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19 Feb 2007 : Column 105

I do not take lightly the suggestion that there is abuse of the system—we know that there is. Time and again, the Government abuse the system. On a weekly basis at my advice centre, I meet people who have sought leave to extend their legal right to remain in this country. They were granted leave to appeal. Their asylum application failed, but nevertheless they were given four years to remain. They attempt to renew that and are told that their case will be dealt with within 13 weeks. I have in excess of 100 cases pending where that time has been exceeded by at least 12 months, and in some instances by nearly two years. Many of those people have lost their jobs, because they have no legal proof to say that they have a right to a job in the United Kingdom. That is costing the state more money. Yet, when they seek advice to find out whether they can challenge the state, they are told that they do not have that right. The situation is bizarre. We have a Government who want to defend human rights, yet neglect to address them when it comes to the way in which they, as agents of the state, behave.

It is sad that the Government are not prepared to fund the European Court properly. The Court has a funding crisis, and a person taking a case there can expect to wait for anything from eight to 10 years, because there is a huge backlog of cases. However, the Government, along with other European countries, have perpetrated zero growth on the Court’s budget, which inevitably means that its work is heavily restricted. Why have we heard no proper explanation of the Government’s actions on that count? If they care about human rights, they must prove that in the various international bodies to which they belong—and sadly, they do not.

I am a member of the parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe. Why is that body so strapped for funds? The very organisation that was set up 50-odd years ago to build on what Winston Churchill wanted—a body defending the very things over which we had just fought a war, in which millions of people died to defend them—is strapped for cash. Hon. Members on both sides of the House who are representatives at the Council of Europe have argued time and again that Ministers should change the way in which we treat that organisation. It is a national disgrace that we are not prepared to examine these issues properly and fairly.

I have listened with great interest to all hon. Members who have spoken. They have all commented about the fact that the Act is confusing to members of the public. That has perhaps led to people having a genuine hatred of the thought of human rights cropping up. I meet people who want to specify an infringement of their human rights as one aspect of their objection to a planning application. I am sure that other Members have had similar experiences. It is difficult to persuade such people that they need something more than that if their objection is to succeed. Why is such a thing happening? This is about not only citizenship training and disinformation put out by the media. We can talk about the media as much as we like, but they are not to blame. The House and the Government are to blame for the mess that the Act has got into and the misrepresentation throughout our nation to which that has led. They now have an opportunity to put the situation right.

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I hope that the Minister has listened to what has been said. All hon. Members have attempted in their speeches to defend the right of the individual to the rights that each of us cherish. Having such rights enshrined in law is a fundamental way of judging in a state’s worth, and taking that away would be a big mistake. However, the citizens of this country should have the right to have those rights explained to them properly, and I suspect that the Government have a real desire to do just that.

8.48 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): We have concentrated fairly largely on the human rights aspect of our debate on values, rights and responsibilities. I hope to touch on values and responsibilities in my contribution. However, I have a long-standing interest in, and concern about, human rights. I am a former secretary of an Amnesty International group that looked after the rights of prisoners of conscience, as they were called then—I do not know whether that is still the case. They were people from countries throughout the world who were imprisoned for no other reason than the beliefs that they held, rather than physical violence of any form.

One of my concerns is the secular way in which aspects of human rights legislation are starting to be interpreted. We have recently seen examples of that in the House during our consideration of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and the sexual orientation regulations. I am worried that we are subtly—perhaps even inadvertently—introducing a hierarchy of rights in which the secular trumps the religious on every occasion. I do not know whether that is intentional, or whether the situation has crept in that direction over time.

A few days ago, I received a petition from one of my constituents. Organised, I believe, by Premier Christian Radio, it is entitled, “Declaration to Protect Christian Values”. I shall read it out—it is very brief. It states:

quite right—

That expresses some of the concern. Perhaps other hon. Members’ constituents have sent similar petitions to them.

The sexual orientation regulations arose from a European directive—I am not saying anything against Brussels; that just happens to be the case. The directive, 2000/78, calls for a framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation and outlaws discrimination based on religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. I am sure that all of us here agree with that. The directive also stated that the EU

What is interesting is that the EU left member states free to make specific provisions for religion, but the UK Government chose to redefine employment and occupation
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to include the work of adoption agencies, which is worrying, because that has not been done in other EU countries. At present, unmarried couples and homosexual couples may seek the services of almost any adoption agency in the land other than the Catholic agencies. The Government are shortly to introduce legislation under which the Catholic agencies will not be able to operate, because they operate on the principle, which is true to their conscience, of saying that they wish to place children only with married couples.

