Draft Lay Magistrates (Eligibility) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

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Sir Teddy Taylor: First, I congratulate you on your important appointment, Mr. Cran, and on your good advice to avoid political remarks. I shall avoid them completely and shall concentrate on a few legal points.

All our orders are subject to the European convention on human rights. That means that somebody who considers that he has received unfair treatment can appeal for the issue to be reconsidered. I therefore hope that the Minister will consider carefully my first point. Article 2(k) says that one cannot be considered to be a lay magistrate if one

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    ''has been convicted of an offence punishable by a term of imprisonment exceeding one month.''

I do not understand that. Does it mean that if one is convicted of two, three or four offences, none of them attracting a sentence of more than one month, it is all right, or if one has been convicted of more than one offence one cannot be considered? If the Minister says that people will not be appointed if they are in that position, he must remember the European convention; Northern Ireland is the sort of place where people like doing that kind of thing—I know it well because my family comes from there. Can the Minister clarify the matter? Does he intend to mean that if people are convicted of three or four offences that is all right? That is something that we must watch for, because in all the arrangements that are made in Northern Ireland, there always seems to be a way in which people can be appointed to jobs to which they should not be appointed, and one wonders how it happened.

Does the Minister intend to say that if one has more than one conviction, one cannot be considered? If he does, will he change the wording to make the position abundantly clear? A number of people who have been convicted of offences will want to be appointed as magistrates. The Minister might say one, two or even five offences, so long as he specifies who is eligible. It is extremely important that the terms should be laid down. The Minister should remember the ridiculous matters that go before the European court, and the ridiculous things that it decides.

Secondly, I want the Minister to clarify the provision at the foot of page 3, which refers to two years having elapsed

    ''since that person ceased to have such an occupation''.

I wonder how far up the page that applies. For instance, if I were being considered for an appointment, and my partner's father-in-law was a civilian employee of the police force two years ago, would that apply to me? If someone has a close relative—a partner, a father-in-law or a step-child—who two years ago was a civilian employee of the police force, would that disqualify him? I want to know whether the two-year rule would apply. In other words, does the two-year rule apply only to paragraph (i), or does it apply also to paragraphs (h) and (g)? It is not clear.

My third question is whether two of the exemptions are clear and reasonable. They are employees of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. First, does the two-year rule apply? It would be rather unfair if it did. It seems that those who work for the RSPCA or the NSPCC cannot be appointed as a lay magistrate, perhaps because of the bad things that they learn from trying to prevent cruelty to children; but when they retire, they should be eligible to do a job as a lay magistrate. According to the order, however, it seems first that they cannot be considered while trying to stop cruelty to children; and secondly that they cannot be appointed for two years afterwards. Why have

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those two organisations been included, and does the two-year rule apply?

My final question is important. Why has the Minister decided to exclude education welfare officers? The order states that an education welfare officer is

    ''a person appointed by a local Education Board to ensure that all children within compulsory school age receive regular, appropriate education''.

What is the point of excluding someone with that sort of job? We know that education in Northern Ireland is complex.

I heard only this morning that a new committee has been appointed—I am sure, Mr. Cran, that you will be as horrified about it as I was—to consider the future of the 11-plus examination, yet only one member of the committee, which has many members, supports the retention of the 11-plus. In my opinion, that is shocking and disgraceful; we all know that Northern Ireland's education results are better than those of England, Scotland or Wales—better even than those of Southend-on-Sea, which is saying something. It appals me that a provision made to provide opportunities for able working-class children should be undermined by a committee that is so loaded that it is an insult to the people of Northern Ireland and the education system.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is making some important points. I do not wish to steal the Minister's thunder, but I assume that those various categories of employee may on occasion mount prosecutions. However, there is nothing to stop magistrates disqualifying themselves from hearing cases involving matters relevant to their previous occupations, so I see no need for the order to disqualify them.

Sir Teddy Taylor: I accept that, but education welfare officers simply try to ensure that children go to school. They do not chase people, or say, ''I do not like what you are doing''; but that is what the Minister will be doing with his horrible committee, which will take away the rights of able working-class children.

None the less, education welfare officers are appointed simply to ensure that children of compulsory school age receive regular education, and to exclude them seems absolutely wrong. I do not understand how anyone doing a job of that sort would be less qualified to do the job of a lay magistrate than anyone else. If, by a remote chance, such an officer had to prosecute an authority because it was not providing education for children under the age of 16, the point raised by the hon. Gentleman might be valid. I can understand why we might want to exclude social care workers—I would not question that because the job could involve controversy—but to exclude education welfare officers is wrong.

The serious point that I want to make—I shall not become involved in making political remarks because you have advised me not to, Mr. Cran—is that we must clear up the issue of offences. It is wrong to approve legislation that is unclear and imprecise, and which appears to say that a person who has been convicted of 20 separate offences, all of which had a penalty of less than month, can qualify. That should

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be either right or wrong, but the legislation does make the position clear. If someone who has been convicted on 20 occasions can be a lay magistrate, it is ridiculous. It makes the legislation look ridiculous.

I am not suggesting that the order be sent back to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I would not want to encourage that—we will live to regret all these devolved Parliaments, but I shall not move on to that subject because I will be making political remarks, and the Chairman will stop me. I hope that the Minister clarifies the points that I have raised, as they are important. If we are not given clarification, we are not doing our job as Members of Parliament.

