Clause 51 - Duties of commission

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:00 pm ar 7 Chwefror 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh 4:00, 7 Chwefror 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 279, in page 29, line 27, after 'State', insert—

'and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly'.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 280, in page 29, line 33, after 'State', insert—

'and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly'.

No. 281, in page 29, line 36, after 'State', insert—

'and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly'.

No. 282, in page 30, line 2, after 'State', insert—

'and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly'.

No. 283, in page 30, line 4, leave out subsection (b).

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

The purpose of the amendments is to try to ensure that the programmes of work of the Law Reform Commission will be subject to, and have the approval of, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly, as well as being subject to the Secretary of State.

It is highly likely that much, if not all, of the work of the Law Reform Commission will relate to legislation in areas for which responsibility has been devolved to the Assembly. The provisions in the Bill according to which the Secretary of State alone will be responsible for approving its programme are not fully appropriate, as decisions will impinge on devolved functions. It is insufficient for the Secretary of State to consult only the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and it is important that the latter should have powers equal to those of the Secretary of State in making decisions.

I know that the issue has some difficult implications. I am also aware that there could be a three-tier stage before devolution. The Minister confirmed yesterday that some of the Bill's provisions would apply before devolution, so there will be a staged approach. It will be a quantum leap for the political process in the north of Ireland to take control of these issues again, but I want to try to ensure that the procedures have the input and standing that they should have. The amendments not only place responsibility on the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but involve them in decisions in a way that could help devolution—if and when it happens.

I make my final point in a political, rather than a disparaging spirit. The more we get away from Secretaries of State and Lord Chancellors, the more we shall be able to take on the responsibilities that come our way and which, I believe, we shall successfully carry out. That is why I tabled the amendments, and I await the Minister's reply with interest.

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

As a long-standing and committed advocate of devolution for not only Northern Ireland,

but Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks on transferring functions to politicians who are accountable to the people they serve, and I agree with him. I also understand that the reasoning behind the amendment reflects the review.

The Bill makes the Secretary of State responsible for approving the Law Commission's programme prior to the devolution of criminal justice functions, although my hon. Friend is correct to say that the commission will also have a remit in the devolved field.

The review team was clearly aware of the separate areas of responsibility for civil and criminal law, and recognised that structural complexities will precede the devolution of responsibility for criminal law. The review made it clear that the Secretary of State should be given responsibility for appointments to the commission, and we are following through that recommendation.

The review also recommended, however, that the commission's work programme should be agreed with the Secretary of State, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. During preparations for the Bill, it was concluded that complicated and extensive drafting would be required to separate out and precisely delineate in the Bill the responsibilities of the Secretary of State, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. We do not, therefore, want to take the amendments as they stand.

Given where the balance will lie in terms of the commission's work programme, we should place responsibility for the programme with the Secretary of State, as we did for appointments. In practice, however, we envisage that the Secretary of State will determine the programme in the reserved field and that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will do the same in the devolved field. That will require close consultation between the Ministers, and I am happy to give an assurance that such co-operation will take place. Indeed, I am prepared to go further and to draft a clear concordat between the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Secretary of State, although it will obviously be for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to decide whether they want to express matters in that way. None the less, I give that clear assurance, in so far as I can, on the part of Secretary of State.

I also assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State will work closely with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Executive on the establishment of the Law Commission. If the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Executive are unhappy about the commission having a role in the civil field before devolution, that would weigh heavily on our decision about when to commence the provisions. I should also clarify that, post-devolution, the issue will be subject to a transfer order, as we discussed. Which Minister takes the place of the Secretary of State in relation to those functions will be a matter for the Executive in the Assembly to decide.

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

We have had an ongoing discussion about which functions will be transferred. The

Minister has made it clear that when the Government choose to transfer such functions they will do so by order, and I want to ensure that I have understood that. He seems to be saying that the functions that the Bill states will be carried out by the Secretary of State could be transferred to a Minister of the devolved institutions, who would presumably take responsibility for home affairs or justice in the Assembly. Could such functions be devolved under the order to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting jointly, who would then devolve the function to whomever they nominate? I am slightly confused by what gets transferred when, and I would be grateful for the Minister's assistance.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking for clarification, and I shall try to help him and the Committee to understand what will happen.

A transfer order will be made under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The two sides to that transfer are the transferor and the person—in this case the Executive in the Assembly—to whom the functions are transferred. There must therefore be a receipt of that transfer, and it is for the Executive in the Assembly to decide how it will be received.

Other provisions in the review recommend the creation of a Ministry of Justice. The Executive may, for example, take the view that the determination of the programme for the Law Commission would sit properly with the responsibilities and accountabilities of a Minister for Justice as opposed to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Consistent with the constitutional position in relation to devolution, the structure and responsibilities of the Executive are a matter for them, subject to the structures set out in the 1998 Act.

I shall speculate about how that might be done. The functions could be transferred in the first instance to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and then be further transferred, or they could be transferred direct if that were agreed. Such a decision would be made at the time, but the views of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the Executive and the Assembly would have to be taken into account.

The hon. Member for Reigate asked whether the Law Commission fits into any of the relevant descriptions of reserved areas within schedule 3. Thanks to his intervention, I have looked at that again. There is a debate about whether it fits, and we may need to table an amendment at a later stage that clearly puts it into schedule 3 in order for it to be considered a reserved area to be devolved. I am grateful to him for pointing that out, as it goes to show the benefit of having debates in Committee.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I thank the Minister for his guidance. It is important that he put on record that there are two sides to devolution: a decision by the Westminster Government that they want, desire and intend to devolve; and the requirement for a decision of the political process in Northern Ireland to accept those devolved powers. The Good Friday arrangements do

not involve only the Government and parties in the north of Ireland, because there are more signatories than that. We should be reminded of that as often as possible. Will the Minister inform us where the term Republic of Ireland came from and how it got on to a Bill promoted by one of two sovereign Governments involved in the Good Friday agreement?

