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Lord Cooke of Islandreagh: The amendment proposes new institutions for Northern Ireland relating to human rights, and subsequent amendments seek to create new institutions. In considering these amendments, I ask the Committee to have regard to the influence that they may have on the economy of Northern Ireland.

All my working life I have been involved in manufacturing, distribution and other activities relating to the Northern Ireland economy. Its fabric is delicate

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and requires sensitivity. We sometimes forget that, without a thriving economy, we cannot pay for an Assembly, with the high salaries offered to so many.

Small companies are very important in the private sector in Northern Ireland. To cite a simple statistic, 78 per cent. of all the companies there employ fewer than 20 people, but they employ 32 per cent. of those employed in the private sector. It is important that we have regard to the problems of such companies. They have to deal with the rate of change--which everywhere is almost frightening in what is undoubtedly a global economy. It means that the managers of small companies are wholly engaged in looking after those companies in these changing times.

Small companies in particular have little or no time to spare to attend to the demands of bureaucracy in all its forms. In recent years we have had to conform to European directives, sometimes at considerable cost, and the Fair Employment Commission has imposed an additional load. For instance, there is a requirement to keep notes of all interviews with prospective employees for at least three years in case someone may claim discrimination, which is quite common. That imposes a very great load on small companies.

The perception is that employers in Northern Ireland are sectarian. That is far from the reality. In the past 30 years there has been surprisingly little trouble of a sectarian or community nature on the shop floor. Employers and employees have come to understand the importance of fair employment and no discrimination.

The regulations relating to fair employment and equality of treatment impose a significant cost on small businesses. It is hard to quantify, but in the case of my own company, employing some 100 people, compliance with those regulations costs several thousand pounds a year. We cannot afford a specialist to study all the regulations with regard to fair employment and other matters and employ a consultant to advise us on all matters concerning employment and dismissals.

We must therefore be very careful in regard to any new regulations. No matter how desirable they appear, we must have regard to the effect that they will have on business generally, and on small businesses in particular.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: This new clause contains several different proposals. First, it seeks to postpone the start of the new human rights commission provisions for between four and six years. That is not desirable, primarily because of the promise given in the Belfast agreement. Paragraph 5 on page 17 of the agreement, in the section headed, "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity", states firmly:


    "A new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission ... will be established by Westminster legislation, independent of Government",
etc.

It is important that that is carried out. It is certainly important in the minds of some people who supported the Belfast agreement in the belief that this would happen. It has been a significant element. Whether we like it or not, this is a deal in which all the pieces have

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to be accepted at this point, desirable or otherwise. I am therefore not in sympathy with the idea of simply postponing the start of the human rights commission for four to six years.

Subsection (3) of the amendment seeks a review of the legislation with regard to the Fair Employment Commission and the other equality commissions that presently exist in Northern Ireland. We shall return to this matter later; it does not fall very naturally at this point. Under the Belfast agreement there is certainly more latitude in relation to what happens over this aspect. I have some sympathy with the idea of a single equality commission replacing the four existing bodies.

The amendment proposes, thirdly, that in due course there should be additional legislation to prohibit discrimination on the additional grounds of age and sexual orientation. I do not object to consideration being given to that over a period, but I would prefer to leave it aside for the moment until we have solved the problems and established the machinery for human rights and the new equality commission or whatever is eventually decided upon on the existing basis. The constitution of the United Kingdom is in a state of upheaval, as we have already discussed, but the constitution and the institutions of Northern Ireland are in an even greater state of upheaval. We are stepping into uncharted territory. We are full of optimism as we do so, but the more extra matters we try to bolt on at the same time, the more risks we take. This may be only a small risk, but it exists.

I share with the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, a reluctance to have additional regulations, for the sake of small businesses, in particular. We discussed this matter briefly the other evening when I expressed my view. Additional regulations should be carefully pondered before they are imposed upon small businesses, particularly in Northern Ireland where the employment and economic situation will have a lot to do with whether all these matters succeed and where political and security factors also affect the situation. The employment and economic situation remains important and extremely delicate. It is for that reason that I have hesitations about the third element of the new clause.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): Within this group of amendments are those standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. He may wish to address the Committee before I reply.

Lord Hylton: Amendment No. 131, the first of my amendments, has been degrouped and stands by itself.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: That amendment has been decoupled but still within the group are the noble Lord's Amendments Nos. 284 and 285.

Lord Hylton: May we deal with those amendments when we come to the schedules?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am happy to deal with the matter as is convenient to the Committee. The amendments are grouped. I was simply offering the noble Lord the opportunity to speak to them.

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The new clause proposed in Amendment No. 130 would postpone the establishment of the human rights commission for at least four years to allow time for further consultation and would require a review of existing anti-discrimination legislation. As has been observed, the setting up of a human rights commission is a fundamental part of the Belfast agreement. We wish to set it up as soon as possible, as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, pointed out.

There has already been a great deal of consultation with interested organisations. Amendment No. 132, to which I shall come later, would require the commission to carry out a review of its powers and functions within two years of its establishment.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton wishes, I shall not refer at this point to Amendments Nos. 284 and 285. Government Amendments Nos. 286 and 287 are technical amendments which make it possible for employment by the commission to fall under the terms of a superannuation scheme under the Superannuation Act 1972. Originally within this group were Amendments Nos. 288, 289 and 290, also standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. I do not speak to those, either, if he wishes them to be decoupled.

Dealing with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, much of the current equality legislation on fair employment--equal opportunities, for instance--is already within the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Department of Economic Development. The agreement makes it plain that all existing responsibilities of Northern Ireland departments are to be devolved. If we withheld this body of equality law from devolution, that would be contrary to the agreement.

I agree that equality is fundamental and central to the agreement. I believe that the safeguards in the agreement and this Bill will ensure that in practice the Assembly will not sweep away important protections. If necessary, votes in the Assembly can require cross-community support.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I perfectly understand that responsibility rests with the Northern Ireland department so far as enforcement is concerned at a departmental level. But am I not right in thinking that, so far as the Scotland Bill is concerned, responsibility for equality law is not to be devolved to the Scottish parliament and that, so far as the Northern Ireland Bill is concerned, as it now stands, subject to any amendment that may be tabled later, responsibility for equality law is not devolved? Equality law is a matter for which provision is made by the Northern Ireland Bill, as referred to in Schedule 2, paragraph 17. Would it not, therefore, be a departure from the scheme for Scotland, the scheme in the Northern Ireland Bill and the pattern of existing UK legislation as a whole if responsibility for making and amending the equality law were now to be transferred from this Parliament to the Northern Ireland Assembly?

I hope my question is clear. I am sorry that it is so long but, in order to make it intelligible, one has to go back to the Scotland Bill and the schedule to the

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Northern Ireland Bill and the fact that so far legislation on equality has been made by a mixture of primary legislation by Parliament--for example, the Equal Pay Act--and by devolved legislation made by Order in Council in relation to gender and race and primary legislation in relation to the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Acts of 1976 and 1989. Would it not be a major departure if we were later to amend the schedule and then devolve the whole of equality legislation to be entirely in the gift of the Northern Ireland Assembly, subject only to Community law and the limited guarantees in the Human Rights Bill? This may be a matter on which the Minister would prefer to write rather than give an off-the-cuff answer today. I suggest that it is a very important issue.


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