Previous Section Index Home Page

European Communities (Finance)

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary David Miliband, Secretary Hilary Benn, Andy Burnham, Jane Kennedy, Mr. Jim Murphy, Angela Eagle and Kitty Ussher, presented a Bill under Standing Order No. 50 (Procedure upon bills whose main object is to create a charge upon the public revenue ) to amend the definition of ‘the Treaties’ and ‘the Community Treaties’ in section 1(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 so as to include the decision of 7th June 2007 of the Council on the Communities’ system of own resources: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 2].

7 Nov 2007 : Column 143

Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Second Day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [6 November],

Question again proposed.

Home Affairs and Justice

12.16 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): It gives me great pleasure to open this debate on the Gracious Speech. That speech outlined a number of Bills and proposals, led by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and myself, which will affect the lives of the British people in many ways. Among them are the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which has just been presented, the counter-terrorism Bill, the draft citizenship and immigration Bill, the draft constitutional renewal Bill, and proposals in respect of party finance and expenditure. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will of course deal with those issues for her Department directly when she speaks later today.

This is a legislative programme that builds on this Government’s record over the past almost 11 years—11 years that have seen record investment and improvement in the national health service, 600,000 fewer children in poverty and 6 million more people in work. [ Interruption. ] Thank you very much. All these are facts, so I look forward to cheering from both sides. Over those 11 years, crime is down by a third, police numbers are up by 12 per cent., and there has been a 300 per cent. increase in the money invested in services for victims and witnesses. Some 1.5 million cases were brought to justice just last year, and the chance of being a victim of crime is lower than at any time in the past 26 years. In those 11 years, we have greatly modernised and strengthened our constitutional arrangements—and, through that, our democracy—by strengthening Select Committees, through freedom of information, data protection and human rights legislation, through devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and through the removal of the vast majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): As the right hon. Gentleman wishes to increase the length of time for which people are detained without trial or charge, is he going to let a lot of proven criminals out of prison in order to make the places available, given that over the past 10 years he clearly has not made those places available?

7 Nov 2007 : Column 144

Mr. Straw: If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so, that is not up to his usual standard. [Hon. Members: “It is.”] He might want to divide the House on that question. If he will contain himself, I will come to the issue of prisons and give way to him then.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con) rose—

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall make a tiny bit more progress. I was reflecting over the weekend about quite the extent to which this country has changed for the better since my first speech from the Treasury Bench on the Loyal Address in May 1997. Although I do not claim that every speech that I have made in the past 10 and half years has stood the test of time, I was accurate when I said:

I do not pretend that things are better for everyone. Each person who is a victim of crime—there are still too many—remains 100 per cent. a victim of crime, and each person out of a job remains 100 per cent. out of work, but overall our country is a better place, and this Government have led the way in that achievement. Three quarters of the British people are optimistic about the future for their families, a recent and interesting poll for the BBC tells us. Some 93 per cent. of us say that we are happy in our family lives, which is a considerable improvement on earlier such findings. The pollsters expressed surprise at the findings, but I do not. The country is more prosperous, safer and better educated. So much for the claims of a so-called “broken society”.

Something else has changed fundamentally. This did not happen under a Conservative Administration, although it easily could have done. It is something that the Conservatives had every chance to do in their 18 years of office, and something for which they needed no resources. Black Wednesday did not affect their opportunities to do this, yet they singularly refused to act. I am speaking about the way in which people are treated in our country.

When we came into government section 28 was, disgracefully, still on the statute book—people who were gay or lesbian were told by the state that they had dangerous tendencies—there was the running sore of policing in a multiracial country, and the fester of the appalling murder of Stephen Lawrence and the abject complacency of the investigation into it. The Conservative Administration sat on their hands about all that.

In contrast, we acted. We have made the changes to address inequalities and to help make our country more tolerant. We abolished section 28, equalised the age of consent and established the Lawrence inquiry—not only that, but we saw that almost all its recommendations were implemented. We introduced legislation to outlaw religious and racial hatred, just as we are now inviting the House to make incitement to hatred based on sexual orientation a criminal offence. We introduced a further, and in my judgment even more fundamental, law to help shape the tolerant values and better society of which I spoke 10 and a half years ago: the Human Rights Act 1998.

