HC Deb 27 July 1998 vol 317 cc81-98
Mr. Öpik

I beg to move amendment No. 156, in page 27, line 33, at end insert— '(lA) The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland shall give equal weight and equal consideration to all forms of discrimination that people or groups of people may face.'.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 170.

No. 192, in page 27, leave out lines 40 and 41 and insert 'as far as practicable secure that the Commissioners as a group are representative of the community in Northern Ireland.'. Clause 59 stand part.

Government amendment No. 205

Schedule 9 stand part.

Government amendments Nos. 202 to 204.

Clause 60 stand part.

No. 168, in clause 61, page 28, line 37, leave out subsection (4).

Government amendment No. 213.

Mr. Öpik

The agreement is clear about several aspects of the equality of human rights that we can come to expect in Northern Ireland. Page 16 states: Against the background of the recent history of communal conflict, the parties affirm in particular…the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed disability, gender or ethnicity. Amendment No. 156 seeks to tighten the Bill on the spirit of true equal rights. It attempts to firm up the individual's protection against discrimination beyond the sectarian discrimination that we often discuss. In essence, it would ensure that the commission pays due regard to all forms of discrimination.

This is part of the normalisation process in Northern Ireland. It must be explicit that traditional religious and political discrimination are not special in any sense or more important than any other form of discrimination. Religious and political discrimination might be more common than other forms in Northern Ireland—that is debatable—but, even if they are, it does not mean that they should be set above discrimination on grounds of, say, gender or age.

Amendment No. 156 keeps more in line with the spirit of the agreement, paragraph 3 on page 16 of which talks of an obligation to promote equality of opportunity in relation to religion and political opinion; gender; race; disability; age; marital status; dependants; and sexual orientation. That paragraph is the first time that such a document has explicitly listed sexual orientation as a criterion for non-discrimination. No European or United Nations document has done it. The Liberal Democrats welcome this, because it provides Northern Ireland with an opportunity to lead the way, rather than being seen as an area of Europe that trails.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments—I agree that that is apparently a first. How does he reconcile this with the way in which we have been incorporating the European convention on human rights on a United Kingdom basis? Does he see a danger that we will lose the concomitance of human rights development throughout the United Kingdom, which I believe should go together?

Mr. Öpik

I agree that it behoves us to ensure that the whole United Kingdom will benefit from this sort of legislation. I fully expect that we will achieve that. I emphasise that I see no conflict of interest in including the commitment to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, because it means exactly what it says: the elimination of such discrimination. To put it simply, it says that it is no longer acceptable to behave prejudicially because of a person's sexual orientation.

Whatever we decide, and however long it takes, that does not conflict with the Bill's aspiration to ensure that, in Northern Ireland at least, that form of discrimination is spelled out as unacceptable in any form. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to hurry to ensure that the rest of the United Kingdom keeps up with Northern Ireland.

Discrimination is experienced by individuals, not just groups, so the commission needs to work to eliminate discrimination against individuals, rather than simply deal with discrimination towards a particular group. Put starkly, it does not matter much to an individual why he or she is discriminated against; the important point is that it is happening. To that extent, it is wrong to place the importance of eliminating sectarian discrimination above that of eliminating, for example, sexual or racial discrimination. Amendment No. 156 makes that point clearly.

Government amendment No. 203 appears to provide that the commission will aim to secure an appropriate division of resources between the functions previously exercised by the councils and committees that the Bill will abolish and replace with the Equality Commission. This point has already been made, but it is so important that I shall mention it again. Adequate funding for that provision is vital. Whatever powers we may provide through legislation, if the commission does not have adequate resources, it will not be able to use its powers effectively. I seek reassurance from the Minister that the money that will go into the new Equality Commission will be sufficient to ensure that it can do what it is supposed to do.

I understand that there may be some economies of scale as a result of streamlining four institutions into one, but the new commission's responsibilities may be greater than the sum of responsibilities of its predecessors. If it is expected to enforce and implement its wide-ranging powers to eliminate discrimination, it will need necessary resources; otherwise, it will be a recipe for disappointment and frustration.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

The House will take the hon. Gentleman's point about resources and the fact that some common services might provide worthwhile economies, but has he noticed that membership of the all-embracing commission will be between 14 and 20 people? They will not do the work for a living, but will deal with problems of politics and religious denominations as well as work in respect of fair employment, equal opportunities and race equality. A question that the Government must face, not just now but later in the Bill, is whether between 14 and 20 people can do all that.

