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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Standing Committee F

Thursday 14 February 2002

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

2.30 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I want to state my regret that our sitting runs simultaneously with a debate that relates to Northern Ireland business in Westminster Hall. Other members of the Committee would like to attend those proceedings, but I am duty bound to do so. I apologise to the Committee for the fact that I shall be absent.

If there are channels that you can use to highlight this unsatisfactory situation, Mr. Pike, I hope that you will bring it to the attention of the business managers so that, if possible, they can show due regard to avoiding such a double booking in future.

The Chairman: As you will realise, Mr. Öpik, that is not strictly a point of order for the Chair. However, I will certainly make the Leader of the House aware of it. As a member of the Liaison Committee, I can say that Select Committees choose Thursday sittings in Westminster Hall for their debates. The view of the Leader of the House has been that the usual channels should not be involved in those decisions.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. Before the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) leaves the Room, I should bring it to the Committee's attention that the Leader of the House, in his business statement earlier today, made it clear that the Bill would have only one day for its final stages on the Floor of the House. You will be aware that, whatever progress we make this afternoon—I certainly expect that we will reach the end of the Bill—the Committee will not have considered 36 clauses of the Bill or seven schedules to it.

That situation is much to be regretted. It is a product of not only the outline programme approved by the House to finish today at 5 o'clock, but of the knives that the Government chose to put into the programme motion. We are likely to have spare time this afternoon in which it will be impossible to revisit the clauses that we did not have a chance to debate. I hope, Mr. Pike, that you can report to the Leader of the House, and that he will report to the Speaker, that this state of affairs is thoroughly unsatisfactory and needs urgent review.

The Chairman: As you, too, will recognise, Mr. Blunt, that is not a point of order for the Chair. However, I shall ensure that your concerns are drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House. As a member of the Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, I know that that Committee will consider how programming works. I noted similar points to yours, Mr. Blunt, when I chaired the Committee that considered the Education Bill. The view of the Modernisation Committee and the whole

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House is that we want to improve scrutiny of legislation. If we can improve the system, I hope that your point will be taken into context. You will appreciate that the Leader of the House is also the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): On a point of order, Mr. Pike. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) complained this morning that he could not revisit clause 13 in a debate on schedule 13, despite a reference in that schedule to that clause. Was his grievance in order or would it have been appropriate for him to express reservations about clause 13 during the debate on schedule 13?

The Chairman: The Committee agreed to a programming motion at the outset of our sittings, and that has been varied at least once. I cannot make a retrospective decision about something that has already been decided. It can of course be revisited on Report, when hon. Members may want to move amendments to the clause or the schedule. However, I do not have the power to change the timetable that the Committee agreed to.

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 209, in page 67, line 39, leave out subsection (2).—[Mr. Mallon.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we may take amendment No. 291, in page 68, line 13, leave out subsection (4).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Pike, for our afternoon's deliberations. When the Committee rose this morning we were debating amendment No. 209 and I had made the point, in an exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), that we should be relying on the knowledge and expertise of the Director of Public Prosecutions and his deputy to lead the transition to the new dispensation, as I think my hon. Friend refers to it. As a Minister, I have every confidence in the current director and deputy director in Northern Ireland. That confidence is shared by the entire Government and the Attorney-General, who specifically asked to be associated with such an expression of confidence. Both those officers have discharged their responsibilities in the extremely difficult circumstances of Northern Ireland with complete professionalism and fairness.

Amendment No. 291 would remove the transitional provision that is designed to allow the DPP for Northern Ireland to roll out the new functions of the service incrementally by geographical area and class of case. We are fully committed to ensuring that there will be an orderly roll-out of the Public Prosecution Service's new functions. Standards in the administration of justice must be maintained throughout the relevant period, during which a massive programme of change will take place. The provision will be central to ensuring that the service has the confidence of the public and that it meets the test in relation to the review, which, helpfully, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) continually

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reminds us about. Indeed, the review group noted that point in the report.

