Clause 24 - Attorney general

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:45 pm ar 31 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 4:45, 31 Ionawr 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 14, line 37, leave out '70' and insert '75'.

The amendment would raise the age up to which the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland can be in his post to 75 from 70, and there is nothing complicated about its purpose. When I considered the issue, it struck me that the range of people who are available for appointment in Northern Ireland is inevitably more restricted than elsewhere because it is a small community. The Attorney-General's functions will

not be hugely onerous, particularly as he is disqualified from being an active politician. My understanding is that the retirement age for judges is 75—the Minister is shaking his head, so perhaps it is 70.

5.15 pm

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Perhaps I should not entirely trust the indications that I receive from members of the Government Front Bench after my earlier experience. I hope that I am correct about the age limit for judges, but if I am not, I would be grateful for a correction—I am not getting one.

The point at issue is the judgment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister about whether someone is capable of undertaking their responsibilities. Everyone is staying fitter longer into old age, and I see no reason why potential Attorney-Generals should be any different from anyone else. Given the responsibilities that come with the post, it would be reasonable to raise the age limit from 70 to 75.

There are obviously enormous issues of principle for lobby groups such as Age Concern about the age up to which people can make a proper contribution to public life. There is no age limit on electing people to public office, and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister could surely make a judgment in each case.

The Committee should consider the age limit for the post of Attorney-General, and our decision will be a matter of judgment. We shall not change the face of history in Northern Ireland if we accept the amendment, but it would be a pity if an Attorney-General had to leave office at the age of 70 even though his personality was right and his fitness for office was beyond reproach. He could have gained an irreproachable reputation for the quality of his legal advice to the Administration and for the way in which he oversaw the Director of Public Prosecutions. We are not overloaded with people of indisputable reputation and balance who can take on that role, and it would be an enormous pity if the Bill disqualified someone who was approaching the age of 70, but who was fit enough to do the job and whom everyone wanted to be reappointed.

We are talking about only one post, not a range of posts. I may have misdirected myself on the age limit for the judiciary, but that involves the appointment of a large number of people, and it must be possible to come to a judgment about the fitness of the whole group. It may be proper for Parliament to say that people between the ages of 70 and 75 will cease to be able to perform those functions effectively. If that is what we are saying by setting the retirement age of judges at 70, it may be a proper judgment to make.

In this case, however, we are considering one post alone, and a judgment that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will make. The reference to the age of 70 is too prescriptive, and I hope that the Committee takes a stand for those aged between 70 and 75, who could make a full contribution because they could still be fit and have all their faculties. I hope

that the Government will accept the amendment or that, with some assistance from Labour Back Benchers, we impose it on them.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Ceidwadwyr, Isle of Wight

I am less moderate than my hon. Friend on this matter. I am glad that he moved the amendment. Although I am sorry that he felt the need to give any age limit, I understand that he hopes by that to gain support from the Committee.

I have recently dealt with a constituency case in which the local authority refused to employ people over 65, except in certain part-time capacities. It is extraordinary that a Government who are concerned about equality are prepared to discriminate against a whole section of the community on the grounds of age, which is not something that any of us can change about ourselves.

I suggest to my hon. Friend that an age of retirement is given for the judiciary and bishops because they enjoy life tenure for those appointments, whereas this appointment has no life tenure. Indeed, it is an appointment for a fixed period of five years. That provides another argument against any upper limit. However, the amendment is perfectly reasonable and I look forward to the Government's defence of such unjustified discrimination.

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

That was a powerful argument against any retirement age being prescribed at all, as it would be interpreted by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight as discrimination against older people. For many people, reaching retirement age provides an opportunity to move into another phase of their lives, and is a relief from the pressure of spending most of their lives in a working environment. However, let us concentrate on the issue before us.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight seems to be ignorant as regards judges' retirement ages, whereas the hon. Member for Reigate was at least prepared to say that he was not clear on the matter. Over the past 20 years or thereabouts, judicial appointments that were traditionally made for life—or, more properly, ad vitam aut culpam—have been made subject to retirement ages. When I first began to practise law, there were judges who were well into their 80s, some of whom had to be physically carried on to the bench. I agree with the hon. Member for Reigate that, intellectually, they were very sharp, but for very good reasons a view was taken that judges should have relevant experience of life when dealing with the issues that come before them.

