Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lembit Öpik: The amendment helps us to establish an important principle. We are saying that the inspectorate must be proactive when there is a case for inspection, rather than inspecting organisations on an automatic, cyclical basis. I believe that I am right in thinking that a light-touch inspectorate would be brought in when it is suspected that there is something to be looked into.

Mr. Mallon: I take that point.

Another valid argument that has not been made is that an inspectorate cannot deal with some things on a yearly basis, because it may take two or three years to reach a pattern of conclusions. I shall not pursue the amendment, but it was right to move it because it raises important points, not least the one that arose yesterday about the chief electoral officer. There are anomalies throughout the system for which the amendment would not cater and the Bill does not cater. When a chief inspector is appointed, I hope that it will not be a titular position. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lady Hermon: I beg to move amendment No. 190, in page 27, line 18, after 'State', insert

    'or the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly'.

The amendment does not indicate a rush of blood to my head, but it provides a constructive illustration of where it would be appropriate for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to act jointly. However, if I understood the Minister correctly on Tuesday, there is a distinction between the pre-devolution position and the post-devolution position, and the amendment is therefore inappropriate.

Mr. Browne: On devolution of the criminal justice system, we would transfer those functions by a transfer of functions order under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The distinction that the hon. Lady has made is entirely correct.

Lady Hermon: With that clarification, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 48

Powers of inspectors

Lady Hermon: I beg to move amendment No. 191 page 27, line 42, at end insert—

    '(ba) any person to state, to the best of his knowledge and belief, where any such document is to be found, or'.

I enjoy the exercise because I do not get it in any other shape or form, Mr. Conway.

The chief inspector of criminal justice should be able to require three things during an inspection: first, that documents be produced, which is covered in subsection (2)(a); secondly, that such documents be explained, which is covered in subsection (2)(b); and, thirdly, that a person be required to state where documents are to be found, subject to

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    ''the best of his knowledge and belief'',

so that the bland wording of subsection (2)(c) is clarified. The three steps for the documents produced are identification, explanation and information as to where they are to be found, to the best of a person's knowledge or belief. Thus there are three steps and three requirements.

I took a useful example from the Competition Act 1998, in which inspectors who seek to detect breaches of European Union competition rules have those three clear requirements when carrying out an inspection. A chief inspector of criminal justice should have powers equal to those of an inspector who seeks to find out whether competition rules have been breached.

Mr. Browne: Perhaps I should have anticipated that I would need to consider the Competition Act 1998 to prepare myself for the debate, but unfortunately I did not. Perhaps, since the 1998 Act was drafted—

Mr. Blunt: Passed.

Mr. Browne: No. Since the 1998 Act was drafted, those who draft legislation —they provide an excellent service—might have taken the view that what the hon. Lady referred to as a ''bland provision'' is broad enough to cover the exact circumstances that she expects. I do not know whether that is the case, but I can speculate.

We could argue about the interpretation of the clause and what the words ''such document'' in the amendment refer to. By using that expression, the amendment could be seen as referring to the word ''document'' in subsection (2)(b). Those would be pedantic arguments, as the hon. Lady has made the reason behind the amendment clear.

My response to the mischief that the hon. Lady seeks to tackle is that the phrase

    ''that other information be provided''

covers the eventuality to which she refers and others. If it is appropriate for an inspector to know where such a document may be found, that is merely ''other information'' that they may require, and they have the power to ask for it in the broad terms of the clause.

Mr. Turner: I cannot speak for my hon. Friend the Member for North Down, but it seems to me that the amendment would be appropriate in circumstances such as those that we have heard about in the recent Victoria Climbie inquiry. In that case, the local authority might have done its best to produce documents, but was not able to do so until they happened to turn up in a filing cabinet.

The amendment is useful, because it entitles the inspector to ask ''any person''. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I guess that the powers of the inspector in the rest of this part of the Bill relate to the authority rather than to any person within or outside it. If an individual had left the employment of the authority, the amendment would permit that person to be asked. The other provisions of this part of the Bill suggest that the power is in relation to the authority rather than to a person who might have left the authority.

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The Chairman: Order. While the Minister reflects on that, may I say that although the hon. Gentleman was making a perfectly valid observation, it would have been better made as a proper contribution to the debate. Interventions should be specific; I will call hon. Members to make their contributions in the fullness of time.

10.30 am

Mr. Browne: Without wishing to contravene your instructions, Mr. Conway, subsection (1) provides that the powers relate to ''any premises''. I can see no such restriction elsewhere in the clause, but we may come back to the question on clause stand part.

I am seeking to address the argument put forward by the hon. Member for North Down. I have exhausted the arguments that I marshalled in anticipation of this debate, although I may find some hidden away in the Competition Act. I hope that she is persuaded by the arguments that I have put before her thus far.

Mr. Blunt: The Minister exhausted his arguments fairly abruptly in response to the hon. Member for North Down. If I may, I shall stretch them further, although I do not intend to repeat myself when we debate the other amendments to the clause. Indeed, I think that the amendments should be taken together. I rather prefer the work done by the hon. Lady in putting together this collection of amendments, and I urge the Minister to consider them carefully.

Even if the Minister was correct in saying that amendment No. 191 was otiose because subsection (2)(c) states that ''other information be provided'', it is better that it should appear in the Bill because it would then make clear what power was available to the inspector and what questions he could ask to which he should expect an answer. The Minister may be right about subsection (2)(c), but it is extremely important that the inspector's duties should be transparent and clear to those who are on the receiving end.

I do not want to delay the Committee. I think that the amendment is a careful construction. The hon. Lady and those advising her seek to make the clause stronger and clearer. Considerable work has been done on what defences are available for refusing or failing to supply the information to the inspector. I therefore hope that the Minister will take the amendments as a group and give real consideration to whether or not they would improve the clause. That is certainly my view.

Lady Hermon: The hon. Member for Reigate is absolutely right that this series of amendments hangs together. Are we able to take them together?

The Chairman: Yes. If the hon. Lady is content that we debate all four together, it will facilitate the Committee's progress. Is the Minister content with that?

Mr. Browne: Yes.

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The Chairman: With amendment No. 191, we shall debate the following amendments: No. 192, page 28, line 1, leave out 'commits' and insert 'is guilty of'.

No. 273, in page 28, line 2, leave out 'without reasonable excuse'.

No. 191, in page 28, line 5, at end insert—

    '(3A) If a person is charged with an offence under subsection (3) in respect of a requirement to produce a document under subsection (3), it is a defence to prove—

    (a) that the document was not in his possession or under his control; and

    (b) that it was not reasonably practicable for him to comply with the requirement.

    (3B) If a person is charged with an offence under subsection (3) in respect of a requirement—

    (a) to provide information,

    (b) to provide an explanation of a document, or

    (c) to state where a document is to be found,

    it is a defence for him to prove that he had a reasonable excuse for failing to comply with the requirement.'.

Lady Hermon: I appreciate the Committee's co-operation.

Amendment No. 192 is a probing amendment. Subsection (3) refers to a person who commits an offence, while subsection (4) refers to

    ''A person guilty of an offence''.

Is there intended to be any difference between the terminology? I suspect not.

The more important amendments that I tabled relate to the offences. When I first read the clause, I was struck by the fact that insufficient weight had been given to the seriousness of the offence of obstructing the inspector in the process of inspecting any of the organisations listed in clause 46(1).

It occurs to me that I have grouped all the amendments together now—I have begun to discuss amendment No. 195. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.—[Laughter.]

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