Previous Section Index Home Page

23 Mar 2009 : Column 42

I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that when the Bill was before the House, it was indeed the case that the Conservatives voted against it on Second Reading, but they did not vote against it on Third Reading, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has now had the grace to nod in agreement. Why? Because the Bill was much improved as a result of parliamentary scrutiny, not least from himself as an ardent supporter of the measure. When we came to Third Reading, the then shadow Attorney-General, now the noble and learned Lord Lyell, stood at the Opposition Dispatch Box and “wished the Bill well”. The Conservatives, or some tendency of the Conservative party, supports the Human Rights Act.

We were entertained at the weekend by the shadow Business Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), putting a torpedo through the Conservatives’ tax policy. He has also put a torpedo through the Conservatives’ failure to come up with any significant alternative to the Human Rights Act, describing his own leaders’ proposals as “xenophobic and legal nonsense”.

As I read his speeches, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield must agree with most of that which is in the document, and is simply posturing to who knows whom on the Opposition Benches behind him. He is in favour of the Human Rights Act. When I read his speeches I see that he is in favour of almost everything that is in the document, as I am in favour of much that he has written, particularly recently.

To what is the hon. and learned Gentleman objecting? Is he objecting to us setting down in summary form the economic and social rights that we all enjoy? What is the problem about that? What is the problem with setting down, as we have done in slightly longer form, the rights to health care or to education? While we set down those rights, which we all enjoy and which not even the Conservative party proposes we take away—yet—is it not also sensible to set down the balancing responsibilities?

The hon. and learned Gentleman suggests that by setting in a single declaration those rights and responsibilities, we will somehow encourage the compensation culture. He has already answered that. It is nonsense. But if in the same text, along with the right to health care, we set down the responsibilities of patients, and if in the same text, along with the right to education, we set down the responsibilities of parents in respect of the education and upbringing of their children, does our society lose from that exercise or gain? I suggest that our society can only gain from such an exercise, and I invite the Opposition to join us in a serious exercise better to set out for the society that we have today the rights and responsibilities that we owe and we should enjoy.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for early sight of the Green Paper and of his statement.

23 Mar 2009 : Column 43

With all due respect to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), I do not understand the position that the Conservatives are taking. They seem on some days to want the plaudits of populists for calling for the abolition of the Human Rights Act, but also to crave the respect of civil libertarians. They simply cannot have both. However, does the Secretary of State not recognise that he, too, seems to want it both ways, in how he attempts to link rights to responsibilities? He seems to want not only to satisfy those who rightly say that human rights set up a minimum standard of which no civilised Government—no matter whom they are dealing with—can fall short, but to please those who say that some people do not deserve human rights; that latter position is simply a watered down version of the position of those who want to get rid of the Human Rights Act altogether.

More fundamentally, does the Secretary of State recognise the fundamental distinction between human rights on the one hand, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship on the other? They are not the same. Human rights set up obligations owed to all humans, and cannot be conditional. The rights of citizens, on the other hand, are not universal, and there are far fewer problems in saying that responsibilities are attached to citizenship.

Does the Secretary of State not also agree that there is a crisis of citizenship in the simple sense of people taking part in the government of their own communities? He is a great supporter of first past the post, but does he not at least accept that one of its effects is to narrow electoral politics to a few swing voters in a few marginal constituencies to the exclusion of everyone else? Is there not an irony in calling for greater commitment to citizenship just before a debate in which, as the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said, the Government seek to restrict one of the best traditions of our citizenship—namely, the jury system?

The statement also seemed confused and vague on the relationship between constitutional texts and a sense of national unity. Does the Secretary of State not agree that it is not a text in itself but the experience of acting together to govern one’s own community that creates a sense of democratic identity? National identity itself very rarely creates democracies—in fact, things might be the other way round: too strong a sense of national identity might have been destructive of democratic ideals in the past century.

The Government are right to be cautious on economic and social rights. It would be a mistake, I believe, to constitutionalise too many essentially political decisions about taxing and spending. At the same time, it is already a human right not to be left in destitution and it is a plausible extension of the rights of citizens that they should have an entitlement to sufficient access to health, education and welfare services for them to be able to take part in a practical way in governing their own communities.

However, I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield that such rights as are included have to be properly enforceable in the courts. I am disturbed by what the Secretary of State has said about a range of rights—rights that are enforceable on the one hand, and rights that are purely declaratory or symbolic on the
23 Mar 2009 : Column 44
other. Does he agree that there is a grave danger that in creating rights that are not enforceable, he might end up diluting the whole idea of rights themselves? We have had enough of government by press release; the last thing that we need is a constitution by press release as well.

