Belfast Telegraph

Human rights and equality bodies set to gain new powers

By Barry McCaffrey

The Government is giving special new powers to two independent watchdogs to protect human rights and equality legislation in Northern Ireland following Brexit, The Detail website has revealed.

As part of its EU withdrawal deal, the Government has given a commitment to allocate special oversight and enforcement powers to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI).

The move is to ensure the protection of civil liberties legislation enshrined under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

It is understood the proposed new legislation will cover anti-discrimination laws, including workers' rights in the public and private sector.

It has been welcomed by the NIHRC and the ECNI, which are understood to have submitted business cases for their new roles.

However, when The Detail contacted the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), it failed to clarify the nature of the new powers or what financial resources, if any, would be allocated to the watchdogs.

Last month, the Government published plans of the proposed Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, which is being debated by MPs this week, with a vote in Parliament on December 11.

An 'explainer' document, which sets out more of the finer details of the exit from the EU, confirms that the Government has agreed to "no diminution" of the rights set out in the Good Friday Agreement, meaning there can be no reduction in the provisions.

Crucially, some of these rights are underpinned by sections of EU law that could now be lost.

That prompted human rights campaigners to argue that the Government must find another way of protecting these particular rights post-Brexit, and to propose the establishment of a dedicated Bill of Rights.

While the Government has said this will be achieved through a "dedicated mechanism", it has yet to clarify what this means.

Despite the special oversight powers given to NIHRC and ECNI, The Detail understands that neither will be able to penalise councils, Government departments or private companies that fail to comply with existing human rights and equality legislation post-Brexit.

According to experts, they will only be permitted to facilitate a legal challenge by an individual who believes that their human rights or equality safeguards have been breached.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that NIHRC could only support an individual in bringing a human rights legal court challenge, and not bringing a case as an individual organisation.

The proposed new powers, however, are understood to include legislation to enable NIHRC to act on the latter.

While the new powers have been hailed by the NIHRC and ECNI as a positive development, both stressed the extent of it still remains unclear.

"We will continue to engage in discussions with the UK Government in relation to this. We will be seeking the strongest possible safeguards and developments of equality protections and human rights following the UK's exit from the EU," they said.

A NIO spokesman said: "The UK Government has committed to ensuring no diminution of the rights protected in the Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity chapter of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement."

However, the NIO has been criticised by Committee on the Administration of Justice spokesman Daniel Holder, who said there was an onus on the Government to set out which new powers and resources would be made available to both bodies.

"Although the contribution of the existing commissions has been highlighted, there is a notable lack of detailed information, and there is serious concern that the British Government's current thinking might result in a weak and ineffective approach," Mr Holder explained.

While local political parties are understood to have been consulted on the transfer of oversight powers, because of the continued absence of a Stormont Executive, they are not thought to have had any involvement in the decision-making process.

Belfast Telegraph

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