Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Mole: Given the hon. Gentleman's earlier arguments about the need to improve the representation of women and ethnic minorities on the Judicial Appointments Commission, can he tell me whether he thinks that the action he describes will enhance that process or delay it? I would say the latter.

Mr. Blunt: That has nothing to do with it.

Mr. Mole: The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there is a pool of women and people from ethnic minorities aged over 70 who will help with that process.

Mr. Blunt: This matter has nothing to do with the Judicial Appointments Commission. We have moved on from part 1 of the Bill, having not considered three quarters of it. We are now considering part 2. The hon. Gentleman, in raising the matter of the Judicial Appointments Commission, is introducing arguments that are irrelevant to a single post.

Just one man or woman is required for this post. That is where the argument that the age limit is arbitrary defeats the Minister's arguments, which apply only in the case of a class of people such as judges or members of policing boards. Assumptions can be made about what might be a reasonable age, on average, for such people to retire, and I accept the arguments on that. I disagree with the principled arguments being made that there should be no age limits at all. It can be argued that, when dealing with a large group of people, it is reasonable to impose a retirement age.

However, in this case, this House is imposing an arbitrary limit on one person. That person is selected by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. They will have a retirement age of 75 if either amendment No. 30 or the amendment that I shall table on Report, should I fail to secure the higher age of 75 in Committee, is adopted. I shall come to why it is necessary to put the age of 75 in the Bill to ensure that there is a debate on the matter later on. Under clause 25, if that person becomes incapacitated, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister can initiate a process by which he can be removed.

Mr. McWalter: I urge the hon. Gentleman to think carefully about what he is doing, because there are many different dimensions to the matter. Having a

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retirement age for a post that is held for a definite time, such as that of a Member of Parliament where the electorate decide, or the post under discussion, is different from the issue of having of general retirement age. I am basically in favour of a general retirement age, although I believe that people should have rights, when they reach that stage, that they do not currently enjoy.

The argument is becoming complicated and I am worried that, because there are many different positions, if the hon. Gentleman were to press his amendment it would not succeed. We would then lose the benefit of the review of the problem that the Minister has promised us. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South, I urge the hon. Gentleman to accept what we have gained so far and see whether we can run with it at the next step.

Mr. Blunt: In normal circumstances, I would, but with the hon. Gentleman's support and that of his hon. Friends, who have indicated that they agree with us on the principle involved in the issue of this one post—

Mr. Kilfoyle: I want to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of a misapprehension that he is under. The tactical considerations of the Opposition and what may or may not happen on Report are not issues that interest my hon. Friends and myself. I can only reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said a moment ago: we cannot possibly find those tactical arguments persuasive. I understand why the hon. Gentleman puts them forward, but they contradict the principled position to which he alluded.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment and engage in a debate later, if necessary. Unlike him, I am inclined to accept what the Minister intimated a few minutes ago: that we should take representations and address the matter seriously, as many members of the Committee have.

The Chairman: Order. We should not get too involved in what may or may not happen on Report. I understand the relevance of that matter to the hon. Member for Reigate, but he should keep his references as brief as possible.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Pike.

If the amendment were passed by the Committee and the Government disagreed with it, they would have to return to it on Report and reinsert the age of 70. That would be the position, if the Committee insisted on having 75 rather than 70. The Committee may choose to rest on the Minister's assurances—although I am not clear that we have them, and want the Minister to repeat them. I am carefully considering what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton said. I have not made up my mind and want to clarify the position so that we all understand what the consequences will be if I choose to withdraw the amendment.

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Lady Hermon: To assist the hon. Gentleman in his clarification of the argument, may I say that the review makes a distinct recommendation on this matter. It states:

    ''Consistent with the exhortations of human rights instruments about security of tenure, we endorse the current arrangements that give full-time judges and magistrates tenure during good behaviour until a statutory retirement age.''

In fairness to the Minister, if the current arrangement is a retirement age of 70, that is what the review committee recommended.

Mr. Blunt: I am sure that the Minister will rely on the review committee, but we as legislators must make judgments for ourselves. The position of Attorney-General in Northern Ireland is not consistent with a group of other posts; it is an individual post made by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to produce legal advice for the Assembly, to be publicly accountable to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and so on.

If I withdraw the amendment, there may not be time to debate an Opposition amendment, tabled as my hon. Friends and I would desire. That is a practical problem that we face. We are also faced with the fact that the Government, having listened to consultation, may not table an amendment, which would leave the House with no opportunity to debate the issue again.

Mr. Clarke: I would like to help the hon. Gentleman with his deliberations, taking into account the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton. As none of us seems able to support his amendment, does he not see that simply withdrawing it is the only means by which to take the argument forward? It is in no one's interest to press the amendment to a Division and then be defeated, given that we disagree as much with the amendment as with the age limit in the Bill?

Mr. Blunt: I have tried and failed to convince the hon. Gentleman that 75 is better than 70. He has made it clear that he will not support the amendment.

Mr. Garnier: Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend, as the argument is becoming rather circular. It is common ground between my hon. Friend and me that the Committee and the House are stifled in the amount of time available to debate the Bill. However, the Government cannot control the debate in another place. If there is no time on Report and we cannot get the assurances that we require from the Minister, might it not be a good idea to pack this up and resurrect it in the other place? The wealth of experience that exists there will allow the matter to be properly explored.

6 pm

Mr. Blunt: I shall not go quite that far. I will take note of what Labour Members said, and I will not press the amendment now. I will rely on their ability to convince the Minister that it would be a good idea for the Government to come forward with the amendment that they seek. I will table such an amendment myself

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on Report. If they fail to convince the Government and my amendment is reached, I sincerely hope that they will support it.

The debate has been instructive, and we have touched on a number of fundamental principles. I know that it has taken some time, but it is part of our responsibility to explore those issues. I had not anticipated that this would spark the concern that it has. It has been instructive for me too. I am extremely grateful to Labour Members for their contributions. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25

Removal of Attorney General

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move amendment No. 170, in page 16, line 2, leave out 'Lord Chancellor' and insert

    'First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly.'.

When I first saw this amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh I wanted to support it on the principle that it is best for the Lord Chancellor to be taken out of this exercise and to be replaced by a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly wherever possible. Having examined the amendment and its effect, it appears that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would appoint members of a tribunal, even though they would, in effect, be the plaintiff on that tribunal by seeking the removal of the Attorney-General. I hope that I have understood that correctly.

However, given that the desire is to devolve those functions to Northern Ireland as far as possible, it would be an appropriate compromise to give the function to the Secretary of State. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh is on the right lines in trying to remove the Lord Chancellor from the process. It would be appropriate for that function to be held by the Secretary of State, not by the Lord Chancellor. That is more in line with the devolution of justice to Northern Ireland. I accept that there is a concern that because this is a quasi-judicial position, the Lord Chancellor should have a role. However, as far as possible the principle that should direct the Committee is the removal of the functions of the Lord Chancellor. It is appropriate for such quasi-judicial functions to rest with the Secretary of State, who is closer to Northern Ireland business than the Lord Chancellor.

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