HC Deb 20 June 1973 vol 858 cc788-99

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

I beg to move Amendment No. 65, in page 11, line 21, leave out subsection (1) and insert: '(1) Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, as amended before the commencement of this Act, shall apply to any Measure or any relevant subordinate instrument as it applies to any Act of Parliament of Northern Ireland'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this amendment I understand that it will be convenient for the Committee to discuss Amendment No. 64, in Schedule 6, page 36, line 7, leave out 'to' and insert 'and'.

Mr. English

It may be convenient if I begin with some reference to Amendment No. 64. It relates to Schedule 6. In that Schedule there are about 340 separate repeals.

Perhaps I might say in passing that I hope that the Minister will convey to the parliamentary draftsmen that in this case the results of their normal practices have been of the utmost inconvenience to hon. Members. I am aware that it is customary to set out repeal schedules in such a way that when a measure is passed someone can note up all preceding legislation simply by running through the repeal schedule. If we printed our Bills in the way in which the Americans do and reprinted all the provisions being altered by a repeal schedule, it would be simple. But the result of the practice adopted here has in this case been that the Library has had to do a colossal amount of work on my behalf to produce copies of the provisions proposed to be repealed.

The majority of the repeals are purely technical. In most cases an Act of Parliament has been passed some time after 1920 which adds to the powers of the Parliament in Northern Ireland. By this Bill we are getting rid of that Parliament and replacing it with an Assembly which is to have rather different powers. For that reason it is necessary to repeal all these old sections in various Acts. However, hidden away there is the odd provision which in my view is of greater importance. This is where the difficulty arises. There is no mention of Schedule 6 in the Explanatory Memorandum, yet Explanatory Memoranda to Bills are intended to do exactly this job. Somewhere in the Explanatory Memorandum it should have said that Schedule 6 was primarily technical but that there were odd repeals to which attention should be drawn, and then some reference should have been made to them.

In the schedule the second repeal proposed relates simply to Sections 4 to 6 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Amendment 64 proposes that Sections 4 and 6 should be repealed.

I wish to question the Minister about Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. I say that I wish to question him because we are in Committee and, should I catch your eye, Mr. Mallalieu, I could no doubt speak again. Why is Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 being repealed?

Section 5 of that Act provides: In the exercise of their power to make laws under this Act neither the Parliament of Southern Ireland"— those last six words are later deleted by amendment— nor the Parliament of Northern Ireland shall make a law so as either directly or indirectly to establish or endow any religion, or prohibit or restrict the free exercise thereof, or give a preference, privilege, or advantage, or impose any disability or disadvantage, on account of religious belief or religious or ecclesiastical status, or make any religious belief or religious ceremony a condition of the validity of any marriage, or affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending the religious instruction at that school, or alter the constitution of any religious body except where the alteration is approved on behalf of the religious body by the governing body thereof, or divert from any religious denomination the fabric of cathedral churches, or, except for the purpose of roads, railways, lighting, water, or drainage works, or other works of public utility upon payment of compensation, any other property". I am aware—this is where I come to Amendment No. 65—that Clause 17(1) provides: Any Measure, any Act of the Parliament of Northern Ireland and any relevant subordinate instrument shall, to the extent that it discriminates against any person or class of persons on the ground of religious belief or political opinion, be void. But that is all it provides. If the repeal in the schedule were like others of the 340-odd repeals in that schedule, it would merely have been repealed because, roughly speaking, it was being replaced by some other provision in the Bill or because it was spent because the Assembly would not have a power that, for example, the old Parliament of Northern Ireland had.

The words in Section 5 of the 1920 Act now being repealed are much more extensive than the words in Clause 17(1). I did not read the whole of Section 5. It further provides: Any law made in contravention of the restrictions imposed by this subsection shall, so far as it contravenes those restrictions, be void. I am aware that the last part was modified by a later Act. Nevertheless, the earlier part is still the law until the Bill is passed. It seems to me that Section 5 of the 1920 Act is much wider than Clause 17(1). Therefore, I wish to ask: why, in effect, is the Assembly being given more power relating to matters religious than the old Parliament of Northern Ireland had?

