Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. McWalter: I wanted to make the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton about the age of MPs. We have heard recently from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is over that age and is performing a

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sterling job in bringing her experience to bear. I am not sure that this is the time to conduct this business, but I am 56, and if I were as hale and hearty as the Transport Select Committee Chairman, I would probably want to carry on doing this job, hoping to do it as well as she does.

Many of us have signed early-day motions on ageism in an attempt to oppose strongly the general way in which the Minister has talked today. I agree with him that it has been of benefit to stop the open-ended age limit on being a judge, which sometimes made it difficult to get rid of incompetent people. However, perhaps the same principle should not apply to the most senior position, which is a short-term appointment anyway, and when those making the appointment have a large field to choose from. Maybe this is not the place to start breaking that ageist pattern of reasoning, but I am disconcerted by the Minister's reasoning. Having signed an early-day motion on ageism, and believing that the House gets tremendous value from people in that age range, it would be inconsistent of me to give the Minister my wholehearted support. I hope that, in his response, he will say that he will think about the issue between now and Report.

Mr. Clarke: I do not want to delay the Committee, but I want to ensure that the Minister understands the strength of feeling on the issue. Surely it is not for us to say that someone is out of touch with society just because they have reached the magical age of 75. It is a question of whether they are in touch with the world through their outside interests. I can think of many reasons why someone under 70 may not be fit to hold office, including that they are out of touch with society and with those who think they know better, or because of their lifestyle. What if a judge under 70 leads a restricted lifestyle, perhaps living in his mansion or other such dwelling that can be afforded only by members of the judiciary, and is unable to understand the workings and dealings of those who come before him in his work?

Some of us feel strongly that it is impossible to pick an arbitrary age of 70, 75 or 80, and if we are to set criteria by which to judge the fitness of those working in the legal system, those criteria should include more than just age. Perhaps, during our deliberations, we could consider what other criteria might be more fitting.

Mr. Browne: It would ill behove me not to listen to my hon. Friends, as well as to other hon. Members, on this issue. I had not intended that the debate would cause so many people to parade their ages in front of the Committee. I explained that retirement ages for senior figures had resulted from an evolutionary process that reflected public opinion. Such views are often expressed by politicians, because that is their job. To my recollection, the process was never arbitrary, and nor were the figures, which emerged from discussions about the people to whom they applied.

My hon. Friends' arguments apply to not only the job under discussion but, by read-across, the job from which the figure was taken. I do not know whether my

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hon. Friends say with one voice or separate voices that we ought to reconsider, reverse the process that led to retirement ages for judges and go back to the previous system, which measured a judge's ability. There was great dissatisfaction with that process.

I resist the amendment because there is a coherent reason for the provision, in parallel to the retirement age of judges. I shall have to reflect on the wider ramifications of the debate in the context of the judicial system of Northern Ireland and all judges. I shall engage in conversations with any hon. Members who want to talk to me on the subject, because the debate goes wider than the amendment. The logic of the position put to me by the hon. Member for Reigate and others is extensive. However, I resist the amendment today because there are good reasons, in relation to the status quo, for a read-across at that age.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich): I welcome the Minister's argument, which I found persuasive. I used to share the views of some earlier speakers, although the older I get, the less persuaded I am by anti-ageist views. I am surprised by the argument made by the hon. Member for Reigate, given that his party put in place an age limit of 70 for members of police authorities in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. As I understand it, the Conservative party has operated a limit at 70 for local government candidates for the past 10 years or so.

Mr. Turner: The final point made by the hon. Gentleman is entirely inaccurate. In my authority, Conservative candidates aged 78 were selected at the most recent county council elections. They were not elected, but they were selected.

The Minister would do himself justice if he explained that he was being ironic, as the report of our proceedings will not show it. I suspect that he was being ironic earlier when he suggested that I argued against retirement age.

Mr. Browne: I was not being ironic.

Mr. Turner: It seems that the Minister was not being ironic. My argument was not against retirement age, but against refusing to consider someone for a post because they had reached or were likely to reach a certain age within a certain time. That is the fundamental problem with the Bill. I say to the hon. Member for Croydon—

Mr. Mole: Ipswich.

Mr. Turner: It is all north of the Solent. I tell the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) that the fact that we did something 10 years ago is no reason for him to do it now. A hundred years ago, many people felt that women could not make the same judgments as men, which disqualified them from occupying a place in the House. Rather fewer years ago, it was felt that black people could not make the same judgments as white people. I do not suggest for a moment that the Minister holds those views, or even that his view is equivalent to those views. However, views evolve and sometimes

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evolve back again. An evolutionary process led to agreement that there should be an upper limit on the age of judges who would otherwise hold their positions for life. That is no argument for there being an upper limit on age for appointment to an office with a fixed period of tenure. I do not see the connection.

I am fortunate enough to represent a constituency in which a large proportion of the population is retired and it is pleasant to be called a nice young man or even an impudent young man when one is approaching 50. Many people over retirement age are perfectly able and should not be discriminated against. The Minister has not made his case.

5.45 pm

Mr. Blunt: Mr. Pike, I distinctly heard the Minister remark, in response to you, that he is older than he looks. Arguments about age put by anyone who has sufficient self-regard to make that remark should be treated with the greatest of scepticism.

On the substance of the issue, I am grateful for the contributions of the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton, for Hemel Hempstead and for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke), because they have convinced me that the amendment is wrong—it should remove the age limit altogether. However, we are not in a position to strike the provision out, because it is part of a clause.

Lady Hermon: What is the current term of judicial appointments? Is there a statutory age now?

Mr. Blunt: If I understand correctly from the advice that the Minister has given the Committee, the retirement age for judges is 70 unless they hold tenure by virtue of appointment under earlier rules that allowed them to serve until the age of 75.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I do not know whether I am in order in asking this, but could the hon. Gentleman not withdraw the amendment in the light of the Minister's comments, with a view to reconsideration of the clause and the age limits therein on Report?

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, because I should like to address it. The Minister said ''I resist the amendment''. I did not hear him give an undertaking to come back on Report with an amendment in the terms that the hon. Gentleman and I would seek.

Mr. Clarke: In supporting the point of view of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, does the hon. Gentleman accept that his amendment is as unpalatable to Labour Members as the age currently shown? Picking 75 is as arbitrary as suggesting 70. He is unlikely to gain support for the amendment, so withdrawing it might be the best way of ensuring that the issue is re-examined on Report.

Mr. Blunt: What I shall say now is terribly important, because I believe that I have an opportunity to convince the hon. Gentleman to support the amendment. Picking 75 is better than sticking to 70 because it gives the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, in appointing the Attorney-General, the ability to appoint people for longer. If we

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showed an age of 110 or 120, we would create exactly the position that he and I seek. Any advance from 70 gives those two Ministers greater flexibility. We have a practical problem in considering the Bill, which is that we shall have a very short time on Report in which to debate the matter. If it is not tabled as a Government amendment on Report, it will not be considered. The only way in which to be certain of triggering a debate on the matter on Report is to accept this amendment now. I shall then give the hon. Member for Northampton, South the undertaking that I shall table on behalf of the Opposition the amendment that he and I seek, which removes the age limit altogether. If the Government were to come forward with such an amendment, it would be accepted.

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