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New Clause

Lords amendment: No 11, insert the following new clause—Equality and non-discrimination

(1) Section 75 (duty on public authorities to have regard to need to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between different groups) and section 76 (discrimination by public authorities) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (c. 47) are amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (3) of section 75, after paragraph (cc) insert—
"(cd) the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland;".
(3) After subsection (4) of that section insert—
"(4A) The references in subsections (1) and (2) and Schedule 9 to the functions of the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland do not include any of his functions relating to the prosecution of offences."
(4) In subsection (7) of section 76, after paragraph (e) insert—
"(ea) the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland;".
(5) After that subsection insert—
"(8) This section does not apply to a decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland not to institute, or to discontinue, criminal proceedings or, where such a decision has been made, to any act done for the purpose of enabling the decision whether to institute or continue the proceedings to be made or for securing that the proceedings are discontinued.
(9) No injunction may be granted in respect of a contravention of this section by the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland unless the court is satisfied that it would not prejudice any decision to institute criminal proceedings or any criminal proceedings.
(10) Where a party to proceedings for a contravention of this section applies for a stay of those proceedings on the ground of prejudice to a decision to institute criminal proceedings, or of prejudice to particular criminal proceedings, the court must grant the stay unless it is satisfied that continuance of the proceedings for the contravention would not result in the prejudice alleged.""

Lady Hermon: I beg to move amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, after "functions of the" leave out "Director of Public Prosecutions" and insert "Public Prosecution Service".

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to consider the following: amendment (b), after "decision of the" leave out "Director of Public Prosecutions" and insert "Public Prosecution Service".

Lords amendment No. 30.

Lady Hermon: I preface my remarks by reminding the Minister that he has only a limited opportunity to show his generosity in accepting our amendments, but I hope that on this occasion he will take them on board.

Amendments (a) and (b) relate to the new public prosecution service for Northern Ireland. Members will see that clause 29 defines the new service as consisting of

The service thus consists of three elements. What I dislike about the Lords amendment is the fact that the equality and non-discrimination duties under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 extend only to one of

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those elements—the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. I am sure that Members are familiar with sections 75 and 76 of the Act, which place a duty on public authorities in Northern Ireland to ensure that they promote equality of opportunity among various communities and good relations between people of different political opinions and religious beliefs.

Those statutory obligations are important; they are a positive duty, not to stand still but actively to promote equality of opportunity and good relations. They are twin duties and are mutually compatible, and I can see no good reason why they should attach themselves only to the director and not also to the deputy director and to the members of staff appointed to the new prosecution service for Northern Ireland.

The tenor of amendments (a) and (b), tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and other members of my party, would make the provision more general so that it included all elements of the prosecution service.

Mr. McNamara: I was under the impression that a provision that applied to the Director of Public Prosecutions would include the whole of his department. If it does not, I support the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), but I think that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will show in his speech that my conclusion is correct.

I welcome the Lords amendment, which responds to concerns expressed by Labour Members, by members of the Social Democratic and Labour party and by many non-governmental associations. I welcome the Government's response, although I should have preferred them to table proposals whereby all in one go—in one Act—all the bodies and agencies associated with the criminal justice system were designated for the purposes of sections 75 and 76 of the Northern Ireland Act. That would have been the neatest solution.

Can the Minister tell us if and when other aspects of the criminal justice system will also be brought under sections 75 and 76? Those sections are extremely powerful; they go to the root of enforcing the spirit and philosophy of the Good Friday agreement.

I note that subsection (5) of the amendment is a response to fears expressed previously by the hon. Member for North Down when she raised the spectre that perhaps the DPP would have to fulfil a quota for the prosecution of Protestants or, conversely, of Catholics, in order to maintain parity. The provision would exempt him from that.

Not everyone in Northern Ireland—whether nationalist, republican, loyalist or Unionist—shares the rose-tinted view of some hon. Members that the DPP, judiciary and criminal justice system in Northern Ireland have a blameless past, free from the allegations of discrimination and sectarian practices that plagued the former Royal Ulster Constabulary. On the contrary, many fears exist and they will persist despite the Bill. One element of disquiet, for example, is that some people believe that judges employ differential sentencing policies for Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland convicted of similar offences in similar circumstances.

That is a serious allegation. How can we determine whether it is true or false? Can my hon. Friend the Minister reassure the House and all sections of the community that the system operates fairly? That could be done by careful monitoring.

