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Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend focuses on the Human Rights Act 1998, but our obligations extend beyond that Act to the European convention on human rights itself. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if it is found that the Bill breaches that convention--there are strong arguments to be made that it does--the UK could, irrespective of section 17 of the 1998 Act, find itself before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which could find the Bill to be in breach of the convention? Irrespective of the 1998 Act, the Bill may be in breach of the convention.

Mr. Mackinlay: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I sometimes despair: I should have expected an intervention by now, either from the Minister or from the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster. We are told that he and the Bill's supporters want the legislation to be passed. Its progress has taken and will continue to take a long time, unless the right hon. Gentleman rises and tells us that he will commend the new clause to the Bill's supporters, whom he could consult during the debate.

If the right hon. Gentleman does not do as I suggest, I hope that it will be noted by those outside the House that both the Bill's promoter and the Government were counselled on the matter. When the Bill reaches another place, I hope that their Lordships--whatever their views on and affection for the quaint and arcane arrangements for the City of London--will understand that an important legal principle is at stake and must be taken into account. I hope that, either here or in another place, new clause 1 will be incorporated in the Bill, before it is enacted.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has done the House a signal service by tabling the new clause, not only because of its relevance to the Bill, but because of its relevant to the procedures of the House in a wider sense. I should say that my purpose is not to delay the Bill's progress--I believe not in using procedural methods to delay Bills with which I do not agree, but in defeating them in the appropriate manner, that is, in the Lobby. I hasten to add that the City of London is of limited relevance to my Somerset constituency, even though, when I am in London, I live only 50 yards from its boundary.

In broad terms, my reason for participating in the debate is that there is at stake an important principle, both in terms of the way in which we in this country conduct our democracy and in terms of the way in which we in the House adopt procedures to comply with the commitments that we have given, either through treaty, as in our original adoption of the European convention on human rights, or through legislation, as in the Human Rights Act 1998. Certain of the Bill's contents give rise to, at least, concern about its compatibility with the Human Rights Act.

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The hon. Gentleman and I have, for two and a half years, served together on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. He will recall the careful work that that Committee carried out in respect of electoral proceedings in Hong Kong, as part of an overall study of human rights. We were highly critical of the proposals adopted by the Chinese Government, with the support of the Hong Kong authorities, because they appeared to be at variance with our understanding of human rights and proper electoral processes.

The Bill creates an arrangement which, if not precisely identical, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Hong Kong arrangements. Therefore, it is right that the House should satisfy itself as to whether there is a breach of human rights legislation. If it were to be found that the Bill is in breach of that legislation, that begs the question whether the current arrangements for the City of London are even more in breach. However, that is a separate matter that is not encompassed by today's debate.

8 pm

The issue is important for the House because the hon. Member for Thurrock has put his finger on a deficiency within our present arrangements. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is right when he says that there is no differential, when we pass a Bill to become an Act, when it comes to the route by which it reached the statute book. That is merely a matter of procedure within the House. At the end of the day, the measure is an Act of Parliament.

If I part company with the hon. Member for Thurrock, it is when he says that there is a responsibility on the Government to ensure that legislation that is presented to the House is in accordance with the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998. There is a responsibility on us all, as legislators, to satisfy ourselves that the legislation that we are prepared to put forward is in line with the 1998 Act. Have we yet satisfied ourselves that we have fulfilled that implied duty on us? My answer is, "No, we are not." We would be satisfied, perhaps, by an assertion from the Treasury Bench, but only if that were backed up by appropriate legal advice, which means the intervention of the Attorney-General. We have had no such assurances. Therefore, that which is proposed in the new clause seems adequate to fill the lacuna in our present procedures and would prevent the implementation of the Bill until we have received satisfaction.

Those on the Treasury Bench should consider the problem carefully. I do not think that at present there is an appropriate procedure. I cannot accept that there is a distinction between Government-sponsored legislation and that which comes from Back-Bench Members, and there must be some defence against us acting effectively unconstitutionally, and certainly in breach of our commitments. I do not think that the hon. Member for Thurrock is right when he suggests that we can act ultra vires in these circumstances. That is not a term that would apply to the House. However, there is scope at some later stage for a court to certify that the legislation that has been passed in these circumstances is not in accordance with either our own domestic legislation--for example, the Human Rights Act--or our treaty obligations. That would require the Government to introduce further legislation. It was a deficiency in the Human Rights Act

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that we did not incorporate the ability to strike down law that was held to be in breach of the human rights convention, but that is a different matter.

I shall listen carefully to the Minister's reply to this short debate. If there is a Division on the new clause, I intend at present to support the hon. Member for Thurrock. I say that as an individual Member and not as a party spokesman. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on these matters, has some sympathy with the view of the hon. Gentleman. He is nodding, so I take it that he is assenting.

Those who support the Bill should explain how we shall otherwise discover whether the legislation that we are being asked to consider, support and enact is in accord with existing legislation and with the treaty obligations into which we freely entered. I do not believe that the mechanism currently exists. Irrespective of whether the clause is passed this evening, the debate has raised an issue that needs to be considered on another occasion to ensure that all the legislation that we consider is in accordance with our clear intentions as demonstrated by the Human Rights Act.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I have listened to the debate with great interest, and especially to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). We are discussing not only how the City of London should arrange its elections, but much wider matters. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) should tell the House whether the promoters considered its implications under the European convention on human rights. The Government, however, are providing massive assistance--they are distancing themselves from the Bill politically while supporting it. The promoters, however, have a responsibility for ensuring that their legislation, which will be part of the legislation of the United Kingdom, accords with the European convention. The Government must deal with the issue if it arises later.

I put the second question personally to the right hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced Member. Having previously been Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with responsibility for human rights, does he believe that a resident in the City of London, who could be outvoted by people or companies who have bought their votes, would be able to take a case to the European Court of Justice? Those of us who vote in general elections go to polling stations, where there are masses of huge notices warning us about bribery and corrupt practice, for example. Yet the Bill legalises the very corrupt practices that would, we are warned, get us unseated by an election court. I have twice been before an election court, and it is a terrifying body.

Could it really be the case that a resident in the City of London, who discovered that his claim to vote in a ward election was overwhelmed by people or companies who had bought their votes and nominated the elected, would not have a reasonable chance of going to the European court and saying, "This is corrupt"? If the Bill is enacted, the election court would have to interpret the measure that is before us. It would say, "I am sorry, it may be corrupt generally but it is not corrupt in London because Parliament has passed legislation that allows this type of corruption." However, that will not apply if someone goes

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to the European court. That court would have the right to consider the legislation as well as the practice and relate the two to the convention.

I have used strong language, and I believe that we are considering a corrupt proposal. I do not mean that individuals will benefit, but I believe that we are being asked to legalise the buying of votes for political purposes. As Members of Parliament, we have a responsibility, quite apart from my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, to consider whether we want to see the great City of London having its local government bought by companies under legislation that we enact. The House is almost empty, but I know that if there is a Division the Lobbies will fill with Members who have been told by the Whips that they have a duty to support the Bill. That is what happened last time.


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