HC Deb 29 October 1992 vol 212 cc1119-20
4. Mr. Barnes

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on progress towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

The safeguarding of human rights in Northern Ireland is a matter for consideration within the current political talks. The Government believe that substantial protection for human rights is already in place, but we are of course willing to consider proposals for further strengthening.

Mr. Barnes

There is wide support in Northern Ireland for a Bill of Rights, and it seems sensible that provisions that give firm protection to individual rights, rather than limited and restricted measures which could be considered Mickey Mouse measures, should be written in almost as part of a constitution. Such measures—for example, access to solicitors for defendants—would give a solid defence to both Protestant and Catholic citizens in Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman and I agree that what matters is the reality of human rights—their substance and their enforceability. We believe that those tests are already well fulfilled in Northern Ireland. There are interesting controversies about written constitutions and written Bills of Rights. The hon. Gentleman and I know that some of the worst dictatorships have been in countries with written constitutions. What matters is the reality. The Government have an entirely open mind, and would certainly not wish to brush aside any seriously argued proposal for improvements in the human rights already established in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Ulster Unionist party has supported the introduction of a Bill of Rights since 1975? Does he agree that, if such a Bill were introduced, it should cover the whole of the United Kingdom, so that all Government Departments, no matter which part of the United Kingdom they served, were covered by it?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Yes, I am aware of the attitude and policy of the hon. Gentleman and of his party. I note that their desire is that there should be as little distinction as possible between legislation affecting Northern Ireland and that affecting the rest of the United Kingdom, for reasons that I entirely understand. There are certain arguments about a Bill of Rights which go in the other direction and they have been ventilated in the House in recent debates. I fully understand what the hon. Gentleman says. He knows that his viewpoint is represented in the present talks.