Protection from Stalking Bill: Consideration Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 25th January 2022.

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Clause 17 (Guidance)

Debate resumed on amendment No 1, which amendment was:

In page 12, line 2, leave out subsection (1) and insert—



“(1) The Department must issue guidance about—


(a) the effect of this Act,


(b) such other matters as the Department considers appropriate as to criminal law or procedure relating to stalking in Northern Ireland, and


(c) the exercise of the Chief Constable’s functions under the provisions of this Act relating to stalking protection orders or interim stalking protection orders.


(1A) A person exercising public functions to whom guidance issued under this section relates must have regard to it in the exercise of those functions.” — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In page 12, line 6, at end insert—



“(2A) The Department must—


(a) keep any guidance issued under this section under review, and


(b) revise any guidance issued under this section if the Department considers revision to be necessary in light of review.” — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

No 3: In page 12, line 8, at end insert—



“(4) The Department must lay before the Assembly any guidance issued or revised under this section.


(5) Nothing in this section permits the Department to issue guidance to a court or tribunal.” — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

No 4: After clause 17 insert—



“Operational matters


 


Guidance on data collection


 


17A.—(1) The Department—


(a) may issue guidance to the listed bodies, or any additional bodies the Department considers appropriate, about the sort of information it seeks to obtain from them for the purpose of the assessment by it of the operation of this Act, and


(b) must have regard to relevant information it obtains from the listed bodies, or from any additional bodies to whom such guidance is issued, in relation to the operation of this Act when determining the steps (if any) that could be taken by it for the purpose of ensuring the effectiveness of the operation of this Act.


(2) The listed bodies are—


(a) the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and


(b) the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.” — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

No 5: After clause 17 insert—



"Training


 


17B.—(1) It is mandatory for each listed authority, and each specified authority, to provide for those of its relevant personnel who have responsibilities for dealing with cases under this Act—


(a) such initial training, and


(b) such annual or other top-up training,


as the authority considers appropriate for the purpose of the effective discharge by those personnel of their respective responsibilities.


 


(2) The Chief Constable is a listed authority, and the Chief Constable’s 'relevant personnel' are the personnel of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.


 


(3) The Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland is a listed authority, and the Director’s 'relevant personnel' are the personnel of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.


 


(4) The Department is a listed authority, and the Department’s 'relevant personnel' are—


(a) staff within the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service, and


(b) staff within any additional agency of the Department that has functions in relation to cases under this Act and that the Department selects in connection with this subsection.


 


(5) The Department must publish a statement detailing the level of participation by relevant personnel in training provided under subsection (1)—


(a) before the end of the period of 18 months beginning with the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent, and


(b) thereafter within each period of 12 months beginning with the day on which the last statement was published.


 


(6) A 'specified authority' is a person that—


(a) has functions in relation to cases under this Act, and


(b) is specified in connection with this section in regulations made by the Department;


and a specified authority’s 'relevant personnel' are persons of a description specified in regulations made by the Department.


 


(7) Regulations under subsection (6) are subject to negative resolution." — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

No 6: After clause 17 insert—



Report on the operation of this Act


 


17C.—(1) The Department must prepare a report for each reporting period giving the information in subsections (2) to (5) (so far as available to the Department).


 


(2) In relation to sections 1, 2 and 13 (offences), the information referred to in subsection (1) is—


(a) the number of stalking incidents reported to the police (broken down by reference to each of sections 1, 2 and 13); and ‘stalking incident’ here means an incident (including a course of conduct) which, as reported to the police, indicates that an offence may have been committed under section 1, 2 or 13,


(b) the number of crimes recorded by or on behalf of the police that are classified as an offence under section 1, 2 or 13 broken down by reference to each section,


(c) the numbers mentioned in paragraphs (a) and (b) broken down by reference to police districts,


(d) the number of files submitted by or on behalf of the police to the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland in relation to offences under one or more of sections 1, 2 and 13,


(e) the number of cases prosecuted by the Public Prosecution Service for offences under one or more of sections 1, 2 and 13, and—


(i) the number of convictions in those cases,


(ii) the average length of time in those cases from recording of a crime by or on behalf of the police to disposal of the case at court (disregarding appeal processes), and


(iii) the number mentioned in sub-paragraph (i) broken down by reference to whether the conduct or behaviour concerned was engaged in by means of the internet—


(A) in a key way, or


(B) in some lesser but non-minimal way, or


(C) either minimally or not at all.


 


(3) In relation to stalking protection orders the information referred to in subsection (1) is—


(a) the number of stalking protection order incidents reported to the police; and ‘stalking protection order incident’ here means an incident (including a course of conduct) which, as reported to the police, indicates that the Chief Constable may have grounds for applying for a stalking protection order against a person,


(b) the number of applications for stalking protection orders under section 7 and the number of orders made under section 8,


(c) the number of stalking protection orders—


(i) discharged before the end of the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which the order was made,


(ii) discharged at the end of the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which the order was made,


(iii) discharged after a period of more than 2 years beginning with the day on which the order was made,


(d) information on the number of applications seeking the—


(i) variation,


(ii) renewal, or


(iii) discharge,


of a stalking protection order broken down by reference to whether the application was made by the Chief Constable or the person against whom the order was made,


(e) information about the level of compliance with stalking protection orders and the requirements of sections 14 and 15 in relation to stalking protection orders.


 


(4) In relation to interim stalking protection orders, the information referred to in subsection (1) is—


(a) the number of applications for interim stalking protection orders under section 11 and the number of orders made,


(b) the average duration of interim stalking protection orders,


(c) the number of interim stalking protection orders which cease to have effect as a result of a stalking protection order being made on the main application,


(d) information on the number of applications seeking the—


(i) variation,


(ii) renewal, or


(iii) discharge,


of an interim stalking protection order broken down by reference to whether the application was made by the Chief Constable or the person against whom the order was made,


(e) information about the level of compliance with interim stalking protection orders and the requirements of sections 14 and 15 in relation to interim stalking protection orders.


