Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 23 June 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Jimmy Spratt (Chairperson)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Simon Hamilton
Mr Danny Kennedy
Mr Alex Maskey
Mr Alan McFarland
Mr John O’Dowd
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr

The Chairperson (Mr Spratt)

On Tuesday 16 June, the Committee travelled to London and had a meeting with the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw. The meeting lasted much longer than had been anticipated, and it was a very good and frank meeting. A fair amount of information came out of it, which will, eventually, make its way back to the report.

We discussed rubbing points in relation to the listing of cases. The Lord Chancellor explained that cases are to go to court and are then taken off the list at short notice, and he talked about the problems that this creates in the system. It is a problem that exists in all the jurisdictions. We discussed that problem and the working relationships that are required between the Attorney General, the Home Secretary and the Justice Committee. We had a frank discussion about that, and the Lord Chancellor offered various pieces of advice.

The Lord Chancellor talked about his workload when something goes wrong in the system. He made it clear that if that happens, it is important that he takes responsibility for it. He indicated that that is the way that anyone in charge of justice should approach the job. He was very frank about that. There was also a discussion about high-cost cases, which have implications for the financing of the justice system. The cost of the legal aid system in Northern Ireland, which is higher than in any other part of the United Kingdom, was also discussed. The Lord Chancellor listened to the points that we made about that. He also made it clear that the Ministry of Justice was ready to facilitate the transfer of justice-related functions at any time.

We appreciate the work that was put into arranging the meeting, and I thank the Committee Clerk and his staff who facilitated the meetings in both London and Edinburgh. Committee members appreciate the work that went into that; those meetings were not easy to arrange, and quite a few changes had to be made along the way. That covers the points that were raised with the Lord Chancellor. Do members have any observations to make?

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I also thank the officials and the Committee Clerk in particular. I was only there for the London meeting, but it was beneficial because of Jack Straw’s complete candour and the fact that he was so open with Committee members. I am sure that the notes that the Committee Clerk and his staff took on the relationship and balance that has to be struck between the Executive and the judiciary, and how to get that balance right, will give us an incredible insight into how the job is done and how the Department is run. The issue of fees was set out in an accurate, yet colourful, way. The meeting that we had with the Justice Committee later in the day was also beneficial, because it gave us a useful insight into how the Committee can stay on course with its own issues instead of getting waylaid and sidetracked by irrelevant issues. Perhaps that is a lesson for our Committees. It was a worthwhile effort.

Mr Kennedy:

I thought that the meeting with Jack Straw was insightful and useful. He talked about getting involved in individual cases, and about how it was necessary to have separation. Jack Straw is clearly in control of his brief; therefore, it was important to take the opportunity to meet him. I thank the Committee Clerk and his staff for arranging those meetings.

The Chairperson:

As Ian said, we had a meeting with the Justice Committee, which was chaired by Sir Alan Beith. He and the Committee members highlighted the sensitivities that exist between Parliament, the Attorney General and the prosecution service with regard to independence and the Attorney General’s accountability for the prosecution service. There was a frank discussion around that area, and they were very willing to offer advice. They had quite a number of papers, which the secretariat now has. I assume that some of those will be part and parcel of the report. The Committee also answered questions, which we found to be very helpful.

We travelled to Edinburgh on Wednesday morning —

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Sorry to interrupt, Chair, but I think that an interesting point had been lost, in that the Westminster Committee has responsibility for justice issues in Northern Ireland, yet it has not explored many of the interesting things that have arisen recently. For example, even since we have been sitting, the Ombudsman’s report into deaths in prison custody has taken place, yet such investigation would normally be right up street of that Committee. The Committee members recognise that there has perhaps been a bit of a gap in the work that they could have been doing.

The Chairperson:

The Committees in London and Edinburgh were at pains to point out the volume of legislation that has to go through a justice Committee. That debars them from doing essential work that they might want to do with the police service and within the justice system. Some of the other work that they feel they should be doing, scrutinising various issues within the justice system and the police service, actually falls by the way, although the Home Secretary in London deals with all of the policing issues. It was a good meeting.

We then met the Justice Committee in Edinburgh, and discussed issues around legislation and new laws that were going through. There was so much work in the beginning that two Committees were formed in Scotland to deal with that volume, because it was impossible to be proactive given the amount of work that they needed to get through.

The Committee made a very helpful slide presentation that explained the whole justice system. We picked up on that at a very early stage, and the Committee Clerk has been tasked with doing the same thing here. Sometimes, there are so many strands within the justice system that it is difficult to understand where you are with various bits and pieces in the Northern Ireland system. That presentation is being prepared and will be shared with members as soon as it is sorted out.

We had two sessions with the Justice Committee, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Those sessions were very worthwhile, and a lot of questions and issues were discussed that were of mutual benefit. The following morning, we had a discussion with the Solicitor General for Scotland, Frank Mulholland. He took time out of his busy schedule, and gave us considerably more time that had been allocated. He is in the Lord Advocate’s Office, which is separate from the Parliament, although they sit on the Executive.

