a reasonable test to ensure that all relevant considerations have been taken into account. I do not see any great benefit in spelling that out, given that it is the same test as applies to others.
I think that Mr Kennedy made the point about compulsion. He has just been rude to me, so maybe I should not praise him. His point was that you may compel somebody to attend for interview, but you cannot compel them to assist. It is almost the same as the fundamental concept of a criminal investigation and the right to silence, so it is incorrect to suggest that you can compel somebody in this context when you clearly cannot do so in other contexts. You can certainly make somebody attend, but to what point? This was also an issue in regard to the role of the Police Ombudsman, and it arises in criminal investigations by the police every day. We would need to be very assured of how one would do that, as well as of the justification for doing it. At the moment, I do not see anything. There is a measure in the Bill on penalties for those who seek to obstruct the investigation, and that is absolutely right, but that is very different from pretending somehow that you can compel somebody to give useful information if they are unwilling to do so. Therefore, I can see no benefit in the amendment. I accept that we would all wish to ensure not just 99% cooperation but 100% cooperation, but, if the 1% do not wish to cooperate, even forcing them to attend would not make them do so.
The other key concern raised by those sitting on my right was on national security guidance. I must say again that I really cannot understand how representatives of a party whose Minister acceded to national security direction can have such concerns about national security guidance. Direction means that the Secretary of State says, "You must". There are no ifs and no buts; it is the Secretary of State directing a devolved authority. That is exactly the case with the Reservoirs Act. In this case, all that we are talking about is a replication in the legislation that puts the ombudsman on a statutory footing of that which already exists in prison rules and will continue to exist in prison rules whatever decision is taken in the House this afternoon. That is the well-known, regular formation of "having regard to" guidance, which is a vastly lower test than the ability of the Secretary of State to issue a direction. Members suggest that somehow this is a massive intrusion into the work, yet it has existed for six years since devolution and has not ever been used. I am tempted to requote Mr Maginness. If he thinks that, because it exists, it will somehow be used, why has it not been used for six years? The power is there anyway.
I will make the position absolutely clear: that the ombudsman shall have regard to guidance and, having considered all the issues, shall decide whether to go with that guidance is not the test that Sinn Féin Ministers and MLAs accepted in the Reservoirs Act. It is utterly bogus to pretend that this is somehow some massive intrusion by the NIO, when the test is at a significantly lower level than that which they have accepted with regard to the Public Services Ombudsman and with regard to reservoirs. People ought to grow up, accept the reality of life and stop pretending that something is significantly worse than it is.
I made this point to Mr Maginness, and I will make it again: I had significant concerns about what the NIO was seeking to do when it was looking at new legislation to deal with legacy institutions for the past. That was a ludicrous intrusion, overlaying the will of devolved bodies with national security. This is no such thing: it is guidance. "Have regard to" is the lowest possible standard. Therefore, to suggest that this is somehow a major problem is simply nonsense. People should accept the reality that this exists in prison rules. If we are putting the Prison Ombudsman on a statutory basis, we should get the statute right in the Bill and reflect the reality of life.
Amendment No 37 agreed to.
Amendment No 38 proposed:
In page 22, line 14, at end insert<BR/>
"(2) The Ombudsman may for the purpose of any of the Ombudsman’s functions, initiate such investigations as the Ombudsman considers necessary or expedient.
(3) The Ombudsman may not exercise the power under 29 (2) unless he/she is satisfied that any investigation would be?—
(a) in the public interest and
(b) the substance of the investigation would not fall within an existing statutory complaints or investigatory framework.". — [Mr McCartney.]
Question put, That the amendment be made. The Assembly divided:
Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mr Diver, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McCrossan, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Lynch, Ms Ruane
Mr Agnew, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Cochrane-Watson, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Patterson, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Dickson, Mr McCarthy
Question accordingly negatived.
Clause 29, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 30 (Complaints)
Amendment No 39 made:
In page 23, line 11, leave out from "at" to end of line 19 and insert
"at any time if it appears to the Ombudsman that?—
(a) a criminal investigation might be adversely affected by the Ombudsman’s investigation;
(c) it is appropriate to do so because of any proceedings for judicial review; or
(d) it is appropriate to do so for any other reason.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Amendment No 40 made:
In page 23, line 39, at end insert
"(15) At any time in the course of an investigation under this section the Ombudsman may?—
(a) draw to the attention of the police any matter which in the Ombudsman’s opinion is relevant to any criminal investigation;
(b) draw to the attention of any body or person any matter which in the Ombudsman’s opinion calls for action to be taken by that body or person.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 30, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 32 (Investigations into deaths in custody)
Amendment No 41 made:
In page 25, line 3, leave out from "at" to end of line 11 and insert
"at any time if it appears to the Ombudsman that?—
(a) a criminal investigation might be adversely affected by the Ombudsman’s investigation;
(b) the exercise of functions under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 might be adversely affected by the Ombudsman’s investigation;
(c) it is appropriate to do so because of any proceedings for judicial review; or
(d) it is appropriate to do so for any other reason.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 32, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 34 (Investigations requested by the Department)
Amendment No 42 made:
In page 26, line 9, leave out subsection (1) and insert
"(1) The Department?—
(a) shall request the Ombudsman to investigate any custody-related matter if any of the events to which it relates is of such a nature or description, or occurs in such circumstances, as may be prescribed;
(b) may request the Ombudsman to investigate any other custody-related matter which is specified in the request.
(1A) Before making any request under subsection (1) the Department shall consult the Ombudsman.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Amendment No 43 made:
In page 26, line 17, at end insert
"(2A) Before making any regulations under subsection (1)(a) the Department shall consult?—
(a) the Ombudsman; and
(b) such other persons as the Department thinks appropriate.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Amendment No 44 made:
In page 26, line 26, at end insert
"(6) At any time in the course of an investigation under this section the Ombudsman may?—
(a) draw to the attention of the police any matter which in the Ombudsman’s opinion is relevant to any criminal investigation;
(b) draw to the attention of any body or person any matter which in the Ombudsman’s opinion calls for action to be taken by that body or person.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 34, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 45 made:
After clause 35 insert
35A.—(1) The Ombudsman may carry out an investigation under this section into a matter if?—
(a) the matter relates?—
(i) to the way in which a prisoner has been treated by a prison officer;
(ii) to the way in which a person visiting a prison has been treated by a prison officer;
(iii) to the facilities available to a person at a prison (including, in the case of a prisoner, facilities for the welfare of the prisoner);
(iv) to the cleanliness and adequacy of a prison; and
(b) the Ombudsman has reasonable grounds for believing that, in relation to the matter?—
(i) a number of events of the same or a similar nature have occurred; and
(ii) the number or frequency of the events requires the matter to be investigated under this section.
(2) Before commencing an investigation under this section, the Ombudsman must?—
(a) consult the Department; and
(b) inform the Department of the matter proposed to be investigated and of the grounds referred to in subsection (1)(b).
(3) It is for the Ombudsman to determine the procedures to be applied to an investigation under this section.
(4) This section applies to a matter whether or not a complaint has been, or could be, made about the matter under section 30." — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 46 made:
After clause 35 insert
"Report on investigation under section 35A
35B.—(1) Where the Ombudsman has carried out an investigation under section 35A, the Ombudsman must report in writing on the outcome of the investigation to?—
(a) the Department; and
(b) any other person the Ombudsman considers should receive the report.
(2) In a report to the Department the Ombudsman may make recommendations about any matter arising from the investigation.
(3) Where such recommendations are made in a report, the Department must, within the required period, respond in writing to the Ombudsman setting out (with reasons) what it proposes to do about the recommendations.
(4) The required period is the period of 28 days commencing with the day on which the Department receives the report or such longer period as the Ombudsman may in the case of any report allow.
(5) The Ombudsman may report on that response to such persons as the Ombudsman may think fit.
(6) Regulations may make provision as to the procedures to be followed in relation to reports under this section and may in particular include provision?—
(a) enabling the Ombudsman to show any person a draft of the whole or any part of a report;
(b) enabling the Ombudsman to publish the whole or any part of a report;
(c) restricting or prohibiting the identification of prescribed persons or persons of a prescribed description in a report or the inclusion of information of a prescribed description.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 36 (Powers of Ombudsman)
Amendment No 47 proposed:
In page 27, line 16, at end insert
"(d) compel a person to assist in any investigation under this Part.". — [Mr McCartney.]
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
I will not call amendment No 48, as it is consequential to amendment No 47, which was not made.
Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 37 (Disclosure of information)
Amendment No 49 made:
In page 28, line 2, at end insert<BR/>
Amendment No 50 made:
In page 28, line 3, leave out "Ombudsperson" and insert "Ombudsman". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 37, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 38 (Guidance to Ombudsman in relation to matters connected with national security)
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill. The Assembly divided:
Mr Agnew, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Cochrane-Watson, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Patterson, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Dickson, Mr McCarthy
Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mr Diver, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McCrossan, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Boylan, Mr Lynch
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 40 (Transitional provision: the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland)
Amendment No 51 made:
In page 30, line 12, at end insert
"(6A) In applying section 35A(1)(b) the Ombudsman may take into account events occurring in the period of 12 months immediately preceding the appointed day (as well as events occurring on or after that day).". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
Clause 40, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
I beg to move amendment No 52:
Before clause 41 insert<BR/>
Penalties for animal welfare offences
40A.—(1) In section 31 of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 (penalties), in subsection (1) (summary-only offences), omit “8(3),” and “, 33(9), 40(7)”.
(2) After that subsection insert?—
“(1A) A person guilty of an offence under section 4 or 8(1) or (2) shall be liable?—
(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding £20,000, or both;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years, or to a fine, or both.”.
(3) In subsection (2) of that section (hybrid offences)?—
(a) omit “4,”, and
(b) for “and 8(1) and (2)” substitute “, 8(3), 33(9) and 40(7)”.
(4) In that subsection, in paragraph (b), for “2 years” substitute “5 years”.
(5) In each of the following provisions of that Act, for “8(1) and (2)” substitute “8”?—
(a) section 32(1) (deprivation);
(b) section 33(10) (disqualification);
(c) section 36(1) (destruction in interests of animal).
(6) In each of the following provisions of that Act, for “8(1) or (2)” substitute “8”?—
(a) section 36(6) (destruction in interests of animal);
(b) section 37(1) (destruction of animals involved in fighting offences);
(c) section 38(1) (reimbursement of expenses relating to animals involved in fighting offences).
(7) In Article 29(1) of the Magistrates’ Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 (right to claim trial by jury subject to exceptions), after sub-paragraph (o) insert?—
“(p) section 4 or 8(1) or (2) of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 (unnecessary suffering; fighting).”.".
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List: Nos
53 to 57.
Amendment No 52 makes changes to the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 by increasing the maximum penalties for the most serious offences of animal cruelty; changing the mode of trial for three animal welfare offences, from summary only to hybrid; and extending the use of a range of court orders in the 2011 Act, such as disqualification orders, to apply in cases where someone has been convicted of possessing or supplying images of an animal fight. The amendment has been included following a request from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in order to give effect to a recommendation arising out of the joint review carried out between DARD and DOJ on the implementation of the 2011 Act.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I suppose, very specifically in relation to amendment No 52, I welcome the very positive and detailed work which led to this amendment, which was undertaken, as the Minister has indicated, by DOJ in conjunction with DARD in the report on the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act. That was a very productive process, which led to amendment No 52 being brought forward by the Minister today. Will the Minister give an assurance that, as we move forward, he will ensure that the legislation remains fit for purpose and that, if problems arise with implementation, it will be subject to further review?
I was not expecting an intervention so early, nor one so positive about the work that has been done. I could recommend to Members that they be equally supportive. As Mr Weir says, the joint review by DOJ and DARD was a very useful exercise, especially as it followed the relevant legislation relatively speedily. The input from the animal welfare organisations into that review was very significant, and both I and Mrs O'Neill want to ensure that we have an ongoing working relationship with them over this issue, which lies between the two Departments.
As a result of the review, a number of improvements have been agreed, and we are considering specifically the improved sentencing arrangements today. While that legislation properly belongs to the Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, we are both aware of the considerable public interest, as shown by Mr Weir's speedy intervention, in ensuring that we have robust arrangements to protect and enhance animal welfare in this jurisdiction.
I believe that our joint response in the form of these new sentencing arrangements and the other measures being taken forward by DARD demonstrate a very significant commitment to animal welfare on the part of the two Departments and, indeed, this House. If we find ourselves in a position where this new legislation requires further thought — we have ongoing engagement with animal welfare organisations and the all-party group — I am sure that careful consideration will be given. That is an indication of the positive work being done. We have had a very thorough review by the two Departments, and I hope that we are now in a strong position and will look at any further issues that we had not noticed before, as they arise, to take things forward.
Obviously, I am keen to build on that positive exchange with the Minister, which I am sure will lead tomorrow's headlines on the Justice Bill. The whole House would agree on the need to ensure that animals are not placed in the ownership of those with convictions for animal cruelty offences. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will work closely with the animal rehoming charities and organisations to ensure that there are practical solutions and mechanisms that provide them with reassurance on this issue?
I am very happy to give that commitment. I will continue to work with the Minister of Agriculture. I know that she shares my view that we should continue to work with rehoming charities to explore areas of best practice. The issues that have been highlighted are practical ones. I understand that a date for that meeting is in my diary; at least, so my officials tell me. I think that we are extending an invitation to at least the chair of the all-party group, who happens to be Mr Peter Weir. I have no doubt that he will add to the good work that Michelle O'Neill and I are doing, and we will ensure that we continue to provide the best possible arrangements in this jurisdiction.
I thank the Minister for giving way. As vice-chair of the all-party group on animal welfare, I add my welcome to the increased maximum sentence for animal cruelty. Will the Minister continue to work with the Minister of Agriculture to ensure that better information is available to the public about the reporting of animal cruelty offences?
I hope that not every member of the all-party group is going to get up. Perhaps we could stop at the two officers. Yes, it is a perfectly valid point on how we provide and enhance the information. Of course, these days, we do not have vast budgets for advertising campaigns, but there are ways of getting messages out via social media and the media generally, particularly in areas with decent local newspaper coverage. We need to ensure that we not only get the law right but continue to work with the voluntary animal welfare and rehoming groups to get the message out to the public about how we are going to do things right in future and that we will not allow others to engage in practices of animal cruelty, which, sadly, come to the courts of this jurisdiction too often.
I hope that these measures in the Bill will be introduced at an early stage so that we see the significant enhancement of sentencing provided for and send out a clear message.
Let us be clear that we are seeking to increase the maximum sentence for cases heard in the Crown Court from two years to five years, and the maximum sentence in the Magistrates' Court for offences of unnecessary suffering and causing or attending an animal fight from six months' to 12 months' imprisonment. The maximum fine that a Magistrates' Court can impose for these offences will increase from £5,000 to £20,000.
The three offences that will change from summary only to hybrid and therefore also be triable in the Crown Court are possession or supply of images of an animal fight, breach of a disqualification order and selling an animal pending the outcome of an appeal against a deprivation order. This, as I say, will allow the most serious offences to be taken in the Crown Court where they properly belong. The amendments will ensure that Northern Ireland has amongst the toughest penalties for these types of crime of any jurisdiction in these islands. That is something that we should seek to build on, and we should be proud of it if we can get it in place.
Having finished on the issue of animal welfare, I turn to the Committee's amendments to create a new offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress, generally known as "revenge pornography". We are looking at the creation of an offence similar to that created in England and Wales by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. Such behaviour is, of course, already totally unacceptable. It should be recognised that there are existing laws in Northern Ireland to prosecute offenders for offences such as harassment, the improper use of a communications network and even blackmail.
I have not been made aware of particular or noticeable gaps in the law that have resulted in charges not being possible for this objectionable behaviour. As a result, given the time constraints and other pressing issues for the Department, it was not possible to give appropriate policy consideration to this new offence in time for a proposal to be considered for this Bill. I had planned, instead, to include the proposal in a proper policy consultation for future legislative change, as part of a wider review of related areas covering certain sexual offences and child protection.
It seemed sensible to deal with the issue in the round to ensure that the law in this important area was developed in a coherent and logical manner. However, given the clearly stated support for the introduction of a similar provision to the offence that already exists in England and Wales, I am content to support the Committee's amendment, subject to a minor amendment that I intend to table at Further Consideration Stage to clarify the level of fine for a summary offence. At present, clause 42A(9)(b) does not precisely define the level of fine for a summary conviction, and that would need to be corrected. The other point is that the usual period on summary conviction would be imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, a fine or both. However, that is a detail, which is what we have Further Consideration Stage for. I am happy to accept the will of the Committee that we should proceed to make this amendment today.
A further amendment is proposed specifically by Mr Paul Frew regarding the introduction of a domestic abuse offence to capture patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships, an issue that arose during the discussion on the last Bill. Both Mr Frew and Mrs Kelly have shown considerable interest in this aspect of tackling domestic violence. In this specific instance, I will not support amendment No 56; indeed, I am opposing it. It proposes, in effect, to replicate section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, which was commenced in England and Wales on 29 December last, following an extensive public consultation process. Members will be aware that, during consideration of the last Justice Bill, I gave an undertaking to consult on the introduction of a similar offence in Northern Ireland. The Justice Committee has considered and approved a draft consultation paper, covering not just this offence but the introduction of a domestic violence disclosure scheme in Northern Ireland on 28 January. The public consultation was launched just last week on 5 February and will close on 29 April.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
In developing and bringing forward the consultation paper, I sought the views of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which will have a key and significant role in determining and obtaining evidence for the offence. Acknowledging that the offence has only recently been introduced in England and Wales, the police believe that it would be prudent to await feedback from England and Wales on the efficacy of the new offence in criminalising the unseen aspect of abusive relationships. I support the view of the police that feedback from the introduction of the offence in England and Wales would be very beneficial in shaping future legislation in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, I believe that the feedback from the ongoing public consultation exercise will greatly assist and strengthen how best we legislate for the offence in Northern Ireland.
