Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Browne: It would be inappropriate for me to repeat the general points that I made in the debate on amendment No. 275, so I shall try to restrict my comments to additional points that were not dealt with

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properly by my contribution to that debate. I want to record, however, that I am pleased to see that the responsible manner in which the previous debate was conducted has been continued into this debate. Although these debates involve strongly held views and significant emotion, the way in which they have been conducted thus far is a credit to the Committee.

I shall deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Rayleigh first. The hon. Gentleman told the Committee about what could be called his domino theory, in which this provision is the thin end of the wedge. I spent a lot of time—the hon. and learned Member for Harborough might recognise this—in court trying to persuade judges that what I was trying to get them to do would not open the floodgates. On a few occasions, I was successful. I can reassure those judges that their decisions did not open the floodgates. Lawyers spend a lot of time arguing points of principle with judges, trying to persuade them that there is no merit to the floodgates argument.

With respect to the hon. Member for Rayleigh, because I know that he holds his views appropriately and for good reasons, which he has articulated, I do not think that there is the remotest possibility of this provision leading to an upsurge in republicanism in Scotland and a demand for the removal of symbols in court rooms. Anyone in the Committee who thinks that that is a possibility can be reassured by my experience of Scottish courts and the conservative nature of the Scottish legal establishment. It is unlikely that the people who practise in those courts, whether or not they are republican, would call for the removal of those symbols.

However, I have some experience of appearing in court rooms in the Scottish system in which there were no symbols. That is not likely to be the case now, because the practice of displaying significant numbers of symbols has proliferated in Scotland. Some of them look cheap and nasty, because they consist of pieces of moulded plastic stuck on walls. I do not think that they especially enhance the environment of the room. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said that symbols often enhance the rooms in which justice is dispensed, but I do not think that is especially true of such symbols. They do not give any sense of gravitas. They look what they are to those who sit on the public benches, but they are there, and I doubt that there is much likelihood of republicans—some members of republican parties are involved in the Scottish Parliament—calling for their removal. The hon. Member for Rayleigh will be reassured about that.

There is no direct parallel between Northern Ireland and Scotland in their relationship and union with England and the rest of the UK, for the simple reason that the union between Scotland and England was a negotiated and agreed position in 1707. Scotland does not share the same history as Northern Ireland, so I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point as well.

For those who think that nationalists will jump on the bandwagon in Scotland, I should explain that my understanding of the nationalist party's position on

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constitutional monarchy is not far removed from that of all but one of the parties represented in the Committee.

Mr. Francois: There are two points to make. First, I deliberately did not use the word nationalist, but republican. I chose my language quite carefully. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that I was not trying to talk about any republicans who might or might not be confined to Scotland. Perhaps I should make it clear that I meant that there were quite a number of republicans in the Labour party, some overt and some covert. Those people will welcome the measure, because it advances their agenda. I am opposed to that.

Secondly, the Minister referred to plastic symbols of royal arms in court rooms that he thought did not add anything to the value of the rooms. He seemed to imply that it was all right to remove them. If we consider the other side of that argument, presumably we could also argue that especially beautiful arms such as those carved on wood with great heritage value should be preserved for exactly the same reason.

Mr. Browne: There was no such implication in what I said. I merely made an observation from my experience. The reference to nationalists that crept into the debate did not come from the hon. Member for Rayleigh, but from the hon. Member for East Londonderry. My use of the word was in response to a point that he made.

The hon. Members for Reigate and for East Londonderry regret the fact that we are considering the issue at all. They join the hon. Members for Newry and Armagh and for North Down and me in that regret, which I expressed at the outset of my remarks on the previous amendment. The hon. Member for Reigate differs from me in my expression of regret, as to an extent does the hon. Member for East Londonderry, because he seeks to attribute some blame to the Government for our consideration of the subject.

I can accept that from the hon. Member for East Londonderry, because at least in doing so he is consistent. He has never supported the Belfast agreement, despite what the people of Northern Ireland voted for. The use of ''democratic'' in the name of his party calls for a separate definition of the word. At least he is consistent, but the hon. Member for Reigate consistently parades his support for the Belfast agreement. Support for that agreement necessarily implies support for a review, because the review came from the agreed position. The review raised the issues, and made recommendations based on what it clearly thought was a balanced approach. I sought to summarise the way in which it did so in my earlier contribution, so I shall not go over it again.

Mr. Blunt rose—

Mr. Browne: If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, he will have an opportunity to intervene in a moment.

The issue was raised in the context of the review. I venture to suggest that anyone who supported the review of criminal justice would frankly have been

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naive to expect that it would not have been raised. That is the point that the hon. Member for East Londonderry makes about the Belfast agreement. It would be naive to expect the issue would not be raised, and given that it had to be raised, what were the review team to do? Should they have pretended that the matter had not been raised, buried that contribution to the review and not put it in the public domain? Having put it in the public domain, even if they had made no recommendation, we would have been embroiled in this controversy in debate on the Bill. There is no question of that.

