New clause 5 - Equality Duty

Part of Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:45 am ar 14 Chwefror 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 9:45, 14 Chwefror 2002

The new clause would amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998, designating the listed organisations for the purposes of sections 75 and 76. Section 75 creates a duty on public authorities to have due regard to the promotion of equality of opportunity between each of the nine categories of person. I thank the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) for listing them. Section 76 makes it unlawful for a public authority to discriminate or to aid or incite another person to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh said, in essence, that it is important in the context of what the Bill seeks to achieve to give a clear message on the issue. I welcome his general welcome for the Bill and the implementation of the review provisions. He is supported by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. The Government, who were responsible for introducing the provision in the 1998 Act in the first place, share that view. However, care needs to be taken in imposing statutory duties. I sought, in relation to one of the categories, to engage the Committee in debate as to whether that careful attention in relation to the DPP might reveal issues that were at least worthy of consideration. When I intervened, I did not say that that would necessarily be a block to the application of the provisions to the DPP. However, I was seeking to engage people in debate about whether they had thought the process through, particularly in relation to my hon. Friend's concerns about the section 75 obligations. I pointed out that they could not be restricted in the way in which he thought because of policies and procedures. If it were simply a matter of policies and procedures, with no concern about possible consequences, it might be more straightforward.

Some of my hon. Friend's concerns, which are reflected in the new clause, have been dealt with already. For example, the Northern Ireland Prison Service is already bound by sections 75 and 76 of the 1998 Act by virtue of being an agency of the Northern Ireland Office. It does not require separate designation. The Lord Chancellor and his Department are already bound by section 76, by virtue of section 76(7)(a) and (b). The Lord Chancellor

does not need to be covered by section 75 because, as the hon. Member for North Down said in an intervention, the Northern Ireland Court Service is covered instead.

I understand that there is some confusion, which is reflected in the new clause, about who and what is covered under the important sections of the 1998 Act. That shows the importance of addressing the difficulties of getting the designation right. The other bodies listed would have to be considered individually to assess the extent to which they can affect equality of opportunity and community relations, consistent with their primary duties. That is relevant to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which primarily carries out prosecutorial functions. I have no doubt that other administrative functions are appended, but most of the DPP's policies relate to prosecutorial functions and are designed to deal with individual cases. Those cases are decided by the DPP on merit, and there could be difficulties-some would say that there will obviously be difficulties-in reconciling the principle of impartiality and the duty to pay regard to equality considerations in the DPP's decision-making processes.

I repeat, because it is an important point, that section 75 applies to bodies designated in carrying out the functions. Although policies and procedures are covered, the provision is wider than that. I also repeat that the DPP's essential function is a prosecutorial one. Insufficient regard has been paid to that point, although I have tried to widen the debate.

What value can be added by designating the Lord Chief Justice's office, which comprises only three people? That is another legitimate question. Nor have I become any clearer, between the time the new clause was tabled and this debate, about the scope for the Crown Solicitors' work to affect equality of opportunity.

In respect of the criminal justice inspectorate, we should also reconsider what value would be added by designation. It might be more straightforward in the case of the Northern Ireland Law Commission, but some consideration must be given to including that body in relation to section 75. Detailed consideration has been undertaken of all the bodies that are part of the list to which the sections already apply.

For the reasons that I have given, we should take full account of the implications of bringing within the scope of the statutory duties under the 1998 Act the agencies listed in the new clause. If, having considered every case, we believe that there is scope for them to affect the quality of community relations, we shall designate them under section 75(3)(a) and (b) of the 1998 Act. If appropriate, we shall table an amendment to section 76 in due course. We are not ruling out the prospect of amendments in the context of the Bill's progress. On the understanding, therefore, that we will look into that in more detail, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his new clause.