What worries me is that we have breached a conscience provision already established in law. We allow doctors, on grounds of conscience, not to perform abortions. We give women a legal right to have an abortion if they so choose, but we do not give them a specific legal right to go to a particular doctor regardless of whether that doctor wants to perform an abortion. It seems that, shortly, there will be a fundamental inconsistency in that area of law, and I wonder whether it is just a matter of time before the Government get rid of that conscience provision covering doctors.

Mr. Cash: With specific reference to the Catholic adoption agencies, I endorse my hon. Friend’s principal point. On the tight question of the conflict between the provisions preserving freedom of conscience and of religion and those prohibiting sexual discrimination, does my hon. Friend agree that when push comes to shove, the Government, at the tipping point, go the wrong way by giving preference to one side of the argument over the other? Is not that exactly what happened in relation to the Catholic adoption agencies? Freedom of conscience and of religion were overridden.

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. I am concerned about the hierarchy of rights. The history of this country, going back to the Toleration Act 1689, demonstrates that we have followed the fundamental principle of allowing differences of view to co-exist happily, rather than seeking an overarching, dictatorial format.

In a different sphere, there are numerous examples of charities operating in the public sphere, perhaps with public funds, now finding themselves excluded from applying for public funds. I understand that about a third of Christian charities now feel that they are being discriminated against, not because they want to proselytise or convert—it would be wrong of them to do that with public money—but because they want to be authentic and to care for people, the poor and the marginalised, in the way that they are motivated to do.

Let me give three recent examples. On 10 February, Charles Moore wrote about a charity in south London that ministered to single mothers of all faiths and none. It has been denied funds purely because, on its website, it shows that it is a Christian charity. It sought assistance for the very good work that it was doing, but it received a letter of rejection that said:

That was deemed so outrageous and wrong that it was sufficient reason why the charity should not seek to
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continue doing the kind of good work that Christian charities, indeed charities of all faiths, have done for many years.

The second example is of a woman who wanted to be a foster parent to older children. We need more foster parents, but she was refused permission on the following grounds:

How stupid to deny foster children in need of care the services of an otherwise excellent foster parent.

The third example concerns a small Christian charity. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), who is on the Front Bench, will take note, as it operates from Framingham Earl in Norfolk; I do not know whether that is in his constituency. It tries to help people in the area out of prostitution. It says that the situation is one of

It says that it thinks that the attitude

It comments that it is deeply worrying that the work that Churches and Christians have done over the centuries to help fight poverty and relieve deprivation is being called into question.

Those are worrying issues, and they were brought home to me vividly only the Friday before last in my own constituency. A gentleman came to see me in my surgery. He was a father with a partner and two children, and his partner is very shortly to have her third child. His income support had been taken away from him, and his family had literally no money. They had one bottle of milk in the fridge and one loaf of bread in the larder; that was it for the weekend. It was half-past 5 on a Friday night, and he asked what I could do. I rang the office of the district manager for Jobcentre Plus; to its credit, there was someone there at half-past 5 on a Friday night. I spoke to the lady there, but of course the local jobcentre was shut, and it was too late to get an emergency loan. She asked, “Do you have a Salvation Army branch locally?” and I said yes.

I put in a call to Major David Squibb of the Leighton Buzzard Salvation Army, and he went out that weekend with food parcels for that family. The family was fed over the weekend because of that man’s Christian vocation and commitment. Public sector workers are wonderful people, but at half-past 5 on a cold Friday evening in winter, the organs of the state were not available, locally or nationally, and could not go and feed a hungry family that had no money and no food. We have to recognise that Christians who do such work are motivated by their faith and their beliefs. If we take that away from them, we will harm those who are most marginalised in our society, and who need their support. I commend what Major David Squibb did, and I have no doubt that the Salvation Army and many other bodies do similar work in all our constituencies.

What worries me is that the Government, in their move to end multiculturalism—something that the Prime Minister talked about in his speech of 8 December 2006—are trying to push matters of faith entirely into the private domain. There was much in the Prime
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Minister’s speech, which underpinned the values that we are talking about, that I welcome, that was wonderful, and that I have called for many times, both in the House and outside. We need to focus not on what divides us, but on what unites us as a country, such as the English language, and our shared loyalty to the institutions of the country and to our sovereign—all that brings us together. We can all sign up to something that the Prime Minister summarised succinctly at Prime Minister’s questions a week or so ago, when he basically said, “Diversity, good; division, bad”. That is exactly the message of the Toleration Act 1689.

