Bill of Rights
Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland
11:30 am

Photo of Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy (Torfaen, Labour)

What meetings he has had with political parties in Northern Ireland on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Hugo Swire

Hugo Swire (The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; East Devon, Conservative)

In September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to party leaders suggesting the possibility of the Assembly taking forward work in this area; we have yet to receive a response. Ministers and officials have continued to discuss this issue with human rights organisations since.

Photo of Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy (Torfaen, Labour)

The Minister will know, of course, that the establishment of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was part of the Good Friday agreement, and that it is a matter for all people in Northern Ireland. Will he not accept, however, that both he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have a duty to bring about consensus rather than simply to listen to what people are saying without doing what is right and proper to ensure that we get consensus among all the political parties in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Hugo Swire

Hugo Swire (The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; East Devon, Conservative)

The House will want to acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s part in the Good Friday agreement in trying to pursue the Bill of Rights. Frankly, however, that was when he should have pursued it, instead of squandering the good will that he and his Government had generated at that time. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman a couple of quick examples of our problem. First, the Secretary of State wrote to the First and Deputy First Ministers and all the party leaders back in September, but he has had no reply to his letters. Secondly, the Secretary of State for Justice wrote to the Office of the First Minister, asking it to nominate someone for the commission. It is now March, but no reply has been received. We thus face a problem, as we see no way forward without consensus.

Photo of James Gray

James Gray (North Wiltshire, Conservative)

Does the Minister agree that this important work towards a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland—and, indeed, human rights more generally there—might have a useful role to play in the Government’s determination to do something about significant reform of the European Court of Human Rights?

Photo of Hugo Swire

Hugo Swire (The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; East Devon, Conservative)

As my hon. Friend knows, a UK commission is being set up to look into the matter. We want Northern Ireland to be represented on it. Equally, we believe that this commission could provide the necessary vehicle for the inclusion of rights particular to Northern Ireland.

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Jim Shannon (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health); Strangford, DUP)

Has the Secretary of State had any meetings or correspondence with other stakeholder groups that might be interested in or concerned about a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland—Churches, advice bureaux or Women’s Aid, for example?

Photo of Hugo Swire

Hugo Swire (The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; East Devon, Conservative)

We meet Church leaders frequently, and this is one of the matters we discuss with them. It is fair to say that the Secretary of State and I recently met the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights—and we discussed this matter with her. We cannot get much higher than that.

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Lady Hermon (North Down, Independent)

As well as corresponding with the leaders of political parties in Northern Ireland, will the Minister kindly tell us whether his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General actually believes that Northern Ireland needs a separate Bill of Rights?

Photo of Hugo Swire

Hugo Swire (The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; East Devon, Conservative)

My right hon. and learned Friend came to Northern Ireland several times when we were in opposition. He was always of the belief, as we are, that any rights particular to Northern Ireland should be tagged on to any UK Bill of Rights. I alluded earlier to a lack of consensus. The hon. Lady will be aware that in a debate in the Assembly last year, Members voted by 46 to 42 against a motion calling for a robust, enforceable Bill of Rights. As I said in answer to Paul Murphy earlier, that is a perfect example of the problem we face. We cannot impose; this has to come from within Northern Ireland. When it does, we will respond accordingly.