Just a few weeks ahead of us, on 22 December last year, Scotland launched a second public consultation on the draft offence of domestic abuse. That consultation closes on 1 April, and we can benefit from its outcome, particularly as it deals with a slightly wider construct in the definition of domestic abuse, dealing with the physical and psychological aspects.
Whilst acknowledging the work done by Mr Frew and Mrs Kelly previously, I believe that the consultation is the right place to address things to ensure that, in slightly slower time, we get this aspect of the legislation absolutely right. Therefore, I request the Member not to move the amendment at this time, to await the outcome of our public consultation, to learn the lessons of the application in England and Wales and to see the Scottish consultation concluded. I believe that that would be the best way forward.
If the amendment were to be pressed, amendments would be required at Further Consideration Stage. However, we should get the entire process right — the issues that Mrs Kelly and Mr Frew highlighted — and ensure that we have robust legislation, rather than doing something today that would potentially have to be changed in the early years of the next mandate.
Mr Frew, I acknowledge, has been busy on the Bill as an individual. He also has amendment No 57 seeking to create an offence of assaulting and obstructing certain emergency workers. I believe that we all agree that attacks on public services should not be tolerated. All public servants have the right to go about their service to the community free from abuse and the threat of violence. However, I raise a slight concern that a precedent could be set if there is a suggestion that the role of some should be prioritised.
I am not aware of any problems or shortcomings with existing legislation, which allows for assaults on all public servants, including paramedics and other ambulance workers, to be prosecuted under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. In addition, I ask the House to note that attacks on public servants or attacks that damage emergency equipment may already be treated as aggravating factors in sentencing. Indeed, DHSSPS, which is responsible for healthcare staff and has an obvious interest in the amendment, has previously considered the introduction of legislation that would create a specific offence of assaulting or impeding a healthcare worker in the execution of their duties. That consideration acknowledged that it was not apparent how an additional offence would increase the protection afforded to Health and Social Care staff over and above the offences already available under the Offences Against the Person Act and the Protection from Harassment Order 1997. It was also considered unlikely that an assailant would be deterred by a separate criminal offence related specifically to the assault or abuse of Health and Social Care workers. I understand, however, that the Health Minister is content in principle that the creation of this offence is welcome. Therefore, I will not oppose Mr Frew's amendment, although definitional issues would need to picked up at Further Consideration Stage, if the amendment is agreed today, to ensure that the legislation is as good as it can be.
Let us be absolutely clear: we should all believe that all public servants should be free to go about their service to the community free from abuse and the threat of violence. Whilst the current legislation provides adequate scope for effective prosecutions in those despicable instances when emergency staff are abused or, regrettably, attacked in the course of their efforts, I am content to accept the amendment if that is the will of the House.
In relation to penalties for animal welfare offences, amendment No 52 will, as the Minister outlined, increase the statutory maximum penalties in the Welfare of Animals Act 2011. In November 2015, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development advised the Committee for Justice that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development was intending to make these changes by way of amendments to the Justice (No. 2) Bill as, whilst it has policy responsibility for animal welfare, it did not have a suitable legislative vehicle to bring forward the amendments before the end of the mandate.
The changes have arisen from joint departmental work between Agriculture and Justice and the review of the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act 2011, following the Assembly debate on animal cruelty.
The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development welcomed the proposed increase in penalties but had ongoing concerns regarding enforcement and whether some individuals were circumventing the Act.
The Department of Justice indicated that the Minister had considered the proposed amendments in the context of the wider sentencing framework and the penalties available in neighbouring jurisdictions for animal welfare offences. It indicated that the Minister believed that increasing the maximum penalties in that way was appropriate and would send out a message that animal cruelty will not be tolerated. The Minister also agreed in principle to add animal cruelty offences to the unduly lenient sentencing scheme, which would further strengthen the law around animal cruelty.
The Committee explored a range of issues with officials from the Department of Justice and DARD, including whether there are clear sentencing guidelines available for animal cruelty offences, whether the proposed amendments are adequate and will achieve the desired effect, and whether stronger enforcement measures are required considering the number and length of custodial sentences that have been handed down for cases brought under the 2011 Act.
Committee Members are very aware of the public concern about some of the sentences that have been handed down for convictions for animal welfare offences, particularly those involving extreme cases of animal cruelty, under the 2011 Act. We have all received representations for changes to be made to the sentencing regime, either through the Committee or as individual MLAs. The Committee therefore welcomes and supports amendment No 52, which will increase the penalties available for such offences, thereby reflecting the serious nature of them and providing some of the toughest penalties for animal cruelty offences of any jurisdiction in these islands.
In relation to the domestic violence amendments, Mr Frew has tabled an amendment to introduce a new offence relating to controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. The Committee has not had an opportunity to consider and reach a position on that, although I was grateful to Mr Frew for explaining the amendment at our Committee meeting last Thursday and for his offer to members who wanted more information to go to him. The Committee does, however, fully appreciate the need to address domestic violence in all its forms and provide the best protection possible to victims.
The Committee is aware that the Department is undertaking a consultation on the creation of a specific offence of domestic abuse that captures patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships in line with the proposed new definition of domestic violence and abuse contained in the draft 'Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse' strategy document. That appears to be what Mr Frew is aiming to achieve with his amendment.
It is clear that there is growing frustration among Members about the length of time it is taking the Department of Justice and the Health Department to finalise, publish and implement a new domestic and sexual violence strategy. There are, therefore, opportunities being taken by Members in this Bill, as happened with the previous Justice Bill, to try to move ahead with particular issues, such as the offence that Mr Frew highlighted.
Given that there is no such specific offence, and it would make it clear that unacceptable behaviours such as those outlined in the amendment are criminal, I suspect that the Committee would have some sympathy with Mr Frew’s amendment. If Mr Frew were agreeable, perhaps a better way of dealing with the issue would be to ensure that the Committee has an opportunity to look at the consultation responses and, as with the issue that Mrs Kelly raised during the passage of the previous Justice Bill, allow us to take evidence from organisations that represent victims of domestic violence and look at potential unintended consequences.
When Mrs Kelly made her proposals around Clare's law, there were some charities that were concerned that they could give women a false sense of security. For example, if a woman has a check done that finds that their partner is clear, they might think that they are not at risk, which is not always the case. Others see it very much as a way of empowering women to understand what their partner has been potentially convicted of. I was grateful to Mrs Kelly for not moving her amendment at that time, and, if Mr Frew were similarly minded, it would benefit the Committee's scrutiny role.
The Committee has had an opportunity to consider the issues relating to amendment No 57, which creates an offence of assaulting or obstructing a person employed in the provision of ambulance services whilst they are responding to emergency situations. Lord Morrow had advised us of his intention to bring forward a similar amendment. We invited him along to the Committee to discuss that.
Over the past 14 or 15 months, since assuming my current role, if a Member has said that they intend to bring forward an amendment to the Justice Bill, I have afforded them the opportunity to come to the Committee. I was grateful that Lord Morrow came to the Committee to explain the intention behind his amendment. Likewise, Mr McCrea had proposals for an amendment that he has not moved forward with. Whilst the Committee was not in agreement with what Mr McCrea proposed, I was grateful that at least he came along, explained it to us and took questions on it. It allowed us as a Committee to then ask the Department, the Police Service and the PPS whether it was workable and achievable. It helps us as a Committee when those amendments are brought to the House, and it allows the whole House to look at the Committee scrutiny. Of course, this issue has been raised previously, and I know that the Minister shares the Committee view. During a debate on the Criminal Justice Bill in 2013, he said:
"Last-minute amendments on substantial issues with direct effects on people, even on small numbers of people, are not the way to do good government and not the way that we should operate in this place." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 83, p75, col 2].
His colleague Mr Dickson agreed. He asked:
"What message will we convey, therefore, about the importance of every stage of the legislative process if we make major changes to the law that have not been discussed in the prescribed way of scrutiny in all our relevant Statutory Committees?"— [Official Report, Bound Volume 83, p21, col 1].
I agree with him, and that is why I tried to invite Members who had amendments to the Committee. It allows the Committee to discuss and seek advice on them.
On Mr Frew's second amendment, let me say from the outset that the Committee fully appreciates the difficult and often dangerous work undertaken by the emergency services, including paramedics on the front line. We also recognise and are sympathetic to the intention of his amendment. It is fair to say, however, that it is a complicated area, and the Minister referred to that. A number of issues were raised in correspondence to the Committee from the Department of Justice, the Public Prosecution Service and, in particular, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
The approach taken by Mr Frew in the amendment differs from that which was originally proposed by Lord Morrow and goes some way to addressing some of the issues raised, particularly around the practical implications outlined by the PPS. There is, however, an argument about whether a specific offence is necessary and whether other staff who undertake front-line duties with the public should also be included. Perhaps that warrants further discussion.
Both the Department of Justice and the PPS outlined that, where there is evidence of an assault on an emergency worker, the PPS can prosecute under existing assault offences, and, where the victim was serving the public at the time, prosecutors will consider that as an aggravating factor when deciding whether, for example, an offender should be prosecuted in the Crown Court, where greater sentencing options are of course available. Attacks on public servants may also be treated as aggravating factors when passing sentence in such cases. The Judicial Studies Board for Northern Ireland's sentencing guidelines for the Magistrates' Court state:
"Where an offence is committed against such a person the courts will treat this as a substantial aggravating factor when determining the seriousness of the offence."
The Health Minister advised the Committee that previous consideration had been given to the introduction of legislation that would create the specific offence of assaulting or impeding a healthcare worker whilst that worker was carrying out their duties and provide that anyone found guilty would be liable to possible imprisonment or a fine. He indicated that those considerations had identified a number of practical problems with such legislation, including the fact that it was already an offence to assault or abuse a health and social care worker, and the need to establish who would be covered by the legislation and in which physical locations the protection afforded would have effect.
Mr Frew's amendment focuses on protecting persons employed in the provision of ambulance services while responding to emergency circumstances. When the Committee discussed the initial proposal with Lord Morrow, two issues were raised: the inclusion of other staff, including other front-line medical staff in accident and emergency departments, nursing staff, social workers undertaking home visits and members of voluntary organisations, such as Lagan Search and Rescue, which the Committee visited last year; and whether the proposal would protect paramedic staff if they were assaulted in an accident and emergency department or only when out on call.
The Committee was sympathetic to the intention of the proposal, and that early engagement allowed Mr Frew to taper his amendment to make it as fit for purpose as he possibly can. It is my expectation, therefore, that Members will want to support it. Of course, it is an awkward situation, in that Mr Frew has not had the opportunity to outline his amendment to the House yet.
I turn now to amendment Nos 53, 54 and 55, which the Committee for Justice tabled. Online crime is becoming more and more prevalent. The Committee has been considering whether current criminal law is equipped to deal with the new type and range of offences being committed or whether legislation needs to be changed and updated to provide the necessary tools for the police, the Public Prosecution Service and the courts to tackle these emerging threats properly.
As part of our work programme over the last year, the Committee held a hugely successful conference on "Justice in a Digital Age" back in October. We covered a wide range of issues, including cybercrime, social media and online protection and the legal response to changing technologies. A number of areas for possible legislative change were highlighted at that time on improving online protection, particularly as there was a focus on protecting children online. Following that conference, the Committee decided to give further consideration to three possible changes proposed by Jim Gamble, who was one of our speakers at the event, with a view to bringing forward amendments using this Bill as the vehicle. The Committee also decided to give consideration to creating a new offence to cover what is commonly referred to as revenge porn.
The first proposed change related to amending current law so that a child or young person under the age of 18 who takes, makes, distributes or possesses a sexual image of themselves will commit no criminal offence unless it is done with malicious intent. Mr Gamble believes that the law as it stands and under which it is an offence for a person below the age of 18 to take, make, show, distribute or possess a sexual image of themselves discourages young people from coming forward quickly when they have shared such an image with another person and fear it may be shared with others for fear of prosecution. In his view, decriminalising that, unless it occurs with malicious intent, will encourage children who find themselves in circumstances of crisis to come forward to the relevant authorities.
The second proposal related to an amendment to the Protection from Harassment Order or the creation of a new law to deal with the aggravated impact when an individual or individuals use the anonymity provided by the Internet or the ability to create multiple online accounts to harass another person. Mr Gamble indicated that there were not a substantial number of individuals being prosecuted for such harassment despite, for example, the high number of people involved in trolling online, which, in his view, demonstrates that the law as currently configured is not working.
The third proposal would create a new law to prohibit an individual of 18 or above who masquerades as someone below that age and engages online with an individual whom they know or believe to be under the age of 18. An individual who did so would commit a criminal offence unless they could prove that they did so with reasonable cause or lawful authority. In reasonable cause defences, the burden of proof would shift to the alleged offender. Mr Gamble highlighted that many people already think that this is an offence and expressed the view that, if an adult goes online and masquerades as someone below the age of 18 for the purposes of talking to or engaging with someone below 18, this question has to be posed: why would they do that? There is unlikely to be a lawful excuse or authority.
The Committee then took the views of the Department of Justice, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Public Prosecution Service and the Human Rights Commission to assist its consideration of the proposals. Whilst all the organisations recognised the prevalence of online crime and the need to ensure appropriate measures are in place to tackle it robustly, they highlighted a range of issues on the proposals that, in their view, would require further detailed consideration.
The Justice Committee is very aware that the development of the Internet has created challenges for the criminal law. It believes that it is essential that the law responds and adapts to those challenges and that the law enforcement agencies are provided with appropriate and robust tools to tackle new and emerging types of criminal behaviour.
The Committee is supportive of the proposals but recognises that this is a complex area of law and that any changes will require careful consideration to ensure that there are no unintended consequences. The Minister of Justice, in correspondence to the Committee, asked us to support the inclusion of the proposals in a policy consultation for future legislative change to be undertaken by his Department as part of a wider review of related areas covering certain sexual offences and child protection, rather than bringing forward amendments as part of this Bill. Given the very limited time available in the context of the Bill, the Committee reluctantly agreed to adopt that approach, as we want to see these issues progressed as soon as possible. We have requested a briefing on the proposed departmental consultation at the earliest opportunity. I also ask the Minister to provide an assurance today that the consultation will be prioritised and any necessary legislative changes brought forward as early as possible in the next mandate.
As I indicated, the Committee recognises that times and technologies have changed and will continue to change. There is a need to adapt the legislation to meet those new challenges. It has therefore decided to table amendment Nos 53, 54 and 55 to create the new offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress. That offence already exists in England and Wales through the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 and has been widely welcomed. Therefore, there are unlikely to be the same issues regarding unintended consequences. A person found guilty of such an offence will be liable on conviction by indictment to a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both and on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or a fine or both. I am sure Members are aware of the distress, devastation and humiliation that is caused to victims when intimate photographs or films they have shared with another individual, often someone who at the time they trusted implicitly, are then shared widely, most often on the Internet, without their consent and with the intent of causing distress.
The Minister outlined the potential to bring prosecutions under existing legislation, but the difficulty is that, when that legislation was drafted, nobody envisaged the world that we live in today. We all now have smartphones capable of taking photographs and videos, all of which can be shared online almost instantly. Therefore, I think that the law needs to keep pace with technological changes and recognise the world that we live in today. The Committee believes that introducing a specific offence to deal with revenge porn will assist the police and the Public Prosecution Service in tackling this obnoxious crime. It will also send a clear message to potential perpetrators that such behaviour will not be tolerated, and, hopefully, it will provide some assurance to victims that this type of crime is being taken seriously by legislators and the law enforcement agencies.
I was pleased that the amendments were welcomed in the media yesterday by Nexus and by members of the legal profession who have done much work in the area. Unfortunately, it is an area that causes increasing concern to the legal community. I have spoken to solicitors who deal with similar issues, particularly those involving young people. Sharing sexual images of themselves seems to be a cultural thing among young people. It is all too commonplace across schools, and children as young as 12, 13 and 14 are doing this. This is a real problem out there, and we need to make sure that we have the right legislation in place to ensure that people have confidence to come forward and that we can convict those who maliciously share this material.
When the Committee suggested the proposal to the Department, it indicated that, given time constraints and other pressing issues, it was not possible for it to give the appropriate policy consideration to include it in the Bill. The Department said that it intended to include the proposal in the policy consultation on a broader review of sexual offences. The Committee, aware of the increasing incidence of this behaviour, wanted to table the amendment today and ensure that Northern Ireland people had the same protection as people in England and Wales. We believe that this is the opportunity to make sure that our law keeps pace, and, therefore, we ask the House to back the Committee amendment.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will speak briefly on each of the six amendments in group 4. The Minister and, indeed, the Chair outlined the animal cruelty issues and explained that amendment No 52 is just a tightening up and a coming together of the two Departments to ensure that a gap in legislation about which there is public concern is filled. We are fairly supportive of that.
The Chair correctly outlined the broad view of the Committee on amendment Nos 53, 54 and 55. The Chair mentioned the conference in W5, which is what opened up this area to all of us. We had been aware of pieces of it, but the conference not only brought everything together but showed us that there were gaps in legislation on issues to do with the Internet, particularly on what people call "revenge porn". The Minister accepts the amendments and has agreed to take on work to deal with other aspects of this as we go forward. That is important because the many people who are subjected to this feel vulnerable and isolated. Then, there are the people who use it for the purposes of control, bullying and coercion, and they need a very clear signal that that will not be tolerated. The Chair mentioned the intervention by Nexus and referred to people in legal circles, including those dealing particularly with young people, who work on this and have other impacts. We have seen in recent media reports that young people who have been subjected to this have gone on to self-harm, and, worse than that, some have taken their own life, so the amendments are to be welcomed.
