HL Deb 05 October 1998 vol 593 cc167-230

3.21 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Northern Ireland Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Viewed in the perspective of history this is an extraordinary moment. The Bill before us is the main legislative embodiment of the agreement that was reached in the multi-party talks in Belfast on Good Friday. The agreement provides for the new beginning for Northern Ireland, and for the broader relationships of which it is a part, that has been so long and so painstakingly pursued by many people of vision, including distinguished Members of your Lordships' House.

Few of us a year ago would have thought it at all likely that the affairs of Northern Ireland would have been so utterly transformed that we should now be turning our attention to these matters. The multi-party talks in Belfast had been sitting for over a year but had barely reached agreement to turn their attention to the substance. To many it was all to easy to believe that there would be no resolution of the political disagreements that beset Northern Ireland life, not merely in the next year, but at any time in the foreseeable future.

That was all changed by the courage, skill and commitment of those involved in the talks. They embarked on dialogue of increasing intensity, skilfully guided by Senator Mitchell and his colleagues. On 10th April the deeply felt wish throughout Northern Ireland society for a new and better future won out.

That the agreement is overwhelmingly accepted as the foundation for such a future is evident in the popular support it has received in Northern Ireland and indeed in the Republic of Ireland and beyond. It is evident, too, in the remarkable political advances we have seen in Northern Ireland since Good Friday and in the new mood that reigns there.

It is true, of course, that there have also been, since the conclusion of the agreement, times of tragedy and despair. We think of the painful tensions and disorder of Drumcree and the awful death of the Quinn children. Most of all, we think of the outrage at Omagh on 15th August which has taken 29 lives and caused injury to hundreds. Your Lordships have already discussed that outrage and approved legislation to deal more effectively with the forces that produced it. We must hope that this was the last manifestation of the utterly discredited belief that violence can achieve anything of value in Northern Ireland. Nothing indicates the new mood more than the reaction to the Omagh bomb. There was unprecedented unity not only in the condemnation of the bombing but still more clearly in the determination that was expressed, and manifested in practical action, to see that the process of building a better future on the foundation of the agreement should go on unimpeded. That feeling was especially evident during the most welcome visit of President Clinton to Northern Ireland.

This determination, I believe, reflects the widespread view in Northern Ireland society that this agreement, once implemented, will remove the scourge of terrorism from Northern Ireland, not, as some have asserted, by giving in to terrorism but by removing the bogus arguments which have been used to justify terrorism in the past; by putting in place a new and balanced statement of constitutional principles which all sides can support; and by establishing a series of interlocking institutions to which all sides can give their full allegiance. In short the agreement offers what all the decent people of Northern Ireland want: a fair political resolution of ancient problems, political stability and lasting peace.

We have seen throughout the summer impressive and courageous political leadership in support of the agreement and the hopes that rest on it—certainly from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister-designate, who have shown great statesmanship, but also from others. We have seen the statement of Mr. Adams that Sinn Fein believed: the violence we have seen must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone". We have seen his party appoint Mr. Martin McGuinness as its representative to meet with the Decommissioning Commission, and we have seen meetings between Mr. Adams and Mr. Trimble. We have seen the ceasefire of the INLA. When we consider recent history these are clearly steps of fundamental importance.

I experienced a personal sense of the new atmosphere last month when I visited the Assembly at its first meeting after the summer. There were no fireworks of the sort that political fora in Northern Ireland have sometimes seen. Indeed, some of the media made clear their disappointment at the calm nature of the proceedings. But the occasion left a deep impression on me. What I saw was a low-key, positive debate in which it was clear that many of the participants, who would never have been in the same room together a little while ago, were making a real effort to understand and respond to each other's difficulties and sensitivities. I left in no doubt that, even during my short time in Northern Ireland, things had changed fundamentally.

There remain, of course, serious stumbling blocks to be overcome on the way to the implementation of the agreement. Despite the advances that have been made, the question of decommissioning remains extremely difficult. It is beyond question that, as with other aspects of the agreement, decommissioning has to come about. That is now widely acknowledged. There needs to be forward movement, in parallel, on all aspects of the agreement. As the Secretary of State said last week, everyone has to give a bit to make the agreement work and everyone's confidence needs to be built. We do not underestimate the acute difficulties on all sides, but it is, I believe, the overwhelming wish of people in Northern Ireland that they should now be overcome. The Government stand ready to make every effort they can, but they do not have the solution in their gift.

All those who signed the agreement must make the most energetic and determined efforts to discharge their part of the bargain. That is what my ministerial colleagues have sought to do. An enormous range of measures has been undertaken to give effect to aspects of the agreement. I will, if I may, set out the most important of them here.

First, on the question of prisoners, since your Lordships approved the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act in July, the Sentence Review Commission has been established and releases have begun. We can only too readily understand the pain that the releases have caused to those whose lives have been touched by terrorist violence—including some in your Lordships' House—but it is an inescapable part of the transition to a better future. Whatever our personal feelings, I believe we must face it.

Next among the steps we are taking to give effect to the agreement, work is under way to identify areas for co-operation and implementation by north-south bodies in accordance with the agreement. Commissions on policing and criminal justice have been set up, and a criminal justice consultation paper has been produced. Decommissioning schemes have been made permitting decommissioning to begin at any time within the framework approved by your Lordships last year in the decommissioning Act. We have acted to give effect to the provisions of the agreement on the Irish language in the Education (Northern Ireland) Order that your Lordships approved before the summer and in the Government's statement of 4th June on the UK signature of the Council of Europe Charter on Regional and Minority Languages.

We have announced support measures for victims, following the report of the victims Commissioner, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. We have seen a long series of announcements on the relaxation of security measures of the sort that mark Northern Ireland as different and which, if we saw them in our own neighbourhoods, would prevent us from ever describing life there as normal; for example, the withdrawal of Army patrols from Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland, the closure of vehicle checkpoints and the withdrawal of troops. Those measures have been taken in response to the assessment of the security forces about the level of the terrorist threat. We can expect more if, but only if, the threat decreases further.

There have also been a great number of administrative measures to prepare for the transition to locally responsible government. An intensive programme of briefing of the new elected members—something we have never benefited from here or in another place—has been set in hand.

It is also right to recognise the remarkable deepening of British-Irish co-operation in recent times. There is now a greater identity of purpose and outlook between the two states than ever before. We saw an unprecedented reflection of this when the British and Irish Parliaments met simultaneously last month to take resolute steps against terrorism. Co-operation at a practical level between the security forces north and south is excellent. The closeness in our relationship will be pointed up when the Prime Minister takes up later this year his invitation to address the Irish Parliament. This new spirit in relations between us threatens no one: it can only be a force for good.

The months since Good Friday have seen the most tremendous pace of activity, intended to give full effect to the agreement in the shortest time possible, without risking the loss of momentum that could, as your Lordships will understand, seriously prejudice its prospects.

This Bill itself was prepared in what was, given its length and complexity, a record time, and we had little time for consultation with the Northern Ireland parties in its preparation. We proposed some amendments to the Bill in another place in the light of discussions with the parties, and we have continued the process of dialogue over the summer. We have also found a number of areas in which the Bill needs technical adjustment. As a result, we must bring before your Lordships a significant number of amendments, some of which I will flag up when I describe the main features of the Bill. We shall, of course, also listen carefully to amendments your Lordships may propose that have the effect of making the Bill better reflect the agreement. I acknowledge the burden that the timetable of the Bill places on your Lordships, but it is the consequence of a wider timetable whose necessity I believe is widely accepted.

Our aim in the Bill has been to give effect to all aspects of the agreement so far as it requires further legal provision, supplementing it only to the strict extent necessary to permit it to operate effectively.

Turning to the Bill itself, Clauses 1 and 2, which featured in the agreement, mark the resolution of the constitutional issue that has so long dominated Northern Ireland politics. The clauses give full reflection to the principle of consent, a principle now approved massively at referendums—not only in Northern Ireland, but also in the Republic, where approval was given to a constitutional amendment, removing the old Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution that were so objectionable to Unionists.

Clause 3 provides for devolution when, sufficient progress has been made in implementing the Belfast Agreement". We hope that will happen early in 1999.

Clause 4 deals with the allocation of powers to the devolved institutions. Excepted matters are set out in Schedule 2. They are in substance not within the purview of the Assembly at all and cannot be transferred to it. They concern chiefly central government issues like international relations, defence and taxation. Reserved matters, which are set out in Schedule 3, may with the approval of both Parliament and the Assembly be transferred to the devolved institutions. The Assembly can legislate on them but only with the Secretary of State's consent and subject to parliamentary control. Among the reserved matters are policing and criminal justice. The Government hope that in those fields too agreement can be reached before long for the Assembly to take responsibility. The current reviews of policing and criminal justice will obviously bear heavily on any consideration of such a transfer.

Everything that is not set out in the schedules as being excepted or reserved is transferred, and in those fields, essentially the economic and social areas covered by the six current Northern Ireland departments, the Assembly and the new Ministers sitting in it will have the future responsibility for government.

In this context I should warn your Lordships that, though it will be obvious we have drawn substantially on the Scotland Bill, which has occupied so much time here, the similarities may be deceptive. For example, what the Scots call reserved matters more closely resemble what we call excepted ones. Our Bill most of all seeks to give effect to the agreement. It moreover builds on a framework of devolution that has been reflected in Northern Ireland law since 1921. So in some respects it is quite different, in substance and in technical matters, from the Scotland Bill.

Clause 4(5) defines the concept, which is fundamental to the arrangements in the agreement, of cross-community support. The Bill requires such support for certain votes. In other cases it may become a requirement if 30 members present a petition of concern under Clause 34.

Part II of the Bill deals with the Assembly's legislative powers. It borrows from the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973 as well as the Scotland Bill but is adapted to the requirements of the agreement. It will be for the courts to decide key questions of legislative competence, including the conformity of the Assembly's legislation with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Part III of the Bill concerns executive powers. Clause 14 provides, in accordance with the agreement, for the offices of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and Clause 15 for the selection of Ministers by the d'Hondt procedure: d'Hondt is a formula for allocating seats in the executive committee in proportion to party strengths in the Assembly. We shall have changes to propose about the circumstances in which the procedure is re-run, reflecting consultation. We of course already have a First Minister-designate and a Deputy First Minister-designate elected under Assembly standing orders, and we hope shortly to see an executive committee-designate. Those appointments will carry over under the transitional provisions in Schedule 14. Clause 22 of the agreement provides for committees. We shall again have changes to propose.

Clause 23 reflects the requirement of the agreement that Ministers should observe the pledge of office and may be excluded from ministerial office by the Assembly for failure to observe their responsibilities, on a vote of no confidence. The agreement makes clear that those responsibilities include a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. If the Secretary of State believes the Assembly should consider exclusion on grounds that a Minister or party is not so committed, she can require them to do so, and in reaching her judgment about that she must take into account the criteria in Clause 23(7) which reflect those already included in the sentences Act. But the final decision rests, as the agreement requires, with the Assembly.

Part IV of the Bill is about elections to the Assembly and its procedures. We shall bring forward amendments to Clause 24 on early dissolutions and on prorogation in Clause 43, reflecting concerns of the Northern Ireland parties.

Part V concerns financial and audit arrangements. We shall propose to your Lordships a strengthening of the audit provisions, reflecting concerns in another place.

Part VI of the Bill is about human rights and equality. It establishes a new Human Rights Commission, with very substantial powers, to advise the Secretary of State and devolved institutions, to assist the bringing of court cases and to promote research and educational activities. The commission will also advise on the further Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland envisaged in the agreement.

We have had a long series of meetings with the political parties and others interested in Northern Ireland and beyond about the powers and functions of the commission. These consultations have only just finished. We are considering what further provisions to propose in the light of them. We shall certainly suggest some enhancements of the commission's powers. Those powers are, I suggest, far-reaching by any standards, however, and taken with the incorporation of the European convention and the other human rights provisions in this Bill, they amount to a transformation in the arrangements for the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland. The human rights provisions are one of the key features of the agreement and the Bill when complete will, I believe, amply do justice to their importance.

Part VI also establishes the Equality Commission, replacing the four existing bodies dealing with discrimination and adding important new functions over a wide range of equality issues. It also places on public authorities a statutory duty to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity. These proposals were referred to in the agreement but were also the subject of detailed public consultation initiated in a White Paper published in March. We have responded to concerns expressed during the consultation that issues of sex, race and disability discrimination should not lose out in a single commission. We have sought to include in the Bill protection for the ethos and achievements of the four bodies within the framework of the new commission. We shall propose amendments to clarify the role of the Assembly in respect of these issues. These amendments will be a further enhancement of a set of provisions that once again marks a real advance in rights protection.

Part VII of the Bill covers both the Civic Forum and the bodies established under strands two and three of the agreement. Those bodies include the North-South Ministerial Council and the implementation bodies in which co-operation will take place on a cross-border or all-Ireland basis. These are of course institutions of fundamental importance to the agreement. We shall have to bring forward a substantial reworking of the provisions, reflecting both consultation with the parties and technical factors. In doing so we shall propose that they are moved to a position of greater prominence in the Bill.

In Clause 80 we shall bring forward amendments to set up an independent tribunal to hear appeals against national security certificates issued in discrimination cases. This will enable us to meet our obligations under the European convention following a recent judgment by the Court in the cases of Tinnelly and McElduff.

I believe that the Bill is a faithful reflection of the agreement, and the agreement has been embraced by a substantial majority in Northern Ireland as well as all significant political parties in both parts of these two islands, as the best hope we have been offered in many decades. We are very conscious that the Bill may be capable of improvement. But we hope for your Lordships' wholehearted endorsement for the basic scheme it sets out, reflecting the vote of confidence the people of Northern Ireland have given.

I am aware of the time and effort we have recently asked your Lordships to devote to Northern Ireland matters. I have been deeply grateful for the positive and co-operative spirit of our earlier debates and I hope very much that that will continue. We shall do all we can to help the House deal with the substantial volume of work we are putting before it.

But I am confident that this is work the House is happy to undertake because of the opportunity the Bill offers. When its provisions are fully in effect, the prospect will be open to the peoples of Northern Ireland and of these two islands, working together in a wholly new spirit for a more peaceful and prosperous future for all of us. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Dubs.)

3.42 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I feel certain that the whole House will be grateful for the manner in which the Minister has introduced and taken us through the structure of the Bill. I am certain also that all noble Lords will wish to endorse what he said at the conclusion of his remarks about the place that the Bill may well be expected to take in the long series of steps towards the better future for the whole island of Ireland, and for Northern Ireland in particular, to which he alluded. I would guess—it is not a matter for me—that your Lordships will be understanding of the need for amendments in the light of the necessary haste with which the Bill has been prepared.

My alarm at the unexpected prominence of my position in the list of speakers today is not the only reason why my short remarks will deal only with those early parts of the Bill which provide for the establishment of an assembly; and within that assembly an executive committee. That is not to say that I regard as unimportant—far from it—those later parts which deal with human rights and equal opportunities. I welcome those parts as much as I welcome in general the first parts of the Bill.

For a long time I have seen the restoration of a substantial measure of self-government to Northern Ireland as being properly a prime objective for Her Majesty's Government. As we all know, direct rule has been necessary, but a regrettable necessity almost as much for the consequences of direct rule as for its causes. Most notably, I believe that it has led to the wasting and frustration of a great deal of political talent in the Province. For a long time in Northern Ireland, democratically elected representatives have been vouchsafed powers only of the order that we in England give to our parish councillors. No wonder, therefore, that the tone of political debate in Northern Ireland has been so disproportionately bitter and negative in its tone. In Northern Ireland no elected politician gains any mileage from saying, even if the thought might occur to him, that the Northern Ireland Office in this respect has done quite a good job. Indeed very often it has done so. The resultant assertions that the Northern Ireland Office has generally done a fairly bad job have done little to lighten the encircling gloom, although I respectfully salute officials for bearing all this fairly philosophically.

Until now there has been no prospect of carrying future responsibility oneself to cause one to moderate the tone or content of one's condemnation. But, as we all know, that is what happens when local democratic responsibility is denied to people. That in itself is an important ground for seeking the end of direct rule.

Another ground is that in general local issues are more acceptably decided by people with local knowledge and standing, especially when they have to answer to an electorate that is local in character. However, there is one proviso. The basis upon which restored self-government is exercised in Northern Ireland must this time be a fair one. And there for so long has been the rub. As we all know, the special circumstances of Northern Ireland have meant that the minority have had to be provided with a measure of agreed protection in any legislature that is reintroduced, essentially by means of weighted majority procedures. These the Bill provide. They derive from the agreement achieved so notably and admirably at the end of the political talks just before Easter—the so-called Good Friday agreement in Belfast. I therefore welcome very warmly those provisions of the Bill.

It is a substantial Bill, but, as the Minister so rightly mentioned, it is only a part of the enormous amount of work that has had to be done by Ministers, officials, and the parliamentary draftsman in implementing the agreement since it was achieved. I wish respectfully to congratulate them all on the speed and the quality of the work that has been done in so short a time. I believe it is right that the Bill provides that the executive committee shall be rooted in and dependent on the assembly. But there is more to a fair foundation for a scheme of self-government to be restored to Northern Ireland than merely giving proper protection to the minority against being steamrollered by the majority. The majority have rights, too. One of them is that no party within the assembly shall be obliged to face within the assembly an implicit threat of violence whenever one of its opponent parties in the assembly fails to secure the decision that it wants.

