Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

Wednesday 26th October 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Considered in Committee
[Dame Eleanor Laing in the Chair]
Clause 1
National and cultural identity
00:00
Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna (Belfast South) (SDLP)
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I beg to move amendment 6, page 1, line 14, leave out from “that” to second “and” in line 16 and insert

“respects the rights of others”.

This amendment would replace the principle taking account of the sensitivities of those with different national and cultural identities with a principle of respecting the rights of others.

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Amendment 15, page 2, line 5, after “means” insert

“the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and”.

This amendment would include the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in the definition of public authority within the bill.

Amendment 7, page 2, line 13, at end insert—

“‘rights of others’ means Convention rights within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998 and other international human rights standards.”

This amendment defines rights of others in reference to Convention rights and other international human rights standards.

Amendment 28, page 3, line 32 at end insert—

“(4A) The Office must comply with any directions (of a general or specific nature) given by the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly as to the exercise of the Commissioner’s functions.”

This amendment is intended to ensure the bodies established by the provisions of the Bill remain accountable to guidance issued by the First and deputy First Ministers acting jointly in respect of the exercise of their functions.

Amendment 31, page 3, line 32, at end insert—

“(5) The First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly must annually assess and report on the costs arising from the operation of the Office in line with the duties prescribed in Section 10(4).”

Amendment 21, page 3, line 33, leave out subsection 78I.

This amendment would remove the power of the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression to establish the Government’s obligation to establish the Castlereagh Foundation (see Clause 8 of the Bill).

Clause stand part.

Amendment 8, in clause 2, page 4, line 22, leave out “have due regard to” and insert “comply with”.

This amendment would amend the duty on public authorities to one of compliance with best practice Irish language standards from one of due regard.

Amendment 27, page 5, line 18 at end insert—

“(4A) The Commissioner must comply with any directions (of a general or specific nature) given by the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly as to the exercise of the Commissioner’s functions.”

This amendment is intended to ensure the bodies established by the provisions of the Bill remain accountable to guidance issued by the First and deputy First Ministers acting jointly in respect of the exercise of their functions.

Amendment 23, page 5, line 20, at end insert—

“(6) The Commissioner must exercise its functions under this Part in a manner that is reasonable, proportionate and practical, and which serves to promote mutual respect, good relations, understanding and reconciliation.”

This amendment reflects the stated intent under paragraphs 5.10 and 5.17 of the New Decade New Approach agreement for each Commissioner established under the Bill to exercise his or her functions in a way that is reasonable, proportionate, practical and conducive to mutual respect.

Amendment 32, page 5, line 20, at end insert—

“(6) The First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly must annually assess and report on the costs arising from the role of the Commissioner in terms of—

(a) the operation of the Commissioner’s Office,

(b) the engagement and compliance of public authorities with the Commissioner, and

(c) any other costs.”

Amendment 9, page 5, line 28, leave out subsection (2).

This amendment would remove the requirement that best practice Irish language standards produced by the Irish Language Commissioner be subject to the approval of the First and deputy First Ministers.

Amendment 10, page 5, line 31, leave out “approved under subsection (2)” and insert “prepared under subsection (1)”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 9.

Amendment 24, page 5, line 37, at end insert—

“(c) ensure requirements placed on public authorities are reasonable, proportionate and practical.”

This amendment reflects the stated intent under paragraphs 5.10 and 5.17 of the New Decade New Approach agreement for each Commissioner established under the Bill to exercise his or her functions in a way that is reasonable, proportionate, practical and conducive to mutual respect.

Amendment 11, page 6, line 20, leave out “have due regard to” and insert “comply with”.

This amendment would amend the duty on public authorities to one of compliance with best practice Irish language standards from one of due regard.

Amendment 16, page 7, line 27, after “means” insert

“the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and”.

This amendment would include the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in the definition of public authority within the bill.

Amendment 12, page 7, line 29, after “(N.I.))” insert

“and any public authority under the Cabinet Office that provides public services in Northern Ireland”.

This amendment would ensure key UK wide services are included.

Clause 2 stand part.

Amendment 29, in clause 3, page 8, line 27, leave out “arts and literature” and insert “heritage and culture”.

This amendment would revise and expand the functions of the Commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British traditions provided in the Bill. The Commissioner would be responsible for developing the language, culture and heritage associated with these traditions, reflecting the body of established work and existing human rights law.

Amendment 30, page 9, line 6, leave out from “subsection (3)” to end of line 6 and insert

“so far as affecting Ulster Scots”.

This amendment restores the language used to address this commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. The new wording is taken from the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

Amendment 25, page 9, line 25, at end insert—

“(5A) The Commissioner must exercise its functions under this Part in a manner that is reasonable, proportionate and practical, and which serves to promote mutual respect, good relations, understanding and reconciliation.”

This amendment reflects the stated intent under paragraphs 5.10 and 5.17 of the New Decade New Approach agreement for each Commissioner established under the Bill to exercise his or her functions in a way that is reasonable, proportionate, practical and conducive to mutual respect.

Amendment 26, page 9, line 25 at end insert—

“(5A) The Commissioner must comply with any directions (of a general or specific nature) given by the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly as to the exercise of the Commissioner’s functions.”

This amendment is intended to ensure the bodies established by the provisions of the Bill remain accountable to guidance issued by the First and deputy First Ministers acting jointly in respect of the exercise of their functions.

Amendment 1, page 9, line 31, at end insert—

“78SA Duty to have regard to published advice or guidance

(1) A public authority must, in providing services to the public or a section of the public in Northern Ireland, have due regard to any advice or guidance published pursuant to section 78S(2).

(2) A public authority must prepare and publish a plan setting out the steps it proposes to take to comply with the duty in subsection (1).

(3) A public authority—

(a) may revise and re-publish the plan if the authority considers it necessary or desirable to do so;

(b) must revise and re-publish the plan if relevant revised advice or guidance is published in accordance with section 78S(2).

(4) In preparing or revising a plan under this section, a public authority must consult the Commissioner.”

This amendment would place public authorities under a duty to have regard to advice, support and guidance issued by the Commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British traditions. It would also require authorities to prepare and publish a plan demonstrating how they will adhere to the duty. This mirrors the duty to have regard provision that applies to the Irish Language Commissioner giving expression to the need for public authorities to give expression to the parity of esteem principle in relation to both Commissioners.

Amendment 33, page 9, line 31, at end insert—

“(9) The First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly must annually assess and report on the costs arising from the role of the Commissioner in terms of—

(a) the operation of the Commissioner's Office

(b) the engagement and compliance of public authorities with the Commissioner

(c) any other costs.”

Amendment 2, page 9, line 34, leave out “facilitation”.

See explanatory statement for Amendment 5.

Amendment 3, page 10, line 17, leave out “facilitation”.

See explanatory statement for Amendment 5.

Amendment 4, page 10, line 20, leave out “facilitation”.

See explanatory statement for Amendment 5.

Amendment 5, page 10, leave out lines 24 to 27 and insert—

“(6) In this section “published guidance” means guidance published under section 78S(2)(b).”

This amendment would extend the grounds on which an individual can submit a complaint to the Commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British Traditions to cover the conduct of public authorities in relation to all the guidance issued by the Ulster Scots Ulster British Commissioner, as is already the case with respect to all the guidance issued by the Irish Language Commissioner. It would thus help restore/achieve the parity of esteem.

Amendment 17, page 10, line 29, after “means” insert

“the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and”.

This amendment would include the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in the definition of public authority within the bill.

Clause 3 stand part.

Clause 4 stand part.

Clause 5 stand part.

Amendment 13, in clause 6, page 12, line 2, at end insert—

“(3A) In the case of the absence of compliance with regard to identity and language functions by a Northern Ireland Minister or Northern Ireland department, the Secretary of State must—

(a) act to appoint an Irish Language Commissioner within 30 days, in the case of the First Minister and deputy First Minister not acting jointly to appoint an Irish Language Commissioner as laid out in section 78J of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as inserted by section 2 of this Act) within 30 days of the legislation coming into force or a vacancy arising;

(b) act within 30 days to approve the best practice standards submitted by the Irish Language Commissioner with or without modifications, in the case of the First Minister and deputy First Minister not approving best practice standards submitted under section 78M of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as inserted by section 2 of this Act) within 30 days.”

These step-in powers for the Secretary of State include a timescale whereby a decision by him or her must be taken. With this amendment the Secretary of State must act within 30 days of progress being restrained.

Amendment 14, page 12, line 16, at end insert—

“(c) a function conferred by or under section 28D of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”

This amendment seeks to permit the Secretary of State to intervene, reflecting the commitment given in New Decade New Approach. The Irish language strategy is not included under these functions and this amendment would amend the legislation to include the Irish language strategy as a function.

Clause 6 stand part.

Clause 7 stand part.

Amendment 22, in clause 8, page 13, line 9, leave out “may” and insert “must”.

This amendment would require the Government to establish the Castlereagh Foundation.

Amendment 18, page 13, line 21, at end insert–

“(2A) The Secretary of State must, within 3 months of the passing of this Act, publish a report on the establishment or funding of any body or organisation under subsection (1).

(2B) A report published under subsection (2A) must include details of the relevant body or organisation’s—

(a) membership or proposed membership;

(b) funding structure or proposed funding structure;

(c) functions, responsibilities and objectives;

(d) compliance with Article 1(v) of the British-Irish Agreement 1998; and,

(e) compliance with the National and Cultural Identity Principles.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on the structure and functioning of the proposed Castlereagh Foundation.

Clause 8 stand part.

Amendment 20, in clause 9, page 14, line 30, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

“(2) Part 1 comes into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument appoint subject to subsection (3).”

This amendment would remove the concurrent powers and powers of direction granted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under Part 2 from the Bill.

Amendment 34, page 14, line 31, at end insert—

“(2A) Before Part 1 comes into force the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a report assessing—

(a) the annual costs to the public purse of–

(i) the establishment and operation of each of the three bodies constituted under this Bill, and

(ii) the relevant public authorities engaging and having regard to the three offices, and

(b) how this spending allocation gives effect to the principle of the parity of esteem between the unionist and nationalist communities.”

The explanatory notes for this Bill only provide costings for the running costs of the three new offices. This amendment requires the Secretary of State to assess the costs to the public purse both from running the three new offices and for meeting the cost of public authorities engaging with and having regard to the three new offices.

Amendment 35, page 14, line 33, at end insert—

“(4) After the Bill comes into effect, the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly must—

(a) publish an annual report comparing the total public monies spent in relation to—

(i) the Irish Language Commissioner under Section 2(6), and

(ii) the Ulster Scots Ulster British Commissioner under Section 3(5), and

(b) assess the costs associated with running the Office of Identity and Expression,

to ensure that the parity of esteem is respected in the spending between the unionist and nationalist communities.”

This amendment requires Ministers to annually compare the total public monies spent in relation to the Irish Language Commissioner and the Ulster Scots Ulster British Commissioner to ensure that parity of esteem is respected in the spending between the unionist and nationalist communities. It also requires them to assess the costs associated with the Office of Identity and Expression on the same basis.

Clause 9 stand part.

Clause 10 stand part.

Clause 11 stand part.

Government amendment 19.

Clause 12 stand part.

New clause 1—Duty in relation to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

“A public authority must, in carrying out functions relating to Northern Ireland, act compatibly with its obligations under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.”

This new clause would oblige public authorities to comply with obligations accepted by the United Kingdom under the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.

That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
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Go raibh maith agat, Dame Eleanor. I rise to discuss amendment 6, tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry), as well as to speak about some of the other amendments we have tabled, including amendment 13, which we might seek your permission to press to a vote later. For the convenience of the Committee, I will comment on amendments tabled by others as well.

Amendments 6 and 7 to clause 1 clarify the issues with the clause and seek to move provisions on to a more rights-based footing. The amendments bring the Bill into line with international human rights standards and the drafted legislation worked on between the parties prior to New Decade, New Approach. The phrase in the Bill as drafted, without amendment, refers to the “sensitivities” of others, but unfortunately in Northern Ireland we know that there are people of various political hues who might be hostile to the cultural expression of others. The amendments seek to place these measures on a rights-based footing, because in the same way as there is no right not to be offended, there is not really a right for anyone not to have other people speak around them a language that they do not support.

Elsewhere in clause 1, the Social Democratic and Labour party also supports the Opposition’s amendment 15, which seeks to include the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in the definition of a public body. We have concerns about amendments 28 and 31, which locate further powers and duties with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which I shall expand on later. We also do not support amendment 21, which would seek to remove the proposed Castlereagh Foundation from the architecture that we are creating through the Bill and would be a further departure from New Decade, New Approach.

