Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Mallon: I go back to the difficulty that three sets of people are to be appointed. It is only right that the requirement of merit overrides, but the requirement for representativeness applies in all cases. The hon. Gentleman makes the point that the majority of the judiciary is Unionist and male, which means that representativeness would not be possible. If that were the case, it would tell us something about judicial attitudes.

By the time the Bill is enacted and the power devolved, changes will have been made to the judiciary. There will have been some natural wastage: people will get older, for example—and, believe you me, by the time this Bill becomes law they certainly will be older.

There is another element to the question—[Interruption.] I can see that the Chairman is getting a little worried. I had a thought on my way home after our lengthy discussion about the term, ''resident magistrate''. I cannot, although I have lived all my life in the place, think of a magistrate who is resident in the area where he dispenses law. There are security and other reasons for that.

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Member for Reigate resumes, I remind hon. Members that there have been one or two fairly lengthy interventions—not just by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, but also by the Minister. At this stage in the proceedings, when we are dealing with amendments, the flow of the Committee's deliberations is quite easy and opportunistic, so perhaps hon. Members could keep their interventions relevant to the point that is being made. They should not try to make full contributions, because I am sure that they will catch my eye enabling them to make their own contributions in due course.

10 am

Mr. Blunt: In view of your comments, Mr. Conway, I shall not follow the lead of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and pick up the argument about resident magistrates, except to say that I now take ''resident'' to mean ''permanent''. Perhaps we can return to the point later, if the Government table amendments.

To return to the main issue, it would be better to omit the subsection, so as to allow the First Minister and Deputy First Minister the latitude to make the Judicial Appointments Commission as representative as possible. They are the people who will have to make the decisions. If there were no requirement for representativeness in the Bill; and if it were thought that the other members of the Judicial Appointments Commission were representative, so that there was no argument about rebalancing the commission through the lay membership to make it more representative of the community, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would inevitably discuss matters and come up with five members who were representative. That is how the process is designed to work, with some give and take.

However, if the First Minister insisted on the appointment of five Unionists, the Deputy First Minister would not agree. Equally, if the Deputy First Minister insisted on five nationalists, the First

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Minister would not agree. They would get nowhere. If during their argument the Deputy First Minister could say, ''To make the commission as representative of the community as possible, we should rebalance the lay membership in a certain direction,'' he would have a legitimate point to put to the First Minister, who might be convinced of the merits of his argument. It would be up to them. In other areas of their responsibility there might be other rebalancing to be done, with appropriate give and take.

We have created a political system in Northern Ireland in which the relationship between the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is crucial to the success of devolved government. Therefore, we must accept that it will work and that it will be practical. We should have the confidence in the two posts and in the institutions that we have set up, and allow the Ministers to decide on the make-up of the lay membership.

Lembit Öpik: How does the hon. Gentleman feel his proposal will reflect on members who are not traditional Unionists or nationalists? For instance, the Alliance party takes a middle view, and others are similarly placed.

Mr. Blunt: I am concerned that they would lose in the arrangement demanding representativeness. It might be thought that with five members the divvy-up between the four major parties would be automatic and that the Alliance party would take the fifth post, but depending on the results of elections that might not happen. The fifth post might have to go to someone else.

Mr. Mallon: That is an interesting point. We should ask whether we are going for change—as the Bill obviously is. For thirty years or more we have had a situation in Northern Ireland in which ''representative'' means one cassock Catholic, one garden centre Unionist and three lapsed members of the Alliance party at a fight. That time has gone. Whatever the political denomination of the First Minister or Deputy First Minister, it will be necessary to get people from the community to make sure that the commission is representative. That representativeness need not mean a Unionist First Minister and a nationalist Deputy First Minister, or a nationalist First Minister and a Unionist Deputy First Minister. That is the difference. The old formula has to be broken—it did not work, which is why we are in debate now.

Mr. Blunt: I think that I have made my case, and I shall be interested to hear contributions from other Committee members.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I am reminded of our discussions about gender and the selection of candidates for this place. Selection on merit has been mentioned several times. As we know from our experiences of the selection process for this place, without guidelines it leads to male institutions. Some believe that so-called merit is not necessarily merit. If we accepted that candidates to be Members of Parliament had been selected entirely on merit, we would have to believe that women were less able than men. Perhaps we are less intelligent. [Interruption] The

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hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) says that of course we are. We have equal merit to men—some might say that we are superior, but I would not go that far. It will not surprise hon. Members to hear that our position on amendment No. 9 is that subsection (7) is necessary, and that there should be an indication of how the lay members should be selected.

Mr. Blunt: I do not want to follow the hon. Lady down the path of discussing the respective merit of men and women. We are not talking about democratic selection through the political parties or through the democratic process. Judicial selection and merit are different issues, but they do not go to the kernel of the amendment. The amendment invites the Committee to decide whether we should try to make the commission more representative by giving greater latitude to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, or whether we should insist that a duty be placed on those Ministers solely with respect to the representativeness of those five members of the Commission. I hope that the hon. Lady will address that question. In advocating the amendment, I am not arguing about representativeness.

Mrs. Calton: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but if we leave a vacuum, we will not end up with the result that everybody seems to want, but with a different one. We should include some prescription—not massive amounts, but enough to indicate the outcomes that we want and which we would not otherwise get.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): The hon. Lady's amendment No. 145 refers to representativeness

    in terms of gender and ethnicity

of the lay members alone. So far as I can see she has not yet dealt with my hon. Friend's argument that the whole Judicial Appointments Commission should reflect the community, not merely the lay members.

Mrs. Calton: We are discussing the lay members at the moment, so I am addressing my comments to that issue. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to discuss that issue later—

Mr. Turner: Was not my hon. Friend's point that we cannot discuss the lay members in isolation—if we do, we will not necessarily get a reflective commission?

Mrs. Calton: I suggest that these points be put to the Government. I disagree. We are discussing the need to have a truly reflective group of people to be lay members. We should move on.

Amendments Nos. 144 and 145 might be considered to be splitting hairs, but I think not. We want a change to subsection 7 so that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have to ensure that lay members of the commission are reflective of the community. I shall explain why we feel that it is important to use the term ''reflective'' rather than ''representative'', as proposed in amendment No. 144. The matter is raised in paragraphs 6.86 and 6.87 of the report of the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, which address the issue of securing a judiciary that is representative of society. The report says that the matter should be addressed with great care in

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Northern Ireland, and we agree. Individual judges and magistrates, in carrying out their functions, do not represent any particular section of society. Rather, they should apply objective and impartial consideration to the case before them, regardless of the background of the parties. If judges were to believe that a factor contributing to their appointment was the extent to which they represented one part of society, it would have serious implications for their impartiality. That is why we would like to replace the word ''representative'' with the word ''reflective''.

Amendment No. 145 follows through the idea of ensuring that the lay members of the Judicial Appointments Commission are truly reflective of society in Northern Ireland. The words

    in terms of gender and ethnicity''

will serve as a reminder—not just to those appointing the lay members—that there is much more to society in Northern Ireland than religious groupings. It is all too easy to leave out significant sections of a population, as we know in this place.

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