HL Deb 25 March 1976 vol 369 cc818-39

5.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. At the outset I wish to correct a mistake in the text of the Bill for which I accept responsibility. Clause 6 (1) refers to a "Northern Ireland Constitutional Court Act 1975". From documentation received from Northern Ireland I believed that that expected measure had reached the Statute Book. It has not. The Public Bill Office drew my attention to this error but, unfortunately, I received their communication after the Bill had been printed. In those circumstances, if the enforcement clauses, to which I attach a great importance, are to operate, it will be necessary either to amend the Bill in Committee or to introduce a separate Bill to set up the Court. I apologise for the error and regret the inconvenience caused to Members of this House and to the Printed Paper Office staff who give us such good service.

I want to acknowledge the help which I have received in draft Bills already prepared on this subject by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the Ulster Citizens' Civil Liberties Centre, where the Protestant community has very considerable influence. This is the third time I have introduced a Bill for rights in Northern Ireland. On each previous occasion, sympathy has been expressed on both sides of the House and I recognise that progress has been made. Part III of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, providing for the prevention of religious and political discrimination by local authorities, has been considerably applied, particularly in relation to housing, and we have recently passed the Fair Employment Bill through this House.

Nevertheless, more comprehensive safeguards are required in Northern Ireland for rights and liberties.

In the Discussion Paper recently issued by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, of which my noble friend Lord Feather is the chairman, there are compiled arguments both for and against a Bill of Rights. In the arguments in favour are included a series of indications that wider safeguards are necessary. That section of the Discussion Paper concludes by suggesting that the absence of a Bill of Rights, enforceable by the courts, against the misuse of public powers may have contributed to the present situation in Northern Ireland.

I am tremendously encouraged by the fact of the extraordinary unity in Northern Ireland in asking for a Bill of Rights. I was unable to see or hear the television—or it may have been radio—feature in which repreentatives of Northern Ireland discussed the necessity for a Bill of Rights, but I am told that even Mr. Paisley came out enthusiastically in favour of such a Bill. The recent Northern Ireland Convention, despite its deep differences on the question of power sharing and its subsequent dissolution, was united in demanding a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. It agreed that there should be, a general Bill of Rights and Duties to protect the rights of the individual citizen. My Lords, I want to be fair and to recognise that there were differences at the Convention as to the scope of a Bill—whether it should extend to Britain, as well as to Northern Ireland—and the initiative in passing it. The United Ulster Unionist Coalition and the Northern Ireland Labour Party would prefer an all-United Kingdom measure, as has been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Wade. But both accepted that the need for a Bill of Rights was so great that as a secondary proposal they would accept a Northern Ireland measure alone. With the Independent Unionist Party, the UUUC took the view that the Bill of Rights should be initiated by a Northern Ireland Legislature, but as there is no such Legislature, and as there is unlikely to be one for some time, I submit, in view of the urgency of the situation, that a Bill must be immediately introduced at Westminster.

My Bill, like the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Wade, is based on the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. I agree with the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland that it is the best detailed document on human rights produced to date. I am interested to see that this endorsed by the UUUC in Northern Ireland, and that the Alliance Party takes the view also that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the European Convention is an application, should be the measure to which an appeal should be made.

As I indicated earlier, there is a Standing Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland, of which the noble Lord, Lord Feather, is chairman. It has recently issued a Discussion Paper. The noble Lord, Lord Feather, will be aware that in Northern Ireland the Commission is attacked as a delaying tactic, when the need for a Bill of Rights is immediate. I want to dissociate myself from the criticism which is made of the noble Lord, Lord Feather, personally. I recollect that he said, when addressing the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce: Human rights mean freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, freedom for all of us. I have known him all his life, and I know that he is dedicated to the cause of personal liberty, of racial equality, and of social justice. I am saying this because some attacks are being made on him in Northern Ireland at this moment.

But I also want to say this to him. When the Commission was established he indicated that it might take one year to come to its conclusions. From the beginning I wondered whether the Commission was ever necessary. All the facts are known. For five years now there has been open discussion of the need for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. The pros and cons have been debated. There is the Gardiner Report. There is the very detailed discussion in the Constitutional Convention. The attitude of all Parties and groups in Northern Ireland is already known. In my view a civil servant could have drawn up a memorandum which would have covered all the facts, and certainly the Department in Northern Ireland could have collected the necessary evidence.

