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The Prime Minister: It is in the interests of the whole world that these imbalances—they are imbalances not only within Europe, but around the world—are corrected. Originally, in the 1940s, when Keynes was involved in setting up the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, he wanted a situation to develop where people were under an obligation to correct imbalances that arose in one continent or in one country. These are matters that I think he would agree have got to be looked at, not only at a European level, but internationally. We are trying, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to persuade
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China to take more exports from the United Kingdom, and that would be one way in which the imbalances could be reduced.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): The European Council deserves our support in putting pressure on unco-operative tax havens. Why did the Prime Minister not mention Bermuda when naming the various countries that are tax havens? Has it anything to do with representations from Lord Myners?

The Prime Minister: All tax havens are now under pressure. People will not see their money as safe in these havens after the experience that people have had over these past few months. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: This is a matter on which the world can now come together for the first time; never before have we had the will to take action to bring unco-operative tax havens under proper jurisdiction. That is something that I believe should happen, and we should be crediting this Government with the decision to push that it should.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) asked right at the beginning about the forthcoming G20 summit; why has the Prime Minister arranged Parliament so that he cannot report back to it? Is it not a fact that he is running scared?

The Prime Minister: I think the timings of the parliamentary recess were agreed far before those of the G20. I worked very hard to get a date that was suitable to the American President and to other world leaders, and we finally agreed that the date was the date that we chose. I think I am fair in saying that the date for this summit has to be set with a view towards bringing together the whole of the world, and that is what we have done.

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Rights and Responsibilities

4.22 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Green Paper “Rights and Responsibilities: developing our constitutional framework”, which was laid before Parliament today. It is the next stage in what has been described as a quiet revolution in our constitutional arrangements, which, since 1997, has included: independence for the Bank of England; devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; independence for National Statistics; the Human Rights Act 1998; the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998; and reforms to the House of Lords and of party funding.

This Green Paper deals with some of the most fundamental questions we face as individuals and as a society: how we live together; what rights and freedoms we enjoy, and from whom; and what duties and obligations we owe, and to whom. Those issues are not abstractions, removed from the practical politics of jobs and housing, health care, education, crime and disorder, because these constitutional arrangements determine how power is distributed, and therefore the conditions in which every other question in our public life will be answered.

It is because of the centrality of these issues that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister chose to make his first major policy statement, within days of taking office, on exactly this matter of constitutional change. He told this House that it was right to involve the public

This was to be as a step towards a written constitution. The Green Paper presents the arguments for such a Bill. It does not reach final conclusions—that is for the end of the process of national discussion—rather, it sets the framework for this debate. Indeed, if by the end of the process the Bill is perceived to provide protection to rights and freedoms, it will become effective in defining common values so that people in Britain of different backgrounds may feel ownership of it.

From the Magna Carta and the declaration of Arbroath, the 1689 Bill of Rights and the Scottish Claim of Rights, to the great Reform Acts of last two centuries, our history illustrates the proud traditions of liberty on which our nation is built. Though the profound changes that those great texts initiated were the subject of intense struggle at the time, the United Kingdom’s experience of constitutional development has been unlike that of almost any other democracy in the world.

The constitutional arrangements of most other nations have emerged from rebellion, revolution, civil war, occupation or oppression. The United States, France, India, South Africa and nations across Europe and the world, have had to set down their arrangements in a single text—a constitution, underpinned by declarations of rights. Whether legally enforceable or not, they have become abiding points of reference as to how their citizens should relate to each other and to the state, and help to define the kind of nation they wish to be. This Green Paper sets out the case for how a Bill could become a similar unifying force for the United Kingdom,
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not least because our own society is much more diverse, in race, religion and ethnicity than at any point in our history.

We are, self-evidently, launching this Green Paper at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. Tackling the global recession must be our immediate priority. But acting, at the same time, to strengthen communities’ and individuals’ sense of a stake in society—by better articulating the responsibilities we owe and the rights we have—is not an alternative to decisive measures on the economic front but an essential complement to them.

