§ Mr. Corbyn
I beg to move amendment No. 199, in page 28, line 20, leave out from 'opportunity' to end of line 2 on page 29 and insert`in relation to religious belief, political opinion, race, gender, disability, language, age, marital status, dependants and sexual orientation.'.
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 179, in page 28, leave out lines 21 to 25 and insert`in relation to religion and political opinion; gender; race; disability; age; marital status; dependants; sexual orientation; and language.'.99 No. 32, in page 28, line 21, leave out from 'opinion' to end of line 22 and insert 'or racial group'.
No. 33, in page 28, line 23, leave out 'generally' and insert`as provided by law; or'.No. 34, in page 28, line 24, after 'without', insertas provided by law'.No. 35, in page 28, line 24, leave out from 'without' to end of line 25.
No. 180, in page 28, leave out lines 26 to 28.
No. 193, in page 28, line 26, after '(2)', insert`Without prejudice to its obligations under subsection (1),'.Government amendments Nos. 183, 206 and 211.
New clause 4—Duly of public authorities to publish impact statements—
New clause 5—Duty of public authorities to make arrangements to secure compliance with section 61—
- `.—(1) It shall be the duty of every public authority to prepare a statement ("Impact statement") of any significant impact that any proposed action by it may have on its ability to fulfil its duty under section 61.
- (2) It shall be the duty of every public authority to include in every impact statement information on—
- (a) the aims and purposes of the proposed action;
- (b) any significant impact that in its view the proposed action may have on its ability to fulfil its duties under section 61;
- (c) alternatives to the proposed action—
- (i) which may achieve the aims and purposes of the proposed action but which may be less likely to have an adverse effect on its ability to fulfil its duty under section 61, and
- (ii) which may achieve the aims and purposes of the proposed action but may be more likely to have the effect of enabling it to achieve better compliance with its duty under section 61;
- (d) the justification for the rejection of any alternatives identified in paragraph (c).
- (e) proposals to mitigate any unavoidable impact of the action which would be likely to have an adverse effect on its ability to fulfil its duty under section 61, by recourse to accompanying social and economic measures; and
- (f) mechanisms to monitor the impact of the action, following its introduction.
- (3) The public authority shall ensure that an impact statement is made available to the public in good time to enable effective consultation to take place by the public authority with those directly affected by the proposed decision.
- (4) The impact statement and the results of any consultations on it shall be taken into account by the public body in any subsequent decision whether to proceed with the proposed action.
- (5) Following a decision to proceed with the relevant action, the public body shall publish the decision, together with its reasons for doing so.'.
I should point out that it was decided to separate this group of amendments from the group that we have just discussed, but I thought that there was some leakage from the first debate into the debate on these amendments. I hope that, for the general convenience of the Committee, and in view of the business that we have to get through, hon. Members will have regard to that.
- —(1) It shall be the duty of every public authority to make appropriate arrangements with a view to securing that their various functions and responsibilities are carried out with due regard to the need to comply with the duty set out in section 61.
- (2) An annual report shall be laid before each House of Parliament with respect to the measures and policies adopted to advance the duty set out in section 61.
- (3) Without prejudice to subsection 2, within three years of the coming into effect of this Act, and once every five years thereafter, it shall be the duty of every public authority to review the extent to which its various functions and responsibilities are carried out with due regard to the need to comply with the duties set out in section 61.
§ Mr. Corbyn
There will be no leakage on my part, as I did not speak to the previous group of amendments. However, I understand and readily accept your point, Sir Alan.
The amendment, tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) and for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and by me, aims to simplify clause 61 considerably by omitting the bulk of it and inserting the wordsin relation to religious belief, political opinion, race, gender, disability, language, age, marital status, dependants and sexual orientation",which would make the clause rather less long-winded.
Most of the words in the amendment are included in the agreement, so we are trying to simplify the Bill accordingly. The only difference to be found in the amendment is the question of language, a subject that was raised earlier by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) in relation to English-speaking people moving to the Republic. However that, too, is covered in the agreement. On page 19, the agreement states:All participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.The amendment is an attempt to ensure that potential discrimination in many areas is dealt with, and that language is included.
As we have said, equality, respect for human rights and the ability of various institutions to cope with differences are paramount. The clause would place a requirement on the whole government apparatus in Northern Ireland to operate in a non-discriminatory way. It should not be especially difficult to accept the amendment as discrimination, and all the issues surrounding it have at various times been discussed and agreed in the UK Parliament. As I said, the only addition to the list is language. I suppose that a parallel would be the passage of the Welsh Language Act 1993.
