Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Mallon: I have been impressed by the legal arguments put during the past three weeks by the hon. Lady and the Minister, who are professionals in that field. However, this is one argument by which I am not terribly impressed because, at the end of it all, the hypothesis is facile. It is facile to argue that, under section 75, the DPP would somehow or other find himself required to ensure that an equal number of men and women were prosecuted, or that he would

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have to prosecute a certain percentage of people from ethnic groups as opposed to people who have always lived in Northern Ireland.

We could take the hypothesis to an extreme and ask how many Catholics were prosecuted last year, as opposed to Protestants. What is the percentage? How many nationalists were prosecuted during the past two years as opposed to Unionists? The argument is moot, but it is facile because the duty in section 75 would inform the DPP's decisions, but not in a way that would demerit them.

Lembit Ípik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a matter not of quotas but of preventing individuals being mistreated on the basis of prejudice? That is at the core of the new clause. To interpret it any more pedantically is to miss the point. Exactly the same criticisms could be made of sections 75 and 76. It is not viable to argue that such measures are okay for the areas already dealt with by those sections but not for those in the new clause.

Mr. Mallon: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The last point that I want to make on the matter is that we can take all types of hypotheses to absurd extremes. However, I have no desire to do that. The way in which the legislation is perceived in Northern Ireland is important. The omission of the agencies dealing with justice from the section 75 requirement on equality will be noticed. The moot points that have been made will not be considered elsewhere. The question will be asked, ''If this is a new system of justice, with a whole new approach, why, of all the agencies in Northern Ireland, including the Government, who will be subject to section 75, do those that deal with justice escape the net?'' Many will come to the conclusion that the process of justice escapes all the requirements, and they will ask why.

Lady Hermon: It may be helpful to restate the implications of the Human Rights Act 1998, which are not well understood in Northern Ireland. That Act guarantees a fair trial, but through article 14 of the European convention it also guarantees a fair trial without discrimination on the grounds of sex, religion, creed or any other status. Article 14 is a wonderfully useful aspect of the Act and is combined with the article that guarantees a fair trial. Those provisions are already in Northern Ireland legislation, and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh may draw some consolation from the fact that the statute book will provide for a fair trial without discrimination, even if we do not include his provision in the Bill.

Mr. Mallon: That is a valid point, but the perception will be important. That point is not confined to Northern Ireland. We should always have it in mind that something remarkable is happening and will continue to happen: the Good Friday agreement is rightly becoming a template for conflict resolution in other parts of the world. It has been used in various places, and everything that derives from it-the work on policing, the criminal justice review, the arrangements and the institutions-will be part of that template. I do not want the Bill to be defective because of the omission that I have identified or to be perceived as defective in Northern

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Ireland or-this will become much more important-more widely.

However, I respect the Minister and his judgment. I hope that I am not being pedantic or straining to read this into his comments, but he tells me that he will have another look at the issue. As he feels that it is worth another look, I shall not press the motion to a vote. It will have to be discussed again, and more convincing arguments for its inclusion will have to made and will be made. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New clause 6

Eligibility for appointment as

Court Security Officers

    'No person shall be eligible for appointment as a court security officer pursuant to section 78 if he has at any time in Northern Ireland or elsewhere been convicted of a criminal offence.'.-[Lady Hermon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Lady Hermon: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is straightforward and would exclude from appointment as a court security officer, pursuant to clause 78, any person who has

    ''at any time in Northern Ireland or elsewhere been convicted of a criminal offence.''

As the Bill stands, those with criminal convictions will be eligible for appointment as court security officers.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the aims of the criminal justice review, as set out in the Belfast agreement and repeated at the beginning of the review. Those aims include delivering

    ''a fair and impartial system of justice to the community''

and, importantly, ensuring that the justice system has

    ''the confidence of all parts of the community''.

Throughout our consideration of the Bill, I have tried to ensure that all sections of the community will have confidence in the criminal justice system. I tried to ensure that those with criminal convictions would not be eligible for appointment to important bodies such as the Judicial Appointments Commission, the lay magistracy and-I dealt with this as recently as Tuesday-the local community safety partnerships. I have been disappointed to date and I have worked in vain to secure confidence in all aspects of the judicial review procedure, but I am giving the Minister one last chance to assure us that those with criminal records will not be eligible for appointment as court security officers.