As we all know, discrimination is a difficult matter in itself. The old section, to take one example, prohibits the endowment of any religion. The new one merely prohibits discrimination. Therefore, if somebody in the Assembly wanted to pour out money on the Churches of Ireland presumably, provided two-thirds was given to the Presbyterian Church and only one-third to the Catholic Church, he would now be entitled to do so because it could be argued that that is not discriminatory, whereas the old section would have prohibited that from being done.

Furthermore, the old section totally prohibited the Parliament of Northern Ireland from preventing a child attending a school receiving public money without attending the religious instruction at that school. It may be that we want completely secular education in Northern Ireland, but if we do, I do not think that the argument should be hidden away in a schedule containing about 340 technical repeals. This is an important subject. Hon. Members, and people in Northern Ireland, have varying views on it. But whatever one's view on a particular point, the matter should not be dealt with by being tucked away in a repeal schedule as though it did not matter.

I do not wish to press the point, but I should have thought that religion went to the heart of the difficulties of Northern Ireland. The Belfast Telegraph once did a poll among the people of Northern Ireland and found that two-thirds of the community, both Protestant and Catholic were in favour of desegregating education in Northern Ireland. It is a subject on which people have varying views, and it is an important matter.

I do not wish to press this unduly, but I wish the Minister to explain why he is making this change. I have suggested in my Amendment 65 that he should keep Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. I have not heard any criticism of it. We need a provision such as one finds here prohibiting discrimination, but Section 5 of the 1920 Act does much more than that. It prohibits not only discrimination but also a whole series of other things, including taking away the property of Churches without compensation.

After all, by 1920 there had been a long period during the nineteenth century when education in Ireland had been discussed at almost inordinate length under grave difficulties due to the attitudes of Churches of all faiths. The Members of the House who then passed that section had a considerable knowledge of all the things that it was necessary to put in a section of that character, and they put them in. It seems to me that now we are quietly weakening the provisions of that section.

I wonder whether the Minister can possibly explain why this is being done. There may be a good explanation for it but I, and, I think, possibly others, would like to hear what it is and why it is being done in this rather covert way.

Captain Orr

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) has raised an interesting point. I am sure that there must be a good explanation for this. It appears that by substituting the words in the Bill for Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 we are saying that we are removing the obligation not to discriminate in favour of something, and that all we are saying is that the authorities shall not discriminate against.

I do not know whether that is the effect of the change, or whether the answer lies in Clause 20, with a standing commission, but I cannot imagine that discrimination by any authority in Northern Ireland in favour of one sect or religion would not be caught under the Bill as drafted. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on an interesting point, and I agree that we should have been told more about this rather than have it put into a schedule in this way.

Mr. Peter Mills

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). I think that the best thing for me to do to begin with is to set out the effect of Amendment No. 64.

If the amendment were accepted, the effect would be to remove Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 from the list of provisions repealed by Schedule 6. Amendment No. 65 would apply the provisions of Section 5, which prohibit legislation which discriminates on the grounds of religion, to measures of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in place of the prohibition on religious and political discrimination which is made in Clause 17(1).

Clause 17(1) gives effect to the Government's undertaking in paragraph 95 of the White Paper to embody in the Constitution Bill safeguards against religious or political discrimination in the use of the Assembly's law making powers. Both this undertaking, and the provision of Clause 17(1), refer to the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of political opinion as well as on the grounds of religious belief. Section 5(1) of the 1920 Act, which the hon. Member wishes to retain, prohibited discrimination only on grounds of religious belief.

Mr. English

I agree that there is a flaw in the amendment, but it was a probing amendment. I am entirely happy to retain Clause 17(1) as well as Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. In relation to religion, Section 5 appears to be a wider section.

Mr. Peter Mills

I hope the hon. Member will let me finish, as this is a rather technical point. I hope that in the end I will convince him. Section 5(1) of the 1920 Act prohibited discrimination only on the grounds of religious belief. Clause 17(1) goes much wider and brings in the political provision. The Government feel that this is an important extension. While there has been a tendency in some places to identify religious belief with political opinion in Northern Irleand, a great number of allegations of discrimination refer to discrimination based on political rather than on religious grounds.

The hon. Member argued that Clause 17(1) is narrower than Section 5(1) on the matter of religion. It is certainly shorter. There is no point in my reading out Section 5(1) but what the hon. Member read out was correct. These words spell out the concept of religious discrimination in some detail but it is not considered, on analysis, that they prohibit anything which would not be prohibited by the much simpler and shorter wording of Clause 17(1) which provides that any measure shall be void … to the extent that it discriminates against any person or class of persons on the ground of religious belief or political opinion …". Thus we have compressed the words of Section 5(1) in Clause 17(1) but it is at least as wide in relation to religion. The hon. Member need have no fear; this adequately covers the point.

We shall have to reject these amendments because as drafted Clause 17(1) is shorter and simpler. This is important. Unlike Section 5(1), it prohibits political as well as religious discrimination. I can assure the hon. Member that we feel strongly that the words in the Bill cover the point about religion but adds to it and strengthens it because there is a political ground as well.

Mr. McMaster

There is one point on which I am not clear. My hon. Friend will be aware that in the past substantial grants have been given to Roman Catholic Church schools in Northern Ireland. What would be the position on such grants and assistance under this provision? Would they fall foul of subsection (1) in that they may be interpreted as discrimination against Protestants and other religions? How can grants be given in favour of one particular class of school and not in favour of others?

Mr. Peter Mills

With great respect, I do not think that we can accept what my hon. Friend says. I do not think that that is discrimination.

Mr. English

I am grateful to the Minister. I entirely accept his point about political opinion, and for that reason I will not press the amendment, but I would ask him to have another look at my point about religion. On religion alone, the provision has been changed although I accept that the antidiscrimination provision is wider since political opinion has been added.

As one example out of many, although Section 5 of the 1920 Act did not prohibit the giving of money to Church schools, it did prohibit the giving of money to Churches. The Clause does not prohibit the giving of money to Churches but says that one must not discriminate. How would that be ensured? Would one count heads or Church buildings? There is a difference here. Possibly, in struggling through these provisions—the draftsmen must have had a hell of a job—someone may have regarded this as an identical provision, when it is not.

I ask the Minister to take this back and to ask the lawyers whether they are absolutely sure that there is no change that we would regard as politically undesirable that has been brought about by change in the wording. I should be happy if that sort of inquiry were instituted. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would be well aware of the political point if one were brought to his attention, but there seems to be a slight difference. Would the Minister have another look at this?

Mr. Peter Mills

A very short answer for once—yes.

Mr. English

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Stratton Mills

This is probably the appropriate time to raise a small but important point. The heading on page 24 of the White Paper was "A Charter of Human Rights". I believe that it was envisaged that there would be some form of charter. This may be a misunderstanding of the White Paper, but it is a belief that was widely held.

It will also be recalled that a number of the parties who made submission to Darlington and at various other stages included this suggestion in their proposals. It is fairly generally accepted by the parties in Northern Ireland that there should be some codification or charter relating to human rights. This has not been included in the Bill, although a number of specific aspects of the subject have been dealt with. I should be grateful to know my right hon. Friend's thinking on this point.

Mr. Molyneaux

I am tempted to ask why it was thought necessary to extend this provision to include discrimination on grounds of political opinion. We would all accept that no one should be hampered in his career, or in obtaining employment, by his political opinions, but if the meaning of "political opinion" is to be wide enough to include, for example, those who might support organisations that use violence to obtain political ends, it is reasonable to expect employers in sensitive key areas to be permitted to exercise some discretion at least about the department in which they would employ such people. I am drawing the distinction between political opinion and what might be termed membership of, for example, some form of militant body expressing views or openly adhering to views which we, in the context of this place, would regard as other than political.

Secondly, we have rather got away from the spirit of the Government of Ireland Act, which made it illegal to discriminate in favour of any person on grounds of religion. This is not as far fetched as it may seem. At present I have a problem concerning a Jewish constituent who has been refused an educational grant. Although such grants are freely given in Great Britain, my constituent, being a resident of Northern Ireland, is barred by the relevant section of the Government of Ireland Act, simply because he wishes to attend a Jewish college specialising in Jewish religious education. It seems monstrously unfair.

