Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hunter: I want to put on record the opposition of the Democratic Unionist party to clause 1. The reasons are known, so I do not need to rehearse them in detail. Simply, we cannot accept the Minister's argument that there is merit in the proposal to create the procedures for judicial appointment before devolved government has been reconstructed. We are aware of his argument, but it is found unconvincing for the simple reason, to which I referred earlier, that the real origins of the Bill are to be found in the Hillsborough joint declaration.

The joint declaration was drawn up with the Irish Government to help to create a climate in which the Assembly and Executive could be reconstituted. The declaration, and this Bill that stems from it, are in part a gesture of appeasement towards those who have scant regard for the judicial process in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. Although I shall not force a Division, I register opposition to clause 1 standing part of the Bill for that reason.

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Mr. Trimble: I rise to support the points that the hon. Gentleman has just made. He is correct, as the Minister has failed to give any reason why the provisions are being brought into operation in advance of devolution, which is the main provision in the Bill. The Minister's only reason was a throwaway line that there are merits in the proposal. He did not say what they are, however, and no case has been argued for the clause.

The hon. Gentleman's points about the Bill's origins are also correct. The legislation, which talks so much about ensuring the independence of the judiciary and legal system, has its origin in a purely political deal that has nothing to do with the merits of the issue or the independence of the judiciary. A falsehood lies at the heart of the proposal, and I note that no one is prepared to rebut the hon. Gentleman's points and that the Minister has so far been unable to add any justification for the clause.

Mr. Swayne: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there seems to be no reason for introducing the Bill before devolution, and, furthermore, there are powerful reasons for waiting, given the lack of legislative slots for Northern Ireland. The Minister is conducting a consultation on several provisions that could, if he had waited, have been included in the Bill. There is a powerful argument for delaying the Bill rather than rushing it through for no apparent reason other than a political one.

Mr. Trimble: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, particularly bearing in mind the representations that the Minister is receiving from all sections of the community in Northern Ireland for rapid progress on antisocial behaviour legislation. Later, we will consider a clause that could facilitate that, but if the Minister had held the Bill back, he could have included such provisions as well. He would then have been introducing a measure that was would be received in the House and by the community in Northern Ireland.

I want to make a further point to the Minister on the general principle. Reference has been made to Lord Chancellors and political influence. The key point that the Minister should bear in mind is that, so far as I am aware, there has never been any suggestion in modern times that persons discharging the duties of Lord Chancellor have acted other than in a non-party manner with regard to judicial appointments and the administration of justice. Some may have been very party-political animals in a different incarnation, but there is no suggestion that recent appointees have not acted impartially when discharging their functions as Lord Chancellor, especially in terms of judicial appointments. That is what concerns me about the Bill.

10 am

I will not repeat the arguments that I made on Second Reading. The Minister knows that it is my considered view that the creation of the Judicial Appointments Commission will result in more political influence on judicial appointments than hitherto. It will bring into the commission a number of people, admittedly a minority, who will be there for

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purely political reasons and with largely political agendas. This is a wrong step. I would even oppose it being done after devolution, but to do so now will give certain political parties an influence over judicial appointments.

At the moment, appointments are made by the Lord Chancellor in a non-party political way, as most people, including people in Northern Ireland, accept. The clause, however, will allow political parties to influence judicial appointments, which is not a wise move in the present situation. That goes to the principle of the matter and it is why I oppose clause stand part. Like the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), having made my point, I do not wish to detain the Committee by dividing it.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I rise briefly to respond to certain aspects of the debate. I do not intend to enter into any of the technical and legal areas, as I am ill equipped to do so. I simply point out that one of the necessities for the future of good government in Northern Ireland is openness and clarity about what is happening in the criminal justice system. It is important that ordinary men and women in Northern Ireland—the lay people—have a clear understanding of how matters are dealt with in the judicial system. They do not have that now. I see no great disadvantage in the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland coming together, through their various party groupings, to map out and propose a way forward that will satisfy the aspect of change that is required.

It is not a fault or an adverse factor that there is a political genesis to the clause; it is the expression of the will of the people of Northern Ireland. The office of Lord Chief Justice is lofty and mysterious to the ordinary person, particularly in the north of Ireland. This process, when it comes to fruition—I hope that devolution take place in whichever way—will enhance the reputation of the judiciary and the criminal justice system in terms of its openness. That openness will undoubtedly give it integrity and that integrity will be protected by its openness. I have no hesitation in lending my support and that of my party to the clause.

Mr. Spellar: I am not entirely convinced by the logic of the arguments advanced by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and the hon. Member for Basingstoke. The 2002 Act provides for the creation of a Judicial Appointments Commission, to which I think the right hon. Gentleman objected in principle. However, as the creation of a Judicial Appointments Commission is already enshrined in statute, we are arguing about timing: whether we appoint a Judicial Appointments Commission before the restoration of a devolved Assembly and Executive and before the devolution of justice. If we believe there are merits in the creation of a Judicial Appointments Commission, and Parliament, like the reviews, is persuaded of that, there are good reasons for proceeding now, in order to deal with the issues raised by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady).

We do not have to draw only on abstract principles as we can consider what has happened in Scotland, which the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department examined in its second report of the

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2002–03 Session entitled ''Judicial Appointments: lessons from the Scottish experience''. The Committee reported a general impression that the Judicial Appointments Board

    ''had settled down well, and was seen as successful even by those who had initial reservations about its creation or structure.''

I quote for the interest of the Committee; I do not draw a direct analogy. The report continues:

    ''It was also particularly welcomed by those who regarded the old system of appointment as too open to political influence,''—

that deals with the point made by the hon. Member for South Down—

    ''too secretive or too dominated by those practising in Edinburgh''.

Some comments relate particularly to the Scottish experience, but the general impression is that things have worked well. We, too, believe that what is proposed will work well, which is why we support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 2

Membership of the Commission

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move amendment No. 10, in

    clause 2, page 1, line 9, at beginning insert—

    '( ) In section 3 of the 2002 Act (makeup of the Commission)

    (a) in subsection 5(a) for 'five', substitute 'six' and

    (b) in subsection 5(c), for 'five', substitute 'four'.

The amendment relates to the composition of the Judicial Appointments Commission. The matter was considered in the other place, where it was argued that it would be wrong to have a majority of lay members on the commission; that the original justification for the structure in the 2002 Act was that it is a political necessity as part of devolution; and that as devolution is not taking place, there is no reason at present to proceed. I heartily endorse those views.

There is no reason why there should be a lay majority on the commission and every reason why the judiciary should be in the majority. A major concern in relation to the judiciary, here and in Northern Ireland, is that it should as far as possible be seen to be wholly depoliticised. In recent years, under the current appointment system, it has rarely, if ever, been suggested that the Northern Ireland judiciary is politically biased. However, there is a real possibility of problems if the composition that the Government propose is maintained. In the other place, my noble Friend Lord Glentoran made the point that it is necessary to provide reassurance to the Ulster Unionist community that the legislation is not simply another device to undermine the Union and the existing structure. In those circumstances, I believe that the amendment has considerable merit as it would be much more sensible to ensure that there is a judicial majority in the appointments commission. I await the Minister's response.

 
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