Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister confirm that an inappropriate conviction will be a conviction for a scheduled offence?

Mr. Browne: Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh, we have heard that a number of people in Northern Ireland have already accumulated what can be described as scheduled offence convictions because of the way in which they parked their vehicles. I have not researched that, but I accept that it is true; it was not questioned by those with greater knowledge of the history of Northern Ireland than I have. I cannot, therefore, give the hon. Gentleman that confirmation.

However, I can say that in deciding whom to employ in these jobs, serious regard will be given to the nature of the convictions and each case will be dealt with on its merits. All the provisions that apply to all prospective employees in all circumstances will be applied to people who apply for those jobs; they will be dealt with in relation to the equality provisions as they apply to the court service and their rights will be

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respected in line with the Human Rights Act 1998. In addition, security considerations will be uppermost in the minds of those who make the decisions. I have not a jot of concern that inappropriate people will get the jobs. In order to ensure that people whose pasts are inappropriate for security in courts are not employed, I do not think that we need to try inexpertly-it will turn out to be inaccurately as well-to designate and delineate certain types of people as disqualified from such jobs.

Mr. Blunt: My point relates to the subject of assuring those in Northern Ireland that inappropriate people will not be employed in such positions. A parking offence may formerly have been a scheduled offence, but it is unlikely that a person would be sentenced to imprisonment for it. It is not beyond the wit of the Committee to phrase a new clause to deal with scheduled offences that lead to conviction and imprisonment for a certain time. That would clearly reflect the seriousness of the offence. The Minister could phrase an assurance in such a way, because those in Northern Ireland seek an assurance that inappropriate people, especially those with a paramilitary background, will not provide security in courts.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman seeks to make me try to say what would be almost impossible in a form that would stand the test of time. Where does the concern that such people will be employed in the security service come from? Where is the practice by the Northern Ireland Court Service to suggest to anyone that such people will be so employed?

Lady Hermon: I appreciate the Minister giving way, as he invited someone to say where the concern came from. It comes from the recommendation of the Patten report that district policing partnership boards, as they were formerly titled, could buy in additional policing services. At the time, it was well known that paramilitary organisations were forming themselves into private security firms so as to provide additional policing services. Since then, there has been concern that paramilitary organisations will continue to turn themselves into nicely named private security organisations and will turn up in nice uniforms to provide security at courts.

Mr. Browne: The Bill does not lend itself to the realisation of that concern. I give the unequivocal assurance that great care will be taken to ensure that people with inappropriate convictions are not given the jobs. If the hon. Lady accepts that assurance, she might agree to withdraw the motion. If she insists on pressing it, I shall resist it.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Given the way in which the Minister tackled the matter, I was not sure that he would deal with scheduled offences, which the hon. Member for Reigate mentioned.

I want to speak against the new clause, partly from the experience of serving on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and at one stage sharing a room with 20 paramilitary loyalist ex-prisoners who between them had many scheduled offences. They worked closely in the days before the Belfast agreement on how to involve themselves in the

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development of the peace process. I am sure that many of those people could not and should not be trusted. A couple of them have reoffended and associate themselves with the Red Hand Defenders and other such groups.

The overwhelming attitude of those ex-prisoners was, as one of them suggested, that he did not want his children to grow up in the society in which he had grown up. In that community, many had felt that they had no alternative but to commit actions that were outside the law. They had felt required to defend their views and their community. Whether or not one agrees that that was necessary, it was at least some people's opinion. Those people were working for a discontinuity in society in Northern Ireland, so that what was once deemed necessary by quite a large number of people would eventually be seen to be unnecessary by the community as a whole. Although some of the people in that room should not be trusted with responsible positions in Northern Ireland society, some have gone on to hold such positions and have worked with passion, commitment and intellectual dedication to the peace process. It is right that they should hold some of those positions in Northern Ireland society.

In arguing against the amendment, I am telling the hon. Member for North Down and those who might support her that perhaps the thinking behind the Belfast agreement involved recognising that something had been broken and needed to be mended. Part of that process of mending is to accept that some of those who thought that violent behaviour was necessary in the past could be implicated in the development of a society where violent behaviour would not in future be thought justified or necessary.

