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There is no doubt that a statement of rights in this country is necessary and that, under this Government, the need for a framework of rights has assumed a greater importance and urgency. Who would have thought that a British Government, this Government, would have ordered the seizure of the English language editions of Pravda to prevent British people reading about "Spycatcher", when the world already knew all about it?
The Minister said that he did not recognise the country of which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) spoke. Perhaps that is where the trouble lies, and perhaps Conservative Members should reflect today that some of the difficulties may be due to the fact that Ministers, particularly the Prime Minister, do not recognise the country which most of us see. The Government are intolerant. They talk of enemies within,
Column 90and their record on rights is poor. More than 80 British laws have been amended as a result of decisions in the European Court on Human Rights. No wonder that Conservative Members, particularly the Prime Minister, do not like Europe.
The Government's actions are oppressive, as has been shown by their treatment of broadcasting. We saw the spectacle of police being sent to raid the BBC headquarters in Glasgow in the middle of the night. Who would have thought that that would happen in a British city? We saw the Zircon tapes seized as an elaborate blind, when the real reason for the Government not wanting the Secret Society series to be broadcast was because of the sixth programme in the series, entitled "Cabinet Government", which still languishes in the BBC Scotland offices in Glasgow. That programme was about the election campaign of 1983, and the fact that the Government sought to undermine and spy on the citizens of this country. Their object was to prevent the programme from being shown, and the Zircon affair was a blind. Other examples of the Government's oppression include the GCHQ and Stalker affairs, the judicial process and the Official Secrets Act 1989, which means that there is now no public interest defence. We have recently seen their blatant attempt to nobble the judiciary in the immigration appeal tribunal system, although, happily, that has now been stopped.
The Government have no concept of citizenship in society, something which is despised by the Prime Minister. She says that every person should be a freeholder, with the implication that being a citizen means that someone also has to own property. Far from setting people free in this country, the Government have climbed on to people's backs and withheld information. They attempt to condition the media, and the Gibraltar affair was an example. To this Government, freedom is not a right but is strictly on loan. The Government's actions and ideology are but one reason for the changing mood sweeping the country. What is to be done about it?
The motion invites us to endorse a Bill of Rights, but the Opposition will not support it for two reasons. First, the main problem with a Bill of Rights in this country is due to the nature of the British constitution, which is unwritten. I think that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland will accept that most countries with a Bill of Rights have a written constitution which can be entrenched, and that there usually is a supreme court to interpret it. In England, there is no such system. Instead, this country's fundamental constitutional doctrine is the supremacy of Parliament, and the fact that no one Parliament can bind its successor. Therefore, it is obvious that a Bill of Rights approved by one Government could be undermined or substantially changed by a subsequent one. The Bill of Rights could not be elevated above other laws and given the status of a super-law.
Mr. Richard Shepherd : I am very interested in this argument. At the moment, we are signatories to the treaty on the convention of human rights and the courts are increasingly taking note of it. The Government accept the rulings of the European Court, except for the little derogation before Christmas on the Northern Ireland issues, which the Minister thinks is a great advance for liberty. Therefore, have we not enshrined a Bill of Rights by the mechanisms of the treaty?
Mr. Darling : We are a signatory to the treaty, but it is always possible, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said, for us to get out of it. At the moment, we do not have a system which allows us to enshrine and elevate any legislation or treaty to the status at which it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to completely remove it or so undermine it that it becomes ineffective. It is always open to the Government to legislate themselves out of difficulties with which they may be presented by the courts in this country or elsewhere.
It is a shame that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland did not dwell on the second problem, which involves the contents of a Bill of Rights. There is no doubt that some Governments, particularly this one, would wish to elevate some of their worst political prejudices into constitutional pillars. I doubt that there would be national consensus, and there certainly would not be in the House, about what should be contained in a Bill of Rights.
Difficulties would present themselves when we dealt with the security services, over which there are fundamental differences across the House.
The general problem can be illustrated by the European convention on human rights, to which reference has been made many times this evening. Article 6 states :
"In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law."
As the Minister said, that is all very fine, but unless there are safeguards--for example, involving the time in which someone can be brought to trial--the system is open to abuse.