 


(5) The information referred to in subsection (1) also includes—


(a) information about the level of participation, by persons for whom section 17B requires training to be provided, in the required training provided for them,


(b) information about how court business is arranged so as to ensure the efficient disposal of—


(i) cases under sections 1, 2 and 13, and


(ii) applications for stalking protection orders and applications for interim stalking protection orders,


(c) information about the experience at court of witnesses (including witnesses who are children)—


(i) in cases under sections 1, 2 and 13, and


(ii) in applications for stalking protection orders and applications for interim stalking protection orders,


but for the purposes of this paragraph a witness does not include the accused or a person against whom an order is sought.


(d) information about any issuing, review or revision of guidance under section 17 or 17A,


(e) any views or assessment that the Department considers it appropriate to give in relation to the operation of this Act or its effectiveness,


(f) information about any steps taken by the Department for raising public awareness of the behaviours addressed by this Act (including, in particular, awareness amongst persons targeted, or harmed or otherwise victimised, by the behaviours),


(g) information about any activities undertaken by the Department in supporting the operation of this Act, and


(h) any further information the Department considers appropriate.


 


(6) For the purposes of subsection (1)—


(a) the first reporting period—


(i) begins on the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent, and


(ii) is of such length, at least 2 years and not more than 3 years, as the Department determines, and


(b) each subsequent reporting period is the 3 years beginning with the end of the previous reporting period.


 


(7) The Department must publish each report under this section as soon as practicable after completion of the report.


 


(8) The Department must lay before the Assembly each report under this section.


 


(9) The duty under subsection (1) does not apply to reporting periods ending after such time as the Department may by regulations specify, but a time may not be specified if it is earlier than the end of 10 years beginning with the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent.


 


(10) Regulations under subsection (9) are subject to negative resolution.” — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

No 7: As an amendment to amendment No 6, in subsection (5)(d), at end insert—



“(dd) information on A and B as described in Section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998,”. — [Miss Woods.]

No 8: In clause 19, page 12, line 22, leave out first “section” and insert “sections 17A to”. — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the Consideration Stage debate on the Protection from Stalking Bill. This is yet another Bill that has the potential to change the lives of victims. Any law that is formulated should be victim-focused and be able to deal with the realities of stalking and the seemingly minor behaviours that, in conjunction, cause fear and alarm. Stalking is an extremely prevalent issue in our society. For too long, protections in the North for crimes such as stalking, which disproportionately impact on women, have been less than those in other jurisdictions. The progress made on issues including domestic abuse legislation, tackling the rough sex defence, and the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill that is going through Committee at the minute is welcome.

However, we still have a long way to go before women and girls are afforded at least the same protections as women across these islands so that the full scale of gender-based violence can be tackled. Although victims of stalking are not always women and girls, stalking is overwhelmingly gender-based and is usually carried out by men against women.

Currently, people who end up in court on charges that are regarded as stalking behaviour can be charged only under existing harassment or intimidation legislation. Stalking is separate from and can be more serious than harassment. It needs to be treated with the seriousness that it deserves. Harassment laws do not accurately capture the heinous nature of stalking and do not appropriately capture the intense fear that is felt by victims of stalking and nor do the penalties. The new offence accurately captures behaviours that are commonly regarded as stalking. Importantly, it carries greater and more appropriate penalties and protections than are available under existing harassment legislation. Whilst the new offence will apply only where there is a pattern of behaviour, ie two or more occasions, I welcome the introduction of the alternative offence of threatening or abusive behaviour that will cover isolated incidents.

Even if threats are not made, stalking is a serious issue that causes many victims to live in fear. A new law alone will not improve the lives of stalking victims. If we want the legislation to be effective, it will require training to ensure the right attitudes towards stalking, improve investigations and secure prosecutions. Therefore, it is welcome that amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3 outline that the Department must issue guidance about the effect of the legislation and other matters that it considers appropriate as to the criminal law or the procedure relating to stalking. It is also welcome that amendment No 5 provides for mandatory training for relevant personnel involved in the operation of the legislation.

Across the legislation that we have dealt with, one of the key lessons that we have learned is the importance of training police officers, prosecutors, judges and all those involved in stalking cases to recognise stalking and understand the risks associated with stalking behaviour. Police officers are often the first responders to incidents and have to provide comfort and reassurance to victims, as well as being responsible for collecting evidence and building a case against the perpetrator. Most police officers who deal with that behaviour do so diligently, so it is important that they are supported in their efforts and equipped with the right tools to tackle it. The introduction of stalking protection orders (SPOs) will be a key tool for the police. They will enable them to intervene prior to any conviction to address stalking behaviours before they become entrenched or escalate in severity and to protect victims quickly when there is an immediate risk of harm.

As has been said, the Bill is significant legislation that will help to protect many people across the North from living in the fear that this kind of crime creates.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House. I will speak mainly to the amendments that deal with training.

To set it in context, we previously passed the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act. Whilst the two are different and distinctly separate pieces of legislation, there are many occasions on which their provisions may cross and impact on individuals, particularly when the perpetrator or alleged perpetrator is an ex-partner. Whilst we cannot put it into the Bill, it is extremely important that we ensure that all legal representatives are aware of both pieces of legislation and how and when they can be used. Individuals have come to my constituency office with issues of coercive control and stalking. These pieces of legislation could be used in those cases, but I am concerned that the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act, in particular, has not been flagged up to those individuals. Training is important, not only for the PSNI and for those in the justice family but for the legal representatives of individuals. Of course, that will be their responsibility, but it is extremely important. It is important that that is said in the Chamber.