It has long been trite to say that there can be no place for a gun under the table or a gun left outside the door. That will be as true in the assembly for which the Bill provides as it was always true in the political talks from which the Bill derives. But the time will come—and soon, I judge—when the Government will have to show that they mean those trite words.

On any sensible understanding of the Good Friday agreement, it was surely plainly agreed that the decommissioning of the IRA's arms must have begun before the executive committee convenes in shadow form if Sinn Fein is to take its seats pursuant to the election within that executive. That is not to invent a precondition; rather, it is to require the fulfilment of a principle fundamental to the agreement.

In his speech the Minister alluded to that when he referred to the pledge of office. I believe that authority for it can be found elsewhere in the agreement, the principle being the total and absolute commitment of all parties to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues. One has only to look at the declaration of support on the first page of the agreement at paragraph 4, or to the commitment of all parties to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations, which is to be found in the first paragraph of the section on decommissioning.

I believe that the point I make and on which I conclude is clearly demonstrated by the fact that if Sinn Fein were to get on to the executive committee without the IRA decommissioning having even begun all its wants will have been met not for nothing in return but for not very much in return. That includes most notably the release of its prisoners, to which the noble Lord the Minister referred, leaving the IRA free to pursue if it wishes, and fully armed, its objective of an immediately united Ireland so starkly reaffirmed last month by Sinn Fein's president, Mr. Adams, in his speech at the Labour Party Conference.

I cannot believe that such a situation is one to which Her Majesty's Government thought they agreed in April or envisaged when they campaigned in May. I hope that tonight that will be made clear.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, it is good to be discussing Northern Ireland in such a constructive and positive way, as we are able to do today. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for the way in which he introduced the Bill. Too often we in your Lordships' House have discussed the latest outrage or atrocity. Just one month ago, we were recalled to discuss our reaction to the atrocity at Omagh. Today, by contrast, we are considering a practical way to move away from that and bring Northern Ireland into a new era and a new century. In that way, the Bill is significantly different from many of the debates we have had on Northern Ireland in the past few years.

One of the consequences of direct rule, referred to so well by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, is the way in which the minutiae of the business of government has to be discussed in Parliament. I have never ceased to be amazed and occasionally amused by the statutory instruments we receive from various quangos in Northern Ireland detailing—and that is no understatement—the minor aspects of business, commerce, transport, weights and measures or the location of a farmyard track in a small village. I never cease to be amazed by the fact that within direct rule we in this House are supposed to deal competently with those issues. If we pass the Bill, and the future is as we all hope it will be, there is a golden opportunity to have local people making the decisions that affect them most closely. They will do so not on behalf of Parliament but on behalf of local people and are best able to judge what decisions are appropriate, and they will have to live with the consequences.

In that sense, I agree strongly with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, that restoration of local self-government has implications beyond the administrative. It is also to do with the nature of society in Northern Ireland. Will we become less dependent? Will we have a stronger civil society? Will we have more of a change in the normal processes of politics in which people disagree about bread and butter issues? Will we have less of the politics of protest which have so disfigured political life in Northern Ireland in the past?

As we consider the Bill, we must recognise how much of a break with the past it is. Even in recent years, the years of the troubles, we have seen moments of progress; in 1974, 1982 and 1991. On each occasion, a step forward was tragically taken away, overthrown by sectarian violence or reversed by inertia. As yet, progress has not led to a comprehensive settlement, certainly not one as potentially inclusive and conclusive as the Bill we have before us today. The challenge to us in this House is to cement the optimism; to take the skeleton of the Good Friday agreement and to flesh it out and make it permanent.

So the Bill must reflect the spirit of the agreement and enshrine the letter of the agreement if it is to be durable. In considering it, we must remember that it cannot reflect what we may wish the Good Friday agreement had provided; the time for that has passed. We cannot use this House and your Lordships' deliberations to renegotiate it. We have only to consider the appallingly difficult journey which took us there. There were talks about talks, in which the Minister played such a distinguished part; there were elections to facilitate talks; the talks themselves; the negotiations; the deal; the agreement; the success story of the referendum; and then elections to the assembly. Only now do we have the settlement Bill. Even with 100 per cent. hindsight, that illustrates the difficulty of unstitching elements of such a painfully-arrived-at agreement. That option is not open to us. If during the next few weeks we do our job well the agreement could indeed be transformed into a long-lasting triumph. If we do not, the good intentions behind the Good Friday agreement may remain good intentions.

We on these Benches regard as our role during consideration of the Bill to transform the agreement into the settlement, ensuring that the spirit and letter of the agreement are translated accurately into legislation. We will be tabling amendments and I am not surprised that the Government have tabled a number of amendments, too. I compliment them on their urgency, but they are the first to recognise that it is a sketch rather than a completed drawing. I am relieved that they will table their own amendments.

We shall pay considerable attention to Part IV. My noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who has such a distinguished locus in Northern Ireland, will address that in his remarks. Areas other than human rights and equal opportunities that we shall want to put before your Lordships and from which I would like a preliminary reaction from the Minister today are, first, Clause 23(6)—of which I gave the Minister notice. If the Secretary of State has decided to refer the exclusion of somebody for the reasons that the Minister gave in his introductory remarks, I cannot understand why the conditionality is still there, that she "may" refer it. Once she has decided, surely she should refer it and there should be not be any ambiguity.

There is also the question of the assurance of the proportionality as a whole in the allocation of ministries and committee chairmanships. The noble Lord explained the principle, but will that mean at the end of the day that the total of committee chairmanships and ministries will have been allocated proportionally between the parties in relation to their support?

The Minister referred to future and further bodies to be created. Will they require cross-community support as they are created?

Rather importantly, there is the issue of the powers of the Assembly. Schedule 3(16) includes in reserve matters, for instance, trade outside the United Kingdom. Those of us who look to peace in Ireland very much hope that one of the aspects will be increased trade within the island of Ireland—between Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, which is still at pathetically low levels and where great enhancement of economic activity is possible. When we envisage all-Ireland bodies of one sort or another, many of which must deal with commerce between the two parts of the island, is it appropriate to exclude that matter from consideration by the Assembly? There may be other aspects of the Assembly's powers rather than its structure that we will want to consider. I cannot promise either that we shall not bring forward other amendments at the appropriate time.

Having said that, the Government can count on us to support the agreement and all amendments consistent with the spirit and letter of the agreement. I welcome the urgency with which the Government have afforded the legislation. We are at a difficult time. Progress in Northern Ireland is rather like the Monte Carlo rally. There is always another hairpin bend ahead and always more screaming tyres shortly to be heard.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was right to refer to the importance of the decommissioning issue. It is clear that decommissioning by Sinn Fein is not formally a precondition of participation save that, within the period of the agreement, they must decommission. I would like to address the matter in a rather different way. If Sinn Fein do not persuade the IRA to start decommissioning—if Mr McGuinness, working with General de Chastelaine, does not transform his participation into some actual acts of decommissioning, surely he must realise that he is putting the other parties in Northern Ireland in an impossible position. He will be putting Mr. David Trimble, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, into an absolutely impossible position. There are no doubt those in the Unionist family who would be very happy to see Mr. Trimble put into an impossible position, but I am not one of them.

Most people who look for peace in Northern Ireland want to do what they can to make the position of the Unionist leader tenable. But if Sinn Fein do not persuade the IRA in a most practicable way to respond to the universally held views in this country and throughout Northern Ireland that the gun outside the door must be taken away, that will make things practicably difficult. It is not an issue of preconditions or a legalistic issue but an issue of practical politics, with which even we in the rarefied atmosphere of your Lordships' House should be intimately concerned.

In that spirit, the Government can count on us for constructive support as the Bill goes through this House.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, might I be permitted to join the two preceding speakers in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for all his efforts over many months—bearing in mind that in your Lordships' House, the Minister is the spokesman for, and to a great extent the representative of, all his Northern Ireland Office colleagues and their departments, which is no light burden? The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, said that the arrival of the Northern Ireland Bill in your Lordships' House marks the beginning of the restoration of democracy to the people of Northern Ireland. Six months ago, acceptance of a sort of the Good Friday agreement was sold by spin doctors as something between a charter and treaty—not negotiable, although not signed by anyone. It was just accepted—all 65 pages of it.

Six weeks later, that agreement was submitted to a referendum—again, all 65 pages of it, averaging two questions per page. Unlike other referendums, having, say, just two questions, the people of Northern Ireland were treated most generously, in that they were given 130 questions and invited to answer yes or no to them all.

Four weeks on came elections for the Assembly. At that point, as is the habit in elections, those participating began to ask real, detailed questions for the first time. Unfortunately, there were few answers. The catch-all reply was, "You are voting for peace and who would want to vote against peace?". The relatives of people killed, injured, knee-capped or beaten up during the interval since Good Friday might want a more convincing reply, supported for a change by some real evidence.

In a very short time, the Northern Ireland Bill arrived in the other place, and "a short time" would accurately describe the scandalously brief time allotted to consideration and debate in the other place. The Government's attitude at that time resembled that of members of the Government Front Bench in your Lordships' House during the passage of the four other major Northern Ireland Bills in the course of the summer. When any of us dared to move an amendment as modest as substituting the word "shall" for "may", we were warned that such unpicking would violate the sacred wording of the Good Friday agreement—that it would, to quote the phrase beloved of many of your Lordships, "send the wrong signal." The recipients of the signal were never clearly identified, but we are entitled to assume that they were terrorist bodies because they were and are the only people capable of resisting by force or threatening the use of force—which is just as effective as can be in getting one's way.

I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, will find some quite fundamental changes in Government amendments yet to be introduced. They are so fundamental, from what I have heard from well-informed sources, that they will unstitch the sacred agreement dramatically. We look forward to reading those amendments.

I have reason to believe that the Government will table a considerable number of amendments and new clauses, as well as oppose several of their own existing clauses, and will perhaps table new schedules. The Minister has foreshadowed such developments. He put it tactfully, as arising from consultations that have been going on rather leisurely over the past two months. That is not all the fault of the Government. Perhaps there is another cause for those changes, in that the Government discovered, not unexpectedly, that the proceedings and structures proposed were not as simple and clear cut as was first believed.

I find it distinctly odd that the Government are contemplating fundamental changes to the Bill in view of their dire warnings to those of us who genuinely sought to improve other Bills stemming from what, until now, has been regarded as the sacred scroll of the Good Friday agreement which the Government persuaded some 70 per cent. of the voters to approve in the referendum.

Are the Government yielding to pressure from individuals and worthy bodies who failed to identify in those 65 pages of the agreement plans which will have a detrimental impact on semi-official bodies which now, understandably, complain that they were not consulted about the drafting of the agreement? The only consolation I can offer such people is the assurance that the rest of us were not consulted either.

But the Government are in a position to do what we are unable to deliver; namely, they can break free from all the small print of the ambiguous agreement, even if it sends out a different signal, because a different signal would be superior to a flawed and fudged document at the end of your Lordships' deliberations.

If that would imply error in the first place or resemble any loss of face, let the Government forget all about the Medes and Persians angle and perhaps permit opposition parties in your Lordships' House to redress some of those grievances by the presentation of constructive amendments. I mean that sincerely.

I shall do no more than mention some of the major issues which will deserve close scrutiny at subsequent stages. First, the Bill provides for the establishment of a Northern Ireland human rights commission. I hope that we shall be told that the Home Office has withdrawn its objection to such a body, which was voiced vehemently by the Home Office spokesman in your Lordships' House when I meekly moved an amendment to the European human rights legislation which made provision for a United Kingdom human rights commission. It makes no sense whatever to have a human rights commission for only one part of the United Kingdom. That will create quite unnecessary complications with regard to the European convention.

It really will not do to assert that that special commission is necessary for Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland has community divisions. Most of your Lordships were present at Question Time today in your Lordships' House when it was revealed that there are indications of an increase in racial problems in Great Britain and even in this capital city. That reinforces the plea that there should be a human rights commission to cover the whole of the United Kingdom, for the reasons that I have given and for the additional reason that so many of the reserved matters which are contained inside the covers of this Bill affect the rest of the United Kingdom and not Northern Ireland alone.

There is then the equality commission for Northern Ireland, which forms a segment of the Good Friday agreement. But those who supported and helped to sell the agreement now seem to oppose the equality commission; in other words, they are now opposing what they originally sponsored. The bodies listed for dissolution will be amalgamated. There is an inevitability about that merging—and I do not quarrel with the principle—without which there would have been a steady increase in the number of those various semi-official bodies. However, we wish to ensure that the amalgamation does not result in bodies—for example, the disability council—being starved of funds and resources essential for their vital functions.

I commend Ministers on rejecting high-sounding titles for the chairman and deputy chairman of the commission, omitting even capital letters for the chairman and deputy chairman. We should aim to ensure a real approachability and removal of aloofness on the part of the members of the commission and its two office-bearers.

Finally, it is regretted that the Order in Council will be retained for certain reserved areas because the attraction of devolution was the expectation that reserved matters would be the subject of Bills. I hope that it will still be possible to move to that situation. There will be a requirement to seek the views of the Assembly on the proposals for draft Orders in Council. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, will be conversant with that procedure. But that concession, which allows the members of the Assembly to express their views on, although not to draft, Orders in Council, is not terribly impressive. Before the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, was Secretary of State, during the life of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1982 to 1986 that concession was granted to that Assembly. The Assembly, and its committees, faithfully discharged its duty and tendered detailed advice and guidance, but I am afraid that precious little heed was paid by Whitehall to the realistic advice tendered in that manner. Experience has taught me to regard Whitehall's conversion to good intentions, even the good intentions of Ministers, as leaving very much to be desired.

I wonder whether it is possible for the Minister to indicate whether the timetable will meet expectations with regard to this Bill. I have the uneasy feeling that there is a degree of slippage in relation to some parts of the Bill. One cannot help feeling that consultations have dragged on rather slowly over the past two months. With the Session coming to an end, there is bound to be some real anxiety, particularly in the minds of the Government's business managers.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, this is not the first occasion on which I have been privileged to follow the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, in the course of a debate. If, with one exception today, I do not follow him into the issues which he ventilated, I am sure he will understand that it is nothing personal.

I have not participated in debates relating to Northern Ireland for some years. I hope that it goes without saying that that does not reflect any loss of interest in the welfare of Northern Ireland nor any diminution in my regard for my many friends there. It arose from three sources. First, when I ceased to be chief Opposition spokesman on the subject in another place, I resolved that I should not breathe down the necks of my successors. On this subject perhaps more than most, it is important that there should be no confusion as to who speaks for any major political party. It is a subject upon which back-seat drivers are well advised to belt up.

Secondly, I found more than enough to occupy my attention. This is a subject on which I believe one should either remain fully informed and abreast of events or one risks sending a message that one did not intend. Thirdly, I have always believed that well-intentioned English friends who feel compelled to comment publicly on the affairs of Ireland frequently do the people of Ireland no service. If we cannot always bring peace, we should at least not risk perpetuating the discord; and if we cannot heal the wounds, we can at least try not to open them further.

My intervention today arises not from any change of mind on those matters; I do not propose to comment on the political or constitutional issues. I congratulate my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, and my noble friend on the Front Bench—in that tribute I should like to include the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew—on their patience, their sensitivity and their persistence. I wish well to all those who seek to begin a new chapter for the millennium.

Today I seek to address only one aspect of the Bill; that is, the provisions which claim to implement the aspirations to effective human rights which are to be found in the agreement. I do so for two reasons. First, I believe that they are integral to the whole peace process. The quarrels, the bitterness and the violence arose in the first place largely because many people believed—rightly or wrongly—that they were being treated unfairly in the practical details of daily life. The future of the whole process may hang on whether or not they believe that that is being redressed. Secondly, the contribution which this country can make to the cause of human rights in a global setting may depend on whether or not we are seen to be committed to human rights on our own doorstep. I commend the commitment of my noble friend and his colleagues to human rights in the negotiations leading to the Bill and in the Bill itself.

We have come a long way in my political lifetime. When Amnesty International came into existence in 1961—I was a founding member—the expression "human rights" was met with a glazing of the eyes. We worked hard—the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, will remember some of the experiences we had in those days—in order to secure a mention of the expression in the media; a reference to it in legislation was quite unthinkable. I remember explaining to a Minister that an objection which I had raised to a proposal was concerned with human rights and being met with the comment, "Oh, so your point is purely academic".

We have come a long way but we are not there yet: we have not won. We have crossed the first river and we have begun to see the terrain on the other side. The whole point about human rights is that one person's right is another's frustration. Rights may conflict. Therefore, we may all support human rights in general, but we are not so sure of their specific application. The ultimate triumph for human rights is a community in which people respect one another and try to be sensitive to the other party's point of view. Whether in a specific case that is best achieved by firmness or persuasion, by insistence or flexibility, is always debateable. Therefore if, during the process of this Bill, I make an occasional suggestion, I hope that my noble friend Lord Dubs will not think I am calling into question his commitment any less than mine to ensuring, if we can, that this aspiration to make human rights a reality is successful. It is important to get it right.

