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Lord Dubs: This method worked well after the Assembly elections, bearing in mind the speed with which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were elected in shadow or designate mode. We have a method here which will stand the test of time. With all due respect to the noble Lord, some of his objections are rather theoretical. It has already been shown that the method works in practice and it will work in the future. We are dealing with a very short period of time during which there may be a need for an alternate. That is all.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: I have one last concern in relation to the appointment of an alternate. The amendment says that,

in other words, to be the alternate. Is it expected that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will name an alternate on day one in office? Are they able then to give another notice saying that they withdraw the first notice because they do not want A to be the alternate, they want B to be the alternate? Apart from anything else, the alternate may cease to be a Minister and even in the best regulated parties there are shifts of opinion which lead to reshuffles and differences of opinion about people. The First Minister may wish to issue a second notice. I cannot see any provision for that, but it may be implied by the words of the amendment.

Lord Dubs: Let us apply a bit of logic and common sense to this. Clearly there may be situations when the

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alternate might die and a new name has to be put forward. Common sense suggests exactly what the noble Lord said; that is, that it is implied that if the First Minister or Deputy First Minister wishes to change the name of the alternate in each case they would be able to do so. That is my understanding. If I am mistaken, I shall quickly inform the noble Lord.

Lord Skelmersdale: Apart from the fact that I asked about Amendment No. 33 and paragraph (b), the Minister may like to think a little further about his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Holme.

Amendment No. 33 deals happily with resignation, and as far as I can judge the opinion of the Members of the Committee, we all understand that situation. But the amendment goes on to say, "or otherwise". By definition "otherwise" must refer back to Amendment No. 32:

    "during any absence or incapacity ... or during any vacancy in that office arising otherwise than under subsection (6)(a)".
I should have thought it was clear in the Bill that there would be an alternate under those circumstances. If for one reason or another the one is unable to perform the job, then the other is also ruled out of court and alternates have to appear in both positions. That makes my confusion even greater. Notwithstanding the fact that there is an alternate on the scene--indeed, two alternates--the original First Minister or Deputy First Minister who has not disappeared may continue to exercise the functions of his office. I repeat, what is the alternate to do?

Lord Dubs: I am not totally clear what the noble Lord's confusion is. The amendments seem to spell out the position. Amendment No. 33 says, "By resignation or otherwise". "Otherwise" could be by death or exclusion through the processes contained in other parts of the Bill, and by that one of the Ministers would be out of office. However, the other would cease to hold office but continue to exercise the functions of that office. In the case of the Minister who had resigned, died or whatever, the alternate would exercise the functions of that office for a period up to six weeks. It is straightforward. If I have not understood the noble Lord's point, I regret that, and perhaps he would care to make it clearer.

Lord Skelmersdale: I shall try. We are talking of two people, A and B, and their alternates, C and D. If for any reason A is unable temporarily to fulfil his office, he may nominate C. But at the same time, through that action according to the Bill as about to be amended and as I read it, B also has to go and he has D as his replacement alternate. However, I am not sure why D is there because B can continue to exercise the functions of his office notwithstanding that he is no longer either Deputy First Minister or First Minister.

Lord Dubs: I still believe that Amendments Nos. 32 and 33 are clear. For example, if the First Minister were to resign, the Deputy First Minister would go on exercising the functions of the office until the election was held for both posts, and that would be within a

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six-week period. The Minister who resigned would be replaced by an alternate for the period up to six weeks when the election was held. That ensures continuity of government and I should have thought it was plain.

If a Minister is temporarily unable to carry out the functions of his office, he can nominate an alternate. But the other Minister loses office only if there is a vacancy in office A. Is that not clear?

Lord Skelmersdale: The Minister asked me a question. What he said is certainly clear but I shall have to study it carefully in Hansard to see whether it meets with what is in the Bill as amended. I do not believe that is so, but I shall check up. Perhaps there could be some consultation with the Minister or his advisers to satisfy me that the Bill, as about to be amended, is correct.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 32:

Page 7, line 28, at end insert--
("(4A) The holder of the office of First Minister or deputy First Minister may by notice in writing to the Presiding Officer designate a Northern Ireland Minister to exercise the functions of that office--
(a) during any absence or incapacity of the holder; or
(b) during any vacancy in that office arising otherwise than under subsection (6)(a);
but a person shall not have power to act by virtue of paragraph (a) for a continuous period exceeding 6 weeks.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Dubs moved Amendments Nos. 33 and 34:

Page 7, line 35, leave out from ("office") to end of line 36 and insert ("at any time, whether by resignation or otherwise, the other--
(a) shall also cease to hold office at that time; but
(b) may continue to exercise the functions of his office until the election required by subsection (7).").
Page 7, line 38, leave out ("are vacant") and insert ("become vacant at any time").

