Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hunter: I do not quarrel with the lines of argument suggested by the right hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, but surely the essential point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. Since subsection (2) subordinates the relevant human rights conventions—or whatever they may be—to the Human Rights Act by means of section 6 of that Act, why on earth do we need to refer to them at all?

10.45 am

Mr. Trimble: The Human Rights Act gave effect to the European convention on human rights, which has limited content. Subsection (2) ensures that the guidance will not override anything contained in the European convention on human rights. However, what happens if other provisions, documents, conventions, agreements or alleged agreements relate to matters not covered by the European convention on human rights? Subsection (2) will not cover those situations. There may still be some merit in the approach that we have suggested.

Mr. Grieve: I did not seek to delete subsection (1) in its entirety, because I accept that Parliament could pass further human rights standards other than the Human Rights Act 1998. In those circumstances, it would be the Attorney-General's job to apply them so long as they were not incompatible with the Human Rights Act. The Minister accuses me of knee-jerk reactions to the words ''European'' or ''international'', but it is fairly well known within my party, although I sometimes wonder and begin to regret it, that I was one of the few people who expressed broad support for the idea of incorporation during the passage of the Human Rights Bill.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Shocking.

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Mr. Grieve: Yes, and I sometimes regret it, because it has been used as an excuse for diminishing aspects of human rights in this country on the basis that, having done so, we are still Human Rights Act compliant. That was something I had not anticipated at the time when I suggested that I though it might be worth while. However, leaving that to one side, the Human Rights Act has force of law, and that is why it has to be applied.

Picking up on a point made by the hon. Member for Basingstoke, I have to say that it is dangerous to have nebulous concepts in legislation in the first place. Whatever a human rights standard may or may not be, if it does not have force of law it is only a guideline. No organisation is required under the law to follow that guideline, because it does not have force of law. There is an argument there.

I understand the intention of the clause, which is that the Attorney-General should remind the various statutory organisations about human rights standards that he considers relevant to the criminal justice system. I also appreciate that those standards could go further than the Human Rights Act 1998, particularly if we have enacted any other legislation of our own that could be said to have a human rights dimension. However, they are not international human rights standards, which by their very nature are likely to be in part other documents to which we are a signatory, but can also involve sources well beyond that. That could include discursive textbooks on what international human rights standards should or should not be.

I say to the Minister that it is bad practice to draft legislation, which will have to be subject to judicial interpretation, in such woolly and nebulous fashion. Subsection (1) is still a little woolly with the word ''international'' removed, but I am prepared to live with that, as we now seem to legislate intentions and not law. I will not accept the word ''international'', because it adds nothing to the rest and it creates a misleading picture. The nub of the issue is in subsection (2), and in the circumstances I wish to press the amendment to a vote.

The Chairman: Before I put the question, I point out to the Committee that there is a clear instruction for conduct in Committees about the reading of magazines, newspapers and so forth. I will not mention individual Members by name, but I ask them to observe that rule.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 11.

Division No. 6]

Carmichael, Mr. Alistair Grieve, Mr. Dominic Hunter, Mr. Andrew
Swayne, Mr. Desmond Swire, Mr. Hugo Trimble, Mr. David

Barnes, Mr. Harry Casale, Roger Clarke, Mr. Tony Coaker, Mr. Vernon Harris, Mr. Tom Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Irranca-Davies, Huw Lucas, Ian McGrady, Mr. Eddie Palmer, Dr. Nick Spellar, Mr. John

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Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move amendment No. 59, in

    clause 7, page 5, line 17, at end insert 'or'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 60, in

    clause 7, page 5, line 18, leave out from 'organisation;' to end of line 19.

Mr. Grieve: Amendment No. 59 is return to semantics. I do not understand why the word ''or'' has been omitted at the end of subsection (5)(a) when it has been included at the end of subsection (5)(b). Either we have a new practice under which ''or'' is removed entirely or we have a practice under which it is reinstated. It is as simple as that. I accept that this is a drafting point, but unless the Committee picks up on drafting practice, there is no point in our trying to our job. The clause should read, ''adding any organisation . . . or omitting an organisation, or altering the description of an organisation''.

Amendment No. 60 has somewhat more substance and relates to altering the description of an organisation. I seek clarification. Subsection (4) defines a number of organisations that will be provided with guidance. If those organisations change their name, that will require primary legislation or a statutory instrument, which could provide for altering their description in guidelines and other statutes. I do not understand why the Attorney-General has been given the power to alter the description of an organisation.

I hope that the Minister gets my point. I would be concerned if the Attorney-General could alter the description of an organisation, thereby adding an organisation that does not appear on the list in the first place. I do not understand why paragraph (c) has been included, but if the Minister can explain why, I will not press amendment No. 60.

Mr. Spellar: I am advised that all recent legislation includes ''or'' only at the end of a list. I accept that that is a semantic point, but it is common practice.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful for that, but will the Minister deal with amendment No. 60, which concerns altering the description of an organisation?

Mr. Spellar: Subsection (5)(c) exists to ensure that the list of organisations to be covered by the guidance can be kept up to date without recourse to primary legislation. It allows the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland to change the description of an organisation, which he may need to do if one of the organisations changes its name. Let me give an example. The Juvenile Justice Board in Northern Ireland recently changed its name to the Youth Justice Agency. Paragraph (c) allows the Attorney-General to update the descriptions in clause 7 as such changes take place. I am advised that the formulation has been used in previous legislation, such as clause 46(6)(c) of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002.

Mr. Trimble: What is the point of subsection (5), when subsection (1) says:

    ''The Attorney General for Northern Ireland shall issue, and as he thinks appropriate from time to time revise, guidance''?

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It would be quite appropriate to revise the list of organisations in guidance. Why on earth include a separate subsection? It seems quite unnecessary.

Mr. Spellar: Subsection (5) applies to the organisations in subsection (4). The ability to add or omit an organisation may reflect organisational changes. There are two issues here: the organisations to which guidance would be sent and the guidance that would be issued by the Attorney-General. Therefore, subsection (5) merely reflects standard drafting practice. Accordingly, I commend it to the Committee.

Mr. Grieve: On the second amendment, which is about altering the description of an organisation, I accept what the Minister says, although the right hon. Member for Upper Bann makes a good point. On the first, I can say only that it is a jolly good thing that I never wanted to be a parliamentary draftsman, because I would have gone mad. I am grateful to have ascertained that only the last ''or'' is left in, but if that is indeed the practice I do not understand why it should be left in—it is as simple as that.

Mr. Spellar: Ask the Oxford team.

Mr. Grieve: I hope that somebody in the parliamentary draftsman's department drops me a line to explain how that practice has crept in. It is most peculiar, and, as I said, sloppy. I very much regret the form in which the legislation has come before the Committee.

Mr. Spellar: In a way, the hon. Gentleman raises a much broader issue. He is probably aware that the Commonwealth of Australia has an extensive guide to using normal or plain English in legislation as a matter of common practice. That may be desirable, although I fear that it is a matter for much wider debate and probably not for the Committee to explore in detail. I merely say that the drafting of subsection (5) follows current practice. Accordingly, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Grieve: I am a great believer in plain English. I do not like ''aforesaids'' and all the other rigmarole of ancient drafting. I like plain English, which requires link words. It is an interesting feature of current legislation that one must constantly do a double-think and interpret what clauses mean because the link words have been removed. Such drafting goes much further than plain English; indeed, it is the enemy of plain English. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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