On clause 2, I want to speak in favour of amendments 8 to 12, which we do not seek to push to a Division. Amendments 8 and 11 focus on amending the duty on public authorities to one of compliance with best practice standards rather than just due regard. We think that the duty should flow from the St Andrew’s agreement on language rights based on the experience of Wales, and the amendments would ensure that that was the case.

13:45
Amendments 9 and 10 would remove the requirement that best practice language standards should be approved by the First Ministers. That eliminates the potential for yet more frustration of the issue, which, as Members will be aware, has been problematic for decades. It would also prevent the further embedding of issues to do with language and culture within the fairly binary Unionist-nationalist atmosphere around the Executive Office. Amendment 12 would widen the legislation to include more UK-wide authorities as per the Welsh experience that flowed from the St Andrew’s commitment.
Elsewhere in clause 2, a few amendments have been tabled by the Democratic Unionist party. We appreciate the thrust of amendments 23, 24 and 25, and the direction and the intent in some of the language, but we have concerns about tabulating them into law. We also have concerns about amendments 27 and 32 for the aforementioned reasons of Executive Office dysfunction.
We have no amendments tabled to clause 3, but will note the various points made by others in Committee. That underlines again why we would have been better off hammering the issue out and drawing it out in the Assembly, where we could hear from witnesses from human rights bodies and others who could clarify the possible implications of some of the amendments. We think that it is appropriate that the final legislation reflects the various stages of development of the different languages.
I believe that there are no amendments tabled to clauses 4 and 5. On clause 6, we will press amendment 13 to a vote. It would provide for new step-in powers for the Secretary of State to unlock the provisions in the Bill in the event of there being either no First Ministers or further delay and denial. That would help to build trust, to get this done and to prevent the issue from being a bone of contention and a frustration. The 30-day period that we specify would commence only after an initial window to allow the First Ministers to agree a process. It would protect the primacy of devolution and the First Ministers’ ability in the first instance to deliver the powers granted to them. It would not go over their heads unless progress were locked out, as it has been in the past. Amendment 14 to clause 6 is in a similar vein and would provide step-in powers for the Secretary of State to do anything that a Northern Ireland Minister or Northern Ireland Department could do in the exercise of a language and identity function.
There are no amendments tabled to clause 7. We have tabled no amendments to clause 8, but, again, we will observe some of the points that others will make. Additionally, we have tabled new clause 1, which would oblige public authorities to comply with obligations accepted by the United Kingdom under the Council of Europe’s charter for regional or minority languages. It relates to a recommendation in the NIHRC’s Bill of Rights advice to the Secretary of State in 2008.
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is always a pleasure to speak, but it is even more of a pleasure to be called to speak second in this debate. I am very honoured. I will speak to amendments 1 to 5. Members of my party have tabled some 23 amendments, which show the quantity of our concerns and the quantity of ways in which the Bill does not set the scene for those of my Unionist community. I have been contacted by many of my constituents in Strangford, and indeed by some people who do not have an MP who will take their place to do their job. As a member of the public said to me, “Why would Sinn Féin need to take their seats at Westminster when Members of this House and”—I say this with respect—“on certain occasions, members of the Government are intent on doing their work for them?” What an accusation to those on the Government Front Bench, whose party we have supported on many occasions, and to the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, with whom I have friendship but who has not grasped this issue for us, despite what we said the last time around.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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I congratulate the hon. Member on being called to speak early in the debate. Does he accept that it is not just Sinn Féin that cares about the Irish language or the protection of minority languages and cultures?

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I accept that. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) explained very well where her party stands on this issue. I will speak from my Ulster Scots point of view and from the Unionism that I represent in this House and in the constituency of Strangford.

The fact is that a large proportion of people in Northern Ireland feel that this Bill is nothing more than a sop to Sinn Féin, and that the losers will not be simply the Unionist population, whose culture and heritage will be in second place legislatively; people will lose financially, because the money for this could be used to pay for an additional midwife on shift to assist the safe delivery of babies, an extra surgeon to perform a cataract operation, or an extra classroom assistant to help a special needs child to achieve their potential.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The Bill does not reflect the terms agreed in New Decade, New Approach—in fact, it goes well beyond them. The Sinn Féin hand in the Northern Ireland Office is all over this. The NIO’s default position is always to give Sinn Féin what Sinn Féin cannot get in negotiations. It is unfortunate that when Ministers are appointed to the NIO, they seem to accept that default position, so that the NIO seems to be an extension of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Ireland and a voice for Sinn Féin.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I believe that he is absolutely right.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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In a wee second. First let me say that we have real concerns about what is proposed in the Bill. We have had discussions with the Minister of State and the Conservative party, so they can understand our angst and—perhaps—anger. If the Minister has not understood that, by the end of this debate he will clearly understand it.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
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I have clearly understood. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) are two of my best friends in this place, and to hear them speak as they just have is personally very painful. I want to reassure them and say on a slightly lighter note that while they accuse us of being a wing of Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin is perfectly content to tell me that we pander too much to the Democratic Unionist party—

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I suspect that, at the moment, what the Government are doing is about right, given that we appear to be offending all quarters. When I make my speech, I will answer the hon. Member for Strangford as best I can.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Thank you.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
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Just to clarify, I do not know how much the hon. Gentlemen are in touch with the voting public, but believe me, between the two of them, they are driving voters into the arms of Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin Members hardly need to turn up for the debate with all the platforming the hon. Gentlemen are giving them.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I am happy to platform Unionism and more than happy to voice the Unionist opinion, which comes clearly to me from my constituents in Strangford. At the end of the day, we will hear the Minister respond and probably be disappointed—we know what he is likely to say. However, I hope he will listen intently to what we have to say. We are looking for parity under the Bill, and we do not see that.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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My hon. Friend will set out our aspirations in the amendments we have tabled. Those amendments are about getting back to what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. On Second Reading, we heard time and again that the Bill was all about honourably introducing what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. It is not. The three model Bills published at that time differ fundamentally from what we have before us this afternoon. Despite the bonhomie and friendly assurances, the Government have an opportunity to embrace amendments that take us back to what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. Will my hon. Friend encourage the Government to embrace what was agreed and to not set aside what was agreed for the sake of political expediency and at the behest of others?

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I will make that point very clearly. My hon. Friend is right. That is our plea to the Minister. He and I entered this House together in 2010. We were good friends from the very beginning and we still are, but in the spirit of our good friendship, I suggest that we need some understanding of our point of view, and we are not convinced we have that at the moment.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con)
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May I say very politely to the hon. Gentleman that I have had conversations with the Minister of State about the Bill. My hon. Friend understands the Bill and the issues completely; I share his understanding and think the Bill is fine as it is. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me—my hunch is that he will not—that often when people say that somebody does not understand, what they mean is that that person does not agree with them, and until that person does so, they will continue to allege that that person does not understand?

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The hon. Gentleman has a point of view that it will not surprise him and many others to hear I disagree with. When we say the Minister may not understand, we mean that we feel that he has not grasped as we have what the Bill will mean to those of an Ulster Scots persuasion, like me. It is not that we are anti-Irish language. What we want is parity and equality in the Bill. Perhaps the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will appreciate that.

The drive to put a political weaponised language Bill before other needs during this cost of living crisis sends the message to people throughout Ards and North Down—96% of whom have no knowledge of Irish and 12% of whom have Ulster Scots knowledge—that they do not have parity and their needs are not paramount. That is the issue. The Government must carefully consider the messaging, because at the moment it is simply wrong, and if it is wrong, it has to be righted. The Bill is set to go forward regardless of timing, so I will speak to the changes to the Bill that are imperative if it is even to come close to being accepted by the people of the Province.

We all agree that the two commissioners—the Ulster British commissioner and the Irish language commissioner—should be of equal value to their respective communities, and that to secure that goal they should have different functions. Not only have we agreed this; we have insisted on it. In arguing that different commissioners should have different functions, with the objective of their being of equal value to their communities, it is plainly essential that the enforcement powers of both in respect of their different functions should be equally robust in engaging that which they also have in common—exactly the same group of public bodies. There are around 70 of them and the idea is that they follow guidance issued by the two commissioners with respect to their different briefs.

There is a serious problem though. The Bill before us today places a statutory duty on those 70 public bodies to have regard to what the Irish Language commissioner says, but places no such obligation on them to have regard to what the Ulster Scots commissioner says. What is the point of a commissioner whom public bodies can ignore? That is the straight question I put to the Minister of State. In the context of a cost of living crisis, can the Government justify spending money on creating an Ulster Scots commissioner whose representations public bodies can ignore? Why would anyone want the job of a commissioner whom all the public bodies could ignore if they so wish?



What conclusions might people from that community draw about how the Government view the importance, or lack thereof, of the community that the Ulster British commissioner is supposed to serve? They would know that they were less than second class, whereas if they had been denied a commissioner altogether, at least everyone would know that they were being discriminated against, and they would not have to suffer the indignity of being made to look as if they were being treated as equal to the other community, when everybody knows that they are not. Today, the Ulster Scots community is not.

