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Commons Amendment

Volume 413: debated on Tuesday 21 October 1980

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15 Schedule 1, page 16, leave out lines 23 to 28.

My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 15. As my noble friend Lord Selkirk has been in communication with me both by letter and verbally, and I know that he has not been altogether satisfied with the way in which this amendment appears before your Lordships' House, it may be proper if quite shortly I go into a little of the history.

The Opposition in another place put down an amendment to this effect on 9th July and it was debated on 17th July, and there was, therefore, very little time for the Government to consider it, let alone to take soundings from interested parties. In the event the Government came to the conclusion that the amendment should be accepted, and among the reasons for this course of action were, first, that there might well be some ministers who might wish to serve as jurors and there were really no compelling grounds for denying them eligibility so to serve. Secondly, it was felt that the deliberations of a jury with the presence of a minister who was happy to serve would be likely to benefit rather than suffer. And, thirdly, it was felt that no unwilling minister would have to serve on a jury, for example, if he felt that his pastoral responsibilities might create unreasonable difficulties in his considering the claims of justice alone. Those were the considerations, or some of them, behind which the Government accepted this amendment.

May I just say what the amendment does. These amendments, and No. 17 which is consequential, make ministers of religion excusable as of right instead of being ineligible for jury service. The matter which I would like to emphasise is that ministers are excusable as of right; they do not need to give any reasons if they do not wish to serve on a jury; they merely need to indicate the nature of their profession. It is fair to say that the Churches, quite rightly and understandably were concerned about all this, but the points which I have brought out to your Lordships were put to all the bodies and the persons who made representations about the amendment. The Church of Scotland, the Episcopal Church in Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland have all now indicated that they are content with the provision as inserted at the behest of the Opposition during the Committee stage of the Bill in another place.

I can give noble Lords this assurance, that it is intended to send to all potential jurors along with the jury citation a notice designed to ensure that each is made aware of his rights as to excusal and how to exercise them. The notice will also set out clearly the categories of persons, first, not qualified, secondly, ineligible, and, thirdly, disqualified for jury service. So I hope that my noble friend—when he reflects on the fact that a right is being given to ministers rather than any right being taken away, and the fact that they will be given not only every opportunity not to serve on a jury if they do not wish to do so but also notice of their right that they do not have to serve—will feel reasonably happy with the way in which the amendment comes before your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth agree with the Commons in the said amendment.—( The Earl of Mansfield.)

My Lords, I must express my gratitude to the noble Earl for explaining the position in which the Government have found themselves. I am bound to say that, from the point of view of an observer, it did seem to me an extraordinarily casual approach to a quite serious subject. The Government's policy, which is what I would move here, is clearly stated by the Minister who introduced the Bill. What it said was this. It was felt by the Thomson Committee, and the Government agreed, that it was appropriate that ministers of religion should be considered ineligible because of the severe problem that would arise for them if required to take part in jury consideration.

But where I must blame the Government is for accepting an amendment in the House without taking the trouble to consult with any of the major Communions in Scotland. The noble Lord said it was considered. In fairness, I must say that the discussion in the House was highly unemotional and not very detailed in examination; it was very casual. This matter could have been put off quite easily to the Report stage, during which time the various Communions could have been consulted and the position explained to them, and they would not have needed to be disturbed on this account. I say this because I believe it is of the utmost importance that the confidential relations between the big Communions in Scotland and the Scottish Office should be absolutely close. It was because I had doubts as to whether this was the case—indeed, it was quite clear it was not the case because they were taken by surprise by what the Government have done—that I felt disturbed about it.

In the circumstances the noble Earl has described, I do not want to cause him more bother than is necessary, but I hope I have at least made him appreciate that this is a matter which any citizen in Scotland regards as of the utmost importance. I hope he will maintain the close relations which are essential. In these circumstances I shall not press this matter any further.

My Lords, I am very glad to have heard what my noble friend the Minister has said on this matter. I came here to listen to what was happening and I agree with my noble friend Lord Selkirk that this matter now seems adequately solved.

On Question, Motion agreed to.