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7.47 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): I do not agree with the closing remarks of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), and I hope he will bear with me if I explain why later. First, I ask him to accept that Opposition Members are not indulging in cheap publicity or political stunts. We object to the Bill on a point of principle so fundamentally important to us that—I understand—we will oppose its Second Reading, although some parts may have merit and others may deserve scrutiny in Committee. So serious is that point of principle that I feel it would be wholly wrong of us to support the Bill.

As with a number of other developments in Northern Ireland, when it comes to criminal justice there is an official and an unofficial context and background. The official context and background of the Bill were explained by the Secretary of State: it is the policing and justice section of the Belfast agreement, particularly paragraphs 4 to 7, and the subsequent work of the review group. Those who accepted the agreement will therefore have accepted those paragraphs as well, and may not be over-surprised by what has emerged from them.

Those of us who had reservations about the agreement held them for many reasons, just one of which arises from paragraphs 6 and 7 of the agreement. It was by no means our main objection; it was just one of them. Our argument was that national systems of justice are the responsibility of sovereign states and not automatically the business of neighbouring states. Obviously, the exercising of national sovereignty can extend to and include negotiating with neighbouring states, but it was arguably wrong in principle of the Government, in paragraph 6, to commit themselves in advance and unconditionally to discussing with the Irish Government the implementation of the recommendations of the Northern Ireland criminal justice review group. It was certainly wrong in principle of the Government, in paragraph 7, to commit themselves in advance and unconditionally to consulting the Irish Government before devolving within the United Kingdom responsibility for policing and justice issues. Those are rightly and properly matters for the United Kingdom Government.

Mike Gapes: What the hon. Gentleman says confirms his long-standing opposition to the Belfast agreement. Paragraph 7 was agreed to by his party as an Opposition

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party, by the Government, by the majority of the people in Northern Ireland and in the referendum in the Republic. He is just restating his long-standing position. The reality is that his side lost the referendum, and the Belfast agreement was passed by the House and supported by the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hunter: I rather regret that I gave way for that somewhat meaningless intervention, which does not take the debate any further forward. My views of the Belfast agreement are known and irrelevant to this debate, as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would no doubt advise if I were to embark upon announcing them.

That then was the official context and background of the Bill. As for the unofficial context and background, at least of key parts of the Bill, they are perhaps best summed up in the words of Brian Cowen, the Irish Foreign Minister, in a leaked Northern Ireland Office document that was first printed in the British press in May 2000. Mr. Cowen was quoted as saying:

It was therefore only a matter of time before the Government made their formal move to neutralise constitutionally the institutions, structures and procedures of justice in the Province.

The Bill should be seen in its wider context. When the Minister launched the draft Bill last November, he rightly spoke of the imperatives of fairness and impartiality. Those are, or should be, at the heart of any criminal justice system. Moreover, as qualities of justice, they are absolute and timeless, but he muddied the waters somewhat by also speaking about delivering a

system of justice. If he regards the Bill as progressive, we are entitled to ask in which direction he thinks it is progressing. If he thinks it forward-looking, we can likewise ask what it is looking forward to.

The erosion of the cultural, historical and constitutional Britishness of Northern Ireland is a reality. Further manifestations of it are found in the Bill. Many people see it as another step in establishing a de facto united Ireland, so that a de jure united Ireland is not a quantum leap into the unknown but merely the formal acknowledgment of a reality that has already been created.

There is no question of a hidden agenda: it is clear from Government words and writing. There are fears that the Bill plays its part in the Government's reform and harmonisation programme, which is central to their programme towards a united Ireland.

On judicial appointments, hon. Members will know that the appointment processes in Northern Ireland are broadly similar to those in England and Wales at the more senior levels. The differences at less senior levels reflect the different court systems in the two jurisdictions.

The Lord Chancellor has been responsible for making or advising on all judicial appointments since 1973. As the review group commented at paragraph 6.16:

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The proposal now is that political responsibility and accountability for judicial appointments should lie with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. They will take over responsibility for making recommendations to the Queen for all appointments to the level of resident magistrate and for making appointments below that level.

There will be a Judicial Appointments Commission, but the presence of lay people on that body, and their number, are a concern. It is legitimate to ask what pressures or influences they may be subject to, or what pressure they may bring to bear.

The key test of any judiciary must be that people are appointed on merit. Leaving appointments largely in the hands of the judiciary and the two legal professions provides greater opportunity for ensuring that the key test is merit, rather than some form of political balance or correctness. Where a new department of justice is being created and where the role of the Lord Chancellor is being removed, important questions should be asked about who makes decisions about the legal profession. Independence from political interference must be preserved or, even better, enhanced and reinforced. I am far from convinced that in that respect the Bill has got it right.

Much has been said already with regard to the royal coat of arms and the judicial oath. The Bill not only undermines the Britishness of Northern Ireland, but in its implementation, challenges the constitutional status of the Province. In the words of the amendment,

Constitutionally and traditionally, the monarch is the source and fountain of justice in the United Kingdom. That is unaffected by devolution in Wales and Scotland, and it should be unaffected by devolution in Northern Ireland.

Throughout the United Kingdom, the sovereign's majesty is deemed always to be present in court. It was in recognition of that that the practice of displaying a royal coat of arms behind the judge's chair evolved. The royal coat of arms symbolises the monarch as the source and fountain of justice, and it symbolises the presence of the sovereign's majesty.

The criminal justice review group rightly argued that the removal of all symbols from courthouses would be inconsistent with Northern Ireland's constitutional position, but it was wholly illogical of the group then to argue that removing the royal coat of arms from inside courthouses while maintaining them outside would be consistent with Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom. It is illogical because the significance of the royal coat of arms inside a courthouse is greater than its significance outside. Its removal from the inside of a courthouse is therefore a far greater challenge to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The review group acknowledges the principle that removing the royal coat of arms would be inconsistent with Northern Ireland's constitutional position, but proposes a course of action that fundamentally challenges that constitutional position.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman has revealed by his contribution to the debate so far a level of research and understanding of the position that is significantly greater than that revealed by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. To that extent, I congratulate him. The review

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board took a lot of advice on the constitutional implications of its recommendations and was satisfied that the consequences are not as he says they are.

Perhaps from his researches the hon. Gentleman can tell the House how long the constitutional position of putting symbols in courts has been established throughout the United Kingdom. When I started practising in courts in Scotland, by no means all of them displayed royal symbols on the walls.

Mr. Hunter: On the Minister's first point, I was making the point that I disagree profoundly with the conclusion reached by the review board. He summarised the board's findings, and I am trying to explain why it was wrong.

I do not know precisely when the practice of displaying the royal coat of arms started, but I know of courthouses dating from the end of the 17th century where, if I recall correctly, Charles II's coat of arms is to be found. I believe that the practice may have started with or after the restoration in 1660.

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