The Minister sits and nods in agreement, but he may like to reflect that England has no provision comparable with that in Scotland, which requires someone to be brought to trial within 110 days of him being committed for trial. In England, it is possible for someone to remain locked up without trial for a considerable period. The provision in the European convention is all very well as a statement of principle, but without detail and safeguards, it does not have the value imputed to it.
Article 8 of the European convention states :
"1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right".
That is fine, but where does it leave us with regard to phone tapping and so on? General statements, while welcome and sometimes useful are, by themselves, incomplete. It is necessary to specify to a far greater degree than has been done in the European convention or other countries' Bills of Rights, what those rights are. We do not want to have a system of vague rights which can subsequently be undermined by Government action or which allows the judiciary wide room for maneouvre.
The same problem arises in article 12 of the European convention, which states :
"Men and women of marriagable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right."
That demonstrates the difficulty faced by some citizens in this country. It is true that men and women of marriageable age have a right to marry, but as we know, this Government and others before them have posed great barriers if a British citizen wants to marry, for example, a Pakistani or Indian citizen. In that case, they have to pass the primary purpose rule. They have to prove that the primary purpose of their marriage is not to gain admission
Column 92to this country by means of their prospective spouse. So an article such as article 12 can be undermined by the way in which the Government choose to interpret it or to legislate their way out of it.
As I was saying, article 14 deals with discrimination and is also worded in general terms. I emphasise that general rights have only limited value. It is necessary to specify what these rights are and how we might go about enforcing them. Unless it is clear to the courts what remedy Parliament or a convention is proposing, the rights can be undermined.
We should also bear in mind the fact that, unless this detail is enshrined in statute, the issues will be decided not by Parliament, which is supposed to represent the people, but by judges. Ultimately, the Government can still legislate themselves out of awkward difficulties.
Our approach is different, and, I think, practical. It is designed for early implementation and it does not involve writing a constitution for the country. It is designed to fit into the British constitution as it is. The House will be aware that the Labour party proposes major constitutional reform. The reform we have in mind will provide many of the safeguads which, I am sure, the Social and Liberal Democrats--if they are still around--will support, as will a growing number of Conservative Members--
We propose that the House of Lords be abolished and replaced by a directly elected second Chamber which will have the power to block for one parliamentary term certain Acts enshrining constitutional reforms and fundamental rights, which I shall refer to in a moment. We aim to provide a clearly stated system of defined rights, a system that can be enforced by citizens in their local courts without having to go to London or Europe. We aim to create rights that provide an immediate remedy.
For example, we consider that a freedom of information Act is essential and long overdue. Citizens have a right to know why decisions were made and who made them. We would repeal the Government's official secrets legislation. We shall enshrine a right to reply Act and a right to privacy, not along the lines proposed by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne), but a right not to be interfered with by the state, providing safeguards against the abuse of power by the state.
We believe that the Data Protection Act 1984 needs to be greatly strengthened. Citizens have a right to know what information is held on them and why, so as to avoid abuses. We also believe that a right to equal treatment, regardless of sex, race, sexuality or disability, is essential.
It is worth observing in passing that the regional and national assemblies which we propose will also provide rights and safeguards and will begin to move the balance
Column 93of power away from Westminster. This Government have abolished councils. The Secretary of State for Education and Science has acquired 415 new powers, and the Secretary of State for the Environment has acquired 315 new powers over local government finance and 100 over housing. Seventy thousand council officials are being barred from the political process. Patronage has been abused. All this must be stopped, and a system of regional and national assemblies can begin to put it right. Decision-making should be handed back to people so that they can see who is making decisions on their behalf. If they do not like what they see, they can replace an assembly with one more to their liking.
The Minister referred to judicial review, but he must know that it is strictly limited. It cannot examine the law or a regulation ; it can merely look into the way in which a decision was reached. It is certainly not the answer to the frequent complaints heard in this Chamber--
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : Much of what the hon. Gentleman has just said would probably find agreement in many parts of the House, but he has still not dealt with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). How would he entrench in his constitutional changes the elements which he regards as so desirable? I find it difficult to imagine that his party will create a constitutional system in which the House of Lords can stop this House legislating in the way in which it has done for many years.