I am in favour of devolution for many reasons, including the fact that the process towards which I spent most of my life working is almost complete. The maturity of devolution will be measured by its ability to deal with issues such as justice. Not everybody shares my view, or has the same confidence. I cannot speak for the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister, acting jointly—or speaking jointly. There will be much soul searching in all communities in the north of Ireland before they agree to accept the devolved powers. That is why we must get the legislation right. Matters that are debating points in this House, and may look small in the overall pattern, might not be so perceived when the issue is devolved.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 4:15, 7 Chwefror 2002

I want to be clear about what the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh is saying. I assume that he is referring to the duty placed on the commission to consult the Law Reform Commission of the Republic of Ireland, and that he feels that it will be difficult for the Assembly to accept that. I would be grateful for his guidance, because I do not want to be under a misapprehension.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

That is a misunderstanding of my point. Part of the agreement between the two sovereign Governments was the terminology each would use in relation to the other. No one would intend to deviate from that, but I remind the Minister that the Good Friday agreement contains more than the agreement of the parties. I leave it at that, and I have no doubt that hon. Members can reflect on those words.

The task will not be easy. Even the way in which the process is devolved will not be easy. It could be devolved to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly, or to a new Minister known as the Minister of Justice. The Assembly might not agree to extend the number of Ministers. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 might have to be changed to provide for a new Minister—the position could not be given to a junior Minister—whose appointment would be in the hands of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Many questions will have to be asked. I tabled the amendment so that we could ask those questions and discover the answers. I shall not press the amendment to a vote, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 243, in, page 30, line 5, at end insert—

'(cc) The Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland, and

(cd) The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.'.

No. 244, in page 30, line 9, leave out from beginning and insert—

'(c) any other such law reform body in any jurisdiction that appears to the Commission appropriate with respect to a particular area of law.'.

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

Amendment No. 245 is a drafting amendment made necessary by amendment No. 243.

Clause 51(4) requires the commission to consult only the Law Commission, the Scottish Law Commission and the Law Reform Commission of the Republic of Ireland. I want emphasis to be given to human rights and equality, as in the Belfast agreement, the Good Friday agreement and the review. Greater recognition should be given in the Bill to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. The purpose of amendment No. 243 is to add them to the list of bodies to be consulted by the new commission. That would recognise the emphasis in the agreement on human rights and equality, to which the review of the criminal justice system also referred.

Amendment No. 244 would broaden the range of law reform bodies with which the commission must consult, so that the commission could consult any other law reform body in any jurisdiction, including the Law Reform Commission of the Republic of Ireland and others, if that would be helpful.

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

In respect of amendment No. 243, we recognise the important role of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission and the fact that they have a legitimate interest in law reform. I am happy to put that on the record. They were not considered for inclusion and then excluded. However, it is not appropriate to impose an obligation on the commission to consult them, although we expect it to consult other bodies in Northern Ireland from time to time, depending on the issues being reviewed and considered.

It is proper that the commission's programme of work should be approved in consultation with Ministers who have responsibility for law reform. Both the commission and Ministers would be interested to hear the view of organisations with an interest in law reform, but we do not want to be prescriptive in the Bill

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 4:38, 7 Chwefror 2002

I shall turn to amendment No. 244. I said to the hon. Member for North Down that, in performing its duties, it is right that the new Law Commission consults the three law reform commissions in the United Kingdom and Ireland. That reflects the recommendations in paragraph 14.53 of the review, which states:

We believe the functions of the Law Commission for Northern Ireland should include . . . keeping abreast of developments in other jurisdictions, including in particular England and Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.

That is what the clause is designed to achieve.

Clause 51(2)(f) states that the commission must

obtain such information as to the legal systems of other countries as appears . . . likely to facilitate the performance of its . . . duties.

Together, those two provisions, both of which reflect specific recommendations of the review, would cover what the hon. Lady seeks to achieve through her amendment. The commission may then consult other law reform commissions or bodies as it chooses, and as is necessary. The amendment is unnecessary.

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

I have had 15 minutes to reflect on the fact that the Minister replied in part to my arguments for the inclusion of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

Our short break also enabled me to turn again to the helpful interview that the Minister gave to The Irish News on Monday 21 January 2002. I hope that I will not be shot down in flames for quoting him out of context, and I shall try to avoid doing so. The interview was entitled, ''Now to catch up on the criminal justice system'', and in it he said:

We are trying to create a modern democracy in Northern Ireland which has at its heart respect for human rights and equality.

Such language is repeated at the beginning of the implementation plan of the criminal justice review, in the chapter on human rights and guiding principles. I welcome the fact that it states:

The Government agrees that human rights are central to the criminal justice system.

I feel enormously committed to that idea.

Those who voted for the Belfast agreement—or the Good Friday agreement if people prefer to call it that—voted for human rights and equality, and I want to see that reflected in the Bill. It will not detract from the work of the Law Commission to require that it consult with the most obvious of all bodies in Northern Ireland: the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission. Therefore, I regret to say that I am not persuaded by the Minister's arguments. The break of 15 minutes has reinforced in my mind that I have to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 13.

Rhif adran 16 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 51 - Duties of commission

Ie: 2 MPs

Na: 13 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.