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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I am grateful to the Minister. I promise to try to abbreviate my later comments in these debates. However, this is a most important issue. The problem is not about whether we trust politicians. For example, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights we are bound to ensure that there is equal protection of the laws throughout the whole country and that the basic core guarantee of equality without discrimination is observed in practice equally throughout the kingdom.

Therefore, I still do not understand whether what is being said is that the responsibility for the content of the statute book and for the content of the fair employment, sex discrimination, disability discrimination and race discrimination legislation will be a matter which will remain within the protection of the Secretary of State so as to secure one common minimum standard throughout the whole country, or whether the Government's position is that the Assembly may, if it so wishes, amend that legislation and dilute the minimum standard of protection. That is what I am seeking clarification upon. All these arguments about the equality commission and whether it should have the same status as the human rights commission are, in a sense, ancillary to that basic concern. We wish to ensure equal effective protection of the same standards of equality throughout the whole country. I am seeking to find out whether the Government share that desire and whether it can be achieved during the course of our debates.

Lord Dubs: The noble Lord is getting a little ahead of me. I was going to deal eventually with some of the points that he has just mentioned, but I was trying first to deal with some of the earlier points. I shall restate what I said earlier. The existence of the equality commission as an institution is a reserved matter but the bulk of its day-to-day activities will continue to be concerned with existing anti-discrimination legislation. Indeed, there is no intention of changing the

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responsibilities of any of the four organisations which will be merged into the new body. Those four organisations and their powers will not be changed by these processes. I do not quite know what further point the noble Lord is making. However, perhaps I may deal with that later.

My noble friend Lady Lockwood asked about keeping the prohibition of indirect discrimination. That is the subject of an amendment which will be considered later. However, for the moment, perhaps I may reassure my noble friend that the existing prohibition on indirect discrimination in respect of religion, sex and race and in matters of employment will be retained. So, too, will be prohibition on indirect discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services in respect of sex and race. Indeed, the Government will soon bring forward legislation to extend this to the field of religious and political discrimination. I hope that that gives some assurance to my noble friend. As I said, the question of indirect discrimination is the subject of another amendment with which we shall deal later. However, in all these respects, the equality commission will inherit the powers and duties of the current bodies under present legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, asked a specific question about disability. The Government published proposals in a recent White Paper for the creation of a disability rights commission in Great Britain. The noble Lord suggested that similar functions could be given to the equality commission in Northern Ireland. If a disability rights commission is established in Great Britain, we hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly will give similar powers to the equality commission and resource it appropriately. In the meantime, the equality commission will be no less well resourced than the existing Disability Council which it subsumes. The working group planning the new commission will meet to consider training needs of staff, including disability awareness training.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, asked about titles. I am not quite sure what is the significance of the changes that the noble Lord suggests, but the reason for the change of nomenclature is absolutely simple; namely, we wanted to bring the titles into line with those suggested for the human rights commission and during consultation there were a number of approving comments on that proposal.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked about changes to the agreement. The position is clear. The agreement is what is to be implemented. That is what was agreed by the parties and approved by the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed by the people of the Republic. I have referred to my next point on a previous occasion. The agreement itself provides for various mechanisms of review, for example on page 9 at paragraph 36 and on page 26 at paragraphs 5 to 8. Perhaps changes will arise from such a careful, considered and inclusive process of review, but I do not think we should anticipate them now. The position is clear. The agreement is to be implemented in full. If the noble Lord cares to look at the review procedures in the Good Friday agreement, he will know to what I am referring. I repeat that the Government's position is

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clear. We have a Good Friday agreement which has been subscribed to by virtually all the political parties in the Assembly. We expect them and this Government to implement the agreement in respect of those items that are within their powers.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale: It is quite clear that some of the review procedures are entirely in the hands of the Assembly. Therefore, with cross-party participation and agreement, a review cannot only be carried out, but also substantive changes can be made. The question is, what changes?

Lord Dubs: I do not think it is appropriate at this stage to get drawn into hypothetical questions as to what may happen at some point in the future. However, I read from paragraph 8 on page 26 of the agreement which states,


    "In addition, the two Governments and the parties in the Assembly will convene a conference 4 years after the agreement comes into effect, to review and report on its operation".
We have a procedure there, although that is a long way ahead of us. The key point is to get the agreement implemented in all its respects. That is what this Government are committed to doing.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked a number of questions. He asked about reserved matters. I mentioned my next point earlier. He said that reserved matters are matters which are not devolved yet, but which soon will be devolved. I agree that they are not devolved yet, but unlike excepted matters they can be devolved in the future, if the Assembly, with cross-community support, agrees and both Houses of Parliament approve. However, it is wrong to assume that reserved matters definitely will be devolved. That may be the case, but that will be for decision at the appropriate time.

The noble Lord also asked whether Clauses 58 and 60 are in the reserved or the excepted field. The answer is to be found in government Amendments Nos. 245A and 282A to Schedules 2 and 3, which we shall probably reach tomorrow. That will clarify the position. However, paragraph 17 of Schedule 2 is being re-written. Therefore, if he hangs his argument on that, I fear that we may take the ground from under his feet.

I believe I have dealt with all the main points that have been raised. I believe that merging the four bodies into one is a positive step. Their functions will be taken over by the new commission. In addition, the equality commission will have the important functions which are now in clause 60 of the agreement. There will be a new statutory duty on public authorities. It is surely better to have one body to give effect to that statutory duty; otherwise, we would have difficulty in giving effect to that new duty, which has been widely acknowledged to be an important one.

Baroness Lockwood: I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for clarifying the responsibilities and the powers of the four existing agencies. However, when one is dealing with issues of discrimination--the Northern Ireland Equal Opportunities Commission, by a

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1976 Order in Council, has the same responsibilities and functions as the British Equal Opportunities Commission--it is often important that you can quote the Act to the people you are suggesting may be infringing it. In dealing with sex inequality and other inequalities, will it be possible for people to invoke the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, or will they have to invoke this Northern Ireland Bill, or Northern Ireland Act as it will become?

Lord Dubs: The four bodies which will form the new equality commission will retain their existing powers. Therefore the statutory basis for their powers will be unchanged, except in respect of the new responsibility of the equality commission as regards public bodies. Therefore it is perfectly proper for the new body to base its work on the statutory support which comes from the legislation which formed the existing four bodies. Therefore the answer, in short, is yes.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I apologise for having to return yet again to this matter, but it is so important and there is something I still do not understand. The Minister said that the position will remain unchanged. In the Good Friday agreement the promise that we are given under rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity is that the parties affirm--that is to say, both Governments for both countries affirm--


    "the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity".
Then we are told there is to be United Kingdom legislation--which is this Bill--and legislation in the Republic of Ireland. I am afraid I still do not understand whether the Assembly will have the power to dilute the underlying code of equality law so that--to take the example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood--it will be able to amend, subject to Community law (which is a safeguard only in respect of employment and social security) the sex discrimination order so as to weaken that, or it will be able to amend the race relations order so as to weaken that, or the disability discrimination order. Will the Assembly have the power to weaken the equality code as part of the scheme which we have in front of us? I can understand the arguments about machinery, funding and the commission, but it is that core question I have mentioned which concerns us.


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