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Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : I beg to move, That this House condemns the erosion over the last decade of civil liberties ; believes that such liberties are increasingly under threat through the abuse of public power ; and further believes that the rights of the citizen are required to be protected, as in other democracies, by a Bill of Rights.
This year, Parliament celebrated the third centenary of the passage by the Lords and Commons of the Bill of Rights which ushered in the Glorious Revolution. It was the second Act of the reign of William and Mary. Since that Act was passed, the people of this country have looked to Parliament to secure and enlarge their liberties.
It was not the first attempt to ensure that the executive Government would be subject to the law, for in England that was the main thrust of Magna Carta, but from that Bill of Rights stems the modern development of the doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament and the theory that Parliament secures the nation's freedoms. The House will, I think, acknowledge that that theory has been put to severe test during the past decade. In the eyes of many British people, and of many friendly foreign observers, Parliament seems more the accomplice of an oppressive central Government than a check on overweening power. Liberty is ill in Britain today. A majority Government, elected by a minority of the British people, have contrived to cut down, threaten and abuse institutions and individuals who have dared to raise their voices in dissent or criticism--in local government, in the press, in the broadcasting media, in the universities. In the name of the economy, security or some other reason of state, freedom has come under attack. The right of public assembly--the means whereby the man in the street has the opportunity to express his dissent--has been hedged around in the name of public order. Proposals have been advanced by the Government to curb jury trials. The presumption of innocence and the freedom from self -incrimination--in the United States, secured by the first amendment to the constitution--are under attack here. Censorship has been reintroduced, not because, as in wartime, careless talk costs lives but because the Government presume to impose standards of taste on the British public. Freedom to disseminate sexual information and advice, at a time when never more needed, has been put at risk by the infamous provisions of section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.
While the Government pour forth expensive and tendentious propaganda, they seek to stop up all channels of official information, pursuing--like furies --through the courts civil servants and former public servants who have been scandalised by Government evasions and distortions into revealing what they know of the truth.
It is possible, after 10 years, to stand back a little from the sophistries with which each of these invasions of fundamental rights has been justified and to discern a pattern for some, even for several, of these episodes : the Zircon affair ; "Death on the Rock" ; the Government's rejection of Lord Windlesham's report on that programme without even having read it ; the failure to comply with the Brogan judgment of the European Court of Human Rights condemning Britain's detention policy in Northern Ireland without, apparently, a serious attempt to comply with the ruling.
Column 77I have tried to approach each of these cases dispassionately and to look at them on their merits, but we have to admit that what we are seeing is a case-by-case compromise of liberty. The Government's amendment to our motion almost admits that. They speak of the balancing of liberty against certain other reasons of state. That is not the thinking one would have anticipated from a Conservative Administration who wrap themselves in the language of liberty. Ronald Dworkin said :
"The essence of liberty is not precise boundaries or mechanical tests but an attitude."
Despite the Government's espousal of economic individualism, there is no sense that in their eyes the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual are sacrosanct.
We have come to this pass because the Government have exploited the potential of our constitution to allow the concentration of public power in the hands of the Cabinet. Ministers initiate legislation, exercise their broad administrative discretions, control the flow of official information, determine levels of public expenditure and taxation, and appoint the executive heads of the major public authorities. Even to state the theory is to be reminded that in the past decade, Cabinet government has been supplanted by prime ministerial government to an extent unknown in Britain, even in wartime.
Lloyd George and Winston Churchill had as their closest Cabinet colleagues men of other parties with views and opinions widely different from their own. We now have a Prime Minister who brooks no opposition and who does not seek to maintain within her Cabinet any internal balance of views. She admitted before she took office that such a concept was anathema to her and that she sought to do away with Cabinet debate.
I put it to Conservative Members in particular that we have seen the consequences of that dispersal of internal Cabinet debate. If a Government such as ours is not imbued with a sense of the primacy of individual liberty, the British subject has no constitutional safeguard. The will of the majority in Parliament is absolute, and the minority, never mind the individual, can go hang. That constitutional reality understandably embitters the people of Hong Kong, who have seen this Westminster Parliament strip them of their rights as British subjects. We do not hear the call of our own citizens ; let us listen to them before it is too late.