Repeated criticisms were made of decisions made by judges, on the grounds that they were old buffers or codgers or knew nothing about life. Jokes and stories were told about people appearing before judges who did not even understand the up-to-date vocabulary. Everyone knows the story of the judge who had to ask who the Beatles were in the 1960s.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Llafur, Liverpool, Walton

Being grey-haired and 55 years of age, I am increasingly divorced from the perceptions and experience of my children and of many of the younger generation. I am fascinated to hear my hon. Friend speak about an arbitrary age limit of 70. It is a legitimate point. Surely we are talking about fitness for office, not about applying an arbitrary age limit.

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

The answer to my hon. Friend is that it is not an arbitrary limit. I cannot speak for him, but I suspect that he has been a politician long enough to have been party to criticisms of decisions made by judges who were perceived to be out of contact with ordinary people. [Interruption.] He nods his head; perhaps he remembers doing so.

I suspect that there are only a few hon. Members with that length of experience who have not expressed the view that a decision handed down by a judge was perceived by their constituents to have been out of contact with the times. It is a legitimate criticism, but once such perceptions creep in about judges at that level in the judicial process, it damages the process of law because people start to concentrate on the age and description of judges and whether they are equipped to understand the issues that come before them. As I said before, jokes abound in the legal profession about judges having to ask about ordinary, everyday things, not knowing what was happening on the soaps and so on. Some of those things are more important than others, but they all damage the administration of justice.

Photo of Mr Tony Clarke Mr Tony Clarke Llafur, Northampton South

Is it their age that leads my hon. Friend to believe that judges have no contact with the outside world, or is it simply the narrow focus of their outside interests? At the age of 75 or 80, they could have an active life and a wide range of outside interests that would enable them to carry out that function.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

Order. I should point out that I shall be 65 in June.

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

I am over the limit myself, Mr. Pike.

I do not criticise judges for their age. I am saying that the administration of justice was being criticised regularly with such observations. It is a matter of history. Anyone who has lived through the past 30 or 40 years will know that it happened. As a result, successive Governments and the judges accepted that it would be helpful to the college of justice represented by the judges if it could be regularly refreshed by younger people. Instead of staying on and handing down the same sort of justice against the same standards for 40 or 50 years, many judges agreed that they should accept a retirement age that would allow younger people to be appointed. To my certain knowledge, as the age of judges became lower—that coincided in all parts of the United Kingdom with an increase in the number of judges in order to increase the courts' capacity—the criticisms reduced significantly and the ordinary person's confidence in the justice system improved.

The retirement age that was imposed on judges did not start at the present age of 70. Some judges are still in place who have statutory contracts that allow them to retire later, and transitional provisions are in place for that. However, there is a general acceptance that judges should retire at the age of 70. I recollect that the benefits of retirement were disputed by some judges when it was first imposed, but it is generally accepted in the legal profession and in the courts, and it seems to have improved people's confidence in judges' decisions.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Llafur, Liverpool, Walton

I am conscious that if a retirement age of 70 is accepted by the legal profession, it would meet the approval of those outside, especially as it would create more job opportunities for impecunious lawyers.

My original point was that the issue depends on performance. Of course we have all made comments about judges who seem to be out of touch with the real world, but this is a changing world and the legal profession is one of the slowest to react to that. We have an increasingly ageing population, and one could argue that judges are far more in touch with an increasing majority of the population. The Minister's argument seems specious. The selection of 70 as the retirement age instead of 75 is arbitrary, unless it were to be redefined in terms of the incompetence or otherwise of the incumbent.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 5:30, 31 Ionawr 2002

My hon. Friend and I will have to agree to disagree on the matter. I thought that I had spoken to him in a reasonable fashion. There has been a progressive understanding, in response to the public's view, as expressed repeatedly by people such as himself—I might do some research into that. Measures have been taken in response to criticism, principally expressed by politicians, relating to the perception of judges' behaviour with reference to their age and their failure to understand and connect with ordinary people. There has been, progressively—

Mr. Blunt rose—

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

I shall not give way any more, because this issue has taken up more time than it needs. There are very important issues to discuss, and concerns have already been expressed about our not having time to debate them. We are getting bogged down unnecessarily in discussion of a relatively unimportant issue.

