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Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am a member of the Northern Ireland Bar. I am more than happy to endorse what was said courteously by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. The judiciary in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years has been a body of extraordinary courage, quality and independence. Every lawyer to whom I have ever spoken, whatever his private political beliefs, has been able to endorse that.

Amendment No. 139 gives a wide remit, and that is deliberate. I take the point about Australia. I am familiar with the Australian commissioner, Mr. Sedoti, who has done excellent work. But in Northern Ireland at present we are inching forward slowly by consent.

I think that I can say four things which should be of assistance to allay some fears. First, the Government will fully co-operate with any investigation undertaken by the commission. We will provide it with any information and any necessary documents subject only to proper adequate arrangements to protect information where confidentiality is necessary to safeguard national security, public safety and public order. I believe that that is an important undertaking which I willingly give.

Secondly, if the commission considers that it is being truly frustrated in obtaining the necessary information, we would expect the commission to say so robustly and to draw that to the attention of Parliament and the Assembly in the context of a failure to co-operate. It is then open either to the Assembly or to either House of Parliament here to take up the investigation and use its own powers to compel witnesses and the production of documents. We would not expect the commission to be shy in doing that.

Thirdly--I make this absolutely plain--the Government have not closed their mind on this issue. Indeed, we are sympathetic to the arguments advanced by noble Lords. That is why we brought forward amendments to require the commission, not later than two years after its establishment--it is a quite tight timescale--to review the adequacy of its powers. This is not the long grass syndrome; quite the reverse. Two years is quite short in the lifetime of such a commission.

Fourthly, if the commission reported that it had been frustrated in carrying out its work, we believe that that would offer a powerful case for legislation to deal with the absence of the powers. And if there were broad consensus among the Assembly that the commission should have additional powers, I undertake that the Government will look sympathetically at legislation to provide them.

I think that the wide remit and those four observations and undertakings I have given are pretty strong and, I hope, acceptable.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1544

Clause 54, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Hylton moved Amendment No. 140:

After Clause 54, insert the following new clause--

Investigations, etc

(".--(1) The Commission may conduct such investigations as they consider appropriate to determine whether a breach of--
(a) the Human Rights Act 1998, or
(b) section 61 or 62 of this Act,
has occurred or may occur.
(2) Where the Commission propose to conduct an investigation under this section, they shall publicise the fact and shall afford an opportunity to those with sufficient interest to comment on the desirability of conducting such an investigation.
(3) The Commission may require any person who in their opinion is able to furnish information or produce documents relevant to the investigation to furnish any such information or produce any such documents.
(4) For the purposes of an investigation the Commission shall have the same powers as the Court in respect of--
(a) the attendance and examination of witnesses, and
(b) the production of documents.
(5) If any person without lawful excuse obstructs the Commission or any officer of the Commission in the performance of their or his functions under this section, or is guilty of any act or omission in relation to any investigation under this section which, if that investigation were a proceeding in the Court, would constitute contempt of court, the Commission may certify the offence to the Court.
(6) Where an offence is certified under subsection (5), the Court may inquire into the matter and deal with the person referred to in that subsection in any manner in which the Court could deal with him if he had committed the like offence in relation to the Court.
(7) If, after conducting an investigation under this section, it appears to the Commission appropriate, they may lay a special report before each House of Parliament and the Assembly.
(8) In this section "Court" means the High Court in Northern Ireland.").

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, perhaps I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. I am sure that he will be well aware that the old Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights is a totally different animal from the proposed new human rights commission. They are barely comparable. I beg to move.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: There is a certain ancestry. I believe that it has established a fairly good model with good foundations for future development.

Lord Hylton: I do not deny that. I am grateful to the Minister for the four assurances he gave. However, I hope that between now and Report stage it might be possible to draw together the best points arising from Amendment No. 139 and my amendment, Amendment No. 140, in order to come forward with something new.

We have yet to consider later amendments standing in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, which concern judicial review and injunctions. Those may go some way to meeting the points I sought to raise about investigations and compulsory powers.

Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1545

9.30 p.m.

Clause 55 [Assistance to individuals]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 141:

Page 26, line 34, leave out from ("to") to end of line 38 and insert--
("(a) proceedings involving law or practice relating to the protection of human rights which a person in Northern Ireland has commenced, or wishes to commence; or
(b) proceedings in the course of which such a person relies, or wishes to rely, on such law or practice.").

The noble Lord said: Government Amendment No. 141 widens the ambit of the clause so that the commission will be able to assist persons in any proceedings which, in the view of the commission, involve the law or practice relating to the protection of human rights.

We want to give the commission a wide discretion. That is why we have brought the amendment forward. The commission will therefore be free to assist persons in cases beyond those involving breaches of rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and under what I hope will become the Human Rights Act. That was all that the Bill as originally drafted allowed. It is our intention that it should be free to assist in cases involving breaches of Clauses 61 and 62 of the Bill which deal with discrimination by public authorities and the making of unlawful oaths.

The width of the commission's remit means that there may well be some overlap with the remit of the equality commission. The Government therefore propose that the way to address the proper relationship between the commission and other relevant bodies should be in a non-statutory "memorandum of understanding" agreed between the Government and the commission and by separate non-statutory arrangements agreed between the two commissions.

I hope that the changes which the Government propose to the clause will enable the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Lester, not to seek to press Amendments Nos. 142 and 143.

Amendments Nos. 144 to 148 are technical improvements which ensure that the Bill allows the commission to assist "persons" rather than simply "individuals". I beg to move.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: Once again we are engaged in dialogue. That will go into my diary. My noble friend's amendment addresses the same point as the amendment that I shall seek to move. We do not provide quite the same answer.

Clause 55 is about the power of the commission to assist an individual in bringing proceedings. Subsection (1) defines the proceedings for which assistance may be given. As my noble friend said, as at present defined it is limited to proceedings under the Human Rights Act. He seeks to extend that as he indicated.

I appreciate that my attempt to address the problem goes wider and is subject to the criticism indicated earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that there would

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1546

be an overlap between the jurisdiction of the commission and the jurisdiction of the equality commission.

The reason why I thought the overlap might be a price worth paying was that the question arises: what would be the position if the same individual sought to rely both on the provisions of the Human Rights Act, or the further provisions which my noble friend has extended to that subsection, and the legislation relating to discrimination? It would be absurd if someone needed to go first to the human rights commission for assistance with one part of his claim and then solemnly to the equality commission for assistance with the other part, particularly if both were involved in the same proceedings.

I have considered my noble friend's amendment and I very much welcome it. Given the scheme of the Bill, I wonder whether it would meet the situation which I have endeavoured to indicate. I believe that my noble friend has now very helpfully made it clear that it is not intended to go more widely into the sphere of anti-discrimination than most of us thought. In those circumstances, if it is the Government's intention that the power should not apply, I believe that we are entitled to ask the Minister how he would address the problem of the proceedings which embrace both sets of provisions.

I noted the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I certainly would not pretend that my drafting is an improvement on his. At this stage I am content to await the debate and then we can see how to proceed from there. I believe it is right that we pay tribute to the Government. In another place Mr. Paul Murphy indicated that the Government were going to reflect on this matter in the interim period, and clearly they have done so. I am sure that they are not surprised that we also have reflected, together with a number of people closely concerned with human rights in Northern Ireland. It may be that together we can deal with the problems which exist without necessarily trespassing on the ground that troubles my noble friend.

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