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Drug Misuse: South Belfast

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 17th January 2017.

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Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 17th January 2017

4. Ms Hanna asked the Minister of Justice what she is doing to address drug misuse in South Belfast. (AQO 921/16-21)

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I acknowledge that the misuse of drugs can, and does, impact on individuals and the wider community, not least in the Member’s constituency as reflected in recent media reports. Yesterday’s debate on alcohol-related crime also highlighted the challenges that substance misuse creates in society and the work that my Department and partners are carrying out to reduce the harm caused. Operations to tackle drug misuse are led by the PSNI through the delivery of the policing plan. The PSNI regularly runs high profile operations targeted at street-level drug dealing. Dealing effectively with drug-related offences remains a policing priority for the PSNI in South Belfast.

At strategic level, responding to the range of potential harms caused by substance misuse is a key focus of the Executive’s New Strategic Direction for Alcohol and Drugs. It is Northern Ireland’s framework for reducing substance-related harm. Whilst the Department of Health leads on delivery, my Department has been and will remain a key contributor to that work. In addition, a task force meets to share information and intelligence on drug activity across Northern Ireland. At constituency level, the local policing and community safety partnership works to raise awareness of the associated impacts of such misuse, including through wider initiatives such as the Drug Dealers Don’t Care — Do You? campaign that was supported by Crimestoppers. PCSPs work very closely with the Public Health Agency to address drug misuse on an ongoing basis and will continue to concentrate their efforts on tackling the issues identified in the local community.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her answer. Some Members might be aware of a persistent supply of drugs problem in the Lagan Meadows area in Stranmillis, which it is understood might have been displaced from another park. This is a well-used beauty spot, but drug-related paraphernalia and the appearance of crime are putting people off. Young people have been gathering there for a different purpose in recent months, and this presents a real danger to them. Are you satisfied with the conviction rate of those involved with the supply of drugs?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I do not think that we can ever be satisfied with the conviction rate of those who supply drugs. Throughout society, drug dealing and drug taking is a can of worms that it would be very difficult to put the lid on. That is not to say that we should not be doing anything about it. Indeed, I have every confidence that the PSNI is tackling it to the best of its abilities. Again, while I am loath to say it at this stage, this requires a cross-departmental approach. This is not just an issue for Justice. It is an issue for Health, it is an issue for Education, it is an issue that permeates all sections of our society.

I remember, when times were better, having conversations with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about how, if we, as an Executive, were to tackle one issue, we need to tackle drug dealing on our streets because it creates bigger problems in society that are affecting us. I think even of the work that we were doing around tackling paramilitarism and criminality. Drugs are a big problem there. What really frustrates me is the path that they are leading our young people down. If young people are choosing to take that path, it obviously means that they feel that other paths are not available to them. Other Departments need to play a role in giving them the future that they deserve.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I place on record my praise for the PSNI for its sterling efforts to remove drugs and those who are dealing them from our streets. What engagements has the Minister had with the PSNI to ensure that all available resources are in the police's hands to continue to remove drugs and bring these criminals before our courts?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I reiterate Mr Allen's comments about the PSNI. Having had the experience of being Justice Minister for the past eight months, I want to pay tribute to the PSNI because it works very extensively on the front line to keep our communities safe. I do all that I can to ensure that the police have a sufficient budget, but I do so in the context of my departmental budget. The police receive a significant amount of my departmental budget, which constrains other parts of the justice system.

As I mentioned, a holistic look needs to be taken at the justice system. That begins with the PSNI making the arrests and finding the evidence but also goes right through to the courts system. I think that we need to be realistic about that. Operationally, the police deal with their own budget, and I have regular conversations with the Chief Constable to facilitate how I can help in that. It is not just about giving the police money. It is about ensuring that the police are freed up in other ways so that they can do the job. Perhaps those resources could go to those areas. It has to be a holistic approach if we are realistic about tackling the justice system, which the police are a huge part of.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 3:00 pm, 17th January 2017

Before I ask my question, I thank the Justice Minister for the job that she has done over the last eight months. It has been quite a lonely place down there on your own without a party behind you, and you have acquitted yourself very well in the job. You will probably not want that to appear on a leaflet somewhere. It would probably cost you votes, but anyway.

Will the Minister agree with me that it is important that society sends out a message that drug dealing will not be tolerated and that, if we are exercising these powers again after the election, we should look at the introduction of minimum sentencing for those who are selling drugs, especially to teenagers?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his comments. If that is an invitation to join your party, no, I will be standing as an independent in the next Assembly election. I think that standing for any party would do me no good at this stage, but anyway.

Yes, as part of my sentencing review, we will certainly look at all the different areas in and around drugs. There has to be a zero-tolerance approach towards people who are selling drugs, because, as anyone who followed my campaign around tackling paramilitarism will have seen, it really does begin at a level where some people perhaps do not realise. Even buying counterfeit goods is creating a chain of events that could lead to drug dealing on our streets, and your children could be buying those drugs. That message needs to get home. It is not just about the Government trying to ensure their taxes so that they keep these institutions up. We need to have a real conversation about everybody's role in terms of drug dealing in Northern Ireland, but it definitely has to be a priority. When we move aside the political problems that this country has, we should be talking about the issues that really could change lives. For me, drugs is a really important issue. Further to any sort of election, I encourage all Members to put that at the forefront of their mind, because the scourge of that on our streets is really quite damaging.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

Does the Minister have any evidence of a spike, or certainly an increase, in drug-related crimes, particularly in the south Belfast area over the past lot of years?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I have none at hand, but I can certainly do that work for the Member. Drugs and alcohol, as was alluded to in the debate yesterday, are a big indicator of why people commit crime. Drugs in itself even fuels the drug taking. It is a vicious cycle. As I said, it is a big problem in society that permeates through all different areas, and we need to focus on it.