Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:45 pm on 13th September 2021.

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Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 12:45 pm, 13th September 2021

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill [NIA 29/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Second Stage of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill has been moved. In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit to the debate. I call the Minister of Justice, Mrs Naomi Long, to open the debate on the Bill.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I am pleased to bring the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill before the Assembly. On appointment as Minister of Justice in January 2020, I set out an ambitious legislative programme to reform our justice system. My intention was and remains to provide better outcomes for all those who rely on the justice system. Our role as politicians is to identify problems and deficiencies that face our constituents and, crucially, to seek to deliver solutions and remedies where possible. The Bill is but another step forward in that reform programme — a programme that has been delivered with pace and commitment. I believe that no other Department has brought forward five such separate and substantive Bills in such a short space of time. I owe my officials and the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) a huge debt of gratitude for working with me to deliver. The development and delivery of that substantial programme is a concrete demonstration of my and their continued commitment to protect the most vulnerable through better targeted and more focused legislation. Such a challenging programme is, however, possible only with the full cooperation of the Assembly and the Committee, to which I hope the Bill be remitted today. I thank them for their cooperation, particularly in scheduling this business a week earlier than was originally anticipated.

The Bill is, as Members are aware, significantly shorter than I intended, consisting now of 22 clauses over four Parts. I expect the elements of my original Bill that I had to drop to secure this Bill's introduction will feature in a new miscellaneous provisions Bill early in the next mandate if non-legislative solutions cannot be identified in the interim. That work is ongoing.

The Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill has two key principles: A, to enhance public safety by implementing certain elements of the report of the Gillen review covering serious sexual offence cases and a review of the law on child sexual exploitation and sexual offences against children; and B, to improve services for victims of trafficking and exploitation.

Chapter 1 is primarily concerned with the creation of new sexual offences and penalties, with the first provisions capturing the highly intrusive behaviours known as upskirting and downblousing. A person found guilty of either offence under those provisions will be liable for a sentence of imprisonment of up to six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum of £5,000 or both on summary conviction in a Magistrates' Court. For a conviction on indictment in the Crown Court, the penalty is increased to a sentence of imprisonment of up to two years.

The next provisions in that Part of the Bill are designed to better protect children from child sexual exploitation. They create four new offences to deal with an adult pretending to be or masquerading as a child and making a communication with a view to sexually grooming a child under 16. The four offences seek to cover all possible angles of communicating with an individual, communicating with a group, communicating with a view to grooming a particular child and communicating with a view to grooming any child under 16. Importantly, the offences are not limited to online behaviour. The penalty for each of the new offences is a sentence of imprisonment of up to six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum of £5,000 or both on summary conviction and a sentence of imprisonment of up to two years for a conviction on indictment.

The remaining provisions in Chapter 1 of Part 1 amend the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. They include removing and replacing existing references to "child prostitution" and "child pornography". Such terminology is outdated and may be taken as implying that children are somehow responsible for or willing participants in their own abuse, which is clearly not the case. The Department believes that amending the legislative references will help to raise awareness of the status of children as victims of exploitation rather than being willing participants or otherwise complicit in abuse that is perpetrated by others.

We are also widening the scope of the definition of images relevant to specific offences in the 2008 Order to include live streaming. That will ensure that the law keeps up with developments in modern technology. It also helps to avoid any possible ambiguity in the interpretation of what constitutes an offence.

The Bill also makes a minor amendment to bring the article 22A offence of sexual communication with a child into the scope of extraterritorial arrangements to provide further protection to children travelling outside the jurisdiction. That simply corrects an omission in current law, where that provision should have been included.

Finally, the chapter also makes a minor adjustment to the current article 64A offence of paying for the sexual services of a person. It clarifies the elements that constitute an offence to avoid any ambiguity in its interpretation.

Chapter 2 of Part 1 brings forward provisions to implement four recommendations from Sir John Gillen's report in the law on procedures in serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland. First, it extends the current lifelong anonymity of the victim of a sexual offence, providing for their continued anonymity for 25 years after death. Secondly, it provides for the anonymity of the suspect in a sexual offence case up to the point of charge. Where a suspect is not subsequently charged, that anonymity will be protected during their lifetime and for 25 years after their death. Thirdly, it increases the penalty for breach of anonymity from the current penalty — a fine of up to £5,000 on summary conviction — to a sentence of up to six months' imprisonment or a fine of up to £5,000 or both. Fourthly, it excludes the public from hearings of sexual offence cases. Only the complainant, the accused, persons directly involved in the proceedings, a witness while giving evidence, any person required to assist a witness, jury members and bona fide members of the press will be allowed to remain in the court during the hearing of a sexual offence case. The court will retain discretion to permit any other person to remain in the court where it considers it to be in the interests of justice to do so.

