Clause 13

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

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Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down 9:00 am, 18th January 2007

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?