The description by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) of the measure as somehow being about jobs for the boys and impecunious lawyers is a distortion of a position that has been arrived at by a steady progression. The phrases he used are cheap. The legal profession and judges in particular responded to demands that were being placed on them, and were driven by politicians to accept retirement ages. It has worked—the general perception of the quality of justice emanating from a

generally younger group of judges has improved. The judiciary is less criticised on that front in the press and other media.

All we have done is to adopt the age already set elsewhere. The qualification necessary to become Attorney-General is to have been a member of either of the legal professions for 10 years, as it is to become a judge. The role is equivalent to that of a judge and should have the same terms and conditions insofar as is appropriate. That is the position; as the hon. Member for Reigate said, it is a matter for judgment. Our judgment is that the retirement age for judges is the appropriate age limit in this case. That is not driven by a prejudice against older people, or any of the other motives that have been attached to it, which are not true and have no relevance to our thinking. That is the practice that has developed in response to the view of the populace.

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

I am not giving way any more. In my view, it is appropriate that we should use those qualifications and that age.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Llafur, Liverpool, Walton

I am saddened by the Minister's attitude, and I mean that sincerely. I am not too happy with the way in which he has responded to what I considered to be a serious point. He may think that it is a minor matter that a post of such significance should be denied, on what I consider to be arbitrary grounds, but I do not.

I do not care what the Minister chooses to imply about comments that I may have made about judges. I hope that I will not stand corrected when he checks the record. I do not remember making a comment in public life about a judge's age per se being a barrier to that judge being able to hand down a decision. I might have questioned whether a certain decision was right—on the basis not of age but of the evidence that the judge had before him or her. I take a simple view that it is important that the Government be consistent in such matters, in terms not just of law or the legal profession but of the message that they send out to older people. I stand by my comments about older people and an ageing population. That should be recognised in the Bill as in all things.

The fact that the appointment will be for five years can be used judiciously by those who make the appointment. It seems bizarre that the cut-off age should be so arbitrary, especially given that one might expect that, in such a post and up to a certain point, with advancing years may come increasing sagacity. Of course we want to ensure that judges are in touch with the upcoming generation. One could legitimately make the same argument about the age of MPs, yet we hear no such argument being advanced in the House.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

I wanted to make the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton about the age of MPs. We have heard recently from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is over that age and is performing a

sterling job in bringing her experience to bear. I am not sure that this is the time to conduct this business, but I am 56, and if I were as hale and hearty as the Transport Select Committee Chairman, I would probably want to carry on doing this job, hoping to do it as well as she does.

Many of us have signed early-day motions on ageism in an attempt to oppose strongly the general way in which the Minister has talked today. I agree with him that it has been of benefit to stop the open-ended age limit on being a judge, which sometimes made it difficult to get rid of incompetent people. However, perhaps the same principle should not apply to the most senior position, which is a short-term appointment anyway, and when those making the appointment have a large field to choose from. Maybe this is not the place to start breaking that ageist pattern of reasoning, but I am disconcerted by the Minister's reasoning. Having signed an early-day motion on ageism, and believing that the House gets tremendous value from people in that age range, it would be inconsistent of me to give the Minister my wholehearted support. I hope that, in his response, he will say that he will think about the issue between now and Report.

