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Clause 2 - Membership of the Commission

Part of Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 25th March 2004.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 10:15 am, 25th March 2004

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which I could probably play around with for 15 or 20 minutes without drawing breath. However, I shall resist that temptation, particularly because the Independent Monitoring Commission report will be published in the next couple of weeks and anything I say about that today will probably be irrelevant after its publication.

Paragraph 6.104 of the criminal justice review contains an express reference to the absence of political input in the appointments process:

''In the Northern Ireland context it is important to keep any hint of political input out of the appointments process. The lay members would be selected on the basis of the additional value which they would bring to the Commission's deliberations, including such qualities as experience of selection processes, the court users' perspective and the ability to assess the personal qualities of candidates.''

Appointing people because they are members of Sinn Fein, or indeed of any political party, does not seem to

have been part of the Government's thinking and I am content to go along with that.

In tabling amendment No. 3, I hoped that a very small part of a very small community—legal professionals in Northern Ireland—could be reflective of the wider community. Perhaps that is slightly ambitious, but I am more ambitious in that regard than the Government, who have not defined the term ''reflective of the community''. If the wording sounds familiar, there is a reason for that. It is more or less directly lifted from paragraph 3 of the section of the Good Friday agreement entitled ''Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity'', which states:

''Subject to the outcome of public consultation underway, the British Government intends, as a particular priority, to create a statutory obligation on public authorities in Northern Ireland to carry out all their functions with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in relation to religion and political opinion; gender; race; disability; age; marital status; dependants; and sexual orientation.''

If that is good enough for the ''Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity'' section of the Good Friday agreement, it is good enough for the Bill. There would be a workable framework to define a commission that is ''reflective of the wider community''.

For the interest of the Committee, we have established from the 2001 census that 40.3 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland claim to be Catholic, 39.5 Protestant and 6.1 per cent. other Christian. I am not sure what the theology of ''other Christian''—neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant—is, but we shall pass on that. Other religions are 0.3 per cent. and none or not stated are 13.9 per cent. By gender, 48.7 per cent. of the population are male and 51.3 per cent. female. By ethnicity, 99.2 per cent. are white, and 0.8 per cent. non-white.

By age, the population are roughly the same as the rest of the country—26.8 per cent. under 18, about 60 per cent. aged 18 to 64 and 13.3 per cent. 65 years and older. The information is available for those who want to check the Government's performance in establishing a commission that reflects the wider community, if that is what they choose to do.