|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Wills: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that this is an immensely complex legal issue? Does he also recognise that both sides, the Scottish Government and Whitehall, have gone to great trouble to try to reach a consensus? These things are not always quick and easy, but we have moved with all due speed.
May I remind the hon. Gentleman that all Executives are sometimes subject to delays? As I speak, we have still not received from the Scottish Government a crucial document-the legislative consent motion-which we have been expecting. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that delays on all sides are inevitable in this process?
Pete Wishart: Perhaps I have been a little less generous than I should have been. Of course I understand that a protracted process has been necessary to take us to our present position. Nevertheless, this has been going on since devolution started back in 1999. It has been going on for a long, long time, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that things might have been done a little more quickly.
We accept that there are problems with the legislative consent motion, but I know that my colleagues in the Scottish Government are trying to deal with them. Perhaps, again, I have been a little unfair to the Minister. I think that we are all grateful for the fact that the matter has now been resolved, and I am aware of his involvement in its resolution. I know that there have been lengthy, fruitful and productive discussions with our Scottish Government colleagues. I am glad that, regardless of the history, the background and the pain and grief that have been suffered, we have reached the happy stage at which a solution has been found, and in that respect I am happy with the amendment.
Mr. Heath: I do not intend to oppose the amendments and new clause. I entirely understand the route by which they have been arrived at. It is good news that, albeit following a bit of delay, an agreement has been reached between the Scottish Parliament and the Government in fairly short order. However, I want to enter a few words of caution.
The decision of the House of Lords in Somerville etc. v. Scottish Ministers correctly stated that there were two alternative statutory routes for the vindication of convention rights in Scotland, the Human Rights Act and the Scotland Act, and that there was a discrepancy between the two. That discrepancy has now been dealt with.
My first concern is whether there may yet be any challenge to the compatibility of the new provision in the Scotland Act with convention rights. I suspect that there will not be, but it is a possibility none the less. My second concern is that the arguments that may have been used to add weight to the claim for compatibility between the two statutory routes are based on some fairly crude assessments of the potential liability under human rights legislation in respect of prisons in Scotland. I do not believe that the liability that was described was a real liability, and it worries me that far too often criticism of human rights legislation is couched in terms of the claims that might be made rather than the outcome of cases that are actually heard. There is, I think, an important distinction between the two.
The hon. Gentleman has made an extremely important point about human rights legislation. I agree that we must be very careful about demonising the impact and consequences of such legislation. The facts
are often entirely different from the way in which they are portrayed in the media, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing that to our attention. The mischief in this case, however, was caused not so much by the size of the potential liability as by its uncertainty. All Administrations need certainty and clarity. If there is a mischief in regard to which people have a legitimate claim against the state, it is important for that mischief to be identified and dealt with as quickly as possible, rather than being left uncertain for long periods. The Human Rights Act provides a clearly specified time limit, as indeed does judicial review. Those times are relatively short in comparison with the apparently lengthy processes that were opened up by Somerville.
Mr. Heath: And I am grateful to the Minister for his intervention. Such arguments often go without adequate rebuttal, but those of us with an interest in ensuring that human rights are properly upheld in this country believe that there is a huge mythology that it right for us occasionally to address and, where appropriate, argue against. Having looked at some of publicity surrounding the case and some of the claims made in support of the need for compatibility, I am not sure whether I entirely recognise the contingencies being described. Perhaps I should be more explicit. I am concerned about whether the retrospectivity in the new arrangements will find favour if challenged under human rights legislation. That aside, however, I think it sensible for there to be a clear co-ordination between the two statutory routes, and I see no reason not to support the amendments and new clause.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I welcome the Government's approach to the introduction of time limits for human rights action against Northern Ireland, Welsh and Scottish Ministers. I will not rehearse all the arguments, but I think that this is a sensible provision, and, as the Minister will know, it has been welcomed by the Northern Ireland Executive. Although the Somerville judgment did not deal with claims under the legislation governing the devolved arrangements in Northern Ireland-or, indeed, legislation relating to Wales-the problems that arose in Scotland could arise there.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): We also welcome these provisions. I welcome the provisions already in the Bill, and I was pleased to see that, albeit belatedly, the Government had tabled the new clause. I do not blame the Minister for the delay; I appreciate what he said about the complexity of the issue, and I agree that it is not surprising that it has taken some time to present measures to deal with it.