The amendment simplifies what has already been decided in relation to the other commissions, and it adds the question of language, which is already included in the agreement. It makes a clear, simple statement that everyone can understand. As Northern Ireland progresses, we hope, to a more peaceful future, it should be clear to every citizen there and, indeed, in the Republic that any form of discrimination is wrong and unacceptable and that everyone should strive to build a non-discriminatory society. I hope that the amendment will be seen as helpful and simple.
§ Mr. Grieve
I shall speak mainly to amendments Nos. 32 to 35, but first I shall respond to the 101 hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), to whom I listened carefully. Simplification may sometimes appear to be desirable, but the amendment would make the clause read as follows:A public authority in Northern Ireland shall … have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in relation to … political opinion".It is not clear what the hon. Gentleman intends, whereas the original text makes it clear that there should be equality of opportunitybetween persons of different … political opinion".As I understand the amendment, those words would be left out. I respectfully suggest that the amendment does not make sense.
I make it clear at the outset that amendments Nos. 32 to 35 are probing amendments. We accept that there has been a vote, that a decision has been made on the basis of the agreement, and that the agreement incorporates much of what is now in the Bill. I am bound to say that the Bill raises some questions and we are seeking some answers. Clause 61 is clearly intended to go beyond simply requiring public authorities to fulfil their legal obligations. One of the problems concerns definition. Generally, we require people to obey the law, not to carry out positive duties to implement certain courses of action.
The Bill establishes various commissions. I can well understand that the Equality Commission will have a remit to promote a particular end. However, the role of a public authority—which will include the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—will be to promote that end. Clause 61 states that the promotion of equality of opportunity should bebetween persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial groupand adds:age, marital status or sexual orientation".As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) rightly said, this is the first time that sexual orientation features in that way in legislation. Again, I make no criticism; the House of Commons has voted on the matter. However, whether all the electors in Northern Ireland were fully cognisant of the way in which certain forms of political correctness would be introduced as an intention, as opposed to obedience of the law, may be an open question.
§ Mr. Corbyn
The hon. Gentleman obviously heard what I said—that the United Kingdom Parliament has already voted on the issue. Is he saying that there is something wrong with trying to end discrimination against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation? Is it wrong to introduce it in an important piece of legislation regarding the future of Northern Ireland?
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. Grieve
No, not at all. I am mindful of the fact that I participated in the debates on the incorporation of the European convention on human rights. It is reasonably well known that I am in favour of incorporation. However, the incorporation debate avoided grandiose statements. The purpose behind incorporation of the convention was to allow the principles to be established and, thereafter, the law to develop. In this case, we are 102 trying to do something different, and that is why it is important that the Government should say exactly what is meant by the Bill, line by line.
We are told to promote equality of opportunitybetween men and women generally".I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me if I ask what is meant by "generally". We are dealing with matters that are potentially the subject of dispute. The Equality Commission will apparently have input and a degree of tutelage over the way in which the legislation is operated by public authorities. It will criticise, validate and castigate public authorities for the way in which they operate. What is a public authority to make of the wordsbetween men and women generally"?What is the intention behind that phrase?
The Bill then refers to equality of opportunitybetween persons with a disability and persons without".The Secretary of State will note that to both paragraphs we seek simply to add the words "provided by law". I am sure that the hon. Member for Islington, North and the Secretary of State will agree that there is already much legislation on a United Kingdom-wide basis dealing with precisely those forms of discrimination.
Paragraph (d) refers to equality opportunitiesbetween persons with dependants and persons without.Again I ask—it is a matter worthy of clarification and some debate, as I do not see that expression included in the agreement—why that phrase has been inserted. I can understand perfectly the reason behind the generality of it, but we are doing something quite unusual. I have no doubt that, earlier, when the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was present, her enthusiasm for the legislation was in part because she saw it as going much further than ordinary human rights legislation in the United Kingdom.
Although I accept that the matter has been voted on, it calls for very close scrutiny and some answers from the Government on how they see the provisions operating in practice. We would suggest respectfully that the same aims might be achieved without quite the same detail and by adhering to the existing principles of law.
The end of the first world war saw President Wilson's 14 points. At the time they were introduced, Mr. Clemenceau said:Fourteen? The good Lord has only ten.We have to be careful about generalised expressions of intention when we are drafting legislation, especially when we are putting statutory duties on others—not just on local authorities, but on the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. If the legislation is to work, the Government must have a clear idea of how it will work in practice and what it means line by line.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
The hon. Gentleman says that he is not sure how all the issues arise, as they are not in the agreement. However, in paragraph 3 on page 16, under the heading "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity", there is a reference to dependants, so it would seem that what we are debating is very much what is in the agreement.