10.15 am

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I rise briefly to support the new clause. It seems eminently sensible that people charged with court security should not have a criminal record. It is not the equivalent of employing bouncers through a security firm, when different standards might apply. It is an important part of the judicial process, and the hon. Member North Down is right that we should have confidence in it.

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The standards of recruiting to the armed services have gone up and down from time to time; the Army, for example, has had to reflect on the fact that, although recruits may have convictions for drug or other minor offences, they should no longer be a bar to joining the Army. Although I endorse the general approach of the new clause, I recall that 30 per cent. of the male population has acquired a criminal conviction-I do not know what the figure is for Northern Ireland. However, the Minister may advance pragmatic arguments about the nature of the court service and the sort of people who are likely to be recruited as court security officers.

I shall listen carefully to the Minister's response, because if I am right, a clear case can be made for some form of gradation. However, that would need a rather more sophisticated provision than the hon. Lady's new clause. If the Minister advances arguments on practicality, we shall need to return to the subject later. We shall need to be clear as to exactly what offences would be acceptable if people with criminal records were to be considered as court security officers.

The new clause is simple and straightforward, and its guiding principle should be our starting point. I look forward to hearing the Minister's objections. If they are practical, they will merit consideration, but the Government will have to come forward with a rather more sophisticated version of new clause 6.

Lembit Ípik: A wise man once said that, simply because a person has a past does not mean that he cannot have a future. Once again, I am sympathetic to the sentiments of the new clause. Will guidelines be put in place on what those recruiting such individuals should watch out for-a case could be made that repeat offenders should not be considered-or does the Minister feel that such matters could be adequately dealt with in the recruitment procedure?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire paraphrases the words of the wise man. He also paraphrases the Leader of the Opposition, who not long ago used the same words in the context of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for North Down seems to think that my only merit is that of consistency. I shall nevertheless remain consistent to the position that I have adopted throughout in relation to amendments of this nature. As she said, the new clause seeks to bar anyone with any sort of criminal conviction obtained at any time from employment in the court security service. It is the Government's view that that is too restrictive. If a formula such as the one suggested by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) can be drafted, the hon. Lady might take that view herself. However, I suspect that it is the difficulty of trying to do that without being too restrictive that compels her to seek a blanket ban.

I have not sought specific advice on the matter. My understanding is that, if a serving police officer in Northern Ireland were to accumulate a comparatively minor conviction-I shall give examples of what I consider to be a minor conviction in a minute-it would not necessarily lead to consequential dismissal. At the moment, a police officer who has a minor

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conviction is not barred from providing security in a court. It seems inconsistent if, going by my unresearched understanding of the status quo, that remains the status quo. It is certainly the position in Scotland, and I know from experience that serving police officers were often sent to work in the courts after they had accumulated such convictions or disciplinary marks. I have worked closely with people who have policed courts having transgressed some disciplinary code and collected a minor conviction. There is no history of minor convictions and minor transgressions of disciplinary codes preventing people from doing that sort of work. I would be concerned, in the context of the Bill, if that were introduced.

Prospective court service employees and contractors complete a form that requires them to declare any conviction that they or their employees have. The court service has discretion as to whether to act on that information. In line with the Northern Ireland civil service guidelines, the court service would not employ someone with a conviction that was incompatible with his duties. The Committee might like to have access to those guidelines; I can make them available to anyone who would like to see them. However, in certain cases-I have experience of this in practice in Scotland, if not in Northern Ireland-for example, in relation to a conviction for a minor motoring offence, the court service would use its discretion. The new clause would remove that discretion and, with it, what has been seen as useful flexibility in the area.

I suggest that everyone, including the hon. Lady, would agree that it would be ineffective to tie the hands of the court service in that fashion. The policy is in line with that applied in England and Wales, where the Lord Chancellor's Department uses its discretion when employing staff with convictions, including court security officers. I can assure the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Reigate that individuals with inappropriate convictions will not be employed as security officers.

 
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