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Mr. Harris: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a commitment in the Good Friday agreement to review the justice system—[Interruption.] That is exactly what the Bill is doing. There was also an understanding in the agreement that, following the positive votes in the referendums, there would continue to be as normal a process of governance as possible. Not everything to be produced before the House of Commons was to be specifically included in the Good Friday agreement. This, however, is specially provided for.

We are here tonight to talk about yet another major step forward for the people of Northern Ireland. The Bill will have a profoundly positive impact on civil life there. I acknowledge that whether there are crowns or other such symbols inside or outside courts is important to some Opposition Members and their constituents, but we in the House would do the people of Northern Ireland a disservice if we dwelt on such a matter at length. It is not the most important issue facing us tonight. The Bill is about addressing the real fears and problems of real people. It is not about symbols, and although everything that happens in Northern Ireland is done within a historical context—I respect the history that has been referred to earlier—we cannot allow history to dictate our actions or debates.

I completely condemn the wording of the amendment proposed by the Conservative party. It is nothing short of a disgrace, and I hope that the whole House will show its contempt for the amendment when it is put to the vote later.

8.13 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): I apologise to hon. Members for not being here at the very beginning of the debate for the Secretary of State's opening words; it overlapped with a commitment that I had to a Committee, and I came here as quickly as possible afterwards.

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Let me make it clear from the beginning—I am sure that the Minister will be relieved to know this—that the Ulster Unionist party broadly welcomes the efforts made in the Bill to make the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland more effective, transparent and accountable. As the Minister will no doubt know, there is great frustration about the inefficiencies of the present system, and we hope that the modernisation proposed in the Bill will address such problems.

We are also particularly pleased by the Government's commitment to devolve both policing and justice matters to the Northern Ireland Assembly after the next scheduled Assembly elections in May 2003. That reflects the Government's confidence both in the continued stability of the Assembly and in the calibre of its Members, both of which I welcome.

We are therefore pleased at the prospect of the new Department of Justice being established under a Minister of Justice with responsibility for the Court Service, the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the probation service and the new juvenile justice agency.

Before examining the Bill in more detail, I should like to endorse the sentiments in paragraph 12.2 of the review group's report and pay tribute not only to those who have served in the Northern Ireland Prison Service but to those who have served in the wider criminal justice review system and have given such dedicated service over 30 years, despite threats and attacks by paramilitaries.

There are many positive elements in the Bill. First and foremost, given our party's commitment to human rights, equality and freedom from all forms of discrimination, including positive discrimination, we are pleased to see that the Government have agreed that those themes should be central to the criminal justice system.

It is also pleasing to see that the opening clause gives a guarantee that

It is that emphasis in clause 1 on the "continued" independence of the judiciary that I particularly welcome, as it rightly recognises their independence to date.

Of the other positive aspects of the Bill, I draw particular attention to the progressive approach to juvenile justice. We should all agree that, where possible, we should endeavour to avoid processing and reprocessing young people within the criminal justice cycle, without providing them with the opportunities to escape from criminal activity.

Attached to the sphere of juvenile justice is the idea of restorative justice, as outlined in the criminal justice review. The genuine concerns of many people in Northern Ireland about how and where restorative justice schemes would operate in practice, and their interaction with the criminal justice system, will be allayed to some extent by the commitment to accredited systems of restorative justice.

That would tie those schemes and initiatives into the mainstream criminal justice and juvenile justice systems. We also welcome giving victims a voice and involving them in that respect. Concerns would be further eased if the Minister could tell us tonight what the Government intend to do to stop unaccredited "community justice" systems operating, and to prevent them from attempting to involve themselves in the punishment of young offenders.

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The Minister will know that recent figures for punishment attacks showed an alarming increase last year, compared with 2000. The Government cannot afford to be complacent about the 25 per cent. increase in such attacks, or about the fact that it is loyalist paramilitaries, particular the Ulster Defence Association, who have been responsible for two thirds of the overall total.

We agree that it is accepted practice nowadays for investigatory and prosecution functions to be conducted by separate organisations. On the plane to London today, I was pleased to read in the Minister's article in the Irish News—good article, terrible photograph—that the new Director of Public Prosecutions will operate regionally, with offices open throughout Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government, in embarking on such a large expansion, will take on board the logistical and funding lessons to be learned from a similar transition in England and Wales.

The creation of a chief inspectorate of criminal justice for Northern Ireland is particularly welcome. It is essential that the inspector should be able to consider all aspects of the criminal justice system and all organisations that perform functions within it. It is to be regretted, therefore, that the list of organisations in clause 41 is not comprehensive. Even with the creation of the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland, prosecution functions will continue to be carried out by a variety of other bodies, including—this will come as news to some hon. Members—Consignia, the Financial Services Authority and, last but certainly not least, the office of the police ombudsman. Will the Minister undertake to review that point and to consider expanding the list in clause 41 to ensure that the inspectorate has a truly comprehensive remit?

Mr. Browne: That issue has exercised the hon. Lady for some time and she and I have discussed it previously. I can give an assurance that the organisations that will be subject to inspection by the inspectorate will be kept constantly under review. That is why the clause has been drafted as it has. The list reflects the list contained in the review, but we have included a provision to add others to it by order. All organisations that have criminal investigatory powers and powers to prosecute in Northern Ireland are being considered for incorporation in the list. We are also considering whether the courts themselves ought to be included.

Lady Hermon: I thank the Minister for that helpful and useful intervention. As he has responded so positively, I shall try him on another issue.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I did not catch what the Minister said. Did he imply that he would see that the ombudsman's office would be on the list, or did he just say that it could be on the list?

Lady Hermon: The Minister indicated that he would keep the list actively under review and that it would become more comprehensive.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to the dramatic fall in the number of police officers. The figure has fallen below the 7,500 recommended by Patten over 10 years, and has done so in under three years. We should prefer to see police officers out on the streets instead of being tied up in the prosecution of minor offences in magistrates courts. For that reason, we are happy with the separation of investigatory and prosecution functions.

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That said, will the Minister address low morale among police officers in Northern Ireland? Will he, in the context of a criminal justice Bill, consider introducing a fixed and heavy penalty for the murder of police officers, including Gardai officers on secondment to the new policing service in Northern Ireland and those who join it through lateral entry?

I congratulate the review body on not following Patten's recommendation of using discrimination to redress imbalances in the composition of the police service. It is none the less disappointing that female and ethnic minority under-representation in the judiciary seems to have been largely overlooked in the Bill. That is one of many problems with the proposed reform of judicial appointments. The Ulster Unionists strongly support appointments based solely on merit.

There is, however, an impression of politicisation in the new proposals, with the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister involved in the appointments procedures in many different forms and at all levels. That impression seems to be justified when one considers clause 3(7), under which the new Judicial Appointments Commission will be established. In paragraph 6.87 of the review, its members were at pains to point out the difference between the words "reflective" and "representative":

Nevertheless, the Bill contains the proposal that a representative commission be appointed. With the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister appointing five lay members, we have an appearance at least and a fear that political appointees might be inclined to make political appointments. I understand that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister might prefer not to have that power, but if my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) would like to intervene, perhaps we could clarify that issue here and now.

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