Photo of Mr Tony Clarke Mr Tony Clarke Llafur, Northampton South

I do not want to delay the Committee, but I want to ensure that the Minister understands the strength of feeling on the issue. Surely it is not for us to say that someone is out of touch with society just because they have reached the magical age of 75. It is a question of whether they are in touch with the world through their outside interests. I can think of many reasons why someone under 70 may not be fit to hold office, including that they are out of touch with society and with those who think they know better, or because of their lifestyle. What if a judge under 70 leads a restricted lifestyle, perhaps living in his mansion or other such dwelling that can be afforded only by members of the judiciary, and is unable to understand the workings and dealings of those who come before him in his work?

Some of us feel strongly that it is impossible to pick an arbitrary age of 70, 75 or 80, and if we are to set criteria by which to judge the fitness of those working in the legal system, those criteria should include more than just age. Perhaps, during our deliberations, we could consider what other criteria might be more fitting.

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

It would ill behove me not to listen to my hon. Friends, as well as to other hon. Members, on this issue. I had not intended that the debate would cause so many people to parade their ages in front of the Committee. I explained that retirement ages for senior figures had resulted from an evolutionary process that reflected public opinion. Such views are often expressed by politicians, because that is their job. To my recollection, the process was never arbitrary, and nor were the figures, which emerged from discussions about the people to whom they applied.

My hon. Friends' arguments apply to not only the job under discussion but, by read-across, the job from which the figure was taken. I do not know whether my

hon. Friends say with one voice or separate voices that we ought to reconsider, reverse the process that led to retirement ages for judges and go back to the previous system, which measured a judge's ability. There was great dissatisfaction with that process.

I resist the amendment because there is a coherent reason for the provision, in parallel to the retirement age of judges. I shall have to reflect on the wider ramifications of the debate in the context of the judicial system of Northern Ireland and all judges. I shall engage in conversations with any hon. Members who want to talk to me on the subject, because the debate goes wider than the amendment. The logic of the position put to me by the hon. Member for Reigate and others is extensive. However, I resist the amendment today because there are good reasons, in relation to the status quo, for a read-across at that age.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Llafur, Ipswich

I welcome the Minister's argument, which I found persuasive. I used to share the views of some earlier speakers, although the older I get, the less persuaded I am by anti-ageist views. I am surprised by the argument made by the hon. Member for Reigate, given that his party put in place an age limit of 70 for members of police authorities in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. As I understand it, the Conservative party has operated a limit at 70 for local government candidates for the past 10 years or so.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Ceidwadwyr, Isle of Wight

The final point made by the hon. Gentleman is entirely inaccurate. In my authority, Conservative candidates aged 78 were selected at the most recent county council elections. They were not elected, but they were selected.

The Minister would do himself justice if he explained that he was being ironic, as the report of our proceedings will not show it. I suspect that he was being ironic earlier when he suggested that I argued against retirement age.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Ceidwadwyr, Isle of Wight

It seems that the Minister was not being ironic. My argument was not against retirement age, but against refusing to consider someone for a post because they had reached or were likely to reach a certain age within a certain time. That is the fundamental problem with the Bill. I say to the hon. Member for Croydon—

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Ceidwadwyr, Isle of Wight

It is all north of the Solent. I tell the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) that the fact that we did something 10 years ago is no reason for him to do it now. A hundred years ago, many people felt that women could not make the same judgments as men, which disqualified them from occupying a place in the House. Rather fewer years ago, it was felt that black people could not make the same judgments as white people. I do not suggest for a moment that the Minister holds those views, or even that his view is equivalent to those views. However, views evolve and sometimes

evolve back again. An evolutionary process led to agreement that there should be an upper limit on the age of judges who would otherwise hold their positions for life. That is no argument for there being an upper limit on age for appointment to an office with a fixed period of tenure. I do not see the connection.

I am fortunate enough to represent a constituency in which a large proportion of the population is retired and it is pleasant to be called a nice young man or even an impudent young man when one is approaching 50. Many people over retirement age are perfectly able and should not be discriminated against. The Minister has not made his case.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 5:45, 31 Ionawr 2002

Mr. Pike, I distinctly heard the Minister remark, in response to you, that he is older than he looks. Arguments about age put by anyone who has sufficient self-regard to make that remark should be treated with the greatest of scepticism.

