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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill represents the biggest overhaul of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland for at least 30 years. Despite all our difficulties, the real progress that we have seen in Northern Ireland society during the past few years deserves to be matched by a modern, progressive, forward-looking system of justice. The criminal justice review proposed how that should be done, and the Bill realises the key aims of the review—the delivery of a criminal justice system that is fair, impartial, effective and joined up. It occurs, of course, in the context of the Belfast agreement. That agreement was the catalyst, but such a review was needed in any case. The real test of a criminal justice system is whether it makes people feel safer in their own localities;
the real test of the Bill is whether it will improve the system's ability to do that.
I am satisfied that the review's measures will help to foster public trust in the system, to enhance transparency and openness and to promote more effective ways to reduce crime and the fear of crime. They will do that through reform of the prosecution process, the creation of a chief inspector of criminal justice and the modernisation of the juvenile justice system.
The Bill will safeguard the independence and impartiality of the system, while maintaining a focus on the real issues and concerns of the community that it serves. The new arrangements will increase public understanding of the system and public confidence in it. They will retain the best of the old system and integrate international best practice to ensure that services are delivered in a more effective, transparent and accountable way in the future.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State. I also apologise for not being present at the beginning of his remarks, but that has come about because the debate in Committee on a statutory instrument on a fairly important issue relating to police evidence in Northern Ireland was scheduled for precisely the same time as this business, and I have had to interrupt my remarks in replying for the Opposition in that debate to get here. It was not possible to sort things out, despite attempts on our side to do so in the ordinary way, so could you let it be known that that is unacceptable and a discourtesy not only to my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois)—who have also just come into the Chamber, having served on the Statutory Instrument Committee—but to the other representatives of the Opposition parties who want to take part in both debates?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Mr. Blunt is right to raise this issue. May I ask you to find out whether, in future, such things can be organised so that those of us who have understandably stretched resources can make the full contribution that we want to make to two very important subjects? Surely it would have been possible to organise our proceedings so that those who care about and are actively involved in those subjects could have contributed to both debates without having to prioritise one above the other?
I very much understand the concern that hon. Members are expressing, but it is not a matter for the Chair; it should be taken up through the usual channels, and I suggest that hon. Members do so. I trust that the usual channels will have heard the points made in the Chamber this afternoon.
I merely respond by saying that I note and understand the difficulties that have been caused. I can assure Mr. Blunt that if things have ended this way, it is not because any discourtesy was intended, as I am sure he will realise. I understand that these things were discussed through the usual channels. However, business in the Chamber is extremely flexible—correctly so—and it causes inconvenience not only for those with limited resources, but for those of us in government, with all the Government's resources. This afternoon, I had to cancel an engagement in Belfast, and then unexpectedly found that I could have carried it out. I note what the hon. Gentleman says; these things are not very satisfactory, but I hope that he accepts that there was no intention of discourtesy, and we shall try to ensure that there is not such a chronological coincidence in future. I extend those remarks to Lembit Öpik, who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.
The Bill also occurs, of course, in the context not only of modernising our justice system in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Belfast agreement, but of devolution. The changes in the criminal justice system for which the Bill provides are important in their own right, but they will also help to pave the way for the ultimate devolution of those functions to the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.
The Government believe that devolution throughout the United Kingdom has been one of our greatest achievements—certainly, it is one of our most historic achievements—and nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have already been able to take great strides in bringing politics home to Northern Ireland. We are not complacent at all about the challenges that face us in that direction, but we are committed to seeing that process and the process of devolution of power, as well as responsibility, continue.
Policing and criminal justice are currently reserved to Westminster but, in the Belfast agreement, the Government signalled their willingness in principle to devolve responsibility for policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. We remain committed to that aim. Our target is to devolve policing and justice after the Assembly elections scheduled for May 2003. Obviously that decision to devolve can only be taken at the time, taking account of security and other relevant considerations. It is thus a target, not a deadline. I make that clear just in case anyone at a future stage should misinterpret anything that I have said.
I am not worried about the deadlines, but am more concerned about the principle in the light of the fact that the Justice Minister in the Dail, John O'Donoghue, has made it abundantly plain that Sinn Fein cannot share in the responsibility for such affairs of government because of its inextricable links with an active terrorist organisation. However, in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein will be put into a position into which it is privy to security issues. Is the Secretary of State therefore saying that the measure will not be implemented in Northern Ireland until things change and there has been a complete break from terrorism and decommissioning has been completed?
First, the hon. Gentleman will realise that certain parties in the Republic of Ireland and the spokesman for the Government in the Republic of Ireland have made it plain that there is no question of Sinn Fein taking part in government there in any area—security or otherwise—as long as it is linked to a private army. That is worth saying, and it is my understanding of the statements that have been made over the past few weeks.
Secondly, people recognise that the problems that we are dealing with in Northern Ireland are unique and not exactly comparable with those in the Republic of Ireland. That is precisely why the Belfast agreement allowed for inclusive politics that includes the republican movement. That was done under the premise, of course, that the imperfections in the democratic system—namely the link with a paramilitary organisation that was holding on to weapons—were related to a transitional tolerance and to the assumption that the process of decommissioning would run parallel to the process of changing the democratic structures and social conditions in Northern Ireland.
Thirdly, although I have given a target date for the devolution of power to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, that will be subject to satisfactory progress being made in a whole number of directions. One of them is the carrying through of the reforms that are currently being carried through for policing.
That is as full an answer as I can give to the hon. Gentleman. My view is quite plain and I will place it on the record again. Sinn Fein should participate in support and responsibility for policing. That is worth saying at a time when Sinn Fein spokesmen continually tell us how much more the police should be doing to safeguard the citizenry of Northern Ireland—Catholic and Protestant. It is not difficult for anyone to see the inconsistency between demanding that the police be more effective in what they are doing and the people who demand that withholding their support from policing. Indeed, in some cases people in the community have attacked the police both physically and verbally. People will notice the inconsistency in what they say.
I think that the Secretary of State is asking why Sinn Fein-IRA do not take up their places on the Policing Board and support the new police service, and I thoroughly agree with the sentiments that he expresses. However, as he keeps making concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA—one every week at the moment, some of which we shall discuss later—why does he not use that opportunity to say to them, "Look, if you want all these special arrangements for yourself, the quid pro quo is that you come out of the closet and accept the new Police Service for Northern Ireland and join the Policing Board"? Why does the right hon. Gentleman not have that negotiating relationship with them? Why does he not take advantage of all the concessions that he keeps giving them?
First, if the hon. Gentleman does not know that I have been pressing Sinn Fein to join the Policing Board, he has not been listening carefully to what I have been saying for the past nine or 10 months not only privately, but very publicly. Secondly, if he persists—I make this as a general comment—in trying to square the circle of saying that he supports the Belfast agreement as a whole but opposes every element of it on the basis that it is a concession to republicanism, the inconsistencies of his position will become even more apparent than the inconsistencies of Sinn Fein's position of demanding a more effective police force at the same time as it withholds support for that force.
I will give way but, after that, I want to make progress. My speech is longer than I should have liked because I want to go into detail. I also have to do the hon. Gentleman the discourtesy of leaving soon afterwards because of today's statements.
I must set the record straight. We are serious in our support for the Belfast agreement, and that is why we support the new police service. We also want to urge all parties to take up their seats on the Policing Board and actively support the service, which shows our support for the agreement. Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, however, we are prepared to use some linkage. Instead of just expressing the vague hope that others might fulfil their commitments under the Belfast agreement, we link that to the concessions that Sinn Fein-IRA are seeking. He seems to shy away from the essential element of linkage.
I am glad for the clarification that the hon. Gentleman supports the practical implications of the Belfast agreement. Presumably he also supports the Patten review of policing on the grounds not only that it is an integral part of the agreement, but that it was carried out by a former Conservative Minister. So I look forward to the time when he and his colleagues stop referring to the changes arising from the Patten recommendations as concessions or the destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Depending on what he and his colleagues say in future, we will, no doubt, discover whether that is the case or whether the inconsistencies will continue to be laid before us.
The right hon. Gentleman explained how Sinn Fein-IRA can join the Policing Board. He made it plain to my party and the other parties that if they did not join by a certain time and abide by it, they would not be able to join until later on, after the next election.
The answer, as the hon. Gentleman says, is that Sinn Fein-IRA could join the Policing Board by applying to join it. They did not do that when we sent out the original invitations, so the opportunity was missed. At the moment, as he knows, a process is under way in which local councils will nominate people for the district policing partnerships. It remains to be seen whether Sinn Fein, while demanding more effective policing, again refuses to take up that opportunity at the level of councillor. The hon. Gentleman is right: the vacancies on the Policing Board have been filled and, unless there is a change in legislation, the opportunity to serve on it will not occur for some time.
However, it is not just a case of joining the main Policing Board or even the DPPs. Joining the Policing Board is the public and practical symbol that a party is committed to making the police in Northern Ireland effective.
My main point—on this occasion, perhaps unusually, the hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement—is that it is inconsistency bordering on hypocrisy to demand more effective policing, continually to upbraid the police for not getting the results that they should be getting and, at the same time, not only to withhold support from but to oppose the policing service. Those who do so are not only eschewing their responsibility but attacking the police at every opportunity. I hope that that obvious inconsistency can be overcome, and we all look forward to the day when not only the nationalists and Unionists but the broader community, including republicans, take the responsibility for supporting the implementation of the means of law and order in a society to which they now say they are committed.
The Secretary of State is sending to my hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley the mixed message that he sent to the Ulster Unionist party. It appears from what he just said that if Sinn Fein wanted to participate in the Policing Board, he would consider making the opportunity available, and that would include passing legislation to allow it on to the board before the date that has been laid down. He is sending a mixed message to the House.
I am saying no such thing. The hon. Member for North Antrim asked me what was the position in law, and I told him the position—it is as simple as that. I also told him that under existing legislation Sinn Fein councillors could, if they wished, be nominated for the district policing partnerships. Both of those are the case. That is not a mixed message; it is a factual statement of the present position.
I thought that it might be possible, just for once, for hon. Members to concentrate on the main message. I should have thought that the main message on which Members from both sides of the House have a common view is that when people demand rights, they have to be matched by responsibilities. There is therefore a gross inconsistency in demanding the right to have an effective police force and complaining that the police are failing, through incompetence or conspiracy, to achieve an extremely difficult task while saying, "We will neither support the police force nor succour it. Indeed, we will go out of our way, in every way—verbally and in other ways—to impede its effectiveness."
For the avoidance of doubt, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim asked the Secretary of State about the date by which Sinn Fein and other parties had to nominate people to sit on the Policing Board. That issue has been raised with my party and other parties. The Secretary of State replied to us, as he did to others, that if Sinn Fein had not made nominations by a certain time, we would move on. Is he saying that that is still the case or that if Sinn Fein wanted to make nominations now, next week or next month, legislation would be introduced to allow it to do so? Has it missed the boat?
The position in law has not changed. People have not made nominations. If the hon. Gentleman has any indication that Sinn Fein is about to join the Policing Board in return for anything, I hope that he will share it with the House. I stated that, unless the law is changed, there is no way in which Sinn Fein can join the Policing Board at present, and that is a fact.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that a review of the implementation of Patten and ancillary aspects, which will run for several months, is about to start. That review was discussed with the hon. Gentleman and his party and the Ulster Unionist party. That is public knowledge. It is public knowledge that we have said that if legislative changes are required as a result of that review, they would be put through. The position has not changed, nor has my view that Sinn Fein should join the Policing Board. I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is implying. I hope that he is not saying that he does not want republicans on the Policing Board; I am sure that that is not his intention. If it is, I should be obliged if he would let us know, because it changes the complexion. I thought that we all wanted Sinn Fein to take up responsibilities on the Policing Board; I certainly do. I want it to play a full part in meeting the responsibilities that naturally go along with rights in a modern, civilised democratic society.
I am sorry to detain the Secretary of State and am grateful for his forbearance.
Will the Secretary of State provide clarification? Am I right in understanding that at the moment there is no opportunity for Sinn Fein to take up places, even if it wanted to do so? Is the Secretary of State therefore saying that the issue is about focusing the next time that members of the board are appointed?
That is the case in law. Everyone is keen on hypothetical scenarios and conspiracies, so let me put it to the hon. Gentleman that if the republican movement turned around tomorrow and said, "We made a mistake, we would like to join the Policing Board," I would feel duty-bound to go to the parties on the board, including those of hon. Gentlemen who have spoken today, and say, "Sinn Fein wishes to join the Policing Board. Is there a way in which we can allow that through common consent?" What I would not do—but an objective observer of comments that have been made would feel that hon. Gentlemen are forcing me to do so—is say to Sinn Fein, "That's very nice and historic. Would you mind going away for two years, and perhaps then we will consider allowing you the privilege of joining the Policing Board."
That is not an entirely constructive way forward. If anyone wants reassurance that there is no conspiracy and that I have no inkling about whether those events are likely to take place over the next couple of weeks, I should be obliged if they would accept my assurance.
Perhaps we can now proceed with the reform of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, although I have a funny feeling that I am not going to be allowed to do so. However, while I have a window of opportunity, I shall proceed. Policing and criminal justice, as I was saying, are currently reserved to Westminster, but in the Belfast agreement the Government signalled their willingness in principle to devolve responsibility for policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.
I was saying that we remain committed to that aim; I think that I was about distinguish between a target and a deadline. A target for devolving policing and justice would be after the Assembly elections, scheduled for May 2003. For our part, we recognise that that is undoubtedly a challenging target, but we are committed to doing everything that we can to meet it. We want to ensure that good progress is made in implementing the review before then, so we have a formidable programme of work ahead of us.
The terms of reference of the criminal justice review and the composition of the review group were set out in the Belfast agreement. Implementation of the review therefore represents continued progress in implementing the agreement. Indeed, it is true to say that it was the last element of the agreement that had to be started; that has now been accomplished. On the implementation plan, the Bill gives effect to many of the recommendations of the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland which was published in March last year. Other recommendations do not require legislation and are being implemented separately. Details of all the steps being taken are set out in the criminal justice review implementation plan, which is the Government's formal response to the review.
The implementation plan was published for consultation, along with a draft version of the Bill on
We intend to continue consulting on the proposals in the plan in the coming months.
If other hon. Members could signal to me in the same way, we might avoid interventions.
In publishing the draft Bill, the Government have done their best to ensure fullest scrutiny of the key proposals. I know that some would have preferred a longer consultation period. Indeed, we, too, would have welcomed that, but we needed to ensure that the proposals were well developed before publication. We are not claiming to have got everything right, which is why we have committed ourselves to consultation with politicians, practitioners and others. In any case, it is questionable whether we could have increased scrutiny by publishing the draft Bill earlier this year, when the parties were rather preoccupied with the future of the institutions. We now have revitalised local institutions. With the Good Friday agreement back on track, we can now turn our attention fully to these important proposals.
The Government's first 16 recommendations regarding the criminal justice review are concerned with human rights. Is my right hon. Friend aware that concern has been expressed by certain parties about the fact that the Bill does not include human rights in full? Is he content that the Bill as it stands covers human rights in full?
My hon. Friend has shown impeccable and choreographed timing, as that is precisely the matter with which I was about to deal. I hope that I shall answer his question.
The review group recommended that human rights be made central to the justice system. In formulating its recommendations, the group considered not only the European convention on human rights, but 15 other international human rights standards and instruments. The entire review is drafted with those principles in mind, just as the Government's Human Rights Act 1998 puts human rights at the heart of policy making and operations for all public authorities. The lessons that we drew from study not only of our own procedures, but of international procedures and standards, permeate our whole approach. The issue will arise again to some extent during consideration of the detail of the Bill, to which I should now like to turn.
The Bill has six parts and 13 schedules. Part 1 covers the courts and judiciary and reinforces the primacy of the merit principle and the continuing independence of the judiciary. It makes provision for a Judicial Appointments Commission, which, in the new context of devolution, will help to ensure the transparency of the judicial appointments system. Part 1 also amends the eligibility criteria for judicial office and requires all new appointees to the offices listed in schedule 6 to take the new oath proposed in the review. Clause 13 provides for the Lord Chief Justice to replace the Lord Chancellor as head of the Northern Ireland judiciary following devolution. Schedule 5 transfers to the Lord Chief Justice some of the Lord Chancellor's administrative functions in relation to the courts. In addition, part 1 contains provisions for the creation of the office of lay magistrate, which may be brought into force either before or after devolution.
Part 2 covers Law Officers and the new Public Prosecution Service. It provides for the appointment of a local Attorney-General for Northern Ireland and the creation of a Westminster-based Advocate-General for Northern Ireland. Both posts are to be commenced on or after the devolution of justice functions to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Attorney-General for Northern Ireland will become a figure responsible to the Northern Ireland Assembly and will carry out many of the existing functions of the post and some new ones, but not all the functions of the current Attorney-General fall within the devolved field. That is why we will create the new post of Advocate-General for Northern Ireland, mirroring arrangements in Scotland. The Advocate-General will be responsible to Parliament for those of the Attorney-General's current functions that are within the reserved and excepted fields in Northern Ireland.
The Bill provides for establishing a chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland and a Northern Ireland Law Commission. Those new institutions will ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of the agencies and legal framework of the criminal justice system. They will facilitate its evolution into a more clearly defined, modern and joined-up system of justice.
Part 4 deals with youth and restorative justice. It sets out the principal aim of the youth justice system as the prevention of crime committed by children. It also provides for two new youth justice orders: a community responsibility order and a reparation order to broaden the number of measures at the court's disposal for dealing with young offenders, and for custody care orders when detention is appropriate for children under 14.
The Bill provides for dealing with persons under 18 as children in the criminal justice system in line with international practice and the internationally accepted definition of a child. Part 4 also allows for a youth conference system as a diversionary measure or a court-based disposal. Youth conferencing is a model that has a notable international pedigree. It is already being used in a pilot form in England and Wales as part of referral orders under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999.
The youth conference system for which the Bill provides tries to repair the damage to social values and relationships that crime causes. It does that by giving the victim, the offender and the community a stake in the official response to crime. The young person is given an opportunity to learn the way in which his behaviour affected the life of the victim and to make reparation for his crime.
Part 5 contains a range of provisions, which include giving victims enhanced rights to be informed about the release of offenders. It provides for the Secretary of State to devise a community safety strategy and paves the way for the establishment of new local structures to take the matter forward in future.
Part 5 regulates the use of the royal coat of arms in courtrooms and outside courthouses. It empowers the Lord Chancellor to direct that exceptional legal aid may be made available in specific circumstances, including for inquests. It also empowers the Lord Chancellor to transfer the functions of the Northern Ireland Court Service after devolution and requires that service to provide security in courts.
The Bill has comprehensive and far-reaching provisions to modernise the landscape of criminal justice in Northern Ireland and to help ensure that impartiality and respect for all remain central to its ethos, aims and processes.
Part 6 covers the commencement arrangements for the Bill and its extent.
The Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General are responsible for several provisions. It is only right that I express appreciation for their work. We have worked closely together on preparing the Bill. We continue to do that in driving forward implementation.
Hon. Members will know about the review of the criminal courts in England and Wales—the Auld report—which is currently subject to public comment. The Auld report and the criminal justice review undertook a fundamental examination of parts of the criminal justice system. However, overlap is relatively limited. We shall keep a close eye on the decisions that were made in the light of public comments in England and Wales, especially given the similarities between the two legal systems.
It is too early to ascertain the final decisions on implementing the Auld report in England and Wales. That is even more true of deciding whether it would be appropriate to extend any changes to Northern Ireland. Consequently, the Bill is unlikely to be the appropriate vehicle for change. If legislation is required to extend reforms into Northern Ireland, we will consider the best way forward with colleagues in England and Wales.
Let me say a word about the extent of the Bill. With some technical exceptions, it applies only to Northern Ireland. The only substantive point is the creation of the new Westminster office of the Advocate-General for Northern Ireland, who, as I said earlier, will carry out the functions of the current Attorney-General for Northern Ireland which are excepted matters. The Bill deals with reserved or excepted matters as defined by schedules 2 and 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
The prospect of the devolution of justice functions means that we will need to consider the way in which the relationships between Westminster and the devolved Administration will operate in practice. We shall work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on the arrangements for future administrative co-operation in this field.
I take it that the Secretary of State is now dealing with part 2—clause 23 and so forth—which deals with the appointment of the Law Officers for Northern Ireland. Am I right in thinking that the intended holder of the office of Attorney-General for Northern Ireland need not necessarily be a Member of the Assembly, and will be an extra-parliamentary officer? Is that right?
If I heard the hon. and learned Gentleman's question correctly, I can say yes, not only will that officer not be a Member of the Assembly, he will be independent of it. Does that answer the hon. and learned Gentleman's question?
Under the old system, when Stormont was in existence, did not the Attorney-General from here look after those matters that were not devolved to the Stormont Administration? Why must we have an Advocate-General? Can the Attorney-General here not continue with his duties of dealing with matters that are not devolved?
