HL Deb 18 February 1997 vol 578 cc623-33

7.32 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th January be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 will introduce provisions broadly in line with those already in force in Great Britain by the enactment of the Race Relations Act 1976. It has been supported in another place.

I believe that it will be helpful to the House if I comment briefly on the order and then say a few words about the detailed provisions. The main purpose of the order is to render unlawful direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of race. It offers aggrieved individuals full and proper redress through the normal process of civil law. The order also establishes the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland.

As noble Lords will be aware, the Government are committed to the elimination of all forms of discrimination. In Great Britain legislation exists which outlaws discrimination on the grounds of gender and race. In Northern Ireland, the sex discrimination legislation replicates that of Great Britain. Because of the unique circumstances pertaining, Northern Ireland also has very stringent legislation which outlaws discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion.

Northern Ireland does not have race relations legislation. In this matter its citizens are not afforded the same protection in law as those of the rest of the United Kingdom. Racial groups account for less than 1 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland. In the past it was felt that any deprivation suffered by such groups was insufficiently different from that suffered by the indigenous population to warrant specific legislation. Existing social and criminal legislation, together with various administrative policies, was thought to be adequate to address such problems.

Great Britain, however, has obligations not only to its own citizens but internationally through its ratification of the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights recommended that race relations legislation should be introduced in Northern Ireland as a matter of urgency.

The Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order was drafted, following a lengthy period of consultation, to replicate the Great Britain race relations legislation. It is similar to the Great Britain legislation in almost all respects. It establishes a Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland which will help to enforce the legislation and promote equality of opportunity and good relations between people of different racial groups generally. The commission will be the principal source of information and advice on the legislation and will have similar powers to those of the Commission for Racial Equality in Great Britain.

In line with the Race Relations Act 1976, the order will make racial discrimination unlawful in employment, training and related matters, in education, the provision of goods, facilities and services and in the disposal and management of premises. Individuals who suffer discrimination will be given the right of direct access to the courts and industrial tribunals for legal remedies.

The order will contain provisions enabling the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland to enter into voluntary, legally binding agreements with individuals or corporate bodies. The introduction of these provisions to the Great Britain legislation was recommended by the Commission for Racial Equality following its second review of the Race Relations Act 1976. It is the Government's intention to amend that Act to include this provision.

The proposed Northern Ireland legislation differs from that of Great Britain in that the Irish traveller community is defined as a racial group for the purposes of the legislation. Their inclusion was the subject of considerable lobbying during the early consultation period on the proposals for a draft order. It was again heavily supported in comments received on the proposed order before your Lordships here today.

The introduction of race relations legislation in Northern Ireland is a demonstration of the Government's commitment to equality for all United Kingdom citizens. To have access to employment, training, education as well as goods and services, regardless of racial background, is a basic human right which should not be denied to the people of Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th January be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

7.38 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her exposition. We support this order, although it is 21 years since the Race Relations Act 1976 was passed and it has operated for most of that time in England and Wales.

We welcome the fact that the travelling people, who have particular complaints about discrimination, have been included as a separate minority group.

In addition, this is about the only time that I ever expect to find that another group which is sorely discriminated against will receive the full protection of the law. I refer to Article 26, whereby barristers are specifically given the protection of the law. This is a unique occasion, never to be repeated. Buy now while stocks last!

One of the problems is that anti-discrimination and human rights legislation in Northern Ireland has grown up piecemeal. That may have been inevitable because of history; it is unfortunate in many ways. Our commitment, if the electorate do their duty, is that after the election we shall introduce into domestic legislation the European Convention on Human Rights. That will probably be an occasion on which to look on an overall basis at all human rights and anti-discrimination legislation in so far as it relates to Northern Ireland as well as England, Wales and Scotland.

One thing that troubles me slightly is whether governmental functions relating to health, social security and housing are covered at all. I do not expect the Minister to deal fully with that on this occasion because I have not had the opportunity to give her notice; but, if she would be kind enough to write to me, I should be grateful. Other than that, we welcome this order.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her introduction of the order. We too on these Benches support this measure, which is long overdue. It is an extraordinary anomaly that we have had to wait since the 1970s for such a measure. The noble Baroness will recall that in the 1970s Parliament made it unlawful to discriminate on religious grounds in Northern Ireland but not in Great Britain and to discriminate on racial grounds in Great Britain but not in Northern Ireland. At least we now have a substantial step towards rationalisation. I pay tribute to the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, whose continual pressure and analysis of this point has, I am sure, helped the Government and inspired them to bring the measure forward.

