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Justice: Northern Ireland

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce delays and complexities affecting investigations and the bringing of suspects to trial in Northern Ireland when suspects, witnesses or evidence are in the Republic of Ireland or vice versa.

My Lords, the Government recognise the excellent bilateral relationship between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Siochana and are ready to consider any proposals for legislative or administrative change that would assist them in policing across the border.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for looking into this matter and answering the Question. However, the Government have been considering proposals to speed up the process for some time. The difficulty is that a statement taken in one jurisdiction is not admissible in court in the other jurisdiction in either direction, and a piece of evidence on one side of the border cannot be taken to the other side, either for investigative purposes or for production in court, without involving three separate sets of officials—in Belfast, London and Dublin—and thus it takes six months or so to move a single piece of evidence. This is simply not acceptable and must be sorted out as soon as possible.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to alert us to the fact that these delays are long and unacceptable. As part of the overall programme looking at cross-border policing issues, work is going on to establish what causes the delay outlined by the noble Lord in relation to letters of request and so on, and I shall come back to him in due course.

My Lords, will the Government ensure that the legal difficulties are resolved, if necessary by legislation, before the devolution of policing and justice takes place?

My Lords, I take on board what the noble Baroness has said but I do not think that it is absolutely necessary for these delays to be sorted out before devolution, because I am not sure that devolution will make a big difference in relation to the delays. However, I shall certainly come back to her on that point.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the security forces in Northern Ireland have examined in detail recent transcripts of a court case in Cork of a Mr Ted Cunningham in which he alleged that a Mr Philip Flynn, who at that time was chairman of the Bank of Scotland’s Irish division and was the wealth management consultant to Sinn Fein/IRA, was involved in the raid on the Northern Bank?

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that it is the Government’s view that the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland has worked very hard to minimise delays and is indeed a very competent service? Will she encourage it to consider the use of hearsay provisions, such as are available on the mainland, to ensure that documents and evidence which may be useful in Northern Ireland prosecutions can be made useful as quickly as possible without the need for cumbersome procedures such as letters of request?

My Lords, I certainly endorse what the noble Lord has said in relation to the excellent service provided by the DPP in Northern Ireland. It does its utmost to minimise delays. On the second point raised by the noble Lord about hearsay provisions, I do not think that I could commit myself to that, standing at this Dispatch Box this afternoon, but I shall certainly come back to him.

My Lords, we are talking about two jurisdictions; two different countries; two completely different systems; and in each of the jurisdictions there are many people who need to be consulted. The delay is the result of eight or nine different people needing to be consulted about these cases.

My Lords, the Question refers to difficulties with evidence from Northern Ireland being accepted in the Republic of Ireland. Are there similar difficulties with such evidence being accepted in any of the other 25 countries in the European Union?

My Lords, that is a jolly good question. I know that the speed of justice, when it comes to relations between two nations, is extremely slow. Therefore, I imagine that there will be difficulties with cases that involve cross-border matters, or the United Kingdom and another member state of the European Union. I am sadly confident that there will be similar delays. If that is not the case, I will come back to the noble Lord.

My Lords, it would be a great help, not only to Northern Ireland but to southern Ireland and London as well, if this matter could be expedited. It would bring to justice much more quickly those who have committed offences in any part of Britain, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. It would be to all our benefit.

My Lords, I recognise the importance of the issue to the people and the police services of Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. However, I must point out that there is an excellent partnership between police forces on both sides of the border and I would not want this very important issue to cloud the fact that there are great relationships, involving great trust and mutual assistance, and that a lot is being done to improve the operational relationships between the two police forces.

My Lords, are any discussions taking place with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to speed up matters? If so, is any progress being made?

My Lords, discussions are taking place at all levels—between the Governments, police services and ministries. There is progress, but it is slow.

My Lords, I endorse what the noble Baroness said about the relationship between the two police forces. I have the honour to sit on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and our committee has recently been looking into the matters that gave rise to the Question. Will the noble Baroness draw to the attention of her colleagues the report of the committee that I mentioned? It was drawn up not only by a Joint Committee of both Houses of this Parliament, but a Joint Committee of both Houses of the Irish Parliament as well. The committee said that it is unacceptable to go on hobbling police forces in adjacent counties in the manner that I described, particularly when the relationships are otherwise very good.

My Lords, it is indeed an excellent report, and I understand that the Government will respond to it before the next meeting of the committee on 19 July.