|The Government is amending the law on Sexual Orientation in Northern Ireland. What is going on?
17 Dec 2006
The Government has published Regulations for Northern Ireland on Sexual Orientation and plans to have these debated in both Houses of Parliament very soon after the Christmas Recess. It has not yet published the Regulations for England and Wales.
Both the parliamentary procedure and the legislative context of the Northern Ireland legislation are different from those that will apply to the equivalent English and Welsh legislation.
Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the statute that gives legislative form to the Good Friday Agreement, these Regulations are a devolved matter. During the suspension of devolution, Northern Ireland Office Ministers exercise the powers of the Northern Ireland Executive, subject of course to the laws of Northern Ireland.
Procedurally, the Northern Ireland Regulations fall under the Negative Resolution Procedure, whereby they become law automatically a set number of days after being tabled by the Government. There is no automatic right for Parliament to debate or vote upon them. There are strongly held views amongst different colleagues both for and against the Regulations and I believe that Parliament should, as a matter of principle, scrutinise and debate such a controversial measure. My colleague David Lidington, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, therefore wrote to Peter Hain to ask for a debate. He has agreed. In the Commons, this will take the form of a debate in Committee (as is normal for such pieces of secondary legislation). The Government does not need to put a Statutory Instrument governed by Negative Resolution Procedure on the Order Paper of the Chamber, so it is almost certain that Commons proceedings will end with the Committee debate. The Lords, in accordance with their usual practice, will have a debate on the Floor of the House. Conservative Members will have a free vote in both Houses.
The main controversy over the Regulations is whether or not they allow adequate protection to religious conscience. The Northern Ireland Regulations will have to be read (and ultimately interpreted by the courts) alongside other Northern Ireland laws which ban any discrimination on grounds of religion. In particular, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 prohibits such discrimination by any public body and explicitly makes it unlawful for a Minister to introduce secondary legislation which so discriminates.
Within the last few days, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has asked the Government to consider whether there is a possible conflict between the Regulations and the Northern Ireland Act and we await the Government’s response. Also, an application for judicial review has been made to the High Court in Belfast, on the grounds that the Government’s action in tabling the Regulations allegedly breaches both the Northern Ireland Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Of the Northern Ireland parties, the DUP and the UUP generally oppose the regulations while Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party generally support them.
David Lidington has met representatives from the Evangelical Alliance, the Christian Institute and CARE to discuss their concerns. He is also in the process of contacting the main Christian denominations in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Commission for Equalities, the Children’s Commissioner for Northern Ireland and Stonewall to ask for their views. What is already clear is that different groups have very different understandings as to what the Regulations would mean in practice and about the effectiveness of exemptions for churches and religious organisations. At the end of the day, there will be a basic and principled difference of opinion between supporters and opponents of the Regulations, but I would like to see that argument take place on the basis of agreement about what the Regulations would and would not actually do. The Secretary of State has agreed to let David Lidington put the detailed concerns of the evangelical organisations and others to officials in advance of parliamentary proceedings and he will do that as soon as he receives the necessary material.
Copies of the responses to the Government’s consultation can be found on the web site of the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister at www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk.