HL Deb 13 February 1992 vol 535 cc895-926

7.7 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the second report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland presented to Her Majesty's Government on 26th March 1990.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, before introducing this debate, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for having managed to rearrange his diary for this evening. I know he had a problem with the date and I should like to say how very much I appreciate his being with us. Moreover, I am also grateful to other noble Lords who will be taking part in this debate, although I am sorry that we have lost the noble Lord, Lord Holme, who has gone off for electoral reasons and abandoned us. That is a great pity.

I shall give a little background to this debate. As your Lordships will know, the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights was established by Section 20 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973. Its purpose was to advise the Secretary of State on the adequacy and effectiveness of the law for the time being in force in preventing discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion, and providing redress for persons aggrieved by discrimination on either ground.

In February, 1985 the then Secretary of State, the right honourable Douglas Hurd, said that the Government shared the commission's commitment to further human rights in the interests of all the people in Northern Ireland. This is the second report of the commission on its review of the laws and institutions aimed at preventing religious and political discrimination in the Province and providing equality of opportunity.

This follows on from the first report which was on fair employment and which was submitted to Parliament in October 1987. I believe that everybody would agree with me when I say that these reports from the commission are invariably well researched and well argued and that the report before us this evening is a good example of the high standard that they attain. I take this opportunity to congratulate Sir Oliver Napier, who is chairman of the commission, and all the members for the painstaking and valuable work they do.

Before commenting on the content of the report, I must register a word of reproach to the Government, which, I think, is unfortunately unavoidable. It will soon be two years since the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland received this report, but there has not been one word uttered in response. Similarly, although it is now 19 years since the commission was established, Parliament has not yet debated a single one of its 18 reports. It has produced 16 annual reports—the one of last year was of great interest—and these two reports, and not one of them has attracted any word from Parliament. I hope that at least this Unstarred Question will provide the Minister with an opportunity to start to put that right.

May I start by giving a brief resume of the report — it will of course be filled out by other speakers—before turning to one or two recommendations that I find of particular importance. This 135 page report contains 84 recommendations aimed at tackling what it states are gaps in the law, including constitutional law, which help create and reinforce continuing inequalities. In particular it argues that all the state's citizens should be treated equally as of right and that steps must be taken to ensure, through legislation, that all feel part of the state.

Citizens are entitled to have their cultural, political and religious traditions respected. In that regard the lack of race relations legislation in Northern Ireland is noted. It is a point that other noble Lords will bring out in the debate. The lack of any right to use the Irish language for official purposes is also noted. The report argues that these failings need to be remedied and that it should be specified in legislation when Irish can be used in dealings with the state. It also recommends that race relations legislation should be introduced.

A major section of the report stresses the need for anti discrimination legislation, not just relating to employment but to the provision of goods, facilities and services in both private and public sectors. Thus the commission calls for the outlawing of discrimination in, for example, leasing properties, the sale of goods, and the provision of contracts for services. Likewise, no new legislation should be passed which would have a, significant relative adverse impact on one particular section of the community".

There is a call for the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law, and the establishment of independent procedures for complaints against the British Army. The report also recommends greater energy from the state in promoting integration in both education and housing schemes.

I should like to highlight one or two of the recommendations in the hope that perhaps the Minister, when he replies, will respond to the points I make. First, indirect discrimination. This is obviously an important part of the report. As its authors say, the definition of religious and political discrimination in the Northern Ireland Constitution (Amendment) Act 1973 did not include indirect discrimination, and they believe that that Act should be widened for this purpose. They say that if the Government do not wish to make legislative changes, then at least these recommendations would be very good subjects for discussion with the leaders of the four constitutional parties. I fully agree with that, and I would be interested to have the Minister's response.

In chapter 2, the report points out that the 1989 survey shows Catholic male unemployment as being two and half times greater than among Protestant males. I should like to ask the Minister whether any measures have been taken in response to the commission's proposals that more labour market information needs to be collected in order to assess imbalances whether in employment or unemployment. If one knows the situation, one is better able to deal with it.

On rather the same theme, the chapter also highlights the all-important need for monitoring. The commission recommends that a procedure should be introduced by public bodies to monitor the impact of their own policies and practices on equality of treatment of the two main communities. It stresses the importance of monitoring and keeping an eye on the changes that are made, and the impact that the changes have on the two communities. That is an important part of the report.

An interesting chapter deals with the effectiveness of the Ombudsman. I hope that perhaps some other speaker will refer to it. I should like to ask the Minister about the important subject of complaints against the security forces, and the recommendation that an effective, independent complaints procedure should be established for complaints against the Army. I know that the Army is separate, but when thinking about Northern Ireland one thinks very much about the security services. I also know that there are assessors to report on how the Army deals with complaints, but the commission was thinking more of the greater independence of the procedure for dealing with complaints against the Army. The commission states that there is considerable cross-community perception of discriminatory practice by the security services and feels that measures to rectify it are of the greatest importance.

In chapter 8 the report discusses education. Again I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the funding of schools, which comes out in this part of the report. The report suggests that serious consideration should be given to the possibility of equal funding to denominationally controlled and integrated schools, and to make more explicit provision in the education legislation of Northern Ireland for parents to have the right to have their children educated in either. Many of us in this House, who were involved with Lagan College over the years, have seen its proven success. The equal funding of the two different kinds of education is an important point.

It seems vital to keep this whole field under constant review. One needs to watch for changes in parents' wishes because this can happen quickly. Parents move away from the old traditional ideas of having their children in a denominationally-controlled school. It is something that has to be monitored. The chapter also refers to the use of the Irish language. My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies will say a word about that.

The last point I wish to make regards chapter 10, which is about the future role and function of the commission. Here the report argues that the standing advisory commission must have greater independence and freedom of action if it really is to fulfil its objective of protecting human rights in Northern Ireland. I hope that when he replies the Minister will tell us whether the Government have plans to develop the role of this all-important body by widening its original remit through amending the 1973 Act.

I cannot make any other points about the report. However, in more general terms I wish to say that I do not believe that we in Britain can become complacent in regard to the international view of Britain's record on human rights in Northern Ireland. Last year there were many anxieties expressed from various quarters —Amnesty International, the US human rights umbrella group, Helsinki Watch and the UN human rights committee. In November 1991 a panel of non-governmental organisations met at the UN in New York and expressed serious anxiety about the UK human rights record in Northern Ireland. It is attracting the attention of many human rights organisations throughout the world and is something we must bear in mind.

I understand that the reaction to the report in Northern Ireland was serious. It was well reported in the press and perhaps the only reason it was not more extensively covered was the lack of response to it from the Government. In conclusion, therefore, the commission's role is critical not only to bring about greater justice and increased trust among the people of Northern Ireland but also to improve the human rights image that we have in the world.

Discrimination in employment, together with religious and political discrimination, as well as abuse of any human rights, are at the heart of the division between the two traditions. Britain's apparent failure to deal effectively with such injustices is placing a barrier to the achievement of that final settlement.

I end as I started. The Secretary of State in 1973 thought it right and necessary to set up a Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. The commission has successfully fulfilled the role given to it. Therefore, why have not the Government made use of that framework for the purpose for which it was set up—namely, to recommend improvements in antidiscrimination law and respect for human rights? The long process towards achieving a just and durable resolution of Northern Ireland divisions can only come out of conciliation. There can be little doubt that conciliation can prosper only in a climate where discrimination is outlawed and human rights are respected.

7.22 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, the report comes, as did its predecessor, as a direct result of events in Northern Ireland which began with the civil rights movement—the highlighting of events in Northern Ireland in 1968 and 1969. At that time the Scarman Tribunal was set up by the British Government. Anyone who has read the tribunal's report and the evidence given can be in no doubt that a disastrous state of affairs had existed in Northern Ireland since the creation of the state in 1920 up to and throughout the civil rights movement.

Because of the positive action then taken by the Labour Government when they began to look at what was happening in that part of the United Kingdom, one was left in no doubt, as the Scarman Report said, that there had been a vicious system of discrimination against the minority in Northern Ireland since the creation of the state. Discrimination in its most brutal form took place in the allocation of homes and houses from local authorities and in the giving of employment.

