Official Report: Monday 16 November 2020
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in the light of social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members do still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called, but they can do that by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. This is not an opportunity for debate per se, and Members should not engage in long introductions.
Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Thank you, Mr Speaker. In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on the twenty-third meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in environment sectoral format, which was held in Armagh and by videoconference on Wednesday, 21 October 2020. The statement has been agreed with junior Minister Kearney.
Junior Minister Kearney and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting. I chaired the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Eamon Ryan TD, Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, and Darragh O'Brien TD, Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
The Council noted the work that is being carried out to prepare for the end of the transition period and the need for continued cooperation on environmental matters, including those of a cross-border nature. Ministers agreed to continue to cooperate on environmental issues in coming months. They recognise that it is in the common interest of both jurisdictions to work together to minimise disruption to trade and economic activity on the island.
Ministers welcomed the continuing cooperation on, and draw down for, the main sources of EU funding in the environment sector — INTERREG Va, LIFE and Horizon 2020 — including successful delivery of Northern Ireland and Ireland partnership projects and ongoing collaboration through joint meetings, training and information events. We noted that, under the INTERREG Va environment objective, nine cross-border projects were awarded funding totalling €89 million in the 2014-2020 programme period, and collaboration is ongoing to maximise draw down of the available EU moneys and to continue to implement the programmes as agreed.
Ministers noted the commitment to funding INTERREG Va after the UK withdraws from the EU, allowing the projects to be continued until their conclusion in 2023, and that, under Horizon 2020 societal challenge 5, two North/South collaborations on low temperature anaerobic digestion treatment of low-strength waste waters and photo-irradiation and absorption-based novel innovations for waste treatment were successful and contributed to the drawdown figures, with €2·5 million being shared by five organisations in Ireland and €0·55 million shared between two organisations in Northern Ireland.
The Council noted that benefits for joint environmental priorities from a small number of LIFE projects have been achieved through ongoing collaboration between Departments, agencies and partnerships operating in both jurisdictions. Ministers also noted the potential to build on the success of the INTERREG projects through access to the new PEACE PLUS programme 2021-27 and its environment policy objective of achieving a greener, low-carbon Europe.
Ministers noted the ongoing collaboration between officials in both jurisdictions and submission of joint position papers focusing on a range of holistic clean air, water catchment and nature based solutions to address future pressures from climate change, support sustainable economic recovery and protect the environment to inform emerging PEACE PLUS themes.
The NSMC noted that the work programme will be kept under review at future NSMC environment sector meetings, having regard to particular matters arising from the outcome of the UK referendum on EU membership. Ministers agreed that, within the work programme, consideration should continue to be given to opportunities for cooperation on wider environmental issues, such as sustainable development; encouraging cooperation and knowledge sharing in relation to the environmental impact of agricultural activities and related issues; cooperation and exchange of information on marine, bathing and shellfish waters; cooperation and collaboration on water and urban waste water services areas, including implementation of EU measures; the promotion of a circular economy; a joint programme of enforcement and collaboration on tackling environmental crime; and cooperation with a view to maximising draw down of EU funding. We also agreed the proposed updated work programme.
The NSMC noted that both Environment Ministers are continuing to work together to target resources into joint enforcement action against those involved in illegal waste activity, including the continued exchange of intelligence and information on problem areas and the continuation of coordinated joint inspections.
Ministers noted the efforts of both Administrations to increase the quantity and quality of recycling, including the publication, on 4 September 2020, of Ireland's national waste policy 2020-25, 'A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy', the publication of the new Northern Ireland waste prevention programme, 'Stopping Waste in its Tracks', and the associated actions and successes.
We also noted the ongoing work in Northern Ireland to tackle plastic pollution, the success of the extended producer responsibility schemes in Ireland and the opportunities for both Administrations to share examples of good practice in this area.
The NSMC welcomed the work being undertaken in both jurisdictions to further a clean air strategy and the collaboration between officials working together to identify cross-border research opportunities and develop proposals.
Ministers noted the publication of the second-cycle river basin management plan for Ireland in 2018 and welcomed the ongoing preparation of the third-cycle river basin management plans in Ireland and Northern Ireland. We noted that the public consultation on significant water management issues closed in Northern Ireland on 22 June 2020 and, in Ireland, on 7 August 2020. We acknowledged the continued support for the Rivers Trust in cross-border areas, and we welcomed the level of beach awards in both jurisdictions for 2020 and the continued coordination on the Clean Coasts and Coast Care schemes.
Ministers acknowledged the engagement of both Administrations in the work of the advisory group for Ireland’s marine protected areas, the final report of which is expected shortly, and noted the continuing engagement between the Department for Infrastructure, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Irish Water and Northern Ireland Water on exploring opportunities for cooperation, including applications to access funding under the EU’s new PEACE PLUS programme.
The Council agreed to hold the next environment meeting in early 2021. Ministers agreed the joint communiqué.
Mr Irwin: What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the Republic of Ireland moves to repatriate illegal waste from the Republic of Ireland that has been dumped in Northern Ireland?
Mr Poots: Eamon Ryan was the Environment Minister back in 2009 when I was also Minister. An agreement was drawn up then whereby waste that was illegally tipped on 20 sites in Northern Ireland, emanating from the Republic of Ireland, would be repatriated. It is my understanding that around only half of those sites have been cleared. That leaves around 100,000 cubic tons of illegally tipped waste in Northern Ireland on sites that have not been secured. Consequently, I have raised the issue again and asked why it has not happened. The reason given is that they have capacity issues in taking the waste. However, I do not find that acceptable. I will continue to work to ensure that that work, which has been let go by the by in spite of an agreement, is taken up again and that the material on those waste sites is removed and taken back to the Republic of Ireland.
Mr McHugh: I note the Minister's commitment to cooperation on environmental matters. I am sure he is aware of the recent news of a major bog slippage in the Tyrone/Donegal border at the Meenbog wind farm. That has impacted on the Mourne Beg river — a major tributary to the Derg river, which is a renowned salmon watercourse. What work will the Minister do to ensure that we have the cooperation of the authorities on both sides of the border to minimise the impact of that bog slippage on fauna, flora and the fish stocks of the Mourne Beg river?
Mr Poots: The Loughs Agency, which is a cross-border body, has been engaging in investigations since that slippage occurred, as has the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). I watched a video of the slippage: it was astonishing to see the amount of material moving slowly but inexorably. Donegal County Council has organised a meeting for today. My officials will be in attendance, as it is an issue that has a material impact on both sides of the border. It is clear that the rivers have been affected by large amounts of peaty soils coming into them. At this stage, oxygen levels in the rivers are still high, which is good, but fish gills can become contaminated with high levels of peat, and they can die from that. Small levels of fish kill have been identified at this stage, but that does not mean that that will be the case. Given the amount of peat and so forth in the water and the high levels of water, it is not particularly easy to identify the issues, but all of those things will be investigated in due course. We will continue to work with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland on that matter.
Mr McGlone: In the Minister's statement, heavy emphasis is placed on the exchange of and cooperation on information on marine bathing waters, rivers and the like. What cooperation has there been on the strain of COVID that has been identified in mink in Denmark. As we know, mink inhabit our waterways and rivers. Has there been collaboration between both Departments?
Mr Poots: We suspect that the problem is less of an issue with wild mink because they do not come into contact with humans; in general, the problem is with farmed mink. There are three mink farms in the Irish Republic. There have not been any here since 2002 because the keeping of mink for fur was banned, but that practice has continued in Ireland. I believe that those three mink farms will be run down over the next year. It is a matter for the health authorities in the Republic of Ireland to keep a close eye on that circumstance.
I believe that there are 17 million mink in Denmark. The original plan was to have an immediate slaughter of them all, but I do not think that that is now the case. It is an issue of significant concern because a lot of effort and money has been expended on developing vaccines. We know that one is virtually ready to go and that another one will come very shortly afterwards. It would be of significant concern if a mutation of COVID happened through the mink and, consequently, those vaccines were not fit for purpose. Any country that has mink farms needs to act very responsibly in that regard at the moment. My preference is that mink farms would cease to exist.
Mrs Barton: Minister, thank you very much for your statement. What cooperation is there on cross-border fly-tipping, particularly from homes in border areas? Much waste from homes is dumped in Northern Ireland because there is an expense involved in having that waste collected from homes in the Republic.
Mr Poots: The Member puts her finger on a problem that emanates more from the Republic of Ireland than here. One of the benefits of our rating system is that people have their waste collected. The issue of fly-tipping arises but not to the same extent. It is for local authorities, in the first instance, to deal with fly-tipping. We have a level of cross-border cooperation on issues around waste in general, and we will press hard to ensure that as much information as possible flows to each side so that the people involved in the illegal tipping of waste are caught and prosecuted for their activities.
Mr Blair: I also thank the Minister for the statement and the detail therein, including the reassuring cooperation envisaged on marine waters, as well as the joint programme of enforcement and collaboration on environmental crime. In that regard, how will the proposed Office for Environmental Protection, which will have only one Northern Ireland representative, be able to play a part in intergovernmental arrangements that are already making progress here?
