Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: We have had an ongoing discussion about which functions will be transferred. The

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Minister has made it clear that when the Government choose to transfer such functions they will do so by order, and I want to ensure that I have understood that. He seems to be saying that the functions that the Bill states will be carried out by the Secretary of State could be transferred to a Minister of the devolved institutions, who would presumably take responsibility for home affairs or justice in the Assembly. Could such functions be devolved under the order to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting jointly, who would then devolve the function to whomever they nominate? I am slightly confused by what gets transferred when, and I would be grateful for the Minister's assistance.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking for clarification, and I shall try to help him and the Committee to understand what will happen.

A transfer order will be made under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The two sides to that transfer are the transferor and the person—in this case the Executive in the Assembly—to whom the functions are transferred. There must therefore be a receipt of that transfer, and it is for the Executive in the Assembly to decide how it will be received.

Other provisions in the review recommend the creation of a Ministry of Justice. The Executive may, for example, take the view that the determination of the programme for the Law Commission would sit properly with the responsibilities and accountabilities of a Minister for Justice as opposed to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Consistent with the constitutional position in relation to devolution, the structure and responsibilities of the Executive are a matter for them, subject to the structures set out in the 1998 Act.

I shall speculate about how that might be done. The functions could be transferred in the first instance to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and then be further transferred, or they could be transferred direct if that were agreed. Such a decision would be made at the time, but the views of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the Executive and the Assembly would have to be taken into account.

The hon. Member for Reigate asked whether the Law Commission fits into any of the relevant descriptions of reserved areas within schedule 3. Thanks to his intervention, I have looked at that again. There is a debate about whether it fits, and we may need to table an amendment at a later stage that clearly puts it into schedule 3 in order for it to be considered a reserved area to be devolved. I am grateful to him for pointing that out, as it goes to show the benefit of having debates in Committee.

Mr. Mallon: I thank the Minister for his guidance. It is important that he put on record that there are two sides to devolution: a decision by the Westminster Government that they want, desire and intend to devolve; and the requirement for a decision of the political process in Northern Ireland to accept those devolved powers. The Good Friday arrangements do

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not involve only the Government and parties in the north of Ireland, because there are more signatories than that. We should be reminded of that as often as possible. Will the Minister inform us where the term Republic of Ireland came from and how it got on to a Bill promoted by one of two sovereign Governments involved in the Good Friday agreement?

4.15 pm

I am in favour of devolution for many reasons, including the fact that the process towards which I spent most of my life working is almost complete. The maturity of devolution will be measured by its ability to deal with issues such as justice. Not everybody shares my view, or has the same confidence. I cannot speak for the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister, acting jointly—or speaking jointly. There will be much soul searching in all communities in the north of Ireland before they agree to accept the devolved powers. That is why we must get the legislation right. Matters that are debating points in this House, and may look small in the overall pattern, might not be so perceived when the issue is devolved.

Mr. Blunt: I want to be clear about what the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh is saying. I assume that he is referring to the duty placed on the commission to consult the Law Reform Commission of the Republic of Ireland, and that he feels that it will be difficult for the Assembly to accept that. I would be grateful for his guidance, because I do not want to be under a misapprehension.

Mr. Mallon: That is a misunderstanding of my point. Part of the agreement between the two sovereign Governments was the terminology each would use in relation to the other. No one would intend to deviate from that, but I remind the Minister that the Good Friday agreement contains more than the agreement of the parties. I leave it at that, and I have no doubt that hon. Members can reflect on those words.

The task will not be easy. Even the way in which the process is devolved will not be easy. It could be devolved to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly, or to a new Minister known as the Minister of Justice. The Assembly might not agree to extend the number of Ministers. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 might have to be changed to provide for a new Minister—the position could not be given to a junior Minister—whose appointment would be in the hands of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Many questions will have to be asked. I tabled the amendment so that we could ask those questions and discover the answers. I shall not press the amendment to a vote, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lady Hermon: I beg to move amendment No. 245, in page 30, line 4, leave out second 'and'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 243, in, page 30, line 5, at end insert—

    '(cc) The Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland, and

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    (cd) The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.'.

