Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mrs. Calton: I shall not intervene again on this aspect of the matter, but the Minister has made my point for me. He is right. We agree completely and want the same outcome, but the word ''representative'' may—not in the Government's mind, but in the minds of others—mean something different. It is to ensure that it will be understood that ''reflective'' is what is meant, rather than ''representative'' or any of the nuances that it carries, that we pursue the matter.

Mr. Browne: I accept everything that the hon. Lady says, in that we have the same objective. My argument is that the use of the word ''representative'' in setting up previous commissions is bearing the fruit that we hoped it would. Members of those commissions are not acting as representatives of their community even though it was the fact that they were representative of it that enabled them to take a place on the commission in the first place. We want to build on that fact and we think that it would be confusing if, in the present instance, we were to use the word ''reflective''. People might then think that we meant something different from previously, and ask what the Government were

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playing at. We are building a body of action and of law, which is reinforcing what we all want to achieve, and we should continue on that course.

Amendment No. 145 requires that the lay membership should reflect the community in terms of gender and ethnicity. The review recommended a provision similar to that used for the Human Rights Commission. The Government have always been clear that the word, ''representativeness'' covers all those issues—although we have to accept that there is a limit to how much can be achieved with a group of only five people or, indeed, with only three; there are constraints. I hope that that reassures the hon. Members for North Down and for Cheadle.

I know that there has been a decision in which the issue was raised and discussed, and an opinion was offered. The lawyers on this Committee could no doubt discuss the value of that expression of view and whether it is binding on anybody else. My understanding is that, in the course of that judgment, the judge said that he was not sure that the community was to be representative and that the context included gender; he did not rule on that. However, we must understand that the ruling was made in the context of the judicial review concerning appointment to the Parades Commission. It was important that the judge did not decide that point.

On behalf of the Government, I make it clear—I believe that that is what the hon. Member for North Down is looking for—that we intend to cover just the issues that the amendment that she supports is intended to cover. We expect that those appointing lay members to the commission will take into account ethnicity and gender in their decision-making process—so far as they are able to do, with the constraints of those who apply for the positions and the numbers. I am on record as having said in Committee and on the Floor of the House that one of my objectives, so long as I am the Minister with this responsibility, is to ensure that women and those from different ethnic backgrounds have their merit and ability recognised better in appointments in the justice system than has hitherto been the case.

Lady Hermon: On a point of information, could the Minister indicate at what level the judgment was given in the Evelyn White case, and who was involved in that judgment?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady asked for reassurance and I have given that, both in an intervention and in my comments. There are strong indicators that, if the Bill is enacted in its present form, the merit principle that will be applied by statute to judicial appointments in Northern Ireland will mean that those people who the hon. Lady says are underrepresented will be represented. Indications are that the pool of talent is far more reflective and representative of the groups that she is concerned about. Perhaps we shall return to her specific point about the decision, but I am content to make my position clear as a Minister.

I am conscious of the time. The hon. Member for North Down's amendment requires the First and

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Deputy First Ministers as far as possible to secure that lay members of the commission have a sophisticated understanding of legal issues as well as proven experience in the selection procedure.

Mr. Mallon: I thank the Minister for giving way at what might have been an inopportune time. I seek his advice on one matter. As I read it, it is theoretically possible that judicial appointments could be made without the involvement of any member of the Judicial Appointments Commission. Can the Minister tell me whether that is so? If it is, then there is something wrong. Paragraphs 11 and 12 of schedule 2 are not worded in a way that confirms that there must be such people on the body that makes the appointments.

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The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his intervention.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman is correct that that is a theoretical possibility. However, we shall come to debate the provisions to which he has drawn our attention in due course, and it will be appropriate to deal with those issues in detail then, when I can give some explanation of the structures that have been put in place.

The hon. Member for North Down supported her amendment No.90 by reference to the research papers that agreed with the view taken by the review group. I am pleased that somebody has read the research papers, because it was not clear on Second Reading that other hon. Members had done so. I seek to reassure the hon. Lady that lay members will bring—

Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: In a moment. Lay members will bring valuable experience to the commission. It will be difficult to define in legislation what constitutes sophisticated knowledge of legal matters. The issue rather than the words is important. Those responsible for appointing lay members will, of course, have the benefit of the research that the review conducted to inform their choices.