A number of things have happened since the days to which the hon. Gentleman refers—I would not question his memory on those former arrangements—one of which is devolution to other parts of the United Kingdom such as Scotland and Wales. Nevertheless, the Advocate-General for Northern Ireland could be the Attorney-General, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested. I hope that that answers his question.
I want to say a few words on the outcome of the consultation process. There has been pretty extensive consultation on these proposals, before and after the review group's report was produced. In addition, there has been a consultation process on the Bill. We have taken the outcome of that consultation carefully into account when shaping the legislation. We have consulted the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly on the policy areas in the draft legislation that have implications for the devolved Administration, and we will continue to consult and co-operate with them as we make our preparations for devolution.
I am grateful to all those who submitted responses to the consultation, and I shall now give way for further consultation with the hon. Gentleman.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman missed my earlier remark that we, too, would have liked a longer consultation period. Nor will he have missed my making the point that there will be further consultation as the Bill goes through the House, some of which will no doubt take the form of contributions from him and his hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench. Yes, there could always be more consultation, but I am trying to make the point that there has been a genuine degree of consultation, both before and after the publication of the report. I would also like to point out that the review group's recommendations were in the public domain for a prolonged period before they were formally put out to consultation.
An important principle is involved here. The early part of the consultation on the review process was perhaps a model for how this business should be carried out. However, the latter part, with the rush from the review stage to the draft Bill, and the very short opportunity for the Assembly and for the Opposition to consult the officials taking the Bill through Parliament, has not been a model. The most deleterious part of this process is that, although we have the chance to have consultations through debate on the detail of the Bill in Committee, we face a programme motion that will limit those consultations to 12 sittings. That is short of what the officials believe in necessary, and well short of my assessment of what is needed, particularly as there are four other Opposition parties, which I hope will be represented in Committee if the House chooses to send the Bill into Committee having given it approval on Second Reading. I implore the Secretary of State—
Emollient as I always am, I must say that the hon. Gentleman has a damn cheek. First, the review recommendations have been in the public domain for almost two years. Secondly, he and his Opposition Front-Bench colleagues have had unparalleled access to our officials and to information, which I cannot recall being given when we were in opposition, even under a bipartisan approach. Thirdly, my hon. Friend the Under–Secretary met the Chairman of the relevant Assembly Committee and, specifically at his request, yet again extended the consultation period. Finally, we are still in the consultation process in that judgments and changes can be made, and we are sensitive to that.
I am now well aware that the hon. Gentleman seems to think that my officials report to him rather than to me. I am aware of his views and those of everyone else, including my officials, but our efforts to make available information and consultation facilities have been such that it is churlish to say that this is hardly a model process. He has no experience of trying to take such a Northern Ireland measure through the House. The situation is in flux and there are deadlines, some of which he helps to create, with which we have to cope in the general ebb and flow of events. Given all the circumstances, we have done damn well to extend the consultation as we have.
I do not want the Secretary of State to be under any misapprehension. I commended him and the Northern Ireland Office for the way in which they handled the early part of the process—indeed, I said that that was a model—but it is an enormous pity that the final stages, which are taking place in the House, face a programme motion that will seriously shorten consultation in Committee. That is a great problem. Otherwise, this would be virtually a model process. I implore the Secretary of State, even at this stage, to consider withdrawing the programme motion so that we can finish consideration in Committee in a way that is acceptable all round.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's accolade that this has been a model process, at least up to this point. I did not interpret the burden of his remarks in that way, but I accept that that is what he is saying.
May I put it on record that the Secretary of State's gratitude is overwhelming? Like me, he was a shadow spokesman for years and years, working on the Floor of the House and considering many Bills in Committee. I did not have access to civil servants in opposition, so the very fact that access has been provided during the consultation is a compliment to the Government. Not once as Opposition Members were we given such access.
Order. Before the Secretary of State responds, I must tell the House that the matter has been well aired. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will return to the Bill.
I risk straining my right hon. Friend's emollience, but will the Government itemise the Northern Ireland Assembly's recommendations—I think that they number between 13 and 17; I have not seen the full list, although I have read the Assembly debate—and give their decision on its more or less unanimous request? It would help matters considerably if the Government responded to that request, and the only real bone of contention was the question of symbols.
We will consider those recommendations in some detail. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, although the consultation has been going on for some time in an informal capacity, we have had this document for only a few days. We shall certainly give serious consideration to what my hon. Friend has said.
We have consulted the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly on those policy areas of the draft legislation that have implications for the devolved Administration. We will continue to consult and co-operate with the Executive and Assembly. The spirit in which that has taken place has been unusually constructive compared with our discussions on some items. There has been a degree of common support for the proposals, which has not always been apparent in everything the Government have tried to do in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to all those who submitted responses during the consultation exercise, which were, on the whole, positive and came from a wide range of interests. There now appears to be a broad consensus that the policies in the Bill represent the best way forward. Some helpful suggestions have been made during the consultation on the detailed operation of these policies. We shall take a number of comments on board by making the necessary amendments in Committee.
The great bulk of the comments that we have received thus far have been constructive. There is a great deal in the review on which the parties in Northern Ireland can agree, although I recognise that some issues are more difficult than others.
Inevitably, perhaps, the part of the Bill that has aroused most concern has been the provisions on symbols. The Bill proposes a number of changes in the light of the review's recommendations. This is obviously a highly sensitive area, and the review would probably have been criticised whatever outcome it came up with.
We fully endorse the review's recognition of the need to strike a balance between recognising the sensitivities of the various communities in Northern Ireland and confirming the courts' position within the agreed constitutional framework.
We are considering all the representations we have received, including a number expressing concern on heritage grounds about the removal of certain symbols. We will consider whether any changes are needed in the light of the responses to the consultation exercise, and the views expressed in the House. We are open to any constructive suggestions, particularly those capable of attracting cross-community support.
Another subject on which we have received a number of submissions is community safety. There was widespread support in the local government sector for a provision in the Bill to give councils clear statutory authority to undertake community safety work. I very much welcome the councils' intention to play an active role in community safety, which will contribute to reducing crime and the fear of crime in their localities. In order to facilitate that, I am minded, subject to consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive, to bring forward an amendment on those lines.
The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 sets out the crucial role of the Policing Board in the development of district policing partnerships. It will have an important role to play in ensuring that the police contribute effectively to the partnerships necessary to deliver community safety.
We do not envisage that the district policing partnerships will have the lead role in community safety, as that is not an issue for the police alone, and the other organisations which contribute to the delivery of community safety, such as housing and social services, are not included in the membership of those partnerships.
I am also conscious that the Executive have announced in their "Programme for Government" a review of public administration. They are also developing an important resource in the new local strategic partnerships. Both those initiatives could have major implications for the longer-term structures that we adopt for taking forward work on community safety, and I look forward to discussing those with the Executive.
Many of our proposals are dependent on having legislation in place before they can be fully implemented. However, that will still allow us to make early progress on areas that can be taken forward administratively, or for which we can usefully undertake some preparatory work. We have already published a document setting out the purpose and aims for the criminal justice system, as recommended by the review. We have appointed a Judicial Appointments Commissioner for Northern Ireland. We will shortly be publishing for consultation a community safety strategy, so as to stimulate further public debate on this important area of work.
Work has already begun to prepare the department of the Director of Public Prosecutions for the handling of the new responsibilities envisaged by the review.
I have tried to explain the burden of the Bill, discussing some aspects in broad terms and others in more detail. The Bill, and the other steps that we are taking as a result of our decisions on the review, are designed to create a justice system for the 21st century. We are combining best practice in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world with innovative approaches to old problems.
In many areas, such as that of prosecution, the steps that we are taking will bring practice in Northern Ireland more closely into line with that in England, Scotland and Wales. In other areas, such as youth conferencing, we will develop UK practice by learning from other countries. I believe that if others have experience that is worth taking on board, we have a duty to take the opportunity presented by the review and use it to best effect.
We will of course ensure that we incorporate appropriate safeguards. The justice system is too important for us to take a leap of faith. We will use pilots and evaluation to build up our own experience of how the measures fit the particular needs of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland, however, deserve the opportunity to match their criminal justice systems with the best in the world. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from 'That' to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill because it infringes the principle that justice flows from the Crown throughout the realm;
because it introduces aspects to the judicial system which depart from the principle that Northern Ireland is fully a part of the United Kingdom for judicial as well as other purposes;
and because it represents a further stage in the policy of unilateral and unbalanced concession to republicanism in Northern Ireland."
Let me begin by saying something about consultation, as there seemed to be some confusion about it a moment ago. The issue of consultation between Government and Opposition is very important to the way in which our parliamentary system works, although it is not always understood outside.
Although other Members may not believe it, I am an optimist. I think that half a loaf is a good deal better than no bread, and I am grateful for the partial consultation that took place. Once the Bill had been published, the Under–Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Browne, kindly gave me an opportunity to go through it with his civil servants and put our points to them. The civil servants were very able, and took us through the Bill clearly and thoroughly. We expressed our views candidly, for what they were worth; so if the Bill is given a Second Reading, which I rather hope it is not, a number of the detailed amendments that we may table in Committee will not be unfamiliar to the Under-Secretary of State.
To some extent, then, we put our cards on the table as well. We played fairly. What we did not have was consultation of any kind before the Bill's publication. The Government did not suggest taking us into their confidence in regard to measures that might or might not be in the Bill, or the rationale for its presentation—or its presentation at this particular time. Had such an invitation been issued I would have accepted it on the Opposition's behalf, on the same basis. If the discussion was to be confidential, we would have respected that confidentiality; if not, we would have played by whatever rules of the game the Government proposed. What we had, however, was "half-consultation"—although, as I have said, we are extremely grateful for that.
My hon. Friend Mr. Blunt made a reasonable point when he said that the process had been rushed. During an extraordinarily long period—about 20 months, between March 2000 and November last year—the Government did nothing following the report's publication; then they suddenly produced the Bill. The Secretary of State must be a bit sensitive about the delay, because he mentioned it in his speech, no doubt pre-emptively. He said that it had happened because of distraction with the building of institutions. I do not think that that should have interrupted progress on something involving justice, and the Secretary of State's remarks may have been more in the nature of an excuse.
Suddenly the Bill was produced, following a consultation process that was far too rapid. To give him his due, the Under-Secretary of State recognised that and extended the consultation over Christmas. I pay tribute to him for that, but the process was still rather rushed. By contrast, for 20 months nothing apparently happened. We could have had some pre-publication consultation during that time.
I wholeheartedly endorse the complaint about the timetable motion. The whole House will be aware of our objections in principle to that system. The imposition of a timetable motion is particularly damaging when fundamental constitutional issues are raised.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has put on record the level of co-operation that he has had from civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office, from me and from my fellow Ministers. I say unequivocally that in my experience, although it is limited, the degree of access to civil servants that he and his colleagues were given was unprecedented, but before March 2000, when the review was published, there was a period of consultation by the review itself. The Conservative party took part in that consultation and submitted an extensive memorandum. Following the consultation on the review, my predecessor engaged on a consultation, which I know the Conservative party took part in for a period. Given that there have been effectively 20 months of consultation since the review was published, and given how consistent the Bill and the implementation plan are with the provisions of the review, which part of the Bill came as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman?
I am grateful to the Minister. In fact, we did not know what the Government were going to do about restorative justice and about some of the more technical penal aspects. We hoped that they would not take on board the recommendations relating to the royal coat of arms and the oath of allegiance. I will come to those matters in a second.
Today has been a memorably bad day for Parliament and for Northern Ireland. Not content with the dubious initiative by the Government before Christmas, using their majority to introduce a motion in the House to create a special status for certain types of Member of Parliament that was designed to accommodate the demands of Sinn Fein-IRA—
Order. The hon. Gentleman should now come to the content of the Bill. He must not pursue lines that are outside the limits of the Bill; otherwise, he may have seriously to curtail his speech.
I hope to persuade the House that the Bill and the concessions in it are part and parcel of a general policy that has been pursued by the Government with increasing intensity over the past few months. Today's rather disreputable charade in Downing street was part and parcel of that.
May I be permitted to comment on the fact that no one will be taken in by the theory, which I gather has been put about by the Government, that the press conference in Downing street and meeting with the Prime Minister have nothing to do with Sinn Fein-IRA Members arriving here for the first time to claim their new privileges? It is claimed that it was just a routine meeting. One talent that all of us would concede to the Government is that of great sophistication in manipulating the media. The idea that it had never occurred to them that, if they had a meeting in Downing street, there would be a press conference, and if they had that on the day when those Members were coming to claim new privileges, that would greatly enhance the propaganda victory of Sinn Fein-IRA, seems so naive—
I would have thought that reforming the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland was an important enough subject not to have to spend a lot of time on what is a bit of a cheap soundbite, but since it has been brought up to catch the news, let me make it absolutely plain that the Prime Minister's meeting with Sinn Fein today was arranged weeks ago and is a normal meeting exactly like our meetings with the leaders of the Ulster Unionist party or other parties at their request. This may not have struck the hon. Gentleman, but it is not beyond the capabilities of any political party, when it has a meeting with the Prime Minister, to choreograph other events to maximum advantage. That would have been done had the meeting been last week, next week, next month or whenever.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should not meet Sinn Fein in case the press might be interested, I suggest that he is unable to distinguish between the great project of trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland and his own petty assessment of what is real politics. I assure him that the meeting was arranged weeks ago. On the decision itself—
It seems to me that the Secretary of State, in pleading innocence, is saying that the Government were outmanoeuvred by Sinn Fein this afternoon, which is a very revealing admission.
Does not the hon. Gentleman realise how disappointing it is to listen to his statement? I know that he has abandoned the bipartisan approach, but when we are debating a Bill that contains more than 200 measures to improve the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, it is sad that he confines himself to partisan issues. Does he not have anything to say about the Bill's actual content?
If the hon. Gentleman is patient, he will find that I have quite a lot to say about it, and not least about the agenda, hidden or otherwise, under which the Bill has been introduced. It is extremely important that the House should focus on that.
Just out of interest, I have tended to assume, for all the differences in the House, that all three main parties have the primary agenda of securing peace in Northern Ireland. If it does not digress too much from tonight's discussion, I would be interested to know what the hon. Gentleman thinks other parties' agenda is.
We have been through this before. We all have the objective of peace and I have paid tribute many times to the sincerity of all parties in the House in wanting peace in Northern Ireland, but we differ strongly as to the methods that are likely to produce it. The Government have made some very peculiar errors of judgment, already with disastrous consequences on the ground. It is absolutely clear that it is not we who have abandoned the bipartisan approach. The Government did that, by moving away from the strict lines of the Belfast agreement and making all sorts of new concessions before it had been implemented. That was extremely irresponsible and dangerous.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished Member of the House to whom I always listen with great attention on Irish matters, but I must first make some progress, as he will otherwise have every justification for saying that I have not grappled with the substance of the Bill.
Two very obnoxious provisions are buried in the mass of technical detail in the Bill, but 90 per cent. of it or more, by length, covers matters to which we have no fundamental objection of principle, although we have a lot of questions and there are some problematic issues. If the Bill were limited to the provisions covering the arrangements for devolving justice to Northern Ireland and the new measures in youth justice, for people up to and including the age of 17, we would give it its Second Reading and discuss our detailed reservations and proposals in Committee.
Let me go through those two aspects relatively briefly. We do not merely accept, but are, of course, very much in favour of, devolving justice to Stormont—and police affairs as well, but those are not covered in the Bill. However, so far as I know there has never been any suggestion from any party, or any other source, that such devolution should take place before the elections in May 2003. It has always been thought a good idea for the new Stormont Executive and Assembly to have one term of office and experience before we contemplate devolving more power to them.
There is therefore no need to legislate for these provisions in this Session. The subject could be covered next year, which would clearly be of some advantage, not least because it might then be possible to be more precise about some of the matters that have been left rather vague and open to the Secretary of State's decision by edict or instrument. In my view that has always been an undesirable state of affairs. There is far too much Henry VIII legislation going through under this Government, and it is often justified on the ground that it is impossible to predict the circumstances that will arise in two or three years' time, when the provisions need to be implemented. The nearer we are to the enactment of the provisions, the less weight that excuse has, so we see some advantage in waiting until next year.
We also have a general concern, because it is important that before we carry out the devolution we should have an opportunity to discuss matters with the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to consider the matter even more fully than has been possible over the past six weeks since the Bill appeared.
In my view, the consultation process that we have mentioned should be triangular, involving the Government and the Opposition in this House, and the parties at Stormont. As we have had the Christmas holidays in between, I do not think that there has been enough time since November for that process to take place to the extent that might have been desirable.
Is it not a fact that in the first part of the consultation, which the hon. Gentleman described as a long period, the Northern Ireland Office issued statements from time to time commenting on what Northern Ireland politicians had said? For example, there was the idea of taking away the Queen's crest and insignia, which we were told was only a proposal, not something to be seriously considered. All such matters were brushed aside during that period of so many months, so how can it be said that it was really consultation?
The House will be grateful for that intervention. I was not around at the time—at least, not in my present role with responsibility towards Northern Ireland—whereas the hon. Gentleman was intimately involved in the discussions. The Secretary of State has left the Chamber, but I trust that he will be back shortly; in the meantime, if Rev. Ian Paisley does not feel that the consultation process was adequate, I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State will have taken that on board.
The second major area covered by the Bill consists of new provisions for child and youth justice, especially reparation orders, community responsibility orders, youth conferences, and increasing the age for those regimes to 17.
Those are interesting ideas, and as I have already said, the Conservative party is interested in imaginative new ideas for youth justice—indeed, we are interested in imaginative new penal ideas in general. One of the questions that arises is why we are starting by applying those concepts to child justice rather than starting with adults and rolling the process back to children. There is no logic behind doing that—at least, none has been made clear to me—and the change might more sensibly take place the other way round.
We have some reservations about making Northern Ireland the locus for an experiment of that kind. Some of the review's provisions require "community leaders" or "appropriate adults" to take part in the youth conferences and other forums to be established by the Bill. There is legitimate concern about the real danger in many areas of Northern Ireland, particularly in the inner cities, that such leaders will themselves be, or will be the nominee of, the local gang or paramilitary boss, be he republican or loyalist. Those responsible for administering the process will no doubt take great care to avoid that corruption of the process, but there might be more confidence in the proposals if they were piloted elsewhere in the country—perhaps in England—before being rolled out more widely. They should not necessarily be started in Northern Ireland.
It is extraordinary to be told in the review that the system has already operated in New Zealand and that one or two members of the review committee visited New Zealand. They did not produce a report on their visit, or if they did, it has not been thought worthy of publication or inclusion in appendix B of the review. Apart from a few jejune paragraphs describing the position in New Zealand, the review contains nothing on which we can base a judgment about whether we should simply apply to our country an experiment operated there. The complete lack of assessment of results is extraordinary. The review contains no quantitative data, making it impossible to find out from the document how long the regime in New Zealand has been in place or how many children have passed through it, let alone what the results have been or the recidivism rate or any of the other obvious questions.
The Government's decision to introduce the Bill in the absence of any serious preparation is highly suspect. Is the Bill really intended to provide for the devolution of justice to Northern Ireland? Very probably, the answer is no. It might not be necessary this year, and there might be great advantages in waiting until next year. Is the purpose of the Bill really to provide a new regime for child justice in Northern Ireland? Again, the answer is very possibly no. The system has not been piloted and will be applied in Northern Ireland although there is no particular rationale for adopting that part of the country for the pilot.
Clearly, there has been none of the fundamental preparatory work that the House of Commons should demand before beginning to take seriously any suggestion that we should alter our system of child justice in any part of the country and adopt wholesale an experiment undertaken at the other end of the world. No proper assessment has been made for the public or for Parliament before asking us to take that decision.
Before the hon. Gentleman suggests too seriously that we are taking a leap in the dark, may I point out that he will be aware from his reading of the implementation plan and other documents published by the Government that we intend to pilot the system of restorative justice in the greater Belfast area, to assess the pilot and to go forward from there? He urges us to pilot the system, and that is what we intend to do.
The Minister provides me with a good soundbite: the phrase "a leap in the dark" sums up the Bill very well, and I thank him for it. He has no defence against the charge that I have just made. His intention is to pilot the scheme, but in Northern Ireland. We think it bizarre, given the troubles in Belfast, to pilot a system of restorative justice in Belfast that will involve members of the community.
The hon. Gentleman has outlined two motives that he claims the Government do not have for introducing the Bill. What does he believe is the Government's motive for doing so?
I am glad that I have the hon. Gentleman's attention and to know that he will listen carefully to the rest of my speech. An audience of at least one Member will wait in suspense for that important part of my speech. I shall come to that point, but I shall not quite yet be driven off the issue of the preparatory work for the new proposals for youth conferences, restorative justice, community responsibility orders and so forth.
The hon. Gentleman's intervention has confirmed my feeling that the Government have been thoroughly unbusinesslike about the Bill. One does not decide to change the system of criminal justice for anyone, and least of all for children, without thorough preparatory work. We cannot pass a Bill that takes lots of new powers and sets up many new systems, and then say that we will merely pilot it in Northern Ireland.