Northern Ireland since its creation had been run as a one-party state, not unlike the South African Government of today. Indeed, there are many similarities of attitude by those in power in South Africa today and those who were in power in Northern Ireland for 50 years. They saw their political opponents as a threat to their domination. I lived in Northern Ireland at that time; I was born and bred there. I lived in a Catholic ghetto and, like many others of my religion, I was a victim of the vicious system of discrimination.

After the terrible events of Bloody Sunday in 1972—which again was an illustration of the attitude of the Stormont Government to those who dared to oppose them—to their credit the Tory Government abolished Stormont. The following year the Northern Ireland Act 1973 was introduced, under which Northern Ireland is governed at the present time. A commission was set up under the authority of the British Government to look into the allegations being made by the Scarman Inquiry and to see whether steps could be taken which would do away with the most disastrous effects of 50 years of Unionist domination in Northern Ireland.

I do not want to make a party political point here. We had a Labour Government from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1979. I have already said that a Labour Government instituted inquiries in the wake of the civil rights movement and a Conservative Government in the wake of the Bloody Sunday killings in 1972. But I thought that in setting up the commission and with the people who were appointed to it—people with a knowledge of Northern Ireland—all the areas that needed to be remedied would be defined.

I was somewhat disappointed—and here I make apologies for my own inaction because I was a Member of another place from 1966 until 1983. I read that the commission has said that every year since being appointed in 1972 it has given an annual report to whichever Government are in power. The main report on discrimination led to the promulgation of the anti-discrimination legislation in employment, and now we have the second report. But it is 19 years since the commission was established and neither the House of Commons nor this House has debated any one of those annual reports. One would have thought that the situation was so serious in Northern Ireland that much more parliamentary attention could have been given to those reports.

It is known throughout Irish history that perceptions in either of the communities are what really matter. Statistics are not all-important, although the statistics examined by the commission are relevant. But it is the perception of the discrimination which exists in every walk of life in Northern Ireland that is important. I hope that the debate on the report this evening will alert the Government—whichever government may be in power—to pay much more attention to the perceived and justified allegations of discrimination which exist in Northern Ireland.

The commission said that it would like to see a new Northern Ireland Act to replace that of 1973, be it in an amended form or completely new. It would take into account many of the legalities which are so necessary in trying to juggle with the problems of Northern Ireland. They have existed for 20 years, since the creation of the state, and unless we treat them with the urgency that they deserve, the cancer will continue to grow on the body politic of Northern Ireland and lead to a continuation of the present troubles.

It may be that the 1973 Act will have to be amended or renewed. We may also have to look at the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 because that is also a factor in people's perception of what is happening in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that one can look at one little Act of Parliament piecemeal; the whole question will have to be looked at. I agree with what has been said by my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs; namely, that there are many fields in which co-operation could be brought about by the four parliamentary leaders in Northern Ireland and which have nothing to do with the constitution. They could talk about jobs, unemployment and the erasure of discrimination in jobs and housing. There are many fields in which they could co-operate without getting into the terrible morass of the constitutional position in Northern Ireland.

When I was a member of another place, in 1968 and 1969 we set up what was called the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster. All the demands that were made by that organisation have since been granted in Northern Ireland. One of the demands was for the setting up of an ombudsman in Northern Ireland. We had one for this part of the United Kingdom, but we wanted to see that provision extended so that there would be an ombudsman in Northern Ireland. That was one of the civil rights demands which was granted.

In its report, the commission has asked that the ombudsman should be able to take representation from people who feel aggrieved by the state without having recourse to a Member of Parliament. I am only too well aware that a Member of Parliament in this part of the United Kingdom is very conscious of his constituency boundaries. He does not like any other Member of Parliament interfering within his constituency. Northern Ireland is not like that. It has Catholic, Protestant, Unionist and Republican representatives. One cannot restrict the activities of aggrieved constituents to go through their MPs.

Can anyone really believe that any Protestant now living on the Shankhill Road in Belfast is going to go to Gerry Adams? Can anyone really believe that Catholics who feel aggrieved are going to go in droves to see Dr. Paisley? I know that he tells everyone that he has millions of Catholics coming to his advice centre. I believe that to be somewhat exaggerated. But MPs who represent constituents in Northern Ireland are not in the same position as MPs in other parts of the United Kingdom. A recommendation has come from the commission that people should be able to take their grievances directly to the ombudsman without having to go through a Member of Parliament.

The commission also says that it is disappointed that the Government have not accepted its recommendation that there should be sound and video recording of interviews by police in the Castlereagh holding centre. I am not an opponent of the RUC. Throughout my political life I have been a supporter of that organisation. I believe that there is the perception in Northern Ireland, be it justified or not, that when people are brought to that holding centre, they are badly treated. That may or may not be true. One way to prove that it is untrue would be by the installation of video equipment.

Again, the commission has said that there may be a reluctance on the part of the Government to initiate any moves in the situation as regards the commission's recommendations because political talks may be taking place. As the chairman of the commission said to me today, he remembered going to the Darlington conference in 1973. Now it is nearly 20 years later, and we have had talks about talks, but the problem is still with us. That is after a period of 20 years. When I refer to a period of 20 years, that does not mean only 20 years to me; it means a whole list of people who have been killed in Northern Ireland year by year, month by month and day by day; and 27 of those have been killed this year.

We should try to take steps to bring about a cessation of the violence in Northern Ireland. Therefore no government should use the fact that we are in a political vacuum to say that we cannot do anything in relation to the report because there may be a devolved government settled in Stormont. I have serious doubts whether there ever will be a devolved government. I know that the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was designed to bring about reconciliation and devolved community government in Northern Ireland. It signally failed to do so. I cannot see devolved government taking place in the very near future although I hope I am proved wrong.

There are many Catholic and Protestant people in Northern Ireland who feel that they may get a better deal, or that they may be already getting a better deal, from this Government in relation to legislation affecting human rights than they would get in the event of a devolved government being installed in Northern Ireland. The Government should not use the possibility of talks to prevent them from taking action in relation to the report. On page 119 of the report a question is raised about discrimination against people in the field of disablement. I know that that would appear to be removed from the main content of the report, but it is something which the commission should look at and report on as quickly as it can.

At page 119 of the report the commission questions its role and its future role. This has been a very worthwhile commission set up under the aegis of this Government. If the commission needs further powers, they should be readily given. The personnel involved with the commission are from Northern Ireland; they live there and they are desperately seeking to bring about a situation that will in some way contribute to cessation of the violence. The report is very worthwhile and it should be given the seriousness that it deserves by the Government.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I too should like to congratulate my noble friend for initiating this debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss the Second Report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. As the previous speaker rightly said, this is the first time that Parliament has discussed any report of the commission in the 20 years since its inception. The report is a follow up to one presented by the commission in October 1987 concerning fair employment.

It can be said that either I or my noble friend Lord Fitt could have raised the matter of the report. I can only plead an old story among parliamentarians and Lobby journalists, but certainly not among noble Lords, which goes something like this: it is said that when governments face a pressing problem or they have to act or face up to an issue which they are reluctant to deal with, the usual action is to set up a commission to study the issues. The commission takes several years to produce a report which gives the government valuable breathing space. The report of the commission is carefully considered by government Ministers before being ignored.

Some cynics view this Government-appointed commission in that light. It may be that I was one of them; it may be that I have something of a cynical attitude towards all Royal Commissions and government commissions. That is because in the main, and it is not cynical to say, that provision is a good get-out for a Minister or government in trouble and they wish to push an issue under the carpet for the time being. Therefore, there is a certain amount of justifiable cynicism attached to any commission. If it is not cynicism, there are ways of dealing with the situation. "Let us watch the situation and let us see how it goes before we make any comment. Let us have a good look at it and see how it operates". That might have been the reason for the apparent lack of interest so far in the report, and certainly as regards the fair employment report.

That 1987 report began to reverse the process. I obtained the impression that here was somebody who was trying to do a job, but that it was they who were being ignored by the Government not the other way round. I took the trouble to read most of that report. Again, I did not ask for a debate. Perhaps that was a mistake—it probably was—but that is all the more reason why we should discuss the report tonight.