Most people think of religious discrimination in Northern Ireland. However, we should remember that, according to figures from the University of Ulster, there are significant ethnic minorities there. There are in Northern Ireland between 3,000 and 5,000 ethnic Chinese, who no doubt are the subject of the protection in Article 8(2)(c) which allows racial discrimination on grounds of race where food or drink is being sold. I dare say that it is intended to protect the admirable Chinese restaurants in Northern Ireland. But as well as the Chinese, there are 1,000 Indians and 641 Pakistanis, and the travellers mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I usually agree with every word that the noble Lord my colleague says but I am not sure that barristers are a group that normally needs special protection. Probably a slightly different thought is that conspicuously in Great Britain there has been difficulty, particularly in solicitors' partnerships, for many members of ethnic minorities trying to succeed in that profession. Therefore I believe that there is a serious intent.

There is one point which the noble Baroness might like to consider, although I suspect that it goes wider than Northern Ireland. If we make legislation of this kind user-friendly so that people can use it when they are discriminated against, I wonder whether there is a case for some kind of human rights commission to mediate between the general public and the terrors of the law. When she responds, I should like her to say whether she considers that there is any merit in that suggestion. Otherwise, she has our wholehearted support from these Benches.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, the noble Baroness the Minister is indeed to be commended, in that it is during her tenure at the Department of Economic Development that this measure has come forward. I certainly welcome it very strongly. I could hardly do otherwise because my colleagues have been pressing for it, not for many years but for very many years. It has already been recalled that the Race Relations Act upon which the order is based came into effect in this country in 1976. So it has come of age just as this piece of legislation is coming into force.

It is not unusual, of course, that Northern Ireland finds itself a little behind in the legislative programme and that matters are brought into place in England and Wales and indeed Scotland and only subsequently in Northern Ireland. That is not always a bad thing. Sometimes we can learn from the experience in this part of country. For example, we have the example of the community charge. Northern Ireland did not find itself having to venture down that particular road and I hear very few voices raised in objection to that.

On a more positive note, perhaps, the mental health legislation which came through this Chamber in 1959 and which was subsequently replicated in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1961 had a number of provisions which differentiated it from the previous mental health legislation here and which were an improvement. Subsequently, experience demonstrated that that was so, as legislation here began to take on some of the qualities of the legislation in Northern Ireland. So the idea that Northern Ireland is a little behind is not necessarily a bad thing so long as we learn from experience and so long as the read-across from this side of the water to Northern Ireland is an appropriate read-across.

What is more than a little disappointing is, first of all, that it has taken so long. Twenty-one years is an extraordinary length of time to permit racial discrimination in Northern Ireland to remain legal. Secondly, it is a little disappointing that in the read-across some things appear to have been missed. There is another similar example. When the health service reforms came into existence, the Government seemed to slip a little in recognising that in Northern Ireland there is an integrated health and social services system; and just as trusts were about to come into play, it was suddenly recognised that social services would be part of those trusts and all the statutory responsibilities thereof which did not apply to health trusts in this part of the country would apply in Northern Ireland. The legislation had to be delayed a year in order for that matter to be rectified.

I feel that this is a similar kind of matter. District councils and local authorities in Northern Ireland have an entirely different remit from local authorities here. It is a much narrower remit. One of the unfortunate things about this order is that because it places a statutory responsibility on local authorities, it applies to a much narrower area than is the case in respect of local authorities' responsibilities on this side of the water.

My colleagues and particularly my colleague Mary Clarke-Glass, whose experience as a former chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission is quite singular, raised this matter with the noble Baroness the Minister. She kindly replied indicating that government departments which have those responsibilities in Northern Ireland have to accommodate themselves to the policy, appraisal and fair treatment guidelines. That is absolutely true. Nevertheless, it is a matter of some regret that a piece of legislation of this kind cannot apply in the widest possible fashion.

That leads me to my final comment, which takes up the very interesting comments of my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham and the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that we have a series of quangos in Northern Ireland to deal each with a separate significant and important area of possible discrimination. I emphasise that that is not meant in any fashion as a criticism of those excellent bodies and their excellent work over the years. Nevertheless, by accumulating an increasing number of such bodies, we are achieving a degree of fragmentation and piecemeal effect in our approach to civil liberties and human rights and responsibilities.

