Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard - continued): House of Lords
Monday 15th July 2019

(4 years, 12 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 190-I(Rev)(a)(Manuscript) Amendment for Committee, supplementary to the revised marshalled list (PDF) - (15 Jul 2019)
Committee (Continued)
Amendment 12
Moved by
12: Clause 3, page 3, line 39, at end insert—
“( ) After making a report under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must publish a report on or before 10 September 2019 on progress on the establishment of a Renewable Heat Incentive Hardship Unit in the Department for the Economy.”
Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey (UUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Committee will see that I have a number of issues in Amendments 12 to 16. I have to say—I have said this to the Minister before—that I believe that this Bill, which was set out to be a relatively simple exercise, has now transformed itself into something totally different. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, described it as a Christmas tree, so I take the view that if people at the other end are entitled to put baubles on the Christmas tree, I can put tinsel on it. Let us be under no illusion. Once the dam is breached, people will flow through with their own ideas and are perfectly entitled to do it. I have chosen a number of things because I believe they are very important to the people of Northern Ireland. Most of them are not being addressed, yet people are in significant difficulty as a result.

I will start with Amendment 12. The RHI has proven to be one of the most significant developments in Northern Ireland in recent years. It was ostensibly the reason Sinn Féin collapsed the Executive in 2017. I have never believed that that was the only reason. Nevertheless, it is on paper as the reason. As we discovered when dealing with rates and the renewable heat incentive in March, many people are in great distress as a result.

After we had discussed things, the Minister promised that a unit would be established within the Department for the Economy to look at the individual circumstances of everybody who was at risk and at a loss as a result of the change in the premiums being paid for the use of the boilers. It appears to me that the department has taken an exceptionally narrow view of what that means and is confining itself to European Union rules stipulating that it could provide loans at commercial rates for up to six months and that would probably be as far as it could go. That is no use to the people.

In the debate earlier, before the dinner-break business, people referred to undertakings that the Government gave. In this particular case, the relevant Minister at the time appealed to the banks in writing for them to lend to people who were going to operate these boilers. The banks responded to the Minister, loaning money on the undertaking that the rights were being grandfathered and there was a 12% return. Some people got these boilers, calculated the income that they had received from them over the 20 years of the scheme, put that into business plans and perhaps went on to borrow money for other related projects, such as additional chicken houses and so on. They now find that the premiums they are in receipt of are a mere fraction of those they had put into their business plans and were promised by the Stormont Government at that time. They also find themselves in the bizarre situation that the Republic of Ireland is about to introduce a similar scheme for 15 years, while the scheme that exists here, which pre-dated the Northern Ireland version, will be continuing for its 20-year period. So the competitiveness for the person using one of those boilers in Northern Ireland compared with in the Republic or the rest of the United Kingdom is totally destroyed. I say to the Minister that this requires urgent action, and the action so far flagged up by the Department for the Economy is totally inadequate.

I come now to Amendment 13. We have all agreed that the welfare system was in urgent need of reform. It was unwieldy, far too complicated and, most important, it was not properly supporting people into work. Yet, instead of simplifying the overall benefits system, the reforms made it even more difficult, with new layers of complexity and added delay. In 2015, the local political parties in Northern Ireland agreed that a package of measures was required. This included support for people moving from DLA to PIP, or perhaps from DLA to nothing at all, as well as many other issues, such as additional support for the independent advice sector. One of the most important mitigations was in relation to the social sector size criteria. While we can all accept the principle behind families being allocated homes that most reflect their needs, the reality in Northern Ireland did not—and, shamefully, still does not—have the stock to reflect modern demand; in other words, there are insufficient homes for single people or small families.

If, as is so greatly feared, the current mitigations expire next March and nothing is there to replace them, many thousands of local families face the prospect of serious financial hardship. Let us take the bedroom tax alone: a massive 34,000 households would lose support valued at £22 million per annum. I repeat: this is not because people are refusing to downsize; it is because there are literally not the houses for people to downsize to. It is as simple as that. There have been talks between the parties of Northern Ireland in recent months on the issue of future mitigation. I am told that they have gone quite well so far, yet the Department for Communities in Belfast has repeatedly said that decisions on the provision of any future support from April next year can be a matter only for incoming Ministers. That is why I have tabled this amendment and put the realistic timeframe of December on it.

On Amendment 15, the Minister will be aware that we have a serious problem with suicide in Northern Ireland. It is at the highest level in the whole of the United Kingdom. Troubles-related issues may be part of it; indeed, I have no doubt that that is the case. But we are the only UK region without a current mental health strategy and our funding per capita for mental health services is far below the UK average. We have this very difficult situation, yet the Protect Life 2 strategy has been sitting on the shelf for over two years. We are talking about individual lives; primarily the victims are young men. I believe there is widespread support among the political parties in Belfast to see this strategy taken off the shelf. I think this was referred to last week by other colleagues here and that everybody is on the same hymn sheet. At the end of the day, however, the strategy is still sitting there, nothing is happening and, without it, the departments are not in a position to take decisions. The advice that the parties have been given by the Civil Service is correct: this requires a Minister to take a decision, and that is not happening.

Amendment 14 is about libel legislation in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Black, has tabled a more specific amendment that will be dealt with later, so I shall not go into detail. Basically, we are on the same page, but I was looking to try to give some kind of kick-start to this. We have fallen far behind the rest of the country, and I support what the noble Lord will propose at a later stage.

On Amendment 16, I have described our situation with health time and time again. On Second Reading I referred to the latest report from the Nuffield Trust, backed up by Professor Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University, its co-author. The statistics are sobering. Upwards of 120,000 people out of a population of 1.8 million are waiting for more than a year for a consultant-led appointment. Every target is being missed: if the target is 95%, most of the percentages are in the low 60s. We are not close to other regions in the rest of the United Kingdom, and the capacity of the service to meet the demand from the public is simply not there.

We are flying in nurses from Great Britain. Their air fare is paid, their accommodation and meals are paid, and their hourly pay is grossly above that of the ordinary nurses on the wards. Although the agency nurses do a good job and we could not survive without them, this cannot be a sensible or economic way forward. When people are flying in and out, they are not in a position to open up a relationship with a patient or understand that patient. Moreover, different systems operate in different trusts. This is an inefficient and highly expensive way of providing a service.

In our earlier debates we talked about life. I did not get into the argument about abortion, although I have my own views on it—but we understand that the fundamental thing is a respect for life, and choices. Yet we know that the way in which the service is being delivered in part of our own country is at such a level that life is being affected. If a cancer patient waits weeks and months for an appointment, that directly affects their chances of survival. In diagnosis time is of the essence, as many noble Lords will know.

Our situation is out of control, and all the projections are that it is getting progressively worse. Every quarter the figures are worse than those for the quarter before. How many times do we have to learn that? The fact is that politics are being put before the welfare of hundreds of thousands of our citizens. None of us knows how often we shall have to depend on the health service. Not one of us in this Chamber knows how we shall be placed. Those figures represent mothers, fathers, sons and daughters; they are real people, and they are suffering because the service is not delivering.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend the noble Lord for consistently raising this subject, and for the passion with which he has done so. To support his case, does he agree that there is also a serious problem of lack of childcare, and the dreadful waiting times for children in the NHS in Northern Ireland?

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The noble Lord is correct. All our services are suffering, not through any lack of attention, or any attempt on anybody’s part not to provide a good service, but because people are overwhelmed. Decisions that were taken in the Treasury some years ago affecting the position of consultants’ pensions and other things are now impacting seriously on waiting lists because a lot of those consultants are absenting themselves. There is a perverse situation that the more work there is, the more they are making a liability for themselves. These are the sorts of things that are happening.

Leaving aside the politics of it—I do not want to see direct rule; I spent years of my life trying to see Stormont get going, accompanied by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, and other Members who are in the House today, and we want to see it work—there is a humanitarian issue at the back of all this. People are hurting, and the longer the prevarication is allowed to persist, the greater the risk to individuals. The truth of the matter is that people will die on these waiting lists—we have to be honest about this—and collectively we are standing around watching this. I suspect that that is not a sustainable position for any of us to keep. It is in those circumstances that I beg to move.

Lord Bruce of Bennachie Portrait Lord Bruce of Bennachie (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in his amendments. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, I commend him for his persistence on these issues. He brings home to us the realities of day-to-day life and the need to have an Assembly to deliver that.

Much more importantly, given that these are modest amendments that are asking only for reports, so I imagine that the Government might be able to accept them, the positive might be that at least we would not be completely wasting our time between now and October if it were possible to assemble really useful statistics and assessments that would enable the development of policy, so that as and when the Assembly gets up and running—if we want to be positive about it—it has something that it can get to work on, rather than having to start from scratch. This seems to be a practical suggestion. One can be very dismissive about commissioning reports and say that that is kicking cans down the road or not making decisions, but in the end policy requires information, statistics and recommendations, and for them to be constructively used. I hope the Minister will take on board that if he accepts the amendment, it means what it says. The reports should be not just a list of facts and figures but useful in terms of formulating policy that can be implemented sooner rather than later.

Another point of concern that Parliament will have to accept, whether or not we get the Assembly up and running, is that the effect of the lack of government over the last two and a half years is that Northern Ireland has fallen further and further behind. We may be facing all the difficulties, which I will not elaborate on, of a confused and uncertain Brexit situation where it may be impossible to find the resources to catch up. The longer time goes on, with waiting lists rising and other problems such as farmers facing bankruptcy over RHI and people struggling with welfare benefits, the Bill that will be required to bridge the gap and get things back to where they should be will be infinitely bigger and required in a shorter time than those two and half years.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is doing a service to the people by highlighting this issue, but it is of value only if something gets actioned. I therefore hope that the Government will accept the amendments and the obligation to produce reports, but also that they will recognise that those reports will need to be substantive to be useful.

Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I warmly support this group of amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I shall touch on just two of them. The first is Amendment 12, which the Government should have no difficulty in accepting. I recently tabled a Written Question asking them when the report on the establishment of a renewable heat incentive hardship unit, promised on 19 March, would be forthcoming. The reply that I received on 20 June stated:

“A call for evidence in relation to the form and function of the unit will shortly be released, and will close at the end of June. This will inform the Terms of Reference of the Unit”.

The Department for the Economy,

“anticipate that the panel will begin to accept applications in September 2019”.

By happy coincidence, the amendment moved by the noble Lord requires a report by 10 September. That seems to fit in admirably with the department’s plans.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, I echo the comments on health of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. No one will doubt the deeply depressing assessment he has provided this evening, following earlier, deeply troubling accounts of the decline of the health services in Northern Ireland. It is truly tragic that health services have deteriorated so markedly under this Conservative and Unionist Government. Surely all the Northern Ireland parties would give their blessing to government initiatives to reverse the decline. Therefore, the message must surely be action, and action this day.

Lord Eames Portrait Lord Eames (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in his amendments. In particular, I focus on his remarks about health in Northern Ireland. It is worth putting on the record that, given the restrictions which he vividly outlined and the lack of resources due in the main to the absence of an Executive, the health service in Northern Ireland has performed remarkably well. I know from personal experience how, with the pressures centred on it, the health service in our community is struggling but managing to cope in many instances.

The noble Lord also referred to mental health. In the past few years, I have had reason to work with those who were paramilitaries during the Troubles and who are now, as they see it, seeking ways to rebuild shattered communities. In that scenario, it is remarkable how suicide, self-harm and other degrees of self-inflicted physical injury are not being reported as they ought to be. That is just one segment of a vast field that is crying out for better finance, support, research and leadership. In listening to the noble Lord’s words on his amendments, I hope the Committee will take this very seriously.

Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Portrait Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in their support of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I do so bearing in mind that these are all devolved issues. Like him, we certainly want to see these taken forward by a devolved Administration. However, if these reports come through and there is no devolved Administration, the issues are so urgent and of such importance that they should not be allowed to lie there. Action has to be taken. Whoever the new Secretary of State may be, they will have to action these reports whenever they come through. I am delighted that the date is given; it is certainly not an extended period of time to allow these reports to be brought forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, reminded the Committee how the Minister promised the setting up of the renewable heat incentive hardship unit, and that it would look at each individual case. Many are in great distress at present; many are enduring tremendous financial hardship because of the tariff that has now been set. We have been told by civil servants that this is because of European legislation and regulation. I thought the Irish Republic was supposed to be in the same European Union, and England is a part of that as well. Yet the tariffs in England and the Irish Republic are completely different from the tariff that has been set for Northern Ireland. The new tariff will put people into great financial hardship. I appeal to the Minister for action on this matter to ensure that whether in the Irish Republic, England or Northern Ireland, the tariff is equalised, so that no one feels that they are being unjustly penalised for something that was never their fault. No matter whose fault it was, and we wait for such a report, it certainly was not those who applied to be part of the scheme.

I support the future welfare and mitigation support measures that will be in place after March 2020. We must ensure that those put in place are continued, and that people in the Province at the lower end of the financial scale do not face continued and further hardship.

I had a keen interest in suicide prevention both as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and when I was in the other place. The strategy needs to be progressed urgently. I say that because, wearing another hat, as a Minister, I have gone into so many homes where, sadly, people across every section of the community and of all ages have committed suicide; it is not only young people. I say this also having experienced it with loved ones of my own. It is never more keenly felt than when the experience comes into one’s own family circle. Then you know what it is to be left completely broken. You have no answers—so many questions, but no answers. We need to do something urgently, because so many are witnessing the heartache of suicide. That is a reality across the Province.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, mentioned the health service. The statistics are horrendous, but remember, we talk about statistics, but each one of these statistics is a fellow human being. People are suffering because of this. There is a decline in the health service. I pay tribute to our doctors, nurses and auxiliaries and all who are doing sterling work in the health service, but it has been stretched to the limit and is at breaking point. Many targets are missed. Many of our older people are lying in hospital when they should be at home. They want to be at home with their families, but there are no packages available for them because there is no one to care for them in their own homes. They are then accused of bed-blocking, when all they want to do is get home and be looked after within the confines of their own home and family circle.

I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord that these are issues of vital importance, but we must remember that while we have the reports, if no Assembly comes into being—and I trust one will—urgent action must be taken by the Secretary of State.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I support the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. They are extremely sensible, so who would not? The noble Lord has raised this on a number of occasions; in a way it is a cri de cœur, because we have all these unresolved issues in Northern Ireland. We should remember that this is asking for reports, not action, because nobody can take that action.

The civil servants are limited in how far they can go. Every government department in Northern Ireland has now reached its limit for what a civil servant can do. The decisions that really matter now can be taken only at ministerial level. If you compare the last two and a half years with other occasions, either when the Assembly had not been created or had been but was suspended, there was direct rule; in other words, decisions were being taken by Westminster Ministers. Now, for two and a half years, no one is doing anything. No decision has been taken at all, and it just cannot carry on any more.

As much as we agree with all the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and those raised by other Members of the Committee, particularly on the health service, they are all meaningless unless we have an Assembly and Executive, or direct rule. I do not know what they are saying in these talks in Belfast. I know what issues divided them originally—the RHI, the Irish language, equal marriage and others—but do they talk about what is not being done in Northern Ireland when they face each other? Do they talk about the things that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others have raised today? That is what ought to be at the back of their minds when they are negotiating. If it is not, it should be.
It is a disgrace that we have got to a situation in which Northern Ireland is the least democratically effective part of Europe. Only the councils operate there now. We can talk until the cows come home in this Chamber and the other, but without powers to take decisions it is meaningless. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that we should raise these issues by way of the reports added to the huge list in the Bill now. The Northern Ireland Office and the NICS have a great task ahead of trying to work out the answers to these questions.
I just hope that, when the Minister goes back to his boss, who is involved in these talks, he makes it plain to her that, overwhelmingly and across the political divide in this Chamber, people are concerned that not taking the decisions that apply to schools, hospitals, roads, social services and welfare is talked about in the talks, rather than the limited issues that divide people. I know that ultimately what has caused these long two and a half years is a lack of trust between parties. It is mistrust. There is no trust and confidence between them. Until you have that, you cannot have a coalition set up by the Good Friday agreement. Of course it is that. While all this is happening, while they distrust each other, the people in Northern Ireland are suffering.
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for once again bringing these matters before us. Yes is the answer to the question; we will commit to report on each of these items. I could sit down now, but let me flesh that out a little more. There is no point in producing a report that sits on the shelf. It needs to set out in detail the scale of the issue and the challenges to resolve it, and put forward means by which we can address them. We commit to reporting back on each of the issues the noble Lord has raised. Either I or, depending on events, my successor will do so. It is important to stress that we need to make progress on each of these.

On the RHI question, I had hoped to bring about more progress, but I was reminded of the limited powers that a Westminster Minister has when trying to deal with devolved civil servants where there are no direct means of instruction. We hope, as my noble friend Lord Lexden again said, that we will be able to address the hardships and the widest possible definition of them, bringing up the points made by the noble Lords, Lord McCrea and Lord Empey. It is important to see these in their broadest sense, as I said when I addressed these matters previously.

I can think of no issue more important to mental health in Northern Ireland than the question of suicide strategy. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, was right to remind us of what a challenge it has been. I thank him again for the work he has done with the former paramilitary bodies seeking to return to a wider community base. We will be able, I hope, to do something with that. We need to understand the scale of the problem. The figures in Northern Ireland are shocking and we should be able to scale that, so we can see what has to be done. On the question of welfare mitigation, I give the same commitment: we will produce a report that sets out those aspects of mitigation that need to be addressed.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, brought up the question of younger people. That was not part of the point of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, but I think it should have been, so we will commit to that as well. We have to see exactly how younger people are affected by this, so we will commit to that additional report alongside. It is important that we have that.

As to the question of libel legislation in Northern Ireland, we will report on that, although I am not sure exactly how. I am aware that my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood will be bringing up this issue shortly. I will happily commit to meeting him and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, to talk about this separately, in addition to committing to that report. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will be willing to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for his undertakings. I am also grateful to noble Lords on all sides for their broad support for these measures. It was an omission on my part not to have included the point raised by noble Lord, Lord Hain: I should, on reflection, have included that, but I appreciate that the Minister has given us an undertaking. On the basis of what the Minister has promised, I know it will require a lot of work over the next number of weeks—that is the challenge—but at the end of the day I think it will be useful work. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that by proposing and preparing reports we will ensure that, in the event that the Assembly returns, it will have something to work with. Because, let us be honest, the Minister’s department does not, on its own, have the capacity to deal with all this: it will have to rely heavily on the Civil Service in Belfast, which does know and is dealing with this on a daily basis, to have input into the reports. That information could be very useful to an incoming Assembly and incoming Ministers in the relevant departments. So procedurally, if he is going to do this, I am happy to accept his assurance and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Amendments 13 to 16 not moved.
Clause 3, as amended, agreed.
Clauses 4 to 7 agreed.
Clause 8: Marriage of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland
Amendment 17
Moved by
17: Clause 8, page 5, line 35, at end insert—
“(1A) Any regulations under this section must include provision—(a) prohibiting any person or religious body being compelled by any means (including by the enforcement of a contract or a statutory or other legal requirement) to—(i) conduct a same-sex marriage,(ii) be present at, carry out, or otherwise participate in, a same-sex marriage,(iii) consent to a same-sex marriage being conducted, or(iv) permit premises to be used for a same-sex marriage ceremony,if the marriage is to be solemnised according to the rites of a religion;(b) prohibiting discrimination claims against a person or religious body for refusing to do anything listed within paragraph (a);(c) prohibiting discrimination claims in relation to employment for the purposes of an organised religion where a person refuses to employ or otherwise appoint a person married to a person of the same sex;(d) protecting freedom for discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage, including urging persons to refrain from marrying a person of the same sex; (e) requiring the Secretary of State to issue statutory guidance supporting freedom of expression and freedom of conscience in educational institutions in relation to beliefs about the definition of marriage.(1B) Provision made under subsection (1A) shall provide no less protection for freedom of expression and freedom of religion than applies in England and Wales.”
Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the main purpose of this amendment,

“prohibiting discrimination claims against a person or religious body for refusing to do anything listed within paragraph (a)”,

is simply to ensure that there will be no fewer safeguards for free speech and religious liberty in Northern Ireland after same-sex marriage is introduced than there are here in England and Wales. I genuinely fear, and I believe it is a reasonable fear, that Northern Ireland will be poorly served in the protections given unless we make this amendment.

The extension of marriage in England and Wales was done by primary legislation, after many hours of debate in this House and the other place. For Northern Ireland, it will be done through regulations, which are not designed for highly controversial, sensitive and divisive subjects of this kind. They do not receive the level of scrutiny that this issue should. As all noble Lords know, there is no opportunity to amend regulations. Therefore, the regulations must contain adequate protections from the start. There was a public consultation on this issue in England and Wales before the legislation was even introduced. That consultation process raised areas of concern, such as religious liberty. These could then be given safeguards in the legislation and included in the scrutiny received in Parliament.

It seems that there will be no consultation before the Secretary of State is required to exercise this power. There is no time. There has never been a consultation on this issue in Northern Ireland, so the people of Northern Ireland are already being poorly treated.

Those of us who were part of the debate during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act several years ago will remember the quadruple locks. Not all the quadruple locks will need to apply to Northern Ireland, but it will be vital that the necessary protections for religious liberty are in place. As things stand, there is nothing in Clause 8 to secure those protections, which must be integral to any introduction of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland.

My amendment would require the Secretary of State’s regulations to include provision in certain key areas, but it is by no means comprehensive. The rushed nature of this process has made it impossible to think through the full implications, but these are areas that stand out.

There is particular concern about access to publicly owned facilities. There are churches in Northern Ireland, as here, that meet in council-run community centres or schools. Christian groups in Northern Ireland run events for children on premises owned by the public sector. The concern is that a council might, for example, make access to such facilities conditional on the church or religious body being willing to conduct same-sex marriages. Such stipulation must be explicitly ruled out. This is the focus of proposed new paragraph (a). This safeguard exists under the law in England and Wales. The language in the amendment of “compelled by any means” is taken directly from the 2013 Act. I simply want to ensure that Northern Ireland has the same level of protection.

Proposed new paragraphs (b) and (c), relating to discrimination law, are also designed to ensure that Northern Ireland matches England and Wales—and, indeed, Scotland. When same-sex marriage laws were introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom, a series of amendments was made to the Equality Act 2010. They protect religious organisations from discrimination claims for declining to participate in same-sex marriages, for declining to allow their premises to be used for same-sex marriage ceremonies and for not employing a person married to a member of the same sex. Similar protections must be written into the relevant Northern Ireland discrimination statutes. Without them, churches could be sued simply for requiring that their employees live in accordance with the doctrine of the church on sexual ethics. For example, I believe that the Church of England diocese of Southwell and Nottingham relied on just such a provision in the Pemberton case.

Also, when the 2013 Act was introduced, the Public Order Act 1986 was amended to ensure that criticism of same-sex marriage did not in itself amount to hate speech. Proposed new paragraph (d) requires such changes as are necessary to Northern Ireland law, including public order legislation, to protect the freedom to disagree. This is the core of any democracy. The introduction of same-sex marriage does not mean that everybody has to agree with it or that only one view may be expressed in the public square.

Finally, proposed new paragraph (e) deals with education. Following the introduction of the 2013 Act, the Government made it clear that teachers had the right to express their own beliefs on marriage. A fact sheet from the time said that,

“teachers have the clear right to express their own beliefs, or those of their faith, about marriage of same sex couples as long as it is done in an appropriate and balanced way”.

Guidance in 2014 from the DfE on the Equality Act 2010 said:

“No school, or individual teacher, is under a duty to support, promote or endorse marriage of same sex couples”.