No. 244, in page 30, line 9, leave out from beginning and insert—

    '(c) any other such law reform body in any jurisdiction that appears to the Commission appropriate with respect to a particular area of law.'.

Lady Hermon: Amendment No. 245 is a drafting amendment made necessary by amendment No. 243.

Clause 51(4) requires the commission to consult only the Law Commission, the Scottish Law Commission and the Law Reform Commission of the Republic of Ireland. I want emphasis to be given to human rights and equality, as in the Belfast agreement, the Good Friday agreement and the review. Greater recognition should be given in the Bill to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. The purpose of amendment No. 243 is to add them to the list of bodies to be consulted by the new commission. That would recognise the emphasis in the agreement on human rights and equality, to which the review of the criminal justice system also referred.

Amendment No. 244 would broaden the range of law reform bodies with which the commission must consult, so that the commission could consult any other law reform body in any jurisdiction, including the Law Reform Commission of the Republic of Ireland and others, if that would be helpful.

Mr. Browne: In respect of amendment No. 243, we recognise the important role of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission and the fact that they have a legitimate interest in law reform. I am happy to put that on the record. They were not considered for inclusion and then excluded. However, it is not appropriate to impose an obligation on the commission to consult them, although we expect it to consult other bodies in Northern Ireland from time to time, depending on the issues being reviewed and considered.

It is proper that the commission's programme of work should be approved in consultation with Ministers who have responsibility for law reform. Both the commission and Ministers would be interested to hear the view of organisations with an interest in law reform, but we do not want to be prescriptive in the Bill

4.23 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.38 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Browne: I shall turn to amendment No. 244. I said to the hon. Member for North Down that, in performing its duties, it is right that the new Law Commission consults the three law reform commissions in the United Kingdom and Ireland. That reflects the recommendations in paragraph 14.53 of the review, which states:

    We believe the functions of the Law Commission for Northern Ireland should include . . . keeping abreast of developments in other jurisdictions, including in particular England and Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.

That is what the clause is designed to achieve.

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Clause 51(2)(f) states that the commission must

    obtain such information as to the legal systems of other countries as appears . . . likely to facilitate the performance of its . . . duties.

Together, those two provisions, both of which reflect specific recommendations of the review, would cover what the hon. Lady seeks to achieve through her amendment. The commission may then consult other law reform commissions or bodies as it chooses, and as is necessary. The amendment is unnecessary.

Lady Hermon: I have had 15 minutes to reflect on the fact that the Minister replied in part to my arguments for the inclusion of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

Our short break also enabled me to turn again to the helpful interview that the Minister gave to The Irish News on Monday 21 January 2002. I hope that I will not be shot down in flames for quoting him out of context, and I shall try to avoid doing so. The interview was entitled, ''Now to catch up on the criminal justice system'', and in it he said:

    We are trying to create a modern democracy in Northern Ireland which has at its heart respect for human rights and equality.

Such language is repeated at the beginning of the implementation plan of the criminal justice review, in the chapter on human rights and guiding principles. I welcome the fact that it states:

    The Government agrees that human rights are central to the criminal justice system.

I feel enormously committed to that idea.

Those who voted for the Belfast agreement—or the Good Friday agreement if people prefer to call it that—voted for human rights and equality, and I want to see that reflected in the Bill. It will not detract from the work of the Law Commission to require that it consult with the most obvious of all bodies in Northern Ireland: the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission. Therefore, I regret to say that I am not persuaded by the Minister's arguments. The break of 15 minutes has reinforced in my mind that I have to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 13.

Division No. 16]

Hermon, Lady
O¨pik, Lembit

Barnes, Mr. Harry Browne, Mr. Desmond Campbell, Mr. Gregory Clarke, Mr. Tony Dobbin, Jim Hall, Patrick Heyes, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter McIsaac, Shona Merron, Gillian Mole, Chris Stringer, Mr. Graham Tynan, Mr. Bill

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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