14:00
In the other place, the Government sought to defend their discriminatory treatment on two bases. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) mentioned, they said that the discrimination was in NDNA, but if we look at NDNA, it makes no reference to the provision of a statutory duty to have regard to the Irish language commissioner or the Ulster Scots commissioner. As a matter of common sense, that is implied in the sense that it would be a waste to spend money on creating a commissioner who everyone can ignore—wow. We do not object to the provision of a duty to have regard to the Irish language commissioner, but the lack of provision of a parallel duty to have regard to the Ulster Scots commissioner is completely indefensible on the basis of any sensible reading of NDNA, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East referred to in his intervention.
Secondly, the Government said that the lack of duty to have regard was to compensate for the fact that the Ulster British commissioner has a much wider brief than the Irish language commissioner, which does not even begin to stand up to scrutiny. The Ulster British commissioner is allowed to engage with arts and literature as well as language because there is no desire on the part of the Ulster British community for bilingual Ulster-Scots services, whereas there is a desire on the part of the nationalist community for bilingual services. In that context, it was plain that had the Ulster British community been provided with an Ulster Scots language commissioner, the Unionist community would not have been afforded something of equal value to the nationalist community.
There is real interest within the Ulster Scots community, however, in the Ulster Scots heritage, music, culture, poetry, storytelling and all those things. Ulster Scots is in great abundance in my constituency of Strangford and I would say—my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) might dispute this—it is the core constituency in Northern Ireland where it thrives and does well. As I said on Second Reading, the street names of Ards Borough Council, as it was then, such as Ballywalter for Whitkirk, Ballyhalbert for Talbotstoun, Greyabbey for Greba, and Portavogie for St Andrews, are an example of the Ulster Scots ingredients that we have in the constituency. We also had a sign saying “Fair fae ye to the Ards”, which means “Welcome to the Ards” in Ulster Scots, which was an indication of the depth of usage of the language in my constituency.
In that context, it was determined that while the nationalist community should be afforded an Irish language commissioner, in order for the Unionist community to be given something of equal value, it should be afforded an Ulster Scots commissioner whose remit extended beyond language to art and literature. There are three major difficulties with the notion that it is fair to argue that public bodies should not be subject to a statutory duty to have regard to what the Ulster Scots commissioner says.
First, the notion that Unionism would be favoured if the public bodies were required to have regard to the Ulster Scots commissioner would make sense only if the Unionist community wanted its commissioner to promote bilingualism across the 70-plus public bodies and had a remit covering arts and literature. In that instance, Unionism would have been provided with a commissioner that was of more value to it than the commissioner afforded to nationalism. In that situation, one might have talked about taking something such as enforcement away from the Ulster Scots commissioner to balance things out, but where we are beggars belief.
In reality, things have already been balanced out by the fact that the language function of the Ulster Scots commissioner will be much more limited than the language function of the Irish language commissioner. Having compensated for that extension once, the Government cannot compensate for it again without giving Unionism a commissioner that is of less value to it than the Irish language commissioner is to nationalism.
Secondly, as a matter of practice, far from having a much wider brief than the Irish language commissioner, the Ulster British commissioner has a much narrower brief. To understand why that is the case, one must understand the following. We have 70 public bodies, all of which operate with a language—English. The Irish language commissioner wants them all to operate bilingually. In that case, the nationalist community has a commissioner to engage extensively with all those public bodies. The Ulster Scots commissioner will make far more limited language demands on those same 70 public bodies, because there is no desire for bilingualism.
Thirdly, to compensate for that unequal arrangement, the remit of the Ulster Scots commissioner is extended to apparently make it wider, so that it embraces arts and literature, but while all 70 public bodies operate using a language and could be asked to use another language, only a few of them have functions that might be deemed to have anything to do with arts and literature. Unionists have asked for the Ulster British commissioner to cover heritage and culture, on which point we are supported by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which would have made the remit broader and helped to secure a better balance. That request was rejected, but we have now tabled amendment 29.
The truth is that if we are trying to develop two commissioners who will be of equal value to their different communities by making similarly extensive demands on public bodies and their budgets, it is hard to conceive of a less balanced package. Even if public bodies were subject to the same statutory duty to have regard to the Ulster Scots commissioner as the Irish language commissioner, it is plain that the Ulster British commissioner will make far fewer demands for its community and be of far less value for its community than the Irish language commissioner. For the Government to seek to make things even more unequal by not even requiring public authorities to have regard to the Ulster Scots commissioner beggars belief. I do not know what the Minister will say, but it will have to be something pretty good.
Today is the last chance to put that right, which is why the DUP has tabled amendment 1 to place on public bodies the same duty to have regard as already engages them with respect to the Irish language commissioner. That will not result in overall equal treatment for Unionists, because the remit of the commissioner will still be too narrow due to the limited relevance of art and literature to most public bodies, but it will make things better. It is imperative that the amendment passes today. Even at this late stage, I ask the Minister to review his notes and his recommendations in a way that can address the issue.
In response to my arguments for amendment 1, the Government could point out that Unionists can secure a measure of enforcement, notwithstanding the failure to place on public bodies the duty to have regard to the Ulster Scots commissioner to which they are subject with respect to the Irish language commissioner, courtesy of the right to complain—but we need a lot more than the right to complain. Rather than helping the Government’s position, that move would serve only to weaken it by highlighting yet further effective discrimination against Unionists.
There are two major problems with the notion that the right to complain offsets the lack of duty to have regard—it does not. First, the duty to have regard to the Irish language commissioner, which is placed on public bodies, applies across the full spectrum of the function of the Irish language commissioner, but the right of Unionists to complain only relates to the use of the Ulster Scots language, which, as we have clearly said, is not the priority for Unionism. Through the duty to have regard, therefore, nationalism has been given something far more valuable than the right to complain afforded to Unionism. I am reminded of the quote from “Animal Farm”:
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
We want to be equal with everyone else, and that is what we are choosing.
Secondly, the right to complain also exists for nationalists through the Irish language commissioner, so it is not a unique provision for Unionists. Again, it applies across the full spectrum of the function of the Irish language commissioner, which gives nationalists a set of more meaningful rights than those accorded to Unionists. That is the key issue of our stance and where we are coming from.
Amendments 2 to 5 remedy that situation by providing people with a right to complain about failings by public bodies across the full spectrum of the function of the Ulster Scots commissioner that has been deemed to provide a service of equal value to Unionism as that accorded to nationalism through the Irish language commissioner. Again, however, because the function of the Ulster Scots commissioner cannot actually provide a service of equal value to Unionism as the Irish language commissioner can to nationalism because of the limited relevance of art and literature to most public bodies, these amendments will not completely solve the difficulty, but they will make the current arrangements significantly less offensive.
If the Bill becomes law in its current state, the Ulster-Scots Agency has questioned the extent to which the Ulster British commissioner can be of any substantive value. It seems likely that the legislation will give rise to a situation in which we have an Irish language commissioner who makes extensive demands of public authorities, which involve those public authorities spending significant amounts of public moneys to the benefit of nationalism and which generate extensive public engagement through the right to complain through the commissioner. On the other hand, we have the Ulster Scots commissioner, who can make very limited demands of public authorities, which they will be able to ignore, and who can generate no public engagement through the complaints procedure because Unionists are not interested in complaining about the absence of the use of Ulster Scots in public services. Again, I ask the Minister whether he will at the very least monitor the impact of the legislation, and when it becomes apparent that this is the effect of the legislation, take robust action to fix the problem.
There are many more amendments I would like to speak to, but there is not time. I conclude with great sadness and I ask the Minister this question with all solemnity, dignity and honesty: what has Northern Ireland Unionism done to so upset the Government that they see fit to treat us this way? First, we had a Prime Minister—the Prime Minister has changed—who came to Northern Ireland, promised that there would be no border down the Irish sea, and then went home and imposed a border down the Irish sea. Now we have the way the Government have treated us in relation to the Ulster Scots commissioner.
It is hard not to draw a very painful conclusion, and I say with great sadness in my heart that I look upon the Minister as a friend, but the legislation today is here to punish us. Even at this late stage, I ask the Government to think again.
Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I call the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I was not intending to speak in this debate, but I suddenly realised that I probably owed the Committee a small apology in that I was not able to take part in the Second Reading debate, due to having been called home for a reason.

If I may, I want to put on record my support for the Bill. It has been a long time coming, and I think it is laudable for His Majesty’s Government to bring it forward. Too often, when we have seen agreements that are part of moving the dial on Northern Ireland or of resurrecting the Executive, the agreement is seen as an event that does the trick and then gets forgotten. This was a very key part of New Decade, New Approach and the Government are right to bring it forward.

It will come as no surprise to the hon. Member for Strangford that I do not see the Bill as being an opposed to Unionists, glass half-full, Conservative Government attack, which is how he sees it. If we start from the premise that no Bill is ever perfect, any fair reading of the Bill shows that it effectively addresses the two sides of the same coin in a way that respects two different traditions and the people who have advocated for those traditions. It is an issue that has been too long neglected, and it is wise and right that the Government should do this.

I make the point, which I would certainly have made in my Second Reading speech, that I am a Welshman who attended a Welsh high school, but at a time when South Glamorgan County Council said that Welsh was a dying language, so we learned it for a year and then it was dropped. When I return to Wales, which has seen a renaissance of the Welsh language, I wish I could take part in those conversations, and I feel as though a piece of the cultural jigsaw is missing.

If we are Unionists, we do not have to be uniform. Part of the great strength of our United Kingdom comes from the cultures, the language, the music, the literature, the poetry and all those things that make us such a strong and attractive geopolitical force in the world. One does not have to be uniform to be a Unionist, and we should be celebrating those differences and those traditions.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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Of course, I give way not only to a distinguished former Minister, but to the newest member of my Committee.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I thank the Chair of the Committee, and it is a pleasure to intervene on him. Further to his point, would he agree that Unionists and, indeed, Northern Ireland Presbyterians played an important part in the resurrection of the Irish language in the late 19th century and own some of that culture themselves? It was Unionists who insisted, in the NDNA negotiations, on having the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition commissioner as part of this, and we would of course like DUP politicians to be able to have a more direct say in it. They must do that by getting back into the Executive and back into the Assembly, and they could have delivered this law themselves.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend, as always, is absolutely right. Just as the Welsh language is not owned by Plaid Cymru or Welsh nationalists, so neither is the Irish language so owned. I think it is testimony to the commitment to the history and traditions of our country that Sir Wyn Roberts—the noble Lord Roberts of Conwy, as he then was—put the Welsh Language Act 1993 on the statute book under John Major’s premiership.

14:10
I think the Bill that my hon. Friend the Minister is piloting through the House today follows in the tradition of being so confident in our Unionist skins, and in the underlying strength of the Union, that we see it neither as a sign of weakness nor as a ceding of territory when we champion and provide such platforms for Ulster Scots and for Irish. I would also love to see the Scottish Government do far more in this regard for Scotland—you are looking at me in a very frowny way, Dame Eleanor—and I would like to see additional support for Cornish, which is the only language on mainland GB that has had no real intervention and support.
Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Anyone listening to the speech that the hon. Gentleman has made so far might get the impression that somehow the Irish language is given no status in Northern Ireland at present, that this Bill is requires for that, and that Unionists have been reluctant for that to happen. Does he not accept that hundreds of millions of pounds are already spent on Irish language promotion in Northern Ireland—from Irish language broadcasting to Irish language education, Irish language street names and Irish language festivals? We already spend money on a whole range of things, so it is not right to give the impression that there is not promotion or facilities for people to speak Irish, learn Irish and appreciate their Irish culture.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman enjoys all of those things that he has set out to the Committee that relate to the Irish language, but that was not the point I was making. It was about official recognition, status and the underpinning via the commissioners in this Bill, which I hope will not be amended—I say that to the supporters of all the different amendments. I hope the Bill goes through unamended and that they will not press those amendments to a vote. This is about the status and the role of the commissioners, which I think will help with the delivery of New Decade, New Approach. This Bill is important to a lot of people, and I support it.

Let me close by reiterating this point. The hon. Member for Strangford can make many criticisms of the Bill—this is a democratic House, and we are entitled to support and criticise as much as we like. However, the Committee will know that my hon. Friend the Minister and I are not necessarily known for being on the same page of the same hymn book at the same time—very often, we are singing entirely different hymns in entirely different keys, but at precisely the same time during the same service—so when unanimity breaks out between us, I am not quite suggesting that the bunting should be put out, but I think it is something we should note.

Frankly, I think it is unfair of the hon. Member for Strangford to say that my hon. Friend the Minister does not understand the Bill. If there is one thing we know about my hon. Friend, it is that he reads every document put before him, as a Minister, as chairman of the European Research Group and as a Back Bencher. He is annoyingly knowledgeable about the minutiae—my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who served with him in the Department for Exiting the European Union, nods in a way that shows the scars are just about healing. To suggest that the Minister does not understand the legislation he is bringing to the Committee is a totally unfair attack on him.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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This of course is not about friendships; it is about actions and about what is right. What is not right in this Bill is that the Ulster Scots commissioner has not been given parity with the Irish language commissioner, and the issue for us is to have parity. If it is going to be right, let us have it right in every sense of the word. This is not about friendships, or about being bosom buddies again; it is about getting it right.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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The hon. Gentleman misconstrues what I am saying. My support for the Bill is not based upon the fact that the Minister is an hon. Friend in party political terms. I heard the hon. Gentleman say that the Minister does not understand the Bill and that the Government, whom I am proud to support, seem hellbent on appeasing people who are in a politically different place from him. He suggested that the Minister was kowtowing, if one will, to a Sinn Féin agenda.

I have suffered some unfair and untrue brickbats from hon. Members over the time I have chaired the Committee. I say politely to the hon. Member for Strangford that it has to stop. This is New Decade, New Approach, and the Government are trying to move things forward with fairness and equity, respect and support for all of those whom the Government recognise as citizens of the United Kingdom. That is the central mission. That is what underpins New Decade, New Approach. That is the bedrock of the Bill. It has my wholehearted support.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Dame Eleanor, for calling me in the debate. Its focus has already tended to drift towards the issue of language, but the Bill is about identity and language. I want to comment specifically on identity and the amendments that affect that.

Identity is a pithy matter. It is not so easily defined, and it affects us all in very different ways. Dame Eleanor, you have been to my constituency on many occasions. You will know that if you go to the townlands of Dunseverick or Ballintoy and raise your eyes to the horizon across the great Dalriada bay, first and foremost you will see Scotland—the outlan of your home nation. At the same time, standing in that part of my constituency, Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, is almost 70 miles away. The capital city of the Republic of Ireland, Dublin, is about 160 miles away—some might say that it is 160 light years away. The identity of that part of my constituency, which infuses itself in the people of my constituency and those of that northern corner of Ulster, is a strange mix of Ulster and Scot; an identity that is unique.

If we are to deal with the protection of an identity, we need to get back to what the law states. The law in Northern Ireland is about protecting heritage, culture and equality; it is not a single-minded thing just about language.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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Of course, I give way to another Ulster Scot.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
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It is not just something that is contemporary. The view from the Glens of Antrim is beautiful, but the kingdom of Dalriada used to cover much of Scotland; it was both Ulster and Scotland. Historically, that culture and identity is embedded in the DNA of the people. What I find most offensive is that the Bill does not reflect the historic significance of my Ulster Scots, Ulster British heritage and culture, and it does not afford it adequate protection.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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I thank my right hon. Friend for that point, which he makes powerfully.

When we deal with identity in this framework, we are dealing with equality law, we are dealing with equal rights, and we are dealing with something that has an impact across the whole of this kingdom, because it is about a person’s individual and community perspective. That enforces who and what we are. It is nebulous; it is shadows; but it is who and what we are, in terms of our identity. That cannot just be written down, with the Government saying, “We will give so many millions to the Irish language and so many millions to this other thing, and then we will have protected everyone.” That is not how equality legislation should work. It should be much more thoughtful and detailed.

If we are to take a perspective only on the language issue, according to the latest census in Northern Ireland, the language spoken by 95.3% of people is English. The next largest language is spoken by 1.1% of people in Northern Ireland, and that is Polish. There are no protections in our law for that. The next language, at 0.49%, is Lithuanian. There are no protections outlined about that. We come to the Irish language, spoken by 0.32% of the population, followed closely behind by Portuguese on 0.27%. So if we are to characterise this as a matter of language protection, let us protect the Polish language in Northern Ireland and the Polish people, who make a major contribution to employment. Let us identify and protect those cultures that are actually under threat, not cultures that are emboldened in certain ways by money and resources that appear to many to be unending. That is what the Bill should really be addressing, if it is about language protection.

