HL Deb 21 October 1998 vol 593 cc1504-12

(".—(1) Sections 53 to 57 shall have effect from such day not less than four and not more than six years after the passing of this Act as the Secretary of State may by order appoint.

(2) An order under subsection (1) shall also establish a period of at least one year within which relevant bodies, organisations and individuals may submit proposals for and comments on the powers and functions of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; and the Secretary of State shall ensure that that consultation period is otherwise advertised in such manner as he considers appropriate.

(3) The Secretary of State shall, by the day appointed under subsection (1)—

  1. (a) commission a review of the operation of—
    1. (i) existing legislation relevant to the work of the Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland, the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland and the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland; and
    2. (ii) the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 insofar as it has effect in Northern Ireland,
    and, on the basis of that review, propose new legislation to consolidate and, where appropriate, amend that legislation; and
  2. (b) propose legislation for Northern Ireland to prohibit discrimination on grounds of age and sexual orientation.").

The noble Lord said: I wish to move this amendment which stands in the name of my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester. He regrets that he cannot be present because he has a prior appointment. He has already spoken to this amendment when he spoke to Amendments Nos. 38 and 39 on Monday. I refer to cols. 1236–38 of the Official Report. I do not wish to comment further on this amendment except to say that on Second Reading I expressed sentiments about this proposed new clause which are entirely in line with those of my noble friend. I beg to move.

7 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

I have serious doubts about the wisdom of this amendment, although I understand why it is being moved. It seeks to delay the establishment of the new Northern Ireland human rights commission for at least four years to allow for a period of consultation with various bodies and individuals on the powers and functions to be given to the human rights commission, and then to allow for a review to take place of all existing equality legislation so as to consolidate and amend the quality of that legislation.

We on these Benches strongly support the need to consolidate existing equality legislation, which is in a hopeless mess, and to turn it into a comprehensive, user-friendly equality code, just as the Treasury is seeking to turn the mess of the financial services legislation into a sensible, user-friendly code. It is important that there should be effective enforcement of the equality code, and that it should be extended to cover, for example, discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and age and to have an equal and consistent method of enforcement. However, we do not believe that such a review, which we believe is urgent, should be linked in any way to the establishment of the human rights commission. Equality issues are linked with other human rights issues. However, we should not wish to do anything to delay the establishment of such an important body as the Northern Ireland human rights commission in accordance with the Good Friday agreement.

What is absolutely vital is that the equality commission should have the same status as the human rights commission; that there should be no devolution of the equality legislation to the Northern Ireland Assembly, because it is a core civil right. There should be no dilution, no placing of the equality code under the will of the majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly—it should remain a core responsibility—and there should be an effective and speedy review of the underlying equality law throughout the United Kingdom as a whole.

For those reasons we oppose this amendment as merely delaying the setting up of a human rights commission—which we deplore—and not sufficiently dealing with the underlying malaise in equality legislation or the need to make the equality commission a strong and effective enforcement agency.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

The amendment proposes new institutions for Northern Ireland relating to human rights, and subsequent amendments seek to create new institutions. In considering these amendments, I ask the Committee to have regard to the influence that they may have on the economy of Northern Ireland.

All my working life I have been involved in manufacturing, distribution and other activities relating to the Northern Ireland economy. Its fabric is delicate and requires sensitivity. We sometimes forget that, without a thriving economy, we cannot pay for an Assembly, with the high salaries offered to so many.

Small companies are very important in the private sector in Northern Ireland. To cite a simple statistic, 78 per cent. of all the companies there employ fewer than 20 people, but they employ 32 per cent. of those employed in the private sector. It is important that we have regard to the problems of such companies. They have to deal with the rate of change—which everywhere is almost frightening in what is undoubtedly a global economy. It means that the managers of small companies are wholly engaged in looking after those companies in these changing times.

Small companies in particular have little or no time to spare to attend to the demands of bureaucracy in all its forms. In recent years we have had to conform to European directives, sometimes at considerable cost, and the Fair Employment Commission has imposed an additional load. For instance, there is a requirement to keep notes of all interviews with prospective employees for at least three years in case someone may claim discrimination, which is quite common. That imposes a very great load on small companies.

