With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement regarding a bilateral meeting under the auspices of the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) on cooperation on criminal justice matters held at Lough Erne on Wednesday 28 September 2016. This was my second such meeting with Frances Fitzgerald TD, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, at which I represented the Executive. As I previously stated to the House, it is my intention to keep the Assembly informed of meetings held under the auspices of the agreement.
The meeting provided a timely opportunity, after our previous meeting in July, to build on the excellent cross-border relationship that the Tánaiste and I have already established. The combined efforts across the spectrum of criminal justice cooperation, particularly in the area of law enforcement, have served to protect the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland and maintain peace on this island. We know that organised crime groups from both sides of the border work together, and we know that, to successfully tackle organised crime, we must also have effective cross-border cooperation across and between government and law enforcement agencies. It was, therefore, fitting that the fourteenth cross-border organised crime conference provided the backdrop for our second intergovernmental agreement meeting.
The conference and the IGA are examples of how an effective and important partnership approach can work, bringing together complementary strands of work to enhance cross-border cooperation in relation to criminal justice and policing. The conference also provided an opportunity to launch the 'Cross Border Policing Strategy', a document welcomed by the Tánaiste and me. It aims to build on existing partnerships between our respective police services in achieving the shared objectives of further improving public safety throughout Ireland and disrupting criminal activity. The joint strategy covers a range of policing areas, including operations, rural policing, community relations, intelligence sharing, ICT, service improvement and emergency planning.
The conference also provided a platform for the publication of a biennial cross-border organised crime threat assessment, which provides an assessment across a wide range of cross-border crime types. This is the seventh such cross-border threat assessment to be published. It compares trends and developments across both jurisdictions to highlight similarities and differences in the threat posed by certain areas of criminality.
Obviously, cross-border cooperation is not exclusive to policing. Minister Fitzgerald and I discussed other areas where excellent collaborative working is ongoing, such as the management of offenders; support for victims; knowledge exchange between our forensic services; engagement on youth justice developments; and policing of diverse communities. Five joint project advisory groups provide the mechanism by which the work in each area is taken forward. Encouraged by the progress that has been made in those areas, Minister Fitzgerald and I agreed that it would be mutually beneficial to allow the existing work streams to continue and be augmented to enable them to meet their full potential.
We also discussed the prevalence of mental health issues in society, the links to offending and the challenges that they present to our respective criminal justice systems. The Tánaiste shares my views that the justice and health sectors could achieve more by working together not only to improve outcomes for offenders and for our communities but to better support our staff in the management of offenders with mental health issues.
As Members will know, the Minister of Health and I recently visited Hydebank Wood to discuss health issues in prisons. By tackling mental health issues in prisons through a collaborative approach, we are together playing an important role in building a safer community. My Department is committed to working with the Department of Health to assist those with mental health problems. We know that poor mental health is a major factor in people offending. I was therefore pleased to have the support of Minister O'Neill in recently launching a new app, developed by the Probation Board, to help offenders to desist from crime.
The Programme for Government will undoubtedly give us the platform for working in a more joined-up way, but I am also keen to exploit other avenues for developing best practice in that area, and the IGA framework provides such an opportunity. Minister Fitzgerald and I have therefore tasked the project advisory group responsible for public protection matters with developing and taking forward an action on mental health care in prisons as part of the joint work programme for 2016-17. I am keen to make progress in that area as well as to ensure that we keep up the momentum in the other work streams. The Tánaiste and I therefore intend to review progress of the work programme at our next meeting in November, and I will endeavour to brief the Assembly on progress following our next IGA meeting. For now, I have attached a copy of the 2016-17 work programme, which was agreed at our meeting on 28 September, to the printed version of this statement. It will also be published on the relevant departmental websites following this statement.
I also wish to provide Members with an update on the joint agency task force. The fight against organised crime in Northern Ireland is continuing, and, as I reported in September, the joint agency task force, instituted under the Fresh Start Agreement, has advanced our cross-border operational response. The task force has carried out joint operations on rural crime; child sexual exploitation; excise fraud; drug-related criminality; and human trafficking. A report received at the IGA meeting noted that rural crime has remained an ongoing priority, with further operational work planned in the border areas. Human trafficking remains a concern in both jurisdictions, and a number of cross-border investigations remain active, with potential victims having been identified. Excise fraud, including fuel and tobacco-related crime, continues to be a major concern. However, as I have previously advised the Assembly, the new fuel marker appears to have led to a significant decrease in fuel laundering.