Before we take a decision, we need a thorough evaluation of the New Zealand experiment. The Government appear to have spent a lot of public money on that, even sending people to New Zealand, but we have had no proper analysis of the working of the system in New Zealand. That is surely elementary. What did those people do in New Zealand? I am sure that they had a lovely time—I gather that it is a beautiful country—but there was a time when people who had a jaunt at the taxpayer's expense were expected to produce some sort of report. If their report was detailed, thorough and convincing enough to make a respectable contribution to our debate, I should have expected it to be published. It has not been published, either in the review or, as far as I know, anywhere else. The fact that the Minister, who is usually quick to intervene, is sitting tight confirms me in my fears.
The hon. Gentleman will not lead me back to the controversies of the 1980s, and particularly not to a controversy that occurred even before I was a Member of the House. Far from being against piloting, I believe that it should be done systematically and thoroughly. We should not take a decision on rolling out a system until it has been properly piloted.
The hon. Gentleman will recollect that, during one of his meetings with my officials, he was given a copy of international research into restorative justice, including in New Zealand. Has he read it?
I do not recall seeing the report to which the Minister refers. I should be interested to see it. I have no idea whether it was produced by his officials who went to New Zealand or by others. If that report was germane to the decision to roll this system out in Northern Ireland and to change the law in the way that the Bill proposes, I cannot understand why it was not included in the review or at least referred to in appendix B so that we might have known that it was one of the documents on which the Bill was based.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one of the supporting documents was the paper I have in my hand—"Restorative Justice Options for Northern Ireland: A Comparative Review". It includes references to the very matters that he says are absent from the review.
The hon. Gentleman has not given me that report; I have not seen it. It is certainly not listed in appendix B. Perhaps he will point to precisely where it appears in appendix B, to show that we might have known that it existed and been able to ask for it. Page 445 of the review contains no reference to the assessment of New Zealand that he now claims exists. If the Minister wants some time to look at that page, he is welcome to it.
I have said enough to make it clear that I do not think that the Government can rest their case for the Bill on the provisions relating to either restorative justice or devolution of justice to Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I know that the point may be becoming tedious to some of his hon. Friends, but I should put the record straight. On page 445 of the review report—the page to which the hon. Gentleman himself referred—item 10 is the report to which I referred: "Restorative Justice Options for Northern Ireland: A Comparative Review". I cannot be responsible for the hon. Gentleman's copy of the review report, but if it is missing page 445, he can have mine.
What I have asked for and what the hon. Gentleman has not provided—he does not even suggest that it exists—is an assessment of the position in New Zealand. I have not seen such an assessment—nor, as far as I know, has any other hon. Member. We ought to read it, and we ought to have a chance to discuss it, before we change the law. My point is made.
The fact remains, however, that the Government would not have introduced the Bill this year if it were not necessary to camouflage two rather nasty and extremely significant provisions. Many parts of the Bill—restorative justice, merits, demerits and what happens around the world—may be discussed academically, which would be absolutely fascinating, but it represents a Trojan horse for two very nasty provisions: the abolition of the Oath of Allegiance in Northern Ireland and the removal of the royal coat of arms from courtrooms and new courthouses in Northern Ireland.
The Minister does not like my placing the focus on those two provisions, which is not surprising because they are very momentous provisions. I think that I am right to say—I hope that someone will correct me if I am wrong—that they must be the most overtly, explicitly republican provisions introduced in the House since the time of Oliver Cromwell. Someone cannot be much more republican than to suggest that we break the link between the judiciary and the Crown, that we no longer have the Crown at the apex of our constitution, legislative system, Executive and judiciary and that the doctrine on which the common law has always been based—that the administration of justice flows from the Crown—should be breached in part of our country: Northern Ireland.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to comment on two matters? First, the police in Scotland take no oath of allegiance to the Crown, and, under legislation that flowed from the Good Friday agreement, with which he agreed, neither do new recruits in Northern Ireland. Secondly, the Conservative Government supported Britain's joining and subscribing to the European convention on human rights, under which legal decisions come from the Strasbourg court and do not flow from the Crown, and from the Luxembourg court—which Mr. Heath took us into, as well as the European Community—which do not emanate from the Crown either.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is just thrashing around, desperately trying to find some shield to protect the Government, and his desperation shows. First, he knows perfectly well that I referred to the judiciary. I am not talking about the police, but he tries to switch the discussion to the police. Secondly, he talks about courts set up under international agreements to which we are party. Clearly, that has gone on for a long time. We set up the International Court of Justice at The Hague some time before the first world war. It is obvious that if we set up an international court and are part of the convention, the international court is not subject to the Crown, but under all the systems of law in the United Kingdom—Scottish law, English law and so forth—the principle has always been that justice flows from the Crown, and the hon. Gentleman knows that perfectly well. He also knows perfectly well that the Bill will cut that umbilical cord in respect of Northern Ireland, which raises enormous constitutional and juridical questions that he wants to shield the Government from facing up to.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the position of the Strasbourg and Luxembourg courts in this country's judicial system flows entirely from a decision of this Parliament?
Indeed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and what Parliament grants, it can take away. Parliament is sovereign—another principle that, like justice flowing from the Crown, most of us thought immutable. It is now under attack, at least in Northern Ireland.
"Be sure your sin will find you out."
Things come back to haunt us, as we have already discovered from previous interventions, but is not it a fact that, instead of respecting mutual traditions, things have moved further and some people no longer respect the fact Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom under the sovereign?
Indeed, that is absolutely true. I am afraid to say that the Government appear to be so embarrassed that the Secretary of State has done something unprecedented—to have absented himself from the Chamber during a debate on a fundamental constitutional issue. Absenting himself from the Chamber and not waiting to hear the Opposition's response in any context, let alone a debate on Second Reading, is pretty unprecedented. I have several questions to ask him, but they will have to be answered by the Minister, if he is prepared to do so.
I place on record the fact that that is not only an extraordinary discourtesy to the House—I am certainly not worried about discourtesy to me personally—but it reflects the slighting way in which Government regard Parliament these days. They regard it as something of a burden, a nuisance and less important than other things that they might prefer to do. There could be no more graphic example of that than the Secretary of State's conduct this afternoon.
Rev. Martin Smyth is right to say that those provisions raise fundamental constitutional issues. Do the Government glory in making this concession? Are they closet republicans? Do they feel that this would be a wonderful thing to do if only it could be rolled out across the whole United Kingdom and that it is absolutely splendid that they have an opportunity to do so in Northern Ireland, they hope? Are they introducing the provisions more in sorrow, thinking that they reluctantly have to do so in Northern Ireland? To use the Secretary of State's phrase, is this a concession; or are the Government introducing it on its own merits? Perhaps we could have some answers. I should be happy to give way to the Minister, who normally likes to jump to his feet to interrupt, if he has an answer.
While my hon. Friend is waiting, may I give him a little reassurance? I broadly agree about the motives behind clause 20(2) and (3), but I have absolutely no doubt that the judges who take the oath in Northern Ireland will deliver justice as dispassionately and with as much sense of justice as any holder of judicial office who has taken the existing oath. We need not worry about the quality of justice that will be provided by judges or holders of judicial office in Northern Ireland, but I wholeheartedly accept the point that my hon. Friend makes about the symbolism of the original oath and the message that the Government are trying to send by removing it.
My hon. and learned Friend jumps to his feet to defend the integrity of the legal profession. I hasten to add that I had no intention of impugning its integrity, and I am certain that judges will indeed try to administer justice impartially. Nevertheless, as he will concede, some serious constitutional questions have been raised.
Let me put those questions to the Minister, who sits on the Government Front Bench in default of the Secretary of State, who ought to answer. The Secretary of State bears the responsibility for introducing the Bill, but he made a long speech, lasting more than 50 minutes, and then walked out of the Chamber, so he is no longer able to answer any question that the House may have. Hon. Members could not have a clearer example of the way in which the Government are treating Parliament. It is absolutely monstrous and absolutely scandalous, and if that is what happens when a party achieves a majority of 200 over the other parties, it is a wonderful example of the working of the Acton principle that power corrupts and greater power corrupts further.
I shall still ask those questions. If the Queen is no longer to be the apex of our justice system, who is? No one is substituted under the Bill. Will it be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Will it be the Prime Minister in a new regal role? Will it be the legal profession itself, enjoying some sort of platonic hegemony by virtue of its own specialised knowledge? Will the Minister resort to the mantra of Marxism- Leninism and say that justice will be done in the people's name? That is remarkable. We are removing the Crown from the apex of the judiciary in Northern Ireland, but the Minister will not tell me what the Government are putting in its place. How can Parliament possibly pass the Bill, which removes the relationship between the Crown and the judicial system in part of our country, without the Secretary of State being here to answer questions and without the Government being prepared to tell us what they are putting in its place?
There is no point my giving way to the hon. Gentleman. I want the Government to give me an answer. I do not want them to be saved from answering a necessary question by interventions from their Back Benchers. The Government must respond, because there is simply no way that the House can vote for the Bill tonight unless we have an answer to that elementary question.
Will the Minister intervene? Does he want me to count up to five? He has no answer; the House can draw a clear conclusion from that.
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He wants to act as a foil to save the Government from complete and utter embarrassment. They do not want to answer the questions, or they do want to tell the House that they have no answers. Ministers are simply sitting on the Front Bench and are not answering the most fundamental question that is raised by the Bill.
No, I am very consistent. You have known me a long time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and you know that when I say that I will not give way, I will not give way. Normally, I enjoy giving way on such occasions and the hon. Gentleman knows that I often enjoy giving way to him. However, I will not give way to anyone on the Government Benches who simply wishes to obfuscate. The issue cannot and will not be obfuscated. We require an answer from the Government. Who or what will replace the Crown, which is being removed from the apex of the judicial system in Northern Ireland?
Exactly the same goes for the hon. Gentleman. I will take no further interventions from Labour Back Benchers until I get an answer to the most fundamental and pertinent question raised by the Bill.
To spare hon. Members a repetition of this ill-informed contribution to the debate, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that he will find the answer to his question in proposed new section 12 of the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978. The words appear in clause 4 of the Bill, which states:
"Whenever the office of Lord Chief Justice is vacant, Her Majesty may . . . appoint a qualified person".
It is perfectly clear that there is no change to the structure of the judiciary in Northern Ireland or to its relationship with Her Majesty the Queen. She will remain at the apex of the judiciary in Northern Ireland. In the same way as the hon. Gentleman did not get to the appendices in the review, he may not have reached clause 4, but that is the answer.
The hon. Gentleman has, in fact, said that the Bill is complete nonsense. If the oath of allegiance is removed, judges will no longer have to accept that the Crown stands above justice in Northern Ireland. Their allegiance to the Crown will be abolished and they will apparently be beholden to no one. However, the Minister tells us that, for certain purposes, the role of the Crown is being emasculated but retained. What is the logic of that?
If the Minister wanted to introduce a purely republican measure, he would presumably have cut all the links with the Crown. However, he does not have the courage to do that or does not want to that, so he cuts some links and removes the oath of allegiance that is absolutely key to the relationship between judges and the Crown and that sets it out clearly in a way that no other procedure could.
If the Minister is suggesting that the Crown still has a role in Northern Ireland as an overarching authority for the judicial system, why is the oath of allegiance being abolished? Why is the symbol of that relationship—the royal coat of arms in courthouses—being taken down only in Northern Ireland? If he thinks that is desirable, I return to the question that he refused to answer earlier. Why does he not roll out the measure in the rest of the Kingdom?
I am sure that hon. Members will be relieved to be relieved from the tedium of the hon. Gentleman's repeated assertions, none of which has any basis in fact, in the review or in the Bill.
In the time that the hon. Gentleman had to prepare for the Bill—however long that was—I take it that he read the review. The arguments for the changes to the oath in the special circumstances of Northern Ireland are set out in the review and they are accepted by the Government. The arguments and discussion about the symbols in courtrooms and outside courts are set out in the review, and they are accepted by the Government. That is the raison d'être for the Bill. It has nothing to do with republicanism or non-republicanism, and the hon. Gentleman does not know which it is anyway.
The Minister has now betrayed himself completely. He is essentially saying that the arguments for the proposals are contained in the review. However, it is not an independent review. It was set up by the Government, packed by the Government and run by the Government. It is the Government speaking to themselves.
I refer the Minister and the House to the constitution of the review and to paragraph 1.5 on the composition of the review group. The chairman of the group is Jim Daniell. Who is he? He is the director of criminal justice at the Northern Ireland Office and chairman of the review group. The chairman is a civil servant who works for the Secretary of State and is on the payroll of the Northern Ireland Office. The next member is Glenn Thompson, director of the Northern Ireland Court Service, and another, Brian White, is the head of the criminal justice policy division at the Northern Ireland Office. In no sense is this an independent review.
The Government clearly decided what they wanted to do. They produced and packed the review, and its chairman reported directly to them. Other members of the review group are directly on their payroll. The second half of the charade is that they then produced a response to their review. Who drafted the response? Perhaps the Minister would like to tell us. I suppose it might well have been the director of criminal justice at the Northern Ireland Office—he is the chairman of the review group—or one of the other civil servants on the body. It would be very odd if the director of criminal justice at the Northern Ireland Office had nothing to do with the drafting of a document that admittedly goes out in the name of the Secretary of State. It is a thoroughly incestuous procedure, and it will fool no one.
It is now clear how far the hon. Gentleman read into the review document: he read to the bottom of page 2. If he reads the top of page 3, he will see that there were another five members of the review group, all of whom were independent of Government. The majority of the group were independent, so why did he stop reading the names at the bottom of page 2 and not continue to read those of the five independent people on page 3?
Simply because I was reading out the names of the people who report directly to the Minister or to his boss, the Secretary of State. They packed the review group with their civil servants and they nominated the chairman. Of course, they can have one or two outside members—as, indeed, they do—to provide the fig leaf, but that is simply part of the charade.
Another part of the charade relates to a serious abuse. The Government tend to justify the Bill and the particularly obnoxious provisions about the oath of allegiance and about the presence of the royal coat of arms in courtrooms and on new courthouses by saying that they have something to do with the Belfast agreement. I am sure that, like me, the Minister has read the Belfast agreement; I have read it several times. Therefore, he should know that there is nothing in the agreement about these two provisions. It provides for a review of the justice system in Northern Ireland. It also sets up the terms of reference for the criminal justice review in one of the appendices, and I can tell the Minister where that is if he wants to know. Nothing is included about the oath of allegiance or the royal coat of arms. The beginning—the fons et origo—and the end of the proposal lie with the Government. They came up with the idea and are responsible for establishing the review group and packing it with their people. They got the proposal from the review group; it has nothing to do with the Belfast agreement. They responded in the review document and put the provisions in the Bill, and they alone can take responsibility for them.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government's track record on independent reviews since the Belfast agreement is not particularly impartial? Will he comment on the track record of the Patten report, which, under the Belfast agreement, was meant to recommend changes that would receive widespread community support? Instead, however, the Government recommended removing the "Royal" from the title of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. There is a republican tendency within the Government.
The hon. Gentleman's last point is all too evident, and it is a cause of concern. The Patten report at least had a greater pretension of being independent. As the Secretary of State said, Chris Patten was not on the Government payroll and not a member of the Government party. He was in a key position as chairman, as indeed is the chairman of this review group, although he is also part of the hierarchy of the Northern Ireland Office.
The hon. Gentleman's comment on republicanism brings me back to the question that I asked, which has not been answered. If it is desirable to remove the oath of allegiance and take away the royal coat of arms from courtrooms, why is that not being done in the rest of the United Kingdom? Why do the Government not have the courage of their convictions—if, indeed, they are convictions?
I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's conspiracy theory on republicans in the Government. In that context, who will appoint the Advocate-General in the new system, and what will his continuing responsibilities be for Northern Ireland?
We had an interesting revelation on that when it was suggested that the Advocate-General might be the same person as the Attorney-General in this country.
May I refer the hon. Gentleman back to the oath, over which he has taken such grave exception? It states:
"I . . . do swear that I will well and faithfully serve in the office of" whatever it is
"and that I will do right to all manner of people without fear or favour, affection or ill-will according to the laws and usages"—
I stress the final part—
"of this realm."
I noticed that, and it shows how mealy-mouthed the Government are. They do not have the courage of their convictions. They have been incapable of explaining the logic of leaving the reference to realm but removing the reference to oath of allegiance. I ask again: what is the logic in that? There is no logic. We have established that clearly.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that there is no such thing as a United Kingdom legal system? The fact that Scotland has had her own legal system for 300 years has not contributed to any great wish for Scotland to become independent.
Of course I realise that; indeed, I think that I referred to that earlier. We all know that Scotland has a different legal system. It is based on Roman law and was in place at the time of the Act of Union 1707.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for giving way; I shall be brief.
My hon. Friend initially put his question to the Minister five or six times, but the Minister sat in his seat looking blank until inspiration arrived from elsewhere. The Government cannot hide behind the review. It is their Bill that is before the House and they must stand or fall by what is in it. They cannot palm responsibility off on others.
My hon. Friend scores a bull's eye, as he would know if he had seen the Minister shift in his seat as he spoke. As he says, the Government are responsible for the anomalous mess and the disreputable concessions. They might go three quarters or even 90 per cent. of the way towards republicanism, but they do not have the courage of their convictions and go the full 100 per cent. The Government cooked up the Bill. They were responsible for the review, which they dominated. They packed the review committee with their people and produced their own response. The procedure has been incestuous and I do not believe that it will confuse anyone.
Why have the Government gone in for this particular exercise? We have established that, and the debate has been a good one. The Government's decision is not based on a conviction, because if the measures were so virtuous and desirable in themselves they would be extended to the whole of the UK. We all know the answer. The Bill has been introduced for no other reason than to provide one more set of concessions to one of the parties in Northern Ireland. Every time we have a Northern Ireland debate, at least one new concession is made and it is always tailored to the same beneficiary—Irish republicanism. It is impossible to get more republican than the Bill. It cannot be a coincidence—or, if it is, it is a revealing one—that the Bill comes before the House on the day when Sinn Fein-IRA MPs are claiming their privileges for the first time.
It was a passing reference, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I remind the Minister, and he does need reminding, why we believe that the course of offering endless concessions in one direction in Northern Ireland is inept, irresponsible and dangerous. First, the concessions are not linked to a counter move by the other side. The Government give away their negotiating currency and, when they run out of that, they try to raise more at the expense of the integrity of our institutions—Parliament, the system of justice and the Crown. They then throw away the new concessions without getting a quid pro quo. That is a hopeless way to conduct a negotiation.
The second problem with the tactic is that, far from speeding up the implementation of the Belfast agreement, which is an objective that we all sincerely share, it can only do the reverse. Sinn Fein-IRA have every incentive to spin out the agony on decommissioning because the longer it is spun out, the more concessions they get from the British Government. That is a lamentable state of affairs.
The third problem is that by making the concessions all in one direction, the Government are destroying the essential balance that is fundamental to a successful peace process. We will have permanent peace in Northern Ireland only if all communities believe that there is something in it for them. In the case of the Belfast agreement, everyone made concessions and everyone legitimately believed that it contained something that was important and positive for them. That is why the Opposition supported and continue to support the Belfast agreement.
By moving beyond the Belfast agreement and making a stream of concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA without waiting for it to be implemented, or even insisting on its implementation, other parties are increasingly feeling that they are being made fools of in some way because it is a one-way street. It is not just the Unionist community that is affected, although it is the majority group. What about the Social Democratic and Labour party? After all, the SDLP and its predecessors have for generations persistently and bravely fought for human rights and equal opportunities in Northern Ireland and, quite legitimately, for their ideal of a united Ireland. In doing so they have always stuck to constitutional principles and adopted peaceful methods. The SDLP has acted in the finest traditions of its predecessors—O'Connell, Parnell and Redmond.
What has the SDLP got? It has not received any great bouquets from the Government. It has not been given a specially crafted concession or a special status here at Westminster. It has not had the Government rolling out the red carpet and allowing it to hold press conferences in Downing street. It is entitled to feel as aggrieved by the Government's handling of the matter as are the Unionist parties. Ultimately, the Government's policy is not only inept but extremely dangerous. They must change course before it is too late.
Sometimes the Government like to ask me what I would do in their place. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Jane Kennedy, did so the other day. It is quite simple. First, we would state that there would be no unilateral concessions at all. Nobody would receive concessions without making some effort in return. Concessions might be related to decommissioning. They ought to be related to decommissioning in present circumstances because it is running over a year and a half late, which is a serious matter.
Concessions might, however, be related to other matters. When the Secretary of State was still here, we discussed policing. I put the question again: why, when the Government are to give bouquets to Sinn Fein-IRA, did they not take the opportunity to say, "You can't have this unless you do your part on policing"? I am extremely worried about the summer parades season in Northern Ireland. No progress is being made in negotiations, so perhaps the Government could ask for concessions on parades. It is essential that when the Government have something to offer they do not throw it away. They must make sure that it is bargained for concrete progress in the peace process.