When we come into this building through Westminster Hall, we pass under that marvellous window—the rights, equality and liberties window—that faces the portrait of Moses. That window contains representations of scrolls, and each and every one of those scrolls signifies disability rights and equality rights—I know that the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), is not interested in any of this—and all the legislation that the House has made on emancipation, the right to vote, and women’s rights and liberties. If we in the House are to make a piece of legislation to deal with equality in a part of this kingdom, we should ensure that it is fit for purpose. The reason why there is a screed of amendments on the amendment paper is because the Bill is not fit for purpose as equality legislation. It is severely damaged, and it would not reinforce the rights and liberties of the people we have talked about.

I think that the Minister expects Unionists just to vote for the Bill, to accept it and to swallow it down. In the negotiations that he hosted, I discussed the issue with him. Other Members of the House will not vote for it. They will not be compelled to vote for it or be under any pressure whatsoever to vote for it because they do not come through the door to the Chamber, yet the Minister will hand them issues that address a lot of their rights and concerns. They are entitled to have those concerns, but that damages and demeans the issues that I have put on the agenda and in Hansard today.

The starting point for me is this: if the Bill is already broken, at what points is it not fit for purpose? Let us take New Decade, New Approach. The Chair of the Select Committee was quick to point to that as the starting point, the refresh and where we are supposed to be. Actually, the Bill breaches what was outlined in “New Decade, New Approach”. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) went into some detail, and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), in an intervention, identified where some of the breaches are. Where a negotiation has taken place on what a Bill should say and do, we are used to seeing that Bill reflect the New Decade, New Approach agreement. But this Bill is completely at variance with the issues negotiated and put into New Decade, New Approach. That is why the Bill is not fit for purpose. No matter where one stood on New Decade, New Approach, that is what the Bill is supposed to represent. As a House, we should collectively take offence when we are told, “This Bill represents what was in New Decade, New Approach.” It is pretty obvious that it does not—it just doesn’t. That is the point that the Minister needs to address. In the same way that the Belfast-Good Friday agreement has been breached by the protocol arrangements, New Decade, New Approach has been breached by the Bill. That is the problem. That is why Unionists are agitated about this and why it should be fixed.

14:30
Over the past years, I have been used to hearing lots of people saying that they want to protect the terms of the Belfast agreement, but they are silent when Unionists rightly argue that that applies to all of us. “Here is an issue where there is a breach,” we say, “Let us fix it.” “Oh no, you’re not entitled to that. That’s not your rights. No, our rights are special; yours aren’t”. That is the attitude and the conduct. Maybe that is why there is silence, and will be silence, on the Labour Benches. But I tell the House one thing: if we were accused of breaching the Belfast agreement or New Decade, New Approach, there would be a statement from the White House, a statement from Dublin, a statement from all over the place. You would not be able to hear Unionists above the cacophony of noise coming from that chorus of usual suspects. That is what we would face under those circumstances. This House needs to address the issue of how the Bill breaches the New Decade, New Approach arrangement.
New Decade, New Approach had a very wide scope—I will elaborate on this—on Ulster Scots. For example, the commissioner would have powers to extend his or her full remit over the human rights treaties that have been agreed. Essentially, there were no restrictions on what the commissioner could do—they could protect the heritage, the culture and the identity of a community. But that has now been watered down to deal only with certain issues to do with language, arts and literature. The Bill does not address the real depth and detail that was specified in New Decade, New Approach. Why is that, Minister? Please explain. Why is the Bill so narrow when the expanse of the negotiations was so broad? It is as if the only thing that matters is a couple of wee poems that an Ulster Scot person has written, or a nice piece of art that will not really offend anyone, or a mural. But the heritage, the culture, the thing that makes us a people? “Oh, you’re not having that protected—your rights. If you ever become a minority in Northern Ireland”—as some people say we are—“see if that happens, but you’re not having that protected. But you have your wee artwork and your wee bits of language. Well, that’s okay.” That is the essence of why this breach is the point.
Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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Even those are not protected. The powers of the commissioner are to give guidance, not direction, as is the case with the Irish language.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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I thank my right hon. Friend for making that very important point about the powers of the commissioner, which was going to be my next point.

Far be it from me to hand out any advice to nationalists, but if I was a nationalist, I would want to try to satisfy Unionists on this point. I would not want to laugh at them, as appears to be the attitude—

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Laughing and pouring scorn on their identity leaves Unionists—[Interruption.] “I’m laughing at you, not what you’re saying”—so you’re laughing at a people and at a community—is the barrow-boy response that comes back. I do not say those things. I have a very good record of not saying those things. I cherish people’s identity. What makes me strong as a Unionist is that I can have my identity and understand someone else’s. I love—not despise—the diversity that is there. It is the diversity that makes us strong. That is the point that the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) should dwell on when he speaks later on. No doubt he will.

The issue—this is the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made—is about having due regard in terms of the commissioner. That is the point of the authority of the commissioner. The commissioner that will deal with the identity that matters most to me will effectively be powerless and emasculated from day one, unable to make a single ruling that must be taken care of or noted.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
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The reality is that under the office of identity there are a number of principles set out about how identity should be respected. The office can monitor how those principles are being adhered to and report to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absurd to believe that the current make-up of the Assembly will offer any comfort when the same Assembly, during the jubilee year of her late Majesty the Queen and the centenary year of Northern Ireland, refused to allow us to put up a little rock in the grounds of Stormont, a little stone, to commemorate the fact that Northern Ireland was 100 years old? It refused to allow us to plant a rose to mark the jubilee of her Majesty the Queen, yet the Minister expects us to have confidence that the same Assembly will protect our identity when it will not even allow us to mark our identity in that way.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend really drives home the point. The problem is that it is not one or two minor encroachments; it is a catalogue and the catalogue is growing. It is not as if it has diminished in time and these were examples from years ago. These are examples at some of the most key moments in our identity as a people: when we celebrate the jubilee of her late Majesty and when we celebrate the historic foundation of the state we cherish. When those things are threatened in the immediate past, I agree wholeheartedly with the point made so powerfully by my right hon. Friend. Under the Bill, the Government and the authorities in Northern Ireland will be obliged to listen to and direct people by one side, but they can ignore the other. If anyone on the Government Benches or the Opposition Benches thinks that that is a sensible way to address this issue, they really need to tell us how, because it just will not work. That is, and will continue to be, a recipe for disaster.

We should expand the protection of culture and heritage, because we are only going to protect one tiny part. As was outlined in the St Andrews agreement and later put into law, as section 28D of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, the Government are duty bound—Minister, I would really like you to answer this point—to “adopt a strategy” and proposals that “enhance and develop” heritage and culture. It does not say anything about language. It talks about heritage and culture, which embrace language and all those things. The law is telling us that we should have protections that develop our heritage and culture, yet the Bill will limit our heritage and culture, and any protections that will be put on them.

Members have already identified the vast resources that are spent on identity and language in Northern Ireland, and the balance is very much out of kilter—extremely so. In fact, it is through the floor on one side and through the ceiling on the other. That is how out of kilter it is. Until that issue of resourcing is properly addressed, the Bill will be unfit for purpose. Minister, I would like to see proposals and protections for my identity. I would like to see them genuinely put in place. Until that happens, the Bill will be a travesty.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Go raibh míle maith agat, Dame Eleanor. I rise to proudly support the Bill and I welcome the fact that it is back before us so quickly. I confess that I had some hope that another Bill may well be here today as well, but that does not seem to have materialised yet.

It would be useful to reference some of the comments that have been made about the Northern Ireland Office. Frankly, I have a lot of criticism to make of the Northern Ireland Office, as many Members have, but the new Minister has hit the ground in many ways through his engagement, so all credit to him. Let us be clear, however, that the Northern Ireland Office is doing only two things.

First, it is doing its best to faithfully implement what was agreed by the Northern Ireland parties in New Decade, New Approach, including by my colleagues on the DUP Benches. We had extensive or, dare I say it, tortuous negotiations—I stress that word “tortuous”—over two or three years to try to get some way forward on language and culture issues, so that we could get our institutions restored and they could get down to work. That comes from the history of there being little progress on the language issue since St Andrews. It is important that we do our best today to faithfully implement what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. Time has moved on and there are issues, which is why I am supporting some of the amendments. However, we need to be cautious about doing anything that unpicks what was agreed, because there was a carefully balanced compromise at that stage.

Secondly, I stress that it is regrettable that this House has to do the work to put this into law. The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive had the chance to do that, notwithstanding covid, over the previous two and a half years, but that opportunity was not taken up. That process would have allowed much more scrutiny and a whole range of interest groups to tease out the issues.

I will focus primarily on amendment 1, which has tended to dominate much of the debate. It is important that we do our best here—I know it will be difficult—to separate language and culture from Unionism and nationalism as political identities. They are not the same. We often—sometimes lazily—end up in that position, but that does not really address the subtleties around language and culture in Northern Ireland, where we have a shared heritage. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) referred to Dál Riata, the kingdom that spanned the northern part of the island of Ireland and Scotland, but he also referred to Ballintoy, a town name that has an Irish root. Surnames, townland names and the names of towns and villages across Northern Ireland reflect the different language roots. There are many, many names, including in many places that would be perceived as being dominated by Unionists and Protestants, that have those Irish origins.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for making that point, because that diversity is there every single day of the week. Ballymena in my constituency is the middle town—the middle place—in the area. That is what it means: the middle part. I embrace those things as they are part and parcel of the identity of our culture and our country. I emphasise that this is not about despising something, but about making sure that if we are going to legislate on it, we get it right. The Bill fails to meet the New Decade, New Approach agreement, as I hope he agrees. No matter what side of the argument someone is on, it fails to meet it.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I disagree; I think that the Bill is a good, honest attempt at getting these proposals over the line. Frankly, we need to move on, get this done and get it into law.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for giving me a useful opportunity to make this point. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) talked about embracing diversity. That is wonderful language. In Derry, since we got rid of the old Derry Corporation, we got proper democracy into local government after the civil rights movement, and we have been embracing diversity in Derry. We have all the old Unionist and British symbols still up in the Guildhall. We have added new ones that represent other traditions, such as the one that I represent. We have also done power sharing since the beginning of that council’s inception. The Social Democratic and Labour party had the most seats, but we had a Unionist deputy mayor and we had Unionist mayors over many years. The council in the area that the hon. Member for North Antrim represents has not had a nationalist mayor or deputy mayor since its inception. Does the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) think that that is acceptable or that it embraces diversity?

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. It did take the use of the d’Hondt method in councils to get diversity moving, although the council in question, which has been in the news somewhat—rather controversially—over the past number of months now has an Alliance mayor, so hopefully that is progress to an extent.

14:45
It is important to make the point that we should cherish diversity in Northern Ireland and that it is a crossover, cross-cutting issue. To stress that point, I will mention two individuals who have been very active on language issues. On the Irish language, there is Linda Ervine in east Belfast, who comes from a Unionist background. There is also Liam Logan in my North Down constituency—I am not sure whether he is a current member of the SDLP, but he certainly is a former member and candidate for the SDLP—who is a well-known advocate for Ulster Scots and has been broadcast on Radio Ulster many times in relation to that language.
The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) mentioned heritage and how Ulster Presbyterians—as well as Irish Presbyterians—were heavily involved in the revival of the Irish language towards the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century. There is a shared heritage. The problem has been that, in recent times, the language has, wrongly, become politicised and people have been forced into different camps. That is not where we should be and I hope—that may well be naive, although I trust not—that the Bill may well be a fresh start in how we embrace the language issue in Northern Ireland.
Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is a good and fair man, as I know because I am on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee as well. However, there must be something that is worrying our friends in the DUP. They are all concerned about this and, rightly, we have to try to alleviate those concerns. That is quite proper and I hope very much that we can do that.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
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I want to listen to reasoned arguments. Some of the DUP amendments may well have merit, but I am dubious about amendment 1 for a detailed reason, which I will mention.

I also want to address the points about Polish, Lithuanian and other languages needing greater attention. It is important to move beyond that argument, which is often thrown up. The reason that the Bill is before us is not about facilitating the use of language and people who face a barrier to understanding. It is about respecting, embedding and celebrating the indigenous languages of the island of Ireland, particularly the northern part. We should, of course, do work in parallel with that to ensure that we properly integrate people with other European and global languages into our society, but it is important that Members do not fall into the trap of trying to conflate the two and diminish what we are trying to achieve with the Bill. It is also important that we celebrate the language as being cross-cutting and to recognise that Unionism and nationalism are not monolithic in Northern Ireland. There are many other traditions. There are people who have moved away from those traditions and people who share both those traditions. We need to celebrate all that in our life in Northern Ireland.