Most of the issues on which I propose to touch today are better considered in Committee. I mention them now in the hope that it may assist my noble friend in his reflections before we reach that stage. They fall into two categories: those relating to the proposed human rights commission and those relating to the proposed equality commission. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, will forgive me if for this purpose I assume that the human rights commission is to be limited to Northern Ireland. Other issues may be opened up at a later stage.

The remit for the commission is, first, to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of the law and practice; secondly, to advise the Secretary of State and the executive; thirdly, to advise the assembly—it is good to see that that includes the right to tender unsolicited advice. That was not clear from the agreement but it is now clear in the Bill. Fourthly, to give assistance to individuals—I shall return to that in a moment; fifthly, to promote understanding and awareness; and, sixthly, as my noble friend mentioned, to make proposals for a bill of rights. On first reading it appears to be a pretty comprehensive remit and I am sure that it was intended to be so. But if the devil is in danger of creeping in, it may be in the small print or in the absence of it.

I had the advantage, as have other noble Lords, of reading a memorandum by Mr. Christopher McCrudden—probably the foremost authority on human rights in Northern Ireland and a former member of SACHR. I also read the debates in another place initiated by my honourable friend Mr. McNamara and others. In consequence of those initiatives, the general aspirations expressed in the agreement have already undergone a degree of refinement but, as ever, the task of getting the small print right, I suspect, will fall to your Lordships.

First, the power to give assistance to individuals applies only to proceedings involving the Human Rights Act 1998. In another place Mr. McNamara moved an amendment which would have enabled assistance to be given for proceedings under the anti-discrimination provisions in the Bill. He moved a further amendment to make clear the right of the commission to intervene in litigation as an amicus curiae. Rather more widely, a point which troubled Mr. McCrudden is that it is not clear that the commission may initiate litigation on its own initiative. Mr. McNamara sought to address the restriction imposed by what is now Clause 56, which would confine the right to bring proceedings to the victim of the act against which complaint is made. That would appear to preclude the commission from bringing proceedings in its own name. That could be important, first, because the complaint may be in respect of an infringement directed at a group of people or at a whole community; secondly, there may be a situation where an individual victim is reluctant to bring proceedings in his own name if he feels under threat.

There may be situations in which, if the only redress is for the victim to bring proceedings in his own name, there may be no redress at all. Of course, it would follow that the commission should have power to initiate its own inquiry into an individual allegation of human rights abuses. It cannot bring proceedings unless it has the power to investigate. Wisdom may lie in spelling that out. In another place my honourable friend Mr. Murphy announced that the Government wished to consult and reflect on those matters and, I assume, that included the matters to which my noble friend referred in his speech this afternoon.

In relation to the equality commission, the concerns are, first, that the Government seek to establish the "one-stop shop", to which the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, referred. That gives rise to anxiety on two counts. First, the situation which made the agreement and this legislation necessary is one where attention is understandably directed to certain forms of sectarian discrimination and particularly discrimination in employment. There may be a danger that the commission will be under pressure to establish a hierarchy of rights and that other rights may be marginalised. Unless they have bodies specifically dedicated to protecting them, they may be lost among the more urgent concerns of the commission. Similarly, the resources necessary to protect them will no longer be ring-fenced, as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, pointed out. This whole area of activity is already under-resourced. However, if all the rivers are emptied into an undifferentiated sea, then some of the activities may simply run dry. We look forward to hearing again the results of my noble friend's reflections on that.

More fundamental is the assumption that monitoring may be enough. Monitoring is necessary in any human rights regime, but it should go forward hand-in-hand with a commitment to equality in the decision-making process itself; at each stage in policy making; within government and within every public body. There should be a commitment to a culture of human rights. I hope that the Government are proposing to address that. Human rights are established or denied not in conference halls or debating chambers, or even in courts of law, but on factory floors, in social clubs and on street corners. So I accept that my noble friend and I are seeking to achieve the same result. If in the course of these debates we occasionally differ, it will be only because we are all concerned to remove the irritants which will poison the whole peace process; and none of us would wish to see that.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, this agreement has often been described in your Lordships' House as the most important affecting Northern Ireland—and undoubtedly it is by far and away the most important since the creation of the Northern Ireland state as it deals with the whole history of Northern Ireland and tries to take account of its future development.

My noble and learned friend Lord Archer said that he would not discuss unduly the constitutional and political elements of the Bill. However, we all recognise that it was those very constitutional and political elements that brought this Bill before the House today. Had it not been for those elements, we would not have had 30 years of murder and mayhem; we would not have had a constitutional convention or the agreement.

If one reads the Official Report of the debates on this matter in another place, one realises that we are at a considerable disadvantage because the one Member of your Lordships' House who was involved in the talks is no longer able to give us his opinion. I refer to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. In view of his Speakership of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, we cannot review the evidence that he saw during the discussions which led to the agreement.

Only three parties were involved in the discussions that brought about the Sunningdale executive—the Northern Ireland Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party—and in the first attempt at power-sharing in Northern Ireland which lasted only five months. However, this agreement was brought about and made possible by the inclusion of paramilitary organisations which had no part to play in the Sunningdale agreement. This agreement brought in the Progressive Unionist Party; the UDA, which was represented by Mr. Gary McMichael of the Ulster Democratic Party; and Sinn Fein, which was the alleged spokesman for the IRA. There is no doubt about it—however one attempts to gloss over it—but that the reason why they were brought into the discussions was because they had been using arms and causing murder and mayhem for the past 30 years. Violence achieved something—it brought them into the negotiations. People may regret that. I regret it to some extent, but it is a fact of life that because of their activities, they were brought into the discussions.

I should have liked to watch how the discussions progressed, even if not to take part in them. Since the Good Friday agreement, I believe that there are people who are now having second thoughts. They will not oppose the agreement; I certainly would not oppose the agreement, but it is a fact that in the last 48 or 72 hours of the negotiations when the Prime Minister himself went to Northern Ireland, there was a good deal of haste and pushing to achieve that agreement. In that situation, I think that many important elements were overlooked. It is only now, when we begin to consider what was said in that speech in Belfast, what has been said in the House of Commons, and when we see the attitude of elected Members of Parliament to the Bill, that we can see that there was a rush and a panic to get that agreement signed within those four days. The future of Northern Ireland is far too important to allow such a hasty negotiation of a Bill.

On the question of decommissioning, it would be a real and terrible tragedy if the Bill were to collapse because of the attitude of the IRA and Sinn Fein to decommissioning. David Trimble has done what Brian Faulkner was unable to do. Brian Faulkner was unable to carry the Unionist Party with him and consequently, in view of the terrible workers' strike, the executive collapsed. I would have been opposed to David Trimble and his unionism throughout my political life, but he has been able to bring that party such a long way and to bring about agreement in Northern Ireland. If he is forced to agree—I do not think that he can be—to a setting up of an executive which includes Sinn Fein without some steps being taken towards decommissioning, I think he will find his position in the Unionist Party and unionist community in Northern Ireland totally untenable. If he were to fail on this issue, that would frustrate all the discussions, all the deliberations that have taken place throughout Northern Ireland and all the hopes that have been built up.

When we talk of decommissioning, we think of the IRA making some gesture by handing in Semtex or many of the guns that it has used over the years. The IRA is now involved because it agreed to depart from the ways of violence and to accept the democratic process. David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, which represents the Ulster Volunteer Force, which has carried out some atrocious murders in its existence, was elected to the assembly. I do not know whether it is fortunate or unfortunate, but it was the will of the Northern Ireland electorate.

Gary McMichael represented the interests of the UDA, the UDF and the UFF at those discussions. Those organisations have carried out some atrocious murders over the years. They are not represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly because no member of the Ulster Democratic Party was elected. Do they feel bound now on the question of departure from the ways of violence? It is an incongruous situation. They took part in the talks which led to the agreement yet they were rejected by the Northern Ireland electorate. No one voted for them. Who is right and who is wrong in that situation? Was it right that the Northern Ireland electorate refused to elect Gary McMichael? As he was part of the discussions that led to the agreement, it is a loss not to hear his voice in the ensuing counsels.

Families Against Intimidation and Terrorism (FAIT) has recently put out a statement saying that 60 knee-cappings have been carried out by the so-called loyalists and so-called IRA since the Good Friday agreement. Those bodies are represented in the new assembly. Far from being decommissioned, their guns have been used regularly to maim people who disagree with them. On the other hand, I have also read that exclusion orders have been issued by those paramilitary organisations telling people in Northern Ireland with whom they disagree that they have to depart from the Province. Exclusion orders are issued against them, otherwise they will be killed.

I served for many years in the other place, like my noble and learned friend Lord Archer. Under the prevention of terrorism legislation many exclusion orders were issued by the then government against suspected terrorists. We opposed those exclusion orders because we felt that it was totally unjustified to exclude people from this part of the United Kingdom, from Northern Ireland. If I opposed such orders within that context, I am equally bitterly opposed to the exclusion orders which are now being handed out by the IRA and by the so-called loyalist organisations.

So this process would be one way in which the bona fides of these organisations could be proved. Indeed, it would be one way in which confidence could be built. No matter how we try to dress it up, we all know that this legislation has been seen as a victory for nationalism—whether it be of the moderate description or of the IRA. It has been seen to be a defeat for the unionists. Something must be done to bring about confidence within that unionist community in Northern Ireland, even within the context of the paramilitaries and decommissioning. We have had mention before of the "disappeareds"—namely, those people who were murdered by the IRA and whose bodies have never been discovered. One would hope for a gesture from these paramilitary organisations identifying the burial places of those people. That would give a little hope to their relatives who are still living.

Those are immediate steps which could be taken today, tomorrow or next week. They would build up confidence within the community. I am reminded of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, said. In the run up to those negotiations, I believe that David Trimble could have said—and this is why I point out that none of us were in those negotiations—"I will not agree to prisoners being released unless there is some form of decommissioning". That was not said. Therefore, we have to agree that there is no decommissioning element contained within the present agreement. I believe that it is the bounden duty of those who want to see the success of this political experiment in Northern Ireland to take some steps to bring about an end to the threat that hangs over the Northern Ireland community in the field of decommissioning.

Clause 53 of the Bill brings in what my noble and learned friend Lord Archer said; namely, the whole question of human rights and the organisations which are to be involved in the equality commission, and so on. It will telescope the four existing organisations into one equality commission. One has only got to know human nature to realise that the number of personnel involved in the four existing commissions will be dramatically reduced when an over-arching equality commission is established. Some people will lose their jobs and indeed will lose sight of the part which they regard themselves as having played in the community. This should have been discussed at length in the negotiations and was certainly not discussed in the other place. One has only to read reports of the debates which took place there to see that it was totally ignored. I certainly agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Archer that that is a most important element within the Bill.

When I came here this morning I thought that this debate would be a useless exercise because the Bill has already gone through the other place, and many of its elements have already been implemented. Indeed, someone once asked whether we come here merely to rubber-stamp what has already taken place in the House of Commons. I believe that many improvements can be made to the Bill. Such improvements should be made because people want to see the legislation succeed. Of course, there are people who want to see it fall to the ground, and there are those who want to see the whole thing return to the chaos that has existed for 30 years. I believe that the Government should be wise and should carefully consider the amendments that will be put forward in Committee so that the legislation can be improved.

4.44 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I warmly agree with much that the noble Lord has just said. I should also like to begin my remarks by paying my tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who has, as usual, presented the Bill to us in the fairest and clearest possible way. My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew has already said the main thing that I wanted to say but, nevertheless, I intend to dot a few "i"s and cross a few "t"s.

This Bill is a necessary consequence of the Belfast Agreement. It puts flesh on the bones of many constructive policies. But, in considering it, we must surely stop to think whether we are not moving too far too fast. The Government continue to assume that Sinn Fein/IRA actually want the whole agreement to work and that there will be give and take. But we are dealing with men who follow the Marxist principle of negotiating to win. Sinn Fein/IRA have secured in five short months the release of many of their prisoners, the beginning of the withdrawal of troops, the dismantling of security checkpoints and border posts, the withdrawal of arms from some of the all-too-vulnerable Royal Irish Regiment, and a review of the RUC in which Mr. Adams is actually advocating its disbandment and the creation of a new "people's force" in which former paramilitaries/murderers would serve. What have the people of Northern Ireland had in return, apart from the doubtful pleasure of hearing Mr. Adams tell the Labour Party Conference that the IRA believes it has done "a mighty thing" in sustaining its ceasefire and "taking arms out of use", coupled with the advice that, we should not kick a dog to see if it is asleep"? The Government have moved from one hopeful solution to another. First the Secretary of State told us in July that Sinn Fein/IRA were talking to the decommissioning body—very encouraging. Then we were told the glad news that Martin McGuinness, himself a member of the Army Council, was to be the Sinn Fein/IRA representative with the decommissioning body. This, coupled with Gerry Adam's carefully worded, Sinn Fein believes the violence we have seen must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone"— as quoted by the Minister—was hailed as a breakthrough. But, no. Sinn Fein then said on 31st August that McGuinness had not agreed to act as a facilitator between PIRA and General de Chastelain. On 6th September Gerry Adams confirmed again that he represented Sinn Fein only and had no role in speaking to the commission for the IRA.

So what are they talking about? We can be sure that it is not about the IRA decommissioning because, as Mr. Adams repeated only last week: It is not within the gift of Sinn Fein to get the IRA to start handing in weapons". So, is Mr. McGuinness talking about fishing or chess perhaps? Not surprisingly, he has been expressing concern—yes, concern—about the matter of legal firearms held by, he says, the unionist community. Another vital area in which, according to him, there must be decommissioning. Of course, the most recent IRA statement described the RUC as a discredited, sectarian, paramilitary force. If the Secretary of State wanted any clearer proof that there will be no decommissioning by the IRA, it came in PIRA's own formal statement on 1st September that they made their position absolutely clear on 29th April when they announced that, there would be no decommissioning by the IRA". When the spokesman was asked what they would say to those demanding that the IRA make a declaration that the war was over, the reply, which we should heed before we destroy all our defences, was that, if the objective conditions exist for violent conflict, then such conflict will occur". That is a clear warning. Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that Mr. Adams welcomed the "positive and helpful tone" of the IRA's statement and that on 28th September Sinn Fein/IRA said once more that they had made it clear that the party could not deliver IRA decommissioning on any timetable or schedule.

Mr. John Bruton put his finger on the problem, that a Cabinet minister with a private army at his back would not be on the same level as one with no private army". Sinn Fein/IRA retreats into the well-worn argument that they control no guns; but there is no doubt, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, pointed out, that they do control punishment beatings and even killings which have continued unabated since the agreement, apart from the significant lull just before the election (clearly demonstrating their power to control events) in their own political constituency, to say nothing of protection rackets and the arbitrary exiling from Northern Ireland of those who do not conform to Sinn Fein/IRA's agenda. What are we to think of the commitment to peaceful methods and normalisation of a party which, even after Omagh, threatened to shoot—I repeat, "to shoot"—any of its own people who spoke against the peace process? With such supporters of peace on their unusual terms, who needs enemies?

Why am I using a debate on the positive proposals for peaceful government to reiterate what I have so often said about Sinn Fein/IRA's real agenda of violence and intimidation? It is because it is essential, even at this late hour in the peace process—I support that peace process—both to recognise the truth and to begin to show the people of Northern Ireland that the Government see where Sinn Fein-IRA wishes to take them and will not go that way but will take some action. By that I do not mean passing so-called draconian legislation that will by common consent be virtually unworkable in Northern Ireland, especially in the context of our commitment to the human rights convention. Mr. Bruton has rightly said that, At the top level the direction of Sinn Fein and the IRA is identical in philosophy, purpose and execution. They are one and the same; two organisations in one movement, with one purpose, one strategy and one direction". The IRA spokesman on 1st September said that he regarded the Belfast agreement as useful, and expected it to enable it to achieve its objective of a united Ireland, though it was, conscious of growing concern at the slow pace of movement"— another muted threat, as are recent references to "internal problems". The spokesman urged, moving the situation along speedily and fulfilling the existing potential for the resolution of the conflict in an ill-Ireland context". For good measure, PIRA is concerned about what it calls the knee-jerk reaction of both governments in opting for a security rather than a political response to the Omagh massacre. Repressive legislation and emergency powers, according to the IRA spokesman, have no place in any genuine conflict resolution process.

I believe the Sinn Fein-IRA's present agenda, now that it has secured many of its objectives, will be so to manoeuvre by blandly provocative political statements, coupled with a total block on decommissioning and attacks on the RUC, as to make it impossible for Mr. David Trimble and his Deputy Minister to take it into the Assembly as Ministers without outraging not only his own supporters but the majority of the people, for whom there is no doubt that the handing in of arms was believed to be the great and tangible prize of the peace process. The unionists can then be blamed for the breakdown, particularly in America, and in the back streets of the republican heartland for making it impossible for the positive and constructive parts of the agreement—and there are many—to go forward. The political phase of the Sinn Fein-IRA struggle could be plausibly succeeded by violence sparked off, it will say, by bitter disillusion. There will be the added advantage to Sinn Fein IRA that any renewed violence can be blamed on the mavericks, the so-called dissidents who have nevertheless been allowed by PIRA to stay alive, to thrive and to have the weapons and training they need. Meanwhile Gerry Adams is using his time usefully, stoking up the fires with such statements as, on 9th September, changes in the RUC are not enough. The RUC is unacceptable. Reform is not an option. An entirely new and real policing service is required". The British Government—and I suggest the Irish Government should support them—should be saying flatly that the RUC is and will remain the police force of Northern Ireland, subject of course to the final recommendations of the commission. We should be seen to be acting with the Irish Government urgently to conduct joint raids on arms dumps and to smash protection rackets. The Irish Government at least now have the power to do this. Let us hope they have the will. Irish participation matters because most of the large arms caches appear to be in the Republic and their new legislation seems tailor-made for such action. It would, incidentally, help the IRA. It would not have to decommission. We could take the arms away and do that for it.