The noble Lord said: With the leave of the Committee, I shall move Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 en bloc. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 35:

Page 7, line 38, at end insert ("within a period of six weeks beginning with that time").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move.

Lord Renton: Perhaps we could come back to Amendment No. 35 at Report stage and ask the Minister to think carefully in the meantime about what has been said in relation to this amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 14, as amended, agreed to.

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Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 36:

After Clause 14, insert the following new clause--

Ministerial offices

(".--(1) The First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly may at any time, and shall where subsection (2) applies, determine--
(a) the number of Ministerial offices to be held by Northern Ireland Ministers; and
(b) the functions to be exercisable by the holder of each such office.
(2) This subsection applies where provision is made by an Act of the Assembly for establishing a new Northern Ireland department or dissolving an existing one.
(3) In making a determination under subsection (1), the First Minister and the deputy First Minister shall ensure that the functions exercisable by those in charge of the different Northern Ireland departments existing at the date of the determination are exercisable by the holders of different Ministerial offices.
(4) The number of Ministerial offices shall not exceed 10 or such greater number as the Secretary of State may by order provide.
(5) A determination under subsection (1) shall not have effect unless it is approved by a resolution of the Assembly passed with cross-community support.").

The noble Lord said: These amendments deal with a technical but highly important part of the Bill--the workings of the d'Hondt formula for appointing Ministers. Some Members of the Committee will have had the benefit of a brief guide to this system, including a worked example in a letter I sent out recently. A copy is in the Library.

The new clause in Amendment No. 36 sets out the circumstances in which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister may make a "determination" setting out the number of ministerial posts and the functions exercisable by their holders. These determinations need to be approved by the Assembly on a cross-community basis.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be able to introduce determinations when they choose but will have to do so if legislation has been passed creating or dissolving a Northern Ireland department, since it would clearly be wrong to create a new department without ensuring it has a Minister in charge. In addition to new determinations which set out what we might call the "machinery of government", the Bill also needs provision for the d'Hondt formula to be re-run within the existing framework of departmental responsibility.

The amendments to Clause 15 itself set out the circumstances in which the d'Hondt formula is re-run. As Members of the Committee who have been attending these debates will know all too well, the d'Hondt formula is a means of allocating posts proportionally, based on party strengths in the Assembly. The formula will obviously need to be re-run after every Assembly election to take account of changed party strengths. In addition, the amendment provides for re-runs in other circumstances; for example, when a party is excluded from office leaving its seats vacant or when a party's period of exclusion comes to an end and its entitlement to hold office has to be accommodated. The Assembly will also be able to set out other circumstances in its standing orders when d'Hondt could be re-run.

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The other amendments deal with technical issues, such as what happens when a party declines to provide a nominee for a post to which it is entitled.

Amendments Nos. 42 and 43 deal with how to define "S", which is the figure in the d'Hondt formula reflecting the number of seats the party has in the Assembly. The revised definition defines "S" as the number of seats a party held at the first meeting of the Assembly. It therefore does not take account of subsequent changes in party strengths in the Assembly.

I must, however, urge the Committee to reject the two amendments put down by my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester. These would have the effect of requiring the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in a determination under the new clause to provide for a "Department of Equal Opportunities".

There is much in the agreement about the importance of strong equality provisions underpinning the new political settlement in Northern Ireland. But my noble friend's amendment goes flatly against the wording of the agreement, which clearly leaves the political and administrative question of whether there should be a specific department dealing with equality to the Assembly.

I quote from paragraph 7 of the "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity" section of the agreement, which states:

    "It would be open to a new Northern Ireland Assembly to consider bringing together its responsibilities for these matters into a dedicated Department of Equality".
It is certainly the Government's intention that the new equality provisions will give proper emphasis to the needs of the disabled. My noble friend has spent many years of his political life extremely effectively advancing the cause of disabled persons. I know that he would want to see no diminution in commitment in Northern Ireland to the needs of disabled people there. I assure him that it is the Government's intention that that will be the case in the future, but it will be up to the Assembly to take these matters further.

The Assembly will have the power to establish a department of equality, if it so wishes, but I suggest to my noble friend that it is not appropriate that this legislation contains such a provision because we are dealing, in effect, with an agreement which does not contain such a provision. I beg to move.

