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The Berkeley brothers took the issue of the system of law in Sark, which is linked with Guernsey, to judicial review. It was seen clearly as a responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. It is settled UK law that that responsibility rests within the UK. I accept that there are differences of status. Whereas I am not sure about the settled legal position on the Turks and Caicos islands, there is a settled legal position for Crown dependencies, which is that the Ministry of Justice has a duty to act. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman interrupts
from a sedentary position, referring to European norms. That is correct. Under article 6 requirements, the UK is responsible for maintaining the compliance with the European convention on human rights of the Crown dependencies.
That brings me to the point raised earlier about the European convention on human rights. There is a proposal that judges in England should not be allowed to look at the European convention on human rights, but that people should still be able to take a case, as an individual case, to Strasbourg. That is absurd. A case must go all the way through the courts in England before they can consider whether it is compliant with the European convention.
I had a case in my constituency on the Child Support Agency recently in which we did quite well. Partners had split up, somebody had got married and got more children. The money being asked for from the CSA was such that it was in the financial interests of the second couple to split up. The amount of money that the new wife was being asked to contribute, effectively to go to the older children, was such that the couple would be financially better off if they split up. We decided to put the case to the CSA tribunal with an article 8 argument, which is that the Government do not have the legal right to interfere with the family and force them to split up.
We won. This may be the first time that that has happened. Hon. Members are aware how difficult it is to deal with the CSA. That is a good example of how the European convention on human rights in domestic law can work well. There are silly cases, and people have a right to ask for silly things and be told no. But the European convention does protect people's rights.
Chairing Justice for Families-I declare my interest-I work with a number of hon. Members to get their constituents' cases into the European court. We have the usual problem that it is all well and good getting legal aid in the lower courts, but in the higher courts it is very difficult to get any support. I have a network of about 70 people across England, a couple in Scotland and a couple in Wales who help people in courts. They help them fight the injustice that goes on in the family courts, where there are many procedural problems.
I am very pleased that on Monday the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Council of Europe decided to establish an inquiry into family courts and human rights across Europe, with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) as its rapporteur. We now have an opportunity to look at that issue in more detail. I find it sad that, when the UK has had so many stresses in family law, we have not managed to do the same in the UK Parliament. The UK has had stresses in private family law, which deals with situations when partners divide; and in public family law, which deals with situations when the state interferes in the family. Often the two overlap, and that issue is a responsibility for the UK Parliament.
On patterns of accountability, it is wrong to say that judges are not accountable, because they are. They are required to explain their judgments. The Queen's Speech does not mention this measure, but I am pleased that the Government will improve the accountability of judges in the family court. The problem is that one cannot
discuss publicly, even if anonymously, the contents of a judgment in the family court unless it has gone to the Court of Appeal or one has judicial permission. It is good that the Government have introduced some pilot schemes, and they should happen in all courts. The courts should not say, "This is the decision, but you can't say why it has been taken." Court orders are always public documents, and that is why super-injunctions are strange. I discussed that issue with a Law Lord recently. There is an argument for a super-injunction lasting a week or two, when assets are being frozen around the world and one does not want people to find out what is going on. However, court orders should be public documents. The European convention on human rights makes that very clear. One may redact part of it, but not otherwise.
Freedom of speech is in a dreadful mess in this country, such that American newspapers are considering banning Britons from viewing their websites and stopping selling American newspapers here because of libel tourism. The issue is not about the damages; it is all about the costs. The threat of libel costs has a chilling effect on free speech in the scientific and general media arenas. That is our responsibility: there is no reason why we should allow a dispute over damages of £1,000 to have potential costs of £500,000 on each side. There is a tradition in UK law that the costs follow the action, but why that should be so for a strict liability offence, such as defamation, is unclear. One may say that damages should be limited to £5,000, but the issue is serious and ongoing, and there is no mention in the Gracious Speech about the effect on freedom of speech in this country. To be fair to the courts, new procedural rules were introduced in October to manage the costs situation, but we have a real problem with the constraints on freedom of speech which arise from legal costs.
