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Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for being absent for the first few minutes of his speech. As regards the very important point just made about discrimination in terms of the provision of services, I wonder whether it is possible also to include what is becoming a very real problem in Northern Ireland; namely, the publicly orchestrated boycotts which in many cases have driven small companies, small shopkeepers and the providers of motor fuel and milk suppliers out of business purely on religious grounds. There must be very narrow dividing lines. I do not want to complicate the matter further, but perhaps the Minister can deal with that in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill.
As regards timing there is a certain similarity between the way in which we are treating this legislation and the premature Police (Northern Ireland) Bill which was passed into law some four months ago. It comes into force about the end of October before any possible publication of the Patten Report. My argument at the time was shared by several noble Lords in that it would be much wiser to await the conclusion of the Patten Commission before we set in the Bill proposals for major changes in the police.
Is there not a real danger that we are making this amendment to the existing fair employment legislation without taking into account the views and attitudes of the Equality Council set up by your Lordships only a few weeks ago when the Bill reached its final stages in
It is having the effect that I predicted four years ago. The Good Friday agreement established the Equality Council and thereby fulfilled my prediction that even in terms of employment the cake must henceforth be cut into eight slices and not just two. There are the Roman Catholics, Protestants, atheists and agnostics, male, female and races, whose numbers who are yet unknown. They are already claiming a place in the sun and they are all clamouring for a slice of the cake. Now that United Kingdom law is subservient to European human rights law, it is inevitable that other groups will join in the clamour and demand inclusion in the kind of legislation that your Lordships are debating this evening.
It seems to me sensible to ensure that the Equality Council created by the Good Friday agreement, and therefore with the status of holy writ, should not be inhibited in any way by an order of the kind that we are dealing with this evening. In approving the order we should clearly express at least a willingness to amend this legislation or even replace it. The Equality Council has all the authority of the Good Friday agreement behind it which, we have often been told, cannot be tampered with and therefore is in many ways superior to the laws of the United Kingdom. The Equality Council should not find itself in any way constricted in its task of ensuring fair play in all the eight categories I have mentioned, and the others yet to emerge, and not just the two religions.
I repeat the plea of my noble friend Lord Cooke, on another occasion, for financial assistance for small companies burdened with the cost of unfounded and vexatious allegations of discrimination. I renew my own plea on that occasion for substantial financial compensation for public bodies such as hospital trusts forced to expend very scarce funding on defending themselves against what usually turn out to be facetious allegations. There is also the pernicious habit affecting all public bodies in that they settle rather than see the matter through to a tribunal for the simple reason that they are faced with the problem of diverting the services of fairly scarce and very expensive employees while also incurring very heavy legal fees. There is always a temptation to settle rather than allow the allegation to go before a tribunal. I condemn this entirely, but my condemnation will not stop it. I do not know whether Parliament can devise any means of making this practice illegal and forcing bodies against whom allegations have been made to go the whole way and pursue the matter before a tribunal. In the absence of such a measure there will be a burgeoning industry of complainants sure in the knowledge that, however frivolous their complaint may be, they can be assured of what, I understand, may be on average £20,000 tax free. It is not surprising that the habit catches on. I hope that this time the Minister
Lord Monson: My Lords, can the Minister say whether, apart from the odd isolated incident or series of incidents, such as the boycott described a moment ago by my noble friend Lord Molyneaux, there is any evidence of sustained, long-term discrimination in the provision of goods and services in Northern Ireland on religious or political grounds; or is this extension of the law essentially a symbolic gesture? There is nothing necessarily wrong with gestures, but it would be useful to know whether in the main this is a gesture or there are genuine and fairly widespread grievances that are about to be rectified. If so, is the noble Lord in a position to provide a couple of examples when he comes to wind up?
Lord Blease: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for outlining in some detail the extensive and comprehensive Northern Ireland order. It almost competes with the Northern Ireland Act in legislative detail. The order has 125 pages of parts, paragraphs and schedules whereas the Act has about 100. I should like to raise a couple of points that I believe require attention in relation to the Equality Working Group and its report.
However, perhaps I may seek the indulgence of the House for one moment while I say a few words about the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Because of the pressure of time at the winding-up stage of the Bill--I hope that that is an acceptable parliamentary description--I did not have the opportunity to pay tribute to all those who took part in a momentous occasion for Northern Ireland parliamentary affairs and Irish political matters.
As a Northern Ireland citizen I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Dubs, his Front Bench ministerial colleagues and all those civil servants and parliamentary staff who helped in placing the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on the United Kingdom statute book. I also extend my words of appreciation to all noble Lords who took part in the debates, particularly noble Lords on the Official Opposition Front Bench. The whole approach to Northern Ireland legislative measures epitomises the great sense of bipartisanship in this House that sets an example.