Part 2 deals with victim trafficking and exploitation. The provisions extend statutory assistance and support to potential adult victims of slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour where there is no element of trafficking. The provision of assistance and support to such potential victims has been in place in Northern Ireland since March 2016 but is not a statutory requirement. Placing the existing arrangements on a statutory footing provides reassurance to victims that the Department is committed to providing support and assistance to those who have been subject to slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.

The provisions in this Part of the Bill also amend an existing requirement to publish a modern slavery and human trafficking strategy from at least once every year to at least once every three years. By their nature, strategies generally set out longer-term objectives, with action or implementation plans recording the milestones set within a financial year. An amendment to enable a strategy to be published at least once in every three years will allow the Department and its partners to focus better on the implementation of actions underpinning the strategic goals and to monitor the progress of relevant contributors. As some objectives span more than one year, that would also have a positive impact on performance management.

Part 3 comprises two relatively minor clauses. The clauses make adjustments to existing legislation to strengthen the effectiveness of the sexual offences prevention order (SOPO) and the violent offences prevention order (VOPO) arrangements. The SOPO provision amends schedule 5 to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to include the offence of abduction of children in care under article 68 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 in the list of specified offences for which a SOPO can be applied. That means that a SOPO could be applied for in respect of persons who present a risk of serious sexual harm where they have been convicted of the offence of abduction of a child in care.

The VOPO provision amends the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 to remove the statutory six-month time limit within which a civil complaint must normally be made to the court. That will ensure that the behaviour of an offender evidenced more than six months previous to the time when an application is made for a VOPO could be considered by the court.

That concludes my remarks covering the substantive policy content of the Bill at its introduction. However, I would like to take the opportunity to provide Members with a short overview of a small number of amendments on which I have secured Executive agreement to bring forward as the Bill progresses. They are currently at an advanced stage of development for inclusion in the Bill during its passage.

My first amendment is an extension to the Gillen provisions in the Bill relating to the exclusion of the public from hearings of serious sexual offence cases. That will include the Court of Appeal as a setting where the public can be excluded from appeal hearings against conviction or sentence in serious sexual offence cases. The amendment will ensure that the victim's identity can be protected where a relevant case is elevated to the higher court.

There are also three planned amendments covering new policy content, the first of which relates to what is known as the rough-sex defence. For many years, consent to serious harm for sexual gratification has been raised in trials as a defence to serious harm, murder or manslaughter. I intend to make provision to set in legislation the existing common law position that a person cannot lawfully consent to their serious harm for the purpose of sexual gratification. The intended amendment will give effect to my desire to address issues of clarity and consistency regarding the application of the existing provision.

The next new policy amendment relates to what is commonly referred to as "revenge pornography". The new provision will make threats to disclose private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress an offence, alongside existing offence provisions relating to the disclosure of such material.

The last of my planned amendments is to change the existing legislation covering an abuse of a position of trust of a child, which is contained in articles 20 through to 31 of the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. The amendment will provide greater protection to young people who are in the care of adults in certain non-statutory environments. I had originally intended to develop that proposal for introduction in the next political mandate. However, in response to recent developments in other jurisdictions and a growing number of requests for the Northern Ireland law to be changed, I now consider that that important change should and can be made sooner rather than later. In bringing the proposal forward, my officials have worked closely with the NSPCC to gauge wider views regarding the scope of the amendment. That included holding a joint virtual workshop with the NSPCC at the end of May that involved representatives from a number of key stakeholders. As a result of that engagement and having examined the experience of other jurisdictions further, I intend to extend the current provisions for the abuse of trust of a child. The extension will cover positions of trust held in sports and faith settings, with a delegated power to enable the extension of those settings at a future stage by way of secondary legislation, should that be considered necessary.

The Bill will make our community safer through strengthening existing law and introducing new offences. It will go some way to further protect victims, whose interests remain at the heart of the criminal justice system. The Bill contains important provisions that will introduce into the justice system more safeguards that will complement those in my Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 and the Protection from Stalking Bill, which is currently with the Committee. Taken collectively, the provisions in the Bill will introduce valuable additional protections for the most vulnerable in our community.

While some question the value of devolution and the worth of the Assembly, this legislation is yet more evidence that progress can be delivered when the Assembly functions as it should. It is also an example of the opportunities that are forfeited when it does not. I look forward to working closely with the Justice Committee and my Assembly colleagues to ensure that the provisions of the Bill are enacted within this mandate. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 1:00 pm, 13th September 2021

I thank the Minister for bringing the Second Stage of the Bill to the House. I am pleased to speak as Chairman of the Committee for Justice. The Committee welcomes the Bill. We look forward to working with the key stakeholders and the Department during the Bill's scrutiny stage in the Committee.

