Intergovernmental Agreement on Criminal Justice Cooperation

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 7th December 2020

I have received notice from the Minister of Justice that she wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of the social distancing being observed by the parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. They can do that by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise, please, in asking their questions. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order will not normally be taken during a statement or in the period for questions thereafter.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

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, which was held virtually on Friday 27 November 2020. This was my first such meeting with Helen McEntee TD, the Minister for Justice, at which I represented the Executive. I intend to continue the practice, which was introduced by former Justice Minister David Ford, of making periodic statements to keep the Assembly informed of meetings held under the auspices of the agreement.

The intergovernmental agreement on cooperation on criminal justice matters provides the framework for North/South cooperation in this area. It provides for meetings between the Justice Ministers, North and South. Such engagement is very important. To a large extent, we share the same justice problems, issues and concerns. This was the first IGA ministerial meeting to take place since November 2016. That long gap came about as a consequence of the period of the Assembly’s inactivity and the recent Irish general elections.

The re-establishment of the ministerial meetings is particularly timely given the known impacts that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the justice systems and the as yet unknown consequences that will flow from Brexit. It is an extremely useful forum to maintain relationships with our counterparts in Ireland across a wide range of justice issues. The IGA joint work provides a focus on justice issues related to 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 of those areas is taken forward.

In spite of the hiatus in the publication of a work programme, Minister McEntee and I were impressed by the progress made in those areas since the last IGA meeting. A work programme is normally prepared and published annually under the auspices of the IGA. That requires ministerial sign-off, and I am pleased to announce today that a new work programme has been prepared under the terms of the IGA for 2020-21. The programme was signed off jointly by Minister McEntee and me at the IGA ministerial meeting.

I have spoken often about the importance of working together across the justice system, the Executive and the voluntary and community sector to implement the recommendations of the Gillen report in a way that delivers the reform envisaged. I therefore particularly welcomed the opportunity at the IGA meeting to share the progress that we are making on the implementation of the Gillen review, highlighting some of the current key initiatives that will help to transform and improve the experience of victims and witnesses.

Those initiatives include the introduction of the Committal Reform Bill to the Assembly on 3 November, which will help to reduce delay and the time taken to deal with serious sexual offences cases by removing the use of oral evidence as part of the committal process. It will also avoid vulnerable victims having to give oral evidence and be cross-examined more than once in the process. In addition, the Bill will introduce new arrangements whereby relevant cases can bypass the committal process entirely, thus ensuring that those cases are transferred to the Crown Court at an earlier stage.

I also updated Minister McEntee on the establishment of a new pilot scheme that will provide publicly funded, independent legal advice to adult complainants in serious sexual offence cases. The service will be available from the point that a crime is reported until the commencement of the trial. I recognise that the criminal justice processes themselves can be traumatic for complainants in those cases. I am confident that the new initiative, which should be operational by 1 April next year, will help to support complainants as their cases progress and increase their confidence in the criminal justice system.

We also discussed the work that my Department is taking forward on providing remote evidence facilities in Belfast and Craigavon. I expect those facilities to be operational within weeks, enabling vulnerable adult and child victims and witnesses to provide their evidence to the court remotely. That important step forward will also improve the experience of complainants and vulnerable witnesses.

It will minimise the likelihood of their being re-traumatised by having to meet the accused or give evidence in a daunting courtroom environment at what is undoubtedly a traumatic and distressing time in their life.

Minister McEntee and I agreed on continuing collaboration and on a work programme at official level that is aimed at promoting shared learning on support for victims. So many of the issues and challenges relating to victims and witnesses are mirrored across our two jurisdictions. In each jurisdiction, we face challenges around supporting victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system; providing timely and accurate information to victims that is relevant to their case; and ensuring that victims and witnesses are consistently able to access their entitlements under their respective charters. There is much merit in continued cross-border cooperation on those issues, and I welcome the ongoing commitment to close cooperation through the support for victims programme advisory group.