The report deals with discrimination and promotion of equality of opportunities in areas other than employment, although it covers employment as well. As the noble Baroness said in her opening remarks, it covers 135 pages of very well argued and very well researched material on how to tackle what it says are the gaps in the law. That term includes the constitutional law. It is a catalogue of continuing inequalities.

I began to read the report and was weaving my way through what seemed to be a jungle of cross-references and paragraphs when I received a copy of the Commission's brief. That made all the difference. I was then able to read with some sense through the whole report. It was an excellent brief and I was very grateful to receive it.

In the introduction to the report the Commission begins by listing a summary of legislation and research and discrimination in Northern Ireland since 1969. It is a very impressive list. It is quite an achievement in the field of discrimination in certain areas since 1969. I shall quote from page 9 paragraph 2/7. The report states: The above developments —that is the list of legislation— important though they are in promoting human rights, must not detract from the need for further initiatives: the evidence suggests that inequalities as between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, have persisted. The Commission believes that Government must ensure that the legislative framework for the administration and regulation of Northern Ireland's affairs cannot be criticised on grounds of failure to afford protection from discrimination or to promote full 'equality of opportunity'". The report argues, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said, that perceptions—certainly in Northern Ireland, we all know that—are as important as statistics. That means adopting the broadest possible approach on discrimination; a far broader approach than some people in this House might interpret it to mean in the circumstances that exist in this part of the United Kingdom.

The Commission goes on to say that laws and practices which are manifestly fair and subject to clearly impartial review have an important part to play in making Northern Ireland a more tolerant society. I would go a shade further and say such legislation and laws are crucial necessities if we are to be taken seriously about our approach to the task of reconciling the two communities in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Christopher McCrudden, an accredited expert in the field and Fellow of Lincoln College at the University of Oxford, writes very openly on these matters. In a contribution to a recent publication on the subject of discrimination and public policy in Northern Ireland he said: Greater equality between Catholics and Protestants in the distribution of economic resources remains a key element in the reconstruction and reform of Northern Ireland. We are saying that there is a consensus of informed opinion among people who live and work there and who represent areas there. Those who take part in academic discussions there form a consensus of opinion that something has to be done if we are to be taken seriously about reconciliation. My own view is that no British Government has taken it seriously so far. It is not too late and I hope that discussions like this will speed up matters.

Perhaps I may say that in view of that consensus we are entitled to ask why we have waited so long for more positive action to be taken on some of the recommendations that have been floating around for all these years. For instance, have they been discussed in the near-secret talks? It is very difficult to get any detailed minutes or information about the secret talks that go on between the political leaders of Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister. We get a couple of sentences if we ask for them; and if we insist we might get a one-page document with little or nothing on it. I have yet to see a detailed minute of any of those discussions. We are denied sight on grounds of security, or some such excuse. I should like to know, if the Minister can tell the House, whether those matters have been discussed in that setting and in that forum?

A few statistics have already been mentioned. Some of them were published in 1989, which is fairly recent. Others go back to 1987—almost 20 years since the beginning of that civil rights campaign referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. That survey, as the noble Baroness said, shows that, in spite of all the activity, Catholic male unemployment is still two-and-a-half times greater than that among Protestant males. That takes account of all the various factors. If 100,000 jobs were created the ratio would still be the same. Whatever happens, the ratio has come out for a long time at about the same figure.

On incomes, a survey shows that where Catholics were working 13 per cent. of them were lucky if they earned over £10,000. That compares with 21 per cent. for the Protestant population. That is a considerable difference in salary.

A Policy Studies Institute survey on housing showed that there is a public perception and some evidence that Catholics are getting a worse deal in public sector housing. That is documented again in the Commission's report. In another report on education, commissioned by SACHR and presented by McCormack and Osborne in 1991, a link was found between lower recurrent and capital funding of Catholic schools and Catholic school-leavers' lower academic achievement compared with Protestants. So there is enough up-to-date evidence to show that discrimination still exists in those crucial fields. Therefore, we are entitled to ask such questions as: what measures have been taken in response to the Commission's proposals that the Northern Ireland housing executive, for instance, should move towards explicitly and openly monitoring the equal opportunities implications of its practice? We are entitled to ask that.

Chapter 4 of the report goes on to state that, it is not satisfied that the provisions of the 1973 Act provide a satisfactory and effective guarantee against governmental discrimination within the current constitutional framework, either under continuing direct rule or in the event of the re-establishment of a devolved government, or legislature in Northern Ireland". As has already been mentioned, they are seeking amendments to the 1973 Act to remedy that situation.

Critics of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976 as well as a Policy Studies Institute survey in 1987 found that the 1976 legislation had had little effect on employers' attitudes, and even less on their practices. Job discrimination was still thought to be justifiable in certain circumstances—almost like the series of television programmes with Alf Garnett. It was a recent series about a factory situation in Northern Ireland where the question of discrimination arose in respect of the foreman who was employing people. The questions were relevant to the situation. It was a very good skit based on the kind of questions that are asked. It is not necessary to ask where someone went to school because if you know his name is Kevin, Sean or Seamus you will know the answer. If his name is not known and you find out his school you will still know who he is.

I recall reading a health department document in which there was an attempt to get rid of all that. Printed in large letters on the application form were the words: There is no need to give the name of your school or the type of your school when you apply for a job in this department". However, on page 3 of the form the applicant was asked for two references, one of which had to be from the principal of the previous school attended. So the problem still exists even though some half hearted-attempts have been made to overcome it.

I turn now to informal recruitment, where the job goes on the basis of word of mouth recommendations and there are no formal procedures for employment. I cannot remember the statistics but I was quite surprised by how many employment procedures are carried out in that fashion. They contribute to some continuing levels of segregation. Investigations by the Fair Employment Agency appear not to have made any impact. It was felt that the restrained negotiating approach rather than enforcement had failed and that an apparent lack of interest on the part of governments of the time did little to convince people that they were more serious about the issues of direct and indirect discrimination in employment and housing, to mention only two key areas.

That is much the same position as we used to find with the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944, under which employers had to reach a 3 per cent. quota of disabled people. There were no teeth in that Act. Every time the issue was raised—it was raised a million times; I raised it time after time—the excuse was given, "We would rather go the negotiating way; we would rather have the softly-softly approach; we would rather try to convince employers". That never worked and eventually it was decided that the system was not working at all and it was scrubbed. That was fought but there has been a state of flux since 1944. Such an approach did not work in that regard and it did not work in regard to the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act either.

People question whether there is any point in these commissions. They judge, quite wrongly, that the commissions pussy foot around and cannot do anything because they do not have the necessary powers. The commission therefore believes that there is an urgent need for general legal measures to allow positive action to address imbalances. That is a recognition that the system was not working and it should be recognised by the Government that something has to be done. The Government must promote equality monitoring in all fields and must ensure that any exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation are in compliance with international human rights law.

Chapter 4 makes 21 separate recommendations for legislative safeguards against discrimination and deals with remedies, enforcement and monitoring. Later in the report it is argued that absence of concrete proposals for devolution should not be taken as a reason for delay in bringing forward legislation. I agree with that. There is no point in waiting for proposals from future governments. We can do it in advance if we have the political will. The commission has given us the ammunition and the right to do it. What further consideration has been given to the commission's recommendations on this aspect of discrimination?

The ombudsman has been mentioned by previous speakers. I should like to mention him myself but I am beginning to take up a little too much time. Nonetheless there are some recommendations in relation to the ombudsman. I find it strange that two different offices are set up—one for the ombudsman and one for police complaints—but one man does both jobs. If he does both jobs, why is not the title changed? Why separate them in this way?

Lord Fitt

My Lords, there is an ombudsman for maladministration and an ombudsman for local government, but police complaints are dealt with by the RUC. The ombudsman does not look into complaints.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, the roles of ombudsman for maladministration and of ombudsman for local government should be combined and the job renamed. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that people should not have to go through a Member of Parliament. I do not believe that people should have to go through a Member of Parliament here, let alone in Northern Ireland. Why erect buffers between ordinary citizens and the ombudsman? The Government are keen on citizens' charters and all kinds of other things. How can they justify erecting buffers between the citizen and the only person who may be able to do something for them? A Member of Parliament is not always prepared to take up an issue. It depends on who he is, even with my party. There is justification in arguing that people should be allowed to go straight to the ombudsman with a complaint.

