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Police Enforcement of Belfast Mass Gathering

Questions for Urgent Oral Answer — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 9th June 2020.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:00 pm, 9th June 2020

Paul Givan has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Justice. I remind Members that if they wish to ask a question, they should continue to indicate by rising in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically for a supplementary question

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Mr Givan asked the Minister of Justice for her assessment of the police enforcement powers related to the COVID-19 regulations, following the breach of regulation 6 in respect of the mass gathering that took place outside Belfast City Hall on 3 June 2020.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Before I answer the question, I want to preface my answer by setting out the context in which it has come about. I received very late notice of the question, through no fault of the questioner, who submitted it in good time, but because it was not passed to my officials by TEO last night as would normally be the case. By the time I was made aware of the question, at 12:20 pm today, it had already been accepted by the Speaker.

Under normal circumstances, I would not answer questions on operational matters in relation to policing in the Chamber. I am here as a courtesy to the Chair of the Justice Committee, who asked the question in good faith and in good time and, I believe, has a right to expect some answer, albeit, I would argue, not from me, and to the Assembly, because it would have been discourteous not to come when there was an expectation that an answer would be given. However, I want to put it on the record that no precedent should be taken from the fact that I am answering the question this afternoon.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 were made by the Health Department on 20 March in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health posed by coronavirus. Regulation 6 places restrictions on gatherings in a public place during the emergency period and provides the police with powers to take enforcement action where there has been a breach of the restrictions. Decisions on what enforcement action should be taken are a matter for the police, based on their operational assessment. Anyone who has complaints or concerns about operational policing decisions can have them addressed by contacting the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

With respect to the powers that are available, no further powers for enforcement have been requested by the PSNI in any exchanges with me. Furthermore, at this point in the coronavirus pandemic when we are relaxing the restrictions on a progressive but cautious basis, as we give people more freedom we will also be delegating to them more responsibility. As I have said before we should not, therefore, rely on enforcement for our future protection.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd has already said that regulation 5 is no longer being policed because there are so many exceptions to the rule that they are not enforcing it, unless there is a blatant disregard. Then, a mass gathering was facilitated by the Police Service on 3 June, with follow-up comments that it was proportionate. Any wonder there were, then, further protests on the Saturday in Londonderry and Belfast.

The credibility and integrity of regulations 5 and 6 have now been undermined as a result of the policing of the protests that have taken place and of police inaction. Does the Minister agree that the regulations that we are now asking the police to enforce are undermining the public's confidence in the police's position? Will she feed into the Executive the broad concern that exists that the regulations, by not being enforced and policed, have undermined the police's credibility, leaving the public to take decisions by exercising their own best judgement as the way forward in future?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his supplementary question but I do not accept his analysis of the policing of the situation. However, I reiterate that when it comes to issues that are about operational policing it is not for the House to question the Justice Minister. I am not the policing Minister; I am the Justice Minister, and it is not for Members to question me for my assessment of operational matters.

I have stated that, with respect to the powers that are available, no further powers have been requested. I am also not in a position to comment on what Alan Todd has or has not said in the public domain. However, Members can reach their own judgement about that.

I gently remind the Member, however, that many of the exceptions to which ACC Todd refers are those that were requested and, indeed, pre-emptively announced by his own colleague in Lagan Valley. Therefore, it would be fair to say that, having requested that people have more freedom to move, more freedom to travel and more exceptions to the reasons not to, it was always going to become more difficult for the police to enforce those regulations. If the Member chooses to liaise with his Executive colleagues, they will make him well aware that I raised those concerns at that time and that I have continued to raise them since.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Does the Minister agree that events and gatherings will arise that a multitude of sides in an argument may not agree with but that the key is this: we cannot expect the police to adopt one approach to a gathering or a funeral or to a procession that we disagree with and then to ignore another funeral, gathering or procession that we might have sympathy with? The key is that the police have to deal with this through a common approach and they have to be fair and transparent in what they are doing. It is not about who gathered — it is about the law being enforced impartially.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his point, and I think that it is an important one. It is important that the police are impartial. It is also important that they are seen to be impartial in their enforcement of the law. It is too easy at times to judge whether they acted in a proportionate and impartial manner based on partial information about situations, and I think that there is huge risk for all of us — there is a huge duty, effectively, on all of us to desist from doing that — in doing that because it can undermine the respect for the police.