As the Minister has outlined, the Bill consists of 22 clauses and is divided into three Parts. The Committee fully supports the aims of improving the operation and effectiveness of the justice system and the principles of enhancing public safety and improving services for victims of trafficking and exploitation. Chapter 1 and Part 1 cover a range of provisions being brought forward following a consultation on a review of the law on child sexual exploitation and aim to strengthen the law in that area. The Committee considered the results of the consultation in November 2020, supported the proposals to bring forward the legislative provisions in the Bill and discussed with officials other legislative proposals that had received support during the consultation but that the Department did not intend to progress in this mandate due to time and resource constraints. The Committee noted that there would be an opportunity to consider some of those other proposals further in the context of the Bill. I am sure that Members will do the same, assuming that, as I expect, the Bill passes its Second Stage today.

The strengthening of the law on sexual offending to better protect children from sexual exploitation and, in particular, the aim to address such behaviour at an earlier stage are welcome and, sadly, necessary. The Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) report in June 2020 on child sexual exploitation highlighted that such exploitation is happening in towns, cities and rural communities across Northern Ireland and involves children who live with their parents and children in care. That is the stark reality, Members, and we in the House must endeavour to do all that we can to prevent it.

The Committee also supports the inclusion of the new offences to capture behaviours known as upskirting and downblousing. Such behaviour is, unfortunately, becoming more prevalent and is frequently used to coerce, control or humiliate. The fact that Northern Ireland will be the first part of the United Kingdom to legislate for downblousing sends a message that such behaviour, together with upskirting, has no place in our society and provides the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) with the tools to prosecute individuals.

The Bill will also implement four of the recommendations in Sir John Gillen's report on his review of the law and procedures on sexual offences in Northern Ireland. As Sir John outlined, deep concerns about how serious sexual offences are prosecuted and determined in Northern Ireland have been expressed for a number of years. Such offences are largely under-reported, the attrition rates are high, and successful prosecutions are pitifully few. Committee members are well acquainted with the views of victims of such offences: the criminal justice system lets them down, and those who go through it often feel that they have been re-traumatised by the experience.

That situation is totally unacceptable and must be addressed. Providing victims with confidence in the system, and ensuring that they are treated with dignity and respect during the criminal process, in no way impacts on the accused receiving a fair trial. It is simply the right thing to do, and the proposed changes are long overdue.

Implementation of Sir John Gillen's recommendations must continue to be a priority. The Committee is committed to ensuring that they are implemented in full. It considers progress regularly, with the next update due from the Department at the end of September. The Committee, therefore, welcomes the inclusion of Part 1, chapter 2, which includes clauses to extend the current lifelong anonymity of the victim of a sexual offence, provide for the anonymity of the suspect in a sexual offence case up to the point of charge, and exclude the public from hearings of serious sexual offence cases.

Parts 2 and 3 cover trafficking and exploitation, and prevention orders. Departmental officials advised the Committee that these clauses make minor adjustments to the existing provisions and aim to improve effectiveness. Clause 16 places on a statutory footing the current practice of providing support and assistance to potential victims of slavery or servitude, or of forced or compulsory labour, where there is no element of trafficking. That is to be welcomed.

The Department advised the Committee of the Minister's intention to bring forward amendments on four issues, which I thank the Minister for outlining in the House today. As part of the evidence that the Committee received on the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill, concerns were raised that the mitigation of rough sex gone wrong appeared to be increasingly used to explain a death. The Committee noted at the time that amendments had been made to the Westminster Domestic Abuse Bill to ensure that such a defence was outlawed in cases of serious injury or death. The Committee welcomes the proposal for amendments to address this.

The Committee also welcomes the proposal to bring forward amendments to widen the scope of, and strengthen, the current law on abuse of trust. There was widespread support for that in the responses to the Department's consultation. The Committee was disappointed that the Department originally did not intend to legislate for it in this mandate.

The Committee received an oral briefing from departmental officials on the principles of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill at its meeting of 9 September 2021. During the briefing, members explored a range of issues, including the concerns expressed by legal advisers regarding making anonymity of a victim of a sexual offence permanent after death; how the Department decided on the 25-year period now included at clause 4; the operational concerns relating to sexual offences prevention orders and violent offences prevention orders that prompted the provisions to strengthen their effectiveness; the rationale for the provisions that amend article 64A of the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 relating to the offence of paying for the sexual services of a person, and whether they change the intention of the original legislation; the particular effect of clause 16; and the extent to which the proposed amendments will widen the abuse of trust law.

