HL Deb 18 March 2002 vol 632 cc1173-90

7.35 p.m.

Lord Laird

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the activities of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise a topic in your Lordships' House, which is of great interest to many in Northern Ireland, and which is an important part of understanding the complex picture of the Province today. The issue is the vital one of human rights and, in particular, the activities since the formation of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

At the outset I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who is widely respected in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. He is currently travelling so much to the Province that I believe that he may be in line for support from the tourist board. None of my remarks reflect on him. Since June of last year, I know that he has taken an interest in this topic.

I should like to think that those who know me accept that I hate criticism for its own sake, rather I look to the best in most things and peoples and am dedicated to the concept of positive thinking. As an Ulster unionist, I feel that over the past four years I have exhausted all my abilities in that direction and am forced to move to the area of attack and outright criticism. I take no pleasure in that task.

Much has been made of the Secretary of State's warning that Ulster has become a cold house for unionists. So tonight we shall examine one of the central factors that has contributed to the chill felt by unionists.

The concept of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the consideration of all issues against human rights requirements and the possibility of a Bill of Rights specifically for Northern Ireland was welcomed by all on the unionist side. But the applause soon faded away when the reality of what had been created became clear.

The right honourable Mo Mowlam's contribution to events in Northern Ireland will be the subject of much debate by future historians. Those of us who have to live with the reality have made our own judgment. To be kind to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I would explain her appointment of the members of the commission initially as being clearly designed to appease Sinn Fein. As a body required to reflect the community balance as laid down in the Belfast agreement and promised by the right honourable Paul Murphy in another place, it failed from day one.

The community balance was just not there. Where, for example, were the representatives of the evangelical community or the Ulster Scots community, each with a substantial section of the population? Indeed, who was appointed to represent the 25 per cent of the community who rejected the Belfast agreement? It was even worse than that. The republican representatives appointed were robust in nature, most were linked to the so-called Committee on the Administration of Justice, and, in several cases, had a very suspect record of human rights activities.

In the appointment process well-known figures from the unionist community with excellent human rights credentials were not even considered. In a glaring oversight, a former Queen's University law lecturer in European human rights and author of a work on the topic did not even get an interview.

From day one the commission was off to a bad start. Then things got worse. I want to underline that there are many honest and decent people who are members of the commission and who have done, and continue to do, their best as they see it. However, my concern relates to the republican cabal that proceeded to consider the commission as its vehicle into power and to operate as it wished. During the following few years, an ongoing chapter of events positioned the commission as having, crudely and openly, a one-sided agenda.

I reject out of hand the concept that human rights apply only to republicans and nationalists and not in equal measure to unionists and others. The qualification for human rights is to be human, not Irish republican. In evidence of the attitudes of the chief commissioner, Professor Brice Dickson, I shall cite from Human Rights Law and Practice, the general editor of which is the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. Professor Dickson said in 1999 that the commission's role includes, convincing people, especially those perhaps of a unionist disposition that human rights are for all, not just for one particular community". There we have a candid insight into the non-unionist thinking of the chief commissioner from the start.

I can list many problems with the commission and its work, but I shall point only to a few tonight. First, there is the highlighting of areas of interest to republicans, almost ignoring the rest. Worse is misrepresenting the position of official bodies—for example, suggesting that the police used plastic baton rounds for crowd control and not just for the preservation of life. Another is funding the challenge to Belfast City Council over the possible reduction of resources for a nationalist parade, yet failing to support the families of the Omagh bomb victims.

One of the largest abuses of human rights, which I have raised in the House before, is the enforced relocation of populations. A year ago, I supplied a detailed file on the enforced movement of 250,000 unionist people from towns all over the province. That controversial issue has to my view been ignored. Why?

The extra powers sought by the commission are excessive and unwarranted. They include the power to, enter and search premises", and to require people, to attend before the Commission to answer fully and truthfully any question put to him or her by the Commission". The SS would have been proud of such powers.

The most evident example of the commission's hunger for power is its manipulation of the Belfast agreement. It has disregarded the Secretary of State's request for advice on the scope for devising a Bill of Rights specific to Northern Ireland. Instead, it has actually drafted a form of Bill of Rights. The consultation period for that draft Bill was only three months. First, we were informed that ideas could be added to the draft but that none could be taken out. Worse, the contents were clearly directed to aid republicans—and, in my view, those involved in terrorism. The commission spent public money on areas of activity not required of it by legislation.

