Scope for a Bill of Rights

[back to previous text]

Lady Hermon: I have to explain that the meeting that we had last week was the first in a series of seminars that we hope to hold. As two interventions indicated, as a party we were most unhappy about the original composition of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Despite its title, it endorsed religious discrimination in the recruitment of new police officers and damaged its reputation and standing within the Unionist community.

We have not crystallised our view on a Bill of Rights. There is debate in the party. Under the terms of the agreement, the commission was invited to consult and advise on the scope for defining rights and we have not yet resolved whether that extends to a detailed Bill of Rights. What is clear is that in the terms of the agreement, any Bill of Rights should be supplementary to the European convention on human rights and should reflect the circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experience. The experience of Northern Ireland is often compared, particularly by the commission, to that of South Africa. I understand from the eminent South African constitutional judge, Albie Sachs, that it took lawyers in South Africa six years of hard work to draft the charter of human rights for South Africa. I, therefore, urge the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission not to repeat its previous performance, to which the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford referred, of rushing to draft the consultation document. Many expectations of a Bill of Rights have built up through the consultation and it has to be right.

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The other point that I would like to draw to the Minister's attention is to emphasise that we are asked to consider issues that are supplementary to the European convention on human rights and reflect ''particular circumstances'' of Northern Ireland. A particular circumstance in Northern Ireland, which should be addressed in the Bill of Rights, is the right to parade. I am obviously not a card-carrying member of the Orange Order or the Ancient Order of Hibernia—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. The use of mobile phones, even to send text messages, is not in order.

Lady Hermon: Thank you, Mr. McWilliam.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): The rights to assemble, to free association and to join a trade union are enshrined in European law. The right to parade is a huge issue in Northern Ireland. If a Bill of Rights comes into force, there should be provision for any group wishing to parade.

Lady Hermon: The Parades Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission have rather unhelpfully referred to article 11 of the European convention on human rights and have given the incorrect impression that that article covers parading. I do not agree and the issue should be addressed. The agreement also makes it clear, in the 13 lines dedicated to the subject of any future Bill of Rights, that there should be a clear formulation of the rights not to be discriminated against and to equality of opportunity in the public and private sectors. I repeat that that should be implemented to include the Police Service.

It was wrong that one of the first things that the British Government did—having set in train a new human rights commission and placed a new emphasis on human rights—was to distort the provisions of the agreement in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. That is wholly demeaning to good young Catholic recruits who are in the service on merit, but can never prove it. Freedom from discrimination on the grounds of religion or whatever else must be written into a Bill of Rights.

Those are the points that we must deal with. I appreciate the fact that the Minister, having put down his notes, was much more illuminating than when he stuck to his text. There is much discussion to be had in my party, but at least we have made a start.

4.25 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): We need to remind people about this issue. It is inevitable. We are here because of the Belfast agreement, which I supported and support, so we have to try to find our way round a number of difficult problems connected with human rights. I welcomed the opening statement by my hon. Friend the Minister, because he drew attention to some of the difficulties that we must consider.

One problem with the notion of human rights is that it is almost impossible for anyone to say, ''I am opposed to human rights.'' That is a difficulty because it means that something about this notion carries so much weight that everyone will try to grab hold of it

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for their own purposes and write in the details according to what these noble-sounding values are.

I believe that we should consider the issue differently from the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who seemed to take a very rationalist position. He seemed to say that rights are universal, they exist for all time and we can observe and determine what they are. In fact, they are not. They alter what is the right thing to do according to different circumstances and conditions. I hope that that will be taken into account, because it might be particularly appropriate for Northern Ireland.

4.27 pm

Mr. Browne: I shall occupy the last three minutes of the debate with considerable guilt, given the time that I took at the beginning. However, those who intervened on me are entirely responsible. They were warned what would happen if the interventions were of the quality and frequency of those in the debates that we have had in this Room before.

In three minutes, I cannot do justice to the numerous and sometimes complex points made by members of the Committee. However, it does give me an opportunity to thank them. In the last two hours, there has been more of an opportunity to have a concentrated debate on this issue than perhaps there has ever been in Parliament. We may need to look for other opportunities to debate the issue again, because much remains to be said. Perhaps we will have debates in another format, depending on whether members of the Committee agree.

I have enjoyed the debate. The contributions from both sides of the Committee have been thoughtful. However, I do not agree with everything that has been said. I disagree principally with the now dated view of my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr.

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McNamara) of the relationship between the Government and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. He may need to consult the commission as to its view of its relationship with the Government and particularly the relationship with the Minister for human rights in Northern Ireland, and update his position. These things have to be said, however, and it is important that we engage in debates about them.

I hope that I can fit in one or two general points. First, I associate myself with the recognition by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford of the expertise, commitment and hard work that the commission has put into the work that has been done on the issue thus far. The fact that the quality of debate is so good is a credit to its work and a reflection of how right my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was in his appointments. I am satisfied that the commission is properly representative of the diverse communities of Northern Ireland. Well-qualified people applied for the post of commissioners when additional commissioners were added, and not everyone could be appointed.

It being half-past Four o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the debate, pursuant to Standing Order No. 116(3) and the Order of the House [27 June].

The Chairman: As the hon. Member who was to introduce the Adjournment debate is not present, we cannot move to the debate and the Whip does not have to move a motion to adjourn.

Mr. Beggs: I apologise to those who, like me, were expecting my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) to introduce the Adjournment debate. He has been delayed on his way from the airport.

Committee rose at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
McWilliam, Mr. John (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Beggs, Mr. Roy
Burnside, David
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Davies, Mr. Quentin
Hayes, Mr. John
Hermon, Lady
Hunter, Mr. Andrew
Jackson, Helen
McIsaac, Shona
McNamara, Mr.
O'Brien, Mr. Bill
Öpik, Mr.
Osborne, Sandra
Paisley, Rev. Ian
Pound, Mr.
Robathan, Mr.
Smyth, Rev. Martin
Tami, Mark

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 109(4):
Browne, Mr. Desmond (Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Kennedy, Jane (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Murphy, Mr. Jim (Eastwood)
Reid, Dr. John (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)

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Prepared 27 June 2002