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Bill of Rights (Northern Ireland)

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2013

I am pleased, Mr Chope, to have secured this short debate today to raise with the Secretary of State the issue of the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. It is a busy day in Parliament from a Northern Ireland perspective—the Committee on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is meeting and the Secretary of State is due to make a statement in the House on the appalling and disgraceful scenes of rioting and serious disturbance that have affected many parts of Belfast, including my own constituency of Belfast East, in the past few days. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has been able to attend the debate, and that the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), has been able to join us for at least part of the discussion. I do not intend to detain the Secretary of State for too long on this issue.

The Bill of Rights is an important matter and the timing of this debate is appropriate. We stand here 15 years on from the Good Friday agreement which, notwithstanding the continued instability that we have witnessed over recent weeks and months, has laid the foundations for the significant transformation that has been delivered in Northern Ireland.

No agreement is perfect, and that includes the Good Friday agreement. I do not believe that every dot and comma of it must be protected for all time against change and evolution of Northern Ireland politics and society. However, its principles are hugely important and provide an agreed foundation on which we can build for the future. Indeed, my own party has argued for significant changes to the Strand 1 structures that govern the operations of the Assembly. Those changes would create a more normalised form of governance with a properly funded and resourced Opposition to hold the Executive to account, and with weighted majority voting replacing the current petition of concern arrangements, which are increasingly being misused. Such reforms are within the spirit of the agreement and are not a challenge to its key principles.

However, the Good Friday agreement was a carefully balanced package of measures that were endorsed by referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, so it is important that all parts of it are implemented. It is therefore of concern that so little tangible progress has been made over the past 15 years on the matter of the commitment within the agreement to develop a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which would address the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland after 20 years of the troubles.

In response to previous written and oral questions on the Bill of Rights, the Minister of State has indicated that this is a matter on which Northern Ireland parties must first reach consensus before the Government will act to legislate. Although I acknowledge that consensus is important and that it is currently absent, I do not believe that that is grounds for inaction on the Government’s part. It is the duty of Government as a co-guarantor of the agreement and as a signatory to it to engage proactively with all stakeholders, including political parties, to seek consensus on this and other outstanding issues. There is a particular responsibility around leadership on such issues when they are reserved matters.

Although the primary purpose of seeking this debate is to discuss not the content of any Bill of Rights, but the process by which the Bill can be advanced, it is important to put on record my own party’s broad views on the Bill of Rights. Alliance recognises that human rights are inherent and universal. There is scope for different jurisdictions to recognise different rights in domestic law, provided of course that no inappropriate inequalities are created in doing so. Rights and a framework for the delivery and protection of rights are important to protect individuals and minorities against the state and against others. However, any dialogue around rights cannot be separated from responsibilities. Those claiming rights cannot do so without some consideration for the maintenance of the framework of a democratic society based on the rule of law that provides for the exercise of rights. That is particularly important to emphasise in the context of the past few days when tensions between competing rights have spilled over into lawlessness in a way that is both destructive and reckless.

In broad terms, Alliance believes that any Northern Ireland Bill of Rights must be realistic and capable of being enforced through our own courts, consistent with European and international standards, and flexible enough to take account of changing circumstances in an evolving Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it must avoid entrenching any particular view of identity, such as the notion of two separate communities in Northern Ireland, which could reinforce sectarian divisions. Equally, it should avoid giving group rights precedence over the rights of the individual in a manner that would do likewise.

My reason for raising the issue at this time is in part also linked to the progress being made by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) wrote to all party leaders about the Bill on 5 September 2011, seeking views on a number of measures that he hoped to include within the Bill. In the seventh paragraph of his letter, he raised the issue of the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights in which he offered two options for taking the matter forward. He said:

“There remains disagreement about possible further rights protections in Northern Ireland. I have agreed with the Lord Chancellor that any specific supplementary rights for Northern Ireland should be implemented in a separate section of any legislation that would give effect to a UK Bill of Rights. However, our forthcoming Bill may provide opportunities to handle this issue differently by, for example, giving the Assembly power to take forward work, or even legislate, in this area.”