I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Feather, that, whatever happens to my Bill tonight, I beg him to speed up the conclusions of his Commission, because a decision is so urgent. I suggest that it is specially urgent because of the breakdown of the Constitutional Convention. There is a great danger that in the vacuum which has been left disillusionment of a political solution will lead to an increase of the violence that is taking place. Among both Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland there is scepticism as to the contribution of politicians. The IRA will exploit this situation among the Catholics. The aggressive para-militarist groups will exploit it among the Protestants. I welcome the initiative of the Government, in this vacuum, of taking action in the economic and social sphere. I urge them to accompany that by applying human rights in Northern Ireland. In this vacuum we need positive action to open the ivory gate to end violence, and to encourage co-operation.

It is suggested now that power sharing is the solution. Immediately, yes—and one is encouraged by the fact that opinion polls in Northern Ireland are indicating that a majority in Northern Ireland is now in favour of power sharing. It may easily be that in the near future a referendum will encourage that solution. But I do not believe that power sharing is the permanent solution. The problems of Northern Ireland are poverty, unemployment, slums, the underdevelopment of the West. Power sharing would mean a Coalition between the capitalist-orientated businesmen of the UUUC with the socialist-orientated members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. They have fundamentally different approaches to the solution of the problems of Northern Ireland, and, as in this country, a Coalition Government of Parties with different views would just dither and fail to act.

If one rejects rower sharing as the long-term solution in Northern Ireland, then it becomes imperatively important that whatever Government are in Office there, there shall be underneath a basis of equality between the communities, an assurance of individual liberties (which in the past have been denied) to give confidence and to give security. The supreme need is that we create a new climate in Northern Ireland, a sense of security, the removal of the fear of discrimination, the spreading of a soil in which tolerance and mutual respect would flower. I believe that in the present situation a Bill of Rights would do more in those directions than anything else. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Brockway.)

6.0 p.m.


My Lords, when considering the possibility of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland I think it is worth taking note of existing legislation, and this the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, did, but only briefly, in his introductory speech on this Bill. Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 prevented the Parliament of Northern Ireland from making laws which would discriminate on grounds of religion. Section 17 of the 1973 Northern Ireland Constitution Act in effect extended this provision to discrimination on the grounds of religion or political opinion. Section 8 of the 1920 Act prevented the Executive, which was then the Lord Lieutenant, from discriminating on religious grounds. Section 19 of the 1973 Act extended this prohibition to discrimination on grounds of political opinion as well, and made it clear that United Kingdom authorities, Northern Ireland local authorities and other public bodies fall within the scope of this section. Section 19 of the 1973 Act did another thing. It also made it clear that an individual may resort to the courts if an authority discriminates against him—a right which was not clearly defined by the 1920 Act.

It is true that the prohibition of discrimination under the 1973 Act was confined to discrimination by Government, local authorities and appointed bodies—in other words, the public sector—but, as the noble Lord mentioned, subsequently the Northern Ireland (Fair Employment) Bill has passed through your Lordships' House and is now before another place, and that Bill deals with job discrimination, not only in the public sector but also in the private sector of employment.

Whether Sections 17 and 19 of the 1973 Constitution Act taken with the Northern Ireland (Fair Employment) Bill provide a sufficiently comprehensive framework of legislation to prevent religious or political discrimination in Northern Ireland is obviously open to discussion, and I am deliberately confining myself to this rather narrower scope after the previous, wide-ranging debate, although, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has every right—and, indeed, I think was quite right—to go a great deal wider in moving the Second Reading of this Bill.

