Clause 19 — Timing

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 8:30 pm on 6th February 2007.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 26 and 27.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Amendment No. 24 would leave out clause 19, which restricts the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission by preventing it from investigating any matters arising before 1 August 2007. Government amendments Nos. 26 and 27 are welcome as they put back the date from which the Human Rights Commission can start investigating from 1 January 2008 to 1 August 2007. However, I question whether they go far enough, because even with them, clause 19 would prevent the commission from compelling evidence, or accessing a place of detention for the purpose of investigating any matter, relating to the period before 1 August 2007.

Indeed, the clause goes even further than that, as it prevents the commission from requiring the production of any document created before 1 August even if it is directly relevant to a human rights violation that exists or arises after 1 August. The effect of the time limit is severe in relation to the gathering of evidence. Many human rights violations can be investigated effectively only by looking into events, and at information, that arose in the period before the violation occurred. My concern is that under the clause, in practice the commission might not be able to use its powers to any great effect for several years to come.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman is referring solely to compelling information; there is nothing under the proposed legislation that prevents the commission from requesting such information.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

But if that information is not released it could inhibit the commission in its investigation. It should be allowed to compel the release of documents created before 1 August, just as it can compel the release of documents created after 1 August.

The clause also creates a notable anomaly in relation to the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland compared with other UK jurisdictions. In Great Britain, the existing equality bodies already have powers to compel evidence, and the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will acquire similar powers under the Equality Act 2006. The Scottish Commission for Human Rights Act 2006 contains not only evidence powers, but a right of entry to places of detention, without any time restriction.

Thus in England, Scotland and Wales the sister bodies of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission have, and will have, powers that have no arbitrary time limit. In the Republic of Ireland also, the Irish Human Rights Commission, established in parallel with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission as a result of the Belfast agreement, has extensive powers to compel evidence, with no such time limit. The Belfast agreement, and the corresponding treaty, committed the two Governments to maintaining an equal level of protection of human rights in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The Government have suggested that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission should focus on the future, and that it might be too busy to look into events of the past. However, such decisions are best made by the commission itself. The commission is guided by the United Nations Paris principles, and it should have the power to determine for itself how best to direct its energy and its resources. The criterion should be the weighing up of the human rights importance of a particular matter, not an arbitrary time limit. The commission might well decide that a flagrant breach of human rights in the past is just as deserving of its time and resources as a possibly less serious breach in the future.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

The hon. Gentleman referred to a flagrant breach of human rights in the past. What exactly does he have in mind? I ask him to list any flagrant breaches of human rights that have not already been extensively investigated and inquired into, because Northern Ireland has ombudsmen and commissions that are second to none, compared with those anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Will he identify one or two such breaches?

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I do not have any particular incident in mind, but that is not to say that evidence could not come to light indicating a past breach. As it stands, the clause would prevent the Human Rights Commission from carrying out such an investigation if evidence did come to light.

It is important to remember that Northern Ireland is a society emerging from a long period of conflict, and we have to consider whether the interests of normalisation, confidence building and conflict resolution are best served by enabling or blocking the investigation of past human rights violations. Although it is true that the commission's primary focus should always be the prevention of such abuses, its effectiveness in that regard is hardly enhanced by fettering its discretion as to what may or may not merit investigation. I have already referred to other oversight bodies, and in Northern Ireland the Equality Commission has numerous powers of investigation that are not subject to limitation based on the time at which the matter being investigated arose. The Commissioner for Children and Young People (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 specifically applies to matters arising before and after its commencement, and in suitably grave matters, the police ombudsman can investigate issues going back many years.

To summarise, clause 19 serves no useful purpose in the protection of human rights. It should be left out of the Bill, or amended so as to allow the commission to exercise its powers in relation to documents and matters arising before 1 August 2007, as well as afterwards.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

As hon. Members can see, I and my hon. Friends have attached our names to this amendment. As it stands, clause 19 provides that the Human Rights Commission will be unable to use its investigatory powers in relation to any matter arising before 1 January 2008. Of course, we now have Government amendments Nos. 26 and 27, but they simply change the date to 1 August 2007. Big deal—what a big shift!