Other priority areas for the task force during its early months of operation have included child sexual exploitation, financial crime, and illicit drugs. A strategic review of its priority areas, along with additional learning, will form the basis for operational planning. The Tánaiste and I will take receipt of the formal six-month update from the joint agency task force at our next ministerial IGA meeting in November, and I look forward to reporting further successes of the task force to the Assembly.
It is also clear that problem-solving justice is an area of mutual interest across our jurisdictions and where we could learn from each other. We have tasked our officials with liaising and ensuring that learning is shared from our respective initiatives as they develop.
At the previous IGA meeting, Frances Fitzgerald and I commissioned exploratory work to allow better understanding of the key justice issues that are likely to be affected by the UK's withdrawal from the European Union. I am committed to working closely with the Tánaiste on that issue and to building on our close working relationship as the picture on the UK and EU negotiating position becomes clearer. Our common strategic goal is to achieve the best possible outcomes following the UK's withdrawal from the EU in a way that promotes peace, stability and prosperity on the island of Ireland. Now that the Prime Minister has confirmed that article 50 will be triggered by the end of March 2017, our next IGA meeting at the end of November will provide us with an appropriate opportunity to discuss the matter further.
As I have stated before, I am committed to maintaining and indeed strengthening our excellent criminal justice cooperation with Ireland. The successful cooperation between our respective law enforcement agencies and the excellent engagement between our other criminal justice agencies have undoubtedly been, and will continue to be, important drivers in maintaining peace on this island. Our ability to build on the success of this cooperation will ensure that our justice systems are better equipped to meet future challenges.
I thank the Justice Minister for her detailed statement. It is most welcome, as is the cross-border cooperation from policing to mental health. How does the National Crime Agency (NCA) build into that strategic intelligence sharing, particularly in the Executive's action plan for tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime?
I thank the Member for his question. The purpose of the IGA in itself is the cooperation between the two jurisdictions, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, on criminal justice outcomes. The NCA's approach is something that we will be looking at within the Fresh Start arrangements. The intergovernmental agreement with the Tánaiste is about cooperation between the two jurisdictions of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
I thank the Minister for her statement. She said that she discussed the ongoing collaborative work between the jurisdictions in a number of areas, including the management of offenders. She will know that sex crime and public protection arrangements is one of five key priorities for the Justice Committee. Will she outline how sex offenders and perpetrators, including those involved in domestic violence and abuse, are monitored on a cross-jurisdictional basis? Does she agree that this is an area that causes a lot of concern? Is further work being undertaken to improve, amongst other things, information sharing?
I thank the Member for his question. The cross-border cooperation that exists between the PSNI and an Garda Síochána is important in tackling a number of crimes, including sex crimes and sexual exploitation. Indeed, the information sharing that happens between the two agencies, North and South, has provided some successful outcomes in tackling that. Again, the joint agency task force is something that was agreed under the Fresh Start Agreement, and it is very much at the beginning of its work. That cooperation is something that has continued for a long time, and it is about strengthening that knowledge so that we can better tackle these types of crimes. Those crimes affect both sides of the border, and I know that the PSNI is keen to strengthen those relationships.
I thank the Minister for her statement to the House. Given the massive cuts to the justice budget in the Twenty-six Counties, the many closures of rural garda stations and the Chief Constable's concerns about Brexit and the impact that it could have on local policing, has she had a conversation with her counterpart about ensuring that effective policing structures are in place along the border to protect people who are in fear of crime and those who have been the victims of crime?
I thank the Member for her question. The IGA provides the opportunity to have a number of conversations with my counterpart the Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, on these particular issues. The programme delivery groups will look at these areas throughout the year and come back to us. Crime in border areas — agri-crime and crime that happens in rural areas — is something that we are keen to focus on. Indeed, there was a strategy in place that would have followed through to this month. It is deemed appropriate that we continue that work because there continues to be a prevalence of rural crime in the border areas. I want to give an assurance that it is something that we are very mindful of. The opportunity that the border provides for criminals is something that we are also quite mindful of. It will form part of our ongoing discussions, and it is something that we have regular conversations about.
I welcome the report and, in particular, the appendix that outlines the work programme for 2016-17, which gives an indication of what can be done if there is the political will, North and South, for North/South cooperation.
The Minister referred to Fresh Start, the threat of organised crime and the most recent risk assessment of criminal activity on the island. If, arising from Fresh Start, there were a request from the PSNI for dedicated resources to deal with those who hold historical criminal assets — that has a real and harmful impact upon the community, North and South — would she back the PSNI in a bid for extra people and resource to go after them?