The merit principle applied to appointments of this nature is already enshrined in statute. I think that that reassurance was sought by other members of the Committee. It is a requirement and does not need to be written into the Bill. I shall give the Committee the statutory reference for that when I have it to hand—I hope that the hon. Member for North Down will take my word for it for now. In any event, there are clear, open, strictures and requirements governing public appointments, which are increasingly widely understood, and they include the merit principle.

There is enough information available in the work of the review and the research that it provided to inform those who are required to make decisions—they have enough ammunition. There is also an adequate legislative framework controlling the decisions of the First and Deputy First Ministers to require them to consider the qualifications and merits of people whom they appoint.

Lady Hermon: On a point of clarification, we have spent a lot of time in valuable discussion of the composition of the Judicial Appointments

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Commission, but my concern is that the commission will be able to delegate all its functions to sub-committees, including its part in a judicial appointment, and that the key person on such a sub-committee is the lay member. Does the Minister agree that it is essential for a lay member to have knowledge of legal issues and a sophisticated appreciation of appointment procedures?

Mr. Browne: I agree with the hon. Lady that those whom we expect to do the job, particularly if they are mixing with judges at the level that will be necessary, will have to have specialised skills and abilities. I am as inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh about the qualifications that he thinks are necessary as I am with the hon. Lady about those that she says are necessary, albeit that hers are supported by academic research. I am not prepared to allow the Bill to impose restrictions or to give one qualification more importance than any other. I am content that those matters can be dealt with administratively by those whom we trust to do the job, and by pointing out clearly, as the hon. Lady does, that work has been done that suggests that certain skills are helpful. We shall discuss sub-committees later.

I am conscious of the time. The hon. Member for Reigate indicated that he was content and did not want to intervene. We have more administrative work to do, so I conclude by urging the hon. Member for Cheadle to withdraw her amendment now that I have made my position clear.

Mr. Blunt: I was going to intervene earlier, but I shall make my point now. The Minister is treading on thin ice if he is suggesting that people have not done their homework. Has he read every piece of paper that came before the review group? A substantial number of people are listed in appendix A. Has he read and inwardly digested all their submissions, as well as the research reports at appendix B? Has he had a full debriefing on all the seminars listed in appendix C? It is beyond comprehension that he can give an affirmative answer with complete confidence, because of the enormous amount of work that has gone into those documents. That is why we have a review process. I have had to seek information from those who have made submissions—they have not sent them to me. They sent them to the Minister. I wonder whether he has read them all. The answer is probably no—that is why he has professional staff to support him and to draw his attention to key submissions. If he has read and digested everything, I take my hat off to him.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that I see no advisers in the Room, and nor does he.

Mr. Blunt: I stand corrected, Mr. Conway. I request the Minister not to take us down that road, now or in the future.

I listened carefully to the Minister, and to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh in light of amendment No. 9. I would correct one point. My proposal would give the First and Deputy First Ministers only the potential to correct the make-up of the Judicial Appointments Commission; it would be up to them what they did. That does not imply a duty

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or a necessity to do so. We have discussed the necessity to protect the independence of the judiciary. That presents a practical problem: because the judiciary is so small, everybody knows each other in those circles in Northern Ireland, and they know their backgrounds. However, I am content to accept the ideal standard that the Minister is seeking to achieve.

Having listened to those arguments and to those of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, in whose interest as a former Deputy First Minister the amendment was designed, I shall withdraw amendment No. 9. However, I am convinced by the arguments about the words ''reflective'' and ''representative'', and I shall support the hon. Member for Cheadle if she chooses to press amendment No. 144 to a vote. If the Minister's argument is that that will result in an inconsistency between the language in this and other legislation, I contend that the appointment of the judiciary is so important that one could sustain an argument that it is appropriate for the language in this Northern Ireland legislation to differ. I have some support for the argument in the wider sense in which it could be applied in Northern Ireland. That may be an important principle to establish and perhaps we should reflect on the meaning of those words. While that is not an enormous point, it is worth making.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

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