Secondly, we would try to have a programmed process involving all parties, so that everybody knew exactly what needed to be done, when it needed to be done and what the end of the line was. The desperate situation in Northern Ireland today is that nobody knows where the end of the line is. Nobody knows how many more concessions the British Government might have to make before there is further progress on decommissioning. Nobody knows where this process will end, and that is extremely demoralising and worrying.
No, I cannot take any more interventions at this stage. I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye later in the debate.
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He would not answer my key questions, and he had plenty of opportunities to do so. I asked him questions five or six times and he would not answer them. Now it is too late for him to intervene because I am about to wind up my speech.
Finally, we recognise that there may be occasions on which it is a good idea to consider symbolism. Clearly, in this case there is an important issue concerning the royal coat of arms in courtrooms. Our approach would be not to take away an existing symbol but, where it seemed a good idea, to add another. A wonderful example of how that can be done has been set, no thanks to the Government, by the Policing Board, which has decided on a new cap badge and uniform for the new police service. As we know, the Government's contribution was to try to screw that up that by including the wrong photographs in the order put before the House of Commons.
That is a good example of how it is possible to make progress in accommodating groups and making them feel a sense of ownership of institutions in Northern Ireland without at the same time insulting or humiliating other groups. That is the way forward, but it does not seem even to have occurred to the Government to try to solve the issue of the royal coat of arms in courtrooms on that basis. If it had occurred to them, I trust that we would have heard about it because they would have pursued the suggestion and had discussions. They never even thought of it because their instinct, which is purely destructive and unbalanced, is to get rid of the royal coat of arms. I do not know whether that is because they are closet republicans or whether it is because they just did not think beyond their noses.
No, Ministers have had many opportunities to intervene on me.
I particularly resent, as will the whole House, the fact that the Secretary of State has absented himself from this debate.
The Government have no answer to the key questions that I have asked. Why, if these measures are so desirable, are they not being rolled out in the United Kingdom as a whole? Why are the Government continuing to give away concessions without getting anything in return? The Secretary of State is not in a position to answer those questions; the Minister declined to do so when I put them to him, and the House can judge from that whether or not it is right to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Despite my reputation, I welcome today's debate and the Bill as a further demonstration of the Government's commitment to the Good Friday agreement and a further stage in its implementation.
We are having this debate against a background of considerable violence in north Belfast: the fire-bombing of a pensioner, the abiding cruelty towards the girls and families of the Holy Cross school and the casual murder of a young father, Daniel McColgan. All that reminds us that the road on which we travel is beset with risk and danger, as it has been over the years, but I believe that we have come a long way and that we are making progress.
The second paragraph in the declaration of support for the Good Friday agreement reads:
"The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust, and to protect the human rights of all."
At the outset, it has to be said that the Bill begs the question of the continued existence of emergency legislation, the failure to reform the inquest system and the persistence of no-jury courts. It begs the question of the past, and in important respects, particularly on the all-Ireland dimension, it begs the question of the future.
The past runs like a cancer through the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. One can try, like Lord Widgery, to paper over the cracks after Bloody Sunday, but the truth has to be addressed eventually. The cost of 30 years of delay can be counted in bodies on the streets. It is no use now complaining about the cost of Lord Saville's inquiry.
The roots of the failure to bring to justice the murderers of Pat Finucane, Robert Hamill and Rosemary Nelson lie in the corruption of the police and the criminal justice system by what nationalists believe was a fundamentally flawed and self-defeating practice of counter- insurgency—of pursuing a clandestine war against terrorism through the institutions of the state. It is for historians and politicians to argue about whether that was successful or necessary. One thing we all have to understand is that confidence in the rule of law and the institutions for upholding the law were critically undermined in the process.
We need a fresh Act and a new beginning. That is the reality that we have to address, and the Government are partly doing so today. The Good Friday agreement envisaged that, following the establishment of the new institutions, within a relatively short time it would be possible to create a new police service, reform the criminal justice system and transfer responsibility for law and order to the Northern Ireland Assembly. In that scenario the promotion of rights would be balanced with the nurturing of a new sense of collective responsibility. There would be no winners and no losers. The process would move on.
We can argue about who was to blame for delay, but delay has occurred. The Bill is clearly only a half-way house. It introduces a number of important reforms that prepare the ground for devolution, but it does not take that step. Consequently, it is more difficult to establish the balance between rights and responsibilities. I wish to underline at the outset the fact that balance will not be achieved by taking half measures in reform. It should have been introduced sooner, but I welcome the Government's target for devolving policing and justice as quickly as possible after May 2003.
The legislation that we have now got must create confidence in the justice system across the whole community. For that reason, I question why the Government in their publication on the purpose and aims of the criminal justice system have dramatically departed from the aims of the criminal justice system set out in the Good Friday agreement. The aims, in the agreement, of being
"responsive to the community's concerns and encouraging community involvement where appropriate" and having
"the confidence of all parts of the community" do not appear in the text of the Government publication. I have no great disagreement with the aims as published, but regret to say that I can see no reason to jettison the aims that appeared in the Good Friday agreement, which have been voted on by the House and by the people of Ireland, north and south.
The Good Friday agreement and the criminal justice review that was established as a result both set great store by recognising the centrality of human rights and the framework provided by international human rights standards. However, they have no place in the Government's exposition of the aims of the criminal justice system, although my right hon. Friend partly dealt with that in his speech. It is a major defect that that recognition is not implicit on the face of the Bill. I share that position with the Northern Ireland Assembly, which adopted it by unanimous agreement.
The Bill should have regard to rights highlighted by the Good Friday agreement, particularly given the recent history of communal conflict, as they address parity of esteem. The right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations and the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means should be given legal expression; consequently, those parts of the Treason Felony Act 1848 that still prescribe that activities such as felony should be punishable by life imprisonment should be repealed.
I welcome what the Bill says about the rights of the child, which are increasingly important in the international framework for the protection of human rights. I welcome the clauses that deal with youth justice and am pleased that the Government are moving into line with international best practice by bringing 17-year-olds into the orbit of the youth justice system. The United Nations convention on the rights of the child provides that in all actions concerning children undertaken by
"courts of law, administrative authorities of legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration."
In that light, I am surprised that the aims of the youth justice system set out in the Bill are drawn even narrower than the aims of the criminal justice system as a whole. The Government are right to set out the aims of the youth justice system, but it cannot be right that clause 53(1) states:
"The principal aim of the youth justice system is to protect the public by preventing offending by children."
There is no reference, despite the three subsequent subsections, to rehabilitating youth and child offenders; that should have been addressed, as its importance parallels that of the principal aim. At a minimum, the Bill should require all persons and bodies within the system to have regard to the UN convention on the rights of the child.
The Bill must pass three critical tests if it is to meet the challenge of creating a fresh start for the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. Will the structures of the system make it accountable to the community that it serves? Will its composition make it representative of the community that it serves? Will its ethos make it sensitive to the need for tolerance and reconciliation in a divided society?
On accountability, the Director of Public Prosecutions is no less controversial, albeit less public, than the Chief Constable, formerly of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but now of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I should prefer greater accountability and a new name, especially in light of the Finucane fiasco, in which murderers walked free in the interests of national security; Stobie was originally acquitted 10 years ago and Herard, allegedly the man who pulled the trigger on Pat Finucane, was recruited to the security services. I certainly want to ensure greater transparency in decision making when it is decided not to prosecute, especially bearing in mind the decision of the Attorney-General not to prosecute the policemen involved in shootings in South Armagh—the alleged shoot-to-kill policy—who were to have been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. I believe that, as a general principle, although not necessarily in those particular cases, that is the attitude of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
On the composition of the new institutions, I am disappointed that the Government have so far failed to bring the component parts of the criminal justice system into the purview of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which would place on them a statutory duty to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that that is the Government's intention when he makes his winding-up speech. I fail to understand why it is not important to ensure that the recruitment and promotion practices of the court service or the prison service should not comply fully with the law on providing equality of opportunity. I fail to see why the composition of the work force should not be monitored to protect against discrimination on the grounds of gender, community origin or any other prescribed basis. I fail to see why a programme of affirmative action with goals and timetables should not be put in place.
The process of change and renewal requires the bringing-in of new people and influences. There is much greater scope for lay involvement in the proposed Law Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission. It should be possible to create neutral symbols for the Northern Ireland Court Service that represent the system's aim of providing justice for all. The issue of members of oath-bound organisations came up in relation to the new police service, and it is no less important for those appointed to judicial offices and other positions where trust is all-important. The judicial oath is incompatible with that taken by the Orange Order; we must deal with that. The judicial oath is improved beyond measure by removing the sovereign from the equation, but for some reason, the proposed text retains "the realm" where "the jurisdiction" would serve as well. However, I am sure that we can address that in Committee.
I find the galloping republicanism, of which my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench are accused, rather startling. It would be helpful if, in his reply, my hon. Friend the Minister would explain how many new courthouses will spring up round Northern Ireland, perhaps like a rash of measles, none having a coat of arms outside. Members of the legal service, such as solicitors and barristers, and other people may find it difficult to have a coat of arms in court. The suggestion that justice comes from the sovereign is a rather quaint idea—a leftover of mediaeval and legal history—which bears no resemblance to considerations in other modern states, but we retain it.
What the hon. Gentleman regards as something that has survived does one important thing. If justice flows from the Crown, which is at the apex of the justice system, it is divorced from party politics. The Crown stands above party politics. If we wish to indicate that the arrangements that are put in place are not influenced by party politics, as the legal system should not be, we can do that by putting them under the Crown. That is important symbolically in ensuring the independence of the judiciary of political influence. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish to see that.
I very much want the judiciary to be independent of political influence. For example, I wish that there had been independence at the time of the Widgery inquiry into Bloody Sunday, but the Lord Chief Justice, with all his powers emanating from the Crown, took his orders from the Prime Minister, as the revealed minute showed. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the Crown may or may not be useful for the purpose that he describes. There are other systems that manage to make the distinction without using the Crown. For people in Northern Ireland who have found the concept of accepting allegiance to the Crown difficult, as well as dispensation of justice under the Crown, it was proper to remove the coat of arms.
I should like now to deal with some of the comments made by Mr. Davies, who spoke about concessions being made to Sinn Fein. The people who spearheaded the reforms that are being introduced in terms of the nationalist community were the SDLP and my hon. Friends the Members for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady). The people who demanded the reforms at the height of the unrest, killings, bombings and shootings and asked for the impartial delivery of justice were my friends in the SDLP. Other people may come on board, but my friends in the SDLP were asking not for concessions, but basic rights that should be given to every person. By regarding those rights as concessions, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is not only lifting the position of Sinn Fein in the eyes of the community, but, more importantly, doing a base disservice to the SDLP and to the people who have stuck to the constitutional issues throughout the troubles. I say to him that the more he makes a bogey man out of the provisions and uses the word "concessions" to describe the basic rights for which the SDLP and others have worked so hard and long while facing such great difficulties, the more he is defeating his own purposes.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the important thing is to make an effort, achieve some mental clarity and distinguish between concessions, which are made reluctantly as the price for achieving something else, and things that are done for their own sake. We have had some discussion about that distinction in recent Northern Ireland debates, as it is very important that people make it. He is trying to manoeuvre me into a position in which I appear to have criticised the SDLP. Far from it. I accept exactly what he said: the aims for which the SDLP campaigned for so many years largely—there may be small exceptions that I cannot think of—rightly qualified as rights. However, the concessions are being made to somebody else: Sinn Fein-IRA. Concessions such as amnesties for terrorists who are on the run or special status for their Members of Parliament do not, by definition, apply to the SDLP, so he cannot possibly distort my position to the extent of supposing that I criticise the SDLP in the way that he describes.
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, in his speech, he referred to the provisions as concessions to Sinn Fein. I am pointing out that they were being demanded as basic rights by the SDLP even before we had the policy of the Armalite and the ballot box. The SDLP, as Irish nationalists, wanted these rights. The Bill contains the right for people to go into a court and to accept that the justice done there is administered to them as citizens, and not on the basis of dispensation by—as they see it—a foreign country's monarch.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Northern Ireland are no different from the people of Scotland, England and Wales with regard to their need for justice and a system that will create equal opportunity in Northern Ireland for all people? Does he agree that we do Northern Ireland and the Bill a disservice when we speak of concessions to Sinn Fein and the IRA?
I thank my hon. Friend for the promotion that he gave me. I agree with him thoroughly. It is very sad that so much of the speech of the Opposition spokesman was taken up on these matters. This is a big Bill; indeed, it is a great reforming Bill. It does not go as far as I want it to, but it is a fresh step and should be received in that light. I hope that, on mature consideration, the Opposition will seek to withdraw their ill-conceived reasoned amendment and give the Government the fair wind that they deserve on the Bill, which can then be improved in Committee.
On balance, the Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill, as it implements reasonably faithfully the recommendations of the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. Let those of us who have consistently claimed to support the Northern Ireland agreement remember that this debate has arisen directly as a result of that agreement. One of the most important aspects of the debate must be the fact that the Bill finally introduces international standards of human rights in legislation for Northern Ireland. I intend to concentrate on parts 1, 2 and 3 of the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend Mrs. Calton will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and have the opportunity to deal with the other parts.
I should like to deal first with the extremely interesting speech of Mr. Davies, who made some serious criticisms. For example, he criticised the degree to which we had all been consulted and suggested that there had been only partial consultation. In my view, in politics, actions speak rather louder than words. Although, thankfully, I was not in the House to endure the years of the former Conservative Government, my predecessors with the Northern Ireland portfolio have assured me—indeed, I have checked this point tonight—that they had almost no opportunity during that time to contribute to legislation before it appeared on the Floor of the House. It was almost a consultation dark age, during which my hon. Friends saw the lights going on and off as the Bills were drafted, but simply felt impotent because the Government refused to consult.
In that context, any criticisms made by the Liberal Democrats about consultation may have some currency. However, I am very dubious about the hidden agenda—to use a familiar phrase from the debate—of the Conservative party in seeking to find fault with almost every detail of a Bill that one should support in principle, if one steps back from it, in the context of the Good Friday agreement. It is slightly disappointing that the Conservative spokesperson can at the very least be interpreted as having made a party political speech rather than one that sought to contribute constructively to our debate.
In fairness to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford, he said that he agreed with many aspects of the Bill. He sought to take issue not with a lot of detail but with specific aspects. I listened carefully to what he said and I am pretty sure that that was his approach.
I am grateful for that intervention; we are now slowly flushing out the shields protecting the official Opposition's Front Bench. In fairness to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a high regard, I recognise that he makes a degree of sense on that point. None the less, the tone of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford could be interpreted by the casual onlooker—if any casual onlookers follow these debates of ours—as an unequivocally negative attack on the Bill. My worry is that perception is tremendously important in respect of Northern Ireland matters. In assessing the effectiveness of the measures and of what we are doing, a number of individuals will take their lead from what is being said, which will affect the mood music of the process.
I have a great deal of personal affection and respect for the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford because he is genuinely trying to drive the Conservative party back towards a more consensual position. I therefore counsel him to consider the message that Conservative Members wish to convey about what needs to happen in Northern Ireland, and the way in which they want to be portrayed in the context of such an important Bill.
The Liberal Democrats believe that, in time, policing and justice should be devolved to Northern Ireland and the Assembly and that a department of justice should be created roughly along the lines of that in Scotland. We also believe that that should happen in Wales, not because we are rabid republicans but because we are keen on devolution, which is the right way forward. At heart, we believe that, although local politicians should not interfere with police operational matters, local and correctly formed structures could enhance accountability and introduce a sense of cross-community and democratic ownership of the criminal justice system. That is the great strength of devolution and it can work as well in Wales as in Northern Ireland. However, we are discussing the Province tonight.
When devolution occurs is primarily a matter of debate between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Government. However, I believe that we should adopt the strategy that I have outlined after a substantial period of stability. To be fair to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, he correctly stated that maintaining the independence of the judiciary is of paramount importance in that context. For obvious reasons, Northern Ireland is a highly politicised society and we must be careful to ensure that any measure that we pass here cannot be blown off course by the especially sectoral nature of politics in Northern Ireland. We cannot allow political creep to enter the judiciary.
Chapter 6 of the report of the review covers the recent development of the role of the judiciary, especially in relation to judicial review and the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into United Kingdom law. The report rightly states:
"All of this reinforces the need to ensure judicial independence from the executive and to enable the judiciary to act, and be seen to act, in a dispassionate way, free from any sectoral influence, real or perceived."
If the Bill did not provide for that, I should be worried that the Government had missed the point. However, I am glad that clause 1 states:
"Those with responsibility for the administration of justice must uphold the continued independence of the judiciary."
I shall not go into detail now—I am sure that we shall revert to the matter in Committee—but the Bill appears to provide for safeguarding against the danger that I described.
How appropriate is it to legislate for devolving judicial appointments before devolving responsibility for all aspects of the justice system to the Assembly? How reasonable is it to do that in stages? Again, hon. Members may have different views on the matter, although the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford did not specifically comment on that point. I therefore assume that Conservative Members are not especially anxious about staged devolution. It makes sense because we can manage the process without changing too many aspects at once. There is great danger in moving too fast. Furthermore, we might create monsters that we cannot destroy without a great deal of work.
I welcome the establishment of a Judicial Appointments Commission for Northern Ireland. The recommendation for creating such a commission goes a long way towards ensuring a more transparent appointments process. I agree with the parts of the review that call for that. A staged, responsible approach can coherently change the judiciary and the legal system in Northern Ireland without causing too many problems. Furthermore, because transparency is heavily emphasised in the Bill, I believe that we are starting in the right place.
Paragraphs (a) and (b) of clause 3(5) provide that the five judicial members of the commission are appointed by the Lord Chief Justice and that the General Council of the Bar of Northern Ireland and the Law Society of Northern Ireland must each appoint one member of the legal profession to the commission. That shows that representation will be fairly wide.
However, will the Minister explain why the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are to appoint the lay members of the commission? That contravenes the recommendation in the report to which I have already drawn attention. It suggests a mechanism that is similar to that prescribed in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for appointing the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Why has not such a provision been included to ensure the same independence for the Judicial Appointments Commission? If we took that approach, we could ensure that the lay members reflected the community. The Secretary of State appoints the independent members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board so that they reflect the community. Again, we may wish to consider the matter in Committee.
The lay members of the Judicial Appointments Commission cannot afford to be seen to be political appointees. The Bill contains no guidance for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister about the way in which they should appoint lay members. Who is allowed in and who is not? Assembly Members and Members of Parliament are excluded, but what about councillors or members of the police? What about district policing partnership members and those involved in community safety organisations? How will the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister ensure that lay members do not suffer a conflict of interest? That is a potential weakness in the Bill, although I am ready to stand corrected.
Without providing for the guidance to which I referred or for consideration of gender and representation from ethnic minorities, which the report suggests, the Bill lays itself open to a difficulty that is easy to avoid, and perhaps to an element of sectarianism, which has been institutionalised in the Assembly by, for example, the voting system for First Minister. Furthermore, appointments to the Judicial Appointments Commission do not appear to be in line with the suggestions of the Good Friday agreement.
I do not often agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I do in this case. Does he recall that the review stated clearly that the lay appointees should reflect the community? How can five people reflect a community?
I had been about to say that, although I was stunned and delighted that the hon. Gentleman agreed with me, I do not necessarily agree with everything that he said. I escape on a technicality.
The list of questions, excluding the question about numbers, is salient and requires a reply. Mr. Trimble correctly suggested that one method of ensuring the perception of the independence of the Judicial Appointments Commission was to allow the Crown to make the appointments. I do not entirely agree, not least because I support devolution. However, it is understandable that those who are uncomfortable say that, in the absence of a convincing response, the Crown should continue to be in charge. The Government are obliged to provide an assurance, especially to those who are worried about bias.
Appointment for five years is perhaps too long because, even if we solve the problems in Committee, we need to review the matter sooner. Does the Minister believe that we should have an interim review, perhaps after one or two years, to ascertain how matters are settling down?
Moving on to clause 5, I agree that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should have the ability to refer an initial recommendation of an appointment back to the Judicial Appointments Commission. Paragraph 6.107 of the criminal justice review makes it explicit that if the same name were resubmitted to the First Minister or Deputy First Minister, it would have to be accepted. However, that is not made clear in the Bill. As it stands, we do not know whether the commission can reconsider an application only once, or whether the First Minister and Deputy First Minister can refer a recommendation back a number of times. I am pleased with the thrust of the provision, but that point needs clarification. I am also pleased that the officers are to be appointed entirely on the basis of merit, but that does not take away this slight confusion, and we should not leave the matter to be decided by precedent.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, I want to reassure him that the Bill is clear in its recommendation that, the first recommendation having been refused, and following reconsideration, the provisions of the review are to be followed and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be required to accept the second recommendation, even if it relates to the same person.
Okay. In that case, I was in error and I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that point.
