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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I take it that the Secretary of State is now dealing with part 2clause 23 and so forthwhich deals with the appointment of the Law Officers for Northern Ireland. Am I right in thinking that the intended holder of the office of Attorney-General for Northern Ireland need not necessarily be a Member of the Assembly, and will be an extra-parliamentary officer? Is that right?
Dr. Reid: If I heard the hon. and learned Gentleman's question correctly, I can say yes, not only will that officer not be a Member of the Assembly, he will be independent of it. Does that answer the hon. and learned Gentleman's question?
Dr. Reid: A number of things have happened since the days to which the hon. Gentleman refersI would not question his memory on those former arrangementsone of which is devolution to other parts of the United Kingdom such as Scotland and Wales. Nevertheless, the Advocate-General for Northern Ireland could be the Attorney-General, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested. I hope that that answers his question.
I want to say a few words on the outcome of the consultation process. There has been pretty extensive consultation on these proposals, before and after the review group's report was produced. In addition, there has been a consultation process on the Bill. We have taken the outcome of that consultation carefully into account when shaping the legislation. We have consulted the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly on the policy areas in the draft legislation that have implications for the devolved Administration, and we will continue to consult and co-operate with them as we make our preparations for devolution.
Dr. Reid: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman missed my earlier remark that we, too, would have liked a longer consultation period. Nor will he have missed my making the point that there will be further consultation as the Bill goes through the House, some of which will no doubt take the form of contributions from him and his hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench. Yes, there could always be more consultation, but I am trying to make the point that there has been a genuine degree of consultation, both before and after the publication of the report. I would also like to point out that the review group's recommendations were in the public domain for a prolonged period before they were formally put out to consultation.
Mr. Blunt: An important principle is involved here. The early part of the consultation on the review process was perhaps a model for how this business should be carried out. However, the latter part, with the rush from the review stage to the draft Bill, and the very short opportunity for the Assembly and for the Opposition to consult the officials taking the Bill through Parliament, has not been a model. The most deleterious part of this process is that, although we have the chance to have consultations through debate on the detail of the Bill in Committee, we face a programme motion that will limit those consultations to 12 sittings. That is short of what
Dr. Reid: Emollient as I always am, I must say that the hon. Gentleman has a damn cheek. First, the review recommendations have been in the public domain for almost two years. Secondly, he and his Opposition Front-Bench colleagues have had unparalleled access to our officials and to information, which I cannot recall being given when we were in opposition, even under a bipartisan approach. Thirdly, my hon. Friend the UnderSecretary met the Chairman of the relevant Assembly Committee and, specifically at his request, yet again extended the consultation period. Finally, we are still in the consultation process in that judgments and changes can be made, and we are sensitive to that.
I am now well aware that the hon. Gentleman seems to think that my officials report to him rather than to me. I am aware of his views and those of everyone else, including my officials, but our efforts to make available information and consultation facilities have been such that it is churlish to say that this is hardly a model process. He has no experience of trying to take such a Northern Ireland measure through the House. The situation is in flux and there are deadlines, some of which he helps to create, with which we have to cope in the general ebb and flow of events. Given all the circumstances, we have done damn well to extend the consultation as we have.
Mr. Blunt: I do not want the Secretary of State to be under any misapprehension. I commended him and the Northern Ireland Office for the way in which they handled the early part of the processindeed, I said that that was a modelbut it is an enormous pity that the final stages, which are taking place in the House, face a programme motion that will seriously shorten consultation in Committee. That is a great problem. Otherwise, this would be virtually a model process. I implore the Secretary of State, even at this stage, to consider withdrawing the programme motion so that we can finish consideration in Committee in a way that is acceptable all round.
Dr. Reid: I accept the hon. Gentleman's accolade that this has been a model process, at least up to this point. I did not interpret the burden of his remarks in that way, but I accept that that is what he is saying.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): May I put it on record that the Secretary of State's gratitude is overwhelming? Like me, he was a shadow spokesman for years and years, working on the Floor of the House and considering many Bills in Committee. I did not have access to civil servants in opposition, so the very fact that access has been
Mr. McNamara: I risk straining my right hon. Friend's emollience, but will the Government itemise the Northern Ireland Assembly's recommendationsI think that they number between 13 and 17; I have not seen the full list, although I have read the Assembly debateand give their decision on its more or less unanimous request? It would help matters considerably if the Government responded to that request, and the only real bone of contention was the question of symbols.
