Schedule 2 - Judicial Appointments Commission

Justice (Northern Ireland) – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:15 am ar 31 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Patsy Calton Patsy Calton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Cheadle 11:15, 31 Ionawr 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 147, in page 71, line 29, leave out 'five' and insert—

'three'.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup

With this we may take amendment No. 148, in schedule 2, page 71, line 31, leave out 'ten' and insert—

'six'.

Photo of Patsy Calton Patsy Calton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Cheadle

The amendments would reduce the membership period for lay members of the commission. The Bill provides for them to be appointed for five years at a time, and for no longer than 10 years altogether. We have suggested that three years might be a better time frame in which to allow fresh minds on to the commission. We are probing to find out why a term of five years has been selected.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful for the amendment. The matter is one of judgment based on experience and consultation with those who operate in the relevant sphere. It relates to the nature of the job and people's ability to build expertise over time. The Government take the view that five years is an appropriate time.

I understand why the hon. Lady thinks that five years is too long. The judgment of Solomon might split the difference, but I do not plan to do that, because the Government think that five years would allow the members of the commission to build the experience that would enable them to work together, given the nature of the work and the frequency with which they would be asked to do it. We recognise the need for the membership to change, rather than to stagnate, but members must have sufficient time to begin to operate effectively. The Government have got the balance right, for the reasons that I have given.

Photo of Patsy Calton Patsy Calton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Cheadle

I thank the Minister for his reply, and we accept his argument. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 91, in page 71, line 34, leave out 'may' and insert—

'must'.

It may assist hon. Members to look at paragraph 2(4), which states:

The First Minister and the deputy First Member, acting jointly, may dismiss a non-judicial member

who they are satisfied is unable to fulfil his functions for the reasons listed.

By replacing the word ''may'' with the word ''must'', my amendment would remove the discretion that is given to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and impose a duty on them. A non-judicial member who is unable or unfit to exercise his or her functions should be dismissed—that should be a clear duty, not a discretionary matter. There has been a slight oversight, which the amendment would remedy.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so concise. The amendment makes it clear that the intention is to remove discretion. As the hon. Lady helpfully said, the Bill provides for dismissal in certain

cases, and she drew our attention to the applicable paragraphs.

In such cases, the Government would expect the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to act in the way set out in the Bill. It would, however, be inappropriate to impose a duty, because several of the reasons for dismissal are matters of fact, on which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would have to reach a judgment. Paragraph 2(4)(a) refers to a member who

has without reasonable excuse failed to exercise his functions,

and there is a list of reasons. There would, therefore, be an element of discretion, with or without the amendment. Although the policy is clear, all cases will not be clear-cut.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Am I to understand that the Minister accepts that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are not obliged to dismiss a non-judicial member who

has been convicted of a criminal offence?

Is he telling us that they would still have an element of discretion when considering whether to dismiss such people?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The Government's position is that there is discretion because paragraph 2 contains the word ''may'', not the word ''must'', which is why the hon. Lady has tabled an amendment. There is a list of circumstances that may apply, some of which are not as clear-cut as a person being bankrupt or being convicted of a criminal offence. The hon. Lady will know that the issue of whether someone has accumulated a criminal record exercises the minds of judges, so such matters can cause debate even though they seem clear-cut.

I light on that particular issue only because the hon. Lady did, and it is clear from the list that some of the circumstances are matters of judgment, which implies that there will be an element of discretion in any event. Our policy makes it clear that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will act in the way set out in the schedule. As in many other parts of the Bill, there is an element of trust that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will act appropriately.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.