We also discussed the impact of domestic violence and the exacerbation of incidents of domestic violence that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is something that both Ministers and the two police services see as a priority area of work. We expect some further areas of shared work to develop in that area following the introduction of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Act in Northern Ireland.

I have attached a copy of the 2020-21 work programme, which was agreed at our meeting on 27 November, to the printed version of the statement. It will also be published on the relevant departmental websites following the statement.

We had an important discussion on the challenges being faced by justice organisations in both jurisdictions as a result of Brexit. As Ministers, we are committed to ensuring that we maintain and build on the good cross-border cooperation that exists, as well as to sharing standards, practices and procedures in areas such as operational engagement, forensics and data exchange. It is critical that those important areas of joint work can continue as we approach the end of the transition period following exit from the European Union.

I will also provide Members with an update on the Joint Agency Task Force (JAFT), which was instituted under the Fresh Start Agreement and is led by senior officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, an Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and HM Revenue and Customs. A number of other organisations, including the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), are also involved in operational activity. That is overseen by a strategic oversight group and an operations coordination group. Six initial priority areas of action were agreed: rural crime; child sexual exploitation; financial crime; illicit drugs; excise fraud; and human trafficking. The task force has advanced our cross-border operational response. At the meeting, we received a copy of the latest six-monthly JATF report, which covers until September 2020. In spite of the coronavirus pandemic, cross-border investigations have continued across a number of crime types, including burglary, armed robbery, hijacking, ATM thefts, livestock thefts and cruelty to animals.

Human trafficking remains a concern in both jurisdictions. A number of cross-border investigations remain active, with potential victims having been identified. The PSNI modern slavery and human trafficking unit (MSHTU) and an Garda Síochána human trafficking investigation and coordination unit (HTICU) recorded 76 persons who presented during the period as potential victims of human trafficking in Ireland and Northern Ireland. During the reporting period, the coronavirus pandemic, because of the international restrictions on the movement of people, has negatively affected the illicit production facilities of organised crime groups (OCGs). That is assessed as a temporary effect, however, and illicit production remains a significant threat. A number of cross-border excise fraud investigations are currently being pursued by the authorities on both sides of the border.

A total of 15 financial crime investigations are ongoing under the auspices of the cross-border JATF. The investigations are being conducted by the PSNI, an Garda Síochána, the CAB and the NCA, supported by HMRC and the Revenue Commissioners, and they incorporate a range of criminal offending, including drug trafficking, cigarette smuggling, modern slavery and human trafficking, theft and fraud. In addition to criminal investigation powers, non-conviction-based asset recovery powers are being utilised in both jurisdictions to disrupt OCGs and recover the proceeds of crime.

The reporting period witnessed three large law enforcement agency interventions on both sides of the Irish Sea. Those resulted in the seizure of approximately €9·7 million of drugs. Minister McEntee and I will take receipt of the formal six-month update from the Joint Agency Task Force at our next meeting, and I look forward to being able to report on the further success of the task force to the Assembly in May.

In conclusion, I am committed to maintaining our excellent criminal justice cooperation with Ireland between our respective law enforcement agencies. The strong levels of engagement between our respective criminal justice agencies is all the more important as Brexit negotiations reach a conclusion and we begin our exit from European Union structures.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 12:15 pm, 7th December 2020

I thank the Minister for the statement and for coming to the House to provide it.

Since long before Brexit, there has been a crime bonanza on the border that has been exploited by criminal and paramilitary organisations. A lot of the issues that the Minister referred to have been taking place for many years. Did the Minister discuss with her counterpart in the Republic of Ireland the measures that will be taken post-Brexit that will demonstrate a serious level of engagement to tackle the criminality that has existed for many years at the border?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Chair of the Committee is correct to say that there has been a history of criminality on both sides of the border. That is true of almost all border communities right across the globe, because people will work to exploit differences at the interface in order to continue with criminal activities.

