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Lord Hylton: My Lords, I believe that the Government should take pride in the fact that by this Bill they are establishing a human rights commission in Northern Ireland. It will be the first such body in the United Kingdom. I very much hope that, albeit in difficult circumstances, it will provide a test bed for the concept. I trust that the Government have already decided to create an effective body that is respected by all concerned; otherwise they will be seen to be setting up a weak body that lacks the necessary tools, to be followed after two years with a review. By then the concept of a human rights commission may be so discredited that the second stage with enlarged powers and better tools will be difficult to establish. I should like the people of Northern Ireland to have the kind of commission that they want and deserve. After all, they have waited 30 or more years for it.
I turn to the wording of Amendments Nos. 90 and 91. As the noble and learned Lord said, they are alternatives. The reference to "Bills in draft" appeared in the Belfast agreement. There is slight doubt as to the precise meaning of "in draft". My Amendment No. 91 seeks to overcome that by spelling out that it refers to Bills,
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, there has been a prolonged and, perhaps to some, welcome period of silence from these Benches. However, I rise to support the two amendments. We should be happy with either amendment.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said, there is a risk that if scrutiny is not carried out by the Human Rights Commission until the Bill is published, the political positions of the parties will have been frozen and it will be more difficult to achieve the necessary amendments. I add to that the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly, unlike the Parliament of the United Kingdom, will be a single chamber institution. No revising chamber will have the opportunity to put right human rights problems which may arise during debate in the lower House. It is doubtful whether the commission could easily intervene at short notice if a problem arose during the passage of a Bill through the Assembly. It is therefore particularly important to get the matter right first time.
It is also true that human rights defects in a Bill are not always clear at first sight. The matter is one for study by specialists. I suspect that the Assembly will not have access among its staff to the same quality of specialist legal advice as the Government of the United Kingdom. It is extremely important that all Bills, whether or not it is apparent on the face of the Bill that human rights issues may be involved, should be submitted to the Human Rights Commission; and the Assembly should not be left to decide in due course whether a Bill should or should not be submitted to that commission.
Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, I support both amendments but prefer Amendment No. 91. It is important that the human rights issue is discussed during drafting and is not left until the measure is on the Floor of the Assembly, when many other arguments may come to the fore and human rights may yet again take second place.
Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, the House will recall that in Committee I moved a series of amendments to reflect the concerns of Disability Action in Northern Ireland. Its views were put to me by Monica Wilson, the chief executive, and I intervene briefly now to give your Lordships her reaction to the Government's response to my amendments. Her letter states:
Lord Renton: My Lords, there is a great deal to be said for Bills being scrutinised thoroughly and carefully, and by qualified people, before they are presented to a parliament. Quite frankly, if this Bill had been subject to scrutiny before it was presented in another place, we might have spent much less time on it. However, we do not know from Clause 38, which sets up the commission, whether the commission will involve people who will have the expertise to scrutinise legislation. There would have to be some lawyers. There would have to be several experienced parliamentarians. My support for the amendment would depend upon the extent to which we could be assured that members of the commission would be so qualified.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, I am happy to support the amendment. I consulted my noble friend Lord McConnell--he has a legal background, as noble Lords know, and has held responsible positions in the Stormont Government in various legal departments--on whether there was any procedure in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. We stand to be corrected, but we came to the conclusion that there probably is not as yet. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will remember that in my early days in this House he and I crossed swords in a chivalrous way on the issue of whether we should have a United Kingdom commission. That was supported by our friends on the Liberal Benches. Admittedly, they wanted to think about it. However, in the light of what has been said by various noble Lords today, I hope that we are moving in that direction. It would be of great benefit to many organisations. It would raise the prestige of the Parliament of the United Kingdom if there were in effect a sieve. Bills in draft could be submitted to a human rights commission covering the whole of the United Kingdom.
Lord Renton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he may wish to bear in mind that the only scheme whereby the United Kingdom Parliament may have a Bill scrutinised in advance is by referring the matter to one of the Law Commissions. They then often draft a Bill which is in its terms pretty good.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, it has been an interesting short debate on a subject that we discussed earlier in Committee. I address two points. First, what does "in draft" mean? Clearly in the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity part of the agreement, draft legislation referred to the human rights commission by the new Assembly is referred to. Those words refer to Bills rather than Bills in the course of preparation within a government department or, in this case, the Northern Ireland Executive.
Noble Lords may well think that if a Bill requires 450 amendments, as has the Northern Ireland Bill, it has been presented in draft in the first instance. However, it is necessary to be clear what we are talking about. Clearly, both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, are thinking about Bills in the course of preparation within the department. As both noble Lords said, it is clear that consideration of a draft is easier at that stage. The idea that, given that it is a cross-community Executive and that it is Northern Ireland, there will be no striking of attitudes is going a little far. Nevertheless, it is more likely that a change can be achieved quietly before the Bill is presented to the Assembly for consideration.
The question which remains is whether the legislation should compel the Northern Ireland Executive to refer all Bills at the draft stage. Where Bills are being prepared slowly over a period of time and there is time to undertake all the necessary consultation, that is highly desirable. The agreement does not mention that as such and the Bill provides that the Executive can look to the commission for advice presumably on a draft Bill at any stage of its preparation--or for that matter in respect of a White Paper or whatever. The question is whether to compel it to do so in the case of every single Bill. I am more hesitant about that because, as we know from our parliamentary experience, some Bills will need to be brought forward urgently and it will be difficult to carry out such procedures properly.
That may even place the Human Rights Commission in a false position. A draft Bill may be thrown at it in the late stage of preparation allowing only a day or two for examination. The need for the Bill may be pressing; we have heard that often enough in this House and elsewhere. If the Human Rights Commission is obliged to consider a Bill in a couple of days and then appears to have given its imprimatur, the commission may be placed in a false position. Therefore, with regard to an absolute duty laid down in statute I am more cautious than the proponents of the amendments about writing the provision into the Bill in this form.
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