My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in the name of my noble and learned friend the Lord Privy Seal.
The order is made under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The purpose of the draft order is to make the bodies listed in the schedules "public authorities" for the purposes of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Those public authorities will be subject to the statutory duties set out in Section 75(1) and (2) of the Act, requiring them to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between specific groups.
Although devolved government has temporarily been suspended, we remain committed to ensuring the full implementation of the agreement. The order is a further step in that important process.
In order to demonstrate its commitment, each public authority is required to produce an equality scheme that sets out how it will fulfil the duties. The schemes will cover the full range of the organisation's functions in Northern Ireland. As required by the guidelines approved by the Secretary of State each will include arrangements for policy appraisal; public consultation; public access to information and services; monitoring; and timetables. Those schemes will be submitted to the Equality Commission for approval.
The Equality Commission will advise on preparation, validate and monitor the Section 75 statutory obligation and will investigate complaints of default. Section 75(3)(b) and (c) of the Act automatically brought the vast majority of public authorities in Northern Ireland—around 120—within the scope of the statutory equality duty.
We intend that the statutory duty should, in time, embrace as many bodies as possible. It is our policy that non-designation should be the exception, not the rule. This order is not the end of the process and further designation orders will be brought forward as and when required. I commend the order to the House.
My Lords, I shall endeavour to be brief. I am aware of the pressure of time. I hope that your Lordships will not consider me churlish if I express the hope that Northern Ireland business is not forced to be rushed through in an inappropriately short time. I spent 18 years in another place where, for too long, Northern Ireland business was relegated to the midnight hours or rushed through inappropriately.
No one can disagree with the objectives of the order. It is one thing to expect bodies and individuals to meet the criteria for promoting equal opportunity and promoting good relations, but quite another to see that implemented on the ground. I implore the Government to look carefully at some matters that they are forcing upon the people of Northern Ireland which contradict the objectives of the order. There is an inequality of opportunity and I hope to deal with that to a greater extent when we discuss the new police legislation due to come before the House in the future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton, for their support. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, that the Government have absolutely no intention of rushing through these orders. I had understood that noble Lords who wished to be present preferred to take the orders now rather than after Starred Questions. On behalf of my noble and learned friend the Lord Privy Seal, I can assure the noble Lord that we guard jealously the right of noble Lords to comment at the right time on matters affecting Northern Ireland.
I am aware of the view of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, on the issue of equality in general. I believe that he supports the order and its aims. I look forward to receiving his comments in detail as we embark on the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill.