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Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : In August this year, Britain will go to the United Nations to stand condemned in the dock of world opinion for its failure to protect and extend citizens' rights in this country.
What we are really debating here today is the United Kingdom's shunned responsibilities and the Conservatives' failure to meet their human rights obligations to British citizens. It is sad that fundamental political questions of serious concern such as rights and democracy are debated in the United Kingdom's Parliament only by the luck of an Adjournment debate, rather than being central to our concerns. I am afraid that it shows how detached Parliament as a whole, and the Conservative Government in particular, has become from people's basic concerns.
By sharp contrast, the next Labour Government will deliver a renewed and real commitment to defining and protecting the rights of the British people. We shall do so not only because we have signed international treaties but because of our core belief that people's rights should be protected and are intrinsic to a democratic country, and not only because the United Nations will be looking over our shoulder to monitor our human rights record, but because we truly value the human dignity that should be inherent in every citizen in the country.
That will be just one strand of the attack on the failures of our democracy which the next Labour Government will introduce in the new democratic settlement. A fundamental political divide even transcends political parties. It is the divide between those who believe in a pluralist system with many ways into our democracy and those who believe that only one track exists in our democracy and that whoever wins the general election and installs someone in 10 Downing street has the whole of political wisdom summed up in their character. That false premise becomes increasingly less sustainable as the present Government go on.
The positive aspect of this debate, however, is that that effort to build up sustainable human rights in the United Kingdom must be just one part of a wider change in our democracy to a plural democracy of independent, strong and legitimate local authorities, regional assemblies that count for something and have real powers, a second Chamber elected by the people and a House of Commons worthy of the name. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) here tonight as he has done much in the latter regard. He recently tried to put some flesh on the bones of the idea floated by the Prime Minister about improving Prime Minister's Question Time. As one of the outstanding parliamentarians of my intake, I hope that he gets all the success that he deserves.
In considering how rights affect the effort to build what John Smith called a new democratic settlement for a new century, we must first look at incorporating into British law the European convention on human rights and then seek to build up a knowledge and awareness of individual rights and responsibilities among the British people so that never again will people feel powerless and defenceless whenever
Column 189a central Government use their overbearing powers to slice away at individual liberties. That has patently taken place over the past 16 years and was also evident in the centralising tendencies of previous Governments. We should all have a little humility in that regard because Governments of all political colours have abused the overbearing power of the Executive to centralise power. In a society with no written checks or balances, little stands in the way of the central machine once it gets under way. Introducing those checks and balances-- those impediments to arbitrary Executive power--must be one of the foremost tasks of the incoming Labour Government.
As I have said previously in the Chamber, I do not believe that written rights are a panacea for all the ills in our political society--far from it --but I firmly believe that the writing down of rights for everyone to see provides a framework in which the ordinary individual, even the schoolchild, can operate. Those constraints on executive power which should be in place can then be better understood by the average individual and not be the subject of judicial archaeology to discover an individual's specific rights. It is therefore important that we move rapidly towards written rights for individuals and citizens in this country, and there is no better starting point than the internationally agreed texts on human rights. The clearest and most widely respected text is the international covenant for civil and political rights. In effect, it is an international bill of rights, put together by the United Nations and agreed by the nations of the world. It is a measure against which our human rights record should be studied.
As a signatory to the international covenant for civil and political rights, the United Kingdom has wittingly and willingly agreed to uphold the citizens' rights set down in its 27 articles, to adopt new legislation where necessary, to effect those rights fully and to ensure that anyone whose rights are violated has an effective remedy. Every five years, the Government must submit an account of their rights record and report on their progress in introducing legislation to effect rights. That report must be submitted to the United Nations human rights committee, which then examines it. In its most recent response to the United Kingdom's report in 1991, the committee expressed concern about the Conservative record on a wide variety of rights issues. Many of those issues remain unaddressed today : the lack of judicial process in respect of emergency measures in Northern Ireland ; inadequate legal aid provision ; the treatment of asylum seekers and discrimination in the application of immigration laws ; restrictions on freedom of information and excessive censorship.
That statement has been submitted not by Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, nor by one of the groups on the libertarian wing of civil rights, but by a sober and responsible organisation affiliated to the United Nations which treads very carefully before issuing statements in respect of the human rights record of any country and which therefore must be taken more seriously than any easy party political point scoring that might take place in this Chamber.