It is vital, too, that this Bill should not open the door for a Sinn Fein IRA tactic to take over policing as a transferred issue. I find Schedule 3, reserved matters, paragraphs 9 and 10, which concern, The maintenance of public order … the establishment … and control of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and of any other police force", exceedingly disturbing. Why are these not excepted matters? As reserved matters, they can become transferred matters through an Order in Council with cross-community support. What is the meaning of the reference to "any other police force"?

In short, I feel it is essential that it should be made clear to Sinn Fein IRA that the good things in the Bill, which it sees as a step towards a united Ireland—as it is perfectly entitled to do—will not come its way without major concessions on its part to match what has already been done to "build its confidence", and that in particular we should not take one step more to weaken the RUC or the whole mechanism of security. On the contrary, we should act with energy, with the Irish Government, to crack down on the men of violence, ideally, as we have said before in this House, with internment. As the Government have made it a principle to carry the Americans with them, they should be urged to crack down on Mr. Galvin, the would-be funder of the Continuity IRA and to give Mr. Gerry Adams a hearty and public rebuff. I believe the Government would have the silent majority in Northern Ireland—including very many republicans—cheering if they acted in this way.

The governments must not leave Mr. Trimble to take the flak. They must take the responsibility of declaring that decommissioning is in principle an interlocking part of the agreement and that it is an underlying expectation on the part of all who supported that agreement, and that to refuse even to contemplate a timetable is a breach of that agreement which puts the rest temporarily in suspense. They do not want to suspend it for ever; it is full of good things. But nevertheless they cannot be allowed to get away with everything for nothing. The governments will be gambling on whether the IRA at once moves back into violence. Confronted with firmness, the IRA is both sophisticated enough and sufficiently in control of its forces, including the so-called mavericks, to stay with the political struggle which has paid off so well for it. If Sinn Fein-IRA cannot prevent the return to violence, then it is not a viable part of any government. Clause 23(7) might be a promising beginning.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham has indicated, I shall speak about Part VI of the Bill, which deals with human rights and equal opportunities. I have been greatly assisted by discussion with members of the existing statutory equality commissions, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Women's Coalition, the Children's Law Centre and other human rights bodies. I am grateful to them and also to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and his advisers who have met with me to discuss our concerns. I pay tribute to the dedicated work done not only by the Government but by each of the existing statutory commissions and by the NGOs.

Although this is a Northern Ireland Bill, the way in which we legislate now will have implications for the way in which we legislate on human rights and equal opportunities in Great Britain. Our fundamental human rights and freedoms, including the right to equal opportunity and treatment without discrimination, should be given equal protection of the law throughout the United Kingdom as a whole, and, for that matter, throughout the island of Ireland. Both countries are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and other human rights treaties. Both have legal systems based on common law and both have equality legislation.

The legal code securing human rights and equality of treatment should be based upon consistent principles and be user-friendly. It should be effectively enforced without wasteful duplication among the relevant equality agencies. There should be the same level of legal protection wherever one lives or works, whether, for example, discrimination is based on someone's religion, or ethnic origin, or gender, or mental or physical disability, or sexual orientation, or age. Our laws should give full effect to the international human rights codes by which the United Kingdom is bound.

We are far from achieving these goals, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, has indicated in his powerful speech. Because of the piecemeal way in which they have been enacted, our equality laws are an incoherent and inconsistent patchwork. They have been drafted with tortuous and unnecessary complexity. They do not properly implement our international and European Community obligations. There is manifestly unequal protection under a complex mosaic of opaque and inconsistent laws whose guardians are a plethora of equality commissions with differing powers, or, in the case of the disability rights councils, with no powers at all.

It is unlawful to discriminate on religious grounds and grounds of political opinion in Northern Ireland, but not in Great Britain. Discrimination based on age or sexual preference is not unlawful anywhere. The legal concept of unlawful religious and political discrimination is narrowly restrictive in Northern Ireland where the discriminator is the Government or a public authority exercising public functions. It does not include indirect discrimination.

The Fair Employment Acts are also narrower in scope than sex and race discrimination legislation. On the other hand the Fair Employment Commission has much stronger monitoring and enforcement powers than do the EOCs or CREs. The commissions are, ludicrously, forbidden by law from disclosing to each other information obtained during the course of their investigative work even though there may be a close connection between different types of discrimination. There is a statutory human rights commission for Northern Ireland, but none is to be established for Great Britain.

The concept of discrimination varies bizarrely in the different equality laws and, because of the controversial majority decision of the Law Lords in 1983, In Re Amin, that discrimination in providing services and facilities to the public is confined only to government activity analogous to the private market-place, the reach of the sex and race equality laws does not extend to discrimination by public authorities in providing services and facilities. I wish the CRE or EOC would bring a case enabling the Law Lords to reconsider the judgement in the Amin case.

The Bill cannot tackle all those problems. It is the first stage in what we hope will be a wider and more radical reform of the scope and enforcement of the existing equality legislation. But the Bill can create a coherent framework for future legislation here and in Northern Ireland.

The Government have had to introduce this Bill so as to meet their strict timetable and maintain political momentum. It is a major piece of constitutional legislation. It is not surprising that, in having to make haste, the Bill has raised fears in Northern Ireland that the creation of a single equality commission will weaken the existing protection given to women and ethnic minorities. It is also not surprising that the Bill is capable of improvement in important respects.

So we are very glad that the Secretary of State has indicated, as has the Minister today, that she is open-minded about possible amendments to improve and strengthen the human rights and equality provisions. This house has the opportunity to do so in performing its task as a revising Chamber. I shall briefly refer to some of the main issues of concern, many of which were touched upon by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer.

We on these Benches strongly support the creation of an independent human rights commission for Northern Ireland. Indeed, we have pressed repeatedly for a human rights commission to be established in the United Kingdom as a whole under the Human Rights Bill and in accordance with the Cook-Maclennan agreement. We still hope, even at this late hour—I see that the Home Office Minister is present—that the Government will agree to do so in the other place, as they still could, so that the human rights of people in Great Britain are as well protected as the human rights of people in Northern Ireland.

To be effective, the Northern Ireland human rights commission needs to have sufficient powers and sufficient funding to ensure that it is independent in practice as well as in a formal sense. It also needs to be representative of the whole community. We hope that the appointment of commissioners by the Secretary of State will reflect that need.

We welcome the fact that the human rights commission's annual reports will be laid before Parliament, that its funding will be made out of money provided by Parliament, and that its staffing will be subject to the Secretary of State's approval. We hope that the Government will agree that the equality commission too will report, be funded and be staffed in the same way, rather than, as presently stated in the Bill, reporting to the Department of Economic Development and the Assembly, and rather than being funded by that department and the Department of Economic Development, and rather than the Equality Commission's staffing being subject to the approval of those departments. It is an important point. Both commissions need to have equal constitutional status and independence and accountability.

That is especially important because of the widespread opposition created by the hurried amalgamation of the FEC, EOC, CRE and DRC into a single equality commission. We sympathise with those concerns but we support the creation of an equality commission, subject to four crucial provisos: first, that the new equality commission will give equal priority to tackling discrimination on any forbidden ground rather than developing a hidden hierarchy of equality rights; secondly, it needs to draw upon the expertise and experience of the existing equality agencies to enhance and not weaken its protection; thirdly, that it is given effective and consistent powers for the strategic enforcement of the equality laws; and, fourthly, provided that the substantive equality codes are, in subsequent legislation, made into a single harmonious effective code on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The Government have given assurances that the work of the existing equality agencies will not be diluted. That is very important, but it is also essential that the new equality commission should be independent and endowed with sufficient powers to tackle a wide range of discriminatory practices and procedures.

The equality commission should not be the creature of the Assembly or of the Northern Ireland departments. The Bill is unclear about whether responsibility for the equality legislation and its enforcement is to be devolved or to remain the responsibility of Parliament and the Secretary of State. On my reading—and I am notoriously bad at these matters—responsibility for the equality legislation as such is not devolved, but responsibility for its enforcement is devolved. We hope that the Government will think afresh about that, because equality of opportunity and treatment is a fundamental right and we believe that, like other human rights, it should remain a core responsibility of Parliament and of the national government, and that the equality commission should be on a par with the human rights commission.

It is important, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has emphasised, that the human rights commission has powers and objectives that accord with the relevant principles adopted by the United Nations; that is, the so-called Paris Principles. We welcome the fact that the Government have now made provision in the Bill for all legislation from the new Assembly to be referred automatically to the commission for review in the light of the international human rights codes, leaving it to the commission rather than the Assembly to decide upon which measures it wishes to give advice. We also welcome the fact that the commission will have the power to give assistance to individuals wishing to bring proceedings under the Human Rights Act.

However, there are important gaps in the Bill. Neither the human rights commission nor the equality commission has the power to assist individuals to bring proceedings alleging unlawful religious or political discrimination by public authorities, in breach of Clause 61, or for breach of the statutory duty imposed by Clause 60, or for the judicial review of religious or political discrimination in Assembly legislation forbidden by Clause 6(2)(e), or for the review of such discrimination in subordinate legislation or administrative decisions, forbidden by Clause 19(1)(c). As was indicated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, that is anomalous and unjust and needs to be remedied.

Another gap is the absence of any power for the human rights commission or—I emphasise—the equality commission, to be able to bring court proceedings in its own name. The Good Friday agreement promised that the human rights commission should have such a power. So should the equality commission. The EOCs and CREs have been pressing for such a power for many years.

In accordance with the Paris Principles, the human rights commission also needs equivalent powers of investigation of practices and procedures suspected of being in breach of human rights to those possessed by the EOCs, CREs and the FEC in investigating suspected discriminatory practices and procedures. Where necessary, they need to include the power to obtain information by compulsion, with adequate safeguards for the rights of those who may subsequently face legal proceedings.

One glaring anomaly in the Bill is a relic from the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973; namely, an outmoded and narrowly restrictive concept of unlawful religious and political discrimination. The concept of unlawful discrimination in the public sector enshrined in the 1973 Act and carried forward in this Bill is confined only to direct discrimination. It does not cover indirect discrimination; that is, rules, practices and procedures that apply equally in a literal sense but are unequal in their disparate adverse impact upon people with particular religious beliefs or political opinions and which lack any objective justification.

The equality legislation which was enacted after the 1973 Northern Ireland Constitution Act—for example, the race and sex discrimination Acts—forbids indirect as well as direct discrimination. Both SACHR and the Diocesan Commission on Social Affairs have recommended that the same concept of unlawful discrimination should apply to assembly legislation and other government action in the public sector as now applies in relation to discrimination in the private sector. The public authorities of the state have an especially important duty not to discriminate unfairly, and it is wholly anomalous if public authorities have lighter obligations than does the private sector, which is the bizarre situation under the Northern Ireland constitutional arrangements as they stand and as at present embodied in the Bill.

The EOC and the Women's Coalition, among others, have expressed particular concern, which we share, about the weak nature of the duty imposed on public authorities by Clause 60. It is essential for the duty to have regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity, as it is cumbersomely described, to be strengthened and for public authorities to have a duty to publish and operate effective equality schemes without having to be requested to do so by the equality commission.

I have made a number of criticisms and suggestions. I know that the Government's mind is open. We are encouraged by that open-mindedness and very much hope that the Bill can be strengthened, enhancing the legal protection of human rights and equal opportunity and promoting a culture of liberty throughout both islands for the benefit of all their inhabitants. The spirit of liberty, as a great judge once said, is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right. I know that the Government are not too sure, and nor are we, but let us work together to try to improve the Bill.

5.12 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, this is the most important Bill for Northern Ireland to come before the House for a very long time. It concerns the establishment of, and the rules and regulations for, the assembly. We all look forward to that assembly becoming a reality, with the restoration of a democratic government in Northern Ireland, which is so badly needed.

I come to the Second Reading of the Bill today very concerned about the situation in Northern Ireland. There is a road block which, unless removed quickly, will make the Bill an irrelevance. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, explained very clearly the problem about decommissioning and its consequences, as did the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park. I believe that it is of the greatest importance and cannot be over-emphasised.

The immediate road block is the refusal of Sinn Fein even to discuss the commencement of decommissioning. We are now expected to accept members of Sinn Fein as ministers in the government of Northern Ireland without the assurance, by word and deed, that they have renounced violence for good. This assurance is required as part of the Good Friday agreement, but it has been ignored in recent weeks by the other signatories to the agreement.

What has really alarmed me is that great pressure has been put on the First Minister and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, to withdraw his demands for decommissioning to commence. Surely it is obvious that mutual trust is essential between ministers in government and between Minister and members of the assembly? That trust is not possible when one party retains a paramilitary wing which has not begun to decommission its weapons and explosives. I am glad to say that at the end of last week the Government and the Prime Minister of the Republic were coming round to putting pressure on Sinn Fein, where it should be.

However, government and the other parties to the agreement need to be reminded that Sinn Fein has not made one straightforward, unequivocal statement that it has renounced violence for good. Its leaders are masters of ambiguous, equivocal and devious statements; not one has been straightforward. Decommissioning of weapons and explosives is part of the agreement, but Sinn Fein has given no indication as to when, if ever, it will agree to the destruction of its stocks of explosives and weaponry. This has had a very unsettling effect, not only on unionists but on all thinking people in Northern Ireland. Aggravating that situation, steps to please and placate the terrorists have proceeded with almost indecent haste. I refer to the release of prisoners and removal of our defences against attack, such as road blocks, observation posts, personal protection, and so on.

Noble Lords may feel that I have little confidence that Sinn Fein is committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. They would be correct, because Sinn Fein has given no reason for such confidence. Unless Sinn Fein can promote a feeling of confidence in the assembly, it will not work as intended by the agreement. That is the really worrying matter today. The Bill and the agreement will be nothing if Sinn Fein does not take this step.

The consequence of Sinn Fein's unwillingness to do anything about decommissioning has not encouraged a feeling in the community that peace is coming; just the opposite. Inter-community bad feeling and bitterness is, I am sorry to say, at an all-time high and sectarianism is worse, and perhaps more pernicious, than it has been at any time. There are many reasons for that, one being that paramilitaries are still operating within communities and that community managers—by which I mean paramilitary bosses—on either side have not gone away. Since Good Friday there have been 80 expulsions from Northern Ireland by paramilitary bosses, 67 beatings and 31 shootings. That has not helped the peace process.

I shall not spend much time on the detail of the Bill, which is very complex and involved. I am glad to hear that many amendments will be proposed. It is obvious that it has been put together with haste, although everyone has done their best. These things take time and I hope that time will be given to ensure that most of the difficulties are removed.

However, I note Clause 1 of the Bill. I recognise that it is taken word for word from the agreement. The Secretary of State will have power to hold a referendum and, if 50 per cent. plus one of those voting declare a wish to move to a Republic of Ireland, that will happen without any further legislation. Parliament has not even reserved the right to debate or review the result of a vote, which I think would be a wise step to take when the unexpected is the norm in Northern Ireland. I wonder whether this permission to act at almost any time that suits the people of Northern Ireland does not affect the authority of Parliament to legislate for part of the United Kingdom when the back door is pegged open.

There are other implications. I am horrified to find that it has occurred to several people that the Government of the United Kingdom may think that a way to get rid of the embarrassment of Northern Ireland is to make its citizens so frustrated and alienated that they might think that they would be better off under a neighbouring jurisdiction. Unionists will not forsake their cause, so I suggest that, if the Government have any such ideas, they should give them up. If noble Lords should think I have gone a little far in making such a suggestion, I must ask them to understand that, when government ignores intelligent, law-abiding citizens and gives to the transgressors everything they ask for, one is bound to wonder what is going on. But we still have a long way to go. I hope that this roadblock and others that follow will be quickly overcome. To let the agreement fall is unthinkable. We need peace with democracy so very badly.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I have noted and welcomed the statements by many noble Lords who have spoken about the importance of this Bill. While all government Bills are more or less important, I believe that the Northern Ireland Bill is of critical importance. I hope that my remarks bear witness to that. That fact was also borne out by Dr. Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when introducing the Bill on 15th July. I quote from the press statement issued by the Northern Ireland Information Service: The Bill is one of the most important of the present Parliament. In giving legal form to the agreement that was negotiated with such courage and vision by the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland on Good Friday, it lays the foundations for a better future for Northern Ireland. A new Northern Ireland governed by its people on behalf of its people". The press statement says: The Government has moved heaven and earth"— perhaps it is better to say "heaven and hell"— to consult the parties, and to draft and introduce a Bill as swiftly as possible so that the Assembly, with north-south bodies, the British-Irish Council, the Human Rights and Equality Commissions and all the other elements of the Agreement can be up and running very early in the new year". Further, in her usual gracious manner the Secretary of State said: I would like particularly to thank the civil servants for their hard work and both Houses of Parliament for facilitating the scrutiny of this legislation and maintaining the momentum of the peace process". Sadly, I consider that the Bill had a very hurried and difficult launch in another place. Critical and important stages of the parliamentary process were compressed into nine frantic fag-end working days. This House now has the dutiful task of ensuring that the legislation is and is seen to be honourable, equitable, reasoned and workable. We all know that there are strict deadlines to be met. Urgency is required, but surely we must all acknowledge that issues of principle must be firmly and clearly on the face of the Bill.

