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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Column Number: 75

Standing Committee F

Thursday 31 January 2002

(Morning)

[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]

Justice (Northern Ireland)

Clause 3

Judicial Appointments Commission

9.30 am

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 2, line 38, at end insert—

    '( ) Any person who has, at any time, been sentenced to a term of imprisonment whether suspended or otherwise for a term in excess of six months, shall not be permitted to be appointed as a member under subsection (5).'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 8, in page 2, line 38, at end insert—

    '( ) Any person who has ever been a member of a proscribed organisation shall not be permitted to be appointed as a member under subsection (5).'.

Mr. Blunt: I do not want to delay the Committee on these amendments because the arguments behind them are self-evident and common sense. The people of Northern Ireland have every reason to want to have confidence in the Judicial Appointments Commission. However, that would be extremely difficult if the commission's membership included people who had been sentenced to serious offences that entailed imprisonment for a period longer than six months or who were members of proscribed organisations. That would bring the commission into disrepute, and it should be avoided.

We should look to the 2003 Assembly elections, or the elections in 2007 and thereafter. It is perfectly possible that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but especially the latter, will be members of Sinn Fein-IRA. We know that Sinn Fein-IRA are making progress towards becoming Sinn Fein without being inextricably linked with the IRA, and we hope that that progress will continue. The party is on a journey, but it is difficult to know when the IRA will decommission and when the inextricable link—as the Government say it is now—between Sinn Fein and the IRA will be broken. Some would say that those organisations are one and the same, but the link between Sinn Fein and paramilitary violence by an armed group needs to be broken and removed for ever. That is what we all desire.

In order for the electorate to have confidence in the Judicial Appointments Commission, it is necessary to restrict the lay membership to ensure that, in the inevitable debate between the First and Deputy First Ministers on the lay membership of the commission, the people specified in the amendment cannot be nominated and cannot become members of the commission. It would not be right for people who have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment in excess of six months—it would plainly be for serious offences—to be involved in the appointment of the

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judiciary. Nor, in the context of Northern Ireland, is membership of the commission appropriate for people who are believed to be members of proscribed organisations.

The object of the amendments is to take that potential controversy out of the picture by ensuring that people with such convictions or members of proscribed organisations cannot be chosen as lay members of the commission. That would help to reinforce people's confidence in the commission.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): We have some sympathy with amendment No. 7. Indeed, we put our names to a similar amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). I therefore do not need to repeat the arguments that were made. However, I have some slight concerns about amendment No. 8. It seems to take a rather absolutist position, given that some of the people who have claimed to be members of proscribed organisations have gone on to have a positive impact on the peace process. There should be a degree of independence, and we should be a little cautious about a blanket exclusion.

The sentiment behind the amendments could be more suitably expressed using the terms in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, under which someone can be prevented from being an independent member of the Policing Board if they are not clearly committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The framing of such a provision is, of course, a matter of judgment, and I shall be interested to hear what the Minister and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) say in response to my concern.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I am grateful to the hon. Members for Reigate and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) for their approach to this issue, which could have occupied us for a considerable time. As the hon. Member for Reigate said, the amendments are straightforward and self-explanatory.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 would prevent those who have served prison sentences or been members of proscribed organisations from being members of the Judicial Appointments Commission. I understood from the contributions of both hon. Gentlemen that everyone agrees that someone with a violent past should not be disqualified from making a contribution to society—subject, of course, to him renouncing violence. That is a fair summation of the position that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the Leader of the Opposition, recently set out.

Amendment No. 8 is slightly curious, although that does not alter the debate. The amendment applies not only to those convicted of membership of a proscribed organisation, but to anyone who has been a member of such an organisation, and it is far from clear how that could be demonstrated.

Mr. Blunt: Having listened to the Minister and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, and having reconsidered the terms in which I framed amendment No. 8, I shall not press it. Instead, I shall return to the

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issue on Report with an amendment that uses the terms in the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998. The Act refers to someone who is identified in written evidence from a police superintendent or superior officer as currently being a member of a proscribed organisation. That would be a more appropriate way in which to deal with the issue, and I hope that that explanation is helpful.

Mr. Browne: I am sure that the Committee is grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, but we should try to deal with the issues—including whether the amendments are worded in the way that hon. Members would want. Subject to the rules of the House, the hon. Member for Reigate, or indeed any hon. Member, can return to an issue on Report, when we would deal with their amendments.

As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, amendment No. 7 is more straightforward. The test that it imposes for membership of the commission is tougher than that which applies to Members of Parliament or Members of the Legislative Assembly. Indeed, it is tougher than that for many offices in Northern Ireland, even though they deal with a wider range of issues than the Judicial Appointments Commission.

The amendments are unnecessary. The First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the professional bodies and the Lord Chief Justice will take considerable care in making such important appointments. It is highly unlikely—indeed, it is verging on impossible—that they will agree on disreputable candidates with criminal records. Once again, we must decide whether we trust the devolved institutions to act responsibly in making such appointments. As I said in an earlier debate, the Government would not propose a commission if we had any doubts. I therefore urge that the amendment be withdrawn.

Mr. Blunt: I am afraid that the Minister's arguments on amendment No. 7 are not convincing. He said that he could not envisage disreputable candidates being appointed, but I tried in my opening remarks to describe circumstances in which that could happen. If such circumstances cannot be envisaged, what is the harm of giving the community confidence in the Judicial Appointments Commission by adding a provision to the Bill to ensure that that cannot come about?

The Minister said that the qualification was stronger than that to be a Member of Parliament or a Member of the Legislative Assembly, but the circumstances would be different. If someone could convince the electorate that he deserved a democratic mandate despite his criminal conviction, good luck to him. He would have gained a popular mandate through the democratic process. However, the mandate to appear on the Judicial Appointments Commission is indirect. It is the product of a negotiation between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who have to act jointly to produce the candidates. That process will inevitably be opaque to the community.

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Discussions between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on appointment issues across the piece, under the duties placed on them in the devolved workings of the Administration in Northern Ireland, will involve give and take and will depend on the relationship between the people in the two posts. From the phrasing of the legislation, it is not my understanding that all discussions between them will be open and minuted, or that all communication between them will be formal. It should not be, as such a system would not work. A degree of trust must be imposed on the people in those posts, so that they work together to make devolved government work in Northern Ireland.

That is why the concern must be addressed in the Bill. I had hoped that the Minister would accept the amendment, so I shall press it. It would provide an important reassurance that the Committee should give to the people of Northern Ireland.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 13.

Division No. 4]

AYES
Blunt, Mr. Crispin Calton, Mrs. Patsy Francois, Mr. Mark Hayes, Mr. John
Hermon, Lady Öpik, Lembit Turner, Mr. Andrew

NOES
Barnes, Mr. Harry Browne, Mr. Desmond Clarke, Mr. Tony Dobbin, Jim Hall, Patrick Heyes, Mr. David McIsaac, Shona
Mallon, Mr. Seamus Merron, Gillian Mole, Chris Stringer, Mr. Graham Tynan, Mr. Bill Woodward, Mr. Shaun

Question accordingly negatived.

 
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Prepared 31 January 2002