§ Mr. Grieve
I stand corrected. Perhaps I was misled by persons without about the word "dependants". I had 103 missed that. I appreciate the fact that the provisions have been lifted bodily from the agreement, but I had wondered whether that was so in this case.
I should be interested to hear how the Government think that the provisions will work in detail. Pious aspirations on their own are not enough.
§ Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)
As I have signed several of the amendments, I thought that perhaps I should provide some variety in the voices of those who are speaking on them. I should like to be more positive than the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). Many of us feel that the agenda on equality and human rights represents a positive way forward. I should like to refer to new clauses 4 and 5 and Government amendment No. 206. The issues were touched on in the debate on the previous group.
I particularly welcome the Government amendment to schedule 10, which will allow the Equality Commission to require a public authority to submit schemes setting out its arrangements for studies on the impact of policies. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week pointing out that impact studies were included in the Belfast agreement but did not appear in the Bill. I welcome that inclusion.
Before the Bill returns to the House in the autumn, I hope that Ministers will consider ways of strengthening it along the lines of new clause 4, specifically to incorporate a direct requirement on public bodies to examine the impact of their policies and decisions on disadvantaged groups, following Government policy on fair treatment. Putting that policy into statute would require a direct responsibility on public bodies rather than matters being dealt with only via the Equality Commission. That would help to strengthen the Bill.
§ Mr. McNamara
Paragraph 3 of the section of the agreement under "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity" says:Public bodies would be required to draw up statutory schemes showing how they would implement this obligation.There is no requirement in the Bill.
§ Judy Mallaber
I hope that that will be clarified over the summer. I also hope that the wording of the Bill will allow challenges before decisions are implemented rather than only after a decision, when the impact on disadvantaged groups has been discovered. That is another point that I raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I hope that it will be considered further.
My interest in strengthening the Bill comes from many years' experience working for my union—formerly the National Union of Public Employees, now Unison. The union has many disadvantaged members, particularly women. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran) referred to the importance of promoting gender equality. My experience from my union and from looking at other organisations is that promoting the equality agenda has helped to build bridges across community divides. I hope that that will be built on into the future as a positive way forward. The focus has always been on the rights of the disadvantaged, whatever the 104 form of their disadvantages. We should keep that focus. That is one of the strengths of having powerful equalities mechanisms.
It has been said that, in some respects, Government policy in Northern Ireland is in advance of policy in the rest of the UK. I hope that we do not now fall behind. I hope that Ministers will ensure during their summer consultation that our policies stay firm and the provisions are worded strongly.
To those to whom I have spoken, such issues are seen as fundamental building blocks of the future. It is important to get the mechanisms right. These issues are not the stuff of drama; they are about social inclusion, the consent of the excluded and putting justice and fairness at the heart of government. The fair treatment guidelines, which are embodied in practice through processes such as the impact studies, seek to deal with some of the most vulnerable groups in Northern Ireland. Bringing people together is important. The coalitions of disadvantaged groups that have developed over the years or have been formed in recent months are looking for a way forward that will take on board the issues of disadvantage. It is important that we deal with them. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) suggested that some of the issues might be put off to the future. I am not quite sure how many of those raised in today's debate should be left for future discussion. Many groups want action quickly, even if it requires much hard thinking and discussion in the coming months.
I should like to quote something that the Secretary of State said at the launch of the report of the Women Seen and Heard project in Northern Ireland, which brought together representatives of a wide range of women's groups—300 of them—under the European peace and reconciliation programme. The extraordinary range of women included young and elderly women, people with disabilities, travellers, the Chinese community and women from the toughest loyalist and nationalist areas. The Secretary of State said:The European Programme has set up the structures where women's voices can be heard. It is also a mechanism of beginning to build respect, trust and confidence between different folk around the table. What we have to do as government is to see how we can integrate these structures.The new clauses would put the onus of dealing with the structures directly on Government bodies. The provision of equality would be a duty that was placed directly at the heart of government, and the impact studies would be a direct responsibility of public authorities. New clause 5 would strengthen the requirement on public authorities to act in accordance with section 61. I see such proposals as a very positive way forward.
