HC Deb 04 March 2002 vol 381 cc56-61
Mr. Browne

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 71, line 9, leave out "District Judge (Magistrates' Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrate".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendments Nos. 3 to 6, 110, 7 to 15 and 132.

Amendment No. 16, in clause 15, page 10, line 31, leave out "District Judge (Magistrates' Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrate".

Government amendment No. 133.

Amendment No. 17, in page 10, line 32, leave out "District Judges (Magistrates' Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrates".

Amendment No. 18, in page 10, line 33, leave out "District Judges (Magistrates' Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrates".

Government amendment No. 134.

Amendment No. 19, in page 10, line 34, leave out "District Judge (Magistrates' Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrate".

Government amendment No. 135.

Amendment No. 20, in page 10, line 37, leave out "District Judge (Magistrates' Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrate".

Government amendment No. 136.

Amendment No. 21, in page 10, line 38, leave out "District Judge (Magistrates' Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrate".

Amendment No. 22, in page 10, line 39, leave out "District Judge (Magistrates' Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrate".

Government amendment No. 137.

Amendment No. 23, in page 11, line 2, leave out "District Judge (Magistrates' Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrate".

Government amendments Nos. 24 to 26, 141, 149 and 164.

Mr. Browne

These amendments relate to the Bill's provisions to rename resident magistrates as "District Judges (Magistrates' Courts)".

Essentially, there is only one substantive amendment in this group and that is amendment No. 110, which deletes clause 9, thereby retaining the title of "resident magistrate". The rest of the group are consequential on that. Reversion to the title of "resident magistrate" was suggested by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) in Committee and the proposal was supported by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). I am grateful to both for their contribution in that debate.

The Bill's provisions follow the review recommendation that was intended to demonstrate publicly that the magistracy is an integral part of the judiciary. The review group concluded that the term "resident" had no meaning or relevance in the modern context. These arguments, as with the other recommendations of the review, have some merit.

However, I have also listened to the view raised in the two consultation periods on the review. During the consultation exercise, the Resident Magistrates Association opposed the name change, pointing to the long history of the resident magistrate in Northern Ireland and, before that, in Ireland more generally. It is not our intention to cause offence to resident magistrates and remove a name that has been synonymous with effective justice evenly applied over the years. The title "resident magistrate" also has the advantage of being clearly understood and recognised. In addition, the resident magistrates do not feel the need identified by the review to demonstrate that the magistracy is an integral part of the judiciary. That point undermines the reasoning for making the change.

For these reasons, we have decided that, on balance, the greater merit lies in preserving the title "resident magistrate". I ask that the amendments be approved.

Mr. Blunt

It is an enormous pleasure to speak to amendments that, last Wednesday and Thursday, stood in my name and those of my hon. Friends. I am delighted that the amendments have now received the support of the Secretary of State and his colleagues.

The debate on this issue was one of the most entertaining in Committee. We were diverted slightly by a discussion of the cultural history of the resident magistrate and of the books and the television series that relate to the post. The Minister and I were characterised as a couple of the protagonists in the stories, but I shall not go down that path as the discussion was not necessarily advantageous to me. I was characterised according to a brief summary rather than detailed knowledge.

The Minister has listened to the arguments and the House, resident magistrates and all those in Northern Ireland who understand the term "resident magistrate" owe him their thanks. He has been prepared to listen to sensible argument.

I hope that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) is not still of the mind that he had in Committee. It is appropriate to remind the House that, in Committee, I read out paragraph 6.142 of the review as a classic example of the bureaucratic tidy mind at work. It is the origin of the recommendation to do away with the historic and well understood name of "resident magistrate" and to replace it with whatever ghastly appellation was thought up. Sadly, the hon. Gentleman was not in Committee when I spoke, but he soon returned to say: It is worth remembering that a strong justification for that exists."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 29 January 2002; c. 47.] He then referred to paragraph 6.142 and read it out again.

I wish to caution the hon. Gentleman. If he wishes to support the bureaucratic tidy mind, he may have a problem. If such a mind gets to work on the policies of the Liberal Democrats with all the inherent contradictions that exist, there might not be much left at the end of the process.