Mr. Darling : No, for the length of a Parliament, which could be up to five years. This would force any Government proposing to diminish any of these rights to go to the country with that specific programme in mind. Thus, we shall be able to safeguard rights and the constitutional settlement which we propose--consisting of regional and national assemblies --so as to stop any Government coming to office and tearing them up. A Government would be forced to go back to the country if they wanted to pursue such a programme.
I fully accept that this will not block repeal for all time--under our constitution that would be impossible--but it provides a new safeguard and, as such, it is greatly to be welcomed.
Mr. Hind : Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the public will regard this idea with extreme cynicism? A Labour Government could come to power and pass Acts of Parliament, and then claim that those Acts contained certain fundamental rights. If they were subsequently not elected for a further five years, the system would block the party that came to power from changing the legislation. The Labour Government could then wait until returned to power, and begin again. This will sterilise Parliament for five years and block any progress that is not in line with the hon. Gentleman's point of view.
Mr. Darling : Let us take the freedom of information Act as an example. If it incorporated the fundamental right to which I have referred, it would not be possible for a subsequent Government to take away from or seek to
Column 94repeal the Act until they had gone back to the country to gain a mandate to do so. That is how we seek to entrench rights that we regard as fundamental.
If an incoming Government were confident of their case, it would be open to them to seek a mandate at a subsequent election to put it into action, and we should have to accept that.
Mr. Stern : The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Once upon a time the Opposition believed in the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Should such a Government come to power again and pass legislation to that effect, is not the hon. Gentleman saying that they would regard such action as fundamental, thereby ensuring not only that they could nationalise everything, but that they could prevent a subsequent Government from denationalising?
Mr. Darling : The hon. Gentleman is exaggerating. No one is suggesting that every Act passed by a Labour Government would be enshrined in the way I have described. I am talking about a narrow but important range of rights, not about every Bill that would go through the House. The hon. Gentleman must understand the distinction. We shall make it clear in the manifesto on which we fight the next election precisely which rights we propose to enshrine in this way. What I have described does not and could not apply to every piece of legislation that a Government wanted to enact. We propose to provide a framework that will allow remedies that are not possible at present. It is essential to create an open society where freedom is the presumption and where the opportunity of redress is easily available. It is possible to enshrine rights about which there is broad consensus. They should be enshrined in such a way that they cannot easily be overturned by any authoritarian or ruthless Government.
There is no doubt that constitutional change is essential and we propose two planks to such change. First, we propose the reform of the second Chamber in the way that I have described with strong and powerful national assemblies in Scotland and Wales and regional assemblies in England. Side by side with that will be a clear system of fundamental rights. They will be enshrined in such a way that they cannot be overturned with ease. Happily, it will not be long before we see that system in operation. 8.30 pm
Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South) : It is clear from what we have heard in the debate that, when there are proposals to change our constitutional arrangements, we get into grave difficulties. They are difficulties not only of definition but of carrying into practice a system that could not be entrenched in our system of parliamentary representation and of the Queen in Parliament, which is the ultimate repository of power. We have already heard the sort of bickering that would soon break out not only in the Chamber but in cross-party and inter-party disagreements. That would occur when we tried to define what should be put in place of that which we have, imperfect thought it is.
I listened with fascination to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the hon. Gentleman made a serious contribution. Undoubtedly, he sincerely believes that in the last 10 years we have seen something happening
Column 95that is very different from what happened before. He believes that there have been compromises with liberty and that the powers of the Cabinet are in some way different. He thinks that the Prime Minister is some kind of dictator, the like of which we have not seen in the House in any generation.