In addition to the legislation which I have sought to mention, the 1973 Act established the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, which was then appointed under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Feather; and it was clearly provided for in the 1973 legislation that this Commission was appointed with the purpose of doing far more than simply backing up the Act which had given it birth. The noble Lord's Commission was charged to survey the existing law against discrimination and to recommend improvements to it. With respect, I think this was an aspect which the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, did not perhaps give quite enough credence to in his words. As your Lordships know, the Commission has not proceeded so far as making recommendations one way or the other with regard to the desirability of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The Commission's work has progressed so far as the discussion paper which the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, mentioned, which was published on 5th March, and which is I think most valuable, in that it sets out so clearly the arguments for and against the case for a Bill of Rights.

This Bill, however, seeks to draft legislation. It would import into the law of Northern Ireland Section 1 of the European Convention. The desirability of doing this has been debated on the previous Bill in the context of the United Kingdom as a whole, and I would not venture to enter into those arguments; but perhaps I may make one thing clear. Although I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, that there is evidently a consensus of opinion in Northern Ireland as to how a Bill of Rights ought to be drafted (if this was so, I fail to see how it is that the Commission of the noble Lord, Lord Feather, is asking the questions that it is), and although I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, that the State of Emergency in Northern Ireland in itself requires a Bill of Rights (I take my stand on that from paragraphs in the Gardiner Commission to which I will return in a moment), none the less, if it is thought desirable to develop what the 1973 White Paper on the Northern Ireland Constitution called a Charter of Human Rights and to turn that into a Bill, I would certainly be ready to support such a course when it is clear that there is a consensus as to how such a Bill ought to be drafted. I am bound to admit that I do not believe we shall know about this until Lord Feather's Commission has reported, and I apprehend that we shall be unlikely to reach anything remotely resembling a consensus until the issue of whether or not powers can again be devolved to a Northern Ireland Legislature is resolved.

If I may venture to say so, I think there are perhaps some defects in this Bill to which the House perhaps would wish to turn its attention. The thought of combing through the Race Relations Act or any subsequent Act concerning racial discrimination and tacking on the words "religious discrimination" wherever appropriate seems, if the noble Lord will forgive my saying so, rather a cumbersome form of legislation; I was surprised to discover when I began to do just this that the definition of racial discrimination which is contained in the very first section of the Race Relations Act is virtually identical to the definition of religious and political discrimination which is to be found in Section 23 of the Constitution Act 1973. I appreciate the noble Lord's concern that the right to derogate from obligations under the European Convention when there is a public emergency should not be an easy derogation to claim. But the provision which is in his Bill that a public emergency in the United Kingdom should depend upon a two-thirds majority in another place surely runs counter to all Parliamentary practice in this country, and I think it is scarcely a suitable provision in a Bill starting its life in your Lordships' House.

I listened carefully to what the noble Lord said at the beginning of his speech about the relevant section for the Constitutional Court. My only conclusion from what the noble Lord said is that I am still unsure as to what would now be done about jurisdiction. The Judiciary in Northern Ireland is under very great pressure indeed, and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, will be saying a little more about this. If this Bill were to proceed, I would imagine that the setting up of a new court would mean very considerable consultation.

But I think there is a more fundamental issue than the ones which I have ventured to put forward; namely, what would be the relationship between this legislation and the sovereignty of Parliament. In the previous debate this afternoon my noble friend Lord Hailsham said that we deceive ourselves if we believe that we can legislate on the subject of human rights and fundamental freedoms and to some extent at the same time do not undermine the sovereignty of Parliament; and my noble friend explained in what way this could, in his opinion, be desirable in a context of a written Constitution with entrenched clauses. But, my Lords, the effect of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, as I understand it, is that this legislation would take precedence over all other Statutes, and I would be interested to hear the Government's view about that aspect of the Bill.

The issue, however, which I believe would make it inappropriate for this Bill to be read a second time is the issue of whether or not Northern Ireland alone ought to have a Bill of Rights, and I put this view because no decisions have yet been reached with regard to Great Britain and because the Standing Advisory Commission has yet to complete its work. But a further reason I would also give. I appreciate the noble Lord's concern that emergency legislation for Northern Ireland can threaten individual liberty. All of us ought to be concerned with this, and the noble Lord is quite right to have reminded us of it on several occasions in this House. But the temporary nature of the legislation which is passed by Parliament in this respect is, I think, evidence of our concern.

