|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The Lord Advocate (Lord Hardie): My Lords, I am sure that the reason this amendment was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was a desire on her part, and also on the part of noble Lords who spoke to it, to ensure that appeals are dealt with in a fair and impartial manner; but not only that. It was in order to ensure that there is a perception of fairness and impartiality. Very often the perception is as important, if not at times more important, than the reality.
The Government share this view and believe that public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the tribunals, and of tribunal members, is crucial to the success of any appeals service, in particular to the new appeals service. While I cannot agree with the manner in which the noble Baroness is seeking to achieve our shared objective, I believe I can reassure her and other noble Lords that there will be sufficient safeguards in place to make these amendments unnecessary.
My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor believes that the independence of panel members is most effectively guaranteed if the power of appointment is vested in him alone, as it is in respect of other judicial appointments to tribunals for which the Lord Chancellor is responsible. We share the Lord Chancellor's view and we have therefore made provision in Clause 6 for all appointments to the panel to be made by him. The nature of the appointments will ensure judicial independence and freedom from political pressure or other influence in the selection process.
I turn to the question of the medical members, which is the crux of the matter in so far as I understand the position of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. The point has been made that there may be a possible conflict of interest for doctors who are involved in benefit determinations and who are also appointed to the panel. Perhaps I may, as my noble friend Lord Borrie did, split this category of doctors into two. Clearly, if the doctor has examined someone who is appearing before the panel of which the doctor is himself or herself a member, it would be inappropriate for the doctor to sit in such a case. At present, there are regulations which provide for that. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred to this point. I would hope that the problem which she experienced would not arise very frequently in the case of doctors. Unlike the noble Baroness, who would be giving advice in the context of the voluntary sector to a variety of people, where it might be difficult to identify them from reading the papers in the case of a doctor who had examined a patient, I think that difficulty is less likely to arise. However, in the event that it did arise, in terms of the existing regulations and in terms of the new regulations which will mirror them, he or she would be obliged to decline to act in that case. I appreciate that that would cause inconvenience, which is to be regretted, but in the interests of fairness and impartiality it is a necessary requirement.
I turn to the issue as to whether any doctor who has responsibility for examining a patient on behalf of the state should be allowed to sit as a panel member. On a practical level, I am advised that it would be difficult to find a doctor who had not at some time offered advice to the Secretary of State on a medical issue. We could not obtain sufficient panel members with the appropriate medical qualifications and expertise to run the appeal tribunals effectively--this point was made by my noble friend Lord Borrie--if doctors who had advised the Secretary of State at some point were precluded from appointment to the panel.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, observed, this issue was looked at very carefully by a social security commissioner in 1995. I appreciate that Judge Bassingthwaighte indicated that this matter should not be overlooked despite the decision of the commissioner. But one must bear in mind that the commissioner is the ultimate authority. The commissioner has greater authority on such matters than the president of the tribunal service. However, after exhaustive consideration of the role of doctors in the adjudication system, the commissioner in 1995 concluded that natural justice was not compromised by the presence on an appeal tribunal of a doctor who also provided
We understand that there could be concern from an individual appellant that a panel member sitting on a tribunal had previously been involved with him in relation to social security matters. In that situation the doctor would be required not to sit on the tribunal. I should like to reassure noble Lords that the Government will be bringing forward regulations containing similar provisions to those which now exist, which explicitly preclude any chairman or member from considering on appeal a case in which they have had any personal involvement. Currently, it is a condition of their appointment that all ITS members must be independent and impartial. If they realise from the appeal papers or when they turn up that there is a conflict, they themselves have an obligation to draw that to the attention of the authorities and to withdraw from the hearing. I can assure noble Lords that similar arrangements will apply for persons appointed to the panel. In the light of these reassurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, I begin by referring to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, as to whether I question the integrity of doctors who sit on appeal tribunals. Perhaps the noble Lord will recall that when I opened my remarks I said that I had found tribunals to be trustworthy and full of integrity. I did not myself question that. But those who appear in front of them might well say with regard to myself, "Well, she would say that, wouldn't she?", as I sat as a member for 14 years. I was trying to put myself in the position of those who appear before the tribunal. It is certainly my experience that people who appear in front of tribunals do not have the same perception as those who sit on them and that there have been occasions when appellants who had been through a series of medical decisions--if one is suffering from severe medical problems one tends to appeal again and again--found that there was a person on the tribunal who had some time back sat on one of their cases and had rejected them but was not debarred at that stage from dealing with that appeal.
