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Northern Ireland: Police Evidence

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how long it takes on average for evidence to be transferred between police in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and vice versa through the Letter of Request procedure.

My Lords, recent requests to the Home Office took between 12 days and 202 days from receipt of request to delivery of the evidence. This is based on a very small number and I cannot say how quickly Irish counterparts forwarded the evidence to their police. Northern Ireland prosecutors may send requests directly or via the Home Office. The Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland does not keep statistics on how long it takes to receive evidence.

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend would agree that, although co-operation between the two police forces north and south is excellent, the legal complexities of investigating and prosecuting cross-border crime are considerable. A letter of request is only a small part of that, but it is a part for which the Whitehall Government are responsible, as opposed to the Belfast Government under devolution. Why is it necessary for London to be involved in these cases? Would it not be better if a method of short-circuiting was found so that at least this aspect of the legal complexities could be speeded up?

As my noble friend says, active co-operation between the police forces on the ground is very good, as I think his parliamentary committee had reason to say recently. On the involvement of the central authority—that is, the Home Office—it is normal form for letters of request to come into the central authority for the purposes of ensuring that they are properly dealt with. The central authority in London has taken considerable pains to reduce the backlog and to improve its performance, as we were aware that there were complaints; indeed, the previous Government took some measures to improve the situation. It is fair to say that the performance now by the central authority is regarded as good and the Irish authorities have so said.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware of discussions in March this year between the police forces on both sides of the border, which identified the desirability of a faster transfer of evidence and suggested bypassing London and Dublin. Would it not be a good idea for the Government to look seriously into that proposal?

On the transfer of information, the outgoing request goes from the local authority—that is, it would go directly from Northern Ireland—while the incoming goes via the central authority. That is the system that is normally used. Occasionally, there are instances of that not happening but, as a general proposition, requests come that way. Our understanding is that that is what Dublin prefers.

My Lords, is the Minister aware how complicated a letter of request is? I have had personal experience of this and it is a nightmare. Will the Government consider simplifying the formula for letters of request, because the lawyers have an absolute field day?

The noble and learned Baroness has raised an aspect of which I was not aware, but I shall take it back to see whether it is possible to reduce the formula. I imagine that this would probably be an EU-wide issue, but we would certainly want to do so.

My Lords, does the Minister understand that many of us find her answers slightly confusing in that, on the one hand, she said that there are no statistics while, on the other hand, official letters are going backwards and forwards? Will she agree to ask for statistics to be made up from those records now? When she says that the response has been good, by whose judgment is it good? It is quite clear that a lot of people are not satisfied.

My Lords, I did not quite say that there are no statistics. I was asked about present performance and I said that my answer was based on a very small set of statistics. I can give some figures: 17 requests have been received in total this year from the Republic of Ireland, of which six concern Northern Ireland. That is against a background of 1,585 letters of request overall. We are dealing with low numbers, which is why averaging statistics is fairly misleading. My other point was that, in relation to outgoing requests from Northern Ireland, the Northern Irish authorities do not collect those statistics, so I am not able to give that figure.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is something special about requests regarding details from Northern Ireland and the Republic, which is that we have a land border, the only one that we have? Does she also agree that, with the increase in dissident republican paramilitary activity, this issue is becoming urgent and should not just be left for the lawyers to take their time?

My Lords, in this particular instance we are talking about evidential letters, but there is the quite separate and important issue that the noble Lord has raised, which is cross-border co-operation between police authorities in relation to terrorism. However, that is not dealt with through this system. Even so, we agree entirely with the importance of what he has said.

My Lords, does my noble friend realise that for some years we worked with the previous Government to try to get the bureaucratic processes and the legislation in place to change exactly this problem? The police in Northern Ireland are constantly under pressure to get more prosecutions through the courts, so this is an old problem, not a new one. I have certainly had conversations with two previous Attorneys-General, in particular the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, who is a long-standing friend, and I have been told that it is possible but that a lot of work needs to be done. This problem is serious—much more so than it appears—so will the noble Baroness please endeavour to get something moving?

I take note of what my noble friend says. There are two issues here, one being the appropriateness of the system and the other being how well it is performing. I think that its performance is greatly improved: the backlog, which was a source of complaint, has been greatly reduced, while more measures are being introduced to reduce it still further. The second point is that the procedure followed itself. Our belief is that that suits not only the UK end but also, as things stand, Dublin. However, we are always looking for improvement and I am aware that there are other areas where we are trying to progress further improvements in co-operation.