At that time, the Alliance party view would have been that a UK-wide Bill of Rights could have provided a suitable vehicle for progressing the Northern Ireland Bill. Although Northern Ireland is a distinct society in many respects, it does not and should not exist in a self-contained bubble. It is part of a wider UK, all-Ireland and European and international context. In a globalised and interdependent world, individuals are interacting much more across frontiers, and human rights protections must recognise and respond to those challenges.

It was originally envisaged that any Northern Ireland Bill of Rights would be created in the context of a common platform across the UK provided by the European convention on human rights, but no wider UK Bill of Rights. However, Alliance recognised at that point that any process to formulate a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would have to relate to any potential UK Bill of Rights. That could still have entailed a separate chapter for the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights or a chapter within a larger document, provided that the subtleties of the situation in Northern Ireland were respected. However, it would be fair to say that the UK Bill of Rights has been kicked into some very long grass at this point and that we are unlikely to see it delivered in the medium term.

It is also the case that the opportunity to legislate for the Bill of Rights as part of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill has also all but expired as the Bill is now making speedy progress through the House of Commons and the Bill of Rights issue was not included within it or within the consultation that preceded it. Will the Secretary of State say how she intends to make progress with respect to the Bill of Rights in the absence of either of the identified options to do so?

I thank the hon. Lady for making such a valuable contribution to Westminster Hall. She will be aware that the recommendations contained in the Bill of Rights forum and those made by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission seem to suggest that abortion will be more freely available, and that there is a need to increase the age of criminal responsibility. The hon. Lady will know that the Democratic Unionist party, of which I am a member, the Ulster Unionists, the Orange Order and the Roman Catholic Church have objections to almost all of, or parts of, the recommendations put forward. How does she see the Bill of Rights going forward when so many people are against it? Does she not feel that we can go forward only when there is a consensus to agree with it across the whole of the community?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. He reinforces what I said earlier about there being no consensus on the issue. However, I want to address some of what he said. There are two narratives around the Bill of Rights. One is an expansive Bill of Rights, which includes a lot of detail, such as socio-economic rights to which he refers, and there are others who believe that that is not the role of the Bill of Rights. They believe that it should enshrine broader principles around which the country should protect people’s rights as individuals. I would tend towards that more broad definition rather than the more detailed definition that would include socio-economic rights. Abortion, the age of consent and various other issues are best dealt with through the normal democratic and legislative process and not through a Bill of Rights. That is my view and the view of my party. However, a Bill of Rights approach can inform how the debate on those issues takes place, but it is not the job of the Bill of Rights to supersede the work that Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly do when legislating on matters of socio-economic importance. That is part of the democratic imperative that must be maintained regardless of whether or not there is a Bill of Rights.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the Bill of Rights has caused controversy. The forum for the Bill of Rights sat from December 2006 until March 2008 and produced what is probably one of the most non-consensual reports that has ever been produced in Northern Ireland, which in itself is quite an achievement. In addition, the Human Rights Commission’s advice to the Secretary of State, which was delivered back in 2008, also drew fierce opposition from some quarters. Clearly, there is still much work to be done. I am not suggesting that we are at a point where a Bill of Rights is ready to be drafted and put to Members for agreement. However, the fact that there is work to be done should be an impetus to doing that work.

In conclusion, as with many other difficult issues, consensus is currently absent, whether it be on parades, on flags and emblems, on building a shared future, or on dealing with the past and its legacy. The Executive have convened talks, which will happen during the summer and in the autumn, to address those issues and to seek sufficient consensus to make progress on all of them, in an attempt to give renewed energy to the discussions and to end the inertia that has characterised the process of late. I believe that is welcome. I also believe that Dr Richard Haass agreeing to chair those talks impartially will add its own momentum to them. However, it is very clear from research conducted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium that a significant majority of people in Northern Ireland favour a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland being implemented in line with the provisions in the Good Friday agreement, and that that includes a significant majority of ordinary members of each political party in Northern Ireland, including the hon. Gentleman’s own party, within which I think the support for a Bill of Rights among ordinary members ran to about 80%.

Notwithstanding the political and ideological impediments to reaching sufficient consensus, I hope that today the Secretary of State will at least commit to a process that would help to breathe fresh life into this issue and make good on a promise made 15 years ago, which is still important to so many people in Northern Ireland today.

