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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Designation of Public Authorities) Order 2000

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 28 June 2000

[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Designation of Authorities) Order 2000

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I beg to move

    That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Designation of Public Authorities) Order 2000.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Adams. I know that you will, as always, be firm but fair and tolerant—but not too much so.

The order is made under paragraph 1(1) of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000. The purpose of the order is to identify the bodies listed in the schedule as public authorities for the purposes of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The public authorities will be subject to the statutory duties set out in sections 75(1) and (2) of the Act, which require them to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and good relationships between specific groups.

Equality of opportunity and treatment are crucial matters in any civilised society, and the United Kingdom holds those values dear. Those issues are especially important in Northern Ireland, and the promotion of equality was at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. In the agreement, the parties confirmed their commitment to

    the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the particular...the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity.

The agreement laid the foundations for a new dispensation, based on respect for rights and the principle of equality. The Government are committed to ensuring that the agreement is implemented in full, and the order is another step in that process.

Section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires all public authorities to

    have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity—

    (a) between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation;

    (b) between men and women generally;

    (c) between persons with a disability and persons without; and

    (d) between persons with dependants and persons without.

In addition, and without prejudice to those obligations, section 75(2) of the Act requires public authorities to

    have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group.

Public authorities are required to produce a plan—an equality scheme—that sets out the way in which they will fulfil those duties. The scheme should cover the full range of the organisation's functions in Northern Ireland, including arrangements for policy appraisal, public consultation, public access to information and services, monitoring and timetables. The schemes will be submitted to the Equality Commission for approval, and the commission will advise on, validate and monitor the statutory obligation created by section 75 and will investigate complaints of default.

Under subsections (3)(b) and (c) of section 75, a range of bodies are brought automatically within the definition of public authority. It includes all bodies that are subject to investigation by the ombudsman for Northern Ireland or the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints. The Act also gives the Secretary of State the power to designate other organisations as public authorities for the purposes of section 75. The order is the first to be made using that power.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I see that the British Council and the British library board are listed under section 75(c). Will the BBC also be listed under section 75(d)? Most of us pay our licences, so we have a right to ask.

Mr. Howarth: If my hon. Friend will forgive me for not answering immediately, I shall come to the question of other bodies in a moment. It would be appropriate to cover his point then.

In the main, the order covers Whitehall Departments, including the Northern Ireland Office, and other UK-wide bodies, such as certain lottery distributors, that carry out functions in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said, the list is not exhaustive, but it represents a first tranche.

We intend that the statutory duty should, in due course, include as many bodies as possible. In the weeks and months ahead, we shall continue our consultation with the commission to consider which other bodies might need to be designated. Following that, further orders will be made as required. If we can reach the correct conclusion with regard to the BBC, it could be covered by one of those orders.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Can the Minister assure me that he will discuss whether, under section 75(a), other Departments, such as the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, might eventually be included?

Mr. Howarth: We hope that in due course we shall be able to include any body that is functional in Northern Ireland, whether it is a Department or a UK-wide body that fits the definition. On a number of occasions in the recent past, Departments have—with good reason—felt unable to sign up for the sort of policies that they would have to implement. In the long term, following continuing consultation, we hope that we shall be able to arrive at the point where as many organisations as possible, including Departments, are embraced.

We want to build a society that is free from discrimination, in which the active promotion of equality and good relations is seen as an integral part of public life. Section 75 laid the foundations for that goal, and I am pleased to extend its reach to these additional organisations. I hope that we shall be able to extend that reach still further along the lines that have been suggested today.

I commend the orders to the Committee.

4.38 pm

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Adams, and I express my support for the Minister's closing sentiment.

I approach the order vicariously—which I cannot remember ever having done before—because, as an Opposition spokesman and an Englishman, I would not presume to have sufficient knowledge of public life in Northern Ireland to be able confidently to say exactly which bodies should be included under the operation of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

However, I am concerned about some of the bodies that are not included. I draw the Committee's attention to a letter dated 22 June.

4.39 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.54 pm

On resuming:—

Mr. Taylor: Before we suspended, I was saying that I would not presume confidently to draw up a catalogue of the public bodies involved in the affairs of Northern Ireland that ought to be designated under section 75, but there are those who are worried about what they see as deficiencies in the current list. In what I believe is an open letter—it is not marked ``confidential''—Joan Harbison, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission, says that

    the Commission has continuously stressed the importance and urgency of additional designation of public authorities under Sections 75(3)(a) and (d) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It has emphasised that it believes that non-designation should be the exception rather than the rule.

On the second page of her letter, she points out that the commission requested an urgent meeting with the Government to discuss these matters, but that, sadly, the commission

    received no response to this correspondence from Government and did not formally receive a copy of the Order until one week after the Order had been laid.

I am not the Minister, so perhaps that is not my problem, but it is a matter of concern.

In its briefing, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission states that the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Social Security, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury should be included in the order, as well as various other bodies such as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, and, moreover, the Police Authority of Northern Ireland.