Mr. Öpik

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Indeed, my next point touches on exactly that matter. As well as having adequate resources, the new commission's structure must be adequate to ensure that it can carry out the many responsibilities that it will absorb. The hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that we must be careful not to overload individuals with more work than they can physically do in the time available, and with the human resources available to the new organisation.

Will the Minister assure us that he has given that matter due consideration, and has seriously consulted the bodies that will give up their powers to the Equality Commission? I think that the number of people involved in the centre should be kept as low as practicable. Does the number that has been decided on reflect the views of the organisations that are replaced? Do they think that that relatively small number of people, compared with the number replaced, will be sufficient to do the job?

Legislation of this type does not provide the best opportunity to secure guarantees about the funding of the commission. I shall not pursue that point now, but the Minister must understand that, if the commission is not properly funded, it will become the focus of many oral and written parliamentary questions in the months and years ahead. That is not because anyone wants to stir up trouble, but because it will be a false economy if the commission is underfunded. There will be far greater costs in terms of lost opportunity, as well as stress, strain and friction within the Northern Ireland community, if the organisation is underfunded.

The Government's amendments seem to be designed to assuage the concerns of the vast bulk of respondents to the public consultation exercise who were opposed to the amalgamation of the equality commissions. Like them, I am concerned that that may lead to a hierarchy of discrimination. None the less, the amendments should be supported, because they are consistent with the agreement's intention to amalgamate the commissions. The agreement was very clear about that; page 17, paragraph 6 says: Subject to the outcome of public consultation the intention was to create a new statutory Equality Commission". I should be grateful if the Minister could reassure us that the Government will keep a close eye on the new commission's ability to do its work, and ensure that those who were previously involved in that work are allowed to have an input once the new commission is set up, so that their expertise and insight are not lost.

7.45 pm

Will those in favour of amalgamation be given an opportunity to participate in the commission's work in a more formal way? Does the Minister have a clearer definition of the phrase, "appropriate resources"? What remedies, if any, exist for those who believe that the resources are inappropriately allocated? What opportunity will there be to increase the sum if the work load is far greater than budgeted for, or if the budget is insufficient for the projected work load? Finally, what resources have been allocated to fund the operation of the consultative councils? That question has not been clearly answered.

We should be grateful for some reassurance on the matters that I have mentioned. Let me emphasise again that the agreement clearly states that the Equality Commission will replace the other commissions. Whether we like it or not, therefore, our job is to ensure that the Equality Commission has the best start in life. We must not simply provide the bare necessity, but ensure that the previous commissions feel involved so that continuity is maintained.

Mr. Eddie McGrady

Amendment No. 192 requires that the commission, as far as practicable, secures the representation of a broad section of the community in Northern Ireland. That is almost self-evident, and we have already debated the matter under a previous clause. I assume that it is accepted that any such commission should have a broad cross- community representation, however that might be defined. I noted an earlier remark that the description "cross- community" is difficult to define in practice, but one can only do one's best in ensuring that cross-community and cross-grouping representation exists in the commission.

Amendment No. 48 is a probing amendment, which seeks to address the possibility of deleting clause 59. It was tabled because clause 59 flies in the face of the public consultation that has already taken place. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) referred to paragraph 6 of the Belfast agreement, which said: Subject to the outcome of public consultation currently underway, the British Government intends a new statutory Equality Commission to replace the four bodies listed therein.

The important point is that the matter is subject to public consultation. My understanding is that, to date, that public consultation has had a weighty and influential majority against the amalgamation of the bodies referred to in that paragraph. The Minister must take account of that when deciding whether or not to proceed with the Equality Commission on the proposed basis.

The Belfast agreement left a number of aspects of the earlier White Paper, "Partnership for Equality", open for public consultation, including whether the statutory duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity should be enforced by a new Equality Commission, with the amalgamation of the statutory equality commissions. That approach has been substantially rejected by the bulk of those who responded to the consultation.

The amalgamation of the commissions should not take place at this time; the issue should be referred to the new Human Rights Commission for consideration in the context of its investigation into the scope for a possible supplementary Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

Currently, the four commissions cover different disciplines, and have different objectives and pools of expertise and experience. There is a great fear that that body of experience and knowledge will be lost in the tight amalgamation into a 14 to 20-person committee, which, by its very numbers, cannot embrace anything like the spread of experience in the different disciplines that has been available hitherto. It is certainly desirable that there should be rationalisation to the extent that experience, aspects of expenditure or even personnel are shared, but the worry felt by those who made submissions, the commissions themselves and those of us who have knowledge of their work is that the particular discipline of each commission may be watered down in the totality of a single Equality Commission.

