Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I beg to move amendment No. 173, in page 18, line 2, leave out 'Secretary of State' and insert

    'First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly'.

The Chairman: With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 174, in clause 31, page 19, line 5, leave out 'Secretary of State' and insert

    'First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly'.

No. 175, in clause 31, page 19, line 10, leave out 'Secretary of State' and insert

    'First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly'.

Mr. Blunt: We now come to an important principle about responsibility for the Public Prosecution Service. The amendment would confer responsibility for the effective management of the service on the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and remove that function from the Secretary of State. It is designed to make a simple pragmatic point rather than raise political issues about either Administration. That also applies to amendments Nos. 174 and 175, which refer to clause 31. Who should be responsible for running this service? If justice is to be devolved to Northern Ireland, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should be responsible for its administration. Staff numbers, salaries and conditions of service should be the responsibility not of the Secretary of State, but of the First and Deputy First Ministers.

Mr. Browne: Before the hon. Gentleman goes more deeply into his argument, I should say from the outset that the Government agree entirely. The clauses were drafted in a form that was applicable before

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devolution—it would then have been constitutionally appropriate for the Secretary of State to exercise those functions—but post devolution, they do not apply.

Mr. Blunt: I am glad that we are at one on the principle. I assume that we are also agreed that these offices will be paid for out of the budget administered by the Northern Ireland Assembly. My concern was that the UK Parliament would continue to run the services directly. I cannot find where in the Bill the transfer of justice after devolution from the Secretary of State to the First and Deputy First Ministers is provided for. Will the Minister point me in the right direction so that I can be confident that we will achieve the objective? I shall then not press the amendments.

Mr. Browne: We are clear that the Bill's provisions were designed to function in the pre-devolution period. I do not need to go into that for the sake of the Committee, but it is entirely appropriate that they are drafted in this way if the funding comes from the Northern Ireland Office and accountability is to this Parliament.

After devolution, it will naturally be for the Executive to fund the prosecution service. The appropriate change will be made to the provisions when responsibility for policing and justice are devolved to the Assembly. That will be done by an order under section 86 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which is the provision that includes the order-making power to make transfers consequent on devolution. There is no reason to have a specific order-making power, as a general one exists in the 1998 Act and would be used for the instrument that will devolve transfer of responsibility, consequent on agreement to devolve. I hope that that addresses the point about which the hon. Gentleman is exercised, and that he will be persuaded to withdraw the amendment.

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Mr. Blunt: The Minister has reassured me. I could not have withdrawn the amendments at the point at which he invited us to do so. I am minded to withdraw them, but I shall be influenced by whatever my hon. Friend has to say.

Lady Hermon: Every time I see the words ''acting jointly'' I feel disheartened, because the reality will be that we shall push further away the possibility of devolving criminal justice back to the Assembly. That is a negative approach.

I want to make a serious point before we finish debating the clause. The Minister and members of the Committee will be aware that, under recent changes to policing in Northern Ireland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the initials PSNI. Under the clause, we shall end up with the initials PPSNI. There is a serious possibility that people will think it is a misprint and that it refers to the Public Prosecution Service. We cannot afford that sort of mistake to be made accidentally or negligently. The Minister could resolve the matter and prevent such a mistake from being made by changing PSNI back to RUC.

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Lady will know that another way of addressing the problem is to call the Public Prosecution Service the Crown Prosecution Service, as it is in England and Wales. However, that would sit rather oddly with its role. I am not certain that the Public Prosecution Service is an agent of the Crown. I presume that it is, as is the case with the Judicial Appointments Commission, which we debated earlier.

The Minister assured me that the functions will properly devolve, as will expenditure responsibility for them, to the Legislative Assembly. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Stringer.]

        Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Six o'clock till Tuesday 5 February at half-past Ten o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Blunt, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Calton, Mrs.
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Clarke, Mr. Tony
Dobbin, Jim
Francois, Mr.
Garnier, Mr.
Hall, Patrick
Hayes, Mr.

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Hermon, Lady
Heyes, Mr.
Kilfoyle, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
McWalter, Mr.
Mallon, Mr.
Merron, Gillian
Mole, Chris
Stringer, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Woodward, Mr.

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