HC Deb 11 June 1976 vol 912 cc1929-36
Mr. Moyle

I beg to move Amendment No. 10, in page 4, line 24, at end insert: '(3) The Declaration shall be in the form set out in Schedule (Declaration of Principle and Intent) or in such other form to the like effect as the Agency specifies as being appropriate for any particular declarant.'

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we shall take Government Amendment No. 82.

Mr. Moyle

We reach the stage in the Bill where the Government were defeated in Standing Committee. The defeat was designed to remove subsection (3) of the clause, but the true attack at that stage was not on this fairly innocuous wording but on the schedule attached to it. It is accepted that employers will be asked to make a declaration in the form of the schedule as a way of obtaining the appropriate certificate issued by the Fair Employment Agency.

I hope that in restoring subsection (3) we shall not be regarded as ignoring the setback we suffered in Committee but that attention will be focused on the declaration set out in the new schedule. I hope it will be agreed that we have gone a long way to meet the points made by Opposition Members about the schedule.

The wording has been tautened considerably. It means that unfair discrimination and equality of opportunity are now spoken of in terms specifically in these provisions as defined by the Acts rather than as generalised philosophical principles. I hope that this will lead to greater clarity in the administration of the Bill when it is passed and that the amendments will be accepted.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

We very much welcome the response of the Minister of State to the defeat which the Government suffered in Standing Committee. The hon. Gentleman has throughout been courteous and helpful to hon. Members who have been seeking to improve the Bill. The new schedule setting out the revised declaration of principle and intent is an improvement on the original.

One of the points that were made from this side in Committee was that it was quite wrong to ask a citizen to enter into an undertaking or sign a declaration that he would not break the terms of a statute. Therefore, although I applaud the improvement in the wording, I should much prefer the word "letter" to be taken out in the second line of the draft declaration so that it would run according to the spirit of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976 rather than that reference to the letter of the statute should be there incorporated.

The Government's amendment will allow the agency to prescribe an alternative form to that which is in the schedule. I hope that the point I have made will be considered by the Minister of State and that appropriate action will be taken in the agency, because it can no longer be taken in this House.

1 p.m.

Mr. Powell

It is wonderful what a salutary effect a defeat from time to time can have upon an Administration. I hope that that observation will not be ill taken by Ministers who, in this instance, have been very sensitive to the criticisms advanced of the previous wording of the schedule and have been extremely cooperative in arriving at wording to satisfy the scruples of all concerned.

That co-operation was facilitated by the fact that there was a hole in the Bill and something had to be put in it. It is always easier to put something one wants into a hole which has been provided than to have to knock out one's own words first. The Government were assisted because they were provided with the hole. What they have implanted in it seems to have justified our objections to the schedule as originally drafted.

It is surely objectionable in any circumstances that a citizen should be asked to subscribe to a promise that he will not break the law—particularly in Northern Ireland, where far too much is said in condemnation of breaches of the law or assertion of an intention to keep the law which would be more convincing if it were unsaid.

There is a proverb, Beware of the man who says he is honest. If he is really honest, he is unlikely go round saying that he is honest. I confess to a certain uneasy feeling when I hear politicians and others in Northern Ireland condemning actions which it should go without saying that they condemn since they are breaches of the law. Unlike the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison), I think that the Government have removed that blemish entirely from the new schedule. It is not for me to form suspicions or theories about the parentage of any part of the redrafted schedule, although the adjective "taut" applied to it was a particularly apt description.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest objected to the reference to "the letter" because he said that it brought in the problem we were trying to solve and that everybody has to obey the letter of the law. However, I think that the hon. Member failed to notice another change which the Government have made in the wording of the declaration. The phrase in which "the letter" occurs qualifies the words "promote and protect".

Of course, everybody is obliged to obey the letter of the law, and we should not be asked to promise to obey the letter of the law. But we are not obliged to promote obedience to the letter of the law. No doubt the Rood citizen will seek to do so, but it is not part of his obligation.

We are asking employers in this newly-drafted schedule to do something over and above what the law requires—not merely to comply with the law themselves, but to do something in addition in promoting and protecting fulfilment of the letter and the spirit of the law. I do not believe that the objection can fairly be urged that we are requesting the citizen to make a declaration which no self-respecting person should make.

We owe a word of thanks not only to the Government as represented here today but to the previous Minister of State, who applied his mind especially to the problem of this schedule.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Only the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) could have made the speech we have just heard. He started by saying that an occasional defeat for an Administration was very salutary, but he was saying this on the Friday after the Wednesday when he and his colleagues carefully sat in their places to make sure that no such thing should occur.

Mr. Powell

Perhaps I should emphasise the word "occasional" which occurred in my statement. There is a time for all things. There is a time for defeating a Government, a time for letting them get away with it and even a time for ensuring that, if they appear to be preferable to any immediately available alternative Administration, they are able to remain in office.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that the House will allow an hon. Member who is honest and who has proclaimed his honesty to continue.

Mr. van Straubenzee

We all have our own point of view and will draw our own conclusions. No doubt there is a sense of humour in the Elysian fields, and the gods must be rolling about on the lawns in merriment.