With respect to how this is taken forward, I also agree that the police should have a consistent approach. They announced that there would be a four-stage approach; the four Es. They would first engage; then they would educate and explain; and they would then encourage. So, they would engage with people who were about to breach the regulations or who were breaching the regulations; they would explain why that was the case; they would then go forward and encourage people to move on; and the fourth E is that they would enforce. The final stage would be enforcement. It would not be the first option, but the final stage in recognition of the fact that these are health regulations and that, therefore, their role is a very delicate and sensitive one.

With respect to consistency, Members should also note that the Northern Ireland Policing Board has initiated a review of policing under the coronavirus regulations, led by its human rights adviser, to ensure that the police can give robust and clear feedback that would be useful should there be any further pandemic or a second wave.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for answering the question for urgent oral answer. I will ask her two questions, one specific and one broad. Can she shed some light on something that some groups have been concerned about, which is that there appears to have been — I do not know whether she will be able to give any clarification about this — a late change on Friday evening to the enforcement powers of regulation 6(a) in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020? That seems to have been tabled by the Executive at 5.00 pm to come into force at 11.00 pm. Can she confirm whether that is correct?

I agree with John O'Dowd about the consistency in application and that, with a protest going ahead the next day, that is perhaps not ideal for people having clarity about enforcement. Does she secondly agree that, while again I agree that we should all be following social-distancing rules — that is absolutely clear — it is very important that we have proportionate policing in terms of the fines and penalties that are given and that people are —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind Members that this in an opportunity to ask a question. Minister.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

— allowed lawful protest as much as purchasing garden furniture.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. With respect to the changes to the coronavirus regulations, let me be clear. The coronavirus regulations changes were announced, I think, about 10 to 15 days prior to the changes being laid on that Friday evening. They were a relaxation, so anyone who breached the regulations, as stated, on Friday night, would have breached them by more than had they breached them unamended. It went from a maximum gathering of two, to a maximum gathering of six. No one was disadvantaged by the fact that the regulations were laid.

It took the Health Minister and the Health Department slightly longer in laying the regulations than was anticipated. I think it may have taken around 10 days to lay the regulations to match the announcement that had already been made, but it was clear that that was the direction of travel. Members will appreciate that Ministers are amending legislation in very short time frames, but it needs to be accurate, clear and concise. Therefore, there was a delay while that was being achieved, but there was no disadvantage to those who opted to protest. Their position would have been illegal before and after the regulations were altered.

With respect to the need for proportionate policing, I agree. Policing should be proportionate, transparent and, moreover, be accountable. Anyone who believes that policing on this or any other occasion was none of those things, or not all of those things, has recourse to the Police Ombudsman. That is the route that they should take with their complaint.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Does the Minister agree with me that the basis of the question is wrong and that scrutiny and accountability for the operations of the police lie with the Northern Ireland Policing Board, on which Members are well represented and on which some of us are already raising these issues, as is on the public record?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank my colleague for that helpful question. It is, of course, correct that it is the Policing Board first and foremost that should hold the Chief Constable to account for his actions and for the choices that are made in operational policing and other matters. That is the right forum for such questioning to take place: not in the Assembly, where we do not control policing. The structures in policing were very clearly divided between Justice and policing at the time of devolution and I am not going to impinge either on the Chief Constable's independence when it comes to operational issues, or to trample roughshod over the responsibilities of the Policing Board to hold him to account.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I am sure that the Minister will join me in condemning the attacks on police officers right across the United Kingdom as a result of ongoing protests. In light of the despicable attacks on war memorials and other memorials across the United Kingdom, will the Minister give us an assurance that that type of activity will not be tolerated in Northern Ireland, for if it had not been for their sacrifice, none of us would have the right to protest in this country?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I have no reservations in condemning any form of violence or lawbreaking in our society.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

As a member of the Policing Board, I welcome the Minister's very firm reassurance that it is the Policing Board that holds the Chief Constable to account in his operational decisions, and we will continue to do so. Does the Minister agree that the police are between a rock and a hard place? She has already said that the interpretation of the regulations and the issue of the time delay means that there is a lack of clarity, and the police have made that comment on more than one occasion. Will the Minister provide an update?

About three weeks ago, I asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about the issue of the designation of other officers in the public sector regarding enforcement, for example traffic wardens and environmental health officers. The police simply cannot police the health regulations in relation to social distancing etc and do their other work

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for her question. She will be aware that I have raised the issue of further designation of other bodies. I believe that the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) was consulted and that councils can now enforce these regulations.