The Northern Ireland Office is arguing that that there is some risk that the commission might investigate the troubles and that the provision is intended to prevent it from doing so. The reality, however, is that the Bill is couched in such a way that it will prevent the commission from investigating anything that occurred at any time in the past, no matter how far it impinges on future issues. Such issues could include child abuse or the locking up of the mentally ill at Muckamore Abbey, which is of great public concern at the minute in Northern Ireland; indeed, all parties have expressed concern about it. Given the degree of public concern and the private stress of the families and individuals involved, it is right and proper that the commission, in investigating a particular aspect of that issue, should not be confined to investigating only matters that arose after 1 August 2007. It should be able to examine any decision, document or material relating to, or any matter that arose before, that time.

That restriction does not only prohibit the Human Rights Commission from investigating the past; it also restricts its ability to protect human rights in the future. As Mr. Reid said, comparable bodies with investigatory powers are not subject to the same restriction. The Commissioner for Children and Young People (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, which he mentioned, was passed at a time of direct rule, and it had its genesis under devolution. As Deputy First Minister, I was one of the Ministers who sponsored that legislation. Not only did the then First Minister, David Trimble, and I agree on this issue, but the entire Executive were resolved that we wanted the maximum powers for the Commissioner for Children and Young People, and we did not want time limits on them. We had serious contentions with the NIO ministerial team, who wanted to ensure that the rights of the children's commissioner did not extend into areas such as juvenile detention, but would apply only in the devolved area. There was all-party agreement on the Executive and on the cross-party departmental Committee that handled the legislation.

I hope that all the parties that were able to support strong, far-reaching investigative powers—including issues such as detention, and with no time limits or restrictions—for the children's commissioner will take the same view of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Human rights commissions around the world have the role of protecting the voiceless, the vulnerable and the marginalised and of challenging those who would neglect or abuse human rights. We need similar protection in Northern Ireland and we need the HRC to be able to address competently matters of concern or complaints that arise after the date on which its investigative powers are triggered. If the restriction remains and it cannot pursue anything that happened before that date, even though the matter that is complained about arose after it, it will be a long time before it is able to use this supposedly significant increase in its powers. That is how things work.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down 8:45 pm, 6th February 2007

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will address the following scenario. I was very critical of him when he used parliamentary privilege two weeks ago at Prime Minister's questions to name three former RUC officers who had been anonymised in the police ombudsman's report on the Raymond McCord case. Let us say that after 1 August this year the right to life, the right to privacy and the right to a family life of one of those retired police officers were jeopardised by the hon. Gentleman's actions. Is it his contention that the Human Rights Commission could be requested by that retired officer to reinvestigate a matter arising from the Raymond McCord case?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

Clearly, it would be for the HRC to deal with whatever request or complaint anybody brings to it. It would have to assess its powers, the strength of the complaint and the relevance of the issues. The hon. Lady mentions three people being anonymised, but two of them were already out in public rubbishing the ombudsman's report, one in advance of publication and the other after. They made all sorts of comments about the report without revealing that they might be mentioned in it. They were using authority and credibility in a way that was misleading the public and, in those circumstances, I felt that I had the right to provide a little more perspective.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

That is a most interesting point and I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has just confirmed that he is happy that the independence of the police ombudsman—an important role in Northern Ireland and one that I hold in high regard, as I do the present holder of the office—should be undermined by the Northern Ireland HRC. Is that really the case?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

The hon. Lady knows that that is not what we are seeking to do. In any case, it would not be achieved by our amendment, which would not affect the balance of the powers of the police ombudsman's office. Is she saying that the police ombudsman's office will be more protected after the date on which the investigatory powers of the HRC kick in? That is a nonsensical argument. Protecting the independence of the police ombudsman's office has nothing to do with the time limits on the HRC's powers. Conversely, those time limits have nothing to do with whether the independence of the police ombudsman's office is protected.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will my hon. Friend explain why the 1 August 2007 date has been chosen? What is the thinking behind that?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

The Minister is in a better position to answer that. The HRC was at a loss to understand why its powers were due to kick in only in January 2008 and why it would not be allowed to chase any matter relating to an earlier date. The Government have decided to bring the date forward to 1 August, for reasons that are hard to determine. People will have their suspicions, especially given that the Government have canvassed the scare that the HRC might end up investigating the troubles. One could imagine that some might share a coincidence of interest in ensuring that that did not happen, in the same way that they wanted to shut off any investigation of the past arising from the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill—the so-called on-the-runs legislation.