But the fact is that in paragraph 15 of their Report the Committee of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, rejected the argument that certain features of the present emergency provisions constitute a violation of human rights. The noble and learned Lord's Committee went on to say: While the liberty of the subject is a right which ought to be preserved under all possible conditions, it is not an absolute right which would allow one man to use his liberty in order to take away the liberty of another. I recognise in quoting that part of the noble and learned Lord's report that his Committee left the issue of a Bill of Rights open to further consideration and pointed out that the continued use of emergency powers should be limited by a solving of the Northern Ireland problem in political terms. But as your Lordships know, this has not yet been achieved.

May I make it clear that I do not dissent in any way from Lord Brockway's objective of securing fundamental rights of freedom for the people of Northern Ireland. I would go further. I long for the day when we will be living in a society in which the Executive, which has more and more control over the Legislature, will at least allow the individual to be protected more from the decisions taken so often, it seems to me, in breach of human rights. But having said that, I think there are too many questions which the noble Lord, Lord Feather's Commission asked and which remain as yet unanswered. The noble Lord has proceeded as swiftly as he can. I notice that he has asked for the final lot of evidence to come in very shortly, I think it was by April of this year.

I think that it is interesting to find that both the 1972 Green Paper—which was the discussion document before the 1973 Constitution was hammered out—and the 1976 discussion paper agreed that this sort of legislation has got to be practical in effect. It has got to be practical by incorporating a considerable measure of agreement as to content, jurisdiction and enforcement.

My Lords, until the Commission completes its work, I do not believe that those sort of issues can be resolved. This view that I venture to put does not reflect any hesitation about improving social conditions and community relations in Northern Ireland. The 1973 White Paper referred to a Charter of Human Rights for Northern Ireland. On these Benches we will certainly support any proposal which strengthens the laws and administration of Northern Ireland which together can be said to comprise a charter; but I believe that we need to await the conclusion of the work of the Standing Advisory Commission before any Bill of Rights is finally drafted.

6.13 p.m.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, said that no Act of Parliament, as such, would change anything unless the will was there. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, I should like to say that he really will be living in Cloud Cuckoo-land if he thinks that to pass a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would change the atmosphere in that country at the moment. The discrimination, the appalling intimidation that is occurring through lack of law and order is the most vital matter at the moment. Until that is settled the people in Northern Ireland will not be in the least impressed by legislation affecting human rights and Bills of Rights. Therefore, I should like to start by saying that I believe the noble Lord should withdraw this Bill. He has mentioned the Convention and the Convention Report. I was in that Convention and the unanimity about the requirement of a Bill of Rights by that Convention was dependent solely upon there being devolved Government within Northern Ireland. That unanimity would not exist at all in the present circumstances. We are now under a period of Direct Rule. We therefore require to be treated as part of the United Kingdom. Therefore, in my view, nothing should be done outside the United Kingdom context.

Also, I feel that this is a bad Bill in itself. Secondly I personally feel—and I was very impressed with my noble friend Lord Belstead's polite way of dealing with the subject—that while the Standing Committee on Human Rights, with the noble Lord, Lord Feather, in charge, is in existence, for us to pass a Bill of this variety is insulting and provocative both to him and to my friends who sit on that Committee. In saying that, I know I may be misinterpreting the noble Lord, Lord Brockway. He is not an insulting person, but people who do not know him and perhaps friends of mine will feel that is so. Also, for the noble Lord to include in this Bill reference to a non-existent court is, in my view, irresponsible. It merely gives the stamp on this particular Bill of its authorship, which is that of the Northern Ireland Committee of Civil Rights. That is a Committee for which I have little time and whose record in the past seven years is not something that I would admire.

My Lords, I found it hypocritical, to say the least, when we have not heard a word from the noble Lord about the denial of the prime civil right that applies to everybody in the United Kingdom, except the citizens of Northern Ireland, of equal representation in Parliament here. We have in Northern Ireland 110,000 people in North Antrim represented by one M.P. Yet in the rest of Great Britain we have a constituency of 23,000. There have been peculiar reasons given for that, among others that this Government do not wish to have in Parliament those who are elected by people who do not want to be within the United Kingdom. But the right of the citizens is to elect those who they wish to represent.