Even the groups that it constructed and then consulted on areas of interest for the draft Bill were clearly weighted to the non-unionist advantage and so subject to considerable controversy. The outside groups listed in the commission's document, entitled Making a Bill of Rights and published on 4th September 2001, demonstrate a clear lack of unionist input. In several cases, I have identified organisations on the list that have not made submissions. What credibility has that document?

If we should expect one feature of a human rights body, it is openness. Perhaps that is one of the commission's greatest failings. Against a background of open hostility from the unionist community, the commission has seemed to go about its business in as much dark as possible. The only way to obtain so much information about its activities is that I and others drag it out line by line in parliamentary Answers. I resent having to do that; it is a waste of my time and of public money and makes it look as if I have a vendetta. As far as I can see, that is the only route by which the commission is held to account.

When a review of the working of the commission was due after three years, what did it do? It refused to accept £25,000 from Her Majesty's Government, so that it could run its own review by picking its own investigator, creating its own terms of reference and even supplying the investigator with a list of "suitable" organisations to contact for opinions. The investigator, Mr Peter Hosking—a man of outstanding reputation, I have no doubt—has been uncontactable by e-mail to allow the input of critical views.

If another organisation—let us say the police, for example—had organised an inquiry into its own workings and picked the judge, the jury and the witnesses, the first organisation to explode in anger would be the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Is not sauce for the goose sauce for the gander?

Having outlined only a flavour of the discontent felt by many groups in Northern Ireland, not just unionists, perhaps I may suggest what may be the only way out of the problem. First, a full, impartial investigation into the running and procedure of the commission is vital. The main area to be addressed is openness. A code of conduct on the timescale for reply to letters must be introduced. Monitoring of all considerations with equal balance must take place. All information must be available as soon as possible on the Internet. That includes minutes and correspondence that is not private.

The terms and conditions of the consultation process, the supply of money to individuals and the selection of working parties must be reviewed and made available to all. The commission must be asked to stick to its remit without excesses. I acknowledge that the letter from the Minister of State to the commission of 22nd November 2001 goes much of that distance.

Unless the commission is publicly brought into line, the aim of some republicans of making their Bill of Rights a vital part of the peace process—not open to change, like Patten—may be achieved. We want a commission that is not out of control. Added to its membership must be those who would redress the balance and allow the commission to become that which was promised in the Belfast agreement—a balance of the total community—and so become part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Failure to act will ensure that the cold house for unionists outlined by the Secretary of State will maintain indeed a frosty climate.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, it is not often these days that I venture to participate in debates about Northern Ireland. That does not reflect any diminution in my interest nor in my regard for the people of Northern Ireland. It is simply a recognition of the fact that I have fewer opportunities to inform myself. My reasons for speaking today are twofold. First, my noble friend Lord Dubs, who was anxious to participate, is unable to be here. He asked me to convey his apologies and, in effect, to be his messenger—particularly as, as it transpired, his views and mine are very much in accord.

My second reason for speaking is that I have had some discussion with the commission on the possible content of a Bill of Rights, although I hasten to add that my contribution was minimal. To that extent, I declare an interest, but my interest is essentially in peace and justice in Northern Ireland.

I listened with care to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Laird. I regret that we do not have more time to examine some of the detail in his speech. I have noted the Questions that he has asked in recent months, but in the brief time available today, I should like to clarify what I believe to be a misconception that is fundamental to what he said. I hope that I have established my credentials as a friend of both the noble Lord and Northern Ireland, and that he will forgive me.

There are two possible approaches to democracy. One is to say that the voice of the people is the final arbiter on all issues and that the voice of the people is ascertained by counting votes. The alternative is to say that majorities may sometimes be wrong—in particular, they may sometimes be unfair to minorities or individuals—and that there should be some machinery to adjudicate between them. That may consist of giving the majority—I mean the majority on any specific issue, not a permanent majority—an opportunity to think again. It may provide scrutiny of detail in order to expose the impact of a particular provision on an individual or group. It may go further to provide that a specific right should be entrenched or subjected to a process of conditional validation, so that no one has power to infringe that right.

Those two approaches go back far into history. They have been debated since Socrates said, "The majority has voted that I shall die; therefore, I shall remain in the city and drink the hemlock". I believe that Socrates was wrong and that he would have served posterity better by upholding the principle of free speech and declaring that the right to free speech did not depend on the counting of heads, just as the rights to due process of law, equality of esteem and humane treatment in places of detention do not depend on the counting of heads and should not be left starkly to electoral politics.