Members also discussed in detail the new offences of upskirting and downblousing, including whether they are framed appropriately and are workable. I am sure that the Committee will want to explore all these issues, and others, further as we move into the Bill's Committee Stage, assuming its success in the House today.

The Bill was introduced into the Assembly on 5 July. It was originally to be introduced in March. While it may not include all the provisions originally intended by the Department, it is still a very important piece of legislation that the Committee wants to see go through the Assembly before the end of this mandate. For that reason, the Committee agreed, on an exceptional basis, to issue a call for written evidence on the Bill following its introduction into the Assembly and prior to the Second Stage taking place today. I assure the House and the Minister that this was in no way to pre-empt the views of the House but was simply a pragmatic decision, given the very limited time available to us, to give the Bill a chance of completing the legislative process before the mandate ends. Despite already dealing with a very heavy legislative programme, the Committee is determined to play its part in progressing the Bill, assuming its successful passage today. That will not, however, preclude us from undertaking robust and detailed scrutiny of the provisions in the Bill and proposed amendments to it, with the assistance of the key stakeholders, to ensure that the legislation is comprehensive, workable and as effective as possible. The issues covered in the Bill can have a profound and lasting impact on victims and cannot be missed or minimised in any way. That is why the legislation is needed, and on behalf of the Committee for Justice I support the principles of the Bill.

I will make a few comments as a Member of the House and a member of my party. I am glad to see that the first salvo has been fired in the election campaign: the Minister did not miss the opportunity to set out how she, as Minister, and her Department had brought forward more legislation than any other Minister. It is up to other Ministers to see whether they can match that in the time that is available to them. Does the Minister want to intervene?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 1:15 pm, 13th September 2021

I assure the Member that, of course, that is not an electoral point, because I also pay tribute to the Committee, which, if it discharges its duties, will place itself well above any other Committee in managing legislation. It is a win-win situation for us all.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Minister for the intervention and clarification on that point; her comments are noted.

I turn to the provisions of the Bill, particularly clauses 16 and 17. There has been much media attention on human trafficking in Northern Ireland in recent months, with revelations that the numbers of potential victims entering the national referral mechanism (NRM) increased by 750%. I want Members to take that percentage and remember that, behind it, there are individuals. These are real people. A 750% increase between 2012 and 2020: that is deeply disturbing, especially when we remember that not all existing victims are identified and offered the NRM and not all victims who are identified agree to enter the national referral mechanism.

Moreover, in considering that challenge, we must always remember that we are not talking about just statistics but, as I said, real people. We are talking about someone's son or daughter, and even more troubling is the fact that some of the victims are children. Of the 128 referrals in 2020, 20 were children. Five of those children were trafficked for sexual exploitation. As parents and grandparents, we can only but think of the horror that has been inflicted on those children. That is happening here in Northern Ireland, and it is sad that we have to say in the House that it is happening today in Northern Ireland in our towns and our neighbourhoods.

Northern Ireland has a strong history of taking a stand for victims of modern slavery. The timely passing of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 represented the first comprehensive piece of legislation on this subject to be passed in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the Act goes beyond the current provisions made in England and Wales by enshrining support for adult victims of human trafficking in law and providing for the introduction of independent guardians for unaccompanied migrant and trafficked children. That piece of legislation is a great credit to former Assembly Member and good friend of mine, Lord Morrow. He introduced the Bill in the House and it was passed into law. Six years later, we need to act again to build on the good foundation that has been set and enhance the existing protections. In that context, I wholeheartedly support clause 16, which will amend section 18 of the 2015 Act by extending the statutory assistance and support provided to potential victims of human trafficking to victims of servitude or forced labour where there has been no element of trafficking. That constitutes a very welcome, humane and logical development.

I am also content with clause 17, which will amend section 12 of the 2015 Act and introduces a change from having an annual modern slavery strategy to having one on a three-year cycle. I would, however, like the Department of Justice to produce an annual progress report so that we can track progress during the three-year period as well as between such periods, and I trust that the Minister will give consideration to that.

Before I move on from the modern slavery provisions in the Bill, it is important to acknowledge an important support provision that is not in the Bill. In that regard, I congratulate my friend, colleague and Chief Whip, Joanne Bunting, who is a Member of the Assembly for East Belfast, on securing a critical debate on 13 October last year to mark Anti-Slavery Day. She used that debate to highlight the indefensible lack of statutory support for victims of modern slavery across the UK from the moment of their conclusive grounds decision when they leave the NRM. It is extraordinary that statutory support is provided to potential victims but denied to actual victims, when our moral responsibility is clearly greater to those who have been confirmed to have been subjected to slavery. In that context, I put on record my thanks to the Free For Good campaign, the coalition of 27 anti-trafficking bodies campaigning for the provision of 12-month statutory support to facilitate the recovery of confirmed victims of modern slavery, and I hope that we will have the opportunity to debate amendments that address that shortfall.