In three major respects, the British people suffer constitutional disadvantage in the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in comparison with the citizens of other democratic countries. First, within our constitution there are no institutional checks and balances such as those which flow from the separation of powers in the United States between the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Secondly, although the United Kingdom consists of four nations, we suffer from the most centralised system of government among the major nations of the free world. Thirdly, there is not a transcendent law to which British people may have recourse in the courts of the realm when their fundamental rights and freedoms are attacked. Because of that last weakness, I and other hon. Members have from time to time sought to incorporate into the domestic law of this country the provisions of the European convention on human rights.
The Bill which I introduced in December 1983 was subsequently taken up by Lord Broxbourne in another
Column 78place, and then introduced with minor modification by Sir Edward Gardner in the House in 1987. On all occasions, it enjoyed considerable cross-party support. The Bills were introduced not as partisan measures but as measures seeking to embody a sense of the inadequacy of our unwritten constitution in the face of the attack on our fundamental rights and freedoms--and not purely by the present Administration, because long before the present Government came to office, successful cases had been brought against its predecessors in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In 1987, only 13 Labour Members stayed in the House on a Friday to vote to give the Bill a Second Reading. As a consequence, it failed by six votes to proceed to Committee.
I believe that there is a growing recognition in this country that freedom will be enhanced if the European convention were to be incorporated into our domestic law. That is the policy of my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is a policy favoured by distinguished parliamentarians in all political parties.
Mr. David Ashbey (Leicestershire, North-West) : Has the hon. Gentleman considered the argument that incorporation of the European convention would restrict human rights in Britain and not increase them, that it would have a restrictive effect, because it would be placed in legislation and nothing would be allowed to go beyond it so that there could be no increased human rights but only restrictions?
Mr. Maclennan : I find that a puzzling view. The hon. Gentleman, as a lawyer, will know that not only is it possible to legislate in addition to the provisions of such a charter to amplify the law, but that in the event of a case not being satisfactorily concluded in the eyes of the appellant, the case can be taken further, to the court at Strasbourg. In a short intervention, the hon. Gentleman could scarcely have time to develop his point, but perhaps during the debate he will explain what appears to most of us to be a paradox. In my view, the Bill and the policy enjoy the support of eminent parliamentarians who have had experience of operating in difficult security circumstances, such as Mr. Roy Mason--as he then was--in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldrige-Brownhills) : The hon. Gentleman will know that I am sympathetic to the drift of his remarks, but given the supremacy of Parliament, what secures the primacy of one piece of legislation over subsequent pieces of legislation?
Mr. Maclennan : The Bill would either have to be entrenched by procedures which the House has not hitherto invoked--I do not wholly rule that out in the light of the developments of our constitution--or it would enjoy the kind of primacy which is enjoyed by the European Communities Act 1972, for example, which successive Governments have considered to be the fundament of the law of our country. It is technically possible to repeal it, and there is no doubt that in that sense it does not impair parliamentary sovereignty, but the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is extremely improbable that the European Communities Act would be repealed without a test of public opinion, comparable to the referendum which ensured that it would remain on the statute book. If a Bill of Rights is similarly enacted by the House and enjoys that kind of security, most of us will be satisfied.
Column 79There remain, however, two obstacles to the enactment of such a Bill--the Prime Minister herself and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) the deputy leader of the Labour party. The opposition of the Prime Minister is of a piece with her general belief in the efficacy of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty which she has stuffed down many unwilling throats, not least in her notorious Bruges speech.