Amendment No 57 relates to the blue-light services. All of us are supportive; indeed, we all would say that people in public service, particularly those in the blue-light services, deserve protection from attack. The refinement of the amendment is welcome. There was a discussion, and I think the Health Minister's letter and, indeed, issues from the Department and the PPS showed us that we need to be careful that we do not over-define it and that it does not creep into other aspects that are not necessary. Again, I welcome the Minister's comments. He is right: there are laws and sentencing guidelines around aggravation, but I think everybody is broadly supportive of the terms of this.
The last amendment is amendment No 56. I am not saying that this is one of those issues that comes at you out of the blue, but there was certainly not much discussion. Following what Dolores Kelly said the last time, there is an acceptance that this is an issue that we need to examine and something that we need to do. The Minister's intent, today, is to have a look at this. New laws have been passed elsewhere. We have to look at the impact of those and at whether they are doing what they were designed to do. That should be in the in tray for the new Minister after the election, come May. We will wait to hear what Paul Frew has to say in relation to the amendment's intention. He outlined it last week at the Committee, but we will hear his response to the Minister.
I thank the Minister for living up to the commitment that he made during the passage of the last Justice Bill on the consultation on coercive and controlling behaviour and the disclosure process. I very much welcome the intervention of Mr Frew in tabling the amendments. They ensure that we have not lost sight of the necessity to improve protections for people who are subjected to domestic violence — men and women, who are, of course, the primary victims.
I also welcome the comments by the Chairperson of the Justice Committee, Mr Ross, on how the Committee is spending quite a bit of time, forensically examining the pros and cons of the disclosure process or what is known as "Clare's law". I welcome that. It is prudent to learn from other jurisdictions and to look at the implementation of the law to — I paraphrase Mr McCartney — see if it does what it says on the tin. I certainly have no objection to that.
I welcome the cross-community consensus on giving the police more powers to better protect victims of domestic violence. I look forward to the next mandate, when, hopefully, the incoming Justice Minister will be able to put the provisions into law.
I join others in giving a broad welcome to the measures outlined in the group. The Minister of Justice has outlined the changes in the approach that has been adopted in respect of amendment No 52. I know that a considerable amount of work has taken place with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Obviously, that is important work, and it is important that it has brought us to this stage. All in the House agree that it is long past time that proper penalties were put in place for those who indulge and engage in animal cruelty. I think that that will be broadly welcomed, not only in the House but in the wider community.
I move to the amendments tabled by the Chair of the Justice Committee in relation to what is described as revenge porn. We have all been horrified to hear of the very bad experiences that people, some young and some older, have had with that. It seems to be a modern-day evil, so I very much welcome the fact that we are at least bringing our legislation into line with England and Wales. I know that it is probably not ideal from the Minister's point of view that more research or whatever has not been conducted by the Department into the impact in Northern Ireland terms, but, nevertheless, there will be widespread public support for the measure.
It may well be that the amendments will play nicely into or at least link into the cyberbullying provisions in the anti-bullying legislation that is currently being considered by the Education Committee, having been brought forward by the Education Minister. There are very clear links. It is therefore important that the Assembly is reactive to the needs and the dangers that are out there, particularly for our young people.
Mr Frew's amendment No 56 seeks to tackle controlling behaviour and domestic violence. He will have heard previous contributors indicate their support for the intent behind the measure, but we all need to see how practicable the amendment is and how it can be brought into legislation. I am interested in hearing from Mr Frew on his present thinking on the measure.
Amendment No 57 is another measure from Mr Frew. It is aimed at giving more protection, in particular, to paramedics. Again, the intent behind the amendment can be supported, but there are all manner of blue-light workers who, unfortunately, face real dangers in carrying out their important work. The amendment as currently framed is not an exhaustive list, but we can support it in principle.
That completes my review of the group 4 amendments on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party.
In supporting the Minister, I will be brief. There is some value at this stage in commending the Chair of the Committee for the leadership that he has given, particularly with the "Justice in a Digital Age" conference, which the Committee organised and for which he was the catalyst. That has opened up for us, the wider public and the Department of Justice, as we narrow it down in today's debate, the importance of the issue.
The other side of that coin is the incredible work that officials in the Department do on a very wide range of issues. In this group, we are looking at everything from animal welfare to revenge pornography to the protection of blue-light workers. Those are very diverse areas of work, all of which require intensive research and a great deal of effort from officials. Sitting over all of that is a Minister who is genuinely trying to deliver change and a fairer, more effective and more modern justice system.
Without going over the top, I genuinely have to say, for the record, that I believe that the Chair and the Minister have clearly demonstrated where the Assembly and legislation like this could and should be going. Each of the items is vital, and there is everything from animal welfare to revenge pornography and the protection of workers in very vulnerable situations. I accept that, with regard to the issue of vulnerable workers in the health system, we have seen security staff having to be employed in hospitals and A&Es. We also need to address the important issue of lone healthcare workers who maybe go to a place they have never been before, perhaps late at night, and meet people with difficulties. I am aware of an incident in my constituency, which I do not wish to expand on, in which healthcare workers were attacked — not for any offensive reason, but because of the state of the client with whom they had to work. It would not be appropriate to use this type of legislation for that, and we need to ensure that we can discern all the elements. I am content to support all the items that have been raised and commented on by the Minister.
I will speak on the two amendments that have been tabled in my name. The first is amendment No 56, which will insert a new clause to deal with domestic violence. I have listened very intently to what the Minister and other Members have said about that.
I begin by paying tribute to the work that Mrs Dolores Kelly has very ably done on that subject, especially in the Justice Act 2015. That began as another miscellaneous Bill that we were able to hook on to and really push forward agendas and our thoughts and objectives in a very considerable way. Dolores Kelly should be applauded and acknowledged for the work that she has done overall on domestic violence and in trying to relieve the pressure on victims. I commend her and place on record my praise for the work that she has done to date.
Everyone has the right to feel safe and secure at home. If you cannot feel safe at home, where can you feel safe? We hear it all the time. We hear phrases like, "You can do whatever you want behind closed doors; it will not bother or annoy me." We use that term so loosely on so many different subjects. It is not all right to do whatever you want behind closed doors if you are committing a crime. For so long, in years gone by, domestic violence was one of those crimes that no one talked about and that people, dare I say it, even ignored. People felt pity, even distress, but they would have gone home and that would have been the end of it.
Even in this day, we worry and wonder about definitions of domestic violence crimes. What is domestic violence? What does it mean? Who is affected? Who is the offender? Who is the victim? It is very important to thrash those out and use best practice from around the world as quickly as we can to protect those people — those vulnerable people — who see no other way to turn and are victims of domestic abuse.
I have deliberately used the term "domestic abuse". We all talk about domestic violence. We can all see bruises, cuts and damaged limbs, but we do not see the psychological damage that is being done. There are words in the English language that we use: threats, control, coercive behaviour, psychological abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, emotional abuse. Most of that will be criminal behaviour, but some will not. Most of it should be, and it is very important that we get to grips with this issue.
What does "coercive behaviour" mean? Since I tabled the amendments, people have asked me what it means, what it looks like and what it is. Here is a definition:
"An act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten"
That is very important. As I said, we can all see bruises, cuts and damaged limbs.
The trends in domestic violence over the last 10 years are alarming. 'Trends in Domestic Abuse Incidents and Crimes Recorded by the Police in Northern Ireland 2004-05 to 2014-15' was published on 6 August 2015. Over that period, there were 11 female victims of domestic abuse crimes aged 18-plus per 1,000 females in the population and five male victims of domestic abuse crimes aged 18-plus per 1,000 males in the population. This is not a gender thing; it does not happen just to women. There were 11 female victims per 1,000 and five male victims per 1,000. The majority, 61%, of domestic abuse victims aged 18-plus were female and 26% were male. Surprisingly, and worryingly, 13% of the total were under the age of 18. That should shock and worry us all.
In 2014-15 alone, 28,287 domestic abuse incidents were recorded — the highest number recorded since the data series began in 2004. There were 13,426 domestic abuse crimes reported in 2014-15. This is a serious issue in our society that we must get to grips with — not only must we get to grips with it, we must protect and support the victims who are suffering at this precise moment. As I speak, there will be people at home who feel fearful and threatened, who have low self-esteem and are depressed, going through all sorts of turmoil and telling no one at all.
Over the course of my work on this amendment, I spoke to groups such as Women's Aid and the Men's Advisory Project. In 2014-15, 932 women and 689 children were supported in Women's Aid refuges. Some 71 women were supported through pregnancy in refuges. Outreach services from Women's Aid were accessed by 5,962 women, and 34,420 calls were managed by the 24-hour domestic and sexual violence helpline. I could go on and on. I could talk all night about numbers and statistics, but we do not have all night — or maybe we do, because this is a serious issue. I can talk about numbers and people will hear them, but they will go in one ear and out the other. Let us talk about people. Of course, the names that I will mention are not real names.
I want to talk to you about Sally. From a very young age, Sally's father told her that she was worthless. She was not allowed to go out and mix with other children. She had a brother, and she recalls that they were treated very differently. He was allowed to go to people's houses and play, while she was not. Sally was told that she was stupid and that there was no point in her even in going to school, as she would never make anything of herself. She was made to dress in unfashionable clothes that made her peers laugh at her. Sally was told in no uncertain terms, from a very young age, that her opinion was not worth listening to.
Her mother experienced that same abuse and worse. Her mother fell ill, but the father would not let her go to get checked out. The mother died of cancer, which left Sally on her own with her father and her brother. Sally tried everything to keep things running smoothly, but her father would find flaws and mistakes in everything that she did and would blame Sally for anything that went wrong in the home. Some days, things were OK for Sally, but, most days, they were not.
I could go on about Sally and the things that her father called her, but Sally plucked up her courage, saved up a bit of money and left home. She became homeless and slept in a tent in a doorway in another town in the UK. Somehow, by chance, someone who knew her and her father came across her and told the father. The father went to that town and brought her home. She then ran away and now lives safely in Northern Ireland, but she is heart-feart that her dad will find her again. What sort of life has Sally had up to now? How dare anyone tell someone that they are worthless and that their opinions do not count? How dare anyone say that to another human being, especially one who should have loved and cared for Sally and supported her? How dare any human being treat someone else like that?
I also work with the Men's Advisory Project, which is based in Northern Ireland and has sister organisations in mainland UK. Its members tell me stories about men who suffer not violence so much, although it does happen a lot, but psychologically through sleep deprivation. I heard that term a lot in my twenties when I was a member of the Territorial Army (TA), so I know what sleep deprivation feels like. However, it was my choice to be in the TA. Some people in this country go home at night and cannot sleep. Why can they not sleep? It is not because of illness or a condition that they have; it is because their partner will not let them go to sleep. Is that not amazing? Can we even believe that your partner will not let you go to sleep at night, even though you have to get up the next day to go to work? They keep themselves up to keep you up. Is it not incredible that that happens in this day and age and we cannot do anything about it? We cannot help, we cannot support and we cannot protect. That is why we need new and different laws and why our laws have to change to suit our times and the knowledge that we have. Once you hear these things, you cannot unhear them.
I was a foreman electrician for many years. I knew a young lad who was a "spark" — an electrician — who was quiet enough and very sensible. He came in one time with a facial injury, and the boys on the building site said, "What happened to you? Did your wife hit you?". It was a bit of a joke that caught on, and the boys latched onto it. Maybe it was the response that the young lad gave, but it caught on. It became a daily occurrence. As foreman, I got wind of it. You want to be one of the guys when you are on a building site and build up a rapport, but you also have to be very aware of what is happening and look through people as much as look at them. I saw that it was having an effect and not just a bullying effect, although that is bad enough — constantly getting the same joke over and over again.
I got that man to a quiet part of the site and said to him, "Look, is everything OK? I know that the boys are hassling you and I'll deal with them, but is everything OK at home?". It took courage for me to do that as his foreman. He broke down in front of me. I am talking about a building site, one of the great bastions of being a man, so to speak. He broke down and told me that he was having a horrid time at home. What could he do? He was married. Is that not what happens when you are married? People get cross. Tempers and patience fray. He told me, "I just said the wrong thing. It was my fault". That put me in an awful position too, of course. I tried to advise that man as best I could, but I knew that whatever I was telling him was never going to be enough. Then, that man, under his own steam and in his own time, came in one day and said to me, "I've decided that I'm going to leave my wife". Imagine the courage that that man had plucked up to come and tell me that he was prepared to leave his wife. You do not really want to get involved in someone else's disputes, but I said, "Look, if you think that's the right thing, you must do it". He went home that night, and, when he came in the next day, I asked him how it went. The man told me that, before he could speak, his wife told him that she was expecting a child. That changed everything for him. He felt that he was trapped, he could not do anything and that he was stuck in that situation for ever and a day.
I have lost track of that man. I do not know what happened. I do not know what happened to the family unit, to him or his wife or what happened to their baby. Maybe there are more children; I do not know. It is people like him I think about and want to help. I want to make a difference, and, if I cannot make a difference in this place, there is something badly wrong. That is my motivation for tabling the amendment.
There is another story that the Men's Advisory Project told me. It started after two years of marriage when the wife started to kick, slap and shove. Again, she fell pregnant, and she made it clear that, if they did not stay together, he would not see the child at all. Remarkably, when the child was born, the kicking, slapping and shoving stopped. But the threats carried on. He had to keep his clothes, which were torn and dirty, in the car or the shed because he was not allowed to keep them in the house. He was not allowed to have the heating on if he was the only person in the house. His relationship with his child was seriously affected because of the way that his wife talked to him. All his finances, everything that he had, was tied up in that house: the mortgage, the electricity bill, the heating that he could not turn on if he was in the house by himself — he paid for it all.
These are the things that happen on a day-to-day basis, and they have to stop. I am realistic enough to know that cases like this will always happen. People will always act in certain ways, and that is why it is important, at that point, that we somehow step in and inform and educate those victims that they are indeed victims. Of one thing you may rest assured: there are many victims out there who believe that it is their fault and that there is nothing they can do about it. "I have made my bed, and I have to sleep in it". You do not. There is help out there. There is Women's Aid, the Men's Advisory Project and people who will help. Please contact those people and tell your story. That may be the only way that the abuse will stop.
People use children as a weapon: "You will not see the kids any more if you leave. Do not be thinking that you will come down here one day a week to see the children; you will not be here at all". There are also very serious cases. A man actually got his children out of bed in the middle of the night and performed sexual acts on his wife in front of them. That only happened once, but it only had to happen once, because he threatened it every other time. What would a mother do in such a situation?
People are faced with such pressure every day. We think that we have pressure. We go to work, and we have to talk to the media, and we worry about it for a minute or two. However, there are people living in this country — our constituents — who are suffering in silence. They are hiding the bruises. In many cases, there are no bruises, and it is just as painful. It is just as dangerous, and it has a devastating effect on those people.
I have said enough on this now. I have got the point across, and I hear what the Minister says. Because of the consultation launched last Friday, I will not move the amendment. But I ask everyone in the Assembly to encourage people out there to inform themselves about the consultation, to consult and to actually put something down on paper and get it to the Minister. There is a job of work to do here. It could have been done today, but it is right to take time to reflect on what the law here should be. A law has been passed in England: the Serious Crime Act 2015. Part 5 is on the protection of children and others, and, under domestic abuse, section 76 is "Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship". We do not really know how it has worked yet, so I agree with the Minister that it is right to hold off and do things right. We do not want to do harm. That is the last thing that I want to do, and the last thing the Assembly should do is do harm through legislation that will make things worse.
We have to take into consideration another issue. If we have a law on controlling and coercive behaviour, how can we be assured that the perpetrator does not use it against the victim? It is notoriously hard to prove some of this stuff. That has to be thought out well and ironed out. I hope that that is teased out in the consultation. Victims' groups are worried that such a law might just become another tool or pressure point that the perpetrator uses against the victim: "If you go to the police because I hit you, I will go to the police to say that you are controlling me". These are things that we have to be careful of, and we must worry out.
Of course, we have to make sure that the PSNI is up to speed with this. I believe that PSNI officers who attend houses with domestic abuse issues see this day in and day out. Maybe even they do not know how to react or how to work it out or whether it is a crime or not. They will sometimes walk away, not knowing what to do. We need to make sure that the PSNI is fully informed of and briefed on the new law, whatever it is, and knows how to apply it appropriately. I will not move the amendment in the good faith that the Minister has delivered on what he promised to Dolores Kelly at the time of the previous Justice Bill in bringing forward a consultation.
Some of the questions in the consultation were things like, "Is it right for people to be able to ask if a new partner has a history?". Absolutely. In the previous Justice Bill, I brought forward the child protection disclosure scheme. Why is it that people out there, the public, are the last to know? Why should that be the case? Every agency in officialdom may know something about someone, but the very person who ends up closest to them knows nothing. Not only should they have the right to ask; they most definitely should have the right to know. PPANI arrangements already allow for someone to be told that they are at risk if their new partner has committed sexual offences against children or vulnerable adults.
I have been listening intently to what the Member has been saying. Would he agree, however, that one of the dangers with some disclosure systems is that, when you have asked about your partner and the answer comes back that there is no record of complaints or convictions, you then falsely think that you are safe? That is the worst scenario for someone who is in legitimate danger. There is a real task in getting any disclosure system right.
Does the Member want to continue? He is finished.
I agree with him 100%. A false sense of security is an issue. That can be countered by the way that the information is distributed. The answer can be worded to make sure that someone does not walk out of a police station, GP surgery or anywhere else with a false sense of security.
