Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I thank the Minister for his elegant explanation of the issues. I understand why he had to give it at this stage. It would have been helpful had I understood those issues before, however, because it would have saved me tabling a large number of amendments to delete the Secretary of State's name at various stages. None the less, I am grateful for the Minister's explanation. He used the words ''certain elegance'' to describe previous Northern Ireland legislation, and I wonder whether that choice of words was suggested to him by advisers who had something to do with drafting the legislation in the first place.

The purpose of amendment No. 179 was to ensure that the House could express its view when the Government—whoever was in power at the time—made a devolution order. It is plain from the Minister's explanation that the Bill will achieve what I seek to achieve, so I shall not press my amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 303, in page 69, line 15, leave out '71' and insert '71(2)'.—[Mr. Browne.]

Clause 88, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 89 to 91 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 4

Reserved matters: new institutions

    'In Schedule 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (c.47) (reserved matters)—

    (a) after paragraph 9 insert—

    ''9A The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.'', and

    (b) after paragraph 15 insert—

    ''15A The Northern Ireland Law Commission.''.'.—[Mr. Browne.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Browne: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reigate for inspiring this new clause. It adds the criminal justice inspectorate and the Law Commission to the list of organisations in schedule 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to which I referred when talking about devolution.

The new clause makes it clear that those bodies fall within the reserved field before the devolution of justice matters, and it will allow them to be transferred on devolution. It is essentially a technical measure, which is designed to facilitate the devolution of those bodies in due course and to respond to an issue raised by the hon. Gentleman by removing what confusion there may have been.

Mr. Blunt: I should like to put on record my gratitude to the Minister for acknowledging that the new clause arose directly from our proceedings, which have, therefore, improved the Bill in a small way. We should remember that it is important to go through legislation comprehensively in Committee. It is impossible for any Government to be all-knowing at the beginning of a process, and the Committee has

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played an important part in delivering the Bill. It is a matter of regret that we have been unable to examine all of it.

Question put and agreed to

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

3.15 pm

Mr. Browne: I thank you, Mr. Pike, and your co-Chairman, Mr. Conway, for your obvious skill, your good humour and the light touch with which you have chaired our deliberations during the past three weeks. I also want to thank the Clerks of the House for their direction and supervision of our proceedings, both in Committee and in preparation for it. Many of us have cause to thank them. Once again, they have lived up to their enviable reputation for excellence. I also want to extend thanks to those who have so faithfully recorded our proceedings. They may largely be hidden, but their service is greatly appreciated and valued.

Despite the fact that we have dealt with some difficult and sensitive subjects—the temperature rose slightly on one occasion, but that matter has now been resolved—I am grateful for the way in which all members of the Committee have conducted themselves, and for the nature of our proceedings. I appreciate the contribution that hon. Members have made to our consideration and understanding of the Bill.

As the Committee draws to a close, it would be useful to state my appreciation for the way in which the Bill has generally been handled. Proceedings in Committee have borne out the assessment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who suggested on Second Reading that the vast majority of the provisions would be useful to the population of Northern Ireland as a whole and were recognised as such. There are obvious areas of strong disagreement, and I do not want to minimise them, but the Bill leaves the Committee with fairly widespread support. That is true of at least the principles that lie behind it, if not all its details.

There has been much discussion about time allocated for scrutiny, and I want to make a few points on that, as it would be inappropriate for me to leave the Committee without doing so. The Government's decision to allocate three weeks for scrutiny in Committee in the House of Commons was taken carefully in the light of the size of the Bill and the main aspects of dispute. I think that our proceedings largely bear out the Government's judgment, but I recognise that that view will not be shared throughout the Committee.

Of the Bill's 91 clauses, 59 have been scrutinised, as have nine of its 13 schedules. The debates have been full and careful. Indeed, our early rate of progress would have required about a day for each three clauses. I have not been aware that hon. Members have felt restricted by the debates and unable to put across points that they wanted to make.

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Throughout the process, the Government have sought to smooth the Bill's passage. We did so first by ensuring that it was published in advance and in draft, to enable considerable pre-parliamentary scrutiny. Whatever one does in relation to such matters, it is always criticised for not being enough. However, compared to the level of scrutiny of some legislation introduced by previous Governments, the Bill's level of scrutiny has been unprecedented.

As a Minister, I have been responsible for the decisions that have led to an open and unprecedented approach on briefing the Opposition and others on the content of the Bill. I opened my offer to every political party with an interest in our proceedings. As a result, the Bill that we have examined has been in excellent shape. We have had to take up the Committee's time with only a relatively small number of technical Government amendments, especially considering the size and complexity of the Bill.

That pattern will continue on Report, when we again hope to introduce a limited number of Government amendments, some technical and others that reflect important points that have been raised in Committee and in the wider consultation process. We think it right that the onus is on the Government to deliver our side of the bargain by introducing legislation that is in good shape. That allows Parliament's time to be spent in proper scrutiny of the thinking behind the Government's proposals.

