HL Deb 30 March 2001 vol 624 cc535-8

11.5 a.m.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st March be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the 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 schedules "public authorities" for the purposes of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Those 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.

The House is aware that equality of opportunity and treatment 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. The Good Friday agreement laid the foundations for a new dispensation based on respect for rights and the principle of equality. All those who were parties to the agreement affirmed their commitment to, the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity". This Government remain committed to ensuring the full implementation of the agreement. This order is a further step in that important process.

Public authorities are required to produce an equality scheme that sets out how they will fulfil those functions. The schemes will cover the full range of the organisation's functions in Northern Ireland. They will include 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. Section 75(3)(b) and (c) of the Act automatically brought the vast majority of public authorities in Northern Ireland—around 120—within the scope of the statutory equality duty.

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. The first designation order was made under this power last summer. It covered mainly Whitehall departments and other UK-wide bodies that carry out functions in Northern Ireland.

I said at the time that we intend that the statutory duty should, in time, embrace as many bodies as possible. It is the Government's policy that non-designation should be the exception, not the rule. Since the last order was made, we have continued our consultation with the Equality Commission to consider what other bodies might need to be designated.

I am pleased to be able to report to the House today that many of the bodies which the commission felt should be designated are included in this order; not least, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland and the further and higher education institutions in Northern Ireland, including the Open University.

But this is still not the end of the process and we will bring forward further designation orders as and when required. More important, the statutory duty represents the beginning of a process of increased dialogue between the public sector and community and voluntary bodies, putting equality at the heart of the policy-making process. This can only help lead to better, more responsive services for the people of Northern Ireland.

We remain determined to build a society where the active promotion of equality and good relations is seen as an integral part of public life. Section 75 is the key to that goal and I am pleased to be able to extend its reach to these further organisations. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st March be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I welcome this extension to the list and thank the Minister for his elucidation. Perhaps I may ask for further clarification on one point. How often is it intended regularly to review this matter? Is it to be every nine months or so? Secondly, if there were particular reasons for specific corporations and bodies to be included, is it possible to add them to the list between reviews?

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I too welcome the order, but perhaps I may also seek some further information from the Minister. Religious discrimination is forbidden in Northern Ireland but not yet in Britain. Racial discrimination is forbidden on both sides of the Irish Sea. The Race Relations Act will impose similar duties on central government departments here. In order to achieve some kind of symmetry across the Irish Sea in relation to public authority obligations of this kind, what will be the position in regard to central government departments like the Home Office or the Lord Chancellor's Department? Is it contemplated that their functions in relation to race and religious equality in Northern Ireland will also bring them within this scheme in due course or is there to be an anomalous position in which those two departments—the Home Office and I think the Lord Chancellor's Department—will be outside the scope of the duty?

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I have no particular objection to this order. However, I repeat and support what has just been said. We need to be careful that we do not create too much of a gap between the other side of the Irish Sea and this side, particularly in regard to the other devolved regions in Great Britain. I am afraid that from past experience I have discovered that the racial safeguards have been neglected and overlooked to a great extent by the type of legislation which is brought forward here this morning.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, when I was in Northern Ireland recently for a conference on asylum, I was told that representations had been made regarding the designation of the Home Office under Section 75. While it was appreciated that there had to be certain exceptions so that discrimination was permissible under the Asylum and Immigration Act for certain limited reasons, and that those had been accommodated in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, it should have been possible similarly to designate the Home Office under Section 75.

I earnestly appeal to the noble and learned Lord to see whether the representations that have been made from Northern Ireland could be accommodated so that there is harmonisation of jurisdiction on both sides of the Irish Channel. What they ask for is simple. With a few exceptions, Section 75 could be applied to the Home Office. Therefore, it should be accommodated within their legislation as it is on our side with the Race Relations (Amendment) Act.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am grateful for the broad support given to the order. I shall deal with the specific points raised and turn first to that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Smith. There is no specific period of time for reviews. We regard this as ongoing work in progress. We are looking to see whether those bodies which are not designated can be designated. We would not think it appropriate to set a time of six months. However, we are in accord with the view expressed by the noble Lord. We are looking to have as many bodies designated as possible. However, work needs to be done and consultation must take place.

I thoroughly understand and endorse the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. A significant number of central government departments were designated in the previous order; namely, the Northern Ireland Office; DCMS; DTI; the Northern Ireland court service—that is the only emanation of the Lord Chancellor's Department in Northern Ireland. Therefore, although the LCD is not designated; the relevant part of its activities is—Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. Again, we take the point raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raised a point regarding the Home Office. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act made a specific exemption from the Great Britain race equality duty to exclude immigration from the necessity of promoting equality of opportunity. That exemption reflects a unique requirement for immigration entry clearance officers to discriminate on grounds of nationality and ethnic or national origin. There is no such scope for an exemption within Section 75. There are difficulties, therefore, concerning designating the Home Office in Northern Ireland. Perhaps I may say, for the record, that the Home Office is keen to comply with the spirit of Section 75 on a voluntary basis in respect of all its other functions relating to Northern Ireland. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, raised the same point. In the light of my remarks, I hope that the House will feel able to approve the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.