A number of Members have outlined the training for the PSNI. That is important not only because the PSNI are the first responders but because, indeed, if the PSNI do not understand the offence, you will have many occasions when a victim will not know that the offence has been committed against them. Many victims of stalking will not even know that what they are suffering is stalking. As was said, some individuals will have had over 100 incidents before they report anything. Many will not report it. They may have had many incidents but still not consider themselves to be victims of stalking, because they do not truly understand what stalking is or what they are suffering. That does not take away the impact that it has on them.

We have already talked about how stalking is mainly an offence perpetrated against women by men and often ends in violence. As we all know, it can end in the death of a victim. On many occasions, those women suffer in silence. They tell nobody. They are embarrassed. They think, "What will happen? Who will believe me?", or, for some reason, they think that they have brought it on themselves. For that reason, the training of our PSNI officers is extremely important. When they respond to those incidents, they need to have a full understanding not only of the offence but of how to assist the person that they are going to help and of how to assist that individual in understanding that what they have suffered is stalking and that they have the legislation in place to stop it, to bring it to court and to bring the perpetrator to justice. It is really important. There is nothing more important in relation to legislation than the training, because the legislation is worthless without it. The previous Committee worked really hard on that in the domestic abuse Bill, and I am delighted that the current Committee has given the same weight to it with this Bill. There can be nothing more important than ensuring that what we do after we pass legislation ensures that it is effective and that it does what it says on the tin.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way, for the work that she did on domestic abuse in her time on the Justice Committee and for the comments that she has made about the current Committee. We are talking about this Bill and the issue in relation to training. In correspondence to us this week, the Minister has already mentioned the pause in the numbers going into Garnerville. We have a real challenge in the Budget to ensure that we also make financial provision in that regard. I know that the Member is not saying otherwise, but we need the resources to do the training. Does the Member agree that, as the Budget sits, there is a huge challenge for us in how we close that gap?

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Yes. In fairness, all of our Ministers have a huge challenge with the Budget, particularly given that we have given priority to Health. Whilst I absolutely agree with that, I certainly hope that the money that goes to Health is effective where it is needed. However, it leaves the Minister and the PSNI with a challenge, and I hope that that is prioritised. I have spoken to people in the PSNI and to those to whom the PSNI has responded, particularly since the changes that were made in Garnerville. Even the PSNI officers and trainers say that there is no comparison between the officers coming out at the other end of the training at Garnerville now and those who went before them. Additional training on the issues can only add to that and make it better. That is really important.

I agree with the Member. Finances and resources will be issues for the Minister and the PSNI going forward, but, like all of us, the PSNI has to decide what its priorities are.

Just because violence against women and girls has been highlighted over the past weeks does not take away from the fact that the issue is as old as time, as I said in the Chamber yesterday. It has been going on for as long as time has existed, and we all have a responsibility to address it where we see it. Without the legislation, addressing it will not be enough. We need to ensure that those who perpetrate it are brought to justice and that the victims who have suffered know that it was stalking that happened to them, that it was wrong and that the perpetrator will be punished for what they have done to them.

I began to say earlier that, if you speak to any woman who has suffered as a result of coercive control or stalking and ask, "What was the most difficult part of it?", you are told that it is the fear. It is the absolute fear. Some women for whom it ends in physical violence will tell you that the fear of what was going to happen was worse than the actual physical violence. That tells you all that you need to know about what some individuals suffer.

I thank the Minister again for bringing the Bill forward. I thank everyone on the Committee for their amendments. Just to speak quickly to amendment No 7, I absolutely support the intent of the Member in relation to the section 75 groups. I would like to see whether there are examples of best practice, maybe in other parts of the world, of how that can be done effectively. Even in my own remit on the Policing Board, I would like to understand, when we ask for the same kind of data to be collected, how we can identify how that can be done. I would appreciate some detail on that.

Thank you to the Minister, and thank you to the Committee.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green 3:00 pm, 25th January 2022

I will endeavour not to go over what has been said other than to thank the Committee staff and all who provided evidence. It is greatly appreciated. I welcome the constructive approach from the Minister and the Department during the Committee's scrutiny and in response to our suggestions to strengthen the Bill. In order to keep my comments relatively brief, I will touch only on areas where, I think, the Committee has added value through our scrutiny. Of course, I will address my amendment regarding the reporting of section 75 information.

As the Chair set out, the Committee discussed a number of issues in relation to certain clauses. I want to touch on one that stills jars with me, which is in relation to clause 7, but I appreciate why it is in the Bill. The Committee report reflects the lengthy discussions and debate that we had on the orders, not just on the application process but on where they apply. The Department confirmed that the key aim was to protect the victim and prevent the impact of stalking and it was not a question of a perpetrator's religious or work rights taking precedence, which was and is welcomed. However, I heard it loud and clear from victims of stalking whom I met that it was at their place of work, their place of worship and at their education facility that they were stalked. It was also they who were made to or had to leave or move on: not the perpetrator but them, as the victim. I appreciate that there is a balance of rights, but we need to be mindful of what really happens and try to minimise the impact on victims in future. We should not have a situation in which a person is a victim of stalking at university, for example, and is told that they cannot attend class and should move to a different class or be forced to leave university, when stalking is reported. Similarly, we cannot have a situation where a victim of stalking has to move on — to move away from their workplace, say — because their stalker remains. It is not the victim who should have to change their behaviour and their everyday life in response to stalking.

That brings in the wider issue of awareness of the role and the responsibilities that we as a society have to play in protecting victims. That is longer-term and is not within the scope of the Bill. What duty exists in places of work, worship and education around stalking? Indeed, that has been discussed around domestic abuse too, so it is an issue that we need to grapple with in order to review, update and implement policies around places that may be used as locations for now-criminal behaviour. What does a workplace do if person A is being stalked by person B and they are on the same property? What measures should be put in place? What can it be? Is there advice and guidance on how to deal with that, and what role does the employer need to play, for example? I would like to see Departments providing the resources and advice to help businesses and other organisations to deal with those scenarios, and that is not a matter for just the Department of Justice.