It will be a matter for the future security partnership, if such a partnership can be agreed, to ensure that we maintain the kind of streamlined, effective and efficient cross-border working that we currently have. However, I am reassured that the work that has been done by my Department and the Department of Justice in the Republic of Ireland builds on the good cooperation and collaboration that we have. Through the joint agency task force, there is a real opportunity to bring together revenue and customs interventions as well as criminal justice interventions in order to ensure that we are able to actively and cooperatively deal with cross-border crime.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement. I appreciate some of the issues that were outlined.

For the future, it might be beneficial for us to get a wee bit more information about what is coming from the other side, meaning what is being said by the Justice Minister in the Twenty-six Counties about the updates that Department is giving us.

Will the Minister give some more detail about the new pilot scheme and the legal advice for adult complainants in cases of serious sexual offence, including the number of complainants that might have access to it, where it will be based and how long it will run for?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I am happy to write to the Member with further details of that. My statement is obviously about my engagement with Minister McEntee. She will make a comparable statement to the Dáil in due course.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister's positive engagement with her counterpart in the South, in particular on sexual and domestic violence. However, it is very important, given the week and the day that are in it, that we examine a wee bit more closely the operational engagement of forensic and data exchange in the absence of the agreements that will be lost to us when Britain leaves the EU. I know that there is unprecedented cooperation in the exchange of data on forensics, fingerprints, DNA and the European arrest warrant between the PSNI and an Garda Síochána and the two Ministers. What are the gaps and how will they be filled in the immediate aftermath of the UK exit?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for her question. As she is aware, there are two main priorities for the Department of Justice. The first is to have an effective and efficient replacement for the European arrest warrant should we not have access to it beyond our exit from the EU. The second priority is for data adequacy agreements to be sought. Data adequacy agreements have been sought by other countries, particularly in relation to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), so there is an effective way forward on that. However, we will be the first to seek a data adequacy agreement when it comes to justice measures, so it is, as yet, untested territory. However, both Departments have worked closely together in order to ensure that we have effective mechanisms to continue with our cooperation on a legal basis in the interim while those things are done.

However, it is our view that, should there not be a future security partnership agreed as a result of Brexit, it is important that the Home Office takes forward as a matter of urgency bilateral negotiations under the protocol with the Irish Government in order to ensure that all the various justice measures that may be compromised by Brexit can be streamlined and improved through a bilateral agreement.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I thank the Minister for a really useful statement. I apologise if I am straying into the operational side, but I would like to hear her view on this, although I appreciate that she may not be able to go into detail. As you know, a lot of cross-border crime is organised by paramilitaries: financial crime, illicit drugs, excise fraud and human trafficking. How will the JATF coordinate with our own paramilitary task force and feed in to the action plan on paramilitarism, criminality and organised crime?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Member makes a very good point. As he knows, the PSNI is the main coordinating body for the paramilitary and organised crime task force. So the work done through the JATF will also be reflected in work on paramilitarism more generally. The Chief Constable is best placed to discuss operational matters for the coordination. However, as the Member will be aware, the Department is also doing work to enhance our capability in areas such as civil recovery under unexplained wealth orders, the freezing of criminal assets in banks, and forfeiture orders, and that will help in the fight against organised crime. As he rightly says, the division between organised crime and paramilitarism is often paper-thin, where it exists at all.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for her statement. Cross-border cooperation and policing is a crucial matter at all times, but it is particularly so in the context of Brexit uncertainties. The statement and the planned work programme provided today refer to cooperation on operational engagement, forensics and data exchange. Is similar cooperation taking place at a local level with, for example, neighbourhood teams and district policing teams?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. It is a consideration that the Department discussed with both the Chief Commissioner for An Garda Síochána and the Chief Constable of the PSNI. There is very good local cooperation between community policing teams on their concerns such as community crime, tensions, fear of crime, and tackling local neighbourhood issues in communities.

