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Northern Ireland Bill

3.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Dubs.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 58 [The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 151A:

Page 28, line 9, leave out ("members") and insert ("Commissioners").

The noble Lord said: This group of amendments concern our proposals for a new equality commission, a powerful independent organisation, appointed by the Secretary of State, which will exercise a broad range of executive responsibilities for equality issues in Northern Ireland. Some of these are responsibilities which already exist in law under Northern Ireland anti-discrimination legislation. Those responsibilities are performed at the moment by the Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland, the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland, the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Disability Council. It will also have new responsibilities

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consequent upon Clause 60 which imposes on the Northern Ireland public sector the statutory duty to have due regard to the needs to promote equality of opportunity throughout their activities.

In the course of the summer we have consulted with the Northern Ireland political parties and specialist organisations about our proposals. There will be government amendments before the House today which will reflect the outcome of those discussions. The requirement to prepare equality schemes will be imposed directly on public authorities without the need for an initial request from the commissions.

Other amendments will change the title of those who serve on the equality commission. We expect on Report to bring forward further amendments on the application of the equality obligation to UK departments and UK-wide public bodies operating in Northern Ireland and to expand the detailed provision for impact assessments in equality schemes. The Government will soon set up a working group under an independent chairman, on which the chairs of the four existing equality bodies will be invited to serve. That working group will plan for the creation of the equality commission.

Separately from the Bill, the Government recently announced early legislation on changes to fair employment law, including its extension to the provision of goods, facilities and services and the disposal of premises. Therefore, there is much happening in terms of the equality agenda, not to mention current consideration at national level of changes to gender, race and disability anti-discrimination laws. At this historic time for Northern Ireland the Government re-commit themselves to equality of opportunity across a broad front and to the bodies of law which have been developed to tackle discrimination in the field of religion, gender, race and disability.

Now I turn to specific amendments on Clause 58 and Schedule 9. These amendments deal with the relationship between the equality commission, the Secretary of State and the Assembly. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, has tabled a series of amendments which should have the effect of altering those relationships so that routine control and financing will be the responsibility of the Secretary for State and Parliament.

I shall take this opportunity to set out the future status of the equality commission, as the current version of the Bill is not clear on this subject. However, amendments which have been tabled to Schedules 2 and 3 should clarify the position. Under the Good Friday agreement the Assembly is to exercise legislative and executive authority over matters within the responsibility of the Northern Ireland departments, with the possibility of taking on responsibility for other matters. Anti-discrimination laws on fair employment, gender, race and disability have been the responsibility of Northern Ireland departments--currently DED and DHSS--since they were enacted. That means that those areas of law and the current functions of the Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland, the

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Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland, the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Disability Council are transferred matters under the agreement.

The amendments to Schedules 2 and 3 make clear that the references to the functions of the four bodies in the Bill do not affect their transferred status. Those amendments also clarify that the bulk of Clauses 58 to 60 and Schedules 9 and 10 are reserved matters. The equality of opportunity obligation and the equality commission did not exist at the time of the Good Friday agreement. The Secretary of State will have policy responsibility for the equality of opportunity obligation and a number of specific functions in relation to equality schemes at Schedule 10.

The existence of the equality commission as an institution is a reserved matter. The Secretary of State has power to appoint its members. The bulk of its day-to-day activities will continue to be concerned with the existing anti-discrimination legislation, so it will be funded by the Assembly and it will be under the departmental oversight of the Department of Economic Development. That makes the commission something of a hybrid. But the Bill achieves a balance which preserves an important role for the Secretary of State.

Local Northern Ireland politicians will have to co-operate in the Assembly. The Bill contains checks and balances and built-in protection which will encourage consensus rather than division in the Assembly. Local institutions must be allowed the opportunity to play their role in the field of equality.

In relation to Amendments Nos. 294, 295 and 296, we accept that there is a need for the commission's annual report to be laid before Parliament as well as before the Assembly. Government amendments to this effect will be prepared for Report stage. Therefore, I shall invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

I turn now to government Amendments Nos. 151A to 151D, 290A to 290D, 291A to 291C, 292A, 293A, 297A, 307A to 307K. Many of these are technical. However, several of them change the title of the members of the equality commission. Instead of a chairman there will be a chief commissioner, with at least one deputy chief commissioner. Ordinary members of the commission will be known as commissioners. That will bring the titles of those serving on the commission more closely in line with those of the Northern Ireland human rights commission, which should further enhance the status of the equality commission.

Other government amendments ensure that the commission cannot only employ staff but can also pay pensions and hire consultants. Amendment No. 297A provides for expenditure by the commission to be defrayed from Assembly appropriations. Amendments Nos. 307A to 307K reflect the normal way in which bodies are listed for the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 and the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975. Commissioners, deputy chief commissioners and its chief commissioner will not be able to sit in the House of Commons. I beg to move.

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3.30 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden: I thank my noble friend for his explanation of that series of amendments. Like many of your Lordships, I have been lobbied by a number of Northern Ireland organisations, including the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland. I understand that the Government may wish to have one equality commission, instead of a number of small quangos dealing with different aspects of discrimination. Certainly it would appear to be cheaper administratively to have one body. But it would appear that during the consultative process practically everyone was against the merger of existing commissions into a new, enlarged body. The EOC for Northern Ireland in particular opposes a merger of existing equality bodies. It is natural that people will want to protect their own patch and very often people are likely to oppose change. Nevertheless, the EOCNI has some valid points.