Each of those matters is based on fundamental difficulties faced by the hon. Gentleman. His party has played no serious part in the protection of liberties nor has it had to balance them against the interests of Government. It has not played a serious part in government since the first world war apart from the short period when some members of his party were in the slipstream of the Labour Government during the 1970s. Many of those who were part of that Labour Government would wish to draw a decent veil over their activities, which led directly to the election of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and a Conservative Government. That Government were mindful of the trampling of liberties and the seemingly uncheckable and unchecked union activities. The memories of that have played a special part in keeping my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister where she ought to be, in No. 10 Downing street. Are Cabinet powers any different now from what they were before? Let us look at events this century. Neither Baldwin nor Chamberlain was in any way different from the present Prime Minister in his relations with the Cabinet. Neither Winston Churchill nor Attlee listened any more than any other Prime Minister to fundamental disagreements about the way that Ministers behave or about Cabinet responsibility without expecting a resignation or, as on one famous occasion, suggesting that a period of silence would be beneficial. Eden had a somewhat weak Government who were short-lived. Macmillan's Cabinet provided an object lesson in dissent because although there were no public disagreements, there were clearly disagreements between Treasury Ministers and the Prime
Minister--"little local difficulties" in 1958, when all Macmillan's Treasury Ministers resigned. The Prime Minister of the day went to the country a year later and won a majority of 100. It could be argued that Macmillan's Cabinet was handled with a lighter rein than the Cabinets of many other Prime Ministers, and the same description could be applied to the Cabinet of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. We can remember times during the Government of Harold Wilson when the whip was cracked. We had references to dog licences, and his Cabinet was very much in control of what went on in Parliament. Harold Wilson dominated Parliament for a time in a way that was no different from any other Prime Minister.
Then we had my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). We remember those halcyon days when everyone was listened to and compromise and consensus were the order of the day. However, we also remember that allegations of dictatorship were levelled against that Government. It was alleged that they were pushing through vast chunks of legislation without listening. Many Opposition Members will remember that time, but now we hear that that Government operated in a way that is wholly different from the way that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is operating.
Column 96My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has to come to the House and must go to the country. One cannot blame the British people or those hon. Members who continue to support the Government when they are asked to do so. It is not dictatorship constantly to appeal not only to members of one's own party to support legislation--as has happened for many decades--and also from time to time to have to go to the country. In the end, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is as answerable as any Prime Minister before her and as any Prime Minister who follows her.
It is not new for the constitution to be criticised for not giving rights to individuals. It was put in a rather satirical way by Stanley Holloway decades ago, long before the present Prime Minister entered No. 10. He referred to the Magna Carta,
"That was signed by barons of old
That in England today
You can do what you like
So long as you do as you're told."
At that time it was a satirical comment, but people recognised in it a basis in truth.
All Government are faced with the difficulty of striking a balance between the rights of the individual and the interests of the community as a whole. Obviously, we can think of specific cases that occurred in Government's, and we wish that the decisions could have been different. That applies to Governments of all complexions. Hon. Members, rather than judges or anybody else, must have the ultimate power to question Government, and we must jealously guard that right.
Mr. Maclennan : The hon. Gentleman has advanced a historical argument about the manner in which Cabinet has been conducted in Labour and previous Conservative Governments. Does he acknowledge that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is in the Chamber, was permitted by the Labour Prime Minister to campaign against the Government on the issue of the European Community? Secondly, in terms of the present Government, does he acknowledge that the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has blown the gaff and explained all the points about how the present Government work?
Mr. Martin : Most certainly not. Several people have left the Government and are now giving commentaries on what happened and what they hope will happen, but that is not necessarily in accordance with reality. The decision whether to go into the Common Market was made on a free vote. It was then followed up, on an idea of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), with a referendum, which confirmed what had been decided in the House. I do not see any difference between what I have been saying, or anything that is inconsistent with what I have been saying, and what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has said.
I occasionally agree with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield on constitutional issues, and I certainly agreed with his point about blasphemy. I think that Macaulay foresaw him in the character of Sextus in the battle of Lake Regillus, when he said :
"Men said he saw strange visions
Which none beside might see
And that strange sounds were in his ear
Which none might hear but he".
There have sometimes been bizarre lectures from him looking at the historical scene back to the peasants' revolt,
Column 97well after Magna Carta, through the 17th century, and no doubt we shall hear this evening a contribution from the right hon. Gentleman that is out of the ordinary. I welcome the opportunity to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say.