We do not believe that there is any serious risk that the HRC will undertake a wider investigation of the troubles, as the means and instruments to deal with many of those issues already exist. The historical inquiries team and the police ombudsman are doing their jobs, and rightly so, but we sense that people who want to forget about the past and concentrate on the future will try to close them down.

A very good Russian proverb warns us that to dwell in the past is to lose one eye, but to forget the past is to lose both. As we go forward, we in Northern Ireland must be careful to treat the past in a moral way, although the Government's attempts to avoid things in the past have caused them to restrict the HRC's powers clumsily and unnecessarily. The HRC must be able to respond to all valid complaints and any cause for concern that it has. After its investigatory powers kick in, it should be able to trace issues and evidence in any way that it sees fit, as much of what will happen in the future will be sourced in past decisions and events.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

As I said in an earlier intervention, we do not believe that there should be any extension of the HRC's role and responsibility. The fact that people from the nationalist and unionist sides of the Northern Ireland community are fairly deeply divided about the HRC shows that it has not succeeded in building confidence that it is doing its job adequately and in a non-partisan manner.

For the first few years of its existence, the HRC was known more for the internal bickering and fighting that went on. Moreover, many commissioners refused to do their jobs, even though they held on to their positions. So far, the HRC has not covered itself in glory. Given that it has yet to prove that it can fulfil its existing role, I do not understand why the Minister is rushing to give it additional—and fairly draconian—powers. As I have already said, many of the things that will be included in the commission's role as a result of the legislation are already being done by other bodies—for example, prisons in Northern Ireland are already heavily regulated and the Minister has not yet made a case for the commission to have an additional, or value-added role in that regard.

The great danger in extending the HRC's powers as the amendments propose is that it would become yet another body that dabbled in and raked over the past. Lady Hermon referred to a case in which the HRC has suggested it could have a role. That case was investigated by the Stevens inquiry and by the police ombudsman, but now the HRC proposes to reopen it. The tendency when such bodies are given the role of looking into the past is for them to start delving for a sensational, juicy story that will guarantee them a headline and give them even more reason to ask the Government for more money, as the police ombudsman has done. They want an increased budget because they need more resources to investigate the past.

That type of empire building is an easy way for an organisation to make its name when it has been tarnished by its inability over the past four or five years to do the job it was set up to do. The easy way to get some headlines is to go for a sensational event in the past, so the Government are right to resist giving yet another body the ability to delve into the past. The historical inquiries team is already going over all the unsolved cases from the troubles on the police books, and the police ombudsman spends more of her time delving into past cases than dealing with current ones.

There will be the same danger if we give the HRC the ability to go over past cases. It is modelled on the police ombudsman's office and already shares the same traits. The challenge for the commission is to look into outstanding cases of human rights abuses. The only example of such cases offered by Members was one that my hon. Friend Dr. McCrea has already raised in the House—the disgraceful situation at Muckamore Abbey. However, a number of avenues are already open to the victims in that case, through the health ombudsman or the children's commissioner, so it is not necessary to extend the commission's powers as the amendment proposes. Even the powers in the Bill are not necessary, so we shall not support the amendment.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I support the comments made by Sammy Wilson in that the Government believe that the commission's investigations should be forward looking. That is the best way to ensure that investigations make a positive contribution to the present and future development of human rights law in Northern Ireland. As he has indicated, the historical inquiries team, the police ombudsman, the Saville inquiry, the Nelson inquiry and the Wright inquiry—to name but a few examples—are looking at issues relating to the past. It is important that we focus on the future. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend Paul Goggins agreed—

It being Nine o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [13 December 2006].

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 48, Noes 330.

Division number 44

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendments made: No. 26, in page 15, line 35 , leave out '1st January 2008.' and insert '1st August 2007.'.

No. 27, in page 16, line 1, leave out '1st January 2008' and insert '1st August 2007'. —[Mr. Hanson.]