The advantages outweigh the negatives, because it will also work as an early detection system when the person has never been detected. If you say to the police, "This is happening to me, and I am starting to get really concerned. Can I have disclosure on this person?". That person should be entitled to disclosure, but the police or whoever it is should be taking note of what they have said, because they will realise straight away that they are a victim, and then the support mechanisms should kick in. This is not just about enforcement; this is about protection. It is also about awareness and education, and I believe that they are important. Fear and terror are primary weapons for a perpetrator of domestic violence. I will leave it there.
I move on now to amendment No 57, the new clause on ambulance workers. I acknowledge straight away that the wording can and will be tidied up. I am determined to do that at the next stage. It is important that I outline my thoughts on the wording, even though it is my own. It is my intention to amend it to make the Minister of Justice, as well as the Health Minister and the House, more secure.
I believe that I have support for the amendment in the House.
It would be helpful if I mentioned the adjustments now. I intend to remove the references to obstruction of paramedics. We know that there is already adequate law in the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006. I picked up the wording, description and definition of the relevant NHS body from that legislation. I recognise that, in that law, there is already the crime of obstruction. I do not want to do harm by creating two competing legal provisions on obstruction, as that may well undermine any judicial process. So, I am prepared to lift out "and obstructing" so that the title will read:
"offence of assaulting certain emergency workers".
Clause 42B(1) will then begin:
"A person who without reasonable excuse assaults another while that other person is".
That takes obstruction out of it. Obstruction is already covered with penalties and fines. It will then become a law on assaulting ambulance staff. The clause will focus on creating a specific offence of assault and ensure greater parity with other blue-light workers.
I will also need to look at whether focusing the clause on emergency situations will add unnecessary complexity. I believe that it may do so. The way that clause 42B(2) on responding to emergency circumstances reads means that, if you assault somebody responding to emergency circumstances, you commit an offence. I believe that it has to be tighter. The key intention is to provide additional protection for paramedics in line with their police and fire colleagues and to send a signal that assaulting paramedics is not to be tolerated. Limiting this to emergency situations may be too restrictive.
I will be looking at whether the clause should focus on situations where paramedics are assaulted on duty, as on duty is more important than emergency circumstances. We have all been to events — I have been to Windsor Park to see Ballymena United lift silverware — where you see paramedics parked. They are not necessarily responding to an emergency, but it is no more acceptable for someone to step out of the crowd — someone supporting the opposing team, of course — and attack a paramedic. It is completely unacceptable. I would not want anyone to get off on a technicality just because that paramedic was not responding to an emergency.
I also need to look at the best way to define paramedics for the purpose of this clause. I will look at the wording on the maximum penalty to make sure that it reads consistently with Northern Ireland law. That is not to say that I am going to change the penalty. The amendment reads:
"on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum".
That is level 5; we know that it is level 5. Maybe we should use the term level 5 instead of "statutory maximum". I do not want to put a figure in there because, sooner or later, the maximum will change. I would not want then to have to go through and amend all the bits of legislation, so I believe that that will become level 5 as opposed to the statutory maximum. I believe that, with those minor adjustments, the amendment does no harm or damage to the clause or the intentions of the clause. I hope that it makes it more workable and more acceptable to the House. It was important that I started off by telling people the amendments that I wish to make at Further Consideration Stage, if the Bill gets passed today.
Why do we need this law? Why do we need to protect ambulance staff and paramedics? They work alongside the police and firefighters oftentimes. Section 66 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 refers to any person guilty of attacking or wilfully obstructing a constable in the execution of his duty. If it is good enough and reasonable enough for us to have legislation to protect police officers, it is right to protect paramedics. If article 57 of the Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 provides that it is an offence to assault or obstruct a fire and rescue officer or a person assisting them, it is right and proper that we have the same level of protection for a paramedic or ambulance staff member.
People will say that we already have protection and laws. We have the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 but why not specifically state in legislation the protection for paramedics and ambulance staff in the same way that we do for firefighters and the police, when they go to the same emergency, fire, car crash or riot.
At this point, I would like to pay tribute to Lord Morrow. It was Lord Morrow who decided to do something about this. It was Lord Morrow who came to the Committee to speak to his amendment. I was simply the one who picked it up, so the credit must go to Lord Morrow. We all know Lord Morrow, but I do not think that we actually really appreciate Lord Morrow. Lord Morrow is one of the great reformers of this House. We will not appreciate it now, but when the annals of this place are written, Lord Morrow should feature greatly because of the work that he has done around human trafficking and issues like this. Lord Morrow deserves a place in those annals. It was his work and experiences as a constituency MLA that prompted and motivated him to start this job of work. I only follow. I only continue the good work that he started.
He would tell you of occasions when police and ambulance staff at the same scene were attacked and, in most cases, the paramedic came off worst. Yet when that went to court, the police officer's wounds were considered the greater offence and caused the greater sentence to be handed down. That is not right or fair. Paramedics deserve the same treatment and protection.
I would have liked to have gone further with this amendment. I would have loved to have included A&E workers. On many occasions, nurses have come to me after having been attacked in the accident and emergency rooms — not only attacked but pinned down for minutes on the floor with no help. One went off sick and never returned to work. Subsequently, there was a muck-up with sick pay, return to work and pension. That person suffered mental illness due to that attack and could never return to work, but she did not leave with even the right pension because the authorities and organisation messed it up. That lady would not have experienced any of that trauma or mental illness if not for that attack that one night with that one drunk. We need to do a job of work to protect hospital and accident and emergency staff.
The problem that I had was, "Where do I stop?" The Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006 also defines people like the coastguard and even those who transport organs. Are they not doing a service? Why is it that we protect the blue-light people? We protect the blue-light services because they are going to help someone. After they help that person, they go and help someone else, and someone else after that. If they are attacked and prevented from doing their job, not only do they become a casualty themselves but they cannot help anyone else. If you beat up or assault a paramedic, firefighter or policeman, you could be putting somebody's life at risk. Someone could die because you have attacked a paramedic. That is why we need it to be defined in legislation. That is why these people need to be treated differently.
That is why I struggle with where to stop. If someone is transporting an organ for transplantation and is attacked, is that not a serious offence too? If someone is making their way to get a boat for the coastguard, is that not a serious offence, too, that could risk someone's life? I struggle with that. If I am brought back to this place in the next mandate, I will look at doing something, even if it is through a private Member's Bill, to protect, in some way, hospital staff in A&E.
Here is my other dilemma: what if a wage clerk happens to walk through A&E and is attacked? What if a doctor in the gynaecology ward goes to help out in A&E and is attacked? Will they be covered? Those are things that I have to tease out in the weeks and months ahead. That is why I have plumped for paramedics. The difference is that they leave the hospital setting and travel in ones and twos to an event, not knowing what will happen or what will unfurl. In many cases, it will be a volatile situation. There may be drunkenness, riotous behaviour and people panicking. All sorts could happen.
There is another reason why I struggle to extend it. Does a nurse on a mental health ward really want to penalise someone who strikes out at them when they may not be in their full senses? Home helps are vulnerable too, as they go out in ones and twos. What happens if they go to an elderly person's home and that person is in an agitated state and strikes out? There is much more work to be done in that regard. That is why I have kept it to and capped it at paramedics now. That is true to Lord Morrow's objectives. I am happy enough for it to be left there.
I hope that I have the support of the House for the amendment. I believe that it is the right course of action. It is the right way to go. I put the amendment to the House.
I will keep my remarks fairly brief. There will be a number of areas and amendments to the Justice (No. 2) Bill where there is genuine and sincere disagreement in the House, but I think that, with this group of amendments, we have a collection that is virtuous in nature and, I believe, the House can unite around. What is particularly significant within this set, which, I think, was referred to by the last Member, is that we are told, and I think that all of us can agree, that what we really need to concentrate on is outcome rather than process. Here we see in the way in which various Members have approached that and the subject matters within it a sign that outcome is put ahead of process.
What do I mean by that?
When talking about the amendment, Mr Frew referred to the important subject of domestic violence. He is less worried, if you like, about whether the amendment was his or whether the Department's. What matters to him, rightly so, is the end result. Similarly, with some aspects of amendment No 52, which we touched on, if there is a way the same result can be achieved either through primary legislation, regulations or specific practical arrangements, that is where we as an Assembly need to focus. Indeed, the last speaker indicated that there may well be certain things put forward that will need some amending and tidying up before Further Consideration Stage or that are effectively forerunners of what can be built on in the future. All those are possible on the basis of trying to have some outcome, rather than process.
I welcome all the amendments in the group. As I indicated, I appreciate that one of Paul Frew's amendments will not be moved, but, in the spirit of moving forward, it could be done in cooperation with the Department of Justice as we look at the serious issue of domestic violence. That is an appropriate way to deal with it.
I commend not only Mr Frew and, indeed, Lord Morrow, who was the instigator of the amendment on the attacks on the emergency services, but the Committee for the amendments that it has brought forward. I will come in a bit more detail to the Minister's amendments, including amendment No 52, in a moment. Mr Kennedy, I think, made the point — we have seen it on a couple of fronts — that the Education Committee has been looking at how we tackle bullying. While there is obviously not direct read-across, there is a degree of overlap in the issues that have been raised on domestic violence and revenge porn. While both can be directed towards children, they are primarily and most frequently aimed at adults. There is resonance with those issues in some of the dilemmas that we in the Committee have faced and in some of the evidence we have seen when discussing the Bill on bullying. Mr Frew made reference to a desire, which, I think, is commonly held, to go as far as we can to cover as much as we can and to balance that with what is practical. We have seen the same with bullying when deciding what scope a school realistically has. That is the same with some of these amendments: how far can we go?
The other area where there has been some resonance is in the thinking that bullying, like domestic violence, is purely physical. As we have seen, the psychological impact and torture, either through domestic violence, bullying, which is covered in the other Bill, or revenge porn, is every bit as important as direct physical violence. I am sure this has happened with most MLAs, but I have dealt with constituents who have been victims of domestic violence or, in some cases, revenge porn. We see the massive detrimental impact that it has on people's lives. It is right that the Assembly is stepping forward on those issues by whatever route and is taking these measures to deal with them.
I know that Mr Frew added a number of caveats in relation to the attacks on blue — the paramedics — and it is crucial that emergency workers, who provide such a vital service to our society, are also given maximum protection. Again, as with a number of aspects of this, it is difficult for many of us to get our head round the reason why people who provide such an important service become victims of attack and the kind of mentality that would lead anyone to attack someone in those circumstances.
I am speaking principally in my role as chair of the all-party group on animal welfare, particularly where amendment No 52 is concerned. The amendment has a virtuous genesis. If you trace the origins of amendment No 52, you will find that it initially came from a private Member's motion that was brought to the House on the issue of concern about the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act, which itself was triggered by at least two horrendous cases of animal cruelty, which, again, across the House I think we would unite to condemn. George Robinson and others were involved in the Justice for Cody campaign. The particular trigger for the motion, which eventually led to this amendment, was the court case in east Belfast. I will not go into detail, but there was horrendous cruelty by one family towards animals, and this provoked, rightly, a degree of anger. It led to a motion that the House united around. I pay tribute to the Department of Justice and DARD because, since then, they have worked assiduously in bringing forward a very detailed and, I think, very worthy report on the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act. Indeed, arising out of some of the recommendations of that, we are starting to see action. In particular, amendment No 52 derives directly from that, and I commend all those involved.
As I indicated, it is also the case that things can happen through different routes, so I welcome the Minister's remarks on intervention. While I think that very thorough work was done on that implementation, I think that both the Department of Justice and DARD will keep it in mind for the future and try to make sure, therefore, that gaps do not emerge. Also, particularly regarding the issue of reassurance on animal cruelty, there will be close work with the rehoming charities. That, again, is a very worthwhile step.
I will mention one other aspect of this. A statutory rule that goes very much hand in hand with amendment No 52 will be brought before the House in the near future in relation not only to animal cruelty issues but to a range of other issues. That will enable a referral to appeal on the grounds of lenient sentences on a range of issues, including, in particular, animal cruelty offences of causing unnecessary suffering, which is covered in section 4 of the Welfare of Animals Act. While that is not before us today, I understand that it is due to come up in February and will be laid as a rule. I think that it is seen as the other side of the coin of amendment No 52.
I turn briefly to amendment No 52 itself. As indicated, we are seeing that there are measures in it that will increase maximum sentences in the Crown Court. The maximum sentence in the Crown Court will increase from two years to five years, and, sadly, despite all that has been done in recent years, there are still horrendous acts of animal cruelty in this country. It is important that we have something that can act as some level of deterrent, so I welcome that. In the Magistrates' Court, for the offence of causing or attending an animal fight, there will be an increase of the maximum sentence from six months to 12 months and an increase in the maximum fine from £5,000 to £20,000. Those are very much to be welcomed, as we need as a society to bear down on animal cruelty.
Alongside that, there are many things that the Assembly can do and is doing on the issue of animal cruelty. It is important also that, if we are increasing sentences, the judiciary follows suit and imposes greater sentences as well. To be fair, I think that the signals that were sent out a couple of years ago, when we saw a number of very lenient sentences and, indeed, the public outrage that was then sparked as a result of that, have had a degree of impact. In the last three years, we have seen 15 custodial sentences handed down for animal cruelty offences. Indeed, the ongoing impact of that was such that, in the last year of recording of that, which was 2014, 10 of those 15 occurred. That shows that at least some in the judiciary are beginning to take the issue seriously, but there are wider implications not just for the judiciary and for this House but for society as a whole. We need to ensure that we take all action in society to foster respect — I am not referring on this occasion to the First Minister — for the animal kingdom to ensure that that is something that pervades society as a whole. In the same way as we foster that level of respect, we should have a zero-tolerance approach to those who would inflict unnecessary cruelty on animals. It is with that that we can start to turn the corner.
I welcome the remarks that were made earlier today by the Justice Minister, particularly on amendment No 52. It is an important step forward in the fight against animal cruelty. I commend the amendments in the group.
At the outset, I commend the passionate and often personal contribution by Paul Frew in relation to the issues that he raises in amendment No 56. We were all moved not just by the personal story but by the fact that the issues raised were to do with definition, sensitivity, the person and people's interaction with each other. I also commend his leadership at this stage in offering to withdraw his amendment in favour of a consultation about the wider issues that he raised, at length, in his contribution. Even at this late stage, I appeal to the Alliance Party, who have listened to that approach, to take that approach in relation to further amendments coming up in the other group.
I will be brief, as I am conscious of time. I will restrict my remarks to amendment No 57. I welcome the Minister's approach of not opposing the amendment. I understand that some of the issues are being finessed much more, but I will speak on some of the context and the need for this with regard to how front-line staff are affected. Their contribution is around improving outcomes for people and finding themselves attacked, in any sense, only adds further stress and undermines the job that they seek to do on our behalf. Very often — we have to remember this — when attacked, they can find themselves out of work for a long time. That costs by way of their unavailability and the need to replace them.
The amendment does not go far enough. While it is right to provide for tougher sentencing for attacks on front-line staff who are out in blue-light mode, we should remember the extent to which all healthcare staff are affected. In that sense, it is important to remind the House that, last year, there were over 6,200 attacks on healthcare workers in Northern Ireland. Unions and staff say that the figure, in fact, could be much higher. My colleague reminds me that she has found evidence of that in the trust area that she represents too. Staff feel that they cannot come forward, for an array of reasons. We need to find a way to extend beyond the nature of the blue-light narrative that has been reflected in amendment No 57.
A recent 'Belfast Telegraph' article outlined a lot of the issues and showed that an array of people were affected. It mentions auxiliary nurses being attacked, social workers, a female worker having her hair ripped out etc. The narrative of how people are finding themselves attacked in their place of work is horrendous. We should say that it is totally unacceptable. Of course, it does not happen just in hospitals or to ambulance staff; it affects fire brigades as well. It is hugely important to remember that time is of the essence in relation to any intervention by staff. Of course, that is also the case with fire.
Will the Member join me in commending those staff, who, after having suffered a physical assault or attack, very rarely put in a claim against the trust or, indeed, the patient?
Yes, and that against the backdrop of the incident being able to happen in the first place. There are questions to be asked about not just penalties in the event of a crime but what we as a society are doing to protect those workers in the first place.
I promised the House that I would be brief, so I will conclude my remarks. We should allow amendment No 57 to go forward. I accept that Mr Frew believes that his amendment should be further refined. I encourage him to think beyond just blue-light workers and about extending it to healthcare workers. There has to be zero tolerance.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issues to be addressed in this group. First, I want to deal with the amendments that relate to animal welfare and sentencing. I give a warm welcome to the proposals therein. I would have been keen to have gone a bit further and looked at mandatory sentencing. However, we have been working through it in the Committee for Justice and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development — I sit on both — and I accept that the proposals, in and of themselves, should be a considerable help, provided that the judiciary sentence in an appropriate way.
The Assembly is sending out a very clear message to the judiciary. When people flagrantly and blatantly abuse, attack and cause harm to animals in a most cruel, senseless and wicked way, the public of Northern Ireland, through the House, are saying that they want custodial sentences and severe custodial sentences for those who engage in severe cruelty. They do not want them to be given a slap on the wrist. I want that message to go out very clearly to our judiciary that that is expected of them. We would not find it acceptable if we passed the legislation and the judiciary gave a slap on the wrist to people like those who have engaged in and got away with some of the obscene acts that we have witnessed over the past number of years. It is very important that we put that marker down. The legislation is there to give the judiciary the opportunity to put people who engage in such vile actions away for a decent length of time.
Mr Frew raised the issue of domestic abuse and has indicated that it is not his intention to move that particular amendment because a consultation process is taking place. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly important issue and one that I hope that we revisit in the new mandate to ensure that we give more support to people in situations of domestic abuse.
