HC Deb 11 June 1976 vol 912 cc1936-41
Rev. Ian Paisley

I beg to move Amendment No. 11 in page 4, line 37, after 'manner", insert 'otherwise than by oath'.

In Committee there was quite a lengthy debate upon this issue. I deal first with the general issue of how the agency will work. I thought it would be the mind of the Government that the agency would work by persuasion rather than by compulsion. I thought that was their attitude towards this type of legislation. I thought that the agency, by consultation, by hearing the views of the employer and listening to the views put forward by employees, would seek to conciliate and to bring forward an amicable arrangement, generally seeking to be helpful to both employer and employee.

In the debate in Committee my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) made a lengthy speech on that theme. He pointed out that as the Bill stands wide powers seem to be given in what is not a very clear directive. Clause 7(2)(a) state that the agency may require a declarant, as a condition of remaining on the register, to reaffirm at such intervals and in such manner as the Agency may determine". That can be widely interpreted. Under the clause the agency could come to a place of business every week, or every day, and say "We want you to affirm again whether you are standing by the declaration".

It was suggested in Committee that the agency might even be entitled to ask the person to affirm in the form of an oath. I find that peculiar. Although some hon. Members are prepared in the House to affirm by oath their loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen, they carry out a campaign against such an oath in any legislative assembly that might be set up in Northern Ireland.

A firm commitment was made by the former Minister of State in Committee. I pay tribute to him for the work he did in Northern Ireland, and it would be churlish not to say that we wish him well in the Government office he now holds. He said: If we are talking about an oath in the ultimate definition, there is a legal oath that is taken and which would stand up in a court of law. I want to make it absolutely clear that an oath will not he asked for, either legal or otherwise."—[Official Report, Standing Committee H, 16th March 1976; c. 204.] That is a clear and unambiguous statement. The Minister of State was discriminating between an oath that would stand up in a court of law and an affirmation that would not. We feel that it should be written into the Bill that there is to be no oath, because the courts decide the eventual interpretation of an Act of Parliament. We want the solemn promise given by the Minister on that occasion to be written into the Bill. We are being reasonable and simply asking for what has already been promised to us by the Government, and I hope that the Minister will accede to our request.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) quoted the clear pledge given by the previous Minister of State to me in Committee on 16th March. We should like to be satisfied that full statutory effect is given to that pledge. If the Minister can satisfy us, well and good. If not, I feel that he should accept the amendment.

Mr. Concannon

As the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, my right hon. Friend the former Minister of State gave an unequivocal answer. He also said: What my hon. Friend said last week was right, but the Government have looked at the situation, and if the right hon. Gentleman meant a legal oath, or that an oath would be taken, the straight answer to that is 'No.' "—[Official Report, Standing Committee H, 16th March 1976; c. 203.] We have considered this in depth and we were still, at 9.30 a.m. today, before we knew which amendments would be selected, pondering how we could facilitate my right hon. Friend's unequivocal answer. My advice, as late as this morning—we thought that we might possibly have to write this into the Bill—is that the amendment is wholly unnecessary, because legislation is always drafted on the basis that an oath can never be required without express statutory expression that it should be. It was put to us in Committee that we should not do anything that is unnecessary.

In all other legislation an oath can be called for only if it is specifically written into the Bill. We have checked that, and it is so. If an oath were required, it would have to be written into the Bill. The fact that it is not written into the Bill means that the oath cannot be called for, and that expressly covers my right hon. Friend's commitment.

Mr. Fitt

Even after the clarification given by the Minister of State, I still have doubts. Clause 7(2)(a) gives power to the agency to: require a declarant, as a condition of remaining on the register, to reaffirm, at such intervals and in such manner as the Agency may determine, his intention to adhere to the Declaration; That might be taken to mean that the agency may decide to administer an oath. The Minister of State said that for the oath to be lawful a provision would have to be written into the Bill.

I have great regard for the integrity of the former Minister of State, who piloted the Bill through Committee, and I know that his intention was that no oath should be administered. There is a clear distinction between tribunals and courts. In a court it is likely that an oath will be administered, but in a tribunal the oath is taken only on certain occasions.

If the Minister of State is quite clear that in no circumstances will an oath be administered, I cannot support the amendment.

Mr. Powell

My experience with this problem is a good illustration of the way in which at each stage the Government have directed their minds to points brought forward. The point was raised in Committee whether "manner" could include an oath. The then Minister of State said that it could not include a legal oath but, upon further consideration, he said that it was not intended to include either a legal oath or an oath in any sense. The Government were satisfied of the desirability of clarifying the matter upon the face of the Bill.

It so happens, fortunately, that the drafting of the Bill, according to legal advice, excludes an oath in any natural sense of that term. Therefore, our object has been achieved and, no doubt, my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) will ask the leave of the House to withdraw the amendment.

Perhaps I may add that advice received half-an-hour or so before a Minister comes in to face a Committee or Report stage is sometimes a little hurried. In saying that I mean no disrespect to anyone. I have personal experience, as have other hon. Members, of the extraordinary pressure of being confronted with pages of amendments, to any of which one may have to reply in an hour or two's time.

If on further investigation it should transpire that there is any doubt about the advice which has been given, there are, even at this stage, steps within the Government's competence which could be taken to put it right. I am not seek- ing to elicit any commitment from the Minister, and my words in Hansard should not be treated as such, but I thought it fair in the light of what he disclosed to the House, to include that caveat.

1.30 p.m.

Mr. Concannon

We did not receive the advice as late as at 9.30 this morning. We have had the advice for some time. We were merely making absolutely certain that we were fitting the Bill to what my right hon. Friend the former Minister of State said about it. We now think that everything is right.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I listened carefully to what the Minister of State said. In view of his statement that, except when there is a clear provision that an oath is required, no oath can be required, I am satisfied. This completely answers the statement which was made by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) that the agency could not take it upon itself to require an oath: it would have no statutory authority for so doing. It is clear on the present wording of the Bill that no oath will be required and no attempt will be made to administer the oath as part of the agency's policy. In view of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Concannon

I beg to move Amendment No. 14, in page 5, line 21, after '(b)' insert '(i) or'.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may take Government Amendments Nos. 15 and 16.

Mr. Concannon

The purpose of the amendments is to provide a right of appeal against the removal under the provisions of Clause 7(2)(b)(i) of a declarant's name from the Register of Equal Opportunity Employers and Organisations.

The Bill as drafted already provides a right of appeal against the removal of a declarant's name under Clause 7(2)(b)(iii), where the declarant is found to have acted in a manner inconsistent with adhering to the declaration. In Committee the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) proposed that provision should be made for an appeal against removal under Clause 7(2)(b)(i) in order to prevent the agency from having unrestricted powers to require a declarant's reaffirmation under Clause 7(2)(a).

It will be understood that these amendments achieve that object. Having just promised to consider one amendment and having not been able to meet hon. Members on another, it is very pleasant for me to come to amendments which fulfil a promise which was given in Committee.

Mr. Powell

This is a genuine improvement which the Government have agreed to make. The power of the agency once a declaration has been made to insist upon a reaffirmation is a tricky matter, anyhow, and potentially lends itself—I make no imputations against the agency; but, after all, we are legislating—to unreasonable or oppressive courses. It was appropriate that a right of appeal against unreasonable exercise of that power should be given. My hon. Friends and I are grateful to the Government for having accepted the point.

Mr. Neave

We, too, support these amendments, which meet the objections we made in Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

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