Currently, each commission has a strong independent drive to look after and assert the aspect of human rights for which it is responsible. It would be to the detriment of human rights as a whole if the existing commissions were amalgamated too tightly into a single Equality Commission.

I would not be dogmatic about this point, but, at the very least, there should be provision lest the experiment be seen to be not working. If we must have one Equality Commission, it must be clearly divided internally into the various human rights disciplines, and the funding for those disciplines should be ring-fenced, so that it is not drawn one way or the other by the strength or weakness of one particular arm.

Those were the concerns clearly expressed in the consultation, and the Belfast agreement stated that we must take into consideration the consequences of the consultation with the public and interested parties. The respondents are clear in their view that there should not be one commission in the guise proposed in the legislation.

There is a middle road or halfway house, in that there could be an Equality Commission acting as an umbrella for the various commissions. I am sure that, in terms of administration, it would be a great convenience for civil servants to have everything under one wing or in one department, but that does not necessarily mean that such a commission would do a better job. I ask the Minister to take into consideration the strong and experienced opinions voiced during the public consultation.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

It is crucial that the membership of the Equality Commission should reflect the balance of the population in Northern Ireland. In the past, that has all too often not been the case: as one from the Unionist tradition, I have to say that many Unionists have felt under-represented on many such bodies.

Those who are appointed to Northern Ireland bodies often do not accurately reflect the political balance in Northern Ireland. What might be regarded as token appointments are made of people whose views do not reflect broad public opinion, so, in seeking to ensure the commission's membership reflects the community, I hope that the Government will not make token appointments, but will try to ensure that public opinion and the various traditions are provided for.

I welcome the Government amendment that places the responsibilities currently exercised by the Northern Ireland Disability Council on a par with those of the other three bodies that are to be subsumed into the new Equality Commission. I share many of the doubts expressed by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), and I know that there is widespread opposition to the establishment of the new commission, not least among the bodies that are to be replaced by it. I believe that there are advantages and disadvantages in the formation of the new commission.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) spoke about the resources and funding available to the commission, and I agree that it is absolutely essential that the new commission has access to resources and funding that are at least on a par with those available to the four organisations that it will replace. The commission will not only take on the responsibilities of those four bodies, but have additional responsibilities. I hope that the Government will commit themselves at least to providing a level of resources that matches that available to the existing organisations, and preferably to providing additional funding to take account of the new commission's additional responsibilities.

As I said, I welcome the fact that the powers exercised by the Northern Ireland Disability Council are on a par with powers relating to other equality issues. For a long time, disability rights issues in Northern Ireland have taken second place to other issues, so it is important that the new commission, if and when it comes into being, should give a strong priority to disability issues.

Looking at the responsibilities that the new commission is to exercise, my concern is that it will focus on fair employment issues, because they have in the past been controversial. However, I hope that disability issues will be given equal prominence and equal resources, because that is what disabled people in Northern Ireland deserve. I hope that that is the intention behind the Government amendment, and that it will be carried into practice when the new commission is established. Disabled people must be given a fair and equal say.

Disabled people should be represented in the membership of the Equality Commission. That is very important, because, as in the rest of UK society, there are disabled people in Northern Ireland, and they should have representation. When the Government say that they want the membership of the commission to reflect "as far as practicable" the community, I hope that they mean that to include representation of disabled people, so as to ensure that disability rights are given equal prominence in the new commission's work.

Although I share some of the concerns expressed by the Equal Opportunities Commission, I am less concerned about the Fair Employment Commission, which is also to be subsumed into the Equality Commission. The Fair Employment Commission needs to be more accountable and fair employment issues need to be set in a proper context. The proposal in the Bill to set those issues alongside equal opportunities issues is therefore beneficial and makes sense, because they overlap and concern the same rights. Issues of fair employment may become less controversial in the politics of Northern Ireland.

Finally, I want again to encourage the Government to ensure that adequate funding and resources are made available to the new commission.

8 pm

Mrs. Fyfe

I come from Glasgow, which has a history of religious discrimination in job appointments, so I am familiar with that. I am familiar also with the fact that it is possible for a community to stop discriminating and, indeed, religious discrimination in job appointments in Glasgow is now virtually non-existent. Societies can change. I support all those who, with good will, are attempting to make progress on that in Northern Ireland.

I agree with the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) that there is a need to avoid discrimination on the ground of disability. That has clearly been much neglected, because, for obvious reasons, religious discrimination took up so much of our attention. Other aspects of discrimination, such as disability, have not received the attention that they deserve.

