Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

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Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): I shall try to be brief, as I know the Minister will want to respond to the debate. I endorse some of the things that have been said by my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim, about the membership of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. That has been a cause of concern to Unionists. I am especially concerned about the significant overlap between the membership of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and the Committee on the Administration of Justice.

At the time that the Human Rights Commission was established, six out of 10 commissioners were also members of the CAJ. Recently one of those members, Angela Hegarty, resigned, so that at present five commissioners out of nine are also members of the CAJ. There is concern in the Unionist community that the CAJ has an undue influence on the workings of the Human Rights Commission. This is in spite of the fact that the Commission on page 12 of its strategic plan said that it is:

    ``completely independent from any outside influence, be it the Government . . . a non governmental human rights organisation, or a group of activists.''

Anyone looking at the composition of the commission and seeing that a majority, including the chief commissioner, of its members belong to the CAJ would conclude that there is an undue influence from an outside body.

There is also an imbalance in terms of the membership reflecting the wider community. Strand 1 of the Belfast agreement provided for the establishment of

    ``A new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, with membership from Northern Ireland reflecting the community balance.''

There is no way one can argue that the current composition of the Human Rights Commission reflects community balance; it certainly does not. That is an issue that the Government must address.

The actions of the Human Rights Commission since its establishment have led to a perception in the Unionist community that it is biased in favour of the nationalist community: examples include the commission's support for the legalisation of religious discrimination in terms of the recruitment of police officers—as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim correctly pointed out—which is contained in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. This will discriminate against the Protestant community.

There was an attempt by the Human Rights Commission to intervene in a High Court case involving an application for judicial review by Evelyn White, a resident of the Garvaghy road area of Portadown who sought through judicial review to challenge the validity of the appointment of the members of the Parades Commission for Northern Ireland by the Secretary of State, and to seek a declaration that their appointment was unlawful. Thankfully, Lord Chief Justice Carswell ruled that he would not permit the intervention of the Human Rights Commission in the case. He added that there was no right for the Human Rights Commission to intervene in every and any case, and that it was for the judge in each case to determine whether an intervention by the Human Rights Commission was appropriate.

I welcome that ruling, because I feel the Human Rights Commission has stepped far beyond its remit and its role. Its intervention on the side of the residents of the Garvaghy road, seen alongside what my hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) said about the shortcomings of both the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission in respect of parades, adds to the perception in the Unionist community that there is a bias on the part of the Human Rights Commission. There are other indications of bias on which I shall not elaborate. The Minister should examine the operation of the Human Rights Commission and the composition of its membership. Those matters will have to be reviewed if the Unionist community is to have confidence in the operation of this commission. There is no point in having the commission if it is not respected across the community, but the Unionist community has serious misgivings.

I am concerned about the Equality Commission's approach to and support for discriminatory action in the recruitment of police officers. That support and the commission's intervention on the flags issue have caused concern within the Unionist community about its impartiality. The chief commissioner, Joan Harbison, in her evidence to the Assembly Committee dealing with the matter, said:

    ``The Commission has also advised that it is unacceptable for the Union flag to be flown specifically during the July and August period. There are many work places where such displays are no longer found. This is the position preferred by the Equality Commission.''

In the perception of the Unionist community, the Equality Commission is intervening on one side against the interests of the other. I hope the Minister will urge the Equality Commission to take an even-handed approach with such sensitive issues.

4.50 pm

Mr. George Howarth: We have had a very wide-ranging debate. At the beginning, I thought it would be more narrowly focused than it turned out to be; none the less, it has been interesting and useful. I apologise in advance, as I doubt that I shall be able to respond to all the points that have been raised in the time available to me. However, I shall of course observe the normal courtesies and write to hon. Members answering any questions or points that I am not able to address in Committee.