Clause 20 specifies a new oath. It is right to modernise that practice, and this is a good time to do it. I also welcome the appointment of a local Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, as set out in clause 23. Again, though, the Bill provides little guidance on how that person should be appointed, other than to state that they should have been a barrister or solicitor for at least 10 years. Should the First Minister and Deputy First Minister be able to consult the Law Society, for example, or the General Council of the Bar before the appointment is made? Should they be mandated to carry out that kind of consultation? Or should those bodies be making recommendations to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister? This, too, requires clarification and I would welcome the Minister's perspective on it. If we leave things as they are, this will be established by precedent, and we need to be clear that that is a positive decision with which the First Minister would be comfortable.
Clause 28 establishes that the Attorney-General for England and Wales should be the Advocate-General for Northern Ireland. It is right that someone should adjudicate on whether a piece of legislation is within the competence of the Assembly. Although that is not mentioned in the report of the criminal justice review, it is implied, in terms of what the Bill is expected to achieve. Have the Government given any thought to the working relationship between the Attorney-General and the Advocate-General? Are there precedents involved, or are we—and the Government—happy to leave that question to be determined by the appointees?
We also welcome the establishment of a public prosecution service for Northern Ireland. That is essential to maintain consistency through the Bill. I agree with the arguments in the criminal justice review for the need to separate the prosecution function carried out by the police from the organisation responsible for carrying out investigations. Indeed, the report states:
"Securing the independence of the prosecution process for cases at all levels of seriousness should assure the public that decisions on whether to proceed"— with a prosecution—
"are made against consistently applied criteria by legally qualified staff."
All of us will have heard of cases in which the independence of the process between police and prosecution has been brought into question. The overwhelming majority of officers always conduct themselves with probity, but if there is doubt as to whether there is a conflict of interest, or an opportunity for actions that might compromise the justice of the system, that issue will need to be resolved. We have found ourselves in terrible messes in the past, in which individuals have argued that the system itself prosecuted them for a crime that they had not committed.
We further welcome the establishment of the office of a chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland with a view to carrying out inspections of key organisations in the criminal justice sphere, such as the police, the public prosecution service and the probation board. There is a lack of clarity, however, as to what the chief inspector's role should be. That is highlighted in clause 46(2) and clause 47(6). His or her role should be either to investigate all the organisations mentioned and take an overview of the situation, or to investigate specific problems within an organisation that are likely to have to come to his or her attention through an individual case.
I am curious about clause 49(3)(b). Why should the Secretary of State be able to exclude parts of the chief inspector's report on the ground that it
"might jeopardise the safety of any person" if the chief inspector is unable to investigate or review individual cases? That can probably be explained, and the Government's thinking on the matter should be expressed and placed on the record of the House. As it stands, confusion exists and the matter needs to be clarified. I see the Minister nodding, and I look forward to hearing his clarification later.
I turn to some of the very interesting comments by the Opposition spokesperson that I have not already covered. I was confused by what seemed to be a number of inconsistencies in what he said. He referred to the Government's hidden agenda. When I intervened on him to ask him to clarify that, he said that there was not a hidden agenda but a difference of view with regard to methods. Later on, however, he returned to the theme of the hidden agenda, and I was horrified to learn that, in his view, there was little short of a republican conspiracy going right up to the top on the Labour Back Benches—in the form of Mr. McNamara—that is trying to throw away all that is noble and wonderful about the monarchy, and to provide us with the freedom to change the world as we know it.
I have to make a confession. Well, it is not a confession; it is a boast. I am a true monarchist, and I have always been a monarchist.
I hear calls of "Shame!" coming from the Labour Benches. I shall goad the closet republicans over there by saying that I believe that we have a fine Queen who conducts herself in an honourable fashion, and that the Prince of Wales will one day make an honourable and fine King and I look forward to being one of his subjects.
The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson's comments. Would he care to comment on the failure of the Conservative spokesperson to explain the hidden agenda to which I referred, regarding the youth criminal system and the pilot project to be undertaken in Northern Ireland? The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford mentioned that he was coming to that, but he never got to it and would not take any more interventions. Does the hon. Gentleman have any views on the matter?
That shows just how easily youth passes us by. Of course the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford was entitled to focus on his primary concerns, and it is not for me to question his omission. Perhaps he was saving that point for his colleague to make, just as I am saving points for my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle to make. Should she catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, she will expand more on that question.
The considerations in the Bill are genuinely interesting and stimulating, and it is perfectly appropriate to try them out in Northern Ireland. The honourable republican on the Labour Benches does not distract me from the important point that I am making. I look across at the hon. Members who sit opposite me tonight and I know that there are republicans lurking there who would rob people such as me of my royal birthright, my right to be a citizen and subject of the Queen. On that, I stand four square with Unionism in its simplest and most traditional form and, for once, I feel that I do not have to watch my back.
I note the hon. Gentleman's fifth columnist point and it will be dealt with appropriately, but not in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have fears regarding the hon. Gentleman's anti-monarchist principles and I have sought to satanise him, but the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford accused him of being a shield for Ministers. I have often regarded the hon. Member for Hull, North as little short of a Cromwell, bringing his roundhead supporters—
Okay. The hon. Gentleman, to use his own phrase, is a fifth columnist, but the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford sees such a republican and Front-Bench conspiracy that he chooses to offend the hon. Member for Hull, North, as we can see from the rage seething within him.
I have raised concerns, but in no sense can the Bill be regarded as a conspiracy to pander to the republicans. Any objective analysis surely shows that, even if aspects need to be improved and amendments need to be made, the Bill is a genuinely progressive effort to create independent, free-standing, transparent and effective human rights oriented legislation in terms of justice for the citizens of Northern Ireland. That is why I am dubious about the claim made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford.
We have heard a great deal about how the Bill represents giving up sovereignty and losing the Queen's right to own and run all that she surveys, but that shows deep misunderstanding of what it will do. I am not joking now: for the Bill to be republican oriented legislation that detaches Northern Ireland from Her Majesty's empire, it would have to detach the prosecution service, the inspectorate and the judiciary from Crown involvement. Let us consider the Bill. It does not do that, but instead ensures that the Queen will appoint the Advocate-General and the Advocate-General will still be in charge of the reserved matters involving international relations, defence, tax and national security.
Of course, Stormont will appoint the Attorney-General, but the Attorney-General and the Advocate-General—that is a royal appointment—will appoint the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. There will be devolution, but there will also be an intimate relationship between that appointment and the existing structures.
Let us consider the inspectorate. The Secretary of State, acting for the House and, by implication, the Queen, will appoint the chief inspector with the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland. The chief inspector will appoint the inspectors. Once again, the Secretary of State will be intimately involved in appointments. If I understand the procedures correctly, those appointments will not be devolved outside the existing system.
Let us consider the Lord Chief Justice. The Prime Minister will consult the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, but, ultimately, the appointment will be made by the Queen. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister must advise the Queen of appointments to the judiciary. Perhaps that is a formality, but they must do so none the less. There is sufficient assurance for me, as a non-republican, that the Bill does not dismantle existing structures and will not send Northern Ireland sailing off into separate republican status, so I am comfortable that that should not be a key issue for tonight's debate. Of course, hon. Members may draw their own conclusions.
I refer to the Opposition's reasoned amendment. Once again, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford confused me. He said that he is not opposed in principle to the legislation, yet the amendment, which carries his name, says:
If I understand that correctly, he opposes an element of his own amendment. Perhaps he is considering whether to vote for it or not.
The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood me, as he will discover if he reads Hansard tomorrow morning. I said that we do not oppose in principle 90 per cent. by length of the Bill, which covers devolution of justice to Northern Ireland and the establishment of the new restorative justice for child offenders. We are, of course, very much opposed in principle to the two pernicious points buried in all that, to which I drew particular attention: the provisions relating to the oath of allegiance and the royal coat of arms in courtrooms.
Okay. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for misrepresenting him and thank him for his clarification, because it is indeed important clarification. It shows that the Conservatives oppose the Bill in only two key areas of 294, which is a much better hit rate than 90 per cent. Were I even 90 per cent. satisfied with legislation, I would probably vote for it. Were I 98 or 99 per cent. in favour, as it seems the Conservatives are, I would not table a reasoned amendment saying that the legislation is wrong and encourage hon. Members to vote against it.
Now I am able to correct the hon. Gentleman. I did not bother to interrupt his point about a hidden agenda, but I said that those two pernicious provisions are the hidden agenda in a large Bill that deals with other matters. Therefore, we are right to focus on that unacceptable double kernel.
I am even more confused. I may have a rogue copy of the reasoned amendment, but all hon. Members can see that it says, in black and white:
If the hon. Gentleman expects us to accept that those two key points are sufficient grounds for us to believe that Northern Ireland's justice system is genuinely, not theoretically, being detached from the existing structures in the rest of the UK, he must also explain why he does not believe that Scotland is already a republic. Scotland has far greater autonomy and is far more detached from the Crown than Northern Ireland will be following any conceivable change under the Bill, even if it is implemented by a fanatic. The hon. Gentleman may still think that he can vote for the reasoned amendment, but I ask other hon. Members to read it for themselves and think about what message the Conservatives are putting out.
My other concern about the reasoned amendment involves the words
"and because it represents a further stage in the policy of unilateral and unbalanced concession to republicanism in Northern Ireland."
I have made the body of my points perhaps slightly lightheartedly, but I make a serious point here: the Conservative party is increasingly unclear about where it stands on devolution. Very recently, a Conservative Member of the Welsh Assembly said that there should be more devolution to the Assembly and other Conservatives believe that more rights should be given to devolved Assemblies. Is it now Conservative policy to support devolution for Wales, and perhaps more so for Scotland, or to oppose it?
If the Conservatives accept that at least a proportion of them support Scottish and Welsh devolution, why are they so afraid of it for Northern Ireland? I suggest that they want to imply a conspiracy that does not exist. The Conservative party needs to clarify its strategy on devolution and, if it does, it will be able to play a far more constructive role in debates such as this.
Let me in all humility say that I am not here to lecture the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, who has more years of experience in the House than I do, nor do I cast any negative aspersions as to his intent. However, if the hon. Gentleman and his party are serious in their support for the Good Friday agreement, they should think about the messages that they are sending. He has said that the Conservatives were pulling out of the bipartisan agreement, and that was implicit in his remarks in this debate. With measures such as the Bill it is hard to see what that means. Does it mean that, de facto, the Conservatives will oppose every piece of legislation, even if it has merit? We have been told that, even if they agree with 90 per cent. of the legislation, they will oppose it.
I can assure the House that the bipartisan arrangement continues, but it is between the Government and the Liberal Democrats. Not long ago, I was encouraged when the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and his hon. Friends were so persuaded by the Liberal Democrat arguments that they chose not to vote against the extension of the amnesty for decommissioning weapons. It was to the hon. Gentleman's credit that he showed bipartisanship at least towards the Liberal Democrats. I ask him once again to show the reserve and judgment that he showed on that evening. Can he honestly look himself in the mirror and say that by voting against the Bill he is making Northern Ireland a more just place?
The Bill has limitations and weaknesses, which I have asked the Minister to deal with, but it is fundamentally a good measure. I should be very surprised if anyone who, in the fullness of time, sees the intent of the Bill being implemented would disagree.
My party has worked for many decades to have a review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, primarily because of its evident flaws and because it did not have the support of the entire community. It is not for me to go into the pros and cons of that, I merely to declare that this issue was on our agenda long before the Good Friday agreement and long before the review and the Bill were published. I would like to think that the substance of the part of the Good Friday agreement pertaining to criminal justice came from the papers, attitudes and arguments that we used at that time.
The criminal justice review and the Bill are not a destroying mechanism, but rather a reviewing, modernising mechanism that will bring our system into the 21st century. I hope that it will show many other jurisdictions that, out of the chaos in Northern Ireland and the horrors and injustices that we have witnessed, a judicial system can be produced that is the envy of all who observe it.
It was with great sadness rather than anger that I heard Mr. Davies try to divert the debate from the reality of the situation by means of some cheap publicity and point scoring—I do not like saying that. The Conservatives have tabled an amendment, which says that the Bill represents
"a further stage in the policy of unilateral and unbalanced concession to republicanism in Northern Ireland".
That it definitely does not do.
If the hon. Gentleman wants proof of that, he need not listen to me. He should examine the work of the Assembly's ad hoc committee on the review and the draft Bill. That committee contained members of the Ulster Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, Sinn Fein, the Democratic Unionist party and the other minor parties, none of whom said that this was a republican plot or a concession to republicanism. There was a great deal of consensus on the joint report, which contained valid, constructive criticism of the Bill and suggested how it could be improved so that the judicial system could be improved. At no time in any of the comments made at any of the meetings of that multi-party committee was there any implication or declaration that this was a republican agenda. We all know what the extreme republican agenda is in Northern Ireland—I describe myself as a republican, but that description has been besmirched by violence over the years to such an extent that I can no longer use it without paragraphs of clarification.
In our consideration of the Bill, my party wants to cover four major areas. We will deal with the Bill only in general points, because I took note of what the Secretary of State said, and it is on the record that this is an on-going review process. The Assembly's report will be part of the review that the Government are taking forward into Committee and out of it.
The four points that highlight our attitude to the Bill could be summarised as a fully accountable judiciary, an independent prosecution service based on disclosure, the enshrinement of human rights in the justice service, which has been touched on by several hon. Members, and the establishment of a Judicial Appointments Commission, which we hope will have a majority of lay members, and we shall table an amend to that affect. We also hope that the chairman of the commission will be a lay person.
We are committed to the principle of ownership of the administration of justice by the community that it is serving. Unless the community right across Northern Ireland has a sense of proprietorship of the judicial system, the process will remain flawed. We are looking for a more fundamental review.
Many of the headings have already been touched on, and my hon. Friend Mr. McNamara spoke at length on the youth provision, so that topic has been adequately covered. I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about my party and its history, and about me.
I should like to comment on restorative justice. The Assembly's ad hoc committee gave much consideration to the innovative idea of restorative justice, to which everyone in the community can contribute, and which is important for the prevention and cure of juvenile crime. We felt that new approaches were required. There was agreement that the various provisions for restorative justice were not as clear as they could be, were sometimes vague, and certainly required clarification.
We want to be assured that there is transparency in the appointments system, and that the judiciary reflects that. All aspects of the appointment system must be open, and must be seen to be just and caring. It should have some reference to broad representation of the community as a whole, although not through precise diktat.
We would like to think that the Judicial Appointments Commission will not just advise, but will make appointments. Unlike the current system, the judicial and legal membership of such a commission should not have undue power and influence through their numbers, and should not impinge on the independence of the appointments.
I am sorry to be a little dilatory in making this point, but unless I misheard the hon. Gentleman, he said that the Assembly's ad hoc committee on the criminal justice review was favourable to the concept of restorative justice.
The committee expressed concern about the whole area of restorative justice, considering that further work was required
"to take on-board the experiences of existing restorative justice programmes . . . determined that the proposed Standing Committee on Criminal Justice could further investigate this crucial area of reform."
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the committee tried to operate on the basis of consensus. On that point, it was very cautious.
There was indeed a degree of caution, but there was no rejection. There was, in fact, a seeking of clarification, and of better ways of accomplishing it. Although, as several other passages in the report show, the ad hoc committee was not always unanimous—the parties indicated their separate differences—there was a consensus in favour of achieving a new beginning in the criminal justice system. Indeed, if I remember rightly, not one amendment was tabled when the report reached the Assembly, and not one vote was forced. That was the extent of what I will call co-operation, intended to achieve the best possible result.
The Minister, and the Government, should take on board the concerns, differences, suggestions and criticisms presented by the divers parties constituting the ad hoc committee, and incorporate what was agreed in the Bill by way of Government amendments reflecting the wishes of the people whom the judicial system will serve. What better yardstick could there be than cross-party consensus?
The question of symbolism is a thorny question, which distracted the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. For my party, the guiding principles are parity of esteem and parity of symbolism. At best that can, perhaps, be achieved through a degree of neutrality. Opposition Members may not know that the symbols of state, such as flags and emblems, have been so grossly abused in Northern Ireland—used not as symbols of the sovereign or the state, but as party political symbols—that they do not attract the esteem, respect and regard that they should attract, because they have been besmirched for decades by party connotations of the worst sort. We are trying to approach these delicate, sensitive issues by way of understanding; perhaps some neutrality could be introduced as well.
A short time ago it was said that we would never be able to acquire a symbol for the new police force, and that that would be the most divisive aspect of the board of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It took precisely 10 days to achieve, with the agreement of the whole board and, to a vast extent, that of the public. Many of us do not like this little bit, many of us do not like that little bit, but I think it fair to say that this is now accepted as a reasonable symbol of the people of Northern Ireland. Perhaps we should be striving for the same objective to deal with the problems that emblems give us in the Northern Ireland Court Service.
We are not entirely satisfied that the proposals for the prosecution service will involve full accountability. I think that we want a system rather similar to the Scottish procurator fiscal system. The Northern Ireland committee—I have referred to it constantly, but it serves as a useful baseline—says that
"greater transparency should be a feature of the decision-making process of the new Public Prosecution Service."
That does not suggest that the reasons why cases do not result in prosecutions should always be disclosed. We are arguing for a presumption that disclosure will be made, except when it could cause injustice and prevent the protection of victims and others.
Much has been said about the future of the devolution of reserved matters after the elections of 2003. That represents a relatively short time in the political history and experience of any country. I think that the amendments presented by the community of Northern Ireland—particularly through the Assembly's report, although my party will table amendments that we think will improve the modernisation of criminal jurisdiction—will be presented with some justification, and with some clarity.
Let me say this to Opposition Front Benchers, in the light of what was said by Lembit Öpik and in the light of the amendment: if the House observed the exhortations of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and rejected the Bill, it would send the very message that the hon. Gentleman wants not to send. How crazy can we get? I know that it is a lot for a Back Bencher to ask of the opposite side, whether Government or Opposition, but sanity dictates that the amendment be withdrawn.
I do not agree with the closing remarks of Mr. McGrady, and I hope he will bear with me if I explain why later. First, I ask him to accept that Opposition Members are not indulging in cheap publicity or political stunts. We object to the Bill on a point of principle so fundamentally important to us that—I understand—we will oppose its Second Reading, although some parts may have merit and others may deserve scrutiny in Committee. So serious is that point of principle that I feel it would be wholly wrong of us to support the Bill.
As with a number of other developments in Northern Ireland, when it comes to criminal justice there is an official and an unofficial context and background. The official context and background of the Bill were explained by the Secretary of State: it is the policing and justice section of the Belfast agreement, particularly paragraphs 4 to 7, and the subsequent work of the review group. Those who accepted the agreement will therefore have accepted those paragraphs as well, and may not be over-surprised by what has emerged from them.
Those of us who had reservations about the agreement held them for many reasons, just one of which arises from paragraphs 6 and 7 of the agreement. It was by no means our main objection; it was just one of them. Our argument was that national systems of justice are the responsibility of sovereign states and not automatically the business of neighbouring states. Obviously, the exercising of national sovereignty can extend to and include negotiating with neighbouring states, but it was arguably wrong in principle of the Government, in paragraph 6, to commit themselves in advance and unconditionally to discussing with the Irish Government the implementation of the recommendations of the Northern Ireland criminal justice review group. It was certainly wrong in principle of the Government, in paragraph 7, to commit themselves in advance and unconditionally to consulting the Irish Government before devolving within the United Kingdom responsibility for policing and justice issues. Those are rightly and properly matters for the United Kingdom Government.
What the hon. Gentleman says confirms his long-standing opposition to the Belfast agreement. Paragraph 7 was agreed to by his party as an Opposition party, by the Government, by the majority of the people in Northern Ireland and in the referendum in the Republic. He is just restating his long-standing position. The reality is that his side lost the referendum, and the Belfast agreement was passed by the House and supported by the people of Northern Ireland.
I rather regret that I gave way for that somewhat meaningless intervention, which does not take the debate any further forward. My views of the Belfast agreement are known and irrelevant to this debate, as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would no doubt advise if I were to embark upon announcing them.
That then was the official context and background of the Bill. As for the unofficial context and background, at least of key parts of the Bill, they are perhaps best summed up in the words of Brian Cowen, the Irish Foreign Minister, in a leaked Northern Ireland Office document that was first printed in the British press in May 2000. Mr. Cowen was quoted as saying:
"Beyond the constitutional acceptance that Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, there should be no further evidence of Britishness in the governance of Northern Ireland."
It was therefore only a matter of time before the Government made their formal move to neutralise constitutionally the institutions, structures and procedures of justice in the Province.
The Bill should be seen in its wider context. When the Minister launched the draft Bill last November, he rightly spoke of the imperatives of fairness and impartiality. Those are, or should be, at the heart of any criminal justice system. Moreover, as qualities of justice, they are absolute and timeless, but he muddied the waters somewhat by also speaking about delivering a
"modern, progressive and forward-looking" system of justice. If he regards the Bill as progressive, we are entitled to ask in which direction he thinks it is progressing. If he thinks it forward-looking, we can likewise ask what it is looking forward to.
