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Mr. Lidington: I welcome the Government's decision to move from a listing approach to a generic approach. As the Minister said in his opening speech, both sides of the House were involved in a constructive debate on the issue. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and his noble Friends can take pride in the way they helped to promote the idea. As a result, we shall have a better approach than that under the Bill as originally drafted.
The Bill will now exclude the security and intelligence services and GCHQ. I support those exclusions, but if those organisations are to be excluded, why not the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad and others who work closely with the security and intelligence services and may well be party to operational knowledge that the Government rightly want to keep secret? Those police organisations are engaged in very sensitive and secret work against organised crime, terrorism and drug trafficking. Do they not need the same protection that the Government want to afford to the security and intelligence services?
A comparable point could be made about members of the armed forces on active service. We discussed that in Committee, and it was debated in the House of Lords. Should not the exception that the Government are applying to the security and intelligence services and to members of the armed forces assisting GCHQ also apply to members of the special forces, and especially those on active service? There are units whose operations have traditionally been regarded as a matter for secrecy by Governments of both political colours.
The Minister said that the courts would have to rule in due course on what is a public authority. In Committee, I referred to the position of the Churches and I make no apology for doing so again. As an obvious example of my point, civil registrars, as public officials, will be subject to the provisions in the Bill in carrying out their duties involving the preparation of couples and the conduct of the marriage ceremony, but will ministers of the Church of England or the Church of Scotland be similarly subject? Surely those ministers carry out a public function when they, too, conduct marriages. Have the Government engaged in any consultation with the Churches about the impact that the Bill might have on them, especially in the light of the controversy that blew up on the matter during proceedings on the Human Rights Act 1998?
I have no problem with the Government's proposal that judicial authorities--judges, magistrates and tribunals, in their judicial capacity--should be exempt from the normal operations of the Bill, but does that exemption also apply to Ministers of the Crown when they act in a quasi-judicial capacity, for example when they place themselves in the shoes of a judge in setting the tariff for a life sentence prisoner? I should be grateful for answers to those questions.
Secondly, it is a good idea for the definition of "public authority" in one piece of legislation passed by a Parliament to be the same as the definition of "public authority" in another piece of legislation passed by that Parliament, albeit a year or so later. That seems to be a good idea in terms of political and parliamentary practice, and I welcome it. I am grateful for the work done by colleagues in the Lords and for the debate that we had in Committee.
I have a supplementary question, which picks up on one of the points made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) about definition. It concerns the point about employees or functionaries of the Church or other religious organisations carrying out a public function.
I raise that not only because I have responsibility for these matters on the Liberal Democrat Benches but because the matter has been raised in the context of prospective European legislation. Last week, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was given leave to introduce a ten-minute Bill so that we may at least take the debate forward and discover what exactly is allowed. The hon. Gentleman's Bill would exempt religious organisations and although it was not on all fours with this proposal, it raised the same set of issues.
What we are discussing now is clearly a narrower issue because it is about people acting for religious organisations who, in that context, are also acting as a public authority. The conduct of marriages is a good example. People in this country can have their marriage conducted entirely in a religious ceremony, and do not, as in other countries, have to have a separate civil ceremony. I should be grateful for elaboration on that matter and on whether Ministers have been advised how--if at all--the measure ties in with prospective European legislation on such matters.
Mr. Mike O'Brien: The welcome from both hon. Gentlemen speaking for the Opposition parties is music to my ears. The Government are pleased that we have been able to take a constructive and listening approach during the debate, and grateful for the contributions from all parts of the House on these issues.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked about the areas covered in respect of Parliament. The existing Act already covers employment functions and certain unlawful acts--they are set out in part IV--and areas that may be subject to parliamentary privilege. It covers the provision of goods, facilities and services.
The Government do not wish to fetter the legislative functions of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly in extending the Act. In the case of the United Kingdom Parliament, there are issues of parliamentary privilege. Interference with the privileges of Parliament should obviously be avoided. The first report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege has looked at the need for, and recommended, clarification of the definition of parliamentary privilege in relation to each House's privilege to administer its own internal affairs.
It would be pre-emptive and impractical to try to resolve the issues involved for the purposes of the Bill before critical decisions have been made in relation to the wider issue of privilege. We are not therefore proposing to extend any further the application of the Bill to the UK Parliament. That is consistent with the approach taken in the Human Rights Act 1998.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the issue of exercising functions in connection with proceedings in Parliament. We envisage that it is an area directly involved in the preparation of legislation. It is not an exclusion that would deal with areas not directly involved in preparing legislation and the proceedings of this place. That is the position as far as I understand it. The hon. Gentleman raised the matter and I raised it with officials. The definition is quite tightly drawn.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I was a little concerned that the measure might look a little wide, but considering Pepper v. Hart and being aware of all that, I am indicating that we intend it to be construed in a way that has direct applicability to legislation and to the proceedings in this Parliament relating to debates.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury also asked me why the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad are not included. Following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, our intention was to bring the police within the realm of the Race Relations Act. As NCIS and the National Crime Squad are akin to police forces and their director-generals have responsibilities which are equivalent to those of a chief constable, the Government believe that, in order to meet the commitment made in response to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report to apply race relations legislation to police forces, NCIS and NCS must be covered. The Government do not envisage that the problems associated with including the intelligence and security agencies would be replicated for NCIS and NCS, and indeed we have no reasons to have any concerns that this might cause problems in terms of the operational effectiveness--or anything else--of those two organisations, which are well aware of their responsibilities to ensure that they do not racially discriminate.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about special forces. I have had no requests from the Ministry of Defence to exclude them, so I assume that there is a degree of happiness with the current situation. However, just to be sure that there is no difficulty, I shall take up the hon. Gentleman's point with Ministers at the MOD. These days, the Army in particular has a proactive view on race equality and many parts of our armed forces have a good and improving record in that respect.
The hon. Members for Aylesbury and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked me about a more complex issue--whether the legislation would cover ministers of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland in relation to their role as registrars. They will be covered when they carry out a public function but not when they carry out private functions as ministers of the Church. I envisage that the public function of signing the various documents which relate to their legal and public duties will be covered. However, decisions about who should have a service conducted in their Church, for example, will be an issue for the Church. The same would apply to other Church-related decisions. However, in recent decades Churches have been particularly conscious of the need to ensure that they regard race equality as
Finally, the hon. Member for Aylesbury asked me whether the legislation covered Government Ministers exercising a judicial function. The answer is yes. An immigration function, for example, would be covered. That is not a good illustration as immigration matters are excluded, but any other quasi-judicial decision would be covered by the exemption. However, we want to make sure that Ministers are aware that they have moral as well as legal responsibilities and that they must not discriminate unless there is a good public interest reason for doing so. Later amendments relate to circumstances in which discrimination may be proper and lawful and may well have the support of the House, but normally that would not be the case.