Will the Secretary of State say on whether such issues could be strengthened? Does she believe that new clause 4 reflects the details of schemes that would secure the Secretary of State's approval? What timetable does she expect for the submission and approval of such schemes? Will she consider making such proposals a direct responsibility of public bodies?
§ Mr. McGrady
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to amendment No. 193. It would insert the wordsWithout prejudice to its obligations under subsection (1)",so ensuring that it was a defined duty of public authorities in Northern Ireland to exercise and perform both the functions stipulated in clause 61(1) and (2).
105 Subsection (1) refers tothe need to promote equality of opportunityin the various groups that are listed in paragraphs (a) to (d), and, indeed, in amendment No. 179, to which the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) spoke. Subsection (2) refers tothe desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group.Government amendment No. 183 would change the wording "desirability of promoting" to more obligatory terminology.
Amendment No. 193 would ensure that public authorities cannot, in promoting good relations, disguise the fact if they are failing to promote equal opportunity under the various classifications in the Bill. It is simple and direct. We want section 61 of the Act to state clearly that there is an obligation on public authorities fully to perform both functions.
Amendment No. 179 is akin to amendment No. 199, but it adds the words "and language". As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said, language is an important issue. In the inter-party talks, parity of esteem was the subject of considerable discussion; it was decided that parity of esteem related not only to politics and symbolism, but to language and culture. Indeed, in recent months, we have heard much about parity of esteem from different quarters—in relation to Drumcree, for example. However, the Bill does not specify the need to promote parity of esteem in language or culture, which is an unfortunate omission, and I ask the Secretary of State to say how she proposes to introduce that important matter into the Bill.
§ Mr. Grieve
Amendment No. 179 refers to dependants, about which I asked. Does the hon. Member understand whether the reference is to persons with dependants or—as the amendment suggests—to the dependants themselves?
§ Mr. McGrady
I am referring to the dependants themselves.
My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) ably spoke about new clauses 4 and 5, and I endorse all that she said about impact statements and their aims and availability to the public. Such statements would be an important way through which to assess the impact of public authorities' actions. New clause 5 would impose a duty on all public authorities to ensure that their various functions and responsibilities were appropriately carried out, to lay a report before each House of Parliament and to review—within three years initially and then every five years—the extent of compliance. The measure would be an important weapon in the armoury to ensure that equality of opportunity is properly executed and assessed. I commend the amendments and new clauses to the Committee.
§ Mr. Öpik
I add my support to the comments that have been made about new clause 4, which I, too, believe would tighten up the Bill. New clause 5 would require public authorities to establish effective internal mechanisms for the enforcement of the equality of opportunity duty. One could argue that the Bill already requires that in spirit, but it would be helpful if that were 106 specified, especially as the Government have continually stated that their intention during consultation has been, in effect, to enact the sentiment behind the new clause.
It is sometimes too easy to forget that the decisions that we make here have a practical impact in Northern Ireland. The sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on amendment No. 199 ring true with anyone who has lived in Northern Ireland and experienced discrimination beyond the obvious.
For example, my sister experienced discrimination at school, because her name is Urve Öpik—some would say that it was even harder to pronounce than my name—and she spoke with an accent that was not Northern Irish. Amendment No. 199 is designed to ensure that people who experience such discrimination have a readily accessible recourse. It is important that the content of the Bill should be open to clear and unambiguous interpretation, because the last thing that we want to do is to put additional barriers between an individual with a grievance and the mechanisms that could help him or her to resolve it.
Amendment No. 199 is insightful and—without getting into whether its language is precisely correct—we very much support it.
§ Mr. McNamara
I do not think that there is a great difference in substance between amendments Nos. 199 and 179.
I support new clauses 4 and 5. I welcome Government amendment No. 206, but it contains a few weaknesses. Paragraph 3 of the section of the agreement headed "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity" says that the Government intendto create a statutory obligation on public authorities in Northern Ireland to carry out all their functions with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in relation to religion and political opinion; gender; race; disability; age; marital status; dependants; and sexual orientation",but—and this is the important part—it goes on to say:Public bodies would be required to draw up statutory schemes showing how they would implement this obligation.It continues:Such schemes would cover arrangements for policy appraisal, including an assessment of impact on relevant categories, public consultation, public access to information and services, monitoring and timetables.The obligation on authorities under clause 61(1), as mentioned in amendment No. 206, is not a statutory and binding obligation on those statutory or public authorities. Schedule 10 gives the commission the power, "where it thinks appropriate", torequest a public authority to make a first or revised scheme, showing how it proposes to fulfil those duties in relation to some or all of its functions.There is a power to request, but there is no statutory duty on an authority to have an impact assessment scheme. The schedule says that a public authority "shall respond" to such a request, so the matter is very much up in the air.