We should not underestimate the importance and significance of guidance regarding the new criminal offences and new legislation more generally. That is something that I pressed for continuously when the Assembly was considering the domestic abuse Bill. I raised similar arguments with officials and the Committee during the deliberations on this Bill. I was happy that the Committee agreed to propose an amendment to widen the scope of clause 17, but I am glad that it is no longer needed and that the Minister has proposed the changes that we need to see in the Bill in amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3. We need robust implementation of the new law and proper awareness and training across the criminal justice system. Clear, detailed guidance is essential to help those tasked with operationalising the new law and putting it into practice, and that is key to ensuring that the public are able to benefit from the new protections around stalking. We saw the importance of having guidance on the new domestic abuse offence. The arguments have been made, and it is equally important for the new offences of stalking, threatening or abusive behaviour and breaching a stalking protection order.

Many of those who provided evidence to the Committee emphasised the need for adequate training, given the current lack of understanding and awareness of stalking and how the new offence of threatening or abusive behaviour can and should be used. Without training, there would be no effective implementation of the legislation, and that is why I fully support mandatory programmes across the criminal justice system. We have seen that through the regular updates that the Committee was given in light of amendments to the domestic abuse Bill and on the all-party group on domestic and sexual violence. Many police officers have completed the training, and it is being rolled out to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) and the Courts and Tribunals Service.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I will indeed, yes.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for her comments, but I will point out — it is important for Members to understand it — that there has never been any dispute about the importance of training. The issue is simply how we allow for that training, whether it is in the Bill or via regulations. It has always been the Department's intention that training will be provided across all sectors of the justice system, because that is absolutely vital. There is no dispute about the substance. The issue is whether or not to do that in primary legislation, which would mean that primary legislation needs to be amended, or whether it could be done by regulation in secondary legislation, which would allow us to amend it more flexibly but not require us to come back to the House with full changes to primary legislation. That has only ever been the dispute. The Department always agreed with and articulated the principle that training, guidance and all those other things are absolutely essential, both in this Bill and in the domestic abuse Bill.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Minister for her intervention, and I completely understand her point. There is no dispute. I am glad that it is in primary legislation in those Bills, and that reflects the needs and wants of those who are involved in front-line support organisations and the needs and wants of the Committee and the Minister.

Significant work has been done to have training available in the Civil Service too. At the end of last year, at the all-party group on domestic and sexual abuse, I had a run-through of one of the training modules from the Department. It really showed how beneficial it is, and I thank the Minister's officials for all their work on that. It is an absolutely fantastic resource, and I look forward to its being launched next month.

If we are not aware of what coercive control is, how can we spot it? The same goes for the new offence of stalking. How can we get beyond the experiences of many victims who spoke to Committee members — I experienced it last year — of not being believed or of having unwanted attention being brushed off as something that it was not? If we do not know how to recognise it, what do we do? We all need training, and that is why it is key that we are introducing the new offences. The learning must come alongside it, so I am glad that the Minister will make the changes through amendment No 5.

To aid post-legislative scrutiny — an issue that the House needs to do a lot more work on — along with monitoring the effectiveness of new protections and new criminal offences, we need to collate and analyse the relevant data. That data needs to be detailed, and collection must be consistent across the board, with proper read-across involving various justice agencies. Again, the Committee was in agreement that we wanted that to be reflected in the Bill, and I am again grateful that the Minister has agreed to bring that forward via amendment No 4. However, there are some gaps, which is why I tabled amendment No 7.

I will move on to that amendment. Members may think that we have discussed this before: they are correct. Indeed, we did so during debates on the domestic abuse Bill, and it has been mentioned by Members who spoke earlier. It ties in with the importance of data collection and reporting — to know what we are talking about and to know whether there are specific areas or problems that we need to put policies and resources in place to deal with. I will not labour on the amendment too long, as it is self-explanatory, but section 75, as we know, aims to change the practices of government and public authorities so that equality of opportunity and good relations are central to policymaking and service delivery. I will quote:

"The ... duties aim to encourage public authorities to address inequalities and demonstrate measurable positive impact on the lives of people experiencing inequalities. Its effective implementation should improve the quality of life for all of the people of Northern Ireland."

If there is already a public duty, why do we need the amendment? We need it because that level of data is not always collected. The amendment is about the operation of the law after the Bill becomes an Act and has been commenced. We are saying that we need the data so that we can develop evidence-based policy and responses. We, as a Committee, set out to do that through getting amendments, as already discussed, drafted and tabled. We also know that resource allocation and funding go hand in hand with relevant data and that funding and resources should be granted on the basis of objective need, but we know that that does not always happen. What if we were to have the information to hand in order to better identify that need? Maybe the need is in a different area from where we once thought or assumed. What if there were people who did not come forward to report stalking, did not know how to do so or did not want to engage with services, let alone officially report it to the criminal justice agencies and go through those often intimidating processes? Maybe their experiences are not being picked up in a way that fits into the data collection systems. The Committee heard from many sectoral organisations on that exact point. It is clear that we need to improve our data collection and reporting to help to develop better policy responses.

I heard loud and clear last year and, indeed, the year before about the need for disaggregated data. I know from previous debates and conversations that some Members may have concerns about that, so I want to make two further points. The first is that, on 25 November 2021, at an evidence session with the Justice Committee, I asked the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission directly whether it saw any issue with collating and publishing that type of data. The chief commissioner helpfully and succinctly replied with one word: "No". There were no issues. The second point is that amendment No 6, which introduces the reporting requirement in the Bill, already includes an important caveat on data collection:

"The Department must prepare a report for each reporting period giving the information in subsections (2) to (5) (so far as available to the Department)."

