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Mr. Dalyell : I intrude on my hon. Friend's generosity, once again, to support him. It is not simply a matter of not formally debating military action before it happens. I have experience, as do some of my colleagues, of pleading with Speakers when ominous situations were developing to allow private notice questions so that something could be done before the event about what seemed to be important issues. But we are told that the situation is hypothetical and that we are not entitled to a private notice question. In those circumstances, it is a case of not being able to take action until the milk is spilt. That is deeply unsatisfactory, democratically and constitutionally.
Mr. Allen : As usual, my hon. Friend finds the most knotty and difficult points of principle in my general case. I would be extremely cautious before saying that the Executive power itself could not be used as and where it was seen to be appropriate. However, I underline the principle that the legislature should then be able to scrutinise and hold to account the Executive in their actions. My hon. Friend may agree that that would be the only sensible way in which to proceed.
We do not seek to hamstring the Executive. On the contrary, as many years' membership of the Public Accounts Committee has taught me, an effective legislature is a boon and a bonus to an Executive, unless it becomes deadlocked or gridlocked by the political problems that have beset the Executive in the United States. If it does not, it is of great assistance, not only in terms of value for money, in which the Public Accounts Committee revels, but in terms of good government. Some of the most appalling mistakes made by Government would have been checked if we had had an effective legislature. The poll tax is but one example. I led for my party, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), who was with us earlier, on the Child Support Bill. My word, the Government must now wish that they had listened at that point, a year before the Bill became an Act. Would not they now give their eye teeth for a pre- legislative stage ? They could then have listened to the fathers, the mothers and the children who could have told them about some of the nonsense that would emerge through the Child Support Act 1991. But we failed. The House failed in its duty of holding the Executive to account. Since we failed, literally thousands of people have suffered, many of them children.
That is but one example. Hon. Members who have served on other Bills can tell the House from their own experience of how in education, or in immigration or other areas, the failure to provide proper legislative scrutiny has left a legacy, which is inherited by the schools, by the people seeking a visitor's visa, and by other individuals
Column 203affected by our legislation. We are not yet competent and professional enough in the way in which we scrutinise the Executive and their legislation. Clearly, that has to be put right, or we may, even then, be in breach of our commitments under the international convention on civil and political rights.
The Opposition do not want prerogative powers and Executive powers done away with, but they should be held to account by the appropriate body, in a political philosophy which goes back 200 years through a separation of powers and all the other key democratic pillars to which many of us pay lip service. We want those powers held to account by the legislature and checked, at one remove, by an independent judiciary. That is the basis of any democracy. We do not have that basis in this country and we do not have it in this place. We want to see the Government of the United Kingdom revitalised, with renewed trust in their practice and institutions and revived participation on the part of all their citizens. We want to see citizens as shareholders in our democracy. The responsibility lies with Government and, if this Government will not take it, that responsibility, abdicated by the Conservatives, will be picked up and welcomed by an incoming Labour Government.
The international covenant on civil and political rights sounds technical, it sounds dry, it does not look very sexy on the Order Paper, but all of us in the House would do well to put on our walls as part of our job description what it says in the following respect :
"the ideal of free human beings, enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his or her economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights".
That is not a bad job description for a Member of Parliament and it is one which we should take very seriously. Central to that will be the need to improve the UK system of checks and balances, so that the Executive may be held to account, as I have outlined, and a new, pluralist constitutional settlement based on those principles of subsidiarity and openness and entrenched rights in law.
I have said that we are committed to incorporating into British law the European convention on human rights. We are also committed to establishing an all-party commission, which will devise a British bill of rights and bring that bill back to this place in a matter of years, perhaps two years, after the first incorporation has taken place. That will give individuals the right to challenge arbitrary decisions and excesses of powers that affect them and to guarantee a quality of treatment without discrimination. Those of us who are interested in that area--all of us should be--follow the proposals emanating from Northern Ireland at the moment about the possible consensus that could arise around a bill of rights in that part of the United Kingdom. There is much of importance for the other people of the United Kingdom in that, as well as for the people in the Northern Irish part of the United Kingdom and I wish those who are involved the very best in producing something that may have something to teach the rest of us about making sure that human rights are respected throughout the kingdom.