The implementation of a Bill of Rights would be decided not by this place but by judges. That would fundamentally change the constitution that we know and that has grown up over many centuries. Most of the ideas in the European convention on human rights are based on freedoms that have been borrowed from countries such as ours that have had them incorporated for many centuries and that are safeguarded within Parliament. We should jealously guard the powers of this place rather than giving them away to judges or anybody else, because I do not believe that they can be trusted with such a role. 8.41 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : I welcome the debate and the initiative to hold it. We do not often discuss the constitution. Last year, we had a little celebration about the events of 1688, which some said were the basis for our liberties, although some of us take the contrary view about that. "The Rights of Man" by Tom Paine is still banned in the Maze prison. He was one of the greatest democrats in our history and he is still controversial 100 years after his death. I doubt whether I shall achieve that honour. I admire him for having said things of such permanent importance.
I can understand the reasons that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) had for introducing this motion because we have had a decade in which many unpleasant things have happened to individuals. Academic freedom in universities has been mentioned, but the Government have banned political discussion on the youth training scheme. If one is on YTS, one cannot discuss why one is unemployed because the Government have said there is to be no such discussion. We have also seen the abolition of the Greater London council, the hamstringing of local government, the banning of unions at GCHQ, the behaviour of the police at Wapping--which I saw myself, and which led to a number of police being charged-- "Spycatcher", Zircon, and the "shoot-to-kill" policy.
Yesterday, I sat in Sheffield beside another Member of Parliament the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams). There were television cameras there, which were filming him but those doing the filming knew that if they showed the film, they would be punished. I also knew that the Government could subpoena the film makers if they thought that the film contained any information that would lead to action against him. I have never been more frightened in my life. I was sitting in the heart of this country and seeing a Member of Parliament denied the right to speak to people.
The debate will not be meaningful if we trade party points. Although the use of the powers by different Governments may differ, the problem is the existence of the powers. I can trade many examples about what happened under different Governments, but we cannot remedy this problem without looking at the constitution as a whole. There has been much discussion about a Bill of Rights. Under it, the rights of the people would be set out and monitored by judges appointed by the Prime Minister. They are subservient to the state to the extent that the mere
Column 98mention of the words "national security" causes them to disregard every other factor. The judges recently disallowed a strike on the ground that it would be inconvenient, which is a contemptible attack on the idea of trade unionism, especially when coupled with sequestration of funds. This cannot be put right by adding one simple ingredient of the kind that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland proposes.
Tom Paine said that the dead cannot control the living. He was right. If the political values of society some years ago had been entrenched, and we could not change them, we should be enslaved by the dead. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) brought forward proposals-- not Labour policy--which are to go to the annual conference from the national executive committee. He proposed two things. The first is that we should abolish the House of Lords, although he did not describe how that should be done. I have given some thought to the matter, for reasons into which I shall not go. His second suggestion was that one Government could entrench what they thought important at the expense of the next. What would happen if a Labour Government introduced something that a successor Conservative Government did not like? What would happen if a Conservative Government entrenched things that an incoming Labour Government did not like? There would have to be two elections before any change could be brought about. It is not practical to legislate in that way. These arguments will have to be explored. We need a national constitutional convention, called for the purpose, rather than a discussion on the matter in a three-hour debate on a Supply day for a political party.
The plain fact is that the people of this country have no basic or enforceable civil rights and the reason is simple. We are not citizens living in a democracy, but in law subjects of the Crown, which has immense powers over us and our lives. It has been said that Parliament is supreme, but it is not. Look at the words of the enactment :
"Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons in the present Parliament assembled".
The Crown enacts the laws. It does not disregard the advice of either House, but we are still, in law, an advisory body. We have no mandatory power over the Crown.
What the Crown is, is an interesting question. The powers of the Crown are exercised now, in the main, by the Prime Minister of the day, personally and often in secret. It has been said that Cabinets are different, and that may be so, but Cabinets are not told what the Prime Minister is doing. Do hon. Members imagine that the Prime Minister discloses to the Cabinet that he or she intends to make somebody a peer or to instruct the security services to do whatever it is he or she wants done?
