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Lady Hermon (North Down): I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind the fact that the Bill is designed to implement the recommendations of the criminal justice review in Northern Ireland, not those of the Bar Council. What he suggests would be outside the terms of the Bill and beyond its proper jurisdiction.
Mr. Blunt: Plainly it is not outside the terms of the Bill because you, Mr. Speaker, have been kind enough to select the new clause for debateand for Division if it is pressed and opposed. My suggestion certainly falls within the scope of the Bill. Its main purpose may be to
I do not want to detain the House any longer. Under the structure that we have established for the appointment of Queen's Counsel, my proposal comes as close as it reasonably could to the Bar Council's recommendations. The Government may have reasons to resist the new clause at this stage, and I shall not wish to press it to a Division. However, I think that the structure I have suggested is workable. If the Minister suggests that it is not, we shall go away and think again; there may be an opportunity to reconsider the matter in another place.
This is an appropriate moment to examine the appointment of Queen's Counsel, and the role of the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State. It was the present Lord Chancellor who, to put it delicately, "expropriated" that duty from the Labour Government's first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1997. He removed those responsibilities from her, for reasons on which we could speculatealthough probably that would not add much to the present debate. The new clause would meet the Bar Council's need for an independent process run by the legal profession. As such appointments constitute the key promotion for barristers, this is an appropriate point at which to consider the subject.
The Bar of Northern Ireland, or the corps of advocates of Northern Ireland, has the advantage of being much smaller than that of England and Wales, so it is easier to conduct the peer review necessary for those appointing Queen's Counsel to be satisfied that they are of a suitable quality. The Bar of Northern Ireland and possibly the Bar of Scotlandthe Under-Secretary will be able to tell us about thatare still very much smaller than the Bar of England and Wales, so those who practise before the senior judiciary know each other and are more likely to be well known by the proposed membership of the body of which my hon. Friend spoke.
The only small point that I would make to my hon. Friend concerns the fact that Queen's Counsel from Northern Ireland appear in cases before the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords from time to time and probably more regularly than their counterparts in England and Wales. If the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland were agreeable, it might be thought sensible for the Commission to consult the Judicial Committee to see whether those being considered for silk were known to its members and whether they had anything interesting or useful to add to the deliberations.
By and large, however, I am happy with the general thrust of what my hon. Friend has reported to the House, following his discussions with the Bar Council of Northern Ireland. To be a pedant, and to grease up to you, Mr. Speaker, I point out that the long title says that the Bill is to
Mr. Browne: I infer from the contribution of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) that, among other things, he seeks clarification of the role of the Judicial Appointments Commissioner in the process for appointing Queen's Counsel. I shall endeavour to give him that clarification in this short contribution.
The criminal justice review recommended that the Judicial Appointments Commission be established to deal with appointments to the judiciary and the magistracy only. The Bill implements that recommendation in full. The hon. Gentleman made the point, which the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) reinforced, that the review made no recommendations concerning appointments to Queen's Counsel. These are not judicial appointments, and I do not consider that it would be appropriate for them to be dealt with by the Judicial Appointments Commission. That is my fundamental objection to the new clause.
Furthermore, as the appointment of Queen's Counsel is made in the exercise of the royal prerogative, on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor, I see no reason why Her Majesty's powers to make the appointment should be placed on a statutory footing or why existing ministerial responsibility should be transferred from the Lord Chancellor to the Secretary of State.
The review separately recommended the appointment of a Judicial Appointments Commissioner in the period running up to devolution. John Simpson, who has been appointed to the post, has a broader remit, which will include looking at the process for appointing QCs.
The hon. Member for Reigate sought to extrapolate the commissioner's role and remit by reference to a letter that had been sent to the Bar Council of Northern Ireland. In fact, the commissioner's role is properly set out and includes, among other things, monitoring existing processes and procedures for appointing QCs, handling complaints that result from the application of those processes and procedures, and recommending improvements and changes to those procedures to the Lord Chancellor.
That work has commenced, and having inquired today I understand that, as one would expect, Mr. Simpson is carrying it out in a fiercely independent and careful manner. No doubt he will make recommendations, as he is requested to do, to the Lord Chancellor in due course. That process is at an early stage, so it would be premature to anticipate his recommendations.
I have every confidence in the impartiality of the appointments process, but I hope that the commissioner's role will further enhance public confidence in that process. I would expect that the commissioner, in fulfilling his remit, will consult the Bar Council of Northern Ireland widely and in depth. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) to withdraw the motion.
When the system operated under the aegis of the Secretary of State, before the Lord Chancellor came into play, it took only about two or three months from the application for silk to the conclusion of the process. It now takes a considerable length of timemore than eight months in the case referred to in the Bar Council's report. It is important to consider the Bar Council's concerns. It said:
We return to this subject following a debate in Committee during which I withdrew a similar amendment because the Minister was about to have further consultations with its main proponent, the Law Society of Northern Ireland. Without wishing to detain the House at length by recapping the debate in Committee, it is important for us to note just how wide is the alliance ranged against the Ministerunless, that is, he tells us later that the Law Society of Northern Ireland has withdrawn from the field.
The amendment has been signed by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), who were the only members of the Committee apart from the Minister to express even a smidgen of doubt, but who have plainly now been convinced by the arguments that we adduced in that debate.