The Public Prosecution Service will have to increase in size significantly to meet the demands of its new functions. I can build on the contribution of the hon. Member for Reigate by giving the Committee the current projections for the service's work load. The service, which now considers about 11,000 case files a year—I appreciate that that is not the same as 11,000 prosecutions—will have to take on an estimated 80,000 case files. That is a daunting degree of change on any scale of measurement. The desire for care in the progress of the change is to be reflected in the management of it.

The staff needed to carry out the work must be recruited and thoroughly trained. Unfortunately, whatever my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh way wish, that cannot be done overnight; nor, sensibly, can we guarantee a time within which such trained staff will be appointed. I do not think that it was implicit in his amendment that we should be able to do that, and I suspect that he understands that no such certainty can be given to a process that requires the recruitment and training of professional people to carry out this work. For good practical reasons, the process will have to take place incrementally, so that quality staff are recruited and trained at each stage before moving on to the next phase of expansion.

It is strange that those who are keen to draw to our attention the implications of the Glidewell report are so quick to want to remove this provision, which addresses concerns that they have expressed. My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to recommendation 30, but he will see that on page 23 of the implementation plan the Government have coupled that recommendation with 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 hon. Member for Reigate accurately summarised the principal lesson to be learned from the Glidewell report, which is that to try to achieve our aims in a kind of big bang, with a fresh start date, as a one off, was calculated to result in disaster.

Lady Hermon (North Down): It is nice to see you back here this afternoon for our last sitting, Mr. Pike.

May I ask the Minister to address one matter that lies behind the subject that we are discussing? The media have called the provisions a new beginning to the criminal justice system but, if I recall correctly, the whole idea of the review was to modernise the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. I have a copy of the Minister's statement on 12 November 2001, in which he said:

    ''As one of the cornerstones of the Agreement, the review of criminal justice will deliver a modern, progressive and forward-looking system of justice for the people Northern Ireland.''

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That was what I had understood was the aim from the criminal justice review. The expression, ''a new beginning'' sews the seeds of an expectation of a big-bang approach and that new people will be installed as director and deputy director, although that was not the intention of the review.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for emphasising the point that I sought to make, although perhaps not as explicitly as she has done. In her careful research, she may have read the comments that I have made repeatedly about this process: there is no implicit or explicit criticism of the criminal justice system in this process. Indeed, my understanding of the review was that it did not seek to criticise the status quo.

I have made it clear that the intention in modernising the system of criminal justice and pursuing objectives that would make the system more responsive to the modern appreciation of the needs of society, including the needs of children and victims, is to build on what exists, rather than to replace it. In the course of this short but important debate, I have tried to explain that we think it is worth building on, because it has great value. In respect of the director and deputy director, we feel that we have the right people in the right place to lead us through the transitional phase to a modern and greatly expanded Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland.

Let me close with a few remarks on the question of deadlines. Common sense shows, even without the benefit of the Glidewell report, that it would be impossible for the Government to set absolute deadlines for the completion of the process. The transitional arrangement that my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh seeks to remove from the Bill is designed to ensure that the expertise of the current office holders is available to carry us into the new service.

We are certainly not envisaging making any appointments before the clauses are commenced, but if a vacancy for either of the positions arises before devolution, appointments would be made by open competition, as such appointments are made at present. However, nobody is planning for such vacancies to arise and it is our hope and expectation that they will not and that we will be able to rely on the expertise and experience of those in post.

2.45 pm

As I have already said, administrative arrangements are in hand to prepare the service for this transition. To have begun such arrangements was not presumption on the part of the Government, because however much the detail of the provisions needs to be debated, there is no opposition to them from any part of society in Northern Ireland or any political party. It was broadly expected that we would make the transition.

With open hands I offer to brief my hon. Friend or any other hon. Member on the progress that we are making with the preparation for the transition at any time, so that he can reassure himself that there is a proper timescale, work is being conducted at a proper rate and nobody is dragging their feet on the matter. In

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the light of those assurances and in the face of those arguments I ask my hon. Friend, whom I know to be a man of great common sense, to withdraw the amendment.

 
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