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Standing Committee Debates
Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Standing Committee F

Tuesday 29 January 2002

(Morning)

[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

10.30 am

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, I have two housekeeping points to make. First, because the clock is not accurate we shall have to rely on the House of Commons Annunciator screen for timing. Secondly, it will be acceptable for those hon. Members who wish to remove their jackets to do so, as this Room seems to get rather hot from time to time.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

    That —

    (1) during proceedings on the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill the Standing Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at half-past Nine o'clock and at half-past Two o'clock;

    (2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clauses 1 and 2, Schedule 1, Clause 3, Schedule 2, Clauses 4 and 5, Schedule 3, Clauses 6 to 11, Schedule 4, Clauses 12 and 13, Schedule 5, Clauses 14 to 20, Schedule 6, Clauses 21 and 22, New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 1, Clauses 23 to 29, Schedule 7, Clauses 30 to 44, New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 2, Clause 45, Schedule 8, Clauses 46 to 50, Schedule 9, Clauses 51 and 52, New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 3, Clauses 53 to 62, Schedule 10, Clause 63, Schedule 11, Clauses 64 and 65, New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 4, Clauses 66 to 80, New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 5, Clauses 81 to 83, Schedule 12, Clause 84, Schedule 13, Clauses 85 to 91 and remaining New Clauses and New Schedules;

    (3) the proceedings on Clauses 1 and 2, Schedule 1, Clause 3, Schedule 2, Clauses 4 and 5, Schedule 3, Clauses 6 to 11, Schedule 4, Clauses 12 and 13, Schedule 5, Clauses 14 to 20, Schedule 6, Clauses 21 and 22 and New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 1 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 11.25 a.m on Thursday 31st January 2002;

    (4) the proceedings on Clauses 23 to 29, Schedule 7, Clauses 30 to 44 and New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 2 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 7 p.m. on Tuesday 31st February 2002;

    (5) the proceedings on Clause 45, Schedule 8, Clauses 46 to 50, Schedule 9, Clauses 51 and 52, New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 3, Clauses 53 to 62, Schedule 10, Clause 63, Schedule 11, Clauses 64 and 65 and New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 4 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 1 p.m. on Tuesday 12th February 2002;

    (6) the remaining proceedings on the Bill (so. far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 5 p.m. on Thursday 14th February 2002.

My first task is to ask the Committee to approve the Programming Sub-Committee's resolution. Copies of the resolution have been distributed to all members of the Committee.

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Before proceeding to that task, however, I take this opportunity to welcome you, Mr. Conway, to our proceedings. The members of the Programming Sub-Committee had the pleasure earlier this morning of sitting under the chairmanship of your co-Chairman, Mr. Pike, who informed us that it is intended that you will chair the morning sittings and that he will chair the afternoon sittings. I have not previously had the pleasure of being a member of a Committee chaired by you, Mr. Conway, but I welcome you in the knowledge that you have a reputation for being fair and knowledgeable. I undertake, as far as I am able, to keep myself well and truly in order, and I hope not to trouble you too much.

The programme motion provides for the proceedings of the Committee to take place over three weeks, with four sittings each week. The Government's initial estimate, before the recent consultation, was that the Committee would require between 12 and 16 sittings. However, in the light of the considerable pressures on the legislative programme and as a consequence of the consultation, we are content to proceed on the basis set out in the programming motion. We accept that an appropriate balance has been struck.

The motion also sets out the time available for consideration of the various parts of the Bill. It is important that the Committee has adequate time to consider the important matters contained in the latter parts of the Bill, such as the provisions on youth conferencing and community safety. It would be in no one's interest to allow proceedings to become bogged down on earlier provisions at the expense of the other equally important issues later in the Bill, which is why the time has been divided as it has.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I have been reflecting on the Minister's remarks about the legislative programme and the need for haste in our proceedings. Will he go into a little more detail on what he is driving at?