There was also guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission repeating that assurance and adding:

“Governors, teachers and non-teaching staff in schools, parents and pupils, are free to hold their own religious or philosophical beliefs about marriage of same sex couples”.

The many people involved in education in Northern Ireland who hold to traditional views on marriage would appreciate similar reassurance and guidance. I beg to move.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, perhaps I may help to expedite matters at this point. I listened to the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. It is important to note that we have disagreed on a number of aspects of the legislation over the past few days and will probably continue to do so. However, on this matter, as far as I am concerned, the intention is to take the protections we have both for those who hold religious views and individuals on the other side who may have particular views, and protect them as well. We are talking here about the same thing: taking what is essentially in place in England and Wales and transferring it across to Northern Ireland. I have no idea of precisely what the Minister is going to say, but it is my view and that of others from where we stand.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I speak as someone who has had the great joy of recently being married under the legislation as it applies in England and Wales. I simply observe to the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, that, as someone who wished to be married, I had absolutely no wish to do so in a place or in circumstances that other people would have found offensive. That would have been deeply offensive to me. I wished to celebrate in my community, and I did. I was quite happy to abide by the laws of this country, which insist that my marriage had to be completely secular. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience and I hope that many other people, including my brothers and sisters in Northern Ireland, will be afforded the similar dignity.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, I think we are closer on this than we are on other issues, but my one concern is this. It is to be found in proposed new subsection (1A)(e) in the amendment, which refers to education. I understand that in the preceding proposed new paragraphs, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, seeks to obtain the same provisions that obtain in England and Wales, but I am not sure that how the proposed new paragraph is worded is exactly the same. It may go further, because in England and Wales we debated the matter of schools elsewhere. I simply say to the noble Lord that I have concerns about that aspect of his amendment, but I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the majority of what the noble Lord has put forward and address this matter in his response.

Lord Browne of Belmont Portrait Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support Amendment 17, to which I have added my name. Once again, we should be discussing a simple administrative Bill, but instead we find ourselves considering one that would impose huge cultural changes on Northern Ireland without the consent of the people and over the head of their devolved Government. I am sure I do not need to remind your Lordships that the Bill is being fast-tracked in a manner that noble Lords who sit on the Constitution Committee have criticised as constitutionally unacceptable.

However, those present for the debates on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill will recall the protections carefully carved out for religious liberty and free speech. As has been outlined, at present there is nothing in Clause 8 to secure such protections for the people of Northern Ireland. My noble friend Lord Morrow spoke about the need to uphold religious freedoms, but I wish to focus on freedom of expression. It is a right that belongs to everyone in Northern Ireland, regardless of their religion or philosophical views. Proposed new paragraphs (d) and (e) outline fundamental protections for free speech, which go to the heart of any democracy. Discussions about marriage arouse strong emotions, and this is especially true in the context of Northern Ireland, where not only are there large religious communities, but a wider culture that holds more strongly to traditional values around marriage and the family than other parts of the United Kingdom.

There should be absolute protection for such people to discuss and critique same-sex marriage in the classroom, the boardroom and, indeed, in the street. Proposed new paragraph (e) outlines a vital protection in the specific context of educational institutions. Universities, schools and colleges are platforms for discussion, debate and criticism of ideas, and this must not come under threat following any change in the law on marriage.

Earlier this year, robust new free speech guidance was issued for universities in this country. David Isaac, chair of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission, underlined the continuing importance of this historical principle, saying:

“The free expression and exchange of different views without persecution or interference goes straight to the heart of our democracy and is a vital part of higher education. Holding open, challenging debates rather than silencing the views of those we don’t agree with helps to build tolerance and address prejudice and discrimination”.

I am sure we are all united on the right to free speech and against compelled speech. For these simple and fundamental reasons, I am happy to support Amendment 17.

Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Portrait Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I join with my colleagues. I am a signatory to this amendment and rise to support it. Introducing same-sex marriage is a move that has been highly divisive in Northern Ireland. I acknowledge that, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, there are people who hold strong views concerning this. I certainly know that many in Northern Ireland believe strongly, as I do, that marriage is between a man and a woman and is the fundamental building block of our society, and therefore that the definition of marriage should remain unchanged. However, having listened to the debate and that in the other place, I realise that it seems this legislation is going to be forced on the people of Northern Ireland.

In a relatively short period, there has been an alarming abandonment of the teaching of scripture on marriage as ordained by God. This contempt for biblical marriage includes not only the abandonment of it as a divine institution but a direct attack on it in the promotion of same-sex marriage. This is spear-headed in open defiance of God’s moral law, and those who hold to the scripture view are held in utter contempt.

I do not wish in any way to be hurtful to any person, but I also have to be faithful to and express what I believe. That is why I am in this House. I was an elected Member in another place for some 25 years and was certainly known to express—genuinely, earnestly and honestly—what I believe. As a Christian minister, I believe that in Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, Moses wrote:

“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them”.

This is a general statement of the creation of man in God’s image but stressing the distinction of gender. In Genesis, chapter 2, the Holy Spirit gives us further details not only of human creation but of the institution of marriage. The clear message is that God’s intention for marriage was that two human beings would come together. Chapter 2, verse 24, says:

“therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh”.

Northern Ireland people have never been consulted on whether they want same-sex marriage. One of our most fundamental social structures is being changed over the heads of those whom it will affect. It is notable that, when same-sex marriage was introduced in England and Wales, strong safeguards were included in the legislation to protect those who did not want to be forced to go along with something they disagreed with. It is vital that the people of Northern Ireland are given the same legal guarantees.

I appreciate the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, and the manner in which he has responded to the amendment. All this amendment seeks to do is address the free speech and freedom of religion concerns that inevitably arise when such a huge moral change is brought in. It will merely establish the same protections that those in the rest of the UK are afforded.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill requires the Secretary of State to introduce regulations to legalise same-sex marriage, but the simple fact is that regulations do not allow for the appropriate level of scrutiny and debate that such a monumental change requires. There is a real danger that, with this legislation and subsequent regulations being rushed through Parliament so quickly, those who object to the new law will be forgotten about and their freedom to disagree threatened.

Those who are against same-sex marriage may feel they have particular cause to be concerned in Northern Ireland if this amendment is not accepted. Even while the law has always been in line with their view, they have seen a Christian-run bakery hauled through the courts for its decision not to support a campaign for same-sex marriage. That case was pursued by a body, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which should be protecting everyone’s freedom. Without robust reassurances, many will feel that the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland’s hostility to those with traditional beliefs about marriage will only increase. For example, many churches, as my noble friend has said, hold their services in community centres or school halls. They need to be reassured that they will not be forced to leave those premises because they hold to the biblical teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 in England and Wales states on the face of the legislation that no religious organisation or minister can be compelled by any means to marry same-sex couples or to permit same-sex marriages on their premises. It also contains explicit protections to ensure that any person who publicly expresses disagreement with same-sex marriage cannot be accused of stirring up hatred under the Public Order Act. The Government equalities spokes- person at the time, the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said:

“A belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman is undoubtedly worthy of respect in a democratic society”.—[Official Report, 17/6/13; col. 75.]

It is vital that those who disagree with same-sex marriage feel that they are valued members of society and not in any way ostracised by the new law. I and my colleagues believe that this amendment will help that. Maria Miller, the Minister in charge of the 2013 Act, said:

“Whatever one’s view about the marriage of same-sex couples, it is legitimate and the Government will protect the right to express it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/7/13; col. 1027.]

This reasonable amendment is the least that can be done.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, no one can disagree with freedom of expression and the freedom of people to assert what they deeply believe in. At the same time, there is the freedom not to agree with the religion you are born under. Not all of us are Christians, and not all Christians hold to orthodox beliefs. My one concern—I can say only that it is a concern; it may be an extreme concern and noble Lords may dismiss it—is that, if there is such strong opinion against same-sex marriage in the church in Northern Ireland, if I were interested in having a same-sex marriage in a church, would I have to leave Northern Ireland and go somewhere else? Would there be a general strike against same-sex marriage by all religious bodies?

I do not know the answer to that, but I am concerned about it. This is expressed as being basically all about Christianity and its particular orthodoxies. I am not a Christian; I was born into a Hindu family, but I am an atheist, so it does not concern me. Nor am I interested in same-sex marriage—it is much too late for that. However, I am concerned to get an assurance from the Minister that, if he agrees to these amendments, there will be no compulsion on a couple in Northern Ireland to leave so that they can get married, that there will be some facilities available so that they can get what they want and have a same-sex marriage in a religious location.

Lord Bruce of Bennachie Portrait Lord Bruce of Bennachie
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I welcome the tone of this debate and accept that the main purpose of the amendment is to translate the rules as applied in the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland. To that extent, it is welcome. Indeed, there was strong debate around the idea that there was never any attempt to force anyone to be involved in same-sex marriage or be required to perform or officiate at such a marriage. That was absolutely clear. The law makes that clear and I accept it entirely.

But I have two concerns. I have a slight concern about proposed subsection (1A)(d) in the amendment, which relates to protecting freedom for discussion,

“including urging persons to refrain from marrying a person of the same sex”.

That could become a pressure or indeed the beginnings of trying to convert people away from the idea of same-sex marriages. I draw attention to Schedule 7 to the same-sex marriage Act, which states:

“for the avoidance of doubt, any discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage shall not be taken of it felt to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred”.

So it is not in itself an expression of hatred, but it could be in the way that it is applied. I have a slight concern that the amendment is unclear.

The other concern is about the role of education, which has caused plenty of problems on the mainland, never mind in Northern Ireland, on issues relating to gay rights and so forth in general. In that context, there are two issues that I think the movers of the amendment can take comfort from but should be aware of. First, teachers need to teach the facts. It is important that in any context, particularly if it happens in Northern Ireland that same-sex marriage is legalised, the fact of the law and the rights of that should be made clear in schools even if the school has a religious connotation that says, “We in our faith don’t necessarily agree with it”. The school has to accept that it is the law and that people are entitled to get married in that context.

Secondly, it is of course right for a school with a religious background to want to communicate its religious beliefs—and nobody is challenging people’s right to believe what they do. Nevertheless, in the process of doing that, discussions about the issue of same-sex relationships should be done in an appropriate, reasonable, professional and sensitive way. Some of that is difficult to put into law. It is about the culture and the environment in which the issue is expressed.

Many of us would reasonably accept that the speed with which people have moved from resistance to same-sex marriage to wide acceptance has been remarkable. That is very welcome for those people who experienced frustration and prejudice in not being able to get married. I suspect that, in spite of the arguments to the contrary, things may move more quickly in Northern Ireland than some people think. The noble Lord indicated that progress has been made in that direction and it is one area where contributions from outside this House say that it is now an accepted fact.

The amendments are understood. They recognise that people have a right to believe and they should be allowed to preserve that belief, but the balance is that they have to be careful that they do not impose those beliefs or share them and use them to extend prejudice.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, in some ways the debate strayed further than the amendment itself. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. His explanation of what he was seeking to do with the amendment before the Committee was very helpful. When the same-sex marriage legislation went through this House, there was a lot of debate about some of the issues that noble Lords from the DUP have addressed. It was made clear that that legislation is permissive. It is not compulsory: it is permissive.

I disagreed when the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, spoke about the fundamental building blocks of society. People in a committed, loving relationship should have the same opportunities as everyone, whether same-sex couples or couples of different genders, to be able to celebrate and demonstrate that commitment to each other as being a long-term, permanent commitment, and not be ostracised for doing so.

Having said that, I think the points about this being similar to the legislation in England and Wales were entirely well made, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, the only part I have some concerns about is the educational institution. I was recently fortunate enough to meet the head teacher of Anderton Park School in Birmingham and was deeply impressed by her dignity and her commitment to her pupils. I would hate to think that we would be getting into a position where other head teachers who are trying to do their best for their pupils, trying to instil in them tolerance and a commitment to understanding society as it is, would face such difficulties as she and her staff have had to in very difficult circumstances.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister says but I would imagine that any legislation he is discussing with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, and Conor McGinn from the other place would be along the lines of the legislation that we have here in GB.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this has been a thought-provoking discussion. I am often guided by my own beliefs and I recognise Ecclesiastes chapter 4, verses 9 to 10:

“Two are better than one … for if they fall, one will lift up the other”.