The erosion of the cultural, historical and constitutional Britishness of Northern Ireland is a reality. Further manifestations of it are found in the Bill. Many people see it as another step in establishing a de facto united Ireland, so that a de jure united Ireland is not a quantum leap into the unknown but merely the formal acknowledgment of a reality that has already been created.
There is no question of a hidden agenda: it is clear from Government words and writing. There are fears that the Bill plays its part in the Government's reform and harmonisation programme, which is central to their programme towards a united Ireland.
On judicial appointments, hon. Members will know that the appointment processes in Northern Ireland are broadly similar to those in England and Wales at the more senior levels. The differences at less senior levels reflect the different court systems in the two jurisdictions.
The Lord Chancellor has been responsible for making or advising on all judicial appointments since 1973. As the review group commented at paragraph 6.16:
"The transfer of these responsibilities to the Lord Chancellor was driven mainly by a desire to secure and demonstrate the independence of judicial matters and courts administration from any political office".
The proposal now is that political responsibility and accountability for judicial appointments should lie with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. They will take over responsibility for making recommendations to the Queen for all appointments to the level of resident magistrate and for making appointments below that level.
There will be a Judicial Appointments Commission, but the presence of lay people on that body, and their number, are a concern. It is legitimate to ask what pressures or influences they may be subject to, or what pressure they may bring to bear.
The key test of any judiciary must be that people are appointed on merit. Leaving appointments largely in the hands of the judiciary and the two legal professions provides greater opportunity for ensuring that the key test is merit, rather than some form of political balance or correctness. Where a new department of justice is being created and where the role of the Lord Chancellor is being removed, important questions should be asked about who makes decisions about the legal profession. Independence from political interference must be preserved or, even better, enhanced and reinforced. I am far from convinced that in that respect the Bill has got it right.
Much has been said already with regard to the royal coat of arms and the judicial oath. The Bill not only undermines the Britishness of Northern Ireland, but in its implementation, challenges the constitutional status of the Province. In the words of the amendment,
"justice flows from the Crown throughout the realm".
Constitutionally and traditionally, the monarch is the source and fountain of justice in the United Kingdom. That is unaffected by devolution in Wales and Scotland, and it should be unaffected by devolution in Northern Ireland.
Throughout the United Kingdom, the sovereign's majesty is deemed always to be present in court. It was in recognition of that that the practice of displaying a royal coat of arms behind the judge's chair evolved. The royal coat of arms symbolises the monarch as the source and fountain of justice, and it symbolises the presence of the sovereign's majesty.
The criminal justice review group rightly argued that the removal of all symbols from courthouses would be inconsistent with Northern Ireland's constitutional position, but it was wholly illogical of the group then to argue that removing the royal coat of arms from inside courthouses while maintaining them outside would be consistent with Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom. It is illogical because the significance of the royal coat of arms inside a courthouse is greater than its significance outside. Its removal from the inside of a courthouse is therefore a far greater challenge to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The review group acknowledges the principle that removing the royal coat of arms would be inconsistent with Northern Ireland's constitutional position, but proposes a course of action that fundamentally challenges that constitutional position.
The hon. Gentleman has revealed by his contribution to the debate so far a level of research and understanding of the position that is significantly greater than that revealed by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. To that extent, I congratulate him. The review board took a lot of advice on the constitutional implications of its recommendations and was satisfied that the consequences are not as he says they are.
Perhaps from his researches the hon. Gentleman can tell the House how long the constitutional position of putting symbols in courts has been established throughout the United Kingdom. When I started practising in courts in Scotland, by no means all of them displayed royal symbols on the walls.
On the Minister's first point, I was making the point that I disagree profoundly with the conclusion reached by the review board. He summarised the board's findings, and I am trying to explain why it was wrong.
I do not know precisely when the practice of displaying the royal coat of arms started, but I know of courthouses dating from the end of the 17th century where, if I recall correctly, Charles II's coat of arms is to be found. I believe that the practice may have started with or after the restoration in 1660.
Perhaps Scots thriftiness is one reason why the royal coat of arms is not displayed in every court.
One of my constituents, who has practised for 20 years, has never heard any objection from any side to the presence of the coat of arms in the Northern Ireland courts. Rather than doing away with it, should we not encourage people to recognise it and accept with respect what it stands for?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that informative intervention. I certainly agree with him.
The Bill's proposals on this matter are indications not of Northern Ireland's legal and constitutional Britishness but of the fact that Northern Ireland is being moved by the Government, quite deliberately and in flagrant disregard of the wishes of the majority of its inhabitants, into some sort of constitutional neutrality. The Secretary of State said in a speech quite recently that he did not want a "cold house for Unionists" to be created. To allow the Bill to become law will create arctic conditions for Unionists.
It is relevant to recall that political developments in nationalism in Scotland have not led to the removal of the current symbols of justice. The Scottish court system has its own distinctive characteristics but devolved government has brought about no such changes.
When the hon. Gentleman draws Scottish comparisons, he should be complete about it, and two of them are very important to his argument: first, judges are appointed on the recommendation of the First Minister in Scotland, without any of the constitutional implications that he infers; and secondly, it is now proposed to appoint a judicial appointments commission there, without any of the constitutional implications that he says there will be for Northern Ireland.
It is early days to draw such conclusions. If the political composition of the Scottish Parliament changes significantly, the Minister may find that the very problems that he says do not exist will emerge in some force.
If enacted, the Bill will politicise judicial procedures in Northern Ireland as never before. In attacking the symbols of Britishness, it undermines Northern Ireland's constitutional status within the United Kingdom. It harmonises the legal system of Northern Ireland with that of the Republic of Ireland on an unprecedented scale. It incorporates a restorative justice system that could fall into the hands of terrorist organisations or otherwise be influenced by them. And it creates a new layer of quango and bureaucracy.
I have no doubt at all that the Bill should be resisted.
Before the start of this debate, I read for the first time the exact wording of the amendment. The Conservative party is making a major mistake by continuing, or even accelerating, its break from the cross-party consensus that prevailed through Conservative and Labour Governments.
The complaint is that the Government are making
"unilateral and unbalanced concessions to republicanism".
Such language is not only inflammatory and irresponsible: it is unworthy of any party that aspires to lead the Northern Ireland peace process in government one day, and I hope for the sake of all the people of Northern Ireland that that day is a long way off. Such language is more suited to student politics than to a debate in the House. I have little doubt that, had the Conservative party been in government at any point over the past five years, the peace process as we know it would already have been dead and buried.
I agree: being in government often concentrates the mind on a more responsible attitude, and I hope—no one can be sure—that that is what would have happened.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford spent some time describing what he would do as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but neglected to mention two of the Government's achievements, which he clearly has no regard for and no ambition to emulate: a three-year IRA ceasefire and the decommissioning of a substantial quantity of illegally held arms. Make no mistake: the Conservatives may claim to support the Good Friday agreement—and God knows they mention it often enough—but they are most definitely opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process. I hope that they will reconsider their strategy on the issue in the very near future.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his ministerial team for introducing the Bill and for their wider efforts in pushing forward the peace process. The Bill represents yet another Labour party manifesto commitment honoured and another piece of the Good Friday agreement implemented.
I am disappointed that the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew) are not here in the Chamber—I understand that they are in the Palace of Westminster—to debate an issue that is of great importance to their constituents as well as those of the hon. Members who have chosen to be here to represent those who elected them.
When almost everything we hear about developments in Northern Ireland revolves around terrorism, intimidation and weapons decommissioning, it is easy to forget that here is a part of the United Kingdom where normal life must go on and is going on, and that Government policy in Northern Ireland goes beyond the headlines to address the everyday concerns shared by people of all communities. The Bill is no less important to the people of Northern Ireland for the fact that it deals with measures that are not especially headline grabbing.
I warmly welcome the Bill and I want to raise a few points—salient ones, I hope—about it. In England and Wales, and in Scotland, the development of the criminal justice system has been the subject of constant though often understated debate, and where change has been necessary, appropriate legislation has followed. The Bill is the first major criminal justice reform in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years. I accept that that is an illustration of what happens to a community that is thrown into chaos and violence, and political debate focuses almost exclusively on questions of security, nationality and religion. I hope that the House will welcome the Bill as a sign that normal politics in Northern Ireland has been, if not resumed, at least rescheduled for a date in the not-too-distant future.
I especially welcome the establishment of the rights of the victims of crime, who will be kept informed, for example, of the time scale for the release of offenders. Such information, I understand, has been available to the victims of terrorist crimes, who are informed about the release of members of paramilitary groups, and I am sure that this reform is welcomed by the whole House.
Most important of all, the Government have made known their desire for responsibility for criminal justice to be devolved to where it belongs—the Northern Ireland Assembly—within a definite time scale.
The Bill makes it clear that the future development of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland must be seen as part of a politically neutral process. That is fundamental to many of the reforms that have taken place since the Good Friday agreement, and has been the cornerstone of the Government's policy. I have always believed that in Northern Ireland it is utterly impossible to please all the people all the time—but at the very least, if we are displeasing everyone at the same time, we must be doing something right.
As for symbols and oaths, I accept that it is always difficult for those of us who do not live in Northern Ireland to make judgments on those who have lived with terrorism and violence in their communities for their whole lives. However, let me say in all sincerity that it is difficult to understand why the question of emblems has to take up so much of the debate, and why it took up so great a proportion of the speeches made earlier from the Conservative Benches.
I appreciate that, in Northern Ireland, history is just not a record of the past, but, although invisible, almost a living thing, which is at the table whenever any party, Government body or courthouse meets.
There is a very simple answer, and it has nothing to do with delving into the past; we only have to consider the past three years. The Belfast agreement recognised that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, but the problem is that since then the Government have not been implementing the agreement; they are failing to implement it. It is as simple as that. If the Government were keeping to the agreement in that respect, the Bill would have a much easier passage.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that contribution, but I am afraid that I disagree with him. I believe that the Government are implementing the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and have worked tirelessly to keep the peace process on track. They must be commended for that.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a commitment in the Good Friday agreement to review the justice system—[Interruption.] That is exactly what the Bill is doing. There was also an understanding in the agreement that, following the positive votes in the referendums, there would continue to be as normal a process of governance as possible. Not everything to be produced before the House of Commons was to be specifically included in the Good Friday agreement. This, however, is specially provided for.
We are here tonight to talk about yet another major step forward for the people of Northern Ireland. The Bill will have a profoundly positive impact on civil life there. I acknowledge that whether there are crowns or other such symbols inside or outside courts is important to some Opposition Members and their constituents, but we in the House would do the people of Northern Ireland a disservice if we dwelt on such a matter at length. It is not the most important issue facing us tonight. The Bill is about addressing the real fears and problems of real people. It is not about symbols, and although everything that happens in Northern Ireland is done within a historical context—I respect the history that has been referred to earlier—we cannot allow history to dictate our actions or debates.
I completely condemn the wording of the amendment proposed by the Conservative party. It is nothing short of a disgrace, and I hope that the whole House will show its contempt for the amendment when it is put to the vote later.
I apologise to hon. Members for not being here at the very beginning of the debate for the Secretary of State's opening words; it overlapped with a commitment that I had to a Committee, and I came here as quickly as possible afterwards.
Let me make it clear from the beginning—I am sure that the Minister will be relieved to know this—that the Ulster Unionist party broadly welcomes the efforts made in the Bill to make the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland more effective, transparent and accountable. As the Minister will no doubt know, there is great frustration about the inefficiencies of the present system, and we hope that the modernisation proposed in the Bill will address such problems.
We are also particularly pleased by the Government's commitment to devolve both policing and justice matters to the Northern Ireland Assembly after the next scheduled Assembly elections in May 2003. That reflects the Government's confidence both in the continued stability of the Assembly and in the calibre of its Members, both of which I welcome.
We are therefore pleased at the prospect of the new Department of Justice being established under a Minister of Justice with responsibility for the Court Service, the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the probation service and the new juvenile justice agency.
Before examining the Bill in more detail, I should like to endorse the sentiments in paragraph 12.2 of the review group's report and pay tribute not only to those who have served in the Northern Ireland Prison Service but to those who have served in the wider criminal justice review system and have given such dedicated service over 30 years, despite threats and attacks by paramilitaries.
There are many positive elements in the Bill. First and foremost, given our party's commitment to human rights, equality and freedom from all forms of discrimination, including positive discrimination, we are pleased to see that the Government have agreed that those themes should be central to the criminal justice system.
It is also pleasing to see that the opening clause gives a guarantee that
"Those with responsibility for the administration of justice must uphold the continued independence of the judiciary."
It is that emphasis in clause 1 on the "continued" independence of the judiciary that I particularly welcome, as it rightly recognises their independence to date.
Of the other positive aspects of the Bill, I draw particular attention to the progressive approach to juvenile justice. We should all agree that, where possible, we should endeavour to avoid processing and reprocessing young people within the criminal justice cycle, without providing them with the opportunities to escape from criminal activity.
Attached to the sphere of juvenile justice is the idea of restorative justice, as outlined in the criminal justice review. The genuine concerns of many people in Northern Ireland about how and where restorative justice schemes would operate in practice, and their interaction with the criminal justice system, will be allayed to some extent by the commitment to accredited systems of restorative justice.
That would tie those schemes and initiatives into the mainstream criminal justice and juvenile justice systems. We also welcome giving victims a voice and involving them in that respect. Concerns would be further eased if the Minister could tell us tonight what the Government intend to do to stop unaccredited "community justice" systems operating, and to prevent them from attempting to involve themselves in the punishment of young offenders.
The Minister will know that recent figures for punishment attacks showed an alarming increase last year, compared with 2000. The Government cannot afford to be complacent about the 25 per cent. increase in such attacks, or about the fact that it is loyalist paramilitaries, particular the Ulster Defence Association, who have been responsible for two thirds of the overall total.
We agree that it is accepted practice nowadays for investigatory and prosecution functions to be conducted by separate organisations. On the plane to London today, I was pleased to read in the Minister's article in the Irish News—good article, terrible photograph—that the new Director of Public Prosecutions will operate regionally, with offices open throughout Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government, in embarking on such a large expansion, will take on board the logistical and funding lessons to be learned from a similar transition in England and Wales.
The creation of a chief inspectorate of criminal justice for Northern Ireland is particularly welcome. It is essential that the inspector should be able to consider all aspects of the criminal justice system and all organisations that perform functions within it. It is to be regretted, therefore, that the list of organisations in clause 41 is not comprehensive. Even with the creation of the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland, prosecution functions will continue to be carried out by a variety of other bodies, including—this will come as news to some hon. Members—Consignia, the Financial Services Authority and, last but certainly not least, the office of the police ombudsman. Will the Minister undertake to review that point and to consider expanding the list in clause 41 to ensure that the inspectorate has a truly comprehensive remit?
That issue has exercised the hon. Lady for some time and she and I have discussed it previously. I can give an assurance that the organisations that will be subject to inspection by the inspectorate will be kept constantly under review. That is why the clause has been drafted as it has. The list reflects the list contained in the review, but we have included a provision to add others to it by order. All organisations that have criminal investigatory powers and powers to prosecute in Northern Ireland are being considered for incorporation in the list. We are also considering whether the courts themselves ought to be included.
I did not catch what the Minister said. Did he imply that he would see that the ombudsman's office would be on the list, or did he just say that it could be on the list?
The Minister indicated that he would keep the list actively under review and that it would become more comprehensive.
I want to draw the Minister's attention to the dramatic fall in the number of police officers. The figure has fallen below the 7,500 recommended by Patten over 10 years, and has done so in under three years. We should prefer to see police officers out on the streets instead of being tied up in the prosecution of minor offences in magistrates courts. For that reason, we are happy with the separation of investigatory and prosecution functions.
That said, will the Minister address low morale among police officers in Northern Ireland? Will he, in the context of a criminal justice Bill, consider introducing a fixed and heavy penalty for the murder of police officers, including Gardai officers on secondment to the new policing service in Northern Ireland and those who join it through lateral entry?
I congratulate the review body on not following Patten's recommendation of using discrimination to redress imbalances in the composition of the police service. It is none the less disappointing that female and ethnic minority under-representation in the judiciary seems to have been largely overlooked in the Bill. That is one of many problems with the proposed reform of judicial appointments. The Ulster Unionists strongly support appointments based solely on merit.
There is, however, an impression of politicisation in the new proposals, with the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister involved in the appointments procedures in many different forms and at all levels. That impression seems to be justified when one considers clause 3(7), under which the new Judicial Appointments Commission will be established. In paragraph 6.87 of the review, its members were at pains to point out the difference between the words "reflective" and "representative":
"Individual judges and magistrates, in carrying out their functions, do not 'represent' any particular section of society".
Nevertheless, the Bill contains the proposal that a representative commission be appointed. With the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister appointing five lay members, we have an appearance at least and a fear that political appointees might be inclined to make political appointments. I understand that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister might prefer not to have that power, but if my right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble would like to intervene, perhaps we could clarify that issue here and now.
Let me take advantage of the point that the hon. Lady makes to make a point that I have been meaning to make publicly for some time. Whereas it is appropriate for bodies that operate in a collegiate fashion to be either reflective or representative, individual appointments, such as judges, cannot possibly be seen to be representative; otherwise, it would be impossible for them to reflect society. In the context of what the Government are trying to achieve in Northern Ireland, it is important to say that it may be appropriate for some bodies that operate in a collegiate fashion to be seen to be either reflective or representative, but that that is entirely inappropriate for people such as judges, who are appointed to operate individually.
I sincerely congratulate the Government—the Minister will be pleased that we have so much on which to congratulate him—on resisting the temptation to enhance in any real sense lay involvement in the judiciary. Experience in England and Wales shows that many lay benches can be costly, inefficient and fail to command the respect of others who work in the criminal justice system, so I appreciate the fact that the Government resisted the temptation to follow suit and repeat the pattern found in Great Britain.
Despite the fact that we welcome so many positive aspects of the Bill, the Minister will not be surprised to learn that there are matters about which we are greatly disappointed. I am disappointed with recommendation 138, in which the Irish language is specifically singled out for consideration for use in courts. Such a recommendation offends other minority groups in Northern Ireland, not least the large Hong Kong Chinese community. I declare an interest in that I am the chairman, on a voluntary basis, of the fundraising committee for the Chinese Welfare Association.
In fairness to our ethnic minority groups, all minority groups should be considered fairly, so perhaps the Minister will kindly give equal attention to the language of other minority groups. Perhaps he will explain at the end of the debate what is meant by the phrase "consideration of the use of the Irish language", as used in that recommendation.
I thank my hon. Friend. I am reminded of the cost, which the Northern Ireland Assembly considered, of providing simultaneous translation into Irish, and such costs should also be borne in mind.
The section of the review entitled "Community Safety" contains rather odd proposals for local community safety partnerships, which will require much greater scrutiny in Committee. The proposals are odd in two respects. The first relates to the lack of detail about the composition of the partnerships. I would have liked more information on who will be encouraged to serve on them. Secondly, I am discouraged by the recommendation's similarity to the proposal in the Patten report for district policing partnership boards, as they were originally described.
Clause 71(4)(d) will give the local community safety partnerships the power to buy in additional resources. I hope that point will be clarified, because I do not want us to resurrect the original power in the Patten report that would have allowed policing to be bought in by the partnerships.
The hon. Lady can be reassured that our intention is made clear in the implementation plan. Local rates are and should remain a matter for the devolved institutions to determine.
I appreciate the Minister's clarification.
I have supported the Belfast agreement from the beginning and continue to do so. It is the benchmark against which the many changes to be introduced by the Bill must be measured. As hon. Members have said, the agreement was endorsed by a substantial majority in a referendum in Northern Ireland and in a separate referendum in the Republic of Ireland. The Government must not therefore cast aside the wishes of the majority of the people on the island of Ireland and substitute them with their own as they have done in the recent past.
I want the Government to abide by the Belfast agreement for a change and to build on it, so that it works for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland and not just a section of the population. Given the express provisions in the agreement, there can be absolutely no justification for clause 66 as drafted. It recommends that the royal coat of arms must not be displayed in any courtroom. The Minister will know that there is an express provision in the Bill not only about Northern Ireland's constitutional position in the agreement unless and until people wish otherwise, but about the use of symbols.
"acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division."
I particularly draw attention to the words in the agreement—which the vast majority of the people in the island of Ireland agreed to in two referendums—that say that symbols and emblems are to be used
"in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division."
It was not part of the agreement—and, therefore, not a wish of the people of the island of Ireland—that symbols should be taken down. On the contrary, they are to be used in the manner to which I have drawn attention. So the hacking out of the royal coat of arms from existing courtrooms and the exterior of courthouses where they are fixtures is wholly unacceptable. We reject outright such a recommendation. Such acts of vandalism inside and outside courthouses would provoke intense division rather than avoid it. It would certainly add to the steady seeping away of Unionist support for the agreement, which I bitterly regret, and the Government must address that problem.
I was encouraged to hear the Secretary of State allude to heritage considerations. I hope that when it comes to listed buildings that have the royal coat of arms embossed in wood or sculpted in, either in the courtroom or on the exterior of the courthouse, a sensible cross-party consensus will emerge that the vandalism of those symbols will not promote mutual respect, but cause division instead.