The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 is one of the main pillars upon which the real function and work of the Northern Ireland Assembly will be built. There are other pillars which have already been mentioned in the course of this debate. However, I believe that this pillar will get people working together. There is a basic legislative framework in which the Equality Commission will operate and promote essential fair employment practices and equality of treatment. It will provide a great public opportunity for members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to exercise justice, mercy and fairness to all citizens. It will enable all Northern Ireland Assembly members to display humble witness to good citizenship
I understand that the Equality Working Group has met under the appointed chair, Dr. Joan Stringer, that it is compiling a report on structures and practical issues and that its report will be ready by the end of January. Can the Minister indicate how the group's report will be approved and implemented? Will it be submitted to the Assembly and to the Westminster Parliament? If so, what will be the procedure and timescale? If it is approved is it intended to be submitted to the Northern Ireland Assembly at its proposed March/April 1999 session?
There are continuing difficulties in the Province. However, to talk about this matter in a vacuum is perhaps the wrong approach in this House but it is more meaningful in the sense of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is there that the exercise of rights and other matters should be fully appreciated and understood. However, I am hopeful that the new year may be peaceful and that there will be reasoned approaches in our strife-torn community. I believe that the Northern Ireland Act and the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) order will help to set our sights on an end to political strife and all that goes with it in the Province.
As we debate this measure today I feel very much an old man. I recall the setting up of the van Straubenzee Committee. The present Permanent Secretary of State for the Department of Economic Development, Gerry Loughran, was then secretary to the committee, which led to the setting up of the Fair Employment Agency. Later I went on to set up the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights. In those days we felt that we were getting to grips with matters but they only exposed the inadequacies of the people of Northern Ireland in learning to live together. I hope that this time matters may take a different course.
Lord Fitt: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Blease, with his long and distinguished record of the trade union movement in Northern Ireland, was only too well aware of the many allegations of discrimination that were made throughout his tenure of office in Northern Ireland when there was one-party government in Northern Ireland. It is to the credit of the trade unions, given the political divisions that then existed, that they tried desperately to bring about a set of circumstances in which discrimination would not be permitted.
My mind goes back vividly to 1976 when the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and I served on a committee in the House of Commons and the very first Fair Employment Act was put on to the statute book. Since then it has been amended and regenerated. I am conscious of the fact that we can debate this order with all its clauses and its myriad suggestions in a civilised atmosphere, but I have no doubt that when this measure, which will affect the population of Northern Ireland, is discussed in Stormont a good deal of heat will be generated.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, mentioned two factors to which my attention was drawn. At the present time there are people in Northern Ireland who advocate discrimination. Far from making the plea that discrimination should be removed, they advocate it. One has only to think for five seconds of the ludicrous submissions made by Sinn Fein to the Patten Commission in relation to the RUC. I do not think that anyone could take its submission seriously for a single second when it advocates a massive reorganising of the present RUC on grounds of religion because most members happen to be Protestant. I do not think that it is possible, except in its own vivid imagination, to get thousands of Catholics to join the RUC and it would upset all the Protestants.
It also made a recommendation, which made the very few hairs that I have on my head stand on end when I read it, that 15 per cent. of the RUC should be lesbians and the rest should have some other discriminatory facet. Such a submission is made to a government-appointed agency.
In relation to the supply of goods and services, I support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. Religious discrimination and sectarian discrimination have taken place over past years because of sectarian and religious divides. Catholics have been forced to boycott Protestant shops because of the religion of those who own the shops and Protestants have been forced, in certain areas in Northern Ireland, not to give their custom to Roman Catholics because of their religious beliefs. I do not want to mention a particular town in case it causes disharmony. However, in a town I know very well in County Down, I can think of one chemist's shop with a notice in the window saying, "No members of the security forces will be served in this establishment". The shop was owned by a member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. There must be other establishments in Northern Ireland which, although they do not have a notice in the window, have made it quite clear that they will not do business with members of the security forces.
On the question of discrimination, there are many aspects to be examined by the Assembly, as I mentioned to my noble friend the Minister this afternoon when I received the order and saw that it contained over 100 articles. My noble friend Lord Blease and I were not aware that there was an explanatory leaflet which we received during the course of the debate. I believe that the most important decisions in relation to the implementation of the order will have to be taken in the Northern Ireland Assembly because members of the Assembly and those they represent will have to live with the consequences. All I can do is wish them well.
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