Dr. Reid: We will consider those recommendations in some detail. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, although the consultation has been going on for some time in an informal capacity, we have had this document for only a few days. We shall certainly give serious consideration to what my hon. Friend has said.
We have consulted the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly on those policy areas of the draft legislation that have implications for the devolved Administration. We will continue to consult and co-operate with the Executive and Assembly. The spirit in which that has taken place has been unusually constructive compared with our discussions on some items. There has been a degree of common support for the proposals, which has not always been apparent in everything the Government have tried to do in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to all those who submitted responses during the consultation exercise, which were, on the whole, positive and came from a wide range of interests. There now appears to be a broad consensus that the policies in the Bill represent the best way forward. Some helpful suggestions have been made during the consultation on the detailed operation of these policies. We shall take a number of comments on board by making the necessary amendments in Committee.
The great bulk of the comments that we have received thus far have been constructive. There is a great deal in the review on which the parties in Northern Ireland can agree, although I recognise that some issues are more difficult than others.
Inevitably, perhaps, the part of the Bill that has aroused most concern has been the provisions on symbols. The Bill proposes a number of changes in the light of the review's recommendations. This is obviously a highly sensitive area, and the review would probably have been criticised whatever outcome it came up with.
We fully endorse the review's recognition of the need to strike a balance between recognising the sensitivities of the various communities in Northern Ireland and confirming the courts' position within the agreed constitutional framework.
We are considering all the representations we have received, including a number expressing concern on heritage grounds about the removal of certain symbols. We will consider whether any changes are needed in the light of the responses to the consultation exercise, and the views expressed in the House. We are open to any constructive suggestions, particularly those capable of attracting cross-community support.
Another subject on which we have received a number of submissions is community safety. There was widespread support in the local government sector for a provision in the Bill to give councils clear statutory authority to undertake community safety work. I very much welcome the councils' intention to play an active role in community safety, which will contribute to reducing crime and the fear of crime in their localities. In order to facilitate that, I am minded, subject to consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive, to bring forward an amendment on those lines.
The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 sets out the crucial role of the Policing Board in the development of district policing partnerships. It will have an important role to play in ensuring that the police contribute effectively to the partnerships necessary to deliver community safety.
We do not envisage that the district policing partnerships will have the lead role in community safety, as that is not an issue for the police alone, and the other organisations which contribute to the delivery of community safety, such as housing and social services, are not included in the membership of those partnerships.
I am also conscious that the Executive have announced in their "Programme for Government" a review of public administration. They are also developing an important resource in the new local strategic partnerships. Both those initiatives could have major implications for the longer-term structures that we adopt for taking forward work on community safety, and I look forward to discussing those with the Executive.
Many of our proposals are dependent on having legislation in place before they can be fully implemented. However, that will still allow us to make early progress on areas that can be taken forward administratively, or for which we can usefully undertake some preparatory work. We have already published a document setting out the purpose and aims for the criminal justice system, as recommended by the review. We have appointed a Judicial Appointments Commissioner for Northern Ireland. We will shortly be publishing for consultation a community safety strategy, so as to stimulate further public debate on this important area of work.
I have tried to explain the burden of the Bill, discussing some aspects in broad terms and others in more detail. The Bill, and the other steps that we are taking as a result of our decisions on the review, are designed to create a justice system for the 21st century. We are combining best practice in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world with innovative approaches to old problems.
In many areas, such as that of prosecution, the steps that we are taking will bring practice in Northern Ireland more closely into line with that in England, Scotland and Wales. In other areas, such as youth conferencing, we will
We will of course ensure that we incorporate appropriate safeguards. The justice system is too important for us to take a leap of faith. We will use pilots and evaluation to build up our own experience of how the measures fit the particular needs of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland, however, deserve the opportunity to match their criminal justice systems with the best in the world. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.