As a nation, by ratifying the international covenant for civil and political rights we have officially recognised that :
Column 190"the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world".
The failure of the Conservative Government to uphold in practice those equal and inalienable rights has contributed to the steady erosion of freedom, justice and peace in this country in the past 15 years. I shall seek to highlight those failures in the submission that I intend to make to the United Nations human rights committee next month.
We have signed and agreed that all peoples have the right of self- determination and that
"by virtue of that right they may freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development".
Have the peoples of the United Kingdom been given that choice ? Do the Government respect that fundamental right ? I suggest that we consult the Scottish people for an answer to that question. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West may have a similar view to express for Wales, but the Scottish people have consistently voted and expressed their desire through opinion polls for some type of devolution. That has been made transparent at the ballot box, in the opinion polls, in surveys and in conversation. It is in the atmosphere that those people want further self-determination and no one can deny that. In 1979, a majority of Scots voted directly for the creation of a Scottish Assembly, yet the Conservative Government have refused to respect their desire for a new political status. Similar considerations apply in Wales, where the rights of the Welsh people have been neglected.
The Labour party is committed to upholding the right of self-determination of peoples by creating a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The realisation of that fundamental right found in the UN's covenant is long overdue in its application to our country.
I am sure that we would all say that we believed in the principles of justice and fairness. The international covenant for civil and political rights entrenches those principles. It states that everyone should be guaranteed the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It states those things baldly and clearly for all to see. There is no need to go back to the 17th century to read the obscure Habeas Corpus Act 1679 or even further back, to the 13th century, to read Magna Carta. It is there in plain language for every individual citizen to read in the covenant.
The covenent says that all persons must be afforded effective protection of the law, without discrimination. It states that a trial must take place without undue delay. It obliges Governments to provide legal assistance to anyone charged with a criminal offence who does not have the means to pay for it. It also obliges Governments to ensure that anyone charged with a criminal offence is informed promptly, in a language that he understands, of the nature and cause of the charge, and that that person is given adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence, including the free assistance of an interpreter if necessary, and is not compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt. It also obliges Governments to ensure that everyone who is convicted of a crime has the right to review by a higher tribunal.
Many people would say that such rights prevail in the United Kingdom under common law, but that is insufficient. That is not in itself adequate to protect the individual's rights, to make us aware of our individual rights and to enable us to understand them. Without that
Column 191understanding, those rights become meaningless to the individual unless he is accompanied by a learned lawyer or some other assistant to his rights.
I do not believe that we should require assistance to meet our rights. Those rights should be plain for all to see and for all to understand. Again I use as my benchmark the youngster at school who should grow up knowing in plain language where he or she stands on some of the fundamentals. That is the beauty of the incorporation into British law of the European convention on human rights, which states clearly the basic rights to freedom of speech, freedom of worship and privacy.
Once one grows up with the knowledge of those things, they stay with one for ever and one is prepared to defend them for ever. They are not something gifted to one by an obscure legal judgment. They belong to one and they cannot be taken away from one. Once one knows one's rights, it is far easier to understand one's responsibilities and social obligations. It is far easier for a teacher at school to explain to a child, "Yes, you know that you have the freedom of speech, but rights overlap." There are difficulties with some rights. A person's right to freedom of speech does not mean the liberty to shout "Fire" in a crowded cinema, as the famous American case showed. With such debate and exchange, our young people will genuinely become citizens rather than subjects in our society--something that I hope all hon. Members would welcome.
The European convention on human rights is not that frightening, even for Conservative Members. It has existed in its current form since 1951 and everyone has been able to take it into account in moulding the development of law in the United Kingdom. I may sometimes be critical of the judiciary, but in many respects it is ahead of the politicians, and the subject under discussion is one of those respects. Many of the senior judiciary realise that the precedents set in European law, particularly rights law, are being drawn into British common law, even without the European convention on human rights being formally incorporated into British law. It is happening by stealth. Why can we not incorporate the European convention clearly, openly and honestly and begin the wider process of education ?