In his expression of regret, the hon. Member for Reigate suggests that the actions of the Government have generated the controversy. That is not the case. The fact that the Government support the Belfast agreement made on Good Friday has generated the controversy.

Mr. Blunt: The Minister implies that the Government do not have any capacity for independent thought, away from civil servants and those who served on the review team. It is the Bill that is now causing controversy, and it is up to the Government to decide what proposals in the review they put before Parliament. The implication of the Minister's argument is that the Government have been absolutely faithful to all the recommendations of the review, yet we are about to consider clauses 70 and 71, on which they have been nothing of the kind.

Mr. Browne: We shall come to those clauses in due course. My point has no less validity simply because the hon. Gentleman wants to address it by raising an entirely different point. The review came about because of the agreement, which the hon. Gentleman supports, and made recommendations that were welcomed as balanced and fair by all but the party represented by the hon. Member for East Londonderry. Although this process is not a science, the Bill is a faithful attempt to reflect recommendations that were called balanced and fair by a full cross-section of Northern Ireland society. I have read leading articles that reflect that view in newspapers sold in large numbers to both communities. Therefore, the Government occupy appropriate ground when they attempt to translate those balanced and fair arguments into legislation.

Everything is subject to the position that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear on Second Reading, and which I repeated today. The Government will consider all representations that they have received on this matter, including those on the heritage issues that I raised. Representations continue to be made, and the debate that we are having will inform that consideration.

The hon. Member for Reigate prayed in aid one other point that bears closer examination than he gave it. He castigated the Government by reference to the last part of the recommendations in paragraph 8.62 of the review. He referred to one sentence and seemed to suggest that the review had recommended that the matter should be left to a decision of the Assembly on devolution. In fact, that is a total misrepresentation of the wording, although I am sure that it was accidental.

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That sentence starts with the two words ''These practices''. It states:

    ''These practices would become subject to any decision of the Assembly on devolution of responsibility for courts administration.''

It is clear from any ordinary reading that the practices referred to in that sentence are those mentioned earlier in the recommendation. It is clear to anyone reading that sentence properly and faithfully, without attempting to take it out of context, that the practices that the review recommended be devolved to the Assembly were the changed practices that were recommended in an earlier part of the recommendation.

There is no argument that the matter should simply be left. Leaving it to the devolved authorities, and regarding the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland as somehow equivalent to a Policing Board—which I think the hon. Gentleman was suggesting—would be adopting the very line for which he castigated the Government. That is not taking the responsibility that the Government's position require them to take.

6.30 pm

I return to the figures quoted by the hon. Member for North Down, which came from officials in the Northern Ireland office. They are as accurate as they can be. However, when they were given to the hon. Lady they were in draft form. There is no great difference in them now, and the hon. Lady's points are not undermined, but I caution the Committee that they might be subject to slight amendment. Debates are ongoing in my office as to what is sculpted and what is fixed. I think that the hon. Lady's point was that the numbers will, of necessity, be comparatively small because the total quantity is small; that will not affect the principle. I should not like anyone to take the figures, which were prepared for illustrative purposes, to be prescriptive.

I turn to a matter raised by the hon. Member for Reigate. I am not sure what his point was, but he caused the hon. and learned Member for Harborough to raise it too. He referred to symbols in buildings other than court rooms. His first contribution and his contribution on Second Reading suggested that he thought that those symbols were to be removed because of the provisions of clause 66. The Government have not ignored those symbols. They are aware that they exist in parts of buildings other than court rooms or the exteriors of court rooms. The royal court of arms is sculpted in marble—if it is marble; that is subject to dispute, as some substitute materials look like marble—in the lobby of the Royal Courts of Justice.

The Bill applies to court rooms and the exterior of courts. It does not do that by accident, but because the recommendations of the review group apply to court rooms and the exterior of courts. The Government are aware that there are symbols in other parts of buildings—I am sure that Committee members who have been in courts in Northern Ireland know that they are there. However, there is no recommendation in relation to them, so there is no need to legislate in respect of them.

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The hon. Member for North Down illuminates the Committee's discussions because she comes to them with such extensive, well-researched and helpful contributions. She has brought to our attention two decisions of the courts in Northern Ireland, both of which have been helpful and the second of which was also persuasive. That case was helpful to the Government because the judge upheld the Secretary of State's attempt to strike a balance in relation to flag flying. That should reassure the Committee that the Government are capable of striking a balance in an area of great contention that the courts in Northern Ireland, by reference to the Belfast agreement made on Good Friday, can uphold and find to be consistent with the terms of the agreement. With these provisions, the Government are attempting to strike a balance in relation to the royal coat of arms.

The hon. Member for North Down argued well that there was a flaw in the Government's judgment on this issue, whereas they were right before. That may need to be tested at some stage, but the Government believe that the balance struck in the clause will be found to be as sustainable in the face of interpretation of the agreement as the balance achieved on flags.

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Prepared 12 February 2002