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Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill: Legislative Consent Motion

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 23rd June 2020.

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Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 4:15 pm, 23rd June 2020

I beg to move

That this Assembly agrees the extension to Northern Ireland of certain provisions within the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill, relating to the interference with unmanned aircraft (drones) over places of detention.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on this debate.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and congratulations on your temporary appointment to your new role.

The Bill was originally introduced to Parliament in autumn 2019 but fell prior to the general election. It was subsequently reintroduced in January 2020. The Bill started its parliamentary passage in the House of Lords and is at Report Stage. It covers three aspects of civil aviation, which, as Members know, is a reserved matter under our devolution settlement. These aspects are the modernisation of civil aviation to deliver quicker, cleaner and quieter flights; the modernisation of the licensing framework for air traffic control; and the conferring of new powers that will allow the police and prison authorities across the UK to tackle the unlawful use of unmanned aircraft.

The provisions relevant to the legislative consent motion (LCM) are contained in the last of those three. The Bill plans to allow the designation of senior officials in the Ministry of Justice, the Scottish Prison Service and my Department, who, in turn, will be able to able to authorise applications from staff in their custodial institutions to interfere with unmanned aircraft over such institutions.

While essentially a reserved matter and one overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority, the fact that the Bill will confer an ancillary new power on the Department of Justice has led the Department for Transport and the Northern Ireland Office legal advisers to conclude that an LCM is required to cover that particular and narrow aspect. I understand that the Department for Transport has taken a similar view in relation to Scotland. The authorisations may only be given if the authorising officer believes that it is to prevent or detect offences, as set out in the various UK prison Acts, including the Prison Act (Northern Ireland) 1953. Those offences are referenced directly in the Bill and include assisting an escape or conveying unauthorised articles into a place of detention.

Currently such applications have to be approved by a Chief Constable. However, the UK Government have taken the view that allowing these authorisation requests to be dealt with by senior departmental officials will allow a custodial institution in the country to take rapid action against real-time drone incidents, rather than making urgent, repetitive and recurring applications to senior police officers, responses to which have sometimes been delayed in England and Wales due to other policing pressures.

The part of the Bill covering the use of unmanned aircraft is considered necessary because of a number of factors, including the shutting of Gatwick Airport in December 2018 due to drone activity, and numerous incidents in and around prisons across England, Wales and Scotland, where unmanned aircraft have been used to convey items such as drugs, weapons and mobile phones. I also note that prisons in the Republic of Ireland have reported a recent rise in similar problems.

The importation of such items place prisoners and staff at risk, impact on the good order and security of establishments and, in turn, undermine the rehabilitation of people in our care. It is also possible that drones many be used in the future to facilitate an escape, posing a direct threat to public safety and prison security.

To date, there have been no reported incidents of drone use in Northern Ireland in the vicinity of our custodial institutions. However, I am keen to take the opportunity that the Bill is presenting to future-proof us against a rise in such activity for criminal purposes, and, in doing so, give my senior managers and their staff the same opportunity and ability as their counterparts in the rest of the UK to act quickly and in real time against drones.

Members will appreciate that we are somewhat out of step with the normal process. Generally, Executive and Justice Committee approval should have been in place prior to the Bill being introduced in Parliament. In this case my Department was unable to follow that convention as the Assembly was not sitting at that time. However, my permanent secretary's agreement in principle was obtained. On the return of the Assembly, officials sought my views. I subsequently wrote to the Chair of the Justice Committee at the earliest opportunity and I also sought approval from the Executive. That was granted on 2 March. At its meeting on 14 May, the Justice Committee considered extending those provisions to Northern Ireland, and gave formal approval on 28 May.

Given the fact that the Bill, in its entirety, relates to reserved matters, it would not have been possible to legislate locally on the matter. Westminster colleagues are keen to have the request considered at the earliest opportunity. I am therefore keen to seek legislative consent today but I am, of course, willing to hear the views of the Assembly.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

I call the Chairperson of the Justice Committee, Mr Paul Givan.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Thank you, Mr Temporary Speaker. I see that you are in your place, and I see that the other Temporary Speaker is in the Chamber. I am not sure when we are going to get the privilege of Mr Wells admonishing Members for bad behaviour, but I look forward to him getting his opportunity.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

As quickly as possible.


Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

When I read the Speaker's letter, I could see that the club of '98 was a very exclusive club. There are not many of them left, but I am sure that Mr Wells will discharge the duties of the office —

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

A vintage intake.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

— with great aplomb. I look forward to seeing him in the Chair, but that is no reflection on you, Mr Temporary Speaker.