At times, this debate has drifted into the Bill being somehow a threat to Unionism and the British identity in Northern Ireland.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
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With the greatest respect to the hon. Member, no DUP Member has said what he just suggested. We are saying that the Bill does not adequately protect our identity and culture. We are not saying that the Bill is the threat, but that it does not adequately protect them. We have explained why and I wish that he would sometimes actually listen to what Unionists are saying, instead of being so dismissive.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
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With all due respect, I have been listening. People are entitled to look back through Hansard to see exactly what was said, but the tenor of many comments that have been made today is that this is some sort of slippery slope, where the British-Ulster identity is being eroded and is under threat, and that there is no protection for it and people are fearful for the future. We have to embrace a shared and integrated future in Northern Ireland. That is the only way forward.

The Bill also needs to be considered in line with the wider human rights and equality architecture in Northern Ireland. It is not about protecting two different traditions in Northern Ireland, but about language and culture, which are separate issues. We already have extensive equality protections in various legislation; I think we should have a single equality Bill to better embed them.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
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It is the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill—identity, not culture.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
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Yes, but identity is not something that we should see in a polarised way. That is the point that I am trying to stress. Let us focus on languages and on the identity that goes with them. Let us see them not as monolithic or as the sole preserve of one side of the community or the other, but as something that is shared across the board.

The framing of the Bill, with different approaches to the Irish language and to Ulster Scots, reflects the different uses of those languages and the different demands from sectors. It also reflects the different ways in which the UK Government have embedded them in the wider European and international human rights framework around languages. The UK Government ratified the European charter for regional or minority languages with respect to Irish and Ulster Scots in 2001, but Ulster Scots was ratified only in relation to part 2 of the charter, whereas Irish was ratified in relation to parts 2 and 3. That gives some indication of the pre-existing differential approach that has fed through into the New Decade, New Approach agreement and into the Bill.

We must ensure that we do not end up creating duties and expectations that are not actually being sought. Equally, we must not magnify what is already there and build it up into some sort of trope or threat to change the complexion and nature of areas. I have to say that a lot of fear has been whipped up about what the Bill’s provisions will do to the characteristics of some areas, which I do not think stands up to any scrutiny whatever.

One of the trade-offs in the negotiations behind New Decade, New Approach was that what is being done in relation to Irish is seen in perhaps a narrower sense around language, whereas the demand in relation to Ulster Scots was to do things on a much wider basis and over a wider range of areas. We do not talk about the Irish identity in the same way that we talk about the Irish language in the Bill, or in the same way that we have added the Ulster British identity to the Ulster Scots language. Already, in the framing of the terminology, we are not seeing a like-for-like comparison. Once again, that illustrates a differential approach in the legislation.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
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The hon. Member touches on an important point. I am not prepared to have my aspiration determined and defined by the aspirations of others. If the key demand of nationalists is that the Bill do what it does for the Irish language, that is their right, but at no stage during the NDNA negotiations did we ever suggest that our aspiration for this legislation was limited to language. We made it absolutely clear that it was not limited to Ulster Scots; it was about protecting our Ulster British heritage, culture and identity. Why does the hon. Member feel that his Unionist constituents in North Down should have their aspiration limited to conform to the aspirations of others who have limited their demand to language? We never did so. We were clear about what we sought to achieve. I therefore think that the hon. Member does not understand, and does not seek to understand, where we are coming from.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
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I am grateful to the right hon. Member for his comments, but I fear he has misunderstood what I am saying. I am not attacking the Bill in that respect; I am pointing out that there is already an in-built differential. What happened in relation to the Irish language was focused more narrowly on language and arguably went deeper in that respect, whereas what happened in relation to Ulster Scots and Ulster British is wider in NDNA and in the legislation, but does not go quite as deep. That is the fundamental differential—one is deeper, one is wider—and that is perfectly fine.

I am not seeking to diminish anything or remove anything from the Bill. I simply make the point that in the Irish language aspects there is not the same reference to the equivalent of an Ulster British identity. That reflects the different demands in the negotiations and confirms my point that what we have before us was hammered out extensively in negotiations over several years. All the arguments that hon. Members—the few of us who are here—are hearing today have been rehearsed many, many times. Very little has been said that is particularly new.

Let me move on from amendment 1 and touch briefly on some others. Amendment 6 addresses the use of the word “sensitivities”—a word that I think the Government should reflect on removing from the Bill. As the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) outlined, the qualifier for someone’s use of their rights should be someone else’s rights, as it is in international and domestic human rights law. “Sensitivities” is a very subjective term, and its use could be seen as implying that not liking what someone is saying or doing, in terms of culture, is a reason to intervene and stop it happening. The criterion for stopping something happening should not be simply whether someone is offended, but whether someone’s rights are infringed.

It would be a nice gesture if the public authority duty were extended to the Northern Ireland Office, not least because the new Minister of State is very active in Northern Ireland. If the Bill is good enough for public authorities in the devolved space, it should be good enough for the NIO, at least in terms of how it operates within Northern Ireland.

Amendment 13 concerns safeguards. Regretfully, I have to say that it is necessary to have an assurance that if there is no progress on the appointment of an Irish language commissioner, the Northern Ireland Office may need to intervene. The same applies to the publication of standards. My wish is for the devolved structures to be restored and to make quick progress on appointments and the approval of standards, but regretfully I must say that evidence from the past two and a half years or more and from what has been said today does not fill me with optimism that will happen. I have spoken to the Minister and I fully appreciate that it is not the Government’s intention to come in with a heavy hand, but it may well be necessary.

My final point relates to the Castlereagh Foundation. I have no issue with the foundation being referred to in the Bill along with the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression. The fact that we have the office reflects how the Bill is engaging with language and identity issues in Northern Ireland; it is broader than what we are doing with respect to the Irish and Ulster Scots languages. It is important to have proper transparency. I must point out to the Minister the lack of transparency in the appointments process whenever the advisory panel was put in place in relation to the Castlereagh Foundation. I seek assurances from him that that will not be the practice in future.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP)
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You will know, Dame Eleanor, as we know, that Northern Ireland works best when our communities feel fairly treated. Our amendments are about offering that fairness to those with a Unionist background. They do not disadvantage those who genuinely cherish the Irish language. Instead, they are about ensuring that the provisions both on Irish and on Ulster British and Ulster Scots are equitable and can truly be described as fair by all, and that no identity recognised by the Bill can be seen through any prism as having any “for one” advantage.

Unamended, the Bill will be rejected by the Unionist community. We will reject it because the Bill places the community’s Ulster British and Ulster Scots identity on a plinth below that on which Irish language is placed. That is not the basis for successful consensus legislation, but the foundation for division, mistrust and agitation.

We have sought to engage positively with the Minister of State to address these concerns. It is a matter of deep regret that despite warm words, he has indicated that he will endorse this inequality. That is regrettable, but reflective of the trajectory to which officials in the Northern Ireland Office remain wedded when faced with Unionist concerns.

15:00
The Minister needs to understand one thing, however. On Second Reading, I made it clear that as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement, those who are making the birthday cake cannot start removing the key ingredients. Cross-community consent, the devolution settlement and parity of esteem all seem to be being slowly but surely eroded from the way in which Northern Ireland is approached by this Government, and, indeed, by the cheerleaders for the agreement. The Bill is a perfect example of that approach. At the same time, the Minister must grasp the fact that if the Government are not faithful to their commitments in “New Decade, New Approach”, this party will see NDNA as dead. He will understand all too well what that means for the restoration of devolved government. Our amendments can remedy that—they can prevent such a situation from ensuing—and I hope that the House will support amendments that can avert such an unsatisfactory outcome.
That leads me to amendment 20, tabled by my colleagues and me. The matters addressed in the Bill are devolved issues, and they ought to be dealt with if and when a new Executive are formed. What we have, however, is a remarkable overreach in terms of the powers bestowed on the Secretary of State in this regard. I believe that the Government cannot credibly oppose other amendments to the Bill on the basis that they deviate from the terms of New Decade, New Approach, while at the same time granting the Secretary of State unprecedented powers which denigrate the need for cross-community consent and cut across devolved competencies.
The Government may view these as dormant measures that will be activated only in extreme circumstances, but that is not the effect they will have. These powers will have a corrosive effect on relationships within the Executive, and will amount to an invitation to either the First or the Deputy First Minister not to seek agreement and instead to lobby the Government to intervene unilaterally. This sets an unhelpful precedent, and follows hard on the heels of the decision of previous Governments to override Ministers in areas such as abortion and the implementation of the protocol. The Government should not make themselves hostage to the manufactured grievance factory of Sinn Féin or any other parties.
We saw that this issue was weaponised for three years to block the restoration of an Executive in Northern Ireland. The hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and for North Down (Stephen Farry) stood shoulder to shoulder with those who demanded no return of Stormont until this issue was addressed.
Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
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Will the hon. Member give way?

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart
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No, I will not.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
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Will the hon. Member retract that?

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart
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I will not retract what I have said. It is absolutely correct: you stood shoulder to shoulder during the time when the Executive were pulled down by Sinn Féin at the behest of its demands. The same political activists will adopt the same approach should they not be appeased again. Like many others, there is little faith in the Northern Ireland Office's ability to withstand such demands. That is a road to further instability and division in our Province.

Intertwined with this issue is the role of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and in that context we have tabled amendments 26, 27 and 28. These amendments underline the importance of political accountability and consensual ministerial agreement in the exercise of the functions of the headline offices and bodies established by the Bill. The two commissioners and the director of the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression will ultimately be appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers. Compliance with guidance or directions mutually agreed by those Ministers must therefore be a defining feature of their operation. We would point out that the wording “must comply” is drawn word for word from the three draft Bills published in the aftermath of “New Decade, New Approach”. The existing drafting in this Bill reneges on that provision, emphasising the power to direct rather than the duty to comply.

There is an urgent need to place consensus working and cross-community protections at the heart of our politics. That is the key to the parity of esteem that all parties claim to value and cherish. As I have said before, it is ignored in the Bill, and the Government have the opportunity to address that.

Amendment 1 and amendments 2 to 5 address the duty to have regard to Ulster Scots guidance, and the current imbalance in the enforceability and robustness of the functions of the commissioner for the Ulster British Ulster Scots tradition in comparison with those specified in the Bill empowering the Irish language commissioner. The amendments, if accepted, would extend the grounds on which a complaint can be brought to the commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition to cover the conduct of public authorities in relation to all the guidance that they issue. Importantly, it would deliver parity of esteem by applying a due-regard duty for advice and guidance to the Ulster British Ulster Scots commissioner comparable with that which applies to the Irish language commissioner. The Bill, as currently drafted, creates an office for Ulster British Ulster Scots in which the commissioner can be ignored. With no binding duty or incentive for public bodies to adhere to recommendations from the commissioner, the likely impact of such a commissioner is seriously restricted. To the Unionist community, such a toothless tiger is not acceptable. We will not be bought off with the image of a commissioner with the substance of a ghost.

It is window dressing to expand the scope of the Ulster Scots commissioner to arts and literature but not to include guidance issued in those areas as eligible for the purposes of complaints. Limiting the scope to language is not fair or balanced. It has always been recognised that in order for the Unionist community to be afforded a commissioner who is of equal value to it as the Irish language commissioner is to the nationalist community, it must have a broader focus than language, because the development of bilingual service provision in Ulster Scots has never been a priority for Unionists. If adding arts and literature to the scope of the commissioner was deemed necessary by the Government to offset the risk of the added value for Irish language trumping Ulster Scots, it follows that the parameters of the complaint’s mechanism should also be extended.

Amendments 21 and 22 seek to right a failure in the Bill as drafted relating to the Castlereagh Foundation. The amendments tabled by my party colleagues in the other place would have required the Secretary of State to take action and establish the foundation. The eventual provisions to be enacted are ambiguous and provide an escape clause for the Government to farm out the function to an outside body without a clear explanation.

Throughout my comments, I have cited instances in which there is a departure from NDNA, and we see this once again in relation to the Castlereagh Foundation. The NDNA obligation on the Government to fund the foundation is precisely that: an obligation on the Government. We do not believe it would be appropriate to vest this power on the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression irrespective of whether it is deemed an operationally independent branch. Moreover, the change ushered in by the Lords does not go far enough in respect of funding and establishment. It is not appropriate for clause 8 to rest as merely a permissive power which the Secretary of State may or may not use.

Let me now deal with our amendments relating to cost to the public purse. Amendments 31 to 35—again, in the names of my colleagues and me—address the fact that there is currently no mechanism in the Bill to ensure transparency and accountability with regard to public spending on each of the bodies and officers established. It would be wholly wrong for one office to run at a disproportionate cost to the other in fulfilling its duties. The existence of such a mechanism is therefore vital to ensuring parity of esteem between the various traditions.