Mr. Straw: Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s last point. Essentially, he said that if we have a Bill, anything in it has to be justiciable; that, at least, is what I took him to say. I understand his point. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the Green Paper, but I commend it to him some more. In chapter 4, we bring out the fact that if we look at equivalent documents and texts around the world, we see that not every part of a declaration, Bill of Rights or preamble to a constitution is enforceable in the same way as every other part. On page 54, we cite what is set out in article 45 of the Irish constitution. The article is declaratory, but by all accounts the Irish believe that setting out important economic and social rights in a declaratory form in their constitution meets important imperatives within their society. My view is that it is sensible for there to be rights and responsibilities across the piece in a single document. If those could be agreed between the parties in terms of education for citizenship, it would be enormously valuable, when we talk to our constituents, to be able to say, “This is what has been agreed. Whatever else the British political parties and the British people disagree about, these are the sets of basic values—rights and responsibilities—that we all agree about.” This is a good starting point. There are certain things that we agree about, but at the moment they are less articulated than they should be, particularly as regards responsibilities, and we should set them out. In its important report last summer, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said that it would be unwise to make economic and social rights directly justiciable because that would pre-empt the role of this Parliament. Of course, I accept that. However, there is greater value in having such a document than in not having it.

I am always ready to rise to the bait of discussing electoral reform, but I will not on this occasion, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me. I will just say that there is greater concern in Norway and in the Czech Republic about the state of their democracy than there is here, notwithstanding their proportional representation systems. The whole House will have noted that I did not mention, among the major constitutional changes that this House has agreed in the past 12 years, the list system for European Parliament elections. [ Interruption. ] It was a manifesto commitment, your honour.

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask what the Conservatives want. I think that they want different things. In February this year, the shadow Home Secretary said that what we want is “fewer rights, more wrongs”. That was an extraordinary statement—so extraordinary that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) had to say that he was not completely clear about what it meant. [ Interruption. ] As a matter of fact, I am completely clear about what “fewer rights, more wrongs” means: it means fewer rights and more wrongs. That produced complete chaos at the heart of the Tory party.

Several hon. Members rose

23 Mar 2009 : Column 45

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, I say to the House that there is enormous pressure on business today, so could I please ask for single, brief questions and, if possible, brief replies?

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the Human Rights Act, which stands in stark contrast to the intellectually incoherent position of the Opposition. His remarks about social and economic rights are particularly important. I agree that direct enforceability is not appropriate, but such rights need to be more than just aspirational or declamatory. Will he consider some of the options that we advanced in our report as to forms of justiciability—for example, interpretive powers for the courts, an annual report to Parliament on progress, and a bottom line that nobody should fall below in terms of their social and economic rights?

Mr. Straw: As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, my hon. Friend has played a very important role in developing our thinking and that of the House. The answer to his question is yes. For example, we will take careful account of what is shown in recommendation 39 of his report of last July.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Given that one of the most important rights of all is freedom of religion and freedom to express one’s belief, what does this document offer in the way of hope to the British Airways stewardess who was suspended for wearing a cross, to the nurse who was suspended for saying prayers for one of her patients, to the school secretary who was suspended because her child talked about Jesus, and to the pantomime dame who believes that his rights are threatened by what we will do tonight?

Mr. Straw: I am as appalled as the hon. Gentleman by those cases. They have nothing whatever to do with the Human Rights Act, and they are absolutely shameful. I made that clear at the time, and I do so again. The right to freedom of religion is guaranteed by the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act. However, I hope that he will contribute to the debate that we are starting off today about whether one can better protect the rights of faith so that the kind of appalling nonsense that has taken place, to which he refers, is not repeated in future.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The Lord Chancellor quotes Britain’s constitutional history, but is not one of the prizes painfully won in that history that a British citizen’s human rights are enforceable by the courts and do not depend on a person behaving as the Government want them to behave, as long as they obey the law? If people cannot enforce their rights under the proposed Bill, and if the duties are unenforceable, is it not just a Bill of hopes and aspirations—or Straw’s sermon on the mount? I think that I prefer the original.

Mr. Straw: So do I.

