Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7.31 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): My party has worked for many decades to have a review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, primarily because of its evident flaws and because it did not have the support of the entire community. It is not for me to go into the pros and cons of that, I merely to declare that this issue was on our agenda long before the Good Friday agreement and long before the review and the Bill were published. I would like to think that the substance of the part of the Good Friday agreement pertaining to criminal justice came from the papers, attitudes and arguments that we used at that time.

The criminal justice review and the Bill are not a destroying mechanism, but rather a reviewing, modernising mechanism that will bring our system into the 21st century. I hope that it will show many other jurisdictions that, out of the chaos in Northern Ireland and the horrors and injustices that we have witnessed, a judicial system can be produced that is the envy of all who observe it.

It was with great sadness rather than anger that I heard the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) try to divert the debate from the reality of the situation by means of some cheap publicity and point scoring—I do not like saying that. The Conservatives have tabled an amendment, which says that the Bill represents

That it definitely does not do.

If the hon. Gentleman wants proof of that, he need not listen to me. He should examine the work of the Assembly's ad hoc committee on the review and the draft Bill. That committee contained members of the Ulster Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, Sinn Fein, the Democratic Unionist party and the other minor parties, none of whom said that this was a republican plot or a concession to republicanism. There was a great deal of consensus on the joint report, which contained valid, constructive criticism of the Bill and suggested how it could be improved so that the judicial system could be improved. At no time in any of the comments made at any of the meetings of that multi-party committee was there any implication or declaration that this was a republican agenda. We all know what the extreme republican agenda is in Northern Ireland—I describe myself as a republican, but that description has been besmirched by violence over the years to such an extent that I can no longer use it without paragraphs of clarification.

21 Jan 2002 : Column 680

In our consideration of the Bill, my party wants to cover four major areas. We will deal with the Bill only in general points, because I took note of what the Secretary of State said, and it is on the record that this is an on-going review process. The Assembly's report will be part of the review that the Government are taking forward into Committee and out of it.

The four points that highlight our attitude to the Bill could be summarised as a fully accountable judiciary, an independent prosecution service based on disclosure, the enshrinement of human rights in the justice service, which has been touched on by several hon. Members, and the establishment of a Judicial Appointments Commission, which we hope will have a majority of lay members, and we shall table an amend to that affect. We also hope that the chairman of the commission will be a lay person.

We are committed to the principle of ownership of the administration of justice by the community that it is serving. Unless the community right across Northern Ireland has a sense of proprietorship of the judicial system, the process will remain flawed. We are looking for a more fundamental review.

Many of the headings have already been touched on, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) spoke at length on the youth provision, so that topic has been adequately covered. I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about my party and its history, and about me.

I should like to comment on restorative justice. The Assembly's ad hoc committee gave much consideration to the innovative idea of restorative justice, to which everyone in the community can contribute, and which is important for the prevention and cure of juvenile crime. We felt that new approaches were required. There was agreement that the various provisions for restorative justice were not as clear as they could be, were sometimes vague, and certainly required clarification.

We want to be assured that there is transparency in the appointments system, and that the judiciary reflects that. All aspects of the appointment system must be open, and must be seen to be just and caring. It should have some reference to broad representation of the community as a whole, although not through precise diktat.

We would like to think that the Judicial Appointments Commission will not just advise, but will make appointments. Unlike the current system, the judicial and legal membership of such a commission should not have undue power and influence through their numbers, and should not impinge on the independence of the appointments.

Mr. Trimble: I am sorry to be a little dilatory in making this point, but unless I misheard the hon. Gentleman, he said that the Assembly's ad hoc committee on the criminal justice review was favourable to the concept of restorative justice.

The committee expressed concern about the whole area of restorative justice, considering that further work was required

21 Jan 2002 : Column 681

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the committee tried to operate on the basis of consensus. On that point, it was very cautious.

Mr. McGrady: There was indeed a degree of caution, but there was no rejection. There was, in fact, a seeking of clarification, and of better ways of accomplishing it. Although, as several other passages in the report show, the ad hoc committee was not always unanimous—the parties indicated their separate differences—there was a consensus in favour of achieving a new beginning in the criminal justice system. Indeed, if I remember rightly, not one amendment was tabled when the report reached the Assembly, and not one vote was forced. That was the extent of what I will call co-operation, intended to achieve the best possible result.

The Minister, and the Government, should take on board the concerns, differences, suggestions and criticisms presented by the divers parties constituting the ad hoc committee, and incorporate what was agreed in the Bill by way of Government amendments reflecting the wishes of the people whom the judicial system will serve. What better yardstick could there be than cross-party consensus?

The question of symbolism is a thorny question, which distracted the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. For my party, the guiding principles are parity of esteem and parity of symbolism. At best that can, perhaps, be achieved through a degree of neutrality. Opposition Members may not know that the symbols of state, such as flags and emblems, have been so grossly abused in Northern Ireland—used not as symbols of the sovereign or the state, but as party political symbols—that they do not attract the esteem, respect and regard that they should attract, because they have been besmirched for decades by party connotations of the worst sort. We are trying to approach these delicate, sensitive issues by way of understanding; perhaps some neutrality could be introduced as well.

A short time ago it was said that we would never be able to acquire a symbol for the new police force, and that that would be the most divisive aspect of the board of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It took precisely 10 days to achieve, with the agreement of the whole board and, to a vast extent, that of the public. Many of us do not like this little bit, many of us do not like that little bit, but I think it fair to say that this is now accepted as a reasonable symbol of the people of Northern Ireland. Perhaps we should be striving for the same objective to deal with the problems that emblems give us in the Northern Ireland Court Service.

We are not entirely satisfied that the proposals for the prosecution service will involve full accountability. I think that we want a system rather similar to the Scottish procurator fiscal system. The Northern Ireland committee—I have referred to it constantly, but it serves as a useful baseline—says that

That does not suggest that the reasons why cases do not result in prosecutions should always be disclosed. We are arguing for a presumption that disclosure will be made, except when it could cause injustice and prevent the protection of victims and others.

Much has been said about the future of the devolution of reserved matters after the elections of 2003. That represents a relatively short time in the political history

21 Jan 2002 : Column 682

and experience of any country. I think that the amendments presented by the community of Northern Ireland—particularly through the Assembly's report, although my party will table amendments that we think will improve the modernisation of criminal jurisdiction—will be presented with some justification, and with some clarity.

Let me say this to Opposition Front Benchers, in the light of what was said by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and in the light of the amendment: if the House observed the exhortations of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and rejected the Bill, it would send the very message that the hon. Gentleman wants not to send. How crazy can we get? I know that it is a lot for a Back Bencher to ask of the opposite side, whether Government or Opposition, but sanity dictates that the amendment be withdrawn.

Next Section

IndexHome Page