As we all recognise, people in border communities live cross-border lives, and what impacts on people on one side of the border will impact on communities on the other side. There is good ongoing working, and the Department believes that that will continue post exit from the European Union and the transition period largely through cooperation at local level between the various policing teams. We have seen that, perhaps to a greater degree than usual, because of policing on COVID-19 issues and trying to cooperate on the use of resources. It is very important that we continue with that on-the-ground cooperation as well as the high-level cooperation that is taken forward with Ministers for operational planning.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. We welcome the commitment in the joint agency task force that tackling human trafficking is one of the six priority areas. However, there is real concern about the very low number of convictions secured for human trafficking offences, with only nine individuals prosecuted for trafficking and four convictions secured. What more can be done to tackle human trafficking on a cross-border basis?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

First, it is worth acknowledging that the JATF can do a number of things. For example, previous reports have indicated areas where collaborative working has added value. Not only does it increase the ability of law enforcement to target, intercept and seize tangible criminal assets, but to interrupt and disrupt criminal activities, particularly those that will lead to crime groups having financial incentives for their work. Human trafficking falls within that category because, unfortunately, those involved in human trafficking do not treat people with human dignity but as commodities to be traded, and it is hugely important. There has also been enhanced identification of organised crime groups that work across the border, better communication and stronger relationships between law enforcement North and South, and that is also important.

Whilst there have previously been strong cross-border links, the ability to run coordinated operations has a particular value, particularly with issues like organised crime and human trafficking. There are also opportunities for enhanced and streamlined information- and intelligence-sharing and opportunities for joint training, all of which will impact on human trafficking.

It has to be said that organisations that, as part of their organised crime networks, are engaged in trafficking anything at all will use those routes to traffic drugs, contraband, cigarettes and whatever it might be, and they will use them just as readily to traffic individuals. We need to be very conscious of that. Even the work at a local level in creating more vigilance and more awareness in local communities has been hugely important in exposing suspicious activity, which can then be reported on either side of the border and escalated so that it can be looked into.

Photo of Emma Rogan Emma Rogan Sinn Féin

The Minister has noted that both Ministers and the two police services see domestic abuse as a priority area of shared work, and that is welcome. A particular focus should be on those living, working and residing in the wider border regions. Can the Minister outline some details of her discussions with Minister McEntee about any joint work that was done to tackle domestic abuse during the recent pandemic?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

First of all, quite a lot of work was done on both sides of the border in terms of communication, and that was a key aspect of this, because people will listen to the media, will access Twitter and will access social media and the mainstream media in much the same way regardless of which side of the border that they live on. Coordination of our being able, for example, to bring forward more advertising to raise awareness has also been important.

As the Member may be aware, the Republic of Ireland has also had the O'Malley review of domestic abuse and vulnerable witnesses, particularly in the prosecution of sexual offences. That work very much mirrors the work that was done by Gillen, particularly around sexual offences, and it has been good for us, for example, to be able to look at areas where we have been piloting certain approaches to dealing with vulnerable witnesses and then feeding that through to our counterparts in the South. There are other areas where they are piloting the issues and we are able to learn from their experience. That kind of cooperation and collaboration, whether it is in relation to domestic abuse or sexual offences, is something that we need to build on in the coming weeks and months.