Mr Poots: The Office for Environmental Protection will deliver on the same standards that currently exist under the EU and are monitored by the European Commission. Therefore, the standards that exist in the Republic of Ireland will be the same standards as exist in the United Kingdom until the United Kingdom makes legislation that may produce different standards. Those standards could be higher or lower, but that is a matter to be debated by the UK Parliament or, indeed, the Assembly, should we wish to change them. At the moment, the standards will be the same, and the Office for Environmental Protection will have a role to ensure that the standards that have been set are implemented right across the United Kingdom after it leaves the European Union.
Mr Harvey: We are back to waste: what commitments have been made to ensure that greater enforcement measures are put in place to stop illegal waste practices?
Mr Poots: Clearly, there is a series of rules relating to waste, the tipping of waste and illegal management of waste. It is a matter for the courts to decide how they use the fine process that is available. There are substantial opportunities to fine individuals who are involved in the illegal management of waste. We all know that there is substantial money to be made in the illegal management of waste. Our Department has a "polluter pays" principle, so we will ensure that people who are caught dealing with illegal management of waste pay for all of the costs associated with disposing of it properly. There is a series of measures, but I accept that those measures may be made be stronger because people are still involved in this. So, whether it is through greater enforcement or whether it is through strengthening the fines that are imposed, we need to ensure that what is done is enough to put people off engaging in this activity.
Mr McGuigan: Given the recent discovery of two birds, a swan in Derry and a falcon in Limerick, with bird flu, what are the contingency plans in the Department here in the North in the event of an outbreak of bird flu? What is the level of cooperation across the island to monitor the situation?
Mr Poots: It is very concerning. There have been a couple of outbreaks in England. Obviously, there is the one in Limerick and the mute swan that was picked up in Lough Beg. That is a matter of significant concern to us, because the poultry industry in Northern Ireland is worth around £900 million. It employs directly 5,500 people, so it is an industry that is hugely important to us.
Every keeper of birds is supposed to register with DAERA — even if there are only two or three chickens scratching about in your back garden, they are supposed to be registered. DAERA has a website set up that identifies how best to manage biosecurity arrangements. DAERA has been escalating, through the veterinary section, its response. We are not at the point yet where birds should be closed up, but, nonetheless, we are pressing and impressing upon people the need to take all of the biosecurity steps that they should and we have been very clearly indicating what those biosecurity measures are. Fundamentally, the most important thing that a chicken farmer or any keeper of poultry can do at this minute is to manage their biosecurity particularly well. If we believe that we need to move to that next stage of closing up free range birds, we will recommend that step in the not-too-distant future, if that is required.
Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for his statement. He referred to the implications of withdrawal from the EU and preparations for the end of the transition period, but what are the implications for Northern Ireland if there are no preparations ready to hit the ground running come the end of the transition period?
Mr Poots: I assure the Member that there has been a lot of preparation. Sometimes, it is a little difficult to prepare for something when you do not know what you are preparing for, so the conclusion of the negotiation is absolutely critical. I believe that the aim is that that will take place this week, but there are still outstanding issues, particularly on state aid and on fisheries. Those are the two issues that seem to preventing a trade deal at this stage.
For Northern Ireland, there are particular areas of concern that arise through the implementation of the protocol. First is seeds that are imported to Northern Ireland, mainly from Scotland. In fact, the issue is of seeds imported to all of Ireland, mainly from Scotland. That is around 90% of seed used. That importation is currently a problem as a result of the protocol.
There is another group called PMR. That relates to minced beef and processed meats and accounts for up to 30,000 tons of meat imported into Northern Ireland every year. As things stand, that would stop immediately on 1 January, so it is not even a matter of having an export health certificate — you just do not import it, full stop. So, for example, there would be no lasagnes in Iceland. In fact, many of the products that you get in our shops would no longer be available and the shelves would be empty. That is purely a matter for the European Union.
I will add further that the importation of red meat amounts to around one quarter of a billion pounds per year. Indeed, a considerable amount of chicken — white meat — is imported to Northern Ireland, processed in Northern Ireland and, in the main, goes back to GB. There are issues around that. Those issues really need to be sorted this week, and we need to get solutions.
It has to be stressed that it is not about damaging the single market or reducing the quality of things in the single market, but it will be hugely detrimental and have serious implications for Northern Ireland, both at a consumer and a business level, if we cannot get those issues resolved. The Executive are aware of the issues, and they have mandated me to write on their behalf to the European Union to impress the need to get those matters resolved to everybody's satisfaction.
Mr Poots: We discussed clean air and where cooperation could take place. We intend to bring to the Assembly this year the clean air discussion document that we are working on. It will go out to the public so that we can have a consultation process on clean air, which is a very important matter, particularly for those who live in cities.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for his statement. It refers to greater cross-border work on increasing water quality. In that regard, such collaboration will be absolutely essential in investigating and mitigating the environmental damage caused by the peat landslide that the Minister referred to at Meenbog, which has caused contamination of the Mourne Beg river and the local waterways.
I visited yesterday with councillor Steven Edwards, and there is clear anxiety amongst my constituents in Killeter, Aghyaran, Castlederg and Ardstraw. Will the Minister outline what action his Department has taken to reassure the public in that area that his Department is doing everything possible to mitigate contamination of those waterways? Does he know the root cause of the slippage problem?
Mr Poots: On 13 November, at around 1.30 pm, NIEA was informed of a landslide at a peat bog adjacent to the Mourne Beg river in Donegal. NIEA contacted Northern Ireland Water and the Loughs Agency regarding the event. In response, Northern Ireland Water shut down its intake of raw water from the River Derg as a precaution. As the incident occurred on the southern side of the border, the investigation and initial response to the event was the responsibility of the Loughs Agency. It has been on site investigating the matter.
NIEA tasked a water quality inspector to assess the impact on the Mourne Beg and Derg rivers on Saturday morning. The initial assessment showed that the oxygen levels have not been suppressed but that the high levels of suspended solids were affecting aquatic life, including a fish farm business. Loughs Agency is working with the owners to mitigate the impact, including the deployment of aerators.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for his statement. I would be grateful if the Minister could provide some further detail on the LIFE projects referred to in paragraph 7.
Mr Poots: A number of the LIFE projects that we mentioned have taken place. They have been achieved through work done by Departments, agencies and their partnerships operating in both jurisdictions. The LIFE projects have environmental priorities. There are a small number of them. I will write to the Member to give him the detail of the projects so that he can get fully updated on them.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for his statement. He will be well aware that ammonia emissions are a particular issue here not just in the North but across the island. There will be a debate on the issue later this afternoon. Work has been going on to inform an ammonia strategy. When can we expect publication of the draft strategy?
Mr Poots: It is at the latter stages of preparation and will be produced before the end of this year. Ammonia is an area of significant concern for us. We know that most ammonia is produced on farms. A course of actions therefore needs to be taken to reduce ammonia levels as we continue to increase our agricultural output. It is important that we support the industry to increase its output but that that be done in a way that is less harmful to the environment. One of the things that we want to do is to ensure that, over the next number of years, ammonia outputs on farms are reduced, and there are ways and means of doing that. One of those means is through low-emission spreading equipment. We recently launched a grant that will support a number of things, but the priorities are that people will get additional points for having such equipment, for covering tanks, for better separation of slurry and for slurry scraping. We are already working on a series of measures that will help reduce ammonia emissions. If I get more funding, there is the opportunity to make a much more significant reduction in ammonia emissions, so that is an area of work that we will continue to impress on the industry.
Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, can you provide an update on the joint programme of cross-border collaboration and enforcement to tackle environmental crime?
Mr Poots: At our meeting, Ministers agreed to continued cooperation in five key areas of mutual benefit and future development potential: environmental research and reporting; environmental protection and sustainable development; water and waste water management; waste management in a cross-border context; and EU funding. In all those areas, we are encouraging sustainable development; cooperation sharing; cooperation and exchange of information on marine issues; cooperation and collaboration on water and waste water service areas; the promotion of a circular economy; a joint programme of enforcement and collaboration on tackling environmental crime; and cooperation with a view to maximising drawdown of EU funding. Environmental crime is therefore very much a key area within those areas of cooperation.
Mr O'Toole: Minister, thank you for your statement. It contains an update on EU funding, including existing INTERREG funding and, looking ahead, Horizon 2020 funding. What it does not mention, however — it would be good to get your thoughts on this, Minister — is the European green deal, which is an enormous, multi-year plan of investment by the European Union to transition to a lower-carbon economy. Given that, for example, large parts of Northern Ireland's energy generation sector will remain in the EU emissions scheme and given some of the potential benefits from the protocol, notwithstanding the issues that he described earlier, can the Minister ask his officials to work with officials on the other side of the border on looking at potential benefits for Northern Ireland projects from what could be a £20 billion-plus Just Transition Fund (JTF) for green transition. That is something from which we might be able to benefit. I ask the Minister really to look at the European green deal and figure out how Northern Ireland could benefit from it.