10.30 am

Mr. Mallon: My hon. Friend has put his finger on a very important part of the debate. One of the most difficult things about the Good Friday agreement for all of us is, was and will be the inclusivity that it requires. That was obvious from the first day of negotiations. Many of us will never forget the first time we were in that room where there were political parties, paramilitary groupings, Governments and everyone else. Inclusivity is difficult, and that will not change. It will not get easier. However, it will-and already has-put distance between what is happening and what happened before.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), who is not here at present, said something pertinent a few days ago; she said that legislation is about the future. Already, remarkably, I have found, while working with young people as I do regularly, that a section of the young population is growing up without the memory of violence. It is strange for us, but they do not remember it. It has not been a part of their lives, whereas it was always part of the lives of my generation. Those young people see things differently. Time and the future will look after the issue, and it is important for us to allow that to happen.

I want to comment on the implication that, somewhere or other, paramilitaries are sitting

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looking at the advertisement columns in the Belfast Telegraph or The Irish News to discover which hugely well-paid job in the Court Service might be available to them. From my experience of paramilitaries or ex-paramilitaries in the north of Ireland, they would not deign to consider working for the kind of salary that would be on offer. That applies to all paramilitary groupings.

The era of paramilitant involvement, with prison sentences served, is being left behind. We need to think about what will happen in the future if, as the Minister rightly said, we use the constraints of the legislation in relation not to what might happen but to what is past and done, and will not-in my view and, I do not doubt, everyone else's-happen again. I envisage no great queue of paramilitaries or ex-paramilitaries wanting to don the uniform of a prison service security officer, because they have ways of making much more money than any of us could ever dream of.

In essence, the Minister is right. I know why the hon. Member for North Down tabled the new clause. We had similar discussions during consideration of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and we continue to debate such issues in relation to the district policing partnerships and Policing Board, but we must deal with the society that exists in Northern Ireland, not the society that we would like to have or the one that we keep contriving, because, in many ways, it is being artificially contrived.

It is not right to try to contrive a society or to draft legislation on that basis. Although the fears that the hon. Member for North Down expressed were legitimate, the provision will not have the effect that she envisages. If one or two people with previous convictions were seriously to regard serving the community in that way, as part of their new way of life, would not more be gained than lost? That is a different scenario from the one painted by the hon. Lady. She was right to the extent that I know of security companies being set up by an amalgam of tinpot Hitlers whom one would not allow into any organisation, but they were not intending to serve the community; they wanted another means of imposing their weight on the community while making another bag of money as a security firm. That is different, but I would not worry about the occasional person who wanted to leave behind his paramilitary past out of a genuine desire to serve the community. In fact, I would welcome that. The more that people who have had that sort of unfortunate past move into a different mode, the more we will succeed in what we are collectively trying to do.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry): Looking at the new clause, I have no difficulty supporting its underlying emphasis and aim. More often than not during the past few weeks, the Minister has not convinced me of his rationale, but he is coming close in his opposition to new clause 6. I am struck by the level of offence and the length of time after conviction to which the new clause would apply. Irrespective of how relatively minor the offence committed, the new clause would debar the person from consideration. For that reason, I support the emphasis of the new clause, but I fully understand the

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Minister's explanation as regards people who otherwise might be considered for other positions but debarred from this one.

I must comment on the remarks made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. Sometimes, in the rarefied atmosphere of Westminster, it may be relatively easy to become detached from what is happening in Northern Ireland. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman intentionally wanted to be detached from that reality, but he succeeded when he suggested that some young people growing up now might not remember the violence. In the past three years, there has been a massive increase in paramilitarism and a horrendous increase in punishment beatings. A bomb went off in my constituency at the weekend, very seriously injuring a security officer-and that was not the first, second, third or fourth such incident. Numerous attacks have taken place.

In the past three years, the violence has not improved but got worse-not directly as a result of the Belfast agreement, but that has certainly not improved matters. I have spoken so far of the violence alone, but the sense of isolation is another factor in many communities in Northern Ireland.

I shall wait to see whether the hon. Member for North Down will withdraw her new clause in the light of the Minister's remarks, or if the Minister is prepared to contemplate rewording it. From what he said, and in the interests of retaining the consistency to which he alluded, I do not imagine that he will do that.

In conclusion, I repeat that I have empathy with the underlying emphasis of the new clause. However, I draw attention to the fact that, if the clause were to succeed, a person who had been convicted of a criminal offence would not be eligible to be employed as a court security officer. In contrast, the Belfast agreement, from which the review has emanated, would put such people into the Government of Northern Ireland.

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Prepared 14 February 2002