HC Deb 27 July 1998 vol 317 cc55-62 5.41 pm
Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I beg to move amendment No. 175, in page 25, line 26, after 'Commission', insert 'with membership from Northern Ireland reflecting the community balance.'.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 40, in page 25, line 28, leave out 'appointed by the Secretary of State' and insert— '(2A) Her Majesty may by Letters Patent from time to time appoint persons to be chairman and members, and any person so appointed shall hold office during good behaviour.'.

No. 41, in page 25, line 29, leave out 'the Secretary of State' and insert 'Her Majesty'.

> No. 56, in schedule 8, page 46, line 34, after 'to', insert `section 54(2A) and'.

No. 57, in schedule 8, page 46, line 41, leave out 'The Secretary of State' and insert 'Her Majesty'.

No. 58, in schedule 8, page 47, line 11, leave out 'in accordance with directions of the Secretary of State'. Government amendments Nos. 209 and 210.

Mr. McDonnell

I shall be brief. The commission will conduct critical work to ensure that human rights are preserved and protected in the interests of all sections of the community. Clause 54(3) states: In making appointments under this section, the Secretary of State shall as far as practicable secure that the Commissioners, as a group, are representative of the community in Northern Ireland. That is somewhat weaker than our proposal because the amendment seeks a definite community balance. It does not use the words "as far as practicable" and is not merely representative of the community as a whole. As I have said, the commission will play important roles and that is why it is prudent to get its composition right.

Throughout debate on the legislation, members of the Committee have been meticulous in pointing to the need for community balance and agreement across the board in decision making and in the exercise of these powers. The amendment would help to meet that need.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I should like to speak to my amendments Nos. 40 and 42 and to comment on Government amendments Nos. 209 and 210. Amendment No. 40 states: (2A) Her Majesty may by Letters Patent from time to time appoint persons to be chairman and members, and any person so appointed shall hold office during good behaviour. The amendment seeks to give the commission a greater quasi-constitutional status and greater independence from the Northern Ireland Office than the Bill envisages. It would bring it closer to the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration; indeed, the amendment is based on the legislation that established that office. There is also another reason to which I referred generally on Second Reading. I should like to go into more detail on the points that I made then, and I shall do so now to obviate the need to repeat them on subsequent amendments. I trust that the Minister of State will bear them in mind.

First, the United Nations established in the Paris convention some principles known as the Paris principles, and they outline what should or should not be contained in an effective human rights body such as a commission. The first of those is that the body should be seen to be as independent as possible of the state. Appointments by letters patent rather than by the Secretary of State will ensure that they are not political appointments and subject to the differing pressures that might arise. That is of the utmost importance.

Secondly, the Paris convention also envisaged that a human rights commission should be not only reactive but proactive. That is also embodied in my suggestion as to how the chairman should be appointed, and it appears in some of the later amendments that have been chosen for discussion. In particular, such a commission should have the power to initiate investigations, help people and to be an amicus curiae if and when it feels that that is necessary.

The flavour of the majority of the amendments that have been tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends is that it is important to ensure from the start that the commission will be independent. I regret that, although the Government have tabled some amendments to the parts of the Bill that deal with equality—they do not go far enough, but at least some action has been taken—there does not seem to be a Government amendment to the part of the Bill dealing with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that would embrace the points that I raised earlier. I appreciate that other Departments may be interested in these matters, but my second major point is that it is important for these matters to be in the Bill.

As I said on Second Reading, in December at the Strasbourg Heads of Government meeting, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister endorsed the Strasbourg declaration to establish a human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe. Basically, that consists of all the well-established democratic countries of Europe, emerged and newly emerging.

This will be the first creation of a human rights commission in any of the well-established European democracies since that declaration. The emerging European countries are looking to other countries for examples of how to approach the question of human rights, enforce them and establish independence from the usual organs of the state in examining whether there have been abuses. Those countries will look carefully at such examples and will look specifically and directly at the newest example of a human rights commission. It will be in the United Kingdom, and specifically in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland will have what we do not have—a draft human rights Act. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we should have these powers, which are embodied in the concept of a chairman appointed under letters patent rather than by the Secretary of State.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will pay heed to the flavour and intention of all the amendments relating to the Human Rights Commission, so that we can feel that there will be independence from the Secretary of State and thus from political opinion and other pressures.

I want to deal with Government amendments Nos. 209 and 210, which would replace the word "its" with the word "their". I always thought that the word "commission" was a collective noun and therefore singular. Why, then, do the Government want to replace "its" with "their"? If we were talking about commission members, I could understand the use of "their", but to use "their" when referring to the commission is stretching the bounds of language.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

We need to know exactly what is meant by the term "community balance" in amendment No. 175. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) did not spell that out. Does he mean that there should be a balance on a sectarian basis, a religious basis or a political basis? It was intended that the Parades Commission should have a community balance, but when two members resigned the two who replaced them did not preserve that balance. On this occasion, we need to know more clearly what is meant by "community balance" before we can reach a conclusion on the amendment.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I readily added my name to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). If my hon. Friend the Minister is not minded to accept these reasonable amendments, will he assure the Committee that the clause, unamended, is compatible with paragraph 5 of the agreement, which calls for a human rights commission with membership from Northern Ireland reflecting the community balance"? In a sense, that answers the question of the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor); the agreement specifies "community balance".