I hope that, in attempting to ensure that the community is fairly represented in all its diversity, the Minister will take account also of the need for the body to include people who are free from any kind of irrational prejudice and who can be relied on to have a clear-minded view of how the commission's business should be conducted.

If the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), who tabled amendment No. 156, intends that there should be no hierarchy of discrimination, and that each case should be treated with equal seriousness, I fully support him. However, the amendment could be read to mean that equal amounts of the money and time of those involved would be devoted to each kind of discrimination, which would not necessarily be sensible. If the commission were to find that 10 times as much discrimination of one kind occurred as of another, it would not be sensible to allocate funds equally to each form of discrimination.

Mr. Öpik

I assure the hon. Lady that her first explanation is my intention, and that we should regard each form of discrimination as equally unacceptable. I accept her point that different amounts of resources are likely to be needed to tackle each of the various forms of discrimination.

Mrs. Fyfe

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has cleared up that point, because the amendment is ambiguous.

I think that I understand the Government's thinking behind having one body, but, as we have not yet heard the Minister's explanation, I am not yet sure of their reasons. I imagine that they include the considerations that the body will serve a relatively small population, that it will be possible to gather together in one unit all the expertise, and that discrimination against one individual can easily occur on two or more grounds.

Members of the Women's Coalition in Northern Ireland have told me that they were treated with extreme rudeness during the talks. If such remarks are made to women in open debate in a public place, heaven knows what lurks in the unspoken thoughts of those who made the remarks.

There may be a fear that expertise will be lost by having one body. I am sure that that will have worried some of the hon. Members who tabled the amendment that did not get selected. That would not happen if specialists were appointed in sufficient numbers to cover every aspect of discrimination.

It might be useful to consider for a moment the Equal Opportunities Commission in Scotland, which, under the Scotland Bill, will not be a separate body. However, it will be answerable to the Scottish Parliament, and will give it advice and assistance, while remaining responsible to its United Kingdom headquarters. That is inevitable as long as equal opportunities laws are United Kingdom laws, but Northern Ireland is moving towards a better understanding of the ways in which unfair discrimination can take place than exists in other parts of the UK, and that is excellent.

I have been wondering what the views are of people in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) has told us that there is general unhappiness about the formation of one body, so I hope that the Government will listen to those views and state what they intend to do to reassure people.

I hope that the proposal is not simply a way to cut costs. In the current circumstances, it would be extremely foolish to cut the costs of running such a body. It must have funds at least similar to the total funding of the present four bodies if it is to ensure that the issues are tackled effectively and thoroughly. It would also be useful for the Government to consider the hon. Member for South Down's suggestion of ring-fencing moneys.

Above all, the body must be accepted by people in Northern Ireland as one that meets their needs and commands their respect. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to reassure us on those points.

Mr. John D. Taylor

It is encouraging to hear the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) assure the Committee that there is no discrimination on the basis of religion in Glasgow. That is not exactly what I hear when I visit Glasgow. I have been told several times that no Protestant has been allowed to become the Lord Provost of Glasgow for 25 years. I am sure that the hon. Lady supports new Labour and its removal of the Lord Provost of Glasgow.

Mrs. Fyfe

To clear up a misunderstanding, I point out that I was referring to the job market. Discrimination has virtually, rather than totally, ended.

The Chairman

Order. Perhaps we can try to clear away the misunderstanding completely as it is not relevant to the amendment that we are discussing.

Mr. Taylor

The point was made because we are discussing religious discrimination, and I am glad that the hon. Lady has clarified it because I was unable completely to agree with her earlier remark. As you know, Sir Alan, the religious discrimination in Monklands has been well publicised in the past year.

I want to ask the Minister a simple question. If the Belfast agreement failed and the Assembly collapsed, would the Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission continue as if nothing had happened?

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

I share some of the concerns about the structure of the proposed Equality Commission, although we also need to have regard to the lessons that have been learnt in ensuring that equality issues are mainstream in our political life. One of those lessons is that, far too often, there has been too much focus on the need to retain existing structures, rather than on ensuring that the whole issue of equality is in the mainstream of the work of both Government Departments and external organisations.

In that sense, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will pay less attention to the cries for retaining existing organisations and much more attention to the ways in which the equality agenda can be mainstreamed throughout the work of the Northern Ireland Office and the Assembly. That is a greater priority than worrying about one organisation's integrity and about it retaining its separate identity in relation to the Assembly.

I was grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) for his clarification of his amendment because I, too, read it as implying that he was requesting that equal resources be given to each of the areas of discrimination identified in the Bill. That would not be appropriate. It is not correct to say that equal time or equal resources need to be devoted to each area of discrimination. We need to phrase our amendments better and to look carefully at the priorities that are given to individual areas. It is true that in a number of areas of discrimination—for example, race—Northern Ireland is nearly 20 years behind this country. Some of those issues do need to be given much greater priority.

