HC Deb 18 November 1998 vol 319 cc1060-6

Lords amendment: No. 123, in page 26, line 3, at end insert— ("( ) The Commission shall, before the end of the period of two years beginning with the commencement of this section, make to the Secretary of State such recommendations as it thinks fit for improving—

  1. (a) its effectiveness;
  2. (b) the adequacy and effectiveness of the functions conferred on it by this Part; and
  3. (c) the adequacy and effectiveness of the provisions of this Part relating to it.")

Mr. Paul Murphy

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 124 and 125, amendment (a) thereto and Lords amendments Nos. 126 to 136 and 277 to 280.

I must inform the House that Lords amendments Nos. 277 and 278 involve privilege.

Mr. Murphy

The Government received extensive representations on the Floor of the House and during the summer months on the human rights issue, and we received many amendments to the Bill on that subject. We have introduced amendments of our own which meet many of the concerns that have been expressed.

A powerful case was made for an extension of the Human Rights Commission's functions and powers beyond what is currently provided for in the Bill. We have not closed our minds on that, and we therefore introduced amendment No. 123 to require the commission, no later than two years after its establishment, to review the adequacy of its powers.

Amendments Nos. 124 and 132 go together. Amendment No. 124 makes clear on the face of the Bill the ability of the Human Rights Commission to bring proceedings involving law or practice relating to the protection of human rights, but amendment No. 132 ensures that this provision does not override the need for a "victim" under the Human Rights Act 1998. In exercising its various functions as laid down in the clause, we would expect that a normal part of the way the commission operates will be to carry out investigations. Amendment No. 125 provides for that.

As my colleague Lord Williams of Mostyn explained in the other place, the Government will co-operate fully with any investigation undertaken by the commission. We shall provide it with any information and documents necessary to such an investigation, subject only to adequate arrangements being made to protect information where confidentiality is required, and to safeguard national security, public safety and public order.

Amendment No. 126 widens the ambit of clause 55 so that the commission will be able to assist persons in any proceedings which, in the view of the commission, involve either the law or practice relating to protection of human rights. Amendments Nos. 127 to 131 are technical improvements, which ensure that the Bill will allow the commission to assist "persons" rather than individuals, and that will allow the commission to assist incorporated bodies as well as individual people.

I have already mentioned amendment No. 132. Amendments Nos. 133 to 135 are technical amendments, which ensure that the Human Rights Commission can bring proceedings in cases involving non-European convention on human rights issues. Amendment No. 136 provides that the Advocate-General for Scotland is exempt from restrictions, as well as the other Law Officers listed.

There are four amendments to schedule 8. Amendments Nos. 277 and 278 are technical, and will make it possible for employment by the commission to fall within the terms of a superannuation scheme under the Superannuation Act 1972. Amendments Nos. 279 and 280 are simple drafting amendments that improve the consistency and comprehensiveness of the schedule.

There are also some issues relating to the Human Rights Commission on which we did not introduce amendments, but on which we believe that we should take the opportunity to clarify our position. We have been asked about the role of the commission as amicus curiae. Courts will be free to ask the commission to provide assistance as amicus under the normal rules that apply. However, that is not a matter for the Bill, but for the court in individual cases.

There has also been considerable debate on the commission's role in scrutinising draft legislation. Under clause 11, all Bills introduced in the Assembly will be sent to the commission as soon as is reasonably practicable after their introduction. That does not prevent the sponsors of legislation from involving the commission earlier, before a first draft of a Bill appears. Certainly the Government would expect to consult the commission at an early stage on any proposal for Westminster legislation that touched on human rights issues in Northern Ireland.

We have no reason to doubt that sponsors of Bills in the Assembly will do the same. Before draft legislation is introduced, its referral to the commission is not a matter for the Assembly, and the Bill clearly cannot regulate what the Assembly should do. I hope that that explanation answers most of the outstanding issues.

Mr. McNamara

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for much of what he has just said, and for his clarification of several issues. He has put the Government's intentions into Hansard, and the courts will therefore have to pay attention to them. However, I am concerned about several points.

First, the amendments will considerably extend the role and purpose of the commission. Will it have sufficient funds to carry out its functions? We have heard figures bandied about of less than £1 million, a sum that would not be sufficient to achieve a proper inquiry in some cases. What will be the financial restraints? Will the money come from the Treasury, or from the Northern Ireland grant, on which there are other pressures?

