Amendment 4A

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 6th July 2022.

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Lord Morrow:

Moved by Lord Morrow

4A: Clause 2, page 6, leave out lines 10 to 23Member's explanatory statementThe NDNA does not commit to assisting the Irish Language Commissioner or the Ulster Scots Commissioner with the provision of a duty on public authorities to have regard to them. This amendment would mean that neither of the Commissioners benefit from public authorities being subject to having a duty to have regard to them.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, I am pleased to speak to Amendments 4A and 17, in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I have given some indication as to why he is not in his place today. By way of introduction, I say that I am very grateful to the Ulster-Scots Agency for drawing my attention to the highly significant problem that these amendments seek to address.

In his response to Amendment 17, which I moved in Committee, the Minister pointed out that the two commissioners approach their different remits in different ways, and that we should not try to change that. I completely agree—100%. One commissioner is very focused on language, the other is less concerned with language and much more concerned with public culture, broadly conceived. This reflects the relative priorities of the different communities, as acknowledged by the NDNA process. However, appreciating this point does not provide any reason to oppose our amendments. While it is vital that we make space for the differences of focus, both communities require commissioners with similarly robust powers to pursue their different purposes. If one commissioner is given one role and provided with the requisite authority to discharge that role, while the other commissioner is given another role but not the same level of authority to discharge it, we are left with the image of two commissioners but the reality of only one that is worth while.

In his response to the debate in Committee, the Minister seemed to suggest that the lack of a duty to have regard in relation to the Ulster Scots/Ulster-British commissioner was compensated for by another difference between the two commissioners, namely that the Ulster Scots commissioner would have a broader brief. There are two difficulties with this assertion. In the first instance, the extension beyond language to cover arts and literature does not give the Ulster Scots commissioner a broader brief in public affairs. While the expectation is that the Irish language commissioner would make language demands on all 70-plus public authorities, the Ulster-Scots commissioner would not, and the compensating provision of arts and literature would engage only a small number of them.

In the second instance, no self-respecting community could accept a proposition that something being unenforceable in relation to a large number of issues was compensation for it being enforceable in relation to a smaller group of issues. That, of course, would be absurd.

The other argument deployed by the Minister in defence of the proposal that public authorities should not be required to have a duty to have regard to the Ulster Scots commissioner while they should be so obliged in relation to the Irish language commissioner relates to the wording of the NDNA, which does not explicitly state that a statutory duty should be imposed on public authorities to have regard to what the Ulster Scots commissioner says. Crucially, however, the NDNA does not state that no duty to have regard should be placed on public authorities in relation to the commissioner. Rather, it is silent on that matter.

There is a big difference between advocating something that the NDNA affirms or rejects on the one hand, and advancing something it is silent on, on the other. More importantly, however, an enforcement mechanism along the lines of a duty to have regard to is logically implicit in the NDNA, in that if there was no duty to have regard to what the commissioner says, the provision of the commissioner would be pointless.

Put another way, one can test the silence of the NDNA by imagining whether it would have stood up if it stated there should be a commissioner but that there should be not even a statutory duty for those engaged by it to have regard for what it says, since they would no longer be engaged in any meaningful way. That would make the provision absurd. Furthermore, the act of actually calling on legislators not to pass an amendment to make explicit a duty to have regard makes it explicit that there should be no duty to have regard, and thereby makes the provision of the commissioner explicitly pointless. In agreeing that there should not even be something as minimal as a duty to have regard, Parliament would be telling public authorities they can effectively ignore the commissioner. This is not defensible in my book.

There is a further, and in some ways even more profound, difficulty with the Government’s position. The truth is that in the same way the NDNA is silent on placing the duty to have regard on public authorities in relation to the Ulster Scots commissioner so too is it silent on that point as it relates to the Irish language commissioner, yet the Government have provided the Irish language commissioner with this crucial right, even as they have denied it to the Ulster Scots commissioner. This is indefensible.

The only relevant provision of the NDNA in relation to a duty to have regard is one that assumes a duty rather than a provision that proposes creating such a duty. Paragraph 5.8.4 in Annex E of the NDNA states that the commissioner should

“investigate complaints where a public authority has failed to have regard to those standards.”

On the basis of simple logic, it makes sense that the Bill before us today does place a duty to have regard on public authorities in relation to the Irish language commissioner, because if there are no obligations the provision of the commissioner would be a waste of public money. The difficulty, however, with concluding that this justifies the provision of a duty to have regard to in relation to the Irish language commissioner but not the Ulster Scots commissioner arises from the fact that paragraph 5.16.3 makes an identical commitment in relation to the Ulster Scots commissioner, stating that they should

“investigate complaints where a public authority fails to have due regard to such advice provided by the Commissioner in respect of facilitating the use of Ulster Scots.”

In this context, on the basis of both simple logic and what the NDNA says, we face a simple choice if we are to uphold the parity of esteem and do what is right by Northern Ireland.

The two amendments that I have tabled set before us the options that define that choice. Either we can say that the Ulster Scots commissioner must be endowed with the same authority to command respect as the Irish language commissioner, so that the two communities are equally respected by placing a duty on public authorities to have regard to the Ulster Scots commissioner, as set out in Amendment 17, or we can secure this end by removing that existing duty in relation to public authorities with respect to the Irish language commissioner, as set out in Amendment 4A.