I should have said to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that basic human rights do not depend on responsibilities. We all understand that. It is a mark of a civilised society that we are ready to give to the least worthy in our society—the people accused of the worst kinds of crimes—rights that they would never accord to us. There is no argument about that. None the
23 Mar 2009 : Column 46
less, the way in which people behave towards others is taken into account by the courts and is part of our overall moral code, and we need to articulate that better. If the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) considers what happens in other countries, he will see that Bills of Rights and declarations cover a range from aspiration to direct enforcement. I believe that our Bill of Rights could do the same.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that many of us who have listened to his statement will come to the following conclusion? Either the proposal means nothing at all, and is an attempt to give apparent substance to the empty mouthings of the Prime Minister, or alternatively the Justice Secretary intends to create enforceable rights—that is, enforceable at law—in which case, he will give to unelected judges huge influence over matters that are the proper responsibility of this place.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has not, understandably, had a chance to read the document, but I ask him to do so. I hope and believe that when he has done so, he will see that it is neither of the things that he describes. It is a serious contribution to an important debate, which was initiated, among others, by the leader of the Conservative party. His party has also promised a paper on rights and responsibilities. The only difference is that it promised it three years ago, and so far it has not produced anything at all.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The Justice Secretary quite rightly made reference to our constitutional heritage, such as the Magna Carta. But the Bill of Rights of 1689 was composed and arrived at within simply months, but the gestation period that the present Government have embarked upon confuses one. All the inalienable rights that we have always assumed as a free and democratic people are available in the constitutional instruments at our disposal, including the Human Rights Act. They protect the relationship of the citizen to the state and they define it. What the Justice Secretary proposes—this confusion and mishmash—is clearly just a diversionary tactic. I agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends: the proposal is going nowhere, and the Justice Secretary knows it. We are wasting time.

Mr. Straw: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. On the drafting of the Bill of Rights of 1689, I am not sure how long it took to transcribe, but it was certainly the subject of huge debate over many decades, including during our own civil war. It reflected a long period of gestation.

Mr. Shepherd: That is not right.

Mr. Straw: Well, we can have a separate debate about that; we could have it in Government time. I invite the hon. Gentleman to read the document.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): As well as some dodgy history that seems to claim the Declaration of Arbroath as British history, this curious and extravagant document hints at further devolution. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that Scotland, as a distinct legislature and community, should go its own
23 Mar 2009 : Column 47
way in terms of rights and responsibilities, and will he assure me that he will not be too prescriptive in how he applies measures across the nations of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Straw: The inclusion of the Declaration of Arbroath was a mark of respect to Scotland. As to the future, we are a Union. We are a United Kingdom of four nations in one, and there are clear competences for the sovereign Parliament of that Union, as there are for the devolved Administrations.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does the Justice Secretary agree that when people avail themselves of their right to demonstrate, they should also be held responsible for any offences that they happen to commit in the execution of that right, and that the law should be applied consistently no matter who the demonstrators happen to be?

Mr. Straw: Of course I agree with that.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I welcome the fact that there seems to be an emphasis on social and economic responsibilities. Many people would say that those include saving for a pension, and nobody will take the emphasis seriously if the Equitable Life pensioners do not have their rights restored through the ombudsman and get the pension that is due to them.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Lady will excuse me if I do not get drawn into the issue of Equitable Life, except to say that the Human Rights Act, which the Conservatives supported and which the shadow Justice Secretary was supporting until, I think, 1 o’clock this afternoon, has given individuals, including those in a similar position to pensioners of Equitable Life, far greater rights than ever they had before.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I hope that we are going to be spared Gordon’s little red book on responsible citizens, but can we have our right to a referendum on big constitutional change at Lisbon properly observed?

23 Mar 2009 : Column 48

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman will know that we set out in our manifesto provisions and proposals in respect of referendums, and they were also set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman might recognise this question from the sessions of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. His statement mentioned responsibilities including obeying the law, but may I ask him why paying taxes, jury service and not claiming benefits if able to work are not obeying the law? Are not all the responsibilities that he lists simply obeying the law, and therefore is it not just a gesture to the tabloids to call this a Bill of rights and responsibilities?

Mr. Straw: No, it is not. My guess is that, notwithstanding the fact that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make a partisan point, he often talks in his constituency about people who are claiming rights and the responsibilities that they owe. It is a good idea for Government and Parliament, on a consensual basis, to put in better relief the balance between rights and responsibilities, which is what we seek to do in this document.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Surely one of the fundamental rights of the British people is to a Parliament that has the freedom independently to scrutinise the Executive. On the assumption that the Secretary of State can agree to that rather prosaic proposition, when will the Executive stop appointing the members of the Select Committees that scrutinise them and instead allow right hon. and hon. Members to elect the members of those Committees for themselves?

Mr. Straw: The process of the Committee of Selection is subject to the endorsement of the House. We thought about this when I was Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, and the honest truth is that the only other possible system would almost certainly produce the same results. There are plenty of individual Members who have particularly strong views and still sit on Select Committees.

Next Section Index Home Page