The final issue that I wish to speak about is the attacks on ambulance staff — on our paramedics and support personnel in our ambulances. That is a critical amendment, and I welcome it. During the three and a half years that I served as Health Minister, I regularly raised with Minister Ford and others the need to give greater support to those we expect to serve us. We are asking people to go out and provide a front-line service for us, be it in the Ambulance Service, our emergency departments or a whole series of other areas across the Department of Health. I understand that the amendment is a starting point and that we are just dealing with ambulance staff at this stage. However, I would very much like us to look at extending it further at a later stage. On some occasions and in some circumstances, ambulance staff are the only ones who are called — and they can be the most difficult circumstances. It may be just the ambulance staff who are called to the scene of domestic violence, because the individuals are afraid to call the police but require hospitalisation. They are never going to report the person who perpetrated the abuse, but the ambulance staff have to go into that house. Just two people — two individuals — with someone who has engaged in domestic violence.
Over the past number of years, we have seen considerably more attacks that are unprovoked and unpredictable. For many years, people could see the signs that an attack was imminent and, therefore, be more prepared to take evasive action. People were very often heavily intoxicated, and the warning signs were all there. However, we are now in a period where people are taking cocktails of drugs and concoctions, and their behaviour is wholly and totally unpredictable. Our staff are being put in the front line in those circumstances. Recently, a member of ambulance personnel was thrown down stairs and quite badly injured. In other incidents, ambulance staff have been headbutted, hit, kicked or punched. All those things have happened. Therefore, we need to give them the support that we give to the other blue-light services.
Why should a police officer, prison officer or fire officer receive greater levels of support going to those difficult scenes than ambulance staff? I do not believe that it can be justified. I think that they should get equality on this particular issue. The Minister was a little begrudging in his acceptance of it, and Mr Frew has very kindly indicated that he will continue to work on the wording for Further Consideration Stage. However, this is a significant step forward in providing better safety for our front-line healthcare workers, starting with ambulance staff. I trust that, in the new mandate, we will be able to do considerably more work in identifying a better means of providing that support for other healthcare workers. I would like to see fixed penalty notices being available for lesser attacks — sometimes it is verbal abuse — but it is absolutely and totally wrong that people who serve in our emergency departments or on our ambulance staff should have to take foul-mouthed abuse or worse from individuals. Therefore, it is important that we demonstrate to our staff that we support them and want to ensure that they have greater security in the workplace than is currently the case. Consequently, it is incumbent on this House to support the amendment proposed by Mr Frew.
I want to speak primarily on amendment No 52, but I will touch briefly on Mr Frew's amendment and domestic violence. I will keep it brief, because he stated that he does not intend to move it. I commend the Member for his work, and, indeed, further to his comments, I commend Dolores Kelly for her work around the issue of domestic violence. It is a horrendous crime. Like Mr Frew, I could share a number of stories — some, unfortunately, in my own family. I will not do that, because I do not have permission from those people to do so, but I appreciate the efforts that he has made in bringing these amendments and, indeed, the work that the Minister is doing in consulting on how best we can improve the legislation to get justice in cases of domestic violence, but also, hopefully, working collectively to prevent domestic violence.
I wish to speak particularly on amendment No 52, not because I see it as more important than the other issues but because it is an area of work that I have campaigned on for many years. I welcome the Minister's amendment to provide for increased sentencing and, indeed, the ability to appeal sentences handed down for animal cruelty offences. I am encouraged by the consensus that there seems to be on animal cruelty and the passion with which some Members spoke of their abhorrence of animal cruelty. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case, but I welcome it today.
We have seen a change. I campaigned on animal welfare issues long before entering this Chamber. There was a small coterie of us in Northern Ireland, and a number of things happened to change that. In particular, there was the Justice for Cody campaign, which came about as a result of a particular act of cruelty on a poor dog. The Agnew family — no relations — were drawn into a campaign that was not of their own making but was the result of the huge public support that came in behind them. They raised vast sums of money, and I was able to host them as they presented a cheque to Guide Dogs to train a guide dog in Cody's honour; indeed, the dog was named after Cody. That was the beginning of organising on animal cruelty in Northern Ireland to a level that I had never seen before.
I commend the Minister — it is right to do so — but also those campaigners, whether it was those in the Justice for Cody campaign, or Northern Ireland Says No To Animal Cruelty, the Animal Rights Action Network (ARAN), the League Against Cruel Sports, or, indeed, as has been mentioned, the rehoming charities, including the Assisi animal sanctuary in my constituency. In the relatively short period since the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 was enacted, we are reforming it and increasing penalties, and it is because of those campaigns and because of that grass-roots action that we are here today, speaking to amendment No 52.
It is a step forward that we seem to have a consensus in the House that animal cruelty is wrong. I hope that, most likely in a future mandate, we will get a consensus that it is about all animals and all types of cruelty by all peoples, and that that has to include fox hunting, which can no longer be justified in our society. I welcome this step forward today and look forward to amendment No 52 being passed by the Assembly.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understood that another Member wished to speak, but he has obviously decided not to at this point.
There seemed to be two general themes in this group of amendments. The first was the high level of agreement, even if there was not full agreement, on precise terminology and on the principles of the amendments in the group. The second seemed to be the amount of work noted as being required in the next mandate or, frequently, for the next Minister. I am not sure whether that was a reaction on the part of some Members to the praise that was being heaped on the Minister when we discussed group 1, but I may have to take the hint.
On the point relating to animal welfare issues, which were highlighted at the beginning by the intervention that Mr Weir made in my opening statement and which were concluded at the end by Mr Agnew's remarks, it is clear that there was a significant agreement that, although the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 is not yet five years old, there was an issue of looking at proper penalties for the offences covered by that Act. There was surprisingly little discussion except that which was initiated by Mr Weir and followed through by Mr Agnew.
I noticed in particular the references that Mr Weir made, which got some backing from Mr Poots, about the need to build on amendment No 52, looking at a number of issues. Certainly in response to some of the points that Mr Poots made, the fact that we are also considering the issue of unduly lenient sentencing on animal welfare issues may address, in a way which a Minister can respond to rather than in the precise way in which Mr Poots expressed his concern about the judiciary, means that there are issues there that can be moved forward on. Clearly, those were sorts of issues that were highlighted by Mr Weir about work with rehoming charities, but I suspect that that is probably in policy terms rather more for DARD than for DOJ.
There was a fair amount of debate on sex offences, specifically revenge porn. It was noticeable that much of that debate referred to the digital age conference initiated by the Committee. That, too, shows the valuable work done by the Committee, and it is appreciated by the Department. I should also point out that, although the Committee initiated it, as on most of these occasions, it is the Committee staff who do all the hard work while the members take the glory. Nonetheless, it was because of the initiative of the Chair that that happened, and it clearly looked at a very significant issue.
Undoubtedly, there are other issues that need to be looked at, and I hope that there will be speedy consultation on those in the next mandate. Whether or not I have any influence, depending on the remark just made about the "next Minister", I believe that there are significant issues that require early consideration. On the specific issue of revenge porn highlighted by these amendments, it is entirely appropriate that we proceed to look at the lessons that can be learned from England and Wales, and that we move speedily on that. A number of Members made links to, for example, bullying, and mentioned the dreadful effects that that kind of activity can have on young, and very young, people.
Mr Frew managed to put forward some extremely good arguments on why he should push his amendment on domestic abuse and then announced that he would not do so. I appreciate his recognition, and that of Mrs Kelly, of the work being done in the current consultation process, and I echo their hope that the Department will get a good response. Not everybody in the world will be entirely taken up with an election campaign between now and late April, so, hopefully, Members will encourage those whom they are in contact with to take that opportunity. In particular, we would all do well to remember that abuse is significantly more than just physical violence, as was highlighted. That is where coercion and controlling behaviour come in, and they are of great significance.
The second amendment that Mr Paul Frew spoke on was about attacks on public service workers. The discussion was significantly wider than the precise wording of the amendment as is, and clearly there is an issue. However, I have concerns, even with the amendments that he suggested. Even if we said "blue-light workers", it would not cover organisations that provide blue-light volunteers who are not technically employees of any of the statutory bodies but work in association with them. We have only to think of the recent vandalisation of the Lagan Search and Rescue boat. Although, thankfully, it did not involve a physical attack on any person, it was an indication of the dreadful things that happen to some who provide public service as volunteers, in many cases putting their life at risk, whether in water, mountain or cave rescue. A number of other bodies also have policy links to the Department of Justice. I think that this issue, whether or not it is finally addressed at Further Consideration Stage, may well merit wider consideration at a future stage.
Mr Dickson made a significant point about lone healthcare workers. Yes, many paramedics work in ones and twos, but so do others in the healthcare field. I think of my past practice as a social worker, when I was on standby duty late at night or in the early hours. Sometimes, I was in parts of the country that, if you are on your own, are not the easiest places to enforce a court order relating to childcare or mental health. There are significant issues there across a range of services, not just the social workers whom I am most concerned about from my past life but a range of others in the professions allied to medicine, nursing and so on. I have no doubt that we will continue to look at that, and I welcome the acknowledgement that, although this amendment makes a useful statement, there is more detailed work to be done in future.
I take on board exactly what the Minister says. I think that we have all grappled with the issue. I struggled with refining the amendment, and I came to the conclusion that I could not bite off more than the House could chew at any given time. That is why I plumped for ambulance workers. I will bring forward amendments at the next stage that will define clearly what organisations, bodies and groups of people are to be covered by the amendment. I agree with the Minister that there has to be more thought given to what we can do to protect other people.
I thank Mr Frew for that point. It is clearly an issue that will be difficult to resolve, but, nonetheless, it is one that requires attention in the future. With that point made, and I thank Mr Frew for his indication that he will not be pushing the amendment on coercive behaviour while there is a consultation out, I think that we can expect the House to accept all the other amendments in the group without difficulty. I commend them to the House.
Amendment No 52 agreed to.
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 41 and 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 53 made:
After clause 42 insert<BR/>
"Disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress
42A.—(1) It is an offence for a person to disclose a private sexual photograph or film if the disclosure is made?—
(a) (a) without the consent of an individual who appears in the photograph or film, and
(b) with the intention of causing that individual distress.
(2) But it is not an offence under this section for the person to disclose the photograph or film to the individual mentioned in subsection (1)(a) and (b).
(3) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that he or she reasonably believed that the disclosure was necessary for the purposes of preventing, detecting or investigating crime.
(4) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to show that?—
(a) the disclosure was made in the course of, or with a view to, the publication of journalistic material, and
(b) he or she reasonably believed that, in the particular circumstances, the publication of the journalistic material was, or would be, in the public interest.
(5) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to show that?—
(a) he or she reasonably believed that the photograph or film had previously been disclosed for reward, whether by the individual mentioned in subsection (1)(a) and (b) or another person, and
(b) he or she had no reason to believe that the previous disclosure for reward was made without the consent of the individual mentioned in subsection (1)(a) and (b).
(6) A person is taken to have shown the matters mentioned in subsection (4) or (5) if?—
(a) sufficient evidence of the matters is adduced to raise an issue with respect to it, and
(b) the contrary is not proved beyond reasonable doubt.
(7) For the purposes of subsections (1) to (5)?—
(a) “consent” to a disclosure includes general consent covering the disclosure, as well as consent to the particular disclosure, and
(b) “publication” of journalistic material means disclosure to the public at large or to a section of the public.
(8) A person charged with an offence under this section is not to be taken to have disclosed a photograph or film with the intention of causing distress merely because that was a natural and probable consequence of the disclosure.
(9) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable?—
(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or a fine (or both), and
(b) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or a fine (or both).". — [Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice ).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 54 made:
After clause 42 insert
"Meaning of “disclose” and “photograph or film”
42B.—(1) The following apply for the purposes of section 42A, this section and section 42C.
(2) A person “discloses” something to a person if, by any means, he or she gives or shows it to the person or makes it available to the person.
(3) Something that is given, shown or made available to a person is disclosed?—
(a) whether or not it is given, shown or made available for reward, and
(b) whether or not it has previously been given, shown or made available to the person.
(4) “Photograph or film” means a still or moving image in any form that?—
(a) appears to consist of or include one or more photographed or filmed images, and
(b) in fact consists of or includes one or more photographed or filmed images.
(5) The reference in subsection (4)(b) to photographed or filmed images includes photographed or filmed images that have been altered in any way.
(6) “Photographed or filmed image” means a still or moving image that?—
(a) was originally captured by photography or filming, or
(b) is part of an image originally captured by photography or filming.
(7) “Filming” means making a recording, on any medium, from which a moving image may be produced by any means.
(8) References to a photograph or film include?—
(a) a negative version of an image described in subsection (4), and
(b) data stored by any means which is capable of conversion into an image described in subsection (4).". — [Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice ).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 55 made:
After clause 42 insert
"Meaning of “private” and “sexual”
42C.—(1) The following apply for the purposes of section 42A.
(2) A photograph or film is “private” if it shows something that is not of a kind ordinarily seen in public.
(3) A photograph or film is “sexual” if?—
(a) it shows all or part of an individual’s exposed genitals or pubic area,
(b) it shows something that a reasonable person would consider to be sexual because of its nature, or
(c) its content, taken as a whole, is such that a reasonable person would consider it to be sexual.
(4) Subsection (5) applies in the case of?—
(a) a photograph or film that consists of or includes a photographed or filmed image that has been altered in any way,
(b) a photograph or film that combines two or more photographed or filmed images, and
(c) a photograph or film that combines a photographed or filmed image with something else.
(5) The photograph or film is not private and sexual if?—
(a) it does not consist of or include a photographed or filmed image that is itself private and sexual,
(b) it is only private or sexual by virtue of the alteration or combination mentioned in subsection (4), or
(c) it is only by virtue of the alteration or combination mentioned in subsection (4) that the person mentioned in section 42A(1)(a) and (b) is shown as part of, or with, whatever makes the photograph or film private and sexual.". — [Mr Ross (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice ).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 56 not moved.
Amendment No 57 made:
After clause 42 insert
"Offence of assaulting and obstructing certain emergency workers
42B.—(1) A person who without reasonable excuse assaults or obstructs another while that other person is, in a capacity mentioned in subsection (2) below, responding to emergency circumstances, commits an offence.
(2) The capacity referred to in subsection (1) above is that of a person employed by a relevant NHS body in the provision of ambulance services (including air ambulance services), or of a person providing such services pursuant to arrangements made by, or at the request of, a relevant NHS body.
(3) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) shall be liable?—
(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both; or
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to a fine, or to both.". — [Mr Frew.]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 43 and 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 58 made:
After clause 44 insert
"Direct committal for trial
Direct committal for trial: indictable offence triable summarily
44A.—(1) Section 9 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 (cases where direct committal provisions may apply) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1) for “either” substitute “one”.
(3) In subsection (2) after paragraph (a) insert?—
“(aa) that the offence is an indictable offence to which Article 45 of the Magistrates Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 or Article 17 of the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 applies; or”.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 59 made:
After clause 44 insert
Amendments of Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004, etc.
44B.—(1) The Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 has effect subject to the amendments contained in Schedule 4.
(2) The following provisions of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 are repealed?—
section 103 (variation of firearm certificate);
section 104 (restrictions on use of shotguns by young persons), and
section 105 (restrictions on possession of air guns by young persons).". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment No 60 made:
After clause 44 insert
Costs of Accountant General in administering funds in court
44C.—(1) In section 116 of the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978 (fees), in subsection (1), after “in any office or by any officer connected with any such court” insert “(including the Accountant General and the office maintained under section 77(2))”.
(2) At the end of that section insert?—
“(5) Nothing in this section affects section 39 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982 (which includes provision relating to the costs of administering funds in court).”.". — [Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice).]
New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
We now come to the fifth group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 61, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 62 to 68. Amendment No 61 is mutually exclusive with amendment Nos 62, 64 and 66, and amendment No 68 is mutually exclusive with amendment Nos 63, 65 and 67. Amendment No 63 is an amendment to amendment No 62. Amendment No 65 is an amendment to amendment No 64. Amendment 67 is an amendment to amendment No 66.
I beg to move amendment No 61:
After clause 44 insert<BR/>
"Medical termination of pregnancy
44A.—(1) Subject to the provisions of this section, a person shall not be guilty of an offence under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and sections 25 and 26 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 when?—
(a) a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner where a diagnosis has been made of a foetal abnormality which is likely to prove fatal, and
(b) the diagnosis was made by two suitably qualified registered medical practitioners who are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that?—
(i) the condition of the foetus is likely to cause death either before birth, or during birth, or,
(ii) if a live birth should occur, there is no medical treatment which could be offered to alter the fatal nature of the condition or improve the chances of survival.
(2) Every woman, in the circumstances where two medical practitioners have formed an opinion as described in subsection (1), must be given?—
(a) a clinical assessment of the potential impact on her health of either continuing or terminating the pregnancy;
(b) information on the provision of neonatal and postnatal palliative care in such circumstances; and
(c) the opportunity to decide whether to terminate the pregnancy or to continue to the point of natural delivery.
(3) In the case where a woman in the circumstances where two medical practitioners have formed an opinion as described in subsection (1) decides to either terminate the pregnancy or continue to the point of natural delivery, she should receive suitable medical and nursing care to enable her to do so.
(4) In subsection (1)(b), “suitably qualified” means a registered medical practitioner who has achieved a Certificate of Completion of Training to practise in the fields of obstetrics, foetal medicine, gynaecology or paediatrics.
(5) No person shall be under any duty to participate directly in any medical or surgical procedure to which they have a conscientious objection and which will result in the termination of a pregnancy.
(6) The right to object on grounds of conscience will not affect any duty to participate directly in such a procedure which is necessary to save the life, or to prevent permanent or long-term injury to the physical or mental health, of a pregnant woman.".