I thank the Member for his question. I have conversations day-to-day with the PSNI about the resources that they need and how I can better provide them so that they can be effective in their job. If the Chief Constable wants to have a conversation with me and see how we can move forward in the areas that the Member mentioned, I am quite happy to have those conversations.
I thank the Minister for her very detailed report. Unfortunately, there are only three lines in it on problem-solving justice. Will she expand on what is in the report on that area? Will she reference the cooperation between the probation services, North and South, and the input that they might have into problem-solving justice?
I thank the Member for his question. Problem-solving justice will be a key thread that runs throughout Department of Justice work in the next five years. It is quite a critical piece of work, certainly from the perspective that it would be much better if we took a more common-sense approach to dealing with criminal issues, in a way that better facilitates victims and our courts process. The outworkings of that would be a lot savings, from a financial perspective and also in time.
There are so many great opportunities with problem-solving justice, and the Republic of Ireland has a similar mindset. At this stage, we are feeling our way through those opportunities. In my meeting with the Tánaiste, she was quite keen to hear how the work that we are doing here in Northern Ireland develops and how we can better share practices, because they are keen to take a similar approach.
As the work progresses, I am quite keen to update the House on it and see how we can share best practice.
My apologies for not being in the Chamber for the beginning of the statement. I thank the Minister for what I have heard of it so far.
The Minister will be aware that the most recent Prisoner Ombudsman reports relate to a death in custody and a very serious case of self-harming. What can be done in cooperation with the Republic to ensure that the mental health issues experienced by prisoners in particular are being properly addressed? Also, given that we are obviously dealing with a workplace that is very traumatic daily, what help can be given to prison staff over and above the normal six Carecall sessions provided by the Civil Service?
I thank the Member for her question. This is not the first time that we have addressed mental health issues in prisons. We have done so from the perspective of prison officers and prisoners. The Tánaiste was quite keen to raise the issue from her perspective of prisons in the Republic of Ireland. It is no great secret that mental health has a big impact on our criminal justice system. We should be looking at how we can better support prisoners, and prison officers in their jobs, so that we can have the best outcomes, which are safer communities.
In the intergovernmental agreement, we instructed our officials to move forward on considering the mental health issues that we are finding within prisons to see how we can better facilitate them. That will require a lot of cross-cooperation with my Executive colleague in the Department of Health and her counterpart in the Executive in the South.
At this stage, we are very much beginning to recognise the problem of mental health right across Northern Ireland but, particularly, in prisons. The narrative around it has been positive in the sense that perhaps this is the way of finally addressing it. I am quite keen to see what the best approaches are moving forward. That cross-cooperation, North and South, is a great way to learn from one another and see how we can both put in place best practice on this island.
Go raibh maith agat agus mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas chuimsitheach seo. Thank you, Minister. Last year, the UN Economic and Social Council noted that domestic violence is pervasive in Ireland, North and South. In the absence of consolidated legislation in both jurisdictions and given the similarity of domestic violence patterns, North and South — in fact, it is estimated that up to 70,000 women in the Twenty-six Counties are the subject of domestic violence, and you are very familiar with our patterns of crime here in the North — will you give us an update on any discussions that you have had with the Minister of Justice and Tánaiste in the Twenty-six Counties in relation to addressing the gaps in legislation, North and South?
I am more than happy to answer the question, Mr Speaker. The Member has rightly identified one of the biggest issues that we face in the criminal justice system and in wider society. Indeed, at our second meeting, the Tánaiste and I had a discussion around the impact of domestic and sexual violence and abuse across Northern Ireland, and she was keen to know that this is one of my overarching priorities in the next five years and how we address it in the North.
As the Member so rightly put it, it is estimated that there are up to 70,000 victims across the North and South of Ireland. Those are only the ones that we know about. In Northern Ireland, it is around 28,000. To me, it is probably one of the worst types of crime because it does not discriminate. It happens to both genders, all races, all backgrounds and all religions. We need to tackle it by trying to get to the root cause. It is not just about tackling domestic violence in itself; it is about the wider societal impacts that occur when we effectively address it. That, for me, from a justice perspective, is how many people we are finding in the criminal justice system who have had some association with or direct impact from domestic and sexual violence and abuse.
The Tánaiste and I are really keen to work together on this particular issue. There will be certain areas of work that she will be involved in that Northern Ireland can learn from. Equally, as I mentioned last week in the local press, I am committed to addressing that, even from a legislative perspective. The Republic of Ireland will be keen to see how that plays out here, so that they can see if they can implement something similar in their policy.
