Column Number: 003
Second Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 1 April 2003
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland)
Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire): On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. Forgive me for intruding into a Committee to which I have not been nominated, but I believe that I am entitled to speak. I do so before the Clerk has read out the title of the order so that I do not use any of the time available to any member of the Committee in the time-limited debate that will follow.
I have the honour of being the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and one of the things that we try rigorously to ensure is that all the consultation that should take place in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly can do so. I raise a point of order, of which I gave notice, about the procedure used to bring the order before the House under the Northern Ireland Act 2000. That procedure introduces the order much more quickly after it has been laid formally before the House, and provides only for a short debate. No amendment is provided for, and there is, therefore, no ability to improve the order.
I do not want to discuss the substance of the order, save for one issue. The Government say that the order will bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is therefore strange that one or two of its aspects do not do that, and that it conflicts with proposed legislation in the Sexual Offences Bill that is passing through the House.
Unless there is an urgency to bringing the order into effect, which no one has so far argued, at least not to me, it would make much more sense to bring it into effect in the way in which Parliament provides. That would enable much wider formal consultation, and the results could be put on record. However, that is unlikely under this procedure, except for the parts that the Minister himself wants to put on record. In the absence of the Assembly's ability to discuss the order, this is the wrong way to bring the order before the House, and I respectfully suggest that the order should be delayed until such time as the correct procedures, which are more amenable to the giving of proper notice, are carried out.
The Chairman: I thank the hon. Member for that point of order and for giving the Speaker notice of it. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is not in the gift of the Chairman or, for that matter, the Speaker to dictate the method that a Department uses to introduce legislation. Having taken advice, I understand that it has been introduced in a perfectly legitimate and correct way, and I do not intend, or feel empowered, to alter the proceedings today in Committee on the basis of his point of order.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Further to that point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I understand from your ruling
Column Number: 004
that it is not for you to determine the procedure, but if I address my remarks to you, the Minister may hear them and may even be able at this stage to reconsider the matter. I consider it most inappropriate that the measure before us has been introduced on the basis of a simple yes or no vote. It should be a Bill—or possibly even two Bills, on criminal procedures and on sexual offences.
We are not dealing with regulations to alter the arrangements for car parking in central Armagh. Were we doing so, I would consider a statutory instrument entirely appropriate. These major changes in the criminal law involve such important things as bail, appeals, sexual offences and riotous behaviour. They are not trivial considerations; nor are they the subject of regulations. I would take a different view if there were evidence that the Assembly had done all but the last lap in considering the provisions, and that the order came here with the Assembly's blessing. However, there is no evidence of that.
Mr. Stevenson, I am sorry if I am going on a little, but I feel—
The Chairman: Order. I am conscious of the importance of the issues that are to be debated today, and I want to ensure that maximum time is made available for that debate. As Chairman, I am also keen to ensure that points of order should be exactly that, rather than speeches.
Mr. Taylor: I thank you for your stricture, Mr. Stevenson. I am sorry if I appear animated about the matter. After 20 years in Parliament, I am normally pretty cool, but I am animated about this issue. Speaking as a parliamentarian rather than as a Conservative, I believe this process to be an abuse of Parliament, and if my party had done the same thing when in government, I would have said that it was also wrong.
I am minded to move that the Committee adjourn to give the Minister time to reconsider. I am reluctant even to vote against the measure, because I would be trying to negative a question that I did not respect in the first place. I may even take it upon myself to absent myself from the proceedings—[Interruption.] I am sorry that Government Members find the matter amusing. It is not amusing; it is very serious. We seek to alter major criminal provisions in part of the UK on a simple yes or no vote on the Committee Corridor, and that is not good enough.
The Chairman: I understand that the hon. Gentleman is seized by these important issues, and I am sure that the Minister has heard what he said. However, I have nothing more to add to what I said earlier.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
A draft of the order was laid before the House on 24 March 2003. The Government intend to proceed with the legislation today, and I shall deal in some
Column Number: 005
detail with the issues raised, if you, Mr. Stevenson, will allow me so to do. I also welcome you to the Chair.
Lady Hermon (North Down): Will the Minister address the points raised by the hon. Members for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) and for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), and explain to the Committee why we are dealing with an Order in Council rather than with primary legislation? The Criminal Justice Bill has just completed lengthy proceedings in Committee. Will the Minister explain why the provisions could not have been included in that Bill?
Mr. Browne: It is not for me to decide what should be included in a Bill presented by another Department. However, if the hon. Lady knows about that Bill, she will know its magnitude and the issues with which it dealt.
If you will allow me, Mr. Stevenson, I will deal with the issues raised. An Order in Council is traditionally the way in which the criminal law of Northern Ireland has been made and amended in the House. Where there are substantial changes in the order, they are changes to other Orders in Council.
The hon. Member for Solihull said that he would be critical of his Government had they done the same thing. He will therefore be critical of his Government because not only did they do the same thing, they did so on a number of occasions.
Mr. Taylor: I am aware of that.
Mr. Browne: I am not sure that there was any record of the hon. Gentleman's criticisms at the time, but he may have developed those criticisms since he has been in opposition. I have in my hand the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which contains 58 articles and seven detailed schedules. My researchers reveal that the order was put out to consultation for eight weeks—it was circulated to all interested parties from 16 May to 11 July 1996. My researchers further reveal that the debate on the order lasted significantly less than the two and a half hours that was allocated to it in Committee.
Lady Hermon: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Browne: I would rather not at this stage.
As hon. Members may be aware—some of them were there—I spoke in Committee for the Government on the order relating to the Assembly's suspension on 29 October last year. On that occasion, I made clear how we intended to carry legislative scrutiny forward if suspension continued. I said then that whenever possible we would resume the previous practice under direct rule of prior consultation on legislation, or a proposal stage for all orders, generally allowing 12 weeks' consultation. I also said that the Government would be ready to consider representations in circumstances that would merit the consideration of orders by debate on the Floor of the House.
There are only two possible ways of introducing an order. The first is under section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides power to legislate for Northern Ireland on a limited range of reserved matters, including criminal justice. However, that provision is clearly intended to be used when the
Column Number: 006
Assembly is up and running. The hon. Member for Solihull said that he would have been able to support the use of that procedure more had there been consultation with and by the Assembly. The Assembly is of course suspended, and there could not have been that consultation. In any event, these matters are reserved and are not of the kind that Committees in the House have been having to consider recently in concluding the Assembly's work. Under normal circumstances—if there are such things in Northern Ireland—the matters would have been devolved. Therefore, provisions under section 85 and consultation with the Assembly were not open to the Government.
When the Assembly is suspended, as at present, the Northern Ireland Act 2000 gives power to legislate for Northern Ireland by Order in Council on any matter, including the full range of reserved matters such as criminal justice. The Government considered that Parliament intended that power to provide a comprehensive basis for legislating on the transferred and reserved field for Northern Ireland during suspension. That power is consequently an appropriate method for taking forward such an order as this.
Although the majority of the provisions in the order merely bring Northern Ireland legislation into line with that for the rest of the United Kingdom, there is an important consideration in relation to sexual offences. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that we are about to embark on a wide consultation on that law in Northern Ireland and shall take into account the provisions on those matters in legislation that is before the House. However, as hon. Members have said, there ought to be consultation on such matters in Northern Ireland. It is our intention to consult. I shall go into more detail, and I hope to persuade hon. Members of the importance of such equality issues. They have been debated at length and in principle in the House, and legislation on them has been passed for the rest of the United Kingdom. We are addressing an equality issue in relation to Northern Ireland, and not a matter of great controversy.