Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, it seems extraordinary that the Government should seek a discretion of the kind that the amendment of my noble friend Lord Glentoran would rule out.

Like a number of other noble Lords, I served for two years as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In that capacity, I had responsibility for the appointment and discipline of the lay magistracy in the county palatine of Lancaster. It was a difficult time, during the disturbances around the question of the community charge. In areas around Liverpool in particular, a number of elected councillors had refused to pay their lawful taxes and had been so convicted.

It never occurred to me—nor did it even occur to their supporters—that the consequence of that should be that they would be dismissed from the Bench. The

1 Jul 2002 : Column 90

reasoning was clear. It would be impossible for them, having been convicted of an offence, then to be on the Bench trying somebody else for a similar offence.

I hope that the noble Baroness will tell us what sort of reasons would move the Lord Chancellor to determine that a criminal offence should not disqualify a person from sitting as a magistrate.

Looking at the other amendments in the group, I again find myself in great sympathy with the line taken by the Ulster Unionists, for exactly the same reason. A magistrate cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. It is as simple as that. Unless we uphold that principle, we shall once again create a different standard for the administration of justice in two parts of the kingdom. The more the Government talk about the peace process, the normalisation of affairs in Northern Ireland and the end of the emergency, the more frequently we find them legislating to make permanent a different standard of justice in the two parts of the kingdom. Unless Ministers are fundamentally stupid, which I do not believe to be the case, there is only one conceivable reason why they should do that: because they do not regard Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom like the other parts of the kingdom. That is the ethos behind the Bill. That is why I object to it most strongly.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I shall deal first with the comment made last by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. I understand that this is an area that excites passion and that there are strong feelings on it. However, it is wrong to say that Her Majesty's Government do not see Northern Ireland as a fundamental part of the United Kingdom. It is. However, it is a part of the United Kingdom that has been troubled these past 30 years. Noble Lords in all parts of the House, together with those in Northern Ireland, now have to seek to chart a new path. We need courage to do that. We also need to be temperate and brave in looking at what is best and which road we should all travel on. We are not helped in that difficult task if the bona fides of what we are trying to do together are not properly understood.

We are looking to craft a way forward that will enable us, with safety and with proper safeguards and conditions, to place Northern Ireland in a position in which its people would wish to be within this United Kingdom. The Bill does nothing to detract from that purpose.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that. Can she assure me that the policy of her party—I hope that she can speak for her party on this occasion—is no longer to seek the union of Ireland by consent, as it has long been?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Lord knows well that every Minister who speaks from this Dispatch Box does so on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. The Government's policy is clear. If we needed any further clarity, we find it in the Good Friday agreement and in the review, which was

1 Jul 2002 : Column 91

undertaken with great skill and fortitude by the members who were charged with this difficult task. Notwithstanding the passions and the difficulties, we are not assisted in helping to craft this new path by expressions that seek to undermine the bona fides of that effort.

One of the points that was clear in Grand Committee—and I think that we all took comfort from it—was agreement on the fact that we all want the same things. We may have expressed our objectives in different ways, but our aim—what we all seek to achieve—was identical. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is shaking his head. I hope that he will not do so when I say that it was hoped that we would be able to secure a good and secure way forward which would enable devolution and to create conditions which would enable the system of justice in Northern Ireland to continue on the safe path down which it had started. There cannot be any disagreement about that.

Let us turn to this group of amendments. These amendments were tabled initially in Committee and address the important issue of qualifications for lay magistrates. I welcome the opportunity to repeat the reasons why they should be resisted. Amendment No. 47 removes from the list of disqualification provisions for lay magistrates, which can be waived by the Lord Chancellor, the paragraph stating that candidates who have been convicted of a prescribed offence are disqualified.

The review recommended that the criminal justice functions of justices of the peace should be undertaken by the new office of lay magistrate. The Bill will allow the Lord Chancellor to prescribe, within parameters, the circumstances in which a person would not be eligible for appointment as a lay magistrate. Amendment No. 48 seeks to remove the Lord Chancellor's discretion in applying these qualifications. The Lord Chancellor has this discretion in making justice of the peace appointments in England and Wales.

If this amendment were accepted, the Lord Chancellor would not, for example, be able to appoint candidates who departed in even the smallest way from the eligibility criteria. This would exclude, for example, a candidate who lived just five miles beyond the prescribed distance. The Government believe that such flexibility is essential, and therefore ask that this amendment be withdrawn.

Amendment No. 49 provides that a person convicted of a criminal offence will be disqualified without the caveat that it may be waived by the Lord Chancellor. Amendment No. 50 requires the Lord Chancellor to remove a lay magistrate if he is convicted of a criminal offence. The effect of the provisions would be, first, to remove any discretion the Lord Chancellor has to prescribe offences which might merit disqualification, so that even minor driving offences would be caught; and, secondly, to remove any discretion to set aside convictions in deciding to appoint such an individual as a lay magistrate. It might therefore be said that those knowingly or unknowingly driving with a defective headlight, for example, should

1 Jul 2002 : Column 92

not sit as magistrates. Although I shall not do so, one could cite other such examples. There are minor issues which the Lord Chancellor is quite properly entitled to disregard.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, the noble Baroness may correct me, and she almost certainly will, but would that not be an offence under the Road Traffic Acts which did not qualify as a criminal offence?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, that is precisely right. However, the prescription which the amendment provides covers any conviction that occurs in a criminal court such as a magistrates' court. Those caught with a defective headlight are summoned to the magistrates' court, dealt with for the offence and perhaps fined. So all such minor infringements are caught by the amendments.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, what is the difference between the Lord Chancellor's powers to remove magistrates in England and Wales and those which are proposed in the Bill for removing magistrates in Northern Ireland?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, as I understand it, the Lord Chancellor's powers are not materially different from those which prevail in England and Wales; they are exactly the same. It is only parity; we are not doing anything unusual. I understand the suspicion which some feel that somehow, through sleight of hand, something else may be happening. I can only reassure your Lordships that that is not the case.

I also understand, if I may put it colloquially, where noble Lords are coming from. However, the Bill has struck a balance, and we believe that it is the right balance. Lay magistrates play a relatively modest, if important, role in the justice system. We think that it would be regrettable if there were no flexibility to disregard relatively minor criminal convictions if the case for appointing an individual were otherwise overwhelming. We are not making it something that "shall happen"; it merely gives the Lord Chancellor a discretion to say that, in an appropriate case, it may happen.

As the Leader of the Opposition has noted in another place, just because a person has a past, that does not mean that he or she cannot play a role in the future. If I may respectfully say so, that sentiment has been very graphically displayed today in the very generous comments of the noble Lords, Lord Tebbit and Lord Alton, about those who have turned over a totally new leaf after a very troubled past. We support that sentiment. We disagree with these amendments which seek to remove that possibility.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, I have listened to the Minister's reply, but again I am not convinced. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, about motoring offences seemed to contradict the Minister's point. Especially in these circumstances, I regret to say that I am not a legal mind. I hope that

1 Jul 2002 : Column 93

the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, will press his Amendment No. 48. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 48 to 50 not moved.]

9 p.m.

Schedule 4 [Functions of justices of the peace]:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page