On the substance of the issue, I am grateful for the contributions of the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton, for Hemel Hempstead and for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke), because they have convinced me that the amendment is wrong—it should remove the age limit altogether. However, we are not in a position to strike the provision out, because it is part of a clause.

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

What is the current term of judicial appointments? Is there a statutory age now?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

If I understand correctly from the advice that the Minister has given the Committee, the retirement age for judges is 70 unless they hold tenure by virtue of appointment under earlier rules that allowed them to serve until the age of 75.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Llafur, Liverpool, Walton

I do not know whether I am in order in asking this, but could the hon. Gentleman not withdraw the amendment in the light of the Minister's comments, with a view to reconsideration of the clause and the age limits therein on Report?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, because I should like to address it. The Minister said ''I resist the amendment''. I did not hear him give an undertaking to come back on Report with an amendment in the terms that the hon. Gentleman and I would seek.

Photo of Mr Tony Clarke Mr Tony Clarke Llafur, Northampton South

In supporting the point of view of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, does the hon. Gentleman accept that his amendment is as unpalatable to Labour Members as the age currently shown? Picking 75 is as arbitrary as suggesting 70. He is unlikely to gain support for the amendment, so withdrawing it might be the best way of ensuring that the issue is re-examined on Report.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

What I shall say now is terribly important, because I believe that I have an opportunity to convince the hon. Gentleman to support the amendment. Picking 75 is better than sticking to 70 because it gives the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, in appointing the Attorney-General, the ability to appoint people for longer. If we

showed an age of 110 or 120, we would create exactly the position that he and I seek. Any advance from 70 gives those two Ministers greater flexibility. We have a practical problem in considering the Bill, which is that we shall have a very short time on Report in which to debate the matter. If it is not tabled as a Government amendment on Report, it will not be considered. The only way in which to be certain of triggering a debate on the matter on Report is to accept this amendment now. I shall then give the hon. Member for Northampton, South the undertaking that I shall table on behalf of the Opposition the amendment that he and I seek, which removes the age limit altogether. If the Government were to come forward with such an amendment, it would be accepted.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Llafur, Ipswich

Given the hon. Gentleman's earlier arguments about the need to improve the representation of women and ethnic minorities on the Judicial Appointments Commission, can he tell me whether he thinks that the action he describes will enhance that process or delay it? I would say the latter.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Llafur, Ipswich

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there is a pool of women and people from ethnic minorities aged over 70 who will help with that process.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

This matter has nothing to do with the Judicial Appointments Commission. We have moved on from part 1 of the Bill, having not considered three quarters of it. We are now considering part 2. The hon. Gentleman, in raising the matter of the Judicial Appointments Commission, is introducing arguments that are irrelevant to a single post.

Just one man or woman is required for this post. That is where the argument that the age limit is arbitrary defeats the Minister's arguments, which apply only in the case of a class of people such as judges or members of policing boards. Assumptions can be made about what might be a reasonable age, on average, for such people to retire, and I accept the arguments on that. I disagree with the principled arguments being made that there should be no age limits at all. It can be argued that, when dealing with a large group of people, it is reasonable to impose a retirement age.

However, in this case, this House is imposing an arbitrary limit on one person. That person is selected by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. They will have a retirement age of 75 if either amendment No. 30 or the amendment that I shall table on Report, should I fail to secure the higher age of 75 in Committee, is adopted. I shall come to why it is necessary to put the age of 75 in the Bill to ensure that there is a debate on the matter later on. Under clause 25, if that person becomes incapacitated, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister can initiate a process by which he can be removed.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

I urge the hon. Gentleman to think carefully about what he is doing, because there are many different dimensions to the matter. Having a

retirement age for a post that is held for a definite time, such as that of a Member of Parliament where the electorate decide, or the post under discussion, is different from the issue of having of general retirement age. I am basically in favour of a general retirement age, although I believe that people should have rights, when they reach that stage, that they do not currently enjoy.

