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Northern Ireland

A Bill of Rights (Northern Ireland)

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I am pleased to announce that I am today publishing a consultation paper on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

The need for an additional human rights framework that reflects the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland was recognised in the Belfast Agreement and given shape through the commitment to set up a Bill of Rights forum as part of the St. Andrews Agreement. The launch of a consultation on a Bill of Rights follows through on those commitments.

I am very grateful to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for its commitment and energy in leading the debate on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and for its wide ranging and thorough advice to the Government, which has greatly informed this consultation paper and has made a substantial contribution to the debate on rights and responsibilities across the UK.

A positive future for the people of Northern Ireland must be firmly based on partnership, equality and mutual respect. Over the past 12 years, but particularly since the restoration of devolution in May 2007, Northern Ireland has made huge progress in building that positive future. The fundamental principle of mutual respect for the rights and freedoms of all the people of Northern Ireland has been at the heart of this progress, and still has a crucial role to play in its future success. For that reason, I urge everyone with the best interests of Northern Ireland at heart to study this consultation paper carefully and to give their views.

The consultation process will run until 1 March. Copies of the consultation paper will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Prime Minister

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): The Commonwealth Heads of Government met in their 60th anniversary year in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, from 27 to 29 November.

Her Majesty the Queen attended the biennial meeting for the 19th time in her role as Head of the Commonwealth. Leaders paid tribute to her dedication and commitment to the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth continues to show, through its diversity and by its actions, its continued importance as we work together to address the great global challenges.

Many Commonwealth countries, such as Bangladesh, the Maldives and the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, are among those most vulnerable to climate change. So this was a unique opportunity for leaders of one third of the world's population to address the key issues which must be resolved in the Copenhagen agreement. The special session was addressed by Danish Prime Minister
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Rasmussen, who is organising next month's conference in Copenhagen, by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and by President Sarkozy.

The Commonwealth agreed to the British proposal for a Copenhagen Launch Fund to provide immediate assistance to developing countries to tackle climate change. We agreed that this fund should start next year and rise to $10 billion annually in 2012, with a further scaling up of financial assistance to 2020.

With 89 leaders now committed to attending Copenhagen, the Commonwealth backed the Danish Prime Minister's plan for a "comprehensive, substantial and operationally binding agreement in Copenhagen leading towards a full legally binding outcome no later than 2010" and so, while no one should be in any doubt how much there is still to do to secure an agreement that will limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees, the Commonwealth has helped to lay the foundations for this: an agreement on which our future prosperity and security depend.

And it is fitting also, in its 60th year, for the Commonwealth to have made the biggest advance in its history towards free healthcare for its citizens. The agreement-the Commonwealth Health Compact-to remove user fees and provide healthcare free at the point of use could change the lives of millions and mean that mothers are no longer forced to choose between sending their children to the doctor or sending them to school. This is the first time in history that over 50 countries have collectively committed to free healthcare, an announcement with the potential to reach nearly one third of the world's population.

I met the Secretary-General of the United Nations principally to discuss Afghanistan. We then held a joint press conference to announce the London conference on Afghanistan on 28 January 2010. I shall be making a Statement to Parliament about our policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan today.

The Commonwealth echoed UK calls for a new social contract between the financial sector and the public to rebalance risk and reward and called on the IMF to look at all options in its forthcoming review.

The Commonwealth also sent a strong message to the Government of Zimbabwe faithfully and effectively to implement the global political agreement. On this basis it looked forward to conditions being right for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth in the future.

Leaders agreed that Australia would host the 2011 summit.

It was agreed to include a commitment to looking at strengthening the organisation and ensuring all of its democratic values and principles are upheld. With half of the Commonwealth's 2 billion citizens under the age of 25, we have a duty to be a forward looking group of nations. The Commonwealth continues to provide a unique forum in which to bring together developed and developing countries, large and small economies, to unite in recognition of their shared history and to determine their shared future.

Copies of the concluding communiqué have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

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Seafarers and the Equality Bill

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): Some three years ago, the European Commission informed the Government that they had received a complaint relating to section 9 (s9) of the Race Relations Act 1976 (RRA 1976), which permits wage differentiation on the ground of nationality against a seafarer who was recruited abroad. We accept that this provision appears to be inconsistent with EC law, to the extent that it allows pay differentiation to the disadvantage of seafarers from other EC or EEA states or others with corresponding rights in EC law.

Additionally, the Commission have since raised concerns regarding section 8 (s8) of the RRA 1976 in that it states that an employee working wholly outside Great Britain has to be ordinarily resident in Great Britain, in order to be protected from discrimination on racial grounds. The Commission view this as being unjustifiably indirectly discriminatory and contrary to Articles 39 EC and 7(1) of Regulation 1612/68 when applied to EC and EEA nationals and others with corresponding rights in EC law.

If enacted, the Equality Bill will bring together and re-state the majority of existing domestic discrimination legislation including the RRA 1976. It therefore provides an opportunity to address both of the Commission's concerns.

The Equality Bill is silent as to where it applies, so this will generally be for the courts and tribunals to determine. As far as the Part 5 (work) provisions are concerned, this approach is acceptable for most workers, who at any given time are within either the territory of the United Kingdom or some other territory. However, seafarers work on ships that may be constantly moving between waters under the jurisdiction of different states. Clause 78 of the Equality Bill therefore provides for Ministers to specify in regulations which seafarers on which ships, and which crew on which hovercraft, the employment provisions apply to. This enables Ministers to take account of international law and custom and the global practices of the shipping industry when deciding exactly how Part 5 is to apply to seafarers.

The regulation making power in Clause 78 of the Bill is wide enough for the regulations to allow the differential
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pay practice to continue although, following the concerns raised by the European Commission regarding EC, EEA and other relevant seafarers, any replacement for s9 would have to take a more narrowly drawn form.

A key factor to consider before deciding whether to bring forward a more narrowly drawn replacement for s9 is the likely financial effect on industry of the different possible options.

Today, therefore, I am publishing draft regulations, which would be subject to the affirmative procedure in Parliament, showing how the Government currently propose that Part 5 of the Bill should apply to seafarers.

Regulations 3(1) and 4 of the draft regulations would apply the employment provisions of the Bill to every seafarer on a UK ship with a port of choice in Great Britain, so long as the seafarer either works at least partly in Great Britain, or is a UK or other EEA national (or has corresponding EC law rights) and has an employment relationship sufficiently linked to Great Britain. Regulation 3(2) would extend the employment provisions to ships flagged to other EEA countries while they are in UK waters, but only for the benefit of those seafarers who fulfil the criteria in regulation 3(3)(b) to (d).

Regulation 3(2) requires further work across Government before a final version of the regulations can be laid before Parliament for approval.

The draft regulations are currently silent on the issue of differential pay. If the regulations were made in the form of the published draft, the practice of nationality-based pay differentials would become unlawful. However, I have today written to a number of stakeholders seeking evidence-based financial estimates of the likely impact of either:

(a) outlawing the practice altogether; or

(b) continuing to allow the payment of differential rates to seafarers but only where such differentiation would not operate to the disadvantage of nationals of any EC or EEA state (or any other state whose nationals are entitled to corresponding rights under EC law) nor that of seafarers recruited in Great Britain, and the difference in rates would correspond to a difference in the costs of living in the places where the seafarers respectively habitually reside.

Copies of the draft regulations have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Once I have considered any responses submitted, I will report back to Parliament.

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