7 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester: I rise to speak to my Amendments Nos. 38, 39, 130, 133, 134, 150 and 153, to which my very good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is a co-signatory. There is no one in this House or anywhere else who has done more to improve the well-being and status of the severely disabled people whom he works so tirelessly to help. I am delighted to see him in his place, just as I am to see and hopefully later also to hear two other dear friends, the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, as the debate proceeds.

This is my maiden speech--on the Northern Ireland Bill. Thus I shall be brief--I hope not neglectfully so--in addressing my amendments.

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I do so with an interest to declare as a compulsive legislator on disability issues over the past 34 years, both as a private Member and a former Minister, not least for the disabled people of Northern Ireland, and I drafted the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill that prompted the present Leader of the Opposition in another place, as the then Minister for Disabled People, to enact the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995.

My amendments seek to reflect the concerns put to me by Monica Wilson, the chief executive of Disability Action in Northern Ireland, which has over 180 member groups. They cover every aspect of disability: physical and mental, sensory and hidden.

They believe strongly that unification of the existing commissions should not take place at this time. They point out that the vast majority of respondents to the White Paper disagreed with this proposal and that the Government said this issue was "subject" to the outcome of public consultation. Disability Action does not oppose the ultimate amalgamation of the equality bodies in Northern Ireland but argues cogently that this is not the appropriate time to do so.

They also explain why. A single unified commission, they believe, will create a hierarchy of discrimination in Northern Ireland, with religion dominating both resources and status, followed by gender and race, with disability last in the pecking order. I quote from Monica Wilson's statement to me:

    "Any equality legislation depends on case law to embed it into our society. The absence of a Northern Ireland Disability Rights Commission will severely restrict the development of such case law and will mean that the quality of advice on this complex area of discrimination will be significantly diminished".
She goes on to ask:

    "If government is set on the harmonisation of the Commissions, where is the logic in refusing to consider harmonising the legislation?".
The Bill does not impose a clear duty on public authorities to prepare statutory equality schemes, although this was envisaged by the agreement. Public authorities will have to prepare such schemes only if requested to do so by the equality commission.

Disability Action think requirements for statutory equality schemes and impact assessments should appear on the face of the Bill, instead of being left to be dealt with in guidance; and that the Bill should prohibit all discrimination, whatever its source or sector, whereas currently it prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion and politics.

Turning from equality to human rights issues, Disability Action want the Human Rights Commission (HRC) to be empowered to take cases in its own name without having to find an individual around whom to frame its actions. They believe this was envisaged in the agreement but is not currently provided for. Again, they believe that the HRC should be given the power to investigate human rights abuses or patterns of abuse. To do this, it must, of course, have powers of discovery of documents and to call witnesses; but if the Bill is passed as it stands it will not meet minimum international standards for HRCs.

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In many respects, the content of the White Paper has been overtaken by the Good Friday agreement. An already complex picture is further complicated by the existence of the Disability Rights Taskforce, the United Kingdom body established to define and plan the actions, structures and legislation needed to deliver the Government's manifesto pledge of comprehensive, enforceable civil rights for people with disabilities. Your Lordships will have noted, too, that shortly before the issuing of the White Paper the Disability Rights Taskforce had agreed that disability rights commissions be established in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

With many others here and in another place, I hope to see the Government's manifesto commitment put into statutory effect in the new Session of Parliament that begins next month. I hope very much as well that this Northern Ireland Bill is not enacted in a form that will require it to be amended when the new legislation comes before Parliament, which would be wasteful both of parliamentary time and public resources.

In the interests of brevity, there is but one further point I wish to make. Like Disability Action in Northern Ireland, I deeply regret that the White Paper, as an official consultation document addressing issues of such importance in the overall social inclusion agenda, was not published in a range of formats making its contents available to people with visual and hearing impairments or with learning disabilities. Clearly if consultation is not to exclude them, the contents of consultation documents must be made available in the formats that meet their particular communication needs. If this is not done, then disability agencies should be funded to act as consultation intermediaries to communicate all relevant information to people to whom "ordinary print" is not accessible. Disability Action would welcome an opportunity to discuss this, among other important matters, with the Secretary of State and in due course with representatives of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which I hope can be arranged.

I am sure my noble friend the Minister will want to make the most helpful possible response to my amendments and trust it will be one disabled people in Northern Ireland, whose concerns are shared by others on both sides of both Houses of Parliament, can accept as fair to their rightful claims.

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