I wish to mention one other point before I sit down. Page 3 of the summary mentions prisoners' rights, an issue with which I have been involved for a long time. The paragraph in the report—I shall not read it out but I hope that the Minister will read it—covers the rights of prisoners and asks that the United Kingdom should provide explicitly for account to be taken of difficulties which close relatives may have in visiting prisoners. The paragraph goes on to make other suggestions. I agree with what is stated in the summary.

I could be forgiven in some ways for thinking that there is discrimination by Ministers and officials in the length of time taken to answer Questions which I put down on the subject of prisoner transfers and in the quality and content of the replies which I receive. I could quite reasonably accuse them of discrimination in that respect. What progress has been made about the issue of transfers to Northern Ireland, as outlined in the summary? When can we expect some progress? I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has already tabled a Question in a similar vein. I hope that we can make progress on that.

I have never disguised my views of the situation in Northern Ireland and I do not intend to do so now. Although it might take much longer than I have tonight to explain all of them, for the purpose of this debate it is enough to say that I do not believe that there is a military solution to the problems of Northern Ireland. There has to be a political solution. While the search for that solution goes on, steps can be taken to try to reconcile the two main communities. It should be recognised that there are two communities—two main communities; there are others now—and that there are inequalities and injustices. In addition, we should accept the recommendations of this excellent report and act speedily on them.

If I had had time I would have liked to have ended with a few more quotations. Suffice it to say that I hope that the Minister is listening. I hope that he will reply to some of the questions raised in the debate and that we shall see promises of action. We know that we will get action after the election but there might still be time before the election is called to put some of these recommendations into being.

7.59 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am well aware that there has been a great increase in the level of terrorism and intercommunal violence since last Summer and perhaps even more so since last Christmas. It so happens that a longstanding friend of mine suffered very severe damage to his office in central Belfast as the result of a recent car bombing. I also know that terrorist activity has increased not only in Northern Ireland but also in England.

I have the highest respect for the courage, skill and devotion to duty of the vast majority of the security services, both men and women. I am as convinced as any one of your Lordships of the importance of bringing terrorists to justice and of convicting those who are guilty. I am also perfectly well aware that at least some terrorists have been trained to say nothing under questioning and interrogation and are encouraged to lodge complaints if they possibly can, and probably even to invent them where none is justified. It is therefore with some regret that I find it necessary tonight to examine and raise the question of what happens to suspects between the time of their arrest and the moment at which they are charged or released.

My personal background in the matter is a little unusual. I have had some very privileged experiences. As a result of prison visiting I have come to know, visit and correspond over a considerable period of years with one member of the Birmingham Six, one member of the Guildford Four and one member of the Ulster Defence Regiment group which is sometimes also known as the "Armagh Four". As regards the last group of prisoners, the Minister will know quite well that no less than 100,000 people signed a petition asking the Secretary of State to refer their cases to the Court of Appeal. We are most grateful to the Secretary of State for doing just that. I believe that it is widely hoped that those cases will be heard again in the Court of Appeal fairly soon.

I have also recently been able to visit Mr. Thomas Greene, a convicted prisoner in Northern Ireland, who happens to be a Protestant. In the course of a conversation he said to me, "I would have signed for every murder in Belfast to get them off my back". What he meant by "them" in that case was the officers of the RUC who were interviewing and questioning him. It is also a matter of common knowledge that very considerable sums of money have been paid in compensation to prisoners or detainees who had established a sufficiently strong case of maltreatment so that the authorities were prepared to make out of court settlements.

Over the years, we have seen a number of government reports starting, I believe, with the Compton Report, followed by the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, the 1979 report of Judge Bennett—which is perhaps the most important one—and more recently the annual reports of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. All of those reports have drawn attention to malpractices concerning persons in custody. But, if that were not enough, the whole subject has preoccupied the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights over a period of years.

It has featured in a number of the commission's annual reports. Last year, 1991, major submissions were made by the voluntary body in Northern Ireland which has concentrated a great deal of attention on the problem. I refer to the Committee on the Administration of Justice. There were also unprecedented steps taken by Amnesty International and a whole volume produced by Helsinki Watch to which I believe reference was made earlier.

I hope that the combination of all those documents may have secured an improvement in the situation. It certainly had not done so up until August or September of that year. There have been far too many complaints of a combination of physical abuse, threats and inducements. What happens when such tactics are used? I would say that those who are strongest and toughest are able to withstand such methods, but others, who are not so physically and mentally well equipped, crumble; they make statements and sign confessions.

What are the results of that? First, we get some wrongful convictions. I believe it is important to note that more than three-quarters of the convictions obtained over a number of years in the Diplock Courts have relied either solely or mainly on the evidence of confessions. The second effect is propaganda and recruitment for terrorist groups. There is a third evil consequence; namely, that the good reputation of this country is blackened and diminished, not only in Ireland but also throughout the world. The fourth bad consequence is that Britain finds itself in default or not fully complying with its obligations under international conventions which it has signed.

Therefore, I suggest that we need very greatly improved safeguards for suspects and people being interviewed. A Question I tabled in your Lordships' House and the correspondence which ensued in response from the Minister—which, incidentally, is deposited in the Library—has convinced me at least that the present system of closed circuit television monitoring of interviews which takes place at Castlereagh and the other holding centres is not an effective protection. I am sorry to have to say that, but I think there is little doubt about it.

In the course of one or perhaps more of his annual reports, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, has suggested that there should be video and audio taping of interviews. Can the Minister tell us whether and when that will be put into effect? It has also been suggested that there should be a code of practice to cover such matters. I believe that that is provided for under Section 61 of the emergency provisions Act. Can the Minister say when that will be produced?

A further suggested safeguard is that there should be lay visitors, or possibly an independent commissioner, who would be able to visit Castlereagh and the other holding centres at any time of the night or day. Other people have asked for earlier access to suspects by solicitors and also for them to be able to consult their own doctor at an earlier stage than now applies. It would be interesting to have some news or information about those suggestions. Another possibility is that there should be a higher standard of admissibility in court than now applies or that a confession should be corroborated by other evidence.

It occurred to me that it might be an improvement if there were a cooling off period between the time the statement is written down and when it is signed. There may be scope for an independent person to explain to the suspect what the legal implications of his confession are likely to be. Another approach would be for the Government to accept, and act upon, the United Nations principles for the protection of detainees contained in General Assembly document 43/173 of December 1988.

The Committee on the Administration of Justice put forward nine points for remedial action in a submission to the United Nations committee against torture. That document was dated 13th November 1991. I shall be interested to hear whether the Government will comment upon that document and say whether they accept any of those nine points.

I have been inquiring into, and corresponding with Ministers, on those matters for some considerable time. It is very much a matter of regret that it is hard to pin down responsibility. One is likely to be moved around Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, the Chief Constable, the police authority and the Independent Commission for Police Complaints. I wish responsibility for those matters were more clear cut. I have also to say that I find it unsatisfactory that when complaints are made it is the RUC which is called upon to investigate itself. There is scope for improvement there.

I conclude by saying that the complaints which exercise us have not all come from fully grown adult men. In July 1991 there were complaints from two women—Rose Maguire and Monica Boyle. Last summer there were complaints from Kevin Mulholland and four other young men arrested at about the same time for similar offences. None of those was over the age of 18 and some were under it. It underlines the seriousness of the matter when we have complaints emanating from women and young adult males. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some satisfaction when he replies.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, a few years ago I was in Northern Ireland trying to help with some of the problems over their museums and galleries. I was taken around by a driver who was born and bred in Belfast. We talked, naturally, of many things. At one point he said, with typical Belfast wit, "You know, sir, there is only one solution to the Northern Ireland problem. You people over there should re-establish the British Empire and persuade those fellows in the South to apply for admission to it." I found that one of my most melancholy moments, because the only solution that that driver could find lay in the impossible recreation of the past.

Today, I am greatly cheered by reading the report of the commission which looks resolutely to the future and seeks its solutions there. I must say, however, that I am deeply disappointed that the Minister is today not supported by any of his friends from the Back Benches. Not one has put down his name to speak and, as far as I can see, only one is in his place. I am sure that that fact will not go unnoticed in Northern Ireland.