We take for granted many rights that one would have to struggle hard to find in written form. I have already mentioned some of them. While we search for those rights which may prevail in the United Kingdom there are undoubtedly many areas of concern in the law in respect of human rights. The judiciary is still largely unrepresentative of the population. I make no case for a proportion of judges to be women or to be from an ethnic minority, to be black or to be white, but it is wrong that a mere handful of the senior judiciary are currently women and it is wrong that only two or three are from what may be categorised as ethnic minorities or are black. I commend the work of the Lord Chancellor, but the judiciary must become more representative if its members are to reflect and find acceptance within our society as arbiters of law and rights. I wish the Lord Chancellor well in his efforts towards that end, but I believe that further effort is required. Proposals will be forthcoming from the next Labour Government to ensure that a more balanced judiciary is in place by the end of the first term of the Labour Government.
The miscarriages of justice have been plain for all to see in the trials and media coverage. Criminal trials all too often suffer undue delay. Justice delayed is justice denied,
Column 192which is not acceptable in modern society. Black and ethnic minorities, people with mental health problems, those already incarcerated and women suffer discrimination within our judicial system. Without a requirement in court to refer to legislated, written rights and with a barely discernible commitment to upholding the rights in the covenant, people up and down the country are subject to wrongful searches, arrests, detentions, convictions and imprisonment. That is not the way to ensure that citizens in this country support the judicial process and the hard-working police we are so lucky to have in this country. It is the way to undermine those institutions rather than strengthen them. I believe that written rights would help to strengthen those very forces of law and order now so ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
The legal aid system in this country is shameful. The Government have directly violated the right to free legal assistance for those who need it. The United Nations human rights committee stated in 1991--the last time that the Government had to report to the United Nations--that legal aid provisions in the United Kingdom were "excessively restricted". Those are not my words, but the words of the United Nations. The Conservatives have not only ignored that criticism, but have now placed the right to justice of the vulnerable and the poor in even greater jeopardy by legislating in April last year to reduce legal aid eligibility still further. Even more people are now being denied access to the courts where their cases can be dealt with openly and honestly.
The right to remain innocent until proved guilty is another basic human right and a fundamental tenet of our justice system. Not only has the proposed erosion of that right in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill been criticised by lawyers, pressure groups and politicians of all parties, but it is clearly in breach of our obligation under international law to guarantee a fair trial as defined in the international covenant for civil and political rights.
The European Commission of Human Rights has already ruled that the removal of the right to silence in Northern Ireland under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 should be considered by the European Court. It is not good enough for our country to be periodically dragged into the courts, whether it is at the European level or whether it has to come before the United Nations every five years or so as the naughty boy of the international democratic community, unable to live up to international obligations that it helped to draft. The Government's school report states, "Must do better".
We in the Labour party recognise that there is a balance to be struck between convicting the guilty and ensuring that the innocent are not convicted. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has made many proposals aimed at speeding up the conviction of the guilty, early intervention in the case of young offenders and other steps to reduce crime and protect the victims of crime. The rights of innocent people must be protected. We must ensure that suspects are not exposed to misleading questions which may result in false confessions and grave injustice. I shall not delay the House by rattling off the list of cases in which individuals have wrongly convicted themselves out of their own mouths as a result of such questioning. Those sad cases are known to all of us in this place.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill does not confine its proposed rights violations to an erosion of the right to silence. It threatens the lifestyles of minority
Column 193cultures and will jeopardise the right to free movement and peaceful assembly. What sort of democracy can we claim to be when we are denied the right of assembly and peaceful protest ? Those rights are enshrined in the covenant, so the Government are obliged to adhere to them. The covenant is not a voluntary process, but something written in international law to which the Government have voluntarily subscribed. It is not a menu from which they can take what they like and leave the rest. The Government are once again absolving themselves of their responsibility to adhere to the convention, much to the detriment of the rights and lives of United Kingdom citizens.
Under the international covenant for civil and political rights, we are also entitled to liberty and security. We must be protected from arbitrary arrest or detention and be accorded the due process of law. The right of freedom of association, which includes the right to form and join trade unions, is also enshrined in the covenant. The denial of trade union membership to employees at GCHQ is a disgrace and a grave violation of those rights. That, too, will be put right urgently and quickly by an incoming Labour Government after the next general election.