I am heartened by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, because I do not doubt that he will be working closely with Conor McGinn from the other place to ensure that what comes to this House carries with it the exact protections and care that we have seen in England and Wales and in Scotland. There are elements which need to be recognised in terms of the wider question of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and I hope to see those protections coming through in an emerging amendment. As I said, the amendment from the other place has certain deficiencies and we hope to see those improved through the work which I do not doubt the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, among others, will help move forward.

It is important, again, that we balance rights, obligations and protections throughout, not least in schools, and we must make sure that we are teaching the reality of what is going on. We need to make sure that pupils understand the wider question of relationships before they ever engage in sex education. I draw a distinction between relationships and sexual elements; I think they need to be seen in that context. It is important to remember that these issues have been addressed previously in different parts of the United Kingdom. These are not new issues. The concerns of particular bodies are not new and on each occasion I believe that the different authorities, whether in Scotland or in England and Wales, have learned from the challenges and have ensured that the protections which they have put together are adequate to address the concerns raised by noble Lords.

I appreciate the concerns which noble Lords have expressed. They are right to recognise that there is throughout Northern Ireland and elsewhere a particular constituency which sees the faith-based approach to marriage as an integral part of it. I do not doubt the validity of that or the importance of recognising why that must be accepted and trusted, but at the same time the wider context needs to be considered. I hope the amendment we see coming forward addresses these issues. On that basis, we hope that this amendment can be withdrawn. My final point is: congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I have listened carefully to what has been said in response to this debate and sometimes I end up more confused, but that is maybe more to do with me than anyone else. I take some comfort from the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, has grasped exactly what we are trying to do here, and I will be watching the progress of this with deep interest. Maybe on this occasion I can look more to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for some protection because he has not tried to throw in other issues that are not there.

Amendment 17 withdrawn.
Amendments 18 and 18A not moved.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9: International obligations in respect of CEDAW
Amendments 19 and 20 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Amendment 21
Moved by
21: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Pension for victims and survivors of Troubles-related incidents
(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to give effect to a pension for those severely injured through no fault of their own during the period known as the Northern Ireland Troubles, in line with advice requested by the Secretary of State and submitted in May 2019 from the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, and to provide that those who qualify for the pension should receive it back-dated to 23 December 2014, being the date of signing of the Stormont House Agreement.(2) Regulations under this section must be in force no later than 21 October 2019, subject to subsections (3) and (4).(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (1)—(a) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament;(b) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.(4) If a Northern Ireland Executive is formed before the regulations under this section come into force, any regulations made under this section and any extant obligations arising under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect.”
Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 21, which stands in my name and the names of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Bruce. I am grateful for their support.

I shall first speak briefly about the context which has dominated this debate. In 2007, when we negotiated the deal that brought Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness into power together, I said that I was the last direct-rule Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I now very much fear that that was wrong and that we are hurtling towards direct rule. I fear that greatly because the current situation has shown how difficult it is to get the Assembly up and running with a functioning Executive once it has been suspended. With direct rule, that becomes doubly difficult. I say to my friends in the DUP—and they are my friends, because I worked very closely with them as Secretary of State and have done so since—that I hope that they are taking note of what is happening in de facto parliamentary direct rule. A lot of things that are coming through are things they are not happy about. That is the consequence of the Assembly being suspended. It is not only one party—Sinn Féin—that is at fault. It is not only one party. Yes, it is at fault, and it is being uncompromising on some issues and details—but, I am afraid, so are my friends in the DUP. This is not just one party blocking the whole thing. I think there should be honesty about that. The consequences are here to be seen in issues that the DUP is deeply unhappy about.

In passing, I will say that, once again in the debates on this Bill, we are seeing the absence of a nationalist political voice in this House. Half the community does not have a political voice in your Lordships’ House. There is no modern Gerry Fitt, as it were. I know he was criticised by many of his followers for taking his seat here, but it was an important voice to hear. I know that will be agreed by unionist Members. I hope that, in considering future appointments to this House, the Government, perhaps in consultation with the independent Appointments Commission, will take note of that, because this cannot continue—especially if direct rule comes, as I very much fear it might.

I recognise that, as drafted, Amendment 21 is likely to require a money resolution in the House of Commons—or at least an amendment on Report to incorporate funding from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund, which I hope the Government will agree to. I have spoken many times in your Lordships’ House on the urgent need to provide a pension for those who were severely injured through no fault of their own—I repeat, “through no fault of their own”, which is written into the text—as a result of Troubles-related incidents.

I, and I know those who have been campaigning, especially in the WAVE Trauma Centre, which I commend, for the pension for nearly a decade, have been greatly heartened and encouraged by the wide cross-party support in this House for this proposal: from the former Secretaries of State the noble Lord, Lord King, and my noble friends Lord Reid and Lord Murphy; from former Victims’ Ministers who served in Northern Ireland, my noble friends Lord Browne and Lady Smith of Basildon; from the distinguished former chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack; from the noble Baroness, Lady Altman; from the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, for the Liberal Democrats; and, from the Cross Benches, from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and the noble Lord, Lord Bew. I am also grateful to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, who, to use a colloquialism, gets it. I thank him for the detailed conversations we have had on this, as well as for his support of and direct engagement with the severely injured victims. It has been much appreciated.

Now is the time for action. I urge the Government not to divide the House but to accept this amendment with not only a firm and binding commitment to legislate but with the timeframe attached to other measures coming from the other place and set out in my amendment. The date for this will be 21 October 2019, unless an Executive has been formed in Northern Ireland by then.

There are few Northern Ireland legacy issues that come before us that do not have some element of contention, and this is no exception. The toxic issue, which prevented this measure being passed at Stormont years ago when the Assembly and the Executive were functioning, was who would qualify for this pension. Will the few republicans or loyalists who were injured by their own hand—for example, when planting a bomb that exploded prematurely—benefit from a pension for the severely injured?
Of course, it is for the Government to frame the details of the legislation by regulation. However, I want to make it absolutely clear, as is explicitly set out in my amendment, that I am proposing and asking for the support of this House for a pension for those severely injured through no fault of their own. I can think of few more perverse cruelties than for a widow who lost her husband in a terrorist incident, received barely enough compensation to bury him and had to raise a family in the most difficult financial circumstances, to discover that the person who planted that bomb—who survived but was injured—was to receive a special pension from the state 30 or 40 years later. That would be shocking.
I am well aware of the definition of “victim” set out in the 2006 order. This was raised in the other place. It was passed when I was Secretary of State. One of the aims of that order was to ensure that everyone impacted by the Troubles would have access to the services that they and their families would need, regardless of their circumstances. We provide those services through the National Health Service and the Victims and Survivors Service, and we will do through a mental trauma service in the future. That is as it should be. We are a civilised society and we do not turn people away from services.
However, this pension is a very different matter. It is not a service but a recognition of the great harm done to men and women through no fault of their own. To those who repeatedly told me when I was Secretary of State that there must not be a hierarchy of victims, I say: there already is. Those who had their lives catastrophically and permanently damaged through no fault of their own by the actions of others are right at the bottom of that category—that ladder, as it were.
They are not asking for much—around £150 weekly, backdated to the all-party Stormont House agreement of 23 December 2014 covering such matters. It would cost a few million pounds annually, which is peanuts in terms of the total Northern Ireland budget.
I will remind your Lordships of the harrowing story of one such severely injured victim. Peter was shot in 1979—when he was 26 years old—by a loyalist gunman who came to the wrong address. His father arrived at the scene, thought his son Peter had been killed and dropped dead on the spot from a massive heart attack. Peter has been wheelchair bound ever since and survives on benefits. He is now aged 67. He had to watch his childhood sweetheart—the love of his life—drink herself to death by the age of 51 because she opened the door to the gunman and never forgave herself.
He was asked what difference a modest pension would make to his life. He said: “I could get the grass cut. I could replace a slate on the roof. I could get someone in for a bit of extra cleaning. That would make all the difference in the world to me”. We can help Peter and the relatively small number of others who are suffering so much. If that cannot or will not be done by the Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland for whatever reason, we must do it here—and without delay.
I urge the Minister to accept this amendment, or at least by Wednesday, on Report, to bring a technically improved version. I am happy to agree it if at all possible, provided that we deliver this pension and deliver it soon, as every month that passes means that some of the severely injured could pass, too. Stormont, Parliament and the Government have prevaricated on this for far too long. We must act now, at long last.
Lord Eames Portrait Lord Eames
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am honoured to add my name to this amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Hain. I speak from years of experience, working with people who carry in their mind and body the scars of our Troubles. I will be very brief. If this Bill achieves nothing more than opening the door to some relief for these unfortunate fellow citizens, we will have achieved an abundance. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, has referred to one case; I could repeat dozens of them. I simply say to the House and to the Minister that this is a reform that is passionately and greatly needed in Northern Ireland. I urge the House to accept it.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am delighted to add my voice, and pay tribute not only to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who has been indefatigable in the way he has led this campaign, but to my noble friend Lord Duncan, who has been most receptive when we have met with him and talked about it. I agreed very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said at the beginning of his remarks. I will emphasise just two points. It is incumbent on all politicians in Northern Ireland to realise—Christians above all must realise this—that no one is perfect. We are all sinners. Whatever party we are talking of is never wholly in the right. It is crucial that this is recognised in Northern Ireland by Sinn Féin, the DUP and all parties, and that they come together to make sure that the Assembly meets and the Executive is formed. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, was right to stress that point.

He was also right to stress that we have no nationalist voice now—no moderate nationalist voice—in either House of Parliament. Throughout my time in the other place, there were always at least one or two SDLP Members. In my time as chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Alasdair McDonnell was one of the most supportive members of the committee. Whether on organised crime, the prison service or the Omagh bombing, all our reports were unanimous, and Alasdair McDonnell played a very constructive and important part in that. It would be very good to have a moderate nationalist voice in your Lordships’ House. As far as the other House is concerned, of course, they have to get themselves elected. It is one of the sad facts of life that those nationalists who are elected draw the money but do not play a part. That is up to them, but it would be very good to have a moderate nationalist voice in Parliament again.

I conclude by emphasising how crucial it is that action is taken—and this week. We need to know that this will happen. As I have said before in your Lordships’ House, many of those who would have been eligible are no more; they have died. In the course of this calendar year, between now and the end of the year, more will die. Many are suffering great privation and hardship, live in constant pain and are constantly haunted by the memory of the bestial act that deprived them of limbs and, to a degree, of liberty—because you do not have complete freedom if you have been so badly injured mentally, physically or both. So I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to assure your Lordships’ House tonight that, on Wednesday, we will have a workable, acceptable amendment. I am delighted to give this my support.

Lord Bruce of Bennachie Portrait Lord Bruce of Bennachie
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I had no hesitation in signing the amendment, and was proud to do so. Like everybody else, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for the deep persistence and commitment that he manifests every time he speaks on this subject. It is somewhat disturbing to think that it is 21 years since the Troubles ended: these people have suffered for decades. Although there is consensus across the piece that the pensions should be delivered, it still has not happened. This is a point at which we can set down a mark of real commitment to recognise, while those people can still benefit, that we can do something about this.

Our debates today should give Northern Ireland politicians real cause for reflection. Increasingly, this House is discussing any and every issue relating to the people of Northern Ireland, because there is no Assembly or Executive to do it. They should be asking themselves, “Why aren’t we delivering this pension? Why aren’t we delivering better healthcare? Why aren’t we doing it?”. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that the things that appear to divide them do not seem, to us living on this side, to be the issues that the people of Northern Ireland want to unite them—such as dealing with the day-to-day issues and compensating people for their past suffering.

