Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Clause 52

Reports etc.

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

Mr. Blunt: I seek clarification from the Minister again about what happens on transfer. I note that the clause places a duty on the Secretary of State to lay the reports before both Houses of Parliament and on the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly, to lay them before the Legislative Assembly. Will the Minister explain what happens when the functions are transferred? Is the reference to the Secretary of State simply lost from the Bill, or will it be covered in the transfer order? Will that reference still be appropriate once functions have been transferred?

I do not know whether there is a parallel with the devolved Administration in Scotland. Will there still be a requirement to lay reports of the Northern Ireland Law Commission before this Parliament even after the administration of justice has been devolved? I seek clarification on that point.

4.45 pm

Mr. Browne: The answer to the question of the hon. Member for Reigate is that it will depend on what the report relates to and where the legislative competence lies. In the pre-devolution period, when only part of the legislative competence and Executive responsibility lies with the devolved authorities, it is clear that there would be a dual structure. To cite the case of Scotland, it would be pointless for reports of the Law Commission that related to the legislative competence and the Executive responsibility of the First Minister and the Executive and of the Scottish Parliament to be laid before this Parliament. I do not believe that they are, although I did not check that before coming into the Committee. I shall have that checked, and if I am wrong I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

I believe, therefore, that after the devolution of criminal justice functions, the reference to the Secretary of State will be deleted to the extent that those functions are devolved. I can think of some circumstances where reserved matters related to criminal justice may concern the Law Commission, although they would have a very narrow focus. It may be appropriate in terms of the devolution order to reserve those matters so that any report on them must be laid before this Parliament, but I do not think that when responsibility for criminal justice is devolved, the references to the Secretary of State would be entirely lost.

As I try to explain this to the hon. Member for Reigate, I must concede that I am not 100 per cent. confident that the answer that I am giving him is correct. Because of the specific nature of the question, I shall undertake to write to him. This is a serious and important point. I shall need to satisfy myself, because part of my mind suggests to me that the Law Commission may well have occasion to report on an area that is not part of the reserved field. I may be wrong about that. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman an unequivocal assurance that, under the

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clause, it will be appropriate only after devolution for any reports in the reserved field to be laid before the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland.

However, I have to satisfy myself that there is no possibility of the Law Commission reporting on an area that is outside the reserved field. Insofar as I am able to satisfy myself, that is the complete answer. I hope that I have not confused the Committee, because I am in danger of confusing myself.

Mr. Blunt: The effect of the clause depends on the meaning of the phrase,

    lay before each House of Parliament a copy of each document.

I assume that it means that there is a formal duty to make available the document to the House, and that each House will have an opportunity to consider it. It may be appropriate for the reports of the Law Commission, regardless of their subject, to be made available to these Houses. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and its law remains a matter of concern to the United Kingdom, whether it is devolved or not. Those who drafted the clause may have regarded this as an area in which the Houses should have a sustained interest.

The Minister has confused me as to where functions will go and what will remain functions for the Secretary of State after devolution. That is a matter for concern, because the post of Secretary of State will continue to exist after the devolution of justice and of the whole process of complaint, just as there continues to be a Secretary of State for Scotlandóalthough how busy that post is has become a matter of controversy. Perhaps the Minister could clarify whether the clause would remain intact after devolution.

Mr. Browne: I apologise to the Committee, as I should have come to the Committee prepared to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, and I am not able to respond with the clarity that I should like.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point; he has pursued a consistent theme in that regard throughout our proceedings, and his point deserves a clearer answer than I have been able to give. I undertake to write to Committee members to clarify the position.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 53

Aims of youth justice system

Lembit ÷pik: I beg to move amendment No. 278, in page 30, line 31, leave out subsection (1) and insertó

    '( ) The principal aim of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland is to prevent offending by children and to promote the child's reintegration and the child assuming a constructive role in society.

    ( ) Every child in contact with the law shall be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child's sense of dignity and worth, reinforcing the child's respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 223, in page 30, line 32, after 'children', insertó

    'having taken into account the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration, as identified in the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child; the International

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    Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the United Nations Guidelines for the prevention of Juvenile delinquency; the United Nations Standard minimum for the Administration of Youth Justice and the United Nations Guidelines for the protection of juveniles deprived of their liberty.'.

No. 264, in page 30, line 32, after 'children', insertó

    'and young persons'.

No. 284, in page 30, line 41, at end insertó

    '(3A) All persons with responsibility for the youth justice system shall have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.'.

No. 277, in page 30, line 37, leave out 'welfare' and insertó

    'best interests'.

Lembit ÷pik: The amendments in the group stand in my name and those of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton). Of that gang of three, I stand alone for unavoidable reasons, as my hon. Friend has a commitment that she could not get out of and the hon. Gentleman was obliged to return to Northern Ireland. It is a shame and unsatisfactory that he could not stay until this part of the debate, because I know that he wanted to be here. Nevertheless, following consultation with him, we decided that I could make the points on behalf of all three of us.

Subsection (1) states:

    The principal aim of the youth justice system is to protect the public by preventing offending by children.

In the judgment of those who tabled the amendments, the principal aim of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland is to prevent offending by children and to promote the child's reintegration and assuming a constructive role in society.

Those two approaches to law and order have different principles: one is a form of prevention, the other a form of empowerment. At the heart of this and the subsequent amendments that we have tabled is a debate about how we should approach the reintegration of children and guarantee that youth justice ensures that individuals who are at risk of offending or who have offended are treated fairly.

At the heart of our concerns lie the criticisms made by organisations such as the Children's Law Centre and Include Youth, which are gravely concerned that the balance in this part of the Bill is not right. In addition, a heavy body of evidence from international covenants and agreements suggests that we must think again about how this part of the Bill is phrased.

I shall use amendment No. 223 to discuss the underlying principles, so that we do not need to keep returning to them and can debate the specific intentions behind later amendments.

Mr. Turner: This is a wonderful catch-all, motherhood and apple pie sort of amendment. What does the hon. Gentleman think should happen when the best interests of the child conflict with the best interests of the community?

Lembit ÷pik: The hon. Gentleman might like to give an example, because I cannot immediately think of one. He is perhaps suggesting that the empowerment of an individual or his reintegration

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into society is not in the best interests of society or, alternatively, that allowing an individual to break the law is in his best interests. That would probably lead to a debate about definitions, although I am not inviting the Committee to go further than it must into such a debate. In the long term, however, it will almost always be in the interests of the child and of society to take account of the body of covenants laid out in amendment No. 223.

If the hon. Member for Isle of Wight takes a different view, I shall be interested to hear it, because my mind is open. Speaking for myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, however, it is clear that the amendment is synergistic and seeks to combine the interests of the individual and those of society. That is pretty much the starting point for many of the documents mentioned in the amendment, many of which are spawned by the United Nations.

I want to quote from those documents, to which the United Kingdom must have serious regard. The preamble to the UN convention on the rights of the child states:

    childhood is entitled to special care and assistance . . . Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.

I shall not read the entire convention, but statements all the way through draw on the assumption that handling the individual in an empowering fashion will also tackle the problems created by youth offending. Article 3.1 states:

    In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

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