As immigration spokesperson for the Labour party, I am constantly confronted by violations of the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. For example, the right of aliens to have an expulsion decision review is specifically and clearly stated in the international covenant for civil and political rights, but the Government breached their obligation to that right by passing the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993.
The Act removed the right of appeal against refusal of both entry clearance and leave to enter from visitors and students intending to study for less than six months and from prospective students and their dependants. It amounted to a removal of redress from about 25 per cent. of applicants. Many thousands of people who had appealed previously, had their appeals upheld and, therefore, could visit friends and family in this country found themselves without the right of appeal and denied the ability to test the decisions of the Home Office and the Government. It has compounded the existing problems of discrimination and disadvantages suffered by individuals from non-white countries that the Conservatives have failed to address. Asylum seekers are not only detained en masse without trial, but are kept in difficult conditions, often for many months. It is in breach of the Government's obligations not to deprive anyone of his liberty
"except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as established by law"
and to treat all persons that are deprived of their liberty "with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person".
Can the conditions at Campsfield detention centre, where detainees are driven to go on hunger strike, be considered humane or dignified ? How can the death of Omasese Lumumba, who died in Pentonville prison, where he was forcibly detained awaiting an asylum decision, be justified ?
Prisoners are also denied the humanity and respect that is their right. Many prisons in the United Kingdom are overcrowded, with low standards of health care and sanitation, and problems such as drug taking are on the increase.
Column 194The international covenant for civil and political rights states that the essential aim of the penitentiary system should be the reformation and the social rehabilitation of prisoners. The United Nations human rights committee stressed the importance of that in its last report on the United Kingdom, yet prisoners in this country are offered little or no attempt at rehabilitation. Training and education facilities are limited, access to counselling and psychotherapy is denied to most prisoners and the use of solitary confinement continues.
Why does the Conservative political agenda appear to favour the imprisonment of as many people as possible ? Their philosophy of prison works, as outlined by the Home Secretary's speech to the rabid Conservative conference last year, which proclaimed just that. It also proclaimed objectives such as locking up 12 to 14-year-olds and making community sentences "a proper punishment" with no regard to rehabilitation. That will serve to violate and not protect the rights which are bound in the UN convention.
I feel strongly that the best answer to the crime problem in Britain, particularly where it affects young people, is to give those young people a job ; to give them some hope and some future. Then they will find less time to do the damage they so often do when denied that hope and that future by being denied a job.
There is not even an effective means of redress for prisoners whose rights have been violated, although the international covenant for civil and political rights clearly states that there must be such a remedy. We should have a prison complaints system that is independent and representative and full legal rights to representation and appeal.
Along with other citizens, prisoners must have their rights safeguarded in a civilised society and we shall follow closely the appointment and activities of the prison ombudsman to see whether he lives up to the benchmarks set by the United Nations.
It is fundamental to the international covenant for civil and political rights that the rights it serves to protect are accorded to all citizens equally and without distinction, yet the Conservative Government have continued to preside over institutions and to implement procedures which are clearly in breach of the convention's non-discrimination articles.
The Government have continued to ignore the unequal position of women in many spheres of economic and social life in the United Kingdom and have even refused to implement many of the
recommendations put forward by their own independent watchdog, the Equal Opportunities Commission, when it has suggested anything approaching a radical overhaul of sex equality legislation. The rights of ethnic minorities are also negotiated and the Commission for Racial Equality cites continuing evidence of widespread discrimination on racial grounds.
It was with some regret that I read the Home Secretary's comments in the recent European election raising fears of mass immigration from eastern Europe, raising the spectre to frighten people here by saying that millions of people would come into the United Kingdom from central and eastern Europe, and, indeed, telling some untruths in respect of the policies of my own party.
It really sits ill with such a person to pose as the friend of the ethnic minority communities, seeking to ensure racial harmony while stoking the very fires of prejudice and discrimination that so afflict our country. That was as
Column 195deeply disappointing as his failure to condemn the Mail on Sunday for its distortion of the story relating to those Jamaicans who came to Britain at Christmas time and its statement that those people had vanished.
The Home Secretary knows as well as anyone else that by the same definition millions of British tourists vanish at any one time because people are not counted in and counted out of nations when they go on holiday. It was a ludicrous story for the Mail on Sunday to run and it was even more offensive that the Home Secretary could not find it in himself publicly to state his condemnation of the way in which that front page story was run in order to incite individuals to a wrong perception of the situation concerning immigrants or visitors from Jamaica.
