Northern Ireland: Bill of Rights — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 15th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Liberal Democrat 2:36 pm, 15th March 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what consideration they are giving to the motion passed by the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on 22 November 2010 which noted the delay in the introduction of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, as promised in the Belfast agreement, and called upon Her Majesty's Government to fulfil their obligation in that regard.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) , Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip

My Lords, the Government remain committed to maintaining human rights protection in Northern Ireland and fulfilling our obligations under the Belfast agreement. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Minister of State recently met human rights organisations in Northern Ireland and stressed the difficulty of making progress without political consensus within Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly. We will continue to consider how best to address this issue in the coming months.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, that is not a very satisfactory Answer because it gives a veto to the Stormont parties and it is not their prerogative to exercise that veto. Is what my noble friend said the agreed policy of the coalition? If it is, which Liberal Democrat Ministers participated and concurred in that agreement?

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) , Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip

I make it quite clear; I am the Whip and there are two Ministers in the House of Commons. Noble Lords will remember that we had the general election, following which the number of Members of Parliament in each party was rather different. Under the coalition agreement, the number of Liberal Democrat Members who became Ministers was rather smaller than the number of Conservative Members who became Ministers. My noble friend's right honourable friend and mine, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, paid a three-day visit to Northern Ireland in October, and I also had a three-day visit. Even though I am not a Minister, I endeavour to influence events and I hope to have a degree of success in that. Alongside my noble friend as the Liberal Democrat Back-Bench co-chair for the policy committee on Northern Ireland, Mr Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne, has recently been appointed to serve as the House of Commons co-chair.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My Lords, I remind the Minister, with respect, that he speaks on behalf of the Government as a whole. The Government have pledged to bring in a British Bill of Rights. I wonder what that means for Northern Ireland and whether the Government are going to pursue a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights and a separate Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom. I should be grateful for the views of the noble Lord the Minister.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) , Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip

My Lords, I shall endeavour to speak for the Government. I was just giving the facts as to who is the Minister and who is the Whip. I hold the latter position, and I think noble Lords will find that that situation existed when we had a different Government. The noble Baroness may recall that the Belfast agreement came into being on 10 April 1998. It was agreed that there would be an Assembly with full legislative and executive authority for the six Northern Ireland government departments. Furthermore, it was agreed that the European Convention on Human Rights would be embraced in any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland that supplemented it. Of course, it is 13 years since the Belfast agreement and things do not stay still. We got a Human Rights Act in December 1998. The devolved Assembly has these powers and from time to time legislative consent motions are required. On 16 February-

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) , Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip

If you want the answer you can have it-the Prime Minister announced that a group of people would be put together for a human rights Act for Britain. Therefore, the Belfast agreement has to embrace those other three factors.

Photo of Lord Kilclooney Lord Kilclooney Crossbench

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Belfast agreement brought benefits to the peoples of both states in the island of Ireland? Can he recall that there were obligations on the Dublin Government in that agreement to create a human rights commission, to ratify the Council of Europe's convention on national minorities, and to legislate for employment equality and for respect of the different traditions in the island? Can he confirm whether any of those four requirements have been honoured yet by the Dublin Government? For those that have not been honoured, will he make representations to the new Government elected in the south of Ireland a few weeks ago?

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) , Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip

My Lords, as I indicated earlier, I will do my best to speak for this Government. It is someone else's job to speak for the Government of Ireland. However, in another coalition agreement, between Fine Gael and Labour in the south, there is one line that the Belfast agreement and the St Andrews agreement "shall be honoured". If that is in their coalition agreement, it applies to them as it does here, and I will see to it that I write accordingly.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Conservative

My Lords, I want to clarify a couple of things. While shadow Minister in opposition, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, I and others in the team undertook that once that United Kingdom Government set up their own human rights Bill, Northern Ireland would have its share of it. That is where I still stand, and I suspect that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is in a similar position.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) , Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip

I am not absolutely clear about the question, but the Government are possessed of the fact of honouring the Belfast agreement. Within that there has to be a human rights element for Northern Ireland. What is not absolutely written in stone is that that has to be very separate.

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister comment on the reality that the Belfast agreement does not impose an obligation on the Government to legislate on the human rights question; rather, it imposes an obligation on them to receive the report of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission? Rather more profoundly, that report is supposed to be based on the principle of "parity of esteem" for the "two traditions". That is explicitly said in the Belfast agreement. The Northern Ireland Assembly has in effect rejected the idea that it is so based. Is it not at this stage for those who believe in human rights legislation to carry on the argument in Northern Ireland with the Northern Ireland Assembly to see whether minds can be changed?

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) , Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip

It certainly is. The Northern Ireland Assembly voted by 46 votes to 42 that it did not want separate human rights legislation. There is an election, and things might well change following that election. If a united front in the Northern Ireland Assembly said that that is what it wanted, obviously the British Government would take due notice.