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28 Oct 2002 : Column 604—continued

Simon Hughes: That is an interesting question.

Mr. Grieve: A very interesting question. Eventually, irrespective of what the House does, it is possible for the case to end up in Strasbourg, and the Government are faced with a number of ways of dealing with it.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Is it not the case that as soon as we sign such a convention, if we do so in good faith, we are effectively saying that we trust the convention and the international community more than our own democratic system? The purpose of signing such a convention is to fetter the discretion of our elected Ministers. Is not my hon. Friend's argument really against the idea of signing a convention, if he is a strong supporter of democratic decision?

Mr. Grieve: My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly good point. It is possible for the House and the Government to find themselves in conflict with the interpretation of the convention by the European Court of Human Rights. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend says that that is inevitable. I am never quite sure about inevitability, and of course there are mechanisms available for the Government to derogate under certain circumstances, if they believe that it is necessary to do so. That is precisely why this evening's debate seems so important.

Given the Home Secretary's repeated assertions that he will not be budged on tariff life sentences or the Special Immigration Appeals Commission because he believes that he has a duty to the public that it is important that he discharge, I should like to hear how the Minister reconciles that with the point raised by my right hon. Friend, and how she explains the Govt's position on the matter.

Vera Baird (Redcar): Is not the timing of the debate disastrous for the Opposition? Why are we trying to debate what the Executive might do if their powers are struck down, when the case in Anderson has not yet been decided, and the Home Secretary has just been upheld by the Court of Appeal?

Mr. Grieve: I am afraid that I disagree entirely with the hon. and learned Lady. Human Rights Act points are being taken every day in the courts, so we cannot say that matters are sub judice on the Human Rights Act, or we would not be able to discuss its generality at all. The matter is extremely topical. After all, the Home Secretary could have said nothing. He could have said, in respect of the tariff for mandatory life sentence prisoners, XI will wait upon events", but he did not. He made the choice to come out with a series of public pronouncements that put him on a direct path of potential conflict with the judiciary, judicial decisions and ultimately, potentially, with the European Court of Human Rights. There is a very legitimate subject to debate.

The hon. and learned Lady might have a persuasive point if the Home Secretary had said nothing. Then she could argue that we should wait and see what happens, but it is the Government who are briefing the press about the Home Secretary's position and the Home Secretary who is going on television and radio to say how he stands on the matter, and we would like an explanation of how the Government view it in principle and in practice.

Vera Baird: The debate is premature, because the possibility cannot be excluded that, if the Home Secretary lost now and the case as to his powers to set a tariff went to Strasbourg, it is conceivable—not very likely, but conceivable—that the court in Strasbourg would find that it was within our margin of appreciation in implementing the Human Rights Act, so the issue would simply never arise. Why should we speak about theories, when there is no practical purpose to be served?

Mr. Grieve: I am afraid that I disagree entirely with the hon. and learned Lady. The matter has arisen, and it is a matter of which the House should be seized. Are we to say that when the Home Secretary comes out with a series of public pronouncements—made, some might suggest, probably unkindly, for political advantage—the House should not debate the implications, in the light of the Government's stated approach to the operation of the Human Rights Act and its incorporation into our law?

There are other aspects that we need to examine. It is interesting, because it is directly linked to the situation in respect of tariff life sentences, that there has been another decision by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Ezeh and Connors, which effectively said that early release for prisoners, as previously enshrined as a matter of mercy, and possibly of administrative convenience and practice, has been turned into a right under English law. The result is that, as the Minister will know, prison governors can no longer award lost remission, because it is no longer thought to be a remission period; it is not supposed to be part of the sentence at all.

I have had several letters—I do not know whether my hon. Friends have received similar correspondence—arguing that the sentencing system in this country, from mandatory life sentences for murders through to the tariff and period served by other criminals in prison, has become a fantasy world. That is a direct consequence of the working of the European convention on human rights. What is the Government's view on that? Do they welcome it? If so, will we move towards a system that would appeal to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, with a determinate sentence for murderers or different categories of murderer? Or will we move towards a situation that was highlighted briefly in the XJustice for All" White Paper, with the judge imposing some different sentencing regime, where the period that one gets is the period that one serves? The Government need to respond to these issues, which are the direct consequences of the operation of the convention and its incorporation into our law.

Why has the Home Secretary chosen to dig his trench on the issue of adult murderers' mandatory life sentences? He opposed the ending of his discretion in the case of juveniles in the Thompson and Venables case, but he did not challenge it. I appreciate that there are distinctions, but it would be interesting to hear from the Minister this evening why the Government accepted that, even though they opposed it and argued against it in court, yet nailed their colours to the mast over adults. I should be grateful to hear how that distinction was arrived at. It is an important one, which the House should know about.

In addition, we must face the fact that there are some opposite effects of incorporation. For example, every piece of legislation coming before us now has that famous imprimatur that it is human rights compliant. As the Minister knows, that is merely a mantra that seems to be recited ad nauseam. Often, it does not appear to bear much relation to the legislation that we pass. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will know that when we discussed the Proceeds of Crime Bill serious reservations were expressed about whether the process of civil confiscation is Human Rights Act complaint. The Executive seem not to be in the least bit concerned about that issue.

Almost daily we see massive impacts on the freedom of the citizen. During the weekend—I was struck because I had previously missed the point—I found that teachers being vetted have to give their bank account number and the maiden name of their mother, which is the usual device by which banks check people's identity. Apparently, the data are being processed abroad. The procedure was introduced with the laudable aim of preventing paedophiles and sex offenders from moving into the teaching profession.

There was not a squeak from the Government about human rights implications. Presumably, it suits the Executive's decision-making process that such checks should be introduced, but I think that they constitute a massive intrusion into personal freedoms. That brings me—I hope that the Minister will listen—to the nub of the issue: the role of Parliament in the process that I have described. I do not know whether she has bothered to read what was said at the time of the incorporation of the Human Rights Act, including what I said. However, I made it clear—I still believe in this passionately—that if the Act is to work, Parliament's involvement in the process must be constant and frequent.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights does extremely good work but that is not what I would see as frequent parliamentary involvement in the process. The Government should have initiated debate on certain matters a long time ago, including on tariff life sentences. It was clear that the Home Secretary had a view that might well be challenged and found to be unsustainable.

We have had an extraordinary paradigm shift in the way in which we run our affairs. Some might argue that that is for the better. However, it involves a dialogue between the Executive and the judiciary, from which Parliament is effectively excluded. I have serious doubts about that process. As the dialogue continues, there is a danger that the process of justice, Parliament and the Executive will be brought into disrepute with the public. We have only to see how the public respond to the news about some of these matters. In my opinion, many people are deeply concerned about—this is how they see it—their rights disappearing down the plughole, with parliamentary scrutiny lessened and the judiciary intervening in cases where frequently the public cannot see that a human right is being infringed.

In the Simms case, Lord Hoffman said:

Surely the issue before the House is that there are compelling examples where it would appear that the Government do not feel that they have done anything contrary to human rights, but, undoubtedly, we as a House are not squarely confronting the issues before us. That is why it is important that the matter should be debated.

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