In conclusion, I place on record my appreciation and thanks to the Minister and her officials for the work that has been done to date. A considerable amount of work has been done in order to have the Second Stage debate in the House today. The Minister outlined that not all the legislative provisions that she would have liked to bring to the House — namely, in a miscellaneous provisions Bill — have been brought, but I trust that, as an Assembly, we will focus our time on issues that are paramount. That is not to say that other issues are not important, but, given the challenge with our time frame, I trust that the House will give the Bill the support that it deserves. Along with the Minister, I look forward to hearing the contributions of others so that we will have some sense of how the Bill will ultimately conclude when it completes its legislative passage through the Assembly.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I call the Deputy Chair of the Justice Committee, Ms Sinéad Ennis.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. As you said, I have, in recent weeks, taken on the role and that of Sinn Féin spokesperson for justice. I look forward to taking my place on the Committee at its next meeting. If you will indulge me, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Linda Dillon, for her work in the role, and I am sure that other members of the Committee will attest to her positive contribution while on the Justice Committee.

Although I am a new member of the Justice Committee, many of the issues that face us are not new to me. I have paid close attention to the great work that has been carried out by my colleagues in Sinn Féin and, indeed, across the Assembly on so many important issues, such as domestic and sexual violence, gender-based violence and other issues of public protection. The Assembly passed the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill earlier this year, which was a landmark achievement, and the hugely important Protection from Stalking Bill is working its way through the legislative process. There has also been other important, ongoing work done, including the Gillen review of serious sexual offences cases, the review of the law on child sexual exploitation and work to tackle domestic and sexual violence, modern slavery and human trafficking.

The Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill is crucial legislation that will allow us to build on all the great ongoing work. I look forward to scrutinising the Bill in the Justice Committee to ensure that it is of the highest standard.

I welcome, as other Members have done, the introduction of the revised Bill to the Assembly. It is long overdue, and it is great to see it finally reach this stage. However, I have to share my disappointment at the serious and wholly unnecessary hurdles that had to be overcome to get us to this point. For months, we heard MLAs from across the political spectrum talk about the importance of passing the former Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, and four of the five Executive parties supported that Bill when the Minister first tried to introduce it. Yet, one party in the Executive held the Bill hostage for two months and blocked it from being progressed, despite the huge challenges that we face given the short time that remains in the current mandate. The DUP, despite being on record as saying that it had no issue with the content of the Bill as drafted, disgracefully blocked its progression for fear of potential amendments at later stages. That was a shameful derogation of its legislative responsibilities and showed contempt for the democratic process. As a result of that political grandstanding, the previous Bill had to be revised, and some hugely important clauses were pulled out to narrow its scope. Also removed was the option to propose amendments on some really important issues. All of that because one party in the Executive — the DUP — did not like what it was potentially going to see.

Nonetheless, the Bill contains some important clauses that will implement key recommendations from the Gillen review of serious sexual offences cases and the review of the law on child sexual exploitation and sexual offences against children. I am pleased to finally see the introduction of the new offences of upskirting and downblousing. Upskirting involves the taking of a photo or video under a person's clothes without their consent in order to capture images of their body or underwear. It violates a person's right to privacy and bodily integrity and can be a deeply invasive, traumatic and distressing experience. The evolution of technology and the wide availability of smartphones have meant that the law has not kept pace with the increasing frequency of the offences, and victims have been let down. Image-based sexual abuse is just as invasive and horrific as other forms of sexual abuse, and it is right that we take it just as seriously. We need to get it right, however, so I look forward to working with the Justice Committee to ensure that there are no loopholes in the offence, such as those that exist in other jurisdictions.

Other key features of the Bill include protecting children from grooming and other forms of sexual offences and abuse, including creating a new offence of adults masquerading as children online, ensuring that the law on sexual exploitation is kept up to date with modern technology by including live streaming and replacing references to child prostitution and child pornography in law.

Taken together with the other hugely important provisions of the Bill, of which there are too many to go into, today is a really positive step forward, finally, in the implementation of the Bill. I am happy to support its passage to the next stage.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:30 pm, 13th September 2021

As the SDLP member of the Justice Committee, I support the passing of this stage of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill. In anticipation of the Bill's passage through the House, I look forward to fully scrutinising and adding value to it.