Lembit Öpik

If the hon. Gentleman continues to insult my party, I warn him that I may read out his speech in its entirety yet again.

Mr. Blunt

I would be very happy for the House to be so enlightened, but I fear that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not support the hon. Gentleman through the whole of that process.

The Minister and I have come at this issue from separate directions, which is why several of the amendments that I tabled on Wednesday now appear with the Secretary of State's name attached to them. However, one or two of them do not have his name attached to them, and, although I condemned the bureaucratic tidy mind a moment ago, I am slightly concerned about the bureaucratic tidiness of the exercise. For example, I draw the Minister's attention to what is now Government amendment No. 132 and amendment No. 16. The difference between those amendments appears to be whether the term "resident magistrate" should take capital letters in the way that it normally does in the Bill.

It has also struck me that there were one or two minor complications with the Government's approach. I imagine that the Minister will ask me to withdraw the amendments that are in my name and those of my hon. Friends alone on the assumption that the Secretary of State's approach is utterly comprehensive. In an effort to ensure that the exercise that I undertook was thoroughly comprehensive, I called upon the assistance of servants of the House in drawing up my amendments. I do not want to pay disrespect to them, but I will accede to the request that I assume that the Minister will make. However, I suspect that the servants of the House may be right on one or two matters that the Minister and his officials may have got wrong. That point may best be settled over a small wager in one of the bars of the House.

Mr. Browne

Unfortunately, as I am never in the bars of the House, I will not be able to have that wager with the hon. Gentleman. He anticipates my advice, which is that the amendments in the name of the Secretary of State will be comprehensive in their effect. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, such matters are constantly reviewed and reconsidered so, if my advice turns out to be wrong, there will be an opportunity to correct things.

Mr. Blunt

I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. I will therefore not press the amendments to a vote. However, the provisions are worth checking and, if it is necessary to get them technically correct, it might be appropriate to do that in another place.

The debate on this issue—particularly the one held in Committee—and the way in which the Minister has listened to the representations made to him is an exemplar of how the House should go about its business. The friendly tone of the debate was not what many people outside the House expect from legislators with different philosophical views and from different parties. I think that we have come to the right answer. I am glad that the Government support the amendments that we originally tabled, and of course we will support them.

Mr. Mallon

I am against the amendment for three reasons. First, the review body was to the point: We recommend that legislation be passed to redesignate resident magistrates as district judges"— full stop, clear, sharp and unambiguous. The recommendation was intended to demonstrate publicly that the magistracy is an integral part of the judiciary. It is an inherent, working part of the judiciary, not some quaint adjunct to it that lives on in literary nostalgia. That is an important point.

The second reason is that the term "resident" has its origins in the 19th century, when there were particular reasons for wanting office holders to live in the district where they held office. The review makes that point, and there are interesting reasons for it. In the 19th century, it was difficult to live in parts of rural Ireland, north and south. That coincided with what became known as the famine, when the population of Ireland went from 8 million to 4 million.

That was not the only reason why the term "resident magistrate" was introduced. It was also to ensure that during that period those living in the country were available to dispense law. I do not mean living in the area or the region, but in the country of Ireland, however it is designated. What is the relevance of the term "resident" as of now? The review says: It has no meaning or relevance in the modern context. Charming though it may be in Somerville and Ross and the Irish RM television programmes, it is not the folk experience of many. I am against the amendment for those two important reasons.

The third reason is that we are involved in change, which will help to provide confidence in and a new beginning for criminal justice in Northern Ireland. To some the term "resident magistrate" has the air of big house justice about it: justice dispensed on the community, not from within it. The term may have been appropriate at some time, but I believe that it is inappropriate now. That is a much more important consideration than the fondness that "resident magistrates" have for their traditional name. I fully understand that they like to be known as RMs, because if the legislation stands as the Government have written it, they will be known as DJs, and that would not be quite the same.

6.15 pm
Lembit Öpik

I feel betrayed by the Government on these amendments. I shall not read out paragraph 6.142 of the review again, as it can be read twice within two pages of the Official Report of the Standing Committee. I defended what I thought was the Government's position only to be betrayed and have the political rug pulled from under my feet by the Minister. who decided to support the Conservatives after all. I have smarted from that, because although the Government have been persuaded by the Conservatives, like the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) I have not. It would be a bridge too far for me to flit like a flag in the wind merely because the Minister has decided that the hon. Member for Reigate was correct and has followed him down this path.