Mr Poots: Some funding continues, despite the fact that the UK has left the European Union, and it will certainly go on until 2023, as set out in the statement.
The ETS is a scheme into which we pay very heavily, at close to £60 million a year. A new scheme will be set up for the UK, but, under that, only around 18% of our payments will go to the UK scheme, with 82% going to the EU. Over the years we have never drawn down any money from the ETS because of its three project per country rule. Given that the UK is quite a large country, ETS has not benefited Northern Ireland.
We are asking whether Northern Ireland will have the status of being a country in this instance because Northern Ireland remains part of the ETS outside of the UK. That would allow us to bid for three schemes per year, and that would be hugely progressive. However, thus far, we have not had the benefits from the emissions trading scheme that I would like to have seen. Northern Ireland has many wonderful opportunities in hydrogen and in how we can better manage and capture carbon and so forth. It would be good if the EU allowed Northern Ireland the status of being its own country and consequently we were able to draw money from the scheme.
Mr Lynch: I thank the Minister for his statement. What assurances can he offer to the many organisations who have contacted me and other MLAs regarding the replacement of lost EU funding as we come to the end of the transition period?
Mr Poots: There has been a rollover of funding by the UK Government. Therefore, the funding that is currently in place for the environmental sector continues to be in place as we go forward.
Ms Bailey: Thank you to the Minister for the statements and for bringing them forward in a timely manner. That was much appreciated.
Members have asked about enforcement, but I want to go further, Minister. What discussion has there been around how we deal post transition with trans-boundary environmental breaches under existing EU directives? Ammonia, for example, was brought up, but it is certainly not the only issue. We know that we are not meeting our EU directive targets for ammonia. That is not the farmers' fault; it is certainly not the chickens' fault. It is the result of polices. How will we meet those targets post transition across the island?
Mr Poots: There is a series of issues in and around the environment. The UK Government have set out their policy of being carbon-neutral by 2050. That sets significant challenges. You will not achieve carbon neutrality without significant investment, and that is just a reality. People need to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to the environment. One of the things that I will raise at Executive level is how all our Departments will pull together to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and what investment is required to achieve that. For example, agriculture, energy and transport account for around 70% of emissions. Consequently, we need significant investment in those areas. Energy has demonstrated that there has been significant reductions in its carbon. We are looking at about 40% to 45% of our energy coming from renewable sources now. However, some of that energy is not appropriately captured, so we need to ensure that we have the capacity to capture all the energy produced.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that people do not need to travel as much. Those of us who were on the roads this morning will have noticed the considerable reduction in the number of vehicles on the roads, and, driving past them, you will have noticed the substantial reduction in the number of vehicles in our government car parks. There are opportunities to do more work from home. We can also use electric cars, as well as cars that are more fuel-efficient. My only caveat with electric cars is how they and the materials involved in their production are used at the end of life, so that there is no other kind of environmental damage done as a consequence of that. However, there are opportunities in transport.
Agriculture is a huge issue, particularly for Northern Ireland, as it produces more than 10% of the food produced in the entire United Kingdom. How do we manage that in a way that reduces emissions? We spoke about ammonia. I want to look at issues around nitrogen and phosphates and how we can better manage the materials and nutrients excreted so that they can be used for something other than slurry that is applied to land. That will involve investment. There is a series of things.
I am happy to cooperate with people in similar areas to ourselves, be that in other parts of the United Kingdom or in the Republic of Ireland, because, ultimately, all of us have similar problems, and so our responses will be similar. The research that will allow us to take the appropriate steps in environmental management is research that I am happy to support, and I am happy to cooperate with colleagues in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, England or Wales to identify solutions that we can all apply in delivering a better environmental outcome.
Mr Allister: Can I take the Minister back to the INTERREG Va programme? Now that we have left the EU, would the Minister remind the House of the funding formula for INTERREG Va? Would he also remind the House of the match funding aspect, with an indication of what it will cost the public purse in Northern Ireland?
Mr Poots: I do not have the match funding figures required under INTERREG Va to hand. However, we have been able to fund about €89 million worth of projects over the past six years, and we will continue to be able to access EU money. Significant amounts of money have been spent directly into Northern Ireland, some on cross-border projects. We have been net receivers, as opposed to givers, of that income, and I regard that as positive. We will continue to work to secure as much of that funding as possible for the environmental benefit.
Mr Carroll: In relation to environmental protection, can I ask whether Ministers discussed measures to keep fossil fuels in the ground? My party colleague, Bríd Smith TD, brought a proposal to take such measures in the South, but it was guillotined by a previous Government. Was there any discussion about legislation or policies and proposals to ensure that fossil fuels are kept in the ground?
Mr Poots: No such discussion took place. Of course, keeping fossil fuels in the ground may be appropriate when you have fully identified alternatives to fossil fuels. Sometimes I wonder at people objecting to extracting fossil fuels closer to home when we import fossil fuels from regions that are deeply unstable and use the money that they gain from fossil fuels to engage in wars, whether they be cyberwars or wars involving traditional weapons.
Not utilising fossil fuels closer to home is not necessarily something that is good for the environment, but it can be very good for people who do not care about the environment and human rights, and that is something that is of concern to all of us.
Mr Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two, please.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Speaker has received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make another statement.
Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding the thirteenth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in the aquaculture and marine sector. This was held on Wednesday 21 October. Due to the current COVID restrictions, the meeting was conducted via videoconference. The Executive were represented by Minister Nichola Mallon, as accompanying Minister, and me. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Eamon Ryan TD, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, who chaired the meeting. The statement has been agree with Minister Mallon, and I make it on behalf of us both.
Ministers welcomed the report on the activities of the Loughs Agency, including the ongoing conservation and protection efforts, and noted in particular the Loughs Agency's response to COVID-19; the Loughs Agency's strategic direction for a new decade 2020-2030; the collaborative work and delivery of a number of conversation, angling and marine tourism projects; and the success of the Foyle and Carlingford ambassador programme. The Council also welcomed the Loughs Agency's continued investment in a scientific fisheries monitoring programme.
The Council agreed that the Loughs Agency, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications will continue to work together to consider the impact of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. Ministers agreed that the matter will be kept under review at future NSMC meetings in the sector.
The Council approved the Loughs Agency's business plans and budget grants for 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2020 and the Loughs Agency's corporate plans for 2017-19 and 2020-22, which have been completed in accordance with the agreed guidance issued by the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and agreed by sponsor Departments and Finance Ministers. The plans could not be formally improved in the previous absence of the NSMC.
The Council noted the Loughs Agency's annual reports and accounts for 2016, 2017 and 2018, which have been laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Council approved the continuation for a period of one year with effect from 21 October 2020 of the framework designed to support the Loughs Agency in dealing with emergencies, such as a serious pollution incident. Ministers agreed to review the operation of the procedure, including its possible renewal based on a report from the Loughs Agency and the sponsor Departments before 20 October 2021.
The Council noted that the Loughs Agency, with the support of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, is undertaking a competitive recruitment process for the post of the chief executive of the agency. In that regard, the Council noted that the sponsor Departments are shortly to seek approval from their finance Departments for the recruitment process and the terms and conditions of the post. The Council also noted that the recruitment process will be managed by the South's Public Appointments Service, as agreed with the sponsor Departments. Finally, the Council agreed to hold its next aquaculture and marine meeting in 2021.
Mr Poots: Issues arise about Lough Foyle that cause us problems. The long-running jurisdictional issue about Lough Foyle is a reserved matter and is not within the competence of my Department or the Assembly and can be resolved only through the agreement of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London and the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Ireland. The lack of resolution of the jurisdictional issue has, however, created practical difficulties, as the Member indicated, in creating a system for the licensing of aquaculture in Lough Foyle, and, consequently, there is significant unregulated aquaculture activity. Currently, the Loughs Agency has no authority to intervene in its expansion.
I have raised my concerns about the unregulated activity with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State and asked for an update on progress made by both Governments to resolve the current difficulties. The Minister of State for Northern Ireland has advised me that the UK Government recognise the need to take action to address the illegal activity and that they remain committed to working closely with the Irish Government on improvements to the management of the loughs. The UK Government are optimistic that progress can be made by both Governments on a management agreement for Lough Foyle, which would enable authorities to exercise criminal and regulatory jurisdiction of the bed of the lough. I very much support the efforts of both Governments to progress an agreement that will enable a licensing regime for Lough Foyle until such time as the jurisdictional issue is resolved.
Mr Harvey: Thank you, Minister. My question probably relates to the previous one. What steps are being taken to ensure that illegal oyster trestles are stopped in Lough Foyle, given the impact that that unregulated practice will have on the environment?