It is the bounden duty and responsibility of each Member of this House earnestly, in whatever way he can, to ensure that every doubtful word and clause is in keeping with the essential democratic processes and the foreseeable workable arrangements of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

There can be no short-cuts or glossed wording in the change from direct rule to a devolved assembly. I should like to re-emphasise that point. I may have stumbled over what I said. There is a tremendous difference between government via direct rule and a devolved assembly. It is important that the Bill should get that right.

During the Summer Recess there has been considerable discussion and consultations by public organisations in Northern Ireland relating particularly to the human rights provisions of the Bill. When the Bill was debated in another place Northern Ireland Ministers indicated on a number of occasions that discussions would be held during September to hear such views. At Third Reading in another place the Secretary of State said: we have sharpened many of the human rights provisions, so that, for example, all Assembly Bills will now go to the Human Rights Commission; the commission will advise the Assembly as well as the Secretary of State; the appointment criteria for commissioners better reflect the agreement text; and we have made clearer the scrutiny role of Assembly Committees, in line with the agreement. While the debate has continued in the House, we have continued to listen. We shall reflect over the summer on a number of the points made in the House. In particular, we will look at the human rights provisions to see if there are further ways in which the Bill can be strengthened, consistent with the agreement … We cannot promise anything, but we will look at those and other areas carefully and with an open mind. My hon. Friend the Minister of State is already arranging further meetings in September with the parties to discuss their views. We shall then introduce any necessary amendments in another place".—[Official Report, Commons, 31/7/98; col. 634.] Whatever discussions have taken place with Ministers—my noble friend Lord Dubs said that meetings had been held—during the past six weeks I have received 13 written statements from public organisations in Northern Ireland apprising me of their views on the Northern Ireland Bill, especially on human rights issues. Noble Lords resident in Northern Ireland who have already spoken on the Bill or who are to speak will probably have had similar approaches. Some of the organisations' representatives are here today. I hope that many more will turn up between now and Committee stage and further stages of the Bill. Those organisations include: the Northern Ireland Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights; the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions; the Committee on the Administration of Justice; the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland; Racial Equality for Northern Ireland; and the Northern Ireland Disability Council.

I mention those bodies because they represent a wide spectrum of the Northern Ireland community and spread themselves over a vast number of the electorate and citizens of Northern Ireland of various colours and dimensions. These organisations among others were anxious to have direct discussions with Northern Ireland Ministers on particular aspects on the proposed legislation. Because of the importance of these bodies and the need to get the legislation in line with their thinking and that of the Government there must be a concerted move forward. We must not allow divisions to interrupt the whole process. These organisations will be well represented and will make an impact by coming here or sending details of changes that they consider should be made to the Bill at Committee stage and other stages.

I am sure that this House will seek to do everything possible to further the collective will on human rights issues and that the Bill will emerge in a form that is in the best interests of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the citizens of Northern Ireland as a whole.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Rathcavan

My Lords, like most people who have lived in Northern Ireland for the past 25 or more years, I can only wholeheartedly welcome the Bill. It is a last chance to fill our democratic deficit with effective local responsibility and accountability, to harness the considerable talents among our elected representatives in the business of government. Unlike some, however, I believe that the too long period of direct rule since 1974 has, on the whole, been fair, efficient and effective, a quality of government which I might say the present Minister has continued to deliver.

The rebuilding and renaissance of Belfast since 1988 is one shining example to which the noble Duke, the Duke of Abercorn, has made such an outstanding contribution as chairman of the inner city development body.

Direct rule has created and developed structures like the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and a central planning service. This has removed the sensitive issues out of the world of "parish pump" politics which are visibly influential in some regions of Europe. Bad planning decisions have ruined much of Europe's coastline, an environmental hazard from which Northern Ireland has happily escaped.

For 10 of those direct rule years I was chairman of government bodies involved in tourism and transport infrastructure. We managed to develop in tourism a blossoming partnership with the 26 local councils which had been left with few responsibilities and which took up the opportunities in tourism with great enthusiasm and skill. The development of non-departmental government bodies, or quangos, and through them the encouragement of more local participation was a temporary move, if a small one, to fill the democratic deficit.

Now that we have a fairly elected and representative Assembly, I welcome and look forward to the transfer of the widest possible administrative powers to that new Assembly, putting local power and responsibility in local hands and allowing our newly-elected representatives to concentrate on the day-to-day problems of education, health, agriculture and the environment and many other areas, and less on the day-to-day political problems.

This Bill has a critical responsibility to ensure that the Assembly has a framework which allows it to operate fairly and efficiently and to be accepted as doing so by everyone in Northern Ireland. It is a narrow path to tread to ensure that the many checks and balances needed do not impede good government. We need to get it right, and unambiguously so. I am sure that this House, in its usual way, will add significantly to the scrutiny and amendment of the Bill at Committee stage.

I wish to make only one point of detail concerning corporation tax. It is unfortunate that the Bill does not have any provision to allow the Assembly tax varying powers or at least to allow it to put forward proposals on tax variations. I know that the Minister will say that that is not in the agreement and that it may be difficult to draft at this stage. But there will be minor variations which are not in the agreement. Like the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, I am told that the Government will be proposing some such amendments in Committee. To enable the Assembly to put forward tax varying proposals subject to the agreement and approval of the Treasury should be draftable and feasible. After all, the Government have already conceded precedents in tax varying powers for Scotland and in the Chancellor's recent aid package for Northern Ireland increasing capital allowances. He has therefore conceded the principle of regional variations in corporate tax.

Corporate tax for manufacturing industry in the Republic of Ireland is at present 10 per cent. In Northern Ireland it stands at the UK rate of 31 per cent.—more than three times higher. The Republic of Ireland has reached agreement with the European Union to introduce a standard rate of corporation tax of just 12.5 per cent. by 2003. Over the past three years the Republic of Ireland has attracted 26 per cent. of all US based investment in the European Union, although its population represents only 1 per cent. of the Union.

Next week the Assembly's First Minister, David Trimble, and his deputy, Seamus Mallon, start an 11-city North American tour aimed at boosting inward investment into Northern Ireland on the back of the Good Friday agreement. We all agree that new jobs and a return to economic normality are the essential cement to the peace process. It is vital that Northern Ireland is allowed to compete for new investment from American corporations seeking a base in the European market on an equal basis with the Republic of Ireland.

The precedents with the Treasury are there to allow this to happen. I believe the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, Paul Murphy, said to some assemblymen that he has an open mind on the matter. I hope that the Minister here also has an open mind on it. We must be in a position to compete fairly and squarely in the corporate sector with the Republic of Ireland along our common land border.

5.35 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I hope I will be forgiven for deviating for a moment. I have to say that the consequences of the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Rathcaven, on corporation tax would be that in due course the Province would wish to join the European currency long before anyone in the rest of the UK.

It has always been an issue that the problem of a land border, which Northern Ireland has, makes an enormous difference which is not always recognised. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, drew attention to the need to increase trade across the border. It is the easiest market to compete in. If we really are looking at trading across the border, these issues will have to be faced at some time. But one thing one can say about Northern Ireland business in your Lordships' House is that unless we and the Commons are dealing with it on consecutive days the scene will have moved on. Today is no exception. Indeed, what a difference half a day makes.

Last Wednesday, at the Labour Party conference, there was a standing ovation for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I am sure that Dr. Mowlam would be the first to acknowledge that the applause in the hall was not just for her and her team, or even for the Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry who so carefully got himself in the frame, but for the joy of progress on peace.

By the end of the day, Gerry Adams, at a fringe meeting, was pushing for more concessions, urging the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to campaign for a united Ireland. Why, if those are his thoughts, does he not make the necessary gesture to his constituency, take the oath and come to Westminster and argue the issue democratically?

I raise this matter to emphasise that we need to be very sure that this Bill has no loopholes and is not open to different interpretation. It will not be easy, and a load has been left to us because of the timetable in the Commons. I hope that there will be many amendments to the Bill, some of which will be mine.

One area gives me concern. I have always felt that people will behave more responsibly if given responsibility. I should have liked to see the Assembly responsible for equality in due course but I realise that that would fall to the Good Friday agreement argument. A greyer area, and one I shall query in Committee, is that of the position of the equality organisations representing race, disability and gender. Of course it is important that there should be community equality. I am convinced that outside the sector of the unemployed males, fact is better than perception these days. What we need is more skilling and more jobs to deal with the inequality.

Four years ago if you put BT13 as a postcode on your application form for a job, nobody even read it. It is the West Belfast code. Now that does not hold people back. I hope that the visits and missions to North America will be successful and bring back more jobs. The creation of more new jobs will be crucial if we are not to revert to the fact that the unemployed so quickly join terrorist organisations.

We should compare community differences in political, economic and private sector areas with gender and disability differences and race relations which waited so long for legislation. There must be more resources and representation in those areas. I rely on the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to lead the charge. His speech on those issues was noticeably that of a lawyer while my approach is that these are areas we cannot neglect if we are to protect the community.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that the Bill would stop terrorism. The noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Cooke, told us how much terrorism has taken place since the Good Friday agreement. In the end, terrorists are the only people who can stop terrorism. It should be made clear to them through the Bill and future actions what will happen if they do not stop terrorism.

5.41 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. I must pay tribute to the work that she did when she was in the ministry and also that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. We are today celebrating the fruition of the process they started. It is good to remember that. It was a bold decision of theirs to start those negotiations.

As my noble friend Lord Dubs, said, this is an historic Bill. I have said in previous Northern Ireland debates that we must look at this issue from a more international perspective than we normally do. Clause 2 is probably the most important part of the Bill. It is unique in the sense that this is the first partition of all the partitions which followed the end of the British Empire to be legitimated by the people who have been partitioned. No other partition has been recognised by the people as being correct. In addition, the referendum in the South has led to the deletion of Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic's constitution. Whatever then happens is legitimate and proper. It has taken 78 years to achieve: be that as it may, it is still an historic agreement.

Given that context, I agree with the noble Baroness that it was not right for Gerry Adams to say what he did because it has now been made clear in the Republic that the Republic does not see the North as a legitimate part of its aspirations. We see in Clause 1 the conditions under which any such unity programme can be pursued. All that the British Prime Minister can say is that people should look at Clauses 1 and 2 and at what happened in the referendum in the Republic. Those are the conditions under which we can discuss any settlement, any future peace process, in Ireland.

The situation is difficult, because, as I have said before, it is half a post-colonial settlement and half a settlement within the UK. We always become confused, because we would like to believe that it has nothing to do with colonial freedom and that it is a settlement within the UK, but it has international dimensions.

In a number of other countries where there have been post-colonial or post-civil war settlements, it has been recognised that it is not enough to have the legal basis established. The whole atmosphere has to change. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said, all the knee-cappings and all the minor acts of terrorism must stop; it is not sufficient to talk just of decommissioning. It is not just decommissioning; it is, as it were, disconnecting the whole-of-Ireland culture which has of course borne fruit. We cannot deny it. The culture of violence has not failed but now that we have half succeeded it should be possible for the Government to say that we must create a climate in which all the minor acts of violence cease. Unless they cease, it will be difficult to proceed with other parts of the Bill because, again, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said, the Sunningdale Agreement lasted only five months. If this agreement is to last longer than that, it will only be if the atmosphere of violence is changed sufficiently and there is a real prospect not just of progress towards decommissioning but actual decommissioning. Unless that is seen clearly within the time framework allowed for the shadow Assembly to move into the real Assembly, the shadow Assembly will not become real.

That has to be said much more explicitly and openly, because to reach agreement compromises were made by all sides. Each side has lost; each side has gained. Now one has to say that any progress must be within the democratic process, and no agenda left-over can any longer be pursued violently. If it is, this game will not go on. It will be costly to say that the game will not go on, but not to say it will be even costlier. One has to make that clear. That is the lesson to be learned from a number of international settlements. We must bear that in mind.

I welcome the innovation of cross-community support contained in the Bill. The way that it has been defined is interesting. I hope that it works as it is meant to work. I hope that it is not just a matter of numbers but that it is sufficiently understood within the culture of the Assembly that people will try to make it possible rather than just say, "Our majority was larger than their majority, and therefore we want more out of this than they want out of this." We must have a proper understanding that cross-community support and the executive within the Assembly are innovative matters but they will work only if there is cross-community support for everything that is going on.

The issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, is an important one. It may be difficult to have a different corporation tax in Northern Ireland but I am sure that it will be possible for my noble friend and the Treasury to agree some sort of regional aid package for all investment attracted to Northern Ireland by Mr. Trimble and Mr. Mallon. It might be possible to say that there will be a package of regional aid which will compensate for the differential corporation tax. That may be contrary to European law, but the people in the Treasury are clever enough to find a way around that. If not, I will think of something.

I do not want to say much about human rights. It is an important matter. I join with my noble and learned friend Lord Archer and the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, in saying that I am not convinced that the equality commission should band together the various elements. For some issues of equality, such as disability and race, which are not controversial, implementation requires resources, monitoring and care. There are other issues, such as equal opportunities and fair employment, which are of a different order altogether in the context of Northern Ireland. It is a mistake to mix them up. The bulk of the resources will go to the more difficult issues of fair employment and we shall neglect the other issues which are non-controversial but equally important. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, said in that respect.

My next remark relates more to Committee stage. Whenever there is a formula I wake up and read it carefully. My noble friend should take my word for it that Clause 15(9) makes no sense whatever. The formula will not work. I shall later put forward an appropriate amendment which will make the formula work. As it is written, it makes no mathematical sense.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham indicated the constructive role that we can play in making the Bill a success. My noble friend Lord Lester reflected powerfully the contribution that could be made in terms of the human rights commission. Like him, I wish to concentrate on Part VI of the Northern Ireland Bill. The provisions stipulate the merging of various equality commissions into a new equality commission and imposes a statutory duty on public authorities to carry out their functions with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity. So far there is no problem.

No one can fail to appreciate the unequivocal statement from the Government that discrimination on grounds of religious belief or political opinion will be unlawful. This cements the main thrust of the Belfast agreement reached on Good Friday. The Bill also establishes a new Northern Ireland human rights commission replacing the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights.

I welcome the statement made in another place by Dr. Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She said at the time that the new human rights commission will be a more powerful and wide-ranging body than the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights which it replaces. I also welcome the assurance that the new commission will be independent of Government.

While there is no dispute that religious discrimination has been the root of many problems for many years, there is certainly concern about the provisions in the Bill relating to the equality commission. I have always admired the record of the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Dubs, on human rights, liberties and freedoms. I am sure they will wish to note the concern that has been expressed by those who are closely connected with equality issues in Northern Ireland.

Let me quote what Mr. Trimble, the First Minister, had to say about the provisions relating to the equality commission. He said: I should also like the Government to reconsider including the equality commission in the Bill. That arises not from the agreement—which makes only passing reference to it—but from the quite independent review of fair employment legislation. There was some public consultation on the matter, but it was truncated arbitrarily to enable the administration to grab what undoubtedly appears to be a convenient legislative vehicle into which the provisions may be stuffed". But that is not the only reservation expressed. What is proposed is that the new equality commission would be formed by amalgamating the equality commission, the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Disability Council. I am not surprised that the Equal Opportunities Commission in Northern Ireland opposes a merger of the existing equality bodies. Women form half the population of Northern Ireland and are still routinely discriminated against. Is it not right that their rights are best served by a commission focused especially on their needs?

One of the arguments advanced is that the proposed commission would be a one-stop shop, and that this would help employers. This argument is hollow. There is no provision to harmonise the four pieces of legislation which exist at present. Is this not a potential area for conflict? Of course it is because each would still have to be treated separately and at times may set different priorities.

The proposal for a merged commission arose in the Government's White Paper Partnership for Equality, published in March 1998. That was a government response to a three year review of the fair employment legislation which deals only with discrimination on the basis of religion and politics. There was no reference to the recommendations for a change to the sex discrimination legislation which the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland sent to the Government in June 1997.

The Minister may wish to comment on why there was no assessment of the impact a merger would have on sex equality. Examination of practices in other parts of the world demonstrates that issues such as race and gender should not be submerged or diluted by other human rights concerns. They could stand on their own. That is clearly borne out by the responses to the White Paper. Only 18 out of 123 responders were fully in favour while 80 were opposed to the Government's proposal. Many noble Lords will be concerned that the key commitment on promotion of equality through meaningful consultation has not worked in this case.

Recently I met Joan Harbison, the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland. She has expressed her concern about the mechanisms for the promotion of equality of opportunity and fair treatment in the Northern Ireland Bill. The commission is on record as being against the creation of a single equality commission at this time. She is concerned that in any mechanism for the creation of a fair and equal society, the interests of the ethnic minority groups are adequately protected.

The Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland rightly points out a number of concerns. First, there is the apparent confusion as to whether "equality" is a reserved or transferred power. Secondly, the speed with which the proposals are to be progressed would leave little time for constituents to be involved. It does not allow proper study for alternative mechanisms. Thirdly, the difference in the needs for the groups, and in particular the minority ethnic groups, and the focus of the four legislative documents require careful analysis and consideration to ensure that rights are not only protected but promoted as well. Fourthly, no one can question the need for focus on issues of equality between the two major groups, but there is a danger that equality interests of smaller and often less vocal groups may receive less attention. Clearly, the present sharp focus will be lost.

Noble Lords may also have received the views of the Royal National Institute for the Blind in Northern Ireland. It represents the needs of over 25,000 blind and partially sighted individuals. The Northern Ireland Bill is of great importance to them. They view the establishment of a human rights commission as a major step in ensuring that disabled people are treated on a par with non-disabled people. They want clear safeguards that disability will not be marginalised in the new arrangement. I want the Minister to ensure that that is SO.

No one can underestimate the task the Government face in Northern Ireland. No one can dispute the need for religious tolerance and the equality needs of these groups. We had a unique opportunity in your Lordships' House to establish a human rights commission when we debated the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. However, that was not to be. Three reasons were advanced by the Government at that time: the cost of establishing a new body at a time of public expenditure constraints; resistance to establishing an additional quango; and concern by some of the existing public bodies about the possibility that they might be brought under the umbrella of the new commission. I wonder why there is a different treatment in Northern Ireland. Is it a pilot scheme on the basis of which we can then decide what we require in this part of the world?

While I welcome the broad thrust of the Government's actions in Northern Ireland, I urge the need for adequate consultation both here and in Northern Ireland about the type of structures to ensure that the concept of equality does not dilute the emphasis on race, gender, disability or sexual orientation. The last thing we want to do is to solve the problem of religious discrimination only to find that we are facing discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or disability.

My noble friend Lord Lester spoke with some force about the structures and powers that we need. We do not have to wait for the review of equality provisions in this country. He put forward what we consider to be rightly the establishment of a human rights commission in this part of the world and I hope that the Government will take that into account.

6 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has treated the House to a thoughtful speech. Many of us will wish to ponder on a number of his observations. I believe that it was the former Soviet Union which had the longest declaration on human rights on record. Sometimes the reality and the sentiment do not always match.

The reality of life on the ground in Northern Ireland was described by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park, in reminding us of the Janus face of IRA/Sein Fein and the way in which it carries out atrocities even to this day. I refer in particular to the punishment beatings mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. They have no place in a civilised society. It will be only on the litmus test of decommissioning, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, which the IRA will deliver that people will be convinced that it has changed from the pursuit of violence which has characterised its activities during the past 30 years.

Many of us who have contributed to debates on these issues here and in another place have become depressed. Perhaps we can be forgiven for unwarranted depression and cynicism. Today is a day for congratulating the Government and all those who have participated in this process of taking us this far. However, it would be quite wrong to be euphoric or to fail to have a healthy sense of caution and realism, too. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in speaking of the punishment beatings, referred to the work of FAIT. The campaign monitors the oppression suffered by many families and is against intimidation and terror, which is what the acronym stands for. I understand that the forum is soon to lose the funding it receives from the Northern Ireland Office. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that because it was a premature decision which it was wrong to take.

The punishment beatings continue. Human rights declarations, Standing Committees on human rights and the litany of events for which we call ourselves liberal in the context of debates on human rights are of little worth if families continue to suffer on the estates as a result of the barbaric campaign. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, rightly referred to the stand taken by David Trimble and the need to give him proper support. He has been courageous and has shown a great sense of imagination. Nothing would give him greater support than evidence of our determination to face up to those who continue to use methods which are wholly unacceptable in a civilised society. Our failure to do so would be bound to undermine him. As usual, the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, today treated us to counsels based on wisdom and experience and his deep knowledge of what will happen inside the unionist community if we do not proceed on that route.

I hope that the House will forgive me for returning to what for me is perhaps all too predictable a theme. I wish that it were not necessary, but in the context of this Bill I have little choice. I refer to the reserve power in Schedule 3, paragraph 8(a), which is the issue of abortion. My intervention stems from a concern that in one crucial area of policy Westminster has chosen through this Bill to reserve powers to itself which fly in the face of the principle of devolution and mock majority opinion throughout Northern Ireland. It also applies a lack of trust in both the people and their politicians.

Your Lordships will know that in 1967 Northern Ireland was specifically excluded from the terms of the Abortion Act of that year. It was a clear acknowledgement that circumstances and attitudes in the North were diametrically opposed to those which prevailed among the leaders of the political class at Westminster. Two years ago, it was mooted that the Act might unilaterally be extended to Northern Ireland. To his credit, the then Prime Minister, Mr. John Major, told a delegation of which I was part, that he would not ride roughshod over the wishes of the elected politicians and that no extension would be made until a majority of elected politicians from the North requested it.

At that time, I pointed out to him that in the light of the rhetoric that accompanies so many of our debates on Northern Ireland it would be deeply paradoxical to impose a measure which was opposed from both parts of the community. The paradox is deepened by those English politicians who constantly lecture people in Northern Ireland to work together and to achieve consensus. I am not aware of a single Member of the other place from the Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP or the SDLP who supports abortion or the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. And yet to appease party activists in English political parties, and in pursuit of a universal rights culture, the decision to reserve the abortion question to Westminster deliberately paves the way for such a move. We need to hear less about rights and more about duties; less about choice and more about consequences.

There are two principal concerns. The first is the decision to ride roughshod over the views and beliefs of the people of Northern Ireland. It is a form of political correctness. It is a victory for the centralising tendency over genuine decentralisation and devolution. If, as the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said, this is a sensitive issue, then let the people whom it affects decide the question. It is not a matter of whether your Lordships agree with it. It is not a matter that we should be deciding here. We should be honouring the principle established in 1967, that Northern Ireland can make up its mind about these questions.

Secondly, there is the question of the abortion laws themselves. Piling paradox upon paradox, surely the one thing that a community which has been riven by violence for 30 years can do without is legislation which will shed infinitely more lives than even the worst terrorist outrages. In civilised Britain, we have ended the lives of 5 million unborn babies in 30 years. We permit disabled babies to be destroyed up to and even during birth.

There is an issue of discrimination which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, might care to examine. Every year, 100,000 human embryos are destroyed or experimented upon in British laboratories. The most recent evidence on the psychological and physical effects which abortion has on women should make even the most trenchant supporter of abortion pause and reflect. According to a leading British pathologist, Dr. Michael Jarmulowicz, about 1,300 UK women die every year because of breast cancer directly caused by abortion. In 24 of the most recent 30 articles on abortion and breast cancer, the conclusions are that women who have had abortions are considerably more likely to suffer from this form of cancer, especially if there have been no previous full-term pregnancies. In due course, civilised society will see these laws for what they are, but what a tragedy if a society which has seen the loss of 3,000 lives through terrorist violence should now have its welcome cease-fire replaced by English abortion laws without the people of Northern Ireland having any say about whether that is what they wish!

When the Bill was read for a second time in another place, Mr. Brian Sedgemore questioned Dr. Mowlam. The Secretary of State admitted that the Northern Ireland parties were opposed to the Abortion Act, but added, in words which are always a cipher for wholesale change, that there may be a case for, clarifying inconsistencies in the legal and medical positions".—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/98; col. 815.] That differs from what Mr. Tony Worthington, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, told the Northern Ireland Grand Committee on 29th January this year. He said: If there is to be a change the preferable way for it to happen is in a devolved administration in Northern Ireland or, alternatively, by way of a Private Member's Bill from a Northern Ireland Member. Beyond that I would not want to go".—[Official Report, 29/1/98; col. 2.] I wholeheartedly agree with him.

The Secretary of State herself wrote to a pupil in a Northern Ireland school on 10th March. I have a copy of the letter. She stated: The Government would prefer that any legislation in this sensitive area should be dealt with by a devolved administration in Northern Ireland, but I cannot simply rule out that parliamentary time may at some stage be made available for a Private Member's Bill". Crucial words from the Secretary of State herself—that the matter should be dealt with by the devolved administration in Northern Ireland.

There is a further relevant statement in the letter, about which the House should also know, in the context of our deliberations on the Scotland Bill. It refers to the position north of our Border. The Secretary of State said: With regard to Scotland, the Government has taken the view that it would be wrong for different policies to apply north and south of the Border in Great Britain"— note, not the United Kingdom but Great Britain— and that the balance of advantage is in favour of a consistent approach throughout. However, although legislation on abortion would be reserved to Westminster, the Government will make arrangements to ensure that the Scottish Executive is fully consulted about any policy developments, so that Scottish opinion can be fully taken into account. That begs many questions about what is to happen in Northern Ireland by comparison with Scotland. The letter carefully distinguishes between Great Britain and the United Kingdom; between Northern Ireland and Scotland. One has to ask whether that should be dealt with by a devolved administration. Why is that something that needs to be settled here, unless one is certain that one will always have a majority that one wants here but not certain whether such a majority would exist in Scotland or—dare I say it?—Northern Ireland? What changed between 10th March and now? I hope that Ministers will address that question.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

Although I am addressing your Lordships from this Front Bench, I am not speaking as a Front Bencher as this is partly a matter of conscience. Does the noble Lord—with whom I disagree on almost everything that he says—realise that there is one strong argument in favour of what he is saying, which is provided by human rights legislation and the very international human rights that he has been criticising? If the Scottish parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly are bound by the human rights convention, they cannot pass legislation that violates the right to life—any more than they could pass legislation that violates the right of respect for family life. The courts will balance the two rights sensibly, in a way that the noble Lord would disagree with but which will ensure a fair balance between our abortion laws and the convention rights. Given that national minimum standard of human rights, it is a bit strange that we are not devolving power to the Northern Ireland Assembly or Scottish parliament, as we have the full protection of the human rights Act. Does not that powerful point support the noble Lords argument even though I disagree with his opposition to abortion law?

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I am extremely grateful. Such advice would be expensive were I to ask for it in another capacity. I am grateful for that free advice from the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Although it is seductive, I prefer to place my trust in politicians rather than lawyers or judges—be they most elevated—in whatever courts the noble Lord cares to compose. I accept that the belt-and-braces provision that the noble Lord outlined has something to commend it. When responding to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, I said that I was not opposed to human rights—which is the inference to be drawn from the noble Lord's remarks. I have campaigned on human rights questions in this country and in many other countries of the world, as has the noble Lord. I have reached a different conclusion on the right to life. That is why on this question and on euthanasia, the noble Lord and I cross swords. However, I am glad that his party advanced the argument on the Scottish legislation, that this matter should be devolved and voted on in Scotland. If we divide in Committee on the Northern Ireland question, I look forward to joining the noble Lord in the Lobby, as far as it pertains to Northern Ireland as well.

When the Minister responds, perhaps he will say whether any consideration has been given to consistency between north and south, as to the Irish border. If the laws in Northern Ireland were changed by Westminster without the consent of Northern Ireland politicians, they would be opposed to those that apply south of the Irish border. If the sentiments in the Secretary of State's letter concerning Scotland and north and south of that border are logical, there would be some logic also in keeping the laws as they are north and south of the Irish border. I shall be interested to know whether any discussions have taken place with the Minister's Irish counterparts on that question.

There is a deep-rooted determined and often well-financed campaign to extend those laws and the culture that they represent to every part of these islands and beyond. In its most shameful excesses, that campaign involves the financing of forced abortion or forced sterilisation of women in China in pursuit of the one-child policy, which is financed by British taxpayers. It is a new form of colonialism dressed up in the rhetoric of choice, individualism and human rights. About £10 million has been provided in the case of China alone. That deserves to be exposed, thwarted, and adequately and properly discussed.

I hope that between now and Committee stage, the Government will reflect on those questions and return to their earlier policy, which was adumbrated by the Secretary of State in the letter to which I alluded—a policy that allows mature people in the north of Ireland to be culturally different should they so please and to make up their own minds about the grown-up questions that Westminster has no business reserving to itself. Ultimately it is a matter of trust. The Government should not underestimate the controversy and mistrust that their decision to reserve the matter to Westminster will undoubtedly create in the north of Ireland.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I shall not follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, except to say that I have always believed and respected the fact that in matters of conscience thoughts deliver at different rates in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. It follows that I support the noble Lord's central premise that they should be allowed to continue to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that few people would have thought one year ago that we would be where we are today. I never thought that the day would come so soon when a Bill would be introduced to either House to provide for the repatriation of what are now central Government powers to an elected Assembly in the Province. I salute everyone, great and small, who has worked to bring that about—not least the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. The noble Lord is not in his place but he is in the Chamber, just. I hope that before long, the noble Lord will chair something else with me, other than the hot seat of answering Northern Ireland debates, which I have done in the past. Some 30 years ago, my job was Zambianised. The logical conclusion from my reading of the Northern Ireland Bill is that the noble Lord's job will be Ulsterised.

When an operative Assembly will be set up remains a moot point even now. That is recognised in Clause 3, which says that the Assembly is not to come into effect on Royal Assent or even two or three months later, which is the norm in our legislation, but on production of a draft Order in Council when it appears to the Secretary of State that sufficient progress has been made in implementing the Belfast Agreement". The Minister must have got the message from all parts of the House by now: "Watch out. There are guns about."

I did not speak to any noble Lord resident in Northern Ireland before entering the Chamber this afternoon, but during the Summer Recess I spoke to many people who live and work in Northern Ireland. Some of them feel that they have been rushed into what they see as an uncertain political future. One thing that experience has taught me and probably most people who have served in Northern Ireland, is that the people of the Province hate to be rushed. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, gave the impression that the people I describe are not representative, but are in a minority. Nevertheless, that minority exists and their voice deserves to be heard. I intended to devote much of my speech to that point but it has been hammered over and again by so many noble Lords that I will resist that temptation.

Another fear that must be allayed as a result of the Bill has been alluded to by my noble friend Lady Denton. Clause 59 lists a disparate group of bodies that will all be subsumed under that clause by a new body, to be named the Equality Commission. Again, as I understand it, they are to be reserved matters, although that is not totally clear from a reading of the Bill. If I am right, that is good in relation to the Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland because that is one of the props of stability in Northern Ireland. So that is a worry which has been expressed very forcefully this afternoon. The commission is longstanding and has done excellent work. The other three bodies are more recent but they are settling down and becoming respected in the Province. But they are, to say the least, an eclectic bunch of bodies.

I agree with the worries expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. Racial equality and disability do not strike me as particularly happy bedfellows although one could, and the Minister probably will, make an argument for combining the Fair Employment Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission with the Disability Council.

But where does the Commission for Racial Equality come in? After all, its work is more social and legal than work-related and is to do with the hearts and minds of the populace absorbing, for example, ethnic Chinese and immigrants originating from the Indian sub-continent, many of whom will of course be self-employed. Will any of the former discrete bodies lose out? I note that the Bill gaily states that the Equality Commission shall: aim to secure an appropriate division of resources between the functions previously exercisable by each of the bodies". Who is to have the judgment of Solomon in deciding that it is fair? What is to be the procedure if that unnamed judge decides that it is not fair? Will the commissioners or chairman be sacked? What will happen? If representatives of just one of those bodies had come to see me, I might have dismissed that as special pleading. But as two came to see me, I believe that they have real fears. When they said that the consultation had not been of the quality which one normally expects of proposed legislation in Northern Ireland, probably because there was so much other consultation going on at the same time, I began to sit up and take notice.

On my reading of the Bill, I cannot see whether that new commission just happens as a result of Royal Assent or whether it will be created by order. Is the timetable realistic? I can see a political imperative but not a need for undue haste. I ask that the Minister, in the later stages of the Bill, will explain to all and sundry—and more importantly in the Province itself—just what is involved. I borrow a thought from one of my interlocutors: how does the cleaning lady get recompense for the ill done to her? That was a point raised very clearly from the Liberal Benches.

I hope that I have not sounded too gloomy this evening. If so, my defence is that I have been reaffirming to the House what some people in Northern Ireland have been thinking. They very rarely talk about it among themselves, and certainly not in public places, for fear of who may be listening. But they are remarkably free with their thoughts to comparative or even total strangers.

I was told an illuminating story the other day of an Englishman on business who had never before been to the Province. On the drive from Aldergrove, he asked his driver to explain just what was going on in Northern Ireland and what was the background. Needless to say, the driver never drew breath throughout the 20 minute journey. The explanation finished with the words, "We never talk about that here to anyone but it is good to put my thoughts into words". How desperately sad that is. In Northern Ireland we desperately need free expression without the threat of terrorism. I only hope that this Bill and the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act which preceded it, will enable that to start although, as I said, the current prognosis is, I am afraid, not very good.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, at this late stage, everything has been said, and some of it said many times over. I was going to speak on just two parts of the Bill, the second part being Clause 6 and all the human rights issues which have been covered so well by the noble Lords, Lord Desai, Lord Lester, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and others. I am sure that the Minister has taken on board what has been said in relation to human rights. However, I have been briefed thoroughly by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, with which I was closely involved and of which my wife was a director in Northern Ireland for many years. I am told that the disability community is not comfortable with the present arrangements in Clause 6 and feels that discrimination on grounds of disability should be at least equal to political and religious discrimination. They wonder where the Disability Discrimination Act, which still stands on both sides of the water, fits in.