The amendment is simple, crisp and clear. If it is deficient in terms of a money resolution, the Government have the capacity to do something about that, and I hope they will feel able to do so. I commend the Minister, because every time this issue has been raised he has demonstrated total commitment, understanding and engagement—and frustration, perhaps, that the technical difficulties seem to get in the way. I hope that he has been able to cut through them and can give us a positive answer now.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I want to add a brief word to what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others have said. Unfortunately, many of us have seen, met, worked with and tried to help people whose lives have been shattered by bomb and bullet. I thank the Minister because I understand that he is considering this idea: I am sure the Government will find the money to pay these pensions to such a very small number of people. I want us to remember, particularly, the children. There are many children living in this situation—second generation, perhaps, from the actual victim of the shooting or bombing—and they may well act as a carer for their grandfather, uncle or father. That is a very difficult life, and they are subjected to the risk of transgenerational trauma, of which there is a significant incidence in Northern Ireland. A pension would allow for a carer, which might set some of those children free.

Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Portrait Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, in his introductory remarks the noble Lord, Lord Hain, talked about the Assembly. I say to him simply that he knows that there is one party that had three red lines before it would enter the Executive. No other party put down red lines; it was one party and one party alone. Every other party in the Northern Ireland Assembly was willing, and is willing, without red lines, to enter that Assembly and deal with the matters that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has already mentioned. Across the Committee, many Members have expressed not only appreciation but support.

I wonder how many people in the Committee know what it is to be in the family of an innocent victim. I stand in this House not to express somebody else’s pain—although as a Minister, I, like the noble Lord, Lord Eames, went to home after home. Hundreds, even thousands, of families have experienced the anguish and pain.

Last weekend, on the evening of 12 July, I entered the home of a couple in their late 70s, both seriously ill. A boulder was thrown through their window into their bedroom on 12 July in broad daylight, and they were terrorised. Tonight they cannot sleep. In actual fact it took them back 20 years, because 20 years ago that same couple were, like a group of other Protestant families in Beatrice Villas in Bellaghy, forced out of their home by the IRA. They had to leave that home 20 years ago and now, 20 years on, with one of them in their late 70s and one 80, they are faced with that terror again.

I think of two young people, 16 and 21, a brother and a sister, my own loved ones, who left on a journey to show an engagement ring that the young lady had got that day. She and he were blown to bits. A mother died at 43 with a broken heart. Yes, I know that pain.
I think of another home where a father was waiting for his wife to bring home some of the things that were necessary to build their house. While he was waiting, a terrorist knocked at the door and said, “Are you Derek?”. Then they opened up their AK-47 and shot him to bits. Yes, there is agony and pain. It is real.
That is why it was vital that I found the noble Lord’s phrase,
“severely injured through no fault of their own”,
in the amendment. It would be so hurtful to think that any person who was out to act as a terrorist, taking away some other innocent life or destroying some other innocent family, could enjoy the rewards of a pension. I am delighted that the noble Lord has said that clearly, and I trust that that will be heard in Northern Ireland. I trust also that that means even the families of those terrorists do not claim that they are in this provision.
There are many innocent victims living under great hardship. It is about time—it is long overdue—that they got this reward, this pension, to help them, with many of them in their latter days.
Lord Bew Portrait Lord Bew (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support with as much strength as I can the amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and his colleagues in speaking to it. He has argued the case with unparalleled eloquence and persistence. I add my thanks to the Minister for the care that he has constantly given to this matter.

I want to pick up on a point mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Cormack: the absence of nationalist representation in our Parliament. I completely accept that that has been given sharper relief by the absence of the SDLP from the other place. I am chair of the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and I am well aware of the problem. He is aware of how complicated and difficult it is and of the pressures involved in sorting it out, but I wanted to reassure him that I am well aware of this complex and difficult problem. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that I understand that it is thrown into sharper relief by the absence of the SDLP from the other place.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hain, on his persistence in this matter. I am also encouraged that the Minister said last week at Second Reading that there would be no risk of a person receiving a pension if an act was carried out by his or her own hand. The criminal injuries legislation, if applied to this, would ensure that that did not happen. However, there is perhaps a risk with people’s relatives. Whatever we do, let us be absolutely clear that the language of the legislation clearly reflects Parliament’s intention; otherwise, somebody will JR the thing and the whole process will become discredited. That is my major worry. With that qualification, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hain.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I rise very briefly to endorse and thank my noble friend Lord Hain and his supporters for bringing this forward. As he mentioned, of all the posts I ever had in government, my role as a victims Minister in Northern Ireland was the one that stayed with me and affected me the most. The euphemistically named Troubles left a legacy of not just physical pain but mental pain and anguish that affects later generations and both sides of the community, as we have heard. A lot of people were caught up in things that they knew nothing about. I remember talking to one man about his experiences. Every year, a paper would print a photograph of a bus that had been wrecked in a bombing. His father had died on that bus, yet nobody thought of the pain it caused him to see that photograph printed on the anniversary year after year.

This is not just about the financial need people are in. It also gives recognition to those victims and survivors who will receive a pension and those who will not but who recognise how important it is that the suffering and trauma experienced by victims over many years has been recognised. This is also about health. Many have not undertaken the employment they could have done, which had a financial knock-on effect. This is long overdue. I am sure there is more that can be done over time for those who have survived, but I think this is a really important step. I am encouraged that we are all anticipating a very positive response from the Minister.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I believe I can give that positive response. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, has given a great deal of leadership. A number of Members of your Lordships’ House have worked very hard on this matter, as have members of my team in the Northern Ireland Office. The noble Lord and I discussed earlier some technical improvements that need to be made, which I believe we can make tomorrow. The noble Lord has also raised the question of a money resolution and a consolidated fund. I believe we can address that.

I was privileged to meet a number of the survivors from the WAVE Trauma group. I recognise what they have been through. I thank the noble Lords here who have given that commitment to ensure that their voices have not been lost or forgotten. Every day we lose from here on in is one day too many. On that basis, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Hain, will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very positive response and all those who have contributed to the debate, including the noble Lord, Lord McCrea. I am happy to withdraw this amendment and table a revised version tomorrow, which I hope will be acceptable to the whole House, including the Government.

Amendment 21 withdrawn.
Amendment 22 not moved.
Amendment 23
Moved by
23: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Requirement for majority of MLAs to support regulations
(1) Before a statutory instrument can be laid in each House of Parliament under sections 8 and 9 of this Act, the conditions in subsections (2) and (3) must be met. (2) The first condition is that the Secretary of State must—(a) hold a public consultation on the proposals in each of the regulations;(b) consult individually with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the proposals in each of the regulations; and(c) lay a report before each House of Parliament on the outcome of the consultations held under this section, including the number of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly in favour of and against each of the regulations.(3) The second condition is that—(a) the relevant regulations under section 8 may only be laid before Parliament if a majority of the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly support the regulations as stated in the report laid before Parliament under subsection (2)(c); and(b) the relevant regulations under section 9 may only be laid before Parliament if a majority of the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly support the regulations as stated in the report laid before Parliament under subsection (2)(c).”
Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I rise to speak to the amendment in my name and that of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lord, Lord Hay, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who cannot be with us tonight. This Bill had such a simple purpose: to allow the Secretary of State not to call an election and extend the time for agreement to be reached between the parties. That was all it had to do. I guess that was why the Government fast-tracked it. The consequence is that we do not have the usual time for consideration and now the Bill has been extended in a way which is unacceptable and which has the potential to do massive damage to the talks and any prospect of getting the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running.

The Bill has two odd sets of amendments—the ones which we discussed at length earlier this afternoon about Brexit, no deal and the Prorogation of Parliament, and those to do with abortion, neither of which should be in the Bill—and then it has the Christmas tree effect. I do not say that in a pejorative way. These are all very real issues which may need to be dealt with by a Northern Ireland Government.

It has been a curious debate. We have heard the Minister say that we cannot deal with medical schools at Ulster University, Magee, and that we cannot deal with a no-deal Brexit, but we are here to deal with this very sensitive issue in Northern Ireland. I have listened carefully, but I do not feel that there is an understanding of Northern Ireland. We are in a very delicate place. We all agree that we want our Assembly back, but this Bill, if passed in its current form, would also have the capacity to prevent that. We cannot underestimate the fragility of the Northern Ireland situation. I am always reminded that peace agreements last, on average, for 15 years. We have had our 15 years, and a few more. We are in a very difficult place. I know that Brexit is important, but, as I said in your Lordships’ House three years ago, the border and all that goes with it has the capacity to undermine everything, and that would be very dangerous indeed.

Part of this Government’s credibility rests on the extent to which they are regarded in the conduct of these talks as an honest broker. The Government’s response to these amendments does not seem to respect their obligations under the Good Friday agreement and other issues. It seeks to make a profound change in our law at a time when Northern Ireland is engaged in negotiation. It seems very odd that the Government, who are not charged with the conduct of these negotiations and who have seen attempts to kill police officers and others, who have seen the bombs and the ongoing bubbling of terrorist activity, are not a little more cautious in their outlook. The Minister spoke earlier of the need for clear space and safe space for the negotiations. I do not think that is happening here today.

It does not matter what one thinks about abortion and same-sex marriage or whether the law should change. Nobody doubts the sensitivity of these issues for those affected by them, but the clerks in another place advised that these issues fell outside the remit of the Bill. Each of these amendments represents a huge issue which should be the subject of a Bill in its own right, subject to prior consultation and then careful and measured consideration, with scope for amending the legislation. None of this has happened. There are options for everything that is being suggested here. There is a variety of different laws across Europe, even in the context of abortion. In many states, it is only permitted up to 12 weeks, with very rare exceptions; it is not necessarily the liberal law that the United Kingdom has.

The clause as drafted is, of course, unworkable. The Secretary of State has no power in the Northern Ireland Act to make the regulations requested by the amendment. Moreover, the law must be capable of being understood, yet what is proposed here is not clear. The Northern Ireland Attorney-General has spoken publicly about the difficulties generated by this clause, which is vague and goes beyond the Abortion Act 1967. Neither the Northern Ireland Assembly nor any Minister has the power to repeal the Offences against the Person Act by regulation; it is just nonsense. Also, based on this Bill, it is not clear what legislation or directions would say. We do not usually legislate for what we do not know.

The Government have said that they will make it work. Are they going to amend the Northern Ireland Act? What is going to happen? Parliamentary rules cannot be set aside without risking damage to our constitutional arrangements. To make matters worse, these amendments were accepted in relation to a Bill that is subject to a fast-tracking procedure that, even without these far-reaching and completely out-of-scope provisions, but simply on the basis of the Bill’s original purpose as introduced, must attract the attention—perhaps the censure—of the Constitution Committee, which last week reported that Northern Ireland Bills should not be fast-tracked unless they are really urgent. There is time to get this Bill right, and to get our talks back in action.

Many thousands of people in Northern Ireland are distressed by this. It is well known and has been said in your Lordships’ House that ComRes polling of Northern Ireland adults shows very clearly that people in Northern Ireland do not want abortion law changed from Westminster. That is the clear view of 64% of people, rising to 66% of men and 72% of 18 to 32 year-olds. Yet 332 MPs representing seats from outside Northern Ireland saw fit to vote for it, and 100% of Northern Irish MPs in the other place voted against it. Noble Lords should think about that.

Apart from the issues at hand, think of the utterly appalling precedent. The Minister told us last Wednesday that there is more to come. I appreciate this crisis is not of the Government’s making, but they are now engaged, whether they like it or not. Their response can have the effect either of ameliorating or exaggerating the difficulty, with all that means for the union.