However, the opposition of the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook is a little harder to understand, although he has been at pains to seek to explain it in some newspaper articles. Labour's deputy leader appears to acknowledge the attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms that our present constitution allows, and has recommended a constitutional remedy of his own --the reform of the upper House. He talks of some of the difficulties of introducing a Bill of Rights into this place. He will remember the difficulties that were experienced by the Government of 1966 in reforming the upper House, but let that matter lie. He says that the purpose would be to translate the upper House from its current advisory and revising role to that of a body which, in ways not clearly specified, would entrench the freedoms of the British people.
It is clear that what the right hon. Gentleman recommends is insufficient for that purpose, for, as Lord Scarman wrote in The Independent newspaper of 19 June :
"Even if the House of Commons could be persuaded to accept the necessity of a second Chamber's assent, a majority of Members of the same party in both Houses could restore the full menace of elected dictatorship. Let us keep in mind that in a pluralistic society many minorities have no real opportunity of acquiring political power and rely on the law's protection against oppression by the majority." If the right hon. Gentleman's alternative to a Bill of Rights is unsatisfactory, his opposition to incorporation is less than cogent. He appears to take the view that, because a Bill of Rights is not sufficient for his purposes, it is not necessary. I still share many of the right hon. Gentleman's aspirations for the people of this country and acknowledge that what he calls positive liberties must be secured by specific legislation--including, for example, a freedom of information Bill and greatly improved access to legal aid, so that such protection as the law affords is generally available. We shall not, however, by the adoption of a Bill of Rights secure a reordering of our public expenditure priorities, nor shall we effect the redistribution of power from Whitehall and Westminster to the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.
Those are not arguments against such a Bill, for the rights that we espouse for our people by treaty, in affirming our membership of the regime of the European convention, are rights that should be enjoyed through application to our own courts and not alone through the tortuous and expensive route to Strasbourg. They are important rights. This matter is of particular relevance at this time when the House has expressed concern about these matters. They include the right to privacy, the right to freedom of religion--perhaps somewhat reassuring to certain of our ethnic minorities-- the right to freedom of expression, a right that has been more tested, than, perhaps, any other fundamental right during the tenure of the present Government.
They include also the right to freedom of peaceful assembly--a right which, as I said, was hedged around by
Column 80the Public Order Act 1986--and the right to freedom of association, guaranteeing the right to belong to trade unions. Again, many people have wondered whether the Government have it in mind to curb that right still further. They include also the right to enjoy those freedoms without discrimination on many grounds--on any grounds--of status.
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech to detect any reference to the abuse of trade union power. In passing, he referred to trade union power and suggested that the Conservative Government might be taking too much power from trade unions. The one way in which the Government have enormously extended personal freedom to millions of people was by redressing the abuse of the closed shop. When the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Labour Government, they forced 7.5 million people to belong to trade unions, in many cases against their will. I should have thought that, far from denying freedom to people, we have extended to millions of individuals the freedom either to belong or not to belong to a trade union. Surely that is of great importance to many people.
Mr. Maclennan : The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) would have been even more secure in the pursuit of his objectives if the European convention had been incorporated into our law. The provisions of that law were tested against the closed shop in the British Rail case. It had to be fought all the way to Strasbourg, whereas those who considered themselves to suffer from the closed shop would have had a right in the domestic courts if my proposals had been accepted by the hon. Gentleman's Government.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) : I hope that my hon. Friend will not forget also that, when that matter was tested in Strasbourg and those who were aggrieved had to go all the way there, they met the resistance of the Solicitor-General of this Government in advancing a case against them in that court.
Mr. Riddick : We must get this right. First, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) started his speech by criticising the Conservative Government for taking freedoms from individuals. However, this Government have given back to millions of trade unionists the freedom either to belong or not to belong to a trade union. Secondly, when his party was in government, what did the hon. Gentleman actually do to give individuals that right? He was in the governing party. What did he do about it at the time?
Mr. Maclennan : The hon. Gentleman's first point is a repetition of the point that I have already answered. On his second point, the Government to which I belonged, under the leadership of the Home Secretary, the right hon. Roy Jenkins, as he then was, published a White Paper setting forth the proposals that the provisions that I am seeking to have incorporated be incorporated in the law of the land. The hon. Gentleman's own party's opposition to the case of the three British railwaymen is the answer that he needs to bear in mind.
