Clause 27 - Annual report by 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. 171, in page 16, line 36, after 'Deputy First Minister', insert 'acting jointly'.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 172, in page 16, line 41, after 'deputy First Minister', insert 'acting jointly'.

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

The Minister is nodding at me. I think that two out of three of his indications across the Floor have been right. Working on the basis of probability, I hope that these technical amendments assist the Government. I assume that the omission of ''acting jointly'' is an oversight. If not, I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what it means, in the specific circumstances of the clause and more widely, if those words are not in the Bill.

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

Given what I said earlier, I am sure that it will come as no surprise to members of the Committee that I formally register my objection to an extension of the ability of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to act jointly. The Bill should stay as it is.

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

I have no comfort to offer the hon. Lady. The amendments would clarify that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must exercise their functions jointly with regard to the Attorney-General's annual report. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reigate for introducing the amendments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh, who tabled the amendments, may not thank me for drawing attention to the fact that he had to leave our sitting or else he would have pursued the amendments himself. I am sorry that I will disappoint the hon. Member for North Down, but I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the points that have been raised.

This is the appropriate part of the Bill to discuss the amendments, although my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh sought to table them on another clause. The Government's argument is that, under subsection (4), the Bill already requires the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to act jointly in connection with the annual report of the Attorney-General. I am advised that whether the words are included is a drafting matter. Since subsection (5) relates to subsection (4) under which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are constrained to act jointly, it is not necessary to repeat that under subsection (5) because their duties under subsection (5) can be carried out only in the context of subsection (4).

Mr. Blunt rose—

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

I do not want the debate to turn into another long and involved discussion about a comparatively small issue. Although it may be important to the hon. Member for Reigate, I shall not give way now.

I have had the opportunity outside of the Room to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh. Although he is not here to speak for himself, I think that he agreed that the Bill had the legal effect that he and the Government want, but that it was a matter of presentation. He was anxious that no opportunity was left for an argument, and was worried that the absence of the words under subsection (5) could cause division. I understand how strongly he feels about the matter, and how strongly the hon. Lady feels about it. However, the Government have nailed their colours to the mast in relation to ''acting jointly''.

I assured my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh that I would reconsider the drafting of the Bill. Perhaps his proxy, the hon. Member for Reigate, could be persuaded to withdraw the amendment on the basis that we shall look again at the inclusion or otherwise of the words. The Committee must bear in mind the fact that it is the Government's intention that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should act jointly, and that has already been achieved because of the way in which the Bill is drafted. It was not intended to leave out those words, it being a convention of the draftsmen that words are added only if they are absolutely necessary. They are not necessary under subsection (5).

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

I wanted to intervene in the Minister's speech to assist him, which I shall try to do now. He has misdirected himself. The absence of the words ''acting jointly'' under subsection (5) means that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, acting

individually, could exclude a part of the report. I assume that that is what the hon. Member for North Down seeks to achieve by opposing the amendment.

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

I shall try to be of assistance. As I understand it—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will comment on this—the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

''may exclude a part of an annual report from the copy laid or published''.

Subsection (4) requires the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to act jointly in laying and publishing the report, so anything that they do in that context must be done jointly. That is how those who drafted the Bill explained the clause to me; that is its proper interpretation. However, whether or not I am right, I have undertaken to clarify it for the hon. Gentleman.

6.15 pm

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

I thought that I shared with the Government the general view that the phrase

''First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly'' should appear in most places in the Bill, in order to achieve the level of co-operation between those two offices that is absolutely necessary to make the Belfast agreement work. However, subsection (5) states:

''But the First Minister and deputy First Minister may exclude a part of an annual report from the copy laid or published if, in their opinion, the laying or publication of the part—

(a) would be against the public interest, or

(b) might jeopardise the safety of any person.

I confess that it is my own fault for not paying more careful attention to the detail. I can envisage circumstances in which the First Minister on his own might decide that exclusion was necessary. I have listened to the arguments—the Minister knows that the Conservative party normally signs up to the phrase ''acting jointly''—but they should have the power to act separately in such circumstances. They should be able to make individual judgments about the protection of an individual or the public interest.

If he will be reviewing the drafting, perhaps the Minister would reflect on the substantive point that, when it comes to the public interest and the safety of an individual, both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should separately have the power to exclude a part of an annual report. I confess that I have read this carefully for the first time just now, but I should be grateful if he would give the issue consideration in the next few minutes. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.