Amendment 18

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 6th July 2022.

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Lord Browne of Belmont:

Moved by Lord Browne of Belmont

18: Clause 3, page 9, line 30, leave out “facilitation”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would extend the grounds on which an individual can submit a complaint to the Commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British traditions to cover the conduct of public authorities in relation to all the guidance issued by the Ulster Scots and Ulster British Commissioner, as is already the case with respect to all the guidance issued by the Irish Language Commissioner. It would thus help restore/achieve the parity of esteem.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP

My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and with the permission of my noble friend Lord Morrow, I shall speak to Amendments 18 to 21. When these amendments were dealt with in Committee, the Minister objected that if they were accepted, they would make a change to one commissioner but not the other, as if they must be treated in exactly the same way. He stated:

“My first concern is that it would not be appropriate to amend one of the commissioner’s complaints procedures but not the other.”—[Official Report, 22/6/22; col. GC 99.]

This, however, is wholly inconsistent with what the Minister has rightly been insistent on, and in relation to which he has my full agreement; namely, that this legislation does not provide commissioners with identical functions and responsibilities but with different and equally meaningful and valuable roles for their respective communities.

The limitation of the complaints procedure to the use of the Ulster Scots language by public authorities is the consequence of the drafters losing sight of the fact that the two commissioners have different functions in order to provide something of equal value to each community. In this regard, it is useful to compare and contrast the provisions in the Bill that define the principal role of the Irish language commissioner and then that of the Ulster Scots/Ulster-British tradition commissioner. Of the former, new Section 78K(1) states:

“The principal aim of the Commissioner in exercising functions under this Part is to enhance and protect the use of the Irish language by public authorities in the provision of services to the public or a section of the public in Northern Ireland.”

Thus, it is about the use of the Irish language by public authorities.

The parallel clause defining the role of the Ulster Scots commissioner, meanwhile, does not mention the use of the language by public authorities. New Section 78R(1) states:

“The principal aim of the Commissioner in exercising functions under this Part is to enhance and develop the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland.”

Indeed, this is underlined by the very name of the Ulster Scots/Ulster-British commissioner.

Given that Ulster British is not a language in any sense, restricting the complaints facility to the use of the Ulster Scots language transparently limits it to less than half the commissioner’s title, even while the Irish language commissioner’s function is such that the right to complain applies to the entire scope of their engagement with public authorities. As if to underline the point, not only is the use of the Ulster Scots language by public authorities not mentioned in the principal role clause but when it is mentioned later on such is its secondary importance it is only in brackets so that it is not forgotten entirely. Thus, if anyone should respond by saying that the nationalist community is subject to exactly the same constraints as the unionist community, then let us be clear: no, it is not.

The roles of the two commissioners are, as the Minister pointed out, different, and while the Irish language commissioner will make extensive demands of all public authorities in relation to the use of the Irish language, the Ulster Scots commissioner will not in relation to the use of the Ulster Scots language—hence the compensating broader cultural remit. However, to make a comparable, meaningful provision for unionists through the Ulster Scots commissioner to that afforded to nationalists through the Irish language commissioner, it is necessary to endow the former with a different set of functions to the latter. This must come with a complaints facility across the spectrum of functions required, in order for unionists to be afforded something of equal value to that which is afforded to nationalists. Not to do so is to live in denial about the fact that the two commissioners are different, servicing the needs of two different communities, with different concerns and priorities. Far from giving effect to parity of esteem, this would be to snub one community in a context when they have already been snubbed by the inexplicable decision also to weaken the Ulster Scots commissioner compared to the Irish language commissioner by denying the former the protection of the “duty to have regard” obligation dealt with in a previous grouping.

The only thing the Government could possibly do to seek to justify this arrangement would be to say that the NDNA agreement does not specify that a complaints procedure should be applied in relation to the other areas of the Ulster Scots commissioner's responsibility, but that does not provide a justification for inaction.

In the first instance, it is important to appreciate that the NDNA agreement does not say that the unionist community should not be given the right to complain about the conduct of public authorities through the Ulster Scots commissioner beyond the use of language. It is silent on the matter. In this context, we must test the silence and ask whether it makes sense that the commissioner should be provided with areas of responsibility in relation to the conduct of public authorities but no ability to respond to complaints from his or her community about the failures of public authorities in those areas, while the nationalist community is afforded the right to complain in relation to the principal functions of the Irish language commissioner. No, it does not.

In the second instance, and importantly, we have to interpret NDNA through the lens of the imperative for the parity of esteem principle. This means that if we conclude that one community cannot receive meaningful support through a narrow focus on language because of its different priorities—such that the commissioner needs to be given a different function—it would be perverse for that community to be denied the right to complain about failures of public authorities across the remit of the commissioner while making provision for such a complaints mechanism in relation to the other community.

It is one thing to snub a community by not placing a duty to have regard on public authorities with respect to its commissioner—even as such a duty is applied to the other community and its commissioner—but to also deny the former community the right to complain about the conduct of public authorities in relation to the definition of its commissioner’s principal role, even as this right is afforded the other community, is extraordinary. Moreover, when this is seen in the light of how the unionist community has been dealt with in relation to the protocol since 2019, one can perhaps begin to understand why Northern Ireland unionists feel they have become the subject of contempt.

Stepping back from this point, however—and finally coming to a conclusion—forgetting for a moment that I am a Northern Ireland unionist, I am also at a loss to understand why the Government, who surely want to make the unionist-nationalist relationship easier, should bring forward a Bill containing such a transparently antagonising provision. I most sincerely hope that the Government will reconsider and accept these amendments, which bring a modest extension of the right of unionists to complain so that it includes practices contrary to the international instrument mentioned in Clause 3. I beg to move.

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

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, and I will be very brief in my remarks. As I said in Committee, New Decade, New Approach is very clear in paragraph 5.16.3 that the commissioner should be able to investigate relevant complaints about a public authority’s lack of due regard to advice provided in respect of

“facilitating the use of Ulster Scots.”

For that reason, the Bill makes provision so that complaints may be made to the commissioner concerned only in relation to “published facilitation guidance”. Neither New Decade, New Approach, nor the draft legislation accompanying it, proposed that this complaints power be made broader, as the noble Lord proposes through these amendments.

I am content that the provision in the Bill as it stands reflects the position reached in New Decade, New Approach—the agreement described by the noble Lord’s former leader Arlene Foster as a “fair and balanced” package—and the legislation prepared by the Office of the Legislative Counsel of the Northern Ireland Assembly alongside it. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to himself as a Northern Ireland unionist; as a British unionist, I do not accept that we are snubbing a community in Northern Ireland. We are simply implementing New Decade, New Approach faithfully. On that basis, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I believe that NDNA is a fair package, but I am not convinced that the Bill is totally fair. It is important for the Government to engage with this problem, and nothing that the Minister has said provides a compelling reason for concluding that NDNA stipulates that while the Irish-speaking community should have access to a right to complain in relation to all matters within the mandate of its commissioner, the Ulster Scots and Ulster-British tradition should be denied this right in relation to all that commissioner’s work, apart from something whose secondary importance is acknowledged by virtue of the fact that it is mentioned only in brackets. I hope that this will be debated further in the other place, and, therefore, I wish to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 18 withdrawn.

Amendments 19 to 22 not moved.