I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Committee for Justice in today's debate. As the Minister said, the Department of Justice wrote to the Committee in March to advise of a proposed legislative consent motion for the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill. The Bill aims to tackle the fast-growing problems that are associated with unmanned aircraft, which are more commonly known as drones. Members will recall the problems that were caused by drone activity around Gatwick Airport in December 2018. Drones have also been used around prisons in England, Wales and Scotland to convey drugs, mobile phones, weapons and equipment to facilitate the escape of prisoners.

The Bill extends across the United Kingdom, and, as civil aviation is a reserved matter, legislative consent is not required in respect of many of its provisions. However, the LCM that we are discussing is necessary to enable senior Northern Ireland Prison Service and Youth Justice Agency staff to authorise counter-drone measures in relation to the unlawful use of drones near custodial institutions. The Department of Justice advised the Committee that the use of drones that has been seen across other parts of the United Kingdom around places of detention has, to date, been rare in this jurisdiction. Nonetheless, the Bill provides an opportunity to future-proof against a potential rise in that type of drone activity.

Mr Temporary Speaker, the Committee considered the Department of Justice's written briefing, at its meeting on 14 May, and agreed that it was not necessary to have an oral briefing or, indeed, further written information on the proposed LCM. At its meeting on 28 May, the Committee considered the memorandum laid by the Department of Justice on 22 May and agreed that it was content with the proposal to extend provision in the Air Traffic and Unmanned Aircraft Bill relating to the interference with drones over places of detention to Northern Ireland by way of an LCM. While content with the legislative consent motion, the Committee requested clarification from the Department on whether drones, or the institutions to which the LCM will apply, are required to be registered, and the process for that. The Committee agreed that requesting that information should not delay the progress of the LCM, and, on 4 June, it approved the report on its consideration of the LCM.

Subsequently, on 17 June, the Department wrote to the Committee and advised that, from 30 November 2018, all drones operating across the United Kingdom with a mass of 250 grams or more must have a valid certificate of registration, and that the registration number must be displayed on the aircraft. The remote pilot must also have a valid acknowledgement of competency. The certificates of registration and the acknowledgements of competency are issued by the Civil Aviation Authority. The Department also advised that, in Northern Ireland, the provisions of the Bill relating to the interference with unmanned aircraft apply to a prison, a young offenders’ centre, a remand centre and a juvenile justice centre, along with areas adjoining the boundaries of those institutions that are considered necessary and appropriate by the authorising officer.

I can confirm, as set out in the Committee report, that the Committee for Justice supports the Minister of Justice in seeking the Assembly’s endorsement of the legislative consent motion.

I will now speak briefly as a Member and not comment anymore on the substance of the report provided by the Committee. Unmanned aircraft, or drones, as the public more commonly refers to them, are a new and emerging issue. It is an issue, which, I have no doubt, the Assembly will want to consider in the future.

There is, certainly, anecdotal evidence of public concern about the use of drones. On a daily exercise walk with my family around Stoneyford reservoir, a drone flew overhead. I did not know by whom or from where it was being controlled, for what purposes and whether or where any imagery might appear. That personal experience made me consider the issues of privacy, control and monitoring of drones as they become a fashionable toy to buy and use.

Having looked at this issue in terms of custodial institutions, there is a broader public interest when it comes to the use of drones and how that is being regulated and managed. That is not for today but is a novel issue that we are going to have to look at.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin 4:30 pm, 23rd June 2020

Mr Temporary Speaker, I join the Committee Chair in congratulating you on your appointment, and wish you the very best.

I am not going to repeat what has been said. There really is a limit to what can be said about this legislative consent motion. Our party supports it, the Committee supports it, and I think that it is non-controversial. However, it may well become controversial. The Chair is right in that there are privacy issues. I would like to think that the rules that apply if someone takes your photograph in the street would apply to where drones can be used. We will, no doubt, have to look at that. The Minister was right to bring this matter before the House to have future-proofed legislation.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will not add to the Committee report, which has been thorough, or the Minister's statement. It is about future-proofing. The SDLP supports the Minister on this issue. This legislative consent motion is important, and, potentially, is a first step in a much wider debate.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

There has been little opportunity to scrutinise the LCM or the legislation in the Chamber, especially for opposition MLAs.