The Prime Minister said in his speech in December:

Reading between the lines, he was probably saying that we are going to set our face firmly against Sharia law, which is absolutely right. I do not want to be ruled by a Christian theocracy, either, but I am worried that the Prime Minister is pushing matters of faith out of the public sphere or realm entirely and into private practice. In other words, we are happy with Christian people, but not with Christian citizens. That should be of concern in this of all years, as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s achievement in abolishing slavery. If he had been required to confine his beliefs to his personal life and not expand them, as he and many others did, in the House, how much the poorer would we be, and how much longer would the terrible tragedy of slavery have continued in this country and around the world? I urge the Minister to reflect on those concerns, not least the relief of the poverty experienced by many of our constituents.

9.1 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who made an extremely eloquent and thoughtful contribution on human rights and values.

The Human Rights Act should be repealed, and the United Kingdom should withdraw from the European convention on human rights. That view may not find a great deal of favour in the Westminster village, but it has gained favour in the country at large. As a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I do not believe that it is enough simply to repeal the Human Rights Act. The UK must curtail courts’ ability to adjudicate on the basis of the ECHR, which necessarily involves withdrawing from the convention, and not merely unincorporating it from UK law. Criminal rights legislation must be scrapped in its entirety. The Human Rights Act gave UK courts the ability to adjudicate directly on the basis of the ECHR. Prior to the incorporation of the convention in UK law, domestic courts referred to it in a limited way, but since incorporation they have adjudicated with growing frequency on the basis of the ECHR. In doing so, they have begun actively to prevent our democratically elected Government from responding to serious challenges facing the country.

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Public policy solutions must be developed to respond to the new challenges posed by terrorism and the mass movement of people, but human rights legislation prevents us from developing effective responses to those challenges. There are three cases in which it can be shown that it is not simply the Human Rights Act that is at fault but the ECHR: the failure to deport nine Afghan hijackers; the granting of freedom to Anthony Rice to commit murder; and the failure to deport foreign criminals. Apologists for the Human Rights Act will undoubtedly, and disingenuously, try to make the case that it is not the Act per se that is at fault, but that is correct only insofar as it is the ECHR rather than the Act that is to blame.

On 10 May 2006, the High Court overturned the Home Secretary’s decision that it was not appropriate to grant nine Afghan nationals discretionary leave to enter the UK. The Government’s reaction to the High Court judgment suggested that the High Court had somehow incorrectly interpreted human rights law. The implication seemed to be that the Human Rights Act was at fault. This was not, strictly speaking, the case. It was the European convention on human rights, as much asthe Act, that was responsible for the failure to remove the nine supposed hijackers.

The decision that the nine Afghan nationals could not be returned to Afghanistan was taken not by the High Court on 10 May 2006, but by a panel of three immigration adjudicators on 9 June 2004, and the adjudicators ruled that the Afghans be allowed to remain in the UK under article 3 of the European convention on human rights. The adjudicators’ decision was not made on the basis of any disputed interpretation of the Human Rights Act. Rather, it was the interpretation of the European convention on human rights by the Strasbourg court that was responsible. The hijackers were correctly refused asylum by the adjudicators under the Geneva refugee convention, but they were given what is, in effect, a back-door asylum right under the ECHR.

Another big myth about the human rights legislation is that surrounding the decision to give freedom to Anthony Rice. Again, it is highly disingenuous—

Vera Baird: Before the hon. Gentleman moves away from the topic of the Afghan hijackers, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has already mentioned that the finding of fact basis on which the decision not to send them back was made was that they would be subject to pursuit, persecution and almost certain assassination by the Taliban. Is the hon. Gentleman seeking freedom to do exactly that?

Mr. Carswell: Absolutely not. I am simply pointing out that the decision was made under the ECHR. I very much hope that a responsible Home Secretary would never return somebody who faced the risk of torture. My purpose is to point out that it is not the Human Rights Act, but the European convention, that is responsible.

On 10 May 2006 Her Majesty’s inspector of probation published a report of his review of the case of Anthony Rice. The report found that one of the reasons the Parole Board had underestimated the risk
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of harm to others when it decided that Rice was safe to release was that

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