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28 Oct 2002 : Column 604—continued

7.54 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes) : I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I welcome the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) to his role in opening the debate. Given that this is the Opposition's debate, I am rather surprised that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, did not choose to open it himself. I am surprised not least because the hon. Member for Beaconsfield so faithfully reproduced his right hon. Friend's thesis as outlined in various media outlets and written pamphlets recently from which it is plain that this is a subject dear to his heart. I think my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) put her finger on it. I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman did not open the debate because his plan to put the Government on the spot, as he saw it, has failed. I think that he was expecting the Court of Appeal last Friday to find against the Government on whether our anti-terrorism detention measures were discriminatory. So confident was he that he put out a press release the day before offering to help the Government sort out what he called the problems with the European Court of Human Rights.

The right hon. Gentleman then sought this debate. Unfortunately for him, the Court of Appeal found unanimously in the Government's favour on all counts. The right hon. Gentleman having hoped to put the Government on the spot, I have sympathy for the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, who consequently found himself in a bit of a spot. That is why he made the contribution that he did: there was nothing much left to say.

Given that the Opposition selected this topic for debate, we might at least have expected the hon. Member for Beaconsfield to enlighten us on the Opposition's policy on the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. Instead, the only thing that is clear is that they are not clear. When speaking about these matters on XToday" a week ago, the right hon. Member for West Dorset admitted:

One week further on, I do not think that it is any clearer. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to sort out some of the Opposition's misconceptions about the ECHR and the Human Rights Act, and to deal with some of their errors.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I wonder whether the Minister thinks that there are times in our political history when there are issues that arise and politicians, although they may not immediately know the answer, have the feeling that there are questions that need to be discussed, or whether she thinks that that is an impossible conjunction?

Beverley Hughes: Not at all. I do think that politicians have a duty to stimulate debate on important matters even though they may not fully have resolved what the issues may be. However, I should have thought that they would have a reasonably clear idea of where they stood on some of the principles. What we heard from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield leaves us in a complete fog as to where his party stands and the course of action that it is proposing as a result of the dilemmas that he has outlined tonight and the right hon. Member for West Dorset has outlined in his pamphlet.

Mr. Grieve: I must point out to the Minister that she is in government. It would be nice to hear from her the Government's position on the matters to which I referred. It is the Government who usually lead on these matters. The hon. Lady knows that in respect of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission—and on tariff life sentences—we indicated clearly that we fully understood the Government's position. I do not understand what the hon. Lady is getting at.

Beverley Hughes: The Opposition may have said that they understood the Government's position on detention measures and SIAC, but they did not agree with them. I shall try to take up that point in attempting to unravel the Opposition's motives and the course of action that they really want to propose—I suspect that they are fearful of doing so—in relation to the ECHR and the Human Rights Act.

At the moment, we are not sure whether the Opposition support the ECHR and the HRA or are against them. Half the time, they seem to think the ECHR is bad, while the rest of the time, they think it is good. That may reflect the fact that they are divided on so many issues. Indeed, we have heard different propositions from different Opposition Members. Their official spokespeople wished the Human Rights Bill well on Third Reading and in the other place, but they talked a few months later of repealing the legislation. A year ago, their leader told the Prime Minister that the ECHR was Xan obstacle". Last week, the right hon. Member for West Dorset seemed to think that the Human Rights Act was all that stood between an over-mighty Government and our traditional liberties. He practically cheered the judges on, but this week, his party kneels at the shrine of the democratic will of the people. One wonders where it will be next week.

I should like now to deal with one of the central aspects of the Opposition's position, which is also one of the fundamental flaws in their argument: the proposition that there is a choice to be made between democracy and human rights.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I should like to ask a question before the Minister leaves the subject of great court victories won by the Home Secretary. Is she aware that in October last year, he won a great victory when Shafiq ur Rehman, a gentleman whom he had been trying for five years to deport—obviously, the process cost a lot of money—lost his appeal to the House of Lords? Will she explain why the Home Office miraculously turned around 10 days later and said that he could stay?

Beverley Hughes: I shall not be distracted into dealing with a particular case. I should like to deal with some of the fundamental principles that the Opposition say they are raising. Their premise is that there is a choice to be made between democracy and human rights, but in our view, there is no such choice, as they go hand in hand. Respect for human rights is surely one of the hallmarks of democracy and a parliamentary system, because it shows that society values every individual person.

Reference has been made to the well-reported speech made by the Lord Chief Justice the other week, in which he said that human rights came with true democracy, whether Governments wanted them or not. He could have added that that was the case whether Oppositions wanted them or not. He referred also to the words of another senior judge, who summed up the relationship between human rights and democracy by saying that human rights were not a substitute for the processes of democratic government, but a complement to them. We certainly strongly subscribe to that view and I would have thought that we could all agree on it.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): On the question of the choice—

Beverley Hughes: I have not yet given way, but I shall do so now.

Mr. Cash: I am delighted; I am touched by the hon. Lady's generous effort. The choice between democracy and human rights is crucial and relates to the amendments as well as the motion. She says that no such choice has to be made. In that case, why did the Home Secretary recently refer to the need to change the Human Rights Act in order to achieve conformity with what he thinks will be the democratic will of Parliament?

Beverley Hughes: I do not think the Home Secretary has proposed to change the Human Rights Act himself. In relation to some of the cases raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield—I refer to the Anderson case in particular—he referred to the need to preserve the view of the House about the role of Parliament in determining policy on punishment, especially with regard to murders. We cannot anticipate the judgment, but if necessary, we will use domestic legislation to preserve that position. That is the point that hon. Gentleman made. [Interruption.] That does not involve a choice between the two very important cornerstones of our society—human rights and democracy—in relation to any one issue.

It is astonishing that the Conservatives find that issue so hard to contemplate. I want to deal with it later, but as they are finding it so hard to understand, I shall also rehearse it a little now. In any mature democracy, the extent to which human rights, parliamentary sovereignty and the democratic will of the people have to be negotiated around each other is part and parcel of modern life. That is part of a mature democracy and the constitutional settlement that we accepted when we helped to draw up the European convention on human rights. It is clear that Opposition Members cannot carry in their heads the idea that those issues cannot be reduced to simple edicts and are not one-dimensional. We are here to deal with the extent to which human rights, sovereignty and democracy have to be worked out in a democratic system.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she has been patient and has hence contributed to the debate. I do not seek simplicities. Does she recognise that there are times when the democratic will and the convention as it is interpreted by the judges may come into conflict? She appears to do so, as she refers to negotiation. In that case, who is to prevail in the negotiation and by what mechanism and against which criteria will they do so? That is our question.

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