Column 81It is important that the Labour party should pay greater attention to support for freedom than it has so far, and not because it is a cure-all. It will not achieve all the objectives that they seek. Neil Ascherson, a journalist who is perceptive and broadly supportive of the Labour party, has put it well. He said :
"By itself a Bill of Rights cannot halt a drift towards authoritarianism and conflicts born of injustice. But it offers a ledge of legal ground on which the injured subject may stand and fight."
That is all that I claim for it, but I claim that it will make a significant difference to the climate in which we live in this country and to the climate of freedom that has been seen to be under threat.
If the Labour party's deputy leader is still seeking to persuade his party that it is better to seek the vindication of those rights in Strasbourg than in Sparkbrook, he cannot be surprised if his point of view seems to some to be perverse. The rights protected by the language of the convention may seem to some to be unduly vague, but the cases that have been dealt with in Strasbourg have covered such precise circumstances as the alleged inhuman treatment of suspected terrorists in Northern Ireland ; inadequate safeguarding of personal privacy against telephone tapping by the police ; unfair discrimination against British wives of foreign husbands under the immigration rules ; alleged inhuman conditions in cases of solitary confinement and segregation ; corporal punishment in Scottish schools ; ineffective judicial protection for detained mental patients and would-be immigrants ; and the dismissal of workers because of the oppressive operation of the closed shop, the case to which I have referred.
They also include the nationalisation of aircraft and shipbuilding companies without adequate compensation-- [Interruption.] No, a Conservative Government were in office then. Such cases also include the denial of equal citizenship rights to British passport holders from East Africa and interference with free expression by the Law Lords in extending the common law offences of contempt of court and blasphemy. Many other important matters of public law have been brought before the Commission.
When the call to incorporate the European convention was first made 15 years ago, some doubt was expressed about the appropriateness of judges being involved in deciding cases which, of their nature, had a substantial political element. The capacity of British judges to act in such cases was never seriously in question, for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had, for many years, fulfilled such a role as the final court of appeal in many Commonwealth countries. That argument was advanced by the Attorney-General the last time this issue was debated in the House--I am glad to see him in his place for this debate--but he must acknowledge that it now seems somewhat dated. In the intervening years we have seen the development by the judiciary, with parliamentary approval, of judicial review of administrative action. Virtually all those cases are of considerable political sensitivity.
We have also seen British judges apply the general provisions of European Community law and find little difficulty in so doing. Indeed, although the European convention has not itself been incorporated into Community law, the European Court of Justice has issued
Column 82decisions in the light of it. It therefore follows that, indirectly, the European convention is becoming a part of British law, if only in a limited economic sphere.
Although I have not hitherto proposed that a Bill of Rights should be entrenched under our constitution--to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)--and it is true that its provisions even if incorporated could be rendered null by a simple Act of Parliament, I believe that the political impact of enacting a Bill of Rights would be considerable. Governments would not lightly derogate from its provisions, and the public would be alerted to the potential breach of our freedoms if a Government showed such a purpose.
I recognise that the Prime Minister has argued before now that that is a constitutional matter of the kind that it is right to enact only when there is broad cross-party support. However, notwithstanding her personal view and that of the deputy leader of the Labour party, I believe that such broad cross-party support exists and that it is underpinned by a substantial majority in the country. That is the evidence of opinion polls that have been taken directly on that point.