7 Nov 2007 : Column 145

The European convention on human rights, on which our Act is based, was drafted by lawyers who were British and who happened to be leading Conservatives—men such as David Maxwell-Ffye, later the distinguished Lord Kilmuir, the Lord Chancellor. The incorporation of convention rights into domestic law was first called for in this House by Conservatives in 1987. Furthermore, following changes to the 1998 Bill based on the Opposition’s concerns, the Conservative Front-Bench team wished it well as it passed into law. I am not surprised, for the convention and the Act enshrined British values, developed over centuries of our common law, with a pedigree that stretches back to the Magna Carta, providing remedy in British courts, to be heard by British judges.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that something that has bothered people on both sides of the House, not least the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is the inability to remove from this country foreign criminals who pose a danger to other members of society? Given Italy’s success in passing new legislation to allow it to do that without affecting its human rights legislation, do the Government have any intention of doing the same thing to protect our society from foreign criminals who pose a threat to people here?

Mr. Straw: May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I am, of course, aware of this concern and we are trying to deal with it? I think that I am right in saying—I shall correct the record later if I am wrong—that Italy was one of the three countries with which we joined in an action before the Strasbourg Court to seek an amendment to the Chahal judgment, which has nothing to do with the Human Rights Act because it dates back to 1996. Italy faces exactly the same restrictions. There is a reason, in principle, for these restrictions, which I hope nobody in this House suggests should not be in place. That is that civilised countries should not outsource murder and torture and should not send back—albeit terrible—terrorists or criminals—to nations where there is a high and well-evidenced risk that they will face torture or death. The argument is about whether sending back a particular criminal to a particular country would pose that risk, and I am grateful for the intervention.

I recognise that the Human Rights Act has had to operate in a more difficult and complex environment than was anticipated in 1997. Therefore—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has flagged this point up—we now need to draw out explicitly those responsibilities that have always been implicit within the convention and the Act. That is why the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) and I will publish a draft Bill of Rights and responsibilities which will build on the Human Rights Act— [ Interruption. ] Well, if the Conservatives are now saying that they will build on the Act and not detract from it, I welcome that, but it is a very different approach from the one taken by the Leader of the Opposition.

In fact, the Conservatives are now pledged to a different approach—to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a separate set of rights that do not incorporate convention rights. To add to the confusion, they have said in this House and on the record that they
7 Nov 2007 : Column 146
“will not resile” from the convention itself. They appear to justify that approach on the ground that, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, they want to deport more foreign terrorists and criminals—as do we. Let me offer them this unsolicited, but entirely accurate, advice. Far from making it easier to deport foreign terrorists and criminals, the Conservatives’ approach would make it more difficult, because it would restrict the flexibility of the UK courts. If, as the Leader of the Opposition has suggested, they went down the route of the German Basic law—which they say would give them a greater margin of appreciation—they would end up with the opposite result to that which they seek. Any study of what happens in Karlsruhe, where the German constitutional court is based, shows that the German courts are more restrictive in their decisions on whether to deport foreign terrorists and criminals, and start from a higher base than do we or the Strasbourg Court. That would make deportation more difficult, not less difficult.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): When the Lord Chancellor links responsibilities to rights, is he implying that someone other than a court of law can say to an individual that they have not behaved sufficiently responsibly to have the right of free speech, or of assembly? How can rights be made contingent on responsibilities, or responsible behaviour, unless a court decides that someone has committed a crime?

Mr. Straw: There are two aspects to that issue. In general terms, most—although not all—rights are contingent on duties and responsibilities. There is a vast body of jurisprudential study behind that. Secondly, there are some rights that are fundamental in a free and democratic society, such as the right to a fair trial and the right not to be tortured or sent—in our judgment—to death. Those are fundamental rights that arise from the fact that individuals are human beings, and they are a mark that separates a free and fair society from any other.

On the detail, I commend to the right hon. Gentleman—because even you, Mr. Speaker, would pull me up short if I went into detail—a substantial lecture that I gave two weeks ago in Cambridge. It was the Mackenzie-Stuart lecture, and I set out at some length how to balance rights and responsibilities properly—

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): Available at all good bookshops.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend does not need to go to a bookshop for it, because she has learnt it off by heart, as I learn her speeches by heart. She will, of course, give a rendition of part of that speech when she winds up later.

All the changes that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is leading and which he set out in his historic, first statement as Prime Minister to the House on 3 July, are designed to establish a better balance between order and liberty, responsibility and freedom—and, whenever possible, to do so by consensus. That informs my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s approach to the complex and difficult issue of how best and fairly to bring to justice international terrorists, who threaten the whole fabric of our society. She will speak at more length on that issue when she winds up the debate.