As other hon. Members have said, in some areas, Northern Ireland is at the forefront of equality, particularly in respect of fair employment. We in the United Kingdom would like some of that progress to be transferred back to us and the UK to take a lead from Northern Ireland in that respect. Therefore, we need to ensure that we give correct priority, rather than equal priority, to each area.

I raise one issue of great importance: gender equality. There is an implicit assumption that gender equality will be tackled throughout the Bill, but it is not explicit. I see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has just entered the Chamber. That issue must be dear to her heart, having been one of the very few women to be involved, with the handful of women from the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, in the negotiations at the time of the Good Friday agreement. It is important that we promote greater gender equality across civic and political life in Northern Ireland. The agreement commits the Government and the new Northern Ireland institutions to promoting women in public life and to guaranteeing the right of women to full and equal political participation.

This area often provokes some antagonism or antipathy from other parties in Northern Ireland. I pay particular tribute to the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition for its work and persistence in trying to promote gender equality throughout the agreement. I hope that it will continue to do so in the Assembly, where it will have a small but significant role. Therefore, I ask the Minister to look at that point when he considers the Equality Commission and its work.

8.15 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Amendment No. 31, which has not been selected, would have deleted clause 60 in its entirety. That would have taken us back, effectively, to the status quo with regard to the various bodies that, under clause 60, will be aggregated under the newly defined Equality Commission.

There is a certain inconsistency creeping in here—inconsistency between interpretations of the agreement. I think that this was touched on by the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson). They asked what support there was on the ground in Northern Ireland, particularly in three of the groups that will be aggregated, for establishing the new Equality Commission.

We have been told on many occasions during our deliberations on the Bill that we can never stray too far from the words of the agreement, so I went to the agreement to find the appropriate words that relate to this clause which, as many contributors have said, is one of the most important parts of the legislation. Paragraph 6 on page 17 says: Subject to the outcome of public consultation currently underway, the British Government intends a new statutory Equality Commission to replace the Fair Employment Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission (NI), the Commission for Racial Equality (NI) and the Disability Council. Those are the four groups that are listed in clause 60.

The most important thing here is that that paragraph is conditional. It says: Subject to the outcome of public consultation", so when people, during the talks, looked at this point, they left it rather on the shelf; it was subject to consultation. The conclusions of that consultation would probably arrive much later than the signing of the agreement.

Indeed, that has been the case. The thought has been left in the minds of many of those who are working in these key areas that this whole matter has been rushed through, and that a full and in-depth consultation has not taken place—the sort of consultation that they were promised and, on reading the agreement, felt that they were entitled to.

The proposal is opposed directly by the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland, the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland and, I believe, the Northern Ireland Disability Council, so at least three of the bodies that will be incorporated into the new Equality Commission are opposed in principle to being moved into it. The reasons are fairly clear; some have been touched on tonight. The proposal for this merged commission arose in the Government's White Paper entitled "Partnership for Equality." That was published, I believe, in March this year. It was the Government's response to a review of the fair employment legislation.

The proposal, which was in the consultative part of that document, was not made on the basis of proper consultation. It was part of the consultative section; it was not a firm proposal at that stage and those who are now involved in the changeover feel that the consultation has not been adequate or thorough.

It is being suggested by the Government that the new proposal will be a one-stop shop and that that one-stop shop will help employers. The Government have also said that they will harmonise the four pieces of existing legislation, but the people involved in these key areas believe that there is potential for conflict because the four pieces of legislation will still have to be treated separately and, at times, may set different priorities.

There was strong opposition in the responses to the White Paper. Of the 123 respondents, only 29 were in favour and at least 57 were opposed. Presumably the others who did not form an opinion did not particularly address the issue. The Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission felt that there was some kind of hidden Government agenda and that the Government had made up their mind well in advance.

On page 16, paragraph 3 of the Belfast agreement states: Public bodies would be required to draw up statutory schemes showing how they would implement this obligation"— that is, the obligation of public bodies to pay due regard to the issues that are listed in the clause. It then states: Such schemes would cover arrangements for policy appraisal". The next words are important. The paragraph continues: including an assessment of impact on relevant categories, public consultation, public access to information and services, monitoring and timetables. The bodies that I have mentioned think that the strong wording in that part of the agreement has not been incorporated in the Bill in anything like the strength that they were led to expect in discussions and consultations. The Government have made some effort to do that, and their amendment No. 206, which we shall discuss shortly, places on the new body the responsibility to make some impact assessments. However, that is not as strong a commitment as some of the bodies would like and they are more attracted to new clause 4, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara).