It will be every bit as destructive if we push the pendulum too far the other way, saying that because there are four people of one religion in a particular department another religion should be represented. Then, whether or not replacements are of the same calibre, one feels that at all costs some kind of balance has to be preserved. Here is discrimination in favour of a particular religion. One suspects that this kind of thing is happening a great deal, and we should be very reluctant to encourage it.

Captain Orr

We are dealing with the question of measures or Acts of Parliament of Northern Ireland. We are substituting for Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act these shorter words. Section 5 of that Act was never invoked. Throughout its long history the Parliament of Northern Ireland never passed legislation of any kind that contravened Section 5 of that Act. Nor, I believe, would the Assembly ever want to pass any kind of discriminatory Bill.

The vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland have no wish to discriminate against their neighbours on grounds of religion or political opinion—although I share the doubts of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) about that phrase.

I want to put it on record—this is as good a place as any to do that—that the vast majority of our people have every wish to treat any man who wishes to obey the law with the same kind of equality of treatment before the law, whatever his religion. Anything else is unthinkable. One would almost hope that the part of the Bill with which we are dealing is unnecessary. I should not oppose its being put in to enshrine a principle, but knowing the Ulster people as I do and knowing the kind of people who will be elected to the Assembly, I profoundly believe that it is not necessary.

Mr. Whitelaw

I follow the point made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr). I am glad to associate myself with his belief that these provisions, which we are right to have in the Bill, nevertheless will not have to be invoked. I trust that that is so and I note what my hon. and gallant Friend has said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) asked about a charter of human rights. We believe that the various measures which we have introduced in the Bill and, as I shall say, further in the area of discrimination in private employment, taken together with the various other safeguards such as the commissioner for complaints, and so on, add up to a charter of human rights if considered in the round.

On the point about discrimination in private employment, the committee under my hon. Friend the Minister of State has completed its report, which will be published. The report has the unanimous backing of the employers and the trade unions in Northern Ireland, and I should like to thank my hon. Friend and all those who took part in the Committee with him for the way in which they have worked. The report will be published and we have undertaken to legislate on the basis of it. That is another measure that goes towards a charter of human rights. It is welcome not because it stems from our seeking in any way to impose it but because it comes from the employers and trade unions in the Province.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. McNamara

May I raise two points here so that I may avoid having to make a speech? First, we regret that the Government did not feel it possible to produce a completely new charter. We believe that a charter such as that might have had great political importance. On the Secretary of State's second point, about joint agreement between employers and trade unions in Northern Ireland and, more particularly, the legislation that will flow from it, we are delighted with what he has said. From the Opposition side of the House we hope that there will not need to be any further speeches on the remaining clauses, until we reach Clause 20.

Mr. Whitelaw

Whether a collection of individual measures adds up to a charter or whether the charter, specifically produced as such, is the right approach, is a point for argument, but there is no disagreement about the principle of that charter. We believe that that is the best way to proceed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) made an appropriate point about violence. The answer lies in Clause 23(3) and (4). He will notice, for example, that subsection (4) provides that A certificate purporting to be signed by or on behalf of the Secretary of State and certifying that an act specified in the certificate was done for the purpose of safeguarding national security shall be conclusive evidence that it was done for that purpose. That covers the points about violence, and it is clear and correct. There are clearly cases where there is no question but that it would be right, under such a provision, to discriminate against someone known to be connected with violence, in order to prevent his taking up a position that would be prejudicial to national security.

On the point about my hon. Friend's Jewish constituent, if he would care to refer the case to me or to one of my Ministers we should be glad to look into it.

Mr. Molyneaux

That is a real breakthrough. I have been fighting this case for two years and I have been stonewalled by Ministers in Stormont and in this House.

Mr. Whitelaw

It is dangerous that on the spur of the moment I seem to have offered to do something that has caused considerable difficulty in the past. If, ultimately, I have to join the stonewallers I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that it will be for a good reason.

On that basis, I think that the points that have been made on the clause have been properly and, I hope, reasonably answered, and that the House will therefore be prepared to agree to the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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