Scope for a Bill of Rights

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Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry): Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the proportionality that he alluded to in Northern Ireland and political representation are signally absent in the composition of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission?

Mr. McNamara: I was not responsible for the appointment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Given its composition and some of the problems that it has had, to which I alluded earlier, it has struggled bravely to go ahead. However, it is interesting that the hon. Gentleman made that point when he embodies the principle of the d'Hondt system. That is why he has been a member of the Northern Ireland Executive from time to time.

Finally, the principle of consent is embodied in consensual devices such as the need for cross-community agreement as laid down in what is contained within the Assembly. I believe that those principles provide a means to address reconciliation in a divided society and further believe that the Good Friday agreement was right to suggest that they be embodied in a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Those principles must be at the core of any Bill of Rights. I believe that the process of negotiating such an extension of the agreement has the capacity to broaden the consensus so far achieved around the Good Friday agreement and that it can take the process forward. There is good reason why the model of the Good Friday agreement has inspired hope for conflict resolution across the globe. Just as Northern Ireland aspires to be a world leader in the potential for conflict resolution, so too should it provide a model for the institutionalised protection of civil and political rights, and social and economic rights.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has made an interesting and important contribution along those lines. It still has a contribution to make, but it is now for the political parties in Northern Ireland to devise a method by which agreement can be sought between the parties and can reach the key stakeholders in civic society. That is the way that the process can now be taken forward. It is important to bring the political parties together and for them to sit down and thrash out what should be in such a Bill of Rights, if that is possible. If they can come to that agreement, it will be far more important than any document produced by the commission or any Bill introduced by the Government. If, through their ideas and representation, they can find general agreement on the scope and nature of such a Bill, it would be possible by that method to ensure the general acceptance of what is being done.

I understand that the implementation group had some discussion on that matter yesterday and that a number of parties will be meeting bilaterally to see if agreement can be reached. I hope that that will happen and that that aim is achieved. If the parties, after discussion and collaboration with the diverse voices of civil society, can thrash out an agreement away from

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the Government, the Bill of Rights becomes their Bill—a Bill that all the people of Northern Ireland can share a sense of ownership of, and, once achieved, reflect on with pride.

3.55 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): First, I emphatically praise the Minister and, quite pointedly, those advisers who have contributed to his lucid and erudite speech today. It was one of the most insightful of the many speeches that I have heard him make. It was 48 minutes long, and the Minister was only ever made moribund by his own sense of fairness and his willingness to take so many interventions. As his speech went on, we got very close to the core of the issues before us.

In my judgment, the collective spirit that unites people who watch the World cup or the Eurovision song contest, so effectively organised by the people of Estonia, suggests that human beings around the world are not very different. I would go so far as to say that the underlying software in our minds is amazingly similar. That is why, I believe, human rights are basically universal and absolute. The challenge is not so much to debate that but to ensure that anything that we put forward can be applied in any circumstance of the human environment that faces us. For a long time, the Liberal Democrats have believed in the importance of a Bill of Rights, so it is encouraging that we have moved so far in these debates and that the Minister and the Government seem willing to explore the enhancement of the human rights available in the specific environment of Northern Ireland.

The Minister's comments highlight the crucial danger in such debates. It is extremely easy to mix up policies and principles. That point has already been made. The clearest analogy for me would be with physics. The laws of physics do not change, but those affecting one particular phenomenon or circumstance can have a different emphasis. In the same sense, human rights do not change but the relevance of one right or another varies according to the specific circumstances. That is my first substantive point. Success for us is not to create rights specific to Northern Ireland. It is to ensure that the rights are defined in such a way that they work in Northern Ireland, although the same rights, the same Bill, should effectively work elsewhere too.

I, for one, would be rather concerned if we believed that the citizens of Northern Ireland were entitled to certain rights that were not applicable to citizens elsewhere in the United Kingdom or elsewhere on the planet. We are not discussing culturally specific matters when we discuss rights. There is a link with the rule of law. One reason why we sometimes get confused between a right and a policy is that we miss the fact that the courts are there not to define rights, in a fundamental sense, but to apply them to the circumstances presented to them in the legal environment. That was, I think, the intention of strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement.

One reason for being extremely cautious is because of the phrase

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    ''to reflect the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland''.

The Minister rightly highlighted the danger of assuming that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are so specific that the rights need, in some way, to be different there. My second substantive point is to underline the importance of not being seduced, by the need to encourage and nurture a more normal environment in Northern Ireland, into believing that one mechanism is to introduce rights there that do not exist anywhere else. That is a direct consequence of my first point.