The Bill does not state that a public authority must create an impact assessment and gives only a discretionary power for the Equality Commission to have one. However, the agreement states that a public authority shall draw up an impact assessment. I hope that, in the 107 summer months, the Minister will resolve that question—I see his holiday in France diminishing daily because of all the matters that have come up.
§ Mr. McNamara
No, my hon. Friend the Minister does not want to evict his landlord, which in Irish terms would be a turn-up for the books and a strange twist of history.
If my hon. Friend is to meet the requirements of the Belfast agreement there has to be such a statutory obligation. I hope that, as a result of his talks and of examining what is contained within that agreement, he will read it in that way. I still believe that it would be better to accept new clauses 4 and 5, which encompass all that should be in an impact assessment and what the follow-up should be.
I have a number of questions for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about her amendments. Bearing in mind the fact that it is to be hoped that she will be coming back with something better in the autumn, what would she expect to see in the guidelines for the operation of statutory equality schemes so that they might meet her approval as required by schedule 10, which states that the commission shall on receipt of a scheme for which it has asked—although it does not have to ask for it and no one is bound to produce one—approve it; or… refer it to the Secretary of State"?Schedule 10 continues:Where a scheme is referred to the Secretary of State he shall—
Does my right hon. Friend regard the contents of new clause 4 as what she would expect to be within such a statutory scheme? If so, can she say so, and could that be contained in an amendment to the Bill? What timetable does my right hon. Friend envisage for the submission of such equality schemes and for their approval?
- (a) approve it;
- (b) request the public authority to make a revised scheme; or
- (c) make a scheme for the public authority."
Returning to the vexed question that we discussed earlier—additional resources for the new Equality Commission—my hon. Friend the Minister in his reply to the previous debate rightly said that there might be some economies of size. People are fearful that such economies might become the object of the exercise rather than a thorough examination of the problems in hand. He went on to admit that there were further responsibilities. I imagine that the examination of schemes would take considerable time and expense, and many resources over and above the £4.3 million that we are told is expended on the commissions at present.
I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would answer those questions.
§ Mr. Donaldson
I welcome Government amendment No. 206 because it is important to deal with policy appraisal and fair treatment. The Secretary of State and the Minister will be aware that such provisions exist already in Northern Ireland, and it is important to have them in the Bill. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) by encouraging the 108 Minister to consider new clauses 4 and 5 to ascertain whether provisions on policy appraisal and fair treatment could be added to. There is a particular need for monitoring policy appraisal and fair treatment in public bodies, because we want to ensure that proper accountability is built into the system. Policy appraisal and fair treatment must be given proper precedence in the Bill so that they are adequately provided for.
§ Mrs. Fyfe
I want to make one point only about clause 61(2). I am sure that everyone would agree with thedesirability of promoting good relations betweencommunities, but that expression could be interpreted pretty minimally. It would be perfectly understandable, for example, if the police were to interpret good relations as being an absence of open conflict, or a great reduction in law breaking. While those are good things that should not be looked down on, I wonder whether my hon. Friends on the Front Bench might care to add to the Bill expressions such as "mutual respect" or "equal rights" to make it clear that there is a fuller agenda than simple reduction in open conflict.
§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)
Clause 61 is important. The statutory duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity is one that we consider crucial. I have listened carefully to points made on both sides of the House, particularly those on impact assessment and the chances of measuring objectively that what is being attempted is being achieved. I hope that some points are covered in the Government amendments, but, as we have made clear all along, we shall listen carefully and shall consider over the summer what we can do to respond to points on which there is broad agreement.
I am sad to say that I must ask the House to resist amendments Nos. 199 and 179 for the simple reason that the present wording of clause 61(1) is more precise. It makes it clear that our objective is to promote equality of opportunity between people of different religions, and between men and women. Although the amendments reflect the wording of the agreement by using "in relation to", we believe that that wording could cause difficulties of interpretation if it were included on a statutory basis. Pararagraph 3 on page 16 of the agreement, which deals with "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity", does not include language in the list of equality of opportunity issues that are to be covered by statutory obligation. That does not mean that we do not consider language as central to the cultural identity of the different communities in Northern Ireland.