I accept the point made so clearly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, that my amendment goes too wide. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made the same comment. I was trying only to look at the compromise situation of doctors employed by the DSS. On that basis alone, I would ask leave to withdraw the amendment, and I also take encouragement from the words of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate with regard to the safeguards which the Government intend to introduce. If there were to be further rules with regard to the position of doctors and others who find themselves hearing cases where they had been personally involved, I would welcome that. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:
"It is my privilege to be able to tell the House that a comprehensive political agreement was reached late in the afternoon of 10th April--Good Friday. The text has been published as Command Paper 3883. A copy is being sent to every home in Northern Ireland. I am very grateful to the Post Office for providing this service at business rate, so people across Northern Ireland have a chance to study the agreement in detail.
"The Government's main aim through these negotiations has been to secure political stability and lasting peace for all the people of Northern Ireland. As a result of the Belfast Agreement, that goal is now in sight.
"This is a unique agreement born of a unique set of negotiations--involving unionist, nationalist, republican and loyalist around the same talks table. This is a situation in which, though compromises have been made, everyone can be a winner. Everyone's political and cultural identity is respected and protected by this deal.
"Northern Ireland politics for so long has been seen as a zero sum game: this agreement demonstrates the potential for the people of Northern Ireland to move beyond that into a new type of politics in which everyone can gain. It represents a sensible, fair and workable way forward for both communities.
"I want to pay a particular tribute to the negotiating teams of all the parties involved. They have fulfilled the duty placed upon them by the people they represent. I would also like to pay tribute to a group, often vilified, who have worked for so many years to bring about this agreement often at personal risk to themselves and their families--the UK and Irish civil servants.
"It is important when we are talking about all these positive developments that we do not lose sight of the terrible price that has been paid by the victims of violence and their families. No amount of progress in the search for lasting peace will bring back those loved ones who have been lost or take away the pain felt day in day out by their families.
"I hope that Ken Bloomfield's Victims' Commission will, later this month, provide us with some practical suggestions as to how we can best recognise the suffering endured by the victims of violence and their families. Many of those families say to me similar words to those in the agreement itself that,
'the achievement of a peaceful and just society would be the true memorial to the victims of violence'.
"Under the agreement, the Irish Government will bring forward proposals to amend the Irish Constitution to bring it into line with this understanding, and the necessary changes will be made to British constitutional legislation.
"Thirdly, there will be a north-south ministerial council bringing together those with executive authority, north and south, to work together by agreement on matters of mutual interest. Those participating on the council will be mandated by and remain accountable to the assembly and the Irish Parliament. At least six 'implementation bodies' will be identified within the next six months to put decisions taken by the council into effect on a cross border or all-island basis in specified areas. More such bodies or mechanisms may be established by agreement between the two sides, north and south.
"Fourthly, there will be a British-Irish council to bring together our two governments and representatives of devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. This development builds on the Government's key programme of constitutional reform.
"Fifthly, there will be a new British-Irish agreement to replace the Anglo-Irish agreement of November 1985. This new agreement will be brought into effect as soon as the other elements of the deal are in place. The British-Irish agreement sets out the new shared understanding on constitutional matters. It also creates a new British-Irish intergovernmental conference which will deal with all bilateral issues between the two governments. And in recognition of the Irish Government's special interest in relation to Northern Ireland there will continue, as now, to be regular meetings between me and the Irish Foreign Minister.
"The agreement also includes a range of measures to enhance the proper protection of basic human rights including a new independent human rights commission in Northern Ireland to consult and advise on the scope for defining rights supplementary to those in the ECHR which the Government are already in the process of incorporating into our law across the UK.
"A public consultation is already under way about the proposals in our Partnership for Equality White Paper. Subject to that consultation, those proposals--including the establishment of a powerful new equality commission--are reflected in this agreement along with other proposals to encourage parity of esteem between the two main political and cultural traditions.
