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Mr. Woodward: I fear that I would be craving your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I started to discuss on-the-runs. However, as I have said, we believe that it would be entirely appropriate to use the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for close examination of the proposals through pre-legislative scrutiny. For the purposes of this Bill, we think that the present system remains the right one for the next few months, so I urge the House not to accept new clause 1.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. May I start by emphasising the importance of being consistent with Lord Carlile's advice? We are considering the words and judgments of the man who is paid to make independent assessments, so we should think seriously about recommendations and suggestions that he puts forward, even if the Government are not inherently disposed to support them from the outset. I assure hon. Members that my dedicated belief in Lord Carlile's contributions is not
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based on the fact that he was the Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire until 1997, although that is a consideration.
I understand the concern of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) about religious and community affiliations in a three-judge system. Nevertheless, it is fairly easy to show that we could find independent judges from across the community who would be trusted as faithful adherents to the standards and principles that we expect from the judiciary.
Mr. Woodward: Obviously, the Government have enormous respect for the work of Lord Carlile. However, when the hon. Gentleman makes his assessment of the matter, he must take Lord Carlile's 2003 report into consideration. Lord Carlile said that the fact that a three-judge court could work did not necessarily mean that it should be introduced.
Lembit Öpik: That is why this is a matter not of principle, but of judgment. The judgment of the Liberal Democrats is that it is appropriate to take the advice on board. I do not condemn the Minister, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury or others for holding a different view, but it is important to put down a marker today on where we should go.
Let me return to the question of the affiliation of judges. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury rightly pointed out that there might be some consideration of whether there were one Protestant and one Catholic judge. It was suggested that the third judge could be an Alliance party member, but perhaps one Baha'i could be the third member of the panel. The problem is not insurmountable. We faced it all the time when constituting the various organisations that have been set up in Northern Ireland in recent years and we got through it. If the system were coupled with a requirement for a unanimous verdict, we would ensure that we would get a cross-community verdict from the judges. We must also bear it in mind that Diplock courts have been frequently criticised for requiring one individual to make a judgment on an offence that would be made by a jury in normal circumstances, or in other parts of the United Kingdom, but I shall not labour that point because it has been made several times before.
As for the number of judges that we need, I am still not persuaded that we need 10 judges to make the change. I am disappointed that, in responding to a question from the Democratic Unionist party, the Minister could not tell us how many times a Diplock court has been used in the past few years, as such information would be helpful.
Mr. Woodward: As I have said, the Government fully respect Lord Carlile's advice. The hon. Gentleman regularly turns to that advice, and Lord Carlile suggested in his 2003 report that we would require
No doubt, Lord Carlile will learn how many times he has been cited in our debate and will have
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his own views on the matter. I will welcome that as the debate shifts to another place. However, circumstances have changed markedly in the past two years, and he was writing about the situation in 2003, not 2005. Nevertheless, this is a moot point because of the words that the Minister used only a few moments ago. I believe that he said that if it were to lead to a better system of justice for Northern Ireland, it would undoubtedly be a worthwhile thing to do. In my judgment, it would. The Minister is more cautious, and I understand why.
Mr. Woodward: I absolutely stand by what I said to the hon. Gentleman in Committee. We are asking him to refrain from dividing the House this afternoon. We have made it perfectly clear that later next year we will introduce proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which will have all the evidence available to make a judgment on our proposals. That is a far more sensible way of proceeding, as it fully recognises the recommendations as well as criticisms and Lord Carlile's observations. Lord Carlile clearly thinks that it would not necessarily be a better system, but it could be. As he has such confidence in the present system, simply to tinker with it for the sake of a delay of 12 months or so would be a little foolish.
Lembit Öpik: I could be wrong, but I see the look of fear in the Minister's eyes. He is afraid that he might lose the vote, but that is the cost of democracy. I encourage him to have the courage of his convictions if the House divides and lose gracefully if it comes to that.
There are two reasons why we wish to divide the House. First, it is appropriate to discuss the details of the Diplock court system, because they pertain directly to the legislation. Secondly, and more importantly, in recent years we have been assured of pre-legislative scrutiny, proper consultation, inclusivity and cross-party accord in Northern Irish matters. In the eight and a half years in which I have been Northern Ireland spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, there has been a movement away from bipartisanship and towards unilateral deals, primarily between the Government and Sinn Fein. I am concerned that the assurance of consultation that the Minister has given us today may not be carried through in future. As evidence of that, I cite the point made by the DUP not 10 minutes ago. There has been no more important piece of legislation requiring cross-party support and pre-legislative scrutiny than the on-the-runs legislation. We are not here to debate the detail of that legislation, but we can cite the failure of process that led to the debate on Second Reading as evidence of the need to be extremely cautious about any guarantees that Ministers offer us, both today and in future.
If we do not divide the House, we will fail to put in place a limited insurance policy that recognises the importance of cross-party support and pre-legislative scrutiny before further changes to the Diplock courts. I accept the Minister's views, and I welcome his offer on paper of extensive pre-legislative scrutiny of Diplock court reform. However, I do not trust the Government to follow it through, because we have been let down in the past. For that reason, I seek leave to divide the House.
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Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab):
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am one person who missed that vote. The reason was the irregularity of the lift in No. 1 Parliament street. I have
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reason to believe that it is sometimes used by people who should not be using it during a Division. It was hovering between the mezzanine floor, the basement and the ground floor, but never reached the higher floors. I do not know whether I was the only person affected. There were other people waiting for a lift, and when we got in there were so many of us that it became overcrowded and would not operate. I would be pleased if you could get something done about that so that it does not occur again.
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