Perhaps I ought to explain that I am standing in today for my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, because he is busy with the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill Committee. It is a great pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing it. As she says, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is an important issue for consideration. It was good to see the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with us for a short period, and it is good to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whose contribution to the debate was very welcome.

Hon. Members will appreciate the thoughtful and measured way that the hon. Member for Belfast East has approached this subject, which has provoked strong feelings on different sides of the argument. Of course, we in the Conservative party are no strangers to controversies and divided views on human rights matters.

Perhaps it would help if I went back over some of the ground covered by the hon. Lady and went back to the section of the Belfast agreement that deals with rights. There is a degree of ambiguity in the way that section is written. Although the text does not go as far as stating that there would definitely be a Bill of Rights, the agreement certainly contemplated that a Bill of Rights was potentially an important part of the settlement. The Belfast agreement said that the Human Rights Commission

“will be invited to consult and to advise on the scope of defining, in Westminster legislation, supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.

The agreement added:

“These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and...taken together with the ECHR constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland”.

Of course, the arguments for and against a Bill of Rights have been debated extensively in the 15 years since the Belfast agreement was signed. I will just give a few examples: there was the Bill of Rights forum that followed the 2006 St Andrews agreement; and there was also the advice offered to the previous Government by the Human Rights Commission in 2008. Among other things, that advice proposed extensive so-called socio-economic rights, including

“the right to an adequate standard of living...the right to work, including fair wages”

and it even included

“the right to have the environment protected”.

Following that, there was the ensuing Government consultation, and the current Government published responses to that consultation in December 2010. The then Minister of State for Northern Ireland—the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire)— described the consultation as having demonstrated widespread

“opposition to a wide-ranging Bill of Rights and support instead for a more limited set of rights... This divergence of views was also reflected in the submissions made by political parties in Northern Ireland”.—[Official Report, 16 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 131WS.]

In fact, as the hon. Member for Belfast East said, there are few issues in Northern Ireland that have caused such divided views or that have been so thoroughly examined and debated as the subject of our debate today.

Despite that, however, 15 years on from the Belfast agreement, it is clear that there is no consensus on how to move forward, and I am afraid that there is no sign of one emerging in the immediate future. That was the case under the previous Labour Government, and I am afraid that it has remained the case under the current Government.

My predecessor as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—had numerous discussions on this matter with political parties in Northern Ireland and with other interested bodies. As we have heard, in September 2011, he wrote to party leaders in Northern Ireland, setting out the possibility that the proposed Northern Ireland Bill, which is being discussed upstairs as we speak today, would give the Assembly

“the power to take forward, or even legislate, in this area”.

I am told that he received no responses from the political parties to that part of his letter.

Since last September, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I arrived at the Northern Ireland Office, we have discussed a Bill of Rights with a number of organisations and people, including the Irish Government and the Tanaiste. Like our predecessors, we have found little—if any—common ground among them, but that has not been for lack of trying. We have certainly engaged extensively on this matter.

Of course, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would be a matter of constitutional significance. As such, it would be very important to secure cross-community support if it were to have any chance of succeeding. It is not something that could, or should, be imposed over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland by the UK Government acting unilaterally. That position is reinforced by the fact that the main impact of any Bill of Rights unique to Northern Ireland would fall on the devolved institutions. So, before we could make a move towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, there would have to be broadly based cross-party agreement. The Government would like to see this issue resolved, given the role that the Government played in the Belfast agreement, but we cannot simply conjure consensus into existence.

I should add that the chances of achieving broad agreement on additional rights for Northern Ireland might be better served if some of the advocates of a Bill of Rights were more realistic in their ambitions. Clearly, proposals from some organisations that focus extensively on socio-economic rights are very unlikely to gain cross-party approval in Northern Ireland. However, if that was the route that Northern Ireland wished to go down, the impact on the rest of the UK would also be a factor to consider. For example, there would be complex issues to resolve around the interaction of welfare-type human rights with the principles of parity that currently operate in relation to the benefit and welfare systems. Matters of cost would need to be carefully considered.