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List: Nos
I appreciate being given the time and the opportunity to propose amendment No 61. The amendment seeks action on the issue of fatal foetal abnormality.
Today, I am asking Members to take a decision based on this debate and on how all the circumstances and history preceding it have influenced their conscience. Sadly, there are those who will make their decision owing to the influence of party Whips rather than through free expression of their conscience. I have to say that I find that regrettable. Nonetheless, I implore any Members whose conscience guides them to support this very limited change to the law to follow me and colleagues through the Lobby to support the amendment.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
There are those who will say that the amendment lacks consultation. I think that I heard someone quote me earlier on that. However, I believe that it has been adequately consulted on. It has been consulted on by the Department, and I believe that, in those circumstances, there has been adequate consultation.
In starting, I want to reflect, Mr Speaker, on a very personal story — the story that has prompted us to this point today. That is the story of Sarah Ewart. In 2013, Sarah was recently married and looking forward to having her first child. She then received the heartbreaking news that her baby had a fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) and would not survive outside the womb. At that time, an atmosphere of fear was pervading the health service, as it still does today. When Sarah asked about her options, including termination, little could be said to her for fear of falling foul of current legislation. Indeed, one consultant abruptly declared, "I'm not going to prison for anyone".
Sarah had to turn elsewhere for healthcare advice. She had to face both the understandable mental and physical trauma of continuing the pregnancy. She sought a termination in London after taking advice outside Northern Ireland. This was at her own cost — a cost of some £2,100. Add to that the ordeal of travelling to an unfamiliar clinic far from home. No one who heard on the Stephen Nolan programme the heartbreaking story that Sarah related to him and his listeners and viewers could have anything but a heart for what happened to her.
I would like to pay tribute to the way in which that programme, which does not always get plaudits, handled Sarah Ewart's story.
Since then, Sarah and her mother, Jane Christie, have been incredibly brave in speaking out. They were not content to suffer in silence. They wanted something better for Sarah, as she faces an uncertain future. They wanted something better for other women in Northern Ireland. They wanted access to healthcare and all the options for women facing fatal foetal abnormalities. That is despite receiving some of the most appalling abuse, both online and in person. I can certainly give testament to that, having seen some of it recently. They have received many unkind and unsympathetic comments, sadly not least of all from a previous Health Minister.
Before 2013, few, if any, people dared to speak about this issue in Northern Ireland. It was ignored; it was swept under the carpet. We hoped that we would not get asked our opinion on what we were going to do about it. I am pleased that, today, the Northern Ireland Assembly can talk openly about this issue, an issue that is an important development for women's healthcare. It has been a very long road for Sarah. Many other women have been in the same situation, and Members will have received correspondence from women telling those stories. In 2014, the Justice Minister consulted on changes to the law on medical termination of pregnancy. However, so far, the Executive have refused to progress any of this.
Abortion and the termination of pregnancy is an issue of conscience for my party, the Alliance Party; that is why this amendment is in the name of me and one of my colleagues and not in the name of our party. Freedom of conscience to bring an amendment like this, and to support or not support it, is common among many political parties. My colleague Mr Lunn and I have brought this forward as individual MLAs. We have sought to word it extremely cautiously and strictly, ensuring that it will apply only in cases where a woman is carrying a baby with a fatal foetal abnormality and medical intervention cannot change the outcome. Further to this, as you will see in the proposed amendment, we have sought to introduce into statute safeguards that do not currently exist in Northern Ireland for the limited number of cases where termination is permitted. In cases where termination is permitted in Northern Ireland, current guidelines suggest that it is best practice to obtain the medical opinion of two doctors on the necessity of a termination. Mr Lunn and I propose in our amendment that we make this a statutory requirement for termination in the case of a fatal foetal abnormality.
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member will be aware that the position of the Royal College of Obstetricians, set out in response to the DOJ consultation, is that abortion should be permitted as a statutory option if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion that a foetal condition has been assessed as lethal and that continuation of the pregnancy would be likely to have a detrimental impact on the health of the mother. Does the Member agree that his amendment proposes this type of statute, save the reference to the health of the mother? Is he open to considering the viability of such a reference to the health of the mother in a further amendment to the clause at Further Consideration Stage? Does he agree that there is ample scope for wider consultation and consideration of this issue during the course of the Bill?
I readily agree with my colleague about that addition to the amendment. I also say to all Members in the Chamber that my colleague and I are completely open to a discussion on that between now and Further Consideration Stage. This is not about us being prescriptive; this is about us wishing to be inclusive of everyone who has been touched not only by Sarah's story but who wishes to move this issue forward in Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right: the considered medical opinion of two professionals can assure that the condition of the baby is fatal and that the mother can, therefore, access a safe termination in a hospital setting in Northern Ireland.
Our guidelines in Northern Ireland also, interestingly, do not permit clinicians to refuse to undertake a procedure on the grounds of conscientious objection. We felt that that was an important area, and our amendment would provide an opt-out for professionals in such cases if a termination is sought for a fatal foetal pregnancy. Therefore, they will be protected from acting contrary to their beliefs.
I thank the Member for giving way. Would he be open to a further amendment should we get there at Further Consideration Stage that would add that no judgement should be communicated to the woman, as exists in England? If a clinician chooses not to carry out a termination, he or she will not communicate that directly to the woman but that alternative provision will be sought.
That is an area that we would certainly be willing to consider.
I have heard increasingly in the past few days that some have been saying that the guidelines, if we had them, would do the job. However, a quick look at previous guidelines and the law as it stands would tell anyone otherwise. It is true that, in the past, latitude was permitted to medical professionals. However, political and ideological interference has destroyed any latitude that permitted such interpretations of the law, and it now cannot be undone without the certainty of this amendment.
There are those who expressed concern to us about the use of "likely" in the proposed amendment. As I said to my colleague Mr Lyttle, and to Mr Agnew, should the House this evening allow this to proceed, at Further Consideration Stage I am prepared to carefully assist in the crafting of words that will be as inclusive as they can be to allow this matter to proceed with certainty.
I note with dismay the proposals by one party — the DUP — to kick this proposal into the long grass, directing their own Minister at the Department of Health to form a commission to look into the matter. I cannot in all seriousness understand how that would provide any progress on the matter. The Department has already examined the law, it has produced draft guidelines, and the Executive have, at this point, refused to move on it.
There is room and time for a commission, but that will be after the passing of the amendment in order to provide clarity to our clinicians and to provide basic women's healthcare to the citizens of Northern Ireland in the drafting of appropriate guidelines that would give full effect to this amendment. If we are to continue to fail women in Northern Ireland in this area, we are abdicating from our duties as representatives.
The traumatic journey to England for many young women is becoming a shame on Northern Ireland. To force women with a fatal foetal pregnancy to look elsewhere for support and help makes that worse. Sarah Ewart was left in debt to pay for a private procedure. I believe — I know that many of you here agree — that she should have had that care and her medical intervention in a hospital in Northern Ireland free of charge, close to home, with a clinical team that she could trust, and where she herself would be valued.
Not everyone can get that loan at short notice. We have a system that forces the poorest and most vulnerable women to continue a fatal foetal pregnancy despite the associated distress and physical complications that that may cause.
I also recognise that, for many, the amendment does not go far enough. There is a wide spectrum of public opinion in Northern Ireland. Some people advocate abortion in the case of sexual crime, whereas there may be many who advocate free access to abortion. The amendment goes nowhere near such proposals. For some, that may be disappointing. I want to say clearly and loudly that I am proposing an amendment in respect of fatal foetal abnormality. Personally — it is a matter of conscience — I cannot see where I would be supporting much beyond that.
I want say that I recognise such views, but I do not share them entirely. The amendment is not an attempt to shut down debate, but it is an attempt to ensure that we legislate for one discrete area. As ever, politics is the art of the possible. The amendment has been worded carefully to garner the greatest support possible in the Assembly.
I realise that it is a personal choice that the Member has expressed about how far he could go with the amendment. Has he considered the High Court's recent announcement on the case of Sarah Ewart, which talks not just about fatal foetal abnormalities but of the victims of sexual crimes and how, in the judge's opinion, we are inconsistent with European law?
I thank the Member for his intervention. I understand what he says. I understand the concerns that have been expressed in respect of that judgement. I understand that it is the matter of a court case. It will take us where it takes us. Where we are tonight is trying to legislate for fatal foetal abnormality.
I will be as clear as I can. I have said that, if this were to proceed to the next stage, I would be happy to work with those who have much greater resource and legal mind on my proposition. The very point that Mr McCarthy makes is what we would like to see encapsulated in the amendment that we propose this evening. I need to be clear about this: as far as I am concerned, our amendment does not and should not open the door to anything else.
As with other issues, the public is clearly ahead of us on this; indeed, opinion polls show that there is about 60% support for terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. We are a representative system of government, so we cannot make all our decisions on the basis of opinion polls, but it gives us an idea of the feeling that there is out there, especially with people making comments like, "The majority of people in Northern Ireland are opposed to change": I do not believe that to be true.
Many of you here have indicated your support personally to Sarah Ewart. Today is your chance to make good on those pledges of support. I made her a promise when I spoke to her that I would try to do something, and this is me trying to do that something. The decision that we have to take is undoubtedly a considerable one, but it pales into insignificance compared with the decision that Sarah Ewart was forced to make.
My plea is that, today, we put aside party interest and vote according to our conscience and what we believe to be right. It is for that reason that I have to express my disappointment at the position taken, for example, by the SDLP, a position that, I am sure, would make many of its sister parties blush. I recognise that this is not the position of all MLAs on the Benches right around the House. I think the late president John F Kennedy was right when he said:
"Sometimes party loyalty asks too much."
I understand discomfort, and I understand the pressure that we are all under when considering this matter, but we should not go against what our consciences tell us. I ask everyone to stand up and be counted today or, at the very least, to abstain. We must take action. We need to provide certainty to our clinicians. We need to provide access to healthcare and options for women facing the mental and physical trauma of a fatal foetal abnormality in pregnancy.
I ask you to support the amendment. If your conscience challenges you and if you have given your promise, now is the time to act.
I speak on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party on what is an emotive and poignant issue for many. It is an issue that touches on individuals, couples and families in a deeply personal way. I respectfully say to the House that this is not an issue for politicking or insults or to be used to inflame. It is especially not an opportunity to cause further hurt or distress. Our approach to the issue is based on compassion. We are compassionate about the tragic situation that some parents unexpectedly and without wanting to find themselves having to deal with. Any suggested change of law on this issue, which reaches fundamentally to core ideological views and values and touches directly on issues of life and death, must be carefully and fully considered.
Mr Stewart Dickson, who has moved the amendment, has previously robustly rejected proposals on what he described as "major changes to the law" for the very reason that trying to do so by way of amendment was:
"disappointing ... populist and to the detriment of the House and society as a whole."
That is a direct quotation. He outlined clearly that any major change to the law should not be done that way and that we, as legislators, in dealing with any proposed major changes:
"have a responsibility to do that diligently and in a way that is structured and allows us to take evidence and have thoughtful reflection." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 83, p59, col 1].
It is, therefore, a matter of some surprise and disappointment that he is now attempting one of the most significant changes to the law of Northern Ireland in decades by way of an amendment.
The DUP opposes the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. The issue before us today is somewhat separate from that but is no less important. It requires — it demands — careful consideration from the medical professionals, practitioners, families and ethics and legal experts to ensure that sufficient and proper clarity and guidance are the hallmarks of the way forward. That is absolutely essential to ensure that the arrangements are fully grounded in compassion, good law, support and the protection of our integrity and to ensure that our societal values and rights are properly and carefully balanced and maintained.
The intervention of Mr Lyttle in the previous speech about a potential amendment and Mr Dickson's comments on what is perhaps the ambiguity of the word "likely" in his amendment only supports our view that we should take the time to fully consider and listen to the experts in the field.
It is wrong that an issue of such gravity should be pulled together and thrust on Northern Ireland by way of a last-minute amendment, stapled awkwardly onto a miscellaneous Bill.
Given the very personal and solemn issues that we are discussing, I do not believe that it would be appropriate to engage in any kind of heated debate across the Chamber.
The debate thus far has not been an informed one. Mistakes have and are being made. Medical experts advise that there is no such term as "fatal foetal abnormality". The test and balance of proof is not clearly articulated in this amendment. Key voices of expertise are missing. This is evidenced by the contribution by the chair of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Northern Ireland stating clearly, just this morning, that any decision must be based and dependent on the effect of the pregnancy on the health of the mother. This is absent from the proposed amendment. He cautioned in the strongest terms that to do otherwise, to accept an amendment without that, risks entering the dangerous territory of eugenics: picking and choosing who should live and who should die based on genetics and characteristics.
I have already outlined that I will not.
There are some who will be comfortable with that, but I know that many, not only in this Chamber but across Northern Ireland, particularly those of faith and strong values, will not be comfortable with that. Tread carefully. That is why the DUP is rejecting the amendment but outlining a road map to a sensible, informed and appropriate way forward. The Minister of Health has been asked to establish, by the end of February, a working group that will include clinicians in this field and legally qualified persons to make recommendations on how this issue can be addressed, including, if necessary, bringing forward draft legislation. We have asked that all interested parties should be consulted and that the group will be tasked to report within six months. We all need to hear more fully the views of the Royal College and others. We all need the opportunity to ask those vital questions to get the appropriate advice. That is why the working group is the best and most appropriate way forward.
I have not had the beautiful privilege to have brought a child into this world, but I can empathise with all my heart that the wished-for and the longed-for can turn so quickly to tragedy. The way forward that we are proposing is a compassionate one. It is a sensible one, and it is a common-sense one that will leave all of us in a much better and informed position to chart a loving and kind way forward and give the necessary clarity to those dealing with these issues.
I look around me, at the Benches and my colleagues, and I see very many mothers and fathers, some of whom have suffered the devastating loss of a child, through miscarriage, illness or premature death. That loss is painful and acute. It is a loss that will never fully dissipate, but I know that our collective experience is what shapes our approach of compassion and kindness. I urge Members here today to stop, step back and search your heart and your mind. If ever there was an issue to take time and be fully informed about, this is it. It is indeed a matter of life and death.
I urge Members to vote against the amendment and for the proposed way forward that we are outlining — a sensible way that is based on expertise, evidence and careful, thoughtful consideration. Support a way forward that is based on love, compassion and hope.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to debate this very important issue in the House today. Like others who have spoken, I am very conscious, as I speak, of the wide range of opinions and emotions around termination of pregnancy. I, like many of you, have received letters, met delegations and talked to women about their experiences. What I do know is that enormous hurt and anger are felt by women who feel let down by the state in which they live when they are forced to travel abroad for a procedure that they felt they should have been entitled to at home.
I thank Stewart Dickson, Trevor Lunn, Anna Lo and Steven Agnew for the considered amendments that they have brought forward. I will begin by outlining Sinn Féin's position. Sinn Féin has opposed and voted against the extension of the 1967 Act to the North of Ireland when it was proposed in the Assembly. Sinn Féin believes that, in cases of rape or sexual crime, or when a pregnant woman's life is in danger, the option of termination should be available. At its last ard-fheis, Sinn Féin amended party policy, which now reflects the view that termination of pregnancy should be available to those who choose to avail themselves of it in situations of fatal foetal abnormality. At our ard-fheis 2015, delegates voted in support of motion 122 which reaffirms party policy and further acknowledges:
"that the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities is a very serious and complex aspect of the abortion issue that requires compassion. Notes that the law, North and South, prevents women with fatal foetal abnormality pregnancies from accessing legal abortion services in Ireland should they wish to do so; notes the further stress that can result from having to travel to access services; that many women cannot afford to travel to access these services; and that others do not have the required immigration status that allows them to travel. Calls for legal frameworks to be introduced North and South that would allow women to access abortion services under these limited circumstances. Believes in cases where a woman wishes to continue with the pregnancy she should be fully supported in that decision and all efforts should be made to ensure appropriate care and consideration. Calls for the introduction of an all-Ireland protocol on pre-natal diagnostic screening in pregnancy.".
That position reflects international minimum human rights standards and the Horner judgement. Judge Horner has stated that, as it stands, the law is not compatible with human rights. We, as legislators, should, first and foremost, provide legislation that is human rights-compliant. On 30 November 2015, the Human Rights Commission in the North won its judicial review of termination of pregnancy laws. The court held that article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right of women to family and private life, was breached in the North by the general prohibition on abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies that are a consequence of sexual crime.
I have listened today to Members arguing that there should be full public consultation and that we need to take time. I do not believe that anyone in the House can argue that there has not been enough time or consultation on this serious issue.
I thank the Member for giving way. The point was made that we should listen to the experts. Whilst it is right that we consult experts on medical advice on fatal foetal abnormality, surely the expert in the choice of whether to have a termination is the woman herself.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I am coming to that. I was on the point about consultation. I do not think that anyone can argue that there has not been consultation, debate or litigation. It has been widely consulted, debated and litigated ad nauseam. There is probably no other issue where so much debate has taken place, except maybe equal marriage. Eventually, the majority of the House agreed that there should be equal marriage, and I hope that the same happens here today.
I believe that some politicians are behind the public in relation to this issue. Recent polling commissioned by Amnesty International indicated that a significant majority of people are in favour of changes in the law on these narrow grounds. There is no suggestion that the option of termination will be the appropriate response for all women who are faced with pregnancy arising from sexual crime or where a pregnancy has been determined to have abnormalities that are incompatible with life. However, coming to Steven Agnew's point, in each of those instances, it is, nevertheless, only the woman herself who is best placed to determine an appropriate response. We must acknowledge women as competent and conscientious decision makers in our own lives.
That is the question before this House today. Are we prepared to trust women to determine what is best for them in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities or a pregnancy as a result of sexual crime, or will we withhold from women the right to make the decision on our own behalf? The key relationship here is between the woman and her clinician during those very distressing times.
