Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Browne: This issue may not be the most important that the Committee will face, so I do not want to take up too much time. However, it is important to put the record straight regarding the length of consultation on the draft Bill. I, too, have read not just the recommendations of the Assembly's Ad Hoc Committee but the whole report, including all the submissions that were made to it. It is clear that the Committee and those who gave evidence to it wanted an extra four weeks beyond the consultation period that was announced when the Bill was published. As Minister, I acceded to that request during the consultation period and extended it by four weeks, precisely as requested.

Mr. Blunt: I acknowledge that the Minister generously extended the period by four weeks, over the Christmas period. As he says, that is a matter of record. The Assembly's conclusion seems to be that it would have preferred the Government to abide by Cabinet Office guidelines and allow at least three months for the process to take place. The Minister should recognise--as should the Committee in considering the programme motion--that the process of deliberation, having started in a thoroughly welcome fashion, has been telescoped now that parliamentarians are considering the proposals—first the Northern Ireland Assembly's Ad Hoc Committee

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and now this House of Commons Committee. The programme motion approved by the House, which sets a deadline of 14 February 2002 for the conclusion of our proceedings, is objectionable and regrettable, given the way in which the Government embarked on this process. It is wholly unnecessary to engage the ire of Opposition parties in this way, given that the Government were following a model process until legislators started to become involved.

10.45 am

It is no excuse to say that because extensive consultation has taken place, there is no need for members of the House of Commons and members of the Assembly—those tiresome politicians—to animadvert on these matters. The Government's argument is that they have listened to lots of other people, apart from politicians, and that although politicians enjoy a democratic mandate, that does not matter because those other people are much more important than elected politicians. That principle is objectionable, and the reason why we have such concern about the programme motion.

I was grateful for the Minister's reply to my intervention about the legislative programme, which is the driver of this motion. I thought that the Government had some practical problem in that the Bill had to go to the House of Lords in time for their Lordships to give it proper consideration, but that does not seem to be the case. The Minister is working to the deadline of May 2003, when the Assembly elections will take place. This parliamentary Session will come to an end in October this year, and I had anticipated that by that time the Bill would become law. The Minister may have a problem if it is not law by then, but we are all formally working to that deadline, which meets his need to get the legislation on to the statute book. Therefore, there is no need to race the Bill through without giving it proper consideration in both Houses.

That brings me to the detail of the programme motion. It is objectionable enough for the Government to set a deadline of 14 February. We accept the Government's assurances that they will permit extra time for the Committee stage, should it prove necessary, although that is dependent on the Government's judgment about the Opposition's good behaviour in the proceedings. However, given the powers that the Government have given themselves under the Standing Orders of the House, they know that all their amendments will be considered at the end of the Committee's proceedings—at 5 o'clock on Thursday 14 February 2002, if they have not already been dealt with—so it is utterly objectionable for them to put knives into the programme. It is not possible for the Opposition even to make an intelligent decision about the pace at which the Bill will be considered.

The Minister also said that there would be no surprises in the legislation so the debate would not need to be extended. I sincerely hope that the legislation will include a surprise because, on Second Reading, the Secretary of State said:

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    ''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.'' —[Official Report, 21 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 646.]

We have not seen that amendment yet, but it will make substantial changes to the Bill, and will be an important part of our discussions. Community safety is of particular concern because of the loaded meaning of the word ''community'' in the Northern Ireland context.

The programme motion is extremely regrettable. The official Opposition believe that the knives should be removed. Our amendment would remove the knives and allow the Committee to consider the Bill without the pressure of the Government timetable.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee, in case other hon. Members want to contribute to this debate, that six political parties are represented in the Committee and we can discuss the programme motion for only half an hour. I hope that that will be borne in mind.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) apologises to you and to the Committee. He has been detained in another meeting and will be here shortly.

We shall agree to the programme motion. We want a self-disciplined, restrained and sensible approach to our deliberations. I am particularly pleased that the programme motion allows a fair amount of time for discussion of the later parts, particularly part 4 and the provisions on youth conferences.

The Chairman: The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has proposed an amendment, which is in order.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 16.

Division No. 1]

AYES
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Francois, Mr. Mark
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Hayes, Mr. John
Hermon, Lady
Turner, Mr. Andrew

NOES
Atherton, Ms Candy
Barnes, Mr. Harry
Browne, Mr. Desmond
Calton, Mrs. Patsy
Clarke, Mr. Tony
Dobbin, Jim
Heyes, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
McIsaac, Shona
McWalter, Mr. Tony
Mallon, Mr. Seamus
Merron, Gillian
Mole, Chris
Stringer, Mr. Graham
Tynan, Mr. Bill
Woodward, Mr. Shaun

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Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

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 5th 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.

The Chairman: Copies of the financial resolution relating to the Bill are available in the Room. I remind hon. Members that adequate notice of amendments should be given to the Clerk of the Committee. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments.

Clause 1

Guarantee of continued judicial independence

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 1, line 6, leave out 'continued'.

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. No doubt your briskness will rub off on us—or I hope and trust that it will.

This amendment is not the most serious or important that the Committee will consider, but it touches a chord. The use of the word ''continued'' in the first line of the Bill poses a question. It is included in the Bill without any reference to the review or without seeming to derive from it. That implies a certain attitude. One assumes that the administration

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of justice is always impartial and just, so that word is superfluous. I believe that it is superfluous. For that reason, it is right that we should examine the matter at this initial stage.

I do not have to point out that the independence of the judiciary is emphasised in the European convention on human rights, which recognises the right to be heard by an independent and impartial tribunal. I therefore welcome the criminal justice review recommendation that

    ''primary Westminster legislation should make explicit reference to the requirement for an independent judiciary and place a duty on the organs of government to uphold and protect that independence.''

The principle underlying clause 1 is eminently sound, but I have two concerns regarding its implementation. The amendment addresses the first of my concerns, and relates to the use of the word ''continued''. The review, it is noticeable, did not recommend that that word be included. The word was never used in the review, for good reason. That can hardly have been accidental, given the nature of the Bill and the controversy surrounding the system of justice and law in Northern Ireland during the many decades since the state was formed.

The use of the word ''continued'' poses questions for all of us. It is especially important because we are discussing a new beginning, not just for the criminal justice system and the political process in Northern Ireland, but for policing. It is a new attitude to life. If we retain that word, we will, by implication, be trawling something from the past and carrying it into what we envisage for the future. It is superfluous. Whether or not the judiciary was independent in the past is a matter for debate, but it is irrelevant to my point. If the judiciary had been fully independent, would we now be dealing with a Bill of this nature and size?

The amendment is not the most important one that we will consider, but if we are starting on something new and dealing with something that looks to the future, rather than harking back to the past, the use of ''continued'' is superfluous. It is also pejorative about the past, and perhaps we should try to dispel such attitudes. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

 
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Prepared 29 January 2002