It points out that in Northern Ireland there is routinely discrimination against women, who make up over half the population. It believes that women are best served by an organisation which focuses precisely on their needs, as we have in the United Kingdom. There is a real fear that sex equality is likely to be marginalised, particularly since the new commission will come under the purview of the Northern Ireland Assembly--as already explained by my noble friend--rather than, as in Scotland, being directly answerable to the Government at Westminster. That is referred to in other amendments.

I have the impression that the Government's mind is made up on the issue of the equality commission and the merger of existing bodies. If that is so, it becomes even more important that the functions of the equality commission should be clearly set out and the areas of discrimination for which it has responsibility set out clearly on the face of the Bill. However, I should be grateful if my noble friend would be good enough to explain to the Committee why the Government felt it necessary to ignore the representations being made during the course of consultations by a large number of bodies in Northern Ireland and to go for an overall equality commission.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I too am grateful to the Minister for explaining this position to the extent that I am capable of understanding the explanation off the cuff. I shall want to read carefully the detail of what he said. Even though I am a lawyer, I find difficulty in trying to unpack the human rights equality provisions of the Bill, read with the Northern Ireland Constitution Act and the other underlying equality legislation.

When one asks the way to Skibbereen in West Cork, one is normally told, "If I were you, I would not start from here"! The problem is that we are starting from a pretty flawed situation. It may be helpful, in order to explain the position taken by these Benches, if I first explain what we welcome in the Minister's statement as we understand it and what still remains for consideration.

It is most welcome that there is to be a working group to look at the ways in which the equality agencies in Northern Ireland will be co-ordinated into a more

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effective equality commission, which we believe to be the Government's intention. It is welcome also that the equality agenda right across the United Kingdom will look at the incoherence, inconsistency and weak enforcement of the existing body of equality legislation, if that is what the Government intend, which we understand it is.

It is welcome also that the equality commission will now be reporting to Parliament as well as to the Assembly in Northern Ireland, as I understand the Minister. It is welcome too that the policy responsibilities for Clauses 60 and 61--the statutory duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity and the provisions forbidding religious and political discrimination by public authorities--are to remain within the remit of the Secretary of State. As I understand the Minister, therefore, there will be Secretary of State oversight of Clauses 60 and 61.

So far very good indeed. What then are the remaining problems? The first goes back to the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973; that is, it only forbids religious and political discrimination by public authorities in Northern Ireland, and the definition of discrimination is confined to direct discrimination. We will be returning to that later. I should explain that I am speaking to all the amendments grouped with Amendment No. 151A on the Marshalled List.

The second problem, as the Minister said, is that there was no equality legislation in 1973 when the Northern Ireland Constitution Act was passed and therefore the entire subject of the devolution to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive of equality issues has to be looked at with fresh eyes. The problem is that on one reading of the Bill as it stands, equality legislation is not to be devolved at all; it is to remain a Westminster responsibility. I realise now that that is not the Government's intention. As I understand it, the Government's intention is that the administration and responsibility for the equality law in relation to gender, race, disability or religion is to be devolved, but that the Secretary of State will retain his responsibilities under the policy in Clauses 60 and 61.

The point of concern about that for us is that, whatever the deliberations may have decided, politicians who represent majorities and minorities may not be sufficiently sensitive to the needs of minorities, including women seen as a minority, ethnic minorities and the disabled. When one simply devolves holus-bolus equality legislation to the Assembly, it may be excellent in dealing with ancient problems of religious and political discrimination, but it may not be excellent in dealing with other forms of discrimination.

We regard the right to equal treatment without discrimination as a basic constitutional right that should be the same, giving the same protection and the same enforcement, in whichever part of the United Kingdom or Ireland one happens to live. Those are part of our basic human rights derived from our inherent humanity and from the international codes on human rights by which we are bound.

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If there is not to be a continuing responsibility and veto of power by the Secretary of State, and if there is to be weakening of the equality code by the Northern Ireland Assembly--I speak entirely hypothetically--we want to be sure that there cannot be any weakening of the equality code dealing with any of those forbidden grounds of discrimination. That is why in a later amendment we are at least urging that the Secretary of State should have oversight by placing the matter in Schedule 3, if not Schedule 2, as a reserved matter if not an excepted matter.

That is one large problem. The subset of that problem is with regard to the equality commission itself. We welcome the changes in nomenclature in the Government's amendments. They use the same language as is being used by the Human Rights Commission. But we hope that by the end of these proceedings the equality commission will have a no less favourable constitutional status than does the Human Rights Commission.

Finally, it goes without saying that we also hope that the Government will make available the same assistance for people seeking to enforce their human rights and their equality rights in the courts of England, Wales and Scotland as they are making available in Northern Ireland. It is completely inappropriate that these provisions should come into force without any public interest fund, without a human rights commission and without anything else during the long hiatus before the Human Rights Bill comes into force in 2000.

I hope I have explained our position. We support the Government's amendments. I have spoken to our amendments and suggest that these are matters that require further consideration on all sides. I apologise for having taken so long.

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