On family law, the Government have done a really good job-gradually. They could have done it a lot faster, but let us recognise that progress is being made in opening up the family courts. There is a wide range of concerns about family life, and some of it comes from the judicial environment, in which bad practice is encouraged at times and tolerated by the system. It should not be. Judges are held to account by their judgments; however, at times, it is very difficult to get a written judgment out of the courts. It can take a number of months. They say that three months is reasonable for a judgment, but I am not talking about reserve judgments, when a decision has not been taken; I am talking about the circumstances in which a decision has been taken and implemented, but one cannot get the judge's reasons in writing for three months.
I have had cases in which it has taken six months to get judges' reasonings. One cannot really appeal a case until one has the judge's reasoning, so that makes things very difficult, although we have appealed cases on the basis of no reasoning, which is a basis for an appeal. However, that should not have to happen. There is accountability for the process, but merely leaving the issue to lawyers is not adequate.
The rule of law is important to absolutely everybody. If one knows the law, one should follow it. We should not have to go to court to enforce the law, because people should follow it, and the court is there to enforce the law if people do not follow it. We have particular problems in family law. This year is the 20th anniversary
of the Children Act 1989, but that Act gives us procedure, not law. It does not say what should happen in certain circumstances or, for instance, that both parents have a duty when they split up to make sure the child stays in touch with them. That would be a good first step and some real law. However, the Act actually says, "If you want the court to make a decision, you need to fill in this application for this section and that application for that section."
Similarly, Baroness Deech said that there is a problem with divorce law. The same principle exists: we do not have law; we leave the judges with massive discretion. That is a really big problem, because in public family law people know which judge will give which answer, and some judges will give one answer and other judges will give another. That is not law; that is just giving power to a judge. I am working with the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on a case involving a 17-year-old boy who has been sectioned while in care. We have some serious concerns about that, but getting a handle on it and any proper explanation from the system is not easy. That is no good at all when somebody is in such a powerless situation-perhaps they have been sectioned and their family are concerned-and we should develop some proper family law. Currently, we do not have family law; we have family procedure. Such measures would make a big difference, because one would be able to tell people, "We expect that if parents split up, they'll put the best interests of the child first and try and work together to maintain contact." Instead, a report last week said that people use children as bargaining chips, which is fundamentally wrong. We do not have any law that says, "You mustn't use children as bargaining chips," and such legislation would be a good way forward. It would be nice if the Government made an effort in that area.
With all the secrecy in the family division, one difficulty is that people do not know what decisions have been taken or why. The Government are gradually going to open up the system to reveal what decisions have been taken and why. That will allow Parliament or the public to scrutinise more widely on an anonymous basis what is going on. People should not be required to dress up as super-heroes to draw attention to their situation. The amount of gagging that prevents people from talking about their cases is fundamentally wrong, but I recognise that the Government have made two important if small steps in the right direction and that they are talking about making a third during this Parliament, even if the Queen's Speech does not actually mention it.
One of my particular concerns is the use of mental capacity and adjudging people not capable to instruct a solicitor. I have had two cases in which mothers were prevented from contesting their cases-both have gone to the European Court of Human Rights-because they were told that they were too stupid to instruct a solicitor. The expert who wrote that was jointly appointed by the local authority. That is standard practice, but they are therefore beholden to the authority, and that is a ludicrous situation.
One mother was an Asian lady who did not speak English, and she was given an IQ test through an interpreter. We should not disqualify somebody from the right to instruct their own solicitor because they fail an IQ test taken through an interpreter. That is madness, but it has been going on in the family division. Luckily,
article 9 of the Bill of Rights applies, and I can therefore talk about that case. I am not a lawyer; I am a physicist by training and more of a mathematical person. But in my view, as somebody who is not a lawyer, it is spectacularly bad to exclude someone from the judicial process. The authorities are saying, "You can't oppose this, because you are too stupid and it is like you're in a coma." Then, the Official Solicitor comes in and concedes everything against such people. Those two cases are not unique, but one does not see them all.
We need to look towards a change of culture in the children's care environment. On Saturday, I had a meeting in my constituency office with several parents of children who are on the autistic spectrum, all of whom said that they feel as though the system does not listen to them at all. They are, to be fair, the people who know their children best, but they are kept out of it, so that when a panel makes a decision they are not allowed to attend. I hope, with my local authority, to see whether we can improve the situation and get better communication. Again, the situation arises whereby things are done to people without their consent. Things are working very badly in many of these areas, yet there is no mention of that whatsoever in the Gracious Speech. We need to get more of a focus on what should be done.