One of the most significant constitutional changes in the past dozen years is the Human Rights Act 1998. I worked hard as sponsoring Minister to achieve a consensus behind it: and I commend the official Opposition for the support that they gave the Act in its final form. Prior to that Act, accessing convention rights via the Strasbourg court was a time-consuming, expensive and difficult process, and, as such, prohibitive for many. Now, those rights can be accessed in UK courts, with cases heard by UK judges.

The Act better protects the family. It has benefited all sections of society; from the elderly couple wanting to live in the same care home, to the loftiest of newspaper magnates. In providing a more practical mechanism to access rights, as well as a positive obligation on the state to protect them, countless thousands of people have benefited from the law, without necessarily having to resort to the law.

Despite that, the Act has its detractors, primarily because the atrocities of 11 September 2001 occurred less than a year after it came into force. Had those tragic events not occurred, I suggest that the HRA would have slipped comfortably into the fabric of our lives without controversy. As it was, those terrible events threw into acute relief the tensions between liberty and security. We recognise these tensions but the Government are proud of the Human Rights Act. We will neither resile from it, nor repeal it.

The principles and rights set down in the European convention—now in the HRA—are timeless. They are the mark and measure of any civilised society at any time, but in the intervening 60 years since the convention was drawn up, the rights in it have been added to by a great extension of social and economic rights—of health care, dignity in old age, education, housing and social security. But as our rights have become so much wider and stronger, one question is whether their claim is balanced properly by an equally strong sense of the responsibilities we each owe. We believe that there is a case for drawing out more clearly and explicitly the responsibilities that go with rights.

Duties and responsibilities are to be found in the convention, in statute, in common law and woven deeply into our social and moral fabric. We have a latent understanding and acceptance of our duties to one another and to the state. That said, responsibilities have been a poor cousin to rights. The Green Paper proposes that responsibilities are given greater prominence in our constitutional arrangements, better to articulate what we owe, as much as what we expect. That is how we can move away from a “rights culture” to a “rights and responsibilities culture”.

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Some responsibilities are obvious, such as obeying the law, paying taxes and undertaking jury service. Others are less obviously recalled at the moment they should be exercised, such as a responsibility towards future generations to live within environmental limits, the duty we have to protect the well-being of children in our care, a civic duty to vote, responsibilities towards our neighbours, respect for those public sector workers who care for us and a responsibility towards the taxpayer—for example, not claiming benefits if one is able to work.

If we are to fulfil our responsibilities, we must have a clear understanding of what they are. As the Green Paper sets out, an accessible Bill of rights and responsibilities could be emblematic of the fair society in which we want to live, where awareness of our rights is matched with a greater understanding of our responsibilities to each other. Most of the social and economic rights to which I have referred are already embedded in law, but they are scattered across myriad legal texts. The Government believe that we should encapsulate those rights in a single document, bringing together the “new” post-war rights of social justice and the welfare state, victims’ rights, rights of equality and good administration.

A key question set out in the Green Paper is whether any Bill should have, directly or indirectly, the force of law. Bills of Rights from around the world are a combination of symbolism, aspiration and law across a spectrum of legal effect. There need not be a binary choice between the justiciable and the declaratory. As the Green Paper points out, the Government do not necessarily consider a model of directly legally enforceable rights or responsibilities to be the most appropriate.

But even without full legal enforcement, words can have great power. The universal declaration of human rights contained no legally enforceable rights, but was rather the global expression of a shared commitment and a recognition of humanity’s common dignity—what Eleanor Roosevelt described as the Magna Carta for all mankind. A Bill of rights and responsibilities for the United Kingdom could be such a declaration and could set down the values we cherish.

I have had the rare privilege of taking through this House many of the constitutional changes of the past 12 years. Throughout that time I have looked to secure the broadest political consensus behind those changes, as reform of such importance to our democracy requires nothing less.

Constitutional change should take place only on the basis of full and proper deliberation. The Green Paper has been through such a process within Government and now it is time to take the debate out to the people whom we all serve. The deliberation must not be rushed and so the Green Paper will not precede any legislation this side of a general election. We are dealing with the fundamental building blocks of our democracy, and as the Prime Minister made clear:

A Bill of rights and responsibilities could form the next natural and necessary step in a process that began 60 years ago with the universal declaration. It is an opportunity to bring together existing rights and responsibilities in one statute and better to define the
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relationship between citizen and state in a new and unifying constitutional document for this century. I commend the statement to the House.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. It was not in fact needed, as it was all in The Sunday Times. Yet again, even on serious matters of constitutional reform, this Government demonstrate their disdain for this House by first announcing policy to the media. Am I correct in recalling that the Justice Secretary told the House last Tuesday:

What has changed since then? Was this a decision taken by the Prime Minister?

