Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Kilfoyle: I do not want to labour the point, but would like to contribute following the argument of the hon. Member for Reigate. Last week, the Committee had a protracted and serious discussion about the mandatory retirement age for the Attorney-General. Indeed, the Opposition wanted the retirement age raised to 75, and that was in the context of fixed-term appointments anyway. Clause 31 introduces a different age limit, of 65, but with the caveat that the Attorney-General could raise it—it does not specify by how much. Perhaps I have missed something obvious, but it seems that although the Bill specifies the age of 65, the Attorney-General has great discretion to extend the appointment beyond that age. I hope that I have missed something.

Mr. Browne: The Government chose an age limit as opposed to a term of office, albeit an age limit qualified in the way pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, precisely to reinforce the independence of the Director of Public Prosecutions, but also because 65 is the current retirement age for the director. There is a status quo and a person in post. We shall arrive at consideration of that person's future shortly in relation to other provisions.

The clause reinforces the independence of the director constitutionally because the appointment extends to a particular age rather than for a fixed term and it reproduces the provisions that already apply under the Prosecution of Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, which I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh earlier.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Would the Attorney-General be entitled to specify a retirement age at any point during the tenure of office, or would he have to do so before the director took office?

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Mr. Browne: On my reading, the provision is clear. There is no limit on the time at which the Attorney-General may specify the retirement age. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton pointed out, the Attorney-General has a wide discretion. However, it would not help to tie down when and where it could be applied, because the discretion would be lost if it was not exercised as specified.

Mr. Turner: Does not the Attorney-General's ability to make a specification for an individual rather than for the office leave him open to allegations of perpetuating an individual's term of office or of having some other motive? That would not be possible if the specification were made for the office rather than the individual.

12.15 pm

Mr. Browne: With respect, I have no doubt that any aspect of any provision in any statute that allowed discretion would result in accusations being made about how the discretion was exercised. The responsibility on us as parliamentarians, and on me as a Minister, is to create a structure in which people are properly accountable for the exercise of the powers that they are given. The Bill should allow a proper line of accountability between the Attorney-General and the Assembly.

I firmly believe that, in the very remote likelihood that an Attorney-General would have a motive that could lead him to behave in the way suggested by the hon. Gentleman, the processes of parliamentary accountability would ensure that such a person would desist. In any event, I cannot imagine circumstances in which the Attorney-General would behave in that fashion.

Let me reinforce one aspect of the clause. I repeat that subsection (11) ensures that the director is directly accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly for financial and administrative matters only. I also repeat that the Attorney-General will be accountable also for policy to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am still not clear. Subsection (5) states:

    ''or such later time as the Attorney General for Northern Ireland may specify.''

Could that be one year or two? Could it be five years?

Mr. Browne: The honest answer is yes. The statutory provision ''or such later time'' is not limited. By implication, I have already tried to answer my hon. Friend's question. He will recollect, during our debate on the retirement age of the Attorney-General, that I undertook to reflect and consult. I shall indeed do so, but this provision is different. The clause is a restatement of existing provisions, which are set out in the 1972 order. I accept the inconsistency between them, but my response was to reflect on the issues raised in the previous debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 32

Conduct of prosecutions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Blunt: This is an important and practical clause, under which the Director of Public Prosecutions takes over from the police the responsibility for all prosecutions. When do the Government intend to implement the clause? They have the ability to implement various parts of the legislation at different times—unless the House is minded otherwise—and I presume that they intend to move to that position shortly, irrespective of the formal devolution of justice in its totality. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us his thoughts on that, because it takes place against a certain background. The review states that, in 1997, the DPP carried out 7,262 prosecutions but that the Royal Ulster Constabulary carried out 27,209.

Varying opinions are expressed in the review on the merits of handing so many functions to the DPP from the RUC. Some people say that the RUC prosecutions work well. In my consultations in preparation for the Bill, I encountered the view, not least from the Police Federation, that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Some people referred to the skill of the police prosecutors, who have dealt with the minor cases that come before the courts. No one seemed to have any major concerns about the conduct of those cases. Furthermore, the fact that the police prosecuting inspector had responsibility for them meant that there were good lines of communication with the police who had prepared the cases and taken decisions about whether to prosecute.

