Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lady Hermon: Many points come to mind. In regard to the Minister's last point about Scotland, I am concerned that in that case one individual has been given more responsibility.

My chief concern is with the words ''acting jointly.'' The Minister kindly drew our attention to the fact that, under proposed new section 12(3), the Prime Minister may make recommendations only after consultation with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. However, if he casts his eye at subsection (5), he will note that in that procedure, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are again ''acting jointly.'' Before considering subsection (3)(a), we should consider the wording of subsection (5) and the words ''acting jointly.''

I do not want to put wind into the sails of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), who I am pleased to see is with us this afternoon. However, in reality, if his party is more successful in the next election, we could end up with a First Minister and Deputy First Minister who had views that were entirely different and polarised. If we are to put judicial appointments into the office of two MLAs who are compelled by the legislation consistently to act jointly, that must be dealt with, and the Minister must face that reality. I propose to remedy that block in a hugely important responsibility by writing in the reference to the Lord Chancellor.

Finally, I took careful note that the Minister said that the clause was designed to reflect the provisions of the review. With the greatest respect, the review has to be compatible with the original Belfast agreement, or Good Friday agreement. That made it perfectly clear that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland was to remain within that of the United Kingdom unless and until the majority of people voted otherwise. It strikes me as a constitutional principle that the Lord Chancellor's involvement in the most senior judicial appointments in Northern Ireland confirms that constitutional link with the rest of the Kingdom. I am not persuaded by the Minister's arguments to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Turner: I have listened with great care to the debate and I am strongly persuaded by the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Down. The Government's thinking on the Bill seems to be wishful thinking. I do not blame them—in many cases, this is related to the implementation of the Belfast agreement—for hoping for the best, working for the best and hoping that others will work for the best. However, the point made clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for North Down is that we cannot rely on that happening indefinitely. The only circumstances in which the clause, unamended, will work will be those in which the First and Deputy First Ministers are willing to work together. We hope that that will continue to be the case. However, neither the Government nor my hon. Friends nor the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh can guarantee that the First and Deputy First Ministers will be willing to work together indefinitely to ensure the implementation of any provision.

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By opposing the amendment, the Government are implicitly assuming that there is an alternative scenario in which the First and Deputy First Ministers do not work together. We cannot see a situation in Northern Ireland in which vacancies in the judiciary cannot be filled. There is only one alternative, although the Minister might tell me that I am wrong and that there are plenty. It is that where the First and Deputy First Ministers are from parties that hold more divergent views than do the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and my hon. Friend the Member for North Down, the Government accept that these elements of the Bill cannot be implemented and have an alternative course of action up their sleeve.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion, and for showing sufficient independence of mind to put it forward; I do not agree with him. I agree with the Minister's arguments in this case. Oddly, this is one part of the legislation relating to Northern Ireland that can survive the First and Deputy First Ministers' being in fundamental disagreement. That is because under the procedure prescribed by Government amendment No. 70, they are—as the Minister said—not central to the process; they are non-essential but important consultees.

Strangely enough, the essential point that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight makes is right. For the Belfast agreement to succeed, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister need to be disciplined and work together. If they refuse to do so, the whole thing will come to a spectacular and grinding halt. That would have consequences for vast parts of the devolved Government and the devolution of justice to Northern Ireland.

4.30 pm

If, after the 2003 elections, there is a Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister and a First Minister who represents the same party as the hon. Member for East Londonderry, there may be a problem. They may work together, but we do not know and, as my hon. Friend said, the evidence suggests that it is not entirely likely.

Lady Hermon: I ask the hon. Gentleman to check that Government amendment No. 70 relates to the list of judicial offices in schedule 1. I am concerned about other senior officers of the High Court under clause 4. There is a distinction.

Mr. Blunt: My understanding of the position is, and if the Minister nods I shall mention that and so put it on record—

Mr. Browne: It will be a first.

Mr. Blunt: I hope that this time I shall not be misled. So far as the Lord Chief Justice and Lord Justices of Appeal are concerned, the appointments are made by Her Majesty on the advice of the Prime Minister, who is under a duty to consult in the Bill. Although Her Majesty appoints judges of the High Court, the hon. Member for North Down will note that clause 5(2) states:

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    ''Only a person selected by the Commission may be appointed, or recommended for appointment, to a listed judicial office''.

A High Court judge is a listed judicial office. If the Committee accepts Government amendment No. 70, it means that when the Deputy First Minister and First Minister cannot agree and so do not respond to the process initiated by the commission, the appointment will go ahead in the absence of any advice from them.

That deals with the amendment tabled by the hon. Lady, so I regret to say that I am unable to support her. So far as amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 12 are concerned, I have listened to the Minister and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, and am still of the mind that new section 12(4) and (5) is unnecessary. However, I do not intend to press the amendment now, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Blunt: On a point of order, Mr. Pike. You were about to introduce clause 5, and the time is now 4.33 pm. You will be aware that, under our programme, the knife will fall—perhaps the right term is ''be inserted''—in 27 minutes' time, by which stage we will have been expected to reach the end of clause 22 and the new clauses relating to part 1. It is plain that we cannot do so and do justice to part 1 of the Bill. There are several important issues yet to be discussed.

So far, the Committee has worked exceptionally hard. I am grateful to the Minister for his care in replying, and it would be an enormous shame and a disservice to the people of Northern Ireland if we were not able to give the Bill proper consideration in Committee.

I want the Government to respond to my point, which is that the Programming Sub-Committee urgently needs to meet so that we can sort the matter out before 5 o'clock, give the Bill the consideration that it deserves and meet the strictures of the House to finish on 14 February.

The Chairman: I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. There has been one change to the original timetable, which moved the ''knife'' from 11.25 am to 5 pm. I cannot express a view on the merits of the case. If the Government were minded to consider a motion for a short suspension before 5 o'clock, I could accept it, but otherwise I must adhere to the agreed timetable.

Mr. Garnier: Further to that point of order, Mr. Pike. Does the Government's timetable, under which we operate, allow you the flexibility to call clauses meant for discussion between now and 5 o'clock out of numerical order?

The Chairman: I have no flexibility whatever on that. I have to abide by the motion agreed at the first sitting and the revised motion agreed this morning. I have no power to vary that. I have tried to suggest that it is not for me to express a view on the subject. If the Government were to propose an amendment to the programme motion, I would be prepared to suspend the Committee for a short time to allow it to be

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discussed. However, unless there were any prospect of making progress on that, it would merely waste the Committee's time.

Mr. Garnier rose—

The Chairman: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is rising to make another point of order, because we are eroding the time available.

Mr. Garnier: Further to that point of order, Mr. Pike. I can quite see that we are eroding the time. Is it within your powers to take groups of clauses in numerical order in blocks, so that we can more efficiently use the time between now and 5 o'clock?

The Chairman: I have to go through the selection list as it is. We can move as speedily as we want. I can call amendments only as they have been selected. If people choose not to move groups of amendments and we move quicker because there are more important matters to debate in the time remaining, that is acceptable. That is in the hands of the Committee, not the Chairman.

Clause 5

Appointment to listed judicial offices

Lady Hermon: I beg to move amendment No. 127, in page 3, line 41, leave out subsection (1).

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