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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I understand what he has just said, but that applies only to the European Convention on Human Rights. A great gap in that convention is that the guarantee of equality without discrimination is much weaker than under Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Therefore, that mechanism of certifying Bills will be confined to only the European Convention on Human Rights, not the covenant. There will therefore be a gap in that element of parliamentary scrutiny. I wonder whether that might be considered hereafter.

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9 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I certainly undertake to consider that. The answer to the noble Lord's point--which I think is a fair one in terms of being accurately descriptive--is that any government are free, without special provision, to send future Westminster Bills in draft to the commission for comment. I refer to a point that was made earlier; namely, that one does not want to overload the commission in the early stages when it will have a vast workload. That is an important point which I believe was made by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: I am grateful to my noble friend for apparently agreeing with my argument. If I now appear to be backpedalling it is because I think there is a danger in what he has just said. Human rights are not a purely academic exercise. It is important that someone who is close to the grassroots and to the daily life of people should be able to advise on where human rights bite. Would not there be that advantage in submitting them to the commission in Northern Ireland, which would not have to respond?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: There is an advantage in that. Equally, there is an advantage in flexibility and looking at the organic development of the commission's work in Northern Ireland where conditions are quite different historically and presently from experience in the rest of the United Kingdom. We all know that, otherwise we would not be discussing this Bill. Therefore we oppose these amendments. We think they are unduly prescriptive.

Amendment No. 136A stands in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell. It requires the executive committee to refer all proposed Bills to the commission in draft. However, it also requires the Assembly to take into account the commission's advice on the human rights compatibility of the proposed Bill. We do not think that requirement ought to exist and we do not think that the Assembly should be required to take into account the advice of the commission. There is a difficulty that if the commission is overburdened and delays giving advice, the passage of legislation which might otherwise be desirable could be held up. The agreement does not of course say anything about the Assembly having a duty to take the commission's advice into account.

I do not always regard the agreement as holy writ but it is extremely important beyond its own wording. The agreement was concluded with great difficulty. The agreement provides at page 17 only that the commission should consider draft legislation referred to it by the Assembly. The existing clause reflects the agreement. I do not say this out of faintheartedness--I think I have a deeper purpose--but one wants to be extremely cautious (I think the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, mentioned this earlier in our discussions) in going outside the ambit of the agreement.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Before the Minister sits down, I wish to make a comment which I hope is helpful in considering this amendment. Am I right in thinking that

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whatever we do on this Bill it would still be open to Parliament to create the Select Committee on human rights that has been promised or indicated in the Government's White Paper on the Human Rights Bill, and that that Parliamentary Select Committee could be given the function, if Parliament so wished, of scrutinising measures of the Westminster Parliament to ensure that they are compatible with human rights in the wide sense?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am obliged for that helpful indication. As the noble Lord will know, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said in his Second Reading speech in introducing the Human Rights Bill in your Lordships' House--I paraphrase, I think fairly, as I had something to do with the drafting of the measure--that we would give a fair wind to any proposal to set up either a Commons committee, a Lords committee or a Joint parliamentary Committee to deal with these matters. That remains the Government's position. It seems to me that that Joint Committee--if it is set up--would have whatever remit it decided was appropriate at that time. I am happy to give that understanding.

Lord Hylton: I am grateful for everything that has been said on this group of amendments. I should have underlined earlier that the Belfast agreement at paragraph 5 on page 17 specifically refers to the submission of Bills in draft. I can go along with the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that the submission of these Bills in draft should, or might be, covered by standing orders of the Assembly. I do not think there is anyone in this Chamber--I stand open to correction, however--who can deliver such a commitment on behalf of the Assembly. Having said that, it is quite possible that the drafting of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, is superior to mine. I have an open mind on that. However, I should now withdraw Amendment No. 135. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 136 not moved.]

Lord Archer of Sandwell had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 136A:

Page 26, line 10, leave out subsection (3) and insert--
("(3) The Executive Committee shall refer all proposed Bills to the Commission in draft.
(3A) The Commission may advise the Assembly whether a proposed Bill is compatible with human rights as the Commission thinks appropriate.
(3B) The Assembly shall take such advice into account when considering the proposed Bill.").

The noble and learned Lord said: It is a lesson which I learned long ago, but constantly forget, that the longer one's amendments, the longer is the flank which is exposed to attack. What I really wanted to propose was that the commission may respond rather than shall respond. However, I promise to read carefully what my noble friend has said. For the moment I shall not move Amendment No. 136A.

[Amendment No. 136A not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 137 and 138 not moved.]

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Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 139:

Page 26, line 24, at end insert--
("( ) For the purpose of exercising its functions under this section the Commission may conduct such investigations as it considers necessary or expedient.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 139 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 140 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Government Amendment No. 139 states:

    "For the purpose of exercising its functions under this section the Commission may conduct such investigations as it considers necessary or expedient".
This amendment has been tabled in response to many representations that have been made to us. We found the arguments to be persuasive and therefore adopted them and incorporated them in this amendment. Above all, it is designed to be a facilitating amendment. As I said, we have had many representations. They were carefully considered and we found them to be persuasive. The commission may want to consult affected individuals. It may want to carry out research into specific incidents, or indeed a pattern of activity.

The basis of Amendment No. 140 is that the commission may have certain powers, including the power of compulsion in respect of the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents. A number of noble Lords have on different occasions said that the commission should be able to obtain information under compulsion if necessary even where no individual is alleging that his or her human rights have been breached or even where no case is being brought before the courts. Not all, but a number of Northern Ireland parties have supported that. We do not want the commission to be a toothless body. However, our overriding purpose is to implement the Good Friday agreement. The agreement is silent as to whether the commission should have available to it formal powers of compulsion. There is a good deal of detail filled in about where the agreement is silent. However, in all significant areas we have looked for--and by and large have achieved--consensus.

My honourable friend the Minister of State has had extensive consultations with the parties to the agreement. Most supported the sort of powers advocated in this amendment. However, we do not believe that there is a sufficient consensus. Therefore, having come to a fairly careful conclusion, we believe it would be wrong to re-open this issue. We are sympathetic to the point underlying Amendment No. 140. I know that and understand it well even before the noble Lord develops his theme. However, we believe that it is wrong to proceed in this Bill where there is not a sufficient consensus. I hope that our open-minded view on Amendment No. 139 may reassure noble Lords that to press Amendment No. 140 at this time would not be sensible or prudent. I beg to move.

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