My Lords, I should like to refer to the brilliant speech by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, and to say that I, too, agree that there is a great need for a Bill of Human Rights for the United Kingdom as a whole. But it must be for the United Kingdom as a whole. Northern Ireland has more organisations and more Acts of Parliament to deal with this problem than has any other part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Belstead enumerated, we even had enshrined in Section 5 of the 1920 Act the equivalent of a Bill of Rights.

To quote the problems of local government and other problems which existed in Northern Ireland and, at the same time, to neglect the problems of certain local governments in this country is a matter of double standards. But during the whole of the period of the Parliament of Northern Ireland—even though the ordinary citizen had the right to appeal against any Act of Parliament which was considered to offend against that Bill of Rights under Section 5—this power was never invoked; so well did the Government of Northern Ireland govern for people of Northern Ireland. To suggest that the Northern Ireland Government abused the civil liberties is just not true. The facts of the present method of government, the intrusion of Government in all forms of life, mean that a Bill of Human Rights is now necessary. The problem we must solve is how to achieve a proper balance in the United Kingdom and in Northern Ireland. Before I sit down, I will ask the House to excuse me if I leave before the vote because I have to catch an aeroplane.

6.19 p.m.


My Lords, much as I support the concept of a Bill of Rights for the whole of the United Kingdom, I regret that I cannot possibly support this Bill in particular. I say "regret", because I acknowledge the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, in this matter, misguided though I believe it to be. I think it wrong for Parliament at Westminster to legislate for one part of the United Kingdom alone on an issue of this magnitude. I am pleased to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, that the Northern Ireland Labour Party agrees with me on this point. It seems to me particularly immoral that the part of the United Kingdom concerned is so grossly unrepresented at Westminster, as the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, pointed out. If a devolved Assembly were to legislate for a regional Bill of Rights, one would have no objection whatsoever. But there is no devolved Assembly and there is not likely to be one for some time to come. The continual treatment over the decades of Northern Ireland as totally different from the rest of the United Kingdom has bred the fears and suspicions which have led to the tendencies which the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, deplores.

On the detail of the Bill, there are a number of criticisms which I have to make. Clause 1(1) refers to fundamental rights…such as race, colour, sex, religious or political or other belief", and so on. The phrase "such as" seems unacceptably vague for an Act of Parliament. Regarding Clause 1(2), I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, that there are considerable difficulties in trying to link this Act to a Race Relations Act, particularly as it refers to subsequent Acts and we do not know the content of subsequent Acts. Clause 2(1) seems to seek to bind future Parliaments in a way which is alien to our Parliamentary and constitutional traditions. Clause 2(2) would make it impossible for any part of the Act to be suspended in the case of a national emergency. That is surely undesirable. Clause 4 stipulates that men and women shall have equal rights and the same legal status not only in "state" life but in social and private life also. This seems to bring the law into hitherto unexplored spheres. One visualises husbands or lovers being compelled to wash dishes and make beds on alternate days of the week.

Clause 5 seems unnecessary because I cannot think that the provisions in that clause are not available at the present moment to citizens of Northern Ireland. If the noble Lord were to insist upon the retention of this clause, why does he exclude the majority? The rights in question are only given to the minorities. This may seem academic until one considers that the Provisional IRA, and their supporters in the political field, have never disguised their intention, if they ever come into power and formed a 32-county republic, or a republic consisting of four provinces, to abolish the English language. They now play this down because it is unpopular with a lot of their own supporters; but, none the less, that is their declared policy. So the English language of the majority would be abolished. It could be argued that if the IRA or their supporters came to power the Bill of Rights would be superfluous anyway. None the less, it is the omission of any provision for a majority that tends to feed the flames of suspicion. The inclusion of religious rights does not seem to be confined merely to Church services. Religious rites, taken literally, include such things as animal sacrifice and even possibly forms of witchcraft. I do not hold strong views on the matter either way, but blanket provisions for the right to carry out religious rites, unqualified by considerations of public order, are surely not permitted in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Finally, I turn to Schedule 1, paragraph 4. I appreciate that this provision is not unique. It appears in other Bills and Acts. I none the less believe it is wrong to allow people to seek damages for injury to feelings and humiliation while English law does not provide for financial damages for parents whose children are killed in a motor accident or other forms of accident. I have mentioned this before. They are not allowed to claim damages in such circumstances because there is no monetary value which can be put on a child's life. If this is so, how much less can value be put on something as relatively trifling as injured feelings? With that, I conclude what I have to say, my Lords, but I hope the House will reject this Bill for the reasons which I have mentioned.