There has been a great deal of debate about the independence of the Human Rights Commission, and criticism has been levelled at the Equality Commission. I will begin with the Human Rights Commission. The commission is an independent body. It was set up to act as an independent scrutineer the activities of Government and others to protect human rights. It is not a case of my approving or disapproving of any action it takes; it is up to the commission itself to fulfil its duties. I know that the commission is genuinely anxious to address the concerns of all sectors of the community. I agree with the hon. Member for Lagan Valley that everyone should feel that their rights are being properly protected. It is not a question of one side or the other. I do not believe that the Commission is biased. I believe that its members as a group are broadly representative of the community in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State is very conscious of the obligations placed on him by in section 68(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. He is always open to any arguments about balance—although I do not accept that there is an imbalance—and he is anxious to make sure that that is maintained.

The basis of the hon. Member for East Antrim's argument was that some of the worst abuses of human rights in Northern Ireland have been perpetrated by paramilitaries on both sides. I cannot comment on the specifics of any action by the Human Rights Commission; as I said, it is independent. However, what he says is manifestly true: some appalling breaches of individual human rights have been carried out by those organisations and, unfortunately, they carry on to this day. The European convention on human rights is framed in terms of protecting the individual against abuses of power by the state, and that is largely the legislative framework within which the commission operates. We want everyone in the community to benefit from human rights. We work tirelessly, as does the Human Rights Commission, to ensure that that is the case.

The hon. Member for East Antrim also mentioned the Equality Commission's position on 50:50 recruitment, as did the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. The commission highlighted, not unreasonably, that the proportion of Catholics in the police had increased by a little more than 1 per cent., from 7.3 per cent. to 8.4 per cent., during the past 10 years, in spite of the fact that the proportion of Catholics in the population has increased. Furthermore, various affirmative action measures have been implemented by the RUC. Therefore, if we rely entirely on affirmative action alone, the pattern will continue. The hon. Member for Lagan Valley must recognise that we are not in the business of allowing that to become a permanent feature. In that sense, the Equality Commission was right to point out the difficulties of simply relying on affirmative action.

The hon. Member for East Antrim and other members of the Committee referred to the Savile inquiry into Bloody Sunday. A specific inquiry was set up to look into that event because it was alleged that the state's own authorities were involved and the Government have to be sure that they get at the truth. As has been said, rightly, we as a country pride ourselves on our democracy and respect for the law and on the professionalism and dedication of our security forces. I hope that the Savile inquiry achieves what it was set up to do and gets at the truth.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde referred to funding, specifically for the Human Rights Commission. Its annual budget for the first three years is £750,000. At the time the budget was set, we believed that it was adequate for the commission's functions, but we have always made it clear that we would be willing to consider additional funding provided that such a request was supported by a properly costed business case. We are currently considering a bid from the commission that we received before Christmas and I hope that we shall make a decision soon. My hon. Friend also asked why the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has such limited powers and wanted to know who will carry out the review. We are required to carry out a review and I confirm that we shall do so thoroughly and, if there is a need for additional powers, we shall consider it. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran) also mentioned funding for the Equality Commission. That is a matter for the devolved Administration and I am sure that there will be on-going dialogue between the commission and the Executive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde referred also to the need for the Republic of Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to work together. Relations are good and communication between them is increasing. Indeed, in December, I attended an excellent conference in Dublin at which both commissions were represented. I echo my hon. Friend's call for collaboration, but I want to reassure him that it is taking place. More than 100 bodies have been designated and we are looking forward to a further tranche in the near future. We want to extend section 75 to as many bodies as possible. The role of the Director of Public Prosecutions is complex and I do not want to be drawn too far about it today, but I cannot give my hon. Friend an absolute guarantee along the lines that he seeks.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire referred to disability discrimination, which falls within the scope of the Equality Commission. I know that Joan Harbison, the chairman of the Equality Commission, and her colleagues are aware of their obligations on that front and are anxious to move forward.

The hon. Member for West Tyrone raised the issue of parades. In that respect, many elements of the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 conflict, but there are elements relating to people's rights to enjoy a peaceful life. I understand that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is currently considering at the whole issue of parades and the Northern Ireland Parades Commission. The hon. Gentleman may want to make a submission to the Committee to air his concerns, or perhaps he has already done so.

 
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Prepared 8 February 2001