Provisions in clause 62 also make us concerned about new courthouses. The recommendation suggests that they should be neutral on the outside, the inside and the roof. However, the agreement is not neutral about symbols, and I specifically read out the relevant paragraph. It urges all participants to use symbols in a way that shows mutual respect rather than causing division. So I cannot accept the neutrality of new courthouses and new courtrooms. Neutral is not what we voted for. I voted for mutual respect.
With regard to arguments in favour of neutrality, which appear to have influenced the Northern Ireland Office's review group and consequently the legislation, would it not be appropriate for the Northern Ireland Office to reconsider its position? My hon. Friend argues that the agreement was not about neutrality, but about the appropriate use of symbols. In addition, the neutrality argument was rejected in the High Court of Northern Ireland by Mr. Justice Kerr in his judgment on the flag regulations. He said that those arguments based on the agreement that there should be neutrality in the use of symbols were wrong. So the few arguments that have been put to that effect by various Labour Members have been ruled wrong in the High Court of Northern Ireland.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment, especially as it means that I can delete a whole paragraph of my speech because he has just covered my remarks.
Instead of having blank walls inside and outside, I passionately hope that in consultation with other parties we can make the agreement work and reach a consensus on mutually agreed symbols for new courtrooms. That is what we and the people of Ireland voted for.
My right hon. Friend urges me not to exclude my comments on flag flying regulations, so I shall draw the attention of the House to a serious omission. The regulations were, as he reminded us, recently tested in the High Court. In the Murphy case, Mr. Justice Kerr had to consider whether they were compatible with the agreement. He concluded that there was no particular case to be made for the flag flying regulations to favour one tradition over another. He decided that the symbolism of the flag merely reflected Northern Ireland's constitutional position as part of the UK. The flag flying regulations reduced the number of days and they treat Northern Ireland on the same basis as the rest of the UK. That is guaranteed in the agreement, and the people of Northern Ireland should be pleased with that. The regulations exclude
In conclusion, the Bill represents a genuine opportunity for the Government to claw back Unionist confidence lost during the implementation of the Patten reforms. The Government can begin to repair that damage if they start to listen to Unionist concerns with open ears and show themselves to be responsive to those concerns. Mistakes were made in implementing Patten and there was insensitivity in the handling of those reforms. I urge the Government not to repeat those mistakes in reforming the criminal justice system.
It is a real pleasure to follow Lady Hermon. I agreed with much of what she said and particularly with the tone of her contribution, which was constructive, considered and intelligent.
It is a pity that the Opposition's contribution was made in such a different tone. Unfortunately, that reflects what I fear is a shift away from their earlier support for the Good Friday agreement. At one point when I was listening to Mr. Davies expressing full synthetic outrage, I almost wished that we had Mr. MacKay back. The Conservative party claims to support the Belfast agreement, but in all its actions, its rhetoric and its language it consistently works to assist the opponents of the agreement both in Northern Ireland and on its own Back Benches.
The Bill is very welcome. It is a further step towards the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. As hon. Members have said, it has been subject, in different forms including a draft Bill, to wide and on-going consultation. I had the privilege of being a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Northern Ireland Office for two years, from just after the 1997 election until the end of July 1999. I pay tribute to the work done in that period by the Ministers with whom I worked, including the former Secretary of State and Member for Redcar and my right hon. Friends the Members for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) and for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), for whom I worked directly during the negotiations that secured the Good Friday agreement.
Those two weeks in March 1998 were among the most tiring and exhilarating times in my 35 years in active politics. It was not certain that we would get the agreement. On many occasions there were difficult issues to be dealt with. Books have been written about that, and no doubt there will be many more when people write their memoirs. All the parties present, including the two Governments, had to compromise and come together to secure the agreement. Its wording is very clear. It has been quoted already, so I will not quote it at length. Pages 22 and 23 of the Belfast agreement set out the approach to be followed on policing and justice. There is clear recognition that a complete review of the system was needed; the Bill is the product of that review. All the participants agreed that the principal aims of the criminal justice system were to
"deliver a fair and impartial system of justice to the community; be responsive to the community's concerns, and encouraging community involvement where appropriate; have the confidence of all parts of the community; and deliver justice efficiently and effectively."
My hon. Friend Mr. McGrady has already talked about the concept of parity of esteem. I agree strongly that we should deal with the realities, but we must also recognise that in Northern Ireland—but not just there, as we have the problem in other parts of the UK, but perhaps in less extreme forms—symbolism is, unfortunately, often far more important than reality. There has been talk in our debate about the role of the Queen. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford kept going on about it. He is an interesting man because he is a pro-European who supported the Maastricht treaty; I have shared platforms with him, when he argued in favour of Europe against Eurosceptic Conservatives and others. When he signed up to the Maastricht treaty, he supported the concept of European Union citizenship.
The people of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England and the Irish Republic are all European Union citizens, which did not seem to present a problem to the hon. Gentleman in his previous incarnation. Now, however, he has become obsessed, to the point of going over the top, with the language of the review and the report. I recognise, and recent events in north Belfast bring it home to all of us, the need to be careful and make sure that we do not encourage alienation among the Protestant working class communities of Northern Ireland. There is a danger that irresponsible demagogues and people with a criminal agenda will be able to use symbolic issues to build support, with the consequence that postal workers will be murdered and other criminal terrorist activity will take place.
We all know that that is not representative of the bulk of society or the bulk of people who call themselves loyalists. Nevertheless, there will be a dangerous situation if gangs of misguided young men carry out attacks because they believe that their identity has been destroyed or will be taken away. Those issues are politically important and account must be taken of them. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister and other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office will take careful note of the words of the hon. Member for North Down and others who are in favour of the agreement and want it to succeed. It is crucial that those of us throughout the United Kingdom who want harmony, parity of esteem, unity and an end to violence, both strengthen the forces on the ground in Northern Ireland that are in favour of that aim and stand up and undermine the demagogues, whether in the House or in Northern Ireland.
I agree very strongly with the remarks made by a number of hon. Members about the importance of the Policing Board having Sinn Fein members. I also believe that, as my hon. Friend Mr. Harris suggested, Sinn Fein Members should not be elsewhere in the building, but here in the Chamber to tell us why they refuse to support the reformed police organisations in Northern Ireland. The proposals were set out in the Belfast agreement, to which they signed up and on which they campaigned for a yes vote. It would be good if they were present, so that we could subject them to such questioning. Until the bulk of the Catholic community in all areas in Northern Ireland supports, joins and assists the police, they will not be able to do their job with maximum effectiveness.
The Bill is not about those matters—it relates to other issues—but it is crucial that it is understood in the context of the wider policing and justice aspects of the Belfast agreement. It contains important provisions about youth justice—clauses 57 to 61—and it is welcome that information about discharge of prisoners is to be given to victims in a wider sense. Community safety partnerships at a local level are also important. We have had them throughout England and their quality was variable, but I believe that they are very significant.
Those are all welcome steps forward. I believe that, in time, the Bill will make a big contribution in terms of making life better for ordinary people in all parts of Northern Ireland. I hope that, by building on this process, as well as on the other measures implemented in the past couple of years and the new political processes initiated by the very wise activities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his team, support will strengthen during the next year for the pro-agreement, pro-co-operation and pro-consensual approach that is favoured by at least some Ulster Unionist Members and also by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down. I hope that, in time, more aspects of normal life will be devolved to the Assembly and to the people of Northern Ireland.
In conclusion, it is important that those of us who live in the rest of the United Kingdom understand that the reality of Northern Ireland and of the issues that are being discussed is not what will feature in the headlines in tomorrow's papers, as it is not about whether certain people have offices—or about the furniture, plants and number of filing cabinets in those offices—but about what the ordinary people of Northern Ireland will gain in their day-to-day life from measures taken by this House and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In rising to speak in the debate, I fear that I have to say things that hon. Members may not find palatable. None the less, I feel that they must be said. As the Secretary of State said at the outset, the Bill is being brought forward in the context of the Belfast agreement. The right hon. Gentleman also said that it was the biggest overhaul of criminal justice in 30 years.
It sometimes appears to people in Northern Ireland that there is an underlying premise on which Her Majesty's Government and the political institutions in Northern Ireland tackle all issues, whether criminal justice and the improvements to it that we all want, political institutions such as the devolved Assembly, cultural manifestations or parades.
The premise is that there is an inherent imbalance, almost a genetic imbalance, that must be rectified. There is a false, inaccurate and implausible belief that Northern Ireland's inherent Unionism must be diluted to accommodate or satisfy nationalist opinion. That appears to be the case in the Bill, as it was in the Belfast agreement, and in decisions about cultural manifestations and parades. Every major or significant move, for example on emblems and the royal arms outside courthouses, has to be a signal to the nationalist community of a form of neutrality and openness. It has to be an attempt by the Government to bring the nationalist community from the cold into the warm sunshine of an all-embracing Northern Ireland under the agreement.
Before Christmas, the Secretary of State made a comment that my colleagues and I have been making, not for a few weeks or months, not even since the Belfast agreement, but for decades. The only thing that he got wrong was the tense. Northern Ireland is not in danger of becoming a cold place for Unionists; it is and has been a cold place for Unionists for many years because of the underlying premise on which the Bill is based. There is a false belief that nationalism can be accommodated by the removal of symbols.
Although I bow to the Minister's greater experience of the Scottish legal system, I raised in the ad hoc committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly the question of royal symbols outside Scottish courthouses. Nationalist opinion rises and falls in Scotland, and I asked many witnesses whether there was evidence of an attempt by those who represent the nationalist community there to remove the royal symbols from outside courthouses. Every witness said that there was no such move and that they knew of no demand from nationalists in Scotland to remove the insignia from courthouses. Why should there be such a demand in Northern Ireland? Before the criminal justice review was mooted, did any evidence exist to show that there was such a demand?
I saw a false and inaccurate programme last night on national television about the day known as Bloody Sunday. I watched to see if it would refer to a demand for changes to the criminal justice system. There was no such reference. Why? I defy any hon. Member, past or present, to recollect demands by civil rights demonstrators at the beginning of the civil disturbances in Northern Ireland for changes to the criminal justice system. I do not recall there being any and, until the review, there was no evidence that the removal of the insignia or the royal coat of arms was a demand being voiced by campaigners.
I take issue with some of the points made by Mr. McGrady. He referred to the ad hoc committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, of which I was a member. I attended most of its hearings, put questions to many of the witnesses and spoke at the Northern Ireland Assembly when we were debating these issues. I made the point on every occasion I could that the hard issues that might divide members of the committee, and Members of the Assembly, had not been addressed. We did not grapple with the thorny question of the royal coat of arms outside courthouses. That is why there was a degree of unanimity. I do not mind if people agree to set aside for a time the hard issues that are likely to divide them, to achieve some form of consensus. I do mind, however, if they try to present that course of action as a solution to the many difficult decisions that they face.
As a member of the committee, I must point out that the chairman, Mr. Shipley Dalton, an Official Unionist, stated in the committee's report:
"It is true to say that there is no complete consensus" in this report. Hon. Members have tried to paint a picture of almost complete unanimity in the committee. There was no such unanimity, because these issues, which are contentious for Unionists, were not dealt with. They could not be dealt with because there was no coming together of minds.
That is indeed the case, and it was alluded to in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I shall have to ask the hon. Member for South Down to explain that omission from his speech at some point, but I shall now move on.
The Secretary of State's earlier contribution on the Policing Board will cause concern in Northern Ireland. We attempted on several occasions to ascertain from the right hon. Gentleman the precise nature of the Government's position. It appeared that, when he met the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party and, I assume, other parties several months ago, the issue of the deadline for the nominations to the Policing Board was put to him. We were given the clear and precise response that a deadline would be adhered to and that, once it had passed, that would be it for any changes to the board until a subsequent point beyond the next Assembly elections, which are scheduled for 2003.
The Secretary of State appeared today to admit of the possibility that the boat might not have left the harbour, if Sinn Fein-IRA were to suggest, in the immediate future, either privately or publicly, that they had reviewed their position. We were told many months ago that the boat was to set sail, and that if Sinn Fein was not on it, it would be left behind. The implication tonight, however, was that if a change was in the offing from Sinn Fein-IRA, there could perhaps be a review of the legislation by Her Majesty's Government. It would be preferable if we could clarify that point tonight. Has the boat left the harbour? Is there any possibility that if Sinn Fein-IRA were to hint at a change of mind—despite their previously stated position, their adherence to and support for violence, and their continued campaign of punishment beatings in Northern Ireland—their position would be reconsidered via a change in legislation in the House?
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify one point? Does he agree that it would be preferable to have Sinn Fein on the Policing Board at the earliest opportunity and thereby encourage young republicans to join the police service? Would not that be a better way forward for all of us in Northern Ireland and a clear indication that the war is indeed over?
If Sinn Fein were committed to the political process and if its members were democrats, I would unreservedly and unequivocally say yes, but the point is that they are not. They would corrupt the system just as they are corrupting the system in Northern Ireland now. That is the point and that is why the hon. Lady has alluded over the past few days and weeks to the undermining of support for the Belfast agreement in the Unionist community. That community sees the corruption of civic and political life by Sinn Fein-IRA supporters across Northern Ireland, so it has no confidence in the agreement that delivered those people to the heart of government via the system that the hon. Lady supported and continues to support.
I must refer to the possible appointments to the Judicial Appointments Commission. The Bill says that there will be
"a body corporate known as the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission" consisting of a chairman and
"twelve other members appointed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly."
My party would have serious reservations about that, not least because, just as the political institutions are causing controversy and attracting a distinct lack of support in the Unionist community, the offices of First and Deputy First Minister, as they claim themselves to be, equally have a reputation problem in the Unionist community in that Unionists have no confidence in them.
I return to the possible introduction of community restorative justice, which has been raised several times. That issue again divided the Northern Ireland Assembly ad hoc committee, as it causes deep concern to many communities in Northern Ireland. For a number of years, a barbaric type of justice has been meted out by those who support Sinn Fein or loyalist paramilitaries and some have banded together in a pseudo-community restorative justice programme. Some people involved in some programmes are causing major concern to those of us with a genuine interest in a restorative justice system that can command support across the communities in Northern Ireland. It is vital that the Northern Ireland community—Protestants and Catholics; Unionists and nationalists—see that a community restorative justice programme can have no semblance of credibility within the terms of the Bill.
That is a very bald assertion. The Bill sets out clearly the exact reassurances that the hon. Gentleman seeks on the proposed restorative justice agencies—they must be accredited and they must be prepared to work with the statutory agencies, including the police—so I invite him to explain why they are not good enough. What reassurances on restorative justice, which he says could be good for the people of Northern Ireland, does he think he needs from the Government?
The Minister should not underestimate the capacity of Sinn Fein and the community groups with which it is associated to do whatever it takes to control the justice system in their areas. In the so-called ghetto areas of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has proved over and again that it is prepared to use whatever means it has at its disposal to try to control the justice system.
The House needs to tease this matter out. The argument that the hon. Gentleman has just articulated is an argument for no restorative justice. Is that what he is arguing? He prefaced his critical remarks on the Bill by saying that, like the Government, he believes that restorative justice has a role to play in Northern Ireland. We should work together to ensure a restorative justice system that does not allow those elements to deny the people of Northern Ireland this opportunity. What is his position? Does he think that no system of restorative justice will ever work in Northern Ireland because of those elements, or can we work together to improve the provisions in the Bill?
Last week, the Minister told me and my colleagues that he wanted our comments on the Bill and suggestions for improvements. We relayed our comments, including our concerns on the community restorative justice aspects of the Bill. I am merely laying down a marker. The ability and capacity for Sinn Fein and the community groups with which it is associated should not be underestimated: they will go to the nth degree to try to ensure that they retain control in Northern Ireland.
I do not think that the status of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland has been referred to in the debate. The ad hoc committee took evidence from the board. The board and the committee agreed that it would be a retrograde step to downgrade the board to the status of a next steps agency. I reiterate that view.
I want to speak against several aspects of the Bill, and to make specific criticisms of the proposals for restorative justice for young offenders in part 4. I also want to make some wider points about the nature of the Bill.
The simplest explanation of the aims of restorative justice can be summarised as the three Rs: responsibility, restoration and reintegration. As I understand it, a number of countries around the world already use similar systems for encouraging offenders to confront the consequences of their behaviour, and to make amends via one method or another to those against whom they have transgressed.
In Canada, the emphasis is on reconciliation, with victims given the opportunity to confront their offenders and to suggest ways in which offenders could make amends for what they have done. In New Zealand, they prefer a system of family or community conferencing, which involves people concerned about the victim and/or the offender in decisions about how amends can best be made.
Even in his introductory remarks, the hon. Gentleman sounds as though he may know what he is talking about, and may have come across the document that accompanied the review and the many hundreds of research documents that are referred to in the schedule to it. Why did he not tell his hon. Friends on the Front Bench about its existence?
If it helps the Minister, I can confirm that my research was not undertaken for me in a great hurry by civil servants at two minutes' notice.
The Australians use a similar system based on the New Zealand model but with a greater role for the police as part of the overall process. Closer to home, we have a slightly different system. In Scotland, offenders can be brought before panels of volunteer members of the public, who can discuss restorative justice options with them and their parents. In England, a non-criminal youth panel sees offenders who have been formally convicted by the youth court, and seeks to draw up a contract involving the offender and those seeking reparation.
The proposed system of restorative justice for young offenders in Northern Ireland is based on an amalgam of those different approaches, with youth conferences and associated youth conference plans. The critical difference is that the systems in other countries were not designed to operate in an environment such as Northern Ireland, where special circumstances clearly apply.
The proposals for Northern Ireland youth conferences allow the participation of a so-called appropriate adult. Under new article 3A, the appropriate adult could be a parent or guardian, a social worker or a legal representative. If no one in those categories was able or willing to serve, he or she could be replaced by
"any responsible person who has attained the age of 18 and is neither a police officer nor a member of the police support staff."
That definition is so broad that it could relate to just about anyone in practice. While it excludes police officers and members of the police support staff, presumably because the police are meant to be represented at the conference in their own right, it makes no reference to excluding members of paramilitary organisations, whether republican or loyalist. That means that, given the special circumstances in Northern Ireland, the system is open to abuse.
For instance, what is to stop members of paramilitary organisations effectively using their muscle in the local community to insist that only they should be allowed to represent young offenders at youth conferences, as "appropriate adults"? They might then argue for a very light penalty—if any meaningful sanction is to be imposed at all. Youths who had been involved in criminal activity might look to the local paramilitary bosses for protection via the system. Not only does that offer the paramilitaries an avenue to subversion of the justice system; it threatens to turn young offenders towards them if they appear to have been successfully protected.
I accept that the proposed system may be well intentioned, but I believe that it ignores the reality of life in Northern Ireland. All this needs to be thought through again very carefully, even before the system is piloted in the Province.
I am also concerned about the proposed changes to the judicial oath. The current oath states
"I . . . do swear that I will well and truly serve our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth the Second in the office of . . . and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will. So help me God."
In stark contrast, the revised oath in clause 20 states simply:
"I . . . do swear that I will well and faithfully serve in the office of . . . and that I will do right to all manner of people without fear or favour, affection or ill will, according to the laws and usages of this realm."
The revised oath expunges any references to the Crown other than the word "realm", which it retains almost as an afterthought. That is of concern not just to Unionists in Northern Ireland, but to all constitutional monarchists—or, at least, it should be. I include Lembit Öpik, for whom I also have a high regard.
As our amendment states, we oppose the Bill
"because it infringes the principle that justice flows from the Crown throughout the realm".
Once we interfere with that principle, there will be implications for other parts of the United Kingdom. We kid ourselves if we pretend otherwise.
I also have worries about the removal of the Crown arms outside courthouses in the Province, for similar reasons. Clause 66 states:
"The Royal Arms must not be displayed in any courtroom."
It also states that the arms must not be displayed
"on the exterior of a new courthouse".
"New courthouse" is defined as
"a courthouse first used after the coming into force of this section."
We will therefore have the anomaly of some courthouses displaying the royal arms and some not, depending not on what they stand for but simply on when they opened.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. For the avoidance of doubt, when I said that I agreed with the Minister, I agreed with his admitting the point. I did not agree with what he is trying to do.
If the Bill is passed in its current form, how long will it be before we hear siren voices suggesting that the royal arms may be removed from other courthouses in the United Kingdom in order to comply with the precedent that has been set in Northern Ireland? The explanatory notes that accompany the Bill gloss over that important point in a desultory three lines.
These measures are an affront not just to Unionist opinion but to all loyal subjects in the United Kingdom, including those in England, Scotland and Wales.
The hon. Gentleman has intimated that that practice will be an insult to people in Scotland, England and Wales as well as Northern Ireland, yet it has pertained in Scotland at least for part of its history. Was that also an insult to the people of the other regions of the United Kingdom?
I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I understand that royal arms are currently displayed in courthouses in Scotland and I do not believe that that should change.