In those respects, the way in which the system has been run until now appears to commend itself. However, the majority view was that it was appropriate for the DPP to take over the conduct of all prosecutions and that the boundary between the police and the DPP must be made clear. The Opposition do not dissent from those general conclusions of the review. Indeed, a resident magistrate told me that, given the current situation faced by the RUC, it was urgent that this clause came into effect sooner rather than later. He said that such was the collapse in the morale of the RUC that it had begun to affect even the pragmatic administration of police prosecuting inspectors. Their hearts are no longer in the job and they cannot continue to perform to their previous professional standards, so there is a pragmatic reason for getting on with the change urgently. That is a worrying reflection of the state of the Police Service for Northern Ireland, but I would do the Committee a disservice if I did not relay what had been said to me about the performance of the police in that particular function.

The transfer of functions comes against the background of the English experience of setting up the Crown Prosecution Service. As the review makes clear, that is seared into the position of the DPP. Paragraph 4.183 of the review states:

    ''We are aware that the DPP has already considered the applicability of Glidewell to his Department.''

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I am sure that there is proper concern in parts of Northern Ireland that this substantial exercise in the transfer of functions—27,000 cases, to take 1997 figures—whereby the DPP will ultimately take on five times as many cases as it currently deals with, will have substantial resource implications. I am intrigued by the Government's reaction. In the criminal justice review, the Government have been assiduous about responding to every recommendation, apart from recommendation 66, which states:

    ''We recommend that those who are considering the resource implications and the organisational issues arising from our proposals in respect of the prosecution function should examine the Glidewell Report, with a view to seeing whether there are lessons to be learnt from the experience of England and Wales.''

The implementation plan moves neatly from recommendation 65 to recommendation 67. I have yet to find another example of the plan going assiduously through a section of the review without responding to recommendations. Of course, there are now important resource implications relating to the funding of the DPP, which, under pre-devolved relations, are matters for the Minister and his colleagues.

Mr. Browne: I do not want to make too big a point of this matter, but I have already suggested that careful reading is helpful. If the hon. Gentleman looks at page 23, he will see that recommendation 66 is assiduously responded to.

Mr. Blunt: I am extremely grateful for the Minister's help. It was my fault for expecting recommendation 66 to appear after recommendation 65. There might have been a cross-reference in the document to assist those of us who did not compile it, and do not understand the odd order in which the Government have chosen to put the recommendations to mislead those of us who think numerically.

I am grateful to the Minister for directing me to the response, and I see that the recommendation was accepted. It is no surprise that the Government are

    ''fully aware of the findings of the Glidewell Report.''

The response goes on to say:

    ''Resources will be provided to enable the DPP(NI) to manage the transition to the new prosecution service.''

Will the Minister explain his assessment of the resource implications? The review has a stab at it, stating:

    ''In short their broad estimate of the additional annual costs of the proposed arrangements was in the region of £1.5 million to £2 million, with additional start-up costs of about £2 million. This does not take account of any redundancies that might be associated with the process.''

Finally, putting the proposals into context, it states that:

    ''The DPP's budget for 1998/99 was just over £7.5 million.''

I wonder whether the costs might have been underestimated, and I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us about any further work that the Northern Ireland Office has done on the matter, given that five times as many cases are to be handled. I accept that the cases that the police have been dealing with are at the bottom end of the range, but they have involved issues as serious as burglary, which have profound implications for the accused and the victims. You will

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know from your postbag, Mr. Conway, and from the people who come to see you—as they come to see all hon. Members—that whether people are being properly prosecuted for offences of which our constituents have been victims is a question of continuing concern.

A failure of the transfer of functions to the new CPS was that some prosecutions were dropped simply because there were not the necessary resources to make the transfer work. Given our experience in England, will the Minister give us not only the grand assurance that the provisions will work but the Government's assessment of the scale of resources needed, and their thoughts on how the clause will come into force and responsibility will be transferred in its entirety from the police? The Committee is entitled to have answers to those questions before it decides whether the clause should stand part of the Bill.

 
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