We have had a decade of botched constitutional reform from this Government. The Justice Secretary was there from the start, and now he has been instructed by the Prime Minister to clear up the mess. In truth, there can be only two reasons for this Green Paper, which he says sets the framework of debate. Has he come to the House because he accepts that the Human Rights Act, which has been in force for less than nine years, has proved badly flawed, and that new thought is needed? Or is the statement just the latest exercise in pure spin, designed to make absolutely no difference in practice?

I have to correct the Justice Secretary: the Opposition voted against the Human Rights Act, and experience has proved that we were correct about many of the concerns that we expressed. The Act has singularly failed to protect our core freedoms. The heavy-handed abuse of the right to peaceful protest is documented in today’s report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. As for intrusions into personal privacy, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust today referred to Britain as the

and this evening, the House will again resist the Government’s latest attack on juries.

The Human Rights Act has fuelled a rights inflation; it requires UK judges to take a maximalist approach to the interpretation of convention rights that is not, in fact, required by membership of the European convention on human rights, and that has created confusion and uncertainty in practice. Does the Justice Secretary now accept that the Act has often left police and probation services unclear of where the legal boundaries are as they strive to discharge their duty to protect the public, as was shown in the tragic case of Naomi Bryant? Does he accept that the Act has saddled public service providers with heavy liabilities and has what the Audit Commission describes as

Will he take responsibility for the Act’s role in undermining social responsibility, as the Government oversell human rights as all things to all people? If so, how exactly will his proposals make a difference to all that?

On the contrary, the Green Paper is, it seems, destined to make each of those problems worse. Take legal confusion. Writing in The Sunday Times, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), explains that

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but he urges us none the less to


Can the Secretary of State, who is after all a lawyer, please explain what on earth his junior Minister is talking about? The question is pretty straightforward: does he favour the creation of new economic and social rights with legal force, or are we talking about an entirely cosmetic exercise? If he does want to create new economic and social rights, he needs to say so, and he needs to explain why we in this House should abdicate to unaccountable judges our responsibility, as democratic law-makers, to set the nation’s economic and social priorities, and decide how finite public resources should be allocated to meet them.

Take rights to health care. Does the Justice Secretary accept that the reality of any new human rights to health care is that they will feed the claims culture? Just this week, the NHS Litigation Authority lambasted the existing regime. Would not the new rights mean more money for lawyers and less for patients—the last thing that the taxpayer will welcome in a recession? If he does not intend to create justiciable rights, can he explain how the standing of law is not undermined by the process on which he has embarked? What are we to make of his Minister of State comparing the proposals to the Bill of Rights of 1689? Was that document merely “aspirational”? Given their track record, I begin to think that the Government might well wish that the Bill of Rights, too, was merely the pap that is being served up here.

The Justice Secretary could not put off coming to the House for ever. We have waited more than 14 months for this announcement, which has been put back time and again, scuppered each time, we are told, by his colleagues. In a vain effort to say something—anything—on how to reform the Human Rights Act, he has produced a Green Paper that can only make matters worse. May I suggest to him that on the evidence of the Green Paper, he really would be well advised to heed colleagues’ warnings? That would be better than trying to create more confusion, and undermining yet again the democratic prerogatives of this House and, above all, the clarity of the law. The Green Paper has just one saving grace: it will not result in any legislation this side of a general election—in other words, it is for the birds.

Mr. Straw: I think the hon. and learned Gentleman protests too much. He makes much of his discontent with the Human Rights Act and how that has fuelled a compensation culture.

Let me read the House a quotation:

That was the shadow Attorney-General speaking to lawyers at the Stationers’ Hall, City of London, on 30 March 2005—the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), the same hon. and learned Gentleman who told the House when the Human Rights Bill was going through the House,

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