My Lords, we fully support the efforts of the Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford to secure the support of the parties for the full extension of the NCA’s remit to Northern Ireland. We want to see an early resolution of this issue to avoid serious gaps emerging in law enforcement in Northern Ireland in areas where there is deep public concern, such as drug enforcement, human trafficking and other forms of serious criminality.
My Lords, I rather suspected that the Minister would answer in those terms. Is she aware that the Northern Ireland Executive has not discussed the National Crime Agency this year? Is she further aware that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has neither the personnel nor the financial resources to fulfil the functions that should be carried out by the National Crime Agency, which is a matter of grave concern?
My Lords, the Government are well aware of the impact on the PSNI and of the need for agreement to be reached as soon as possible. I understand the noble Lord’s concern. It is clear to us that the NCA in Northern Ireland obviously has less capability than elsewhere. However, this is a devolved matter and it is right that discussions are ongoing between the Justice Minister, the NCA and the political parties—but UK Government Ministers and officials remain fully engaged.
My Lords, I understand the Minister’s desire to proceed by agreement, but with regard to the particular issues of trafficking, drugs and the related matters that she mentioned, is it the Government’s view that it is in the national interest that the National Crime Agency be fully operational throughout the United Kingdom on those issues?
My Lords, in our view it is clearly in the national interest that the National Crime Agency is fully operational throughout all parts of the United Kingdom. However, the Sewel convention must apply at this point, and it is clear that we do not normally intervene and legislate on matters within the competence of the devolved Administrations without their consent.
My Lords, this is no nationalist versus unionist argument; clearly it is about the national interest. The non-involvement of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland was highlighted the other day when a Treasury Minister, from that Dispatch Box, indicated that HMRC was having difficulty in collecting taxes, VAT and so on. Despite the mention of the Sewel convention and the Justice Minister, surely it is time that some leadership was shown by the Northern Ireland Office in bringing these people together to get agreement, in the national interest.
My Lords, the Government have taken the view that agreement is most likely to be obtained under the leadership of David Ford, the Justice Minister, who, after all, has support across the parties in Northern Ireland. It is important that we ensure that his discussions with the parties and with Keith Bristow of the National Crime Agency, which are active and ongoing, are facilitated. I assure noble Lords that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is fully engaged in the process, and that the Home Secretary remains prepared to consider proposals that are put forward.
My Lords, the National Crime Agency, as my noble friend said, is doing a terrific job under the leadership of the very able director-general, Keith Bristow, who told an audience at the Police Foundation conference two weeks ago that last year, 93% of five to 15 year-olds in the UK used the internet, which makes them very vulnerable to predators in that online space. Does my noble friend believe that some politicians in Northern Ireland could be endangering the lives of their young people by not letting the NCA investigate appalling internet crimes, some of which involve children?
My noble friend makes an important point, and I very much hope that politicians in Northern Ireland who have not found themselves able to reach agreement so far on the remit of the NCA and its answerability in Northern Ireland are listening at this time, or will read the record afterwards, in order to realise the seriousness and importance of reaching agreement.
My Lords, I hope that I have made it clear that the Government are very closely involved in this, and that we remain optimistic that agreement will be reached. I understand the frustration that noble Lords are exhibiting at the length of time it is taking to reach agreement, but the talks and discussions are ongoing, and the work within the office of the Justice Minister is very much an active piece of work; we are reassured of that fact.