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The Human Rights Act might be a basic safety net to deal with certain Governments who do not have democratic practices or who have had them only for a short period and do not enjoy the principles of the rule of law, but it does not replace the rule of law. Private legal rights operate because the rule of law says that they do, and because the judges say that they do. Sometimes, we have had to face the fact that the people who benefit from those rights appear to be remarkably undeserving of them. We have, for example, had debates about lords of the manor who have enforced a form of blackmail in respect of rights of way over common land until a court judgment removed them.
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However, no one in their right mind ever suggested that that entitled Members of Parliament to remove those people’s rights retrospectively, thereby depriving them of a financial advantage.

The Government are contemplating a measure that is being introduced with a desire to rectify technical omissions—I fully accept that that is their intention—but that could have the unintended consequence of depriving someone of a private legal advantage, because it will be applied retrospectively. There is no suggestion in the proposals that any compensation would be made to a person who was thus adversely affected.

This matter was raised in the other place, and Lord Kingsland, who was speaking for the official Opposition, suggested that these clauses should be removed altogether. However, he was mindful of what the Government were trying to achieve. The amendments that were eventually passed therefore sought not to remove the retrospective power but to limit it by saying that such an order could be made, provided that it was

As an issue of principle, the Minister cannot possibly contend that that is an unfair provision. He might, however, say that the proposal would have the consequence of making it impossible to pass such a retrospective order. I can see his point. If that is his problem, however, he is going to have to find a way of solving it, either by specifying that anyone adversely affected would be entitled to full compensation or by some other method. It is not good enough simply to say that there will be a balancing exercise and that the measure would be used only in cases where the public benefit appeared overwhelmingly to outweigh the private advantage.

Private law and people’s rights under the law are not about the balancing of public rights with private advantage. Private advantage has complete supremacy. The principle under which we operate in this country in maintaining the rule of law is that if we interfere with someone’s private rights, as specified in the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights, we must pay them compensation for doing so.

I am really troubled to read the Government’s approach to this matter. In the letter that Lord Evans of Temple Guiting wrote to my noble Friend Lord Kingsland, he said, with reference to the point at which the provision would kick in:

That is why I picked up the Minister’s comment that the Government would not seek retrospectively to alter a court judgment. When I challenged the Minister on that, he started to back off a little. He left me with the distinct impression that the Government might choose to act retrospectively, before a case came to court, to prevent a person from exercising his legal rights and to challenge an order that had been made. He also left me with the distinct impression that there might be
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circumstances in which, notwithstanding a court judgment, the Government would still seek to apply the provision retrospectively.

Mr. Gummer: Did not my hon. Friend hear the explanation that the Minister gave as an example of when it would be suitable to use this power? When he gave that example, he showed that the Government would be judge and jury in their own case. It would be for the Government to decide whether the use of the power would interfere with a person’s private rights, and they would make that decision on the basis of their own convenience. The Minister tried to dignify the measure by talking about public value, but what he meant was the convenience of the Executive.

Mr. Grieve: My right hon. Friend is exactly right. This is what troubles me so much about the measure. Lord Evans of Temple Guiting’s officials had clearly advised him very carefully when he wrote that letter. He expressed himself in terms so precise that, when Lord Kingsland looked at it, he said that he was wholly dissatisfied with the answer. The Minister has gone slightly further, but my right hon. Friend is correct. What the Minister is actually saying is that the Government will decide, when balancing the considerations involved, whether a private right would be interfered with. That must raise the possibility that, as long as the Government did not think that the private right interfered with was too serious a matter—so it might slip outside the ambit of the European convention on human rights—they would still feel justified in going ahead and applying the provision retrospectively. I am very happy with the ECHR, but it is simply a safety net in this context. Our practice in this country is not to allow such things to happen. Indeed, it would be quite contrary to every legal principle to let this occur.

I am fairly unsympathetic to the principle behind all this. I have to be honest about that. I believe that government by statutory instrument is riddled with problems such as these, and an Order in Council is no different from a statutory instrument; it just involves different wording. The reality is that Wales is going to be governed by Order in Council—a practice that I regard as absolutely abominable and an offence to every principle that we have in the House.

If the Government go ahead with this measure, I foresee that they might need to address certain problems. May I suggest to the Secretary of State and the Minister, both of whom are in the Chamber, that if they want to get this provision on the statute book but do not like the form of words that the Lords have come up with, they should make a clarifying statement to make it absolutely clear that if it is established that private legal rights are affected retrospectively in any way, the person affected will be entitled to redress. Without that assurance, I will remain profoundly unhappy about this proposal.