Across this island, there are clearly people who are living in fear in their own homes and are subject to domestic abuse and violence. We want that to stop, and it is very clear that there is a coordinated effort on both sides of the border to ensure that, first of all, we have the right legislative vehicles to ensure that abuse is captured and also that we have the right coordination when it comes to, for example, training of officers who will be dealing with this on the front line. That is another area where cross-border cooperation can be very helpful.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. It was extremely useful. I note, Minister, that cruelty to animals was discussed with your counterpart. Specifically, was the cruel practice of puppy farming discussed? I note that the mid-Ulster PSNI is running a campaign in this area that it has titled Paws for Thought, and it is indicating in that campaign that it believes organised crime groups are involved in puppy farming. Indeed, the PSNI indicated to me that it is concerned about puppy smuggling across the border. If puppy farming was discussed, perhaps the Minister will let us know, or, if it was not discussed, will she add it to the next agenda?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It was not particularly focused on at the meeting, though we did talk more widely about animal cruelty and animal welfare, particularly issues around, for example, organised crime group involvement in the theft of animals, the smuggling of animals or the abuse of animals through things like dogfighting. However, I am more than happy to add puppy farms and, indeed, puppy smuggling to the list of issues that we talk about, because it is clear that organised crime groups will diversify into whatever sector they can, and if they have no consideration when it comes to human trafficking, they certainly have no conscience when it comes to how they treat animals.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement. I note and welcome the Department's work on providing remote evidence facilities for vulnerable adults and child victims and witnesses.

Will the Minister agree that the Barnahus model is the gold standard for supporting child victims and witnesses, and can she confirm if there is any work ongoing to introduce such a model here?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 12:30 pm, 7th December 2020

Yes, I am happy to confirm that we are looking at the Barnahus model, and we would like to see it introduced, in line with the recommendations of the Gillen report. We are building, first, the remote evidence centres, because that is the first bit that we are going to trial and pilot here. That will be done in Craigavon and in Belfast initially, and we will then be able to test the effectiveness of those operations and learn from that pilot. It would then be our intention to look at the wider issues around the Barnahus model to see whether there are more things from it that we can bring forward in due course. However, I would like to believe that, at some point, we will be in a situation where we will not have vulnerable victims and witnesses having to give evidence in court at any of our courthouses in such sensitive and difficult trials.

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

Minister, thank you for this update. It is, however, mildly perplexing that, with just a couple of weeks until the end of the transition period, Brexit has just three short paragraphs in this statement. To that end, and given the importance of the issues that have been outlined in relation to the end of the transition period, first, can the Minister update us on her reasonable worst-case scenario, which may have been presented to her by officials, for what happens with cross-border law enforcement if there is not a deal by the end of this year?

Secondly, can I invite her to set out her position today to people who are still considering that no deal is a good outcome for any part of the United Kingdom? Can I offer her the opportunity now to make her position and that of the Northern Ireland Executive clear to people who are still toying with that idea?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for the opportunity to do so. I would not wish people to think that, because it is three short paragraphs in my statement, it did not get sufficient attention at the meeting. I can assure the Member that it certainly did.

The first thing that I want to say is that a lot of preparatory work has been done in my Department and with the Department of Justice in the South on how we can reinforce our cooperation, how we can ensure that we are able to continue with joint operations and, indeed, how we can ensure that we are able to continue to share data on a legal footing because, of course, goodwill is not enough when it comes to Brexit. However, it is clear that significant obstacles would be presented to us in both delay and in cost were we not to have a fully agreed future security partnership. As we know, that future security partnership is inextricably linked to having a wider agreement.

I have no difficulty in saying that I believe that leaving the European Union without an agreement would be an act of folly and recklessness. It would do harm not just to the economy but to the justice system, and it would inhibit our ability to cooperate. It is important for people to recognise that many of the fallback positions that we will take as a safety-net position when we exit the European Union, if we were to do so without a future security partnership, would leave us reliant on protocols and on conventions that were agreed in the 1950s.

I have to say that it is difficult to fight crime in 2020 with the tools that were available in the 1950s. Those tools are still operational and are still effective. They would still allow us to, for example, extradite people, but the length of time that it would take to do so would multiply greatly. One of the key indicators that we are trying to address in the Department of Justice is delay in the court system. It seems to me to be utterly bizarre that we would introduce, potentially, an additional two to three years for extradition, during which time, we have to remember, there could be victims and witnesses who are waiting for a trial to take place.