In my view, the answer is obvious: since it would be absurd for this House to state that the public authority should not be subject to at least the lowest level of obligation to have regard to the commissioners we are creating, we have to make one change or the other. We cannot leave the Bill as it is, without actively undermining the principle of the parity of esteem and treating one community with contempt. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 4:45 pm, 6th July 2022

My Lords, I can understand much of what the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, is saying. I entirely agree with the Bill where it says that the Irish language commissioner should have powers of due regard if public authorities do not come up to the standards that the commissioner expects. I entirely agree with and in no way denigrate that.

However, I am slightly puzzled, especially in light of what the Minister said earlier about the sensible change that there has been in the title of the commissioner. There is a difference between the way in which the commissioners operate, because they have different functions. Clearly, the Irish language commissioner is concerned about the Irish language, but the Ulster Scots commissioner goes beyond that. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to paragraphs 5 and 6 of the NDNA agreement. Paragraph 5.14 in Annex E says that the commissioner will deal with

“the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland.”

This is followed by another sentence:

The Commissioner’s remit will include the areas of education, research, media, cultural activities and facilities and tourism initiatives.”

In paragraph 5.16, it goes on to say:

“The functions of the Commissioner will be to … provide advice and guidance to public authorities, including where relevant on the effect and implementation, so far as affecting Ulster Scots, of commitments under” various charters. So it is quite clear that the agreement meant that the two commissioners, in their different ways, would oversee the work of public authorities in Northern Ireland on the issues that were debated and agreed before that agreement was signed.

There is a case based on getting confidence across the community because, as the Minister knows, nothing can happen properly in Northern Ireland unless there is confidence and trust across all communities in Northern Ireland. Not just the nationalist and unionist communities but everybody has to see that there is fairness, and that people are being treated equally.

There is an opportunity before this Bill goes to the other place for the Government and the Minister—provided there is still a Government in situ over the next few weeks; I rather fancy that, by the time this session has finished, the Minister might be the last Minister of this Government still in office, but we will have to wait and see—to reflect on the points that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and others have made and to listen to other people in Northern Ireland on what the answers to these things might be. It also seems an ideal opportunity, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, might have mentioned this, to talk to the Ulster- Scots Agency and to the bodies dealing with the Irish language in Northern Ireland to get their views on the progress of the Bill. There is an opportunity to have another look at this to ensure that there is full confidence, across the board, in what is an essential piece of legislation.

Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My Lords, on Monday I had an extremely useful meeting with Ian Crozier of the Ulster-Scots Agency. Although I cannot support these amendments, they do raise some very important points, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, just said.

The Bill as drafted places a duty on public authorities to have “due regard” to the Irish language commissioner, as has been discussed, but creates no such duty in respect of the commissioner responsible for Ulster Scots and the Ulster-British tradition. This is therefore causing some lack of trust and some concern. This difference of approach was not specifically set out in New Decade, New Approach, which suggested that both commissioners should be treated the same way on this point.

Will the Minister respond to the fears that have been expressed in the debate and, indeed, by the Ulster-Scots Agency that treating the two commissioners differently through this legislation risks undermining the credibility of one of the commissioners? Like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, did, I ask whether the Minister has already met the Ulster-Scots Agency. If not, will he do so and listen directly first-hand to its very real concerns?

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, like other speakers, I have very considerable sympathy for the views that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, expressed. I urge my noble friend the Minister to keep the key words “parity of esteem” constantly in mind. That is the heart of the matter. I hope he will indeed reflect further, as he has been encouraged to do. It really would be a tragedy not to do all that is possible to allay the considerable misgivings with which this legislation is currently viewed by many unionists in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Dodds of Duncairn Lord Dodds of Duncairn DUP

My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I hope the Minister will remain in his place, because he brings a large degree of experience and knowledge to the situation. I certainly hope he can continue in his post for as long as possible.

I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said about these amendments. There are two issues. The first is parity of esteem, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said. This legislation has been very controversial and it no doubt will be. It must be implemented with people feeling that they are being treated equally. I was involved in some of the negotiations and if anyone had suggested at the time that the New Decade, New Approach agreement meant that there would be this difference in duty, it would never have been agreed on that basis. It is clear that the two should be treated equally, with the same duties on public authorities regarding each of them. I echo the calls for this to be considered further before it gets to the other place.

Secondly, if we are talking about reflecting accurately the NDNA agreement—we will come on to this with more significant clauses later in the Bill—it is important that there is not a piecemeal approach. If NDNA is to be faithfully replicated and the duty is placed on public authorities with regard to the Irish language commissioner, then we either have Amendment 4A, which would take it away from the Irish language commissioner, which I do not wish to see happen, or we have Amendment 17, which would make it an equal approach. That is something the Government should think about very seriously, in the interests of boosting confidence and giving reassurance.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Again, I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, for elevating me to the position once occupied by the first Duke of Wellington in the 1830s, when, in his caretaker Administration, I think he occupied every position in the Government bar Lord Chancellor and Chancellor of the Exchequer—my noble friend Lord Lexden will correct me if I am wrong. Let us hope that it does not come to that.