The Bill was presented at a time that was practically difficult for Northern Ireland. Many of you may not know this, but it came to your Lordships’ House on Wednesday 10 July and the amendments did not reach your Lordships’ House until after I went home. I waited for them for a long time on Tuesday 9 July, but they did not come and I eventually gave up and went home. After 10 July, we have a holiday called the Twelfth. Northern Ireland went into Twelfth mode on 11 July and, for the most part, closed down on 12 July. It was a Saturday on 13 July. Today is a public holiday in Northern Ireland. I could not get through to the Northern Ireland Office. I have had contact from people in Northern Ireland telling me they were trying to contact the Secretary of State today. The Minister told us that she had gone back to Northern Ireland, but she was not available to meet anyone. That is because it is a public holiday in Northern Ireland today. Of course, the Twelfth is a time when many are on holiday and our schools are closed, so there is just tomorrow, Tuesday, when the people of Northern Ireland might have a slight chance to speak to someone, and then we move to Wednesday and final sessions. It is remarkable that all this happened during the week when part of Northern Ireland celebrates its culture with the Twelfth, and a good Twelfth it was this year—very good.
Today, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and I intended to send a letter to the Prime Minister. We wrote it on Friday night and Saturday, and started looking around for support. I am not going to deliver it to the Prime Minister tonight; it is too late to disturb her. But since Saturday afternoon, nearly 16,000 people—it has gone up nearly 1,000 an hour or every time I have stood up—have signed our letter to the Prime Minister asking her to stop this. They come from all sides of the community and every part of Northern Ireland.
I want to give you a feeling of some of the more prominent people who have signed this letter to the Prime Minister. All Members of the House of Lords are allowed to sign; everyone else has to be from Northern Ireland. We have the noble Lords, Lord Rana, Lord Maginnis, Lord Empey, Lord Brennan, Lord McCrea, Lord Morrow, Lord Alton, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. We have MLAs from all parties: Daniel McCrossan, Sinéad Bradley, Patsy McGlone, Justin McNulty, Robbie Butler, Carla Lockhart, Paul Givan, Arlene Foster—leader of the Democratic Unionists —David Hilditch, Peter Weir, Jonathan Buckley, Mervyn Storey, William Irwin, Gordon Lyons, Edwin Poots, Keith Buchanan, Thomas Buchanan, Gary Middleton, Michelle McIlveen, Joanne Bunting, Alex Easton and Maurice Bradley. We are into the MPs now: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Nigel Dodds, the honourable Ian Paisley, Gavin Robinson, Paul Girvan, Jim Shannon, Gregory Campbell and Emma Little Pengelly. The lawyers include the reverend Brett Lockhart QC. There are councillors, such as Anne McCloskey, Peter Martin, Robert Adair and Stephanie Quigley. Then there are academics, such as Dr Esmond Birnie, and bishops such as Bishop Treanor, Bishop Farquhar, Bishop McKeown and Bishop Walsh. There are the doctors: Dr Coulter, Dr Hardy and others. I missed the venerable Robert Miller, who is the archdeacon currently running Derry.
Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I just inquire whether the noble Baroness is listing all the names on her list? It would be helpful for the Committee, with the hour that we are at, if the list could be severely shortened.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Reverend Norman Hamilton has worked on the interface in north Belfast for 20 years, and hundreds of clergy and ordinary people—doctors, nurses and lawyers—all signed, from all sides of the community. They wanted one thing: to be respected as people and to allowed to make their own law on this amendment. That shows how concerned people are about this matter.

My amendment would not prevent legal change on either abortion or same-sex marriage. It would simply have the effect of restoring some constitutional integrity to Northern Ireland. It requires that there should be a consultation with the people of Northern Ireland, as there would be with any legal change on either issue in Northern Ireland, and most importantly that the views of the currently elected Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly be recorded for or against any regulations and that the regulations should not be laid before Parliament if they do not receive majority support from those Assembly Members. One thing I have not done is to introduce anything resembling a petition of concern, about which I think the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, spoke earlier. The legislation could pass by a simple majority.

One thing I noticed this afternoon was that the unborn child was largely absent from the debate. When mentioned, there was in some quarters a rolling of eyes and expressions of contempt. Yet it has to be said that abortion is about killing babies—real babies. Without Amendment 23, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill will go down in British constitutional history as one of its blackest moments of all times, when constitutional due process was completely swept aside because of the conviction of parliamentarians, none of whom represents Northern Ireland, that the end justifies the means. That is never a good place to be. We have heard it said that it does not really matter at all if Northern Ireland’s MPs voted against this, because it is a matter of human rights and if you want to be in the UK you have to accept abortion as a human right. There is no human right to abortion, and I think that is slightly contemptuous of Northern Ireland’s MPs.

The Member for Walthamstow, who introduced new Clause 10 in the Commons, said this morning that this is an attempt by the DUP to hold us all to ransom. At this late hour, I perhaps need to assure noble Lords that I am not a member of the DUP. I am a Cross-Bencher and, as far as I can remember, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, is not a member of the DUP either. This is something that a cross-party group of 16,000 people are asking us not to do. This is the truest cross-community co-operation from all sectors of our community, from all sides, all places in our beautiful country. We have agreement that we do not want abortion railroaded through in the Bill. I ask noble Lords to at least grant Northern Ireland MLAs the courtesy, the respect and dignity of their roles as elected members and allow them to present their views on this matter. I ask noble Lords to give the people of Northern Ireland the same respect and provide for consultation. I beg to move.

Lord Shinkwin Portrait Lord Shinkwin (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support Amendment 23 and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for persevering despite her sore throat and inspiring those of us who support the amendment. I support it because I believe it underlines our respect for devolution and for the people of Northern Ireland, a clear majority of whom, polling shows, as we have already heard, do not want law changes imposed on them by us here in London.

I also support it for another reason. I do not take a position on abortion per se; I do, however, take a position on disability equality. What is proposed in the Bill drives a coach and horses through disability equality. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister—indeed, whether anyone in the Government or in No. 10—has considered the message that changing the law to allow abortion on grounds of disability in Northern Ireland sends to the people of Northern Ireland, to the devoted parents and families of disabled children and, most importantly, to the disabled citizens of Northern Ireland. Today, Northern Ireland is the safest place in the United Kingdom to be diagnosed with a disability. If the Bill is passed, that will change overnight on 21 October.

I invite noble Lords to consider the Bill from the perspective of someone with Down’s syndrome. In England and Wales, the latest available figures show that 90% of human beings diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are aborted. Today, in Northern Ireland, disability-selective abortion for Down’s syndrome is not allowed. Instead, the culture is one of welcome and support for this disability. The latest figures from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland showed that while 52 children with Down’s syndrome were born in 2016, in the same year only one child from Northern Ireland with Down’s syndrome was aborted in England and Wales.

I ask my noble friend the Minister: is that not a cause for celebration? Is it not to Northern Ireland’s immense credit that disability equality is actually respected there? He may be aware that next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the most important social justice milestone of the 20th century for disabled people: the Disability Discrimination Act. A Conservative Government introduced it. How does he reconcile the Act’s acknowledgement of the right of disabled human beings to be equal, to contribute to society and to be respected with the message of the Bill, which is that if you are born with a disability, as I was, you are better off dead? For that is its message to disabled human beings, their families and the people of Northern Ireland.

That is why it is so sad that the party which swore to respect Northern Ireland is driving roughshod over the clearly expressed views of the majority of its people to impose lethal discrimination on grounds of disability and to treat human beings diagnosed with disability before birth as less equal. How terribly progressive, my Lords.

I wonder who has the greater learning disability here: those who seem intent on denying the equal right to exist to those such as human beings with Down’s syndrome or those, especially in my party, who appear determined to unlearn the lessons of the Disability Discrimination Act.

I was born disabled; I will die disabled. That is the hand I have been dealt. Indeed, it is the hand that most of us are likely to be dealt before our days are done. Are we seriously saying, as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, with all the amazing advances in medicine and technology, that we are so regressive, so insecure as a species, that we cannot cope with disability?

Various commentators report that the Prime Minister wants to leave a strong legacy. I am sure I am not the only Member of your Lordships’ House who will remember her speech committing herself and her Government to ending burning injustices. I will therefore take the opportunity to urge her not to create a burning injustice by allowing the abortion of human beings diagnosed before birth with conditions such as mine to be part of that legacy. If she does, no one in my party should be surprised if disabled people and their families think that the Conservative Party hates us and believes that we would be better off dead.

In conclusion, there is a clear choice to be made, and not just by my party. The choice is for disability equality or inequality. I implore all noble Lords who believe in genuine equality to stand with disabled human beings in Northern Ireland and respect them, and devolution, by supporting this amendment.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I have prepared a speech but I do not intend to make it. It is a pleasure, in a strange way, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, this evening. I heartily congratulate him because we know that what he says comes from the heart. His words have a ring of reality about them, of which this House should take note. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, on her excellent contribution and on moving the amendment. While I am on my feet, I should say that the name of my noble friend Lord Hay of Ballyore is attached to the amendment, but for unavoidable reasons he cannot be here today. He regrets that immensely. I want to put on the record our total and absolute support for what has been said and I, too, commend the amendment to the Committee.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, lest people watching this debate take from it a one-sided view, I want to say that in 2018 an international poll was taken in Northern Ireland which showed that 68% of the respondents did not believe that people should be criminalised for having an abortion and that, if necessary, action should be taken in Westminster to make sure that that happens. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey also showed that 89% of people in Northern Ireland believe that no one should go to prison for having had an abortion. It is a poll run by, among others, Queen’s University, Belfast. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, relies on the ComRes polls; people on her side of the argument always do. However, they are not the objective views that she might lead noble Lords to believe.

I have to say that, coming at this stage, the proposals in her amendment suggest that these matters can effectively be blocked by Members of the Assembly. That is what the power in her amendment would do.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Will she explain when, before this time, I could have raised the amendment?

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am suggesting that these matters could have been put before Members of the Assembly. Indeed, as has been said, they have already been put before the Assembly, which failed to move them forward. I return to the point I made in earlier speeches. At the moment, there are people in Northern Ireland losing hope because no one is expressing views about the things affecting their lives. The amendment simply returns those people to a counsel of despair.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will briefly follow the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and echo what she said about blocking amendments. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, about time pressure, but there is what one might describe as somewhat unparliamentary or unlegislative language in the first condition. The amendment then goes on to refer to,

“the proposals in each of the regulations”—

in other words, you consult on each regulation individually with each of the MLAs and other people. Therefore, the effect of this amendment is not to have a broad consultation. In reality, it is a blocking amendment. That is the only way this can be read, even if one reads it as having been drafted in the inevitable speedy circumstances to which the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, referred.

I was trying to be helpful on the previous amendment. On this amendment, I am afraid that I find myself looking at what I regard as nothing more and nothing less than a blocking amendment.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the noble Lord not recognise the difference between the people of Northern Ireland having some form of consultation with their elected representatives and a blocking amendment? This is not a blocking amendment.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do recognise the difference. It is in the noble Baroness’s own words, “some form”. The form in which this is laid out is quite specific, and it is no more and no less than a blocking amendment.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this has been a challenging discussion. I will be very clear. We have received from the other place an instruction on a free vote where it was a matter of conscience. No party set out to move this matter forward. It belonged to no party in particular; it was a free vote. We have received a clear instruction; indeed, the majorities were very significant on this matter. It is therefore important that we recognise that we have an obligation to fulfil.

On that basis, we will not be able to support the amendment as put forward. I will briefly explain. Consulting the MLAs does not absolve us of the responsibility of ensuring that the amendment is delivered in a practical, workable and timely fashion. Those are the instructions that we have received from the other place and those are the instructions that we shall follow. On that basis, we will hopefully be able to move this matter forward.