These measures will undoubtedly give succour to republicans, but not just republicans in Northern Ireland. Here we come to the heart of the point that my party is opposing. They will also be welcomed by republicans on the British mainland, including those in the British Labour party, of whom there are many, some covert and some overt. A few have gone from covert to overt in the course of this debate.
The ramifications of some clauses go well beyond Northern Ireland itself. They are the thin end of a wider republican wedge. Chiefly for those reasons, I oppose them.
I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik in welcoming the Bill. I shall not repeat his arguments in regard to parts 1 to 3. Instead, I shall confine my remarks to parts 4 and 5 and endeavour to be relatively brief.
I too was struck by the emphasis that the report of the criminal justice review placed on international human rights standards. Paragraph 10.64 suggests that in drawing up and agreeing the aims and principles of the juvenile justice system, there would be value in drawing in particular upon the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, the international covenant on civil and political rights, UN guidelines for the prevention of juvenile delinquency, the UN standard minimum for the administration of juvenile justice, and UN guidelines for the protection of juveniles deprived of their liberty.
I am pleased that clause 53(3) states that all persons and bodies exercising functions in relation to the youth justice system must have regard to the welfare of children affected by the exercise of their functions, with a view to furthering the personal, social and educational development of the child. Will the Government consider a more detailed statement of aims and principles being drawn up, perhaps in consultation with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission?
Paragraph 10.66 of the report of the criminal justice review suggests:
"The Government should develop, agree and incorporate a clear statement of the aims of the juvenile justice system in Northern Ireland and a statement of the principles which should guide those who exercise the powers conferred by the legislation with due regard to the international human rights standards".
I support the scheme of reparation orders that is introduced under clause 54. There is a need for a greater role for the principles of restorative justice, with offenders meeting their victims, discovering the consequences of their actions and planning to improve their behaviour. Reform should respond not only to the problems caused by child offenders but to the problems that they face.
The reparation order is useful, in that it can show children the damage, both physical and emotional, that their actions have caused to the victim, and allow them to give something back to the victim and the community and make amends for their actions in a way that a custodial sentence could not achieve.
I am a little curious, however, about the provision in the new article 36B(2)(a) that the clause inserts in the Criminal Justice (Children)(Northern Ireland) Order 1998—that a reparation order must not be made if the court proposes to pass a custodial sentence on the offender. Surely there are circumstances in which a reparation order would be of benefit in addition to a custodial sentence. Are there circumstances in which a custodial sentence could be reduced if such an order was made, or is it the intention that a youth conference should be offered or convened in every case in which a community responsibility order, a custody order or a custodial sentence is imposed? There is a possible element of reparation in community responsibility and community custody orders, but not, as they are written, involving the victim.
I am also concerned about some aspects of the custody care orders mentioned in clause 56. They are specified as being for children under 14 and for offences that do not carry a term of life imprisonment for an adult. A period of six months to two years seems to me a very long time for someone so young. What is the reasoning behind the measure?
Further, in new article 44F, which details breaches of supervision requirements under the custody care orders, paragraph (3) imposes on the child a £200 fine or placement in secure accommodation for a period not to exceed 30 days. If the child has reached the age of 14, the figure rises to £1,000. These seem like quite large sums for young people. There also seems to be no mention of parental or guardian involvement. What role does the Secretary of State envisage for guardians or parents?
I am impressed by the provision for youth conferences and youth conference plans in clause 57, but I should like to see a greater commitment to the child's education expressed in the membership of youth conference panels, and greater clarity about the circumstances in which these will be convened.
Under part 5, the assumption of full responsibility for security by the Court Service and the removal of all symbols in the interior of courtrooms will ensure that the courts are a more welcoming environment for people, regardless of their community or ethnic background, a fact which Liberal Democrats very much welcome. I am also pleased to see in the criminal justice review implementation plan that the Court Service has already been proactive in the provision of information to the public and in providing outreach opportunities to the wider community through court visits and work experience placements, and that work is on-going to simplify the language used in courts.
I agree with the report of the criminal justice review in its adoption of the recommendations in "Speaking up for Justice". Under the current justice system, victims are failed, in that they often feel left out, unimportant and even non-existent. I agree with clause 67, which is designed to inform victims of the progress of their cases and of the release of prisoners back into the community. I am concerned, however, about subsection (4), which allows the Secretary of State to make available "other information" relating to the discharge and temporary release of imprisoned offenders. Will the Secretary of State publish any guidance on what "other information" might be? We have seen a rise in the incidence of vigilantism across the UK in recent years, and I seek reassurance from the Government on how they propose to minimise the risk of that.
I welcome clauses 70 and 71, on a community strategy and a local community safety partnership, but I would like to raise briefly one particular concern about the local community safety partnerships. Clause 71(3) states that membership of the partnerships is to be as specified by order made by the Secretary of State. Why are the guidelines on membership, if not the actual community groups, not written into the Bill? Could the Secretary of State at the very least make the order available in draft form to the House for its consideration?
The Bill is certainly moving in the right direction and should help in making the criminal justice system on the whole more accessible and more understood by the general public, whether or not they are ever involved with its process. Such openness and transparency are very welcome, and I support the Bill in principle.
The first thing that I want to talk about is consultation, and the way in which the Bill has been handled. Much has already been said about that in the debate, but I want to make it clear that, in general, the Opposition welcome the Government's approach to framing the legislation—up to a point.
The beginning of the process, which was conducted by the Northern Ireland Office, set a good example for other Departments of how to go forward and seek consensus, and also perhaps, for the benefit of the Government, to identify areas of disagreement and find out whether they had the potential to be resolved.
However, I have to tell the Under-Secretary that the moment the Bill got into his hands, that praiseworthy approach appeared to fall apart, because of the timetable. He did extend the timetable for consultation on the draft Bill over Christmas, but not to the satisfaction of the Northern Ireland Assembly, to which I shall return in a moment—and now we face the programme motion before the House, which we shall not be able to debate.
The combination of those two elements has entirely negated the beneficial effects of what the Government did before they published the Bill in November. I congratulate the Minister on having united all shades of opinion in the Assembly—because, as he will be aware, it is united in its condemnation of the Government's handling of the Bill and their inability to give the Assembly, or anybody else, sufficient time to consult on the details of the Bill, as opposed to the details of the published review.
"'sufficient time should be allowed for considered responses from all groups with an interest.'"
It provides that 12 weeks should be the standard minimum for consultation and that consultation should never have to be shortened below an acceptable minimum for reasons of departmental convenience, for example because a department has fallen behind its own implementation schedule.
It is much to be regretted that the Government have not been able to meet that standard for the discussion of the Bill before this stage. It is wholly unacceptable that they have provided for only 12 sittings on the Bill in Committee, because it contains a vast amount of detail that deserves proper consideration by the people who will have to examine it.
In my 15-minute response to the debate, I should not be having to try to make up for what is lacking elsewhere because the Government have ensured that many of the hours that would be necessary in Committee will not be available. I do not believe that it will be possible to give the Bill proper consideration in Committee under the timetable that the Government have drawn up, so I urge them to withdraw it.
Now I must move on and deal with the contributions to the debate. I heard the Secretary of State say that the composition of the review group was established under the agreement. However, as I think my hon. Friend Mr. Davies made clear in his opening remarks, the review group was a creature of the Northern Ireland Office; its composition was not part of the Belfast agreement.
The Secretary of State also said that there would continue to be consultation over the months ahead—but consultation in this place will end on
Concerns have been expressed in the debate about community safety, not least in the contribution by Mrs. Calton, who seemed to welcome clauses 70 and 71 before the penny dropped with her that there was nothing in them. They are Henry VIII clauses, which give the Secretary of State the power to do anything he likes.
Detail is woefully missing from clauses 70 and 71. That is not acceptable to Parliament; nor is giving the Secretary of State that much power when, because of the Government's behaviour to date, there is significant suspicion about exactly how they will use those powers if Parliament bestows them.
Mr. McNamara, whose long-standing interest and expertise in Northern Ireland politics is on the record, began his speech with a complaint about the youth element of part 4 of the Bill. He complained that the Bill mentioned a first duty to protect the public by preventing offending rather than by rehabilitation. By implication, the hon. Member for Cheadle agreed with him.
I wholly disagree and shall support the Government in Committee in sustaining the position as it stands. Like the hon. Gentleman, I believe in the merits of rehabilitation. It is implicit, however, that if we succeed in rehabilitating youth offenders through the youth justice system in the Bill—we have no problem in principle with much of it, but considerable reservations about points of detail—we will achieve the first aim of the Bill as well as achieving what the hon. Gentleman wants in terms of protecting the interests of the child by preventing the child from continuing as an offender.
I agree with Lembit Öpik about consultation, and I sincerely hope that he will join us in the Division Lobby when we oppose the programme motion. His party has traditionally done that, but tonight's motion is unacceptable not just in principle, but in practice. Good work can be done on the Bill in Committee as part of the Government's consultation process.
I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's maladroit equation of the hon. Member for Hull, North with Cromwell, to which the hon. Gentleman quite properly took exception.
For the record, Cromwell exported 2,000 McNamaras as slaves to Jamaica. It is arguable that he exported the wrong ones, but to call me Cromwell, or to suggest in any way that that man was a great parliamentarian, is to rubbish history.
That is why I made my point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire had been somewhat maladroit in making such a remark. I shall go no further into that point because I should have no time to discuss the rest of the Bill if I did.
It was a bit rich of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to say that the Conservative view of the merits of devolution appeared confused. Let us consider the messages put out by his party at present. A bipartisan arrangement between Government and Opposition continues to exist over the Belfast agreement. Our concern is about cases in which the agreement is not implemented, as Mr. Trimble made clear during the debate. Yet today, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has announced that the bipartisan arrangement that has prevailed for some time between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats is over.
The party of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire also sent out a confused message in its votes on access to facilities of the House: 14 of its Members voted for, 14 voted against and 28 abstained. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should put his own house in order before seeking to criticise the Conservatives for confusion of messages.
Mr. McGrady was quite right about the consistency of the approach taken by the Social Democratic and Labour party over the years. He said that it sought to achieve neutrality in the criminal justice system. That goes to the heart of the difference between the hon. Gentleman and the official Opposition. We do not believe that there should be neutrality in how the criminal justice system is represented in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and the criminal justice system must flow from the Crown. Symbols should recognise that reality, and I shall return to symbols later. However, I appreciated the tone in which he suggested that we should withdraw our amendment, even though I fear that that request will not meet with success.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hunter made it clear in speaking immediately after the hon. Member for South Down that our opposition to that detail of the Bill is no cheap publicity stunt and that it arises from fundamental principles. He drew proper attention to the fact that the review group's conclusion on the issue was illogical, and I want to return to that in a few moments.
The contribution of Mr. Harris was that of a self-confessed republican. That became clear during this debate.
The hon. Gentleman is right to make that distinction. Of course, I am not suggesting that he is associated with the violence that has been the distinction between the people who describe themselves as nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland. Part of the problem in dealing with Northern Ireland issues is that one ends up talking in code and words such as "community" become enormously loaded.
That is also part of the problem with the Bill, especially with regard to community safety partnerships. What is the word "community" supposed to mean in that context? The Secretary of State has introduced the Bill, but clauses 70 and 71 deal with community safety partnerships in absolutely no detail, so the House is entitled to be extremely suspicious about what will flow from that, which is why the Secretary of State should not have such powers.
I compliment Lady Hermon on the charming tone with which she delivered her speech; it completely deceived Mike Gapes by wholly disguising the steel in her remarks and the resolution with which she put them to the House. She referred to the role of the chief inspector, and we agree that it would be appropriate to include the ombudsman in the list of institutions to be subject to inspection by the chief inspector. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us that satisfaction, if not in replying to the debate, certainly in Committee—if the House is minded to debate the Bill in Committee.
The hon. Lady also talked about the Irish language. Of course, an absurd position has now arisen in the new courts in Laganside. To accommodate verbal instructions to members of the public, they can ask for those instructions to be put on a board in three languages—English, Irish and Cantonese—because more people speak Cantonese on the island of Ireland than speak Irish. That is the rather bizarre result of attempting to accommodate everyone.
I agree with some of the analysis of by the hon. Member for Ilford, South, especially when he said that the problem was with Unionists and loyalists and that people could abuse the debate about symbols. That has to be viewed in the context of the fact that there is now a cold house for Unionists in Northern Ireland. Almost every informed commentator now agrees that the issue that requires the greatest management is not reassuring the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, but what has happened to the Unionist community as a direct result of the way in which the Government have conducted themselves, going above and beyond the Belfast agreement.
The issue of coats of arms in courthouses and the oaths taken by members of the judiciary goes right to the heart of that symbology. The hon. Lady quoted the agreement. I shall not repeat that quote now, but it made it clear that the measures are not part of the Belfast agreement. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart complained that there had been too much focus on the issue, so why is it in the Bill? Why is such a measure being introduced when it will cause such offence to the people who want the Union to be sustained?
The provisions for the oath and the coat of arms will be foolish in practice because of the message that they send to the Unionists. They are unacceptable in principle to those of us who regard Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and want it to remain so. That is why we shall press our reasoned amendment to the vote.
I fear that 15 minutes is not long enough to deal with all the points that have been raised in the debate. I am grateful to most Members for their contributions to what has, in the main, been a constructive debate on an important Bill. I say "most", because I was disappointed by the contribution of an hour and 15 minutes by Mr. Davies. He devoted about an hour and 10 minutes of that to form, not to substance. I suspect that the bluster and alleged passion of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen was a cover for their failure to prepare properly for the debate so that they could address the provisions of this complicated and difficult, but important Bill.
Before the debate, the Bill had benefited from the significant consultation that has contributed to its final form. The issue of consultation has occupied far too much time in the debate, but it is instructive that not one party other than the Opposition referred to the amount of consultation and co-operation that it has received from me, my officials in the Northern Ireland Office or my predecessors since the review proposals were published.
I had an extensive meeting with the chair of the ad hoc committee of the Assembly. His work has been mentioned and he clearly understood the circumstances and the background that led to the Bill having to be published when it was. It is a pity that the understanding that was apparent in that meeting was not reflected in the report that was subsequently published.
I must deal with another point that is not of substance but has been raised at length by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. He referred to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland left the Chamber a short time after he had made his speech. My clear recollection—I have checked this with the official record—is that my right hon. Friend referred in his speech to the fact that he would have to leave, so it is a great pity and a great discourtesy to him that those who were present in the Chamber and who sought thereafter to malign him by making constant references to his absence did not seek to raise that issue when he was here to defend himself.
As a matter of fact, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a significant programme of extensive meetings and many people in the Chamber will know the hours that he works for Northern Ireland, both in Belfast and in London. He would not have absented himself from the Chamber but for the fact that he had to go to Belfast this evening. He set out this evening, so it is a pity that those who sought to criticise him in his absence did not have the courage to raise the matter when he was here.
The Secretary of State said in his speech that he would have to leave early but not for a moment did I imagine that that meant that he would not stay even to hear the remarks of the Opposition spokesman. I thought that he would leave at some point in the evening. As he left, he sent me a note as I was speaking. Clearly, I was not able to read that note.
On the most important point, the Secretary of State should so arrange his priorities that Parliament comes first whatever may need to be done in London, Belfast or elsewhere. The fact that he has not done so clearly shows what is wrong with the Government as a whole.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue specifically. If he checks the official record tomorrow, he will see that, when he was present in the Chamber, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that, because of today's statements, he had to do the hon. Gentleman—my right hon. Friend was referring to and looking directly at him—the discourtesy of leaving soon afterwards. If the hon. Gentleman has the courage to malign my right hon. Friend in that way, he should have done him the courtesy of doing it when he was here.
Mr. Garnier, who is not in the Chamber, mentioned respect for Law Officers. We need to clarify that. He asked whether the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland is to be a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The answer to that is no, he cannot be a Member of it, and I refer hon. Members to clause 24(7). The review envisaged that the Attorney-General would be an independent and impartial figure. That recommendation was accepted and has been included in legislation.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said that we were making a new provision in which the Advocate- General would hold the position of Attorney-General for England and Wales. I refer hon. Members to the specific provision in clause 28. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the local Attorney-General cannot legally carry out the functions in relation to excepted matters, as Rev. Ian Paisley suggested. That is why there must be a division between the two responsibilities.
Opposition Members said that there was no need to legislate this Session. The Government's position on that is clear. It is necessary to pave the way to make devolution possible if there is to be any prospect of the legislative framework for criminal justice in Northern Ireland being ready for the target that the Secretary of State mentioned today and which has been made clear in public in Northern Ireland for some time. The timetable to reach that objective is tight. Many of the provisions have to be implemented before devolution, such as the creation of a new prosecution service similar to that in England and Wales.
I shall comment fleetingly on the allegation that no report was made available to hon. Members on the New Zealand experience during either the review process or the consultation period. Apart from the research document that was handed to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford during a meeting with officials in the Northern Ireland Office on that matter, the document "Restorative Justice Options for Northern Ireland: A Comparative Review" is a companion of the review document itself. Far from there being no academic consideration or review of the provisions in New Zealand, there are no less than eight references to it in the companion document, which I commend to him. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, "About New Zealand, not about Northern Ireland." There could hardly be a report on the ability of restorative justice to have an impact on the young people of Northern Ireland when it has not been implemented. Indeed, that is what the Bill is about.
The hon. Gentleman's argument was that there was no published research on the way in which restorative justice operates in New Zealand. There is, however, a significant amount of research on that. Indeed, a plethora of it—nine pages, I think—is in the back of the companion document. It covers research throughout the world on restorative justice and its operation in many different jurisdictions. I hope that between now and the next time—[Interruption.] I will give way in a moment; I do not need the hon. Gentleman to instruct me on when to give way, especially as he only reluctantly gave way to me.
I hope that before we engage in debate in Committee, the Opposition spokesman will have an opportunity to read up on much of the interesting documentation that is available.
Although one may argue what documentation was available and what studies are in it, surely the point is that the experience in New Zealand, whatever it might be, is not relevant to the situation in Northern Ireland. The essential point about the situation in Northern Ireland is the existence of paramilitary gangs that seek to dominate certain neighbourhoods which means that the introduction of any community-based scheme carries with it enormous dangers. That has no parallel in New Zealand or elsewhere.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a telling and important point. It was not made earlier, and I was trying to respond to the debate, but I shall respond to his point. The Government's position, which I understand to be shared by all the parties in Northern Ireland, is that the inability of the police and/or the judicial system to affect the behaviour of young people in some parts of Northern Ireland does not mean that those young people should be denied the opportunity to take advantage of restorative justice, if it can be made to work. I understand that to be the approach that has consistently been taken by all parties in Northern Ireland. Indeed, there is an argument that young people in Northern Ireland are more deserving of extra opportunities than those who live in societies with less trouble and conflict.
The Bill's purpose is to create a framework in which restorative justice can be delivered without denying that there are serious challenges in doing so. The structure that has been created is designed to address those challenges. Mr. Francois says that we have to ensure that nobody with a paramilitary background should be included. That might mean denying some young people access to their parents in a youth conference. If we are to deflect young people from taking the path that their parents have taken or prevent them from being dragged down that path by the parents of other children and other malign influences in the community, we must address these issues. We will do so not by saying that it is difficult but by engaging in constructive debate. We must try to address the difficulties and create an environment in which we can deliver the benefits of restorative justice to the people of Northern Ireland.
We do not view the reform of the justice system as an issue that should divide the parties in this Chamber or in the community in Northern Ireland. It appears that the official Opposition are hell-bent on dividing the House for the sake of two recommendations out of 294. In the absence of any serious work by them on these issues, they have elevated those two recommendations into issues of principle on which they will oppose the whole Bill while constantly telling us, without giving any detail, that they accept many of the recommendations in the review and in the Bill.
The vast bulk of material covered by the review and the Bill concerns the practical workings of justice. Getting it right is in everyone's interests. The tone of the debate has, in large measure, matched that of the recent consultation exercise. There have been issues of division—symbols are the most obvious and predictable—but I am pleased that Lady Hermon was able to say that the Secretary of State's opening remarks were, to some degree, reassuring to her. We hope that we will be able to build on that in consultation with other parties in Northern Ireland.
The fact that symbols are the most obvious and predictable issue on which there has been division should not hide the fact that on enormous parts of the Bill there is cross-community agreement in Northern Ireland. During consultation, we were struck by the real interest in and enthusiasm for the reform of criminal justice and by the steps that are necessary to bring the system closer to the people of Northern Ireland. We have taken note of that.
In announcing the draft legislation and implementation plan, the Government set out their target for possible devolution of criminal justice functions after the Assembly elections in 2003. As the Secretary of State said in his opening speech, this is a challenging timetable. However, I sense in the House and more widely the commitment and good will that will make that possible. In many ways, today's debate reflected debate that we have had about the review's recommendations. The most encouraging feature is the support for the vast bulk of the Bill's key provisions.
These reforms cannot happen overnight; it will be several years before they take full effect, but I am confident that once they have been fully implemented Northern Ireland will have a criminal justice system that can be measured against the best in the world.