It was really not good enough to come forward with a less than adequate statement on racial harassment and minor changes to the law on racial harassment when we all know that the race card will be played at election time, as it was played in the European elections and the last general election and as it will be played in the next general election.
Quite frankly, I hope that the Home Secretary, not least because of his own family background--I do not wish to linger on that, but I understand that he came from a family of immigrants and has made much of himself from that background and I welcome the fact that he has done that--should consider the fortunes of those setting out on the same path. To feed prejudice and the poison of discrimination does no credit to him or his office.
Under the international covenant for civil and political rights we are entitled to privacy and the Conservative Government have made a mockery of that right. Infringements of individual privacy by the state and large corporations are now rife, let alone the bugging and the use of long range lenses to pry into the lives of individuals by the media.
Surveillance and bugging have become more prevalent, and employees complain of intrusive monitoring of their personal lives in the work place. There is even talk of introducing identity cards--but to imagine that such cards will have a serious impact on crime is to delude oneself. I fear that the Prime Minister is snatching at another of the one-off ideas that he comes up with sometimes, such as boot camps. They will have no effect whatever on hardened criminals such as drug dealers, and others who can easily obtain access to false identity cards. That happens throughout Europe, and the introduction of identity cards will not influence such people by one iota.
Press regulation is inadequate, and the press complaints body is unrepresentative. The need for a formal privacy law can no longer be ignored. Even the Government's own consultation paper "Infringements of Privacy" admitted that the law does not protect people adequately from harassment. Opposition Members recognise the need to balance the right to privacy with rights to freedom of information and expression. We require not only the introduction of privacy laws but a freedom of information Act, "right to reply" legislation and a free press.
For too long we have drifted away from fundamental principles of open government and free information towards censorship, excessive secrecy and unaccountability in government. Those developments are not the product of any personal defects in Conservative Members ; they are a logical extension of centralised power in this country, which is unchecked and unchallenged, with no one item able to stand in the way of the will or whim of members of
Column 196the Executive. That, rather than the inadequacies of this or that political personality, is the fundamental fault in our political system.
At present, we do not even have minimal legislation on freedom of information. The Conservatives have not only held but withheld information as they have seen fit. Even the citizens charter allows public authorities to keep basic consumer information secret from the public. Sometimes the Conservatives give us a glimpse of commitment to upholding their human rights obligations ; in this instance, they have promised to release information on request under a new code of practice on access to Government information. It is a bit surprising that the effect of the code will be limited in practice : unlike a freedom of information Act, it is not actually enforceable. Rather than having access to documents, we shall be given only selective answers to questions. Even then, information on immigration, nationality and refugee policy will be exempt--and the Conservatives are planning to charge for the information.
The same circumstances apply to so many of our rights. Legislation for rights protection may be in place, but that is not enough to ensure that our rights are made effective in practice. The Government do not merely have an obligation to legislate ; they have a responsibility to make good their rights protections. A pertinent example is the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs. That right is essential if we are to have a representative and accountable Government, and maintain a sense of citizenship that has faded steadily over the past 15 years.
Little wonder that there is a pervasive feeling of alienation from the institutions of politics ; little wonder that there is a low turnout in our council and European elections--and, in my view, an unacceptably low turnout in our parliamentary elections. Little wonder that there is a deep, genuine and growing contempt, if not for this place, for some of the people in it and for antics that the public perceive as irrelevant and unimportant --antics that we get up to when there are matters of great import to be discussed. We in this place have a necessary duty to correct that problem. I believe that we must ensure that our procedures are brought up to date-- not in a dry technical sense, but as an important, indeed central, part of our democracy. In an electronic age, people at home should feel that they share our beliefs and respect our opinions, rather than seeing what we do as a form of the cult comedy that so often appears on our screens.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Speeding up our procedures involves a difficulty : it often means that opportunities for Back Benchers are wiped out. For instance, the second Adjournment debate used to be an acceptable part of House of Commons procedure, but is now exceedingly difficult to secure. Tonight is an example of that. I am in no way criticising my hon. Friend, but I warn him that modernising our procedures often means fewer opportunities for Back Benchers who may want to put urgent points of view on awkward subjects.