It is probably true to say that the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights commands widespread trust and respect for its integrity, breadth of vision and determination to address the deepest moral and social problems which face it. It was not always so. In the early years after its establishment in 1973, it was sometimes criticised for over-carefulness; for not speaking out; and for what some felt was pusillanimity. But, as the years have passed, it has grown in stature, authority, utterance, and, dare one say it, in favour with God and man. Its second report is a most powerful statement, the most powerful it has yet produced, and it is very welcome. That is not to say, of course, that it is flawless, or that it does not leave many questions unanswered and much still to be done. Its very scope presents problems.

As we have said, the report makes no fewer than 84 recommendations in 11 separate sections. They range from general proposals about the constitutional framework to detailed consideration of specific legislation such as the Race Relations Act. Yet, so far as I can see, there has been no attempt to evaluate and order the relative importance of the proposals, or to establish any order of priority. One could ask, "Well, what shall we do first? Which of these proposals is the key to the others? Which problem is the most urgent?", and the report would not offer an answer.

Some of the recommendations, although they may appear simple, do, in fact, go deep into the social structures and have wide implications. I think especially of the chapter on discrimination in the public sector where the report makes a distinction between direct and indirect discrimination. A most important point is made in section 4.10 where the commission argues that indirect discrimination (that is, discrimination which is not necessarily intentional, but which results from the application of rules, policies or practices) may be as significant in creating or maintaining inequalities as direct discrimination. That is a most trenchant point. The understanding and application of it will need to percolate into all levels of society, and that will not happen overnight.

The establishment and reform of indirect discrimination will be one of the longer lasting activities which the report will initiate. We must all be grateful to Sir Oliver Napier and his commissioners for being prepared to take where necessary the long view. The report is never guilty of short-sightedness or short-termism. Some of its proposals are much more immediate. The recommendations on racial discrimination in the sections following 7.4 (pages 72 to 75) seem to be much more urgent and to allow for little delay.

I must confess to having some slight reservations about that area of the report in that I have neither heard nor read of any great difficulties over race relations in Northern Ireland, certainly nothing remotely comparable with the problems created by the clash of the two communities. I am sure that we would all agree that there is, no doubt that racial discrimination or discrimination against disabled people in any form is as objectionable in Northern Ireland as in other parts of the United Kingdom". That appears on page 71. The report goes on: There are no official statistics showing the proportion of the population in Northern Ireland which belongs to an ethnic minority". There surely should be. If the problem of race relations is acute and sizeable in Northern Ireland, then the commission's recommendations should be implemented quickly. If, on the other hand, the problem is small and infrequent in occurrence, then regretfully one must say that there are more explosive and immediate issues which imperiously demand to be addressed. I should be grateful for any clarification or elaboration which the Minister can give on the question which has been explored at length in the commission's report.

I should also have welcomed greater clarity and guidance from the commission on the relative urgencies in this area, which is perhaps to say no more than I have already said about the importance of establishing priorities among the 84 important recommendations.

I have nothing but praise, however, for the delicate and sensible way the commission has approached the question of discrimination and equality of opportunity in the field of education. Sections 4.20, 6.23 and 8.48 to 8.52, taken together, make a most persuasive case for establishing and maintaining a true balance between Catholic and Protestant schools. The commission has embarked on a major research programme on the impact of segregated educational structures in Northern Ireland for equality of opportunity in employment. The interim statement that it has been able to make in this report is carefully quoted and worth quoting at some length. On page 94 it states: There may therefore be some advantage in granting formal constitutional or statutory guarantees to both Catholic and Protestant schools that they will be treated equally and without discrimination, while also guaranteeing in some way the right of parents to choose integrated schooling if they so wish. On this approach the problem of different educational provision and achievement in the two main sections of the community, referred to in chapter 2, may best be dealt with by ensuring that there is full equality of funding for all schools rather than maintaining what amounts to a 'penalty' in respect of capital funding for those schools which wish to maintain some independence from governmental control". That is expressed in the most measured terms, but it goes very deeply towards the heart of the educational problem in Northern Ireland. The ultimate solution, I suppose, to all the problems of Northern Ireland must in large part depend on the way children are educated. Prejudice, fear, hatred, aggression, mistrust and all uncharitableness, as we well know, can be built into a child's experience in school. It can also be built out, and it must be built out.

I was happy to see that the commission will inquire into these issues and into the solutions that have been adopted in other jurisdictions in the context of its programme of research into the educational system. I would personally put this as one of the commission's highest priorities and most immediate concerns. I hope that the Minister will agree with me.

One can also praise the firm good sense of the commission in refusing to be hijacked by the fashionable excesses in matters of discrimination. Your Lordships will be aware that we are currently deeply engaged in your Lordships' House on work to improve the law on charities through the new Charities Bill. I was pleased to read in the commission's view, in Section 6.20 that, it would be unwarranted to attempt to interfere with charities whose beneficiaries are defined or restricted on the grounds of religious belief. It recommends that discrimination on grounds of religious belief should remain lawful for charities". That is all the more welcome because it would have been easy and have gained such nice cheap publicity to recommend otherwise.

Taken altogether, this is a serious, sensible, weighty and, in some respects, a most courageous report. But there is one fact relating to it which my noble friends and I on this side of the House cannot praise. The commission's first report, the Report on Fair Employment, was presented to Parliament in October 1987. Work on the second report has occupied the commission since that date. Sir Oliver Napier's letter to the Secretary of State enclosing the second report is dated 26th March 1990. So the report has been in the hands of Her Majesty's Government for all but two years. We still await—and more importantly, Sir Oliver and the commissioners still await—Her Majesty's Government's response. The entire report, appendices and all, runs to 135 pages. Granted that there are many other urgent things to do in Northern Ireland, granted that the report deals with concepts and issues which are sometimes of great intellectual difficulty, and granted that officials may be slow readers, surely this is a long silence on such an important matter.

I trust that the Minister will not take refuge in blandishments like, "The commission has been kept in touch with our thinking", or "We shall respond in due course." We all know what that kind of language means. That would not be good enough. It would not — if I may say so with all due respect—be acceptable. I hope that when the Minister replies he will be able to explain why the Government are taking so long to respond. I hope he will tell your Lordships and the commission precisely when a response will be made. I hope that he will give us an assurance that this report will not be sidelined, marginalised, put on the shelf or consigned to the back-burner, but rather that it will be welcomed, that it will be implemented and that the implementation will be fully funded where funding is called for. This is an important report and it deserves nothing less.

8.26 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, we are grateful to my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs for initiating this important debate and for her notable opening speech. The debate has given the House the opportunity for the first time in 19 years to draw attention to a report issued by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland. It has given us an opportunity to urge the Government to emerge at long last into the world with their full response to a second report on religious and political discrimination. Northern Ireland is interested in the Government's response. I believe that the Council of Europe is interested in their response. As my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs pointed out, the world is interested in the Government's response.

At the outset and in support of my noble friend, and like all others in the House, I wish to pay tribute to the commission's chairman, the members and staff of the commission and all those who have served it since it was set up in 1973. I thank them for the assistance that they have given to Members of your Lordships' House to prepare for the debate this evening.

I think it is fair to say that during its early days the commission was somewhat criticised in some quarters for side-stepping one or two awkward issues. However, during the past 10 years or so it has presented the case for reform of law and practice forcefully and with considerable skill. It has fully justified its existence. By today I believe it has won the confidence of civil rights workers as well as retaining the confidence of Ministers. That is not an easy achievement.

In Northern Ireland I believe there is agreement on at least the following. If Northern Ireland is to move towards a lasting reconciliation and stability, the historical barriers of prejudice and of political and religious discrimination which have divided the two communities for generations will have to be broken down. A forward looking policy must include their removal as quickly as possible.

Political and religious discrimination is still there and it is real. In addition to the evidence which my noble friend Lord Stallard has mentioned, the discrimination is illustrated, for example, by three recent decisions of the Northern Ireland Fair Employment Tribunal. Those decisions were announced in November and December last year. I refer to the cases of Duffy v. The Eastern Health and Social Services Board, McGrath v. Viper International Ltd. and the case of Neely v. Mullaqhboy Private Nursing Home. In each case the decision was given in favour of the complainant.