I, too, put on record my thanks to the outgoing Deputy Chairperson, Linda Dillon, with whom I and other members worked very well in an environment that was conducive to that good work. Whilst we may have differed on certain things, we did so in a respectful way, and I wish Linda well in her new position. I also thank the Chair of the Committee for accurately summarising the Committee's position on the Bill at this time and facilitating an early meeting with officials from the Department to start to get into the detail of the Bill. The Bill is quite broad in what it attempts to do, but every element is critical.

Without going into any of the detail at this stage, I place it on record that the SDLP very much supports the principles of the Bil, but, at the outset, we want to flag up some concerns we have about operational reality. That is exactly what the legislative process is: it is about scrutinising and hearing from those who are engaged on the ground in the delivery of any legislation to make sure it is fit for purpose. As an example of that, I cite the introduction, which we very much welcome, of the offences of upskirting and downblousing. Quite rightly, the Bill defines what exactly those are, and the descriptors are quite good and appear to be fulsome. However, proposed new article 71A(3) talks about the motivation of the person who is operating equipment. It talks about their "obtaining sexual gratification" or "humiliating, alarming or distressing B". Whilst I agree with those descriptors, which accurately pin down what we are trying to achieve, we feel we need to stress-test them to some degree to find out what exactly the evidential proof would be to say that that was the motivation of the person operating the equipment. We will, no doubt, have a chance to work through details like that in the Committee Stage and the clause-by-clause scrutiny.

The other issue, if I may refer to it, is the important one of anonymity and the proposal on the privacy of a victim after death. There is a detailed breakdown of who could make such an application, but I would ask questions about what happens in cases where there is a conflict between eligible applicants. Whilst the applicants are clearly stated, it does not particularly say that there is any sort of hierarchy. There may be conflicting agendas. However, it is important to note that proposed new section 3A(6) says that the court must be satisfied that an application is:

"(a) in the interests of justice, or (b) otherwise in the public interest, to make such a variation or revocation" of anonymity.

The Bill finally gets to the point of delivering on some of the heavy and important work of the Gillen review, so I welcome the fact that four Gillen recommendations are woven into the Bill.

I will not go into much more detail now, but, again, in expectation that this stage of the Bill will be agreed today, I look forward to working with Committee members in a robust way to scrutinise the details of the Bill and to make sure that it aligns with operational reality. If it does not, it could be a good academic piece of work that does not bring real effect to and change on the ground. I thank the Minister for bringing forward this stage of the Bill today, and I look forward to working with the Committee.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I commend the Bill. It is the right Bill at the right time, but there is an awful lot more work that we will all be doing in this regard. Knowing the Justice Committee, I am sure that it will look at the Bill in great detail, and I have every confidence that the Committee will do that.

One of the problems when you talk late on in a debate is that you tend to repeat what everybody else is saying. I do not particularly want to do that, but the Chair has outlined the Bill pretty well, where we stand on it and what we need to do with it. However, I would like to raise a couple of issues that I have concerns over — not necessarily the Bill itself but what is likely to happen and some of the other issues in that regard.

I commend the recommendations of the Gillen review of sexual offences, which are in the Bill. Pre-charge anonymity for defendants is important, as is the continuation of anonymity of complainants for 25 years after death, and the increase in the penalty for a breach of that anonymity sends out a clear message to everybody that they should adhere to what the court has said. The exclusion of the public from serious sexual offence hearings is really important, and I absolutely support it. We all know about the Ulster Rugby rape trial. Never mind the outcome, we all know that people attended the court hearing purely to hear the details for their self-gratification. Some people will say that, by stopping people going into the court, we are not showing justice to be open and transparent, but I wholeheartedly welcome that measure. It is the right thing to do.

On child exploitation and sexual offences against children, we can all agree that children are incredibly vulnerable and we must do all that we can to put laws and protections in place to look after our children. I am concerned about anything that stops us being in a position to do that. Of course, in the Bill, the Minister has laid out provisions to replace legislative references to "child pornography" and "child prostitution", so that we do not make anybody believe that the child is in any way complicit. Those provisions also include live-streamed images, a definition of exploitation for sexual purposes and the creation of the new offence of adults masquerading as children, which is also extremely important. By strengthening that, we will help to protect children.

My genuine concern is that all that will be lost if the Assembly falls. Please think about what we are doing here; think about the long term; think about our children. I do not want the Bill to fall and children to suffer because of something that we as adults can sort out.

There is provision for the creation of the new offences of upskirting and downblousing. That is not a giggle. It is not what kids do for fun and games, saying, "I will just take a quick picture up the skirt or down the blouse". It is not that. It is absolutely humiliating. The sooner we get away from allowing people to think, "I was only having a laugh" or "It was only a bit of banter" or "It was only a giggle", the better. The Bill does that, notwithstanding the very real points that Sinéad raised about finding out people's motivations for doing that. I know, however, that some people do that and say, "Well, I was just having a bit of a laugh".

