Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, also before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may say how grateful I am for the way in which he came forward with the ideas of which he spoke. It is extremely helpful. Also, in relation to victims putting in evidence and pleas, I understand why he says he has reservations about that being placed on the face of the Bill. However, I do not imagine that letters written to the commissioners would be returned, "Not known at this address".

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he said. The commissioners, by definition, will be independent of government and behave as they see fit within the terms of the legislation. However, I would be most surprised if letters were returned unopened.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he responded to this amendment. I am also glad of the assurance that he gave that the people who were responsible for the ghastly murders at Ballymoney will in no way benefit from the provisions of this Bill, which of course we understood.

I take it that it is also true that any organisation to which the people belong who committed the murders will also, by the fact of the murders, have placed itself in the greatest difficulty under the Bill. They have patently not maintained a ceasefire. On the contrary, they have committed the most ghastly murder. Clearly, if it turns out that those who are responsible for these murders belong to an organisation, it, too, will place itself in great difficulty under this legislation.

Like the Minister, I feel sure that the commissioners will receive letters from victims and I hope that they will pay careful attention to them. I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has responded to the amendment. In the circumstances, there is nothing for me to do except to seek leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 1, line 17, after ("(2)(a)") insert ("and in paragraph 1 of Schedule 1").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment it is sensible that we discuss Amendment No. 18. The purpose of the two amendments is to provide that the chairman of the commission should be a lawyer. This was briefly touched on in our earlier debates, but since then I have had the opportunity to look at the equivalent legislation in the Republic of Ireland and the debates that took place in the Dail on that legislation. I see that the equivalent body in the Republic of Ireland--it is not identical in its responsibilities--is to be chaired by a lawyer. That made me think that it might be worthwhile for your Lordships to return to this question at least briefly this afternoon.

16 Jul 1998 : Column 391

It is true that the Republic of Ireland legislation takes a different form. That government decided that they did not need specific legislation to release prisoners under the agreement. Their releases are intended to take place by executive action, under legislation that has existed for some time. All the Republic of Ireland Bill does is to set up an advisory committee to advise the Minister on how to use his powers.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Can he indicate whether the inaction of the Irish Government and the rather peculiar way they have set about implementing the sacred, holy writ of the Good Friday agreement have in any way endangered the sanctity of that agreement or wrecked the prospects of its success?

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, that is an extremely interesting question. The method of proceeding chosen by the Republic of Ireland Government does not seem to be what was envisaged at the time of the agreement. In that sense it is not in accordance with the agreement, although it seeks to achieve the same effect as the agreement. All it does is set up the new commission. It is to be a totally independent commission, consisting of one lawyer and two civil servants from the staff of the Minister of Justice. It is, by statute, to be an independent commission. It has no instructions on how to proceed with its work except that the relevant section of the agreement is reproduced in a schedule to the Bill as the guidance to the commission.

It is not quite clear, to me at any rate, how many prisoners will be affected in the Republic. The noble Lord the Minister has been kind enough to place a document in the Library about the Republic of Ireland legislation which suggests that the number of prisoners will be in the region of 30. The Dail was told that the number would be about 47. So I am not exactly clear on that point either.

The purpose of the amendments is to raise the question of whether or not the commission should be headed by a lawyer. In view of the precedent which seems to have been set by the Republic of Ireland, and the fact that the commission in this jurisdiction is to deal with sentencing, I think it is certainly a question which is worth your Lordships considering once again. I beg to move.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I venture to disagree with the amendment. I yield to no one in my admiration for lawyers--many of my best friends, and so on! But I wonder why it is necessary to feel that a commission of this kind could not find people of judgment to make the difficult decisions that are called for without them having had to have had the benefit of many years of legal training. Surely legal advice will be available. I hope that the Minister will reassure us on that point. The best legal advice must clearly be available. I find it unusual for the Benches on my left

16 Jul 1998 : Column 392

to be praying in aid the precedent that, if the Republic of Ireland does it in this way, we must do it in the same way. I am not at all persuaded of that.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, the effect of these amendments would be to require that, should the Secretary of State appoint joint chairmen, one of the joint chairmen should be a lawyer with legal qualifications in the United Kingdom. Noble Lords will be aware that in another place my right honourable friend the Secretary of State accepted an amendment to the Bill which required that the lawyer appointed as a commissioner should hold a legal qualification in the United Kingdom. The Government accepted the wisdom of that amendment in the context of arrangements that would only apply within the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom.

I am not persuaded by the arguments for this amendment. Much reference has been made to the legislation in Dublin. I do not want to be put in the position of having to explain, defend or justify legislation produced in another country; I find it hard enough sometimes to explain our own legislation. It is not hard to justify it, but it is sometimes hard to explain it! I think it would be getting us into somewhat uncharted waters if I attempted to explain the whole basis of the Republic's legislation, which I have in front of me.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, said that there was some doubt about the exact figures, there being two different sources. The information note on the Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Bill 1998--the Bill from Dublin--suggests that there are in the region of 30 prisoners in custody who will qualify for review under the legislation. Noble Lords will be aware that I have placed in the Library a copy of the Bill and the explanatory statement.

I am aware that the legislation introduced in the Republic of Ireland requires that a lawyer should chair a panel appointed to advise the Minister. However, noble Lords who have examined that legislation will see that the role and function of the panel are very different from the role and function of the commissioners to be appointed under our legislation. It is true that both pieces of legislation are intended to implement the Good Friday agreement, but as they do so in very different ways there can be no direct read-across from one Bill to another. If the commissioners appointed under this Bill were to operate as advisers to the Secretary of State, a similar approach might be appropriate. But that is clearly not the case. They do not operate as advisers to the Secretary of State. They operate as independent persons who are guided or instructed as to how to operate by the legislation; and of course they will develop further rules of procedure, to which I referred in the debate on an earlier amendment.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked a question. Yes, the commissioners will have access to legal advice to enable them to fulfil their functions.

When your Lordships considered the Bill in Committee, noble Lords accepted that it was important that the panel of commissioners appointed under the Bill

16 Jul 1998 : Column 393

should command widespread acceptance throughout the community in Northern Ireland. That is a test in the legislation. Noble Lords also accepted that the appointment of an appropriate chairman or chairmen was of particular importance. But to meet those tests it is not necessary that the chairman or chairmen should have legal qualifications. The chairman or chairmen will be appointed to give leadership and direction to the commissioners. Those are the particular skills which are being sought; not the specific test of legal competence. The Bill does not preclude the appointment of a lawyer as chairman or as joint chairman, but it is not appropriate that it should require it. For those reasons, I ask the noble Lord not to press his amendment.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, the Minister referred to his occasional difficulties in explaining legislation, which I well understand. But that has not been apparent to the House. The Minister always does his best and we appreciate that. As he said, I realise that occasionally he has a difficult job in that respect. The chairman of the commission will also have a difficult job, but that is perhaps not a reason for insisting on his being a lawyer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 [Applications]:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page