Perhaps I ought to explain that I am standing in today for my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, because he is busy with the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill Committee. It is a great pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate Naomi Long on securing it. As she says, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is an important issue for consideration. It was good to see Vernon Coaker, the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with us for a short period, and it is good to see Jim Shannon, whose contribution to the debate was very welcome.
Hon. Members will appreciate the thoughtful and measured way that the hon. Member for Belfast East has approached this subject, which has provoked strong feelings on different sides of the argument. Of course, we in the Conservative party are no strangers to controversies and divided views on human rights matters.
Perhaps it would help if I went back over some of the ground covered by the hon. Lady and went back to the section of the Belfast agreement that deals with rights. There is a degree of ambiguity in the way that section is written. Although the text does not go as far as stating that there would definitely be a Bill of Rights, the agreement certainly contemplated that a Bill of Rights was potentially an important part of the settlement. The Belfast agreement said that the Human Rights Commission
“will be invited to consult and to advise on the scope of defining, in Westminster legislation, supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.
The agreement added:
“These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and...taken together with the ECHR ...to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland”.
Of course, the arguments for and against a Bill of Rights have been debated extensively in the 15 years since the Belfast agreement was signed. I will just give a few examples: there was the Bill of Rights forum that followed the 2006 St Andrews agreement; and there was also the advice offered to the previous Government by the Human Rights Commission in 2008. Among other things, that advice proposed extensive so-called socio-economic rights, including
“the right to an adequate standard of living...the right to work, including fair wages” and it even included
“the right to have the environment protected”.
Following that, there was the ensuing Government consultation, and the current Government published responses to that consultation in December 2010. The then Minister of State for Northern Ireland—the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend Mr Swire— described the consultation as having demonstrated widespread
“opposition to a wide-ranging Bill of Rights and support instead for a more limited set of rights... This divergence of views was also reflected in the submissions made by political parties in Northern Ireland”.—[Hansard, 16 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 131WS.]
In fact, as the hon. Member for Belfast East said, there are few issues in Northern Ireland that have caused such divided views or that have been so thoroughly examined and debated as the subject of our debate today.
Despite that, however, 15 years on from the Belfast agreement, it is clear that there is no consensus on how to move forward, and I am afraid that there is no sign of one emerging in the immediate future. That was the case under the previous Labour Government, and I am afraid that it has remained the case under the current Government.
My predecessor as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend Mr Paterson—had numerous discussions on this matter with political parties in Northern Ireland and with other interested bodies. As we have heard, in September 2011, he wrote to party leaders in Northern Ireland, setting out the possibility that the proposed Northern Ireland Bill, which is being discussed upstairs as we speak today, would give the Assembly
“the power to take forward, or even legislate, in this area”.
I am told that he received no responses from the political parties to that part of his letter.
Since last September, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I arrived at the Northern Ireland Office, we have discussed a Bill of Rights with a number of organisations and people, including the Irish Government and the Tanaiste. Like our predecessors, we have found little—if any—common ground among them, but that has not been for lack of trying. We have certainly engaged extensively on this matter.
Of course, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would be a matter of constitutional significance. As such, it would be very important to secure cross-community support if it were to have any chance of succeeding. It is not something that could, or should, be imposed over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland by the UK Government acting unilaterally. That position is reinforced by the fact that the main impact of any Bill of Rights unique to Northern Ireland would fall on the devolved institutions. So, before we could make a move towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, there would have to be broadly based cross-party agreement. The Government would like to see this issue resolved, given the role that the Government played in the Belfast agreement, but we cannot simply conjure consensus into existence.
I should add that the chances of achieving broad agreement on additional rights for Northern Ireland might be better served if some of the advocates of a Bill of Rights were more realistic in their ambitions. Clearly, proposals from some organisations that focus extensively on socio-economic rights are very unlikely to gain cross-party approval in Northern Ireland. However, if that was the route that Northern Ireland wished to go down, the impact on the rest of the UK would also be a factor to consider. For example, there would be complex issues to resolve around the interaction of welfare-type human rights with the principles of parity that currently operate in relation to the benefit and welfare systems. Matters of cost would need to be carefully considered.
As the hon. Member for Belfast East said, this debate is primarily about the means, or process, to deliver a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, rather than the content of such a Bill. However, I welcomed her thoughts on the Alliance views on these matters. As she said, it certainly makes sense to focus on a realistic and flexible approach to any future Bill of Rights, which is capable of adapting to Northern Ireland’s changing circumstances. She is right to say that we should proceed with caution against anything that entrenched a particular and restrictive view in relation to identity and against anything that made it more difficult to resolve the sectarian divisions that sadly persist in Northern Ireland society. So I listened with interest to her thoughts on those matters.
Having looked back at some of the statements that the Alliance party has contributed to the debate, I note that there is acknowledgement that significant hurdles are still to be cleared in arguing why Northern Ireland needs to have a fundamentally different human rights regime—especially from other neighbouring jurisdictions. I also acknowledge that party’s statement that the aim of policy makers should not be to preserve Northern
Ireland as a place apart, requiring special measures. Those sentiments would be worth considering in terms of a way forward on a Bill of Rights.
The intervention by Jim Shannon highlighted some of the difficulties here. For example, were abortion to become tied up in the concept of a Bill of Rights, that would be an intensely difficult issue to resolve using a Bill of Rights as a mechanism. That illustrates the difficulties in the way of reaching a conclusion on this matter.
Although there are reasons why further progress on a Bill of Rights will not be easy to deliver, I hope that I can provide some reassurance regarding the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland. It is important to emphasise that Northern Ireland has an extensive, well-developed system of human rights protections, through existing UK-wide legislation—not just the legislation that happens to be labelled directly in relation to human rights, but statutes dealing with matters such as discrimination. For example, fair employment legislation places obligations on employers that are unique in the United Kingdom. In particular, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 imposes a statutory obligation on all public bodies to carry out their functions with regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity for everyone. Of course, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has emphasised that it puts respect for human rights at the heart of all its work. That is an important part of policing practice in Northern Ireland. So I hope that no one will seek to say that, without a new Bill of Rights, Northern Ireland is somehow left as a human rights desert. That is certainly not the case.
Looking ahead, if there were agreement on additional rights for Northern Ireland, the Government would examine how best to take things forward. We remain open to the suggestion that work on this, including legislation, could be taken forward by the Assembly. In our 2010 manifesto, we called for the replacement of the Human Rights Act 1998 with a UK Bill of Rights. Although that proposal did not make it into the coalition agreement, were it to be revived in future, the relevant legislation could include a separate section to cover supplementary rights in Northern Ireland, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast East.
In the meantime, both the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor have said clearly that, if the Conservatives win the next election, we will seek radical reform of current human rights law. That would include re-examining our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. However, in considering the future of human rights legislation in the UK we would, of course, give careful consideration to Northern Ireland’s position. We are happy to include debates and ideas on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as part of our general consideration of the future of human rights rules in the UK as a whole.