An indicative £9 million is stipulated in the explanatory notes in relation to the establishment and operation of the two commissioners and the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression. However, there is no equivalent assessment of the likely financial implications for public authorities of having to give due regard to Irish language best practice standards and respond to advice on Ulster Scots. This is alarming: it is alarming for councils, who are looking at double-digit rate rises on hard-pressed householders; it is alarming for housing associations and our Housing Executive, who have record waiting lists and a homelessness epidemic to address; and it is alarming for our health trusts, who face unprecedented pressures.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I rise to reinforce what my hon. Friend says about councils. Newry, Mourne and Down District Council enforced Irish language signage in Saintfield town against the wishes of the people there. That is an example of pushing something that local people do not want.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart
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At a significant cost, no doubt, to the ratepayer.

Ultimately, in the delivery of visible and frontline public services, the measure will mean substantive added cost. The new Prime Minister has been elected on his handling of the public finances; let us have some management of public money in this Bill.

The last amendment I will address is amendment 29. This amendment would revise and expand the functions of the commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition. The commissioner would be responsible for developing the language, culture and heritage associated with the tradition, reflecting the body of established work and existing human rights law. It is clear that all of the 70-plus public authorities engaged by the legislation provide services using a language and that the bilingual objective of an Irish language commissioner is such that they could all logically receive guidance from the Irish language commissioner. By contrast, the fact that there is no objective or duty for the 70-plus public authorities to operate bilingually using the Ulster Scots language means that the comparative engagement by the Ulster Scots Ulster British tradition commissioner will be far less. The addition of “arts and literature” is likely only to result in a slight increase in guidance for Ulster Scots. Thus a fundamental inequality remains. In this context, the case for widening the scope of the Ulster Scots Ulster British tradition commissioner to “heritage and culture” is very strong. Such a function is more likely to cut across the 70-plus bodies and have a more substantive impact for the Unionist community.

Colleagues have addressed other amendments and I am sure some will be picked up in the winding-up remarks. I urge the Government and the Minister to take heed of our desire to make this Bill better by making it consistent with NDNA, and consistent with the principles that lie at the heart of our political process around cross-community consent. I ask the Minister to seize the opportunity and to support our amendments.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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First, I want to make it clear that, although the Bill was part of the NDNA agreement, the priority given to this issue at this time will bemuse many in Northern Ireland, and I suspect many in this House as well. A Government who say we have to tighten public expenditure and cut the number of quangos then promote a Bill which will have substantial costs attached to it and will set up three more quangos. At this particular time, people will ask whether that is a wise move.

I could understand it if the issues we are addressing today were being totally ignored in public policy in Northern Ireland, but they are not. As I pointed out in an intervention, the Irish language already attracts substantial public funds, and those who wish to speak the Irish language have lots of opportunities to learn it, speak it, promote it and enjoy it in Northern Ireland, running to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.

15:15
Irish language schools are opened with a fraction of the number of pupils that would see a state school, a voluntary school or Catholic maintained school closed, so there is preferential treatment in the promotion of Irish language in education. A substantial amount of money goes into Irish language broadcasting, too. I do not know how many people listen to the BBC programmes, broadcast at prime times, in the Irish language, but I suspect there are not too many, yet substantial public money goes into that.
Where people wish to have Irish street names in Northern Ireland, they can have them—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, sometimes even where they do not want them nationalist councils will impose them at substantial funding. And of course Irish language festivals are granted substantial amounts of money every year.
So the idea that the Irish language is not well catered for in Northern Ireland is wrong. I have nothing against it. Indeed I think I am one of the few Unionist MPs who have done this: when approached by members of the Irish language community to promote a book in my constituency, where there are Irish language speakers, I hired the facility from the council and got the leaflets out. Some keen Irish language speakers attended—very few, I have to say, even though there are a substantial number in my constituency, apparently—and the author of the book was more than thankful that a Unionist had helped facilitate this in a Unionist community. So I am not against people speaking Irish, but I do question whether it should have the priority it has.
I want to make something very clear. We are not erecting a building that is fixed; we are planting a tree today. And we are not planting a slow-growing beech tree; we are planting a fast-growing leylandii language tree, which will absorb huge amounts of public money over time, and unfortunately it will not be possible to apply the high hedges legislation to it because the commissioner will be able to stop anyone trying to cut it down to size. We must bear that in mind.
My second general point is that this legislation was part of the NDNA initiative. It was designed to get the Assembly up and running again. Many commitments were made in that, and the commitments made in respect of this particular aspect have been well overstepped. I am not blaming the Minister for that; I know that he is not too amused by me making some criticism of him, but personal friends do criticise each other now and again, especially when they are wrong.
Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker
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Just let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that he should not worry about it; we will talk about it over a cup of tea.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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I assure the Minister that I am not worried about it, just in case he thought I was. But he must ask why and how did this get changed? Who changed it? Who took the initiative to change the terms of the Bill we now have before us? I have to say that I stand by the points I have made, because I have made them time and again, and Unionists are frustrated with the Northern Ireland Office, whose default position seems to be that if Sinn Féin wants something, it has got to be given, for whatever reason.

What we can be sure of is that some of the changes have been made not at the behest of Unionists, not even in compliance with what was agreed during New Decade, New Approach, but because of the whisperings that something that could not be achieved in negotiations should be delivered in another way. That is why I take exception to this, and I am angry at the Minister, because he has had spelled out to him the dangers and the imbalances that lie in the Bill and the way in which it is going to promote not unity or harmony but further division—division that he himself is now accepting and that he might well have to referee and adjudicate on. That is why he has included powers in the Bill that were never originally intended.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
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I will deal with the things that the right hon. Gentleman is raising when I come to my remarks, but I think it has to be said for the benefit of the Committee and the public that, just as he is accusing us of doing whatever Sinn Féin suggests, we are accused of pandering to the DUP by Sinn Féin. I think everybody should take stock and remember that, as was said earlier, this Bill is an attempt faithfully to implement New Decade, New Approach in good faith, and we are only doing it in this House because the Assembly is not up and running. When I get to my remarks, I hope that I will demonstrate to him the sincerity with which I have engaged with his and others’ passionate pleas on this point, and if he would leave just a little room in his rage for me to respond at the end, I would be grateful.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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I would be interested to hear how the Minister has pandered to the DUP on this Bill. We have highlighted that what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach is not in it and we have shown him where the imbalances are, and I would like to see where he believes he has balanced towards the point of view that we have expressed in this debate or in the discussions we had with him earlier.

Those are the introductory remarks I want to make. Let me come to some of the amendments and explain why they are necessary. We have asked for an amendment to clause 1, in amendment 27, to ensure that the views of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are taken into account by the commissioners. Why is that necessary? It is necessary for one particular reason: once commissioners are appointed, if there is no accountability and no restraint or rein on those commissioners, they will be able to do what they want without any political accountability. They could recommend and introduce measures that could have huge political consequences and cause massive political division, annoyance and costs. If they are not subject to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly, there will be no restraint on them.

One thing the Minister can be absolutely sure of is that he is not going to get anyone applying for these posts who does not feel strongly about these issues. In fact, these posts are going to attract people who are zealots, who believe in what they are being asked to do and who want to promote what they are being asked to promote. If they are left unrestrained, he can be sure that they will be making recommendations, giving guidance and making demands that will cause difficulties to the people who have to adhere to them. And of course they will want to build their impact. That is why it is important that there is some accountability and some political restraint on them. For positions such as these, we cannot allow somebody to be appointed who has no curtailment upon them.

The second amendment I want to address is the one about the powers of the commissioner. It follows from the first amendment that I have spoken about, because not only are we going to have commissioners who will have no political accountability if we do not require them to act in response to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly, but when they obtain those positions, there will be an unequal balance in their powers. The Irish language commissioner can issue guidance, look at best practice, listen to complaints about what people want and then make recommendations to which public bodies will have to show due regard. It is not that the public bodies should do so or might do so; they must do so. They must show due regard to the issues that come from the commissioner’s office. In the case of the Ulster Scots commissioner, there are no such powers. The Ulster Scots commissioner can issue guidance, to which public bodies may or may not show due regard. They might decide to act on it, or they might not. If they do not decide to act on it, people can complain. What will the commissioner do? The commissioner will write a report to say that they have not acted on it.

This becomes even more important when one asks who the chief offenders are when it comes to ignoring and abusing the likes of councils or public bodies and discriminating against the views of one side or the other. The leader of my party has already given examples. At Stormont, when we wanted to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee, we could not even plant a rose bush. When we wanted to commemorate the anniversary of Northern Ireland, we could not even put a stone in the ground. That was a result of a decision by a bigoted Sinn Féin Minister who had control of the grounds of Stormont and refused to give any recognition to what Unionists regarded as their heritage and their culture.

Let us contrast that with what happened when the Gaelic Athletic Association wanted to commemorate its 125th anniversary. I have great reservations about the GAA, especially given the fact that it names clubs after murderers. I was in the same position as Conor Murphy was when the GAA asked to plant a tree in the grounds of Stormont to commemorate its 125th anniversary. I did not agree with the GAA and I had many reservations about the way in which it behaved, but I accepted that it was part of the nationalist tradition and the nationalist sporting culture and without hesitation I gave it the permission to do so.

It is the same across Sinn Féin-dominated councils and nationalist-dominated councils in Northern Ireland—in some cases the SDLP went along with Sinn Féin rather than stand up against it—where money was refused to community groups to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee and the anniversary of Northern Ireland, statues were taken down, windows were removed and emblems were taken out of council chambers. What would the purpose of a commissioner have been in those circumstances, if they had been afforded the same powers as those being afforded to the Irish language commissioner? That commissioner would have had the ability to go to those councils and require them to recognise the Unionist culture and heritage and then require them to behave in a way that gave recognition to it. This Bill does not give the commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition the power to do that, but it gives the Irish language commissioner the power to go to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council in my area, for example, and dictate that it must spend money on the Irish language even if that is not wanted by the council or by residents.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)
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My right hon. Friend mentions putting up a stone or memorial, or planting a rose bush, to commemorate the centenary of Northern Ireland. A complaint was lodged by those working in the Northern Ireland Office about a picture of the Queen hanging on the wall, asking that it be removed. The Northern Ireland Office, a Department run by this Government, actually wants to remove the Queen’s painting or photograph from its work environment, which proves how unfair it is.

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Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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My hon. Friend makes a good point. That controversy might indicate the political colour of some of those who populate the Northern Ireland Office, which bears out the point I made earlier.

How does the Minister believe that this Bill protects the heritage, culture, language and interests of Unionists, especially Unionists living in nationalist-dominated council areas, when the commissioner is not being given the powers to do that? Why will the Irish language commissioner have the power to require public bodies to have due regard?

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. I hesitate to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. I have not set any time limits or restrictions, but I had hoped for co-operation to make the Committee work well this afternoon. He has now been on his feet for 19 minutes, which is a long time. I hope that he will now draw his remarks to a close, because I would at least like to call the leader of his party before the wind-ups. I hope he will show some consideration for the rest of the Committee.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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I will, of course, obey your request, Dame Eleanor.

Can the Minister show how that discrepancy in this Bill will give Unionists the same protection? He is welcome to get involved in the quagmire, the chaos, the complaints and the friction that this Bill will cause. He may say that the Bill will be light-touch, but I suspect he will be dragged into controversies over it time and again. A requirement to impose rather than reach agreement is not a good way to proceed. With the powers the Bill gives to the Minister, he can be sure that the default position will always be that is for him to decide. Rather than reaching a resolution on these issues, it will become yet another focus for controversy.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
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I thank the hon. Members for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and for North Down (Stephen Farry), my hon. Friends the Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), for their contributions this afternoon.

I will not rehearse the arguments that have been made very effectively by my colleagues, but I will touch on the politics of all this, which is very important and needs to be understood by those on the Government Front Bench. I was present during the negotiations on New Decade, New Approach, and the hon. Member for North Down is right that the negotiations on identity and language were tortuous, detailed and lengthy, because these issues are very sensitive in Northern Ireland. We know that, and we know some of the trouble we have had in Northern Ireland on issues arising from identity, culture and so on.

We want to get to a new place where we mark our diversity of culture, identity, language and so on through respect. That is the landing zone for us. When I look at this Bill, I recall clearly what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach, and I understand clearly, as a senior member of the DUP negotiating team, what we signed up to. I remember the detailed arguments that took place within our party about NDNA and the detailed consideration we gave this aspect of that agreement, and I am clear that the Bill does not reflect what we agreed.