7 Nov 2007 : Column 147

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Lord Chancellor mentioned the July statement, which said that there would be a coroners Bill in the Queen’s Speech. The Luce report, the third Shipman report and the draft Bill all pointed to the fact that the current system badly needs reform. Why is that Bill not in the Queen’s Speech?

Mr. Straw: I hope very much that it will be possible to introduce that Bill, but we could not be absolutely certain that there would be time. For that reason, it was omitted from the Gracious Speech. However, I promise the hon. Gentleman and the whole Opposition that if they co-operate with us fully on all the other legislation, they will have the coroners Bill too. I look forward to that co-operation and will hold the hon. Gentleman to it.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD) rose—

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD) rose—

Mr. Straw: There is a competition, as there always is among the Liberal Democrats. I shall give way to the more senior one.

Simon Hughes: Following the exchange between the Secretary of State for Justice and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), do I understand that, irrespective of any future discussion, the Government will defend the European convention on human rights absolutely? Do I understand that the Government will not wobble on whether to change or reduce the convention and that they will not derogate that in future, so that people are not held without trial in British prisons? Holding people in such a way would be contrary to all that has been implied by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and his colleagues over the years.

Mr. Straw: I have made it clear to the point of exhaustion that we are going to stick to the convention. Of course we are; we have no proposal to resile from it—that proposal came from parts, but not all, of the Opposition. Nor do we have any proposal to derogate; the convention itself gives a nation the right to derogate in particular circumstances, but we have no such proposal. However, I will send the hon. Gentleman an autographed copy of the speech that I made in Cambridge.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I should like to tease out what the Lord Chancellor has said. As I understand it, he wants his Bill of Rights and responsibilities, which will go out for discussion, to provide a gloss and interpretation by which the Human Rights Act 1998 can be looked at. Is that what he means, or will such a Bill of Rights be irrelevant to the interpretation of the 1998 Act? The issue is important because the Lord Chancellor is giving the impression that the way in which he wishes to proceed will enable a gloss on how the 1998 Act and the articles of the European convention are interpreted. Will he clarify the point?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman has taken a very consistent approach to the incorporation of the 1998 Act, and has been absolutely firm on the issue. Indeed,
7 Nov 2007 : Column 148
when asked whether a Conservative version of a British Bill of Rights would make it easier to deport suspected terrorists to countries that might torture them, he replied on the record that he did not think that it would. We are grateful to him for that clarification; I hope that he has told the shadow Home Secretary.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman, which he understands—I do not say that condescendingly—is this: in the convention, there are some rights on which there is very little margin of appreciation for any nation that adheres to the convention. That includes article 3, which is the basis of the Chahal judgment. On others, there is quite a wide margin of appreciation. The whole argument, originally led, in 1987, by the former distinguished Conservative Member the late Edward Gardner in a private Member’s Bill in favour of incorporation, was that if we incorporated the provisions, our courts would be able to adjudicate on them—and, yes, to gloss them, to use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase. That is what they have sought to do.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to await the publication of the Green Paper. However, in our judgment there are other areas in which, entirely consistently with the convention, the practice of Strasbourg and the margin of appreciation, greater discretion could be given—for example, in respect of article 13 on remedies, which is not incorporated, and of article 17, which deals with the abuse of rights and has not been developed as much as it should have been. That could be done without detracting in any sense from some of the fundamental rights, which I mentioned to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), that go with being a human being and nothing else.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): While my right hon. Friend is talking about rights and responsibilities—I hope that I am not taking him too far away from his speech—may I ask him about victims, particularly children, who cannot express either rights or responsibilities and who are victims of domestic violence? Can we as a Government look cross-departmentally at how we can help them further? I know that we have gone a long way, but there is more that we can do for them as regards their rights and responsibilities; perhaps he, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, can examine that closely.

Mr. Straw: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. A few days ago, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I attended a wonderful ceremony—the justice awards—where awards were given out to criminal justice practitioners who have made significant progress in these areas. However, all of them, especially those at the front line, accept that we have to do a great deal more.

I hope that a consensus can be achieved on the constitutional renewal Bill, which is to be published later this Session. It will abolish arcane royal prerogative powers and ensure instead that Parliament has the final say over such fundamental decisions as the deployment of armed forces overseas and the ratification of treaties. Following the decisive votes in the House in March, all-party talks on the future of the House of Lords continue. A further meeting is planned for next week. In any event, I am determined that we give effect, in time, to the overwhelming opinion of this House for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber.

Next Section Index Home Page