Legislating to introduce measures that are really Government policy-for instance, cutting the budget deficit by 50 per cent.-is a misuse of legislation, which is not intended for that purpose. Legislation is intended to establish law; Government policy is a separate matter. Policy should be reviewable now, not in retrospect two years later, which is what happens at the moment. There are some serious problems to deal with before we get to the major financial problems that we face, and proper attention is not being given to those issues.
On Afghanistan, people fail to understand the nature of segmented societies. There is a topic of study called political anthropology whereby one can look at how societies operate. In essence, we are trying to change the culture of a society through military means. I have a lot of confidence in the British armed forces-I am sure that they can win any battle-but using them to try to change a culture is the wrong mechanism. If a culture is going to change, it will do so over a number of years. In an honour-based system whereby if somebody's tribal brother is killed it is then their duty to take revenge, it is very difficult to calm these situations down. Much as I pay tribute to the British armed forces and have great confidence in their ability to win any military battle, the Government are making a mistake by giving them a cultural and political objective rather than a military objective. That is another matter that the Government should review urgently but does not appear in the Queen's Speech.
We face a lot of problems as a society. The Government are misusing the Queen's Speech. There should be a general election now; sadly, we know that there will not be. However, whatever happens in future, I intend to continue to try to deal with these issues, which are not necessarily party political; I find that I work with hon. Members in all parts of the House. I intend to press to reduce miscarriages of justice, particularly in the family division, and I look forward to working with hon. Members in doing so.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Over the past 17 years in which I have been a Member of Parliament, I have been pleased to use the occasion of the first day of the Queen's Speech debate to set out my stall and amplify my views on a number of issues. The opportunity presented by our convention allows us to address a broad canvas of issues on this day, a right exercised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming).
I also want to refer to the rubrics of today's ceremony. I am one of those people who defend the ceremonial, and I think that it is superb. However, we need to reflect on the absurdity of having these state openings of Parliament year after year. In my view, it would be much more sensible, in a modern Parliament, for us to have the state opening ceremony at the beginning of a Parliament after a general election and for there to be a seamless robe instead of these wholly artificial Sessions, particularly now that we have carry-over motions and so on, with much legislation never heralded in the Gracious Speech. It would be much better if we had the ceremony once, given all the expense, which cannot be dismissed nowadays, and the inconvenience to people who need to move around this part of central London. Last but by no means least, there is the fact that a large number of our skilled and dedicated armed forces are proudly associated with the state opening ceremony; that cannot be justified year after year, bearing in mind that there will almost certainly be another ceremony next May. I hope that whoever wins the next general election will reflect on this and move to make arrangements whereby we have one Session for one Parliament and there is a seamless robe in terms of the legislative programme for the duration of that Parliament instead of frequently having these artificial, and very costly, state opening ceremonies.
For many hon. Members who have spoken today and are not now in the Chamber, and for myself, this occasion is an opportunity for a valedictory. I looked at a report of my maiden speech, which I delivered on the first day of the Queen's Speech debate in 1992, to see what I had said. I intend to leave the House of Commons at the next general election, so I was pleased to see a number of things in that speech with which I am proud to be associated- [ Interruption. ] Fortunately, when I came into Parliament in 1992, we did not have high technologies that trespass on us both in this Chamber and at weekends.
In the Queen's Speech debate in 1992, I advocated the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to the European Union. Not only are they now robust members of the EU, but I am proud that the Labour Government fast-tracked, supported and argued for the expansion of the EU. Whatever our differences on Europe, we can recognise that the expansion of the EU means that countries that have a chequered history-of a century or more, in the case of Poland-of occupation, partition and so on, have rightfully taken their place in, and are contributing to, the club of free nations, to their benefit and ours. One thing that is not spoken about enough is the fact that the European Union is a great vehicle for conflict resolution and minimisation, apart from the commercial, political and economic contributions it makes to our part of the globe.
The second thing I noticed when reading my contribution in 1992 was that I referred to the need to improve industrial relations. In the great sweep of the period of this Labour Government, industrial relations have significantly improved. The period has been relatively free of strife and conflict, compared with the 20 years or quarter of a century before 1997.