Mr. Allen : I have great respect for my hon. Friend's views in that respect, and in particular for the doughty fight that he, as a legislator, has carried out against the Executive. I think that many newer and younger Members of Parliament pride themselves on emulating, in their own way, his efforts to perform that task.
Column 197I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the Executive now has powers that would make Stalin salivate. The Prime Minister, in 10 Downing street, has the ability to appoint senior judiciary and every member of the Cabinet--the senior Executive ; he has the ability to appoint Members to the second Chamber, should that ever be necessary. If 1,000 Members in the other place were to perish and the majority was not there for the Conservative party, the Prime Minister could appoint additional Members, unencumbered by a bill of rights or a written constitution.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) thinks long and hard about these matters. He may agree that one of the central problems of this place is the fact that the legislature is not an independent body but, to all intents and purposes, the creature of the Executive. It is almost possible to use an analogy that was used the other day, involving the film "Alien" : within the legislation is the enormous parasitical body of the Executive, controlling its every movement. I am waiting to see it burst out from the Minister at some point in the near future.
I consider the control exercised by the Executive to be the enemy of democracy. The only answer is to develop a pluralist democracy of many institutions, each with its own legitimacy and power, that can confront and conflict with the Executive on the road to consensus. I think that the Executive has often allowed Back Benchers the few crumbs of power that they have in order to disguise the fundamental inadequacy of this place in holding the Executive to account. The international covenant for civil and political rights guarantees everyone the right and opportunity to participate in the conduct of public affairs, to vote or be elected and to have equal access to public service. In 1994, we still have massive over- centralisation and restricted access to the opportunities that I have cited. Central Government refuse to devolve power to the nations and regions. Again, I make no passing party-political point ; Governments of all descriptions have always tended towards centralisation because they have been unencumbered and unrestricted by written rights and constitutional developments, and local democracy has been classically undermined over the past 16 years. I often wonder why many of my hard- working colleagues in local government stand for election. They do a vital and tremendous job, but they no longer have influence or control over budgets. Many members of the Conservative, Labour and other parties now choose not to enter local politics and serve their community because they feel that it would be useless to do so in the face of the Executive power that is being used against them. Many people take great pride in being able to make small local achievements, but their right and ability to do so is being denied by the Government's massive centralisation drive, which conflicts with one of the basic tenets of civil and political rights in the international covenant.
Column 198Parliament Act 1911, by defining its financial abilities and by making clear its power--will require wide discussion and probably some genuine consensus in the House.
We must listen to the voices outside and must give them power and let 1,000 flowers bloom, even though from our point of view some may be weeds. It is important to hear people and ensure those developments. In that way lies economic recovery. The great personal strength of the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher--using the centralised machine to its nth degree--has proved one thing to all of us : that centralisation can no longer deliver economically. It was tried with its best driver but failed. The answer to our economic ills lies in a far wider effort, involving independent local communities, individuals with rights and the ability to define their own futures and with the regions and nations of the United Kingdom operating together.
I do not believe that our economic salvation lies with centralisation. It will be guaranteed, as it is in many of our leading competitor countries, only by those who seek to devolve energy and power and give people their head to innovate and be entrepreneurial. The way that the Government are going, running counter to the international covenant on civil and political rights, is the wrong way to go--more and more centralisation will mean that we are less and less effective.
One of the classic examples is the plethora of unelected quangos. Billions of pounds of public money is dispensed without account or clearly defined lines of scrutiny to elected representatives. Our public services, having been in the hands, first, of locally-elected representatives and then nationally-elected representatives, are now increasingly in unelected hands.
Membership of Parliament, for example, is not open to all, most starkly because the hereditary principle still operates in half of our legislature but also because the unsociable hours of Parliament and the lack of child care facilities prevent those with family responsibilities from participating in government. Black and ethnic minorities remain under- represented. An incoming Government must, above all, make it clear that as part of a new democratic settlement--a new pluralist settlement--we shall redeem our historic pledge to have an elected second Chamber and abolish the House of Lords in its current form. That, too, ties in with the international covenant on civil and political rights by ensuring that people are drawn into public affairs.
