Scope for a Bill of Rights

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Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady can perhaps speak for sections of the Northern Ireland community better than I can. If she wishes to feed into the Committee's record the fact that that is a perception of a section of the community in Northern Ireland, she has succeeded in doing so in her two interventions. I was seeking to answer the point that that is the perception that some people in Northern Ireland have with my view of a changing perception, through engagement, that people in Northern Ireland have. I say quite strongly, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would join with me in saying this, that it is important that all sections of the community in Northern Ireland engage in the debate on the scope for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. No one in Northern Ireland has anything to fear from human rights.

The fact of the matter is that the vehicle whereby the advice will come to the Secretary of State is the body that the people of Northern Ireland agreed to endorse: the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. They should engage with that body, and they have nothing to fear by expressing to the commission their views as strongly as they wish because everyone has everything to gain from human rights, and nothing to lose from developed human rights in Northern Ireland. That is the answer that I give to the hon. Lady. I cannot speak for other people's views based on their perception of historical issues.

David Burnside (South Antrim) rose—

Mr. Browne: I will not give way now. I am very conscious that I often appear to take up far more time than I ought to in the debates of this Committee. I

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have now been on my feet for about 15 minutes and managed one page of my speech. I want to make some progress. The hon. Gentleman should just hold the point that he wants to make for now. I want to develop the theme of my speech, and he may then receive his answer. If he does not, I promise that I will let him intervene later on. Lots of people want to speak, and increasingly, because I accept too many interventions, there is too little time for others to contribute.

The Government cannot and will not seek to influence the proposals put forward by the commission. Our position is, and always has been, that we will await final advice before coming to any policy decisions. The Government have an active interest in the debate. I have a duty to highlight a few issues of principle that need to be fully explored and debated as the commission firms up its advice. I wrote to the commission raising those points in November 2001 and I should like to take the Committee through them now. They are, first, the role of a Bill of Rights in achieving reconciliation and rapprochement; secondly, the relationship of a Bill of Rights with the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998; thirdly, what we mean by the ''particular circumstances'' of Northern Ireland; fourthly, where the balance lies between good policy and justiciable rights; and fifthly, enforcement mechanisms, which will probably be the least engaging of the five.

On the first point of reconciliation and rapprochement, the agreement that formed the basis for the formation of the commission and the current debate on a Bill of Rights stated that the two Governments and the parties would

    ''strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements.''

It follows, therefore, that any Bill of Rights that would have the effect of polarising opinion would not contribute towards that goal. The importance of achieving the maximum possible level of consensus from across the community is, in my view, self-evident. That is why I am pleased to see such a diverse range of people engaging with the commission in this process. All of us as politicians have a duty to encourage people to get involved in the debate to ensure that the final product helps facilitate the process of reconciliation.

David Burnside: This will be my only intervention during the debate and it is fundamentally important. The Minister will remember section 19 of the Belfast agreement, which covered the subject of policing. That section referred to the independent commission on policing seeking to gain widespread community support, not support to communities. That was one of the reasons why some of us gave some sympathy to that objective in the reform of policing. Will the Minister give a commitment to the Committee that in the debate on human rights, the Government will retain the objective as stated in section 19 of the agreement to command widespread community support? The evidence in practice on policing has proved that there was not widespread community

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support for the legislation on the future of policing in Northern Ireland that was pushed through this House by an elected majority. Will he give a commitment that the mistakes linked to Patten will not be made on human rights, and that he will seek widespread community support? I define community as being the whole of Northern Ireland as a corporate and electoral block.

The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be brief. That one was a wee bit long.

Mr. Browne: No matter what my answer would be to the assertions of the hon. Gentleman in relation to policing, which I do not accept, I would seek to define widespread community support. A clever political answer to the hon. Gentleman's assertion about policing would be, first, to define those three terms and then to give the Government's answer.

I do not accept that policing in Northern Ireland, even in its reformed fashion, does not command widespread community support. Polls suggest that more than 80 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland supports the police in their present form. I do not know how widespread, how much community or how much support the hon. Gentleman needs, but there is not a politician in this Room who would not be delighted with that level of support.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's question in relation to this debate and this process, I am sure that he paid attention to the last five or six sentences that I spoke before his intervention. I do not think that I could have made it clearer, in the context of this debate, that I am calling for the most widespread debate. I am saying, as a point of principle, that given the objectives of the Belfast agreement, which is the genesis of this whole process in terms of reconciliation and rapprochement, I would expect us to encourage, and the commission to be receptive to, a process that achieves the maximum possible consensus. Where I am coming from at the moment, the maximum possible consensus and widespread community support seem pretty near. If that satisfies the hon. Gentleman, then we are thinking the same things about where this process should end up.

