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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have gone a great way and stuck my neck out to support what the Government are doing in relation to an equality commission, even though it probably angers those in the existing equality agencies which I helped to create in the 1970s. Therefore, can the Minister give them some reassurance on the point that the equality commission will have the same constitutional status as the human rights commission in such matters as reporting to Parliament, being funded out of moneys provided by Parliament and not being the creature of the Assembly? Will the Minister give some reassurance to them without going into Committee points?
Lord Dubs: My Lords, my understanding is that the human rights commission will be funded by the NIO, that is to say not by the departments that are to be devolved, but that the equality commission, because it deals with the substance of the work of those departments that are to be devolved to the new Assembly, will be funded through the Assembly and the departments that are being devolved. So the financial basis will be different as between the two bodies. I do not know how much comfort that gives the noble Lord. Perhaps he will at least accept that there is a great deal of logic in my remarks even if he is not happy about the basis of funding. It makes sense to do it in the way we are suggesting. If we are to devolve powers, it is right that the financial responsibility for the scrutiny of the way those powers are to be exercised should also go to the devolved Assembly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, asked about the expression, "or any other police force". I am advised that there are a number of smaller forces in Northern Ireland--for example, the one that provides protection for airports--and that the phrase is intended to ensure
The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, suggested that the agreement had been rushed. The difficulty is that had we not put some impetus behind the agreement in the period leading up to Good Friday it might not have happened at all. It was simply the determination of our Government and the Government of the Republic to push matters through that brought the agreement to a conclusion. Had we not done so, I fear that we might have been stuck. That does not mean that the legislation that gives effect to it must not be thought out very carefully to make sure that it reflects the agreement. As I said in my introduction, we have reflected hard and consulted a great deal during the summer in order to improve this Bill. I hope noble Lords will agree, when they see the wealth of amendments proposed, that we have certainly tried to do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, asked about the 50.1 per cent. vote under Clause 1. It is not simply an automatic procedure. The Bill embodies a consent principle. That is an important safeguard and one which the Unionist community has welcomed. The noble Lord has turned the point round the other way. There would also have to be parliamentary agreement to any such changes. Both Houses of Parliament would have to scrutinise any such legislation to give effect to the results of such a referendum. So there are some important assurances there. It will have to go through a whole procedure in Parliament and the noble Lord could have his say, if it ever reached that point. However, the arithmetic of voting in recent elections in Northern Ireland suggests that that is quite a long way off, if we ever get there.
My noble friend Lord Blease asked about the consultation that has taken place this summer regarding the various equality provisions in the legislation. My honourable friend Paul Mercer, the Minister of State, has met SACHR, the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the chairs of FEC, EOC, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Council, and has discussed all these matters with them in some detail.
The noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, asked about tax variation powers and wanted some changes in the ability of the Assembly to alter corporation tax. In our discussions leading up to the agreement, there was very little support among participants for tax-raising powers for the new Northern Ireland Assembly. We would not seek to introduce such a significant change in the package unless there were widespread support for it. The matter can, of course, be looked at in the review which the agreement envisages after four years. The Assembly, does, however, have authority in respect of the regional rate in Northern Ireland, so it does have some powers as regards the money it intends to raise.
I do not think it would be appropriate for the Government to have discussions with the Government of the Republic about abortion law. I think that how the Government of the Republic proceed is a matter better left for them.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I specifically asked him about the letter which the Secretary of State wrote in March saying that in her view this was an issue which should be devolved to the Assembly in Northern Ireland. I wondered what had happened to change the thinking on this question and why it should not be straightforwardly exempted as a matter that is determined in Northern Ireland as it is an issue which has in the past been decided on the basis of Northern Ireland's culture, beliefs and wishes, separately from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, when responsibility for criminal justice and policing is passed to the Assembly, which it is our clear intention will be the case when the conditions are appropriate, responsibility for abortion will also pass to the Assembly. That is consistent with what the Secretary of State said. For reasons which I am sure the noble Lord understands, it is appropriate at this stage for responsibility for policing, prisons and criminal justice to stay with the Secretary of State and not be transferred to the new Assembly. As I have said, the day that we transfer those powers, responsibility for abortion will be transferred as well. The noble Lord suggested that British governments were not appropriate to look after these matters for Northern Ireland, but British governments have exercised that responsibility for the past 25 years and I am not sure that they have done anything untoward with regard to Northern Ireland.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am grateful. I am sure that the Minister wishes as much as I do to avoid a debate in Committee. In that case, can the Minister give the House an assurance that the Government will not provide time for the status quo to be altered in Northern Ireland until such a time as the Northern Ireland Assembly requests such a change to be made?
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not able to give that undertaking at this stage, and the noble Lord will understand why it would not be appropriate for me to do so. I have given him a number of assurances as regards the questions he asked and I am sure he is reasonably happy with what I have said.
The noble Lord also asked about funding for FAIT. FAIT has received support from the Government's Community Relations Programme for several years. There is a current commitment for funding until the end of the present financial year. No decision has been made on funding after that period, when community relations funding will be a devolved matter for the Assembly.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the Northern Ireland human rights commission and whether that would be fully a Northern Ireland Office responsibility like SACHR and be financed by Parliament. I think I answered that point earlier.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, asked about payment made to prisoners following an event in the Maze. I saw the newspaper reports about that, but I do not have any detailed information. I believe that at least some of the reports were not accurate. It may be best if I refer the noble Lord's comments to my honourable friend Adam Ingram, the Minister responsible, as he will no doubt have more detailed information.