I thank the Member for his question. Yes, indeed. The pilot scheme that has been run in Derry Magistrates' Court around the special listing arrangements for domestic violence has been very positive. To fully realise the wider impacts of that type of court, we are enhancing those arrangements to see if it is something that we can roll out across Northern Ireland. The very essence of the problem-solving justice court is that it better supports victims in this instance so that they will perhaps attend court and give evidence that might eventually lead to a conviction of the perpetrator.
We are also potentially looking at a potential perpetrator programme. One of the biggest challenges in tackling domestic abuse is the reluctance of victims to come forward because it might lead to a prosecution of the perpetrator. We are trying to see how we can best satisfy the victim. From my perspective, the victim of domestic abuse has to be front and centre. The Tánaiste was quite keen to hear about the work that we are doing in Derry and how we will roll that out across Northern Ireland if, indeed, that is deemed to be the most appropriate thing to do.
To come back to your original point, problem-solving justice is a really positive way of looking at our criminal justice system, first and foremost for the public service that it provides and also for the savings in time and money that we will realise through it.
I thank the Minister for her statement. In it, the Minister highlighted that financial crime is one of the issues for priority action by the joint agency task force. There has been significant concern regarding the NAMA allegations that have come to light, whether it be the £40,000 cash highlighted in the BBC 'Spotlight' programme or, indeed, the £6 million in an offshore account. Were there any discussions about this very significant case, which has potential implications in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? Were there any requests for changes or cooperation —
As I am sure the Member knows, the NAMA issue is the subject of an ongoing investigation, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment. However, he raises the issue of financial crime, which I am quite happy to comment on.
From a cross-border perspective, financial crime is damaging to businesses north and south of the border. There is a focus from the PSNI and an Garda Síochána to see how they can better tackle it. I actually visited the cybercrime unit within the PSNI this morning. This is an issue that is perhaps under-reported, and the impact it is having on businesses north and south of the border is worrying. There is a keen focus on it and an opportunity to tackle it in some way, but we need to get on the front foot with it, as criminals tend to be quite far ahead in their approach to cybercrime.
It is important that we maintain the discussion, particularly with the various stakeholders. Businesses are quite reluctant to come forward because of the reputational issues in these types of crimes. The Assembly and the Dáil in the South can see how we can better support businesses so that they are confident in coming forward. Financial crime in all its varying degrees will have an impact on our wider economy as much as on individual businesses. I think it is something we need to have a keen focus on, and the Tánaiste and I are quite happy to provide that focus.
I thank the Minister for her statement. In it, she said:
"Human trafficking remains a concern in both jurisdictions."
I am aware that new legislation is at a fairly advanced stage in the Dublin regime. Were there any discussions on this new legislation? How supportive is an Garda Síochána of it?
I thank the Member for his question. The Member will know more than anyone in the House about the impact of human trafficking north and south of the border. In Northern Ireland, we have had a keen focus on it, and we are happy to share that information with our counterparts in an Garda Síochána. Human trafficking seems to be on the increase. I have been told that, in 2015-16, we had 59 potential victims of human trafficking recovered in Northern Ireland, which was an increase on the 46 we saw in the previous year. There is a lot of conversation between both jurisdictions, because the border provides an opportunity for those people who are trafficking victims north and south of it. We need to better understand this so that we can approach it in the right way for the victims.
A lot of the crimes I talked about in the statement — financial crime, cybercrime and particularly human trafficking — are a means to an end a lot of the time. Once we capture one sort of criminal conviction, it leads to others, and in a lot of cases, it is in human trafficking. It is something that we need to be mindful of, and the joint agency task force with an Garda Síochána, the PSNI and the other agencies is a mechanism to allow that. It all leads to one bigger picture, and it will not be treated in itself. It is important that the joint agency task force has a number of areas that connect with one another.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I note that, on the topic of Brexit, you and your counterpart have commissioned exploratory work on the key justice issues. Can you provide us with some detail on this now? Will you also lodge in the Library the details of the explanatory work that is being done? Can you also explain what is going on between the PSNI and the gardaí in respect of Brexit issues?
I thank the Member for his question. Brexit will have a huge impact when it happens next year. Indeed, my Department, along with its counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, is keen to better understand the justice implications of the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the EU. It is important to remember that the Republic of Ireland did not have a say in the UK referendum, but the impact of Brexit will certainly affect it. That is why I think there is an opportunity, through my formal arrangement with the Tánaiste in the Republic of Ireland and through the intergovernmental agreement, to have a close working relationship and to better understand those implications. For example, we want to ensure that the common travel area continues to operate in a way that promotes peace, stability and prosperity right across the island and that the border is not altered in any way. That would cause unnecessary barriers from an economic, social and human perspective.