Statute law will be used, and must be used, to correct the specific rights problems which are not always captured by the generality of rights legislation. Our new constitution will comprise that rights legislation, the election of a second Chamber, an examination of our electoral systems and referenda on the system to be used by the first
Column 204Chamber, English regional assemblies, a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, a reformed judiciary to which I have alluded, and independent local government.
Very soon, our country will undergo the humiliation of having the Conservatives defend their rights record before the United Nations. Shortly thereafter, the UN human rights committee will issue its response, which, as the last one did, will inevitably highlight the deficiencies of the human rights record of the Conservative Government. Let this be the last time that our record is a source of shame for our country. Let a new Government, a Labour Government, build a nation aware of its rights and secure in their defence. 9.10 pm
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : On 4 November 1839, in my constituency, 20 men were killed, one of whom was George Shell, a cabinet maker from Pontypool. The night before he died, he sent a message to his parents saying, "If I die tomorrow, I will die in a noble cause." That noble cause was the same noble cause about which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has spoken tonight. It was the cause of democracy and human rights. George Shell was one of the Chartists to be shot down in front of the Westgate hotel in Newport. The Chartists campaigned against all the crude injustices and unfairness of the embryonic and very wretched democracy that existed at that time. Over the years, our democracy has improved. All but one of those Chartists' rights have been achieved. We have got rid of uneven sized constituencies. The property right has been abolished and the franchise is now universal.
However, one of the Chartists' claims has never been achieved. As each year passes, that other point of the charter which they carried on their banners becomes more appropriate. That point was annual parliaments. I am not suggesting that we should head in that direction, but the position that we are in now is highlighted by the fact that, all that time ago, the Chartists foresaw the perversion of democracy that we suffer from now. Once every four or five years, one party persuades the country to vote for it.
That persuasion is often not achieved by legitimate means. It is carried out by the use of money, half truths and bribery by a party. I can give the House an example of that as I had a ten-minute Bill on the subject. We no longer control the national spending by parties on elections. The proportion is £9 by the Conservative party, £4 by Labour and £1 by the Liberal Democrats. There is no check on that whatsoever.
One of the advantages enjoyed by the governing party in the elections was that it was given poster sites, which could not be obtained by the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats, by the Imperial Tobacco Company. That company told me in a letter that it did that because it knew that the Government had promised not to ban tobacco advertising. That was a thoroughly illegitimate way of obtaining advantage. We also know that the Government used the powers of advertising to put forward to the electorate an untruth about tax policy. However, on one day every five years over the past 15 years, the Government have persuaded the country to support them. On almost every one of the other days, a majority in the country opposed the Government. That is not the proper way to run a democracy.
Column 205I shall not repeat the main points that were raised so eloquently by my hon. Friend. However, we have a real difficulty in Wales because Wales has the largest democratic deficit of any country, certainly in the European Union. The democracies of eastern Europe emerged while our democracy in Wales was abused and battered more than ever before.
Just over a fortnight ago, I was part of a panel on democracy in the European election campaign. One candidate admitted that he did not believe in democracy ; he did not think that it was a good thing. He thought that the world should be run by 7,000 yogic fliers : these people had a special knowledge and they would get together, unelected, and decide everything. We have people in Wales who are not, I think, qualified as yogic fliers, but they are qualified as members of one party which cannot win elections in Wales. Fellow travellers of that party sit on quangos in Wales.
Over the past 15 years, we have seen an enormous growth in the power of quangos and the amount of money that they use. They are staffed by people who cannot be elected--failed Conservative candidates in local and other elections that take place in Wales. At the same time as we have seen the process of unelected bodies growing in power, we have seen--as my hon. Friend pointed out--the denial of power, influence and resources for elected local councillors, so they have little power left now. Our democracy has been degraded by that process.