My colleagues have made reference to the other draft Bills that were published and the difference there is in respect of NDNA. I wrote to the Minister—I am not going to repeat what I said in a very lengthy letter to him—setting this out in detail. He asked us on Second Reading to explain where we were able to highlight a disparity between what was in NDNA and what is in the Bill, and we have done that in detail. I was disappointed with his response to that, because I do not think the Northern Ireland Office understands fully the strength of feeling on these Benches about this matter. That is important, because we cannot support the Bill in its current form, which means we cannot go out to promote it to the communities we represent. The Bill will therefore fail in its objective, which is to promote respect in Northern Ireland, because the Unionist community—those of us who come from an Ulster British, Ulster Scots background—do not feel that it adequately respects and protects our identity.

Our identity is much wider than just the question of language. I will not repeat what I said to the hon. Member for North Down, but let me say that if nationalist parties wanted to use this vehicle to achieve what they have sought to achieve on language, we were clear that our objectives and aspirations were much broader than the issue of language. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford made that point clear. I therefore believe that the Bill fails adequately to offer the protection we wanted for our identity, culture and heritage, and so the Bill is not adequate.

I say to the Minister that we on this side of the House have watched closely the actions of the NIO in the past week. We are coming up to an Assembly election, we are told by the Secretary of State. The draft Order Paper for business for this week did not include this Bill. I was told by the then Government Chief Whip that the legislation would not come until after any Assembly election, in order to avoid any perception that there would be an attempt by the Government to influence the election. Yet here we are, with the Bill fast-tracked. All of a sudden it is on the Order Paper and we find that the Government are putting a tick in the Sinn Féin box. Sinn Féin can go out after today and say, “We achieved what we set out to achieve.”

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is a point of information, which I hope will be of service to the House. To be fair to the Government, this Committee stage was announced in last Thursday’s business statement, so it did not come as a surprise in the sense that we were bounced today with this Bill; it was properly telegraphed, as far as I am concerned.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I did not say that; I said that when the draft order was published last week, this was not on the Order Paper. I spoke to the then Chief Whip, who gave me the assurance that such a sensitive issue as this would not be debated further until after any Assembly election, yet here we are.

I have to look at this and come to the conclusion that there appears in the NIO to be fairly blunt attempt, in fast-tracking this legislation today and in refusing to take any amendments to deal with Unionist concerns, to further an agenda. I do not say that lightly. I am not given to making accusations that have no substance. I believe that this is a blunt attempt by the Northern Ireland Office to deliver a key demand made by Sinn Féin so that Sinn Féin can go to the polls and trumpet their achievement, and not to accept any Unionist amendments so that Unionism cannot go out and say, “We believe this is a fair and balanced approach to very sensitive issues.”

When we signed up to the New Decade, New Approach agreement, it was about the terms for restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland after three years of Sinn Féin saying that we could not have a Government until the Irish language issue was addressed. That is an indisputable fact. That was their key demand. New Decade, New Approach was therefore a package that was designed to address the concerns of people across the community, and it was the basis for restoring devolved government.

For Unionism, two key elements—among others—of that agreement helped us take the decision to go back into the power-sharing Executive. One was the UK Government’s commitment to protect and restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. Two and a half years later, that has not been delivered. That is why, in February, I reluctantly had to take steps to withdraw the then First Minister—because the Government had not delivered their New Decade, New Approach commitment.

The second element was ensuring a balanced outcome on language and identity. The Bill destroys that balanced outcome. I therefore say to the Minister in all candour that if the Bill goes through unamended, we will have to return to the issue, because it is a key part of New Decade, New Approach. The measure needs to be balanced and respect the identity and culture of the Ulster British and Ulster Scots communities in Northern Ireland. We will not settle for second best. We will not settle for our identity and culture being treated as second class.

Our amendments are not about changing the provisions on the Irish language. We are not seeking to level down. We are not trying to diminish the rights in the Bill. We want to ensure parity of esteem for the Ulster British and Ulster Scots tradition, heritage and culture. We are not seeking to do anyone down. We want—to use a phrase that the Government often use—to level up, so that our identity, culture and heritage can be fully protected and respected, just as we expect the identity, heritage and culture of others to be protected and respected.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for giving way, but will he bring a little clarity to some of his remarks? He said that DUP Members would return to the issue. He is entitled to his opinion and position on any issue, but we already have no Government in Northern Ireland because of the DUP’s stance on the protocol—we will not debate that today. What exactly is the right hon. Member saying about the DUP’s position if the Bill goes through? In my view, we have a desperate need for a Government in Northern Ireland.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree that we want the political institutions to be up and running. We have often heard from others that agreements should be honoured. That is often the mantra of others. New Decade, New Approach is not being honoured today. I simply say to the hon. Member and the House that we will not settle for the Bill as the final outcome. We will continue to argue our case that further protections need to be provided. I will listen carefully and closely to the Minister. This is not the end of the matter. It needs to be dealt with properly. We need fairness, equity and parity of esteem. We have often been told that that is what we want. That is what we need, and that is what I desire for the communities that we represent.

15:45
I say to the Minister—and I will listen to what he has to say—that I and my colleagues are disappointed that the outcome today is an unwillingness and an inflexibility on the part of the Northern Ireland Office, in the mouth of an election that the Government will call, to accept Unionist amendments to a Bill that is about providing equity, parity of esteem and respect for the diverse culture, heritage, traditions and languages of the people of Northern Ireland. It is not lost on us that the haste the Government have shown in bringing the Bill forward and concluding its proceedings before the election and in ignoring Unionist concerns has, for us, an implication for the election. That is a matter of deep regret because the Government should be above that, and they should tread sensitively when they deal with these issues.
Peter Kyle Portrait Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), on retaining his position on the Front Bench. I am sure that he had an anxious few days waiting by the phone. I also congratulate his boss, the Secretary of State, who I know is engaged elsewhere on business related to Northern Ireland.

As I start my comments, I am very conscious of the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) about the sensitivity of the issues that we are discussing here today. I am very aware of the sensitivities relating to identity and language in Northern Ireland. As I have said numerous times, I regret that I am standing at the Dispatch Box speaking to these comments. I wish that all these issues had been resolved within the Assembly. I hope that the follow-up from this—let us be honest, the Bill will pass—is that that can be redressed and that any wash-up that needs to come will be dealt with locally.

For reasons that I will come on to, I do not want to take up too much time of this debate. Northern Ireland voices need to be heard, and I am glad that so many have been heard so far. Our view is that the Bill broadly keeps with the identity and language commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Language and identity issues have clearly always played a part in the peace process, and this Bill is a welcome development in creating an unambiguous framework for them.

It is important to remember that the Bill is an amalgamation of three draft Bills. These separate Bills were published alongside the New Decade, New Approach agreement. They were supposed to go through the Northern Ireland Assembly where I am sure that, with scrutiny, they could have been improved on and developed. Again, it is with regret that we are dealing with the legislation in this place, but the Government are right to uphold their commitment to take the legislation through Westminster when Stormont is unwilling or unable to do so. Nevertheless, it does present a challenge for how we approach the amendments today. We are conscious of not straying too far from the deal that was struck some years ago between the then Secretary of State, the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government.

Moreover, there was a very short period of time between the stages of the Bill in this House. As a result, there have been fewer opportunities for the Opposition to engage with important stakeholders. Some of the groups that I have spoken to feel frustrated that they have not been consulted to the degree that they would have wished. I had a constructive meeting with representatives from the Ulster-Scots Agency yesterday, but I would not want the Committee to misconstrue having a meeting as an endorsement from them. I fear that others may have done so, and I do not want to fall into the same trap. They have misgivings about the Bill and I have committed to meet them again afterwards to understand their concerns and to see how they can be addressed. As I said to them yesterday, I understand that this is most likely to happen from a position of this Bill having passed through Parliament. I would like to explore with them how the issues they are raising can be addressed, and I hope the Minister will similarly agree.

May I remind the Committee that the agency was set up by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement? I hope the Minister will keep engaging with it as much as possible. I have also met with Conradh na Gaeilge—

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before the hon. Gentleman moves off Ulster-Scots, I understand and respect him for his meetings with all the organisations that he should meet, but when he met the Ulster-Scots Agency it put forward a point of view on this legislation, asking for the same thing we are asking for. How does he see this legislation addressing the concerns of the Ulster Scots, when it is here to make those changes?

Peter Kyle Portrait Peter Kyle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for the comments he made earlier, which I learned a great deal from. I see this going forward via the Northern Ireland Assembly taking it forward in Northern Ireland. That is how it must happen. I am happy, from the Opposition perspective and as the aspiring Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to start engaging and keep the engagement going, but I am aware that the best place to resolve these issues is within Northern Ireland itself. I hope we can create the circumstances and the Government will redouble their efforts to deliver on the commitments made to all parties in Northern Ireland, which so far have been elusive.

I also met yesterday with Conradh na Gaeilge, which has suggested parts of the Bill it believes could be strengthened regarding the Irish language commissioner. Taking this Bill through in one piece in this place, instead of in three separate Bills in Northern Ireland, has let those groups down. I am grateful for all the help those organisations have given—their expertise is invaluable. I also note that the Government Minister in the other place stated that he saw this legislation as being open to updates in Stormont once the Assembly has returned.

Our Opposition amendments 15 to 17 are probing amendments, and I hope the Minister will engage with them in good spirit. The amendments are simple and would expand the definition of public authority within the Bill to include the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. There were amendments accepted in the other place to address concerns that had cropped up since New Decade, New Approach. For example, the addition of the Castlereagh Foundation was not part of the draft legislation, but keeps within the wider agreement.

It is with that approach in mind that we have tabled our amendments today. The Bill currently excludes the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission from being subject to the proposed statutory provisions. As these bodies have a base in Northern Ireland and focus solely on Northern Ireland, it does not seem logical that they are not included. It seems to be accepted that both bodies will have a substantial role to play once the legislation is established. Considering the Northern Ireland Office is taking such an active approach with this Bill, I do not think it is unreasonable for it to have regard to the principles in it.

When these matters were discussed in the other place, the Minister conceded this point when he said:

“Of course, given the close interest of the Northern Ireland Office in the New Decade, New Approach commitments on which the Bill delivers, I would still expect consideration to be given to the national and cultural identity principles set out in the first part of the Bill, and the guidance issued by the respective commissioners. I would expect much the same with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 July 2022; Vol. 823, c. 1020.]

For the benefit of our friends and hard-working members of Hansard, that was said in House of Lords Hansard, Volume 823, debated on Wednesday 6 July.

I do not believe that the uncertainty between what is expected and what is legislated is necessary. That is something the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission itself has made a compelling argument for amending. Its detailed briefing on the Bill stated:

“While it is reasonable to expect that such public authorities will act in good faith and comply with the Bill to the best of their ability, if they are not supported to do so it is likely that their actions will be significantly limited”

It recommended that the interpretation of public authority be amended to reflect section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which goes far beyond what our amendments suggest.

There is also the example of how Welsh language legislation works in this regard, which the Government could learn from. I am very curious to hear whether the Government’s views on amendments 15 to 17 have developed.

Turning to other amendments under consideration, we are supportive of amendments 6 and 7, which received support from all parties when they were discussed in the other place. We share the concerns about qualifying cultural expression on the basis of the sensitivities of others. Human rights groups have pointed out that it is not clear how that should be interpreted in practice. Without further definition, the concept of the sensitivities of others is subjective. We are concerned that it could restrict free expression purely on the basis of the prejudice and intolerance of others to such expression. When I put that to the Minister on Second Reading, he stated that,

“the approach we are taking is consistent with the draft legislation published alongside NDNA; it really is for OICE to implement this in practice.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 198.]

We understand why the Government do not want to stray too far from what was previously agreed, but that puts the new Office of Identity and Cultural Expression in a very difficult position as it will have to work out immediately what “sensitivities” mean in practice.

To take a step back, the Bill has been praised for trying to depoliticise language and cultural issues in Northern Ireland. In my opinion, the amendments would improve the Bill in that regard as there would be no further debate on the meaning of “sensitivities”. Using a human rights basis would provide much more certainty about the limits of cultural expression.

Finally, we are sympathetic to amendment 1. It would oblige public authorities to give due regard to the commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition. When I met the Ulster-Scots Agency, it felt very strongly about that. The agency helpfully pointed me to the relevant passage of New Decade, New Approach, which says:

“The functions of the Commissioner will be to…provide advice and guidance to public authorities, including where relevant on the effect and implementation, so far…affecting Ulster Scots”.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has said:

“For the Commissioner’s advisory function to be meaningful, public authorities must be required to have regard to that advice.”

For that reason, we support amendment 1.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

What a debate it has been. Such passion and fire in Committee is relatively unusual, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government.

The first thing I should say is that we have engaged widely with the Ulster-Scots Agency, Conradh na Gaeilge and others. I have been pleased to do so and Opposition Members spoke about the Government and me hitting the ground running and making good progress. That is why we have been so active in Northern Ireland, because we have engaged. Of course, we will continue to engage. Before we go any further, I should say that of course we will keep the operation of the Bill under review, but let us not forget that, as was pointed out, the Bill is before the House only because the Assembly is not able to take it through. It is an attempt to implement New Decade, New Approach faithfully and I want to get on to some of the detail about that.