The 1990 Labour Force Survey by the Policy and Planning Research Unit—I believe that is the latest survey the unit has published—demonstrates persistent inequalities between Protestants and Catholics in the workplace. However, I am glad to note that it shows a slight improvement in unemployment rates. I accept that the imbalance probably cannot be fully explained on the basis of discrimination alone.

The commission's statutory remit is much narrower than its name implies. However, it is to the credit of the commission that it is no longer taking too narrow a view of its terms of reference. During recent years it has taken a wide view of the social, political and economic factors responsible for direct and indirect discrimination. As we have heard, the second report which we are discussing this evening is itself a wide-ranging document. It is also a massive document. As we know, it contains about 84 specific recommendations.

I feel sure the commission would agree that some of the recommendations are more important than others. Like my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris, I believe it would have been helpful if the commission had indicated to which of the core elements of the recommendations it attached the highest priority. Nevertheless, it has emerged during the course of the excellent speeches made in this debate that the thrust of the report commands a great deal of support. Indeed no one has been moved to come to the Chamber this evening and speak against it.

I am particularly pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will be speaking tonight on behalf of the Government. I am glad he has been able to attend the Chamber this evening. I hope he will be able to give the House an approximate indication of how many of the recommendations have been accepted in principle, how many have been rejected in principle and how many are still under consideration. That information would be helpful.

In the time available to me I wish to concentrate on about half a dozen of the recommendations in the report, some of which have already emerged in the speeches of other noble Lords this evening. I do not propose to raise any issue that was referred to in the 16th annual report of the commission, although obviously that was an important report. I have given the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, notice of the issues I intend to address tonight. I hope he will be able to respond sympathetically.

As my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs pointed out in her excellent opening speech, it is a matter of major concern to the commission that the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 does not specifically prohibit indirect discrimination. In the early 1970s when the Act was drawn up the concept of indirect discrimination was a new concept. That probably explains its omission from the Act. However, today the concept is well understood. The problem of indirect discrimination is real. We are told in the report that it exists in at least six important areas which are referred to in the key paragraph 4.20 of the report. In the judgment of the commission, those areas are education, grants to clubs and associations, broadcasting, the use of the Irish language, some aspects of public housing and some aspects of economic development. I am particularly glad to learn from the chairman this evening that the commission is currently addressing the issue of indirect discrimination in education. That is a crucial area as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris.

As I have said, indirect discrimination is not specifically mentioned in the 1973 Act. However, as the guiding principles of the governance of Northern Ireland are entrenched in the 1973 Act, and its provisions in the absence of a successor Act would be binding on a devolved assembly, it is important that they are amended to prohibit in clear and specific language indirect as well as direct discrimination. That is the significance of the commission's recommendation. Do the Government agree that the 1973 Act should be amended or supplemented in this way?

The commission also advocates that there should be a statutory duty on all public bodies, including government departments—that point will not be lost on one government department—to monitor the impact of policy and practice to ensure they are not discriminatory, the information being strictly confined to that purpose. It is worth underlining that point. For my part I regard that as a crucial recommendation. Monitoring already plays an important role in the operation of fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, can confirm that the Government for their part accept that monitoring should be a necessary and standard element of any anti-discrimination policy and that this recommendation of the commission is accepted.

I now turn to another issue. The report contains a section on the office of the ombudsman. Reference has already been made to some of the recommendations in this section. The ombudsman is an ex officio member of the commission. The present holder of the office, Mrs. Jill McIvor, took up the post after the report had been submitted to the Secretary of State. Therefore she is in no way implicated in this recommendation.

I am interested in two or possibly three of the recommendations. Is there not a strong case, as the commission recommends in paragraph 5.41, for giving the ombudsman the discretionary power to investigate, on receipt of a complaint, all actions, inactions or policies about discrimination? Is there not also a case for giving the ombudsman the power to investigate on his or her own initiative all areas of maladministration which come to his or her attention in the course of investigating a specific complaint? If I understand the recommendation correctly, that is what the commission proposes.

Another interesting point has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords this evening. As my noble friend Lord Fitt pointed out, it is understandable that in Northern Ireland there is a reluctance on the part of potential complainants to go along the prescribed path to the ombudsman's door. It appears that complainants can become bogged down if they set foot on that path. Surely the route to the ombudsman's door should not be perceived by potential complainants to be an obstacle course. The commission is very concerned about that procedure. Therefore, would it not be advisable to give complainants a statutory right of direct access to the ombudsman, as is recommended in paragraph 5.31? I understand that in practice the ombudsman accepts complaints direct from individual citizens, but as that practice rests on discretion we believe that it should be put on a proper statutory basis.

I now turn to the question of the legal status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, the Irish language being the first official language in the republic. The commission's considered judgment on that issue is this: the way in which the Irish language is treated is a touchstone of the extent to which the existence of two traditions in Northern Ireland is treated seriously by the Government and the community at large". Those measured words are set out in paragraph 8.42. The commission goes on to recommend that the ban on the use of Irish in street names should be lifted. In paragraph 8.47 it recommends that the Government, in consultation with other bodies, should consider the enactment of legislation prescribing the circumstances in which individuals or bodies would have a statutory right to use the Irish language in the conduct of their business with official bodies, although I note that the commission does not itself offer a precise legal formula to achieve that end.

I acknowledge that in recent years in Northern Ireland the Irish language has received much greater support from the Government, and in particular this present Government. Nevertheless there is a powerful case for moving ahead along the general lines recommended by the commission. That recommendation has acquired a greater significance since the reliable rumours from Strasbourg suggest very strongly that the United Kingdom, France, Turkey and Greece have it in mind, in April or May, to veto the draft Council of Europe charter for the protection of regional minority languages even though the charter is supported by the remaining 21 member states. The proposed charter would have gone a long way to safeguard the Irish language in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government are not content merely to defend the status quo. I hope that they will not veto the proposed charter and that they will now proceed to commission a review from senior officials of the options for legislation which are possible.

I shall now mention briefly another specialised issue which has already been referred to by my noble friends Lady Ewart-Biggs and Lord Morris of Castle Morris. The commission recommends that the provisions of the Race Relations Act should be extended to Northern Ireland. That recommendation is also supported by the Committee on the Administration of Justice. We are told that it would be helpful to the Chinese, Indian and Traveller communities in Northern Ireland.

However, I believe that I am not the only person who is unclear about that recommendation. It has occurred to me that it should involve an examination of the key term used in the Race Relations Act—"ethnic or national groups". I believe that that is necessary if we are to avoid some of the tricky situations which are suggested at page 65 of Cultural Traditions, published by the Cultural Traditions Group. That is an aspect which does not appear to have been explored by the commission in the report. I wonder whether a compromise is required which would alleviate the problems experienced by members of the Chinese, Indian and Traveller communities without having to rely on the provisions of the Race Relations Act. I look forward to the Minister's observations.

The commission reiterates that the European Convention on Human Rights should be incorporated into the domestic law of the United Kingdom. That has been the commission's well known position since 1976. The arguments are familiar to your Lordships and will be found in the Select Committee report published in 1978. I am sure that if the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, had been able to be here this evening he would have supported that argument strongly.

It is unclear from the report whether the commission agrees that the convention should be incorporated in Northern Ireland law irrespective of whether it is incorporated in the domestic law of the United Kingdom as a whole. I understood from Sir Oliver earlier this evening that the commission agrees that Northern Ireland could, if necessary, proceed and establish the necessary precedent. An important part of the case for going ahead in Northern Ireland irrespective of what happens in the United Kingdom is made in paragraph 95 of the 1973 White Paper. The argument is summarised in these two sentences: The protection of fundamental human rights in Northern Ireland will henceforth flow from a number of different sources … But because important areas of government will he devolved to subordinate institutions, and this involves written constitutional provisions, it is practicable to legislate for the protection of human rights in a way which cannot readily be done elsewhere in the United Kingdom". I was heartened that my noble friend Lord Fitt, who has immense personal experience and knowledge of Northern Ireland, supports the introduction of a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, ahead if need be of developments in the United Kingdom. All the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland are in favour of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The case is also powerfully supported by the Committee on the Administration of Justice. It is also supported from these Benches and I hope that the arguments will be attractive to the Government and that a Bill of Rights will be placed on the agenda of the political talks which we trust for the sake of Northern Ireland will restart without too much further delay.