Mr Poots: The Loughs Agency estimates that there are 70,000 oyster trestles, which are particularly on the Donegal side of the lough. That unregulated oyster farming is inextricably linked to the jurisdictional issue that I have just dealt with and which is a reserved matter that is not within our competence. The unregulated activity, however, creates hazards and risks, including the potential threat of the introduction of non-native species and a threat to the environment generally. Currently, the Loughs Agency does not have the authority to intervene.
In our jurisdiction, a lot of the trestles had been set up on land owned by the Crown Estate, and we were able to have a large proportion of those trestles removed. Unfortunately, individuals have moved to the Donegal side and set up trestles, and there is a considerable issue at that side of the lough. There is a clear understanding that, in the area within Northern Ireland in which we have been able to take some degree of enforcement action, the robust approach prevented the spread of illegal aquaculture development on the Northern Ireland side. We encourage it very strongly that the authorities in the Republic of Ireland find a means of taking action against the individuals who are setting up the illegal trestles.
Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is very welcome. In towns such as Dundrum in South Down, we see native crayfish stocks that are among the finest in Ireland, but now they are becoming depleted. How does the North/South council intend to re-establish a cross-border technical aquaculture advisory service for the whole of the North and not just the cross-border loughs?
Mr Poots: The issue that the Member raises is one that is directly for us in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), and, therefore, we will be happy to deal with it. If the Member wants to write to me, we will certainly correspond with him on how best we can conserve the various species that are in Dundrum Bay, which is a very important and sensitive environmental area indeed.
Mrs Barton: How big a problem for the Loughs Agency is illegal fishing such as poaching, particularly in the Foyle area? How many people have been prosecuted for illegal fishing in that area?
Mr Poots: Salmon poaching is one of the big issues. Illegal fishing activity and water pollution remain a concern. The Loughs Agency has seized a significant quantity of illegal fishing material. Seizures by Loughs Agency staff have fallen, when compared with the 2019 figures. In 2019, there were 303 seizures of items such as boats, nets, rods and fish, compared with 165 seizures to date in 2020. The breakdown is as follows: two seizures of boats and cars in 2019 and seven in 2020; 31 seizures of nets in 2019 and 30 in 2020; eight seizures of other items in 2019 and four in 2020; 47 seizures of rods in 2019 and 54 in 2020; and 215 seizures of fish in 2019 and 70 in 2020. That gives a total of 303 seizures in 2019 and 165 up to 16 October 2020.
The agency has instigated a significant number of prosecution cases stemming from those enforcement actions. The agency has also collaborated with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, an Garda Síochána and other enforcement agencies to secure convictions.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for his statement. We are, more than ever, in a time when we need workable solutions to complex jurisdictional issues. I note that there are frameworks in place to deal with emergencies, and we have been reminded in recent days of the importance of that.
On a different theme, has there been a refreshed or renewed effort to promote the tourism product on this island by, for example, examining interchangeable or transferable angling licences to assist in the post-COVID recovery?
Mr Poots: We all recognise that angling has traditionally been a huge tourist draw to this jurisdiction, and we warmly welcome that. We will continue to cooperate with tourism authorities to promote that. We are also happy to cooperate with others on licensing to ensure that visitors who come to Ireland, North or South, have as good an opportunity as possible to enjoy the angling that is available and that there is as little bureaucracy — let us put it that way — as possible for the individuals who are doing it. That just makes sense.
"The Council agreed that the Loughs Agency, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications will continue to work together to consider the impact of the UK's withdrawal from the EU."
Does the aquaculture and marine sector have any particular concerns about leaving the EU?
Mr Poots: The aquaculture sector is less concerned than perhaps the sea fishing sector. Most of its material will not have issues around the import of goods from GB, and, consequently, it will, whatever opportunities there are to sell its product, be able to sell that in both GB and, indeed, the single market. The issues, therefore, are of less concern to the aquaculture sector than, for example, the deep-sea fishing sector, for which there are still issues outstanding, because fish caught in UK waters outside the Northern Ireland zone would be regarded as imports to the European Union single market and would, consequently, have to go through a series of hoops. Those issues are still to be resolved in the negotiations, and one hopes that they are resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
Mr McGuigan: Will the Minister give us an update on the readiness of ports in the North for the end of the Brexit transition period and what will happen if they are not fully ready by that date?
Mr Poots: I am not sure how it relates to the topic, but temporary facilities will be available from 15 December and will be in place. That is the action that has been taken. Permanent facilities will not be available until, probably, the middle of next year, but the procurement procedures have started, the companies have been awarded the contracts and certificates of lawful use or development (CLUDs) are now available for three of the four sites. Work will probably commence on those in the not-too-distant future, but temporary measures will be put in place to ensure that food enters Northern Ireland irrespective of the protocol.
Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for his statement. What assurances can he give that the Loughs Agency will continue to receive EU funding post Brexit?
Mr Poots: Loughs Agency will continue to apply for funding from whatever sources, the key ones being us and the Irish Government. There will be opportunities to apply for EU funding for particular projects, and it is likely that we will continue to draw down that funding.
Loughs Agency has been involved in a series of projects. For example, under INTERREG Va, there was a sea monitor project that delivered €4·6 million. It is a unique marine research project, studying the seas around the island of Ireland and western Scotland, using innovative tracking technology to better understand and protect vulnerable marine life. The agency is also a project partner in other EU projects: the shared waters enhancement and loughs legacy (SWELL) project, which is a €35 million project, and Catchment Care, which is a €13·7 million project.
The agency is projected to bring in around £700,000 in INTERREG funding in 2020 out of its total budget of £5·475 million. We have been reassured by the assurances from the two Governments and the European Union of continued funding of INTERREG Va, allowing those projects to reach their conclusion in 2023, and the development of a new PEACE PLUS programme from 2021-27. They will focus on a range of nature-based solutions and other initiatives to support environmental protection, sustainable economic activity and climate action.
Mr McGlone: In relation to the expansions at points of entry, can the Minister advise whether there has been any consultation with the Loughs Agency around any potential impact, whether environmental or other?
Mr Poots: I am not sure; there may well have been. There should not be an impact because the goods that are being brought in are the goods that have been brought in for many years. The impact will be on the end-user, the consumer, with potential additional cost. That is something that we need to remove and something that the European Union needs to take account of, for example, when insisting on export health certificates for food that will end up on shelves in shops in Northern Ireland. Those goods will do no violence whatever to the single market, so why does the European Union want to produce additional costs, additional bureaucracy and an onerous burden on businesses that will inevitably be passed to consumers in Northern Ireland — some of the consumers with the lowest disposable income in the UK — as a consequence? It is important that we all continue to drive home the message to the European Union that, in the negotiations, it needs not to introduce things that will create additional burdens for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland, particularly things that will have zero impact on the credibility of the single market.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for his statement. Does the decision to extend the Loughs Agency's framework for emergencies by one year only to allow for a review suggest that there are concerns that the current framework is not fit for purpose?
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question. Rather than say that it is not fit for purpose, we always need to review how we engage, and, where we can improve on the good practice that exists, we should carry out such improvements. The agency has responded quickly to, for example, the major pollution incident around Mourne Beg, which is critical. We need to get as good an outcome as possible to that, and the agency appears, thus far, to have responded well.
In all these things, it is always good to review what you have been doing and the practice, and, if you can improve, we always need to look at how we can do that.
Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for his statement. Has there been a Loughs Agency response to salmon farming? Have discussions taken place to investigate possible pollution and disease through that activity and the impact that it may have on wild salmon during their migration to Northern Ireland rivers?
Mr Poots: Salmon farming is a concern for many jurisdictions. It is not as significant an activity here as in some other jurisdictions. Consequently, those concerns would not have come to the fore to the same extent.
Wild salmon is a wonderful resource that has been diminishing in Northern Ireland. We have never quite got to the bottom of the reason for that, so some of our high-quality salmon rivers do not have as many salmon as they once had. Therefore, it is important that we continue to identity how best we can ensure that that salmon stock is maintained and, ultimately, that we turn the tide and it increases.
Salmon draw tourists from far and wide. We have quality salmon fishing, so our focus needs to be on that source as opposed to salmon farms, which have a much more limited financial return and, environmentally, are much more challenging for us.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for his statement. What is being done to ensure that fishermen from North and South will have access to all the island's waters post Brexit?
Mr Poots: Clearly, fishing rights and licensing are matters for both jurisdictions. Currently, licences are cheap in Northern Ireland, at around £20, so people who want to engage in the sport of fishing can do so for a relatively modest cost. We want to encourage people to get out into the countryside. Most fish are returned to the water by most anglers. They fish for the enjoyment of getting out to a river and into the open air and engaging in the activity that they enjoy.
Mr Boylan: I welcome the Minister's statement. Paragraph 3 mentions the Lough Agency's response to COVID-19. Can you detail the nature of that response and its impact?