The amendments to provisions in Northern Ireland regarding human trafficking are also incredibly important. I have spoken previously about human trafficking and told people that I saw the origins of human trafficking in Bosnia and Kosovo. I saw how they farm young girls in warehouses and traffic them across Europe, with some of them ending up here. It is harrowing to see that. Imagine what it is like for them: absolutely and incredibly harrowing. The provision to:

"Extend ... support to ... victims of slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour" is incredibly important. I look forward to seeing the detail of that.

The Minister talked about amendments that she will propose, such as the abolition of the rough sex defence and the extension of existing revenge porn provisions to include the threat of publication. People probably think that that is a throwaway line, but it is not. Just threatening somebody by saying, "If you don't do what I say, I will publish this" is coercion at its absolute worst, so that line is really important. Of course, provisions to widen the scope and to strengthen the laws about the abuse of trust of our elderly, of our young and of those who look to us for support are important.

There is a lot to do on the Bill. We will dig into a lot of stuff, and I have no doubt that there will be many amendments. That is right, and I think that the Minister expects us to delve into her Bill. I would not expect her to want us to do anything other than that. At the end of the process, we must make sure that we have a Bill that works, can be applied and does not just sit on the shelf where nobody can use it because it is too complicated. It is incredibly important. I know that the Chair and the new Deputy Chair will guide our Committee in making sure that we add value to the Bill and make a positive input.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance 1:45 pm, 13th September 2021

I warmly welcome the Bill and the fact that we are moving on swiftly with this vital legislation. Much of it updates practice in Northern Ireland in line with that in neighbouring jurisdictions. It is frustrating that, for the reasons outlined by the Minister, the Bill has not been able to do a little more in terms of that alignment, but we welcome what is contained in it.

I turn first to the areas that take Northern Ireland ahead of the rest of the UK. The first, at clause 1, is the criminalisation of downblousing. I sincerely hope, given the contributions that have been made already today, that there is no doubting the merit of establishing that offence. It is not easy to do it in legislation, but it is to be welcomed that Northern Ireland is taking the lead in —.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Ms Bradshaw, I am sorry to interrupt you. Would it be possible for you to move the mic a bit closer? Some Members at the other end of the Chamber are finding it difficult to hear your contribution. Thank you.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

No problem. Thank you. Is that a bit better now?

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Thank you very much.

I welcome that Northern Ireland is taking the lead in the UK in finding the means to do so. It was criminalised as long ago as 2015 in parts of Australia and other common-law jurisdictions. There has been debate about whether privacy or photography laws would suffice and whether the specific offence was necessary. Legal research this century has demonstrated that specific upskirting or downblousing laws are desirable and necessary to determine indisputably that an offence has been committed. It is likely that other UK jurisdictions will follow Northern Ireland's lead on downblousing in due course.

It is also clear that the 2008 Sexual Offences Order has served a significant purpose in protecting victims but, sadly, is not specific enough for the world in which we live. Practitioners have been clear that there is a serious gap in that Order as regards sexual grooming and that the range of offences outlined in clause 2 will offer significantly enhanced public protection, particularly to children. That will take Northern Ireland ahead of other jurisdictions in the UK, although the Irish Government introduced similar provisions in 2017. It is worth emphasising at that point that that change, in line with many in the Bill, is designed to reduce the incidence of the offence taking place, not just to ease and ensure convictions when it does. The House really should aspire to lead the way more often, particularly when it comes to the victims of such blatant, unpleasant and unsavoury misconduct.

Other areas of the Bill are more about bringing Northern Ireland into line with neighbouring jurisdictions, but they are no less important. One example is the implementation of key aspects of the Marshall report, which is overdue and highly important, as it is primarily about protecting and respecting victims. The changes in terminology brought about by clause 3, for example, are clearly about ensuring not just that the punishment fits the crime but that the crime is properly described and thus the victim properly respected. Clauses 18 and 19 are also specifically about preventative orders.

I also welcome the amendments to the Justice Act, in line with legislation in England and Wales, that ensure that not only the commissioning of the offence but the threat to commit the offence can be adequately tried and thus likely lead to the prevention of more instances of so-called revenge pornography. Again, we should not underestimate how harrowing that can be for victims and how important it is that we do all that we can to deter it. That aspect of the law will need to remain under review to ensure that it works in practice, and I have little doubt that it will merit further consideration in the next mandate.