I welcome the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that the time may be coming when we might be able to rationalise them and bring them together, and, indeed, in that regard to have some overall body which will help guide people through the maze of different organisations that has developed, all of whose members have one purpose; namely, to ensure that all people in Northern Ireland are treated equally and with dignity and respect. But perhaps there is a sense that we are coming to a point where there are so many channels and so many ways of working that it is a little confusing.

Having said that, we welcome the order, a little overdue though it be, and commend the Minister in that it has come into existence in her tenure at the department. We hope very much that no other matters, including the electoral timetable that is upcoming, will stand in the way of its urgent implementation.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, who I believe has a heavy cold, it falls to me strike the first slightly discordant note.

We are told that the ethnic minority population of Northern Ireland is approximately 7,000, which is less than one half of 1 per cent. of the population. Most of them are Chinese and the Chinese historically have never complained much about discrimination, not because they would be reluctant to do so if they were discriminated against but because people do not normally discriminate against them. That one half of 1 per cent. is an interesting and significant proportion. It is smaller than the ethnic minority population of Great Britain before the 1950s, when no race relations laws existed as there was no need for them. It is the case the whole world over—not simply in Europe—that when ethnic minorities are small and stable the indigenous population does not feel threatened. It is only when the minorities start growing rapidly and significantly that attitudes change and it is then felt that race relations laws have to be brought in.

In parenthesis, it is worth reminding noble Lords that the Conservatives, both Front and Back-Benchers, bitterly resisted large tracts of the 1976 Race Relations Bill, as a perusal of Hansard will demonstrate. Therefore, it is rather puzzling that it is now felt that legislation has to be brought in for Northern Ireland, given that, happily, full employment exists among the ethnic minority population, in contrast to the situation among the majority, and that, happily, once again, there are so few racial incidents—only 66 in 1995, for example.

The cost of the new quango is estimated at £450,000 per annum. That works out at more than £7,500 per incident—not all of which are necessarily specifically racial. For example, Chinese or Gujarati shopkeepers who are attacked and robbed by thugs, are not necessarily attacked because they are Gujarati or Chinese; it may be because they are slight in build and therefore make an easier target for thugs intent on robbing them. It may also be thought that they will put up less resistance.

There is then the curious business of the "travelling community" being classified as belonging to a different racial group to the rest of the population, which clearly it does not. As I understand it, none of the travellers are Romanies. Once one starts treating cultural differences as racial differences, one opens the door to all sorts of unintended consequences.

Be that as it may, one imagines that it is that factor alone which prevents the Government from simply extending the law in Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which would surely be a lot cheaper and simpler. As I understood it, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, suggested harmonising the law and the operation of the race relations quangos in that respect.

One important factor has so far not been mentioned—it may seem far fetched at the moment, but may not be so far fetched in a few years' time. Not only will discrimination on the grounds of race be forbidden, of course, but also discrimination on the grounds of nationality.

At the moment the Republic of Ireland is enjoying a great economic boom—in part due to EC subsidies. Northern Ireland is also doing well, but rather less so. Suppose the position were dramatically reversed in five or 10 years' time and the Republic suffered from a severe and prolonged economic slump. Suppose then that the citizens of the Republic—a republic which in its constitution formally lays claim to the whole of Northern Ireland territory—started pouring over the border trying to buy up houses and land. Once they had established residence, they would immediately be able to vote in local elections and elections for the European Parliament. It is possible that before long they would also be entitled to vote in general elections.

Inevitably the unionists—in the broadest sense—would become alarmed at the influx of new residents who would almost certainly upset the delicate electoral balance of the Province. I would guess that they would probably resist, collectively or individually, selling houses and farms to the citizens of the Republic, seeing their nationality threatened by the upsetting of that delicate electoral balance. Would that contravene Articles 21 and 22? Or would they be permitted to behave like the Danes, who are allowed by the Maastricht Treaty, albeit to the annoyance of many people, to keep out German settlers?

Finally, perhaps I may turn to a remark made by the Minister in her introduction. The noble Baroness said that the United Nations was urging that race relations legislation be introduced as a matter of urgency into Northern Ireland. There are a large number of countries in Europe and throughout the world which have no race relations legislation at all, even though they may need it a great deal more than the Province. Why has the Province been singled out for this legislation when it needs it a great deal less than many other countries one could mention?

