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Bill Of Rights Proposals

Volume 894: debated on Thursday 26 June 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he has considered the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association's suggested Bill of Rights of April 1975; and whether he will make a statement on his policy towards its proposals.

The Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights has recently decided to embark on a major study of the extent to which existing legislation provides sufficient protection for human rights in Northern Ireland, including whether a Bill of Rights is needed, what form it might take and how it would relate to existing legislation. It will no doubt consider the views of all relevant interests, and my right hon. Friend proposes to await its recommendations.

Is the Minister aware that the Feather Commission is seen in Northern Ireland as a device for delaying legislation? For many years most political organisations in Northern Ireland have been talking about a Bill of Rights, and the Gardiner Report recommends consideration thereof. Is the Minister further aware that the House can legislate on this matter? It has power to do so. When will it have the will to do so?

My right hon. Friend is awaiting the report of the commission before deciding what to do. The commission is not a device for delay. A number of interesting proposals have been put forward for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, but they differ one from the other and it is a question of reconciling the interests as well as considering the points of view. We have accepted the Gardiner recommendation in referring this point to the commission for consideration.

Has the hon. Gentleman seen certain resolutions on the Order Paper of the Convention which show virtual agreement among all parties on the necessity for a Bill of Rights? Is he making arrangements for liaison between the Feather Commission and the Convention? There would seem to be duplication in this matter. Would it not be advisable for talks to be held on this subject between the Convention and the Feather Commission?

There will have to be liaison between the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights and the Convention if both bodies are to consider this matter. The Convention might like to consider putting its recommendations to the Feather Commission. United Kingdom legislation is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Does the Minister realise that his reply on the question of a Bill of Rights will be seen as totally unsatisfactory by many people who have been deeply involved in the Northern Ireland problem for many years? Did not the Chairman of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights say that the commission would spend at least one year studying the need for a Bill of Rights? That statement has caused a great deal of anger and consternation among many organisations, political parties and hon. Members. Does not the Minister accept that it is the Government's responsibility to introduce legislation as a matter of urgency to enact such a Bill of Rights, and that the Government should not be seen to be sweeping that responsibility under the commission's carpet?

The Government's responsibility is to ensure that, when it comes to be considered by the House, the Bill of Rights is effective. There is no question of delay. My hon. Friend has Lord Feather's statement slightly wrong. Lord Feather said that he thought it would take a few months and possibly a year, not a minimum of a year. I am sure that the exchange which we have had this afternoon will be noted by the chairman of the commission and no doubt he will take it into consideration, but my right hon. Friend cannot direct the commission on what it does. He can provide it with all the resources necessary within reason to allow it to do an expeditious job.