Mr Poots: The agency is engaged in ongoing efforts, particularly to provide a safe environment for its employees and for stakeholders and members of the public, while continuing to deliver a valuable public service in difficult times. Fishery protection staff, who play an important role in protecting our shared natural resources, have returned to full operational duties since 18 May, and a full range of statutory scientific surveys have recommenced. The Loughs Agency's goal is to offer a hybrid model of working that facilitates a blend of home and office working, with ongoing monitoring and adherence to public health guidance. The Riverwatch visitor centre remains closed. The delivery of capital projects has recommenced where possible, with all projects being kept under constant review.
Mr O'Toole: Has the Loughs Agency had an increase in funding to deal with the consequences of Brexit? If so, will the Minister give us the quantum? Were there conversations about the fate of our eel fisheries, particularly in Lough Neagh, whose main market would be decimated if there were not a comprehensive deal with the EU? What are the latest conversations that he has had with that sector?
Mr Poots: The Lough Neagh eel fishery was not mentioned in this context because they are not part of the agency's remit. It lies solely within this jurisdiction. That sits with all the arguments that I have made to the European Union and the UK Government negotiators about the well-being of our people who sell product to GB and the European Union. I do not believe that additional funding has been awarded to the Loughs Agency for Brexit issues.
Ms Bailey: I want to focus on issues of transboundary breaches of existing environmental laws, specifically with regard to aquaculture and marine breaches. In the statistics for Northern Ireland, 78% of our shellfish water bodies now fail water quality standards for E. coli. There has also been a decline —
Ms Bailey: — in freshwater birds by up to 42%. Minister, are those statistics collated island-wide so that we can know the full extent across the island and come up with strategies to deal with such transboundary issues?
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for her question. At the meeting, the agency reported on the number of pollution incidents over the past five years. A total of 210 incidents have been dealt with in 2020 to date, compared with a total of 252 in 2019. That should give the Member a feel for the number of incidents. I am concerned about the number of serious pollution incidents in our rivers. I believe that the Loughs Agency has a responsibility to work closely with the local community here and in the Republic of Ireland to reduce pollution and the inevitable fish kills in the Foyle and Carlingford catchment areas.
Mr Allister: Minister, correct if I am wrong, but is it the case that the Loughs Agency has been without a chair for over two and a half years and without a chief executive for over three and a half years? I see no reference to any of that in the statement. More than that, is there a problem in the agency with absentee board members? I refer to the fact that the minutes of the Loughs Agency suggest that Mr Ian McCrea, formerly of this parish, who receives something like £6,000 a year to be a member of the Loughs Agency board, has not bothered to attend a board meeting since October 2018. What action is being taken to deal with absentee board members?
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his question. Maybe he was not listening when I made the statement, which is not like him:
"The Council noted that sponsor Departments are shortly to seek approval from their Finance Departments for the recruitment process and the terms and conditions of the post."
There is a recruitment process for a chief executive. Clearly, there have been issues with there being no NSMC cover for the appointment of either a chair or a chief executive, but that is now under way.
That the Second Stage of the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill [NIA 11/17-22] be agreed.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Second Stage of the Bill has been moved. In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit to the debate. I call the Minister to open the debate on the Bill.
Mrs Long: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to be back in the Chamber after taking advice from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) on the required period of self-isolation after my negative test for COVID-19. I would like to put on record my thanks to the Members of the House who were in contact with their good wishes over the last week.
The Bill that I move today is designed to help tackle some of the key challenges faced by our criminal justice system. The measures in the Bill will help tackle delay in the most serious cases that are heard in the Crown Court and will improve the experiences of victims and witnesses on their journey through the criminal justice system. The Bill, whilst relatively short, deals with the complex area of criminal law. Some aspects are very technical in nature. The clauses have been developed in consultation with the relevant criminal justice organisations to ensure that they provide a sound footing on which to implement the necessary reforms.
It is important to say at the outset that the principles of committal reform are not new. Powers to directly commit or transfer an accused person from the Magistrates' Court to the Crown Court in certain circumstances are included in the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. I will refer to it as "the 2015 Act" from here on. Reforms to the committal process were considered in detail during its passage through the Assembly. There have also been external reports and reviews recommending committal reform, and I would like to touch on some of those shortly.
Before getting into the detail of the Bill, I want to briefly explain what we mean by "committal". Committal proceedings were originally used to collect and record evidence ensuring that an accused was not sent for trial on indictment in the Crown Court unless there was sufficient legal evidence to justify doing so. However, as committal proceedings have developed, they have become a means for the defence to test the prosecution case pre-trial, often at the cost of additional stress to victims and witnesses. Indeed, Sir John Gillen's recent report on his review of sexual offences said:
"The paucity of cases where any material benefit is achieved for the defendant is completely outweighed by the disproportionate cost of and stressful nature of such hearings. More importantly is the fact that precisely the same issues of liability can be dealt with by the Crown Court at an equally early stage. I can see no justification, therefore, for continuing with the present system, which is wasteful of time, costs and resources in circumstances where the vast majority of cases will be transferred anyway to the Crown Court."
Mr Allister: I am sure that the Minister is aware that the figures that she supplied in answer to an Assembly question indicate that, in the last three years for which figures are available, 95·5% of all cases went on committal without the calling of evidence, without a preliminary investigation (PI) and without any delay in that respect. Why does she tell us that this causes excessive delays and that the defence are testing the prosecution case? Perish the thought. Why does she tell us that it costs money, when, if, at preliminary investigation, a matter does not proceed to trial, it saves the cost of what would have been the resulting trial?
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his question. I am happy to deal with the issues that he raises as best I can. First, on the time that it takes for a preliminary inquiry or for a mixed committal, where oral evidence is given, on average it takes six and seven court hearings respectively, as opposed to two for a direct committal or a written evidence case. The number of court hearings is much greater than the number of cases to which they apply. The number is multiplied on that basis. Furthermore, the Audit Office — I do not wish to suggest that Mr Allister would not want to be acutely aware of what happens when it comes to the Audit Office — has said that committal reform is an urgent necessity in terms of cutting delay in the justice system. As I have set out even in the brief part of my speech to date, this is not just about delay; it is about the additional stress that it places on vulnerable victims and witnesses in cases where the victim may be retraumatised by the experience — for example, in cases of rape and other serious sexual assault — or where they may be subject to intimidation due to a link to paramilitary cases. That has been demonstrated in a number of cases.
The Member makes a good point, if, indeed, this is so important in terms of testing the evidence at an early stage. First, the evidence can still be tested at an early stage. If the Member allows me to proceed with my speech, he will be reassured of that in due course. More than that, however, this is also being used by people who do not want to test the evidence at an early stage. Around a third of people who requested a preliminary inquiry or a mixed committal hearing, on the day of that hearing, reverted to written-only evidence. Victims included in that cadre had to spend time stressed and anxious, expecting to have to give evidence and be brought to court, only to be told, at the last possible minute, that they would not be called on. That goes further than simply wishing to test the case; it is about trying to test the mettle of victims and witnesses in such cases. It is not, frankly, an appropriate way for defence barristers to behave. It is not therefore simply about the evidence.
I will move on. Committal hearings can proceed in three ways, as I mentioned in response to the Member's question: via preliminary enquiry (PE), where written evidence only is provided; via preliminary investigation or "PI", where oral evidence is called for from victims and witnesses; or, finally, via mixed committal, where oral and written evidence is considered. However, despite the fact that the process is intended to act as a screen to ensure that only suitable cases proceed to the Crown Court, the vast majority of cases end up being committed for trial. The 2019 figures suggest that only 75 of the 1,765 defendants who went through the committal process did not proceed to the Crown Court. That means that only 4% of cases did not proceed to the Crown Court for trial. Given that the time to complete a Crown Court case is lengthy — a median of 565 days last year — it is important that we take all possible steps to reduce delay.
I mentioned that a range of external reviews have called for reform of the committal process. It is important to highlight some of those. As part of 'A Fresh Start', the Executive committed to implement:
"Further measures to speed up criminal justice and support victims to give evidence."
The 2016 Fresh Start panel report made two recommendations in relation to committal. First, it called on my Department to:
"bring forward ... legislation to further reform committal proceedings to remove the need for oral evidence before trial".
Secondly, it recommended that we should:
"use the measures already available ... to abolish committal proceedings in respect of those offences most frequently linked to paramilitary groups, including terrorist offences and offences which tend to be committed by organised crime groups".
Both of those recommendations were subsequently accepted by the Executive in their 2016 action plan. In its 2018 'Speeding Up Justice' report, the Audit Office noted:
"When criminal justice does not perform effectively it can have a significant impact upon the lives of victims, defendants, witnesses and their families. Participating in a trial can place an enormous burden upon a person: numerous stakeholders described to us how involvement in a serious criminal case can effectively put a person’s life on hold until its completion. It is critical for these people that cases do not take an excessive amount of time to progress through the justice system and do not have their progress punctuated by administrative delays and adjournments at court ... Alongside the human cost of these delays, there is also a waste of public money resulting from inefficiencies."