It is nonsense that the vast majority of those who sit in our second Chamber are hereditary peers. That is becoming less and less tenable in this day and age. As I read in the newspaper the other day, what a farce we would say it was if the second Chamber in Germany, instead of being made up of regional representatives, were made up of relatives of the former Kaiser or Bismarck or that the second Chamber in Russia were made up of relatives and descendants of Lenin, Stalin or even the Tsars.
I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East, before his sad death, felt vehemently that the hereditary peerage should be dispensed with quickly and that we should have proper elections to the second Chamber. Nothing less would be acceptable under a new Labour Government.
Hon. Members, too, have no reason to be complacent for the reasons that I outlined earlier, with the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow. This place needs to rediscover some teeth in terms of the way in which
Column 199it scrutinises legislation. Pre-legislative scrutiny is very important. The Special Standing Committees that have been in abeyance for many years need to be resurrected in some form. We must strengthen departmental Select Committees so they can report to the Floor. Since 1979, there have been 500 departmental Select Committee reports, many of them first rate, but only four have been voted on on the Floor of the House. What other organisation that any Member is connected with establishes a committee to do a job and refuses to receive its report ? What nonsense.
We must make some fundamental changes before we shall be seen to be fit to challenge the Executive. That Executive may be a Labour Executive. That is one of the reasons why resisting the temptation to shelve reform needs the inoculation of clear, open public commitments well ahead of a general election.
The formal political process must be opened up to ensure broader representation of people, nationally and locally. We need a diversity of institutions--that is the definition of pluralism and is contrary to our unitary system--that are elected, accountable and, above all, independent of central Government, so that none of them is the creature of central Government and the Executive.
We also require a plurality of electoral systems. I do not make a case for any particular electoral system, nor do I make a case for change in the first Chamber, but one of the things that I learned from two years hard labour on Lord Plant's commission into electoral systems is that there is no holy grail, no perfect electoral system. It is a matter of political judgment, and the judgment of my party, endorsed at its annual conference last year, is that there should be a regional list system of proportional representation for the European Parliament. It seems perfectly suited to that. That means that last week's election was the last election under first past the post and we will move on to a different system under a new Government. That should be welcomed by the Conservative party, since such a system would have meant that the disaster that they suffered would have been slightly mitigated.
However, as a democrat I accept that there are swings and roundabouts, and that a mid-term Labour Government might find themselves the beneficiaries, by losing fewer seats than otherwise might have been the case.
Secondly, the Labour party conference proposed that the second Chamber should be elected by a similar proportional representation system, using a regional list. Finally, the conference said that there should be a referendum, and that the people should decide on the electoral system to be used for this place, although there was a preference for single-Member constituencies.
Those three pledges were not merely made by our national executive committee and our party conference, but were agreed by our former leader. Of all the people in my party, John Smith had the greatest gut instinct for democracy--perhaps because of his Scottish background, perhaps because of his devolution experience. He may have been a hard man to convince, but when he was convinced on a matter of democracy, he stuck with it in the strongest possible fashion--as I know well with regard to his deep personal commitment to a bill of rights, to incorporate the European convention on human rights. It is nothing less than a personal task to ensure that those commitments are carried through in his absence, as he would have wanted.
Column 200We must encourage greater participation in our democracy, if it is to be worthy of the name. We can do that by more than one-off participation once every four or five years at a general election ; we should have lots of strings to our bow. We should have meaningful local elections and develop regional assemblies from the bottom up. They should not be imposed from the centre and thus be immediately repealable following a change of Government ; they should be regions that people want, care for and build themselves. Devising those institutions, and ensuring that people feel that they own them, will be an important task.
We should also have a judiciary that is more representative of and less distant from those whom it seeks to serve. We should have a European Parliament that defines its powers. Let us take the word subsidiarity at its face value, decide what should be done at the European level and define clearly what the powers of the nation state should be. In those contexts, backed up by the fact that individuals would know their rights, individuals would genuinely and meaningfully be able to participate at many levels in our democracy. That is a great cause, well worth working for in the next Labour Government. But that is for the next Labour Government, and here we are now with a Government who seem to have no desire whatever for any restraint to be placed upon their activities in the name of democracy, or of human rights or citizens' rights. An unrestrained executive power has allowed the Conservatives to pursue policies and introduce legislation that undermines human rights in many spheres. The result is a disillusioned populace, withdrawn from politics and lacking any real sense of citizenship and civic responsibilities. Participatory democracy has been stifled in this country.