The concept of human rights is a contribution to that debate. It seeks to provide a filter between the vote of the majority—the product of the electoral process—and those who are exposed to what has been decided. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Laird, said, the rights are for all, irrespective of beliefs or traditions. The concept consists in trying to secure agreement on certain general principles, so that when a specific question arises, emotions run high and the argument becomes an argument ad hominem, so that it becomes a dispute between their side and our side, there must be general guidelines that have already been agreed and which can protect us from ill considered and, sometimes, Pavlovian reactions.

As I understand it, those who concluded the peace agreement had those considerations in mind when they provided for a human rights commission. I believe that they were wise and that the whole of the United Kingdom may draw on that experience when, at some time in the future, we must consider whether to follow the precedent. Of course, the winning of confidence depends largely on the wisdom and judgment of those who are chosen as commissioners and officials. I may be prejudiced. A number of them I regard as friends, including the chairman, Professor Brice Dickson. They are trying to exercise their remit fairly and sensibly. They would do more if they had access to greater resources, but their annual reports provide ample evidence of a serious and thoughtful approach. They have a difficult remit. In their annual reports, they have included recommendations designed to encourage a balance in appointments and the independence of those who are appointed. That is not an issue; they want those things too.

In passing, I pay tribute to British-Irish Rights Watch, which can supplement the functions of the commission, as its remit is not restricted by statute. It has monitored the human rights dimension with commendable objectivity and has shown equal concern for Billy Wright and Patrick Finucane. I hope that in the future we will continue to see mutual co-operation and respect between statutory bodies and NGOs.

The commission represents an attempt to remove certain fundamental principles from electoral politics. The purpose was to help bring confidence and, with it, peace, justice and reconciliation to Northern Ireland. I suspect that that process would be set back, if the commission and its work, so far from being protected from electoral politics, are dragged into electoral politics. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, will reflect further on what, I am sure, is his ultimate objective, as it is mine.

7.54 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, the only human rights commission project of which I have knowledge is the proposed Bill of Rights. I understand, however, from the commission that it has established a victims' rights project and a committee for victims and closely examined the possibility of taking further legal action on behalf of families who feel that the killing of their loved ones has not been thoroughly investigated. I do not know whether it also intends to require the IRA to investigate the murder of Jean McConville, whose body is still missing.

I also know that, according to the evidence that the commission gave to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs last year, it had not, until then, conducted any research into the extent of paramilitary intimidation, especially the permanent exile, on pain of death, of whole families. Nor had it, according to its own testimony, compiled information on the steps being taken by government and law enforcement agencies to eliminate the activity, or the measures adopted by government and public bodies to assist the victims of such intimidation. It had met the Maranatha community to learn more but felt that it had no authority to grant practical assistance to individual victims of intimidation other than to help with court proceedings they might wish to pursue.

The draft Bill of Rights speaks of victims of the conflict. With the exception of one reference in chapter 6, citing some submissions highlighting concerns about the protection and safety of individuals' physical well-being, home and neighbourhood, there is no explicit reference to the greatest single current abuse of human rights, which has continued unabated and indeed enhanced ever since the Belfast agreement, namely, the merciless oppression of their own communities by the paramilitaries. It is simply not mentioned. The Bill of Rights sees the state as the only threat and speaks repeatedly of the tragedies of the past and of the need for, an independent and public process with international involvement for dealing with the past". The commission is concerned to preserve the Irish and Ulster Scots languages—that is good—sign language and the language of travellers. It wants to abolish the Diplock courts and believes that the improved political and legal circumstances in Northern Ireland now negate the justification for non-jury trial. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, does not share that opinion. Nearly the whole of the section on criminal justice is aimed at curbing the powers of state, which is the target of most of the proposals. The state is a villain, seen throughout as the potential oppressor and source of violence. The commission is concerned with the right of prisoners, once released, to have as much right to enter society as a law-abiding citizen. That is very proper, but, in Northern Ireland, the hidden agenda is to ensure that they may serve in the new community police units, representing those worthy citizens.

In the section on the rights of children and women, there is no word of the real source of violence, the threat from the paramilitaries. The Government have consistently refused to recognise that many of the citizens of Northern Ireland, since the signing of the Belfast agreement, have been living under the heel of the paramilitaries. The then Secretary of State spoke of, an acceptable level of violence and said: the peace we have now is imperfect, but better than none". Would it be acceptable on the mainland? No. Would it be tolerated here as a price worth paying if it were a case of racist violence? No. The Government, despite the explicit assurances that there would be no more violence, given by the Prime Minister when the agreement was signed, are determined to do nothing to inhibit the so-called peace process, which allows the political representatives of the paramilitaries to sit at Stormont, allegedly involved in the democratic process while the paramilitaries remain in sole control of their unfortunate communities. Having destroyed an effective police service, they now refuse to recognise the new one, which wholly conforms to the requirement of 50:50 composition. They never intended to cede control of their communities to any legal force. The complete control that Sinn Fein, at least, exercises over its paramilitaries was twice demonstrated when they turned off the tap of violence completely when they wished to do so.