It is very clear that, as we move out of this pandemic, those responsible and appropriate to make the judgements about whether or not regulations are being enforced, and indeed whether good practice is being implemented, will fall way beyond the powers and the locus of policing matters. It is hugely important that we encourage those with the right expertise, in whatever field that might be, to be party to the enforcement and encouragement of people to keep within the guidance.

We should not lose sight of the reason for the regulations. It is to protect life; it is not to deprive people of liberty.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 2:15 pm, 9th June 2020

Does the Minister agree that draconian legislation that applies to every twist and turn of a person's life, even in their home, is impossible to police? It is impossible for the police to police and enforce that. In her answer to my colleague Mr Paul Givan, was the Minister suggesting to the House that she does not support the lifting of any of the restrictions to date?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I assure the Member that, if that was what I had wanted to say, I would have said it clearly and unequivocally and no one would have gone out of the Chamber in any doubt that that was the message that I was sending. It is not. What I am saying very clearly is that, with the change in the regulations and with increasing responsibility being delegated to individuals, it is unreasonable to expect, as you rightly stated, that the police could police people's back gardens, living rooms and all their daily activities. We rely largely on people's sense of responsibility and community and respect for their own life, the lives of their families and the lives of those around them. We will do that increasingly, and it is right that we should do so. Again, that is why I have encouraged the Executive to share more information about the very balanced decisions that we often have to take so that people are fully informed not just of what the regulations state and the guidance says but of why we are making the changes. That will mean that, when people reach a dilemma — we cannot prescribe for every situation — they can apply their common sense and good judgement in a way that does not breach the spirit of the regulations and the spirit of the guidance.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Minister concur with me that there certainly seems to be disproportionality and inconsistency in an approach that saw the issuing of 11 fines and community resolution notices in Belfast and 57 in Foyle, where attempts were made and adhered to by the vast majority of those in attendance to ensure social distancing and where masks, gloves and hand sanitiser were provided? Does the Minister share my view that it would not be in the public interest to pursue prosecutions?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Most of the issues that the Member has raised are not matters on which I am willing to comment. I cannot judge the policing operations in Belfast and Derry. I cannot compare the two. I was present at neither. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on whether the policing was proportionate, because I do not know in detail the actions that they took on the ground on that day, what advice was issued, what guidance was given to organisers or what response they were met with. It would be completely inappropriate for me to comment on what are operational matters.

If the Member has genuine concerns about proportionality, I am sure that his colleague will take it up on his behalf with the Policing Board, or he could refer them to the Police Ombudsman for consideration. However, to be clear, people who do not pay fines break the law. It is incumbent on me, as Justice Minister, to uphold the law. Therefore, I say that those who have been fined have 28 days to appeal the notice and, if they are unsuccessful in their appeal, should pay the fine, because that is the law. I have no scope for flexibility in that regard.

I want to be clear on the wider issue and on whether people used hand sanitiser, masks and social distancing: all of those are supplementary to the regulations as guidance. They are not a replacement for the regulations and do not absolve any of us of our responsibilities to obey the law.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

Does the Minister recognise the significant impact on the community of Northern Ireland of being denied the right to assemble at churches and at funerals, which I have raised previously in the House? Does she fully recognise the implications of that? Will she assure us that, in the future, the law will be applied equally to everyone in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I have previously answered the Member with respect to my recognition that not to be able to hold a funeral is a massive sacrifice for any family to make at this time. It is evidence of a sense of public responsibility and a sense of generosity on the part of those who have abided by the regulations.

These are sensitive issues, but there has been criticism on both sides of the argument. Some feel that the police have not policed harshly enough; others that they have policed too harshly. Perhaps, somewhere in the middle lies the truth.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind Members to rise in their place.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Minister for coming here today. I agree with other Members about consistency of approach but the question is about protests held last week and regulation 6. Notwithstanding that, would the Minister agree that we must respond to the cause of campaigners and do everything that we can to address systemic racism in our society?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I concur completely. I fully understand the strength of feeling that exists about what happened to George Floyd. It has been a powerful catalyst in reminding us all not just of our responsibilities internationally but, I would hope, of our responsibilities personally and individually when it comes to combating racism, both individual acts of racism and the wider and more systemic racism that exists in our society. It is important that people not only protest but take positive action to address those issues.