The civil service is a great worry. We do not often talk about the value of our civil service. However, 150 years ago, we reformed the civil service because, like most civil services in the world, it was corrupt and politicised. Despite 15 years of Thatcherism, and despite 15 years of promotion by people who were seen by the Government to be "one of us" and to have a certain political view, we still have a civil service that is the least corrupt and the least politicised of any civil service in the world.
What are we doing about it ? We are offering the civil service to be market tested and, ultimately, privatised and contractualised, so that it will be run by people who are not devoted to public service. From the top to the bottom, civil servants are special. They have a special regard for their role, and they know that they are not out to make a profit. There is an element--often it is a powerful element--of service in that job. All political parties have had the benefit of a civil service that is not corrupt or partial. That is one of the great strengths of our democracy.
Because of the Government's fanaticism for believing that everything private is good and everything public is bad, we are about to sacrifice that. We are about to see the civil service shrink into a small core--that is the expressed wish of many Ministers--with all the main civil servants being run by commercial firms and working towards commercial ends. What we will end up with is what Governments in other countries are ill served by-- civil servants who are partial, politicised and corrupt.
Never at any time in the past 150 years have we had so many cases of corruption in quangos and other public bodies, especially, sadly, in Wales. Almost every week, there has been a scandal in a public body in Wales over the past 12 months.
My hon. Friend mentioned the need to reorganise our democratic process. Our faith in the democratic process
Column 206has collapsed--and so it should, because when most people go to vote they realise that their vote does not make any difference. The only votes that matter are those in the marginal seats. People who vote Conservative in Ebbw Vale or Labour down on the south coast realise that their vote does not make any difference whatever. It is only the small number of people in marginal seats who count.
We have seen the travesty of democracy that has occurred so many times. The worst example was the 1983 election where a large number of people voted for the third party which had few representatives in the House. Unless we correct that situation and ensure that the views of voters are reflected in their representatives here, which we can do simply through the system that the Labour party is proposing, there will be a lack of respect for democracy.
Today, I spent some time looking at a Bill that went through the House in 1985. The Prime Minister was the Government spokesman, and the acting leader of the Labour party was the Opposition spokesman. It was an atrocious piece of legislation. If one is looking for a bad Bill, that was it. It introduced personal pensions and it was interesting to read some of the prophetic remarks of one of our former colleagues, Mr. Frank Haynes, then the Member for Ashfield. He told us clearly what would happen as a result of the Bill. Tonight we heard about the legislation that set up the Child Support Agency. We are not an efficient democracy if we allow bad laws to pass, unchecked and without proper scrutiny. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North mentioned another matter that has occurred to us during the past few days and it is interesting to note that the two are connected.
The Prime Minister declared his views on civilising our procedures and stopping us from looking like an entertainment, for which he would receive warm support from all corners of the House, as happened in the debate yesterday. We are legislators. Legislation is not a spectator sport, or something to be enjoyed. It is not something for people outside to view for their entertainment, but we are seen in that way and it demeans our role and the people's view of us. How sad it was that, when someone attempted to take up the challenge that the Prime Minister made by asking us to send him our questions so that he could think about them and give a considered response, his answer to a serious question that involved the pensions of 6 million very anxious people and did not include combative words or try to strike any political advantage was not reasonable or civilised and did not produce light rather than heat. An editorial in The Times described his answer as a typical civil service briefing, followed by a cheap political jibe.
Can we really take the Government seriously when they talk about reform of the House of Commons unless they show by their deeds as well as their words that they are serious about it ?
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North dealt ably with the legal system. At a more humble level, how are magistrates selected and whom do they represent ? The lord lieutenant of a county chairs the committee that selects its magistrates. Being a lord lieutenant is hardly a democratic job. I applied for it once. I wrote to the Queen and said that I had noticed that all the lords lieutenant in my county had been prominent freemasons with brilliant military careers who lived in large houses surrounded by their own grounds. They were all white, male Gentiles, rich enough to do a job without any salary. I asked the Queen
Column 207whether she thought that I, as a shift worker in the steel works who thought that he could do a reasonable job, could be considered for it. I received a brief and polite reply, but my application was unsuccessful.
