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Orders of the Day

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.38 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill represents the biggest overhaul of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland for at least 30 years. Despite all our difficulties, the real progress that we have seen in Northern Ireland society during the past few years deserves to be matched by a modern, progressive, forward-looking system of justice. The criminal justice review proposed how that should be done, and the Bill realises the key aims of the review—the delivery of a criminal justice system that is fair, impartial, effective and joined up. It occurs, of course, in the context of the Belfast agreement. That agreement was the catalyst, but such a review was needed in any case. The real test of a criminal justice system is whether it makes people feel safer in their own localities; the real test of the Bill is whether it will improve the system's ability to do that.

I am satisfied that the review's measures will help to foster public trust in the system, to enhance transparency and openness and to promote more effective ways to reduce crime and the fear of crime. They will do that through reform of the prosecution process, the creation of a chief inspector of criminal justice and the modernisation of the juvenile justice system.

The Bill will safeguard the independence and impartiality of the system, while maintaining a focus on the real issues and concerns of the community that it serves. The new arrangements will increase public understanding of the system and public confidence in it. They will retain the best of the old system and integrate international best practice to ensure that services are delivered in a more effective, transparent and accountable way in the future.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State. I also apologise for not being present at the beginning of his remarks, but that has come about because the debate in Committee on a statutory instrument on a fairly important issue relating to police evidence in Northern Ireland was scheduled for precisely the same time as this business, and I have had to interrupt my remarks in replying for the Opposition in that debate to get here. It was not possible to sort things out, despite attempts on our side to do so in the ordinary way, so could you let it be known that that is unacceptable and a discourtesy not only to my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois)—who have also just come into the Chamber, having served on the Statutory Instrument Committee—but to the other representatives of the Opposition parties who want to take part in both debates?

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for

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Reigate (Mr. Blunt) is right to raise this issue. May I ask you to find out whether, in future, such things can be organised so that those of us who have understandably stretched resources can make the full contribution that we want to make to two very important subjects? Surely it would have been possible to organise our proceedings so that those who care about and are actively involved in those subjects could have contributed to both debates without having to prioritise one above the other?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I very much understand the concern that hon. Members are expressing, but it is not a matter for the Chair; it should be taken up through the usual channels, and I suggest that hon. Members do so. I trust that the usual channels will have heard the points made in the Chamber this afternoon.

Dr. Reid: I merely respond by saying that I note and understand the difficulties that have been caused. I can assure the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) that if things have ended this way, it is not because any discourtesy was intended, as I am sure he will realise. I understand that these things were discussed through the usual channels. However, business in the Chamber is extremely flexible—correctly so—and it causes inconvenience not only for those with limited resources, but for those of us in government, with all the Government's resources. This afternoon, I had to cancel an engagement in Belfast, and then unexpectedly found that I could have carried it out. I note what the hon. Gentleman says; these things are not very satisfactory, but I hope that he accepts that there was no intention of discourtesy, and we shall try to ensure that there is not such a chronological coincidence in future. I extend those remarks to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

The Bill also occurs, of course, in the context not only of modernising our justice system in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Belfast agreement, but of devolution. The changes in the criminal justice system for which the Bill provides are important in their own right, but they will also help to pave the way for the ultimate devolution of those functions to the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

The Government believe that devolution throughout the United Kingdom has been one of our greatest achievements—certainly, it is one of our most historic achievements—and nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have already been able to take great strides in bringing politics home to Northern Ireland. We are not complacent at all about the challenges that face us in that direction, but we are committed to seeing that process and the process of devolution of power, as well as responsibility, continue.

Policing and criminal justice are currently reserved to Westminster but, in the Belfast agreement, the Government signalled their willingness in principle to devolve responsibility for policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. We remain committed to that aim. Our target is to devolve policing and justice after the Assembly elections scheduled for May 2003. Obviously that decision to devolve can only be taken at the time, taking account of security and other

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relevant considerations. It is thus a target, not a deadline. I make that clear just in case anyone at a future stage should misinterpret anything that I have said.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I am not worried about the deadlines, but am more concerned about the principle in the light of the fact that the Justice Minister in the Dail, John O'Donoghue, has made it abundantly plain that Sinn Fein cannot share in the responsibility for such affairs of government because of its inextricable links with an active terrorist organisation. However, in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein will be put into a position into which it is privy to security issues. Is the Secretary of State therefore saying that the measure will not be implemented in Northern Ireland until things change and there has been a complete break from terrorism and decommissioning has been completed?

Dr. Reid: First, the hon. Gentleman will realise that certain parties in the Republic of Ireland and the spokesman for the Government in the Republic of Ireland have made it plain that there is no question of Sinn Fein taking part in government there in any area—security or otherwise—as long as it is linked to a private army. That is worth saying, and it is my understanding of the statements that have been made over the past few weeks.

Secondly, people recognise that the problems that we are dealing with in Northern Ireland are unique and not exactly comparable with those in the Republic of Ireland. That is precisely why the Belfast agreement allowed for inclusive politics that includes the republican movement. That was done under the premise, of course, that the imperfections in the democratic system—namely the link with a paramilitary organisation that was holding on to weapons—were related to a transitional tolerance and to the assumption that the process of decommissioning would run parallel to the process of changing the democratic structures and social conditions in Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, although I have given a target date for the devolution of power to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, that will be subject to satisfactory progress being made in a whole number of directions. One of them is the carrying through of the reforms that are currently being carried through for policing.

That is as full an answer as I can give to the hon. Gentleman. My view is quite plain and I will place it on the record again. Sinn Fein should participate in support and responsibility for policing. That is worth saying at a time when Sinn Fein spokesmen continually tell us how much more the police should be doing to safeguard the citizenry of Northern Ireland—Catholic and Protestant. It is not difficult for anyone to see the inconsistency between demanding that the police be more effective in what they are doing and the people who demand that withholding their support from policing. Indeed, in some cases people in the community have attacked the police both physically and verbally. People will notice the inconsistency in what they say.

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