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Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill

Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Janet Anderson, Sir Nicholas Winterton
Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
Bone, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Goggins, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen (Jarrow) (Lab)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Hillier, Meg (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)
Jackson, Mr. Stewart (Peterborough) (Con)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
McCrea, Dr. William (South Antrim) (DUP)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Palmer, Dr. Nick (Broxtowe) (Lab)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Mr. C. Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 18 January 2007

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill

Clause 9

Restrictions on disclosure of juror information
9 am
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): I beg to move amendment No. 31, in clause 9, page 6, line 24, leave out
‘in the course of his functions as’
and insert ‘whilst’.
I am delighted to sit under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs. Anderson, as we resume this interesting Committee on the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill. Clause 9 deals with restrictions on disclosure of juror information. It adds an important restriction to the Juries (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 on the disclosure of juror information that has come into the possession of various people through, for example, the electoral office and their work.
Committee members will have noticed the significant penalty. Proposed new article 26A(8) says:
“A person who contravenes paragraph (1) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable”
to a hefty fine or six months’ imprisonment, or indeed to both. The penalty for any criminal offence committed in contravention of proposed new paragraph (1) is severe.
My amendment relates to some rather curious wording. It pertains to
“a person who is or has been an electoral officer or a court official”.
Proposed new paragraph (2)(b) means that an offence is committed only if the person who is or has been an electoral officer or a court official obtained the juror information
“in the course of his functions as an electoral officer or court official.”
I dislike that wording because it is ambiguous. It implies that the person was acting appropriately when they obtained the information.
My amendment represents no slight on, or criticism of, the staff of either the courts or the electoral office. It attacks the Bill’s wording, because it implies that a person in either the electoral office or the court obtained the information relating to juries in the course of his functions. It implies that they have obtained it appropriately.
It is possible for an electoral officer or a court official to obtain juror information inadvertently, or of course deliberately, not in the course of his functions, but in walking past a desk and appropriating it. I have tabled the amendment to tease out the Minister’s explanation about why
“in the course of his functions”
is set out only in proposed new paragraph (2)(b), and not elsewhere when it qualifies the other people and the work that they do in obtaining juror information.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. You are always firm and fair, although I suspect that the former will be unnecessary because the Committee has made good progress in a co-operative fashion.
I have thought deeply about the amendment, and I would very much like to grant the hon. Lady the opportunity to amend the Bill. I have asked detailed questions about it because she has scrutinised the legislation assiduously. It would have been a pleasure to tell her that the amendment was satisfactory. Sadly, that will not be the case, but I hope that what I say will reassure her about why the wording is as it is.
Proposed new article 26A makes it an offence for certain officials who obtain information in the course of their employment to disclose any of it without lawful authority. The amendment would shorten the wording so that instead of specifically referring to obtaining information by the electoral officer or court official in the course of their duties, it would refer to their obtaining it while the person in question was an electoral officer or court official.
The reason for the restriction on disclosure of jury information is that we want to give greater reassurance to people who are called on to serve in the criminal justice system, and, in turn, to promote greater confidence in it. That is why we want to make the arrangements as robust and precise as possible. The provisions have been crafted deliberately to ensure that the restrictions apply to officials who come into possession of the information in the course of their duties. That, of course, would be while they were in their official posts, but the wording in the amendment is less precise.
Perhaps I can give an example. An electoral officer who was in court as a defendant would not be there in the course of his or her duties. Often in England and Wales, electoral officers have other duties besides their electoral officer’s duties. It is important to define the provision so that it relates to what is done in the relevant post, while performing the relevant duty. Having considered the matter for some time, I think that the clause gets the right balance and the amendment would not add anything to the proposed arrangements.
As a final point, the inadvertent obtaining of information would be specifically dealt with under data protection legislation; there is already legislation to cover people who either inadvertently or deliberately obtain the relevant information by the wrong means.
Lady Hermon: I welcome the Minister’s presence this morning. She has been in attendance before, but did not have the opportunity to speak. Will she confirm that the punishment under the data protection legislation would be equivalent to that set out in the Bill—that is, a hefty fine, six months’ imprisonment, or both?
Bridget Prentice: I cannot give the hon. Lady the exact sentencing guidelines for the data protection legislation, but six months, a fine or both on summary conviction is a pretty standard form of sentencing. I should be surprised if the sentences available under the data protection legislation were anything less. However, I shall write to her if there are significant differences in the sentencing procedures.
Lady Hermon: I am grateful for that explanation, but I am slightly at sea in responding. I think that I took down the Minister’s words exactly and that she said that the provisions had been crafted deliberately and were “as robust as possible.” My concern is that the wording
“in the course of his functions”
pertains only, in clause 9, to an electoral officer or a court official. When the provisions of proposed new article 26A(4), for example, were crafted deliberately, and as robustly as possible, in relation to
“a person...who is...a member of the police service”,
the drafting was altogether different. The provision applies to a member of the police service,
“who obtained the juror information for or in connection with the making of checks, in accordance with jury check guidelines”.