So, on all of those scores, we will do our best to work within structures that are available to us to keep people safe and to protect the local community. No one should be under any illusions about the loss of capacity that could result if we do not get agreements around things like access to the European arrest warrant through the future security partnership and access to the databases such as Prüm and the European criminal records information system (ECRIS) that we will otherwise lose and, indeed, if we do not get access to a data-adequacy agreement. It would have direct implications for the administration of justice, mainly in cost and in time, although we may be able to work at a slower pace in some areas. The PSNI and an Garda Síochána have done a huge amount of work to ensure that they will be able, under existing arrangements and future arrangements, to continue to share data as far as possible. You will understand that, until we have clarity about what is expected, it is very difficult to give people the reassurance that they will rightly seek on these issues.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Public protection arrangements in Northern Ireland (PPANI) manage sexual offenders, and there have always been concerns, problems and blind spots about offenders travelling across the border multiple times. That has nothing to do with Brexit, of course. Will the Minister enlighten the House on improvements over the last number of years on the management of sexual offenders between two jurisdictions?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware that there was a meeting of various public protection agencies last week, including the Probation Board and the Probation Service. I was able and very pleased to attend that meeting prior to meeting Minister McEntee under the IGA. The public protection advisory group (PPAG) carries out its work in a positive, progressive and professional manner, with representatives from probation, the police, prisons and the Justice Departments in Northern Ireland and Ireland. Staff training and development opportunities are being explored across the justice agencies on a cross-border basis, and PPANI-related training on domestic violence and sexual offenders is being progressed and developed.

The annual PPAG seminar is now in its eleventh year, so considerable work has been done in that time. The theme for this year is emerging North/South needs and the development of criminal justice practice. It was hosted by colleagues in the South via a virtual platform on 27 November, and Minister McEntee and I were present at the event. I was encouraged by the level of cooperation, on a cross-border basis, between all the agencies. It is absolutely crucial, as the Member rightly said, that we continue to share data, evidence and intelligence to keep people safe in their communities.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

My question follows on from the previous question on sexual violence and the impacts across both jurisdictions. Minister, based on what you have said, will you commit to the development of an all-island strategy to tackle sexual violence, mainly for the issues that have been outlined.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Close coordination and cooperation are very important. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are at different stages in the roll-out of our various strategies. We try to keep pace with each other. I certainly have no objection to an additional strategy if it were to bring added value. However, the working groups already established under the five-strand approach to the IGA are probably more effective because they drill down at operational level to what cooperation and collaboration we can bring about and what learning we can take from each other. I am happy to talk to the Member further if she believes that additional value can be drawn from having a more coordinated approach.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement, which heralds the success of law enforcement agency interventions, which have seen the seizure of almost €10 million worth of drugs. Such seizures are very welcome in reducing the amount of drugs in our communities. In my opinion, real success should be measured on the arrest and apprehension of big-time drug dealers and the dismantling of drug gangs who continue to flood our communities with dangerous drugs that ruin lives. Does the Minister agree, and does she know how many arrests were made with regard to these interventions?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I do not have those figures, but, if I can obtain them, I am happy to write to the Member. The figures will be held in different formats in different jurisdictions, but I will endeavour to get some indication. I agree entirely with the Member that it is not enough simply to take the drugs out of the community. That is a huge issue, but it is also important to take the drug dealers out of the community and ensure that they face justice. All partners in the JATF are absolutely committed to that task. Part of the strategy is to disrupt criminal gangs so that they can no longer profit from dealing in drugs or, indeed, human misery via human trafficking. However, the Member is quite right that it is also important that those responsible are brought before the courts. Unfortunately, disrupting their activity is often not sufficient to disabuse them of their interest in continuing with it.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas. I thank the Minister for her statement. As you know, Minister, I concur with your view that Brexit is folly, reckless and wrong.