That is important, when read alongside my amendment, as it accepts that the Department may not have all the tools to capture all the information described in section 75, so there is some leeway and flexibility for the Department.

Even though the ultimate aim is to strengthen data collection and get a much fuller picture of the issues at play, it is my understanding that the PSNI has already started looking at section 75 data collection. Earlier, the Deputy Chair asked for other examples of where section 75 data was collected, but it only exists in Northern Ireland in that form.

The Minister stated in her opening remarks that the amendment may have unintended consequences. I hope that, in closing, she will explain to the House what they are. Others have said that it is unclear who would collect the data, but my amendment relates to amendment No 6, which states that it is the Department that would do so. I note the comments that anything can be amended, so, if there are issues with the practical implications of the current wording and if Members understand, as, they say, they do, the intent of the amendment, I ask that they agree to it at this stage. We can work together on it for Further Consideration Stage. That is the purpose of my amendment: to strengthen amendment No 6. I ask Members to vote in support of amendment No 7.

I will move on. It is one thing to collect all relevant information regarding the new offences and protection orders, but the Department must also conduct a thorough analysis and publish its assessment of the effectiveness of the legislation. That is not to take away from the Committee or, indeed, the Assembly's job of scrutiny; it is to add to that and improve the level of information that we are able to scrutinise. That is why the reporting requirement in amendment No 6 is so important. It will help the criminal justice sector, inspecting organisations, scrutiny bodies, MLAs and the general public to see how the new system for dealing with stalking crimes is working. It will help to fix problems sooner, lead to more comprehensive solutions and build confidence in the police, the courts and government. While I fully support the Minister's amendment, I, like others, in response to the Committee's desire to bring it forward, would like to see more detail specified on protection orders. There is certainly no harm in doing that, as it is already covered. What we seek is as much clarity as possible, and that is not asking too much.

Finally, tribute must be paid to every person who came forward to speak to us as a Committee and as individual members and laid bare what were — I think that I speak for the members who were part of those informal meetings too — their harrowing experiences. Thank you to everyone who spoke to me and told me what had happened to them. Your experience and your voice are important in the legislation.

To those listening who have been affected by stalking or wish to get advice and assistance, I will say this: please reach out. It may be scary to do so, and you might be fearful of doing so, but there are people and organisations out there that can and do help.

I also thank the previous Justice Committee, my party colleague Clare Bailey MLA and the previous Justice Minister, Claire Sugden MLA, who were determined to get the Bill in place a few years ago before the Assembly was pulled down. They were right. Stalking could not have been included in the domestic abuse legislation. The two issues are completely different, and, in order to be got right, they need to be treated separately. We know that.

I will support all the Minister's amendments, and I encourage Members to support amendment No 7 in order to strengthen data collection and reporting.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 3:15 pm, 25th January 2022

I have no doubt that the Committee was very diligent and spent a lot of time on issues arising, but I have to express disappointment at the lack of focus in the legislation on some matters that are very significant. We have stalking as an issue that provokes fear, yet nowhere in the Bill is there any definition of fear, as there is in parallel legislation. Perhaps more significantly, however, the syndrome of repeat protection orders, which are civil orders, is not addressed in any appreciable fashion in that someone can be subject to successive stalking protection orders for decades even though they have never been prosecuted, a police complaint has never been allayed or there has never been a conviction. There is no right of appeal against that in the Bill. If you are found guilty of breaching a protection order, you can get five years in jail. Even though you have never been prosecuted or had the right to appeal, you can still feel the weight of the criminal sanction. I am disappointed that, from what I can see, the Committee never adequately addressed that.

I will move now to an issue that I thought for some would be very important. If you have been served with a stalking protection order, the police can take your fingerprints not just for identifying you but for any purpose. So a person who has never been prosecuted, charged or convicted can have their fingerprints taken and retained for purposes other than identification. As I suggested at the Bill's Second Stage, surely that provision should have said that the power can be used:

"'only' for the purpose of verifying the identity". — [Official Report (Hansard), 8 February 2021, p25, col 2].

But no, the Committee did not seem to have any interest in that. I am disappointed with the Committee's report in that it avoided those issues and seemed to get into, as do the amendments, a preoccupation with process. Take a look at amendment No 6. Has there ever been a more bureaucratic imposition of over-the-top bureaucracy than amendment No 6? There may not be much wrong with any of the amendments, but they are reflective of a Committee that pursued tangential issues — process issues — over substance issues.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I call the Minister to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

First, I put on record my thanks to all the Members who have participated in the Consideration Stage debate. It is encouraging to see the degree of consensus in the Assembly for the legislation. I think that that reflects the seriousness of the issues at hand and the need for the law to respond better to them.

In the context of the Bill, I want to send a clear message that stalking, in all its forms, is wrong and will no longer be tolerated. Stalking can be psychologically and physically damaging to victims, with delusional and obsessive offenders often going to extreme lengths to contact, follow and monitor their victims. Many of those victims have bravely shared their personal accounts with me, and they are the driving force behind the Bill. As the Chair of the Committee and Miss Woods reflected in their remarks, the victims' stories are harrowing; there is no other word to describe them. The challenges that they face in seeking protection under the law and justice against the perpetrator were a real motivation for us in introducing the Bill.

The Bill, when passed, will create a new specific offence for Northern Ireland, capturing conduct that amounts to acts associated with stalking behaviour. It will be better focused on recognising stalking behaviours, which are fixated, obsessive, unwanted and repeated, and the risks associated with stalking, which the current harassment law does not do. It will apply to two or more occasions that cause a person to suffer fear, alarm or substantial distress. It will also create a new offence of threatening or abusive behaviour, which can be triggered by a single incident. That, in itself, has the potential to be transformative given that physically or verbally threatening behaviour is often directed towards women and girls in public spaces. The impact on the victim of the particular type of behaviour will be paramount in defining whether those offences can be made out.