The very helpful notes on clauses state: Subsection (2) provides that the Commission is to consist of a Chief Commissioner and other Commissioners appointed by the Secretary of State. The Bill deliberately makes no reference to the size of the Commission, nor the method of appointment, which will be dealt with administratively. I need hardly remind my hon. Friend the Minister that in paragraph 10 the agreement calls for a joint committee of representatives of the two Human Rights Commissions". Do the two Governments envisage that the two commissions—one in the Republic and the other in the north of Ireland—would have the same number of members and deal with the same matters, which, presumably, they would discuss when considering the possibility of establishing a charter, open to signature by all democratic political parties, reflecting and endorsing agreed measures for the protection of the fundamental rights of everyone living in the island of Ireland"? If the Minister is unwilling to accept the amendments, will he give me the assurance I have requested and comment on the compatibility of the two commissions, one in the Republic and the other in the north of Ireland?

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I welcome amendment No. 175. It is about time we had a body dealing with human rights in Northern Ireland that had some community balance. The Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights certainly did not have any community balance—it was very much weighted against the Unionist community.

I suppose that the very fact that amendment No. 175 has been tabled shows that some hon. Members believe that the Secretary of State, were she left to her own devices, would appoint a human rights commission that did not reflect the balance of the community. There is some healthy scepticism among those on the Labour Back Benches which is to be welcomed. I am glad that those hon. Members want the commission to be balanced so that there is respectable Unionist representation on it, which is not the case at the moment.

There should be no need to put into the Bill a requirement on the Secretary of State to appoint a balanced commission; it is what one expects a Secretary of State to do. However, neither the Secretary of State nor Ministers have appointed people who reflect the community balance, so there needs to be a requirement for them to appoint on a cross-community basis. It is important that the Minister put on the record today clear guidance on what he understands by "community balance"—whether it be representation across the political and religious divides or simply on the basis of gender or some other aspect.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

The Human Rights Commission is an important aspect of the Bill because it is an important aspect of the agreement. I remind the Committee that we spent many days in the talks on this matter. They were profitable talks and negotiations, with little disagreement on the principles behind the Human Rights Commission.

I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that, when the commission is formed, we will have one of the strongest human rights institutions in Europe. The commission will advise the Government and the Assembly Executive on human rights. It will see all Assembly legislation and be able to offer an opinion on whether it is compatible with the European convention on human rights. It will, as a priority, consult and advise on the drawing up of a Bill of Rights to suit Northern Ireland's particular needs, and such a Bill would also become fundamental law by being put into a Westminster Act.

The commission will be able to support people whose human rights have been denied or abused by helping them to take their cases to the courts. It will be a powerful voice and force in developing, through education and research, an active human rights culture in Northern Ireland. It will be independent of Government, employing its own staff and deciding how best to carry out its tasks. It will do everything it can to ensure that the north-south human rights committee, envisaged by the agreement, is set up.

I understand that aspects of the Bill are not entirely satisfactory to hon. Members or to organisations that deal with these matters in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said—and I repeat the promise—that, during the summer and before the Bill goes to the other place, we will consult political parties both here and in Northern Ireland to ensure that some of the points that are sensibly made are dealt with in the other place. Indeed, as we go through today's debate, I shall be more than prepared to accede to or consider further a number of amendments. We are listening to the debate on the understanding that there will be more time for consultation.

One of the reasons for more consultation is that the agreement contains only one paragraph dealing with the new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Inevitably, the agreement is silent on a number of issues. Consequently, there is all the more reason for us to consult further.

6 pm

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

The Minister will be aware that the agreement mentions not party balance but community balance. Although I have every belief that he—or whoever appoints the commissioners—will ensure that the commission has a community balance, does he accept that the legislation probably would be strengthened if the Bill specifically stated that there should be such a community balance?

Mr. Murphy

I shall in fact deal now with the amendments—the first of which, No. 175, was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell). It states that the commission should have membership from Northern Ireland reflecting the community balance. My hon. Friend was right to say that that provision is in the Belfast agreement—in the second line of paragraph 5, on page 17—but I do not agree with him that it is not in the Bill. We believe that the wording of clause 54(3) is the best way to give legislative effect to that part of the agreement referring to community balance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) made some points on the commission's independence and the position of the Secretary of State and of Her Majesty. I think that the Bill and the agreement—and everything that has happened in between—show that we are more than happy that the commission should be genuinely independent. However, we still believe that it is for the Government to appoint the commission. Moreover, if Her Majesty had to appoint the commission, the Secretary of State—as leading Minister in these matters—would be advising her.

Although I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, made on the ombudsman—who deals with slightly different matters—I do not think that amendment No. 40 would change the position.

