Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Northern Ireland Bill

8.30 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 54 [The Commission's functions]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 132:

Page 26, line 3, at end insert--
("( ) The Commission shall, before the end of the period of two years beginning with the commencement of this section, make to the Secretary of State such recommendations as it thinks fit for improving--
(a) its effectiveness;
(b) the adequacy and effectiveness of the functions conferred on it by this Part; and
(c) the adequacy and effectiveness of the provisions of this Part relating to it.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 132 relates to Clause 54, which sets out the functions of the Northern Ireland human rights commission. The clause is designed to reflect the list of functions in paragraph 5 of the Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity section of the agreement. The commission will keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness in Northern Ireland of law and practice relating to the protection of human rights. The Bill does not attempt to restrict the meaning of "human rights". It is deliberately intended to be wide, enabling the commission itself to identify what it considers constitute such rights.

It will advise the Government and the Executive Committee of measures which ought to be taken for the protection of human rights. The Bill provides that it will see all proposed Assembly Bills and will be able to offer an opinion on whether they are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It will be able to help people whose rights have been denied or abused. It will develop, through education and research, an active human rights culture in Northern Ireland. It will consult and advise as a matter of priority on the drawing up of a Bill of Rights to suit Northern Ireland's particular needs. It will do everything it can to ensure that the North-South human rights committee envisaged by the agreement is set up.

We have listened carefully to various arguments which have been put, not only in this Chamber this evening but also outside, in many useful conversations and discussions. We have not closed our minds on any issue and therefore we are bringing forward this amendment, which I hope will meet with general agreement and satisfaction, to require the commission not later than two years after establishment to review the adequacy of its powers. I beg to move.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: As I listened to the Minister, I was thinking how good it would be if we could have a body of this kind for Great Britain as well as Northern Ireland to promote a culture of liberty and the full implementation of the rights of the rest of us in this part of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, that is beyond the scope of this Bill although fortunately the Minister has a responsibility in Great Britain as well as in Northern Ireland.

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1530

This amendment has been included to counter the criticism made by the Committee for the Administration of Justice and other non-governmental groups in Northern Ireland that the new commission has not been given adequate powers. The Government have responded by suggesting that the commission can review its own functions and powers after two years of operation and then recommend changes. Of course we welcome that on the old principle that a quarter of a loaf is better than no bread. But it still falls short of the international standards set out in the UN-sponsored Paris Principles 1991 concerning the status of national human rights commissions where human rights commissions are supposed to be given sufficient powers from the start.

There is of course no guarantee that the commission will recommend an extension of its powers nor any requirement for the Government, the Assembly or Parliament to act on the commission's recommendations. So while we welcome the amendment wholeheartedly, we very much hope that when we come to the later amendments, including those tabled in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, we will be able to strengthen the existing powers now to be given to the human rights commission rather than wait for the result of a review in two years' time. We therefore support the amendment but will come back to the powers of the commission later.

Lord Hylton: I welcome the government amendment. It will be helpful, particularly when the commission has had a chance to establish its first priorities for spending money, and then to review how they have worked out in practice. As regards the Paris Principles, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, I would just mention that a piece of work in which I was involved in a minor way and which ended up as a book, published by Macmillan, entitled Human Rights in Great Britain and Ireland--meaning the whole of Ireland, north and south--actually proposed such a commission quite some time in advance of the 1991 text.

Lord Kingsland: Bearing in mind the practice in the rest of the United Kingdom, we think that the noble Minister has got this matter in his amendment exactly right.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: That is very generous--not unexpectedly, because the noble Lord is always generous. As I read out the menu I thought that I detected the ghost of times past in the conversations that the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and I have had on many occasions, as to his desired menu for the rest of the United Kingdom. All I can say is that this is very, very substantially more than a quarter of a loaf: I think it is a good three-quarters.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1531

Lord Desai moved Amendment No. 133:

Page 26, line 3, at end insert--
("( ) The Commission shall be as concerned with issues of discrimination on grounds of age and sexual orientation as they are with other forms of discrimination.").

The noble Lord said: I beg leave to move this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Morris who is unable to be here this evening. In moving Amendment No. 133 I shall, with permission, also speak to Amendment No. 134.

