|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: It is my fault. I am not dealing with the equality commission at all. I am dealing with the state of the substantive law. I am putting it to the Minister that there is no difference in substance between sex discrimination law on this side of the Irish Sea and sex discrimination law in Northern Ireland. The same is true of race discrimination, and the same is true of disability discrimination. That is all post the 1973 constitution. It is not dealt with in the Good Friday agreement. What I do not understand is why, given the identical nature of legislation on both sides of the Irish Sea, the Government do not think it necessary to reserve the fabric, scope and content of that law so that it is in complete harmony on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Lord Dubs: I do not wish to brush aside the noble Lord's argument, but I feel we have been here before over the past three Committee days. However, I shall certainly do my best to deal with the point.
We are dealing with departments, the work of which comes under the assembly. We are then dealing with an equality commission which is part of the body of law to which the noble Lord referred. The equality commission oversees the way in which those departments carry out some of their functions. It seemed to us wrong in principle that that oversight should be carried out from London, thereby weakening the responsibility of the Assembly to legislate for these matters in Northern Ireland. That would be an attempt to keep a grip on the Assembly when what we are trying to do is to give the Assembly a certain independence in these matters so that it can exercise full responsibility. Otherwise, it is still being tethered to Whitehall.
I should have thought that, in the interests of giving the Assembly freedom of action on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, it is right and proper that it has that freedom as regards its responsibilities. I am not sure that I can persuade the noble Lord. All I can say is that that is the argument as the Government see it. I appreciate that he takes a different point of view. I am not sure that we are going to be able to persuade each other--at least I may still be able to persuade him although I am afraid that he is not going to be able to persuade the Government--but I have listened carefully to his arguments and I shall go on doing so.
I turn to the detail of the amendments. There are a large number of government amendments. However, a large proportion of them are purely technical and are intended to improve or clarify the drafting to bring definitions up to date where technology has moved on, and to improve consistency. There are some on which I shall touch in rather more detail.
Amendments Nos. 220, 221 and 222 would have the effect of moving a number of issues into the excepted field from the transferred and reserved fields. Amendment No. 220 would except the functions of the First and Deputy First Ministers and Northern Ireland Ministers as well as the functions in relation to Northern Ireland of any Minister of the Crown. I am not sure that I really understand the noble Lord's intention in this amendment since the functions of Northern Ireland Ministers and departments could not be excepted matters. But the Committee will note that the Government are bringing forward Amendment No. 253, which will reserve the conferral of functions of a Minister of the Crown in relation to Northern Ireland.
Amendment No. 221 would except Crown and government property, whereas we consider it right that, for the most part, it should be a reserved matter. As I said in my opening remarks, there are a number of areas where we have preferred the reserved field to the excepted field, and this is one such area. However, government Amendments Nos. 222 and 253A are relevant to this point since they provide that Crown property used by the armed forces of the Crown and the Ministry of Defence police will be an excepted matter. This is in line with the exception of both the armed
Finally in this group, Amendment No. 223 would except the foreshore, seabed and subsoil and their natural resources. Again, this is a matter where we consider it appropriate to allow for the possibility of the Assembly being able to legislate, with the Secretary of State's consent. This amendment would also have the effect of casting doubt on the reservation of the foreshore and seabed and other matters in paragraph 4 of Schedule 3. I appreciate that the categorisation is not always clear, but, as I have said, putting matters in the reserved field does not necessarily mean that we consider them suitable for transfer. However, it does allow us a little more flexibility.
Perhaps I may deal with some of the specific questions that were asked during the course of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked whether the important functions of the First and Deputy First Minister provided for in the Belfast agreement are transferred under the Bill. The answer is, no. Government Amendments Nos. 243A and 282A are drafted to ensure that the Assembly cannot do away with any of the important functions of the First and Deputy First Minister as conferred under the Bill.
I was asked about Ministers of the Crown. Amendment No. 253 makes conferring the functions on Ministers of the Crown a reserved matter. As regards property, government Amendment No. 253A makes UK government property a reserved matter. As regards the foreshore, the seabed and so on, that is reserved in paragraph 4 of Schedule 3.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, asked a question about boundaries at sea. Under Clause 6, the Assembly can legislate for Northern Ireland. Under Clause 80(1), this extends to so much of the internal waters and territorial sea of the UK as are adjacent to Northern Ireland. Amendment No. 214, which was agreed yesterday, allows Her Majesty by Order in Council to prescribe the boundaries of Northern Ireland waters, so there can be no doubt about that.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about contamination at sea and submarine cables. The intended reservation, not exception, of the foreshore, seabed and so on, aims to allow the Assembly to legislate for them so far as this does not deal with other excepted matters. The Secretary of State will then be able to exercise control over this.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked some questions about paragraph 17. Despite the exception, the Assembly can only confer functions within its legislative competence. Paragraph 17, as we propose it should be amended, will prevent it from interfering with the functions of Ministers set out in the Bill. As for the conferral of functions on a Minister of the Crown, to which the noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred, even in the transferred field that will, under a later amendment, Amendment No. 253, be a reserved matter and so will need consent.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: Before the noble Lord sits down, I am afraid that I wish to press him further on those matters which are or should be excepted. I think it would be understood by these Benches, and it is the Government's obvious wish, that international obligations prevent us being able to devolve such matters as must by definition be excepted. So when he replied to my noble friend just now on questions of equality, whether sex, disability or race relations, is he absolutely satisfied that in devolving to the Northern Ireland Assembly--quite unlike Scotland--the ability to vary that legislation, the Government are in compliance with their international obligations such as the international covenant on civil and human rights? Taking off from that, even if the Government are in compliance with international obligations on all these equality matters, how can it be right to say--and I am afraid we have to press this--that in Scotland those are matters for the British Parliament to decide? We have good protection of equality in British law, and we have decided that that shall continue to obtain in Scotland. But in Northern Ireland, the Assembly, if it wishes--and this should be understood by people who have worked so hard to stop discrimination on disability and also sex discrimination in Northern Ireland--can potentially undo it. I want to be clear whether it is the Government's intention that the Northern Ireland Assembly, unlike the Scottish Parliament, could undo the provisions of British law that look after sex discrimination, disability and race relations. Is it really the Government's intention that the Northern Ireland Assembly can, international covenants permitting, undo those if it wishes?
Lord Dubs: As regards international obligations, clearly, if the Assembly has the discretion to legislate in areas where there are international obligations, it will have to do so in the light of those obligations, as does this Parliament. As I said at an earlier stage, international obligations will be paramount and all that the Assembly does will have to be in line with them. If the devolved Assembly attempted to contravene the international obligations of the United Kingdom, then Clauses 12, 5 and 20 allow the Secretary of State to prevent it so that it is not an unfettered power, provided that international obligations are at stake.
As regards other obligations not connected with international obligations, I suppose I could turn the question round and say to the noble Lord that it might well be that Westminster weakened the equality laws. The noble Lord assumes that only the Northern Ireland Assembly would wish to weaken them. I do not think that that is necessarily the right assumption. I repeat that if we want the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate properly and effectively on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland there need to be known parameters. The noble Lord seeks to limit the scope within those parameters and I say, and the Government say, that we have every confidence that the Assembly will handle things properly. We shall give it the freedom to do so.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|