Importantly, the Bill provides that all victims of stalking will have automatic eligibility for special measures assistance, such as the use of live links or screens at court when giving evidence in proceedings. That also applies in family proceedings, where special measures can be considered by the court on a case-by-case basis. There will be greater and more appropriate penalties and protections than are available under current harassment legislation. The stalking offence will carry a maximum penalty on conviction on indictment of 10 years imprisonment or a fine or both. The introduction of stalking protection orders will be a key tool for police, enabling them to intervene prior to any conviction. I reassure Mr Allister that those stalking protection orders can, of course, be appealed against and that there are mechanisms for that in the Bill.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I will come back to your point in a second.

Awareness raising and training will be critical so that the offences and stalking protection orders can be used as effectively as possible. We know from discussions with operational partners that planning of training packages is in progress.

On the timescale for implementation, I am confident that the offences will come into force upon Royal Assent. Stalking protection orders will require some lead-in time for key training for operational partners, so, for those, we are looking at approximately six months after Royal Assent. This is an important piece of draft legislation. I want to ensure that it reaches the statute book and starts delivering, at the earliest opportunity, for people across Northern Ireland who are suffering from this debilitating and insidious crime on a daily basis.

The issue that is the focus of most the amendments is the administrative duties placed on my Department. The Department and the Committee have the same objective and intent. Our sole difference related to how those requirements should be allowed for in the legislative process. I strongly support the convention that amendments should be included in primary legislation only where there is no other means by which they can be facilitated. I thank my colleague Paula Bradshaw for her remarks in that regard. As outlined previously, I believe that the provisions set out in the amendments would be more properly catered for by way of a secondary legislation instrument.

That would allow more flexibility to amend over time, without further primary legislation and without any loss of scrutiny by the House, because it would be done through its going to the Committee. I appreciated, however, the Committee's strong desire to include the provisions in the Bill, and, out of a desire to work with the Committee as collaboratively as possible to advance this and other legislation as effectively and efficiently as possible, I agreed to bring forward the amendments.

The new provisions have been properly and expertly drafted by the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC), my thanks to whom I again record for turning around the amendments so swiftly. My intention is to ensure that the Assembly debate stages of all these Bills will be straightforward and easily managed by your office, Mr Speaker, and the Bill Office as we approach the end of the mandate, given the huge legislative pressure facing the House.

I thank the Committee for the work that it has done in managing this Bill alongside all the other Department of Justice legislation and policy developments over recent months. I extend my thanks to members and staff.

I will turn to Members' contributions. In response to the question posed by Jim Allister on the difference between "specified" and "listed" authorities in amendment No 5, which will insert new clause 17B, I can confirm that, as I advised in my response to his intervention, "listed" refers to those named in the Bill, while "specified" refers to those that may be added in regulations. On his concerns about "fear", I say that it is not necessary to define it in the Bill, as the dictionary definition is sufficient. I will give way to Mr Allister, because I believe that he had a specific query about stalking protection orders.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Westminster legislation of 2019 expressly provides for a defendant to:

"appeal to the Crown Court against— (a) the making of a stalking protection order".

In the Bill, all that we have is clause 10, which states:

"The Chief Constable or the person against whom a stalking protection order is made may apply to a court of summary jurisdiction for an order varying, renewing or discharging the stalking protection order."

All that someone who is subject to a stalking protection order in this jurisdiction can do is apply for its discharge after it is in force — he cannot appeal the making of it — and the only place to which he can apply is the very court that imposed it. The essence of appeal is that you appeal to a higher authority. There is no such provision in this legislation as is in the GB legislation.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

My officials have already written to the Member and answered his concerns on that point. There is opportunity for the overturning of a stalking protection order where that is sought, because a person has the right to do it. No concerns about the way in which the clause is framed were raised by any of our justice partners or, indeed, by any of those who gave evidence to the Committee.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I will in just a second. Our underpinning courts legislation is different, and the appeal mechanism need not appear in our Bill in the way in which it does in the English legislation. I will give way to the Committee Chair.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Minister for giving way. To give perhaps some comfort to the Member, the issue was raised with us. The Council of District Judges (Magistrates' Courts) in Northern Ireland noted that clause 10 of the Bill:

"is silent in respect of appeals".

The Department acknowledged that an appeal provision was not in the Bill but advised, and this is at paragraph 225 of the Committee's report:

"as an application for an SPO (and an interim SPO) are made by way of complaint, the appeal provision in Article 143 of the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 which states 'an appeal shall lie to the county court from any order of a magistrates' court in proceeding [sic] to which this Article applies' will apply."

I suspect that what the Member is saying is that it is not to a higher court but only to the court that made the original application. I say that just so that there is clarity on the Committee's remit.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Committee Chair for elucidating that point. As I indicated, our underpinning courts legislation is different, and the appeal mechanism therefore does not need to appear in the Bill.

Moving on, I will address the issue raised by Sinéad Bradley, who very helpfully highlighted in her interventions the need for people to be confident that they will be believed when they come forward about issues to do with stalking. The statistic that she shared, which is that a victim will, on average, have suffered 100 incidents before reporting stalking, is shocking but also informative.

It speaks to the lack of confidence that many victims of stalking abuse have. I believe that that is, at least in part, an extension of the more routine experiences of women who, when they challenge sexist and misogynist behaviour, often find themselves subjected to gaslighting by the person responsible and others around them. The sense of male entitlement is so deep-seated at times, and the culture of excusing or downplaying sexism and misogyny is so pervasive, that many women doubt their own judgement, even when such behaviour escalates beyond the banter excuse and becomes serious.

That is why we all need to be sure that we challenge any sexism or misogyny that we see and that we listen to the concerns of women if we are going to change the wider culture, which allows more serious abuse directed against women and girls to flourish.

