My Lords, we continue to urge all parties in Northern Ireland to make progress on this issue. Justice Minister Ford has submitted a paper to the political parties which sets out enhanced accountability arrangements for the NCA. This paper should allay remaining concerns about the NCA’s role and allow all parties to support the full extension of the NCA to Northern Ireland without further delay.
My Lords, does the Minister feel it appropriate for Her Majesty’s Government to allow Sinn Fein to exercise a veto over the operation of the National Crime Agency? Is she aware that when debating Commons Amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill on 25 March 2013 the prospect of a Sinn Fein veto was anticipated? The noble Lord, Lord of Taylor of Holbeach, announced that in such circumstances,
“any Government of the United Kingdom will respond in a responsible manner”.—[Official Report, 25/3/13; col. 832.]
When will the Government override Sinn Fein’s veto, behave responsibly and fully establish the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland right away?
The noble Lord refers to the words of my noble friend Lord Taylor and to the Government responding with responsibility. It is important to remember that this is a devolved issue. In order to retain the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland across the communities every effort should be made to reach the decision within Northern Ireland. The Government believe that the efforts being made by David Ford as Justice Minister in Northern Ireland are working towards that end.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Northern Ireland Act, which implemented the agreement, expressly reserves and protects this Parliament’s right to override that legislation, in just the same way that it has the power to override others in the national interest? How long will the Minister wait before the inevitable exercise of that power?
My Lords, the Government do not intend to breach the Sewel convention on this issue. We believe that there is still work that can profitably be done to bring all parties in Northern Ireland to agreement on this issue. If agreement is not reached, the parties will have to decide what measures they need to take on devolved issues to deal with the problems that they face.
My Lords, my noble friend has told us that these proposals are being talked about. Can she tell us whether they are being talked about in the context of the talks taking place to try to resolve many of these issues? I was not quite clear.
My Lords, with no disrespect to the Minister, we have heard before stories about it happening soon and all the rest of it. We have repeatedly asked for the Secretary of State to get involved, which would show the urgency of the situation. The security of the people of Northern Ireland is continually put at risk by the absence of participation in the National Crime Agency’s operations. Instead of merely urging the parties to get together, should not the Secretary of State stop hiding behind the figure of David Ford and get some action on the Government’s own account?
I understand the frustration that the noble Lord expresses, but I can assure him that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been constantly involved in this issue and is regularly in discussions with the political parties. However, the noble Lord is correct in drawing attention to the fact that the same protection is not afforded to the people of Northern Ireland while the issue of the NCA is unresolved. I can assure him that we are extremely keen to reach agreement on this.
I think the noble and learned Baroness expresses the same view that has been made clear around the Chamber not just today but in previous discussions that we have had on this issue. It is important that we are given this opportunity to discuss it because our frustration and concern need to be heard in Northern Ireland in order to ensure that all the political parties take this issue very seriously indeed.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that it is vital for the security of the whole United Kingdom that the National Crime Agency should be permitted unfettered freedom to operate within Northern Ireland as neither the Police Service of Northern Ireland nor the Garda Siochana will have the necessary expertise and resources to counter effectively the potential threat posed by international terrorists and criminal gangs operating across the United Kingdom’s only land border?
The noble Lord makes some excellent points. It is important to emphasise the huge pressure being put on PSNI while this issue remains unresolved. It is also important to point out that the NCA deals with serious and organised crime which does not respect boundaries. It has been very much more difficult to deal with serious crime—child exploitation, drug related crime, fraud, and so on—since the NCA has not been able to operate.
As all the parties in Northern Ireland have a very strong and noble position against human trafficking, does the Minister accept that the National Crime Agency has a key role to play in that respect? In their discussions with local parties, do the Government emphasise the important role that the NCA could play regarding human trafficking, which is increasingly troubling to those who pay attention to the affairs of Northern Ireland?