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Mr. Davies: If the hon. Gentleman is patient, he will find that I have quite a lot to say about it, and not least about the agenda, hidden or otherwise, under which the Bill has been introduced. It is extremely important that the House should focus on that.

Lembit Öpik: Just out of interest, I have tended to assume, for all the differences in the House, that all three main parties have the primary agenda of securing peace in Northern Ireland. If it does not digress too much from tonight's discussion, I would be interested to know what the hon. Gentleman thinks other parties' agenda is.

Mr. Davies: We have been through this before. We all have the objective of peace and I have paid tribute many times to the sincerity of all parties in the House in wanting peace in Northern Ireland, but we differ strongly as to the methods that are likely to produce it. The Government have made some very peculiar errors of judgment, already with disastrous consequences on the ground. It is absolutely clear that it is not we who have abandoned the bipartisan approach. The Government did that, by moving away from the strict lines of the Belfast agreement and making all sorts of new concessions before it had been implemented. That was extremely irresponsible and dangerous.

Mr. McNamara: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished Member of the House to whom I always listen with great attention on Irish matters, but I must first make some progress, as he will otherwise have every justification for saying that I have not grappled with the substance of the Bill.

Two very obnoxious provisions are buried in the mass of technical detail in the Bill, but 90 per cent. of it or more, by length, covers matters to which we have no fundamental objection of principle, although we have a lot of questions and there are some problematic issues.

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If the Bill were limited to the provisions covering the arrangements for devolving justice to Northern Ireland and the new measures in youth justice, for people up to and including the age of 17, we would give it its Second Reading and discuss our detailed reservations and proposals in Committee.

Let me go through those two aspects relatively briefly. We do not merely accept, but are, of course, very much in favour of, devolving justice to Stormont—and police affairs as well, but those are not covered in the Bill. However, so far as I know there has never been any suggestion from any party, or any other source, that such devolution should take place before the elections in May 2003. It has always been thought a good idea for the new Stormont Executive and Assembly to have one term of office and experience before we contemplate devolving more power to them.

There is therefore no need to legislate for these provisions in this Session. The subject could be covered next year, which would clearly be of some advantage, not least because it might then be possible to be more precise about some of the matters that have been left rather vague and open to the Secretary of State's decision by edict or instrument. In my view that has always been an undesirable state of affairs. There is far too much Henry VIII legislation going through under this Government, and it is often justified on the ground that it is impossible to predict the circumstances that will arise in two or three years' time, when the provisions need to be implemented. The nearer we are to the enactment of the provisions, the less weight that excuse has, so we see some advantage in waiting until next year.

We also have a general concern, because it is important that before we carry out the devolution we should have an opportunity to discuss matters with the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to consider the matter even more fully than has been possible over the past six weeks since the Bill appeared.

In my view, the consultation process that we have mentioned should be triangular, involving the Government and the Opposition in this House, and the parties at Stormont. As we have had the Christmas holidays in between, I do not think that there has been enough time since November for that process to take place to the extent that might have been desirable.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Is it not a fact that in the first part of the consultation, which the hon. Gentleman described as a long period, the Northern Ireland Office issued statements from time to time commenting on what Northern Ireland politicians had said? For example, there was the idea of taking away the Queen's crest and insignia, which we were told was only a proposal, not something to be seriously considered. All such matters were brushed aside during that period of so many months, so how can it be said that it was really consultation?

Mr. Davies: The House will be grateful for that intervention. I was not around at the time—at least, not in my present role with responsibility towards Northern Ireland—whereas the hon. Gentleman was intimately involved in the discussions. The Secretary of State has left the Chamber, but I trust that he will be back shortly;

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in the meantime, if the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) does not feel that the consultation process was adequate, I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State will have taken that on board.

The second major area covered by the Bill consists of new provisions for child and youth justice, especially reparation orders, community responsibility orders, youth conferences, and increasing the age for those regimes to 17.

Those are interesting ideas, and as I have already said, the Conservative party is interested in imaginative new ideas for youth justice—indeed, we are interested in imaginative new penal ideas in general. One of the questions that arises is why we are starting by applying those concepts to child justice rather than starting with adults and rolling the process back to children. There is no logic behind doing that—at least, none has been made clear to me—and the change might more sensibly take place the other way round.

We have some reservations about making Northern Ireland the locus for an experiment of that kind. Some of the review's provisions require "community leaders" or "appropriate adults" to take part in the youth conferences and other forums to be established by the Bill. There is legitimate concern about the real danger in many areas of Northern Ireland, particularly in the inner cities, that such leaders will themselves be, or will be the nominee of, the local gang or paramilitary boss, be he republican or loyalist. Those responsible for administering the process will no doubt take great care to avoid that corruption of the process, but there might be more confidence in the proposals if they were piloted elsewhere in the country—perhaps in England—before being rolled out more widely. They should not necessarily be started in Northern Ireland.

It is extraordinary to be told in the review that the system has already operated in New Zealand and that one or two members of the review committee visited New Zealand. They did not produce a report on their visit, or if they did, it has not been thought worthy of publication or inclusion in appendix B of the review. Apart from a few jejune paragraphs describing the position in New Zealand, the review contains nothing on which we can base a judgment about whether we should simply apply to our country an experiment operated there. The complete lack of assessment of results is extraordinary. The review contains no quantitative data, making it impossible to find out from the document how long the regime in New Zealand has been in place or how many children have passed through it, let alone what the results have been or the recidivism rate or any of the other obvious questions.

The Government's decision to introduce the Bill in the absence of any serious preparation is highly suspect. Is the Bill really intended to provide for the devolution of justice to Northern Ireland? Very probably, the answer is no. It might not be necessary this year, and there might be great advantages in waiting until next year. Is the purpose of the Bill really to provide a new regime for child justice in Northern Ireland? Again, the answer is very possibly no. The system has not been piloted and will be applied in Northern Ireland although there is no particular rationale for adopting that part of the country for the pilot.

Clearly, there has been none of the fundamental preparatory work that the House of Commons should demand before beginning to take seriously any suggestion

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that we should alter our system of child justice in any part of the country and adopt wholesale an experiment undertaken at the other end of the world. No proper assessment has been made for the public or for Parliament before asking us to take that decision.

Mr. Browne: Before the hon. Gentleman suggests too seriously that we are taking a leap in the dark, may I point out that he will be aware from his reading of the implementation plan and other documents published by the Government that we intend to pilot the system of restorative justice in the greater Belfast area, to assess the pilot and to go forward from there? He urges us to pilot the system, and that is what we intend to do.

Mr. Davies: The Minister provides me with a good soundbite: the phrase "a leap in the dark" sums up the Bill very well, and I thank him for it. He has no defence against the charge that I have just made. His intention is to pilot the scheme, but in Northern Ireland. We think it bizarre, given the troubles in Belfast, to pilot a system of restorative justice in Belfast that will involve members of the community.

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