I must tell the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) once again-I am making a habit of this, and I shall have to be careful about it-that he was absolutely right in all that he said. The potential cost to the taxpayer-and the actual cost so far-of the mistake that was made in allowing an anomaly to arise have been considerable, but let us hope that that flow of taxpayers' money will now be stemmed.
I am still concerned about one thing, however. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to answer my question, and the hon. Member for Perth and North
Perthshire may wish to intervene It appears that there is now a different time limit for the bringing of an action where there is potential delictual liability-or, indeed, an action in a personal injury case-to that for bringing an action under human rights legislation.
The following situation could therefore arise under the terms of the Bill. Somebody who has been injured would have a right to bring a case under human rights legislation on which there would be a time limit of one year, but they would also have a right to bring a normal personal injury case or a case under the normal Scots law of delict-which is when someone has had an injury caused to them by someone else-and that would have a normal time limit of three years, or in some cases six or seven years. A person could therefore bring an action under the normal law of delict but by the time they discovered they were not going to succeed in that action it would be too late to bring an action under human rights legislation. The opposite situation could also arise: they might bring forward a human rights case and then discover that they had run out of time under the normal law of delict or personal injury law. I am taking a long time to explain this in order for the Minister to have a chance to consider the matter.
Mr. Wills: I just want to see if I can set the hon. Lady's mind at rest on this. This measure affects all convention-based claims, not other claims; the Scottish law of delict, for example, is a matter for Scots law. This relates to convention-based claims, which is why this House is dealing with it; it is a matter of UK law and our compatibility with the convention.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the Minister for that answer, which is perfectly in order, and I appreciate that that is as far as he can go in discussing this Bill and his responsibilities. I am merely putting down a marker that there could be a further anomaly here which somebody somewhere within the Scottish or UK Governments might wish to look at before an injustice occurs as a result of it-let me put it no more strongly than that. I am glad that the Minister has taken the point on board, and I am sure his colleagues will look into it. As the Minister has said, this matter is complex and addressing it has taken quite some time, and I do not blame him for that. Not for the first time, however, these mistakes and injustices have arisen because of the way in which devolution has been implemented and as a result of matters not having been properly thought through in advance.
Mr. Wills: I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Lady in the middle of her flow, but she is straying into very dangerous territory and I want to help her protect herself from herself. May I remind her that this came about as a result of a judgment in the House of Lords? Courts sometimes interpret laws in ways that parliamentarians wish they had not, but that is a crucial part of the separation of powers in this country. It is a crucial protection for the people of this country that sometimes courts take decisions that are awkward or difficult for Governments and politicians of all classes, and when they do so, we have to respond, which is precisely what we are doing. This is not a result of a flaw in the legislation; it is a result of an interpretation of the courts. This happens, and it will go on happening regardless of what the hon. Lady may think.
Mrs. Laing: I am grateful for the Minister's protection, and I fully appreciate, and agree with, what he says about decisions taken by the courts as, of course, I also support the doctrine of the separation of powers. Let me explain what is of concern to me, however. I acknowledge that the Minister had nothing to do with the discussions a decade ago on the legislation that became the Scotland Act 1998 and other devolution measures, but those of us who were sitting on the Conservative Benches warned time and again that these anomalies would arise. In this case, it has cost the taxpayer several million pounds. Let us hope that further anomalies do not arise as a result of devolution not having been properly thought through in these areas. We warned about this a decade ago, and I am still warning now.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Lady was articulating a powerful point before she was interrupted in full flow by the Minister. She is entirely correct that this is all to do with an anomaly. The Somerville case was successful because it identified that anomaly and was able to progress and make a case on the basis of flawed work in respect of the Scotland Act. Like me, the hon. Lady spends many hours in Delegated Legislation Committees trying to clear up some of the mess caused by that Act, so it is disingenuous to try to suggest that it was a perfect document.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for agreeing with my point. Like me, he spends many hours in Delegated Legislation Committees correcting the anomalies of the devolution legislation, and I and many of my colleagues-and many of his colleagues, and also many of the Minister's colleagues-spent weeks and months in this Chamber raising these matters when we dealt with the Scotland Act. I am merely saying that we were right then and the Government were too complacent.