7.54 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, when the Race Relations Act was going through Westminster under a Labour government in 1976, I made repeated pleas that the Act be extended to Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at that time was Roy Mason, who is now a Member of your Lordships' House. He put forward many arguments as to why the Act should not apply to Northern Ireland. It is therefore unfair to read Hansard and to hear the words of those who are charging the present Conservative Government with 21 years of neglect. In the three years between 1976 and 1979 the Labour Government could have extended the Race Relations Act. It is unfair therefore for that criticism to be levelled at the present Government.

I welcome this legislation. However, I find bizarre reasons being given for its introduction. In my young days and even up to the present moment I can think of hundreds of Italian ice-cream shops in Northern Ireland, none of which claimed to have been subjected to any discriminatory acts. When this legislation was being introduced, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland said, However, the total number is approximately 0.5 per cent. of the population. It was only in the late 1980s that a public debate on the need for such legislation began. In 1995, the Secretary of State gave a commitment to introduce race relations legislation to Northern Ireland as soon as possible".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee, 6/2/97; col. 1.] There has been a minority group in Northern Ireland since 1920 and it could well have done with this type of legislation. However, it took from 1988 to bring about a change of heart in the Government, according to the Minister of State. I should point out that it took much longer—since 1920—before the Race Relations Act and the other fair employment Acts came into being in 1976.

I would like to ask the Minister about the composition of the new Race Relations Board. How many members will it have and what will be their ethnic backgrounds? It will be difficult to obtain sufficient numbers from whatever religious backgrounds who are natives of Northern Ireland, and the Government will need to be extremely careful.

As it is, we are legislating for 80,000 people in Northern Ireland. The Government have gone to a great deal of trouble to bring this order before the House this evening. I hope that there is not the same action against ethnic minority groups in Northern Ireland as there has been against the main minority group in Northern Ireland. I urge the Government that in the composition of the board they do not deliberately create another quango. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, there are already far too many of them in Northern Ireland.

7.57 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, as ever I thank noble Lords for their involvement, comments and, for the most part, welcome for this order. I am extremely grateful for that and perhaps I may share with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, my pleasure in bringing forward this legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said, it is a commitment that has been outstanding since April 1995 when the Secretary of State undertook to bring it forward.

We had extensive consultation. The absence of race relations legislation in Northern Ireland has not been due to any lack of will on the part of successive governments. I shall make certain that my honourable friend's attention is drawn to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in protection of the Conservative Government. The issue has been one of proportionality. Even now, the noble Lord, Lord Monson, raises the issue of numbers, to which I shall turn in a moment.

In recent years there has been a significant increase in the numbers of people in ethnic minority groups in Northern Ireland, although the total number is still small. In the late 1980s this debate put itself on the agenda and we will all be pleased to see the order moved into legislation. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that it is important that it passes into law and will not be held up by an electoral process.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, was kind enough to say that if there are areas I miss in my response, he will be happy for me to write to him and clarify them. I hope other noble Lords will also extend me that privilege. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that the provision of primary healthcare is covered by Article 21.

I know that many noble Lords have anxieties about the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, as to where the difference in government structures relates to this order. The draft order places a duty on local government in order to emphasise the importance of the promotion of good race relations at a local level. These provisions also aim to emphasise that the establishment of the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland will not absolve local government from its responsibilities in relation to ethnic minority groups. Placing such a duty on local government will ensure that all councils, and not just those with a high level of ethnic minorities within their areas, take responsibility for promoting good race relations. That is very important.

The central government functions in Northern Ireland are subject to the policy, appraisal and fair treatment guidelines which aim to ensure that issues of equality and equity conditiona policy making and are central to all spheres of government activity. The guidelines are aimed at ensuring fairness not just between ethnic groups but also between people of different religious beliefs or political opinions as well as differences in gender, age, marital status and sexual orientation. The guidelines apply to non-governmental public bodies such as health boards as well as to central government. Concentration on making them work effectively is very important.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, raised the issue of exemption for restaurants. This covers the front of the house, so to speak, so that your marketing and presentational policy may mean that an Indian restaurant has Indian waiters and a Chinese restaurant has Chinese waiters. We should not restrict the development of small business enterprise, of which we could certainly use more in Northern Ireland.