There are a number of commitments on linguistic diversity, and the Irish language in particular, in the agreement, as several hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), pointed out. They are being implemented by administrative and, where appropriate, legislative means. For instance, the commitment to place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education has already been enacted. The Government have also decided to sign the Council of Europe charter for regional or minority languages and will specify Irish for part III purposes, at an early date.
§ Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)
I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend, but will she confirm 109 that nothing in the agreement would exclude placing a statutory responsibility on public authorities to promote and encourage equality of opportunity in the matter of the Irish language vis-a-vis English or any other language?
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I thank my hon. Friend. I was making it clear that we have already made much progress on language as part of cultural identities in Northern Ireland. He knows that we have been trying all along in the settlement Bill to implement the Good Friday agreement without taking away from it or adding to it so that it is what the parties agreed. If the Assembly wants to make other changes in the months and years ahead, it is up to its elected Members so to do.
On amendments Nos. 32 to 35, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) asked what "men and women generally" meant. There is nothing new; it is the same as in existing sex discrimination legislation. He also asked about dependants, as mentioned in paragraph 3 on page 16 of the agreement. Paragraph 3 gave clear notice of the Government's intention to create a statutory obligation exactly as set out in the Bill.
§ Mr. Grieve
I take it from that that the suggestion that the provision referred to dependants, as opposed to persons with dependants, was wrong?
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I think that that would be the case.
I ask the Committee to resist amendments Nos. 32 to 35. We have sought to legislate for the full range of equality issues covered under the policy appraisal and fair treatment administrative guidelines issued in 1993 under the previous Administration. The amendments would remove from the scope of the equality of opportunity obligation three areas where there is no anti-discrimination legislation: age, marital status and sexual orientation. We see no reason why the statutory obligation should deny consideration to elderly people, single people or gays that they had under the administrative guidelines of the previous Government. The amendments should be rejected because of their minimalist approach to equality of opportunity legislation.
On the points made by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), it would be helpful if we accepted amendment No. 193 and withdrew Government amendment No. 183. I ask the Committee to resist amendment No. 180 because we regard equality of opportunity and good relations as complementary. There should be no conflict between the two objectives. Good relations cannot be based on inequality between different religions or ethnic groups. Social cohesion requires equality to be reinforced by good community relations. The provision will create a clear statutory obligation on public authorities to have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group. The Government amendment would strengthen that and bring it into line with the obligation to promote equality of opportunity. I repeat that we see no conflict between those two objectives.
The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) gained a degree of support from both sides of the Committee. I agree that promoting gender equality is an essential aspect of the Bill. I acknowledge that her union, Unison, has worked 110 extremely hard on this issue in Northern Ireland. It is essential that we do not fall behind the rest of the United Kingdom in respect of the progress made on issues relating to justice and fairness, which are crucial to progress in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend mentioned a conference on women's issues. It was an impressive conference and I hope that it will develop in years to come because the issues that it debated were crucial.
The main point that my hon. Friend raised, which was repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), concerned the status of new clauses 4 and 5. Those new clauses are crucial and I hope that they will be very similar to, if not the same as, the statutory guidelines that will be drafted by the new Equality Commission. New clause 4 provides a comprehensive model for those guidelines.
Government amendment No. 206, which gained the support of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), was tabled in response to a number of concerns that have been raised. I hope that it is complete, but if a number of hon. Members feel that it is not, we shall look at it again. The amendment clarifies the statutory equality schemes which the Equality Commission will request public authorities to set up, and says that they should includeassessing the likely impact of policies … on the promotion of the equality of opportunity".In our statement of 10 July on the White Paper consultation, we said that statutory equality schemes should contain a requirement to assess the equality impact of policies. The amendment achieves that objective. The existing policy appraisal and fair treatment administrative guidelines require similar assessments, and the statutory arrangements that will supersede PAFT should impose a similar requirement on the public sector. The statutory guidelines that the Equality Commission can issue on those schemes should contain more detail about those impact assessments. The statutory equality schemes will also provide for publication of the results of impact assessments.
§ Mr. McNamara
I appreciate my right hon. Friend's comments on new clause 4. Does she intend to amend the Bill to place a statutory obligation on public bodies to draw up schemes? Such an obligation still does not appear in the Bill or the amendment emphatically as a prime responsibility of public bodies, but it does appear in paragraph 3 on page 16 of the Belfast agreement.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
Public authorities must produce schemes when asked to do so by the Equality Commission. I expect the commission, in time, to request all public authorities to draw up schemes, except in exceptional cases. It is right for the commission to be able to prioritise its requests. As I have made clear, new clause 4 contains the kind of statutory obligations that would make a difference. My hon. Friend says that he wants that to appear in the Bill. The amendment that we tabled clearly satisfied neither him nor a number of other hon. Members, so I shall look at the matter again during the summer and see whether I can come closer to satisfying the points that he made earlier about timetable implementation and placing a statutory obligation in the Bill.