The Committee Clerk:

They are Ministers, but they do not take their place in the Cabinet under the Government arrangements this time around.

The Chairperson:

They answer questions from the Government Front Bench in relation to some justice issues and can make ministerial statements to the Scottish Parliament. That is done infrequently; it is not a regular exercise that is conducted, particularly making statements. Those would be on serious issues of major importance to Scotland. They can also open debates on legislation in the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, the Solicitor General may well open the debate on a piece of legislation, dealing with the professional elements from a totally legal stance. They also provide the Government with confidential legal advice that is not published.

We had an interesting, frank and free meeting with the Minister for Justice, Kenny MacAskill. He told us that it was important to get the structures right. They take a pragmatic approach with the police and the authorities. The Scottish Parliament are more in favour of giving advice and warnings to prisoners, as opposed to making arrests, etc. They acknowledge that Scotland is a small place and that it is inevitable that, as with Northern Ireland, people will know one other. However, Mr MacAskill was at pains to point out that, from a Minister’s, the Lord Advocate’s and an MSP’s point of view, it was important that they respected one other’s roles and that there should not be any lobbying or questioning on specific issues. They meet socially on occasions, but that is part and parcel of everyday life, given the nature of Scotland being a much smaller place. However, they were able to work that professionally without it impinging on anyone’s professionalism.

Mr MacAskill was at pains to point out that it is absolutely necessary to have, and make use of, efficient resources as regards budgets and everything else within the systems, and one needs to do that continually, along with the systems in the police service. There are eight chief constables in Scotland, and the Minister for Justice meets regularly with the chief constables of the various forces.

Mr MacAskill was adamant that the prison service should be staffed by public-sector employees and that there should be no privatisation of the staffing of prisons within the Scottish system. He was open to receiving questions and it was a worthwhile meeting.

Mr Kennedy:

The meeting with the Scottish Justice Committee was particularly useful, as it has a very good approach to issues. We could learn much from them, and regular contact would be useful.

The Chairperson:

Do members have any questions? We proceed to the devolution of policing and justice. I declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I am a member of the Policing Board.

The Chairperson:

We move to the category 2 list of issues. Before I go through the issues, has there been movement on any of them?

Mr Hamilton:

No.

Mr O’Dowd:

No.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Considering that we are meeting the First Minister and deputy First Minister on 29 June, it might be useful to inform them, by letter or by head, that there are a couple of areas in which we have not made significant progress, and ask them to comment on those issues.

The Chairperson:

I will come to that. Does anyone else want to declare an interest?

Mr A Maskey:

I am a member of the Policing Board.

The Chairperson:

We have received the DUP and Sinn Féin positions. What about the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP?

Mr McFarland:

There have not been any changes since our previous discussions.

Mr Attwood:

We have no further comments.

The Chairperson:

I am keen that we have a discussion prior to the next meeting, as has been suggested. It is important that we go through the list. I intend to go through the entire list during the public session of the next meeting; I do not intend to do it today. I want colleagues to provide updates on the outstanding issues.

Item 6 on the agenda relates to the financial implications of the devolution of policing and justice matters. In keeping with arrangements for a similar meeting last autumn, for which the Committee agreed that Hansard would not be required, the meeting will be held in closed session. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

I confirm that the meeting will begin at 11.00 am and that the specialist adviser will be available for a brief discussion with the Committee before the First Minister and deputy First Minister arrive. We understand that the Finance Minister will join us at 11.30 am. We do not yet know how long the Ministers will be able to stay with us, but we will remain in closed session for as long as they are able to be with us. We will try to confirm the times to facilitate anyone who wishes to be in the public gallery for the public session.

Ministerial officials will attend with the respective Ministers, as is normal practice. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

Mr Attwood:

I return to the issue of whether the meeting should be held in public or private session. I recall the discussion on the previous occasion.

It seems to me that part of the meeting should be in public. I appreciate that we should be in private session when the Finance Minister attends for the financial part of the meeting. It is very welcome that he is attending, because it will give us a much better idea about the comparison between the Committee’s financial assessments and those of the Executive. However, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister appeared before the Committee in November 2008, and there was a fanfare about their proposals, but it is now seven months later. In November, they outlined a 37-step process in their proposals, and the wider community, as well as the Committee, will be interested in hearing some of that. Therefore, certain sections of what we discuss can be differentiated from other elements, and those elements can be heard in public.

The Chairperson:

My understanding is that the Committee agreed with the Ministers that the meeting will be in closed session. The main issues for discussion are financial issues. However, if there are other issues and there were agreement, the public could be facilitated. However, the financial issues are the main issues for discussion with the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Finance Minister.

Mr Attwood:

— [Interruption.]

