Clause 2 - Membership of the Commission

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 25th March 2004.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General 2:30 pm, 25th March 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in

clause 2, page 2, line 8, leave out subsection 2.

At the risk of going over ground that was touched on in the other place, we cannot allow subsection (2) to pass without probing the Government on the changes that they have introduced. The Minister will be aware that the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 provided that a judicial member of the Judicial Appointments Commission would hold office, in effect, for such a period as was linked to his tenure as a judge, unless, of course, he opted to come off the commission. The change provides for a ceiling limit of 10 years' service and for such a member not holding office for more than five years at a time.

I am not unsympathetic to the Minister's aim. I can see the merit of a throughput of people providing expertise to the commission, but the point was rightly made in the other place that the number of judges available to do the work is pretty limited. There must be concern about whether there will be the required number of judges willing to do the work, because it is probably quite onerous, and whether we will end up with a shortage of judges. At the same time, judges who have been doing excellent work will not be able to continue as a result of the provision. I should be grateful to hear the Minister's explanations and views on the subject.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The 2002 Act already places time limits on the other members of the commission—the lay members and the legal professionals—and it seems sensible to treat all members consistently. Under the proposed time limits, judicial members would be able to serve for up to an aggregate of 10 years, and a judicial member could be appointed afresh on being appointed to a different judicial tier. I trust that that will help to assuage the concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed that the time limits could unduly restrict membership of the commission. We do not regard the provision as unduly restrictive. Indeed, we are confident that we will have no difficulty in finding judges of the highest calibre to serve on the commission. I hope that I have reassured him on that.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I should like to push the Minister a little further on the issue. I broadly agree with the terms of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). I, too, am interested to know the genesis of the change. It seems not to have

been in the review or even in the joint declaration. Did the Government agree to it as part of a discussion with one of the other parties? That is something on which we have made our views known in the past. I am sure that there must be a good reason for the proposal, but we established in this morning's debate that there was no particular necessity for lay and non-lay members to be treated alike, so I should like to hear exactly what the Minister is getting at here. Is there a good reason for the change or, as we are talking about judges, is it just some ministerial frolic?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

That is scarcely likely. To some extent, the point was made by his hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman seemed so friendly. It just shows that, as always with the Liberal Democrats, appearances can be deceptive. The point is that 10 years is quite a significant period and, even though I accept that there is a limited pool—that point was also made in the House of Lords—we want to engender some throughput. For that reason, we have proposed the change.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I am grateful for that explanation, but I am not completely satisfied with the answer that the Minister gave to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) about the genesis of the change, although I can see that there is a degree of logic behind bringing the lay and judicial members into line. My experience in many areas of life is that it tends not to be a good thing for people to stay on committees for too long; it is always desirable for new people to join.

The Minister has not answered adequately, which will leave the lurking suspicion that there may be an agenda along the lines of that to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—whom I would call a friend in any place outside this context—referred. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Independent Conservative, Basingstoke

My position on the stand part debate on clause 2 is very much the same as the position that I adopted on clause 1. Despite all the arguments that we have heard from the Government, I still believe that the concept of ''reflective of the community'' is fundamentally flawed and therefore wholly undesirable. I maintain that appointment to places on the commission should be based exclusively on the quality and qualifications of individuals. Unless clause 2 is amended along the lines proposed by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I will find it unacceptable, and although I do not propose to force a Division on the clause, I wish to put on record my opposition to it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.