I do not doubt that many views will be expressed on this, and that is important. Indeed, I suspect that the noble Baroness and I agree that this would be far better resolved by the Executive reforming. That is the purpose of the talks. If that Executive can reform, this matter can be addressed in Northern Ireland. Get the Executive reformed. On that basis, I hope that the amendment can be withdrawn.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister suggested that this was an instruction from the House of Commons. I am still relatively new to this House. I thought that this Chamber was essentially bound by manifesto commitments from the ruling party going through the House of Commons. As the Minister said, that was a free vote in the House of Commons. If a free vote in the House of Lords gave a different result, would that not count? How is the Minister bound only by the House of Commons?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If this House divides, it will be a matter of conscience. If this House divides and takes a different opinion, we will send that opinion to the other place. On that basis, I hope the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for a magnificent defence of those who are disabled even before they are born. As I said, I have listened carefully. I alluded to the timescale of this Bill. Second Reading was last Tuesday in the Commons; we got the amendments here on Wednesday morning. We have had a few days when Northern Ireland has been off, and now we are forced into a position in which we still do not have the government amendments for the day after tomorrow that are going to make this unworkable Bill workable. We have very little time to reconsider, think, contemplate and consider what the Government are suggesting. How terrible that the future of a generation of unborn babies should rest on these few hours in this place or the other place. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment tonight, but I reserve the right to return to the issue in future.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Amendment 24
Moved by
24: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Definition of Victim
(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to change the definition of “victim” in Article 3 of the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 (S.I. 2006/2953 (N.I. 17)) to apply only to a person who is injured or affected wholly by the actions of another person.(2) Regulations under this section must be in force no later than 21 October 2019, subject to subsections (3) and (4).(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (1)—(a) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament;(b) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.(4) If a Northern Ireland Executive is formed before the regulations under this section come into force, any regulations made under this section and any extant obligations arising under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect.”
Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I intend to be brief on this because I will keep before me what has been said in the debate on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hain. I recognise that much of what was said compares with what I hope to say.

The definition of a victim has been a matter of great angst in Northern Ireland since its inception. Consideration of government proposals in the past has been coloured by the dissatisfaction people feel over an unfair definition of a victim. This has been a running sore for some 13 years. We have met many individual victims and several groups representing victims’ organisations. The victim definition is repeatedly raised with us as their key issue.

We consider the 2006 definition of a victim and survivor to be unacceptable, unfair and downright insulting. In our view, there is a clear distinction in law between a terrorist perpetrator and their innocent victim. To equate the two is morally wrong and totally indefensible. We have previously tabled legislative proposals to change the definition of a victim, but to no avail at this stage. We believe the Government should bring forward plans now to change the definition of a victim so that there is a clear distinction between perpetrators and victims. In any civilised society, it cannot be right that victims and perpetrators are treated as equals. We believe that this could improve the existing climate and context regarding consideration of the past and legacy proposals.

The Secretary of State wrote in the foreword of the legacy consultation document:

“A Conservative Government will reject any attempts to rewrite the history of the past that seeks to justify or legitimise republican or loyalist terrorism or which seeks to displace responsibility from the people who perpetrated acts of terrorism”.

A perpetrator of an unlawful act cannot at the same time be a victim of the act they have perpetrated. Someone who pulled a trigger or planted a bomb should not be treated in the same manner as their innocent victims. This matter is fundamental to victims’ views. In our engagement with a number of victims’ organisations, we have been struck by extremely powerful testimony illustrating the depth and rawness of hurt and insult they feel at their loved ones being placed in the same category as terrorist perpetrators.

The DUP has a proud record on victims and legacy issues. In government, we quadrupled funding for victims. We have stood against a rewriting of our history and efforts to introduce an amnesty. Current arrangements for dealing with the past are utterly unacceptable. There is a clear imbalance, and continuation of the status quo will lead to further rewriting of the narrative of the Troubles. Innocent victims are not seeing progress on investigations into the murder of their loved ones. I beg to move.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I think the exchanges during the debate on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, have the seeds of a solution within them. I would be supportive of that. He made the distinction between the provision of services and pensions for people who have been victims, so we understand that there is an issue there, but the whole question of legacy is still unresolved. There are still proposals out there, including the historical inquiries unit and other ideas that have been brought forward, which could threaten and help to rewrite the history, as has been referred to. But I believe from the exchange we had earlier that we are close to a form of words to find an acceptable solution to all of this that everybody can be comfortable with and move forward on. I certainly hope that that can be achieved.

Lord Eames Portrait Lord Eames
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the question of the definition of a victim has bedevilled many efforts to deal with the legacy of the past. My mind goes back years to when Denis Bradley and I produced our report. We struggled way back then with the definition of who was a victim. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, just said, the exchange with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, earlier on threw considerable light because until there is a definition of victim, not for Northern Ireland alone but across the United Kingdom, that is accepted and incorporated in legislation and used in political dialogue, we will continue to come up against the brick wall of this definition.

Therefore, I welcome what the Minister said in his exchange with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, because in the work that we have already done on the disabled and the victims of the Troubles, as the Minister knows, we have found many new avenues of dealing with disability and legacy in these matters. I am very hopeful, as has been said already, that we are on the verge of getting an acceptable definition of a victim.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I appreciate that the definition of a victim has bedevilled a number of people over a great number of years. I read with great interest the Eames-Bradley report, of which the noble and right reverend Lord is one author, Applying appropriate caveats to our earlier discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, regarding the victims’ pension, there are distinctions. None the less, if indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has said, these could perhaps be the seeds of a particular solution, we may be closer to a definition than has been the case for some time.

The Government have already accepted a reporting requirement to publish a report on or before 4 September 2019 on whether the definition of “victim” in Article 3 of the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 should be revised to apply only to a person who is injured or affected wholly through the actions of another person. In addition, my honourable friend the Minister of State John Penrose committed in the Commons that Her Majesty’s Government recognise that the definition of a victim is something that a number of honourable and right honourable Members have campaigned on for a number of years, and commit to looking UK-wide at how we can make sure that victims are duly protected. That is a step in the right direction. We are closer than we have been before. Of course, there is still some way to go. I recognise that historically there have been challenges, which I noted earlier, and I am aware that the parties in Northern Ireland themselves have not always reached consensus on this particular approach. If we are indeed closer, I hope that we can make some progress and on that basis I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, when I introduced my amendment, I said that I would keep before me what was said during the earlier debate on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hain. Having listened to what has been said, I will not press the amendment tonight. Rather, we will watch progress on this matter. But the Government should take note that this matter has to be dealt with. It will not go away. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 24 withdrawn.
Amendment 25
Moved by
25: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Extension of the Defamation Act 2013
(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to change the law relating to defamation in Northern Ireland to provide that the Defamation Act 2013 is extended to Northern Ireland.(2) Regulations under this section must be in force no later than 21 October 2019, subject to subsections (3) and (4).(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (1)—(a) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament;(b) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.(4) If a Northern Ireland Executive is formed before the regulations under this section come into force, any regulations made under this section and any extant obligations arising under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect.”
Lord Black of Brentwood Portrait Lord Black of Brentwood (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this amendment is also supported by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord McNally. I declare an interest as deputy chairman of Telegraph Media Group and draw attention to my other media interests in the register.

I will make two general points at the start of this short debate. First, I am a passionate unionist and a supporter of devolution, and I sincerely hope that, by 21 October, the talks process at Stormont will have succeeded and the measures that we are discussing in this amendment will once again be where they belong—in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland.

I would just like to add that I read the debates on this Bill in the other place and listened to the debate here in this House this afternoon and I want to underline that I understand the passions which the issues of equal marriage and abortion—which we have heard so much about in the last couple of hours—give rise to in the Province. I respect that, but this amendment should be an uncontroversial one on free speech and freedom of expression, which do not produce such emotions and concerns. Indeed, on all the evidence I have seen, there is a real appetite in Northern Ireland for change in this area and frustration that, after six years of waiting, we are no nearer to achieving that. I am very grateful for the comments earlier of my noble friend Lord Duncan and his commitment to report in this area and to meet with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and I. I will certainly take him up on that, but I would like to explain in these few remarks why I do not believe that this goes far enough.

The amendment seeks simply to extend the terms of the Defamation Act 2013 to Northern Ireland, as was always intended by the architects of that legislation. This House needs no reminding of the importance of that Act, in which so many noble Lords played such a vital part. It was one of the most significant and important pieces of legislation to come out of the coalition Government, and it happened after a huge amount of consultation and scrutiny. The Act was three years in the making. It started life here as a Private Member’s Bill brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and it was followed by a long consultation, pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses, a draft Bill and consideration in the other place before it finally arrived here.

It was not a long Bill and its purpose was very straightforward. Its aim was to replace our out-of-date, costly and overcomplicated defamation laws which damaged freedom of speech and academic and scientific debate, stifled investigative journalism, and yet failed to afford proper protection to those who were defamed. In their place came a new law for a modern age which provided effective protection for freedom of speech, both online and offline, by discouraging trivial and unfounded actions; clarified and simplified defences for those accused of libel; addressed the scandalous issue of libel tourism; and ensured proper remedies for those who had been genuinely wronged. It has achieved those aims in England and Wales, to the great credit of those who drafted it and guided it into law.

The key point is that it was always intended that this law should apply to Northern Ireland as well as to England and Wales. Scotland, of course, has always had its own separate law of defamation, although it is not one which has ever been significantly out of step with the rest of the country. Any outstanding anomalies will, I hope, be addressed through the new Defamation and Malicious Publications (Scotland) Bill currently under consultation. But the law of defamation in Northern Ireland has never been detached from that of England and Wales, which is why, when the law was last reformed in the 1950s, Stormont and Westminster moved in step. All that changed after 2013 in a way which has severed the Province from the rest of the country in an important area of law when a legislative consent Motion was not taken forward at the time by the Executive. It is still not clear, even after six years, why such an unjustifiable decision was taken at the time to cut Northern Ireland adrift. There was certainly no consultation about it or consideration of the implications. No transparent procedures were applied.

We may never know quite why the decision was taken, but we do know that ever since then efforts have been made to rectify the position with proper consultation. A detailed report and analysis by Dr Andrew Scott of the LSE, undertaken for the former Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, coupled with a consultation paper from the Northern Ireland Law Commission, scrutiny by the Assembly’s Finance Committee and consideration of a Private Member’s Bill on the subject, have all ensured that this short piece of uncontroversial legislation has been comprehensively crawled over in the Province and provided a very extensive evidence base for reform of the law there. Civil society has played its part, too, with a grass-roots campaign supported by more than 10,000 people, including, before her death, the murdered journalist Lyra McKee, and that continues to lobby for change.

That case for change is overwhelming. It is clear that the legislation has worked in England and Wales. It is clear that there is strong demand for its implementation from the people of Northern Ireland, including, crucially, the academic and scientific community. And the legislation, except perhaps for a few claimant lawyers determined to protect Belfast’s unenviable position as the new libel capital of Europe, is not controversial. Therefore , it seems to me that the key issue for us is: why the urgency? Why do we need to use this Bill to extend the Defamation Act to Northern Ireland rather than just waiting for when the Assembly and the Executive are back up and running again, as we all want, and why is the commitment that my noble friend made earlier to report back not enough? Those are very good questions that deserve answers, because they go to the nub of the amendment.

I believe that there are four compelling reasons. The first is one of principle. This is a question of fundamental human rights. The existing libel laws in Northern Ireland, condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee and many other international organisations because of their impact on free speech, deny to many, particularly academics, scientists and journalists, the right to free expression. Article 10 of ECHR, which is enshrined in UK law, protects the right to,

“receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”.

That includes the public authorities of Northern Ireland and the frontier across the Irish Sea. This denial of one of the most basic human rights has gone on for too long and cannot be allowed to go on any longer if we have an opportunity such as this to rectify matters. Rights delayed are rights denied, and the people of Northern Ireland deserve better, so that is urgent.

The second relates to Northern Ireland’s local media, which has such a vital role to play in the proper functioning of democracy in the Province. As many noble Lords will be aware, local publishers are now in a very difficult commercial position across the UK and certainly in Northern Ireland, and they can no longer afford to bear the costs of such an oppressive and expensive libel regime. It is investigative journalism, so crucial in this part of the country, which suffers. Alistair Bushe, editor of the News Letter, wrote to me to say:

“The need for libel reform in Northern Ireland is now more urgent than it has ever been. For more than five years there has been a discrepancy between the legal position in the Province where claimants are not required to show that they have suffered serious harm and the rest of the UK where they are. During that time the financial pressures facing small media outlets across Britain and Ireland have increased making them particularly vulnerable to bullying or vexatious litigants”.