We do not even have a freedom of information Act for the Cabinet, let alone in Parliament. I would have settled for that in my time. If people do not know what is going on, they cannot be held accountable. It is all very well for Ministers to come to the House and say that they are accountable, but we do not know what they are up to and the Conservative party did not know what we were up to when we were in Government. If we do not know, the public do not know, and when the truth slips out, the Cabinet Secretary is sent round the world to apply the principles of economy not only to public expenditure, but to the truth.
Column 99The prerogative powers that the Prime Minister has at his or her disposal are varied. They include the power to make war without consulting the House of Commons. There was no explicit vote before the Falklands war, as there would have been in the American Congress. The Prime Minister can also sign treaties. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) signed the treaty of accession before it was published. We never saw the treaty of accession until he came home with his signature on it. Ministers can legislate in Brussels by the use of prerogative powers. As a result, Parliament is impotent before Common Market legislation. When, as a Minister, I went to the Council for over five years, I went not with statutory power but with the prerogative power to make treaties, and the prerogative power has nothing whatever to do with the House of Commons.
The corrupting system of patronage extends its tentacles throughout the administration of Government. Is there to be a night of the long knives? That is the Prime Minister deciding whether to sack Ministers. Who is to be put into the other place? The Prime Minister does not consult anyone about that. Who is to be made a judge, a bishop, or chairman of the BBC? These are powers and they are inherent in our constitution. It is all very well saying that we should try to fit a Bill of Rights into our constitution, but let us be serious about the matter. How have we won the rights that we now have? Has any judge ever seriously advanced, on a major front, the rights of the people of this country? There are women who are Members of this place, including one who sits as a Deputy Speaker. Did a judge give those hon. Members their right to vote? Not at all. It was the struggle that did it. Another example is the right to worship. All our rights have been won by struggle. It annoys some hon. Members--that is why they need to be reminded of the fact--that all our rights were won by breaking the law on the ground of principle. There are many examples, including the Tolpuddle martyrs against the Combination Acts, the suffragettes, the Chartists and the struggle for the right to worship as we think fit. These rights were won by principled people who broke the law, and who may have suffered for doing so. In the end, however, the House had to respond to popular acclaim.
When we ask how rights have been won, I would not put the judges anywhere. If anything, they have been the ones who have tried to punish the people who tried to make these advances.
What rights should we have? One cannot mention a Bill of Rights and assume that everyone will agree. Many will say, "What a good idea," but what rights should there be?
Is the right to work a fundamental right? Is the right to a home a fundamental right? I see people sleeping out on the Embankment every night- -in the summer that is more tolerable than at other times of the year. Is there a right to a home? Is that a fundamental right? Is that something that will appear in a Bill of Rights? Is there a right to lifelong education?
Is there a right to health? My father was a member of the Liberal Government of 1910. He told me that the most important thing that that Government did was to make it clear that the nation's health was a national interest. When he told me that in about 1945, I thought that he had made a pretty obvious statement. I thought to myself, "Why did
Column 100you mention that?" I realise now why he did so. The right to health is no longer a national interest. The right to free treatment is no longer a national interest. Is the right to dignity in retirement to be in a Bill of Rights? If these rights are to appear in a Bill of Rights, we shall find ourselves in a new arena.
During the 1945 general election, I remember going to Covent Garden with the wife of a Labour candidate, Peggy Ashcroft. I drove around in a loudspeaker van for a fortnight. I remember a man called Knocker O'Connell. He got to the microphone--that was not a good thing to happen during an election because none of us knew when he would let go of it--and produced his political alphabet. He told us "F stands for freedom :"--what Britain brags about. If you can't afford your dinner, you are free to go without." What about President Roosevelt's four freedoms? These included the right to be free from fear, disease and poverty and ignorance. For some people in society the state and trade unions are the enemy, but when we consider the rights to which I have referred, one sees that the state and the trade unions are the friends of many people.
