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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, Clause 11(4) already requires the Assembly to send a copy of each Bill as soon as reasonably practicable after introduction to the Human Rights Commission. We certainly intend that the Assembly should refer Bills to the commission

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at an earlier stage. Should the sponsors of legislation desire it, there is no reason why they should not involve the commission at an earlier stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, is right in saying that the reference at paragraph 5 on page 17 of the agreement refers to considering draft legislation referred to by the new Assembly. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised a similar question about the meaning of draft legislation. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and I agree that draft legislation refers to Bills.

According to the agreement, the Assembly must refer the draft legislation. Until the legislation has been introduced, the Assembly does not have any knowledge of Bills. We believe that the existing provision fairly and accurately reflects the agreement.

There is no reason why at an earlier stage the views of the commission should not be taken. I can give an example of our intention, which has already been announced, about the freedom of information Bill. We have already undertaken in the early part of next year to send the proposals to the relevant committee in another place. If on occasions that is thought appropriate, it is a matter of good working practice, and I do not believe that we ought to prescribe it in statute. I repeat that the agreement is talking about the Assembly being the referring body, not the executive committee.

Clause 65(4) already provides that:

    "The Commission shall advise the Assembly whether a Bill is compatible with human rights".
That is already an obligation. In response to the specific question from the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, it seems to me that under Clause 65(4)(b) the commission has a very wide discretion indeed. It provides that:

    "The Commission shall advise the Assembly whether a Bill is compatible with human rights ... on such other occasions as the Commission thinks appropriate".
It seems to me that it would be an organic growth depending on how matters develop within the commission.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, asked whether there are likely to be lawyers on the commission. To the gratification of all lawyers present and to the deep gloom of those who are not lawyers, the answer is probably yes. Obviously, the Secretary of State will be looking for people with relevant expertise.

If the executive committee on every occasion had to take the advice of the commission, that could lead to delays, particularly if the commission were rather slow in coming up with its advice. We would of course expect the Assembly to take into account the commission's advice. I believe that it is counter-productive to have an over-strict requirement in statute.

Amendment No. 90 also allows the commission to make public its advice. We believe that is already covered in Clause 65(9), which makes it quite plain that the commission may decide to publish its advice.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, if he would not mind my observing it, has gone a good deal further than the ambit of this amendment. I understand

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him to require the rights of those who are disabled to be taken into account. The amendments are not to deal with that matter; they deal with the stage at which the commission's view should be taken.

We believe that we have got the balance about right. There is an obligation on the Assembly, which reflects the agreement, that it does not stop any earlier advice being taken in the kind of way that advice is sometimes taken from the Law Commission in this country, but we do not believe that it ought to be prescriptive.

Lord Renton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, surely he must bear in mind that Clause 11(4) and Clause 65 refer to human rights only. However, as I understand the intention of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, they wish to ensure that the commission scrutinises legislation in the broad not only from the human rights point of view but from the point of view of whether it is well drafted and whether a great deal of time would be taken up in proving the drafting if it went to the Assembly. Surely, the issue is broader than the human rights one, is it not?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is how I had understood the matter. Clause 11(4) requires standing orders to be made requiring the Presiding Officer to send a copy of each Bill to the Human Rights Commission. However, Clause 65 refers only to the adequacy and effectiveness in Northern Ireland of practice relating to the protection of human rights.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, perhaps I may assist my noble friend. It grieves me to reject so generous an offer from the noble Lord, Lord Renton, but we are talking about a human rights commission. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, we are drawing on its expertise. I would not have it in mind that it should advise on matters such as draftmanship and the time taken by the process; only on matters of human rights.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, as always, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell. That is what I had understood and that is the way I made my response.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. As so frequently happens when one initiates a debate, it takes on a life of its own. One is given all kinds of ideas which were not in one's head at the outset.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that on these matters it is good to have expert advice which may not otherwise be available either to the Executive or to the Assembly, and that it is better to have it as early as possible in the process.

My noble friend Lord Williams, in what was something of a disappointing reply, said that one should not impose an obligation on the Executive to take this advice in relation to every Bill. My experience is that one thinks that one does not require advice in precisely

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those instances where one most requires it. I should have thought it would be much better to say that every Bill should be submitted to the commission.

I take the two points made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope; first, that there is a difficulty about the words "in draft". I should not go to the stake for the words "in draft". It is important that the advice should be taken at an early stage in the process and before people have gone public.

The other point which the noble Lord made is as regards the volume of work which may be generated for the commission. I was one of those in Committee who said that we must not impose too heavy a volume of work on the commission. I certainly believe that it should be in control of its own timetable. For that reason, I should not impose any obligation on the commission to respond in the case of every Bill. It is a matter for the commission to decide what are its priorities. But I see no difficultly in the commission making public the fact that in a particular case it had not had an opportunity to consider the matter. Otherwise, I see that there may be a danger that people would say that the commission had considered the Bill so it must be all right. It should be able to make that public.

That leaves the question of what we do next. I shall leave the decision to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. In a moment, I propose to ask your Lordships' leave to withdraw my amendment, leaving the matter in the hands of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. I leave this debate with a feeling that a great opportunity is being missed. I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, that this Parliament might benefit just as much from a service of this kind. It seems to me that it is a great pity that the Assembly in Northern Ireland does not have that service. For the moment, I shall not beg leave to withdraw my amendment but wait to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, says.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am sorry, I believe that the correct procedure is for my noble and learned friend Lord Archer to seek leave to withdraw his amendment at this stage.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, can then deal with his amendment. As usual, I defer to the logic of my noble friend and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hylton moved Amendment No. 91:

Page 32, line 2, leave out subsection (4) and insert--
("(4) The Executive Committee shall refer all proposed Bills to the Commission in draft before they are introduced in the Assembly.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall move the amendment formally in the hope of tempting the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, to say something more encouraging than he has been able to do so far. Secondly, I ask him to take on board the very great strength of opinion which was expressed on all sides of

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the House in favour of the two amendments. Perhaps other noble Lords may wish to take this opportunity to intervene in the debate. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I have already taken on board the sense of what the noble Lord said because I indicated that where we think it appropriate, as with the Freedom of Information Bill, we propose to send a pre-draft Bill to the appropriate committee in another place. It seems to me that if one selects appropriate Bills, one is taking on board the spirit of what the noble Lord said. I believe that I have dealt with the other matters when I responded earlier.

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