Consider the enormous irony in the two amendments, which I hope will be passed. On the one hand we have bitter, deeply-felt opposition to the principles of the Bill and on the other hand, as an open secret which was clearly revealed to all those who can interpret these matters, the revelation that the drafting of the schedule came from the pen of the right hon. Member for Down, South. This is a central declaration. It is the wording which will strike most people most often. Yet its author is one who, morning after morning, has snapped and snarled his opposition to the Bill to which he has contributed. What a supreme irony, even though I welcome the change.

The most Catholic-hating, bigoted Protestant can sign the document without difficulty because he will consider that it comes from an honoured pen. His opposite number, who most assuredly exists—the bigoted, Protestant-hating Catholic—will think that if it is drafted by a Unionist of this sort it is safe and sound.

I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) and send good wishes to him in his new job, however short a time he and the Government may be in office. The right hon. Gentleman brought about this situation. I watched him in Committee and admired his technique. He baited his hook with the fly of compliment and cast it over the right hon. Member for Down, South, who simpered and smiled when asked whether he would give his great gifts to the drafting of some new wording. The right hon. Gentleman said that he would indeed, thinking how splendid it was that his qualities had been recognised and enshrined in an Act of Parliament. It is a supreme and splendid irony. Never mind, I simply draw attention to this fact. I am sure that these words should go in.

Had I been present in Committee, perhaps the Government would not have been defeated, although on reflection I might not have been able to help because I was operating the system called pairing which may be dimly recalled in the memory of the House.

I go along perfectly happily with the wording in question, but we must remember the source of this piece of drafting if there is opposition on Third Reading or if, regrettably, the working of the Bill is impeded. Some fairly clear hints were made when the appointment of the chairman was announced, but in parenthesis I wish Mr. Robert Cooper well. He has industrial knowledge behind him. In my view, however, it is valuable in principle for the chairman of this body to have a knowledge of the political world. I leave the matter at that. If we later find that there is deliberate and obstructive opposition, it will be necessary for us to remember that central to the Bill is an essential piece of drafting which was provided by one of those who most bitterly oppose its working.

Mr. Fitt

In Committee it was recognised by all who were in attendance that this was an essential clause. It is true to say that without the inclusion of the new schedule the Bill means nothing.

Rev. Ian Paisley


Mr. Fitt

The Bill would mean nothing if the schedule were not to be accepted. I am beginning to wonder whether we are seeing for the first time or the second time a hybrid Bill on the Floor of the House. We are really seeing hybridity in the new schedule that has been drafted with the help of the Government and the excellent pen of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell).

Is it necessary for the House to deliberate at such great length on the Bill when the public in Northern Ireland must be made aware that the whole basis of the Bill was penned by the right hon. Gentleman'? For the sake and convenience of the House, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will make quiet representations to his hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker), who has voiced such bitter and violent opposition to almost every clause both here and in Northern Ireland. In so doing he has tried to engage the enmity of employers in Northern Ireland towards every facet of this legislation.

I do not take any strong objections to the wording of the new schedule. Perhaps there are a few words here and there which differ from the schedule which was deleted, but I think that that shows the honesty of the Government. Had they wanted to re-institute the schedule as it stood, they could have done so, as we have seen by the vote this morning, without any difficulty. The Government were prepared to give up their own wording on the understanding that the new schedule would be made known in Northern Ireland, and that the person responsible for its drafting would be made known.

Mr. McCusker

The last two contributions have been particularly interesting and enlightening. I can understand the jealousy of the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), who drafted a lengthy, wordy and defective declaration of principle. I can understand the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt)—in the Irish Press this is known as Gerry Fitt's Bill—not wanting to be associated with a Bill which has a section drafted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). However, I suggest that the working of the agency and the possible success of the Bill will have nothing to do with the fact that someone will sign his name at the bottom of a declaration. Those who make that suggestion do not do themselves justice.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Moyle

I had not intended to speak again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the debate was going reasonably well until a couple of speeches ago. Since then it has deteriorated sharply. Unfortunately, the deterioration took place more as a result of the contribution of the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) than of anything else. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman realises the possible effect of his remarks, some of which might be taken out of context and presented, among other places, in Northern Ireland.

We all know that the Bill owes a lot to the hon. Gentleman and very little to me, but I plead with him not to take from me the little bit that it owes to me. I have sat in judgment on the wording in the schedule, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have come to the conclusion that the wording meets the desirable objectives of the Bill—namely, to remove religious discrimination, in so far as that is possible, from society in Northern Ireland. The Government stand by that decision. With due respect, I am the person who has to stand at the Dispatch Box and take responsibility for the wording, and I do that.

The remarks of the hon. Member for Wokingham and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) will not assist the operation and administration of this measure when it gets on the statute book. I admit that both hon. Members concluded their remarks with words beyond criticism, but I am afraid that it is the words preceding those which may remain permanently on record in the Northern Ireland Press.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I deplore the remarks that have been made by the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) and the tone which he introduced to the debate. I deplore his remarks about hating Catholics and hating Protestants. That sort of language cannot help the situation in Northern Ireland. Further, I think that in this House anyone is entitled to express an opinion about whether an appointment to a Government body is right or proper.

I am amazed that the hon. Members for Wokingham and Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) now say that they have no objection to the wording of the new schedule. If they had some reasonable objection to the wording, I could well understand the attacks that have been made upon my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), but they now agree that the wording is all right and accept it. Therefore the arguments that they have put forward have no relevance. It seems that basically they have nothing against the amendment.

Mr. Fitt


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already spoken.

Amendment agreed to.

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