I am aware of the initiative announced by the Justice Minister for Ireland to expunge convictions for certain repealed offences related to prostitution. I understand that her Department has commissioned a review of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex provisions introduced in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. Legislation to provide for the expungement of convictions for offences repealed by the 2017 Act will await the outcome of and recommendations made in that review.
It is often the case that human trafficking is linked with other organised crime in the sex industry and that victims may be targeted for sexual exploitation because of their vulnerabilities, which could include poverty and drug addiction.
There are existing protections in Northern Ireland for those forced into prostitution through no act of their own. Under section 22 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, a slavery or trafficking victim is not guilty of an offence where the person does the act because they are compelled to do so.
I will meet the Justice Minister, Helen McEntee, in the near future and will discuss the issue further with her. I will continue to monitor developments in Ireland and consider their applicability for Northern Ireland.
Minister, you have largely answered my question on the expungement of records. Clearly, you are aware that it is taking place in the Twenty-six Counties. Are you indicating a firm commitment that the records of those who have been victims of trafficking and who have been convicted of prostitution or offences of that nature will be expunged?
Victims of trafficking are already not guilty of an offence where they are complicit in an act because of compulsion, so they would not be convicted of an offence in Northern Ireland. However, my officials will explore, in liaison with colleagues in the Irish Justice Department, the approach that is being taken there on making legislative provision for historical offences. My Department will also undertake research on how victims of human trafficking might be identified and on the potential number of convictions for all repealed prostitution offences. Once I have all the relevant information, I will consider a way forward.
Anyone who comes across a situation that, they believe, may be linked to modern slavery has not just a moral duty but a duty to wider society to report that to the police as early as possible. We know that there are people in our community who have been trafficked here. People are trafficked within our communities and from here to elsewhere. It is hugely important that the public are aware of the signs of trafficking. A lot of work has been done by a huge number of voluntary organisations and partner bodies with us to raise awareness of human trafficking and its signs. I hope that people will make themselves familiar with the indicators of trafficking and will have the confidence to come forward and make disclosure to the police where they believe that human trafficking may be involved.
The Minister cited other legislation relating to cases that may be held against a person who has been established as having been trafficked and said that the person's record would be expunged. Has she given any thought to joining the dots in all that legislation to ensure that any person found to be trafficked walks away with an appropriately clean record?
It is already the case that an act committed by a victim of human trafficking under coercion will not be an offence. Those protections are there. The issue is with what happened before 2015, for example, to people who may have been prosecuted for coerced prostitution at that time. Of course, there will be further gaps. The Member will be aware, from her membership of the Justice Committee, that we are looking at areas around human trafficking and what we can do for victims of it through that legislation.
It is my hope that we will continue to refine and improve what we do not just in our support of victims of human trafficking but through the prevent and pursue priorities in our strategy, because I would like to see the organised criminals behind human trafficking taken off our streets.
The scourge of human trafficking is still an all too common sight on our streets, and my thoughts are with all who have been affected by it. Will the Minister outline the support packages that exist to help those who have been the subject of human trafficking? Does she believe that the police are doing enough to end that scourge?
There are a number of parts to that question. We are about to put the support that we offer on a statutory footing through the Bill that is going through the Committee. We have extended the current minimum provision in Northern Ireland — that was done by David Ford during his time as Minister of Justice — and intend to put that on a statutory footing. Also, an incredible amount of work has been done by the PSNI.
A number of people are considered to be first responders when it comes to human trafficking, so we are looking for an increase in the number of referrals to the national referral mechanism. That will reflect not only the increase in the scale of modern slavery and human trafficking but the greater awareness of the issue that may have contributed to the increased identification of victims.
We also want to see an increase in the number of prosecutions. They are complex crimes. Often, because the crime has been committed elsewhere, it can be difficult to secure convictions. Despite those challenges, it is hugely important that the PSNI continues to enhance its capacity to tackle those crimes and, by engaging with other law enforcement agencies and stakeholders, continues to pursue offenders using all the available tools at its disposal.