Children at risk over Northern Ireland's failure to sign up to crime unit: UN
A United Nations children's rights monitor has expressed strong concerns about Northern Ireland's failure to sign up to a UK-wide crime-fighting body.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) – dubbed the British FBI – targets gangs engaged in child sexual exploitation but does not have powers in the region, largely because of nationalist concerns over accountability.
A UN committee highlighted the lack of a clear system of co-operation to identify and respond to children who are at risk of becoming victims, especially in Northern Ireland.
It said: "The committee is strongly concerned that in the absence of the legislative consent motion, the NCA does not have powers in the devolved sphere in Northern Ireland and therefore the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), integrated within the NCA, is not fully operational in Northern Ireland."
The Committee on the Rights of the Child is made up of 18 independent experts, academics from countries such as Norway and Russia, who monitor the implementation of a convention on the issue adopted by many states.
Its report relates to an optional section of the convention surrounding the sale of children, child prostitution and pornography.
It said: "The committee also urges the state party to establish safeguards to ensure that devolution (of justice powers from London to Belfast) does not lead to discrimination in the enjoyment of rights by children in different regions and that mechanisms such as the CEOP are extended to Northern Ireland."
Earlier this year the PSNI warned that cracks were emerging in the force's ability to tackle sex trafficking because of a failure to sign up to the NCA.
The UN report said the UK had insufficient measures to address potential abusers of children, while recognising positive reforms to prevent sexual exploitation by gangs in England and Wales.
It expressed concern about "the lack of a clear multi-agency system to identify and respond to children who are at a particular risk of being victims of the offences, such as children reported as missing, those forcibly trafficked within the state party or children in institutions, especially in Northern Ireland".
International crime gangs have begun work in Northern Ireland but police sometimes cannot seize their cash and lack the "surge" capacity to enlist detectives from other forces, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris said earlier this year.
The head of the NCA is directly accountable to Home Secretary Theresa May for the agency's actions, not to PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton or other local scrutiny bodies.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP blocked a move to give the NCA powers to carry out police operations and recruit agents amid oversight concerns.
A spokesman for Justice Minister David Ford said: "The minister remains concerned about the gap in our law-enforcement effectiveness on the operational side since NCA came into operation. While PSNI has access to information that the NCA gathers... and to advice, NCA teams cannot bring assistance or expertise to bear on the ground here. That is because agreement has not been reached on NCA officers having constabulary powers here."