The Guardian recently picked about 12 lords lieutenant at random and found, amazingly, that every one had been to Eton--hardly a cross-section of society, but they chair the committees that select magistrates. It is not surprising that, even in an area such as mine where we elect Labour Members of Parliament with very large majorities, most magistrates declare themselves to be supporters of the Conservative party. It is highly dangerous when we can draw maps of our towns and find that the magistrates come from one area and the defendants from another. That cannot be a good thing if we want a magistracy who can understand the people who come before them. My final point relates to language in this House. My hon. Friend said that we should have the right to use the language of our choice. This is the only Parliament that Wales has. Wales is England's first and, sadly, last colony, but if I were to speak in the original and ancient language of Wales I should be declared out of order. It has the same status here as riotous behaviour.
Yet there are Parliaments in the world which can deal with eight or nine languages perfectly happily. You are looking nervous, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I shall not speak in Welsh. On one occasion when Madam Speaker was in the Chair, I spoke in the words of Chaucer, which were totally unintelligible to almost everyone in the Chamber. I would be quite in order to speak in those words, and I shall for a moment : "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendered is the flour."
I shall stop there. But those lovely words of Chaucer are English--not Anglo-Saxon or Norman French. They are perfectly in order in this House, but they are gibberish to most people. Yet I cannot speak in Welsh, a language understandable by 20 hon. Members, in the House because that language is denied in the House.
We look forward to the day when all of the lovely languages of these islands--Irish, Gaelic and Welsh--can be spoken here. That is one of our fundamental human rights.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) that West Lothian and the Linlithgow constituency cannot complain about our lord lieutenant. He is the 23rd Earl of Morton, but he did leave school at 15 and was a chef, truck driver and building worker. He is a jolly good lord lieutenant.
In his quite outstanding speech--one which was more than ephemeral and will be much-thumbed by many people in the Labour party--my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) touched on the problem of Law Officers, and a Secretary of State for Justice. Often in life, one does not know that one is missing something until suddenly one does not have it. I am referring to the fact that the Scots do not have a Law Officer in the House of Commons. If anybody had told me 20 years ago that this was a serious situation, I think that I would have been relaxed about it. But one does not realise what is not there until one does not have it.
Column 208Perhaps I am obsessed with Lockerbie, but it was the biggest crime against western civilisation since 1945. One of the key Departments--proudly separate from the Scottish Office,
incidentally--the Crown Office, through either the Solicitor-General or Lord Advocate, cannot be questioned in the House of Commons. I do not make a party point, but it is a deeply unsatisfactory situation. Another truth about British government, which I am sure my hon. Friend has tumbled to, is that when there is a problem which affects one Department, it is often very efficiently dealt with. If it is in the domain of the Home Office--in my opinion, a very efficient Department--my experience is that usually one gets answers and there is a coherent policy. Equally, if something is clearly in the domain of the Department of Transport, there is again a good reply ; and that is also the case with the powerful Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The trouble starts when a problem straddles two, three or four Departments.
I do not say that simply because it is an excuse for raising a subject which I would have wished to raise in a second Adjournment debate, but the gods were against me on this occasion for reasons which I shall not go into. It was an erosion of the rights of Parliament, and that is why I interrupted my hon. Friend to say that we should be careful about getting rid of anachronisms. The second Adjournment debate was an anachronism. It was highly inconvenient, but it was often an opportunity to air subjects of great urgency. Therefore, we should be careful about cutting down on what seem to be the sillinesses and slownesses of the parliamentary system. The subject of Lockerbie straddles the Crown Office, the Foreign Office, and it must be a matter of considerable concern to the Home Office. It is of considerable concern to the debate, because if we are talking about international conventions on civil rights, two groups have civil rights in this matter. One group must surely be the relatives of the victims of Pan- Am 103. They have their rights to the truth. Another group with rights are the 5,000 or so of our fellow countrymen who are working in Libya and are affected by sanctions. If Lockerbie were simply a matter of history some years ago and that nothing could be done about it, people like me would not be bothering the House of Commons at every available opportunity about it. It is an on-going issue because it is vitiating many of our relations with the Arab world. Only today, when I attended the Nuclear Forum, the most bitter complaints were made by senior executives of Babcock and Wilcox that orders that might have gone to Libya from Britain are going from South Korea. The effects of Lockerbie represent an on-going cost to one of the Arab countries with which we were most friendly.