With regard to the Gillen review and the delivery of justice in serious sexual offences, I draw particular attention to clause 15. It bears repeating that the review concluded that unrestricted access for the public to trials of serious sexual offences deterred, humiliated and intimidated complainants. That is an astonishingly huge failing, particularly given the right to anonymity. The benefit of the clause is to make the process of accessing justice less harrowing for complainants and that of attaining justice less harrowing for victims. No one should be deterred from seeking justice, and we must ensure that the system itself does not act as a deterrent.

I also put on record my appreciation of the hard work of campaigners who work to strengthen legislation around the abuse of positions of trust around 16-to-17-year-olds. Strengthening existing protections for that age group should reduce the overall incidence of sexual exploitation, through effective consultation and targeted legislative intervention. That is exactly what the Chamber should be doing, and I am sure that the provision, if it passes, will be warmly welcomed by those involved in youth sport and community-based activities.

The Minister outlined some of the areas that are not included in the Bill, and that is, naturally, frustrating. However, I hope that I have outlined the importance of what is included in the Bill and that the Chamber will unanimously get behind it to ensure its passage.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

As a member of the Justice Committee for the last 12 months, I can say that a huge amount of time and energy has been spent in dealing with the issues of domestic and sexual violence, not least with the work that is ongoing to implement the landmark Gillen review of serious sexual offences. That marked a step change in how the criminal justice system deals with sexual violence and treats victims of sex offences. For too long, the criminal justice system has been heavily weighted in favour of the defendant, often at the expense of victims who have suffered trauma and pain unimaginable to many people. The Gillen review and the public events that preceded it represent a point where the system would no longer be tolerated. That is to be welcomed.

I welcome the Bill, which implements some of the key recommendations of the Gillen review, along with other important provisions that will, no doubt, be discussed across the Chamber. The system should be about fairness and rights for the victim and the defendant, and the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill strikes the correct balance in achieving those objectives.

I echo the comments of my colleague Sinéad Ennis and put on record my frustration and disappointment that the Bill was obstructed in the Executive for so long and that important provisions had to be removed from it to secure its progression. All the while, time is running out to pass the Bill in this mandate.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I ask the Member to resume her seat briefly.

I generally allow flexibility and freewheeling debate. However, in their contribution, Members should refer to the content of the Bill, rather than the processes by which we got to be debating it at this point. That would be more in order.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Thank you.

I too welcome the introduction of new offences of upskirting and downblousing, which will mark the latest step in tackling the growing problem of image-based sexual abuse. Such heinous and deeply traumatic behaviour cannot be tolerated, and the introduction of the offences will go some way towards tackling the problem. It must, however, be accompanied by serious work to improve relationship and sexual education in schools, so that our young people are taught from an early age about the importance of healthy relationships and consent and so that we focus not just on punishing perpetrators but on preventing the crime in the first place.

I welcome the exclusion of the public from all serious sexual offence hearings, which will go a huge way towards supporting victims of sexual crimes during what is already a traumatic experience.

The Justice Minister indicated her intention to propose amendments to the Bill at a later stage, including improving legislation on outlawing revenge porn, widening the existing abuse of trust provisions and provisions for the abolition of the rough sex defence. Those are all policy areas in which my party and I have had a long-standing and keen interest, and we welcome progress on them. Revenge porn is among the most serious incidents of image-based sexual abuse, as are upskirting and downblousing. They are policy areas that demand our full attention and energy. Revenge porn is a disgusting crime and a huge violation of privacy, one that can lead to deep trauma and the devastation of a person's life. I note the Minister's plans to legislate on that area, but, until we see the amendment in writing, it is important that we continue to press home the seriousness of the issue and the urgency required.

Current abuse of trust offences do not provide adequate protection for 17-year-olds who are preyed on or groomed by adults in positions of trust and power. Currently, such protections extend only to those in statutory settings, such as schools. However, children and young people can spend many hours a week with adults in other, non-statutory settings. Such adults might include a sports coach, a faith group leader or a youth club leader. Furthermore, the status quo causes difficulties for sports organisations that tend to operate outside this jurisdiction, such as the GAA, which operates on a provincial basis, including nine Ulster counties, but has to operate two separate safeguarding regimes to protect children. The legal loophole needs to be closed, and protections against grooming and abuse need to be extended to include adults operating in non-statutory settings.

Despite my obvious disappointment about the important provisions that have had to be removed from the Bill, such as those to strengthen the law on bail and remand for children to be more compliant with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and to deal with children and young people more appropriately, I welcome the Bill and where it is today.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you, Members. Given that it is 1.56 pm and Question Time is due to start at 2.00 pm, I ask the House to takes its ease. When we return to this debate, the next Member to speak will be Mr Peter Weir.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)