Mr. Wills: I shall be brief, as I do not want to protract proceedings unduly. I am sure the whole House has noted that a curious alliance and amity is developing between the two parties that opposed devolution, and that did so for completely different reasons, in reliving those old arguments. Most of the people of the United Kingdom, including most of the people in Scotland, think devolution has been a great success. It is just worth the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire reflecting on the fact that the House of Lords decided on Somerville by the narrowest of majorities-by three to two. Therefore, the suggestion that this was somehow inherent in the legislation is manifestly nonsense.
Mrs. Laing: The Minister shows great faith in his Government, but neither the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire nor I share it. The Minister is right that there is an alliance of sorts; it is an alliance of those who care about the Scottish legal system and the protection of Scots law and its principles. I have not said anything different from what I said when we discussed these matters and the Scotland Act was passed a decade ago; I have not changed my position at all. I have always argued that the United Kingdom can work perfectly well and properly with different legal systems, as it has done for centuries.
I declare an interest: I am a Scots lawyer by profession. Because of that and the fact that I am also conversant in the practice of English law, I have always argued that it is perfectly possible to have a United Kingdom that functions properly for all its citizens throughout our entire country under different legal systems-indeed, as the Minister has said, under a devolved system, which we now have and which we all want to work properly. In order for it to work properly, however, it is incumbent on the Government to consider the pitfalls that might lie ahead and to consider possible anomalies that might arise, and to protect the legal system, the people, the principles of justice and, indeed, the taxpayer from the consequences of those anomalies.
I appreciate that the Minister has today brought forward the right legislation to do that. I still agree with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire that it is unfortunate that it has taken so long, but at least we have it today and we welcome it.
"(3A) Subsection (3B) applies to any proceedings brought by virtue of this Act against the Scottish Ministers or a member of the Scottish Executive in a court or tribunal on the ground that an act of the Scottish Ministers or a member of the Scottish Executive is incompatible with the Convention rights.
(3C) Subsection (3B) does not apply to proceedings brought by the Lord Advocate, the Advocate General, the Attorney General, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland or the Advocate General for Northern Ireland.
(8) Subsections (6) and (7) above apply to any proceedings brought after this section comes into force (including proceedings in respect of an act taking place before this section comes into force).'.- ( Mr. W ill s.)
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I wish to ask the Minister exactly what the words "pared down" mean. That was the Government's description of what they have done to the proposals included in the draft Bill in this respect. In this instance, "pared down" appears to mean omitted in their entirety, rather than anything that could satisfactorily be described using that term. I am curious to learn exactly why the Government have thought again.
In 2007, a clear commitment was given that the Government would surrender some Executive power, and judicial appointments was one of the 12 areas explicitly mentioned. The 2008 draft Bill made some explicit proposals in this area: it proposed that the Lord Chancellor's role be reduced by removing his power to reject or require reconsideration of selections made by the Judicial Appointments Commission for all judicial offices below the High Court; it proposed to remove the requirements for the Lord Chief Justice to consult the Lord Chancellor or obtain his agreement before exercising functions such as deploying judiciary to certain leadership posts; it proposed to place new duties on the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice, the JAC and the selection panels to ensure that selection processes are fair, transparent, efficient, flexible, proportionate and effective and to have regard to the JAC's need to act independently; and it proposed to place new duties on the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice to encourage diversity in judicial appointments.
The only thing that has remained from that list is the removal of the Prime Minister from the process, but as I suspect the Prime Minister has never actively intervened in this process, other than on the express advice of the Lord Chancellor, that is, in effect, a cosmetic change. The only argument that I could advance that the Government may have for dropping these changes is the opposition from the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which expressed a view that to introduce reforms at this stage might create an imbalance in the proposals contained in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.
That might be an argument, were it not for the fact that the Government have already rejected the Joint
Committee's views. The Government response to the Committee's report clearly stated that they do
"not accept the overall view of the Committee".
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|