I find the priorities of the commission, in the light of the daily violence and the growing desperation and despair of the people, difficult to understand. Of course, I respect the members of the commission, but it is still extremely difficult. Many—not all—of the commission's priorities would certainly coincide with those of Sinn Fein/IRA, which wisely encouraged sympathisers to join many of the new bodies created following the Belfast agreement. That was wise, and it was their right. Their agenda, however, is, naturally, to diminish the power of the state and to advance their own green agenda. Sinn Fein/IRA, with its Marxist roots, is naturally entryist and foresaw the value of infiltration and control. It saw that power would lie with the new institutions and focus groups, many of which are lavishly funded by the EU. In some, they have quietly taken control and, at the same time, demonstrated their democratic credentials.

Unfortunately, serious recommendations such as those in Sir Kenneth Bloomfield's major report on victims have been ignored by the Government. He advocated the appointment of a victims commissioner: none was appointed. A Minister for Victims is no substitute, as the Government are determined to see no evil and hear no evil, and is part of the problem. The Government will not recognise that neither participation in power in the Assembly by political leaders nor restorative justice schemes, which are often infiltrated by the paramilitaries who wish to encourage and control any alternative to formal justice, have in any way reduced the brutal punishment and killings of young people or exilings. The guns have not been silenced, and, in the past two years, assaults have increased.

Kenneth Bloomfield also argued strongly for a senior public servant to be responsible for championing victims, co-ordinating the relevant public expenditure and enforcing the need for an understanding approach by public agencies. It is only too clear that the various agencies, from NIACRO and Victim Support to the social security agency, the compensation agency and the housing executive, do not treat the innocent victims of paramilitary violence, often political, as people in a special category needing special care and understanding. There appears to be no central machinery to co-ordinate their actions and their approach. The agencies either minimise the problem or remain indifferent to it, or think the victims must have done something to deserve it. Conversely, the victims are too terrified to seek help from any state-sponsored institution, especially the police, for fear of retribution by the paramilitaries.

I urge the commission to make it a priority to get the Government and the Assembly to co-ordinate the state-funded bodies and require of them an active and immediate plan to tackle the needs of the victims, not of the state but of the paramilitaries. I would hope to see it urging the Government to require the political parties to take immediate action to end the violence, as it is in its power to do. Next, I would hope it would call the Government to account on the total absence of coordinated support for exiles in the UK and the lack of any focal point to which the lost and frightened may turn. Finally, I urge the commission to implement the recommendations for action made to it by the Maranatha Community over a year ago.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Laird on securing this important debate. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was created as a result of the Belfast agreement. As such, the Ulster Unionist Party supported its establishment. Indeed, I believe that unionists in general shared with me high hopes and expectations for it. Up to the present point, however, I regret to inform your Lordships that those hopes have not been fulfilled.

The first major challenge for the commission was that posed by the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and, in particular, the so-called 50:50 recruitment policy contained therein. Shamefully, the commission took the decision to support this measure which, in effect, legalised religious discrimination in Northern Ireland. I simply ask the question: since when was the ability to discriminate against an individual on the grounds of their religion a fundamental human right?

Next for the commission was its draft Bill of Rights. Under the terms of the Belfast agreement, it was, invited to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland". Bearing in mind that the draft Bill was to include only rights "supplementary" to the European convention, why on earth did the commission include in it voting rights, rights for the disabled and rights for women? Did it even read the European Convention on Human Rights? If it had done so, of course it would have seen that those rights are already there.

Also on the subject of the draft Bill of Rights, the commission made great play out of the fact that it had attempted to draw on the South African experience. However, the South African Charter of Rights took six long years to put together with the aid of some of the best legal minds in that country. Yet the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission felt able to cobble together its version in a matter of months, obviously fearful that most of its members were not to be reappointed for a further term; a fear which in the end did not transpire.

I must tell noble Lords that I was completely opposed to the decision to reappoint the original commissioners en bloc. However, in addition to the reappointments, the Government also took the step of appointing another four commissioners. Your Lordships might not be aware that one of those who applied was my noble friend, and colleague of your Lordships, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass.