In the main, the legislation relates to bestowing extra powers to allow the security services to use air traffic control to combat drug use, particularly by restricting the flying of drones over prisons. Even if the LCM is implemented, it is highly unlikely that it will thwart or combat drug use in society, and, by extension, in prisons. The US has been fighting a so-called war on drugs for many years, with much vigour, through strengthening police powers and increasingly criminalising drug use. It is, clearly, not winning that war. Quite the opposite, in fact: it is losing it. That tells us a lot about how we challenge many of the problems that come with drug use.

No one doubts the problems that do come with drug use, and its damaging impact on society generally and in prisons in particular. A very different approach is needed: an approach that prioritises tackling poverty and the conditions that breed small-scale criminality and drug use and places rehabilitation programmes ahead of strengthening the police and security operations. That may be a conversation for another day.

The Department recognises that drones flying over prisons has not really been an issue in the North. The Department's report for the Justice Committee states:

"The use of drones in Northern Ireland around places of detention has, to date, been rare."

Therefore, the legislation suggests a potential strengthening of police powers without any real evidence that it is needed. I would like the Minister to address and expand upon that point.

Any strengthening of police powers always runs the risk of intensifying the existing problems of policing. For example, I note that the same report, while vague, states that its intention is to introduce powers of stop-and-search. As an MLA for West Belfast, where stop-and-search powers have been used and abused in the past, I believe that they constitute a harmful and unnecessary impingement on the rights of people, including children and minors.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I will not give way. I am finishing my comments.

Considering the problematic history of stop-and-search as used —

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

You are pedalling falsehoods but you will not give way.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

You have plenty time to speak if you want.

I do not believe that any form of additional or strengthened stop-and-search powers could be justified in the current context, especially as the report suggests, which I want to put on the record, that no perceived threat exists. It is my duty in this discussion to state my concern about how stop-and-search powers have been used in this city in the past. I urge the Minister to consider that and to work to ensure that such a situation does not arise in the future.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

If no other Members wish to speak, I ask the Minister, Mrs Naomi Long, to conclude and wind up on the debate.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Thank you, Mr Temporary Speaker. I thank Members for considering the motion and for all the valuable contributions to the debate. I place on record my thanks to the Justice Committee for the work that it has done in its report and to Executive colleagues for their consideration of the issues presented in the LCM. The Chair of the Committee expressed clearly the work that was done in scrutinising the extent of the Bill and the need for the LCM.

It is drug use and rehabilitation within our prisons that we are addressing today as opposed to the wider issue, which would be a matter for me, the Department of Health and others to work on collaboratively. We do not take a single-pronged approach to the issue within our prison system. It is not simply about preventing drugs entering the prisons, though that is a serious part of the strategy. It is also about ensuring that the right support, rehabilitation and interventions are available in our prisons in order to support those who are seeking to stop and deal with their addictions and learn alternative ways to manage their health issues. It is important to stress that because, for me, it is important that those who come out of the prison system do so equipped to survive and thrive in normal society. A big part of that is dealing with addictions, mental health issues and other issues that had perhaps not been dealt with adequately before they entered the prison system.

With respect to why we are bringing forward this legislation, first, we should not assume that Northern Ireland is in some way immune to the problems that are being reported elsewhere. We have seen a rapid increase in the number of drone incidents across England and Wales. We have also seen an increase in Scotland and this kind of activity now developing in prisons in the South of Ireland. It is sensible for the Assembly and the Government to ensure that the powers are there if this becomes an issue in our prisons. I caveat that by saying that, obviously, if nobody flies drones over prisons, these powers will not be required; they are only for use in those specific circumstances. However, if this becomes an issue, it is important that we can respond in a way that keeps the prisoners safe, keeps our prison officers safe and maintains good order within the prisons.

To be clear, we are not strengthening police powers in the Bill. These powers belong to the Civil Aviation Authority. It is already the power of the police to be able to say that those drones can be intercepted. The issue here is that doing so can take some time and, by then, it may be too late to intercept the drone in question. What we are actually doing is taking powers from the police and devolving them to those institutions where they will make the most impact. I do not think that we need to overly concern ourselves with police powers. This is about local action to protect prisoners, protect prison staff and ensure that people are kept safe when they are in our care. I, therefore, ask the House again to support the passing of this motion.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly agrees the extension to Northern Ireland of certain provisions within the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill, relating to the interference with unmanned aircraft (drones) over places of detention.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

On a point of order, Mr Temporary Speaker. I thank the Minister for clarifying the issue in relation to police powers. We will be checking the Hansard report of the Member for West Belfast's inaccurate comments on the issue of stop-and-search. That is not relevant to this debate. I want to place on the record that independent scrutiny of that issue is not consistent with the Member's comments.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

That has been placed on the record.