"Finally, the agreement looks ahead to the creation of a normal and peaceful society in Northern Ireland. It establishes a clear process for the decommissioning of illegal weapons that can start forthwith and a commitment by all the parties to work constructively in good faith with the independent commission and to use any influence they have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years of the referendum. It commits both Governments to reducing the profile of security measures and emergency legislation as the threat to peace and good order reduces.
"There will be an independent commission to consider what kind of policing service would be appropriate in a Northern Ireland free from the threat of terrorist violence and capable of fully commanding the support of both communities. There will also be a parallel review of the criminal justice system. The agreement also commits both governments to put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners. Let me be clear, this is not an easy issue for anyone. But it is an indispensable part of this agreement.
"For our part, the British Government will establish an independent sentence review body to look at each prisoner on a case by case basis to determine their eligibility for release. Most eligible prisoners will qualify for release on licence within two years. If the circumstances allow, the remainder will be released at that point. It must be emphasised however, that this timeframe is variable, depending on the degree of genuine commitment to peace.
"Prisoners associated with groups who do not maintain a complete and unequivocal cease-fire will not qualify. Those prisoners who do qualify, will be released on licence and returned to prison if they engage in any further terrorist activity.
"No less crucial was the constant support and the direct involvement of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, particularly over the last few crucial days of the negotiations. His efforts were matched by those of the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who rose above the personal tragedy of his mother's death, to play an equally decisive role. Honourable Members will also appreciate the enormous value of having a broad political consensus in support of the talks process, both here at Westminster and in the Irish Parliament.
"I should like to pay tribute to the work of the right honourable Members for Huntingdon and the Cities of London and Westminster and to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, and his colleague the right honourable Member for Devizes. Equally, successive Irish Prime Ministers and Ministers for Foreign Affairs in the Republic have played a crucial role over many years. I would also like to thank President Clinton in particular, who has been an invaluable support for the talks process.
"Many other governments and individuals across Europe--especially in the European Union--and throughout the world have given years of their lives in help and support to the search for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland; and their messages of support keep coming in.
"I am laying an order today setting 22nd May as the date for a referendum. A parallel referendum will be held in the Republic of Ireland on the same day. If both are successful, elections should be held to the new Northern Ireland assembly before the end of June.
"Following the election, the assembly and the north-south ministerial council would operate in "shadow" mode, making the necessary preparations, until the main implementing legislation, which I intend to bring forward as soon as possible, has been enacted and brought into effect.
"The agreement reached on Good Friday is a significant turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. But let us have no illusions. It will take a long time to repair the physical and emotional damage of the past and bring about a real sense of reconciliation and partnership. The people there have suffered a great deal of hardship and pain. To their strength we must give all our support in the weeks and months ahead.
"Pressures on all sides will seek to bring this agreement down. The best way we can help to fight those pressures is to give this agreement the overwhelming support of this House; and to give the people of Northern Ireland the chance to choose the future, not the past, in which to live. In the end, the decision rests with the people of Northern Ireland. The choice is theirs".
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, is the Minister aware that we welcome this agreement? We believe that it provides the basis for a new democratic mechanism for Northern Ireland and that it gives important support to the Union.
I echo the congratulations that have been paid to all those who have been involved in the negotiations and in bringing about this agreement. Senator George Mitchell, Mr. Harri Holkeri and General John de Chastelain have played very important parts with legendary patience. I echo also the tributes that have been paid to successive Prime Ministers, including the present Prime Minister and Mr. John Major, and to successive Secretaries of State, including my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew. All of them, and all the parties concerned, have worked extremely hard to bring about this agreement.
The Minister said that the Government have published the agreement and sent a copy to every household in Northern Ireland. Will they also publish widely a document containing the important letters of interpretation of the agreement which have been sent, we understand, by the Prime Minister to Mr. Trimble and, I think, to Mr. Maginnis and others? Apparently, some of those letters contain important statements about the effect of prisoner releases and other matters and they are crucial to understanding the agreement. The Minister referred to a briefing note being placed in the Library, but I believe that some formal and public document is required if people are to rely on such matters when deciding how to vote in the forthcoming referendum.
