Reform, recovery and resource
Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA discusses her department’s legislative progress, the road to recovery and the remainder of the mandate.
Not wanting to rest on her laurels, Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA is aware of the significant volume of work in front of her department, the justice committee and the Northern Ireland Assembly before the end of the current mandate, if she is to see through her ambitious programme of proposed legislation.
Long’s department has been recognised as one of the most proactive and ardent in developing and delivering legislation in the short two years since the Assembly and Executive returned from a three-year absence.
The Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill has now passed to an Act, with the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill and Damages (Return on Investment) Bill, which are awaiting royal assent, soon to follow. The Minister also intends to have the Protection from Stalking Bill and the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill, both of which are progressing through the Assembly, finalised before 28 March.
“I was really ambitious in terms of legislation because after a three-year break in the Assembly sitting, I felt we were behind in a number of areas, particularly those which affected vulnerable victims and witnesses,” explains Long.
The Minister believes that the Assembly’s absence had led the public to question its effectiveness and with this, she saw an opportunity to highlight the power of a functioning Assembly by providing legislation that improves people’s quality of life.
“I have been very clear with Executive colleagues that in its current form, that this [budget] is not something I could support.”
The fact that the Minister’s ambitions, outlined at the outset, remain on track is a noticeable success when considering the emergence and disruptive nature of the pandemic.
Long is quick to point out that ongoing work goes beyond the core pieces of legislation and indeed beyond the current mandate.
“We have been doing a lot of policy development, including for bills for the next mandate, so that whoever is the Justice Minister after May’s election has a really strong programme of work going into the next mandate,” explains Long.
To this end, Long says that a review of sentencing carried out by the Department is informing early-stage development of a potential new Sentencing Bill. Additionally, while a response to the independent hate crime legislation review, the final report of which was published in December 2020, did not make it on to the Department’s legislative programme for the current mandate, Long explains that her department is soon to launch a first stage consultation with a view to having a consolidated Hate Crime Bill in the next mandate.
Similarly, the Department are currently consulting on Charlotte’s Law following a review of current law in relation to disclosure of information on the locations of victims’ remains by those convicted of their killing. Inspired by a campaign led by the family of Charlotte Murray, the review examined the need for similar legislation to that of Helen’s Law introduced in England and Wales. The Minister suggests that ambitions for Northern Ireland are to go beyond the legislation in place in England and Wales, meaning a broader look at opportunities to apply pressure to individuals who know the whereabouts of victims’ remains at each stage of the justice process. Long explains that the aim will be to put in place the administrative elements of any agreed outcome and then bring forward legislation in the next mandate.
Finally, Long’s plans to publish a Miscellaneous Provisions Bill in the current mandate were hampered by political disagreements between some ministers over the Bill’s broader content and the potential for clauses to be amended in the floor of the Assembly. Although expressing her disappointment that the proposed Bill was repeatedly blocked, Long opted for a “pragmatic approach” in securing the agreement for around 70 per cent of the Bill’s content in the form of the narrower Justice (Sex Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill. However, the Minister has restated her intention to continue to develop a small number of planned amendments that fit within the public protection objectives of the Bill, with the aim of these amendments forming a short Bill at the beginning of the next mandate.
Speaking prior to the First Minster’s resignation, Long said she believes that the next incoming Justice Minister has a real opportunity for reform and to make real and meaningful changes to people’s lives, so long as they possess an ambition to drive that change. Interestingly, the Alliance Party leader has not ruled herself out of potentially retaking the post following May’s election.
“I have loved the two years I have had in justice. It has not been an easy two years, especially when you layer the political challenges and Covid-19 on top of an already difficult mandate but I have enjoyed working in a department focused on delivery and have found it very rewarding,” she says.
Positioning herself as someone who does not resile from difficult roles, Long says that the election, the objectives of any new Executive and the shape of a new Programme for Government will determine her future outlook but adds: “Irrespective of whether I am minister, I am genuinely glad of the experience I have had within justice and I will remain passionate about what justice can do in terms or improving lives of people in the community.”
Turning towards the operations of the justice sector and in particular, recovery from the pandemic, Long has heaped praise on the innovation and co-operation shown to mitigate the impact of the virus. Pointing to the increased use of technology in court proceedings as an example, including emergency powers enabling things like remote access to courts for defendants, victims and witnesses, telephone statements by the PSNI and the exchange of digital evidence between the PPS, PSNI and the courts, Long outlines to a desire to continue with progress and build on the momentum to ensure long-term benefits for the justice system.
“Covid has been a challenge and we do have a backlog to get through, but the key is trying to make changes that will have a lasting impact so that we will continue to have momentum to speed up the justice system, which was our main objective from the outset,” she states.
The Minister is emphatic that progress on speeding up the justice system will require adequate funding, something she does not believe is available in the recently published three-year draft Budget by the Department of Finance.
The Department of Finance’s draft Budget, which is currently out for consultation, allocated the Department of Justice £3.37 billion Resource DEL and £353.4 million of capital, amounts which Long describes as not “manageable” or “adequate”.
“I have been very clear with Executive colleagues that in its current form, that this is not something I could support. This is not about protecting my own backyard because the impact will likely not hit until after the current mandate, but it is about the impact this would have on vulnerable groups and victims and the implications for us not being able to deliver against key statutory responsibilities. It is also about acknowledging the increased downstream costs to the justice system, the health system and the public sector of inadequate resources.”
“Covid has been a challenge and we do have a backlog to get through, but the key is trying to make changes that will have a lasting impact so that we will continue to have momentum to speed up the justice system, which was our main objective from the outset.”
The Minister believes that the current budget represents further cuts beyond the 9 per cent reduction in the Department’s allocation since devolution began and says that the consequences will be an impact on public confidence in policing and justice. The allocation, she says, is in stark contrast to the £2 billion allocated to the Ministry of Justice by the Treasury in the UK Chancellor’s recent budget.
Expressing her frustration that increased spending for Justice in the UK’s budget has not translated to Northern Ireland, she says: “I agree that we should prioritise health and wellbeing outcomes in this budget, but we also need to acknowledge that not all policy and activity that contributes to good physical and mental health is delivered by the Department of Health.”
Pointing to the Department of Justice’s funding of some third sector organisations, which in other jurisdiction, would often be funded through the health budget, Long adds: “Unless we tackle these things at source, we will not be able to reduce the burden on health, which is part of the job of making the health service more sustainable.”
The Minister is also unhappy at the proposed budget allocation for the PSNI of £148 million. While the Department has fulfilled many of if the objectives set out in the New Decade, New Agreement deal of January 2020, it has not been able to facilitate the Executive’s commitment to increase police numbers from 7,000 to 7,500.
In 2021, the Minister secured additional funding for an extra 100 officers, with the aim to continually build towards the desired number. However, there are now fears that the current allocation could see officer numbers drop below even the initial 7,000 figure.
“The £14.8 million allocated for police staffing would not sustain 7,100 officers and, if you then apply cuts of 2 per cent to the justice budget, you could not not find further cuts because the PSNI equates to nearly 70 per cent of the justice budget.”
Long says that the application of the 2 per cent cut would set back opportunities for recovery. By way of example, she says that Crown court recovery, predicted to take around one year, could be extended to 2027 without sustained funding.
“We believe there are solutions out there that can be found, and we are continuing to engage as constructively as possible with the Department of Finance in seeking to avoid a justice system which is completely broken and in which people have no confidence. Hopefully we will see a better outcome at the end of the budget process.”