There is some inconsistency because the Government seek to put in the Bill proposals that, in the agreement, are conditional on further consultation with the aggregated bodies. I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) and many of his colleagues would not wish to sign up to a new arrangement that goes against what the people who will implement the policies would like. That also raises the question whether this important part of the legislation should be in the Bill. It relates to a key issue, and it will apply in Northern Ireland a measure that will not apply in the same way to other parts of the United Kingdom. The matter could be left to the Assembly, hence our amendment No. 31 which would delete clause 60. The Assembly could revisit this key area and make up its mind about what is best for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I agree with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) about the inclusion of disabled people on the Equality Commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) also mentioned that. It would be intolerable if the new commission did not contain representatives of the disabled. I have a brief question. Clause 60 lists the commissions that will be incorporated in the Equality Commission. Will the staff of the Fair Employment Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality be absorbed into the new Equality Commission?

Mr. McNamara

I tabled two amendments to delete clauses 59 and 60 because I wanted to express the concern throughout Northern Ireland about the Government's proposals for the new Equality Commission. I do not want to go over ground that many hon. Members have already covered, but it is right to say that the matter was subject to the outcome of public consultation and that the public were overwhelmingly against the proposals. I know from the answer to a parliamentary question that 23 per cent. were in favour and 45 per cent. were against; the remainder did not voice an opinion. Two bodies were excluded from the list of those who were against. One was Derry Women, but I cannot remember the name of the other one.

There is a feeling that the proposals are part of an existing agenda. The Government's desire to amalgamate the current bodies existed when the most recent employment legislation was passed. There was a desire to weaken the set-up. One has the feeling that there has been no real examination of the alternative proposals by many of those who responded. The essence of those proposals was a strong internal mechanism in the civil service to ensure the implementation of the duty. That would have been coupled with a strong external mechanism to ensure the adequate participation of groups in the making of decisions that affected them.

One can appreciate the benefits of the Equality Commission but, unlike my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran), I do not want to go to the wall for the proposed commission and I do not see any value in having one commission rather than four. The allocation of resources, time, money and manpower and womanpower is important. The Government amendments do not go far enough. As a result of the Bill's vagueness, there is concern that the powers and functions that will be transferred could be harmonised down rather than harmonised up. Some of the strong existing powers on the equality of women and fair employment might be lost.

Clause 60 lists the commission's principal functions. Subsection (4) states: The Secretary of State may by order make such supplemental, incidental or consequential provision as appears to him to be appropriate as a result of subsections (1) to (3). In particular, an order may include provision— (a) amending an enactment". There is no limitation on that power. We need to spell that out much more clearly, perhaps after extensive consultation in the summer, and there should be more detail about what will happen.

There is a great suspicion—I shall return to this on later amendments—that the civil service in Northern Ireland has been hostile throughout to the concept of fair employment, equality and other such issues. It has not wanted to accept the responsibility, but instead wanted to push it outside. It is part of its agenda.

8.30 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South rightly praised the role of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Women's Coalition. However, she should remember that the only party that produced a document on women's rights in the Assembly elections was the Social Democratic and Labour party. Brid Rodgers and several of her colleagues were very active in the negotiations around the agreement. That was true also of Sinn Fein. It is fair to point out that, apart from the Women's Coalition, SDLP and Sinn Fein are the only two parties with women Members of the Assembly.

Mr. Donaldson


Mr. McNamara

I am sorry; there is also a woman Ulster Unionist. I immediately apologise for my error. I welcome the appearance into the early 20th century of the Ulster Unionist party. Who knows, it may one day have more than the one woman Member it now has.

Rev. Martin Smyth

On a point of order, Sir Alan. Is it right to mislead the Committee by welcoming the Ulster Unionist party into the early 20th century, when my party has had women Members of Parliament in this Chamber and in the Northern Ireland Parliament—and Cabinet Ministers at that?

The Chairman

Order. That is a matter of debate.

Mr. McNamara

I can just about remember when the Ulster Unionists had a lady Member of the House—Mrs. Patrick McLoughlin, if I remember correctly. She was well known for some of her relations with rubber companies.

My hon. Friend the Minister needs to answer some questions about the Government amendments. What is meant by "appropriate division of resources"? Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intend to issue guidance on what is appropriate? What remedies, if any, will exist for those who believe that the resources are inappropriately allocated between the different discrimination bodies?