There is a growing desire for a Bill of Rights in this country. As the matter seems increasingly urgent, I appeal to the Prime Minister to recall the undertaking of the manifesto on which she was first elected, to institute all-party talks. Such a step would go far to give substance to her claim to be concerned for the rights and freedoms of the people. The people of this realm are concerned that they are seeing the erosion of the liberties that they have taken almost for granted, unchecked by this Parliament, which itself is becoming a cipher to be used by an over-mighty Government. 7.44 pm
welcomes the extension and enhancement of civil liberties over the last decade ; believes that the Government has acted fairly to balance the liberties of the individual with the rights of others and of the community as a whole ; and considers that these liberties are fully protected by present constitutional arrangements.'.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) made his remarks in a serious tone and gave the House a serious speech. He had obviously thought about what he had to say in some depth and made an interesting speech, on which I congratulate him. Although I did not agree with much of it, it provided a useful text for those of us who wish to examine the arguments of those who, I believe mistakenly, feel that there has been some great erosion of liberties recently, especially in the past 10 years of Conservative government. Apart from religion and family, to me at least, few things are as important as the protection of basic human rights--I am sure that most hon. Members would agree with that--but the country that the hon. Gentleman described bears little resemblance to the one in which I live and which I know. His suggestion that civil liberties have been eroded in the past 10 years seems to be not only incorrect, but the opposite of the truth. I shall try to demonstrate why I believe that, in what I hope will be the same serious vein as that of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland.
Column 83I should begin by saying that this Government and all the Ministers in it are fully committed to ensuring that the citizen of this country knows his or her rights and that those rights are not violated. That does not mean that liberties are or can ever be under the prescription that we favour or that of the hon. Gentleman's Bill of Rights, of which he sketched a brief plan. It does not mean that those liberties can ever be unqualified because any responsible Government must also take account of the rights of society at large and of the conflicts of rights that exist in society. That is fully recognised in the many international human rights treaties to which we are party.
I will take as an example the right of freedom of expression as defined in the European convention on human rights because "it carries with it duties and responsibilities".
According to the convention, that right may be limited to the extent necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety, the protection of morals, and so on. I do not think that anyone seriously disputes that most freedoms must have some limits. I doubt whether there is any disagreement between the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and myself on that. The disagreement is about where the limits should be drawn.
We should also remember--this was largely ignored in the hon. Gentleman's speech although he was teased into making some references to it, thanks to two excellent interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick)--that political freedom depends to a considerable extent on economic freedom, which is something that Conservative Members hold dear. However much a national constitution may proclaim and purport to guarantee civil rights, those rights will always be limited unless individual citizens have a measure of economic freedom with which they can exercise those rights and within which they can exercise a certain amount of choice.
It is for that reason--not materialism--that the Government have given emphasis to measures which enhance personal freedom--by, for example, returning to people the right not to belong to a trade union. There was precious little freedom at factory gate strike meetings, at picket lines at factory gates or with mass pickets or flying pickets. It is for the same reason that we have given people the opportunity to buy the council house or flat in which they live. Happily, that is now becoming an all-party consensus. The Education (No. 2) Act 1986 and the Education Reform Act 1988 have shifted power away from bureaucracies in the favour of parents, teachers and school governors.
My last point on the necessity to underpin freedom by giving people a measure of improved economic status is that it is no coincidence that the deregulation and freeing of economic life in this country has coincided with increased productivity, lower unemployment, lower taxes and more disposable income in real terms. That bestows freedom, but it also bestows responsibility. That, too, is important.
Column 84freedom to spend the money for which they have worked hard in the way that they wish rather than the state saying how it should be spent.
Over the years in which I have been a Member of Parliament, Opposition Members have made much of a supposed diminution of freedom of expression, which I know that some of my hon. Friends also feel. Again, that is a charge that does not stand up to close examination. In this Session, for example, the Government's Official Secrets Act has removed a huge category of Government information from the criminal law. It has also raised new obstacles to bringing prosecutions against journalists in those few areas which still remain within the criminal law. The decision to prosecute in those cases rests no longer with the Government, but with the prosecuting authorities. The test for a journalist is not whether disclosure will cause the Government embarrassment, but whether it will cause specific forms of harm to the national interest, and that the journalist knew that it would. Protection of the national interest will always remain, however, the first priority of the Government, as I hope that it will for all parties in the House.
On the theme of liberty of expression, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 allows the press to challenge specific orders which restrict press reporting. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 gave judicial protection to journalists' notebooks. Those are three considerable areas in which we have actually improved and not diminished the freedom of journalists to report. I cannot envisage any way in which those matters could restrict the freedom of the press.