Finally, I come briefly to the need to strengthen the status, authority and legitimacy of the commission itself. We are sure that it should be as independent of the Government as possible. It should have its own secretariat, as it is quite unfair to put staff in the position where there can be a role conflict. It would be an intolerable position; after all, staff have to think of their careers. It should also be adequately staffed with specialist staff.

Moreover, we accept that its future role should be promotional and educational as well as advisory to the Secretary of State. It occurs to me that there is no reason why it should not have the power to convene a conference such as the International Human Rights Assembly in Northern Ireland Conference which is being convened in London on 6th and 8th April by the voluntary organisation Britain and Ireland Human Rights Project.

In conclusion, there is an immense amount of work for the commission to do if the historical barriers of prejudice and discrimination are to be removed. It is our hope on these Benches that the Minister will be able to indicate what improvements the Government have in mind to build into Northern Irish law and into the structure of the commission so that it is properly equipped to meet the challenge.

8.50 p.m.

The Paymaster General (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity that the noble Baroness Lady Ewart-Biggs has given us this evening to discuss the Second Report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights on Religious and Political Discrimination and Equality of Opportunity in Northern Ireland. I should like to join with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, in congratulating unreservedly the members of the commission under the chairmanship of Sir Oliver Napier on such a comprehensive and challenging report. Having listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, said in his speech about the importance and value of the commission's work, perhaps I may make it clear on behalf of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State that he values very greatly the commission's continuing work and advice on a wide range of human rights matters in Northern Ireland.

As the noble Baroness said when opening the debate, the report is extensive and well-researched. Indeed, it contains some 84 recommendations. Many of those recommendations have profound constitutional implications. They go to the heart of the problems confronting Northern Ireland by addressing the problems of equity of treatment and safeguarding human rights as effectively as possible. The Government would most certainly wish to encourage dialogue and debate to continue on the proposals among those concerned with political developments and the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland. We shall be reflecting very carefully on the remarks which noble Lords have made in the debate this evening.

The noble Baroness and other noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, in a most incisive speech, were somewhat critical of the period that has elapsed without an official government reply to this important report. I say quite openly that the trouble has been that the centrepiece of the report is a recommendation that there should be provisions in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act prohibiting indirect discrimination on the basis of religious belief or political opinion in the public sector and requiring that both communities in Northern Ireland should be given equality of treatment and esteem by government.

These are very important recommendations and more than simple human rights provisions. They would introduce major new statutory procedures into the process of government at all levels. Because provisions on these lines might be a part of future constitutional arrangements—this is an argument which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, hoped I would not deploy, but I have to do so—the Government have not felt able to make a response, although I think it is fair to say that we have kept the commission in touch with much of our thinking.

That is not to say that the Government do not accept the aims of the commission's principal recommendations. Indeed we are at one with the commission in our commitment to the eradication of all forms of discrimination and the promotion of equality of treatment and esteem.

Nonetheless, some noble Lords—notably the noble Lords, Lord Stallard and Lord Fitt—were critical that the non-reply has meant that the Government have been inactive. The Government can claim considerable achievements in the promotion of equality of opportunity and equity of treatment in Northern Ireland in the context of this report. Indeed, the commission recognised in the report that the record of successive governments in this area has been positive. An extensive corpus of law has been built up to address abuses. In addition, the Government are continuing to develop policies which we believe will effectively tackle, by practical means, the inequalities which undoubtedly continue to exist.

Chief among this action is the targeting social need initiative which, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced last year, has been accorded the status of third public expenditure priority alongside law and order and strengthening the economy. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, asserted that there is a consensus and that something simply needs to be done about reconciliation. Through the targeting social need initiative the Government are working to eradicate the significant inequalities which persist in the social and economic conditions experienced by both Protestants and Catholics. By identifying where the highest levels of disadvantage and deprivation exist, by analysing the precise extent to which their whole range of policies has a differential impact on each side of the community, and by targeting the programmes and resources much more sharply on those areas suffering the highest levels of social and economic disadvantage the Government are genuinely and constantly seeking to remove differentials and rectify injustices. We believe that greater equality can be achieved by improving the social and economic conditions of the most disadvantaged areas and people in Northern Ireland, which in turn will contribute to healing community divisions.

Targeting social need is a long-term programme designed to bring about fundamental change. But immediate work is underway. In particular—this was a point specifically raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies—reviews and monitoring arrangements are being put into place already in line with the monitoring procedures recommended by the commission. For example, the employment equality review which will consider the complex range of factors influencing differential access to jobs is a notable example of the extent to which the Government are comprehensively and publicly taking action.

I turn aside for a moment to reply to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, when he asserted that there is still discrimination in the allocation of housing. I am anxious to say that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has been successful and has been perceived in Northern Ireland as having been successful in removing the controversy from the allocation of housing, which was undoubtedly prevalent in days gone by. All allocations are made under the executive's selection scheme which establishes objective housing need as the sole criterion in determining allocations. Perfectly reasonably, the noble Lord asked about monitoring. The housing executive is now well advanced in developing procedures to allow it to monitor the effects of its policies on the different parts of the community, which should help improve its ability to achieve equality in the provision of housing.

The report also calls for measures to promote equality of esteem among all sections of the community in Northern Ireland. The Government recognise that there are two traditions in Northern Ireland. Through policies such as the cultural traditions programme and education for mutual understanding we are attempting to promote greater recognition of what the two traditions have in common and a sense of mutual respect.

At this point, I refer briefly to the matter of political talks, which is relevant to this debate. It has been well understood by all noble Lords this evening that, despite serious efforts to agree a basis for new talks, the parties have encountered certain obstacles. I am sure that all noble Lords will be pleased to hear that during my meeting with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister earlier this week, the leaders of the four main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland agreed to get together to discuss those obstacles in the hope that substantive talks might start at an early date. I believe that the Prime Minister's meeting with party leaders earlier in the week will have sent a clear signal to terrorists, from whichever organisations they may come, that their activities only strengthen the determination of constitutional politicians to assert democratic politics.

Any changes to the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 such as those proposed by the commission would, I suggest, have to await progress towards a political settlement. That is why I have introduced the business of the talks. Changes in the legal protection of human rights of the kind proposed by the commission may form an important part in the political arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, specifically asked about the recommendation concerning indirect discrimination as well as direct discrimination being made unlawful. Other noble Lords also spoke about that issue. The Government do not wish to prejudge the extent of any future changes, although they take the view that the commission's proposals as they stand can in some cases raise difficult issues of principle and practice. However, I must emphasise that the Government have certainly not ruled out drawing upon the report's proposals if in future they are seen to be necessary to meet the objectives that we share with the commission.

The report deals with certain aspects of the work of the ombudsman, also referred to by several noble Lords. The ombudsman is the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner for Complaints and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Administration, a post currently held by Mrs. Jill McIvor. The post has become a trusted guardian against maladministration and the Government believe that the existence of the office in Northern Ireland is not in danger. We believe that the present system works well. Nevertheless, we have initiated a review to ensure that the ombudsman's role reflects today's needs in respect of administration within the public services and the range of organisations covered by the ombudsman's remit.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and other noble Lords referred to the recommendation in the report that the requirement that reference of complaints to the ombudsman must be via Members of Parliament should be removed. I remind noble Lords that the rationale for that procedure is that the commissioner's role was envisaged as providing a means of assisting Members of another place in carrying out particular aspects of their functions as elected representatives in Parliament. It was considered important that the commissioner, as an appointed officer, should not become a direct alternative source of protection against unjust administration. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, will remember more about that matter at first hand than I shall ever know. The noble Lord first substantially raised the issue in the debate. Of course it is not necessary to go to a constituency Member of Parliament with a complaint. Any Member of Parliament can sponsor a complaint to the ombudsman.