We have worked closely with right hon. and hon. Members. I am grateful to the leader of the DUP, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), for his letter, and we have exchanged lengthy letters. I will not have time to get into all the points he made, but to make the best use of the time available I think I should turn directly to the DUP amendments. The Government stayed in regular contact with the DUP and the five parties to New Decade, New Approach on the content of the Bill and we have certainly appreciated regular engagement at both an official and a political level. This morning, the right hon. Gentleman and I met to discuss the provisions and I am under absolutely no illusions whatsoever about the great and earnest passion with which he approaches these issues.

I am 51 years of age and a former Royal Air Force engineer officer. Anyone can work out what the security situation was when I was a young man, so it takes quite a deal of Christian charity for me not to respond in kind when I am accused of pandering to Sinn Féin. I think perhaps we had better leave that there. I have no intention of pandering to Sinn Féin; I am a Unionist and I am under an obligation to play my part in governing Northern Ireland impartially, and that is what I intend to do.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley particularly talked about the delay in memorialising the victims of Enniskillen. It is shocking to think that anyone stood in the way of memorialising the victims and it is frankly shaming on those who stood in the way of putting that memorial in place, but I do not think the amendment he proposes will solve that problem or category of problem.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very short of time, but I will give way.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand that, but I think that it is important to put this point on the record. We have heard talk about Sinn Féin this and Sinn Féin that, so will the Minister maybe take the opportunity to put it on the record that people who love the Irish language do not necessarily vote for Sinn Féin? It is a language that has been embraced by people from right across our community; it is not a political tool and it should not be treated as one. That has been part of the problem up to now.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record. I am also conscious that I need to respect the fact that Sinn Féin are not here to speak for themselves, but I do engage with them regularly and I hope that they have found that I do so respectfully. I just wanted to make the point to the hon. Gentlemen opposite who have made some strident allegations towards me and towards the NIO, and I hope that they will not mind if I respond gently that these things are potentially also offensive to me and to others.

On the substance of the amendment, I really do appreciate the strength of feeling, as I think I have indicated, and I understand the rationale advanced by right hon. and hon. Members. I draw their attention to clause 1 and the establishment of the office, because the national and cultural identity principles are there, applying to all public authorities, and they should take considerable comfort from that.

The crux of the matter is that the two commissioners each have a very different scope. The Irish language commissioner must have their guidance approved by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting in concert, whereas although there is a power to direct the Ulster Scots and Ulster British commissioner, they can issue what guidance they see fit and across a broader scope. I could comment further on the exact definition of that scope, but the point is this: were I to accept the DUP amendments, there would be four serious problems.

First, they would create a much more powerful commissioner, with a much broader scope and less accountability to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I think that nationalists could reasonably object that that was out of kilter. We have been trying to stay very close to New Decade, New Approach and to respect its balance. We have the office dealing with issues of identity and the principles, and the two commissioners with different scopes and purposes. That is why we have this very delicate balance.

I just do not think that the amendments would achieve some of the purposes sought—in a heartfelt way—particularly those relating to language, arts and literature. It is difficult to see how some of that would work out in practice. Again, I refer people to the principles. It would be difficult to implement and, on a practical note, it would open the Bill up to ping-pong, which could lead to the whole agreement being unpicked in this House.

I will finish by making three firm commitments to the DUP in particular from the Dispatch Box. First, I will discuss the issues they have raised with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Plainly, these matters need to be addressed. Secondly, we will of course keep the operation of this legislation, when it comes into force, under review. However, I say gently that it is probably for the Assembly to legislate in this area. Thirdly, as hon. Members have seen, I am not afraid to call out intolerable conduct when it arises—for example, I called out the chanting of “up the ’RA”. Without promising to do so on every occasion, because I suspect I would do nothing else, I am absolutely committed to getting involved in this problem.

What I observe is that some of the hurt and the problems will never be dealt with through legislation. What is required is a change of hearts and for people to do as they would be done by. I am sorry that I have not had more time to go through all the amendments in detail, but I have been asked to wrap up my speech at this point.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

16:03

Division 77

Ayes: 136


Labour: 118
Liberal Democrat: 10
Plaid Cymru: 3
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 2
Independent: 2
Alliance: 1
Green Party: 1
Conservative: 1

Noes: 276


Conservative: 264
Democratic Unionist Party: 7
Independent: 1

Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 3
The Ulster Scots and the Ulster British Tradition
Amendment proposed: 1, page 9, line 31, at end insert—
“78SA Duty to have regard to published advice or guidance
(1) A public authority must, in providing services to the public or a section of the public in Northern Ireland, have due regard to any advice or guidance published pursuant to section 78S(2).
(2) A public authority must prepare and publish a plan setting out the steps it proposes to take to comply with the duty in subsection (1).
(3) A public authority—
(a) may revise and re-publish the plan if the authority considers it necessary or desirable to do so;
(b) must revise and re-publish the plan if relevant revised advice or guidance is published in accordance with section 78S(2).
(4) In preparing or revising a plan under this section, a public authority must consult the Commissioner.”—(Ian Paisley.)
This amendment would place public authorities under a duty to have regard to advice, support and guidance issued by the Commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British traditions. It would also require authorities to prepare and publish a plan demonstrating how they will adhere to the duty. This mirrors the duty to have regard provision that applies to the Irish Language Commissioner giving expression to the need for public authorities to give expression to the parity of esteem principle in relation to both Commissioners.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
16:17

Division 78

Ayes: 106


Labour: 99
Democratic Unionist Party: 5
Independent: 1
Liberal Democrat: 1

Noes: 286


Conservative: 269
Liberal Democrat: 10
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 2
Alliance: 1
Independent: 1

Clauses 3 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 6
Concurrent powers and powers of direction
Amendment proposed: 13, page 12, line 2, at end insert—
“(3A) In the case of the absence of compliance with regard to identity and language functions by a Northern Ireland Minister or Northern Ireland department, the Secretary of State must—
(a) act to appoint an Irish Language Commissioner within 30 days, in the case of the First Minister and deputy First Minister not acting jointly to appoint an Irish Language Commissioner as laid out in section 78J of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as inserted by section 2 of this Act) within 30 days of the legislation coming into force or a vacancy arising;
(b) act within 30 days to approve the best practice standards submitted by the Irish Language Commissioner with or without modifications, in the case of the First Minister and deputy First Minister not approving best practice standards submitted under section 78M of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as inserted by section 2 of this Act) within 30 days.”—(Claire Hanna.)
These step-in powers for the Secretary of State include a timescale whereby a decision by him or her must be taken. With this amendment the Secretary of State must act within 30 days of progress being restrained.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
16:29

Division 79

Ayes: 129


Labour: 112
Liberal Democrat: 10
Plaid Cymru: 3
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 2
Independent: 2
Alliance: 1
Green Party: 1

Noes: 279


Conservative: 269
Democratic Unionist Party: 7
Independent: 1

Clauses 6 to 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 12
Short title
Amendment made: 19, page 15, line 4, leave out subsection (2)—(Mr. Steve Baker.)
Clause 12, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill, as amended, reported.
Bill, as amended in the Committee, considered.
Third Reading
16:41
Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

First and foremost, I want to thank everyone involved in the passage of the Bill: the whole House, all the officials, everybody we have engaged with externally, and everybody involved with the negotiation—I am extremely grateful. I know that the Secretary of State would want me to convey his apologies for not being here, but he is of course in Northern Ireland.

The nature of the Bill is that it sets out to be a good-faith implementation of the New Decade, New Approach deal, and I genuinely regret that my friends in the DUP have not been able to support this. Some words have been spoken today that I regret very much.

This should be a day for rejoicing for advocates of the Irish language, and it is very much my hope and ambition that the passage of the Bill will lead to a depoliticisation of the Irish language. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) mentioned the Presbyterian Unionist tradition of support for the Irish language, and I can only express my heartfelt desire for a renewal of that spirit of moving forward by remembering everyone’s common heritage.

As I pledged in Committee, we will certainly keep under review the operation of these measures when they become an Act, but it is properly a matter for the Assembly. I very much hope that the Assembly and the Executive are brought up and running.

Finally, it seems to me that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit for reconciliation in this area of identity and culture, and that just a little bit of love would go a long way.

4.43 pm

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Labour party supports this Bill because it broadly reflects the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which was agreed by all parties. I welcome the fact that the Government, in bringing forward this legislation, have recognised the importance of the commitments made in the agreement. However, I share the disappointment that Westminster is having to legislate on this, rather than the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont. We want all efforts to be made to restore the devolved Government.

The Bill rightly aims to create structures and legal protections for the Irish language and for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition. Its foundations are based in the Good Friday agreement’s principles of equality and respect. Previous debates on this legislation have highlighted the importance of language as part of identity and culture; indeed, the Good Friday agreement recognised that the Irish language and Ulster Scots form part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland. As I have previously said in this Chamber, one need only look at Wales to see the impact of the creation of a clear framework outlining the duties and responsibilities of public bodies in relation to a minority language, and not simply in preserving but in expanding the language and taking some of the political sting out of its promotion. It is my hope that the Bill will ensure that identity and language issues do not belong to just one section of the community or one political outlook but are an important, shared part of Northern Ireland’s rich and diverse culture and heritage. The United Kingdom must stick to its international agreements and we must ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is protected and work towards the restoration of power sharing at Stormont.

16:45
Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will detain the House for only a few seconds, Mr Deputy Speaker. On Second Reading I mentioned to those on the Front Bench that I was concerned that British Sign Language, which this House has now placed in statute, was not in the body of the Bill. Can those on the Treasury Bench make sure that when, as we hope, Stormont is re-established, British Sign Language is used in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom?

16:46
Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank you for your chairmanship of the Committee, Mr Deputy Speaker. At this point in the parliamentary consideration of this Bill, I rise in sorrow rather than anger. When I spoke on Second Reading, I departed somewhat from my colleagues by not only trying to embrace the overall impact and ethos of what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach but asking the Government to come back to what was agreed two years ago. When New Decade, New Approach was agreed in 2020, it was the foundation, the bedrock, for the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. It included not only the provisions, aspects of which we see today, but a commitment on legislating to protect the UK’s single market, yet here we are, with no progress on the main issue. This is destabilising, ensuring that we do not have functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland. Another departure, another stepping away from the basis of what restored our Executive two years ago, and that grieves me.

When we went through the Bill in detail, not only on the Floor of this House but in private meetings with officials over the last 18 months and with the Minister this week and last week, showing exactly how the Bill departs from what was agreed, we were met with indifference or with a response that indicated, “We hear you but we are going to do nothing for you.” I was pleased to hear the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), mention the totality of the relationships involved in the Bill, but the Minister talked about joy for one community.

I know that Members have stayed in the Chamber not to hear my contribution but because of what they expect to come. We cannot support this Bill. We cannot support the departure from that which restored devolution just two years ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) indicated that this would be an issue that we as a party would have to revisit, but although we consider—regretfully, sorrowfully—that the proceedings around this Bill have been a charade, we are not going to put the House through the charade of a Third Reading vote. This is an issue that we will have to come back to, because the fine balance that was there two years ago has been shattered by this Bill.

16:48
Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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This Bill is a very welcome development. It is not the Irish language Act that we would have liked to see, but it is an important step on the way to recognising that the Irish language is a key part of the identity of many people in our community, and that has to be recognised in law. I am also sorrowful that this was not done in the place where it should have been done. People should be there at work in Stormont, doing the work that they were elected to do, and I am sorrowful that we could not do this in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is a terrible shame that we have had to wait for decades even to get to this point, and maybe there is a lesson in that. If we keep dragging out these issues, if we keep denying our respect for each other’s diversity, we will keep having to come back to do it this way, which is shameful.

The Irish language has been embraced by people across our community. It was protected, supported and defended by Presbyterians many years ago, and it is now being supported, protected and enriched by people from different backgrounds in east Belfast and right across our community, in the same way that the Ulster Scots tradition and identity has informed my identity and the identity of the people I represent. We should all be big enough to be capable of acknowledging, embracing and celebrating each other’s identity. That is the only way forward for the community we all represent.

16:50
Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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I will be extremely brief, but I want to thank the Government and all the Members who have supported this Bill. I am pleased and relieved that we are at this stage, because this has been a major saga in our politics. I appreciate there is still a lot of unease and that we have a lot of work still to do in Northern Ireland on reconciliation and building a shared future, but many people in Northern Ireland will warmly welcome the Bill’s passage today. It should have been passed by the Assembly, not to rehearse that point, but Parliament has intervened. Although this is a less desirable route, it is none the less a welcome outcome.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with an amendment.