Clause 52 - Reports etc.

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:38 pm ar 7 Chwefror 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I seek clarification from the Minister again about what happens on transfer. I note that the clause places a duty on the Secretary of State to lay the reports before both Houses of Parliament and on the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly, to lay them before the Legislative Assembly. Will the Minister explain what happens when the functions are transferred? Is the reference to the Secretary of State simply lost from the Bill, or will it be covered in the transfer order? Will that reference still be appropriate once functions have been transferred?

I do not know whether there is a parallel with the devolved Administration in Scotland. Will there still be a requirement to lay reports of the Northern Ireland Law Commission before this Parliament even after the administration of justice has been devolved? I seek clarification on that point.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 4:45, 7 Chwefror 2002

The answer to the question of the hon. Member for Reigate is that it will depend on what the report relates to and where the legislative competence lies. In the pre-devolution period, when only part of the legislative competence and Executive responsibility lies with the devolved authorities, it is clear that there would be a dual structure. To cite the case of Scotland, it would be pointless for reports of the Law Commission that related to the legislative competence and the Executive responsibility of the First Minister and the Executive and of the Scottish Parliament to be laid before this Parliament. I do not believe that they are, although I did not check that before coming into the Committee. I shall have that checked, and if I am wrong I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

I believe, therefore, that after the devolution of criminal justice functions, the reference to the Secretary of State will be deleted to the extent that those functions are devolved. I can think of some circumstances where reserved matters related to criminal justice may concern the Law Commission, although they would have a very narrow focus. It may be appropriate in terms of the devolution order to reserve those matters so that any report on them must be laid before this Parliament, but I do not think that when responsibility for criminal justice is devolved, the references to the Secretary of State would be entirely lost.

As I try to explain this to the hon. Member for Reigate, I must concede that I am not 100 per cent. confident that the answer that I am giving him is correct. Because of the specific nature of the question, I shall undertake to write to him. This is a serious and important point. I shall need to satisfy myself, because part of my mind suggests to me that the Law Commission may well have occasion to report on an area that is not part of the reserved field. I may be wrong about that. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman an unequivocal assurance that, under the

clause, it will be appropriate only after devolution for any reports in the reserved field to be laid before the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland.

However, I have to satisfy myself that there is no possibility of the Law Commission reporting on an area that is outside the reserved field. Insofar as I am able to satisfy myself, that is the complete answer. I hope that I have not confused the Committee, because I am in danger of confusing myself.

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

The effect of the clause depends on the meaning of the phrase,

lay before each House of Parliament a copy of each document.

I assume that it means that there is a formal duty to make available the document to the House, and that each House will have an opportunity to consider it. It may be appropriate for the reports of the Law Commission, regardless of their subject, to be made available to these Houses. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and its law remains a matter of concern to the United Kingdom, whether it is devolved or not. Those who drafted the clause may have regarded this as an area in which the Houses should have a sustained interest.

The Minister has confused me as to where functions will go and what will remain functions for the Secretary of State after devolution. That is a matter for concern, because the post of Secretary of State will continue to exist after the devolution of justice and of the whole process of complaint, just as there continues to be a Secretary of State for Scotland—although how busy that post is has become a matter of controversy. Perhaps the Minister could clarify whether the clause would remain intact after devolution.

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

I apologise to the Committee, as I should have come to the Committee prepared to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, and I am not able to respond with the clarity that I should like.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point; he has pursued a consistent theme in that regard throughout our proceedings, and his point deserves a clearer answer than I have been able to give. I undertake to write to Committee members to clarify the position.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.