Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

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Mr. Howarth: My right hon. Friend the Minister of State visited the RUC officers serving in Kosovo. Were he free at this moment, he would say how much the Government appreciate the vital contribution that the RUC made. From time to time, special awards are made, and my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) will be aware of the Queen's award of the George cross to the RUC, in recognition of the difficult circumstances in which the force has performed in the past 30 or so years.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): The Minister alluded to the current circumstances in the constituency of East Antrim in connection with the petrol bombing of houses forcing the evacuation of the inhabitants. Is he aware that the Chief Constable and other high-ranking RUC officers have attributed the organisation of most pipe bombing to the Ulster Defence Association—a proscribed organisation, but one that is inextricably linked to the Ulster Democratic party? Am I right in saying that that organisation falls within the category of ``good terrorists''—that is, an organisation that is supposed to be on ceasefire? What steps, if any, have been taken in relation to violations of the ceasefire by that organisation?

The Chairman: Order. That point is not within the bounds of the question, which is narrowly about certificates to support house purchases. I am sorry, but I must disallow it.

We now come to the main debate, which may continue until 5 o'clock. I have no power to impose a time limit on speeches, but if hon. Members keep their comments brief, I will be able to call everyone who wants to speak.

Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

2.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the matter of human rights and equality in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Committee for the opportunity to discuss human rights and equality in Northern Ireland. As the Committee knows, those issues were central to the Good Friday agreement. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 translated that into new structures for protecting rights and promoting equality among people in Northern Ireland, creating a new dispensation based on the protection of rights for all: a society where diversity is valued, not feared, and in which those issues are central to policy making. At the core of those changes has been the creation of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission.

Concerns about equality are not new to Northern Ireland. For many years, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fair Employment Commission safeguarded Northern Ireland's work force against gender and religious discrimination. More recently, separate commissions have dealt with race and disability issues. Each has played a crucial role in helping to shape a more equal and just society in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that they will continue to do so in their new, unified form under the energetic leadership of Joan Harbison.

The Committee knows that Northern Ireland has a strong body of anti-discrimination legislation and that that is now the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Administration, so I will not discuss the matter further here. However, the Westminster Parliament retains responsibility for a crucial new statutory duty that requires public authorities to have regard for the need to promote equality of opportunity and good community relations in everything that they do. The Equality Commission is charged with oversight of that duty: one of its roles is to assess public authorities' equality schemes, in which they set out how they intend to meet their section 75 obligations across the full range of their functions.

We have made it clear that we want as broad a range of bodies as possible to be covered by the statutory duty. The vast majority of public authorities in Northern Ireland are already covered and we will soon introduce a designation order to extend the duty to a further tranche. It is crucial that equality should be firmly anchored in the everyday life of Northern Ireland. The statutory equality duty does not merely pay lip service to the ideals of equality of opportunity and good community relations: it requires us to consider fully the implications of what we do and continually to assess whether there are better ways of doing them. That is good.

Inevitably, changes in attitude toward equality—the idea of fixing something so that it does not break—have an impact on everyone. I particularly welcome the impetus that the statutory duty has given to the goal of strengthening links between different sections of the community by encouraging them to work together in meaningful partnerships to address inequalities and to build a stronger society in Northern Ireland. That dialogue between diverse sectors of society will promote better government by helping to develop better decision making and more focused services. It should, therefore, be encouraged. I am confident that we will continue to build on the solid foundations that have been established.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is another significant creation that has arisen from the Good Friday agreement. The commission is unique in the United Kingdom. Since its inception two years ago, it has worked very well under the leadership of Brice Dickson, establishing itself on both the domestic and international stages. The commission acts as a watchdog: it is charged with promoting human rights for everyone in Northern Ireland. Recently, the Human Rights Act 1998 has been introduced across the UK. It introduces into our domestic law the rights that were set out in the European convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms. The UK was instrumental in the formulation of those rights in the aftermath of the second world war. All Committee members, regardless of their party allegiance, aspire to the values that those rights represent.

The Human Rights Act requires us to re-examine the way in which we do things and to identify scope for improvement, as does the statutory equality duty. That is a healthy process. I am sure that every Committee member wants to promote a society that is based on clear respect for the rights of every individual.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Will additional funding be given to the Human Rights Commission to allow for a comprehensive consultation exercise on the Bill of Rights?

Mr. Howarth: The Human Rights Commission knows that if we are to justify any additional resources we need proper costings, based on an assessment of the work that needs to be funded but is not being funded. In those circumstances, we would happily consider any application, but I am not prepared to give an absolute commitment without knowing its possible scale or the justification for it. That is not to discourage the commission from applying—indeed, Brice Dickson is aware that we have said on several occasions that if we are given the figures and the justification, we will look at them.

Because the issues we are discussing were at the core of the Good Friday agreement, the agreement recommended that the new Human Rights Commission be charged with advising on the scope for defining additional rights, supplementary to those contained in the European convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to determine whether that is necessary in the context of the unique situation in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) pointed out, we have asked the commission to advise on this, and we expect to receive its advice towards the end of the year. To that end, it is embarking on a wide consultation exercise, seeking the views of people and communities throughout Northern Ireland. I urge everyone to take part in that consultation. The Commission's advice will be more meaningful and more relevant if it draws on the views, experience and expertise of all sectors of the community, and that can be achieved only if people contribute to the consultation process.

Rights are not the preserve of one group or another; they are for everybody. The creation of the two new commissions and the introduction of the statutory equality duty and the Human Rights Act are important first steps. The challenge is to ensure that these new building blocks achieve their objective and provide a better future for all the people in Northern Ireland. The key to that is working together: we need to develop partnerships that allow people to benefit from each other's involvement; everyone has something to contribute. Of course the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission might not always see eye to eye with the Government or, for that matter, the devolved Administration, but that is inevitable if they are to act as truly independent bodies. Independence should not stop us working together and it should not stop us sharing common goals.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Minister speaks about Government working together. The Government have a role to play. Last Thursday I sought a Ministerial statement, and the Leader of the House suggested that I might find an opportunity to question the Minister today, as we would be dealing with human rights and equal opportunities. The Minister of State referred to the return to prison under licence of Johnny Adair, yet look at what is happening in Northern Ireland, for example, the murder of Trevor Kells. It is known who committed that murder. He was a murderer released under licence and unless he happens to be the one who was named today, he has not yet been returned, although his compatriots, exercising their bestiality, shot him and his driver. It is known that that gentleman is responsible for the murder. Why has he not been returned under licence to prison on equality issues?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman has used the opportunity presented to him to make that point. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State made it clear earlier that there was no unwillingness on his part, that of the Chief Constable, or that of the Secretary of State where appropriate, to revoke a licence if someone who had been released from prison under the prisoner release scheme breached the licence or committed a further offence while out on licence. However, in human rights or any other terms, it would be improper for a licence to be revoked unless there was clear evidence to support that. It would be improper for me to evaluate in Committee the effectiveness one way or another of any evidence in any case. I am sure that the Minister of State and the Chief Constable will consider the matter as a result of what the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has said, but only on the basis of proper evidence on which they can act.

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