I am told—I am sure that noble Lords will have no difficulty in believing me—that my noble friend Lord Maginnis performed admirably, indeed, if I can spare his blushes, perhaps brilliantly at his interview for the position. However, despite his vast experience and the high regard in which he is held across both traditions in both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, he was not successful. Why was that? I suggest that it is generally known that the Northern Ireland Office effectively blackballed his appointment as it believed that it would have been deemed "offensive" to Catholics. That episode simply reinforces the current impression across the Province that proper human rights now appear to be considered important for only one tradition that resides there.

Finally, I have serious difficulties with the huge amount of public money being wasted by the commission on what I would regard as self-promoting and, indeed, vain activities. Just over two weeks ago, for example, the commission sent a weighty and detailed document to all Members in another place. The document centred on a number of suggested amendments for Members to table on Report. Unfortunately, the document arrived too late for those amendments to be tabled. In other words, the exercise was a complete waste of time and, more importantly, of taxpayers' money.

Then this morning I received a glossy background briefing pack which I understand has been sent to each noble Lord. Given that we have a list of only seven speakers this evening in what is a one-hour debate, can that really be regarded as a proper use of public funds? Further, the detail enclosed in the pack had obviously been put together to put the best possible slant on the work of the commission. To use a term which has become popular with the media in modern times, it was nothing more than a "spin exercise".

I have to confess that I am no fan of Professor Brice Dickson. However, I will give him credit for one thing: he is able to manipulate reality in a manner that even our Prime Minister would be proud of.

8.7 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, this brief debate has, I am afraid, moved along the usual lines when we debate Northern Ireland matters. There is not too much redress from people who hold a different opinion from that of the noble Lords, Lord Laird and Lord Rogan.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, began with a scatter-gun approach which in a sense was altogether disproportionate and lacking in balance. Had he focused his criticisms of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission rather more narrowly, and prioritised them, one might have been able to grasp more than the general drift of his views.

Perhaps I may say that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, gave a very considered speech which demonstrated a great understanding of human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, spoke of a hidden agenda and, again, we heard more a general criticism of government action or inaction rather than a focus on the human rights commission in particular.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, wondered why the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, had not been successful. I should have thought that anyone who had recently been a Member of Parliament would rather have blurred the boundary referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer; that is, that on the one hand in safeguarding democracy elections are held, while on the other hand agencies are in place to ensure that the elected democracy attends to the interests of minorities at any one time.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, went on to complain that in its recent publication, the human rights commission had put forward the best possible slant on its work. I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, as a distinguished practitioner in public relations would advise a client to put the worst foot forward.

The human rights commission plays a vital role in a very difficult milieu. It is under-resourced to take on all the tasks with which it has been charged, and the nearly 60 Questions about it tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, have drained limited resources. If a civil servant rather than the staff of the human rights commission had had to prepare the Answers, the Government would have said that his Questions were disproportionate in terms of cost and would have sought to reduce them. The Government should do more to protect such an important agency in this way.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said, the human rights commission is without precedent in the United Kingdom. As we develop our culture of rights throughout the United Kingdom, it will provide a valuable pilot study when the other three nations of the kingdom move along this path. It is learning as it goes and it is doing its very best in the circumstances. It is terribly easy to criticise an agency in its formative year or two—and, as I said, it has a very wide remit.

I declare an interest in that I employed Professor Brice Dickson when I was vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster. He was a distinguished colleague and I can say without contradiction that he is a man of extraordinary integrity. He is fighting a very lonely battle against a historical context which has required this kind of agency to be created in order to produce a fairer and more democratic society.

Lord Laird

My Lords, I agree with the substance of much of what has been said by noble Lords today, but would not the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, be prepared to say that it is better for the human rights commission to have an open agenda where people can receive information about it, rather than to have to drag information out of it line by line in Parliamentary Questions? Does he agree that it is important that the human rights commission should look after both sections of the community, not one?

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I believe that it should look after both sections of the community and those citizens who are members of neither. I also believe that it should work with openness. The noble Lord, Lord Laird, would have been better advised first to approach the commission with his questions rather than to ask formal Parliamentary Questions. That is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It would have been more appropriate to approach the commission in the first instance and, if he was unhappy, then to ask Parliamentary Questions.

I am not despairing about the work of the commission. It is one of the many agencies which is still finding its way in Northern Ireland. We could have a debate about all kinds of shortfalls in terms of the pure canons of democracy in Northern Ireland, but there is no particular merit in singling out the human rights commission at this stage.

8.14 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for introducing the debate and all noble Lords who have contributed to it.