The argument is becoming complicated and I am worried that, because there are many different positions, if the hon. Gentleman were to press his amendment it would not succeed. We would then lose the benefit of the review of the problem that the Minister has promised us. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South, I urge the hon. Gentleman to accept what we have gained so far and see whether we can run with it at the next step.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

In normal circumstances, I would, but with the hon. Gentleman's support and that of his hon. Friends, who have indicated that they agree with us on the principle involved in the issue of this one post—

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Llafur, Liverpool, Walton

I want to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of a misapprehension that he is under. The tactical considerations of the Opposition and what may or may not happen on Report are not issues that interest my hon. Friends and myself. I can only reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said a moment ago: we cannot possibly find those tactical arguments persuasive. I understand why the hon. Gentleman puts them forward, but they contradict the principled position to which he alluded.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment and engage in a debate later, if necessary. Unlike him, I am inclined to accept what the Minister intimated a few minutes ago: that we should take representations and address the matter seriously, as many members of the Committee have.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

Order. We should not get too involved in what may or may not happen on Report. I understand the relevance of that matter to the hon. Member for Reigate, but he should keep his references as brief as possible.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Pike.

If the amendment were passed by the Committee and the Government disagreed with it, they would have to return to it on Report and reinsert the age of 70. That would be the position, if the Committee insisted on having 75 rather than 70. The Committee may choose to rest on the Minister's assurances—although I am not clear that we have them, and want the Minister to repeat them. I am carefully considering what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton said. I have not made up my mind and want to clarify the position so that we all understand what the consequences will be if I choose to withdraw the amendment.

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

To assist the hon. Gentleman in his clarification of the argument, may I say that the review makes a distinct recommendation on this matter. It states:

''Consistent with the exhortations of human rights instruments about security of tenure, we endorse the current arrangements that give full-time judges and magistrates tenure during good behaviour until a statutory retirement age.''

In fairness to the Minister, if the current arrangement is a retirement age of 70, that is what the review committee recommended.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I am sure that the Minister will rely on the review committee, but we as legislators must make judgments for ourselves. The position of Attorney-General in Northern Ireland is not consistent with a group of other posts; it is an individual post made by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to produce legal advice for the Assembly, to be publicly accountable to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and so on.

If I withdraw the amendment, there may not be time to debate an Opposition amendment, tabled as my hon. Friends and I would desire. That is a practical problem that we face. We are also faced with the fact that the Government, having listened to consultation, may not table an amendment, which would leave the House with no opportunity to debate the issue again.

Photo of Mr Tony Clarke Mr Tony Clarke Llafur, Northampton South

I would like to help the hon. Gentleman with his deliberations, taking into account the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton. As none of us seems able to support his amendment, does he not see that simply withdrawing it is the only means by which to take the argument forward? It is in no one's interest to press the amendment to a Division and then be defeated, given that we disagree as much with the amendment as with the age limit in the Bill?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I have tried and failed to convince the hon. Gentleman that 75 is better than 70. He has made it clear that he will not support the amendment.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Ceidwadwyr, Harborough 6:00, 31 Ionawr 2002

Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend, as the argument is becoming rather circular. It is common ground between my hon. Friend and me that the Committee and the House are stifled in the amount of time available to debate the Bill. However, the Government cannot control the debate in another place. If there is no time on Report and we cannot get the assurances that we require from the Minister, might it not be a good idea to pack this up and resurrect it in the other place? The wealth of experience that exists there will allow the matter to be properly explored.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I shall not go quite that far. I will take note of what Labour Members said, and I will not press the amendment now. I will rely on their ability to convince the Minister that it would be a good idea for the Government to come forward with the amendment that they seek. I will table such an amendment myself

on Report. If they fail to convince the Government and my amendment is reached, I sincerely hope that they will support it.

The debate has been instructive, and we have touched on a number of fundamental principles. I know that it has taken some time, but it is part of our responsibility to explore those issues. I had not anticipated that this would spark the concern that it has. It has been instructive for me too. I am extremely grateful to Labour Members for their contributions. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.