Second Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 20 November 2002
[Mr. James Cran in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Designation of Public Authorities) Order 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Designation of Public Authorities) Order 2002.
The order, copies of which have been laid before the House, is made under section 75(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
I take this opportunity to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cran. It is also opportune to welcome the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). This is the first opportunity I have had to welcome him to his new responsibilities on the Liberal Democrats' Front Bench. He is very welcome and I am sure that he will find the issues engaging and stimulating. Perhaps he would give the Committee's best wishes to his hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) who has made some important, significant and sometimes interesting, incisive and detailed contributions to previous debates on Northern Ireland. I might take this opportunity to discourage him from following in her footsteps but rather to make a more general contribution to debates, but I say that with my tongue in my cheek and I want him to give my thanks to his hon. Friend for her contributions and help in understanding and debating Northern Ireland.
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 duty set out in section 75(1) and (2) 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 particularly important in the context of Northern Ireland, and that the promotion of equality is at the very heart of the Belfast agreement. The agreement laid the foundation for a new dispensation based on respect for rights and the principle of equality. All 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''.
Although devolved government has been suspended temporarily, the Government remain committed to ensuring full implementation of the agreement and the order is a further step in that important process.
The requirements placed on public authorities are extensive. Section 75(1) of the 1998 Act requires all public authorities to
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''have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity . . . between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation; between men and women generally; between persons with a disability and persons without; and between persons with dependants and persons without.''
Lady Hermon (North Down): I, too, welcome you, Mr. Cran, to this enjoyable Committee. I also welcome our new member, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, who will, I understand, sometimes wear a kilt in the Committee.
Before we approve the order to bring additional organisations within the remit of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, will the Under-Secretary comment on the operation of that section? Is it his view that it is working well at present?
Mr. Browne: It is my view that section 75 is achieving the objectives set for it, but its purpose will never be fulfilled due to the nature of society. If the question is whether I am satisfied by the progress on the section's provisions, and in particular whether or not public authorities have due regard to the issues that I have already enumerated, I am satisfied that the designated public authorities are making progress, and are doing so with the help and assistance of the Equality Commission, which is doing a sterling job in Northern Ireland.
Lady Hermon: May I bring it to the Under-Secretary's attention that operating equality schemes and section 75 is a costly and time-consuming business, given all the organisations that must be consulted? In my constituency, North Down borough council found itself in difficulty when it withdrew an annual award of £3,000 to Age Concern in Bangor—County Down, not north Wales—because it was not giving an equal amount to young people, which was its interpretation of section 75. I should like him to address matters of cost and time consumption.
Mr. Browne: That issue exercises a number of people in Northern Ireland, and the Equality Commission and I cannot necessarily be answerable for what may be aberrations arising out of inappropriate interpretations of section 75. Where the appropriate advice and steps are taken, I am far from satisfied that disproportionality is associated with compliance with the section's provisions. I am satisfied that proportionality in relation to the provisions—an issue to which I shall come later in my speech—is at the forefront.
Obviously, I do not know about that individual case, but I presently have ministerial responsibility—for which I did not wish and which I should like to restore to a devolved Minister at the earliest possible opportunity—for the equality issue. If I can assist with a particular aspect of the case to which the hon. Lady referred, I will happily do so. Off the top of my head, I do not know where the council about which she is talking got the advice, which seems arguably not to have been appropriate, that it had to balance a grant to Age Concern with a grant to an organisation that deals with young people, but I should be prepared to deal with the matter were she to bring the details to my attention.
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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.''
In order to demonstrate its commitment each public authority is required to produce an equality scheme that sets out how it fulfil those duties. The scheme will cover the full range of the organisation's functions in Northern Ireland. As required by the guidelines approved by the Secretary of State, each scheme 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 approval.
The Equality Commission will advise on preparation, validate and monitor the section 75 statutory obligations and investigate complaints of default.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I refer the Under-Secretary to schedule 1 to the order. I can see why the Postal Services Commission and the Consumer Council for Postal Services might be considered appropriate bodies for designation under the criteria that he has outlined, but will he expand on why it is necessary for the National Biological Standards Board (UK) to be brought under the ambit of this statutory instrument?
Mr. Browne: I think that I made the purpose of designation clear, although I accept that I did so in general terms. The order is the third to add public authorities to the 160 designated in the 1998 Act. The purpose of designation is to make public authorities with business that either is present in or affects Northern Ireland comply with the minimum standard on equality.
I have not been apprised of the specific part of the work of the National Biological Standards Board that applies to Northern Ireland, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that if it did not have some effect or presence in Northern Ireland, it would not have been considered relevant for designation. The order is intended to ensure that when a body has a presence in Northern Ireland, or its activities have an effect there, it complies with the standards required by the Act for all public authorities in Northern Ireland.
As the explanatory memorandum makes clear, the bodies themselves—or, where appropriate, the sponsoring Departments—were consulted during the preparation of the draft instrument. The reasons for designation have been identified in the context of that process; the bodies are considered to have some relationship with the people of Northern Ireland or be involved in some activity with them.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I hope that the Under-Secretary will accept the congratulations of the Committee on the clarity of the explanatory memorandum. I think that he is saying to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that if there is no reason to exclude a body that has some impact on Northern Ireland, it is to be included. There does not
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necessarily need to be a positive reason, other than the fact that the body operates in Northern Ireland.
On schedule 2, can the Under-Secretary explain why the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission and the Northern Ireland Audit Office are described as persons designated under the Act, when they seem to be bodies equivalent to those in schedule 1? The instrument does not make that clear.
Mr. Browne: I will deal with that at a suitable point.
Section 75(3)(b) and (c) of the 1998 Act automatically brought the vast majority of public authorities in Northern Ireland—I think that I said 160 earlier; it is about 120—within the scope of the statutory equality duty. However, the Act also provides the Secretary of State with the power to designate other organisations as public authorities for the purposes of section 75. Two designation orders have already been made under this power. In July 2000, one order designated 16 bodies, including the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Court Service. Last April, a second order concentrated chiefly on higher education authorities.
I have some particular remarks to make in relation to the Postal Services Commission, or Postcomm. There has been a breakdown in communication between my Department and Postcomm, for which I apologise. In or about May of this year, my Department approached Postcomm with the proposal that it might be designated. In that communication, and more recently—indeed, today—Postcomm indicated that, in its view, designation was not necessary.
We recognise that Postcomm has done a considerable amount of work to prepare a code of practice. However, in the case of Northern Ireland, designation is significant. It is important for public authorities to demonstrate their commitment to equality through the mechanisms provided by section 75. I am sure Postcomm does not underestimate the importance of that in Northern Ireland.