Mr. Stern : On the contrary, on the question of freedom of expression, does my hon. Friend recall that it was this Government who passed the Education Act 1986, which attempted to guarantee freedom of speech within our universities? Where were the Opposition parties when Professor John Vincent was being beaten up by a mob at Bristol university and when our hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) was being forbidden for six months the opportunity to utter a word on every campus in the country?
Mr. Patten : I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that the guarantees of academic freedom are important. I represent a university city. I know that my friend Professor Vincent suffered terribly with those personal attacks, as did his family. That is not the way to conduct free argument.
This Government are committed--as I hope that any Government would be--to the principles which lie behind the idea of open government, but "open government" is an easily turned phrase. The principle is, of course, to make as much information available as possible while preserving the confidentiality that is essential to the effective working of Government. That is, of course, consistent with the principles under which this place works. Ministers are accountable to Parliament for their performance in that respect.
Column 85I will cite a few of the many ways in which the Government have made more official information available in the past 10 years. There has been a considerable increase in public consultation, very much more briefing for the media, and publication of research and evaluation papers-- [Interruption.] No, by Ministers. Tape recorders now operate at every briefing that I give at the Home Office, which I believe is a good way to conduct those matters. There is more publication of research and evaluation papers on the effect of policies and more openness about the processes of Government. There have been cameras inside our prisons and police stations, and Departments consult far more and much more widely. Of course, the Select Committees have developed their role in examining expenditure, administration and policy of the main Departments.
Mr. Maclennan : On the subject of Government information and briefings, does the hon. Gentleman not think it significant that at least three major national newspapers and organs of opinion think so little of these as a means of learning the truth about what is going on in the Government that they have declined to participate in the Lobby system?
Mr. Patten : The briefings to which I was referring were the kind where journalists with a proper interest want to talk to a Minister on the record, to a Minister's civil servants or to the press department simply to find out information. In my brief experience of Government, there is much more of that now than there was when I started. It is a good thing that, within proper limits, civil servants talk to the press and explain to the press what they are up to and what the bases of policies are without taking on the role of being Ministerial spokesmen.
I believe, however, that the most significant trend of the past 10 years is the fact that the courts have continued to develop and to refine judicial review to supervise the fairness of administrative decisions. I strongly believe that judicial review is far and away the most effective safeguard against the abuse of power. It is a much more effective safeguard than any Bill of Rights could ever be. That is a theme that I shall now try to develop.
Mr. Richard Shepherd : The safeguard used to be the House. I wonder what my hon. Friend would say--I think that this is part of the question before the House--to Lord Hailsham's question about the elective dictatorship : what are the institutional safeguards to ensure the continuance of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly? My hon. Friend has not so far addressed that issue, but I hope that he will do so before he concludes.
Mr. Patten : Given the parliamentary supremacy, I suppose that theoretically there can be none. I say "theoretically", but we are greatly helped by judicial review. I believe that my noble Friend Lord Hailsham recognises that. Of course, we have public opinion, which underpins so many of our freedoms in this country.
The right of freedom of expression is not absolute, for it is limited to protect the rights of others. Hence, we have laws about racial incitement, libel and blasphemy, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. The legal framework which protects an individual's rights in this country has been shown in rather starker relief recently as a result of the "Satanic Verses" affair. Hon. Members will be aware of the background to
Column 86the case, with the demonstration towards the end of May in London and with the lamentable violence in Bradford on Saturday. There are, however, some general points which bear repeating and emphasising before the House.
The first is that our commitment to civil liberties encompasses the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of protest, which are three important freedoms. The second is that those freedoms should prevail provided that the criminal law is not broken. That principle underpins those three freedoms. On no account should the freedom to demonstrate be regarded as an opportunity for violent disorder, however passionately held the views of the protesters.
Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West) : On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), how does my hon. Friend the Minister view the preservation of those fundamental rights, in the sense that any Government who have a majority in the House can, through that majority, overturn rights that we all accept today as fundamental to our community? They can sweep away those rights purely and simply by means of an elected majority. Are not some rights so fundamental that they should necessarily be over and above that and, if we have a Bill of Rights, should require something like a two-thirds majority to overturn them, as in the United States constitution? We should not, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) suggested, have a temporary Bill of Rights, which would be no rights at all.
Mr. Patten : I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) has given much thought to the matter, but I believe that this place, reinforced by public opinion and judicial review, is an adequate safeguard. My hon. Friend went very much further in suggesting how a Bill of Rights should be entrenched and made some suggestions which may be useful to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, who did not tell us how he would entrench his Bill of Rights.
To return to demonstrations, freedom of assembly and freedom of protest, the whole House will continue to understand and sympathise with the anger and hurt of many Moslems over the contents of "The Satanic Verses". At the same time, our message to Moslem community leaders, although a brief one, must be clear : "By all means meet and voice your protest as British citizens, but do not let your message be lost among, or your reputation be sullied by, the violent actions of a disorderly minority. Do not abuse your freedom to demonstrate by encroaching upon the freedom of others to hold a different view or simply to walk down a usually peaceful shopping street on a Saturday afternoon. Try to impress on young hotheads in your community that pictures of policemen lying on the ground being kicked do nothing to advance the Moslem cause or the cause of ever-improving race relations, which are an important part of our national fabric."
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Everyone understands why the Minister chose to put that passage in his speech. He referred to blasphemy. There is pressure to extend the law and I have presented a Bill which would abolish the offence of blasphemy. I should like a clear assurance that the Minister stands by the Home Secretary's position that there should be no change in the law. Were an attempt made to assuage those anxieties by extending the law of blasphemy, it would raise serious questions. Hon.
Column 87Members on both sides of the House agree that it would be wrong to extend it. Indeed, it would be impossible, because for a Moslem, the Christian faith is blasphemous, and so on.
Mr. Patten : I certainly stand by what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said. One of the specific points concerning alleged blasphemy is before the courts, according to a reference on the Press Association tapes this evening.
The motion before the House includes the assertion that civil liberties are increasingly under threat from the abuse of public power. People seem to have short memories. It was this Government who this Session put the Security Service on a statutory footing for the first time. This Government have given redress to citizens who consider that they have a grievance against the security services. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act has strengthened the investigatory powers of the police. If, as is intended, this means that the guilty are more likely to be brought to book, that extends liberty--the liberty to be protected from wrongdoers--while the same Act, with its codes of practice, provides for better safeguards for citizens and those who have not been brought to trial and gives us much more certainty about what powers the police have. As a citizen, I welcome that as much, I hope, as any other hon. Member. If I disagree with the diagnosis of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland in his thoughtful speech, I find the medicine that he suggests even more unpalatable. He suggests that citizens would enjoy more rights if civil liberties were enshrined in a Bill of Rights. I think that that sums up his argument. Anyone might think, from the way in which this was proposed, that those rights are not protected unless they are codified and set down in a Bill of Rights. That is not so, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.
Those rights are already protected in our common and statute law, although in far more precise terms than is usual in, for example, the European convention on human rights, which most proponents of a Bill of Rights would like to incorporate in our law, and which is couched in much more general terms than much of our statute law. For example, article 6 of the convention specifies in general terms minimum rights for a person charged with a criminal offence but without spelling out details of time limits, cautions, rules of court and police procedures, on which our statute law is increasingly specific, giving greater protection to our citizens.
Arguments for incorporation have been paraded in the national press, although the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) in particular has made his opposition clear. I do not often agree with him, and I hope that he will not be alarmed to hear that I agree with some of the things that he has written. He was attacked by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland for being unspecific about the way in which he intended to protect citizens' rights in his scheme. The right hon. Gentleman probably does not need my defence, nor would he welcome it, but I believe that it is unfair for the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland to criticise him for not working his ideas out in full when the hon. Gentleman himself did not spell out to the House how he
Column 88would entrench his Bill of Rights if it ever reached the statute book, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) pointed out.
