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Main Question put and agreed to.


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Northern Ireland Bill

Second Reading

2.40 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill will provide an essential stepping stone to the completion of devolution, and it is a tribute to those in Northern Ireland whose political leadership and commitment has turned the peace process into an enduring political process. That political progress has been and continues to be significant, and it is essential that the momentum is maintained. The Bill will ensure that the necessary framework is in place to enable progress towards the transfer of policing and justice powers when that is requested by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Parliament approves the transfer.

When devolution is complete, we will have arrived at a significant new chapter in our history, with politicians elected in Northern Ireland being fully accountable to the people of Northern Ireland on law and order, and power truly shared. The Bill will play an important part in enabling elected politicians in Northern Ireland to assume their political destiny.

I recognise that for some the pace of change remains daunting, and of course there is still confidence to be built. However, I believe that we are unanimous in recognising that the peace and prosperity that Northern Ireland enjoys today is a fundamental consequence of the political process. When the St. Andrews agreement was concluded in October 2006, and when the devolved institutions became operational in 2007, it was hoped that there would be sufficient community confidence to allow for the transfer of policing and justice powers by May 2008. The Government committed to do all that we could to ensure that when the Assembly was ready to ask for the transfer of powers, the necessary enabling legislation would be in place.

The Government had hoped to see stage 2 of devolution completed last May, but community confidence was not ready. On 18 November 2008, significant confidence having been built by their shared leadership, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister wrote to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee to say that agreement had been reached on a way forward to enable devolution to be completed. In January 2009, the Committee reported on its deliberations on the devolution of policing and justice powers, and its report was agreed by the Assembly in a cross-community vote. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the First Minister, the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), and the Deputy First Minister, for their outstanding leadership and their determination to work through the problems that stood in the way of further progress towards the peaceful end that everybody seeks.

The elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland have asked us for legislation on a critical set of issues, which they set out last November. That request was made also in the AERC report this January. It is for the people of Northern Ireland, through their Assembly, to decide when to ask for the transfer of powers, and in turn that request is for this House to decide. That is why it is necessary to have the Bill in place now and to expedite its path without undue delay. That pace is not
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for the convenience of the Government but to ensure that the Assembly has the tools that it needs to take the process that it has created to the next stage. There will be those who say, “But the Assembly is not going to ask for the powers just yet”. That may indeed be the case, and it has much work still to do before it can do so, including creating a justice Department and deciding which of the several available models to adopt for the choice and appointment of a Justice Minister.

Political agreement has often eluded us in Northern Ireland, and its failure has had tragic consequences. However, we have now taken that agreement to a new level of confidence, and we should have the courage to be bold and go forward. Frequently in politics, it is not possible to give everyone everything that they want, when they want it. Such moments demand political courage, and the inspiration of the story of Northern Ireland is that political courage is a quality that has reaped enormous dividends. There was a time, not long ago, when few would have believed that we could have had stage 1 devolution, with a power-sharing Administration in place. There was a time, not so long ago, when few would have believed that we could even entertain the thought of stage 2 devolution of policing and justice. The Bill marks one more step in the transformation of Northern Ireland, and I ask again for the House’s co-operation and support in expediting it.

I turn to the details of the Bill. Clause 1 and schedule 1 provide for the new departmental model proposed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister last November, and set out how that model would operate in the period up to 1 May 2012 if it were the one that the Assembly chose. The new model would consist of a single Minister, nominated by any member of the Assembly, elected by cross-community vote in the Assembly and removed in the same way. As such, the Minister would not count towards the parties’ allocation of seats on the Executive using the d’Hondt formula.

That new model is added to the menu of options already provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. If the Bill is enacted, the Assembly will be able to choose from any one of eight models in setting up a justice Department. Under the terms of the agreement announced by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the Assembly will need to reach agreement on the future arrangements for ministerial oversight of the justice Department before 1 May 2012; otherwise, the Department will automatically be dissolved on that date.

Clause 2 and schedules 2 to 6 deal with the arrangements for judicial appointments and removals. Broadly speaking, they transfer the post-devolution role that had been envisaged for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission and, in particular cases, to the Lord Chief Justice and the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Ombudsman. The roles already set out in legislation for Her Majesty, for the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor as her principal Ministers and for Parliament will remain largely unchanged.

Reflecting the policy that the Assembly should agree on long-term arrangements for judicial appointments by 1 May 2012, schedule 6 will place on the Assembly a requirement to task one of its Committees with reviewing the arrangements put in place by the Bill and with making recommendations before that date. It will also
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put in place a freeze on new appointments to the Judicial Appointments Commission from 1 May 2012, unless and until the Assembly has reached agreement on the future arrangements for judicial appointments and removals. That freeze will not prevent judicial appointments from being made, but it will create a practical incentive to those involved to reach agreement on the way forward.

Clauses 3 and 4 will make technical amendments to the statute book to prepare the way for the future transfer of policing and justice responsibilities. Clause 3(1) provides that, post-devolution, the function of the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland in relation to providing guidance on the disclosure of juror information will be split between the Advocate-General for Northern Ireland, for national security and terrorism cases, and the devolved Attorney-General for Northern Ireland for all other cases. That reflects the split of functions previously provided for by Parliament in the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 in respect of many of the Attorney-General’s other functions.

Clause 3(2) provides that the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland will be a corporation sole, a legal status meaning that the Public Prosecution Service can hold property in its own right. That will not alter the relationship between the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Public Prosecution Service and the Assembly, as provided for in the 2002 Act.

The House will have the opportunity later to debate the relationship between the DPP and the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, which was debated and agreed on during the passage of the 2002 Act. That Act gave effect to the criminal justice review, which stated, at paragraph 4.162, that

Critically, the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland went on:

Crucially, the review said:

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