I regret that certain parts of the Bill were not reached during Committee. In addition to the broad programme motion agreed after Second Reading, the Programming Sub-Committee suggested several knives within the Committee proceedings. Those knives were designed to ensure scrutiny of all parts of the Bill. They are obviously an art rather than a science. The record will show that our programming proposals could have achieved even greater scrutiny of the Bill had circumstances been different. For example, our proceedings at the end of part 2 were unfortunately cut off, leaving several clauses unscrutinised. I spoke to Committee members—I will name them if necessary—who said that approximately 15 more minutes would have been sufficient to finish that part of the Bill. Unfortunately, a series of votes in the House meant that the Programming Sub-Committee was unable to reconvene in time, so we lost that 15 minutes by the coincidence of two successive votes in the House.

Similarly, I regret the failure to complete the scrutiny of part 4, in particular the important provisions on youth conferencing. I regret that especially because I believe that we could have completed part 4 and scrutinised parts 5 and 6 fully, had we been able to move the knife on Tuesday night, as was suggested. Agreement could not be reached on that issue. I regret that, and I am sure that my regret is shared by the Committee, not least by the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who, judging from his contribution on Second Reading, had an important input to make.

I hope that all hon. Members will be able to return to the points missed on Report, when we shall endeavour to ensure that there is sufficient time to

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give the Bill the scrutiny that it deserves. Time is at the Government's disposal, but the level of scrutiny relies, to a certain extent, on the level of co-operation. If hon. Members, in particular the official Opposition, wish to use Report to reiterate arguments about the programme motion rather than to focus on the Bill, no amount of time will be sufficient. We must look at the process of scrutinising Northern Ireland Bills, and I agree with you, Mr. Pike, on this issue. More parties are involved in the consideration of Northern Ireland Bills than in the consideration of other legislation. I will reflect further on the matter and bring any relevant points to the attention of the business managers. I am grateful to you, Mr. Pike, for saying that you will bring certain points to the attention of the Modernisation Committee.

I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions. Our deliberations in Committee will ensure that the Bill leaves the House in an even better state than it arrived. That is the purpose of the Standing Committee, and I welcome the achievement for which all hon. Members should take credit.

Mr. Blunt: I shall make my comments in the reverse order to the Minister. I am grateful to him for acknowledging that he regrets that certain elements of the Bill have not been considered in Committee. I have already made several substantive points about the timetable, but want to put one or two more points on the record.

The official Opposition opposed the programme on the Floor of the House and voted against it. We opposed the programme motion that was presented to the Programming Sub-Committee when we arrived at 8.30, before the first sitting of the Committee, in order to discuss the knives that were imposed on our proceedings. That resulted in the farcical position of the Government coming to appreciate that they could have completed consideration of part 2, had the knife not been inserted where it was. They then had to make desperate efforts to get the knife moved in time, but their efforts were thwarted by two consecutive Divisions in the House. We should never have been in that position in the first place.

From the way in which the Minister conducted himself in this and in a previous Committee of which I was a member, I know that he takes his duties in presenting Government legislation extremely seriously, and also takes seriously the contributions of members of the Committee. In many ways, he is a model Minister. He has command of his brief and can respond properly to the issues raised. Therefore, it is wholly unsatisfactory that he should be unable to do justice to this legislation, because a great chunk of it has been insufficiently considered. By my calculations, 56 clauses were considered completely, 3 were considered partly and 32 were not considered at all.

The problem does not relate only to this Committee, but is an issue throughout the House. We have legislation by lottery, because it is a lottery whether legislation receives consideration in Committee. That is not good enough and all of us, as parliamentarians, must address that problem. I have said enough about that, but I do not hold the Minister personally responsible. He is a victim of the system, as

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we all are. It is up to us, as Members of this House, to sort it out.

Moving on to more gracious territory, I commend you, Mr. Pike, and Mr. Conway, for the way in which you have chaired the Committee. I would also like to thank the Clerks, who have rendered enormous assistance to me and, I am sure, to all the other opposition parties. I would also like to commend everyone who has been involved in the process, from the review team onwards. Although this legislation involves substantial issues of principle and there are differences over it, it is much better because of the way in which it has been developed and the amount of time that has been available for consultation.

That consultation has not been sufficient at the end of the parliamentary process, but I want to thank the Government for making Stephen Webb and his team available to brief members of the Opposition. That was immensely useful, particularly for those of us who are not lawyers and who have to get up to speed on issues that are meant for lawyers rather than lay members of the House. Their time was much appreciated.

I also want to join the Minister in thanking those who have transcribed the proceedings. On one occasion, their work was immensely important and helpful, and I want to place on the record my thanks for that. I would also like to thank other members of the Committee for the way in which the Committee's business was dealt with in general. By and large it has been good natured and enjoyable, and if we had been able to give full consideration to the whole of the Bill, we would have done a proper job as parliamentarians. However, given the limits within which we have worked, I think that we have done so.

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Prepared 14 February 2002