One of the key areas that we must examine to ensure that the international covenant for civil and political rights is made meaningful is the use and abuse of prerogative powers--the ability of a Government of any political party to take the nation into a war without any redress, and without even informing the House. The House debates matters long after the event, and then only because a motion is contrived to allow Members to have their say. Obviously, I do not say that the Executive should be prevented from taking the necessary action at a time of national emergency, but at the earliest reasonable opportunity that action should be ratified by the legislature-- the people who represent the electorate.
Mr. Dalyell : Does my hon. Friend recall that the House of Commons was in no way consulted about the decision to allow bombers to go from Upper Heyford and other British bases to attack Libya, and that there was no formal permission for the Gulf war ? Those and many other factors mean that it ill becomes us to criticise the Americans too much about the Gulf of Tonkin.
Mr. Allen : The same could be said of Kuwait as of Libya--and also of the Falklands conflict, in which actions were taken and only later, on a procedural technicality, was the elected House of Commons involved.
Prerogative powers also extend to such activities as the appointment of the judiciary. How interesting it was to see the hearings concerning Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas in the United States Congress, at the same time as in this country two judges of the Court of Appeal were appointed without any reference whatever to the legislature. I do not
Column 201say that we should put our judiciary through the mill as Clarence Thomas was put through the mill, but there is a happy medium. Those individuals should at least have their appointments noted by the House.
To have a Legal Affairs Select Committee--the only part in the St. John- Stevas jigsaw still missing from 1979--would be progress. The possibility of having a Secretary of State for Justice, answerable at the Dispatch Box, rather than having a Lord Chancellor in the other place, would be progress, too.
Certainly we should understand how the individuals concerned come to be appointed. I shall digress briefly with one anecdote. The father of a friend of mine was to be appointed to a senior post in the judiciary, and when he went along for his interview the whole process, which lasted 40 minutes, consisted of a discussion of how the cricket team was doing at his old public school. He then left the interview and was told by letter the following day that he had got the job.
There may be some exaggeration in my friend's story--I do not know--but it is difficult to discover the criteria used in individual appointments. It would be healthy for our democracy if, even if only nominally, such senior people were to come before the House or one of its committees to take up their posts and be given their duties legitimately by the legislature. I go no further than that. The present process undermines the credibility of the judiciary, and mystery does not add to that credibility in this modern age- -the information age.
Mr. Dalyell : On the question of a Secretary of State for Justice, when I was first elected here some 32 years ago, the whole place was hoatching with Queen's counsel on both sides. Both parties will soon be hard put to it to find QCs to occupy the positions of Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. It is becoming a problem for the Conservative party and it is certainly a problem for the Opposition. In those circumstances, the idea of having an Attorney-General becomes that much more difficult. We Scots have seen this because we cannot have direct questioning of the Lord- Advocate, who is our equivalent of the Attorney-General. With a case such as Lockerbie, there can be extremely serious consequences.
Mr. Allen : That is a genuine difficulty in respect of the Attorney- General and the Solicitor-General. Where I would draw the line would be that if the Lord Chancellor was accountable to this place, and if we genuinely had a Secretary of State for Justice, there would be no reason for that individual to have as a requirement a legal qualification, any more than we would expect the Secretary of State for Health to be a legally qualified doctor. It might be better if a Secretary of State for Justice, encountering the fundamental political problems and administrative problems that beset our legal system and our judiciary, was a person without legal qualifications. In terms of prerogative powers, there must be in principle one general rule--that in this day and age, any power exercised by the Executive should have legislative authority. Again, I am not saying that that would alter the way in which the power was used. However, let it be transparent and let it be on the face of a Bill that the Government--the Executive--have the power to take the
Column 202country into war, on the condition that at the earliest possible moment the House should be informed and allowed to debate the matter.
Let it be on the face of a Bill that the judiciary should be appointed in the following way. Let it be on the face of a Bill that instead of treaties being covered by some obscure rule from the 1920s, they shall be ratified by this place if they involve international obligations. Again, perhaps, there is no need for a change in the way in which power is exercised, but essentially there is a need for a change in the way in which power is held to account. That needs to be made very clear in this place.