This was another a matter of great interest and extensive and lengthy debate in Grand Committee and I will try to respond without necessarily repeating all the same arguments that we examined in detail there. The Government’s view is that it is very clearly set out in Annexe E of New Decade, New Approach, a document that I gently remind some noble Lords was hailed at the time by the Democratic Unionist Party as “fair and balanced”. The roles and functions of the two commissioners are different, reflecting the respective needs of Irish as a language, Ulster Scots as a national minority, and the Ulster-British tradition. That is why the provision for those respective groups is set out differently in New Decade, New Approach, including in respect of the legal duties set out in this Bill. The Government believe that that was for good reason.

I hope this goes some way to answering concerns from a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie: to answer her question directly, I had a very constructive meeting with Ian Crozier from the Ulster-Scots Agency and am very happy to continue to engage with the Ulster-Scots Agency and with Irish language groups that I have already met. I have absolutely no issue with doing that at all.

To go back to the point, the role of the Irish language commissioner pertains to matters of language alone. Its work focuses on best practice standards on the Irish language for public authorities to follow in providing their services. Accordingly, there is a specific legal duty in this regard. In comparison, the commissioner associated with the Ulster Scots and the Ulster-British traditions will cover arts and literature in addition to language. The legal duty proposed here by Amendment 17 from the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, would therefore have the effect of being far broader than that on the Irish language, covering public authorities’ work on arts and literature.

I will just come back on one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, when I think he stated that the Irish commissioner would cover 70-plus authorities but the Ulster Scots commissioner would not. The Government’s position is very clear that the Ulster Scots and Ulster-British commissioner will cover exactly the same public authorities as the Irish language counterpart and will still be able to receive complaints where its advice and guidance are not followed. I want to be clear on that.

Therefore, the amendments proposed by noble Lords this afternoon, in the Government’s view, seem to go far beyond the fair and balanced package reached in New Decade, New Approach, and as such the Government cannot accept them.

I understand that we will return to this matter later, but I highlight also that there is a specific new legal duty for Ulster Scots in relation to the education system provided by the Bill. This will address the current lack of statutory provision for Ulster Scots in the education system. I also highlight that the commissioners will be able to administer complaints in relation to the compliance with public authorities on their guidance and standards issued and lay reports before the Assembly.

Amendment 4A would remove the legal duty in relation to the Irish Language best practice standards. Those standards were a key function of the Irish language commissioner, as set out in paragraph 27(d) of New Decade, New Approach. The standards provided for in the Bill are, therefore, consistent with New Decade, New Approach and the legal duty set out in the proposed draft legislation accompanying it, in new Section 78I(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Annexe E of New Decade, New Approach, in paragraph 5.9, accordingly speaks of public authorities fulfilling their “requirement” under the standards and it would seem clear from a reading of both that document and the draft legislation together that the legal duty provided for in this Bill is consistent with the position reached by the parties in the talks. Reflecting the fact that the standards are associated with a legal duty, these will require the approval of the First and Deputy First Ministers, acting jointly, to be given effect. This is intended to provide a level of assurance and oversight over the requirements set by the commissioner.

I highlight that no such approval from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is required for the guidance and advice of the commissioner for the Ulster Scots and the Ulster-British tradition; nor is approval required for guidance so that complaints can be made in relation to the failure of public authorities to comply with it. With this context in mind, I hope noble Lords will appreciate that the provision for the commissioners and the associated legal duties reflects the delicate and fair balance and the particular needs of the groups that they will serve. The Government cannot accept propositions that would deviate from New Decade, New Approach or the legal duties set out in the original draft legislation that accompanied that document. I would therefore be grateful if the noble Lords did not press their amendments.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP 5:00 pm, 6th July 2022

My Lords, I again listened intently to what the Minister said. He remarked that it was said that NDNA was a fair and equitable package. We still stand by that, but we are not convinced that the Bill reflects that; that is what we are looking to be addressed.

I thank everyone who has spoken here. If my hearing is right, in the main those who have spoken agree with what I said. It is just unfortunate that the Minister did not go a step or two further here today, but maybe there will be another opportunity.

It is very clear that there is a discriminatory element in all this and it has to be addressed. It is better that we get it right from day one than wonder, when we are in the middle of it all, “How did we get into this?”. We just have to stop and think for a while, look at it and see where the deficiencies are.

I know the Minister has been sent here today by the Government to say these things, so I do not blame him personally—it is no reflection at all on his duty here at the Dispatch Box—but any objective person who reads this debate will conclude that the arguments for Amendment 17 are overwhelming and that no good reason has been provided today to justify not putting that right. We have heard from the Labour and Lib Dem Front Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and my noble friend Lord Dodds. We have heard what everybody has said, yet we seem to just want to go on. Well, we know where going on sometimes takes us—into the wrong place altogether.

What should we do? In this context, while I feel disappointed, I will not divide the House on this issue today, because this will go to another place and I hope it will come back from there different from how it is today.

Amendment 4A withdrawn.

Amendment 5 not moved.