Committee

Part of Northern Ireland Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs, Spokesperson for Northern Ireland 4:30 pm, 11th March 2009

I will also speak to Amendments 4 and 5. The amendments are partially inspired by the arguments made by the honourable Member for Foyle in Committee in the other place. As Mr Durkan accepted, there is nothing in the Bill to protect a Minister of Justice from being ousted from office on a somewhat capricious basis. In the Commons, the SDLP proposed that the nominating officer of a political party should be involved in the appointment and removal of the Minister. We saw a lot of merit in that proposal but we were worried about what would happen if the nominating officer was in fact the Minister himself. There may be circumstances where he might not agree to remove himself from office even if that was the will of his own party. Therefore, we have tabled amendments to provide for an extra component in the cross-community vote.

Amendments 2 and 5 provide that a Minister of justice has to be appointed and removed by 50 per cent of the unionists voting, 50 per cent of the nationalists voting, 50 per cent of the Assembly voting, and the majority of the members of the Minister's party voting. We believe that these amendments provide the Minister of justice with a degree of security while maintaining the right of the Assembly to remove him from his post. It also provides the synchronisation between the appointment and removal which the Government are keen to maintain. This is a fairly modest amendment and we urge the Government to accept it. As I said at Second Reading, we believe that the Minister of justice is a special Minister in circumstances which are particularly fraught at the present time.

I will now address Amendment 4. The Liberal Democrats tabled this amendment in the other place and we made representation to the Minister, Mr Paul Goggins, at our meetings last week. The amendment takes inspiration from the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 which allows the Secretary of State to remove a political or independent member from the Policing Board if he has been convicted of a criminal offence since his appointment, if he has become bankrupt, if he is not committed to non-violent and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, or if he is unable or unfit to discharge his functions. We believe that putting such a qualification into the Bill would prevent vexatious attempts by Members of the Assembly to remove a Minister of justice from office. The Assembly would need to resolve that a Minister filled one of the four criteria listed in the amendment before they could remove him. This gives a Minister of justice more protection than is afforded in the Bill as it stands. As we know from our daily experience in this place, Justice Ministers and Home Secretaries are often called on to make difficult decisions that, in an ideal world, they would choose not to make. They make these decisions because they are in a secure position and because they have to. If a justice Minister is vulnerable to a populist movement within the Assembly, he might not be able to make the difficult decisions required of a justice Minister. The amendment would ensure that the Assembly still has the right to remove the Minister of justice from office, but it would give him protection in that he could not be removed for frivolous or populist reasons but only for serious reasons of grave misdoings. I beg to move.