I will now turn to Rachel Woods's comments on victim blaming and the unfair transfer of responsibility, which, too often, happens where it is the victim of domestic abuse who has to flee from their home in the dead of night in only the clothes they stand up in, away from their support network and their children's schools; where it is the victim of paramilitary intimidation who has to board a boat to head to further shores in order to be sure that they will be safe; or where it is the victim of stalking who has to alter their life to try to avoid contact with the offender. That imbalance is an issue that I acknowledge. Miss Woods rightly identified that it needs further work, but not just in Justice — right across society. We need to get that balance better.

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

I will turn to Rachel's amendment, which deals with section 75 information on victims and offenders. As I said in my opening remarks, while I am very sympathetic to its purpose, I do not believe that her amendment is the best way of achieving the desired outcome. I have already expressed my concerns about how a victim or an offender may feel when being asked for that information and, indeed, the merit of some of what it is intended to show.

There are challenges in when such questions would be asked or the context in which they would be asked, where a victim may be distressed, nervous or fearful. There are significant GDPR challenges that would prevent us from sharing such sensitive personal information across the justice system easily. I remain concerned that there is a very real risk that Miss Woods's amendment could undermine confidence in the justice system, particularly among some more vulnerable groups, by appearing to legitimise a position of profiling victims and, indeed, perpetrators.

The Department would not have contact with victims that would allow us to directly collect such data in the way that the Member suggests. We would be entirely reliant on other justice agencies to collect and share that data with us, which, as I have said, would be problematic. Furthermore, and as I explained during discussions about a similar amendment that was tabled by the Member to the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill, operational partners have said clearly that they cannot deliver on that. Indeed, the police have trialled such monitoring in relation to other offences and have not been able to develop an operational solution. Those concerns are not merely hypothetical ones; they are real and significant.

As with other amendments, by imposing additional requirements at an administrative level, not all of which may materially benefit victims, fewer resources will, ultimately, be available for measures to substantially help them. Those concerns are even more relevant than previously, given the significant budgetary constraints under which my Department and our justice partners will be operating in the next mandate if the draft Budget becomes the final Budget. My concerns in that regard are on record, and I very much welcome the Committee Chair's comments on that issue. Legislation is but the first step on a path that needs to be properly funded.

A number of Members have asked what we can do to ensure that victims of stalking who have other specific vulnerabilities or who are members of section 75 or other minority groups can reach the support that they need. First, the police, and all our statutory partners, have their own equality schemes and policies for internal processes and the public-facing services that they supply. Also, where someone volunteers that information to the police or Victim Support, for example, they will be advised of the additional support available from specialist organisations. Further, we proactively engage with those specialist support organisations to help them raise awareness in particular sections of society about new offences and to encourage formal reporting, but also to ensure that we are aware of the prevalence of these matters in different parts of our community.

It is hugely important that this legislation goes forward. The work that has been done in tackling the issue of stalking is important in and of itself. It raises awareness of what is an insidious and highly damaging crime. It is hugely important that, in addition to raising awareness, we deliver the structure around which, hopefully, future victims of this crime will be able to seek redress in the courts but, crucially, protection in their homes, on their streets and in their workplaces. I commend these amendments to the House.

Amendment No 1 made:

In page 12, line 2, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

<BR/>

“(1) The Department must issue guidance about—


(a) the effect of this Act,


(b) such other matters as the Department considers appropriate as to criminal law or procedure relating to stalking in Northern Ireland, and


(c) the exercise of the Chief Constable’s functions under the provisions of this Act relating to stalking protection orders or interim stalking protection orders.


(1A) A person exercising public functions to whom guidance issued under this section relates must have regard to it in the exercise of those functions.”

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 12, line 6, at end insert—



“(2A) The Department must—


(a) keep any guidance issued under this section under review, and


(b) revise any guidance issued under this section if the Department considers revision to be necessary in light of review.” — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 12, line 8, at end insert—



“(4) The Department must lay before the Assembly any guidance issued or revised under this section.


(5) Nothing in this section permits the Department to issue guidance to a court or tribunal.” — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

Clause 17, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 4 made:

After clause 17 insert—



“Operational matters


 


Guidance on data collection


 


17A.—(1) The Department—


(a) may issue guidance to the listed bodies, or any additional bodies the Department considers appropriate, about the sort of information it seeks to obtain from them for the purpose of the assessment by it of the operation of this Act, and


(b) must have regard to relevant information it obtains from the listed bodies, or from any additional bodies to whom such guidance is issued, in relation to the operation of this Act when determining the steps (if any) that could be taken by it for the purpose of ensuring the effectiveness of the operation of this Act.


(2) The listed bodies are—


(a) the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and


(b) the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.” — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 5 made:

After clause 17 insert—



&quot;Training


 


17B.—(1) It is mandatory for each listed authority, and each specified authority, to provide for those of its relevant personnel who have responsibilities for dealing with cases under this Act—


(a) such initial training, and


(b) such annual or other top-up training,


as the authority considers appropriate for the purpose of the effective discharge by those personnel of their respective responsibilities.


 


(2) The Chief Constable is a listed authority, and the Chief Constable’s &#x0027;relevant personnel&#x0027; are the personnel of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.


 


(3) The Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland is a listed authority, and the Director’s &#x0027;relevant personnel&#x0027; are the personnel of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.


 


(4) The Department is a listed authority, and the Department’s &#x0027;relevant personnel&#x0027; are—


(a) staff within the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service, and


(b) staff within any additional agency of the Department that has functions in relation to cases under this Act and that the Department selects in connection with this subsection.


 


(5) The Department must publish a statement detailing the level of participation by relevant personnel in training provided under subsection (1)—


(a) before the end of the period of 18 months beginning with the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent, and


(b) thereafter within each period of 12 months beginning with the day on which the last statement was published.