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, speaks, may I say that I feel that this debate has been rather academic while Northern Ireland is in a state of emergency. Under direct rule it seems, as my noble friend Lord Brookeborough said, surprising to speak about human rights. If you take, for instance, North Antrim, with an electorate of 110,000, they have such slight representation in this Parliament. Apart from that, I should like to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, that to hear him speak one would think that people in the North of Ireland never had any rights. The Stormont Parliament, before its dissolution, as my noble friend Lord Belstead pointed out, enacted many laws which carry out much of what the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has in his Bill.

I could mention other matters of legislation which my noble friend did not point out: for instance, regarding housing, there is the housing executive which deals with these things, including allocation for the local authorities. There is also legislation regarding equality of opportunity; local councils made a declaration of equality of opportunity. I cannot remember whether my noble friend mentioned that the Northern Ireland Government passed much legislation for protection against discrimination. There is a Parliamentary Commissioner and a Commissioner for Complaints. To a great extent that is comparable to our own Race Relations Act. We also have the Prevention of Incitement to Hatred Act. It is now an offence orally or in writing to incite hatred or fear on grounds of religious belief.

The Northern Ireland Government, before it was dissolved, passed these Acts. To hear the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, it would be thought that the people of Northern Ireland had no rights at all. This matter of a Bill of Rights is surely academic at the moment during a period of direct rule by what used to be called the Imperial Parliament. While terrorism continues, I find it impracticable to talk about a Bill of Rights. Until we have peace in the North of Ireland it is surely rather impractical to discuss these matters. I support my noble friend's remarks regarding the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. The noble Lord, Lord Feather, is their chairman and we must wait for their report. I could not support this Bill and I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw it.

6.29 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount will not get a majority vote from the population of Northern Ireland, when he says that everything was perfectly all right under the old Government. There are arguments about how much was wrong. I do not think one can argue against the necessity of a Bill for human rights on the basis that because everything was so splendid it was not required. On behalf of my noble friend, I must reject that argument.

The criticisms of the Bill are under two heads: those against having one at all—and these views were put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and the noble Viscount—and the criticisms of those who, like the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, the Government and myself, believe something of the kind is required but that this particular version will not do at the moment. In my opinion, my noble friend is right in saying that there is a large consensus of opinion—though it is not unanimous—in Northern Ireland which would like to see a Bill of Human Rights. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is on record as belonging to this group. He said in another place, and the words were later printed in a White Paper: The Government recognise that there is a consensus that there should be further legislation on human rights and will consider how best to make appropriate statutory provision in the light of the detailed study currently being undertaken by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. Admittedly, the context was rather different from that of today, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, made reference to the views of the Convention. The context was one in which it was hoped that such legislation would form part of a new constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland; but even so, I should like to assure the House that the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Convention does not mean that the tempo of the work being done on human rights, notably by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, will in any way abate. But let not my noble friend expect something that I cannot deliver. The Government do not wish to proceed along the particular path to the end outlined in my noble friend's Bill. There are compelling reasons for this, which I shall now explain.

The troubles and tribulations which have beset us in Northern Ireland over the past decade have very often been seen as issues of human rights. Whether or not this is a true analysis, as the noble Viscount and the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, both pointed out, successive Governments have taken pains to improve the means by which a citizen may secure his rights and obtain redress if they have been violated. Since this was dealt with by both sneakers, I shall not go through it again, though I have a list of the things concerning human rights which have been accomplished at various legislative periods. My own view is that specific legislation is always more effective, in practical terms, than the generalities of a Bill of Rights, though such a Bill can give comprehensive coverage of the loopholes left by other legislation. I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, in the earlier debate, said that he was frightened that the "blanket" effect of a Bill of Human Rights might lead disgruntled people to abuse it. I am certain that if we had a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland that would happen, but that does not mean we should not have one. We are quite used to disgruntled people using whatever means they can find to make trouble, and a Bill of Rights would certainly be no exception to this. But that is not a reason for not having one.

The Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights was set up under the 1973 Constitution Act to advise on the adequacy and effectiveness of the law in Northern Ireland, to prevent discrimination on the ground of religious belief or political opinion. In the last few months it has been giving its full attention to the more general proposition of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. This study, taken at the Commission's own initiative, nevertheless has the Government's full support. It seems to us the most effective way of establishing the nature of public opinion in the Province on the subject and thus coming towards a determination of what should be done. The Government do not believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, made plain in the earlier debate, that this is an area in which decisions can be taken without the very fullest consideration both of shades of public opinion and of the consequences of any particular course of action on our legislative, political and social structure.

My noble friend said that in Northern Ireland all the facts are known. Anybody who heard the noble and learned Lords, Lord Hailsham and Lord Denning, and my noble friend Lord Lloyd of Hampstead earlier, must be perfectly clear that all the facts axe not known, whether about Northern Ireland or anywhere else. There are very many doubtful issues as to how a Bill of this kind, be it in Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom, would apply to the Judiciary and other things. Therefore the Government would like to formulate their own opinions in the light of the recommendations which eventually will be received from my noble friend Lord Feather and the Commission—and may I say how very pleased we are to see him back and looking well. We welcome this debate: it is valuable as an indication to the Commission of the thoughts of one body of legislative opinion on the subject.

The Government believe that the introduction of a Bill on these lines, limited to Northern Ireland, must be premature at this time. I must say to my noble friend Lord Brockway that we hope he will not feel it desirable to press his Bill to a Second Reading. The Government would not feel able to assist its passage either by providing time or by advising ways in which its substance or drafting could be improved. The noble Lord, Lord Wade, in opening his debate—indeed, I think almost everyone who spoke in that debate—felt that it would be better to have a single Bill of Human Rights for the entire United Kingdom, if that could be arranged. My own view is that it is perfectly clear that this should be done and that it would be premature to begin discussing the details of a Bill before we knew what was going to happen in the United Kingdom as a whole.

I shall not go into the details of what I believe to be wrong with this Bill. However, I do not think it is really helpful at the moment, as my advice to the House is not to give a Second Reading on general grounds and not on particular grounds. Even if the Bill was much more workable and less easily criticised, I would not be able to recommend it for a Second Reading. Once the principles upon which we are to act are agreed, there will be no difficulty in putting a Bill of this kind right with the draftsman. So the fact that there are a number of things wrong is not the reason why I ask the House for their support in refusing this Bill a Second Reading.

If I may express a personal view, there must in due course be further human rights legislation in Northern Ireland, but we cannot expect my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to commit himself until he has had an opportunity to consider the report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. Clearly, he must take into account the outcome of public discussion on human rights in this country, which has begun as a result of the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Wade, which was given a Second Reading this afternoon.

I believe that the discussion on my noble friend's Bill today represents a step forward, and I think he will feel that I have committed my right honourable friend the Secretary of State rather further in this direction than has happened in previous debates. I hope my noble friend will agree with me that, though there must be an intensive debate on the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Wade, it would be a great mistake to have an additional Bill being discussed at a tangent at the same time. Therefore, I hope I can persuade my noble friend to change—


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I explain that I never said I was against a Bill of Rights. That is the last thing I said. All I said was that this is the wrong time to do it, as the noble Lord himself said, for Northern Ireland. I also think that it ought not to be done by a Private Member's Bill; it should be done by a Government Bill. But I never said that I was against a Bill of Rights and I do not know what made the noble Lord say that.


My Lords, I apologise most deeply for misunderstanding the noble Viscount, and I am delighted that we agree.


My Lords, will the noble Lord permit me to make a correction? I did not say that I was against a Bill of Rights. I am strongly in favour of one, provided that it applies to the whole United Kingdom, and in this respect my views coincide with those of the Government.