The Conservative Party has opposed the 1998 Act since it was first introduced into Parliament. We do not believe that the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights is the best way to protect British citizens. We believe that Parliament rather than unelected judges are best placed to protect our rights and that the Human Rights Act will drag the judiciary into the political arena. Having said that, we recognise that human rights and equality lie at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. We should be concerned to ensure that that is where they stay.

It is a pity that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission started life in the way it did. It was not unlike another organisation which was in a parallel situation. I do not need to name the organisation; we all know what I am talking about—a brilliant academic in charge but consisting of a group of people less than ideally suited to do an immensely difficult task who were chosen by someone similar to that description.

We very much welcome the fact that Her Majesty's Government have now acknowledged some shortcomings and that they have altered to some extent its constitution and those people who serve on the commission. I am not certain that it was wise to completely reappoint the whole commission. I am not here to knock the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, even though I may sound as if I am doing so, but it is impossible to argue against the fact that it has received a serious amount of criticism.

The commission has brought some of that criticism upon its own head because of the tactless and insensitive way in which it has set out to do its job. For example, it has not shied away from controversial issues. It tried to prevent the BBC "Panorama" programme about Omagh; told unionists that they had no absolute right to parade; unsuccessfully tried to intervene in judicial proceedings; criticised the Northern Ireland schools transfer system for breaching human rights; called on the Police Service of Northern Ireland to stop using plastic bullets; and claimed that British security forces colluded with loyalist paramilitaries to murder Belfast lawyer, Pat Finucane. What a wonderful way to make itself popular and win the confidence of the people. Would I set about it that way? I would not. All of its jobs needed to be done, but what an unfortunate way to go about it.

Let me turn now to the question of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's Bill of Rights. Sadly, coming from a number of eminent people, this should have been a serious work. It should have taken a considerable amount of time to produce because, however brilliant you are, you cannot put together a Bill of Human Rights in a short space of time. However, I welcome the fact that an extension to the consultation period has been agreed and that we now have until December 2002.

It is useful to have these debates. Most noble Lords in the Chamber know the facts fairly well. I hope and believe that Her Majesty's Government know them equally well and realise how important it is to correct a number of matters.

I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord a few questions. Do Her Majesty's Government propose to legislate fora Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland in the near future? If so, do they see a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as being different from one for England and Wales? Or do they believe—as I hope they do—that a Bill of Rights should incorporate all parts of the United Kingdom? If there were to be a Bill for Northern Ireland, what part would Her Majesty's Government see the Government of the Republic playing in drafting a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?

Finally, do Her Majesty's Government consider that those who constitute the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission are the right people to draw tip a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I believe I heard him criticise the human rights commission for declaring that loyalists had no absolute right to march. In the noble Lord's view, does anyone have an absolute right to march?

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that. I agree that nobody has an absolute right to march. The point I was making was that it was a tactless, unnecessary and provocative statement at the time.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss these matters. I want to make it quite plain that the human rights commission in Northern Ireland is an independent body. It is not subject to approval or disapproval by me, nor to any control by any of my colleagues. That is the key to it. After all, what was the Belfast agreement about? In paragraph 5 on human rights there was an undertaking that a new commission would be set up to include keeping under review the adequacy and effectiveness of laws and practices, making recommendations to government as necessary, providing information and promoting awareness of human rights, considering draft legislation referred to it by the new Assembly and in appropriate cases bringing court proceedings or providing assistance to individuals doing so. As noble Lords have said, that was put into effect in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by virtue of Section 68 and following and Schedule 7 to that Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked me whether the Government intend to legislate to bring a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland into effect. I make it quite plain that we shall not make any policy decision on that until advice is received from the commission and we have considered it with great care. There is one matter which needs clarification. The draft Bill of Rights in the consultative document is exactly that. It seems to me to be a tenable stance that if one wants consultation about a Bill of Rights it is very difficult to do that in the abstract. I may be wrong, but as I understand it, what the commission has done is to put out for full consultation a draft model which might serve as the basis for discussion. It seems to me, whether one agrees with the draft or not, that is a rational and prudent way of approaching this problem.