Now is not the time to go into the details of the Libyan connection. I do not want to chance my arm and I hope that I am not a parliamentary cheat in the sense of commenting on one subject under the guise of another. I have one question only to put to the Government as a whole, not least to the Home Office : what on earth do the British Government think are their obligations in trying to get to the truth of the Lockerbie crime ?
The law department has sat back and its behaviour has been described as simplistic by Queen's counsel in Scotland. Its officers have merely said, " Well, if anybody brings us any evidence, that would be a different matter." Consider what has happened within the past seven days. A man said to a court in Beirut, "I put that bomb on Pan-Am
Column 209103." Surely that is a matter on which there should be an investigation. Ministers should report to Parliament on its progress.
All I am asking for at this stage is that some Minister says," We take this claim seriously. It may not be true, but we have sent out some detectives to talk to the Lebanese and Syrian legal authorities in relation to the court case." Perhaps those detectives will come back and report that that individual just mentioned Lockerbie in order to prolong his case so that he would not go to the scaffold for the quite different crime of murdering a Jordanian diplomat. We do not know whether anything active is being done.
Part of the reason for the dissatisfaction felt by some of us is that we are not persuaded that the British Government really want to get at what could be an extremely embarrassing truth. I find it absolutely incredible that in the 800 pages of her memoirs the former Prime Minister does not mention Lockerbie once. What she does say is that it was justified, of course, to send planes to attack the working class areas of Benghazi and Tripoli. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North has already said, that is what happened. Planes were allowed to take off without any discussion. It was justified on the ground that the Libyan state would never again take part in terrorist activities. Who had better information from the intelligence services than the former Prime Minister ?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order. I fully appreciate the points which the hon. Gentleman made previously. With his long experience in the House, the last thing that he would ever do would be to cheat. He need not inform the House of that ; the House knows it. However, he is now going a little beyond what the debate is about.
Mr. Dalyell : I shall return rapidly to the covenant for civil rights. The international travelling public--not only people like Jim Swire and Martin Cadman, parents of the British victims, but the Americans, including those youngsters from Rochester university and their relatives who were on that plane in the pre-Christmas rush only because seats had been cancelled by American officials--have a right to know that the British and American Governments are doing everything humanly possible to get to the truth of that crime. I use the debate simply as a parliamentary opportunity to ask whether there will be a proper follow-up to what happened in Beirut. I took the trouble to go and talk to the Dumfries and Galloway police in Dumfries. I make no criticism whatever of the policemen. I am concerned about the Government Departments with which those policemen must liaise. I ask the crisp question : is anything being done to establish the veracity or otherwise of what happened last week in that Beirut court ?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle) : The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said that he hoped that he was not a parliamentary cheat. The entire House will agree that he is no such thing. I have often listened intently and with respect to what he has said. The House will agree, however, that he occasionally allows his
Column 210enthusiasm and single-mindedness for a subject to allow him to travel at will across the boundaries and definitions of "order". But that is a matter for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While I respect his having made a point about Lockerbie this evening, I do not intend to follow him down that road, and I see from your demeanour, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I would be wise to stick to that course.