We all recognise that the agreement does not yet mean total peace. We hope and pray that some ex-terrorists and their supporters have become democrats, but we know that some others have not. Even if as a result of the agreement they no longer see a political motive for terrorism, there is still a financial motive in the form of the rackets. Therefore, it is not yet time to relax security in Northern Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom.
Can the Minister make it clear that decommissioning will be an important part of the criteria that will be used to decide which terrorist-supporting organisations have accepted a permanent cease-fire and that only the acceptance of such a cease-fire will allow their representatives to participate in the executive or prisoners belonging to those organisations to benefit from the increased remission? Will the Minister confirm that as long as some terrorist organisations remain active, it is essential that the Royal Ulster Constabulary should remain fully effective and that the Secretary of State should remain responsible for security and answerable to Parliament? Can the Minister further confirm that as long as any of the Armed Forces of the Crown remain in Northern Ireland in support of the civil power, responsibility for security will remain in Whitehall, answerable to Westminster?
Finally, I echo what was said in the Statement by the Secretary of State about the victims. We welcome the work that is being done by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and look forward to his report being published. I believe that the Minister said that that would happen later this
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. This is an extraordinary moment because although there may be trouble ahead--we can certainly assume that there will be serious difficulties in the next weeks and months--nothing can dim the extraordinary nature of this achievement. So often in this House in recent years we have had occasion to bemoan the state of affairs in Northern Ireland, so it is a happy moment to be able to say that Good Friday represents a good agreement.
An agreement which brings together British and Irish leaders in the form of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach is truly remarkable when one considers the history of the Troubles of the past 25 or 30 years and the much longer history of difficulty between the British and Irish nations. It has been truly remarkable, therefore, to find this degree of unity. I am glad that the Statement remembered the role of the previous administration and the Ministers who served in it. It is right to do so because this achievement relates not only to the past few weeks, but is due also to the efforts made by many people over many years, including previous Secretaries of State. If I have one regret, it is that the Secretary of State prior to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew--I refer to Peter Brooke--was not mentioned in the Statement. His was a remarkable paving role for this achievement.
The role played by the United States in this agreement has been crucial. It is difficult for British and Irish Governments to swallow the fact that the American Administration has played a crucial role, but in recent years the learning curve of the United States about the real nature of the Northern Irish problem has been very steep and very successful. The roles played by the President and by Senator George Mitchell and his co-chairmen have been very great.
We are now in a state of precarious momentum. We must keep up that momentum and reduce the risks. That means that we need the largest possible majority in the referendum--not just in the Republic of Ireland where the agreement is supported by all parties, but in Northern Ireland itself. I am sorry that some distinguished noble Lords from the Cross Benches who normally speak in the Unionist interest are not able to be here this afternoon because their interventions when we last discussed the possibility of an agreement were notably pessimistic. I hope that they will be there, alongside the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, supporting the agreement wholeheartedly.
I slightly regret that in the Statement reference was made to "a deal". It is important to turn that into genuine dialogue. This is a beginning; it offers no more than the possibility of a new start. It means that the unionists and nationalists of Northern Ireland, particularly those who pursue the peaceful constitutional path like the SDLP and Ulster Unionists, must turn the heroic effort of overnight negotiation into a continuing dialogue to underpin a peaceful future for Northern Ireland.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Cope, I ask the Minister to clarify the exact nature of the understanding given to Mr. David Trimble about the prohibition on the involvement of parties who have not eschewed violence and started substantially to decommission in the process of the assembly and government. I should like to understand exactly what that is. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cope, if there are letters in existence I should like them to be published.
Finally, the basis of the settlement, not merely the fact that it has been arrived at, of devolved powers so that greater self-government and responsibility can be undertaken in Northern Ireland--shared power so that decisions are not exercised on behalf of one side of the community and proportional representation so that all shades of opinion are fairly represented, with the emphasis on human rights--is part of the general constitutional revolution that the Government, with the support of these Benches, have taken forward in Great Britain as a whole. I believe that of all parts of the United Kingdom it has the greatest relevance in Northern Ireland, and in that sense we support it most warmly.
