Clause 13

Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 18th January 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Legal proceedings

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I want to make a few comments on the clause before we nod it through. We have moved on to an interesting chapter on the Northern Ireland  Human Rights Commission, and perhaps I can set out some of the background for the benefit of those Committee members who may not be so familiar with the various and numerous commissions in Northern Ireland, whose numbers are growing—we may be a small jurisdiction of 1.7 million people, but we have commissions second to none.

The Human Rights Commission was one of the early commissions. One of the many outstanding achievements of the Belfast agreement signed on Good Friday was that it set in train the establishment of two statutory bodies—the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. That would remain an outstanding achievement even if the agreement were to fall tomorrow, which it certainly will not; now that the Democratic Unionist party is prepared to operate the agreement, it has a long and bright future. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 gave the Human Rights Commission specific powers and put the provisions of the Belfast agreement—the international agreement between the Irish and British Governments—on a statutory footing.

If we agree to it, clause 13 will significantly extend the powers of the Human Rights Commission, which is why I should like to draw the Committee’s attention to it for a few minutes. The present wording allows the commission to institute or intervene in human rights proceedings where it is not a victim or a potential victim of an unlawful act and where no award of damages can be made to it.

I am sorry to be a pedant, but will the Minister clarify the use of the word “and” in subsection (2), where we again have a curious construction? Four conditions must be met:

“(a) the Commission need not be a victim or potential victim...(b) section 7(3) and (4) of the Human Rights Act...shall not apply...(c) the Commission may act only if there is or would be one or more victims of the unlawful act, and”— the conjunction “and” appears only there, at the end of subsection (2)(c)—

“no award of damages may be made to the Commission”.

Will the Minister confirm that human rights proceedings must be ongoing in Northern Ireland and that the commission will not be given a free rein? That is not to criticise the commission—some parties are extremely critical of it, but I am not. However, clause 49—we will come to it in due course, but presumably not this morning—extends the powers of the commission in clauses 13 to 19, beyond Northern Ireland, to England, Wales and Scotland. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury and other Members should consider clause 13 and the extent of the powers that the commission will have in their constituencies.

I would appreciate clarification on clause 13 and the intended remit of the commission, which is regional, unlike the Paris principles of 1991, which are often quoted in support of extending the commission’s powers. The principles pertain to national human rights organisations such as the Irish Human Rights Commission, not to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which is regional. So will the Minister explain the extent of its powers in clause 13?

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 9:15 am, 18th January 2007

I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. I had not intended to speak to clause 13 because I have two amendments to clause 14, although those could have been tabled under this clause. I am concerned about clause 13(2)(c), which says that

“the Commission may act only if there is or would be one or more victims of the unlawful act”.

To save time in our discussions on the next clause, I would like the Minister to answer one brief question: is an unlawful act not better investigated by other authorities? That is the motivation behind my amendments to the next clause, but it might be more convenient for him to answer that question now.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. I shall respond briefly to the questions put by the hon. Members for North Down and for Tewkesbury. We are now at an important stage of the Bill dealing with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. As always, I applaud the work of the hon. Lady in looking at the detail of the clauses. I shall look carefully at the wording, to which she drew the Committee’s attention, to ensure that it is appropriate.

The hon. Lady is right that clause 13 gives power to the commission to institute legal proceedings provided that there is a victim, even if that is not the commission itself. Rather than a whole host of individuals pursuing legal proceedings, the commission could instigate a test case in order to clarify a point of law instead of relying on individuals to do so. That mirrors the provisions granted to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights in Great Britain through the Equality Act 2006. She drew attention to provisions elsewhere that will bring legislation on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in line with legislation in Great Britain. As long as there is a victim, the provisions enable the commission to take on a test case.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I am most grateful to the Minister for that short but precise clarification. Will he confirm that he and his officials will consider whether it would be helpful—I believe it would—to include the word “and” between paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). At the moment, the provision is not clear, and implies that

“the Commission need not be a victim or potential victim of the unlawful act”.

There could be a test case under its own volition without there being a victim.

The commission already has powers—this is where we must be careful—under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to assist a victim of alleged human rights abuse to take legal proceedings and to support them financially. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate whether a budgetary commitment will be given to the commission to institute proceedings and test cases when it is not the victim.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office

I do not intend to discuss the budgetary requirements of the commission now. There is a budget and the commission does its work. The provision gives extra rights to the commission and I believe the hon. Lady welcomes that. I assure her that  the Committee stage of any Bill usually reveals an “and” or a “but” or an “if” or a “maybe” that is in the wrong place or that an additional “and” may be beneficial. I am happy to consider whether this is one of those instances.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

With that reassurance, I am delighted for clause 13 to stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.