That report recommended that my Department should establish an action plan and timetable for the eradication of the committal process. In the 2018 'Without Witness' report, the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice recommended:
"Once direct transfer to the Crown Court is established for murder and manslaughter cases, the DoJ should ensure that rape, serious sexual offences and child abuse offences be added to the list of specified offences under the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015".
"the criminal justice processes in Northern Ireland for handling these cases take too long, are too expensive and conclude with, all too often, a failure to deliver an acceptable outcome for victims."
The report highlighted the following statistics in relation to cases in which the defendant was charged with only sexual offences:
"In 2017, 125 of 127 (98%) of such cases were transferred to the Crown Court from the Magistrates’ Court. In 2016 the comparable figures were 170 of 171 (99%) and in 2015, it was 164 of 171 (96%)."
"These figures demonstrate that there are limited risks involved in abolishing the committal proceedings in these types of cases, as the vast majority will be transferred anyway. Direct committal would also reduce the anxiety for victims and should reduce delays in case progression."
Then, in 2019, in Sir John Gillen's 'Report into the law and procedures in serious sexual offences', to which I have already referred, he recommended that my Department:
"should make provision for the direct transfer of serious sexual offences to the Crown Court bypassing the committal process".
Looking at committal proceedings in general, we can see that the vast majority of cases that proceed through the committal process end up being committed for trial to the Crown Court. Finally, at the beginning of this year, the 'New Decade, New Approach' deal stated:
"The Executive will deliver committal reform to help ?speed up the criminal justice system, benefiting victims and witnesses."
It is clear that further reform of the committal process is needed and supported by all Executive parties and a range of justice partners.
As I have said, the principles and policies around reforming the committal process are not new, and we, as an Assembly, have already legislated for some reform. So, why the need for this short, tightly focused Bill? It is designed, in the main, to do three things.
First, the Bill seeks to get more cases, more quickly, to the Crown Court. The 2015 Act provided only for murder and manslaughter cases to be directly committed to the Crown Court in certain circumstances. This Bill proposes to expand that list so that all offences that, as an adult, are triable only on indictment will be directly committed. This definition is necessary to ensure that we capture in legislation an appropriate set of offences, and it ensures that the system works for adults and youths. The group of offences will include serious sexual offences like rape, helping to deliver the Gillen recommendations, and offences that are often, but not exclusively, linked to paramilitary activity and organised crime, such as firearms, explosives, GBH with intent and, of course, murder. This change will contribute to the delivery of commitments arising from the Fresh Start Agreement.
The Bill also includes provisions to add small numbers of additional offences by way of an order made by draft affirmative resolution procedure, should that need arise in the future. It is also important to note that my Department's long-term aim is to completely eradicate the traditional committal process, with all offences being directly committed to the Crown Court. That will take time and further legislation, but it is the right direction of travel and something that external scrutiny bodies say that we need to do.
The second key objective of the Bill relates to the area of oral evidence. The proposals to directly commit more cases will remove committal hearings and, with that, the option of oral evidence at that stage. However, for cases that are not yet directly committed, and until direct committal is operational, there will continue to be committal hearings. I have already outlined that oral evidence can be provided at that stage through a preliminary investigation or via mixed committal.
Through the Justice Bill in 2015, my Department previously sought to abolish the option to hear oral evidence from victims and witnesses at a committal hearing. The experience of giving sometimes traumatic oral evidence, particularly under cross-examination, both at committal and again at the Crown Court trial, can have a significant impact on victims and witnesses. However, this did not receive sufficient support at the time of the passage of the Bill, and instead an amendment was made that ensured oral evidence could be called only if the judge was satisfied that the interests of justice required it. However, as I said, in 2016 the three-person panel appointed by the Executive to report on a strategy for disbanding paramilitary groups recommended that the Department of Justice should bring forward draft legislation to further reform committal proceedings to remove the need for oral evidence before trial. This was accepted by the Executive in their action plan published in July 2016, and this Bill gives effect to that commitment.
There will no doubt be those who say that oral evidence at the committal hearing is an important part of the criminal justice system and should be retained. Mr Allister is one such Member, and he has made that clear already today. To that I say three things. First, it is not just me or my Department saying that we should remove oral evidence. We are delivering previously agreed Executive commitments flowing from the Fresh Start Agreement. Secondly and, I believe, most importantly, I want to do this for victims, who will face a committal hearing until the committal process is fully eradicated. I have heard all too often of the impact on vulnerable victims who have to give traumatic evidence not just once but twice as part of our criminal justice process. Last year, cases involving 109 out of 1,765 defendants proceeded with oral evidence at committal stage, either through a preliminary investigation or a mixed committal. On the one hand, that is only 6%, so Mr Allister was correct. However, this is not just about numbers and statistics; it is about people. Direct committal of the additional offences I have outlined will remove the need for oral evidence in many of those cases but, for the remainder, I want to ensure that victims and witnesses do not have to go through this process.
We also know that, as I alluded to earlier, in the cases of a further 53 defendants, a preliminary investigation or mixed committal proceeding had been planned, only to be changed at a late stage — often, on the day — to proceed with written evidence through a preliminary inquiry. As Sir John Gillen noted in his report:
"committal proceedings ... are often listed as a mixed committal, which then turns into a conventional preliminary enquiry hearing on the morning of the matter, after the complainant has suffered the stress and worry of a court appearance, only to be told that they are not required. This is quite unnecessary and that practice should be strongly deprecated, given the additional stress and delay this process is causing."
Besides the obvious impact on victims and witnesses, the preparation and process for these committal hearings can add both delay and burden to an already stretched system. We know, for example, that the number of hearings for a preliminary investigation or mixed committal can average three to four times the number of those required for a preliminary inquiry that uses only written evidence.
The final key objective of the Bill is to make improvements to the smooth operation of the direct committal process. The 2015 Act provided for a new process in cases directly committed to the Crown Court. Called application to dismiss, it allows the defence to apply to the Crown Court for some or all of the charges to be dismissed on the basis that the evidence is insufficient for the accused to be properly convicted. The 2015 Act allows oral evidence in that process, but, to ensure consistency with the objective of victims and witnesses not giving evidence before trials, the Bill includes a provision to remove oral evidence in the application to dismiss process.
The Bill also seeks to introduce a new power for the Public Prosecution Service to discontinue proceedings between cases being committed to the Crown Court and the presentation of indictments that set out the charges for which the accused is to be prosecuted. That is seen as necessary for the operational outworkings of direct committal and is similar to powers that exist in England and Wales. It means that where there is a material change in the circumstances of the case, such as new evidence, that leads the prosecution to conclude that the test for prosecution has not been met, immediate action can be taken to discontinue the case without adding additional delays.
Following extensive engagement with relevant criminal justice organisations, the Bill also seeks to repeal section 10 of the 2015 Act. That provides that a Magistrates' Court will directly commit an accused to the Crown Court if they indicate, prior to a traditional committal hearing, an intention to plead guilty. I recognise the benefits to victims, witnesses and defendants of that approach; however, a number of significant operational complexities and risks have been identified by justice partners, including the risk of false release or false imprisonment. It is also an interim measure and once direct committal is fully rolled out it would become obsolete. Although it is not possible to quantify the numbers involved with any certainty, it potentially applies to a relatively small number of cases. On balance, therefore, my Department considers that focusing efforts on a more expansive roll-out provides a better and less-complex basis on which to implement the changes required and speed up the justice system.
I recognise the benefits to victims, witnesses and defendants of fast-tracking cases when accused parties wish to plead guilty. Therefore, the Bill also includes powers where an individual is charged with committing a relevant offence and expresses an indication to plead guilty to allow the Magistrates' Court to order the necessary reports in preparation for the Crown Court. That answers the third part of Mr Allister's question about the potential transfer of duties to the more expensive tier of the courts system.
Finally, the Bill will ensure that related offences can be transferred to the Crown Court —.
Mrs Long: No, I will not. I have given the Member quite a bit of attention thus far.
The Bill will ensure that related offences can be transferred to the Crown Court together with relevant offences. I recognise that much of that is quite technical, but it is important so that the reformed processes can operate as effectively as possible.
In summary, the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill seeks to, first, expand the use of direct committal to a wider range of offences and bring more offences more quickly to the Crown Court. Secondly, it will remove the need for pre-trial oral evidence. Finally, it will smooth the operational outworkings of direct committal.
I want to pay tribute to everyone who has helped us in the Department to reach this stage, including our criminal justice partners, whom I know will continue to work together with us to implement the reforms. I look forward to Members' support in taking the Bill through the Assembly and in keeping it focused on its current provisions, with any material policy amendments being dealt with through a future legislative vehicle.
This is another piece of significant legislation from my Department. It is a relatively short Bill of six clauses only, but the changes that it proposes will deliver much-needed reform of the criminal justice process, reduce delay and improve the experience of victims and witnesses, which, in my view, is the most important thing. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr Givan (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I also welcome the Minister back in her place. We are thankful for her speedy recovery. I also thank — I know that she did not — her Executive colleague Edwin Poots, who kindly offered to take the Second Stage of the Bill through today and, indeed, the Consideration Stage of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill last week.