As I said in Committee, the serious point concerns symbolism. Symbolism can appear anywhere and can be interpreted in any way that people choose. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh has made the substantive point on this subject. I do not think that it is the core issue in the Bill, but I shall provide the hon. Gentleman with some reassurance and consolation at this difficult time, because like him we feel somewhat betrayed by the Minister. However, we shall find it in our hearts to hate the sin and love the sinner.

Mr. Garnier

Debates on Northern Ireland are littered and all too frequently larded with expressions such as "betrayal", and it is wholly inappropriate for the debate on this clause to be concerned with betrayals. The fact that the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Northern Ireland has been wrong-footed does not constitute a betrayal, although I congratulate him on being in Committee rather more often than the Prime Minister is in the House of Commons, which in both cases is not very often.

The issue is not about 19th century big house justice.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

Of course it is.

Mr. Garnier

Simply to shout back "Of course it is" is not an argument, especially from the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) is worried about acronyms and about RM reminding people of 19th century big house justice. DJ may to youngsters such as the hon. Member for Ealing, North mean disc jockey, but to those more familiar with the big house it may mean dinner jacket, so I do not know whether the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh is getting much further.

Mr. Pound

What is a dinner jacket?

Mr. Garnier

Something worn by waiters.

Lembit Öpik

I am sorry to return to this point, but I think I heard the hon. and learned Gentleman imply that my attendance in the House was not very frequent. He may be interested to know that according to a Plaid Cymru survey I was the Member of Parliament who made the most speeches and the most interventions from anywhere in Wales.

Mr. Browne

What about from here?

Lembit Öpik

From the House. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman's comments were meant in jest, not to cause offence.

Mr. Garnier

I am sure that plenty of sheep in Montgomeryshire make more noise and more sense than the hon. Gentleman, but there we are. The point I made was not about his attendance in the House, about which I know very little, but about his attendance in the Standing Committee. However, on the few occasions that he was present, he made extremely valuable contributions.

Let me come to the only serious point that I want to make on these amendments, in addition to congratulating the Front-Bench spokesmen for the Government and the official Opposition on their ability to agree something. In the Access to Justice Act 1999, the Government changed the designation of stipendiary magistrates to "district judges (magistrates courts) " for a number of reasons, one of which was that the old stipendiary magistrates wanted to be redesignated as district judges. The Government are being consistent and are listening to the judicial officers in Northern Ireland, who want to remain as resident magistrates. Why disappoint or annoy them when there are plenty of other more important and interesting matters to discuss.

Mr. Mallon

The hon. and learned Gentleman is surely not implying that the Government should satisfy the whim of the resident magistrates. The Government should implement a system of criminal justice based on the recommendations of the criminal justice review, which is quite clear on the matter. They should listen to the views of the people whom they represent, and those of the resident magistrates should not take precedence.

Mr. Garnier

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, up to a point, but let him answer this point if he will. He says that the review recommendation is clear, sharp and right. I take a different view; it is clear, sharp and wrong. He may wish to push the matter to a vote and it could be tested in that way, but that would not be a terribly useful exercise of our time and I hope that he does not do so. He and I have different views. So be it.

Lady Hermon

On a number of occasions in Committee, the Minister described himself as a Minister who listens to representations. In this example, he has listened to strong representations from resident magistrates and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and from me in Committee.

A lot of the confusion arose, certainly in Committee, over a comparison that was drawn several times. The Patten report is entitled, "A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland", but the criminal justice review and the implementing legislation are there to modernise the criminal justice system in the biggest shake-up in 30 years by making it more transparent and more accountable and by modernising it. That does not mean that we must have this new beginning even in language. Changing "resident magistrate" to "district judge" would be a cosmetic exercise, as there will be no change to the functions of resident magistrates. The change is unnecessary and I am delighted that the Minister has listened to the representations.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 3, in page 71, line 10, leave out "District Judge (Magistrates" Courts)" and insert "Resident Magistrate".—[Mr. Browne.]

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