It is something that is ongoing. The Prime Minister's statement that she will trigger article 50 at the end of March next year provides a very keen focus. Indeed, at our first meeting in July, at the meeting in September and at the meeting that we will have in November, this is at the forefront. There are a lot of practical implications of Brexit, particularly around the criminal justice space, and we want to ensure that we can maintain some, if not all, of those so that we will not have any difficulties when article 50 is triggered.
I thank the Minister for her statement and for the publication of the programme for work. To follow up on Mr McPhillips's point, the statement referred to exploratory work to be commissioned between the two Departments on the issues affecting the justice system in the event of the UK leaving the EU. Will the Minister give a firm commitment to publish that research? Will she also give a commitment to publish any research that has already been commissioned in her Department and make that fully available, particularly on the dangers of losing the European arrest warrant that was so nearly lost two years ago? On that topic, can she give us some information on the item highlighted under the public protection project advisory group and what opportunities she thinks there now are to explore European Union funding?
I thank the Member for his question. The implications of Brexit are wide-ranging. This will not be an easy transition and, certainly from a Justice Department perspective, there are a number of mechanisms that we are quite keen to ensure we hold on to, including, as the Member mentioned, the European arrest warrant. I will give a very basic outline of what that is. It is based on the principle of mutual recognition of judicial decisions, which simplifies the administrative system and reduces the capacity for delay. That is an important mechanism. The Member rightly points out that that was nearly lost a couple of years ago in one of the pre-Lisbon treaties. The UK Government decided to opt out of a number of measures, including the European arrest warrant, but very quickly realised that they had to opt back in.
We need to put our best foot forward on Brexit. Indeed, my Department was looking at the potential implications even before the outcome of the referendum was realised. Any of the work that we are doing is a matter of progress and, in order to put the best foot forward, we will do what we have to, including me maintaining the strong relationship that I have with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland — and, indeed, the east-west connection. I have had a number of meetings with the Secretary of State and officials in the new Brexit Department of the UK Government. It is something that we are all working towards, and I do not think that anyone could accuse us of not having a focus on it. Perhaps they are not aware of that detail but, from my perspective, I am keen to see how we can put Northern Ireland at the heart of all this and put our best foot forward.
I thank the Minister for her statement. In it, she referred to the issue of mental healthcare in prisons and the work that she is doing with the Minister of Health in the North and the Minister for Justice in the South. Will she outline the shape of the discussions that she is having with the NIO in relation to provisions for those with mental health trauma arising from the conflict as part of current legacy meetings? Is she having a similar discussion with the Minister for Justice in the South, given that there are people in Ireland, North and South, who are victims and survivors of the conflict?
I thank the Member for his question. Yes, indeed, there has been a focus from me and the Tánaiste on the mental health issues that we have in the criminal justice system. Indeed, it seems that a lot of those who come into the criminal justice system have had some sort of trauma in their lives, which has led either to an addiction or a mental health issue. The way to tackle that is to strip it right back almost as a preventative measure so that we find fewer people coming into the criminal justice system. I almost want to make myself redundant, in that if we were to tackle mental health issues earlier in life, even in other areas such as domestic violence that I have talked a lot about in the past week, it will stop people coming into the criminal justice system and, unfortunately, into custody. I am glad to say that my colleague on the Northern Ireland Executive, the Minister of Health, recognises the issues with mental health in prisons. As I have reiterated to Members time and again, it is not just prisoners but prison officers.
One of my biggest realisations since becoming Minister is that there is a legacy of mental health throughout Northern Ireland because of the impact of the Troubles. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were quite a significant thing, and I think that we are starting to see the outworkings of that now, particularly in people who find themselves at retirement age and perhaps having more time to think about those issues. We have to have quite a holistic approach. It will not be just the Minister of Health and I who will do that; there will be a focus right across the Executive and, indeed, the Assembly, and I appreciate the debate that we are having on the issue.
The Tánaiste, who is also my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, also recognises that issue. It might not necessarily be from a legacy perspective — mental health issues come from a number of perspectives — but we recognise that mental health is an issue in our prisons and something that we are all keen to address.
In the aftermath of the Máiría Cahill case, Frances Fitzgerald said that she was minded to establish a cross-border inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse by members of the IRA. At the time, your predecessor said that the time was not right because the Keir Starmer review was under way. That has long since finished. Has the Minister ever discussed that issue with her counterpart or has it simply been swept under the carpet?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For the information of the House, the previous ruling from the Speaker was that, if a person was not present at the start and for all of a Minister's statement, they would go to the back of the queue in terms of asking questions. Will you indicate if that previous ruling has been revoked?