The need for a single human rights body is an important issue. The order follows the 1976 Act. A separate body is necessary to help enforce the legislation and to carry out promotional and advisory functions. The amalgamation of all the anti-discrimination bodies in Northern Ireland into one human rights body has extremely wide implications. It requires detailed consideration and extensive consultation. The Government last addressed this issue in the mid-1980s. They concluded that separate institutions were more appropriate. But this issue may well be revisited in the context of the employment equality review currently being undertaken by SACHR. I pay tribute to the enormous load being taken on by that body in this review. That will then be the appropriate time for this issue to be considered.

It is important that the different organisations work together as closely as possible and that both the public and employers have a coherent service offered to them. The Government stress that and the department and my officials work at it. The Commission for Racial Equality has a duty to help applicants and to explain law to employers and so on. That applies to all the commissions. I hope noble Lords will accept the Government's support, and the support of the Prime Minister in particular, for citizen's charters and the ability of individuals to understand and use the law.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, is not with us this evening. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Monson, was implying that he would have been more critical of the legislation. I hope not. The noble Lord rightly drew attention to the fact that not all the incidents may have been based on the ethnicity or nationality of the people attacked. However, there is a definite need in Northern Ireland for the various groups which make up the community to have confidence. It is important for them that they should feel that they have rights extended to other parts of the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the work of community groups in making quite certain that their members have been able to work with us in bringing the legislation forward. I believe that one racial attack is one too many. In a society which sometimes has a non-peaceful approach to life, we have to be extremely careful that all citizens are protected.

In the responses to the proposal for a draft order there was great urging that the legislation should make clear the status of the Irish traveller community as a separate ethnic group. We believe it is definable. However, it was not thought that the ethnic distinctiveness of the Irish travellers would be so widely accepted as to ensure that a court would establish the locus of an Irish traveller under legislation. It was also thought that the inclusion of Irish travellers would have a declaratory significance in terms of government's attitude to society. Furthermore, the Irish travellers are found throughout the island of Ireland. They are included in anti-discrimination legislation which is being processed by the Irish Government. For all those reasons it was decided to include Irish travellers as an ethnic group in the race relations legislation. I believe it to be a fair protection well offered.

The key issue for ethnic minorities is the provision of goods and services, particularly public goods, access to interpretation, and so on. Employment is not a current problem but the Chinese population is concerned about future generations. That motivates almost all their decisions and it is something which I think is admirable.

Article 22 deals with discrimination in the disposal or management of premises. I do not share the fear of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that there will be an instant emptying of the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland. Many advantages have been available for many years with the support of the Government in terms of support for health services and education. I think there are cultures which are very different, but Article 22 deals very specifically with discrimination in the disposal or management of premises. But I also recognise that there is cross-border traffic. It would be unlawful to refuse to sell a property in Northern Ireland to someone from the Republic of Ireland on grounds of nationality. I do not think the noble Lord raises something which will be a major issue, however far down the future we look.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, questioned the format of the Commission for Racial Equality. All appointments to the commission will be made on merit and in line with the recommendations contained in the Nolan Report. It is important that the commission should represent a mix of relevant skills and backgrounds. As with the Commission for Racial Equality in Great Britain, it will be important that those include some with a detailed knowledge of the needs of various ethnic minority communities. Further than that it is not possible to say what the racial balance of the commission will be. There is always the aim that a commission, when formed, should not consist of representatives but should consist of individuals with knowledge and expertise who act together as a commission.

I wish to clear up one final point. The Government do not regard barristers as a deprived group. The difference in this legislation is only that it is specifically tailored to circumstances in Northern Ireland where we have a Bar library system, which I suspect the noble Lord understands rather better than I do.

I believe that this is a very valuable piece of legislation and that it will make a difference to what may well be a small group of citizens in Northern Ireland, but a group that has entitlement to rights as much as other members of the United Kingdom.

Lord Monson:

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Is she in a position to answer my question as to why the United Nations has singled out Northern Ireland as a place where race relations legislation needs to be introduced as a matter of urgency when it apparently feels no such urgency is needed in respect of a large number of other countries where race relations problems are very much greater?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I cannot speak with absolute confidence about the aims of the United Nations, but I suspect—and I shall be corrected if I am wrong—that it has a sense of the need for urgency everywhere where there is no protection. Despite the noble Lord's concerns about the timetable, if we have managed to move rather more quickly than others, I can only be very proud of that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.11 to 8.30 p.m.]