The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) made an admirably succinct speech. I share his admiration for the standards in the civil service, but disagree fundamentally with his suggestion that the civil service should not be more businesslike. He might have learnt lessons from the late 1970s, when one looked at the need then to control public expenditure. I predict that, in successive Parliaments in the years ahead, the civil service will have to live with ever tighter financial constraints. It is right that it should learn useful lessons from the world of commerce, never trying to run the civil service as a business but being more businesslike in its approach.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on obtaining this debate, which provides an opportunity to discuss--in some detail, as we have heard--civil and political rights in the United Kingdom. I know of his enthusiasm for cricket. As I listened to him, I thought to myself, as he started and as he aimed for a few boundaries, that perhaps he was emulating his good friend who once played for Nottinghamshire, the former captain of the West Indies, Sir Garfield Sobers, but, as minute followed minute and five minutes followed five minutes, I obtained the distinct impression that he was seeking to emulate Joe Hardstaff ; he was here to bat all day, and all night if necessary. I think that he appreciates the point I make.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in suggesting that the United Kingdom is in the dock in any way for its record on civil and political rights. That cannot be the case. Sadly, his claims about an interest in the subject are not borne out by the attendance in the Chamber this evening. The debate was at an early hour. He made a speech that might well have been listened to by more hon. Members, but, sadly, that was not the case.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's desire to modernise some of the operating procedures in Parliament, but I disagree with him fundamentally when he suggests that written rights should somehow stand above the sovereignty of Parliament. Our system of parliamentary democracy, based on the complementary roles of two Chambers and buttressed by the independence of the judiciary, continues to serve us well, as it has done for a long time. Before I discuss the subject of the debate, I should like to discuss two or three arguments that the hon. Gentleman made. He spoke about the right of silence. Under the law of all three UK jurisdictions, any person suspected of a criminal offence has, and will continue to have, the right to remain silent at all stages of the criminal process. The burden of proof on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt remains unchanged.
The law on the right of silence that we propose to enact in England and Wales does not alter those basic principles of our law. The right of silence provisions simply allow the courts, in certain limited circumstances, to draw an inference from a suspect's silence when it is appropriate to do so, alongside other evidence, in determining guilt or innocence.
Column 211The hon. Gentleman discussed subjects that are familiar to him, and to me, because we have debated them long and hard in the Chamber and in Committees--immigration and asylum. I do not propose, although the temptation is there, to turn the debate into a fully fledged debate on those subjects. I draw just two points to the hon. Gentleman's attention.
He spoke about the abolition of appeals against refusal of visit visas. He did not--I think that he could not have done so--name any other country, with or without a written constitution, that signed up to the international covenant that is the subject of our debate that has a right of appeal against the refusal of visit visas. He knows, as the House knows, that that right existed for only 23 years, I think, on the statute book, and it is not a right whose demise will cause serious lament.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about asylum seekers and about their being detained en masse. He might have explained to the House that less than 1.5 per cent. of asylum applicants are detained, and that they are detained because of the judgment that they will not comply with reporting restrictions. He also spoke about them as asylum seekers, and he well knows that the vast majority of people detained in Campsfield house are people whose asylum applications have already been determined and who are there enjoying a right of appeal, or perhaps have had their appeal refused and are awaiting fresh documentation from their home countries because they have destroyed their documentation.
I return to the the subject of the international covenant for civil and political rights. I shall shortly describe the way in which the United Kingdom meets its obligations and responsibilities under the covenant, but it may be helpful if I refer briefly to the origin and content of that instrument. Under the United Nations charter of 1945, the international community pledged itself to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
As a first definition of those rights and freedoms, the universal declaration of human rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948 as
"a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations".
More than 40 years later, the universal declaration remains an essential statement of human rights by which Governments around the world can measure their progress in that field.
It was always recognised, however, that the universal declaration would not create legally binding obligations. Therefore, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights undertook the drafting of two legally binding instruments--one covering civil and political rights, the other dealing with economic, social and cultural rights. The two covenants were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. The international covenant for civil and political rights took effect in the United Kingdom in 1976. Based largely on those contained in the universal declaration of human rights, the covenant puts into legally binding treaty form a wide range of civil and political rights and seeks to meet the problems of protecting those rights in practice. The rights contained in the covenant are comparable to those contained in the European convention on human rights and include the right to life, to liberty and security of the person
Column 212and to freedom of thought, expression, assembly and association. More than 100 countries are now parties to the covenant.
The principal question that arises from our ratification of the covenant, and that which most clearly separates the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and myself, is the best means of providing for the rights recognised in the covenant in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman believes that the only way to protect human rights in this country is to incorporate an international human rights instrument--like the covenant or the European convention on human rights--into domestic law. The rights and protections afforded to the British people would, he said this evening, be transformed if only such an instrument were entrenched in our constitution.