I shall not read out this litany in full. It is readily available, and I am sure that the Government have it on file. I use it merely to point out that the Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission—to name but two important bodies that will have a major role to play in administering the substance of the order—appear unhappy with the order from the outset. That tends to suggest an unhappy commencement. It does not augur well that two important authorities in that sensitive Province think from the outset that the schedule to the order is inadequate. That concerns the Opposition, and induces me to ask the Minister what reassurances he can give not so much to me but those bodies whose role in these matters is far more important than mine. What can he say this afternoon that might put matters on a slightly happier footing?

That is the burden of my song. I hope that I have made myself clear, and I shall not labour my comment.

4.58 pm

Dr. Godman: I promise that I shall make a customarily brief intervention, but I have a couple of questions for the Minister. I am glad that this is, as my hon. Friend said, the first tranche of such designated bodies. I hope that we shall not wait too long for the second, third and fourth instalments, and that some will be covered under section 75(b) as well as section 75(c).

How many public bodies have already submitted equality schemes to the Equality Commission? What will happen if some of them make submissions after the Friday deadline? Will the commission give them a wrap across the knuckles? What sanctions may be imposed on those that are slow to submit these important documents?

The Minister said that the Secretary of State is not making an order under section 75(d). As I believe he also said, that will allow the Secretary of State a fair degree of discretion in designating bodies—hence my question about the BBC. The Secretary of State could designate the BBC sooner rather than later under section 75(d).

As the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) said, schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 lists, among other Departments of State, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Department of Social Security. Is the Ministry of Defence excluded from the order for security reasons? Why is the Home Office, which is included in schedule 2 to the 1967Act, not included? Again, perhaps it is omitted for security reasons.

I remind Committee members that the immigration service in Northern Ireland has two offices and bears serious responsibilities, so it should not be immune from assessment in respect of the Equality Commission. Customs and Excise, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Inland Revenue are on the Minister's list. The immigration and nationality directorate should be included, too.

The officials concerned are not pen pushers in stuffy offices—they have to take major decisions about welfare. For example, if they decide that someone should be detained, that person goes to Magilligan prison. Incidentally, I understand that discussions are taking place between the Home Office, the Northern Ireland Office and the Scottish Executive on the possible use of the prison in my constituency of Greenock for people detained in Northern Ireland. If the proposal that such people will be sent across the water to Greenock is on the table, I expect to be consulted, because I do not believe that such people should be in prison anyway.

Other decisions concern fast-tracking. It is acceptable that an asylum seeker with a family should be fast tracked, but where is the equity if some are being fast tracked and others are not? Decisions on fast-tracking, detention, the administration of vouchers and other matters have to be seen to be fair, reasonable and equitable and the best body to assess that is the Equality Commission.

I mentioned the Lord Chancellor's Department, which figures in schedule 2 but is absent from the Minister's list. I may be wrong, because I am no lawyer, but is it not the case that the members of the Northern Ireland judiciary are middle-aged, middle-class males, drawn overwhelmingly from one particular community? If we are to ensure fairness, that department should be designated sooner rather than later.

Similarly, the Ministry of Social Security is in the schedule—it is, of course, now the Department of Social Security, but in those far-off days of 1967 it was still a ministry—but not on the list. There is a strong case for the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency to be on the Minister's list. It plays a very important role in Northern Ireland, as it does in all the regions of the United Kingdom and it should make an equality submission to the Equality Commission.

The hon. Member for Solihull mentioned the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has a legitimate case for arguing that the police service, the Open university, Queen's university, Belfast and Ulster university should also be subject to designation orders, along with colleges of further and higher education. Denise McGill's brief, which was sent to members of the Committee, states that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission considered it crucial that policing and education bodies in Northern Ireland develop equality schemes as soon as possible, as they are two vital sectors of our society.

I rarely find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Solihull—if that does not sound too graceless—but, as he says, Joan Harbison and her colleagues on the Equality Commission are deeply concerned at what appears to be the failure of the Northern Ireland Office to consult them. I received a letter from her. She sought some consultation on the drafting of the order and says:

    The Commission requested an urgent meeting to discuss these matters.The Commission received no response to this correspondence from Government and did not formally receive a copy of the Order until one week after the Order had been laid.

That is a matter of regret and things need to be improved.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, with, I hope, my customary diffidence, that I have raised a number of questions and I do not expect him to answer all of them this afternoon. I am sure that he will display his usual grace, write to me and put a copy in the Library for the benefit of members of the Committee and others.

This order is hugely welcome. I am disappointed that no Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland are present today. It is an important order: those were the words of the Minister in his presentation of the order. I know many of the people who are involved, as do many of my hon. Friends. If it is to be the first tranche, that is fine, but let us not wait too long for some of the other bodies to which I have referred today to be told that they, too, will have to make their equality submissions to the Equality Commission. Nothing less will do in the development of a more peaceable, tolerable society in Northern Ireland.

5.7 pm


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