Scope for a Bill of Rights

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Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister. For the past 10 minutes away from his brief, what he has said has been fascinating and raised many questions. In the context of the Good Friday agreement and the legislation that followed, a new type of right from the old, traditional, individual right was created. That is the concept of community rights and parity of esteem between communities. How does my hon. Friend the Minister see that developing in the light of what he has been saying and of his philosophising on the question of rights and how they will progress?

Mr. Browne: I shudder to think that I was philosophising. I was just trying to articulate my thinking. I do not see myself as a philosopher in any aspect of life, let alone this. My hon. Friend raises an important point, which is an aspect of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. His point ought to inform the debate on what those particular circumstances are, just as point from the hon.

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Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) about majorities should. Once there is clarity, or at least some idea of where the parameters of the phrase lie, we have a better chance of identifying what additional rights, within those parameters, the particular circumstances require.

I do not want to second-guess any advice that the Secretary of State may get from the commission on that matter, but it is a very legitimate point, which needs to feed into the debate.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I assure the Minister that what he is saying is every bit as good as any lecture that I had as part of my philosophy degree at Bristol university. I understood him to be saying earlier that the phrase, the ''particular circumstances'' of Northern Ireland, needs some analysis. Did I understand correctly when I made the assumption that he, like me, believes that human rights are universal and that if a Bill of Rights is truly effective and has been constructed correctly, it succeeds in being effective in any environment? Therefore, whatever we come up with here, the rights themselves should not be conditional on the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. That should simply be a test of whether we have been sufficiently universal in constructing them.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting issue. I am not really talking philosophy. I am sure that the fact that he can raise that point is informed by his education at Bristol university. I do not have a pat answer to it. First, we need to approximate a definition of the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. It might run to 40 pages; I do not care. Some attempt needs to be made to define that particular phraseology because it informs the debate. It may be that once that is done and we consider the particular job that the commission has been asked to do, we challenge the accepted wisdom that all rights are universal.

It may be that one needs a situation in which particular circumstances generate a need to identify particular matters as rights, because there needs to be justiciability in relation to them. I am not trying to create an earthquake in relation to the human rights agenda and undermine the accepted wisdom that all rights are universal, but we need to have that debate. What does the phraseology ''particular circumstances'' mean in Northern Ireland? I am not going to take any more interventions because the next paragraph begins with the word ''finally''.

Finally, I think the debate needs to consider the rather dry subject of enforcement mechanisms. There is a risk that, if we do not think carefully about the rights versus policies debate, we may end up putting forward so-called ''rights'' that would be difficult to make justiciable. For example, the right for every person to have a ''loving and stable'' family life may be highly desirable, but is it justiciable? Can any child take their parents to court because they did not feel loved enough? It may sound like I am being flippant, but it is a serious question. If such rights were included in a Bill of Rights, would a two-tier system in effect be created, with some rights being justiciable and universal but not others?

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Should there be, as some have suggested, a human rights court? Personally, I am not persuaded that that is a necessity. I read the Amnesty briefing with bated breath because it promised to set forth the arguments for such a court, but unfortunately it does not; it just says that there should be one. If we are to mainstream human rights across the entirety of our society, there surely must be a strong argument in favour of human rights being an integral part of the whole justice system, rather than an add-on for a particular court.

As with so many issues, there may be no absolute right answer, but it is important that we debate the fundamental questions. Until there is greater clarity and consensus about the fundamental issues, we cannot get into the debate about content. We need to reach a common starting point. We cannot do that without honest and searching debate. As politicians, we have a duty to have that debate. We all need to get involved and get beyond the easy positions of ''them'' and ''us''. Human rights, if they are to mean anything at all, must have a large element of universality. We should not be fighting for things for ourselves, but rather setting out in a contract what we want to ensure for others. If a human rights culture is worth striving for, we all have to work together to achieve that.

Several hon. Members rose

The Chairman: Order. I appeal for brevity. I do not blame the Minister, who took lots of interventions, but I ask Members please to be brief.

3.18 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Thank you, Mr. McWilliam; it is a pleasure to be serving again under your chairmanship. I promise not to cause you the trouble that I did on a memorable occasion during the Committee scrutinising the Finance Bill. I promise not to speak for more than an hour, or to quote any Latin this afternoon. I hope that I shall come away in your good books for once.