It is not similar to the drafting with respect to electoral or court officials, with its reference to information obtained
“in the course of his functions”.
I am somewhat bemused by the differences in the carefully crafted drafting of the Bill. The Minister indicated that it is to be “as robust as possible,” but one would have thought that consistency of language between the lines of one clause would have helped to make it more robust and give the appearance that it had been deliberately crafted to be robust.
Bridget Prentice: Let me clarify matters. Other officials are also included for specific purposes in relation to jury checks. All those officials are dealt with in specific ways relating to their duties in respect of checks on juries, so there is consistency.
Lady Hermon: That is extremely helpful, and it is good to have it on the record. I appreciate the Minister’s point, which supports the conclusion that I had already reached, which is that I shall seek the Committee’s permission to withdraw the amendment. The discussion on the clause has been helpful, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Clauses 10 to 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Legal proceedings
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Human Rights Commission was one of the early commissions. One of the many outstanding achievements of the Belfast agreement signed on Good Friday was that it set in train the establishment of two statutory bodies—the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. That would remain an outstanding achievement even if the agreement were to fall tomorrow, which it certainly will not; now that the Democratic Unionist party is prepared to operate the agreement, it has a long and bright future. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 gave the Human Rights Commission specific powers and put the provisions of the Belfast agreement—the international agreement between the Irish and British Governments—on a statutory footing.
If we agree to it, clause 13 will significantly extend the powers of the Human Rights Commission, which is why I should like to draw the Committee’s attention to it for a few minutes. The present wording allows the commission to institute or intervene in human rights proceedings where it is not a victim or a potential victim of an unlawful act and where no award of damages can be made to it.
I am sorry to be a pedant, but will the Minister clarify the use of the word “and” in subsection (2), where we again have a curious construction? Four conditions must be met:
“(a) the Commission need not be a victim or potential victim...(b) section 7(3) and (4) of the Human Rights Act...shall not apply...(c) the Commission may act only if there is or would be one or more victims of the unlawful act, and”—
the conjunction “and” appears only there, at the end of subsection (2)(c)—
“no award of damages may be made to the Commission”.
Will the Minister confirm that human rights proceedings must be ongoing in Northern Ireland and that the commission will not be given a free rein? That is not to criticise the commission—some parties are extremely critical of it, but I am not. However, clause 49—we will come to it in due course, but presumably not this morning—extends the powers of the commission in clauses 13 to 19, beyond Northern Ireland, to England, Wales and Scotland. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury and other Members should consider clause 13 and the extent of the powers that the commission will have in their constituencies.
9.15 am
I would appreciate clarification on clause 13 and the intended remit of the commission, which is regional, unlike the Paris principles of 1991, which are often quoted in support of extending the commission’s powers. The principles pertain to national human rights organisations such as the Irish Human Rights Commission, not to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which is regional. So will the Minister explain the extent of its powers in clause 13?
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. I had not intended to speak to clause 13 because I have two amendments to clause 14, although those could have been tabled under this clause. I am concerned about clause 13(2)(c), which says that
“the Commission may act only if there is or would be one or more victims of the unlawful act”.
To save time in our discussions on the next clause, I would like the Minister to answer one brief question: is an unlawful act not better investigated by other authorities? That is the motivation behind my amendments to the next clause, but it might be more convenient for him to answer that question now.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. I shall respond briefly to the questions put by the hon. Members for North Down and for Tewkesbury. We are now at an important stage of the Bill dealing with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. As always, I applaud the work of the hon. Lady in looking at the detail of the clauses. I shall look carefully at the wording, to which she drew the Committee’s attention, to ensure that it is appropriate.
The hon. Lady is right that clause 13 gives power to the commission to institute legal proceedings provided that there is a victim, even if that is not the commission itself. Rather than a whole host of individuals pursuing legal proceedings, the commission could instigate a test case in order to clarify a point of law instead of relying on individuals to do so. That mirrors the provisions granted to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights in Great Britain through the Equality Act 2006. She drew attention to provisions elsewhere that will bring legislation on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in line with legislation in Great Britain. As long as there is a victim, the provisions enable the commission to take on a test case.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Minister for that short but precise clarification. Will he confirm that he and his officials will consider whether it would be helpful—I believe it would—to include the word “and” between paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). At the moment, the provision is not clear, and implies that
“the Commission need not be a victim or potential victim of the unlawful act”.
There could be a test case under its own volition without there being a victim.
The commission already has powers—this is where we must be careful—under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to assist a victim of alleged human rights abuse to take legal proceedings and to support them financially. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate whether a budgetary commitment will be given to the commission to institute proceedings and test cases when it is not the victim.
Paul Goggins: I do not intend to discuss the budgetary requirements of the commission now. There is a budget and the commission does its work. The provision gives extra rights to the commission and I believe the hon. Lady welcomes that. I assure her that the Committee stage of any Bill usually reveals an “and” or a “but” or an “if” or a “maybe” that is in the wrong place or that an additional “and” may be beneficial. I am happy to consider whether this is one of those instances.
Lady Hermon: With that reassurance, I am delighted for clause 13 to stand part of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Prepared 19 January 2007