Mr. Maclennan : The Minister has clearly neither heard nor understood what I said, and I apologise if that is my fault. I said that I was not proposing the entrenchment of a Bill of Rights. I was advocating that as with the Bill of Rights of 1689, which not even this Government would contemplate repealing, it should be a simple statute.
Mr. Patten : I fully understand what the hon. Gentleman has just said and what he said earlier. He has not explained for the understanding of the House why it is worth going through the exercise if some later Government can turn the whole thing on its head.
Mr. Patten : It is a complete waste of time, as my hon. Friend comments from a sedentary position. We need to grasp that nettle if we are to get anywhere with the intellectual underpinning of an argument for a Bill of Rights. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has failed that test.
Incorporating the European convention on human rights would mean that the courts, rather than Parliament, would determine society's needs. That is no reflection on the impartiality of the judiciary. Rather it is a reaffirmation that it is for Parliament, with its sovereignty, to decide. I do not doubt that judges could do the job--of course they could--but I have doubts about what the job would do to the judges. It would politicise them in the public eye. There can be no more powerful exposition of that case than that put forward in the Chamber by my right hon. and learned Friend the
Attorney-General in the 1987 debate on the private Member's Bill put forward by our then colleague Sir Edward Gardner.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Our unwritten constitution has served us well, and there is no evidence that a written constitution or Bill of Rights would help us to do it better. Everything depends on how a constitution, written or unwritten, is interpreted and applied in daily life. That is an acid test.
For some people, of course, liberty has been curtailed. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland made threatening statements about the way in which he saw liberty being curtailed. I do not mind the idea that IRA terrorists can travel less easily to and from Great Britain as a result of the powers available to the police, the courts and the Government under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974. Those powers are essential for the defence of law- abiding people against terrorism and, alas, they are powers that the Labour party wishes to revoke.
I do not mind that the opportunity for apologists of bombings and shootings to appear on our screens has been curtailed. I do not apologise for the fact that their chances of making propaganda broadcasts have been denied. I certainly do not mind the curtailment of the liberty of a young man to carry a knife in his pocket and the fact that, should he appear in court, the burden of proving why he was carrying that knife now rests with him and not with the prosecution. Those are certainly restrictions on
Column 89individual liberty, but they are necessary if we are to stop the growth of a knife culture on our streets. I welcomed at the time and I welcome again the support from the Labour Front Bench for that move.
I do not mind that the drug trafficker and the serious criminal know that, when convicted, they may lose not just their liberty but the profits from their crimes, which the courts are now empowered to confiscate. Those curtailments of liberty are extremely important, and few reasonable people would not accept the case for such action. Ministers and Parliament have a duty to judge the difficult balance between enhancing individual freedom and ensuring proper protection for our nation. All Governments, of whatever colour, will always have that duty. In the past decade, we have looked conscientiously and meticulously at issues of individual freedom. No decision to increase or diminish those powers--I have openly given examples of increasing as well as diminishing powers over individual liberty--has been taken lightly and without clear evidence of need in either direction. Where the protection of the community has needed limited and well-defined reinforcement, we have provided it, and we shall continue to do so. I ask the House to reject the motion.
Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central) : Quite understandably, the Minister referred to events in Bradford this weekend. He, like the Home Secretary, has exhibited an unfortunate tendency to lecture Moslems as a whole. We should be mindful of the fact that the majority of Moslems are law-abiding and a minority of people were involved in the trouble at the weekend. Before a Minister imputes blame to the Moslems, he should be careful because it may have unfortunate consequences.
The tragedy is that the reason for the Moslems' hurt and offence has gone undiscussed and undebated in the country because of the trouble on which attention has focused. Unless we are willing to understand and discuss the reasons for the hurt and fromence caused to Moslems we shall be a long way off fostering the mutual understanding and respect needed in this country.
Mr. Stern rose