As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, in practice when complaints are received directly from individuals showing evidence of maladministration almost invariably the ombudsman is able to locate a sponsor. Therefore, the problems raised by your Lordships are avoided. Before the noble Lord jumps down my throat, I must tell him that I take his point that if that is the case in practice, why not accept the recommendation of the commission and put the matter on an official basis. I simply say this evening that I take on board the arguments put by your Lordships and shall draw them to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I was not suggesting that the potential complainant should be prevented from using the present route but that an alternative route should also be available.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I take the point but I shall not add to my comments by way of an undertaking.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, and the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Morris, pointed to the absence of race relations legislation in Northern Ireland. I hope that your Lordships will not mistake a brief answer for a lack of regard for the importance of the issue. Previous administrations have not felt that circumstances in Northern Ireland justify the enactment of race relations legislation, although there are extensive provisions to prevent discrimination on religious or political grounds. We are keeping the need for such protection under review. It is a recommendation of the commission to which my right honourable friend intends to respond soon together with other recommendations.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Morris, spoke about education funding. The report is in favour of equality in educational funding, which was also the subject of a separate report by the commission published in its 16th annual report. That report made two recommendations, both of which the Government were able to accept immediately. The report was rightly concerned to ensure that funding was related to need. Through the application of formula funding under the new education reforms I am pleased to say that we have already done a great deal to target resources more effectively. We are also reviewing with the voluntary authorities the present levels of capital grant rate for maintained schools.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, spoke about the Irish language. According to the commission's report the Irish language is a touchstone of the extent to which the existence of two traditions in Northern Ireland is treated seriously by government. The Government accept that many people in Northern Ireland regard the Irish language as an important part of their cultural heritage which should be protected and cherished. To that end we have provided some £1.5 million in the present financial year for Irish language activities. That does not include the teaching of Irish in schools and universities on which considerable sums are spent.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked the specific question: what is the Government's attitude towards the Council of Europe movement in support of a charter for European minority languages? The general principles underlying the proposed European charter for regional minority languages are very much in agreement with UK policy in this area. However, given the different situations of Welsh, Gallic and Irish, the United Kingdom faces practical difficulties in responding to a measure which would apply to them all. We are also not yet convinced of the appropriateness of attempting to define a European standard based on a menu of choices which the charter provides. Detailed discussions on this matter are, however, continuing and I assure the noble Lord that the United Kingdom will come to a final view on this matter once the discussions have been completed.

Perhaps I may come quickly to the very important proposals for the future of the commission itself. Here the commission is making a number of recommendations which would change its role quite dramatically. The standing advisory commission was established by Section 20 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act. Since its creation in 1973 it has built an increasing reputation for its constructive and well-researched advice. I think it is right to say that my noble friend Lord Prior, when he was Secretary of State, acknowledged that the statutory remit given to the commission in 1973 was too restrictive. Successive Secretaries of State have endorsed that view and have welcomed advice on a wide range of human rights matters, even though this is not explicitly provided for by statute.

In practice, of course, the commission is free to offer whatever advice it feels appropriate. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked about the recommendation that the commission should be given greater independence and have its own secretariat and its own specialist staff. Without going into detail, may I say it is our intention to amend the commission's remit and bring it into line with current practice when a suitable legislative opportunity arises. Of course, the commission already has access to internal research capacity and is able to commission research where it feels that that is appropriate. But the Government remain of the view that the commission's principal role should continue to be to provide independent advice to government. For that reason we do not feel that its legal status is something which ought to be changed.

May I seek to answer some of the individual questions of your Lordships which have not yet been dealt with. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, expressed the view that we need more labour market information. A great deal has been done here, with the labour force survey having been brought into effect—a large-scale survey to provide detailed information on religion, skills and qualifications of people who are unemployed. If one looks at the Fair Employment Act of 1989, we find there the provisions for registration and monitoring returns. I am advised that all the companies required to submit monitoring returns during 1990–91 are now in compliance with their registration and monitoring obligations under the legislation. I should like to say, having listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, that I feel the 1989 Act imposed new obligations on employers in both the public and private sectors. It also introduced monitoring and is regarded as the most radical piece of anti-discrimination legislation in the United Kingdom. The Government believe that it will make a substantial contribution towards eradicating religious discrimination in employment in Northern Ireland.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, spoke of the need to increase confidence in complaints made against the security forces—a subject which is dealt with in the report. We have made already a number of improvements in the handling of investigations of complaints, including the establishment of the independent commission for police complaints. We have improved procedures for handling complaints against the armed forces. We are currently establishing an independent assessor of military complaints procedures, who will carry out audits of the way in which military procedures operate in respect of non-criminal complaints. He will have considerable powers to require the GOC to review particular cases or groups of cases in which the independent assessor considers that the procedures have operated inadequately. Of course criminal complaints against military personnel are investigated independently by the police. There is then the process of reference through to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I accept the explanation he has given for the present system of complaints procedures against the Army. But how does he respond to the particular points the commission makes that there is no confidence in the impartiality or fairness of the system as it is?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, if the noble Baroness will allow me, may I add one other thing? Of course complaints against the police are subject to the oversight of the ICPC, the independent commission on police complaints, and of course we have before us still the triennial report of the ICPC, which made recommendations to extend and strengthen its role. That is currently still being considered.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, spoke about prisoners' transfers, and I should like to take this opportunity to say that requests by prisoners in Great Britain prisons for transfer to Northern Ireland are considered under the criteria announced by the Home Secretary in June 1989, relating to the length of sentence, place of residence and behaviour in prison. Each request is considered on its merits; and compassionate grounds can be taken into account.

The present criteria focus more on family circumstances than they did previously. For example, they allow a prisoner with close family connections in the receiving jurisdiction who intends to live there on release to transfer, even though he may not have lived there before conviction. Nevertheless, families often face difficult and long journeys in order to visit prisoners in other jurisdictions; and, following consultation, provisions governing the transfer of prisoners between UK jurisdictions are being reviewed. The review was announced to Parliament on 4th June last year by Home Office Ministers, and includes assistance to relatives visiting prisoners in other United Kingdom jurisdictions.

That brings me almost finally to matters raised by my noble friend Lord Hylton about the holding centres, which perhaps fall outside the scope of the debate that we are having this evening. The noble Lord began his remarks by acknowledging that the interviewing of suspected terrorists—not least at the present time—is something that is exceedingly important. If I heard the noble Lord correctly, he also recognised the fact that those who are terrorists, or have terrorist connections, are in the business of seeking, if they possibly can, to lay doubt upon the way in which the procedures are followed in the holding centres. Therefore, we have a difficult situation to deal with.

It is dealt with by building in considerable safeguards. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said that we need greatly improved safeguards. In "shorthand", there is the continuous monitoring of all interviews by closed circuit; there are the provisions for a medical officer having to be called if there is an anxiety; there are the provisions for a medical examination on arrival. In addition, access to a medical officer has to be provided at a set time every day; and there is provision for a medical examination before a suspect is discharged. Then there are rules about informing the family or friend, and consulting a solicitor, about the whereabouts of a suspect.

I do not think that this is the moment for the noble Lord and I to cross swords over those matters. But there is the statutory requirement, as the noble Lord rightly said, that we put into Section 61 of the Emergency Provisions Act which was passed during last summer that there has to be a statutory code of practice, so that rules which are at the moment set down but not set down statutorily, will be so; and we are considering an independent commissioner of the holding centres.

Finally, may I—

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way?

Lord Belstead

No, my Lords, I shall not for a moment. I shall just finish this point and then give way. May I remind the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that where complaints of ill-treatment are made, they are fully investigated by the police complaints and discipline department. Those investigations may be directly supervised by the independent commission for police complaints if it so chooses, in which cases a member of the commission can be present during all interviews and remain in direct contact with the investigation process.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Can he tell us when we may expect to see the code of practice to which he has just referred?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the code of practice has been subject to consultation with various organisations and will be produced publicly for public consultation. This evening I cannot tell the noble Lord exactly when that will be, but I hope that it will be in the foreseeable future because, like the noble Lord, I attach importance to it.

I think that that is more than enough, and on an Unstarred Question I must apologise for speaking as long as I have. I thank your Lordships for taking part in an important debate. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for making it possible to have this debate this evening. If there are any questions or points that your Lordships have made that I have not answered, I shall seek to write. The Government are, I assure your Lordships, nearing completion on their detailed study of this report, and I expect my right honourable friend to publish his formal and detailed response shortly.