As the hon. Member for Belfast East said, this debate is primarily about the means, or process, to deliver a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, rather than the content of such a Bill. However, I welcomed her thoughts on the Alliance views on these matters. As she said, it certainly makes sense to focus on a realistic and flexible approach to any future Bill of Rights, which is capable of adapting to Northern Ireland’s changing circumstances. She is right to say that we should proceed with caution against anything that entrenched a particular and restrictive view in relation to identity and against anything that made it more difficult to resolve the sectarian divisions that sadly persist in Northern Ireland society. So I listened with interest to her thoughts on those matters.

Having looked back at some of the statements that the Alliance party has contributed to the debate, I note that there is acknowledgement that significant hurdles are still to be cleared in arguing why Northern Ireland needs to have a fundamentally different human rights regime—especially from other neighbouring jurisdictions. I also acknowledge that party’s statement that the aim of policy makers should not be to preserve Northern Ireland as a place apart, requiring special measures. Those sentiments would be worth considering in terms of a way forward on a Bill of Rights.

The intervention by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted some of the difficulties here. For example, were abortion to become tied up in the concept of a Bill of Rights, that would be an intensely difficult issue to resolve using a Bill of Rights as a mechanism. That illustrates the difficulties in the way of reaching a conclusion on this matter.

Although there are reasons why further progress on a Bill of Rights will not be easy to deliver, I hope that I can provide some reassurance regarding the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland. It is important to emphasise that Northern Ireland has an extensive, well-developed system of human rights protections, through existing UK-wide legislation—not just the legislation that happens to be labelled directly in relation to human rights, but statutes dealing with matters such as discrimination. For example, fair employment legislation places obligations on employers that are unique in the United Kingdom. In particular, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 imposes a statutory obligation on all public bodies to carry out their functions with regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity for everyone. Of course, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has emphasised that it puts respect for human rights at the heart of all its work. That is an important part of policing practice in Northern Ireland. So I hope that no one will seek to say that, without a new Bill of Rights, Northern Ireland is somehow left as a human rights desert. That is certainly not the case.

Looking ahead, if there were agreement on additional rights for Northern Ireland, the Government would examine how best to take things forward. We remain open to the suggestion that work on this, including legislation, could be taken forward by the Assembly. In our 2010 manifesto, we called for the replacement of the Human Rights Act 1998 with a UK Bill of Rights. Although that proposal did not make it into the coalition agreement, were it to be revived in future, the relevant legislation could include a separate section to cover supplementary rights in Northern Ireland, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast East.

In the meantime, both the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor have said clearly that, if the Conservatives win the next election, we will seek radical reform of current human rights law. That would include re-examining our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. However, in considering the future of human rights legislation in the UK we would, of course, give careful consideration to Northern Ireland’s position. We are happy to include debates and ideas on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as part of our general consideration of the future of human rights rules in the UK as a whole.

Just for the record, as I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), consensus is far from being reached in Northern Ireland. The largest Unionist political parties and other sections of the community are opposed, in part or in whole, including the Roman Catholic Church. Will the Minister confirm that nothing will go forward without the overall agreement of the largest Unionist parties—the largest section of people—and one of the largest Churches and religious groups in Northern Ireland?

I can give the hon. Gentleman reassurance of that nature. As I have said, it would be virtually impossible to adopt a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland without extensive cross-party support. If it were not possible to persuade the major political parties of the merits of the Bill of Rights, I do not see how it would be possible to deliver one.

In conclusion, this has been a worthwhile debate. I noted the reference made by the hon. Member for Belfast East to the Richard Haass working group, which starts its work soon on parades and flags and the past. Naturally, if it wishes to look at Bill of Rights matters, we will consider what conclusions it reaches. The Government will continue to examine seriously any other proposals to resolve the issue. Yet this issue should not deflect us from other important objectives for Northern Ireland that we are focused on, particularly in light of the weekend’s events.

We have to continue our efforts to rebalance the economy and help Northern Ireland compete in the global race for investment and jobs. We need to press ahead with the implementation of the economic package agreed at Downing street last month, between the Prime Minister, myself and the Deputy First Minister. And we must continue working with the Executive to tackle sectarianism and build a genuinely shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

The riots that we have seen on the streets of Belfast and other places in Northern Ireland over recent days are disgraceful. It is important that we start to address the underlying social divisions that can contribute to tensions around issues such as parading in Northern Ireland. I look forward to addressing the House on that matter in about an hour’s time.

Sitting suspended.