 


(6) A &#x0027;specified authority&#x0027; is a person that—


(a) has functions in relation to cases under this Act, and


(b) is specified in connection with this section in regulations made by the Department;


and a specified authority’s &#x0027;relevant personnel&#x0027; are persons of a description specified in regulations made by the Department.


 


(7) Regulations under subsection (6) are subject to negative resolution.&quot; — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Amendment No 6 proposed:

After clause 17 insert—



Report on the operation of this Act


 


17C.—(1) The Department must prepare a report for each reporting period giving the information in subsections (2) to (5) (so far as available to the Department).


 


(2) In relation to sections 1, 2 and 13 (offences), the information referred to in subsection (1) is—


(a) the number of stalking incidents reported to the police (broken down by reference to each of sections 1, 2 and 13); and ‘stalking incident’ here means an incident (including a course of conduct) which, as reported to the police, indicates that an offence may have been committed under section 1, 2 or 13,


(b) the number of crimes recorded by or on behalf of the police that are classified as an offence under section 1, 2 or 13 broken down by reference to each section,


(c) the numbers mentioned in paragraphs (a) and (b) broken down by reference to police districts,


(d) the number of files submitted by or on behalf of the police to the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland in relation to offences under one or more of sections 1, 2 and 13,


(e) the number of cases prosecuted by the Public Prosecution Service for offences under one or more of sections 1, 2 and 13, and—


(i) the number of convictions in those cases,


(ii) the average length of time in those cases from recording of a crime by or on behalf of the police to disposal of the case at court (disregarding appeal processes), and


(iii) the number mentioned in sub-paragraph (i) broken down by reference to whether the conduct or behaviour concerned was engaged in by means of the internet—


(A) in a key way, or


(B) in some lesser but non-minimal way, or


(C) either minimally or not at all.


 


(3) In relation to stalking protection orders the information referred to in subsection (1) is—


(a) the number of stalking protection order incidents reported to the police; and ‘stalking protection order incident’ here means an incident (including a course of conduct) which, as reported to the police, indicates that the Chief Constable may have grounds for applying for a stalking protection order against a person,


(b) the number of applications for stalking protection orders under section 7 and the number of orders made under section 8,


(c) the number of stalking protection orders—


(i) discharged before the end of the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which the order was made,


(ii) discharged at the end of the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which the order was made,


(iii) discharged after a period of more than 2 years beginning with the day on which the order was made,


(d) information on the number of applications seeking the—


(i) variation,


(ii) renewal, or


(iii) discharge,


of a stalking protection order broken down by reference to whether the application was made by the Chief Constable or the person against whom the order was made,


(e) information about the level of compliance with stalking protection orders and the requirements of sections 14 and 15 in relation to stalking protection orders.


 


(4) In relation to interim stalking protection orders, the information referred to in subsection (1) is—


(a) the number of applications for interim stalking protection orders under section 11 and the number of orders made,


(b) the average duration of interim stalking protection orders,


(c) the number of interim stalking protection orders which cease to have effect as a result of a stalking protection order being made on the main application,


(d) information on the number of applications seeking the—


(i) variation,


(ii) renewal, or


(iii) discharge,


of an interim stalking protection order broken down by reference to whether the application was made by the Chief Constable or the person against whom the order was made,


(e) information about the level of compliance with interim stalking protection orders and the requirements of sections 14 and 15 in relation to interim stalking protection orders.


 


(5) The information referred to in subsection (1) also includes—


(a) information about the level of participation, by persons for whom section 17B requires training to be provided, in the required training provided for them,


(b) information about how court business is arranged so as to ensure the efficient disposal of—


(i) cases under sections 1, 2 and 13, and


(ii) applications for stalking protection orders and applications for interim stalking protection orders,


(c) information about the experience at court of witnesses (including witnesses who are children)—


(i) in cases under sections 1, 2 and 13, and


(ii) in applications for stalking protection orders and applications for interim stalking protection orders,


but for the purposes of this paragraph a witness does not include the accused or a person against whom an order is sought.


(d) information about any issuing, review or revision of guidance under section 17 or 17A,


(e) any views or assessment that the Department considers it appropriate to give in relation to the operation of this Act or its effectiveness,


(f) information about any steps taken by the Department for raising public awareness of the behaviours addressed by this Act (including, in particular, awareness amongst persons targeted, or harmed or otherwise victimised, by the behaviours),


(g) information about any activities undertaken by the Department in supporting the operation of this Act, and


(h) any further information the Department considers appropriate.


 


(6) For the purposes of subsection (1)—


(a) the first reporting period—


(i) begins on the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent, and


(ii) is of such length, at least 2 years and not more than 3 years, as the Department determines, and


(b) each subsequent reporting period is the 3 years beginning with the end of the previous reporting period.


 


(7) The Department must publish each report under this section as soon as practicable after completion of the report.


 


(8) The Department must lay before the Assembly each report under this section.


 


(9) The duty under subsection (1) does not apply to reporting periods ending after such time as the Department may by regulations specify, but a time may not be specified if it is earlier than the end of 10 years beginning with the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent.


 


(10) Regulations under subsection (9) are subject to negative resolution.” — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:30 pm, 25th January 2022

As amendment No 7 is an amendment to amendment No 6, we need to dispose of amendment No 7 before returning to amendment No 6.

Amendment No 7 proposed:

As an amendment to amendment No 6, in subsection (5)(d), at end insert—

<BR/>

“(dd) information on A and B as described in Section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998,”. — [Miss Woods.]

Amendment No 7, as an amendment to amendment No 6, negatived.

Amendment No 6 agreed to. New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19 (Commencement)

Amendment No 8 made:

In page 12, line 22, leave out first “section” and insert “sections 17A to”. — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]

Clause 19, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Protection from Stalking Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.