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28 Oct 2002 : Column 604—continued

Beverley Hughes: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, those issues are not new. For 50 years, we have been considering the extent to which human rights butt up against parliamentary decisions and the laws of this country. What Governments of every complexion have had to do in that situation has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). They have to consider whether their obligations to the international community and international law should prevail. So far, those are the decisions that Governments of every hue have decided are important. Those are the issues that any Government face. What we are getting down to is what the Conservative party is thinking about as a solution to some of those dilemmas, but perhaps does not dare mention.

Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Will the hon. Lady give way?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, I am a lady.

Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Lady confirm that it is the Government's view that if an ECHR ruling found against the UK Government, they would accept that judgment, as all their predecessors since we ratified the treaty—we were the first country to do so—would have done and amend the law accordingly? Therefore, if the Home Secretary were found not to be permitted by the convention to set tariffs for adult life sentence prisoners or others, the Government would accept the ruling and the judgment that such sentences should be set by the courts and not Ministers of the Crown?

Beverley Hughes: I can say that we have no intention of reneging on our obligations under international law or of pulling out of our commitments to working with other countries on all those issues and being part of the family that subscribes to the convention. Indeed, major changes to our law have followed as a result of decisions of the sort to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The judgments were not always convenient at the time, but in the end, all Governments, whatever their hue, have put the rule of law above political considerations. I repeat that that is what a mature constitutional democracy is all about.

My point is that most of what the Opposition spokespeople are complaining about—this is reflected in the confusion in their motion—comes not from the Human Rights Act, but from the ECHR.

I listened carefully to hear whether the Opposition would commit themselves to denouncing the whole ECHR as is technically possible. Is that their real agenda? That would be something when all Europe—west and east—accepts the ECHR, inconvenient though its outcomes may sometimes be, as the bottom line of civilised behaviour. The Human Rights Act does not change the ECHR or our international legal obligations under the treaty in any way. It does not change one word of convention rights, but allows us to enforce those basic rights in our courts rather than having to pursue them in Strasbourg.

Mr. Grieve: Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: I shall finish this point first, because I have been fairly generous in giving way.

The Act is primarily about access to justice in our own courts. Of course, it is true that our judges, and not those in Strasbourg, are more likely to hand down decisions that may ask the Government to think again. I wonder whether the Opposition prefer such judgments to come from Europe or from our own courts. We know what answer the Strasbourg court gives to that question, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) has already referred to it. It gives what it calls a large margin of appreciation in favour of domestic legal systems—and quite right too.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister seemed to be coming to the nub of the argument, but then shied away from it. If I understand her correctly on mandatory tariffs for life sentences, she appeared to suggest that the Home Secretary would legislate to overturn any possible decision taken by the House of Lords but might, if the decision went against him at the European Court of Human Rights, accept that. Is that the position? Would he legislate if the House of Lords were to tell him that a sentence were contrary to the convention but would accept the decision of the court in Europe itself? The House is entitled to know.

Beverley Hughes: The House is entitled to know when we know what the House of Lords judgment will be. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar said, the hon. Gentleman's speculation is entirely premature. We will face the issue if and when we meet it.

The Opposition's second argument is that our current system of subscribing to the ECHR, and the Human Rights Act's incorporation of that, takes power from Parliament and puts it in the hands of judges. However, as we are already signatories to the convention, the Act simply means that British rather than European judges are allowed to pass judgment. The Attorney-General rightly pointed out this month in relation to the Guinness four hearing that Parliament could today legislate deliberately and incompatibly with a convention right. The domestic courts would, of course, be obliged to give effect to Parliament's expressed intentions.

The Act is about the rule of law and not about the rule of lawyers and judges. It is crystal clear about parliamentary sovereignty. I refer Members to sections 4 and 6 that make it clear that the courts can issue a statement of incompatibility if they believe that primary legislation is incompatible with convention rights. However, that is not a strike-down power of the kind found in legislation in some other countries. Section 4 (6) clearly states:

That is not to say that a finding of incompatibility does not matter, but neither should incompatibility in the way that the Opposition see it be regarded as a defeat or as a disaster for democracy.

As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, my Department faces some challenging decisions, and we are not alone in that. However, the Conservatives need to have a more mature perspective on such issues. Let us consider some past cases. Did parliamentary sovereignty, democracy or liberty crumble because the Court of Appeal used the Human Rights Act to challenge the Prison Service's blanket policy on taking all babies away from their mothers at the age of 18 months? I do not think that they did. The decision gave us an opportunity to consider the matter again. To put it simply, the judges were telling us that we could have a general policy, but that we had to be sure that it did not suffocate individual rights.

Mr. Grieve: Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: No, I want to make progress because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.

Similarly, was it a disaster for democracy to hear that the Court of Appeal also applied the Act to overturn a system of in-built bureaucratic delay in which a tribunal made people wait eight weeks after making an application? It was not.

Another misconception that the Tories, or at least some of them, have is that Europe forced the Human Rights Act on us. They should know—perhaps they will tell the Daily Mail—that the ECHR is not Euro-law from Brussels. It results from Winston Churchill's creation, the Council of Europe. They do not understand that the Act was not an imposition, but a policy choice. It was the result of a clear manifesto commitment that the Government made to enable people to achieve their rights in this country.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield referred to traditional British liberties that have served our country well for so long. Two centuries ago, John Wilkes could talk of the liberties of Britons to do what the law did not forbid. Since then, successive Governments have passed thousands of laws while, in the meantime, other countries set out the values that they shared in law. The people of those countries enjoyed the benefits of that. Apart from this country, only two developed nations had no constitutional settlement of this kind. Now there are none.

We need to remember that, 50 years ago, British lawyers helped to enshrine our basic liberties into the ECHR. However, people could claim them only in Strasbourg. One thing perplexing about the Tories' approach to the issue is that they try to portray the ECHR as counter to British values, our way of doing things, parliamentary sovereignty and democracy and concepts of liberty as outlined in their motion. In fact, the ECHR enshrines those British values, because those values were incorporated into the convention at the outset.

Mr. Cash: The Minister referred to views maturing. The Government have adopted the principle of a European constitution, and she knows from the statutes that emanate from the convention that a number of matters clearly set out the idea of making the fundamental charter of human rights legally binding within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That would make it somewhat autochthonous, if I can use that expression. Will she therefore acknowledge that, in relation to the European Court on Human Rights, the Government are giving way to the idea that that jurisdiction could be subsumed into an overriding supreme court as envisaged, for example, by Professor Dashwood's constitutional treaty?

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