The perception is that employers in Northern Ireland are sectarian. That is far from the reality. In the past 30 years there has been surprisingly little trouble of a sectarian or community nature on the shop floor. Employers and employees have come to understand the importance of fair employment and no discrimination.

The regulations relating to fair employment and equality of treatment impose a significant cost on small businesses. It is hard to quantify, but in the case of my own company, employing some 100 people, compliance with those regulations costs several thousand pounds a year. We cannot afford a specialist to study all the regulations with regard to fair employment and other matters and employ a consultant to advise us on all matters concerning employment and dismissals.

We must therefore be very careful in regard to any new regulations. No matter how desirable they appear, we must have regard to the effect that they will have on business generally, and on small businesses in particular.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

This new clause contains several different proposals. First, it seeks to postpone the start of the new human rights commission provisions for between four and six years. That is not desirable, primarily because of the promise given in the Belfast agreement. Paragraph 5 on page 17 of the agreement, in the section headed, "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity", states firmly: A new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission … will be established by Westminster legislation, independent of Government", etc.

It is important that that is carried out. It is certainly important in the minds of some people who supported the Belfast agreement in the belief that this would happen. It has been a significant element. Whether we like it or not, this is a deal in which all the pieces have to be accepted at this point, desirable or otherwise. I am therefore not in sympathy with the idea of simply postponing the start of the human rights commission for four to six years.

Subsection (3) of the amendment seeks a review of the legislation with regard to the Fair Employment Commission and the other equality commissions that presently exist in Northern Ireland. We shall return to this matter later; it does not fall very naturally at this point. Under the Belfast agreement there is certainly more latitude in relation to what happens over this aspect. I have some sympathy with the idea of a single equality commission replacing the four existing bodies.

The amendment proposes, thirdly, that in due course there should be additional legislation to prohibit discrimination on the additional grounds of age and sexual orientation. I do not object to consideration being given to that over a period, but I would prefer to leave it aside for the moment until we have solved the problems and established the machinery for human rights and the new equality commission or whatever is eventually decided upon on the existing basis. The constitution of the United Kingdom is in a state of upheaval, as we have already discussed, but the constitution and the institutions of Northern Ireland are in an even greater state of upheaval. We are stepping into uncharted territory. We are full of optimism as we do so, but the more extra matters we try to bolt on at the same time, the more risks we take. This may be only a small risk, but it exists.

I share with the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, a reluctance to have additional regulations, for the sake of small businesses, in particular. We discussed this matter briefly the other evening when I expressed my view. Additional regulations should be carefully pondered before they are imposed upon small businesses, particularly in Northern Ireland where the employment and economic situation will have a lot to do with whether all these matters succeed and where political and security factors also affect the situation. The employment and economic situation remains important and extremely delicate. It is for that reason that I have hesitations about the third element of the new clause.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

Within this group of amendments are those standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. He may wish to address the Committee before I reply.

Lord Hylton

Amendment No. 131, the first of my amendments, has been degrouped and stands by itself.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

That amendment has been decoupled but still within the group are the noble Lord's Amendments Nos. 284 and 285.

Lord Hylton

May we deal with those amendments when we come to the schedules?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am happy to deal with the matter as is convenient to the Committee. The amendments are grouped. I was simply offering the noble Lord the opportunity to speak to them.

The new clause proposed in Amendment No. 130 would postpone the establishment of the human rights commission for at least four years to allow time for further consultation and would require a review of existing anti-discrimination legislation. As has been observed, the setting up of a human rights commission is a fundamental part of the Belfast agreement. We wish to set it up as soon as possible, as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, pointed out.

There has already been a great deal of consultation with interested organisations. Amendment No. 132, to which I shall come later, would require the commission to carry out a review of its powers and functions within two years of its establishment.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton wishes, I shall not refer at this point to Amendments Nos. 284 and 285. Government Amendments Nos. 286 and 287 are technical amendments which make it possible for employment by the commission to fall under the terms of a superannuation scheme under the Superannuation Act 1972. Originally within this group were Amendments Nos. 288, 289 and 290, also standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. I do not speak to those, either, if he wishes them to be decoupled.