Picking up on what you said in a previous answer, am I right in understanding that losing access to key EU justice and security cooperation arrangements means that the North will be left with substandard tools to tackle cross-border crime, that we could become more susceptible to criminality at the end of the transition period and that there will be no good Brexit, whether there is a deal or no deal?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Member makes an important point but I want to reinforce a couple of things. First and foremost, we have worked very hard within the Department of Justice and with the Department of Justice in the South to ensure that, wherever possible, we are able to find alternative means of doing the work that we currently do, because we do not want people to feel unsafe, nor do we want to send a message to criminals that life will be any easier post the Brexit transition period than it is currently. Our intention and that of all the agencies involved in cross-border cooperation is that we will find those alternative means. However, if we do not have a justice and security partnership fully negotiated between the UK and the EU, there will potentially be gaps in the system. That could affect our access to certain databases of information held in the EU and some of the measures and tools available in the EU. That would drive us back to relying on older conventions, such as the Lugano convention from 1957.

Those conventions work — I do not want people to think that they do not — but they take much longer. For example, an extradition under the Lugano convention can take many, many more months than an extradition under a European arrest warrant. That multiplication factor has an impact on those accused of crime and on the ability of alleged victims of crime to seek justice. It also has a cost implication because it is much more onerous for us to manage. There are genuine challenges there.

If a future security partnership is not agreed as part of the current talks, we fall into the situation where it would be for the UK Government to enter bilateral negotiations with the Irish Government to try to find a way forward. We would certainly lobby very strongly, and we have been lobbying the Home Office and others, that that should be the first priority and that the first country whose door they should knock for a bilateral agreement is Ireland. It is, by far, our and the UK's largest customer when it comes to issues like extradition and data sharing. It would make sense to start with Ireland and work from there, rather than starting elsewhere and working backwards.

We are very clear that there are a number of routes to get to where we want to be, which is good, continued cooperation. However, there are a number of obstacles to be overcome in order to get there. It is clear to me that huge energy and expenditure are involved in trying to get us to where we want to be. That is regrettable when that money and attention could instead be focused on the job that other Members referred to: trying to put criminals out of business.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I read in this statement that the intergovernmental agreement proclaims a focus on support for victims. Does that extend to seeking truth for IRA victims who died because the Dublin Government assisted in the spawning of the Provisional IRA? Does it extend to those who failed to obtain justice because the Dublin Government denied extradition for decades and allowed collusion between the gardaí and the Provisional IRA? Does any of that interest the Minister enough to have pressed her Dublin counterpart for truth and justice for such victims, whom she should represent?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. No, it does not extend to that particular issue. It is about support for victims who are going through the justice system and are involved in live cases. Of course, some of those will be legacy cases, and therefore it would extend to some of those cases.

The Member asked whether it interested me sufficiently that I would be willing to press my Irish counterparts on that. The answer to that, of course, is yes, because I believe that truth and justice for all victims matter and that legacy issues need to be comprehensively dealt with. I have stood in this place many times, and I assure the Member that, wherever collusion may come from, whoever may be behind it, wherever the information comes from and whether it requires a public inquiry or another form of legacy investigation, I am in favour of that happening.

I reassure the Member that I, not only as leader of my party but as Minister of Justice, recognise fully that our not being able to resolve legacy issues is having a toxic effect on our ability to deliver justice in many communities in the here and now. It is polluting our ability, through the new start that we had for policing and justice, to move forward. It is therefore incumbent on the British and Irish Governments and all the parties in the Chamber to find a comprehensive way forward, be that through the Stormont House Agreement, which is what we signed up to, or through an alternative proposition that is to be put to us and that we have yet to see. It is important, and incumbent on all of us, to find a way forward that delivers for all victims by providing truth and justice. It cannot continue to be dealt with in a piecemeal fashion. That is not fair on victims, and they should be at the forefront of our consideration of those matters.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:45 pm, 7th December 2020

That concludes questions on the statement. Members, please take your ease for a moment or two. Thank you.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)