This is a classic example of administrative convenience triumphing over private rights, all dressed up, in good new Labour style, in the assertion that it is for the public benefit. I do not accept that. What is more, the Government know that they are on pretty shaky ground here. I urge the Minister to go away and think again.

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In the other place, the Liberal Democrats appeared to support us on this issue, and I hope that that will remain the case. It was unclear, however, when the vote was called, whether they were really going to provide proper support in that important Division. Some of them said they would support us but did not. I have no idea why that happened. I hope that it is not part of the Lib-Lab pact on this issue, by which the Liberal Democrats have demeaned themselves in the course of the discussions on this important constitutional measure.

We will certainly resist the motion to disagree with the Lords amendment, although I have no doubt that the Government will carry the day. If the Secretary of State and the Minister do not like the form of words that the Lords have used, they should go back and provide proper reassurance when the Bill returns to the other place that the provision will not be left in the form to which they now wish to return it.

Lembit Öpik I am interested to hear talk of a Lib-Lab pact. I presume that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is referring to two parties working together in the common interest, just as the Conservatives and the Labour party did when they voted together to take us to war in Iraq. What is going on here, however, is a genuine commitment to furthering democracy and devolution in Wales. I almost said Northern Ireland then, because I saw the Secretary of State leaving the Chamber, no doubt to deal with other important matters.

7.30 pm

Our concern is, to an extent, the same as that described by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, namely, that retrospective legislation is open to attack on the basis that it can be abused. Something achieved by an individual or an organisation acting in good faith, on the assumption that the law is there to protect them, can be modified by the institutions of Government to favour themselves. That point was made by Lord Thomas of Gresford in the upper House. He said:

That has been my concern, too, and it may be why the hon. Member for Beaconsfield could see an uneasiness among Liberal Democrat peers during that debate.

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will also have read the further debate in the upper House on this matter and the dialogue between Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, in which Lord Thomas challenged the Government to clarify two things. I hope that the Minister, by way of intervention or in his concluding comments, will respond explicitly to these points. Lord Thomas’s concern was that it had to be underlined that the power would be used only to correct situations in which a measure had been made that was ultra vires through no fault of people acting in good faith and, presumably, within the law. I note that Lord Evans responded that that was correct.

I would like the Minister explicitly and for the record—we know that the record can be used in a court of law—to underline that that is his understanding of
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the Government’s intention, and that it would be utterly unacceptable for the legislation to be used for any self-seeking purposes by an Administration—not Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, but any Administration in the Welsh Assembly.

The second specific concern expressed by Lord Thomas of Gresford related to the question whether the Assembly could use the legislation to remove from a litigant a victory achieved in litigation. Once again, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting underlined the point that it would not be acceptable under any circumstances for the Welsh Assembly Government to reverse successful actions by litigants by using the Bill as a blocking mechanism to change legislation retrospectively. I seek the Minister’s assurance—once again, for the sake of the record—that that is explicitly the Bill’s intention.

I recognise that however hard we try to close these loopholes, there is a danger of abuse of any legislation. Despite the assurances given to Lord Thomas of Gresford on those two points in the upper House, and in anticipation of the Minister underlining them today, I acknowledge that we are still vulnerable to the abuse of power by individuals in government or whole Governments, should they be so minded. We are talking about a limited insurance policy here, but it is probably the most that we can ever expect when we are discussing legislation.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield usefully requested that the Minister put on the record some form of words to encapsulate the assurances that we seek. I suggest that one of the best forms of words is offered by Lord Kingsland, who tabled an amendment debated in great detail in another place. It would have inserted the words:

It strikes me that a small modification to that amendment, expressed by the Minister, could be helpful without in any way being detrimental to what the Government are seeking to do.

It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that the Government want to modify the legislation as they have set out, but also explicitly to require such an order not to be to the detriment of those who have benefited from, or acted in reliance upon, the state of the law before the retrospective order was made. That would be a very helpful clarification. I can see no contradiction between the Bill as it has been put forward by the Government and the intentions as they have been reasonably expressed by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.

Mr. Grieve: May I point out—the hon. Gentleman may already be aware of this—that that is exactly what the amendments passed in the House of Lords say? They do not seek to knock out the power to make the retrospective legislation; they seek to insert that very form of words. The Minister says that that presents difficulties. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) may agree with me that in those circumstances the solution is for the Minister to find a form of words that meets the spirit of what has been said, but does not have those difficulties attached to it.

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Lembit Öpik: I said a few moments ago that I was reading the amendment tabled by Lord Kingsland, so the hon. Gentleman and I violently agree that that is the source of my recommendation.