Dealing with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, much of the current equality legislation on fair employment—equal opportunities, for instance—is already within the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Department of Economic Development. The agreement makes it plain that all existing responsibilities of Northern Ireland departments are to be devolved. If we withheld this body of equality law from devolution, that would be contrary to the agreement.

I agree that equality is fundamental and central to the agreement. I believe that the safeguards in the agreement and this Bill will ensure that in practice the Assembly will not sweep away important protections. If necessary, votes in the Assembly can require cross-community support.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I perfectly understand that responsibility rests with the Northern Ireland department so far as enforcement is concerned at a departmental level. But am I not right in thinking that, so far as the Scotland Bill is concerned, responsibility for equality law is not to be devolved to the Scottish parliament and that, so far as the Northern Ireland Bill is concerned, as it now stands, subject to any amendment that may be tabled later, responsibility for equality law is not devolved? Equality law is a matter for which provision is made by the Northern Ireland Bill, as referred to in Schedule 2, paragraph 17. Would it not, therefore, be a departure from the scheme for Scotland, the scheme in the Northern Ireland Bill and the pattern of existing UK legislation as a whole if responsibility for making and amending the equality law were now to be transferred from this Parliament to the Northern Ireland Assembly?

I hope my question is clear. I am sorry that it is so long but, in order to make it intelligible, one has to go back to the Scotland Bill and the schedule to the Northern Ireland Bill and the fact that so far legislation on equality has been made by a mixture of primary legislation by Parliament—for example, the Equal Pay Act—and by devolved legislation made by Order in Council in relation to gender and race and primary legislation in relation to the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Acts of 1976 and 1989. Would it not be a major departure if we were later to amend the schedule and then devolve the whole of equality legislation to be entirely in the gift of the Northern Ireland Assembly, subject only to Community law and the limited guarantees in the Human Rights Bill? This may be a matter on which the Minister would prefer to write rather than give an off-the-cuff answer today. I suggest that it is a very important issue.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I believe the answer is that the Scotland devolution is a first devolution whereas at the moment powers are effectively "devolved" to the Northern Ireland Department of Economic Development. The noble Lord is right that provisions on equality in this Bill are reserved by subsection (3), but that does not extend to the wider body of equality law—for instance, fair employment and equal opportunities. I agree with the noble Lord that the outcome will be different on this basis in the context of Northern Ireland, but that is because significant responsibilities for matters in this area already rest with the Northern Ireland Department of Economic Development.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

If the noble Lord will forgive me, I do not understand that answer. The Bill makes provision for collapsing the EOC for Northern Ireland, the CRE for Northern Ireland, the Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland and the Disability Rights Council for Northern Ireland into the equality commission. It therefore amends the equality legislation dealing with those four bodies. That is a matter for which provision is made under the Northern Ireland Bill within the meaning of paragraph 17 of Schedule 2. In my dealings with officials from the Northern Ireland department, when I have had the pleasure of discussing it with them, I have understood that that was therefore a matter that was not to be devolved.

The Northern Ireland department does not have the power to make laws; only the Westminster Parliament has that power. As I have tried to explain, the laws so far made by primary and delegated legislation have been approved by the Westminster Parliament. If we were now to transfer to the Northern Ireland Assembly the law-making function over sex equality, race equality, religious equality and disability equality, that would be to erode national standards in a quite extraordinary way. I am sure that that cannot be intended by the Government. Nothing that I have seen in the Good Friday agreement or the Bill as it stands gives notice that that is the intention of the Government, which is why I would be grateful to have further clarification of the point.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I understand what the noble Lord has said, but I do not understand how it comes within the compass of Amendment No. 130. It may be that I am being unnecessarily obtuse. I do not believe that any of the propositions that the noble Lord puts forward are germane to Amendment No. 130.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My remarks arise out of the remarks of the Minister in reply to a question put by me. Referring to the Official Report, I understood him to say in response to a contribution from me that equality legislation would be a devolved subject. It was in response to that that I rose to my feet. However, it may be better if this point is clarified hereafter.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I believe that it would be beneficial if the matter could be clarified now. I had thought that as the Bill stood it was intended that equality and human rights legislation would remain a Westminster responsibility. But I understood the Minister to say just now that it would be devolved, either now or in future. Perhaps I misunderstood the Minister.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I said that I hoped the agreement made plain that all existing responsibilities of Northern Ireland departments would be devolved. Much of the current equality legislation has been the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Department of Economic Development. There will be no change. I am perfectly happy, if it is required, either to discuss matters privately with the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Cope, or deal with them in writing, in which case I shall place a copy in the Library. The answer is that in dealing with an amendment like Amendment No. 130 one should not be tempted or teased into other more philosophical general views.