Amendment No. 133 deals with a matter which we have dealt with before in Amendment No. 130, which proposes legislation for Northern Ireland to prohibit discrimination on grounds of age or sexual orientation. In reply to earlier criticisms, I would say that in the light of Amendment No. 132, which we have just passed, if the commission is surveying various things about its effectiveness, and so on, it may as well take on board whether these two additional grounds for discrimination are worth including, or not. I certainly think that they are worth including, but I shall not speak any further because I am sure that at this late hour your Lordships will want to make progress.

Amendment No. 134 proposes that matters referring to an equality commission should be under the human rights commission. Again, I do not want to speak very much about that because my noble friend explained it all in a speech on an earlier occasion. I only wish to say that I strongly support the proposed subsection (1C)(a), which is about resources. The Committee will recall that at Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and other speakers, including myself, expressed some anxiety that resources may not be available for what might be called non-controversial grounds for discrimination because they were neglected whereas the more controversial grounds were given more money. I therefore think it is very important that subsection (1C)(a) should be taken seriously. I beg to move.

Lord Monson: If amendments like Amendment No. 133 are not agreed to, is there not a danger that Northern Ireland, to a greater extent than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, will become a paradise for the politically correct, therefore a paradise for the litigious and hence a paradise for lawyers?

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I am sorry that the Minister thinks that I am the ghost of times past; I always felt that I was the spirit of the future. Being an optimist by nature I continue to battle for the same commitment for equality by this Government as was demonstrated by a government I had the honour to serve in 1974 to 1976. We were then a minority government facing an embattled opposition as we sought to legislate for equality.

I have great sympathy for what is behind these amendments. However, because of the way in which the Government are legislating, I feel that the amendments are being put into the wrong box. Perhaps I can speak about the separate boxes which trouble me.

It is right to have one body called an equality commission and another called a human rights commission. Each deals with a different aspect of

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1532

human rights. Equality without discrimination is just as much a basic human right in Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Equality is as much a part of human rights as prohibitions on torture, inhumane treatment or any other fundamental human right. But it is sensible to have a specialist enforcement mechanism to deal with equality without discrimination.

The problem is that in the scheme of the Bill, which I am beginning to understand, the equality commission is to be a body subordinate to the Assembly whereas the human rights commission will have full constitutional status being accountable to the Secretary of State and the Westminster Parliament.

Many people would agree that discrimination on grounds of age or sexual orientation is unfair, as is discrimination on any other ground. Therefore it is right that they should come within an equality code and that public authorities in Northern Ireland and everywhere else should be bound not to discriminate on those grounds. Amendment No. 133 is wrong, therefore, to seek to put sexual orientation and age discrimination into the human rights commission box rather than the equality commission box. That is the wrong place. They should be in the equality commission box, provided that what we get is a full-blooded equality commission of the same status as the human rights commission. Logically, discrimination belongs as part of the remit of the equality commission.

On a rather narrow ground, therefore, I oppose Amendment No. 133 because it is concerned with discrimination and therefore is a matter for the equality commission rather than the human rights commission. But if the Government do not create an equality commission of equivalent status to the human rights commission I would change my mind and regard it as so fundamental to the rights of everyone in Northern Ireland that they be protected from discrimination on any unfair ground that I would rather have it dealt with by the human rights commission than nobody at all. At the moment, therefore, my mind is open. I oppose Amendment No. 133 at this stage as being better dealt with by the equality commission but will wait until a later stage in the debate to see what the Government intend to do about the status of the equality commission, at which time I may return to this subject.

We are also dealing at this stage with Amendment No. 134. That would dissolve the Fair Employment Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Human Rights Council and give their functions to a human rights commission. That would essentially copy what the Government propose to do in establishing the equality commission; that is, give those functions to the human rights commission.

While I agree that equality rights are a subset of human rights generally, merging all the equality agencies into a conglomerate human rights commission would rightly cause consternation among minorities in Northern Ireland. We have already seen a strong feeling in Northern Ireland among women--the Women's

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1533

Coalition--the disabled and ethnic minority groups that this amalgamation into the equality commission will lead to a hierarchy of rights and so forth.

I have been prepared to support the Government in creating a single equality commission on terms I have indicated before. But it would add to the sense of unfairness if the equality agencies were to be amalgamated not just into an equality commission, but also into a human rights commission which will have a vast range of matters to deal with; for example, the entire contents of the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

I apologise for having taken a few minutes to explain myself, but for those reasons I am opposed to Amendments Nos. 133 and 134, although I entirely understand why they were tabled.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page