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2.42 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I am delighted to take part in what, I concur with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), is a very important debate, even though there are not very many of us in the House. The issue goes to the heart of our constitution and the constitutional position of the House in our arrangements, but I shall be brief because I agree with everything that I have heard so far.

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I apologise to the Minister for not hearing his opening remarks from a Bench in the Chamber. I did have the benefit of seeing him make them on the television in my room before I came to the Chamber.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is not supposed to say that.

Mr. Howarth: My right hon. Friend may say that, but, having voted assiduously against televising the House, I must say that I am now taking advantage of it.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned, the Bill of Rights of 1688 was a very important constitutional measure and it is as valid today as it was in 1688. Parliament fought hard against the Crown to establish its right to be free from any kind of oppression from the Crown to express its view, and to ensure that Members themselves should be free, not on their own behalf but on behalf of their constituents and others, to make a case free from the fear of being oppressed by the Crown or—even worse—locked up or jailed. We should be conscious of that privilege, which was won so hard so many years ago, but we must also be conscious of the need to exercise if responsibly. That is the gist of the Minister's case.

I hope that we have achieved the right balance in the motion before us. It is important that we ensure that there is a separation of powers, and that we ensure that the courts have freedom to interpret the legislation as passed by Parliament—although I must say that I am becoming increasingly alarmed at the way in which the judges are becoming politicised and seeking in too many cases to usurp the duties and responsibilities of Parliament to make the law, by seeking to stretch their interpretation to such an extent that they are almost defying the will of Parliament. However, that is a bigger argument than that with which we are faced today, so I shall not proceed too far down that avenue, except to say that I think that it is not simply a question of being purist about the right of the courts to determine issues without Parliament being in contempt of the courts by raising those issues which could not be raised otherwise.

On the point about Ministers trying to hide behind the sub judice rule, I saw the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office nodding earlier to show that he is of the view that Ministers should not seek that refuge.

The hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) was right to allude to the Pinochet case as being a good example of the difficulties that the House has faced and that we want to resolve. It was absurd that all the newspapers were discussing that case, it was being discussed on television and radio—everyone was talking about it—and that this House was the only place that was not allowed to discuss it.

The Home Secretary had finally to make a judgment. I am entirely happy about the exercise of that discretion. It should not have been left to the courts; it was an issue of national importance in which leaving it to the discretion of an elected Minister of the Crown was the right way to proceed. However, it was nonsense that we could not question the Home Secretary, who was to make the final decision, when all the newspapers and everyone else were making their representations to him.

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The compromise reached, which is that

is the right way to proceed.

Since the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North raised this matter on behalf of the Labour party, as did the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on behalf of the Liberal Democrat party, perhaps I can do so on behalf of the Conservative party, so that we have a united front in declaring to the Chair that we wish to place it firmly on the record that it is the view of the House as assembled here today—given the massive number of Members present—that we hope and expect the Chair to be robust in interpreting this resolution in favour of the House so that it has an opportunity to debate issues in the manner set out in the motion. If there is an area of doubt, I hope that the Chair will err on the side of the House rather than that of caution.

2.47 pm

Mr. Stephen Twigg: As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) implied from the Conservative Front Bench, I am getting used to these debates of great national importance and to crossing swords with him and other hon. Members on these matters. I assure the House that on the doorsteps of Enfield, Southgate in June no more important issue came up than the changes to the sub judice rule. Perhaps that is reflected in the turnout here this afternoon. I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for their constructive contributions to our short debate.

When I was asked to propose this motion today, I had a similar sense of trepidation to that described by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)—that we would have a debate full of lawyers. In fact, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) was the only lawyer to speak and he made a useful and constructive contribution. I do not intend to cover ground that was covered in my opening remarks. I simply thank all hon. Members for their support.

I very much agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, that we are seeking greater clarity and also balance. That is important and it is also central to the matter. I also agree with the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) that there is real concern about the balance being right and the fact that sometimes it is not. I will not be tempted to take

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the route that he was not tempted by, but we want a proper separation of powers and a proper understanding on the part of the judiciary as well as here in Parliament about the roles that we have under our constitutional arrangements.

I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I can reiterate that there is clearly cross-party support for a strong and robust stance from the Chair, both in the Chamber and in Committees. I am pleased that we have such broad and strong support for this proposed change and, therefore, I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


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Human Rights (Joint Committee)

2.50 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I beg to move,

I hope that the motion is self-explanatory. We set up the Joint Committee on Human Rights, as we explicitly said, on the lines of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which had a membership of six from each House and a quorum of three from each House, making a total quorum of six. Under the motion, that quorum will be reduced to two, for the purpose of evidence taking only. I understand that a similar change is likely to be made in another place.

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