Mr. Browne: I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman has some understanding of what is meant by the phrase ''legislative programme'' in the context of this place. What is driving me, as the Minister responsible for the Bill, is a desire to put in place the legislative framework necessary to start practical work on changing the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. There is a commitment that, when appropriate after the 2003 Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, the Government will carry out their intention of devolving responsibility for criminal justice to the Assembly and the Executive. All parties represented in the House, and certainly in the Committee, with one possible exception, share that commitment.

In my discussions with colleagues in the House and with local politicians, there is a clear understanding that certain legislative provisions must be in place as soon as possible, certainly in this Session, if that objective is to be achieved and certain changes are to take place. As was made clear in the implementation plan that accompanied the draft Bill, other review

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provisions and recommendations that do not require legislative change have also to be put in place, and we are making progress on those. That is what I mean by the legislative programme so far as it relates to the Bill.

It is worth reminding hon. Members of the extent of the consultation that has already taken place on the criminal justice review, which contains the genesis of most of the provisions of the Bill. The review group undertook an extensive consultation process before producing its conclusions. After its report was published in March 2000, the Government undertook six months of consultation.

The Government have also given the official Opposition extensive access to officials so that the draft Bill could be explained. We have offered such access to all other parties. In my experience—it cannot be contradicted or gainsaid—the amount of access to officials that the official Opposition have had on the Bill is unprecedented.

The most recent consultation period on the draft Bill and implementation plan, which concluded earlier this month, was the third occasion on which people had the opportunity to contribute their views on the review provisions. Nothing in the substance of the Bill should have been a surprise, and I suspect that nothing was. Few new issues, if any, have arisen in the latest consultation process. The periods of consultation to which the review and the Bill have been subject have resulted in a narrow focus on issues of contention. Other issues that affect the Bill require to be examined appropriately in Committee, but the Government think that there is more than enough time to do so.

There is no question that we are inhibiting Parliament's ability to contribute to the Bill. In the history of this Parliament, no legislation has received contributions to the same extent as the Bill. We have made it clear that we would be happy to consider taking any constructive amendments on board in Committee or at any other stage of the parliamentary process. Even the timetabling of the Bill will be kept under review, and we will be happy to discuss with representatives of the other parties in Committee as progress is made.

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move, as an amendment to the motion, to leave out paragraphs (3), (4) and (5).

I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. Like him, it is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship. Given your reputation and the duties placed on you in your occupation of the Chair, I am sure that you will be fair to all members of the Committee.

Members of the Committee should not be entirely surprised that they did not have the opportunity to examine the programme motion before our sitting. Members of the Programming Sub-Committee did not receive it until we arrived to consider the matter at 8.30 this morning. There has been a regrettable failure to notify the Opposition parties of the Government's intentions in this regard, which would have enabled us to agree on the programme. However, I am afraid that that sort of behaviour is consistent with the Government's wider attitude towards the programming of Committees, and I regret that.

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The Minister said that the way in which the Bill has been considered is unique. I agree that the wider consultation process from which the Bill has emerged was a model. I should like to record my thanks to the Minister for his offer to the Opposition parties to consult with civil servants. We were pleased to be able to take up that opportunity. I should also like to record my gratitude to those civil servants for the time that they dedicated to this necessarily complicated legislation. Those of us who are not lawyers very much appreciated their expertise.

However, we should put in context the programme motion and the consultation process as a whole. The early parts of the process were a model—the review was set up on 27 June 1998 and reported just under two years later in March 2000. That review properly took a long time to confirm details, gather evidence and examine experiences around the world before coming forward with proposals for the Northern Ireland justice system. The Government considered the results of the review, and gave themselves more than 18 months before publishing the draft Bill and its implementation plan on 12 November last year. By comparison, the opportunities for parliamentary consideration have been somewhat telescoped. The Northern Ireland Assembly has come to the same conclusion. In the Ad Hoc Committee's report on the criminal justice review, it states that the Government was in violation of the Cabinet Office's guidelines on the consultation process. Its first recommendation, unanimously agreed by all the parties in the Assembly, is that the Northern Ireland Office should observe and comply with the Cabinet Office code of practice on written consultations when planning future written consultations.

 
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