I have been present at four births: two of my own, one of a friend's child, and my grandchild. There is no place at births for politicians; we are supposed to make the law. It is the clinician, the woman and her family who should decide. That is key here today.
The DUP has said that it supports a commission that will report in six months. What about the plight of women in the here and now? What about the women who are pregnant as a result of rape or women who are faced with fatal foetal abnormalities? Is the DUP going to tell them, "We are having a commission in six months and then we will see where it goes". I am sorry, but putting it on the long finger does a disservice to women. It is all very well talking about compassion. Compassion is not putting decisions on the long finger.
Does the Member agree with me that there might have been more validity and the proposal might have been more genuine had it been a commission that the Assembly would set up, which would be time-limited and to which the Assembly would agree to accept the outcome of its recommendations, based on agreed terms of reference? That would take us towards something that is genuine. That is my concern about the proposals that have been made.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I note that some commentators are calling the commission a red herring to get the DUP past the election. I believe that it is a failure of leadership on its part. Some in the SDLP would have you believe that the debate is about the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act. Any such claim is misleading. The SDLP's approach in relation to this debate is very similar to the way that it approaches the equal marriage debate. Its position changes depending on who it is talking to, and differing factions in the party have differing positions. So much for the new progressive leadership of Colum Eastwood.
The Human Rights Commission wrote to us all today, and it rightly challenges all of us when it says:
"We would welcome the outstanding issues being resolved politically. However, if the Northern Ireland Assembly fails to act today in accordance with the court judgement, then our elected representatives will have missed an opportunity to address ongoing human rights violations. They will have neglected the fundamental rights of vulnerable women and girls facing the most difficult circumstances, when they could have resolved the situation. Human rights are often relied on in political debates. Today will be measure of how committed our politicians are to protecting human rights in practice."
We all need to think very carefully about the challenge posed to us by the Human Rights Commission today.
Sinn Féin takes its role as legislators very seriously. Our entire team is here tonight. We will support amendment Nos 61 and 68, and we urge every individual in the House to do so.
It would be remiss of any of us to contribute to tonight's debate without putting on the record our sincere compassion and heartfelt sympathy to Sarah Ewart and the other families who have been faced with such life-changing decisions. But there is an old legal maxim that hard choices do not make good legislation. We are being led to believe by Sinn Féin, Alliance, the Green Party and NI21 that this is not about the extension of the 1967 Act. Those people quite clearly —
I will perhaps later, but I am just getting into the flow.
The 1967 Act has grown quite considerably in Great Britain.
At the outset, I say that, as a member of the SDLP, along with my SDLP colleagues, I have always been in a pro-life party. I do not think that we will be taking any lectures regarding violence against the person, unborn or otherwise, from Sinn Féin. There has never been any difficulty in relation to the sanctity of the life of the unborn child when the IRA planted bombs that blew up pregnant women. I will leave it there, because I do not want to be diverted from the main topic.
My values as a member of the SDLP are not just formed by the values of the SDLP and it being a pro-life party, nor indeed is our decision this evening to vote against these amendments. Our decision tonight is also based on the advice that we have received from clinicians and legal experts. Clinicians are very clear that the guidelines need to be amended. There needs to be greater clarity around the guidelines. That is why we call upon the DUP Health Minister to publish those guidelines without delay. We welcome the initiative of First Minister Arlene Foster in setting up a working group that will listen to the people at the coalface, to the women having to make those difficult choices, informed by clinicians and by legal experts. We will play whatever role we have to play in assisting that working group to come to the right conclusions.
I appreciate your giving way. Apologies for trying to stop you when you had just started. Just by way of correction — I think that this is vital because it casts the difference between the Alliance Party and the SDLP — this is a matter of conscience in the Alliance Party. We do not have a policy on this matter. This is a proposal by me and Mr Lunn, and it does not reflect the views of the Alliance Party. That is unlike the SDLP, which seems to be a homogeneous, anti-fatal-foetal-abnormality party.
That is pretty ridiculous. We are all old enough and wise enough to know that, in the past, clinicians made decisions around the survival of the mother in terms of her physical and mental well-being. It was never about the choice of whether to carry on with a pregnancy. It was based on the mental and physical well-being of the mother. That is one of the key differences in the interpretation of these amendments, which we have been advised on by clinicians and legal experts.
I will share with you some concerns that people have raised in relation to the 1967 Act, which some are portraying is not what these amendments reflect. The effect of the 1967 Act in Great Britain has been to vastly increase, in a manner not intended by legislators, the number of abortions carried out there. It is noteworthy that the Act is predicated on the basis that two medical practitioners have formed the opinion that continuance of the pregnancy would involve injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, or that the child would suffer from a serious handicap. In reality, the opinion of the doctors has become, in most cases, an administrative exercise, and one can legitimately state that Great Britain permits abortion on demand.
I want to finish my point; I will give way shortly. Legislators may believe that these proposed amendments to the Justice (No. 2) Bill are a discrete and minor development of the existing law, but they introduce a critical difference to the underlying philosophy of abortion legislation, which will undoubtedly be focused on by those who seek greater change. I refer in particular to the introduction, for the first time in UK law, of the choice of the woman who is facing a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, bearing in mind, of course, that there is no such definition; there is no such condition. That represents, by any standard, a fundamental philosophical departure in abortion legislation.
For all its many problems, the language of the 1967 Act is predicated on the mother's physical and mental health or on the child having a serious handicap. The language of choice is absent from that legislation. In contrast, the proposed amendment places the mother's choice, at proposed clause 44A(2), as the central and deciding factor, assuming that she is given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. I give way to Mr Green.
I thank the Member for giving way. She seems to be outlining why she believes the 1967 Act is wrong. I do not believe that that is what we should be debating but, to take on her point, I accept that she believes the law to be wrong. Does she believe that the women who chose to have abortions were wrong?
I was a health professional, and one of the key standards and ethics that I was trained in, and which I hope I have lived my life by, is to be non-judgemental. I am not going to judge anyone because, thankfully, I have never had to make those decisions or choices. If the Member is trying to suggest that I have somehow got confused about what we are debating this evening, what I am trying to explain to Mr Agnew and the proposers of these amendments is that it is they who are confused. What they are proposing tonight in their amendments goes far beyond the 1967 Act because it places in statute the element of choice, rather than the mental or physical well-being of the mother. To the parties whose Members are proposing the amendments, I ask those who are going to support the amendments to reflect very carefully on the arguments that I and others have made in our contributions to the debate this evening.
I thank the Member for giving way. She asked us to reflect on the points that she put forward, but is she willing to reflect on my previous intervention, which was on the very grounds of the need to perhaps consider the viability of inclusion of reference to the health of the mother?
Sorry, I missed that point a bit because I thought that my whole argument was based on the premise of the physical and mental health and well-being of the mother.
This is a debate about which many people can get very passionate and emotive.
I commend the parties for being very measured in their contributions thus far. As I said at the outset, I think that all Members want to show compassion to those who have had to make difficult choices. Let us be very clear: the choices need to be based on informed decisions given by the experts in the field. The experts in the field are the clinicians and the legal experts who will help to guide them. I hope that the First Minister, Arlene Foster, will set that out very clearly in her terms of reference. I know that the public in Northern Ireland have stood against the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland for decades. People should be clear what the amendments would mean in practice.
I do not want to add much more. I just want to say that, yet again, the families and Ms Ewart have brought the debate to the fore, and that is quite right. It is right that we should get clarity on the guidance and, for that, we owe her a debt of gratitude.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this section of the debate on the Justice (No. 2) Bill. I remind the House, as I remind myself, that I speak as an individual Member of the House rather than a Member of the Ulster Unionist Party or, indeed, a member of the Justice Committee.
Like all Members, I have been in receipt of many representations on the issue from both sides of the debate. I thank all those who have written, emailed, telephoned, texted or spoken to me directly, irrespective of their view. I am particularly grateful to organisations such as Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) in Northern Ireland, the Christian Medical Fellowship, the Christian Institute and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, whose research and conclusions I will reference.
The House will know that the Ulster Unionist Party regards these issues as matters of conscience, thereby leaving Members free to speak as they feel led.
The amendment raises complex and sensitive issues about the lives and well-being of women, their families and the unborn. They need to be handled with compassion and grace in the context of affirming the value of human life. As a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, I hold to a strongly pro-life position, whilst recognising that there are situations in which medical abortion might be necessary to protect the life or well-being of the mother.
The current law requires that the very difficult decisions that are taken in those exceptional cases are based on risk to the mother's life and/or long-term health. Ethically and morally, that is extremely important, as it ensures that the termination of pregnancy is viewed as a life-preserving measure. In contrast, if the proposed amendments were passed, they will apparently allow pregnancies to be terminated solely in light of the condition of the foetus. That represents a significant shift in principle, the implications of which do not appear to have been fully explored. Legislation of such importance requires detailed consideration. However, the stage at which the amendments were tabled did not allow for scrutiny by the Justice Committee, nor the submission of evidence by interested groups and individuals.
I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate his point about the current law being about the health and well-being of the woman. Does he find it acceptable that, in the case of something like anencephaly, we have to wait until the mother's life is at immediate risk and that, when there is a likelihood of risk to the women's life, we cannot act in Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the Member for his contribution. Clearly, these are very complex and sensitive issues that need to be treated very sensitively. I am seeking to do that in my contribution, as I recognise others will as well.
While I, of course, recognise that, on many occasions, it is appropriate to introduce amendments at Consideration Stage, and the earlier groups of amendments did that, I do not believe that this is such an occasion. This is an issue of enormous sensitivity, involving deeply held moral beliefs about the nature of life and the care of women. This series of amendments proposes a major change to the law. Changing the law in this area, if it is to be done, needs to proceed with great care and widespread engagement with relevant stakeholders. On this occasion, that simply has not happened.
As public debate on the issue continues, the need to provide excellent perinatal care in every part of Northern Ireland for every woman facing a pregnancy crisis must feature more prominently. Indeed, practical, emotional and spiritual support for women and their families is absolutely essential if we are truly committed as a society to life, well-being and human dignity. I believe that every human life is valuable and must be protected. It should not matter how profoundly disabled a baby is, or whether that condition will ultimately limit the ability to survive outside of the womb, or how the child was conceived. All human life is equal and worthy of protection. Unborn children in these instances require no less protection and respect than any other unborn child. Indeed, they are some of the most vulnerable in society. I note that the preamble to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that each child:
"needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth".
We should invest in care for all our children by treating those we can, and caring for those we cannot treat. The amendments in relation to rape and incest, in my view, would deprive a child of life when that child had no influence over the circumstances of its conception. It would be wrong to deprive a child of life because of the character of its father. Abortion is not an easy solution to rape, and cannot alleviate or undo in any way the crime committed. It does not bring healing to rape victims, and creating a second victim never repairs the damage to the first. It is of great importance that women in this situation are offered every support, psychologically and in all ways physically, and obviously given the option of putting their child up for adoption if that is right for them.
For the reasons that I have outlined, I will be opposing all the amendments being put forward today. I hope that this debate will continue to be conducted in a gracious and respectful manner, and that the review to be initiated by the Health Minister will be helpful in dealing with these very complex issues.
I share the hope that this debate continues in the way described by Mr Kennedy. My colleague Mr Maginness, in preparing us for this Justice Bill, prepared a piece of paper that talked about what, in fact, the ambition of this Bill was in the first instance. It dealt with things like fines and defaulting, the Prison Ombudsman and DARD proposals. If you like, it was a gathering up of issues — something to be concluded towards the end of a mandate. A catch-all, if you like. So how have we ended up here tonight? With that backdrop and context, how have we ended up with these amendments, which touch on the issues that Ms Pengelly, Ms Kelly and others so eloquently reflected on?
I would just like to get into the debate.
I saw Mr Dickson nodding at some of Mr Kennedy's remarks. I refer Mr Dickson to his own comments in 2013, during the Further Consideration Stage of the Justice Bill. I have to quote it to you:
"As a legislative Assembly, we have" — [Official Report, Bound Volume 83, p59, col 1].
I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and the House, but I think that it is important to repeat these matters. It is a different quote from 2013:
"As a legislative Assembly, we have a responsibility to consult and engage properly with the public on major changes to the law, and today's amendment, by any definition, is a major change." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 83, p59, col 1].
I would argue that tonight's amendment is also a major change:
"Indeed, in the few short weeks since the amendment has appeared, the strength of feeling and lobbying, and the hundreds of interviews, conversations, blogs, articles and debates have demonstrated the absolute necessity for formal consultation so that all voices can be heard and all opinions expressed in a structured and meaningful way." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 83, p59, col 1].
I thank the Member for giving way. He asked why these amendments have come forward in this way to this Bill. The background is that the Minister held a public consultation and, particularly around the issue of fatal foetal abnormality, polls suggested that there was considerable public support. My understanding — the Minister can correct me because I do not speak for him — is that, while he would have liked to bring the FFA issue forward in the Bill, he could not get that through the Executive. That is why we are here now.
Perhaps the Member has read a different consultation from the one that I read. I understood that there was considerable opposition on the issue of fatal abnormality; in fact, resounding opposition. As I recall, so much was the opposition to it that the Minister dropped the issue around the rape and abuse — the issues that you have brought to the Chamber tonight.
I appreciate the Member giving way, but we can at least be factual on the consultation. The consultation made specific recommendations to allow for termination in the case of fatal foetal abnormality. It highlighted issues around rape and incest but made no specific recommendations. On the back of that consultation, it was clear that there were no specific recommendations to make. Please do not suggest that something was dropped that was being pushed; that is simply not the case.
I welcome the intervention but, at the outset, we need to understand what the context of the consultation was, and where you, Minister, said that you were going to. You sought to consult on the issues of fatal abnormality and to consult, originally, on the issues of rape and incest. All I am following is the facts; there are and were no Justice Department proposals on those latter issues. Mr Agnew has, if I am getting him right, criticised me for making a point when he has put forward an amendment on matters to which there was sufficient opposition for the Justice Minister not to come forward with them. I will take Mr Dickson's intervention.
I believe that the Minister has adequately commented in the direction that I wished to go in, which was to point out that there was a consultation. Therefore, it rather negates the reading back of comments that I made in respect of a previous Bill when there was no appropriate consultation.
I thank the Member for giving way. I am not sure that my proposal was precisely about the existing law; it was a reference to the position of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which was about the desirability of a reference to the health of the mother. It was not a direct quotation of the existing law. I am not sure what the Member's exact words were, but I think that he said that there was widespread opposition to proposals that were put forward in the robust Department of Justice consultation on this issue. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but my recollection is that reputable bodies like the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of General Practitioners supported the attempt to deal with the unique case of fatal foetal abnormality in their responses to that consultation. The Member's characterisation of the response to that consultation needs to be addressed.
Perhaps I will address it by referring to Mr Robin Ashe, Chair of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in Northern Ireland, who, only as recently as this morning, reflected on these very issues when he said:
"As far as we're concerned, we regard it as unreasonable to consider termination of pregnancy for fatal foetal abnormality, as long as the continuation of the pregnancy would have a detrimental effect on the health of the mother."
Now that is extremely important. We are not advocating it, and it should not be advocated that this is a choice item. It is not a choice item. It is dependent on the effect of the abnormal pregnancy on the health of the mother. If we were to consider that fatal foetal abnormality in itself would be a reason for termination of pregnancy, then that is not a satisfactory situation. He was then asked why not. He added:
"It would border on eugenics."
It would border on eugenics. That was the view of the Chair of the Royal College of Obstetricians —
I have sat here quietly, determined not to intervene, because I will have plenty to say at the end of the debate, but really. Dr Ashe is perfectly entitled to make comments like that, but I would like to know, because it is the second time that it has been mentioned, do you actually agree with that? Do you agree that this is bordering on eugenics? Do you understand what eugenics is? How can you compare that to what is before you here?
I do agree. And I have to say that I am quoting in response to Mr Lyttle, who made a comment referring to other professional bodies. I am referring to the leader of a professional body who has arrived at a considered opinion on this matter. I am not going to reject that, in this context, given the nature of his most recent comments.
I just want to make a couple of comments in relation to this particular issue in amendment No 61:
"A pregnancy is terminated by a registered practitioner where a diagnosis has been made of a foetal abnormality which is likely to prove fatal."
Clinicians tell us that they cannot make that judgement. They do not know if it is going to be an hour, a day, a week, or a month. They simply do not know.
No, I think that I have been generous in allowing interventions and that I should be allowed to proceed. I will consider you coming in at a later point.
Subsequent to that, as a further definition:
"If a live birth should occur, there is no medical treatment which could be offered to alter the fatal nature of the condition, or improve the chances of survival."
Clinicians tell us that, in almost all cases, they can actually extend life by a ventilator, for example. That is within their gift. So, in actual fact, this is contrary to the intent of Mr Dixon's overall clause, to begin with.
I would like to proceed. We must deal with any debate relating to such complex and sensitive issues in a measured, and considered manner. We must strive to have a framework that protects women, and the rights of unborn children, regardless of any complications. And in this context, and it has been outlined by Mrs Kelly, we are consistent, and have been consistent, that we oppose the extension — any extension — of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. In my later remarks, I will reflect on the unintended consequences of what has been proposed, which will have the net effect of us extending the 1967 Act, which, in fact, could produce worse outcomes; if it could be worse.
Obviously, these amendments deal with that particular question in the debate about abortion: fatal foetal abnormality. I think I have dealt with that by virtue of the interventions, and I would like to make the point that, overall, this raises questions. The clinicians tell us that fatal foetal abnormality is not a medical term. It is an umbrella term, if you like, but it does not prescribe the exact conditions or illnesses that could meet the criteria for an abortion. It is important to remember that, under this amendment, fatal foetal abnormality is not limited to anencephaly; it is not limited to Trisomy 13 or any other conditions. So we have to ask, are there unintended consequences?