Gail Walker, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, echoed that by writing that,

“an extension of the Act to Northern Ireland is long overdue”.

Noble Lords should remember that under the oppressive system that exists in Northern Ireland, one defamation action that goes wrong could be enough to put a local newspaper out of business.

Statistics from the Northern Ireland Law Commission consultation paper, which show that there are six times as many claims for defamation per capita in Northern Ireland as in England and Wales, underline the point. Of the 30 defamation claims progressed to the High Court in Belfast in the past three years, fewer than five ended with a determination for either party—which shows how vital it is to introduce the serious harm requirements and prevent vexatious complaints. So, as editors testify and the statistics show, the case is urgent.

The third reason relates to the nature of Northern Ireland’s democracy and its governance. As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said earlier, Northern Ireland needs more democracy, but to flourish democracy needs a pluralistic, lively and investigative press, vigorous scrutiny of public bodies, open discussion, robust academic debate, energetic citizen journalists and a free and unfettered flow of information, yet the libel regime in Northern Ireland discourages all of that. Do not take my word for it. Here is Lyra McKee, so tragically murdered earlier this year, who had this to say at the launch of the Northern Ireland Libel Reform Campaign in 2014:

“My line of work means I often upset people in power. I often find myself threated with our archaic libel laws. I’ve become involved with the Libel Reform Campaign because a muzzled press equals a poor democracy—and that is what we have. My hope is that we bring Northern Ireland into alignment with the rest of the UK by reforming our archaic libel laws, meaning they can no longer be abused by politicians with things to hide ... For corrupt politicians they have become a means of silencing the press. Northern Ireland can never be a properly functioning democracy”.

That heartfelt plea is an urgent one.

My final point relates to the issue of scientific and academic debate. When we have debated the issue in the past, the noble Lord, Lord Bew—who is in his place and has kindly told me that he supports this amendment—has warned in a number of powerful speeches that failure to reform Northern Ireland’s libel laws would have a profoundly chilling impact on such debate, and so it is proving. At the time of the Defamation Act, a survey of doctors found that half of all GPs felt that the old libel laws restricted the open discussion of the potential risks of drug treatment. Dr Peter Wilmshurst, an NHS cardiologist, told the Assembly that he had spent four years fighting a US corporation that sued him for questioning the safety of a heart valve. The Defamation Act has removed the chilling effect in England and Wales. It should remove it for doctors in Northern Ireland too. Failure to act raises pressing issues of health and safety, making this urgent.

Those are four very real reasons why we should not gamble on the success of the talks and wait until the Assembly and Executive are functioning again—which we all wish to see but none of us can predict. It may take weeks, months or years. However, the problems arising from the failure to reform the libel laws are here right now. They are damaging free speech in the Province, undermining investigative journalism, stifling scientific debate and, above all, disadvantaging the people of Northern Ireland. It has been six years. We cannot and must not wait any longer. It is time to act. I beg to move.

Lord Stoneham of Droxford Portrait Lord Stoneham of Droxford (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will speak very briefly. I think that that is the most comprehensive case that could have been made in support of the amendment. There is very little left to be said. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, was going to speak from these Benches and wanted me to say on our behalf that we fully support this. It is long overdue and was a very important piece of reform in the coalition Government. We cannot really understand why there has been a delay in implementing it. Clearly, this is an opportunity to do it. We fully support it.

Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I strongly support this amendment, which brings back to your Lordships’ House an issue of the first importance. Shortly after the passage of the Defamation Act 2013, I instigated a debate in Grand Committee about the overwhelming case for extending it to Ulster. I later brought forward probing amendments to a Northern Ireland Bill.

The Government at that time agreed that Northern Ireland ought to enjoy the benefits of the 2013 Act and deprecated the Province’s exclusion. It meant that, for the first time in our history, it would have a different libel law from England and Wales. Acute dissatisfaction was expressed across the House that the Northern Ireland Executive—which was then in being—failed to provide any explanation of their opposition to the incorporation of the 2013 Act in Northern Ireland. The Government pressed for an explanation but received none.

When I withdrew my probing amendment in 2014, I asked the Government what further action they would take if the Northern Ireland Executive failed to pursue this matter properly. Sadly, Ministers have been unable to give me any clear reply to that question since then. The issue seems to have slipped from the Northern Ireland Office’s sight. I am glad that it has again been given the prominence it deserves through this amendment.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Minister kindly accepted the amendment I proposed on this matter earlier. I fully accept that we were not co-ordinating on it. I support the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Black. He knows that and we have talked about this before—he has been to Belfast. He has explained exactly what is at stake, in a very coherent contribution. It is a mystery why this progress has been so slow, but that is where we are. I find myself in total agreement with his contribution.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I have very few remarks to make in response to my noble friend, but I thank him for his long speech. There is no doubt that defamation law in Northern Ireland does not reflect today’s digital age. To echo my noble friend’s words, reform is indeed needed. The issues at stake here hit the very heart of the relationship between citizens, media and the state. It is important to deliver protections in the field of freedom of expression.

My noble friend would like to see progress made to update the Northern Ireland law and I understand that position. There are certainly parts of the Defamation Act 2013 that could usefully be extended to Northern Ireland. However, this Act removed the presumption of trial by jury for libel actions. This may of course shorten and reduce the cost of libel actions.

It is of note that the 2017 Review of Civil and Family Justice in Northern Ireland by Lord Justice Gillen noted the extremely important function of the jury in defamation cases in the context of the Northern Ireland jurisdiction, in particular its role in finding whether the plaintiff has been defamed. As the Gillen review notes, juries in Northern Ireland have been traditionally considered the best fact-finder to judge what words or statements mean in the local context with its unique history, and whether they are considered defamatory in any case. These are matters that involve justice and freedoms, and on which the particular jurisdiction is important. The devolved nature of defamation law in Scotland is reflected in the fact that only a very limited number of provisions in the Defamation Act 2013 have been extended to Scotland, in particular around statements or reports which arise in the scientific or academic field.

Similarly, defamation law is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland; therefore, simply extending the Defamation Act 2013 to Northern Ireland is not appropriate. Further, I understand that, prior to the passage of the Defamation Act, the views of the Northern Ireland Executive were sought as to whether they wished to make a legislative consent Motion to provide for the Act to apply in Northern Ireland, but they declined to do so. Decisions to reform the law should be taken by a restored Northern Ireland Executive. This will allow the unique Northern Ireland context to be taken into account in any reforms. I regret that I am not able to help my noble friend but I respectfully request that he withdraw this amendment.

Lord Black of Brentwood Portrait Lord Black of Brentwood
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who supported this amendment. As the remarks from my noble friend Lord Lexden made clear, this is an issue on which we have been pressing for many years now. I remember well his debate in Grand Committee four years ago, yet no progress has been made. I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his comments. Yes, indeed, a legislative consent Motion was declined at the time but no real reason was given for that and none has been given since, which I do not think is satisfactory when we are talking about an area of law of such importance as libel and involving such fundamental human rights as those of freedom of expression. This is an area to which I fear we will have to return. I will take up my noble friend Lord Duncan’s offer to meet to talk about how we might make progress in this area. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 25 withdrawn.
Amendment 26
Moved by
26: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland: regulations
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide for a publicly funded compensation scheme under an HIA Redress Board, distinct from the Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2009, to be charged to the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund.(2) Regulations under this section must be in force no later than 21 October 2019, subject to subsections (3) and (4).(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.(4) If a Northern Ireland Executive is formed before the regulations under this section come into force, any regulations made under this section and any extant obligations arising under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect.”
Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, given the lateness of the hour, I may not allow the Committee to enjoy my 15-minute contribution and will perhaps be slightly briefer. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, for his discussions with me on my amendment and for the consideration he has given to this issue. My amendment deals with the historical abuse inquiry and the recommendations made following that inquiry. I say at the beginning that, as we discussed earlier today, this is not the only inquiry where the absence of an Assembly has disadvantaged the people of Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord and other Members of the Committee will recall that I have raised the hyponatraemia inquiry on many occasions now. It was an inquiry that I set up as a Health Minister in Northern Ireland after the deaths of a number of young children. That inquiry reported many years later, yet no action will be taken until a proper Executive and Assembly are up and running. To me, that is a sad and terrible state of affairs for the families of those young children. That issue, and many we have heard about this evening, tell us about the impatience building up in Northern Ireland among those suffering the injustice of local politicians not dealing with their crucial issues.

I pay tribute to the late Sir Anthony Hart, who chaired the historical abuse inquiry. He died suddenly last week, not having seen the progress he would have liked to see on the recommendations he made. We are waiting to take action to implement his recommendations to compensate those subjected to terrible abuse in children’s homes where they had been placed by the state, so the state had a duty of care. Those homes were run by churches, by charities and by state institutions between 1922 and 1995. The very places where children should have been safe from harm are where they were abused.

My amendment would require the Secretary of State to make regulations providing for a publicly funded scheme. I know that funding has been one of the handicaps and difficulties for the Government, but the funded scheme would be charged to the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund by 21 October 2019 unless the Northern Ireland Executive are formed first. It builds on the amendments in the House of Commons requiring the Secretary of State to report on progress made in preparing the legislation.

We have not gone into the detail; we do not think it right to do so at this stage. What I seek—I am optimistic about this after our discussions with the Minister—is an absolute commitment to get the scheme in place in legislation so that no more victims die before they get their justified compensation.

Lord Bruce of Bennachie Portrait Lord Bruce of Bennachie
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I support the noble Baroness’s amendment. We have discussed this subject several times, and we all recognise that recommendations are in place. The Minister will tell us that things have been added to them, which has complicated the settlement. We are talking about abuse going back to 1922—nearly 100 years ago—and continuing until as late as 1995.

Let us be clear: these abuses have not been confined to Northern Ireland. In the Republic, in Scotland, in England and in the Channel Islands abuses have been unearthed, and Sir Anthony Hart produced a very comprehensive report. When we read about the scale of the abuse it leaves us feeling very angry that people who should have been responsible were perpetrating those acts of abuse. I happened to read a novel last year by Christina McKenna called The Misremembered Man. It is a total fiction, but it is based entirely on the kind of abuse that young children experienced in Northern Ireland and makes a lively dramatic impact, as perhaps a stark factual report does not.

I say to the Minister: people have waited an awfully long time. Many have died and many have suffered. There has been a recommendation, and there are clearly additional things. If he can say something about the timescale on which he feels we can get to a point when action can be taken, the Committee will be very appreciative.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this issue has been raised many times. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, may have deprived the House of 12 minutes of her prepared speech, but the parties in Belfast could still surprise us. It has perhaps been a depressing day listening to these debates, but there is always hope. I hope that they will surprise us and start to deal with this matter themselves. However, I have to say to the Minister that this is a bit like the carrot in front of the donkey: the closer we seem to get the more it keeps moving away, and it never gets to the point when something actually happens. I accept that the fact that there is money involved has its own implications, but I hope the noble Lord will be able to tell us that this will happen, and happen on a realistic timescale. Sadly, Sir Anthony did not live to see this, but it would be a tribute to him if it could be introduced as soon as possible.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I think we can make some progress this evening. I thank the noble Baroness for tabling her amendment. There is urgency. The last time the matter was discussed I said that the Government stood ready to move this through Westminster with a degree of urgency. The issue now, of course, is that Sir Anthony Hart’s recommendations have been considered by the parties, which have reached a consensus—but it differs from the original proposals in the Hart recommendations, so there needs to be some redrafting. We anticipate the redraft coming towards the Government in the next couple of weeks.

The route that the noble Baroness has chosen is one that might introduce a delay, and I do not think we need to do that. If she is willing, I will commit, in the absence of a sitting Assembly, to the Government introducing primary legislation on historical institutional abuse before the end of the year—which I believe would satisfy her requirements. On that basis, I ask her to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. On that basis, I am very happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 26 withdrawn.
Clause 10 agreed.
House resumed.
Bill reported with amendments.
House adjourned at 11.30 pm.