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Lord Kingsland: The Opposition believe that Amendment No. 133 is rather premature. In relation to Amendment No. 134, it would be impertinent of me to add anything to what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said, with which I entirely concur.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: The noble Lord, Lord Monson, said that if these amendments were agreed it would be a litigious paradise for lawyers. That is a compelling argument for my accepting the amendment. However, I shall resist that temptation.

We have not strictly defined human rights in the Bill and I am happy to repeat that if the commission chooses to concern itself with human rights involving issues of discrimination it will be free to do so without the need for special provision. We want it to develop organically with its own sense of purpose and priorities in a very difficult situation.

Amendment No. 134, as has been said, would subsume the functions of the equality commission into the human rights commission. We are trying as far as possible to implement the Belfast agreement, which envisaged an equality commission and a human rights commission as two distinct bodies. I therefore invite my noble friend Lord Desai not to press the amendment.

Lord Desai: I thank all Members of this Committee who have spoken in the debate. I am reassured by what my noble friend Lord Williams said on Amendment No. 133 and take heart from that. Before I proceed to withdraw the amendment perhaps I may say that the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in general in relation to the unequal status of the two bodies should perhaps make him favour equality issues coming under an independent human rights commission, which would have a higher status than an equality commission. However, I shall not press that.

I see that there is a difference, but eventually I consider these things to be very much a part of the European Convention on Human Rights, the universal declaration or the social and political rights convention and they could be merged. I do not want to press that. I am grateful for my noble friend's comments and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 134 not moved.]

Lord Hylton moved Amendment No. 135:

Page 26, line 9, at end insert--
("(2A) The Executive Committee of the Assembly shall refer all proposed Bills in draft to the Commission.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 135 should perhaps have been inserted earlier in the Bill to replace Clause 11(4)(a) which requires Bills to be sent to the commission as soon as reasonably practicable after introduction.

The purpose of my amendment is to save time and to enable human rights scrutiny to begin while Bills are still in draft form and therefore are probably more malleable. I trust that this is a simple proposal which is likely to have good and practical consequences.

In moving Amendment No. 135, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 136 and 138 which stand in my name. These amendments widen the scope of the commission's work slightly by giving it a right to look at, and to comment on, Westminster Bills which could affect human rights in Northern Ireland. As I understand it, "the Secretary of State" mentioned means the Secretary of State responsible for a particular Bill or for the subject matter of a Private Member's Bill. It would be most unfortunate if some oversight here in Westminster or in Whitehall were to prejudice human rights in Northern Ireland. Those amendments, and Amendment No. 137 which is consequential, are intended to prevent such a possibility. I beg to move.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: The amendments which stand in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, seek to provide that the executive committee of the Assembly shall refer all proposed Bills to the commission. I entirely agree with that. Indeed, I agree with everything that the noble Lord said and, at this time in the evening I do not think that the argument would benefit if I were to repeat what he said.

I derive a further feeling of comfort from the fact that, following discussion elsewhere, the Bill now provides that the commission shall not have to wait for a request from the Assembly before tendering advice; it may tender unsolicited advice. Those who care about human rights in Northern Ireland are grateful for that. A commission which was not empowered to tender unsolicited advice would be a poor thing indeed.

I pay tribute to the receptive ears of my noble friends on the Front Bench who have responded to some of our representations. It is always a delight when either my noble friend Lord Dubs or my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn responds to one of our amendments.

Lord Dubs: Oh!

Lord Archer of Sandwell: I do not expect that flattery will carry my cause very much further, but I thought that that should be said.

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I rise to speak simply to my amendment, Amendment No. 136A, which seeks to address the converse anxiety. At present, as I understand it, the Bill would compel the commission to respond to any request for advice from the Executive or the Assembly. Those of us who have been involved with non-governmental organisations, commissions and quangos know that if the commission receives too many requests it may well become over-burdened, especially if its resources are limited--and somehow I do not see this particular coffer being overflowing. The commission could then be inhibited from concentrating on the Bills which it believes demand its concentration. I believe that the commission will be more effective if it has full control over its own workload. I am assuming that normally it will want to respond to requests for advice. However, I believe that it should be left to the commission to apportion its own resources. My amendment would provide that the commission is not bound to respond to every request for advice and, in due course, as at present advised, I shall seek to move it.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I entirely agree with everything that has been said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell. I support Amendment No. 136A, which stands in his name, for the reasons that he has given, including not overloading the human rights commission.

I entirely agree with the aim of Amendment No. 135. I simply wonder whether the matter could be dealt with without writing it on the face of the Bill but by an undertaking being given by the Government that they would expect all proposed Bills to be referred to the human rights commission before publication. Perhaps the standing orders of the Assembly should be amended to ensure compliance with that. Obviously, it is sensible for all proposed Bills to be referred to the human rights commission before publication--that is, before public positions have been taken up--rather as in France the Council of State considers draft legislation at an early stage.

On Amendment No. 137, I believe that, for the reasons given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, its provisions would be a time-consuming and oppressive remedy and I would not favour that.

The provisions of Amendment No. 138 would make sense because the Westminster Parliament will still have the ability to enact legislation that may affect human rights in Northern Ireland and therefore it seems sensible to enable the human rights commission to comment on Westminster legislation of that kind. Westminster would retain the obligation to observe international human rights conventions, but it would be logical for the commission also to have that function.

Lord Kingsland: I have some reservations about the executive committee referring all proposed Bills to the commission in draft. It seems to me as a matter of principle to contravene the separation of powers. Informal discussions between the commission and the executive committee would be perfectly proper. In my

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view, the development of such a practice would meet adequately the concerns expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell.

On the other hand, I entirely endorse what lies behind the drafting of subsection (3A) as suggested in Amendment No. 136A. The obligation for the commission to advise the Assembly on every Bill would be not only excessively onerous on the commission, but also, in terms of the business of the Assembly, excessively onerous on the Assembly. For that reason, I am greatly attracted by the amendment and urge the Government to consider it seriously.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Again, I am grateful for the contributions that have been made because I do not think that the end purpose towards which we are working differs between us. Essentially, it is a matter of emphasis and judgment.

Perhaps I may deal with the amendments in sequence. Amendments Nos. 135, 136, 137 and 138 stand in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. They would add to the existing requirement in Clause 11 for the Assembly to refer a copy of each Bill, as soon as reasonably practicable, to the Northern Ireland human rights commission. One of the commission's key functions is to consider draft legislation referred to it by the Assembly. We think that Clause 11 has got it about right. It requires that all legislation be referred to the commission, but with the commission having the appropriate and necessary freedom to give its advice only when it thinks necessary, except in those cases where the Assembly specifically requests such advice. If the Assembly so decides, it could refer proposed legislation to the commission at a much earlier stage. For those reasons, which I have given shortly, I believe that Clause 11 has got it about right, bearing in mind that we want the Assembly to have discretion within appropriate parameters.

The amendments would also require Bills introduced in Parliament to be submitted to the commission if they appear to affect human rights in Northern Ireland. We do not think that that is necessary because Westminster Bills will be subject to the regime proposed in the Human Rights Bill to ensure that Ministers consider their compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights. As is well known to the Committee, in the future every Minister introducing a Bill will have to certify compatibility or non-compatibility with the convention. That will be part of a Minister's duties when introducing a Bill.

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