It was said that a background briefing had been sent out and that is so. I received one myself. I glanced through some of the correspondence. On 16th August 2001, Professor Dickson wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, saying, Could I please remind you of my letter of 4 May 2001. I offered an invitation at the end of that letter to which I have not yet received a reply". Following through the correspondence, on 24th October 2001, Professor Dickson wrote again to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, saying what they had been doing. A number of questions were raised this evening about what support had been given to various victims. If one casts an eye quite briefly—I know that my time is limited—at that letter, it states that the commission, helped the relatives of the Omagh bomb in the following ways: I am having to be selective and I will go to some highlights: providing advice, at a specially organised meeting in Omagh, on what rights the relatives would have at the inquest … by advising HM Coroner that it was consistent with international human rights standards for him to make available to the relatives in advance of the inquest information supplied to the police about the killings". That is quite an important step forward from what relatives normally have, or used to have, before the rules were changed in coroners' courts in England and Wales. The letter continues, by applying to intervene in the inquest to make known the Commission's views on what the scope of the inquest should be … by applying for judicial review"— this was mentioned— to stop the BBC from broadcasting … Panorama in which the Commission (and some-but not all-of the relatives) felt individuals were being improperly tried by the media rather than by a court of law; … considering whether to grant assistance for a civil action in relation to the atrocity". That is something which is very much alive at the moment. The commission said, (a step we have not been able to take given our limited resources)". That does not display to me an indifference towards the suffering of victims.

There were other steps. I stress that I have been selective, but not unfairly so, by way of assistance. It seems to me that if these letters are accurate—I see no counter to any of these assertions in any of the correspondence that is capable of disputing some of the allegations made this evening: but it is a matter for others to judge, not me, because it is an independent commission.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I have not received that document. I took very great care to quote from the one letter which I had from Professor Dickson. I simply want to make that clear.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not dispute that for one moment. I stress again that these are letters sent to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, not to the noble Baroness. But in the question to which the noble Baroness rightly returns on these occasions, she deals with those who have been expelled. Other noble Lords said in a sense, I believe, that the commission ought to be even-handed. I could not agree more with what the noble Lord, Lord Laird, said. Human rights are not only for republicans and nationalists.

The letter of 24th October last year condemned the murder of Rosemary Nelson by the Red Hand Commandos. It called for a judicial inquiry into the murder of Mr Finucane, it is said, by loyalist paramilitaries. The commission investigated the circumstances surrounding the murder of Billy Wright by members of the Irish National Liberation Army.

I refer in particular to the questions put by the noble Baroness. The commission had been, meeting with a large number of victims' groups in Northern Ireland and discussing with them what more can be done through legal channels to ensure, for example, that the investigation of relevant killings has been thorough, that the proper level of compensation has been paid and that appropriate recognition has been given to the great hurt suffered by the relatives of persons killed by republican and loyalist paramilitaries; by holding meet ings"— which is more to the noble Baroness's point— for representatives of voluntary and community organisations, and of local political parties, on the phenomenon of "punishment" attacks; by discussing with a number of people from within and without Northern Ireland how best to acknowledge the victimhood of those who have suffered at the hands of republican and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland". I shall continue with just a sentence or two from some of the rest of the correspondence. There is a letter dated 3rd January 2002. The allegation has been made that the commission was secretive and unwilling to share with members of the public any appropriate information. The letter is from Professor Dickson to the noble Lord, Lord Laird. It says that, you might find it quicker to contact us directly if you require information. We will endeavour to respond as fully and as speedily as possible in all cases". That is rather than the device, which the noble Lord is perfectly entitled to use, of Parliamentary Questions waiting for Written Answers, which have to go through the Northern Ireland Office.

There is also the letter of 7th March, which is almost bang up to date. Professor Dickson writes to the noble Lord, Lord Laird: Finally, could I please once again extend to you a cordial invitation to visit the Commission to see at first hand the work that it conducts? I would be happy to buy you lunch on that occasion". Those are the documents that I have looked at as an outsider with no responsibility for the commission. It does not seem to me, as a fair reading of those letters, undisputed as they stand in my hand, that some of the criticisms can be made out.

Of course, all organisations say that their budgets are too small. The baseline funding was set at £750,000. This year the funding has been over £1.3 million.

Perhaps I ought to turn to the membership because there has been criticism. I am not making comment, but reciting what I believe to be fact. It is alleged that it is a hopelessly partisan body. The new members were Lady Eames, the wife of our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Eames, the Primate, and outgoing president of the Mothers' Union; Dr Christopher McGimpsey, UUP councillor, with wide-ranging business and community interests; Mr Kevin McLaughlin, regional development manager for Leonard Cheshire Homes and member of the Civic Forum, who has a strong interest in rights for disabled persons; Mr Patrick Yu, director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, former member of the Commission for Racial Equality, Northern Ireland, with extensive community experience. Those are all matters for judgment and individual taste. I would find it very difficult to describe any of those as improper candidates for membership of a commission such as this.