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Such allegations are not unique to Northern Ireland. Statistics show that the same practice is true for whites and non-whites in Britain. Despite the fact that there is provision for equality, the exercise of discretion by any administrative body must always be carefully examined. Will my hon. Friend ensure that those matters are monitored? It is not only in employment practices that discrimination can occur.

I give nine tenths of a wholehearted welcome to the amendment. I should have preferred it to cover all the institutions in the criminal justice system, but my hon. Friend has done that in part and he has listened to what we said.

Mr. Gregory Campbell: Like other Members, I welcome the amendment for the most part. However, in Northern Ireland during the past 15 to 20 years, there have been concerns about section 75 and predecessor legislation relating to the commitment to non- discrimination and the need to promote equality of opportunity for various groups. For example, there is deep concern in some local authorities that the flying of the Union flag acts, in effect, as a cold house for some people—that it is being used as a lever to try to engender complaints or action by public bodies under section 75. That is not only to be regretted, but should be resisted.

However, those public bodies appear not to be concerned that many people in various parts of Northern Ireland—whether in the west, to which the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) alluded earlier, or in the southern border areas—feel that section 75 has not protected their interests or their Britishness. They may endeavour to get local authorities to act under section 75, but because of Irish language groups or the maintenance and promotion of Irish republicanism in various areas, they feel that section 75 has not protected their interests in the way that it should.

6.30 pm

Lords amendment No. 11 is welcome, but future Governments should be prepared to take a very even-handed approach so that those in Northern Ireland, from any section of our society, who feel that they are actively discriminated against or that they are not afforded the same opportunity as others in Northern Ireland can have recourse either through section 75 or other aspects of the law, so that true equality will be offered not just to a section of Northern Ireland, but to everyone in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Browne: I am sure that hon. Members are aware that section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 places a statutory duty on bodies to

between groups in the nine categories of people set out in that Act. It also requires them to

Section 76 makes it unlawful for a body to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion.

I listened with care to the hon. Gentleman's observations and I am glad that he welcomes Lords amendment No. 11. I was not surprised that his welcome

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was qualified; nor was I surprised that the qualification was that equality was for others than those whom he and his party feel they represent exclusively. Of course, part of the purpose of sections 75 and 76 is to set a statutory framework for just the sort of parity and equality requirements that he seeks for unidentified, generalised groups of people in various parts of Northern Ireland.

As an elected representative, it is for the hon. Gentleman, as it is for me as a Minister, to articulate the importance of such equality and, indeed, human rights to all people across the whole community in Northern Ireland and to help people to exercise their rights under the equality and human rights provisions.

If the hon. Gentleman has specific concerns about the equality requirements in Northern Ireland not being applied evenly to certain categories of people in particular locations, there is the Equality Commission. I am sure that he has brought all the concerns that he has articulated to the attention of the Equality Commission. If he has not, I recommend that he does so because those on the commission are the experts and can advise the individuals involved how to get redress and, where rights are judicable, to seek to enforce them if necessary.

If just the sort of people whom the hon. Gentleman mentions take advantage of the equality and human rights provisions in the settlement for Northern Ireland, in the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—and in other provisions, we will drive forward the new Northern Ireland. So he should not only identify the problems, but seek the legislative solutions that exist and take advantage of the support offered by the commission, particularly in relation to equality.

If the hon. Gentleman cannot do so and if he writes to me specifically about his concerns, I will seek to ensure that he and his constituents or others receive the advice that they need about how to take advantage of the statutory structure that we have put in place since coming to power to ensure that people are not treated in the way in which he says that they are being treated. However, I have limited responsibility for equality issues—much of the ministerial responsibility for such matters lies with Ministers in the devolved Administration, not with the Northern Ireland Office. Having been a Minister in the devolved Administration, the hon. Gentleman will know full well how to get the necessary advice from the Executive in Northern Ireland.

I am sorry that I have had to refer to those issues, but it seemed from the hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate that he did not know how to seek redress in relation to them. If he does not, my office is open to give him the advice that he needs, although he may need to approach other Ministers as well.

I shall now come to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). Sections 75 and 76 cover the bodies created under the Bill, by virtue of Lords amendment No. 11. My understanding is that other criminal justice agencies are already covered, but he seemed to suggest that some in Northern Ireland were not covered. I am not sure to which organisations or agencies he was referring, but if he cares to intervene now to tell me, I shall try to give an answer. However, if he wants to write to me, I shall deal with the issue in detail.

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