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Lord Laird: My Lords, I agree with the substance of much of what has been said by noble Lords today, but

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would not the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, be prepared to say that it is better for the human rights commission to have an open agenda where people can receive information about it, rather than to have to drag information out of it line by line in Parliamentary Questions? Does he agree that it is important that the human rights commission should look after both sections of the community, not one?

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I believe that it should look after both sections of the community and those citizens who are members of neither. I also believe that it should work with openness. The noble Lord, Lord Laird, would have been better advised first to approach the commission with his questions rather than to ask formal Parliamentary Questions. That is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It would have been more appropriate to approach the commission in the first instance and, if he was unhappy, then to ask Parliamentary Questions.

I am not despairing about the work of the commission. It is one of the many agencies which is still finding its way in Northern Ireland. We could have a debate about all kinds of shortfalls in terms of the pure canons of democracy in Northern Ireland, but there is no particular merit in singling out the human rights commission at this stage.

8.14 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for introducing the debate and all noble Lords who have contributed to it.

The Conservative Party has opposed the 1998 Act since it was first introduced into Parliament. We do not believe that the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights is the best way to protect British citizens. We believe that Parliament rather than unelected judges are best placed to protect our rights and that the Human Rights Act will drag the judiciary into the political arena. Having said that, we recognise that human rights and equality lie at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. We should be concerned to ensure that that is where they stay.

It is a pity that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission started life in the way it did. It was not unlike another organisation which was in a parallel situation. I do not need to name the organisation; we all know what I am talking about—a brilliant academic in charge but consisting of a group of people less than ideally suited to do an immensely difficult task who were chosen by someone similar to that description.

We very much welcome the fact that Her Majesty's Government have now acknowledged some shortcomings and that they have altered to some extent its constitution and those people who serve on the commission. I am not certain that it was wise to completely reappoint the whole commission. I am not here to knock the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, even though I may sound as if I am doing so, but it is impossible to argue against the fact that it has received a serious amount of criticism.

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The commission has brought some of that criticism upon its own head because of the tactless and insensitive way in which it has set out to do its job. For example, it has not shied away from controversial issues. It tried to prevent the BBC "Panorama" programme about Omagh; told unionists that they had no absolute right to parade; unsuccessfully tried to intervene in judicial proceedings; criticised the Northern Ireland schools transfer system for breaching human rights; called on the Police Service of Northern Ireland to stop using plastic bullets; and claimed that British security forces colluded with loyalist paramilitaries to murder Belfast lawyer, Pat Finucane. What a wonderful way to make itself popular and win the confidence of the people. Would I set about it that way? I would not. All of its jobs needed to be done, but what an unfortunate way to go about it.

Let me turn now to the question of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's Bill of Rights. Sadly, coming from a number of eminent people, this should have been a serious work. It should have taken a considerable amount of time to produce because, however brilliant you are, you cannot put together a Bill of Human Rights in a short space of time. However, I welcome the fact that an extension to the consultation period has been agreed and that we now have until December 2002.

It is useful to have these debates. Most noble Lords in the Chamber know the facts fairly well. I hope and believe that Her Majesty's Government know them equally well and realise how important it is to correct a number of matters.

I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord a few questions. Do Her Majesty's Government propose to legislate for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland in the near future? If so, do they see a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as being different from one for England and Wales? Or do they believe—as I hope they do—that a Bill of Rights should incorporate all parts of the United Kingdom? If there were to be a Bill for Northern Ireland, what part would Her Majesty's Government see the Government of the Republic playing in drafting a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?

Finally, do Her Majesty's Government consider that those who constitute the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission are the right people to draw up a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I believe I heard him criticise the human rights commission for declaring that loyalists had no absolute right to march. In the noble Lord's view, does anyone have an absolute right to march?

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that. I agree that nobody has an absolute right to march. The point I was making was that it was a tactless, unnecessary and provocative statement at the time.

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8.20 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss these matters. I want to make it quite plain that the human rights commission in Northern Ireland is an independent body. It is not subject to approval or disapproval by me, nor to any control by any of my colleagues. That is the key to it. After all, what was the Belfast agreement about? In paragraph 5 on human rights there was an undertaking that a new commission would be set up to include keeping under review the adequacy and effectiveness of laws and practices, making recommendations to government as necessary, providing information and promoting awareness of human rights, considering draft legislation referred to it by the new Assembly and in appropriate cases bringing court proceedings or providing assistance to individuals doing so. As noble Lords have said, that was put into effect in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by virtue of Section 68 and following and Schedule 7 to that Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked me whether the Government intend to legislate to bring a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland into effect. I make it quite plain that we shall not make any policy decision on that until advice is received from the commission and we have considered it with great care. There is one matter which needs clarification. The draft Bill of Rights in the consultative document is exactly that. It seems to me to be a tenable stance that if one wants consultation about a Bill of Rights it is very difficult to do that in the abstract. I may be wrong, but as I understand it, what the commission has done is to put out for full consultation a draft model which might serve as the basis for discussion. It seems to me, whether one agrees with the draft or not, that is a rational and prudent way of approaching this problem.

It was said that a background briefing had been sent out and that is so. I received one myself. I glanced through some of the correspondence. On 16th August 2001, Professor Dickson wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, saying,

    "Could I please remind you of my letter of 4 May 2001. I offered an invitation at the end of that letter to which I have not yet received a reply".

Following through the correspondence, on 24th October 2001, Professor Dickson wrote again to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, saying what they had been doing. A number of questions were raised this evening about what support had been given to various victims. If one casts an eye quite briefly—I know that my time is limited—at that letter, it states that the commission,

    "helped the relatives of the Omagh bomb in the following ways:"

I am having to be selective and I will go to some highlights:

    "providing advice, at a specially organised meeting in Omagh, on what rights the relatives would have at the inquest . . . by advising HM Coroner that it was consistent with international human rights standards for him to make available to the relatives in advance of the inquest information supplied to the police about the killings".

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That is quite an important step forward from what relatives normally have, or used to have, before the rules were changed in coroners' courts in England and Wales. The letter continues,

    "by applying to intervene in the inquest to make known the Commission's views on what the scope of the inquest should be . . . by applying for judicial review"—

this was mentioned—

    "to stop the BBC from broadcasting . . . Panorama in which the Commission (and some-but not all-of the relatives) felt individuals were being improperly tried by the media rather than by a court of law; . . . considering whether to grant assistance for a civil action in relation to the atrocity".

That is something which is very much alive at the moment. The commission said,

    "(a step we have not been able to take given our limited resources)".

That does not display to me an indifference towards the suffering of victims.

There were other steps. I stress that I have been selective, but not unfairly so, by way of assistance. It seems to me that if these letters are accurate—I see no counter to any of these assertions in any of the correspondence that is capable of disputing some of the allegations made this evening: but it is a matter for others to judge, not me, because it is an independent commission.

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