Although I see the force of the hon. Gentleman’s argument about the amendment, I have, on reflection, accepted the Government’s point that this retrospective latitude is probably, in limited circumstances, desirable and that it could be compromised were the Lord Kingsland amendment included in the Bill. However, I believe that its wording, as a statement of clarification, would be both helpful and consistent with the intent of the amendment. It would not in any way detract from the applicability of the retrospective facility in those areas where it could legitimately be used.

I ask the Minister those three questions—including the two from Lord Thomas’s inquiry in another place, which I have recited—and ask whether he is willing to reiterate the words in Lord Kingsland’s amendment by way of clarification and reassurance on this reasonable and very specific point, to protect the interests of those who might otherwise be concerned that they would be harmed unfairly by the application of this retrospective facility.

Mr. Gummer: The whole House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) for explaining to the world the Liberal Democrat approach to a complicated matter. It is to discuss it in as many ways as possible and to give no hint whatsoever as to how one should proceed thereafter.

There is a real problem in debating whether to disagree with the Lords amendment in that we are debating a virtual Bill. Many of us, although perhaps not all Members on the opposition side of the House, believe that an extension of the powers of the Welsh Assembly is a good thing, but we would wish it to be presented to the people of Wales so that they could make up their minds. All this is a mechanism for trying to avoid asking the people of Wales whether they want what is in the Bill, in case they say that they do not want it. We get to this point and that becomes even clearer, because the Government have now discovered that directing the affairs of a nation by Orders in Council has a number of disadvantages, and there may be occasions when overlapping jurisdictions and particular facts mean that a bit of tidying up is necessary.

I am always worried when Governments present their proposals as modest. I am always worried when they seek to suggest that there really is not very much in the measure—it is a matter of convenience that may be for the national good and those of us who are concerned about the principle of retrospection really should not worry about it.

There seem to me to be three reasons why we should worry very much. First, there is the Government’s historic attitude towards retrospection. In two successive Finance Bills, they have introduced retrospection while pretending that it was not retrospection. That leads me to be suspicious when the word “retrospection” comes from this Government’s mouth. Secondly, when the Government explained what they meant by the occasions on which they might use the provision, they produced an argument that seemed to nullify their own case. Let me turn to what
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the Minister said about the road that might have been built and the compensation that might have been paid. It seems to me that the Minister would decide not according to what was in the public interest, but according to what was convenient for the Government. It would be very inconvenient for the Government to have to go through the whole process again, but it might be very good for them because it might stop them getting into that kind of mess again. That is what legislation is about—setting the rules. If one breaks the rules, one should not have a nice little back-door mechanism of letting off the Government. The Government should have to fight their end, like anyone else, and in the course of doing so find that there were matters that were detrimental to private interest, and issues that ought to be taken up. All that would be hidden by this nice little trick, which is used by Government to make their life easier.

Thirdly, if the words of my noble Friend Lord Kingsland are not accepted, that means that the Government will not stand by the content of that amendment. The Government are therefore saying that they might use retrospection when it overpassed the private rights of an individual, as defined in the Kingsland amendment. The Government must deal with that problem. On the one hand, the Government say that they would use such powers only on occasions when that would not affect individuals who would otherwise have been in a different position had the law as they thought it was continued. On the other, they are not prepared to include that provision in the Bill, as that is what refusing to accept the amendment means.

With cunning ingenuity, the Liberal Democrat spokesman has discovered a way through. If the Government say that they believe that the amendment is right, he says that he will be happy. Well, if the Government can say that the amendment is right while at the same time advising the House to vote against it, that seems a peculiar position. I would not advise the Minister to take that line. Only a Liberal Democrat could get himself into that position. Only the party that on one doorstep tells people that it believes in one thing, and on the next doorstep that—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the nature of the amendment being considered.

Mr. Gummer: I stand corrected.

I return to the nature of the amendment and repeat that on this occasion the Liberal Democrat advice is that the Government should ask the House to vote against something that the Government say they believe in. That is a remarkable achievement and ought to be emphasised.

Lembit Öpik: I recognise the intellectual genius of the right hon. Gentleman. He and I usually agree in the Chamber. Did he not hear my point about the difference of opinion between us? I suggested that I was persuaded that the amendment, were it adopted, would make the legislation difficult to apply. Therefore, while I am enjoying his contribution—and were we on “Just a Minute” I would give him a point—does he accept that it is a judgment about what works as legislation that causes me to make this suggestion to
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the Minister? I have no difference of view with the right hon. Gentleman in the intent of his speech and the concerns of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.

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