I looked carefully at the issue and I had thought that our new amendment would achieve what people wanted, but there is clearly still a degree of dissatisfaction. We 111 shall do all that we can over the summer to satisfy those folk who feel that more should be done. As I said at the beginning, we are listening carefully and we shall do everything possible to add where we can to the settlement Bill, but, however important equality issues are to us all, we shall be in difficulty if we go further than the Good Friday agreement, as I am sure hon. Members understand. I thank my colleagues for raising some useful points, which we shall certainly consider.
§ Mr. Corbyn
I know that giving way is the one thing that my right hon. Friend really wants to do. Before she sits down, will she say a word about the issue of language and the way that it is included in the agreement? If, as seems likely, my amendment is not accepted, what happens in relation to language?
§ Marjorie Mowlam
As I said earlier, language is an important part of cultural identity in both communities and the Irish language is crucial. We have moved a long way in terms of the Irish language—for example, with a statutory obligation in respect of Irish-medium schools. Our specification of Irish for the purposes of part III of the Council of Europe charter for regional or minority languages will make a difference. That comes close to fulfilling the obligations relating to language in the Good Friday agreement. If my hon. Friend believes that that is not the case and he comes to me with other specific changes, we shall consider them; however, I must point out that we are addressing these questions within the Good Friday agreement.
§ Mr. Corbyn
As another member of Unison, I thank my right hon. Friend for the inclusion of part III of the charter in respect of the Irish language and the work to promote it. Although I recognise that she has gone a long way in that direction, I do not think that everything we wanted to achieve in our amendment has been met. In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I should like to take the opportunity of further discussion with my right hon. Friend on the issue of language and the promotion of language.
A Bill as important as this one should contain a clear, simple statement of the purpose of the Northern Ireland Government in future, not only to carry out existing legislation, but to promote positively anti-discrimination and equality legislation. I endorse completely what my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and others have said in that respect. If we can say to everyone in Northern Ireland that, from now on, that will be the purpose of the Government, things will be very different from how they were in the past.
§ The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Order. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has asked leave to withdraw his amendment, but I cannot put the Question on that if the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) wishes to speak.
§ Mr. McNamara
I want to suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North that he should thank our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for her kind words about the new clause as regards impact. I am sure that he agrees that that is most important and our right hon. Friend deserves to be congratulated on her openness.
§ Mr. Corbyn
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our right hon. Friend deserves to be congratulated on what she said in that respect. The new clauses proposed by our hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley are excellent, because they bring the issues of transparency, reporting, openness and identifiable performance measurements to the fore. Parliament passes legislation on all sorts of matters, but unless there is efficient and effective reporting and monitoring to ensure that the original decisions are carried out, the legislation becomes meaningless. We have had a good and useful debate.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn. Amendment made: No. 193, in page 28, line 26, after `(2)', insert`Without prejudice to its obligations under subsection (1),'.—[Mr. McGrady.]
§ Mr. Öpik
I beg to move amendment No. 157, in page 28, line 36, at end insert—(f) Any other body which would be included within the definition of a public authority for the purposes of the Human Rights Act 1998'.
The First Deputy Chairman
With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 159, in clause 62, page 29, line 36, at end insert—`(j) Any other body which would be included within the definition of a public authority as defined in the Human Rights Act 1998.'.
§ Mr. Öpik
The amendment is technical, and would make a straightforward improvement to the Bill by simply tightening up the definition of a public authority.
Clause 6 of the Human Rights Bill, which we discussed in June, states:In this section, 'public authority' includes—(a) a court or tribunal, and(b) any person certain of whose functions are functions of a public nature,but does not include either House of Parliament or a person exercising functions in connection with proceedings in Parliament.The intention is to standardise the definitions. The Government have accepted as effective the definition in the Human Rights Bill, and it therefore stands as the 113 official definition. By including that definition in this Bill, we would close any loopholes and protect the definition in case of any discrepancies in future.
The Government made a manifesto commitment to introduce the Human Rights Bill, and its provisions must be included in our work on Northern Ireland. If we did not include the definition, there would be a risk that people would use the provisions of the Human Rights Bill instead of those of the Northern Ireland Bill, which would be messy.