My Lords, I think the fact that I misunderstood was due to the fact that I am suffering from a heavy cold.

6.41 p.m.


My Lords, I shall use my right of reply only to make a few comments. First, I had the impression from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, who recited a whole series of measures which have been introduced dealing with human rights problems in Northern Ireland, but still more from the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene, that there was little need for a Bill of this kind, because all was well with liberties and rights in Northern Ireland. On that, I want to endorse what the speaker from our Labour Front Bench said, that none of us on this side of the House can accept that view. During the last few years, yes, there has been progress. But for nearly 50 years there was government in Northern Ireland by one community alone, which led to the repression of the minority community, and it is that history which is largely responsible for the present position.

Secondly, as regards the suggestion that there is no consensus of opinion in Northern Ireland in favour of a Bill of Rights, I would point out that every political Party in Northern Ireland has declared for a Bill of Rights. The United Ulster Unionist Coalition, the SDLP, the Alliance, the separate Unionist Party of Northern Ireland all declared in the Convention Document for a Bill of Rights. The difference between them is not as to the necessity for a Bill of Rights but as to who should introduce it and what should be its scope. The United Ulster Unionist Coalition and the Northern Ireland Labour Party, as I indicated, take the view that it should be a Bill on the lines of that which the noble Lord, Lord Wade, has introduced applying both to Britain and Northern Ireland. The UUUC, as a secondary proposal, says that it should be a Bill introduced by a Parliament in Northern Ireland. But there is no such Parliament.

The other Parties to which I have referred support the proposal of a Bill for Northern Ireland, not necessarily the Bill I have introduced but they accept the principle of a separate Bill for Northern Ireland. In that situation, in view of the absolute unanimity of opinion of all Parties in Northern Ireland that there should be a Bill, the Government themselves should now look at the practical problem of how it can best be introduced and, even in the present political vacuum in Northern Ireland, seek discussions with representatives of the political Parties to see how this difference of opinion about who should introduce it and about method can be overcome. This is essential when they are absolutely united about the need for a Bill.

Thirdly—and this is most in my mind—there is the suggestion that a separate Bill for Northern Ireland is not necessary. We already have our precedents. We passed through this House last week a separate Bill for Northern Ireland because there was evidence of discrimination between Protestants and Catholics in employment. Of course, in this situation we have to have separate legislation for Northern Ireland. While there is a difference of opinion in Britain as to whether a Bill of Rights is necessary here, and there is absolute unanimity in Northern Ireland that a Bill is necessary, to say in that situation: "We shall not have special legislation for Northern Ireland", is to deny all the relevant facts.


My Lords, will my noble friend just let me say that I do not think he attributed that remark to me from the Government Bench. It is not our view.


No, my Lords. I certainly did not. I now come to my last point, which is about my attitude to this Bill and the opinions which have been expressed in this House. The first point that is in my mind is that we have already carried the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Wade, which, in addition to applying to Britain, also applies to Northern Ireland. That Bill would have the support of the majority Ulster Unionist Coalition, and I think that is a very considerable advance. Secondly, there is the Standing Advisory Commission for Northern Ireland, of which my noble friend Lord Feather is chairman. I believe that that Commission has asked that the evidence shall be produced by April. I hope that, if the evidence is produced by April, the recommendations of that Commission will be in the hands of the Government in, say, the early autumn. We have had from our Front Bench a statement which has never been made before, and which represents a remarkable concession as a result of this debate, the statement that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will introduce human rights legislation, and that that legislation is being held up at this moment only to await the Report of the Standing Commission.


My Lords, my noble friend must not commit me further than I went. This is just a tiny bit further. My right honourable friend has said that he thinks such a thing will be necessary. It is not quite the same as saying that he will do it.


I will make only this remark, that in Parliamentary terms I am prepared to accept from a representative of the Government which I support that he thinks it will be necessary. I can assure him that those of us who desire this will press and press him until his thought is realised.

I hate having to withdraw a Bill, but for those two considerations, which seem to me to represent a very considerable advance, I will ask leave of the House to withdraw the Bill.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill, by leave, withdrawn.