Thursday 27 June 2002
[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]
Scope for a Bill of Rights
The Chairman: The first business before the Committee is the debate on the scope for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, which may continue until 4.30 pm. I have no power to impose a time limit, but if hon. Members speak briefly, everyone who wants to speak will be able to do so.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the matter of the scope for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland.
I welcome you, Mr. McWilliam, to the Chair. This is the second meeting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee during this Session and, if I remember correctly, you were in the Chair when we last met, so you are aware of the quality of debate that we can expect this afternoon. I am sure that we shall all behave in such a way that you will not be exercised in keeping us in order.
Calls for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland have been made for a number of years, but the current debate has its genesis in the Belfast agreement. Under the agreement, the new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was invited to consult and advise on the scope for defining additional rights—
The Chairman: On human rights, as it is warm this afternoon, hon. Gentlemen may remove their jackets if they wish.
Mr. Browne: Thank you, Mr. McWilliam. I am sure that the Committee is pleased to have been given some direction on the scope for cooling down.
Under the Belfast agreement, the new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was invited to consult and advise on the scope for defining additional rights reflecting the ''particular circumstances'' of Northern Ireland, which, with the European convention on human rights, could form a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Since then, the commission has carried out a long consultation process with a wide variety of interested groups and that process continues.
Lady Hermon (North Down): I appreciate the Minister giving way so early in what I am sure will be a penetrating insight into the birth of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. He referred to the agreement and the mandate given to the commission and used the words ''to consult and advise on the scope for defining'' these rights. Does that include drafting a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?
Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's question because that is part of the debate that has
Column Number: 004
been engendered by the draft Bill which the commission published on 4 September 2001 for consultation. There was a formal consultation period of around three months until December 2001, but the consultation continues, as the commission made clear. There was some challenge about that, but my view is practical. It would have been strange for the commission, following extensive consultation, to say just yes or no or that there is scope for a Bill of Rights without giving an indication now of what might be in the Bill. As the Minister with responsibility for human rights, I believe that it has been helpful to the debate to have a practical example of a Bill of Rights against which to engage in debate.
I want to make limited observations about the process because of my particular position in relation to the discussion and consultation. I shall explain that to the Committee in a few minutes. It is helpful to me and to the debate to have a draft against which to test some of the principles that should be considered. I hope that my response is helpful to the hon. Lady.
To put it bluntly, one cannot advise on the scope for a Bill of Rights without considering what the Bill would contain, particularly if it is to reflect the circumstances in Northern Ireland and merge with and generate rights that are additional to those set out in the convention. That is my response but, of course, it is not the end of the debate.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Many people, perhaps the majority, in Northern Ireland will question why we are not dealing with a Bill of Rights for the whole of the United Kingdom. Why are we limiting it to Northern Ireland? Some of the questions asked by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which is oriented towards a final unification of Ireland, have set alarm bells ringing in Northern Ireland. I would have thought that we would begin with a Bill of Rights for the people of Northern Ireland as they are now and not try to project ourselves into the future, when the situation might be different—indeed, a situation not envisaged in the sort of questions that are being asked.
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman's point is helpful in that it feeds into the debate. Such issues must be debated in the context of the scope for a Bill of Rights that reflects the circumstances of Northern Ireland. The question is germane. It is not like the hon. Gentleman to anticipate a future position but, in a sense, his question does that. We are at present not making a decision about a Bill of Rights for anywhere but Northern Ireland. We are in the process of carrying out a consultation led by the commission. With its genesis in the Belfast agreement, the mandate comes from the political parties in Northern Ireland and the two Governments, as reflected in the referendums that took place in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The background of the mandate does not allow the commission to change its instructions to consider the scope for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, and the commission is following its instructions precisely by consulting and formulating advice to the Secretary of State on the issue.
Column Number: 005
We are at present debating not a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland—that is a misunderstanding—but the scope for one. It may be that the debate has become confused because the commission felt it appropriate, in order to encourage debate, to formulate what a Bill of Rights might include. I believe that that was right. However, I do not think that we should jump from the scope for such a Bill to what should be included in it. We must consider the scope, and my remarks will concentrate on that in the hope of generating a debate that is germane to the issues of today, not tomorrow.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I understand that the scope does not consider the victims of the past. Let me clarify that: if someone was the victim of torture or some other human rights abuse that was against the law at the time, they should have redress under the Bill.
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman is encouraging me to do what I avowed I would not do. I shall not debate individual rights, because my position as a Minister—
Mr. Robathan: The scope.
Mr. Browne: Let me answer the question in the way that I wish. If the hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied, he can intervene again. The Secretary of State and I, as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, await the eventual advice on the scope for a Bill of Rights. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me as the Minister with responsibility for human rights to say on my behalf, or on that of the Secretary of State, what I think of individual rights. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to feed into the debate his argument about the scope for rights relating to victims, he is entitled to do so and should do so. I hope that he will be able to catch your eye, Mr. McWilliam, and contribute to the debate.
A careful reading of the draft Bill will reveal that it contains draft rights relating to past victims. As I understand it, it contains a specific reference to that, so I am not certain that the draft produced by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has the lacunae that the hon. Gentleman suggests are in it from his reading. However, if he wants to fill such a space in the draft Bill in a particular way, I am sure that the commission will be very keen to hear from him. No doubt, he will bring to that debate, as he does to all debates on Northern Ireland, his very particular view based on his extensive experience of service there.
The process of consultation continues. I support the commission's view that it should seek the views of as many people as possible before coming to any final conclusions. If that process takes longer than was originally envisaged—it looks as if it will—so be it. The crucial thing is for people from all sections of the community to have the opportunity to contribute to that process.
Lady Hermon: Does the Minister accept that there is a large swathe of the public in Northern Ireland, especially among the Unionist community, that has great difficulty in making submissions to the commission, given that one of its first actions was
Column Number: 006
the endorsement of religious discrimination in the recruitment of new police officers?
Mr. Browne: I am encouraged by the increasing ability of people from different sections of the community in Northern Ireland to engage in this debate. I was looking yesterday at a list that I have been keeping of those who have gone public on the matter and, to my delight, I was able to reflect that an article in a newsletter on the subject contained a quotation from a member of the hon. Lady's party. Not only did that gentleman make a very positive and encouraging contribution to the debate, but he prayed in aid the fact that the hon. Lady was also engaged in the debate. The hon. Lady is an example to all the people of Northern Ireland, showing them that they should engage in this debate and that there is nothing to fear from doing so. No community in Northern Ireland has anything to fear from engaging in a debate on human rights. They are for everybody. I am sure that that is the message that the hon. Lady wants me to give the people of Northern Ireland.
Lady Hermon: I appreciate the Minister's response, but it was to a question that I did not actually ask, and was a commentary on a recent meeting of party members. Can he answer the following question: does he accept that there is a broad swathe of people, especially in the Unionist community, that has great difficulty in dealing with a human rights commission that endorsed religious discrimination in the recruitment of police officers?