5.21 pm

Mr. Leslie: May I thank the Committee for helping me out so graciously? I hope that the Committee will bear with me on some of the detail. Although, as a Minister, I was not involved in the slightest in drafting the order, I nevertheless stand by every word in the document, and I shall try to address thoroughly as many of the points made as possible.

I appreciate the welcome from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to my new appointment. He raised a number of points about the ineligibility of criteria, not the least of which was why certain posts connected with the work of the law and order system in Northern Ireland, in particular those involving policing matters, were excluded. He mentioned several organisations, including the Ulster Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The list has been drawn together to reflect the particular nature of Northern Ireland, with its small size and small population. There is an increased likelihood that, in the operation of duties and activities, certain individuals are more likely to coincide and come across one another in the process of the administration of justice. For example, the reason why the Ulster Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is mentioned is because it may well advocate prosecutions for criminal offences relating to animal cruelty, but the fact that those offences relate to animal cruelty is no reason to exclude it from the list, especially given that there might be a perception of a lack of impartiality.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister will recall that I anticipated what he and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome were going to say on that point. We all recognise that, often in UK courts, people have to withdraw from sitting as lay magistrates because they know some of the people involved in a case or there is a work connection. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome points out, there is no reason why that system should not apply in Northern Ireland as well. There need not be a blanket ban. The Government have moved away from the concept of local justice by closing local magistrates courts—but that is an argument for another time. Rather than blanket bans, would it not be better to have the same situation as here so that, if a magistrate has knowledge of a particular case because of his work, he can step aside from the bench and does not have to be banned altogether from being a magistrate?

Mr. Leslie: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, and shall explain why. I mentioned the particular

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circumstances, which result from the geography of Northern Ireland, that make the administration of justice there different from that in the UK.

As all hon. Members know, the sensitive circumstances of Northern Ireland require care in the administration of justice. We should always ensure that we appoint on merit, and do not disregard the need for a degree of reflection of community background and so forth, so that all parts of Northern Ireland can have confidence in the local administration of justice. Many aspects of the order reflect that.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred to making an applicant ineligible if he had a criminal conviction of more than one month. He asked why there was discretion. He deduced rightly that the definition of a punishable offence rather than the sentence that was served is the meaning of the criteria in that sense. The convictions mentioned are those when it would be possible to have a conviction of up to one month's imprisonment. That is no different in terms of the discretion provisions that apply to all criteria. However, the Lord Chancellor will be careful to ensure that we always err on the side of caution to protect and uphold community confidence in those appointed to such important posts.

The hon. Gentleman raised points about the recent reshuffle, which as some may have spotted, was reported in a few newspapers recently. He referred to the continued existence of the post of Lord Chancellor. It will always have to exist. I can give the Committee an assurance that any legislative requirements to amend the law in respect of particular posts are responsibilities that will be met by the Government in due course and that we do not wish to disregard them in any way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock referred to some particularly important issues. However, he said that he would have preferred that the matter was addressed by guidance, which would be perhaps less rigid than what we are used to in the statutory legislative process. It is difficult for the Government to win. If we were to take action by virtue of ministerial discretion without bringing the issues before the House, that could create the opportunity for people to criticise us and say that Parliament was not consulted. We believe that bringing such a measure to the House is important, but we have built some flexibility and latitude into it by clearly setting out the boundaries.

I was interested to learn that my hon. Friend was in Northern Ireland today. It is important that hon. Members are kept informed. I cannot be responsible for which hon. Members decide to attend the Committee or what their diaries will allow them to do. However, we have had a perfectly reasonable full, frank and robust debate today.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome claimed that the order and the nature of the disqualifications and ineligibility criteria had not been discussed. I must disabuse him of that idea. It was discussed in the House on 4 March, in the other place on 3 May, in the Lords Grand Committee on

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11 June and on Report in the House of Lords on 1 July. The House scrutinised the matter several times, especially the criminal conviction disqualifier, which is now covered by the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. We are not in a position to change the Act. This matter is covered by section 9(5) of the Act, and that is clear for all to see.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to widows and widowers. They are not disqualified, because they are not so listed. He raised the important issue of the 15-mile boundary and the border with the Republic of Ireland. I would like to consider that point in more detail and perhaps write to Committee members, if that is appropriate, because I do not have sufficient information to hand.

The hon. Gentleman also asked how future appointments processes would take place. It would be desirable eventually to devolve policing and justice functions to Northern Ireland, on the basis that the relevant system was robust and workable, although that would have to have broad support from all parties. That would, of course, depend on the Assembly and the Executive operating stably, thus providing an environment for security.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock asked if I could elaborate on the selection and appointment process. As I said, appointments will be made on merit. Applicants will be assessed on statutory eligibility criteria and on the six key qualities set by the Lord Chancellor, which are considered to be essential in a lay magistrate and for which evidence would be sought at an interview. The six key qualities are: good character, understanding and communications skills, social awareness, maturity and sound temperament, sound judgment and commitment and reliability. It is desirable that candidates should also have an awareness of issues affecting the welfare of children and young people.

The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East asked what would happen if there were a series of convictions that that might involve prison sentences of less than one month. He asked how the order would apply in such circumstances. If an applicant had been convicted of less serious offences than those punishable by a one-month sentence, any panel making recommendations for appointment must be satisfied that any persistent reoffending could not be construed as having displayed a disregard for the law. A panel must also satisfy the Lord Chancellor to that effect. That is an adequate process for dealing with such offences.

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