Secondly, I want to be sure that I correctly understood my hon. Friend's final point on Westminster legislation. The Belfast agreement said that the new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission would have an extended and enhanced role beyond that currently exercised by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, to include keeping under review the adequacy and effectiveness of laws and practices, making recommendations to Government as necessary". My hon. Friend the Minister said that any proposed legislation affecting human rights and concerning Northern Ireland that passed through this House would go to the Human Rights Commission.

11.15 pm

I hope that I have understood that correctly, because, if that is the case, it would overcome some of the difficulties that have arisen in the statement of my noble Friend Lord Williams of Mostyn. He said of the proposal that Westminster legislation should go to the Human Rights Commission: We do not think that that is necessary because Westminster Bills will be subject to the regime proposed in the Human Rights Bill to ensure that Ministers consider their compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 October 1998; Vol. 594, c. 1536.] Of course, it is possible that legislation emanating from Westminster and affecting Northern Ireland may be within the European convention on human rights, but not within human rights and other legislation as it is concerned with Northern Ireland and its Human Rights Commission.

I turn briefly to the amendment that has caused most concern, a matter on which I have the support of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), who sadly is now in St. Thomas's hospital. I am sure that all my colleagues send him their good wishes, and hope that he will have a speedy recovery. Had he been here, he would have been vociferous on this amendment because of his concern for human rights in Northern Ireland and the amendment arising from the Tinnelly case, which, as he was quick to point out, had many of the aspects of exclusion orders.

The thrust of the amendment in my name to Lords amendment No. 125 seeks to strengthen the role of the Human Rights Commission. It provides that, when initiating an investigation, the commission can subpoena witnesses and demand the production of documents.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State failed to deal with that main issue. In correspondence with me, he said that the matter was not dealt with completely in the agreement. In fact, in the section entitled "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity", in paragraph 4, the agreement says: The new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission … will be invited to consult and advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland"— that is the first point, which my hon. Friend has dealt with— drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experience. The basic documents on international rights and experience are the Paris principles.

My hon. Friend will probably be aware of a letter sent on 18 June by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which he kindly placed in the Library. The High Commissioner, who one would think would have broad knowledge of these matters, says: While this responsibility does not generally require the relevant institutions"— that is, human rights commissions— to make binding decisions (which for constitutional reasons are generally reserved to the courts) it is common practice to accord these Commissions powers to conduct investigations effectively by compelling the production of documents and the attendance of witnesses, if necessary. Such powers would, in my view, clearly be appropriate for the new institutions envisaged by the Multi-Party Agreement.

My hon. Friend and the parties to the agreement say that they will look for international standards. The minimum international standards are laid down in the Paris principles. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has written to the Prime Minister stating that the powers are minimum requirements, and that she would expect to see them in the agreement. My hon. Friend the Minister of State says that we cannot depart from the agreement, as there does not seem to be much agreement on the matter, but all the parties agreed on the minimum international standards, and the United Nations High Commissioner says that these are the minimum international standards.

We have been let down. I know that my hon. Friend said that, in two years, the Human Rights Commission can examine the situation, and may recommend those powers. I believe that provision for the powers is contained in the agreement as a minimum international standard. The High Commissioner agrees.

My hon. Friend states in correspondence with me that there is not sufficient consensus among the parties to the agreement. However, all the parties agreed to what was in the agreement. That is the first point. Secondly, which people have not come out in favour of it?

Sadly—perhaps because we are dealing with human rights—there are no hon. Members present from the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party or the United Kingdom Unionist party. I regret that. They should be present to answer these points. The Ulster Unionist party is the only party to the agreement that has not come out explicitly in favour of the commission having those powers, despite what is in the agreement. Even if the UUP is the only party to the agreement that is not involved, surely sufficient consensus does exist. Does that mean that the party has a veto on the issue?

The second point that I invite my hon. Friend to answer is why the Government took the position that the sufficient consensus rule applied when effective enforcement powers are required by the UN Paris principles, which they know were the minimum standards. I do not understand the Government's position. I welcome most of what my hon. Friend said about the improvement of the clauses, but the right of the Human Rights Commission to hold inquiries is fundamental.

I know that the Government will co-operate in every way, as they have said, subject to national security and so on. They will produce the documents and provide the information. If cases arise and the commission is involved under the rules of procedure, it can compel the discovery of documents and subpoena witnesses. I understand that as well.

However, with respect to the commission's power to hold inquiries, it is starting off in the knowledge that it cannot oblige people to attend and give evidence, or enforce the discovery of documents. It will be hampered from the outset, and people will be able to cock a snook at it. If, in two years, the commission begins an inquiry and decides that it needs the powers, the Government will say that legislation is necessary.