What specific resources have been allocated to fund the operation of the consultative councils? We need a little more description about the role of the consultative councils. Who are the people, the great and the good, who will advise the Equality Commission? In what capacity will their advice be taken? Whom will they represent—what interests and what issues? Will they have any statutory powers? Must the Equality Commission refer to the advice that it has received from a consultative council in making its decisions? If it has not accepted that advice, must it say why? Is it duty bound to refer matters to a consultative council and can a consultative council refer matters directly to the commission, which must then examine them? All those questions are not answered in the Belfast agreement, which is fairly thin on this matter, or in the schedule, yet they involve matters of considerable importance.

There is a rather strange sentence about the unified commission: Such a unified Commission will advise on, validate and monitor the statutory obligation— which statutory obligation?— and will investigate complaints of default. Which default? We have been told that all parties and all Ministers, north and south, considered the issue for hours, weighing the value and importance of every word.

I am not certain what that strange sentence means. It appears to be a compendium of different ideas thrown together, as it refers to the commission's role to advise on, validate and monitor the statutory obligation and … investigate complaints of default. Why will it not investigate the statutory obligation or monitor complaints of default? These are important matters.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, given his background, that I must not cherry-pick, so I am not suggesting that the sentence should be altered one word or one iota. I merely point out that it must have been very late in the night when people were dealing with this issue.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. One way of reading much of the text in the clauses is that there is a great deal of verbiage and pious aspirations, but not much reality. Will he comment on that? Of course, we could look at the matter in two ways. One is that the text should be simplified and the other is that it should be made more complicated.

Mr. McNamara

I do not think that it should be made more complicated—it should be simplified, although that might require many more words, explanations and definitions. That is what I am urging on my hon. Friend the Minister when he considers the matter in the summer months—and perhaps even between now and Report, although that might strain matters too much. There should be opportunity for real discussion.

There is a real suspicion that, given the decision to establish the Equality Commission, and given the nature and range of some of the powers that it may or may not have, the urgency for legislation to amend the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 is likely to be put on the back burner. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say whether that suspicion is correct? If it is not, when can we hope to see the legislation that the Government appeared to promise in their reply to the report from the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights? As the major thrust of the reply seems to have been taken from the statement in May and is contained within this Bill, will we or will we not see legislation?

Mr. Paul Murphy

Hon. Members are right—the Equality Commission was discussed in the talks in a slightly different context from the Human Rights Commission, because the consultation on its establishment started simultaneously with the talks. The result of that consultation has only recently been determined. Paragraph 6 on page 17 of the agreement states: Subject to the outcome of public consultation currently underway, the British Government intends a new statutory Equality Commission". The White Paper consultation was genuine and showed how we might protect the priority given to gender, race and disability within the new structures. We believe that, in the Bill and the amendments which we have tabled, we have taken account of the concerns expressed during the consultation. I am aware that a number of bodies objected to the creation of the Equality Commission, but there were also bodies that said that it was a good idea—for example, the Fair Employment Commission and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Authorities.

In the end, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decided that we would retain the Equality Commission, but we have made changes as a result of the consultations. A number of them have already been mentioned. Consultative councils will allow for the maintenance of strong links between the existing bodies and the non-governmental organisations in Northern Ireland—not necessarily the great, but I certainly hope the good, will be on those councils.

The councils will be adequately funded. Perhaps more significantly, the bodies that currently deal with those equal opportunities matters—the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Fair Employment Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the commission dealing with disability—will be sitting on the working party that establishes the commission itself and all its structures. Therefore, those bodies' identities—what they represent—will not be subsumed into the Equality Commission, as some people fear.

There is still tremendous merit in having a "one-stop shop". There is merit also in ensuring that, in creating the Equality Commission, the employment aspects of discrimination do not predominate over the difficulties faced by people who use the EOC and other bodies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken account of those matters.

What about the commission's funding? As I told the Committee earlier, the figures in the explanatory and financial memorandum are inaccurate. However, I assure hon. Members that funding will be at least as generous as that currently received by the four statutory bodies taken together. The estimated initial cost of the commission will be the same—at £4.9 million—as that of the four bodies, although some economies of scale will be achieved. However, as the commission will also perform other functions, there will be no diminution in funding. The commission will be created not for financial reasons but because we think that it is best and most effective way of tackling discrimination.