I turn to the context of the European convention on human rights. The Belfast agreement was not clear about whether there was a need for additional rights. However, it was clear that there was a need for the incorporation of the ECHR and for serious work to be undertaken to determine whether other things, reflecting Northern Ireland's ''particular circumstances'', should sit alongside the convention in a Bill of Rights.

The European convention on human rights, of course, has been a reality for the United Kingdom for a number of decades. Since 1966, any individual who feels that his or her rights have been violated has been able to take a case to the Strasbourg court. The UK accepted the right of individual application in 1966. Since 2000, when the Human Rights Act came fully into force in Northern Ireland, individuals have been able to rely on the rights guaranteed by the convention directly in the domestic courts.

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That legislation applies across the whole of the UK, providing a uniform framework of rights, safeguards and enforcement mechanisms. That plays into the point made by the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), which is part of the debate on this issue. That is the framework into which any Bill of Rights must be slotted, and it is important that the associated enforcement mechanisms put in place are compatible with the arrangements under the Human Rights Act. I will discuss that in a little more detail in due course.

Since the commission's remit in considering the scope for a Bill of Rights is to reflect the ''particular circumstances'' of Northern Ireland, it is imperative that we have a discussion about what those ''particular circumstances'' are and what is meant by that section of the Belfast agreement. Opinions range right across the spectrum. Some would say that there is no fundamental difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK—or, for that matter, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Some would say that the troubles have affected all aspects of society, from the court system through to, for example, children's health.

Different interpretations of the ''particular circumstances'' fundamentally affect the understanding of what should be included in the Bill. For example, if someone believes that the children of Northern Ireland have all been seriously and adversely affected by the troubles, the chances are that they will believe that the Bill should make special provision for children. But then, why should a child from Newtownards enjoy rights that are not granted to a child from Newcastle—the Newcastle in the north-east of England? Similarly, people who are rightly concerned about levels of poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland argue that there should be strong protection for social and economic rights in any Bill of Rights, but are the people of the Bogside really entitled to greater rights than the people of Brixton?

Devolution provides for different administrations across the UK to adopt different policies, responding as they see fit to the circumstances of their area. I support that. As a firm believer in devolution, I am committed to the principle that decisions affecting local people are best made by locally elected politicians. Of course, that will lead to differences, but they are differences in policy, not differences in fundamental rights. For me, that distinction is at the heart of the debate on what might—or might not—be part of any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

There is a myth that often surfaces in human rights debates that because all rights are good things, all good things are rights. That cannot be the case. Lots of things are good—many are very good—and we all want them and enjoy them. For that reason, elected politicians may seek to pursue issues and develop policies that ensure that people can enjoy the good things they seek. However, that does not make those things rights. It just makes them good policies.

I believe that much careful thought needs to be given to that issue in the context of proposals for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. We need to be very

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clear that we are proposing rights rather than good policies. I spoke earlier about my commitment to devolution, and I am committed to the principle that decisions that affect local people are best made by local politicians. In Northern Ireland, that issue is of particular importance.

After 30 years of direct rule, we now have a situation where locally elected politicians are substantially running the country, taking important decisions that affect the life of the people there. Not only that, but the new institutions are based on a system of power sharing involving politicians from both sides of the community. Moreover, contrary to many people's expectations, this is working. That is something of which politicians here and in the Assembly can be proud, and it is something we should all strive to protect.

That makes it all the more important that, in framing any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, we are very clear about where the balance lies between rights and policies. We should not use rights to undermine the democratic process. We must make a distinction between what should be the preserve of the courts and what rightly lies with the politicians. In the context of Northern Ireland, that means a balance between issues that should be dealt with by Westminster—as the Bill of Rights would be—and what should sit with the Assembly at Stormont. Having only just devolved power there, it would be ironic if we were to tie the hands of Stormont by handing over some of their responsibility to the courts, which we would do if we drew that line in the wrong place.

 
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