Lord Laird

My Lords, in discussing the composition of the commission, will the Minister explain why there are no representatives on the commission of the evangelical community, the Ulster-Scots community or the approximately 25 per cent of the people of Northern Ireland who do not accept the Belfast agreement? I accept the Belfast agreement; they do not.

Will the Minister also take note of the fact that at one stage I offered Professor Dickson my total support for everything he did in relation to human rights, if he involved us as a human rights organisation and involved the Unionist section of the population? I further suggested to him that I would be quite prepared to appear on his platform at the launch of the Bill of Rights. I never heard another word about my offer.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot comment on conversations at which I was not present and of which I have no knowledge. The noble Lord asked me why various persons were not on the original commission. It was an open competition and all the rules were scrupulously abided by. I shall be quite happy, if it is considered useful, to go through every one of the nominees on the original commission. Perhaps I should do so.

They were: Professor Brice Dickson, Professor of Law and Head of Legal Studies at the University of Ulster; Winston Churchill fellow on Bills of Rights in Southern Africa, 1994; Professor Christine Bell, Director of the Centre for International and Comparative Human Rights Law since 1997; Margaret-Ann Dinsmore, QC, active on advisory and supervisory bodies such as the Northern Ireland Commission for the Rights of Trade Union Members; Torn Donnelly, Justice of the Peace since 1985, patron of the Belfast Charitable Trust for Integrated Education and former SDLP councillor; Reverend Harold Good, superintendent minister of the Belfast South circuit of the Methodist Church in Ireland; Professor Tom Hadden, part-time professor of law at Queen's University, Belfast, since 1985; Patricia (Paddy) Kelly, director of a children's law centre, election observer for the United Nations and the European Union; Inez McCormack, regional secretary of the trade union, UNISON; Francis (Frank) McGuinness, regional manager of Trocaire, Northern Ireland, former English teacher and education officer.

It is for your Lordships to come to your own conclusions—not for me to suggest them—that, on the face of it, that list represents a reasonably reflective balance of a community as diverse as Northern Ireland.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, with whom I entirely agree, said that majorities may sometimes be wrong; so may governments, officials, departments, and even some of your Lordships on occasions. The purpose of having a commission such as this is so that it may challenge and make itself disagreeable and uncomfortable. On the basis of my experience, such a commission would be unlikely to do its duty if it pleased everyone on all occasions. If the commission pleased governmental organisations on every occasion, my immediate instinct would be to wonder whether its time was not somewhat overdue.

As I understand it, the commission's agenda is not to diminish the powers of the state. In so far as I have been able to deal with the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, it is not fair to say that it has not attended to the issues with which she has concerned herself. It is true that it has not solved the problems, but I do not think it can fairly be said that it has closed its eyes to them.

I have dealt with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, about the draft Bill. It is a proposal, a skeleton outline as it were, on which everyone can have his or her view, on which the Government will come to their conclusions.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, fully set out his stall—that he does not agree with the Human Rights Act in this country. He and I will never agree on that. I believe that it was a triumph of this Government—I did not say "the only triumph"; I see the noble Baroness, Lady Park, smiling—but it is the most significant act of devolution of power from the Government to the individual that has ever occurred.

I shall give one example in the context of Northern Ireland. Bitterly contested has been the question whether or not those against whom assertions have been made in respect of Bloody Sunday ought to have anonymity. The courts, I stress, have given anonymity to the soldiers against whom, on the one hand, allegations have been made and about whom, on the other hand, it is said they were servants of the state carrying out their proper duties. The inquiry will decide that matter. I very much doubt that they would have been given the anonymity they wanted, were it not for the fact that they were able to say, "My human rights include the right to life, which will be imperilled if you give me no anonymity". It is quite useful to bear in mind that the Human Rights Act protects everyone, without fear or favour, prejudice or ill will.

I have spent a little time going through the correspondence. I am not commenting on it; I am simply pointing to fact, which I know is sometimes disagreeable.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for letting in the light on something that has perhaps caused trouble and distress. I respectfully suggest that he might find it helpful to take up the invitation of the human rights commission—it did not invite me, but I went anyway on Friday of last week—immediately following a meeting with the Police Federation and the Prison Officers' Association. Both those organisations have done very significant public work and discharged public duties in Northern Ireland for a long period of time. I was impressed by the comment of the Chairman (soon to retire) of the Police Federation that although things are not perfect, they may have got better. In the past several years he has followed no coffin to the funeral of any of his comrades.

We should sometimes reflect that although things are not perfect, there have been some distinct improvements. I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for giving me that opportunity to say a few words.