The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor)—who has left the Chamber—raised the important issue of what will happen if the Assembly somehow collapses or fails. We all hope and believe that it will not fail, but, in the unlikely event that it does—whatever happens—it is important to remember that the issues dealt with by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights and by the Equality Commission will continue to exist. There is a strong case for saying that, whatever the future holds, those bodies should continue to operate. Moreover, my right hon. Friend has created the Equality Commission because of a review started before the current talks began, and, as I said, SACHR is not an entirely new body.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) asked about the various commissions' staff. They will become employees of the Equality Commission once it is established.

I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) that legislation on fair employment issues consequent to the White Paper will be dealt with later in the year.

Amendment No. 156, which was moved by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), deals with the wider aspects of discrimination. We shall deal with that matter when we debate the next set of amendments, to clause 61. However, everyone involved in the talks knew that the Equality Commission would be established to accommodate the four commissions that I mentioned—dealing with disability, gender, employment and race. The commission will deal with those matters because people were consulted on those matters. However, I do not in any way undervalue the important points that he made, which, as I said, we shall debate in more detail later in the debate.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has tabled Government amendment No. 170. My hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume), for South Down (Mr. McGrady), for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and for Hull, North have tabled amendment No. 192. The two amendments say essentially the same thing. I ask my hon. Friends not to press their amendment and to accept in its place Government amendment No. 170—which deals with the appointment of Equality Commission members by the Secretary of State and would require her to as far as practicable secure that the Commissioners as a group are representative of the community". The Bill requires only that my right hon. Friend should have regard to the desirability of that objective. The amendment is a stronger provision and will fulfil the intention of amendment No. 192.

Government amendment No. 205 deals with the issue of resources, which has been raised by many hon. Members in today's debate. The amendment was tabled in response to consultations that the Government have held on the Equality Commission. The fear was that issues of gender, race and disability might receive insufficient priority in the commission's work.

Our amendment, with Government amendment No. 203, is designed to ensure that the issues receive priority and to achieve transparency in the commission's allocation of resources, both financial and manpower, between the functions formerly exercised by the four separate bodies.

8.45 pm

Amendments Nos. 202 and 204 are technical, and correct an error in clause 60 based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between the Northern Ireland Disability Council and the National Disability Council.

As I said, amendment No. 203 ensures that none of the four functions loses out in resource allocations.

Government amendment No. 213 is a technical one, to correct an earlier drafting mistake.

I again tell the Committee that we are conscious of the representations made on the issues that have been raised not only by hon. Members but by bodies in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend takes the issues very seriously. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to ask leave to withdraw his amendment and the hon. Members who tabled the other amendments in this group not to press them. We have already made considerable changes to our initial view on the commission.

Mr. Öpik

I have listened to the Minister, but I am not terribly happy with the reply. I know him to be a man of great reason and fairness, and believe him to be committed to doing the right thing, especially when it comes to issues of discrimination. He must therefore know how nervous the Equal Opportunities Commission and the other three bodies are about the proposed merger. I am pleased to hear his reassurance that the arrangements are designed to ensure that those concerns will be taken seriously. Nevertheless, the bodies have an emphatic worry that the changes will be damaging not only for the individuals involved but for the new organisation in doing its work.

The issues raised in amendment No. 156 will not simply disappear. Although I realise that the Committee will soon debate the other forms of discrimination, I repeat that there must be a body to which individuals facing those forms of discrimination can bring their grievance. It is all very well talking about a "one-stop shop", but the last thing that we want to do is to make some people feel that their concerns are right at the back shelf, discounted or in the bargain basement. Providing such a reassurance was the purpose of tabling and moving amendment No. 156. The amendment would ensure that people feel that they can take their concerns to the Equality Commission, even if the form of discrimination affecting them is not related directly to the most frequently debated forms of discrimination.

Amendment No. 156 is not—as the hon. Members for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) and for Luton, South (Ms Moran) said—about equal resources but about equal priority. We have to give equal priority to any form of discrimination. As I said earlier in the debate, ultimately, individual are less interested in why they are discriminated against than in the fact that such discrimination is happening. All discrimination can wreck lives. Giving the Equality Commission the mandate to tackle all discrimination and then to allocate resources accordingly could provide the opportunity for Northern Ireland to lead the way in the United Kingdom in tackling what is basically a waste of human opportunities and, still worse, the very frictions that the settlement Bill is designed to prevent.

On the understanding, however, that the Minister has listened to our concerns and that he will carry on doing so, including those that the various commissions that are to be merged have raised and will continue to raise, and in the hope that we can carry on making informal contributions to the guidance that we have discussed, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 170, in page 27, leave out from beginning of line 40 to 'representative' in line 41 and insert `as far as practicable secure that the Commission's members, as a group, are'.—[Mr. Paul Murphy.] Clause 59, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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