The Chairperson:

Let me finish. I will be happy to have a discussion on the matter at the end, rather than doing it piecemeal. It might be easier to do it that way, because we might cover some of the points that you want to raise.

The First Minister and the deputy First Minister were invited to supply a paper on their involvement in discussions on the devolution of policing and justice by 25 June 2009, in time for inclusion in the pack, which will be issued to members on 29 June 2009. That is still the position, and we expect to get a paper. The Secretary of State was also invited to comment on the emerging findings of the special adviser by 25 June 2009. Again, that paper is due for inclusion in the pack for the meeting on 29 June 2009. I anticipate that after the special adviser’s presentation, there will be scope for discussions and questions with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in relation to the paper. The paper had gone to members, and I must say that I am most disappointed that a confidential paper has been leaked to the press at some point. Yesterday evening, a journalist held up a copy of the paper, which is a working paper: I did not see it but I understand it to be the case. In fact, information in the paper has now been clarified, and figures in it have now changed. Therefore, it is most unhelpful that such papers are leaked to the press. There will be an updated paper, which changes figures, and that will be available to members prior to next week’s meeting.

I am sure that we can ask the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about the other issues. However, first, we have to find out about timings and about their availability. They indicated, at the meeting that the Deputy Chairperson and I had with them, that they will be prepared to answer questions on some of the other issues. Therefore, we will raise the issues that you highlighted, Mr Attwood, when we are clarifying the timings with them. Is that OK?

Mr Attwood:

That is useful clarification. However, going back to the core point, if the financial issues are to be discussed in private, but the Ministers have agreed that they will answer questions on other matters, will those other matters be held in public session?

The Chairperson:

We need to clarify that with them. As I said, we will have a discussion with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I am sure that we can have that discussion because we will be looking for their paper and we will then clarify all those issues, including the timing. We clearly want to have a discussion primarily on financial issues to see what parallel processes have been going on between the Northern Ireland Office, the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Heywood committee and to see what various strands of discussions there have been.

I suspect that we could talk about that all day, but we do not know exactly what the timing will be. Certainly, some of the issues raised in the correspondence in members’ information packs have already been raised with the First Minister and deputy First Minister and with the Secretary of State.

Mr Attwood:

I agree with all that. However, the meeting cannot be about financial issues only. The Committee has, to some degree, been treading water for a number of months on category 2 issues. I sense — I hope not inaccurately — a bit of frustration on the Chairperson’s part about that, particularly as he indicated that we need to return to those issues and discuss them further, presumably next week. However, given that we have been treading water on a number of important matters and part of the reason for that — which Alan articulates better than me — has been that other people might have greater influence than the Committee in determining those matters, it seems appropriate to ask OFMDFM questions about the particular matters that have been lying unresolved on the table for months.

The Committee Clerk:

It might be helpful if members refer to the letter that the Committee sent to the First Minister and deputy First Minister on 12 June. That letter identifies that the financial implications will be part of the agenda and it refers to the request for a short paper and general discussion on, to all intents and purposes, the category 2 list of issues. It also specifically requests their views on the role and functions of the Attorney General and how they envisage that person reporting and relating to the Assembly.

The content of the letter was based on the decision taken by the Committee to hold that meeting in closed session. The letter clearly indicates that the session will be closed in its entirety. Therefore, if the Committee wants part of the meeting to be held in open session, the First Minister and deputy First Minister would need to be notified of that. That would overturn an earlier decision to have the meeting in closed session. Furthermore, the Chairperson has indicated his intention to have more focused discussion on the category 2 list of issues in open session after the meeting with the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The Chairperson:

That is the point that I was making earlier; the decision had been made that the meeting would be held in closed session. That is the information that the Deputy Chairperson and I conveyed at our meeting with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, as that was our understanding of the Committee’s position. I would not be comfortable with a decision that the Committee has made being overturned.

Mr McFarland:

The Committee did agree on the meeting being held in closed session. It is important that we have a proper discussion on financial issues, and we can do that only in closed session. The category 2 issues will be resolved when the two parties involved in making the decision sit down and make the decision. The Committee will then be told about it. That is what happened last November on the initial agreement and what has happened on everything since. Either the two parties have got round to doing that, in which case they will undoubtedly tell us, or they have not, which I suspect is the case. Until that discussion happens, whether in public or in private, and there is agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin on how this matter will progress, we will not make any progress in camera or in open session.

The Chairperson:

I assume that the Committee is happy with the decision that has already been made and that we should proceed on the basis of the letter that has been issued. Is the majority of the Committee happy that we continue on that route, let the meeting take place and see what comes out of it?

Mr Attwood:

I am content with that, unless OFMDFM consents to some of the meeting being held in public.

The Chairperson:

It seems that we are going back on a letter that has already been sent. Is the Committee content to let the meeting take place in the context that had been agreed to?

Members indicated assent.

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