With regard to the situation as a whole, I welcome the Bill tremendously. If it ever reaches the statute book, which I sincerely hope it will, it will fill a democratic void which has existed in Northern Ireland for far too long. The Bill is not perfect, but it will fill the void.

There is more to be done. I believe that, to a large extent, the work has really been undertaken within the local authorities, which have learned to work together. Sinn Fein, SDLP and all the parties have worked to bring about the wishes of the electorate, although those matters may be rather small on a global scale. Do not let us forget that or ignore it. We must build on it. I believe that the assembly is still very frail. There is too much, both in Dublin and in Westminster, of implementation at all costs. America, Dublin and London must make this happen together and they must get it right at the right speed.

David Trimble is in an unbelievably difficult position at present. We all know where the problem lies: it lies with Sinn Fein. It lies with Sinn Fein because its members are pretending that they are no longer anything to do with the Provisional IRA. We all know that to be lies. They are pretending because they cannot deliver what they know, and what we all know, is vital to the success of this Bill and the assembly—decommissioning. They are unable to do it. I believe that they are finding it almost impossible. I do not know how it will be delivered. However, I am absolutely certain that, if the Assembly is to work and if this Bill is to be meaningful and to last, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister must interpret Clause 23, which refers to exclusions, as we all know they should. Under Clause 23, Sinn Fein should not be admitted to the Assembly today. It should not be admitted until decommissioning has started clearly and strongly and until we all know where it is going. Only then can Sinn Fein say that it has no intention of using weapons again and fully supports for ever and a day the democratic process.

6.28 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, it is probably due to the torrent of legislation pouring through Parliament in the past couple of years, quite a lot of it relating to Northern Ireland, that the media have by and large failed to notice the enormous significance of this particular Bill, because as the noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Cooke, have reminded us, this is a major and, in some respects, revolutionary measure. Among other things, it repeals the Government of Ireland Act which has been in force for 78 years. It provides a government and quasi-parliament containing inter-communal checks and balances surpassing in complexity those in force in Cyprus between 1960 and 1974 and those in force in Lebanon until the outbreak of the long civil war in 1975. Whether or not that is a good omen, we shall know in due course.

Before turning to the most important features of the Bill, perhaps I may touch briefly upon two other points. Although the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, was somewhat critical, most noble Lords seem to consider that Part VI dealing with human rights is extremely thorough and comprehensive. Yet the Good Friday agreement imposes no duty upon the Republic of Ireland to introduce soon comparable legislation south of the Border. I merely draw that omission to your Lordships' attention.

Secondly, it is curious and alarming that throughout the Bill the Government abandoned the time-honoured and legally correct designation "Republic of Ireland" in favour of simply "Ireland", thereby—unintentionally I am sure—lending some weight to irredentist claims in Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic's constitution (articles which have not yet been modified or repealed, as far as I am aware).

I now revert to the general constitutional principles. It is fair to say—noble Lords with more experience of the Province than I will correct me if I am wrong—that one of the aims of British policy after the dissolution of Stormont, under both Labour and Conservative governments (even if not vigorously pursued) was to encourage a sense of common Ulster identity, building on the fact that most people in the Province feel themselves to be distinct both from the people on the mainland and from the people in the south of Ireland. It was hoped that that might help to blur, to some extent, religious and other differences, and of course the encouragement of integrated schools was part and parcel of all that. The increasing profile of the Alliance Party was another feature of that period.

It was an uphill task but by no means an ignoble one. It held out the prospect of at least partial success. However, in around 1982 (for reasons at which one can guess but which need not be gone into here) that "policy"—if such it can be termed—was reversed almost overnight. Suddenly the accepted wisdom was that Northern Ireland contains two totally different and irreconcilable "tribes" and never the twain can meet; only the occasional eccentric could have a foot in both traditions.

There was a substantial element of truth in that contention, but it was not the whole truth. The trouble was that it positively encouraged age-old separatist tendencies and animosities which were never far below the surface and in many cases very much on the surface. Another consequence was that it positively encouraged those of the nationalist community to become "greener" than they had been 10 or 15 years earlier—I do not mean "green" in the environmental sense.

Some noble Lords may remember that, soon after the outbreak of the troubles in the early 1970s, Bernadette Devlin (no less) declared that she did not mind under which flag she lived; her concern was for better housing, job opportunities, education and so forth for the minority community. As a result of the reversal of policy in the early 1980s, the Anglo-Irish agreement which inexorably followed and all the subsequent developments which flowed from that, it is inconceivable that any latter-day Bernadette Devlin would declare that she was quite happy to live under the Union flag in perpetuity provided certain injustices, as she perceived them, had been rectified.

Since 1985 (perhaps earlier) the minority community as a whole has been positively discouraged from flirting with the notion that, under the right conditions, they could become as loyal to Britain and her institutions as most of the 1 million-plus Irish people living on the British mainland already are.

Nevertheless, for better or worse, we are now stuck with the consequences of reinforcing and formalising the concept of two distinct communities unable ever to share the common national loyalty. In the light of that, most of the provisions in Clause 4 and Parts II and IV of the Bill which require evidence of cross-community support for any legislation which is the slightest bit contentious, make perfect sense. However, that brings us to a moral flaw at the heart of the Bill, touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Cooke.

The Bill deems it to be right and proper for no changes whatever to be made to laws governing health, education, housing, roads, sport, the arts and so forth without the indirect consent of a majority of the people in each community, provided that just under 28 per cent. of the Assembly Members demand such safeguards; that is to say, the safeguards of bi-communal approval. Yet on what is to most people (excluding the super-rich who jet from one tax haven to another) the most important issue of all—their nationality and sense of identity—the Bill deems it right and proper in Clause 1 to enable the most drastic change to be made without any requirement for bi-communal support, not even token bi-communal support. Given the continuation of demographic trends, the people of Northern Ireland could wake up one morning to find their nationality and all that goes with it altered irrevocably by a "yes" vote of 50.01 per cent. coming entirely from one community, with a 49.99 per cent. "no" vote coming entirely from the other community. That is what I mean by "moral flaw"; apart from which, in practical terms, such an event would lead to violence on a scale not yet experienced.

An interview with the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees—I am sorry he is not present tonight—was published in The House Magazine on 20th July this year. In it he told the interviewer, You can't push the North into the South. It's beyond comprehension. You can't take a million people into a community just like that". Unfortunately, the Bill as drafted paves the way for just such an eventuality.

We are constantly enjoined by nationalists and republicans to think in "all-Ireland" terms, and that I am happy to do. Let us remind ourselves that 83.25 per cent. of the island of Ireland is available to those who detest Britain and all things British. Within that five-sixths of the island they can be as non-British and indeed anti-British as they like. That is their right and one can have no objection to it. Surely, therefore, the worthy consensus principles enshrined in the rest of the Bill should properly be extended to the Bill in its entirety. The remaining one-sixth of the island of Ireland should remain a haven for those wishing to retain their British nationality, laws and customs and their British connections (which go back several centuries before 1801) unless a majority of the elected representatives representing each of the two communities vote otherwise.

6.36 p.m.

The Marquess of Donegall

My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships because I had assumed, quite wrongly, that the establishment of the Patten Commission on the Royal Ulster Constabulary would form part of the Bill. It was a foolish assumption, as the commission is already sitting. It is not mentioned at all and the Bill is not yet law.

I had intended to address your Lordships on the commission and its likely effect on the morale and efficiency of the RUC. What I was going to say would be irrelevant to the debate and therefore I shall not say it. I repeat my apology.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I welcome this Bill as a major step in the difficult process of implementing the Belfast agreement. This is the only agreement available or likely to be available for securing peace and stability throughout these islands. Implementation is therefore crucially important to the whole of Britain and Ireland.

I agree with those noble Lords who have suggested that the human rights clauses in Part VI need to be strengthened. I ask the Government to read again the letter from Dr. Maurice Hayes, who, until recently, was ombudsman. It was addressed to the Secretary of State and dated 3rd July. I hope that the Government will then be able to introduce their own amendments covering the points that he listed. I trust that they will also take into account the points made by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice. I declare my interest as a member of the last body.

I turn now to the situation as it exists in limited areas of Northern Ireland. The sad fact is that paramilitary or terrorist groups exercise a high degree of control in some of those areas, often over housing estates. They do so, as has been mentioned, by threats, by intimidation and by protection rackets. The most blatant methods, of course, are punishment beatings and shootings.

It may be said that this is a matter of policing which goes beyond the Bill. If that were the case, it could perhaps be left until the Patten Commission has reported. But I submit that it is causing some people to leave Northern Ireland, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, while it maims and occasionally kills others. The subject needs urgent attention now. It needs to be looked at in the context of preventing crime and of "changing the climate of opinion", as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, put it.

Two sorts of crime and antisocial behaviour are involved. First, there are the actions of mostly young offenders, who steal cars, vandalise, attack old people and abuse various substances. Secondly, there are the actions of self-appointed enforcers of order who mete out a kind of rough and ready justice, which is often hideously brutal.

Therefore, I ask that the noble Lord the Minister and his colleagues should study and take fully into account the considerable volume of work that has already been done on crime prevention in Northern Ireland. This work began during some of the most troubled times in Northern Ireland. Prevention can start with toddlers and pre-school children; it continues, of course, through all age groups. It develops self-respect and respect for other citizens. Sport, music, drama and all kinds of cultural activities have their part to play. These are organised largely by local community and Province-wide voluntary organisations. That is why the voluntary sector, together with the churches and the whole educational establishment, is an essential partner with government. The statutory agencies will be greatly mistaken if they think that they can solve these problems by themselves. Partnership is absolutely necessary and I hope that it should not be too difficult to achieve within a population as small as one-and-a-half million people.

To be more specific, I draw the attention of your Lordships and of the Government to the work of police and public liaison committees in various parts of Northern Ireland. That can be developed. Equally significant is the work done in the past four or five years in West Belfast across the peace line or the sectarian interface. This work built on the previous experience of community development; it considered and consulted on the Springfield area redevelopment, which is now resulting in a new campus for the University of Ulster. It also facilitated, in some degree, the original paramilitary ceasefires. I am glad to say that several people associated with this work have been elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly where, I am sure, their constructive influence will have a strong effect.

To be more specific still, I urge the Government to draw the appropriate conclusions from work currently underway in West Belfast which is designed to find local alternatives to punishment beatings that are acceptable and accountable. It is also developing new thinking concerning maximum local and community input into keeping the peace in particular neighbourhoods. I am glad to say that this work has strong support in academic circles.

I have outlined some urgent problems and indicated how some people, particularly in local communities and in the voluntary sector, are groping their way towards solutions. I urge the Government to listen to such people, including those who are simply holding the gate and offering appropriate assistance to the victims, and potential victims, of diabolical cruelty. There has to be concerted action, all the way through from immediate relief right up to effective prevention—and that action, I submit, is needed now.

6.44 p.m.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, I join other noble Lords who have welcomed this attempt at devolution of the government of Northern Ireland. For far too long we have been governed directly from Westminster, with all the defects that that implies. It is very encouraging to see some method being sought to give back to the people of Northern Ireland the right to govern themselves. That makes it all the more important that we are careful about exactly which course we take.

Recently there has been a release from prison of criminals who are not repentant, but who are proud of the atrocities that they have committed. They still have access to arms and explosives. It is hard to see how that is a remedy for peace. The Prime Minister recently said in the House of Commons that substantial decommissioning should be required before prisoners could be released. Unfortunately, the history of the Government—indeed, of both the present and the previous governments—has been to give way consistently to terrorists. I believe that there should be substantial decommissioning before members of Sinn Fein should be allowed to enter the government. We cannot have a government of which some members have guns under the table. There has been too much appeasement of the men of violence and it is time that a firm attitude is taken by the Government.

I do not know whether the noble Lord the Minister has had an opportunity to read this morning's Belfast News Letter. The editorial states—I shall not read it all— Public outrage over the proposed payment of £76,000 compensation to IRA prisoners in the Maze seems to have penetrated the corridors of power in the Northern Ireland Office. Quite properly, action is now being taken to redress this quite bizarre situation. The cash was awarded to 200 republican prisoners whose belongings were lost, confiscated or damaged during a search of three IRA wings, following the discovery of an escape tunnel. Claims for £150,000 were lodged by the Provo inmates, with approximately half of it astonishingly decreed for payment… Decent law-abiding people have already enormous difficulty accepting the early release of convicted terrorist prisoners as part of the Good Friday Agreement, without having also to stomach compensation payments for alleged damage that quite clearly arose out of a mass escape bid". That may be only a detail, but I think it is important because it antagonises many law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland. If it is not true, I believe that it is in the Government's interest to issue a clear denial and not allow the issue to fester.

There are many details in this Bill that we should consider, but at this late hour I do not propose to go into more than one of them because we shall be able to do so in more detail in Committee. However, one thing strikes me; namely, whether it is intended to continue governing Northern Ireland by Orders in Council. That is a completely undemocratic method which has been used for too long as there can be no amendment to the orders. Even when the Government find some defect, they have to gloss over it. It would also be interesting to know whether Scotland and Wales are to be governed by Orders in Council. Doubtless we shall hear about that when we reach the Committee stage, if not tonight.

6.50 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, many noble Lords have emphasised during the course of the debate the undoubted importance of the Bill. In fact, it is really three Bills in one. It is a devolution Bill, comparable to the Scotland and Wales Bills, it is a human rights Bill; and it is an equality Bill all put into a single measure. In normal times I believe that there would have been three Bills. Indeed, I do not really see why it should not have been so, or at least two Bills on this occasion, except of course for the immense congestion of a parliamentary timetable.

The aspect which links the three different parts is the Belfast Agreement—the Good Friday Agreement. We continue to support that agreement and recognise the urgency to put the devolution clauses on the statute book before this Session of Parliament ends. However, the agreement does not put a tight timetable on the setting up of the two new commissions as set out in the Bill. It has also become clear this afternoon that the Government should have spent more time considering that, and that this is not a very sound way in which to legislate on such matters.

The civil servants and the draftsmen have obviously done the best that they could, but the speed of the legislation is not their fault. A large number of the clauses in the Bill were not discussed in another place. We will of course need to do our best to remedy that deficit in this House. However, today's debate on certain clauses in the Bill has revealed in particular the disquiet of those who have paid great attention over many years to human rights and equality issues. We do not oppose—indeed, we support—the ideas behind the human rights and equality parts of the Bill. However, it is important to get the measures right. We have already heard from the Minister in his opening remarks that the Government realise that they have not got it quite right. We have been promised a large number of government amendments which we will obviously consider most carefully.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I was also slightly confused about the future responsibility for the commissions from the governmental point of view. I am not a lawyer; indeed, I am an accountant and I approach such matters from a different angle. I notice that the human rights commission is to be financially answerable to Whitehall, whereas the equality commission is to be financially answerable to Stormont. Perhaps we shall have a little more elucidation on all this when we reach the Committee stage.

I was interested to note that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, seemed to want a single human rights commission for the whole of the United Kingdom. I believe that to be a most interesting idea and, if I may say so, an extremely unionist idea.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Far be it from me ever to be regarded in that way. No, what I was arguing for was a strong equality commission and human rights commission in Northern Ireland and a strong equality commission and human rights commission in Great Britain, with a relationship between the two. I was not suggesting some great over-arching UK body as such.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I apologise for apparently misrepresenting what the noble Lord said. In any case, I hope that the Secretary of State will not feel obliged to bring into force Part VI of the Bill too quickly. I believe that the change and reorganisation of institutions, tempting as that always is to politicians, can cause much disruption and involve a great deal of effort which, of necessity, lowers the amount of effort going in to achieving the objectives of the institutions being reorganised. That is particularly so in Northern Ireland at present where everything is changing so quickly.

The Minister spoke of the necessity to keep up the momentum. That is a theme which has run through many ministerial speeches during the past few months. It harks back to Harold Wilson's recipe for keeping the Labour Party happy a good number of years ago. I understand its importance in the Northern Ireland context, but, like my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, I also think that change needs digesting. If you ram too much change too quickly down the throats of people in Northern Ireland it could well be rejected as a result. That is the danger that we now face with some of these provisions. When I served in the Northern Ireland Office with my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, I always thought that one of the essential qualities of a Northern Ireland Minister was patience. We certainly seemed to need to exert that during a good deal of that time.

While still on the human rights question, I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to the Republic of Ireland's obligations as far as concerns human rights. The agreement provides for the Republic to put into force similar legislation to that which we are implementing here. Can the Minister say whether the Irish Government's timetable on implementing their obligations for this sort of legislation is quite as hectic as ours?

The other part of the Bill—that is, the big first part of it—deals with devolution; in other words, a huge change intended to last for generations and one which is very desirable. However, it is also important to get it right. We do not have an entrenched constitution in this country. Indeed, it is only partly a written constitution. But that puts a greater onus upon us to see that it is well rewritten. In most countries the constitution can only be altered through a very elaborate additional process by comparison with ordinary law. But here we have reached the stage where a few days' debate in this House and no debate in another place seems to be sufficient. That puts a heavy responsibility on your Lordships in this case.