I know that the Minister is able to do it today, but it is worth putting on record that there was a willingness to do that, and it is good to see Executive Ministers supporting each other in that way.
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for giving way. I do not normally discuss Executive correspondence in the Chamber, but I have thanked Minister Poots for that kind offer. It was very generous of him.
Mr Givan: OK. Thank you, Minister.
As Chairman of the Committee, I am pleased to be able to speak, on behalf of the Committee, during the debate on the Second Stage of the Criminal Justice Bill. A primary objective of the Bill, as the Minister said, is to improve the operation of the criminal justice system by reforming committal proceedings, which is the procedure that determines whether there is sufficient evidence to justify putting a person on trial in the Crown Court.
In oral evidence to the Committee on 5 November, Department of Justice officials outlined that the Bill will do three key things. It will remove the need for victims and witnesses to give oral evidence pre Crown Court trial, it will seek to get more cases to the Crown Court quicker by expanding the range of offences to which direct committal will apply, and it will make some technical amendments to smooth the committal process. In the longer term, the Department aims to abolish the committal process completely.
There have been many calls for reform or, indeed, the eradication of the committal process over recent years. In addition to the length of time it takes for cases to progress through the criminal justice system, one of the key concerns with the process is the impact that it has on victims and witnesses, who may be required to give oral evidence at the committal stage as well as at the trial itself. The experience of giving oral evidence can be traumatic, particularly under cross-examination, and has a significant impact. We need to address the fact that they have to do that twice for the same case so that we can improve the experiences of victims and witnesses.
Delay in the criminal justice system and the time it takes to progress cases through the system has been a recurring issue and concern for the Committee since the devolution of policing and justice powers in 2010. The Committee was recently advised that reducing delay is one of the biggest challenges facing the justice system and is a priority for the Department, its criminal justice partners and the Criminal Justice Board. Reforming the committal process is a key part of the plan to reduce avoidable delay.
In its report on speeding up justice, which was published in 2018, the Northern Ireland Audit Office suggested that the committal process added minimal value to the progression of cases whilst imposing demands on victims and witnesses. The report stated that the committal process could:
"effectively amount to a preliminary trial, with victims and witnesses required to provide testimony which they will have to deliver again at trial in the Crown Court. This is, at the least, stressful to participants and ... may deter them from attending for trial."
In its consideration of the implementation plan for the recommendations in the Gillen review of the law and procedures in serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland, the Committee learned that the time taken for sexual offence cases was 698 days in 2019-2020 compared with 470 days in 2015-16. I am sure that all Members will agree that that is much too long, and the impact that delays of that magnitude may have on a victim cannot be overstated. A key recommendation from the Gillen review is that steps should be taken to combat excessive delay in the judicial system, and the specific recommendation in that regard is that provision should be made for the direct transfer of serious sexual offences to the Crown Court.
Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) also pointed out in its report on the handling of sexual violence and abuse cases by the criminal justice system that, in each year from 2015 to 2017, at least 96% of cases where the defendant's offences are exclusively sexual offences were transferred to the Crown Court from the Magistrates' Court for preliminary enquiries and preliminary investigations. In CJINI's view, that demonstrates that there are limited risks in abolishing the committal proceedings in these types of cases as, in the vast majority of cases, they will be transferred. Direct committal will also reduce the anxiety for victims in such cases and should reduce delays in case progression.
The Minister outlined that the Fresh Start panel on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland recommended that the Department of Justice should bring forward legislation to further reform committal proceedings to remove the need for oral evidence before a trial. Indeed, the 'New Decade, New Approach' document noted that the Executive would deliver on committal reform.
The Committee for Justice considered committal reform as part of its Committee Stage scrutiny of the 2014 Justice Bill. Those who were on the Committee at that time will remember fondly that scrutiny, and the debate that took place in the Chamber. The provisions of that Bill, as introduced, aimed to abolish the use of preliminary investigations and the use of oral evidence at preliminary inquiries, provide for the direct committal to the Crown Court of certain indictable cases, where the defendant intends to plead guilty at arraignment, and provide for the direct committal to the Crown Court of certain specified offences. As Members will know, there was a divergence of views in the evidence that the Committee received at that time on those proposals. The Public Prosecution Service and Victim Support NI were supportive of the changes, but the Law Society believed the proposals to be flawed. Having previously undertaken an inquiry looking at the experiences of victims and witnesses of the criminal justice system, the Committee was fully aware of the trauma that is caused to victims by having to give evidence twice. It also believed that measures needed to be taken to address avoidable delay in the system. The Committee was, therefore, supportive of the Bill's provisions, but, as Members are aware, an amendment to the Bill retained the use of oral evidence where the court deemed it to be in the interests of justice.
When discussing the principles and provisions of this Bill with departmental officials on 5 November, Committee members raised a number of issues, including the likely volume of cases to which direct committal will apply under the legislation, the likely time reduction for such cases to be completed, the likely costs associated with the changes, any legal aid implications and operational complexities, and risks associated with the section 10 process provided for by the Justice Act 2015 and the reasons for its repeal in this Bill. Officials were also asked to address the argument that is sometimes put forward that having an oral hearing is useful in sorting out issues and that only so much can be conveyed through written papers, so it is better to have the opportunity to question in person. Officials responded by indicating that while there are arguments for and against direct committal, and while the number of cases that go through a preliminary investigation or mixed committal are small, it is a traumatic experience for those who are required to give oral evidence, pre-trial. The recommendations from a number of external organisations and sources indicate that direct committal should be implemented in full.
Officials also advised the Committee that it is difficult to specify how much time might be saved in progressing cases. Although there will be no committal hearing, which can, at times, be lengthy, at the Magistrates' Court, the proceedings in the Crown Court are likely to take slightly longer. In addition, it is difficult to predict cost savings, as it is more likely that there will be a change in the balance of costs between Magistrates' Courts and the Crown Court. However, there is no expectation that the new procedures will cost any more overall. The implications for legal aid are still being considered.
The Committee was also informed that there will be a phased approach to the roll-out of direct committal. The initial tranche will be for those cases that are triable on indictment only, which account for 30% of cases annually. The intention of the Department is that, eventually, direct committal will apply to all cases that go to the Crown Court.
In relation to the repeal of section 10 of the Justice Act 2015, officials indicated that, currently, if a defendant indicates an intention to plead guilty, regardless of the offence type, it will go straight to the Crown Court. However, if they change their mind, they will be returned to the Magistrates' Court. That is a complex matter, and it poses a number of operational and IT difficulties which produce risks, including the risk that the incorrect application of bail could result in the person being wrongly released or imprisoned. Given that section 10 applies only to a small number of cases, and will become redundant when the traditional committal hearing is removed, the Department has decided to repeal it and to include powers in the Bill to enable the Magistrates' Court to do a lot of the preparatory work for such cases for the Crown Court.
The Committee will wish to explore all of those issues, and others that no doubt will arise during the Bill's Committee Stage, assuming that it passes Second Stage today. The Committee is content to support the principles of the Bill. We look forward to dealing with it at Committee Stage. Members have already indicated some of the points that were rehearsed back in 2014.
I give the commitment that all of those issues will be given the detailed scrutiny that the Justice Committee has shown itself to be adept at carrying out. It is vital that the Department engages with the Committee during Committee Stage. As I said on the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, when a Department introduces a Bill, it becomes an Assembly Bill. The Assembly takes the final decisions. I am sure that Members will propose amendments or other issues that could be deemed to be within the scope of the Bill, and it is vital that the Department engages at that stage rather than leaving it until the eleventh hour.
I encourage Members who want to propose amendments to do so early to allow the Committee to carry out its scrutiny work. Obviously, they retain the right to do that once the Committee has reported, but, if evidence is brought to the Committee during the scrutiny stage, it is a lot easier for members of that Committee to have a considered position on the amendments. The evidence would also go to the Department and others.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I now call Linda Dillon. I may need to interrupt because we are approaching Question Time, which starts at 2.00 pm.
Ms Dillon: I assure you, a LeasCheann Comhairle, that you will not have to interrupt me: I will be finished before Question Time.
I thank the Minister for moving the Bill. As the Chair has outlined, it will be scrutinised in much greater detail as it progresses through the legislative process. It has been a steep learning curve for me. I have just been through the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, my first ever legislation. A number of pieces of legislation are coming through the Committee. That is a positive thing. It is what the House is for. We are here to try to make the best law that we can.
Committal proceedings are held to determine whether, in the case of more serious offences, there is sufficient evidence to require a defendant to stand trial. That can include the taking of oral evidence, as has already been referred to, from victims and witnesses, which means that they will have to give further oral evidence at a trial. There is a huge risk of retraumatisation. We have spoken on many occasions in the House about the need to support and look after victims and have a victim-centred approach to everything that we do. We should do whatever we can to reduce that trauma to victims, and I am hopeful that the committal Bill will go some way to dealing with that. The proposals to streamline —.
