Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

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The Chairman: Order. I have just noticed that hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) is using a device specifically banned by the Speaker. The matter is currently under consideration, but we have not yet reached a conclusion.

Mr. John M. Taylor: In the meantime, Mr. McWilliam, I apologise.

Mr. Thompson: Article 8 deals with the rights of children, rights relating to divorce, immigration, sexuality, personal mail surveillance, investigation, the search and seizure of property and prisoners; there is nothing about the competing right to march the public highway. The commission's argument is untenable and cannot hold sway.

The chairman of the Parades Commission has stated that it will take decisions on the basis of political rather than security or public order principles. He said:

    ``The Commission holds to the view that, in the long run, disputes over contentious parades will only be resolved by some form of dialogue between the parties concerned... Nevertheless, we are keen to reinforce the position of those in the loyal orders and the wider Unionist community who are arguing for dialogue between marchers and residents and we continue to believe that it is right to give due weight to efforts by parade organisers to address and accommodate the legitimate concerns of local residents.''

Those are clearly political considerations. In other words, the Parades Commission has set out its political view and people will have to conform to it. That is a mistaken view of rights because there should be no obligation to observe a right in a certain way simply because someone believes that it should be observed in that way. That is contrary to the ethos of a human right.

Furthermore, we are told that if there is violence or the threat of violence from a third party, a parade must be stopped. That is contrary to natural justice. The courts have held that where there is a threat to public order, the police should take action against those who are making the threat, not against those who are seeking to uphold and observe the law. The Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 specifies certain obligations that the Parades Commission must take into consideration. Section 8(6)(a) refers to

    ``any public disorder or damage to property which may result from the procession'',

but the Parades Commission interprets that far too broadly. The public disorder or damage to property it takes into account should be that which results from the procession—in other words, participants in the procession. It is perverse to stop a parade because of a threat from a third person or party.

Those are the views of the Parades Commission and it is time that the Government re-examined the circumstances, reviewed the legislation and ensured that the proper rights of those who march are respected in Northern Ireland.

4.34 pm

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Our debate has, rightly, focused primarily on human rights issues, but I shall speak briefly about the Equality Commission. It is important that we pay tribute to the work of the many women, especially those on the front line of the difficulties in Northern Ireland, who have worked, often behind the scenes, but ceaselessly to ensure that equality issues are addressed. I pay particular tribute to the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, which has worked in a more political sphere to achieve the creation of the Equality Commission.

There is no doubt that the Equality Commission will be an exemplar of the kind of equality legislation and institutions that we should have here in the United Kingdom. Indeed, we shall look with great envy at some of the proposals made for the Equality Commission and its work. I hope that, as Ministers and the Northern Ireland Assembly monitor the work of the Equality Commission, they will note not only its impact in the context of the Northern Ireland community, which I am sure will be extensive, but its potential impact here in the UK. I am sure that we can learn as its work progresses. We must warmly welcome not only the commission, but the many innovative ideas contained within its remit. A specific budget of £6.7 million has been set aside for its work. It is required to bring equality issues into the mainstream of policies and legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the community—something that we in the United Kingdom have not achieved.

The commission is also required to draw up equality impact assessments—a feature that would be welcome throughout our own policy, legislative and budget processes. There is a requirement for widespread consultation among all the organisations—voluntary and statutory—in Northern Ireland. That is real progress and something from which we could learn. The possibility of the single equality Bill—perhaps in 2002—emphasises the importance of ensuring coherence in Northern Ireland equality legislation and raises questions about the way in which our legislation operates and whether there are gaps in UK legislation.

There are many things that we should welcome, but just as many issues that we should address. We know that race equality legislation came into force in Northern Ireland only in 1997, 21 years later than in Great Britain. Research by the university of Ulster has produced alarming evidence of racial intolerance increasing in Northern Ireland. That must be addressed very rapidly. We know also that there has been consistently higher unemployment among Roman Catholics, especially men, and that women are seriously under-represented in public life compared with Great Britain. Only 14 per cent. of Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland are women, compared with 40 per cent. in the National Assembly for Wales. Matters such as child care provision must be addressed if there is to be better representation in Northern Ireland of women in positions of authority in public and political life.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has mentioned, disability issues urgently need to be addressed as part of work of the Equality Commission. There is a higher percentage of the population with a disability in Northern Ireland than there is in Great Britain: recent figures show 17.4 per cent. of people with a disability, compared with 14.2 per cent. in Great Britain. Of course, much of that is attributable to the troubles; it is estimated that 40,000 people have a disability as a direct result of the troubles. The Equality Commission faces a huge amount of work

I have some concerns, which I would like the Minister to address, about the extent of the budget that has been made available to the Equality Commission and whether it is able effectively to carry out its duties under section 75 to promote equality of opportunity. Is the funding for compliance adequate for the Equality Commission and all of the organisations that are also required to comply with section 75? Could the Minister say which bodies have been designated by the Secretary of State and which bodies are currently being considered for designation? Will the Director of Public Prosecutions be designated and when will the provisions to submit new policing arrangements in respect of the section 75 duty, as introduced in the Police Act 2000, come into force? What specific changes have resulted from the equality schemes? When discussing the work of the Equality Commission, it is important to be specific about advances that are being made and that that we anticipate will be made. In what respects have service delivery and policy already been affected by the statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity?

A great deal of work is needed in two further respects: one has already been mentioned in the context of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. We need to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are in no way disadvantaged by devolution and it is therefore essential that we introduce race relations legislation in Northern Ireland without delay. In the context of increasing incidents of racial intolerance, there is no justification for not introducing that Act as swiftly as possible.

Secondly, those involved in the Equality Commission should give close consideration to the issue of domestic violence. It has received some attention, and I commend the work of the Northern Ireland women's aid organisation in tackling domestic violence and providing advice and support to survivors of domestic violence, but that work suffers from the problem that there are very few statistics on the incidence of domestic violence and no official recording across the various agencies to whom survivors go for help, which makes it difficult to be aware of the extent of domestic violence. The ground-breaking work that the Equality Commission is undertaking provides an opportunity to require that statistics be collected on a regular basis, so that we can have evidence of the incidence of domestic violence and thereby tackle it more effectively than we have in the past.

Northern Ireland has a new opportunity to lead the way, and it would be a missed opportunity if that issue were not addressed. There is an opportunity for the Equality Commission to set minimum standards of service for the survivors of domestic violence who seek help from a range of statutory and voluntary organisations. There is currently no minimum standard across organisations, so we have a ground-breaking opportunity. In Northern Ireland, we can make major inroads into the terrible plight of those who are survivors of domestic violence. I want everyone who is involved in the Equality Commission to take the opportunity to show the rest of Great Britain that Northern Ireland will lead in equality issues.

4.43 pm

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): There is little for me to say today, because my party has operated a bipartisan policy with the Government on Northern Ireland issues, with the possible exception of changes to the Royal Ulster Constabulary and deep disappointment about decommissioning. I take the opportunity offered by a Northern Ireland Grand Committee not to trespass upon the speaking time of those Members who actually live in the Province, but to listen to them. I listened very closely to the hon. and learned Member for North Down who spoke about the doctrine of the diminution of the consideration of the individual in the face of the greater scheme. He warned us against the superficial attractions of that doctrine. I found his remarks rather disturbing and I shall reflect upon them. I shall take no further time.

4.44 pm

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Prepared 8 February 2001