Lord Desai

I shall not be tempted to enter into this debate or even the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I believe that I already know the answer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 53 [The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission]:

Lord Hylton moved Amendment No. 131:

Page 25, line 36, at end insert ("independent of Government and political parties and").

The noble Lord said: After various preliminaries the Committee comes to what I consider to be Part VI of the Bill proper. I hope that the Committee will permit me to say something by way of introduction to the amendments standing in my name. They seek to achieve a number of purposes. The first is to ensure that the human rights commission is independent, is seen to be independent and has sufficient resources to carry out effectively functions that are somewhat wider than those currently carried out by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland. I hope that the new commission's additional functions will be: first, to investigate breaches of human rights; secondly, to litigate in its own name; thirdly, to assist individuals in legal actions; and, fourthly, to scrutinise both assembly and Westminster legislation that may affect human rights in Northern Ireland. The commission should also be free to decide its own financial priorities.

Amendment No. 131 inserts words to clarify the meaning of "representative of the community" in line 37 on page 25 of the Bill. We know that Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society, not only between two broad traditions but also within particular communities. The divisions are religious, political and cultural. It is essential that the human rights commission be seen to be independent of government and political parties. I believe that that principle is accepted by Her Majesty's Government. Indeed, it would be difficult for the Government not to accept it in the light of paragraph 5 on page 17 of the Belfast agreement. It is also in accord with the Paris principles. I trust that the amendment will find favour with the Committee. I beg to move.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

We support the sentiment behind the amendment. The commission must be seen to be independent of government and sufficiently well endowed with funds to be effective. However, we are troubled by seeking to bar anyone who belonged to a political party from being a member of the commission. It is one thing to say that political parties cannot secure nominations, which is quite right. However, the fact that in one's life one has belonged to a political party is scarcely misconduct or a disqualification from holding office on an independent commission of this kind. Therefore, although we support the sentiment that lies behind the amendment we do not believe that it is right to limit in that particular way the pool from which candidates can be chosen.

Lord Kingsland

With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, whose sentiments on this issue I entirely share, I believe that a statement from the Minister that he agrees with the underlying principle to which the amendment is directed should be sufficient to guarantee the objective that he seeks.

I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I agree with him, except in one respect. I believe it to be consistent with the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that up to the moment of appointment the particular person could be a member of a political party but, thereafter, should behave independently. One thinks as an example of British commissioners in the European Community, many of whom have been very active members of political parties but who, quite successfully, have been seen to become, as if by a stroke, very independent once they are installed in Brussels. I see absolutely no reason why the same cannot apply to human rights commissioners in Northern Ireland.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am happy to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that there is no difference between us. We intend that the human rights commission should be wholly independent of government and political parties and that is why the Bill is constructed in this way. It ensures that the commission is independent. The commission decides how it is to carry out its functions, what staff to employ and which cases to support. It is free to give any advice that it chooses to the Secretary of State and the Assembly. It will be able to investigate where it believes that human rights issues are involved. It will itself define what "human rights" means, although that definition must include convention rights. All of that is already in the Bill. There is also the provision in paragraph 11 of Schedule 8. Having put our stance as unambiguously and as clearly as possible, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Hylton

I am grateful for all of the comments that have been made on the amendment. I understand the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, about party membership. However, one wonders whether that may be dealt with by resignation in the manner suggested by the Opposition Front Bench. However, my principal concern is the total independence of the commission. I note what the Minister has said. Therefore, for the time being I am prepared to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 53 agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving this Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage of this Bill begin again not before 8.30 p.m.

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

House resumed.