As the House well knows, that approach runs counter to the way in which rights and freedoms have been protected in this country over many centuries. The Government do not accept the case of those who argue that the incorporation into domestic law of the broadly drafted propositions of an international instrument would, in practice, clarify and strengthen liberties in the United Kingdom. On the contrary, it would weaken the current position by making the law unclear and uncertain.
The basis of liberty in this country is the long-established principle that a person is free to do as he wishes unless the law requires otherwise. Under our constitution, unlike that of many other countries, rights and freedoms are the natural possession of the individual, not something conferred by the state. That possession is assumed--it is not dependent on some constitutional device and it can be limited only by a democratic decision of Parliament. An individual seeking to know his rights has only to consult the law to establish what he cannot do ; he does not have to consult a constitutional lawyer to find out what he can do.
If we accepted the view of the hon. Gentleman, we would overturn that principle and weaken the system of parliamentary democracy in this country. The areas of public policy covered by the general principles contained in the international covenant and the European convention have traditionally, and rightly, been the province of Parliament rather than the courts. Where this is necessary, it is for Parliament to enact detailed legislation on matters that affect the rights of the individual. It must have regard to the United Kingdom's obligations under those international instruments to which we are party, but the final decision rests with Parliament.
Incorporation would transfer this final responsibility to the judiciary, enabling the courts to strike down legislation that had been approved by Parliament. That would not, I believe, be a welcome addition to their present role of interpreting and enforcing specific legislation. The important issue is not the competence or good faith of our judiciary, but whether it is desirable or appropriate for such matters to rest with judges, who are not directly accountable to the public, rather than with democratically elected Members of Parliament. The Government's view remains that it is not. Our opposition to incorporation does not, however, affect our continuing commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights in the United Kingdom. The lack of such formal provision in the United Kingdom does not detract from our major contribution to the preparation and implementation of instruments such as the international covenant for civil and political rights.
Column 213Article 40 of the covenant requires each state party to submit to the human rights committee established under article 28 a report at regular intervals on the measures adopted to give effect to the rights recognised in the covenant. The United Kingdom submitted a periodic report in 1977, 1984 and 1989 ; our fourth periodic report is due to reach the United Nations in August this year. A state party is subject to public, oral examination by the human rights committee on each of its reports ; the United Kingdom was examined on its third periodic report in 1991.
The Government value the system of reporting and examination as an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness with which they meet their obligations under the covenant. Each periodic report contains a factual account of the legislation and administrative practice in the country relevant to the articles of the covenant and, collectively, the reports demonstrate the progress that we have made in ensuring that people in the United Kingdom enjoy the rights and protections for which the covenant provides. As with previous reports, copies of the fourth periodic report will, on publication, be placed in the Libraries of both Houses and be made freely available outside Parliament.
In describing the way in which the United Kingdom meets its covenant obligations, the fourth periodic report will be able to draw on a substantial body of legislative and administrative changes in recent years, which strengthen further the protection given in practice to individual rights and liberties in this country. I should like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the more significant developments.
Articles 2 and 3 of the covenant require non-discrimination on grounds of race, gender or other improper grounds in the enjoyment of the rights recognised in the covenant.
The 1991 census of population was the first to include a question on ethnic origin, and has provided much information on the size and distribution of the ethnic minority population, which will help the Government, local authorities, employers and others to identify inequalities and plan action to overcome them.
The Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 and the Race Relations (Remedies) Act 1994 amend the Race Relations Act 1976 to strengthen the statutory protection against racial discrimination, while changes to the immigration rules expected to come into force later this year will remove virtually all the sexually discriminatory elements of our immigration control.
Article 7 prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In order to meet its obligations under this article and under the United Nations and Council of Europe conventions against torture to which we are also party, the Government are keen to ensure that rigorous mechanisms are in place to enable people to lodge any complaint they may have about their treatment in detention.
So it was that, in April this year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary appointed a prisons ombudsman to consider grievances from prisoners once they had exhausted the internal complaint procedures. In
Column 214February this year, the Scottish prison service introduced a new system for dealing with prisoners' requests and complaints. In Northern Ireland in December 1992, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State appointed an independent assessor of military complaints procedures to provide an independent check on the Army's own procedures for dealing with complaints against its personnel serving in the Province.