As I said, we support devolution as part of the agreement. However, as many speakers have said this afternoon, it is not enough for us, for the Government, for this House and for the majority of the people in Northern Ireland to support the agreement: we need also to see the terrorists supporting it. While Government and Parliament have been rushing forward to fulfil our part of the agreement by way of this Bill and others, the terrorists have signally failed to move as far as concerns decommissioning. As has been said this afternoon, the initiative on all this is clearly with the IRA and Sinn Fein. I want to make it quite clear that we do not believe that the terrorists or their supporters can join an executive until decommissioning has started. It is not a precondition as people have said; it is a political fact that that is the case.

My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew, who did so much to get this process going in the first place, said all this much more eloquently and forcefully than I can. The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, and the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, were also firm in that respect. It was also emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, who made clear that punishment shootings are also part of this matter. As so often happens, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, brought it together and clarified our minds by demonstrating that decommissioning is part of ending the cult of violence. That really is the key. It is the key symbol that we want to see.

I believe that it is also important to point out that, if there is no decommissioning, terrorist prisoners will stop being released and those released will soon become wanted men liable to rearrest on sight. The agreement will collapse as a whole. Without decommissioning this Bill and the agreement itself will be so much waste paper and all the tremendous hopes of everyone will be dashed. I hope that does not come about. The great thing is that the assembly is now established and talking. Like the Minister, I have the advantage of having attended at least part of its first full session. An elaborate discussion was taking place on the use of the Irish language, the validity of voting in Irish, the flying of flags and the desirability or otherwise of a bar on the premises! A great deal of attention was given to the composition of committees and what would happen if members of the assembly changed their party allegiance. We shall also need to consider these matters when we consider the formulae that are built into this Bill.

The good thing is that everyone was present at Stormont. They did not walk out. They were talking, not shouting, and the furniture—which is more movable than our furniture—was not being thrown about. That is great; but they now need time to settle down and to gain confidence in one another. That confidence will not come without decommissioning. One cannot trust a terrorist who has a gun under the table or outside the door, even if he claims to be an ex-terrorist. One certainly cannot trust him while punishment shootings continue. As the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats made clear, we shall want to discuss the powers of the assembly and the executive and which matters should be devolved, which should be reserved and which should be excepted—abortion being one of those matters.

Clauses 3 and 4 and Schedules 2 and 3 were not discussed at all in the Commons; the guillotine ruled that out. There was no discussion of these matters and therefore we shall need to discuss them in some detail. I hope we shall also have the opportunity to discuss the important point on corporation tax mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan. I felt some of my old Treasury instincts come to the surface when he mentioned that point which is an extremely important one.

Among other matters we shall also want to examine Clause 67 which gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers to set up at least six new bodies, according to the agreement, to implement cross-border matters. However, we do not know which cross-border matters these are or how they will be implemented. Apparently we shall not be told in the course of this Bill what these matters are likely to be. Nevertheless we are expected to give the Secretary of State permission to set up these bodies and to give them powers under Clause 67. That is, of course, subject to affirmative resolution in the case of each body but it has been the practice of your Lordships' House not to oppose such statutory instruments. However, if Bills continue to give permissions of this kind—blank cheques, as it were—to the Secretary of State, that practice may come under some pressure.

The important ideas which lie behind this Bill have our support as part of the implementation of the agreement, but the agreement must be implemented in full by all sides. This is an important Bill and this has been an important debate. However, some of the most important debates on this Bill will occur in the later stages when we discuss the clauses in more detail. I support the Bill.

7.4 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, this has been a full and frank debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have expressed broad support for the thrust of the policy as embodied in this Bill. In Committee we shall have time to discuss some of these points in detail. I am reluctant to anticipate Committee stage debate by dwelling in too much detail on some of the points that have been made. I hope that noble Lords appreciate that; otherwise we could be here for a long time as I have made pages of notes on what has been said. Certainly I give the undertaking that the Government will reflect on all the points that have been made in the debate. As I indicated at the outset, we shall bring forward a large number of amendments and, clearly, I shall take into account the points that have been made. I shall possibly make some changes to what we intend in the light of what has been said today. We shall have a thorough Committee stage.

However, I shall deal with some of the main points that have been made. I apologise to noble Lords if I miss some out. I am sure noble Lords will all feel that their own points are the most important ones but time does not allow me to discuss them all in detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, and many other noble Lords referred to decommissioning. The Government's position is clear. There has to be progress on all elements of the agreement. The only way to get through this impasse is for all sides to honour all the commitments they made in the agreement and for all aspects to move forward in parallel. As has often been said, decommissioning is an integral part of the agreement. It is not a pre-condition; it is an obligation and it must happen. The question is not whether it will happen but when it will happen. The Government have said that on many occasions. During the Labour Party conference in Blackpool last week the Prime Minister had discussions with some party leaders on this issue.

For the record I ought to say that the only two Northern Ireland politicians who addressed the full Labour Party conference were David Trimble and Seamus Mallon. Each received a standing ovation at the conference. Other politicians spoke at fringe meetings, but the only ones who addressed the main conference were the two that I have mentioned. However, at one of the fringe meetings I heard a member of Sinn Fein say clearly that decommissioning had to happen. He said that clearly and unambiguously. I mention that for what it is worth. There were many fringe meetings during the Labour Party conference at which Northern Ireland was discussed. I believe that some clear messages emerged from those discussions.

A number of noble Lords have mentioned punishment beatings and shootings. These are clearly unacceptable and they simply must stop. However, I draw some comfort from the fact that the numbers have decreased in recent months. That is welcome. In June 32 were reported, in July 19, in August 18 and in September eight. Clearly there should be none at all. It is unacceptable that this practice should continue. That has been the Government's clear policy throughout.

I refer to some specific points that were made. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked a number of questions. He asked about Clause 23(6) and a motion of exclusion against a party or individual. I am grateful for the point that he made, which he had already drawn to our attention during the consultation process. I am happy to confirm to the noble Lord our intention to introduce an amendment along the lines he suggests. However, even if we intend to introduce other amendments on the lines the noble Lord suggests, time will not always allow me to say that. Therefore the absence of such a comment does not mean that we shall not necessarily do that.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, also referred to committees in connection with Clause 22. I am grateful for his comments. I am sure he will want to discuss these issues in greater detail in Committee. However, I cannot promise that the Government will move in the direction that he clearly hopes we will. As regards north/south bodies, any establishment of implementation bodies is likely to require several assembly votes. There will certainly have to be an assembly Bill to confer functions on the bodies and all such votes will be subject to the petition of concern procedure and therefore require cross-community support, should 30 members require this under Clause 34. Therefore there is that safeguard.

As regards trade between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, that is a matter of trade within the European Union and subject to the single European market. I am confident that north/south co-operation and the new political atmosphere generated by the agreement will open new opportunities for trading and economic development in Ireland, north and south. Indeed, there is already quite a lot of such trade.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, asked a number of questions. He suggested that some of our amendments would go rather far in unpicking the agreement. They will certainly not. None of our proposed amendments will unpick it in the least. We intend to make sure that we stick totally by the agreement throughout and any such amendments will reflect that. However, we will consider carefully any amendments moved by the noble Lord to see whether they are consistent with the agreement and therefore amendments that we might be able to accept.

The noble Lord also asked about Orders in Council. He did not like the procedure. I believe that is a summary of his remarks. We have in mind and have consulted the parties on improvements in the procedure. These would involve consultation with the Assembly as to its views. As a body, it may very soon take over responsibility for the issues concerned. Clearly a large number of matters that have previously been the subject of Orders in Council will now be matters for the Assembly and will no longer be subject to that procedure. There may, however, be some issues for Orders in Council as regards criminal justice and policing. I assure the noble Lord that, if all these matters go through as I hope, there will be very few Orders in Council compared to numbers in the past.

My noble and learned friend Lord Archer and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, asked a number of detailed points in relation to the powers of the human rights commission and about the equality bodies. I could make a long Committee stage speech. However, I shall resist doing so, except to say that we shall certainly consider carefully amendments proposed by both noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and my noble friend Lord Desai made the point that we want to avoid a hierarchy of equality as regards the equality commission. The Bill requires the new commission to secure an appropriate division of resources between fair employment, gender, race and disability. It must also be transparent in presenting an annual report covering the work that it is doing. The Bill also permits a new commission to establish consultative councils for gender, race, disability and other aspects of equality. We shall take account of the concerns expressed by noble Lords on the equality body. It is certainly not our intention that there should be any less emphasis, through having one body, on the different elements that go into that body. I for one should be very unhappy were that to be the case. I am assured that the steps we are taking will not lessen the concern for race relations, gender and all the other matters.

Northern Ireland is a very small place. It has 1½ million people. There will be some savings in overheads by merging these bodies. The saving will go towards the work that the new commission will be doing. In relation to the size of Northern Ireland there is a good case for saying that we should look at it as one body.

Moreover, if I may draw on my past minor involvement with the Commission for Racial Equality, I see that when an investigation is carried out in regard to an employer or organisation as regards possible discrimination one comes across all elements of discrimination, not merely the one on which one is focusing. So there are other advantages in having one body. I appreciate that there are feelings the other way. However, I assure those concerned that that is certainly not our intention. We shall do everything possible to ensure that the focus remains clearly on all elements, not merely on one of them. There will he no hierarchy of equality in the way we are moving forward.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have gone a great way and stuck my neck out to support what the Government are doing in relation to an equality commission, even though it probably angers those in the existing equality agencies which I helped to create in the 1970s. Therefore, can the Minister give them some reassurance on the point that the equality commission will have the same constitutional status as the human rights commission in such matters as reporting to Parliament, being funded out of moneys provided by Parliament and not being the creature of the Assembly? Will the Minister give some reassurance to them without going into Committee points?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, my understanding is that the human rights commission will be funded by the NIO, that is to say not by the departments that are to be devolved, but that the equality commission, because it deals with the substance of the work of those departments that are to be devolved to the new Assembly, will be funded through the Assembly and the departments that are being devolved. So the financial basis will be different as between the two bodies. I do not know how much comfort that gives the noble Lord. Perhaps he will at least accept that there is a great deal of logic in my remarks even if he is not happy about the basis of funding. It makes sense to do it in the way we are suggesting. If we are to devolve powers, it is right that the financial responsibility for the scrutiny of the way those powers are to be exercised should also go to the devolved Assembly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, asked about the expression, "or any other police force". I am advised that there are a number of smaller forces in Northern Ireland—for example, the one that provides protection for airports—and that the phrase is intended to ensure that those are covered by the provisions. There was nothing more sinister or devious in our intention. The noble Baroness suggested that things had not changed very much in Northern Ireland politics. I believe that they have changed. That is why the agreement provides hope for the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, suggested that the agreement had been rushed. The difficulty is that had we not put some impetus behind the agreement in the period leading up to Good Friday it might not have happened at all. It was simply the determination of our Government and the Government of the Republic to push matters through that brought the agreement to a conclusion. Had we not done so, I fear that we might have been stuck. That does not mean that the legislation that gives effect to it must not be thought out very carefully to make sure that it reflects the agreement. As I said in my introduction, we have reflected hard and consulted a great deal during the summer in order to improve this Bill. I hope noble Lords will agree, when they see the wealth of amendments proposed, that we have certainly tried to do that.

The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, asked about the 50.1 per cent. vote under Clause 1. It is not simply an automatic procedure. The Bill embodies a consent principle. That is an important safeguard and one which the Unionist community has welcomed. The noble Lord has turned the point round the other way. There would also have to be parliamentary agreement to any such changes. Both Houses of Parliament would have to scrutinise any such legislation to give effect to the results of such a referendum. So there are some important assurances there. It will have to go through a whole procedure in Parliament and the noble Lord could have his say, if it ever reached that point. However, the arithmetic of voting in recent elections in Northern Ireland suggests that that is quite a long way off, if we ever get there.

My noble friend Lord Blease asked about the consultation that has taken place this summer regarding the various equality provisions in the legislation. My honourable friend Paul Mercer, the Minister of State, has met SACHR, the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the chairs of FEC, EOC, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Council, and has discussed all these matters with them in some detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, asked about tax variation powers and wanted some changes in the ability of the Assembly to alter corporation tax. In our discussions leading up to the agreement, there was very little support among participants for tax-raising powers for the new Northern Ireland Assembly. We would not seek to introduce such a significant change in the package unless there were widespread support for it. The matter can, of course, be looked at in the review which the agreement envisages after four years. The Assembly, does, however, have authority in respect of the regional rate in Northern Ireland, so it does have some powers as regards the money it intends to raise.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked a number of questions about abortion and suggested that there was something rather devious or sinister in the way the Government were approaching this matter. The position is very simple. Abortion law comes under criminal justice. Criminal justice is a reserved power and therefore abortion is a reserved power. I am not sure that it was necessary for the noble Lord to go into quite such detail. There is no intention to ride roughshod over the wishes of the Northern Ireland parties as the noble Lord suggested. We are simply treating abortion as part of criminal justice, as indeed the noble Lord would wish it to be. As criminal justice is not being transferred to the new Assembly at this stage, neither will abortion law be transferred.

I do not think it would be appropriate for the Government to have discussions with the Government of the Republic about abortion law. I think that how the Government of the Republic proceed is a matter better left for them.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I specifically asked him about the letter which the Secretary of State wrote in March saying that in her view this was an issue which should be devolved to the Assembly in Northern Ireland. I wondered what had happened to change the thinking on this question and why it should not be straightforwardly exempted as a matter that is determined in Northern Ireland as it is an issue which has in the past been decided on the basis of Northern Ireland's culture, beliefs and wishes, separately from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, when responsibility for criminal justice and policing is passed to the Assembly, which it is our clear intention will be the case when the conditions are appropriate, responsibility for abortion will also pass to the Assembly. That is consistent with what the Secretary of State said. For reasons which I am sure the noble Lord understands, it is appropriate at this stage for responsibility for policing, prisons and criminal justice to stay with the Secretary of State and not be transferred to the new Assembly. As I have said, the day that we transfer those powers, responsibility for abortion will be transferred as well. The noble Lord suggested that British governments were not appropriate to look after these matters for Northern Ireland, but British governments have exercised that responsibility for the past 25 years and I am not sure that they have done anything untoward with regard to Northern Ireland.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I am grateful. I am sure that the Minister wishes as much as I do to avoid a debate in Committee. In that case, can the Minister give the House an assurance that the Government will not provide time for the status quo to be altered in Northern Ireland until such a time as the Northern Ireland Assembly requests such a change to be made?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am not able to give that undertaking at this stage, and the noble Lord will understand why it would not be appropriate for me to do so. I have given him a number of assurances as regards the questions he asked and I am sure he is reasonably happy with what I have said.

The noble Lord also asked about funding for FAIT. FAIT has received support from the Government's Community Relations Programme for several years. There is a current commitment for funding until the end of the present financial year. No decision has been made on funding after that period, when community relations funding will be a devolved matter for the Assembly.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the Northern Ireland human rights commission and whether that would be fully a Northern Ireland Office responsibility like SACHR and be financed by Parliament. I think I answered that point earlier.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, asked about payment made to prisoners following an event in the Maze. I saw the newspaper reports about that, but I do not have any detailed information. I believe that at least some of the reports were not accurate. It may be best if I refer the noble Lord's comments to my honourable friend Adam Ingram, the Minister responsible, as he will no doubt have more detailed information.

The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, also said that Sinn Fein had never renounced violence. For what it is worth, Gerry Adams made a statement in the summer that Sinn Fein believed that, the violence we have seen must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone", to which I referred in my opening speech. He has to be held to that clear denunciation of violence, which I believe was helpful.

I think I have done justice to most of the questions that have been asked.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, it looks as though the noble Lord is turning into the home straights and I apologise for rather farouche behaviour in interrupting him. I was hoping for an answer to the only question I asked him, in which the noble Lord, Lord Holme, also indicated a certain interest. The question was this: when the Government signed up to the Good Friday agreement, did they envisage that for Sinn Fein to take its place in the executive when no start had been made on decommissioning by the IRA would be compatible with that agreement? I should be most grateful if that question could be answered.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is trying to trap me into discussions about preconditions. His question is: did the Government see that as a precondition? The answer is that we did not see that as a precondition. We have said clearly, as I said at the outset of my winding-up speech, that we expect all parts of the agreement to be implemented and that decommissioning must happen but without its being a precondition. All parties have an obligation to fulfil all parts of the agreement. As regards decommissioning, the question is not whether it will happen, but when. That was our intention when the agreement was signed and it remains our intention. It is for that reason that the Prime Minister has been exerting his influence on all the parties in order to ensure that they abide by all parts of the agreement. I am not sure that I can help the noble Lord more than that.

In conclusion, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, this really is the home straight and I apologise to the Minister, but he rather tantalisingly trailed earlier on that he was going to tell us what the timetable of the Irish Government was on some of the parallel matters, particularly in terms of human rights.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I do not think that I did. Under the agreement, the Irish Government will also be moving in the same direction, but it is a lot easier for them because they do not have to enact the legislation to set up the Assembly. Their process is simpler. My understanding is that they will do it at some point, but I do not know when.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I do not want to protract this discussion, but in one respect they will have to amend their constitution. Perhaps this is a matter about which the Minister could write to me later. I believe that it would be of great interest to the House to know what the timetable of the Irish Government is.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I shall do my best to find out what the timetable is and, in so far as that information is available, let the noble Lord know in writing.

I am on the finishing straight now; in fact I have passed the finishing post. I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. It has been a useful debate in which we have covered many of the key issues and touched on many of the concerns, and we shall dwell on them further in Committee.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.