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Lord Hylton: My Lords, I welcome this Bill as a major step in the difficult process of implementing the Belfast agreement. This is the only agreement available or likely to be available for securing peace and stability throughout these islands. Implementation is therefore crucially important to the whole of Britain and Ireland.
I agree with those noble Lords who have suggested that the human rights clauses in Part VI need to be strengthened. I ask the Government to read again the letter from Dr. Maurice Hayes, who, until recently, was ombudsman. It was addressed to the Secretary of State and dated 3rd July. I hope that the Government will then be able to introduce their own amendments covering the points that he listed. I trust that they will also take into account the points made by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice. I declare my interest as a member of the last body.
It may be said that this is a matter of policing which goes beyond the Bill. If that were the case, it could perhaps be left until the Patten Commission has reported. But I submit that it is causing some people to leave Northern Ireland, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, while it maims and occasionally kills others. The subject needs urgent attention now. It needs to be looked at in the context of preventing crime and of "changing the climate of opinion", as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, put it.
Two sorts of crime and antisocial behaviour are involved. First, there are the actions of mostly young offenders, who steal cars, vandalise, attack old people and abuse various substances. Secondly, there are the actions of self-appointed enforcers of order who mete out a kind of rough and ready justice, which is often hideously brutal.
Therefore, I ask that the noble Lord the Minister and his colleagues should study and take fully into account the considerable volume of work that has already been done on crime prevention in Northern Ireland. This work began during some of the most troubled times in Northern Ireland. Prevention can start with toddlers and pre-school children; it continues, of course, through all age groups. It develops self-respect and respect for other citizens. Sport, music, drama and all kinds of cultural activities have their part to play. These are organised largely by local community and Province-wide voluntary organisations. That is why the voluntary sector, together with the churches and the whole educational establishment, is an essential partner with government. The statutory agencies will be greatly mistaken if they think that they can solve these problems by themselves. Partnership is absolutely necessary and I hope that it should not be too difficult to achieve within a population as small as one-and-a-half million people.
To be more specific, I draw the attention of your Lordships and of the Government to the work of police and public liaison committees in various parts of Northern Ireland. That can be developed. Equally significant is the work done in the past four or five years in West Belfast across the peace line or the sectarian interface. This work built on the previous experience of community development; it considered and consulted on the Springfield area redevelopment, which is now resulting in a new campus for the University of Ulster. It also facilitated, in some degree, the original paramilitary ceasefires. I am glad to say that several people associated with this work have been elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly where, I am sure, their constructive influence will have a strong effect.
To be more specific still, I urge the Government to draw the appropriate conclusions from work currently underway in West Belfast which is designed to find local alternatives to punishment beatings that are acceptable and accountable. It is also developing new thinking concerning maximum local and community
I have outlined some urgent problems and indicated how some people, particularly in local communities and in the voluntary sector, are groping their way towards solutions. I urge the Government to listen to such people, including those who are simply holding the gate and offering appropriate assistance to the victims, and potential victims, of diabolical cruelty. There has to be concerted action, all the way through from immediate relief right up to effective prevention--and that action, I submit, is needed now.
Lord McConnell: My Lords, I join other noble Lords who have welcomed this attempt at devolution of the government of Northern Ireland. For far too long we have been governed directly from Westminster, with all the defects that that implies. It is very encouraging to see some method being sought to give back to the people of Northern Ireland the right to govern themselves. That makes it all the more important that we are careful about exactly which course we take.
Recently there has been a release from prison of criminals who are not repentant, but who are proud of the atrocities that they have committed. They still have access to arms and explosives. It is hard to see how that is a remedy for peace. The Prime Minister recently said in the House of Commons that substantial decommissioning should be required before prisoners could be released. Unfortunately, the history of the Government--indeed, of both the present and the previous governments--has been to give way consistently to terrorists. I believe that there should be substantial decommissioning before members of Sinn Fein should be allowed to enter the government. We cannot have a government of which some members have guns under the table. There has been too much appeasement of the men of violence and it is time that a firm attitude is taken by the Government.
There are many details in this Bill that we should consider, but at this late hour I do not propose to go into more than one of them because we shall be able to do so in more detail in Committee. However, one thing strikes me; namely, whether it is intended to continue governing Northern Ireland by Orders in Council. That is a completely undemocratic method which has been used for too long as there can be no amendment to the orders. Even when the Government find some defect, they have to gloss over it. It would also be interesting to know whether Scotland and Wales are to be governed by Orders in Council. Doubtless we shall hear about that when we reach the Committee stage, if not tonight.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, many noble Lords have emphasised during the course of the debate the undoubted importance of the Bill. In fact, it is really three Bills in one. It is a devolution Bill, comparable to the Scotland and Wales Bills, it is a human rights Bill; and it is an equality Bill all put into a single measure. In normal times I believe that there would have been three Bills. Indeed, I do not really see why it should not have been so, or at least two Bills on this occasion, except of course for the immense congestion of a parliamentary timetable.
The aspect which links the three different parts is the Belfast Agreement--the Good Friday Agreement. We continue to support that agreement and recognise the urgency to put the devolution clauses on the statute book before this Session of Parliament ends. However, the agreement does not put a tight timetable on the setting up of the two new commissions as set out in the Bill. It has also become clear this afternoon that the Government should have spent more time considering that, and that this is not a very sound way in which to legislate on such matters.
The civil servants and the draftsmen have obviously done the best that they could, but the speed of the legislation is not their fault. A large number of the clauses in the Bill were not discussed in another place. We will of course need to do our best to remedy that deficit in this House. However, today's debate on certain clauses in the Bill has revealed in particular the disquiet of those who have paid great attention over many years to human rights and equality issues. We do not oppose--indeed, we support--the ideas behind the human rights and equality parts of the Bill. However, it is important to get the measures right. We have already heard from the Minister in his opening remarks that the Government realise that they have not got it quite right. We have been promised a large number of government amendments which we will obviously consider most carefully.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I was also slightly confused about the future responsibility for the commissions from the governmental point of view. I am not a lawyer; indeed, I am an accountant and I approach such matters from a different angle. I notice that the human rights commission is to be financially answerable to Whitehall, whereas the equality commission is to be financially answerable to Stormont. Perhaps we shall have a little more elucidation on all this when we reach the Committee stage.
I was interested to note that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, seemed to want a single human rights commission for the whole of the United Kingdom. I believe that to be a most interesting idea and, if I may say so, an extremely unionist idea.
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