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

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Mr. George Howarth: I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde showed his customary diffidence. I should not like to be on the receiving end when he was anything more than diffident.

My hon. Friend asked what will happen if schemes are not submitted by the 30 June deadline. As I understand it, the commission expects to receive all the schemes by that time. All the devolved departments in Northern Ireland for which I was responsible when devolution was suspended—and, I suspect, all those for which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) was responsible—had completed their work and made their submissions in good time. The process is well under way, therefore, and the commission expects to have all submissions by the deadline. Of course, it has a considerable moral authority to pursue any organisation that has not submitted its scheme in good time.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Solihull mentioned the Royal Ulster Constabulary, perhaps with slightly different emphasis. They asked whether it should be one of the bodies covered by the order. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, the Minister responsible for that body, took the view, bearing in mind the Patten proposals, that the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill should apply section 75 to the new policing structure so that it will be firmly embedded in the legislation that is reforming policing and the structures that deliver it in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the fact that the colleges and universities have so far not been successful in concluding this matter. He will appreciate that a consultation involving many bodies had to be wide ranging and in-depth. As a result of that lengthy and time-consuming process, it has not been possible to designate them yet, but the intention is to include them in a future order.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): Has the Open university been included in the consultation process?

Mr. Howarth: I had hoped to be able to get through this order without having to write to anybody about anything, but I cannot answer that with any certainty. I will check it and let my hon. Friend know.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Minister's reference to not having to write to anybody brought to mind a matter that concerned me when I read the briefing from the Equality Commission. Joan Harbison said that she had requested an urgent meeting to discuss these matters and that she had written to the Minister on a number of occasions but had received no response, not even an acknowledgment. Will the Minister advise the Committee why that was?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman must exercise his customary patience. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde has already raised that point and I shall come to it in due course.

The Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has consulted the universities and colleges of further education about designation. I have to admit that there was some resistance, the issue being the legal status of those bodies, but everybody came round to the view that designation was an appropriate way forward. In due course we expect them to be included in a future designation order.

My hon. Friend asked why the Ministry of Defence was not included. Like all Government Departments, the Ministry of Defence is committed to equality. It takes the view that it has an overriding need to maintain combat effectiveness. It would be foolish, impractical and, indeed, dangerous not to have an age limit for combative troops, and my hon. Friend may appreciate the difficulties that it faces. However, it is committed to equality and it takes it seriously.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Department of Social Security and the Child Support Agency. Social security is a devolved issue, but the Department of Social Development, the Social Security Agency (Northern Ireland) and the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency are already designated.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the Home Office. The Home Secretary's view was that the Home Office must of necessity use discretion in its immigration policy. My hon. Friend may begin to see some of the difficult areas to which that could lead. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State in the Department of Home Affairs has said that it will play an active part in promoting equality with its staff in Northern Ireland. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any discussions that might be taking place with the Scottish Executive, but he has said that, certainly in England and Wales, the department would exercise that principle in relation to any Northern Ireland prisoners it transfers or accommodates. I am loth to speak on behalf of the Scottish Executive; my hon. Friend will appreciate that I believe that they would not take a less principled position than the Home Secretary in the discussions.

Dr. Godman: I referred not to prisoners but to people who are defined as persons awaiting deportation. My point was that there is no holding centre in Northern Ireland or in Scotland and that the service is detaining people in prison.

Mr. Howarth: I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, but he must understand that major changes are taking place in the criminal justice system. There has been the criminal justice review and discussions are on-going. When my hon. Friend reconsiders the issue, perhaps in a year's time, he might find that it has changed, although that assumes continuing progress in peace and security, in devolution and democracy and so on. I have every reason to believe that that will be the position, and I am sure that the whole Committee does so too.

That is as far as it is necessary to go on the issue of the Home Office and I responded earlier to questions about the BBC. It is important to remember, however, that the statutory duty places an onerous burden on public authorities to which they must respond. Although it is an onerous burden, we take it very seriously and it appears that the Committee does so as well.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde asked about relationships with and communication between the Equality Commission and the Department. As Ministers, we hold in high esteem Joan Harbison, those who serve on the Commission and those who work for it. A great deal of the progress has been made as a result of their action, advice and campaigns. We want those relations to remain warm, cordial and constructive. I have met the Equality Commission more than once and I almost certain that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular contact too.

Some difficulty arose about correspondence and the submission of ideas. We received a copy of the proposals towards the end of last year. Within a day or two, however, the Equality Commission wanted them returned because it wanted to do more work on them. Eventually, we received the final document in March. Inevitably, the consultation delayed matters a bit. As a result of an oversight somewhere, the letter did not receive a reply. That happens occasionally and is much regretted.

I want to make it absolutely plain that we do not intend to ignore, not pay proper respect to or disagree as a matter of principle with the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission. Their work is very much at the centre of what we are trying to achieve.

Mr. Gray: From the point of view of the machinery of government, I am concerned by what the Minister has said. As I understand it, he said that due to an oversight in his department an important letter in response to a consultation was overlooked and therefore not given a reply. If that is the case, what urgent steps has he taken to examine the machinery of his department, which is apparently falling apart at the seams? That sort of thing simply must not happen.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury): That was a silly point.

Mr. Gray: It was not.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Member for North Wiltshire is trying to turn an issue about which I hoped there would be no disagreement into something vexatious. Of course we regret it when anything of that sort happens, but it is not endemic in the department. I entirely refute the suggestion that the department is falling apart at the seams. We carry an enormous work load and, by and large, most things are attended to within reasonable time scales. The hon. Gentleman is experienced enough to know that occasionally there are oversights and that that is what happened on this occasion. It is certainly not typical.

Dr. Godman: I wanted to take this opportunity to dissociate myself from that last criticism. Mrs Harbison and her colleagues would, I am sure, not want to be associated with that kind of intervention, which is merely a party political point- scoring exercise.

Mr. Howarth: Whether it is a party political point-scoring exercise or not, I am not minded to make a judgment on that.

This is a good order and I hope that there will be more in the future. I hope that whole Committee will join me in hoping that we can now pursue equality in Northern Ireland because only by doing so will we put aside the divisions of the past. I hope that the Committee is minded to approve the order.

Question put and agreed to.


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

Committee rose at twenty-two minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Adams, Mrs. Irene (Chairman)
Browne, Mr.
Cran, Mr.
Dowd, Jim
Ellman, Mrs.
Godman, Dr.
Gray, Mr.
Howarth, Mr. George
Jackson, Helen
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Mudie, Mr.
Öpik, Mr.
Taylor, Mr. John M.
Turner, Dr.

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