HL Deb 29 June 2000 vol 614 cc1157-60

8.14 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton rose to move that the draft order laid before the House on 8th June be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this order is made under Paragraph 1(1) of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000.

The purpose of the draft order is to make the bodies listed in the schedule "public authorities" for the purposes of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. These public authorities will be subject to the statutory duties set out in Section 75(1) and (2) of the Act requiring them to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between specific groups.

Equality of opportunity and treatment are crucial for civilised society and they are values that the United Kingdom holds dear. The House is aware that these are issues that are of particular importance in the context of Northern Ireland and that the promotion of equality was at the very heart of the Good Friday agreement. In the agreement, the parties affirmed their commitment to, the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community … in particular … the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity".

The Good Friday agreement laid the foundations for a new dispensation based on respect for rights and the principle of equality. This Government are committed to ensuring the full implementation of the agreement. This order is another step in that important process.

Section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act requires all public authorities to, have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity—

  1. "(a) between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation;
  2. "(b) between men and women generally;
  3. "(c) between persons with a disability and persons without; and
  4. "(d) between persons with dependants and persons without".

In addition, and without prejudice to those obligations, public authorities are required under Section 75(2) to, have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group".

Public authorities are required to produce a plan— or equality scheme—that sets out how they will fulfil those duties. The schemes will cover the full range of the organisation's function in Northern Ireland, including arrangements for policy appraisal; public consultation; public access to information and services; monitoring; and timetables. Those schemes will be submitted to the Equality Commission for approval.

The Equality Commission will advise on, validate and monitor the Section 75 statutory obligation and will investigate complaints of default. Under Section 75(3)(b) and (c), a range of bodies are automatically brought within the definition of public authority—all bodies that are subject to investigation by either the Northern Ireland Ombudsman or the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints. However, the Act also provides the power for the Secretary of State to designate other organisations as public authorities for the purposes of Section 75.

This order is the first designation order made under this power. It covers mainly Whitehall departments (including the Northern Ireland Office) and other UK-wide bodies—like certain of the lottery distributors— that carry out functions in Northern Ireland. The list is not exhaustive but represents the first tranche of additional public authorities. We intend that the statutory duty should, in time, embrace as many bodies as possible.

In the weeks and months ahead we will continue our consultation with the commission to consider what other bodies might need to be designated. Further orders will be made as required. We want to build a society free from unfair discrimination, where the active promotion of equality and good relations is seen as an integral part of public life. Section 75 laid the foundations for that goal and I am pleased to be able to extend its reach to these further organisations.

I commend this order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th June be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, in welcoming this order I have to say to the Minister that the initial list is rather parsimonious. I welcome the fact that there will be additions made in the course of time. I should like to ask when the second tranche will appear. As he said in his contextual remarks, in Northern Ireland it is particularly important for equality and rights to be maintained.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, on this occasion I support the noble Lord, Lord Smith, and declare a small interest in that the chairman of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission is well known to me. I have been lobbied, as I believe have the Government, to broaden the list. I am not saying that I have any great desire for that myself and I am not pressing the Government in any way. I am stating what it is my duty to state from these Benches; that is, that the community and the commission concerned are not totally happy with the situation at the moment. But I support the order.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am grateful for the support provided from all sides of the House. I was asked when the second tranche will be designated. The answer is as soon as possible, probably some time in the autumn. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.