I am somebody to whom civil liberty matters a lot. I believe that people's right to protest is a fundamental part of living in a democratic society and that the right to peaceful protest is one that we should not give up easily. In the current circumstances, however, it is not appropriate for large numbers of people to gather. There are many ways that we can raise our voices in solidarity with the BAME community in Northern Ireland. I hope, going forward, that we will not only raise our voices but put our shoulder to the wheel and make a real difference.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

On the issue of proportionality, given that a headline demand of the Black Lives Matter movement is the de-funding of police, was it proportionate for the Minister to re-profile her Twitter page to extol Black Lives Matter, given that she has responsibility for funding the police? Likewise the Chief Constable, who used the hashtag.

Is she concerned that a sector of this community, namely the innocent victims, suffered great hurt from the spin-off of the events of the past weekend, when the Assembly Commission, in a duplicitous move, decided to light this Building for Black Lives Matter but refused to light this Building for innocent victims of terrorism? Does she share the concern for the hurt that that causes?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It is unfortunate that, when events of such seriousness and weight take place in other countries and highlight systemic issues that are, perhaps, not our own, we always have to return to trying to make this about ourselves. Perhaps, one of the first things that we could do about institutionalised racism in this place is to have an informed conversation about racism that is not automatically overlaid with our own prejudices around sectarianism. I say that gently to the Member in respect of his question.

With respect to Black Lives Matter, it is not just a movement; it is a slogan, a phrase that, I think, typifies the emotions that all of us feel. To be clear, all lives will not matter until black lives matter. While any of us are not equal, none of us is equal. It should not be an affront to anyone in the Chamber for the Justice Minister to say so.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I am deeply concerned about the PSNI's actions at the Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast and Derry on Saturday. People were fined, intimidated and threatened with prosecution for attending a socially distanced and peaceful anti-racism protest. While groups like Amnesty International were speaking out against police actions —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

May we have a question?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I appreciate that other Members had a bit of leeway.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

May we have a question, please?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

The Minister, only hours after the protest, stated that the PSNI response was proportionate. I wonder how the Minister can stand over that, given that, as she has indicated, she was not at any of the demonstrations. Did she speak to any BME groups? Did she even examine the police evidence on the day? My main question is whether —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

There are a number of questions there already.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Members have to learn that this is an opportunity —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. Members have to learn that this is an opportunity to ask the Minister a question. You have already asked a number of questions.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I think that what I said at the time was that I believed that, overall, the police had behaved in a proportionate way in enforcing the regulation. I have at no time said that individual decisions were proportionate, nor would it be right for me to do so. As I said to other Members in the Chamber who raised specific issues and concerns, the way to raise those is through the Police Ombudsman. That is not to diminish your concerns, but it is not appropriate for me to be held to account for operational matters for the Chief Constable. He is not accountable to me for operational matters. I neither give him direction nor seek to do so. There is a clear divide here, unlike in the United States, between policing and politics. I happen to believe that that is important and that it needs to be sustained by going through the correct channels when we have complaints and want accountability in policing. I hope that you will feed your concerns directly into the review of policing under the coronavirus regulations that is being undertaken by the Policing Board. It is important that everyone's experiences of this are heard, including those of the black and minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland.

The direct answer to your question is, "Yes". I did talk to black and minority ethnic people, including some who were at that protest. I understand that they were passionate about the issue. I understand that they wanted to make their voice heard. At any normal time, I would have been with them, but these are not normal times.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for coming before the House, although the more appropriate place for operational matters is the Policing Board, as she has outlined. In the Assembly and in the Chamber, we need to focus on the fact that the accountability mechanism for the PSNI is the Policing Board, and that is where it must be held to account, not through the Justice Minister in the Chamber or Assembly. Those accountability mechanisms are helpful —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Has the Member a question?

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

— and she has outlined why.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Member is, of course, correct that there are important structures that need to be respected. I also respect the fact that many people have made sacrifices, many of them voluntarily, by cancelling huge events that are important to them and by delaying protests and other things that they wished to hold. We know, for example, that the Pride organisers will not go ahead with their event in the current circumstance; the Orange Order has taken a very progressive stance in cancelling the large parades on 12 July; the St Patrick's Day events did not go ahead; and Easter Sunday commemorations in the republican community did not go ahead. Everyone has made a contribution. We need to focus on this: the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are abiding by the regulations and are doing so not out of fear of police action but because of the desire to defeat a virus that puts our health service under pressure and has the ability to rob them and their family of their lives. I commend them for what they do in voluntarily complying with the regulations.