Mr. Barnes: Some of us feel that the hon. Gentleman's position produces some fundamental problems. He expresses a set of rationalist assumptions that absolute rights exist that can be easily worked out in any set of circumstances. However, circumstances alter cases, and special cases exist in Northern Ireland. It may well mean that the legal interpretation in Northern Ireland of human rights is somewhat different from the interpretation elsewhere, and certainly different from other sections of the world a long way away from Northern Ireland.

Lembit Öpik: That is exactly the debate before us, and the hon. Gentleman is entitled to make that point. He is right: I do take a rationalist view when it comes to rights. I believe that if we are successful in this matter—not without difficulty—we can define rights in such a way that they would be applicable in Estonia, Zimbabwe, America or Northern Ireland and that what would change is the specific application of the points. For example, as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) made it clear, the consultation document refers to proportional representation. Everyone knows that the Liberal Democrats are in favour of proportional representation—fair votes. To me, that is not a right but the application of a right. Perhaps the fundamental right is the right to expect one's voice to be heard in a proportionate fashion when it comes to electing politicians to service. D'Hondt may be a great system, but it is not a right; it is an application. If we phrase the rights correctly, the application will be determined by local politicians and tested by local courts. Right hon. and hon. Members are entitled to draw their own conclusions, but that is the submission that I would like to make, given that it has already been confirmed that the debate today is to be taken as part of the consultation.

The Minister rather modestly sought to distance himself from the possibility that this was a philosophical debate. Qualified as I am with a 2:1 single honours degree in philosophy from Bristol university, I feel confident to bestow on him at least a temporary honorary degree in philosophy for the purpose of the debate today, because it is a matter of philosophical consideration to determine which of us is correct in our assumptions.

Mr. Barnes: Having studied philosophy—I did it as a special joint degree—I am surprised that none of those rationalist assumptions were challenged and removed from the hon. Gentleman.

Lembit Öpik: As the hon. Gentleman has a joint honours degree, he is obviously twice as clever as I am

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and has, perhaps, showed charity by not challenging me further.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford made similar points. He gave some insightful examples of where we risk mixing up policies and rights. He rightly pointed out that the right to physical and mental well-being may, in fact, be the application of a right, whereas the right is that individuals should expect society to maximise their well-being in specific fashions. The right to expect the absence of violence against women may be a specific policy application of a fundamental right not to experience violence from other human beings. However, even that is conditional. Britain has recently embarked on a war against terrorism and, inevitably, individuals have been harmed as a result.

Therefore, my third substantive point is that one cannot get away from the fact that rights exist in a hierarchy—that has already been alluded to in the debate—and that if we are to create something workable in the consultation, we must recognise that there is a priority of rights in application, each subject to the next. The consequence of not doing that will be to create a situation that is impossible to enforce. We will create a situation in which the law has to be interpreted by courts, whether there is a contradiction or not, and we will put public servants or individuals who fall foul of those contradictions in an impossible and probably litigious situation.

That brings me to my fourth substantive point. My feeling is that it is hard to get to the fundamental rights, but the more simply we define such rights, the more effective they will be. I would suggest that rather than seeking rules, we are looking for guidelines. For me personally, the guidelines relate to maximising the freedom of individuals to live as they please, and in that context, to minimise the harm that we do to each other as we live out our lives. Freedom and the no-harm principle are familiar to anyone who has studied philosophy before. There may be others, but I suggest those because the simpler we make the definition, the more effective it can be. Mr. McWilliam, you gave a good example earlier on when you generously allowed us to take our jackets off if we wished. An alternative would have been to assume that we had the right to sit in a cooler room. Even there we could have had a debate achieving the same result in two different ways. It is not at all easy to get that hierarchy correct, but unless we do, we will end up with significant difficulties.

I have three more short points—[Interruption.] I ask hon. Members to contain their excitement because they will no doubt be able to make their points as well. I continue to be concerned about the ''both communities'' terminology. Northern Ireland is not two communities, but many. I fear that the more often we say things such as

    ''mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities'',

the more we inadvertently discriminate against those people who do not want to be regarded as part of one of those two main, admittedly large, communities.

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What about the Baha'is, the Chinese or the few Estonians who live in Northern Ireland and adamantly feel that those categorisations do not work? I will take this the last intervention, Mr. McWilliam, and I commit to finish in the next two minutes.

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