Could it be used, for example, to abort foetuses with Down's syndrome or spina bifida?
It has been made absolutely clear in everything that has been said, in the Department's consultation and in the way that the amendment is written that we are talking about a fatal abnormality. Let us not add further trauma to women who are suffering with such an issue or indeed to those who have children who suffer from Down's or some other limiting issue that is not fatal. By making that comparison, you stray into extraordinarily dangerous territory, and you will add to the distress that some people feel.
I disagree. I merely ask the questions that others will ask about this very short process that has been foisted upon Members of the Assembly without proper consideration. These things should have been considered. I am making a process argument, as I have done from the start, that, as well as the fundamentals around the clauses, insufficient time has been given to this. They are reasonable questions that reasonable people are asking about what is being proposed.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. On the point — it seems to be at the centre of an argument — about fatal foetal abnormalities, Justice Horner had this to say:
"The doctors know when a foetus has an FFA. This is primarily a medical diagnosis not a legal judgment. "
Will we not trust doctors to diagnose a fatal foetal abnormality? Does he want to add to his list of things that are fatal foetal abnormalities? In addition to anencephaly, you can have renal agenesis, neural tube defects, the brain open right through to the meningeal sac or caudal regression. There is a list of medical conditions that doctors are able to diagnose. If they diagnose a fatal foetal abnormality, that is a medical decision and not something to do with cleft palates or any other argument.
I do not think, Mr Speaker, you heard that from me. That was from Mr McCrea's lips, not mine.
"It is simply a fallacy to assume that all foetuses with lethal abnormalities will die in utero or immediately after birth. If they do not, the babies will be treated with compassion and palliatation should until they succumb.... it is not therefore possible to draw a line in relation to survival time "
That is a very important point to make.
OK. It is just in relation to the use and the terminology of "fatal foetal abnormality". There is a very good reason for using it: it is the list that Mr McCrea has given us, and I do not believe that it is an exhaustive list. Medical science — we should all praise it — is constantly improving, and it is the case that some of those conditions can be dealt with and some may ultimately be very amenable to medical intervention. That is why the term has been used, rather than a prescriptive list that might fall behind.
"I want to make it very clear in our submission" —
— he was talking about the royal college submission to you, Mr Ford —
"We make it clear that we are not happy with the term fatal foetal abnormality. There is no textbook that I know of, and no doctor knows exactly what it means."
That comes from the clinicians.
There are also issues around the upper gestational limit. The amendments do not prescribe a maximum time limit for when a foetus with a fatal abnormality can be legally aborted, and that is of further concern. Does it mean that a foetus can be aborted up until birth? There are other questions that, I think, my colleague Mr Maginness will touch on later, around disability discrimination.
I touch now on the further amendments on rape and incest. Let me say at the outset that these crimes are heinous and the perpetrators deserve the full punishment of the law. I cannot imagine the enormous distress and trauma that they cause to the women who are victims. However, rape and incest as grounds for abortion present their own conceptual challenges. Mr Agnew, Mr McCrea and Ms Lo, who tabled the amendments, should be aware of the challenges in convicting someone of rape and, indeed, incest crimes in our judicial system. Rape is historically under-reported in Northern Ireland, and conviction rates for these heinous crimes are not high, due to the burden of proof facing prosecutors. The time for such cases to progress through the criminal justice system would surely go beyond the 28-week limit for abortions. Have Members thought about those issues? Are we to permit abortions when the burden of proof has not been met and there is no conviction for rape? How does domestic violence impact on these issues? Like my colleagues, I have been lobbied on behalf of others who support the amendments. I have heard the extent of the horror that is visited on people through domestic abuse, but is the only answer to that type of domestic abuse to seek an abortion?
We need — the Assembly and the health and justice authorities need — to start stitching together sufficient resources in finance and personnel to allow people to seek other answers and to get advice. My colleague Mr Frew talked eloquently about the scale of that type of abuse. One of the other ways is giving women access in a much more open-door way to facilities and advice rather than having to go to accident and emergency or for an abortion. The wider conversation that is being proposed by the DUP should include those discussions.
The SDLP cannot support this group of amendments. They have been hastily put forward by the Alliance Party and others. We have not been given adequate time to consider them in detail. In fact, this debate and the number of interventions by those who have made the proposals suggest to me that we have not been given adequate time. I urge you to vote no.
I commend the Members who have spoken so far for the tone of the debate. As you are aware, I am relatively new to elected politics — it is still my first mandate — but I am not so new to observing elected politicians in this country. As a broadcast journalist for many years, I was in the privileged position of getting to observe quite close up our politicians and their motivations — maybe not as closely as their closest friends and family but enough to know that the motivation for most, if not all, is much purer than I think the public give them credit for. There is a lot less self-interest and a lot more public spirit in the engine of the Members of this Assembly. However, the clue is in the title: it is a legislative Assembly. When Justice Horner made a ruling, as he did, that we are in contravention of rights, we have an obligation to react, and I thought that tonight would have been that night. I thought that we would each have stood up, made our case and told each other, "This is what we believe and this is why we believe it", and then made our way through the appropriate Lobby to cast our vote, not necessarily feeling comfortable about it.
I certainly do not feel comfortable standing here as a man discussing what a woman should do with her body. I am not going to look a woman in the eye and say, "You must go full term, even though you have been told that there is a fatal foetal abnormality in your womb". I am not going to say that to a woman, any more than I am going to tell her, "You must abort because there is a fatal foetal abnormality".
What we all agree on, I trust, is that this is a horrendous choice for those women and their partners and families and that it is about more than access to abortion. If the decision is to go full term, having listened to women over the past weeks and months, it is clear that we do not have the facilities, resources and the backup for them. The perinatal, hospice and palliative care is not there as it should be. We have to address that if we are going to allow women who choose to go full term to go full term. I want to support them if that is their choice. However, we also have to discuss what happens if, after an informed decision, we are told that the woman would rather abort.
Today should have been the day when we had that debate, explained ourselves and had our vote. It is not happening. I believe that this legislature has been undermined by a device thought up by Members to my left. The DUP is kicking this down the road, past the elections, and setting up a working group. That is a petition of concern by any other name. What fresh information is going to come forward? Whose views have we not heard? This should have been the day when we decided. As democrats, there would have been a majority vote and a minority vote, and I would have accepted that. This should have been the day, but no, this day is about obfuscation —
I thank the Member for giving way. Perhaps he could explain to the House how, if there is no petition of concern, this will not be a majority/minority outcome tonight. Perhaps he could explain that to us all, because I am a little bit confused as to how that is not going to happen tonight.
The First Minister knows very well that her party has put in place a mechanism that ensures that there will be a majority to vote down the amendment and bring forward the working group, which will kick the decision to the far side of the election. I say to the First Minister that this delay is cruel to the sufferers. It is Dickensian. This is 'Bleak House' that we are in today, in the Chancery Courts, waiting day after day after day after day for a decision that never comes. How cruel to those campaigning because they want relief from us. I make no specific comment on the two very high-profile campaigners, who we all know. However, as a former victims' commissioner, I tell you that it is cruel to make promises to people and to leave people waiting and waiting and waiting, and not deliver a decision for them, whether positive or negative. It is the lack of the decision that is 'Bleak House' on the Stormont Estate today.
Justice Horner has made his ruling, a very thoughtful one, I think. For those who think that this is some sort of thin end of the wedge or back door to something worse, like the 1967 Act, let me quote what he says:
"There should be equality of treatment between, on the one hand, the foetus which will develop into a child without physical or mental disability and, on the other hand, the foetus which will develop into a child with a physical and/or mental disability which is non-fatal."
OK. There should be equality between those things, so this is not about eugenics. He says:
"It is illegitimate and disproportionate to place a prohibition on the abortion of both a foetus doomed to die because it is incapable of an existence independent of the mother’s womb and the viable foetus conceived as a result of sexual crime."
So, it is not about eugenics. It is about the fact, as Justice Horner put it, that there is no life to protect. So, it is not about a balance between the rights of the mother and the baby: there is no life to protect.
It is, of course, also about rights. Mr Justice Horner said that, in forcing the mother to go elsewhere in the United Kingdom to secure an abortion, we impose an intolerable financial and mental burden on those potentially least able to bear it. He pointed out:
"The protection of morals ... should not contemplate a restriction that penalises the impoverished but can be ignored by the wealthy"
— the wealthy who can afford to travel. That is not the sort of society that I want to create and bequeath. I will support the amendment, not least because the authors said that they recognise the imperfections of the wording and will work on that for when we come back to this debate in this House.
I appreciate the intent to support women in their decision and to support medical practitioners who have a conscience. However, this is a petition of concern by another name, so, in protest, while I will vote to support this amendment, I am taking no further part in this debate, and I will not be voting on any other of these amendments because it seems to me that electoral politics has infected this debate and that is a shame.
I am speaking as an individual MLA, not representing the Alliance Party, which has no set policy on abortion.
I wonder whether anyone in this Chamber has seen a woman who has just been raped. I have. Many years ago, when I was a sessional interpreter for the RUC, I was involved in a rape case — an experience that has never left me. Imagine a woman who has just been sexually violated. She is traumatised, exhausted and feels dirty. She is experiencing a mixture of emotions: anger and disgust towards the perpetrator, not to mention helplessness and humiliation. Imagine, a month or two later, she discovers that she is pregnant. The consequence of the violation is growing inside her body. The state now tells her that she must continue with a pregnancy where, every day for the next eight months, she will be reminded of that act of violence that was forced upon her.
Traumatised and re-traumatised. How barbaric is that?
It could happen to your daughter, your wife, your niece or your neighbour. Yet, as legislators, we have allowed this restriction from an arcane 1861 law to continue. Now is the time to bring Northern Ireland into the 21st century and meet international human rights standards.
Violence against women is a violation of fundamental human rights. Those include the right to health, life and the right to be free from torture and other ill-treatment. The United Nations says that individuals should be able to:
"exercise control over their sexual and reproductive lives".
That includes reproductive decision-making. UN treaty monitoring bodies agree that abortion should be legal when a pregnancy results from rape, and they have urged countries to amend their laws to allow that.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), last year, made clear that access to termination of pregnancy must be made available in Northern Ireland in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest.
In the case where abortion was denied to a suicidal young girl who had been raped, CEDAW recommended that the state take measures to ensure access to abortion in cases of rape. It also said that the life and health of a pregnant woman or girl must be prioritised over the protection of the foetus. Under human rights law, a state can decide to provide an unborn child with protections. For example, a state may restrict a woman's access to termination of pregnancy. Any such restriction must not, however, violate a woman's human rights. The European Court of Human Rights found that:
"it is neither desirable, nor even possible as matters stand, to answer in the abstract the question whether the unborn child is a person for the purposes of Article 2 of the Convention".
The World Health Organization (WHO) has clearly indicated that women who become pregnant as a result of rape should have access to safe abortion services. To allow access to abortion services in such cases, the WHO advises that the state should update standards and guidelines for police and healthcare providers, and that includes referrals to abortion services.
At least 1,000 women and girls from Northern Ireland travel to hospitals in Britain for terminations every year. Official figures for 2014 state that 837 Northern Irish females had abortions in Britain, although that number is regarded as an underestimation. Among them was a 13-year-old who became pregnant through incest.
The only law applying to abortion here is the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which contains a life sentence for anyone convicted of carrying out a termination, even in cases of rape or incest. It has some of the most severe penalties in Europe.
This is a health matter, not a criminal justice issue. Women should not be criminalised. Of the 47 member states of the European Council, just six do not permit termination of pregnancy on grounds of rape, incest and foetal abnormality. Even Brazil, a repressive, religious regime whose abortion laws are among the most stringent in Latin America, allows for abortion in the case of rape or incest. Its law simply says that, in order to access a termination, a woman must put in writing to a medical doctor that she has been raped.
Largely based on the Termination of Pregnancy (Medical Defences) Act 1995 in the Isle of Man, my amendment stipulates that a woman may have a legal abortion if she has made a complaint to the police alleging that the pregnancy could be caused by rape, incest or indecent assault. The pregnant woman must then provide evidence to the surgeon and/or medical practitioner that the pregnancy could be caused by rape, incest or indecent assault. A police reference number will suffice. In addition to that, the hospital surgeon and/or medical practitioner must believe that there are no medical indications which contradict the allegation that the pregnancy could be caused by rape, incest or indecent assault. No evidence or matter connected with the abortion shall be admissible in any criminal proceedings relating to the alleged rape, incest or indecent assault except with the leave of the court. It is a given, of course, that this has to be done within 24 hours, in line with current legislation.
We must trust women. Those who make false allegations of rape are in a tiny minority, and in doing so, they are committing a crime and can also face possible charges for wasting police time. Women should be provided safe, legal abortion services based on their complaint of the rape and should not be compelled to undergo unnecessary added stress by having to report a sexual crime to the police.
I acknowledge that this is not an ideal amendment. For some, it is too restrictive. I and most human rights organisations would much prefer that we allowed women to have an abortion based on their word. However, I understand that some Members might object on the basis that rape is too difficult to prove and women may lie to get an abortion. Therefore, my amendment requires women to have reported this crime to the police.
I am also concerned that, in arguing that it is too difficult to verify a rape case, we are sending out a dangerous message. If we are saying that we are incapable of proving a rape case, what is the point in women reporting it? Regardless of where you stand on abortion, sending that message to people who are most likely already very reluctant to report a rape should be a concern for us all. It is vital to stress that this amendment is about choice. No one is saying, "If you are raped and get pregnant as a result, you must have an abortion". It simply means that you can assess what options are open to you.
Justice Horner's recent judgement found that Northern Ireland's almost outright ban on abortion breaches the human rights of women and girls, including rape victims. He also highlighted how women having to travel is not only distressing for them but is very much a class issue. His judgement states:
"The protection of morals, as I have observed, should not contemplate a restriction that penalises the impoverished but can be ignored by the wealthy. It is surely not controversial that requiring women in these exceptional categories to go to England, that is those carrying FFAs and those pregnant as a result of sexual abuse, will place heavy demands on them both emotionally and financially."
It is also important to consider how our current legislation, or lack thereof, impacts our refugees. We have quite a lot of new refugees who have come here or who are arriving fairly soon. If a woman was raped prior to arriving in our country and then discovered she was pregnant, would she have access to funds to travel to England? Would she be allowed to leave with her documentation? It is not only Justice Horner who thinks our abortion law needs to change. Just last year, Amnesty International commissioned a Millward Brown Ulster poll that told us that seven out of 10 people back changes to the abortion law in Northern Ireland; 66% of people think abortion should be allowed in the case of fatal foetal abnormality; 69% think that the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the pregnancy is the result of rape; and 68% think the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the pregnancy is the result of incest.
Like others, I have been contacted by a number of constituents urging me to vote yes to amendment Nos 61 to 68. One constituent pointed out that even Sierra Leone has repealed its outdated abortion laws but that Northern Ireland has not.
Another constituent wrote:
"I am asking you to vote yes because I trust women to make these decisions, because I believe in human rights and because ultimately the state should not make these difficult situations worse for those families and individuals involved."
I do not think that I can put it better than that. With incest, it is unlikely that there will be a need for a police investigation, because of the probable involvement of social services or because the perpetrator is generally known to the victim. It is something that can be genetically verified as well.
This is not an abstract debate. Our restrictive law is making people's lives very difficult. I have heard examples from the Abortion Support Network. It helps local women facing crisis pregnancies, which are truly depressing and distressing. It has helped women who did not want to report a rape because they were afraid that, if the rape made them pregnant, they would be forced to carry the pregnancy to term.
Research has shown that the rate of abortions is higher where it is illegal. Generally, that is in places where people do not have access to sex education and contraception, and so what we find is that criminalising abortion does not stop it, and it certainly does not lower the rate. We live in an imperfect world, one in which violence is common and in which sexual abuse and sexual violence against girls and women does happen and can result in pregnancies that are life sentences of damage to the victims. A victim of rape or sexual abuse needs assistance, compassion and options, yet, as legislators, we offer none of those, just judgement. For how long will we export the problem? For how long will we ignore the fact that it is a class issue? How long will we subject women to such inhumanity? We have done so for far, far too long.
I know that this is an emotive subject, and I know that there are those who will rise and speak against my amendment with passion and conviction, yet I urge Members to consider this carefully from a health perspective rather than purely as a moral issue. I hope that this will be a debate that is informed by evidence. As politicians, we have failed to prioritise women's healthcare. By not supporting amendment No 68, we very much risk being on the wrong side of history. We must not miss this opportunity.
I am grateful to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland for recognising the importance of the issue that we are deliberating this evening. The party has recognised that the issue is a matter of individual conscience, thereby allowing a free vote in the Assembly.
I am totally and absolutely opposed to abortion, and I have always resisted and always will resist the introduction of the 1967 Act into Northern Ireland. I am grateful to hear other voices around the Chamber saying the same thing. I sincerely hope that all our public representatives will continue to oppose this obnoxious Act being brought into our country now or in the future. I have always been a supporter of the pro-life lobby and, for many years, was a member of the all-party group on pro-life. I remain a staunch pro-life supporter. I have always said that I will oppose abortion being brought into Northern Ireland through the front door or the back door.
I want to acknowledge the sincerity of my colleagues Mr Trevor Lunn, Stewart Dickson and, indeed, Anna Lo, on bringing the amendments to the Bill. Not once in the amendments is the dreaded A-word used. The amendments deal with the medical termination of pregnancy, only in totally exceptional circumstances — nothing else.
I wish to express absolute sympathy with women and, indeed, their partners — because it is not only women who are involved; there are partners, and