I can see no powers to make statutory orders to change the authority of the Human Rights Commission. If that is the case, we will be fighting for places on the statute book—unless the Assembly decides to introduce such provisions. However, that same negative force, the Ulster Unionist party, could prevent their introduction through Assembly legislation. That is why we have ring-fenced human rights legislation within Westminster: the Assembly will be at the beck and call of particular pressure groups not to get legislation on the statute book.

I urge my hon. Friend, even at this late stage, to consider carefully the contents of the Belfast agreement and Mary Robinson's letter, and to decide whether we want to hobble the Human Rights Commission in this way.

Mr. McGrady

I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). He has presented his detailed case with great clarity, and left nothing out of the argument on behalf of his amendment.

The establishment of the Human Rights Commission is extremely welcome and significant because it places human rights issues centre stage. That subject has been the cause of much conflict in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. To his credit, I confess that the Minister has entered into much consultation about the Lords amendments, and has addressed many human rights issues that were raised in a debate in this place in the last few weeks of July.

Therefore, I shall confine myself to asking the Minister several questions to which I hope he will respond this evening. First, does the Minister accept that, by not granting the commission the power of discovery of documents and the power to compel witness attendance—as my hon. Friend pointed out—it will have fewer powers than are recommended in the United Nations Paris principles, which outline the good practice for national human rights institutions?

Secondly, does the Minister accept that the proposed powers are less than those granted to the health and safety bodies, for example, that are already extant in the north of Ireland? That is the situation under the legislation. Thirdly, does the Minister agree that it is desirable that the commission should enjoy the powers of discovery and compulsion in due course? If the commission requests those powers in the two-year review, will the Government respond positively?

Mr. Paul Murphy

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull. North (Mr. McNamara) raised several points. He referred to the funding of the Human Rights Commission. We have in mind an indicative figure of £750,000 for the commission's annual budget. That figure will remain under review, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will ensure that the commission is properly funded to carry out its functions under the Bill, within the normal constraints of public expenditure control—to which we are all subject. I confirm that my hon. Friend's comments about Westminster legislation were accurate.

The main issue that both he and my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) raised related to the proposal to give the Human Rights Commission the power to compel the attendance of witnesses and the power of discovery of documents. That significant issue was discussed, not just in the House, but during the recess in several meetings with Members of Parliament, the Northern Ireland political parties, various interest groups and the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. Many people and institutions were involved in discussions about the matter.

We concluded, however, that, because that issue was not specifically referred to in the agreement, and because it was a significant issue in itself, we were not in a position to accede to including it in,the Bill. There was not sufficient consensus as a result of the consultation processes to which I have referred.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Nevertheless, does the Minister agree that the arrangements, the provisions and the legislation to protect human rights in Northern Ireland are, at present, much better than the provisions for any other region of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Murphy

I am sure they are, and 1 sincerely hope that, as a consequence of the Bill, they will be even more so. I am convinced that the people who drew up the agreement, those of us who were in the talks and the people who voted on the agreement believe that the human rights provisions are an important aspect of it, as are the equality provisions.

Mr. McNamara

Can my hon. Friend say where we have drawn, as appropriate, on international instruments and experience, and what his reaction is to what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described as necessary attributes to the Bill?

11.15 pm
Mr. Murphy

I do not for one second underestimate the significance of the contributions made by international institutions on these matters. All I am saying is that, where the agreement is silent, it is incumbent on us to consult with all the political parties and Governments who were involved in the talks process, and to come to a conclusion about whether such a proposal would have achieved sufficient consensus had the talks continued. I cannot give an assurance to the House, however, because no such consensus emerged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) quoted from the agreement referring specifically to paragraph 4 at page 17. That is clearly concerned with the commission's consideration of a future Bill of rights. I am absolutely clear that there is a great deal of merit in what my hon. Friend says, and in the representations that have been made to us. That is why the Government have not closed their mind to a review, after two years, if the Human Rights Commission tells us that it cannot do its work without those powers, or that it could do its work much more effectively if those powers were granted to it.

We do not know what the Human Rights Commission is likely to say in two years, any more than I know what the Government will say in response to the commission. All I am saying is that the opportunity exists, the door is not closed and the points have been well made.

Although we cannot incorporate a review into the Bill because there was insufficient consensus, I believe that much in the Bill that refers to human rights puts Northern Ireland on a much higher plane than all other parts of the United Kingdom and many other countries in Europe and the world. As a consequence, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North will not seek to move his amendment to amendment No. 125. We shall await developments.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 124 to 136 agreed to.

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