DOJ Legislative Programme: Update

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 23rd November 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 2:15 pm, 23rd November 2021

4. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Justice for an update on her legislative programme. (AQO 2784/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

On my appointment as Minister of Justice in January 2020, I set out an ambitious legislative programme that involved a proposal to bring forward five separate Bills during the remainder of the mandate. I am pleased to advise the House that, as a result of the excellent work of the Office of the Legislative Counsel, together with the concerted efforts of departmental officials and the Committee, that plan is progressing well.

The Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 received Royal Assent on 1 March. Departmental officials are now progressing measures to facilitate the implementation of the new powers that are contained in the Act.

Two Bills have completed Committee Stage and have now progressed to Consideration Stage: the Damages (Return on Investment) Bill, which was debated on Monday 15 November, and the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill, which is due to be debated today. Subject to completion of the Consideration Stage debates on those dates, I am planning for the Further Consideration Stage and Final Stage of both Bills to be completed before Christmas recess commences on 18 December.

Two further Bills are at Committee Stage: the Protection from Stalking Bill, which is due to complete Committee Stage on 10 December, and the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill, for which Committee Stage has been extended to 28 January 2022. Completion of the Consideration Stage, Further Consideration Stage and Final Stage of both of those Bills in the time that remains of the mandate will be challenging. However, I am confident of delivering all five of the proposed Bills before the Assembly rises for the next local elections in May 2022. I am grateful for the support of the Assembly and Committee in being able to do so.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Justice Minister for the leadership that she has shown in delivering the legislative change and executive decision-making that will keep communities safe, and for doing so frequently in the face of death threats and heinous misogynistic online abuse. Thank you, Minister, for the courage that you show in that regard. There have been many times in the mandate when I have been extremely grateful that Naomi Long is Justice Minister. Can the Minister give an update on her work to prevent abuse in sport and faith settings?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. I think that we are meant to pay tribute to outgoing Members, rather than those of us who intend to run again, so do not write my eulogy just yet, Chris. It is important that I tell Chris that he has been an incredibly supportive MLA and member of my team, and, as a result, will be hugely missed.

Greater protection needs to be provided for young people who are in the care of adults who are in a position of trust in environments that are not currently prescribed in law. As it stands currently, the law protects only those young people who are in the care of adults in certain statutory settings, such as education, youth detention and social or hospital care. I intend to change the law to extend the scope of the "abuse of position of trust" offences that are contained in the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 by making an amendment to the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill at Consideration Stage.

I should mention that I have deliberately sought to bring that proposal forward within this mandate. I had previously intended to develop proposals more slowly for introduction in the next mandate. However, recent developments, such as the introduction of proposals for an extension of the law in England and Wales, and further representation from key interests, have persuaded me that earlier action is required. Draft clauses are currently in development. I hope to be able to share those with Members soon, and particularly with the Justice Committee, which is currently scrutinising the Bill.

That having been said, I can confirm that, on the basis of consultation and engagement carried out in partnership with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), I intend to extend the scope of the offences to the specific areas of sport and faith at this stage. That reflects those areas that have been highlighted as being of particular concern and where, unfortunately, the abuse of power by adults who are responsible for children in those settings has become all too prevalent.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her answers so far. I welcome the progress in bringing forward essential legislative change, particularly in the areas of domestic and sexual violence and abuse. I commend the Minister and her Department for that. As the Minister is aware, serious concerns remain that the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill that relate to upskirting, down-blousing and image-based sexual abuse do not go far enough to effectively tackle those problems. Can the Minister therefore commit to strengthening the Bill if required?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Bill is now with the Committee. I intend to listen carefully to the feedback that I receive from the Committee. Where I believe that robust alternatives exist that can be included in the Bill, I am, of course, open to doing that, and have demonstrated that on a number of occasions as we have passed legislation through the House. <BR/>Members need to reflect on the fact that, whilst it may be the last piece of legislation to pass in the mandate, it will not be the last piece of legislation to pass through the House. There will be plenty of opportunities for us, in future mandates, to improve legislation and refine what we do. It is important, at this point, that we focus on completing the legislation that is before the House so that none of the work by the Committee, the Department and our statutory partners is lost because of us running up against the deadline of the end of the mandate.