I do not want to sit down without referring, among those who have made a contribution, to my noble friend Lord Alderdice, the leader of the Alliance Party, who is not able to be here this afternoon. Noble Lords will recognise that to assume that in Northern Ireland there are only two sides does not do justice to those who look for a non-sectarian basis for progress in the Province.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for his support and welcome for this particular agreement. He asked whether the correspondence that had taken place between the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister and various Northern Ireland politicians could be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. Essentially, these exchanges were private communications between participants in the process. It would not be normal practice to place such correspondence in the Libraries. However, some of the contents of the correspondence has already been made public and there has been much public comment
The noble Lord asked about matters concerning the cease-fire and decommissioning. We want to see total decommissioning as quickly as possible. We welcome the commitment in the agreement by talks participants to use their influence to achieve this in two years. The agreement represents a package. I argue strongly that all the elements of that package are closely interlinked. The onus is on the participants--the two governments, the parties, unionists, loyalists, nationalists and republicans--to implement all aspects of the agreement in good faith. The agreement cannot work unless all of the participants act in good faith and give effect to the undertakings that they have provided. We see that as a complete package, and we wish the matter to be judged as a whole.
At the present time policing and security matters will remain under the Secretary of State. Other than in the very short term, there will be a change in such arrangements, only if the security situation justifies such a change. But we have not reached that position yet because, regrettably, there are a number of terrorist organisations on both sides which have not subscribed to the cease-fire and still practise violence and murder. Therefore we have to keep the security forces on the alert to deal with such a threat. The Secretary of State will retain her full responsibilities in these circumstances.
The noble Lord asked a number of other questions. I very much agree with him that this is just the start and a good deal of hard work must still be done. The Government are not sitting back on the basis that they have done it. Only this morning my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said that there was a great deal of work still to be done and the real challenges to take forward the process begin now. The noble Lord also asked about violence and decommissioning. The assembly is for those parties who have taken part in the agreement and have subscribed to peace and consent. I believe that the agreement makes clear that the test must be that the parties continue to believe in a peaceful way forward. I have already referred to decommissioning and the desire of the Government to see this matter as a complete package.
I also join the noble Lord in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. I am very much aware, both from his contributions here and on the occasions that I have met him in Northern Ireland, that he has also played a very important part for the good in the politics
Lord Fitt: My Lords, over centuries many dramatic statements have been made in this House in relation to the conduct of various affairs. Normally, those statements are made amidst great controversy. A painting in a corridor of this House records the famous rejection of the Home Rule Bill in 1893. Had the outcome been different we might not have had to suffer many of the events in the years that have followed.
I believe that it may be a little premature to refer to this agreement as a settlement. It is not. One can only hope daily that it will become a settlement. In the House of Commons today I observed that the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr. David Trimble, sat alone on his Bench without the support of his parliamentary colleagues. I believe that that must be regarded as being as serious as it looks. There is not agreement even among the major political parties in Northern Ireland.
I believe that it is time for everyone who is concerned with Northern Ireland to state where they stand on the agreement. I have no hesitation in saying that I fully support the agreement. I call on anyone in Northern Ireland who has listened to my voice over the years to vote "yes" in the referendum. It is the only possible way; there is no alternative.
I should like to place firmly on record--perhaps to the total disagreement of some of my former colleagues--my support for the RUC. Had it not been for the RUC over the past 30 years Northern Ireland would have descended into absolute anarchy. It is only by the dedicated service of those policemen that there has been a civilised outcome to the events of the past few years. This agreement is only the beginning. There are many people in Northern Ireland, including myself, who are very concerned about the possible early release of convicted prisoners. I refer particularly to those who have lost their fathers, mothers, friends and colleagues.
Will continuing representations be made to the IRA, a terrorist organisation, to do what it can to make public the burial grounds of those people it murdered from within the Catholic community and whose bodies are, as yet, unidentified? There is great sadness and sorrow among those who have lost their loved ones and who cannot visit their graves.
The Minister is entitled to ask for the support of all elected representatives. I wish him well in all his efforts, and the efforts of everyone else in Northern Ireland, to bring about a massive yes vote in the referendum.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page