Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Garnier: My anger is getting the better of me, Mr. Pike. I am dismayed at the way in which the Government are treating the proper scrutiny of

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legislation, especially in relation to Northern Ireland. As there are only three Ulster MPs on the Committee, it seems incumbent on us to look all the more carefully when we are dealing with the interests of minority parties in a part of the United Kingdom that is not as well represented—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman has made his point. I call Mr. Blunt to speak to the amendment.

Mr. Blunt: I just wonder whether the Attorney-General of England and Wales should have some responsibility for the proper scrutiny of legislation. Perhaps that would be a diversion from the purpose of the amendment.

It was my observation, and that of a number of contributors to the review process and to the consultation, that the duties of the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland are not defined in the Bill. The duties of the Director of Public Prosecutions are extremely clear and well laid out. The DPP is responsible to the Attorney-General and, where the Attorney-General has to exercise functions in relation to the DPP, those functions are clear. What is not clear is the detail of the role of the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland. I assume that it is as legal adviser to the Executive, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Assembly.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that all the functions that the Attorney-General usually exercises within England and Wales are, where appropriate, transferred to the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland. It can be put as simply as that. I look to the Government to explain why they oppose the amendment--if they do. If it assists in defining the role of the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, which is not done in the Bill, I hope that the Government will accept it. That will make the role of the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland clearer.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reigate for explaining his amendment, and I can give him the reassurance that he seeks. In so far as the amendment is intended to ensure that the new Attorney-General takes up the existing functions of the post, it will have no effect on the Bill.

The Bill removes the link between the posts of Attorney-General for Northern Ireland and Attorney-General for England and Wales, which is set out in section 10 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. That removal will automatically confer the existing functions of the post on the new, locally appointed law officer. That is separate from the changes under schedule 7 to which the hon. Gentleman refers in his amendment, so I infer that he understands them. It is also separate from the functions transferred to the Director of Public Prosecutions under clause 41. The hon. Gentleman can be reassured that unless they are transferred somewhere else in the Bill, all the existing functions of the post will be transferred to the new Attorney-General.

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I have two lists in my hand. One sets out in about 30 lines the functions of the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland as proposed in the Bill, and the other sets out the functions of the Advocate-General for Northern Ireland as proposed in the Bill. No one would welcome my reading those lists out, but I shall ensure that they are circulated to all Committee members so that they can have the parity that the hon. Member for Reigate says is missing.

I had understood that, during the process of consultation and advice that I had set up before the Bill was introduced, someone in the Conservative party had been given the lists. Perhaps they did not reach the hon. Gentleman; such things happen. I do not want to make a major point about that, but another copy can be sent to him if it will assist him. The reassurance that he seeks to add to the Bill through the amendment is already there.

The Chairman: Order. Before we move on, I have been asked to give guidance as to what time the sitting will end. As I suggested at the programming meeting that I chaired earlier in the week, afternoon sittings of the Committee start at 4.30 on a Tuesday and 2.30 on a Thursday, and can continue with a meal break until it is agreed that the Committee adjourn. That means that we can sit until 10 o'clock, 6 o'clock tomorrow morning or whenever, until the Committee agrees to adjourn.

The matter is not for the Chair to determine, but if we sat until such a time—I presume that we will not—I would determine a meal break at some stage. I am sorry that I cannot say at what time the Committee will adjourn, as I do not know. [Interruption.] It has been indicated informally across the Floor that we shall adjourn at 6.30 pm.

Mr. Blunt: I have listened to the Minister and look forward to receiving the list of functions. I cannot recall having seen them, which he obviously suggests is either my fault or that of another member of my party who has not passed them to me. I am happy to take his word on that, and on the amendment's being unnecessary because what it would do has been achieved in the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24

Attorney general

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 14, line 37, leave out '70' and insert '75'.

The amendment would raise the age up to which the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland can be in his post to 75 from 70, and there is nothing complicated about its purpose. When I considered the issue, it struck me that the range of people who are available for appointment in Northern Ireland is inevitably more restricted than elsewhere because it is a small community. The Attorney-General's functions will

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not be hugely onerous, particularly as he is disqualified from being an active politician. My understanding is that the retirement age for judges is 75—the Minister is shaking his head, so perhaps it is 70.

5.15 pm

Mr. Browne: I did not say anything.

Mr. Blunt: Perhaps I should not entirely trust the indications that I receive from members of the Government Front Bench after my earlier experience. I hope that I am correct about the age limit for judges, but if I am not, I would be grateful for a correction—I am not getting one.

The point at issue is the judgment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister about whether someone is capable of undertaking their responsibilities. Everyone is staying fitter longer into old age, and I see no reason why potential Attorney-Generals should be any different from anyone else. Given the responsibilities that come with the post, it would be reasonable to raise the age limit from 70 to 75.

There are obviously enormous issues of principle for lobby groups such as Age Concern about the age up to which people can make a proper contribution to public life. There is no age limit on electing people to public office, and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister could surely make a judgment in each case.

The Committee should consider the age limit for the post of Attorney-General, and our decision will be a matter of judgment. We shall not change the face of history in Northern Ireland if we accept the amendment, but it would be a pity if an Attorney-General had to leave office at the age of 70 even though his personality was right and his fitness for office was beyond reproach. He could have gained an irreproachable reputation for the quality of his legal advice to the Administration and for the way in which he oversaw the Director of Public Prosecutions. We are not overloaded with people of indisputable reputation and balance who can take on that role, and it would be an enormous pity if the Bill disqualified someone who was approaching the age of 70, but who was fit enough to do the job and whom everyone wanted to be reappointed.

We are talking about only one post, not a range of posts. I may have misdirected myself on the age limit for the judiciary, but that involves the appointment of a large number of people, and it must be possible to come to a judgment about the fitness of the whole group. It may be proper for Parliament to say that people between the ages of 70 and 75 will cease to be able to perform those functions effectively. If that is what we are saying by setting the retirement age of judges at 70, it may be a proper judgment to make.

In this case, however, we are considering one post alone, and a judgment that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will make. The reference to the age of 70 is too prescriptive, and I hope that the Committee takes a stand for those aged between 70 and 75, who could make a full contribution because they could still be fit and have all their faculties. I hope

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that the Government will accept the amendment or that, with some assistance from Labour Back Benchers, we impose it on them.

Mr. Turner: I am less moderate than my hon. Friend on this matter. I am glad that he moved the amendment. Although I am sorry that he felt the need to give any age limit, I understand that he hopes by that to gain support from the Committee.

I have recently dealt with a constituency case in which the local authority refused to employ people over 65, except in certain part-time capacities. It is extraordinary that a Government who are concerned about equality are prepared to discriminate against a whole section of the community on the grounds of age, which is not something that any of us can change about ourselves.

I suggest to my hon. Friend that an age of retirement is given for the judiciary and bishops because they enjoy life tenure for those appointments, whereas this appointment has no life tenure. Indeed, it is an appointment for a fixed period of five years. That provides another argument against any upper limit. However, the amendment is perfectly reasonable and I look forward to the Government's defence of such unjustified discrimination.

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Prepared 31 January 2002