I am pleased that in today's Queen's Speech, there is talk of advancing agency employees' rights; and that there is going to be greater disclosure regarding the opportunities for workers to get redress and remedies, and to point out pay and opportunity injustices when there is discrimination on gender grounds. I very much welcome the introduction of such measures by this Labour Government.
Most Members of the House will welcome, at least in principle, the Government providing, through the personal care at home Bill, much-needed additional support for people suffering dementia and other conditions to help their loved ones and carers; and intensive support for such vulnerable people. Most will also welcome the measures for re-ablement technology to assist and improve the quality of life of our fellow citizens who suffer from those conditions.
I obviously welcome the fact that we have a carry-over motion-it was referred to in the Queen's Speech-for the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, and the intention to produce at least a draft Bill in respect of democratising the upper House. On the latter, it is disappointing that after 13 years, and even though the 1997 Labour manifesto said that we were going to introduce such a measure, there has not been much of an advance.
I am leaving the House at the general election, primarily because I felt, physically and mentally, that I needed a sabbatical. I deliberately tell the House that because I am not going away. If there was an opportunity for election to the upper House, I would love to be one of the first of the new, or at least to be able to offer myself. However, I am not holding my breath, because I have heard Governments time and again say that they are going to address the matter, but it does not happen. That reflects the deep conservatism on this issue.
Simple measures could have been introduced to make this House and the other place much more meaningful. Some colleagues have already referred to the GOATs-Ministers in a Government of all the talents-some of whom were Ministers for only a short period. I did invite the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee to consider whether we could allow Ministers in the Lords to come and answer questions here on their portfolios and, if they were the architects of legislation, to be allowed to pilot it through this House, and for the reverse to happen as well, with Ministers from the Commons appearing in the Lords. It is not rocket science, and it happens in many legislatures around the world, including some Westminster-style ones.
Indeed, I cannot see why it is necessary for Ministers to be members of the legislature, and there are many good reasons why they should not be. If a Deputy in the French National Assembly becomes a Minister, a suppléant takes over to represent their constituency in the interests of the voters, and the Minister can focus on their ministerial portfolio. If it is right for me, as a Back Bencher, to raise issues-such as the railways, the hospital service, the environment, the Thames and Afghanistan-
through parliamentary questions, Adjournment debates and debates in Westminster Hall, why cannot a neighbouring Member do so if they happen to be a Minister? How can that position be defended? If they are the Under-Secretary of State for paperclips and statues, the only thing that they can speak about in the House is paperclips and statues. Their electorate is therefore disfranchised, compared with the electorate of a Back Bencher. We need to consider that issue with dispatch, if we are to enhance the bruised reputation of Parliament.
The Gracious Speech also referred, rightly, to advancing devolution in Scotland and Wales. However, despite that, for many hours this afternoon and evening, there has been no Member from Scotland present. There has been one Plaid Cymru Member waiting to catch the Chair's eye. I also find it frustrating that when questions of devolution are discussed, many colleagues representing English constituencies seem to think that it is not their business. It is most definitely our business, because it is a question of the constitution of the United Kingdom, and there is a desperate need to address what is known as the West Lothian question. My Government are in denial about the problem, but each time we rightly advance devolution in Scotland and Wales, the West Lothian question becomes more perverse. One day, this issue will be addressed, but because of this Government's failure to act, it will be on terms dictated by others. It would be much better to embrace the issue now.
In any event, we need constitutional symmetry. One of the most important arguments for devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is the need for good governance. Decisions should be made and initiatives taken at local level, and the suggestion that that issue cannot be addressed in relation to England is absurd. The very Union that the overwhelming majority of Members wish to defend is being endangered by our refusal to accept the need for symmetry. Indeed, we are creating greater anomalies all the time. I therefore urge Members representing English constituencies to be much more interested in this issue. I also urge the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), who is sitting on the Treasury Bench, to take the matter back to the Government, because we really need to address the West Lothian question, as a matter of fairness and in defence of the Union. Not to do so would be foolhardy in the extreme.
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I always listen to the hon. Gentleman with the greatest interest. I should like to remind him that the north-west of England has a bigger population than Scotland and that, for some of us, an English solution that still leaves civil servants taking decisions behind desks in Whitehall is not what we are looking for. We are looking for those decisions to be taken in the north-west of England.
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