It was the state that gave people the right to health through the National Health Service. Trade unions give people rights. I happened to be speaking in another part of the House today and someone who works within the House told me that her friend, who had worked for 32 years, had been sacked by her employer after she had had to take three or four months off work to look after her dying father. What is she to do? Does that person have rights? If she does, the trade unions and the state are her friends, not her enemies.
If we are to have the rights of which I have been speaking, how shall we monitor them? Will the judges have that role? I think not. Will Parliament be responsible for monitoring them? I think that it must be. Parliament remedies injustice. We are all employed by the public. I stayed up late the other night when the debate on the registration of dogs took place. I was in my place at 3 am. Many people had written to me to express their anxiety about dangerous rottweilers and alsatians. I replied to tell them that I agreed with the feelings that they had set out in their letters. Accordingly, I was in the Chamber to vote at 3 am. Whether we want to do that does not matter, because in the end our constituents will decide whether to return us. There is nothing disreputable about working for our employers if our employers are our constituents. When I travel around the constituency I do not say, "This is my constituency and these are my voters." I am the employee of my constituents.
As I have said, advance always comes from pressure. The Labour party has rediscovered, quite properly, the importance of Scottish devolution following a by-election at Govan. Devolution was not exactly at the top of our agenda a year or two ago. Following the European elections, there will be many Greens emerging from all political parties. That is because the environmental issue has been won. If we are to get the correction of injustice built into the system, we will not be able to use the judges. To use them would be to politicise them, and they are extremely political as things stand. Another mechanism will have to be used, perhaps one that involves the ombudsman. I am not here to make the constitution. Our rights depend for their achievement on struggle and for their maintenance on vigilance.
Column 101The issue that we are debating cannot be resolved until we are prepared to examine the constitution afresh from the highest to the most modest levels in our society. When we do so, I think that we shall realise that democracy and monarchical power are completely incompatible. I am not speaking about the royal family, which is a convenient cover for the abuse of Executive power. Instead, I am talking about the principle of monarchial power. I do not think that the British people will ever be free until we have become a Commonwealth, abolished Crown prerogatives--I introduced a Bill on the subject--and embodied Executive power in statute, compelling those who exercise it to be accountable to the elected representatives of the people.
There are already signs in our society of a tremendous popular demand for the basic reforms that I am advocating. There is demand for a Scottish Assembly, and that is a demand for constitutional change. There are demands for the liberation of local authorities from ministerial control. I do not agree with all the provisions of Charter 88, but that is another example of the demands that are being made. Another example is the demand for the disestablishment of the Church of England both within and without the Church, for it is absurd that a bishop can be appointed by a Prime Minister who is not a Christian. It is a strange concept, especially when the Government seem to want conformity on the Bench of bishops.
There is widespread suspicion of the role of the security services. There is opposition to the dangerous doctrine of lifelong confidentiality to the Crown. What an absurd notion that is. There is the idea that someone has an obligation when the Crown itself knows nothing about it. The Prime Minister who gives the order, or his or her minions, may use that doctrine to conceal any revelation of wrongdoing.
The siting of foreign troops in our territory raises constitutional questions. Mr. Attlee, as he then was, brought them in without telling Parliament what he was doing. He was, of course, a Labour Prime Minister. He said that they were on a training mission. They were not on a training mission at all. They were busy building their bases so that 30,000 troops from America could be in Britain, three times as many as there were British troops in India during the time of the Indian empire. There were only about 10,000 British troops in India, apart from the Indian troops. Parliament was not told about the arrival of the American troops. I do not know whether even that Cabinet understood the position.
There was the decision to transfer powers to Brussels. I am making a democratic point, not a national one. The issues that we are discussing will not go away until we examine them more fundamentally. The important question is whether we have a new constitution and a Government of Britain Bill to put to the electorate for endorsement and not whether we should have a Bill of Rights attached to our present undemocratic constitution.
Given the gross abuse of powers of the Crown by successive Governments, few in my judgment now believe in the merits of the so-called unwritten constitution. They are right not to believe in it. It is just a cover for a form of authoritarianism, whichever Prime Minister exercises power. Any sensible political party would be wise to set aside narrow party points and address its mind to the question how we can give to the people of this country a greater right to determine their own future than is possible