Draft Lay Magistrates (Eligibility) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cran, and the Minister to his new responsibilities. He made a plea at the outset for tolerance and patience on the part of all Committee members, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) can have been listening. However, the hon. Gentleman spotted a clear error and, in other circumstances, he may have asked the Minister to withdraw the order altogether—[Interruption] I may be anticipating the hon. Gentleman's speech. However, it is a serious point that cannot be dismissed as simply a typographical error, and it shows that there are great dangers in trying to produce such exhaustive lists. The more categories that are listed, the more danger there is of getting something wrong.

Someone obviously thought that it would be helpful to explain what the Irish Parliament was, but the hon. Member for Thurrock may agree that the order would have been better without the words in the brackets, as normal principles of statutory interpretation would have included both Houses in their definition of ''the Irish Parliament''. However, the inclusion of the words in brackets, which as the hon. Gentleman pointed out are inaccurate, may make it a serious matter, particularly given the sensitivities in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic about ascriptions. They are not minor points that can simply be brushed under the carpet.

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I am sorry that we do not have the benefit of the presence of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). I have served with her on a number of Committees considering important pieces of law-and-order legislation recently, as has the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that he would agree that, whenever the hon. Lady is with us, she is able to bring her knowledge and experience of the situation in the Province of Northern Ireland, to the great benefit of any Committee on which she sits. Having seen her name on the list of Committee members, I thought that she might have some points of detail to put forward.

I wanted to raise a couple of issues. I understand entirely what the Minister says about the origins of the order and the way in which the Government are seeking to introduce lay magistrates, who would operate along the same lines as those in England and Wales. However, there is a great danger that issues, such as the personal security of lay magistrates, are not being taken fully into account in the new system. If the order gives an exhaustive list of all the people involved with the forces of law and order, and says that they are ineligible—and, as the hon. Member for Thurrock said, it seems as though almost every occupation is listed—who will be left to act as a lay magistrate in the Province?

That may be a slight exaggeration, but I am slightly concerned that the Government's proposal, under the order, is that all people involved with such organisations, even down to employees of the Ulster Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, should be disqualified. I know that people sometimes come before the courts for breaches of animal welfare laws, but to say that an employee of the Ulster Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should be disbarred from sitting as a lay magistrate, unless the Lord Chancellor intervenes to change that, is going a bit far. Such employees do not even have a caveat such as that in article 2(e)(xxxiv), which concerns Relate and family mediation service employees or trained volunteers. It says that those employees are disbarred if they carry out their

    ''duties in the same county court division to which the appointment may be made''.

That seems sensible. If people are involved in family matters in the same area as the one in which the appointment will be made, they might be disbarred, but not otherwise.

One would have thought that, in some other categories, people would be disbarred only if they worked in the same area as the court. Would it not be more sensible to include a similar caveat for many of the restrictions, so that they applied only if the applicants in an area worked for bodies in the same area—particularly if the Minister is to accede to the pleas of the hon. Member for Thurrock and withdraw the order and start again?

Another matter that caused me concern when I read the order was that people who have served a prison sentence of less than a month could still be eligible.

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That seems to be the wrong way round, particularly in the Northern Ireland context. If someone has served a prison sentence of even just one day or a week, they ought to be ineligible to be a magistrate. I cannot understand why anyone who has even a tangential link with the forces of law of order is disqualified, when it is fine for someone who has served a prison sentence to become a lay magistrate, as long as the sentence is not for more than a month. Given that the Government are moving to make prison sentences shorter and shorter, and are taking, in my view, an over-lenient stance, that is in the wrong direction entirely. I would like the order to say that anyone who has ever served any sort of prison sentence is automatically disqualified. I hope that the Minister will deal with the particular sensitivities of the issue in the Northern Ireland context.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Why is my hon. Friend talking about one conviction? It is my understanding—obviously, I may have misunderstood—that it would be possible for someone to have five convictions with penalties of 28 days' imprisonment in five successive years and still be eligible. According to article 2(k), even if someone had five convictions, as long as they all had sentences of less than one month, it would be okay for them to apply to be a magistrate. It seems very unfair to boot out someone because their partner was employed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and yet allow someone with five separate criminal convictions of 28 days' imprisonment.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point; of course, he is right. However, the order uses the term

    ''punishable by a term of imprisonment''.

The intention is that a person would not necessarily need to have served a sentence to be disbarred; they might have been convicted of an offence that could be given a prison sentence.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Five times.

Mr. Hawkins: Or however many times are involved. The disqualification applies if the offence carries a possible sentence of imprisonment, not if the person has served it. I understand that entirely.

My other point is rather more serious, as it is about the basis of the order. We are debating it a few days after the most shambolic reshuffle of any Government at perhaps any time in the last 150 years. On the day of the reshuffle, it was announced that there would not be a Lord Chancellor. Then the Prime Minister suddenly discovered to his amazement that that was not possible, so we had the abolition of that office and, within a few hours, the reinstatement of the Lord Chancellor in the form of Lord Falconer.

That point is particularly germane to the order, because so much of it is about the Lord Chancellor. One does not know whether the Government would have gone ahead with the Committee if the Prime Minister had succeeded in his bid to abolish the lord chancellorship. If he had succeeded, no doubt we could not have had an order this afternoon, including a discussion—

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The Chairman: Order. I understand entirely where the hon. Gentleman is going, but I should like him to detach the political remarks from the content of the order. If he does that, he and I will be happy.

Mr. Hawkins: I have made the point. The hon. Member for Thurrock rightly drew attention to the Lord Chancellor's discretion, and you will understand, Mr. Cran, that that issue, which is sprinkled through the order and the explanatory notes, relates to the lord chancellorship. If the Government had had their way, that office would no longer exist, so I hope that the Minister will say exactly what is envisaged for, say, three years' time, when presumably the order will still be in force. Three years is the media's estimate of the shortest possible time that it would take finally to abolish the lord chancellorship. We do not know whether the Government will have second thoughts about even that, but I hope that the Minister will explain what will happen if there is no Lord Chancellor in three years, because that is undoubtedly germane to the order.

The order clearly has weaknesses, not least the one pointed out by the hon. Member for Thurrock. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) and I also have concerns, but I need not detain the Committee longer. I hope that I have said enough to reveal the seriousness of our concerns. I hope that the Minister, when he has been in his new office for a little longer, will look carefully at how this matter will play out in the Northern Ireland context, and that he will reassure us that he will consult fully all the hon. Members who represent Ulster parties.

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Andrew Mackinlay: Probably in a rather intemperate way, I have already shown my hand, which is that there is a powerful case for my hon. Friend the Minister to take the order back, reflect on it and correct it. I do not say that in a malign way. Our responsibilities for law making in this place are little more than a charade. I have said that generally, so I am not referring to this Committee in particular. We are expected to rubber-stamp measures that are flawed, but I will certainly not do that without at least creating a stink when it happens. It is a material fact that the measure does not refer to the Houses of the Oireachtas, meaning both Chambers. That is significant. It shows that the order was drafted in a sloppy way, and there may well be other errors that I have been unable to identify.

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