Clause 25 - Removal of Attorney General

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 6:00 pm ar 31 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 6:00, 31 Ionawr 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 170, in page 16, line 2, leave out 'Lord Chancellor' and insert

'First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly.'.

When I first saw this amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh I wanted to support it on the principle that it is best for the Lord Chancellor to be taken out of this exercise and to be replaced by a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly wherever possible. Having examined the amendment and its effect, it appears that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would appoint members of a tribunal, even though they would, in effect, be the plaintiff on that tribunal by seeking the removal of the Attorney-General. I hope that I have understood that correctly.

However, given that the desire is to devolve those functions to Northern Ireland as far as possible, it would be an appropriate compromise to give the function to the Secretary of State. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh is on the right lines in trying to remove the Lord Chancellor from the process. It would be appropriate for that function to be held by the Secretary of State, not by the Lord Chancellor. That is more in line with the devolution of justice to Northern Ireland. I accept that there is a concern that because this is a quasi-judicial position, the Lord Chancellor should have a role. However, as far as possible the principle that should direct the Committee is the removal of the functions of the Lord Chancellor. It is appropriate for such quasi-judicial functions to rest with the Secretary of State, who is closer to Northern Ireland business than the Lord Chancellor.

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

As the hon. Member for Reigate says, amendment No. 170 would require the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, rather than the Lord Chancellor, to select members of the removal tribunal. The membership of the tribunal was carefully chosen to ensure that the question of whether the Attorney-General should be removed from office would be decided impartially and independently. That is why the arguments of the hon. Member for Reigate are, with respect, not applicable. Judges from England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland, are chosen to make up the tribunal. The person who

chooses those judges does not require knowledge of Northern Ireland; he requires knowledge of judges and their abilities outside of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman's point about the framing of the amendment is correct. There would be a manifest conflict of interest if the potential plaintiff selected the tribunal's membership. There is an additional point, to which I have alluded. Given that the members of the tribunal will be drawn from outside Northern Ireland, it is unlikely that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would have the necessary knowledge to select them. On the basis of the hon. Gentleman's own logic, whoever holds the office of Lord Chancellor is far more likely to have the knowledge to select the membership than the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. For practical reasons, he is the most appropriate person. I have other points to make on the involvement of the First Minister and the Deputy Minister in the removal tribunal but they are adequately summed up by the points that the hon. Member for Reigate made about the conflict of interests.

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

I am satisfied with that explanation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.