Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before I call Mr. Blunt, I want to clarify the position. The Minister referred to amendment No. 44—a delete clause amendment—which is not selected. Clause 9 stand part is, however,

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included within this debate. When we reach that stage, we will take a formal vote but not debate it.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for that clarification, Mr. Pike. I was just pointing out that amendment No. 44 was the principal amendment and that the rest were consequential. The deletion of the clause causes all the other consequences, although it is not being debated in this group.

The Chairman: The Minister is absolutely right. We are debating clause stand part with this group. The amendment is not selected, but the principle behind it is.

Mr. Blunt: I am not entirely sure that I am grateful to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne for her literary knowledge. However, the Minister was gracious enough to accept the description—other than the master of foxhounds, which I thought had merit—allotted him, so I should assume to myself the description of a hapless English gentleman. I was not suggesting that the Minister was really like the character; I was interested in the characterisation of the relationship between Flurry Knox and Major Yates—the friendship and the inveterate antagonism across the Floor.

I welcome the Minister's looking further into the issue with an open mind. It is quite proper for him to talk again to consultees. The issue was raised by resident magistrates and was in a sense created by the review, which I regret. Had it been left well alone, no one would have raised any objection. Changing the name does not take matters any further.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is slightly embarrassed by his enthusiastic lapdog loyalty to the Government. Had he been present when I introduced the amendments, he would have noticed that I read out precisely the part of the review that he read out—only I did so to mock it as an example of bureaucracy gone mad and he did so to laud it and pray it in aid. I shall leave it to the Committee and the wider world to establish which clause in the report is most appropriate.

Lembit Öpik: I thank the hon. Gentleman for teaching me humility once again.

Mr. Blunt: I am getting used to the fact that we are all learning that.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Would the hon. Gentleman accept that the conjectural history outlined by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh regarding the origin of the expression ''resident magistrate'' might turn out to be real history? That would provide a major argument against retaining that term.

Mr. Blunt: If that turned out to be correct and resident magistrates were regarded with outrage throughout the history of jurisprudence in Ireland, there would be no point in retaining it. I believe, however, that the reverse was the case and that the role of resident magistrates was to deal with concerns about the administration of justice in late 19th century Ireland. As I said when I intervened on the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, we might justify retaining the name because of the principle of the

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independence of the judiciary for which magistrates stood when the administration of justice was even more controversial than it is today.

Mr. Garnier: The Minister has made a valuable contribution to judicial history in Northern Ireland, and I hope that if the Government retain their current position on Report, my Front Bench colleagues will ensure that we have time to re-argue the point. Many amendments and huge tranches of the Bill are often left undebated on Report because we are guillotined into a tight timetable. I would not want the Government to lead us into a trap of our own making, which is to lull us into a sense of security and return on Report having done nothing but without giving us any time to register a complaint. I am positive that this Minister, of all Ministers, would not think of behaving like that, but unfortunately he does not control the timetable. Others who are not here may take a different view about the use of the time. I put that point up for consideration while we are happily engaged in agreement with the Government.

Mr. Blunt: I thank my hon. and learned Friend. That is one of the consequences of the extremely tight programme under which we will have to consider the points, but I know that the Minister said that he wants to revisit this discussion, and I take it that the Government's intention is now to retain the name of resident magistrates unless the Minister is convinced otherwise following his consultations.

The default position is that the Government will introduce amendments, and they have more resources than me to ensure that they are comprehensive and technically correct. I thank the Minister for his attitude and open mind, which is appreciated on the Opposition Benches. We hope sincerely that we can continue Committee proceedings in the spirit with which we have discussed these amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 3

Judicial Appointments Commission

Lembit Öpik: I beg to move amendment No. 140, in page 2, line 19, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

    '(b) five persons nominated by the Lord Chief Justice and appointed by the First and deputy First minister, acting jointly (referred to in this section and Schedule 2 as ''judicial members''),

    (c) a barrister nominated by the General Council of the Bar of Northern Ireland and a solicitor nominated by the Law Society of Northern Ireland and appointed by the First and deputy First Minister, acting jointly (so referred to as ''legal profession members''), and

    (d) five persons who do not hold (and have never held) a protected judicial office and are not (and have never been) barristers or solicitors, appointed by the Secretary of State (so referred to as ''lay members'');

    and a reference in Schedule 2 to a non-judicial member is to a member who is either a legal profession member or a lay member.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 141, in page 2, line 28, leave out subsection (5).

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No. 2, in page 2, line 29, leave out 'five' and insert 'six'.

No. 3, in page 2, line 34, leave out 'five' and insert 'four'.

No. 4, in page 2, line 34, leave out '(and have never held)'.

No. 5, in page 2, line 35, leave out from 'office' to '(so'.

No. 142, in page 3, line 1, leave out 'First Minister and deputy First Minister' and insert—

    'Secretary of State'.

No. 146, in schedule 2, page 71, line 32, leave out from 'the' to end of line 33 and insert—

    'Secretary of State'.

No. 149, in schedule 2, page 71, line 34, leave out from 'The' to 'may' and insert—

    'Secretary of State'.

Lembit Öpik: Life is a boomerang. My unkind remarks about the hon. Member for Reigate and the Tory party have caused a generous compensation to arise from the Government. I simply warn the Minister that he must brace himself for a more cautious approach before we support him, as I am abandoned on an island of integrity as the Government sway one way and the other. That is the price that I pay for unwittingly repeating the hon. Member for Reigate, and not in jest.

In that context and in the spirit of listening that the Government have adopted, I hope that the Minister will listen seriously to the reasons why we have introduced the amendments. The rationale for the amendments is straightforward, and they all relate to the Judicial Appointments Commission. I raised the issue on Second Reading and explained that the Liberal Democrats are unhappy that the Bill allows the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly, to appoint the lay members of the commission. We are concerned that that contravenes the report's recommendation that the appointments process must clearly be seen to be insulated from political influence. Safeguarding the independence of the judiciary is of singular importance to the review of the criminal justice system; we discussed that at some length earlier. The lay members of the Judicial Appointments Commission cannot afford to be seen as political appointees.

We suggested two ways to get round the problem, although only one has been selected for debate. It is contained in amendments Nos. 140 and 141, which specify that the Lord Chief Justice would nominate five judicial members to the commission, and that the Bar Council and Law Society would each nominate a member. Those seven members will be appointed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as provided for in the Bill. However, the Secretary of State would appoint the lay members. That is not ideal; it means that the appointment of lay members is slightly further removed from those who are directly elected by the people of Northern Ireland.

We recognise that the amendment is complicated, in that part of the commission would be appointed by the

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First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the other part by the Secretary of State. We accept that the Minister and the Government may find a more elegant solution to the issue; nevertheless, there is an issue. We put forward a separate set of proposals in amendment No. 151, which has not been called, to exclude particular categories of people from selection on the basis of a potential conflict of interest. We made the proposal to illustrate that there is more than one way to resolve the problem.

Fundamentally, our concern harks back to the issue that we discussed at the beginning of the sitting about the independence of the judiciary. Incidentally, we are not sympathetic to amendment No. 3, which decreases the number of lay members from five to four, because we believe that that number would not adequately represent the various strands in the population of Northern Ireland. Almost by definition, it would be difficult to achieve a true cross-section. I would genuinely welcome comments on the amendments from other hon. Members.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the amendments and, more fundamentally, the issue that they raise. I hope that the Government are willing to give it some consideration, either by accepting our amendments or by giving a reassurance that we will revisit it in the time available between now and Report.

 
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Prepared 29 January 2002