The Chairman: Order. Speaking for over an hour would give me a problem, but the hon. Gentleman can quote Latin if he likes.

Mr. Davies: Thank you, Mr. McWilliam, for that essential guidance.

I start by paying tribute to the human rights commission, its first commissioner, Mr. Brice Dickson, and his colleagues, for having put a vast amount of work into the subject and clarifying it considerably. Although I shall be less than unambiguously flattering about some of the results later in my remarks, it is fair to pay tribute to the great energy and public-spiritedness with which the work has been conducted, and to the real attempts made by the commission to engage with the population of Northern Ireland in a proper consultation exercise.

Secondly, I pay tribute to the Government—I do not do that every day of the week—for bringing forward this sitting of the Committee, and for making it clear that they want to consult fully before legislating. I should be the first to criticise them were they to rush into hasty legislation, especially on such a

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fundamental matter, without adequate consultation. It is only fair to pay tribute to them for doing what I believe is the right thing by Parliament before taking any vital and irrevocable decisions. In the nature of things, foundational or constitutional laws or Bills of Rights tend to be rather longer-term than ordinary legislation, and one has to be particularly careful before one engages in that kind of legislative exercise.

That said, the Opposition do not wish to reach a final view at the present time on whether we should have a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. We wish to hear a little more of the debate and, in particular, we wish those who have been advocating such a Bill of Rights to address the fundamental questions that must be answered, which represent the hurdles that must be crossed if the Opposition are going to support such an initiative.

The first hurdle is a question to which the Minister has already referred; why should we have a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and not for the rest of the United Kingdom? What is the logic of that? The second question is, why should we go further than the European convention on human rights, which we have just incorporated into our domestic law and which has the great virtue of covering the whole of the European Union, including the Republic of Ireland? It covers the whole island of Ireland. Why should one go further? What is inadequate about the ECHR when it comes to Northern Ireland?

Those questions are touched on and asked in the document that the commission has been good enough to circulate to us—it has been circulated widely in Northern Ireland—but they are not really answered. There is no systematic attempt to engage with them in any of the documents that I have seen. I rather gather from the Minister that he has not seen a systematic argument of that kind, which is what we need.

The third criterion that will have to be satisfied before we decide to support such an initiative is that there should be an evident consensus in its favour in Northern Ireland. Before one thinks of passing any kind of constitutional amendment or foundational law, it is absolutely essential that it is not based simply on a temporary, partisan majority in a particular legislature but on a wide consensus—bi-partisan or tri-partisan—among those who will be affected. One should not make a constitution, or something that purports to be one, just because one has a majority in the legislature at one particular moment. Obviously, it will not act as a constitution unless a basic consensus underlies it. We must see some evidence of a genuine consensus across the communities in Northern Ireland.

Finally, but not least importantly, if we are to see this initiative progress, we need to be clear in our minds that it will not in any way conflict with, and will hopefully contribute to, the success of the peace process and the normalisation of affairs in Northern Ireland. It should not exacerbate conflict and sectarian divides but go as far as possible to contribute to greater harmony in the divided communities of Northern Ireland. We would not support a venture that looked to us as though it would merely be the basis of a large amount of gratuitous and, no doubt,

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often sterile, vexatious and extremely expensive litigation in that part of our country. I can see that there might be one group in any community that might be attracted by such a prospect, but it is not an aspiration that we share.

I have set out the broad principles that we want to address. I may differ from something that the Minister said a few moments ago by saying that it would be wrong this afternoon not to engage to a certain extent with the substance of the actual Bill of Rights that the commission has produced. One can only go so far in a discussion of whether or not there ought to be a Bill of Rights before seeing the sort of Bill that might be introduced.

It is extraordinarily unlikely—this is a matter not of principle but of pragmatic politics—that we shall have this venture all over again. If Parliament decides that we shall have a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, the chances are that it will be very like the Bill of Rights in the document. The alternative would be to start the exercise again, appoint a new commission and start a new consultation exercise in Northern Ireland. That would take several years and the Conservatives would no doubt then be responsible for the content of the Queen's Speech. That is an unrealistic approach, so we had better engage with the document, having as competent a discussion as possible on it.

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