Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 20 March 2001
[Mr. Peter L. Pike in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Designation of Public Authorities)
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 2001.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike. Knowing your attitude towards these matters I will be reasonably brief, since the order is not contentious.
The order is made under paragraph 1(1) of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000. The purpose of the draft order is to make the bodies listed in the schedules, ``public authorities'' for the purposes of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Those public authorities will be subject to the statutory duties set out in section 75(1) and (2) of the 1998 Act, requiring them to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between specific groups.
The Committee is aware that equality of opportunity and treatment are issues that are of particular importance in the context of Northern Ireland. Indeed, the promotion of equality was at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. The agreement laid the foundations for a new dispensation based on respect for rights and the principle of equality. All those who were parties to the agreement, affirmed their commitment to
``the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity''
This Government remain committed to ensuring the full implementation of the agreement. This order is a further step in that important process.
Section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act requires all public authorities to
``have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity
It also provides for those considerations,
(a) between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation;''
In addition, and without prejudice to those obligations, public authorities are required under Section 75(2) 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 an equality scheme that sets out how they will fulfil those duties. The schemes will cover the full range of the organisation's functions in Northern Ireland. They will include arrangements for policy appraisal, public consultation, public access to information and services, monitoring, and timetables. The schemes are submitted to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland for approval. It will advise on, validate and monitor the section 75 statutory obligation and has the power to investigate complaints of default.
Section 75 (3) (b) and (c), of the Act automatically brought the vast majority of public authorities in Northern Irelandaround 120within the scope of the statutory equality duty. However, the Act also provides the power for the Secretary of State to designate other organisations as public authorities for the purposes of section 75. The first designation order was made under that power last summer. It covered mainly Whitehall Departments, including the Northern Ireland Office, and other United Kingdom-wide bodies that carry out functions in Northern Ireland.
I said at the time that we intended that the statutory duty should, in time, embrace as many bodies as possible. It is the Government's policy that non-designation should be the exception, not the rule. Since the last order was made, we have continued our consultation with the Equality Commission to consider what other bodies might need to be designated. I am pleased to be able to report to the Committee that many of the bodies that the Commission felt should be designated are included in the order, not least, the further and higher education institutions in Northern Ireland, including the Open University and the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland.
However, this is still not the end of the process and we will introduce further designation orders as and when required. More importantly, the statutory duty represents the beginning of a process of increased dialogue between the public sector and community and voluntary bodies, putting equality at the heart of the policy-making process. That can only help lead to better, more responsive services for the people of Northern Ireland.
We remain determined to build a society in which the active promotion of equality and good relations is seen as an integral part of public life. Section 75 is the key to that goal and I am pleased to be able to extend its reach to these further organisations. I commend the order to the Committee.
Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): The official Opposition have no quarrel with the order, nor would we want to fine tune which bodies should be designated in schedule 2. It is our judgment that this is not a contentious matter. The parliamentary representatives of the Province of Northern Ireland do not appear to have troubled the Committee with any contrary view and so it is not my business to do so either. We will give the Minister the benefit of the doubt that he has made a good judgment as to those bodies that should be designated and we will not divide the Committee.
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I am sorry that I was late, Mr. Pike. Dealing with foot and mouth disease is a rather absorbing pastime at the moment. Like the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats see no problem with the order.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Designation of Public authorities) Order 2001.
Committee rose at twenty-three minutes to Eleven o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter L. (Chairman)
Clark, Dr. David
Howarth, Mr. George
Lloyd, Mr. Tony
Taylor, Mr. John M.