Mr. John D. Taylor

What exactly does the Minister mean by "community balance"?

Mr. Murphy

It is a matter not of what I think but of what the agreement said. It very clearly said: membership from Northern Ireland reflecting the community balance". I am sure that, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State appoints the commissioners, she will be bearing in mind exactly the type of talks and discussions that we had in the negotiations leading to the Belfast agreement. I am sure that, in so doing, she will be able to reflect the community balance. I am sure, too, that the right hon. Gentleman is aware of that.

Mr. Taylor

As the Minister was involved in the talks, and the Secretary of State was rarely involved in them, surely he can tell us what is meant by "community balance"?

Mr. Murphy

Yes, I can. However, I think that it would be more profitable if such a discussion were held in the next two months with all the parties in Northern Ireland.

As I said, one paragraph in the agreement deals with the commission's community balance. I think that all the world knows what traditions and communities we are considering: the broad Unionist community and the broad nationalist community. There are also other parties in Northern Ireland, such as the Alliance party, that very much think that there is another tradition that is not aligned to either Unionism or nationalism. As the right hon. Gentleman knows—as he is an Assembly member and will have to state his designation—there are other categories.

When we discussed the matter, I have not the slightest doubt that we referred to the nationalist and Unionist communities. However, my right hon. Friend will have to take into account the fine balancing required in the matter when she and I consult the parties in the summer months.

Two other issues were raised in the debate, the first of which—on the use of "theirs" rather than "its", as proposed in Government amendments Nos. 209 and 210—was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North. For the 11 years that I have been an hon. Member, I have been constantly amazed at singles being plurals and vice versa. However, I am advised that such wording is the legal and technical way to legislate, even if it is not always the best English.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Is it possible that "they" is necessary for the joint committee that the Minister mentioned? If not, "it" should cover one commission. How is there a legal aspect to the matter? Surely the English language has a clear enough meaning.

Mr. Murphy

I sometimes wonder about that. I think that, in this case—I promise to come back to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong on this—the use is not in the context only of the joint committee, which I shall deal with now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) mentioned the joint committee, which is mentioned also in the agreement. It will be for the Republic of Ireland to decide the composition of its part of the committee in its own jurisdiction. Clause 55(7) provides for the commission to do all it can in facilitating the agreement. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be satisfied by that.

With those remarks, I should be grateful if amendment No. 175 were withdrawn, as many of the points that have been raised in the debate will be the subject of consultation in the summer months with parties in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The Committee must face the issue of community raised by amendment No. 175. In my constituency, it would be possible to appoint to a commission people from the upper Malone, for example, who would be perceived as representing one part of the community, and other people from Balmoral, who would be perceived as representing another part of the community. I do not think that people from either group would be seen as representing the Markets, Sandy Row, the Donegall road or Taugh Monagh. As has been said in this debate, communities are not simply political parties. We have to remember that we are dealing with human rights and with issues affecting people in every part of the community.

I wonder whether the Government have allowed themselves, in clause 54(3), a cop-out in the phrase "as far as practicable". As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, once people on the Parades Commission realised what they were called on to do, they resigned and were replaced by those who were perceived by some—including those in authority—as representing the other community. However, they lived so remote from the other community that they could not represent it. We have to deal with the situation as it is.

I appreciate the Minister's comments on re-examining the use of the English language. He is a Welshman and I speak Ulster English. I should like to think that our English is accurate, especially when we deal with any legal interpretations that could cause us problems.

I should have liked the effects of amendment No. 40 to be teased out a little more. As a Unionist, I would have no difficulty with such a provision involving Her Majesty. I am not sure whether use of the words "Letters Patent" suggests that guidance to Her Majesty would come from the Lord Chancellor or from someone else who holds an office that is perhaps less political than that of the Secretary of State's, thereby providing some independence in the matter. On the other hand, some people might perceive it as a little mischievous if, instead of leaving the responsibility with the Secretary of State, the Committee placed it on Her Majesty's shoulders—bearing in mind the fact that some people in Northern Ireland have a strong republican tradition and might regard that as a departure from the agreement.

Mr. McDonnell

I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he will be reviewing the position in the coming months and will consult on the definition of community balance. For the sake of clarity, I urge him to ensure that that consultation takes place before the Bill goes to another place.

Throughout our discussions on the Bill—I have sat through them all—we have tried to ensure that the Bill reflects the agreement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) made clear, the amendment directly reflects the statement in the agreement that the Human Rights Commission should reflect the community balance. I appreciate the need for the implementation to be spelled out in clause 54, but unfortunately I do not think that subsection (1) goes far enough in reflecting the agreement.

On the definition of community balance, there will obviously be a matrix of different factors that need to be taken into account. That is why it is critical that there be consultation and clarity before the Bill goes to another place. I welcome the Minister's assurance that there will be further consideration, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

The series of amendments to clause 54 deal with the—I am sorry, Mr. Martin. I shall resume my seat. I had intended to speak to clause 55; I apologise to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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