Mr Allister: I understand entirely the sentiment that the Member expresses. The debate has not lasted for long, but, already, every Member who has spoken has fallen in to the trap of talking not about "alleged victims" but about "victims", before you get anywhere near conviction. At the stage of committal and until a jury says, "Guilty", there is nothing but an alleged victim. We should not allow that to cloud our judgement in the manner in which it seems to be doing.
Ms Dillon: I accept what you say. That is why we will scrutinise the Bill as a Committee. We will speak to everybody during that process, not just to alleged victims but to those from a background such as yours, Mr Allister. I appreciate that you may have a different and more detailed understanding.
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that part of the process of speeding up justice is for the alleged perpetrators and defendants in a case who are not guilty but will have that hanging over their head for a more protracted period if justice is not swift?
Ms Dillon: Absolutely. It hangs over the heads not just of the perpetrators but of their families. Even where someone is guilty of something, their family has done nothing wrong. A protracted process does not help anyone in relation to those issues.
Ms Dillon: Apologies.
We, as a party, support the two main purposes of the Bill around removing the option of calling alleged victims and witnesses for oral evidence in advance of a trial and the issue around speeding up the time for progressing Crown Court cases. However, we will not take a final position without going through the scrutiny process.
It is vital that the wider justice system supports victims of crime at every stage of their journey through the system. The Bill is one piece of the puzzle of how we can do that by removing the need to give oral evidence more than once. That, along with shortening the time taken for that journey to be progressed are major cogs in the process of how we can properly support victims in the process. The Department, however, has a responsibility to ensure that victims are put at the front and centre of the Bill and any other measures that are designed to improve the system for them. I would like to think that, in developing the Bill, the Minister and her Department have engaged with victims and organisations that represent victims and that she has their support.
As a member of the Justice Committee, I am sure that I speak for other members of the Committee when I say that the best interests of victims and alleged victims will be our priority in scrutinising the legislation. I am certainly keen to engage with all, including those from a legal background and the Bar, who obviously have had some issues with previous Bills that have come before the House.
I am also keen to hear some figures from the Minister on the expected outcomes of the Bill. For example, we know that there is a major backlog of cases and that the time taken to deal with serious criminal cases is already far too high. We need to hear additional information on the figures. I accept that it is not all about the figures — it is very much about people — but we are a public body that uses public finances. We also have a real focus on shortening the time for cases going through court, so we need to see some of the figures.
The issue was, of course, raised in 2015 as part of the Justice Bill. The 2015 Act provided for more fundamental reforms to the committal process by allowing direct committal of an accused person from the Magistrates' Court to the Crown Court in certain circumstances without the need for the traditional committal hearing. It was considered throughout the 2015 Bill whether we should abolish the option to hear oral evidence from victims and witnesses at the traditional committal hearing in the Magistrates' Court. However, it did not receive sufficient support at that time. Since 2015, however, there has been a range of developments that have led to where we are today, and some of those have already been outlined. We had the Fresh Start panel report, the NI Audit Office report in 2018 on speeding up justice, the Gillen review, a number of CJINI reports and then NDNA. Therefore, although the issue was not resolved in 2015, it has become clear that the case for further reform of committal proceedings is strong. My party, therefore, at this stage welcomes the Department moving on the issue. The changes are regarded as key to improving the speed of the justice system and delivering on the Executive's priorities outlined in NDNA.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): As Question Time is scheduled for 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease for a few moments until then. This debate will continue after a further ministerial statement and a number of questions for urgent oral answer. When we resume the debate, the next Member scheduled to be called is Sinéad Bradley.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Mrs Foster (The First Minister): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 1, 7 and 11 together.
The Executive’s response to and recovery from COVID-19 continues to be focused on the health and well-being of our citizens, our economic well-being and revitalising the economy and our societal and community well-being. The Executive are also placing a particular emphasis on people and families, as we know how important that is to everyone. That means that any decisions on the Executive’s next steps will be informed by the impact that they will have on us as individuals, families and the wider communities in which we all live. In addition to the financial support mechanisms provided by the United Kingdom Government, the Executive have put in place a range of targeted local schemes aimed at supporting individuals, families, communities and businesses at this difficult time. Going forward, we are committed to ensuring that support packages meet the needs of those who are in need of help.
Looking into 2021, the Executive have approved a recovery framework that is aimed at progressing a cohesive approach across the whole of government and will deliver an economic, health and societal recovery that has the citizen at its centre. That work will also complement the longer-term Programme for Government that is currently being developed and which we are aiming to have in place by April 2021.
As our recent statement will advise, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all the member Administrations was central to the discussion at the British-Irish Council summit on 6 November. BIC members shared information on the measures that they have taken both to contain the virus and to mitigate its impacts on health and on their economies. We also recognised the importance of continuing communication as we all work towards economic recovery while living with and managing the continuing threat posed by the virus.
Ms Flynn: I thank the First Minister for her answer. Will she give a commitment that the promotion of positive mental health and the provision of support services for individuals and families who are struggling at the moment will be central to any COVID-19 recovery package?
Mrs Foster: The Member will have heard the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) just this morning talk about the fact that mental health was a continuing pressure for us in the Executive. We are very concerned at the impact that it is having immediately and in the medium to long term, so we will have to put in resources, as well as a determination from the Executive, to deal with that very real issue.
Over the weekend, I was contacted by a family friend of someone who, at 41 years of age, felt that she had lost all purpose in her life because she had lost her job and had attempted to take her own life on three occasions. That is a sobering thing to hear, and it is something that we all in the House should be very concerned about. The answer is that, absolutely, we will put in place mechanisms to deal with that. I think that I said last week that I was afraid that we were going to face a mental health tsunami, and that is a fear that I hold. I know that it is shared across the Executive, and it is something that we will have to deal with.
Ms Bailey: COVID did not create our mental health crisis: it is adding to it. Is there a long-term strategy or acceptance that we need to deal with our mental health problems in Northern Ireland not just now but in the longer term?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question and observation, because it is something that we identified on coming back into the Executive as one of our priorities to deal with. It is why we set up the Executive subcommittee to deal with resilience, well-being and mental health provision, which all Ministers can and do attend. We recognised that before COVID-19 hit, and we now know that it has exacerbated the difficulties that we have. When we meet groups from across Northern Ireland, albeit virtually at present, we are always reminded of the simmering undercurrent of mental health issues that exist across Northern Ireland. It is absolutely something that we recognised as being there before COVID, but COVID has exacerbated the mental health crisis, and we very much need to deal with it.
Mr Buckley: The First Minister will be acutely aware of the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on our care homes across Northern Ireland. On 12 October, there were 46 care homes with COVID-19 outbreaks, yet, on 12 November, that number had risen extraordinarily to 143, all at a time when hospitality and close-contact services were closed. While we know that testing is one of the best answers to combat the spread, can the First Minister outline what conversations she had with counterparts at the British-Irish Council about ways in which we can ramp up our test and trace capabilities?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. It is a cause for deep concern to us that the number of outbreaks continues to rise, despite the sterling work of our care home staff. I want to make that very clear.
There is a need for us to have a more robust testing system. The Member may be aware that, in Liverpool, a pilot is ongoing in which mass testing is taking place, and we have had some good feedback from that testing regime. The feedback encourages me that we can do something similar across Northern Ireland. We have a population of 1·8 million, so it is not something that should be beyond us. The Executive Office believes that test, trace and isolate and the capacity to do so in a meaningful way will very much be part of trying to deal with the transmission of the virus.
Mr McGrath: Nichola Mallon, on 3 November, got the powers to deliver a scheme for the taxi sector. That scheme opened on 13 November, 10 days later. Can the First Minister, as the leader of the Executive, explain why, after four and a half weeks, many in the business sector are still waiting for a scheme being opened that they can apply to in order to get much-needed finance to give them some form of income?
Mrs Foster: Although I welcome the fact that the taxi scheme is now open, it took a considerable time to get there. I say to Members who have been waiting for that funding that we are disappointed that it took such an amount of time to get there but we are pleased that it has got there now.
Like all the schemes that were put in place to deal with what was to be the four-week intervention, the taxi scheme had to be dealt with from scratch. As I understand it, from the date on which the Economy Minister was asked to put it in place, the scheme was up and running and working nine days later, one day less than the Member said. The money is now going out in different tranches. I understand that the Land and Property Services (LPS) scheme, which deals with most of the money that goes out into the community, is moving now as well.
We would always like just to flick the switch and get the money out immediately, but I am sure that Members would ask us questions about due process and public accountability for money if we did not do things properly, and, of course, they are very much entitled to do so. We will do what we can as quickly as we can, but we have to acknowledge that this is public money that we are dealing with.
Ms Armstrong: First Minister, I am delighted to hear that the BIC has been talking, but I am wondering whether there is any coordinated approach being taken to the Christmas holidays and the restrictions that there may be. When we think about young people's mental health and that of families, getting our young people back from universities across the UK is vital at Christmastime.