§ Mr. Grieve
Surely the Bills aim to achieve two completely different ends. The Human Rights Bill imposes certain duties under the law on public authorities, whereas, as we were discussing earlier, this Bill sets out to make public authorities achieve certain ends.
§ Mr. Öpik
The amendment's aim is to clarify exactly that point. It is perfectly clear to me that the definition of a public authority will not change according to what we are discussing, so I have a different interpretation from that of the hon. Gentleman. We need one definition of a public authority. There is nothing controversial in what I am proposing. I believe that, if I had made the point informally when the Bill was being drafted, the definition would have been included.
The amendment would provide a simple solution to any future problems of messy interpretation between the Northern Ireland Bill and the Human Rights Bill, which has already been considered. We should include the Human Rights Bill's definition of a public authority.
§ Mr. Grieve
I am sorry to have to disagree with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), but the Bills aim to achieve two completely different ends. If the Committee accepted the amendment, I would want to have a thorough discussion about the implications for all public authorities, some of which, as we know from discussion on the Human Rights Bill, extend way beyond what some people might consider public authorities, into the realms of quasi-private organisations. I assumed that the definition used was deliberately not that of the Human Rights Bill, and that it was drafted precisely to refer to specific types of public authority that the Government wish to use to promote their agenda in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Öpik
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the definition of a public authority will not change from one discussion to the next? The provisions in the Human Rights Bill and those that we are discussing today may require different applications, but that does not change what a public authority is.
§ Mr. Grieve
All I can go on is what the Bill says. I should be interested to hear the Minister's explanation. I note that the definition of a public authority in the Bill appears to be much narrower than the definition in the Human Rights Bill.
§ Mr. Paul Murphy
I ask the Committee to resist the amendment, on the basis that it would add to the list of bodies that are prevented from discriminating on the ground of religious belief or political opinion anybody who, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said, could be included in the definition of a 114 public authority in the Human Rights Bill. The likely effects of the amendment are too unclear to allow us to accept it.
The definition of a public authority in the Human Rights Bill is very wide and includes, for example,any person certain of whose functions are functions of a public nature".Theoretically, that could include Churches and religious organisations. A Church could be prevented from discriminating on the ground of religious belief in making appointments, which is obviously nonsense.
Therefore, we do not think that we can accept the amendment at this, or indeed at any, stage. I understand that the purpose is to try to ensure that the Bill has the widest possible application, but, because of the amendment's lack of clarity, it might have consequences that are not intended by either the agreement or the Bill.
We already have an extensive list in clause 62. We think that that is the appropriate one for the Bill, because it builds on what exists already in Northern Ireland. I ask the House to reject the amendment.
§ Mr. Öpik
I am slightly amazed by the Minister's response. Nothing could be simpler than the importance of having one single definition in all parliamentary activities for "public authority". It was certainly my understanding that one of the great benefits of passing the Human Rights Bill was to achieve clarity in areas such as this. If the Minister and Government seek to have two different interpretations of "public authority", that stores up enormous trouble for us in future, because one then has to provide some sort of ruling on which definition of a public authority is correct.
§ Mr. McWalter
I shall try just to clarify. There is even a difference between the definition of "public authority" in clause 61 and that in clause 62, depending on whether it is a public authority in Northern Ireland or a public authority of the United Kingdom. It appears that it is necessary to have differences in how we define public authorities.
§ Mr. Öpik
Without trying to prolong the debate any further, I should say that the discrepancy in the Bill, and, more to the point, between the definition in the Human Rights Bill and the Northern Ireland Bill, is a store for trouble. We cannot redefine a public authority just to suit the particular case in hand.
Notwithstanding the fact that this may cause difficulties legislation such as the Northern Ireland Bill and other Bills that from time to time come before the House, we need to face facts, and recognise that we have an objective definition of a public authority and that we will end up in all sorts of trouble if we seek to redefine what a public authority is according to what suits us on a particular day and in a particular debate.
I heard what the Minister said. I sincerely hope that he will not reject out of hand—although that is what I interpreted his response to be: a rejection out of hand—the point that I have made. I sincerely urge him and his colleagues to revisit the proposal, because it tries to simplify something, not make it more difficult. The one thing that we can all be certain of is that any uncertainty, any vagueness, is likely to cause difficulty when an interpretation is needed and when a different interpretation will best suit one group or another.
115 I will reluctantly withdraw the amendment, but I serve notice that this issue will not go away, and I shall make direct representations again on the matter in the House. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn. Clause 61, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.