Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Garnier: I am not concerned with the argument put at the beginning of the debate as to who has gained or who has lost—either in perception or in fact; but I am concerned with the integrity of the judicial system and the administration of justice in Northern Ireland.

I hope that I do not undermine anything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) when I say that I am reasonably sure that judges in Northern Ireland, and indeed any other part of the United Kingdom, will do their duty as judges irrespective of whether they take an oath. If they were simply to be sent a letter by the Lord Chancellor, or in Northern Ireland—following the devolution of justice—by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister or the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, which stated, "Dear Bloggs, As from Monday 1 May you will hold the following appointment," I am reasonably confident that all those who were up to the job would do it to the best of their ability and fully in line with both the current oath and the one proposed in the Bill.

I cannot speak with 100 per cent. confidence, but I am fairly sure that at the moment I am the only person in the Chamber who has taken an oath of allegiance on appointment as a recorder. I took an oath of allegiance when I took silk, and I take such an oath every time I am returned to this place after a general election. I have managed to do that three times and hope that I may be allowed to do so a few more times.

I understand and value the oath of allegiance for several reasons, and I regret—to put it mildly—the fact that the Government have seen the need to make a change. I regret it because—as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford said—justice flows from the Crown. I apologise for paraphrasing my remarks in the Standing Committee, but there is misunderstanding both about the word "Crown" and about the institution to which people swear allegiance when they take the current judicial oath.

It is often thought by people who disagree with me—those who are embarrassed that in the 21st century we have a hereditary head of state—that we take the oath of allegiance only to a particular human being. We do not: we take an oath of allegiance to the structure of the state—if I may diffidently say that. It just so happens that in our country the monarch—the sovereign—is the human representation of the integrity of the state. That reminds us that we are democrats accountable to something bigger than ourselves, and that the Government are smaller than the state.

Over the past few years, the Government have sometimes tended to forget that. It is a truism to say so, but none the less the Government are here at the request

4 Mar 2002 : Column 85

of the majority of the voting public. Despite the Government's huge power, they are smaller than, and subordinate to, the Crown—not the Queen herself, but the state and the constitution.

7.45 pm

Although we do not have a written constitution unlike some modern republics or the United States, that does not mean that our constitution is not worth remembering and upholding. It is written down, but not in a single document—it is to be found in several places. One of our most important sets of constitutional instruments are unwritten conventions whereby officers of the state—be they Cabinet Ministers or members of Departments—recognise their place in the constellation that is our constitution. I am fearful—perhaps too fearful—that the way in which the change to the oath is being approached is an indication that the Government misunderstand our constitution and do not want to preserve, or are careless of, the integrity of our United Kingdom and the constitution that rules it.

Despite the comments of the hon. Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) and for North Down (Lady Hermon), I can see a distinction between the use of the word "realm" in the proposed oath and in the oath of allegiance. I agree that realms normally have a monarch, but the word "realm" is, by and large, a geographical description, whereas the oath of allegiance to the Crown demonstrates a commitment to something beyond geographical definition.

Mr. Tom Harris: I rise to clarify a point about my contribution. The hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that I had emphasised the word "realm", but I am not aware that I did so. I expressed support for the wording in the Bill, but not especially for the word "realm". The rest of the oath is perfectly acceptable, reasonable and sensible—regardless of the inclusion of the word "realm".

Mr. Garnier: Perhaps when the hon. Gentleman took the oath, when he became a Member in 2001, he faced an intellectual or emotional difficulty, but I am delighted to see him here. Should he be fortunate enough to be re-elected, I trust that he will find no difficulty in taking the oath as he did recently—but I digress. I was making the short point that there is a difference between the word "realm" and what is implied by, and lies behind, the oath of allegiance to the Crown.

In essence, we take an oath to that non-political institution—the state—which is the provider and protector of laws and protects the citizens who live within the realm. There are any number of obvious connections between the Crown and the administration of justice. For example, criminal cases are brought in the name of the Crown, as in the case of Regina v. Smith or Bloggs. In this part of the United Kingdom, we have the Crown Prosecution Service. I agree with the amendments proposed by the Ulster Unionists: Public Prosecution Service is a desperately dull name, as well as demonstrating a misunderstanding of the nature of our constitution.

The police are servants of the Crown. Judges are servants of the Crown. Prison officers are servants of the Crown. The armed forces are servants of the Crown. Members of the civil service—I used to believe—were servants of the

4 Mar 2002 : Column 86

Crown. To return to my own self-important existence, the expression "Queen's Counsel" connotes some connection with the Crown.

The quality of our justice system has not been adversely affected by that connection with the Crown. I am concerned that by diluting the connection with the Crown that the oath of allegiance represents, the Government are saying that they are happy to see what is good and ought to be respected replaced by something less good.

This discussion reminds me of the debates that we had just before Christmas that led to the Sinn Fein Members being admitted to the precincts and offices of this place, and given access to the financial advantages of being Members of Parliament. One of my complaints then was that the Government motion to admit those four Members from Northern Ireland to this place created two classes of Member of Parliament, which is constitutionally abhorrent.

I fear that in addition to that, we are now creating two classes of judicial officer within the United Kingdom. I dare say there are all sorts of politically convenient reasons for doing that. However, although I see why the Government have devised the scheme, I am not sure that I wholly understand or respect those reasons, even though the Government rightly claim to be following the recommendations of the criminal justice review.

The mere fact that a review says something does not of itself mean that we as thinking Members of Parliament should necessarily accept it. There is a recent example of the Government, after consideration, deciding not to accept one of the recommendations of the review. That was about the designation of resident magistrates, as opposed to whatever the other name is; I have forgotten it.

Mr. Mallon: DJs.

Mr. Garnier: Yes, DJs—dinner jackets—the hon. Gentleman is right. We were discussing them earlier.

One of the Government Whips, who was being unusually voluble, once accused me of being the Member for Pompous, North.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): It was the Daily Mail.

Mr. Garnier: It was the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), a Government Whip who felt it appropriate to absent himself from the Front Bench and go to the Back Benches to encourage his otherwise feeble colleagues to support the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

I willingly accept that I am pompous and out of date, and that I am seen as a hugely inconvenient lawyer who is concerned with justice, our judicial system and the integrity of the administration of justice. So be it. I am happy to take that on the chin. What I am not happy about is the diminution in the apparent regard of the Government and those who support them for the justice system in Northern Ireland. That system seems to me to be under great strain, and in need of all the support that it can get—if not from the Government, at least from the Opposition.

Rev. Ian Paisley: The people of Northern Ireland take this matter most seriously, as the Secretary of State well knows. We have heard some talk about perceptions,

4 Mar 2002 : Column 87

but the right hon. Gentleman himself has perceived—if we can use that word—that Northern Ireland is getting cold for Unionists; I believe that I am quoting what he said.

Why does the Secretary of State perceive that? Why do the people of Northern Ireland perceive it? Because the facts are crying out to them. Every day when they go out they can see with their own eyes what is happening to their country. The situation in terms of ordinary law and order is very serious.

I am not talking about fighting terrorism. We have a rising crime rate: young ladies studying at Queen's have been savagely sexually attacked, older people are being robbed, and we have a burglary rate that we have not had for a very long time, if ever, in Northern Ireland. Those facts stand.

Amazingly, because of what runs from the agreement, we must now do something about the people in our police force who are not full-time—the reserve men. If we lose the reserve, and if we look at the figures that have been issued for every area of Northern Ireland and see how low our police numbers are—

Next Section

IndexHome Page