In immigration, visiting committees have been appointed at the detention centres where detainees are held for more than a few days, while arrangements have been introduced by all police authorities in England and Wales for members of the public to be appointed as lay visitors to police stations.
Article 9 deals with the right to liberty and security of the person, and here the further safeguards introduced for those in police detention in Northern Ireland are relevant. The codes of practice for the detention and treatment of persons detained under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 came into force on 1 January this year.
Any police officer failing to comply with the codes is liable to disciplinary proceedings. The codes of practice represent a further important safeguard for those detained at the main police offices or holding centres. Other safeguards include the monitoring of all interviews on closed-circuit television and the appointment in December 1992 of an independent commissioner for the holding centres to observe and report on the conditions in which detainees are held. Article 10 addresses the treatment of prisoners. Here we shall refer to the openness of the new parole system under the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Prisoners will receive a copy of their parole dossier, be interviewed by a member of the parole board and given reasons for their parole decision. We shall also be able to report on the new system for dealing with life sentence prisoners and on the development of sentence planning and through care in the prison service.
Article 13 concerns the expulsion of aliens, and a development of particular note, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, which came into force in July last year. The Act provides for accelerated and streamlined asylum procedures to ensure that unfounded asylum applications are dealt with expeditiously and with finality, while genuine refugees continue to be protected.
One of the main provisions introduced by the 1993 Act is an in-country right of appeal--with an oral hearing before an independent special adjudicator--for all refused asylum applicants, regardless of their immigration status. Together with other important safeguards contained in the Act, that represents a considerable strengthening of the rights of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.
Other developments relevant to our covenant obligations include the provision of the Education Act 1993 for the establishment of grant- maintained schools of a religious character, which falls under article 18, on freedom of religion ; the implementantion of the Children Act 1989 and the United Kingdom's ratification of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which are relevant to article 24, on children's rights ; and the Welsh Language Act 1993, which, in accordance with the cultural rights
Column 215conferred by article 27, further promotes and facilitates the use of the Welsh language--even if that does not extend to the Chamber of the House of Commons.
A further provision--to which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North has referred before--is the first optional protocol to the covenant, which recognises the competence of the human rights committee to receive and consider communications from individuals who claim that their rights under the covenant have been violated.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the United Kingdom has not ratified that optional protocol because, since 1966, an adequate and effective means of redress has been available to individuals in the United Kingdom through the procedures and institutions established under the European convention on human rights. The hon. Gentleman and I have debated that in the House on other occasions.
The protection afforded by that machinery is now familiar and well used. The Government do not believe that the position of people in this country would be significantly enhanced by the ratification of the optional protocol. The United Kingdom has signed the 11th protocol to the European convention, which, among other things, makes mandatory and permanent the right of individual petition to the European Court of Human Rights.
Column 216If it is appropriate for an individual's human rights to be heard before a court in Strasbourg before German, Italian and French judges, why may they not be heard in a domestic court before a British judge ?
Mr. Wardle : As the hon. Gentleman knows, even Joe Hardstaff used to come out for a second innings from time to time. The hon. Gentleman either has not been listening, or has missed the point of what I have been saying for the past 15 minutes or so. If he reads Hansard , he will see that it is absolutely clear. He and I have fundamentally different approaches. I have set out my view, and because of the lateness of the hour, I do not intend to repeat all that I have said.
I have demonstrated the United Kingdom's commitment to its obligations and responsibilities under the international covenant. They are to be seen in the legislation that we have enacted--which I have just listed--and the administrative reforms that we have instituted, some of which I have mentioned. They reflect the practical rather than philosophical approach to human rights that we have always taken in this country. That brings me to the point to which the hon. Gentleman has just alluded.
We are less concerned with fine-sounding constitutional provisions than with ensuring that, in reality, the rights and freedoms of the people in the United Kingdom are fully in accordance with our international obligations. The Government look forward to continued progress in this regard, within the framework provided by the covenant.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Ten o'clock.
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