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Mr. McDonnell: I shall deal with that later. I repeat that it behoves us as individual Members and as a corporate body--a Chamber--to ensure that all legislation complies with the European convention on human rights. That is why we enacted the legislation in November 1998.

We have not had the advice of Officers of the House or members of the Government to enable us to come to a view, on Second Reading, in Committee or on Report, on whether the legislation complies with that convention. The new clause could provide us with some protection, but I doubt that it will. It is a long-stop. It is a post-action protection. Although supportable tonight, it would have been better had the Bill been withdrawn and properly drafted.

I want to dwell for a moment on the general question of private Bill legislation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must focus his remarks. We are debating a specific new clause. To go outside that and have a general discussion

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on the European convention on human rights or the private Bill procedure of the House would be out of order, and so I shall rule.

Mr. McDonnell: With great respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is what I seek to avoid.

Mr. Cohen: The new clause and amendment No. 22 are grouped under the heading "Compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights". My hon. Friend developed an argument about possible liability under the convention. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) said that the Minister might be liable. In the past, when local authorities were in breach of the law, they were subject to district audit, surcharge and punishment, but often when Ministers have been found in British courts to be in breach of the law, they have not been subject to a penalty. Now it will not be the British courts that make a decision, but the European Court. Is my hon. Friend saying that a Minister, or this Parliament as a corporate body, or an unincorporate body, could be subject--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That intervention is far too long.

Mr. McDonnell: The point that I was trying to make, perhaps not clearly enough, is that I no longer believe--the Pinochet case shows this--that localised immunities allocated by individual Parliaments or states can provide adequate protection when human rights have been contravened. Individual Ministers and all hon. Members are liable for their own action. On that basis, the new clause may provide us with limited protection. The new clause seeks to ensure that the Bill does not become an Act until we have a clear statement from the Attorney- General or another Law Officer on behalf of the Government that the Bill does not contravene the human rights convention.

I can tell the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster that I appreciate the City of London Corporation giving its legal opinion. I would welcome a copy of that opinion and the name of the counsel who provided it. However, it is somewhat discourteous not to circulate that opinion in advance, given that this matter has been raised on three separate occasions in the past 12 months.

The point of section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998 is to ensure that all of us--officers of the House, Members of Parliament and Ministers--are given independent advice in which we can have confidence. Had we had a statement from the Attorney-General, or had the matter at least been referred to him during the Committee stage, we would have had some response that we could have taken into account in the debates.

Mr. Bermingham: Would it surprise my hon. Friend to learn that the courts throughout the land are being advised by the Lord Chancellor's Department to implement article 6 of the European convention before 1 October in decisions that they are currently making? After 1 October, there will be no problems. Would it not be logical for Ministers to examine the convention and implement it in their legislation?

Mr. McDonnell: With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, who is experienced in these matters and in the

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law, section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998 provided that, in advance of the formal implementation of the European convention on human rights in British legislation later this year, Ministers could show compliance on the front of a Bill. That is pertinent to this new clause. We were hoping that acceptance of the new clause would enable that provision to be incorporated not in private legislation generally--I accept that--but in this specific legislation, because of the concerns that have been expressed about it on both sides of the House.

In our debates, it has been noticeable that few, if any, Members of Parliament have defended the existing system. Few, if any, have defended the reforms. Some Ministers have said that this may be a staging post on the road to further reform, but have not defended the current proposals in their own right.

The rationale for the new clause is that the 1998 Act does not apply to private Bills. Section 19 on statements of compatibility does not apply to private Bills. We have had rulings on that from the Speaker, and we accept that. Therefore, we must propose an amendment, such as the new clause, to each private Bill to see whether it is compatible with the European convention on human rights.

Section 19 of the Act is specific. It states:


We raised this matter on Second Reading, and the Committee discussed it to see whether the Bill is in contravention of the convention. Section 19 continues:


    "or . . . make a statement to the effect that although he is unable to make a statement of compatibility the government nevertheless wishes the House to proceed with the Bill."

We had a statement from the Minister that the Government wished the House to proceed with the Bill, but that was not in relation to compliance with the convention.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is repeating arguments. He must direct his remarks to whether or not the new clause should be accepted by the House. It relates specifically to the Bill and the proposed action by the Secretary of State. I do not want to hear the arguments that I have heard already more than once this evening being repeated yet again--otherwise I shall have to invoke Standing Order No. 42.

Mr. McDonnell: I am not entirely sure what Standing Order No. 42 is, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman will find out if he persists in straying from the subject of the new clause.

Mr. McDonnell: I think that that is what they call an object lesson, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is crucial for us to know whether the Bill contravenes article 3 of the first protocol before it is enacted, for several reasons. For one thing, if we do not know that, we shall become liable. As was made clear in our debate on the European convention, article 3 has crucial implications. It requires Governments who signed the

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convention to support and promote free and fair elections. In our view--no Minister can contend that the selling and purchasing of votes--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is now beginning to deal with the substance of the Bill, and with arguments that we have already heard. The new clause is specifically directed at action demanded by the Secretary of State to deal with a specific situation, and the reasons underlying why that might be necessary have been rehearsed many times.

Mr. McDonnell: With the greatest respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is difficult to debate the new clause without exploring all the ramifications of the Bill in the context of the convention. If only to protect ourselves in the future, we should all say why we consider the new clause to be so critical, because saying whether the Bill contravenes the convention will be important in ensuring that none of us are liable in the future.

I want to be assured that any record of today's debate makes plain my sincere belief that the Bill does contravene the convention. On that basis, if the new clause is not accepted, I want it to be clear when the legislation is tested--if it is passed--in any action against individual Members or Officers that I am not liable. I want it to be clear that I did not support the Bill at any stage, but supported the new clause to try to ensure that it would not be enacted before a statement had been made about whether it contravened the convention.

Mr. Bermingham: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which is often overlooked by Parliament. In December 1998, the court made a decision in Pepper v. someone or other--I cannot remember the name--[Hon. Members: "Hart."] Thank you. The decision was that the courts would now look not only to the intention of Ministers, but to what lay behind a Bill, and to the intention that Parliament then had. If the intention of Parliament is to flout legislation that is about to be enacted, surely no court will uphold the contents of--in the present instance--this Bill.

Mr. McDonnell: That, too, is a valid point. I believe that, if the House rejects the new clause tonight and a change is made later, tonight's discussions can be prayed in aid with regard to our joint responsibility for promoting legislation in this way. My point, however, is that we are jointly, severally and individually liable for our actions. I believe that, unless the new clause is passed tonight, we as a Chamber will be liable for contravention of the convention. I want to make it plain that I was not party to the decision, and I support the new clause in order to prevent any future contravention in the legislation. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, the selling and purchasing of votes is not just corrupt, but contravenes the European convention on human rights.


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