Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480-499)|
STRAW MP AND
21 MAY 2008
Q480 Earl of Onslow: Why can we not
know what these rabbits are?
Mr Wills: Because at the moment
some of these discussions are at a fairly delicate stage and I
would rather get them resolved rather than discuss them in this
Q481 Lord Morris of Handsworth: I
would like to return to the issue of duties and responsibilities
which Dr Harris was exploring with you. In particular, I would
like some clarification on a point made by Mr Wills who gave an
example of irresponsible behaviour like shouting fire in a theatre.
It might be socially irresponsible but the fact is it is an offence
under the Public Order Act and it is against the law and unlawful.
That is not irresponsible behaviour in the context that we are
having the conversation about duties and responsibilities. The
key question for me is will the exercise of responsible behaviour
go further, as you see it, than just obeying the law?
Mr Straw: That was giving a very
good answer to the implication of Dr Evan Harris which was that
there were no limits to the freedom of speech which in my view
is incorrect. It is also not consistent with the Convention which
does qualify the right of freedom of speech quite explicitly.
On the issue of responsibilities, ultimately everything could
be reduced to what are the duties on people to what is in the
law. If you are saying what duties are going to be enforceable,
by definition anyone's wish can be enforced which impose an obligation
on individuals which are the subject of enforcement either by
the criminal or civil law. That is a tautologous statement of
obvious truth. There is a wider issue here which is how do you
better get people to live as neighbours in the biblical sense
to understand that they do have responsibilities to people they
are living alongside and that of course the law is the longstop
as a way of arbitrating these disputes, but to enable people to
be better neighbours. Upbringing and all sorts of things play
a fundamental part in this and also the conditions in which people
are living. As I know from my own experience, if you are living
in a decent home of your own it is actually easier to be nice
to your neighbours than if you are living in a rather grotty council
maisonette because people are living on top of each other. I would
like to see this Bill of Rights and Responsibilities developing
a better understanding by the British people about their rights
and responsibilities and the discussion that we have had here
that these are theirs and they are Britishthey may be other
countries as well almost certainlybut they are something
which they can own. They are not foreign, they have not been imposed
by a political elitethey own them and they are fundamental
to their livesand they can live their life better if everybody
has a better sense of responsibility, and thirdly that they have
all sorts of rights as well which we encapsulate in some cases
just in declaratory form, in other cases in semi-enforceable form
Q482 Lord Morris of Handsworth: Will
the test of being able to exercise your rights be somewhat contingent
on the performance of your duty?
Mr Straw: It depends on the specific
right. I said in my introductory remarks that rights and duties
are not symmetrical. You have for these purposes rights against
Q483 Lord Morris of Handsworth: So
we take them separately.
Mr Straw: You have responsibilities
to your neighbour, to your fellow citizens. You also have responsibilities
to the community which in a democracy sits above the State but
it is a means by which the State gains legitimacy. As I know as
a minister, it is perfectly possible if you are a minister and
you have got power to exercise it in a way that does not have
the proper consent of the community. These relationships are complicated.
Mr Wills: I absolutely understand
the question and it goes to the heart of what this discussion
will be about in many ways. A lot of the responsibilities that
people would normally think about are already enshrined in law.
You have to pay tax, for example. What we are looking at, if I
can put it another way, is trying to find a way of expressing
the underlying picture. I think the Chairman started by talking
about trying to find generic principles to underline right at
the beginning of this session. If you take the same model for
responsibilities that underpinning all this is a notion of our
mutual responsibility, our mutual obligations to each other and
articulating that is profoundly important. It is not a meaningless
exercise at all in our view.
Q484 Lord Morris of Handsworth: I
will put it another way as simply as I can. Do you envisage that
there will be some rights in the Bill of Rights that people can
lose or be disqualified from if they fail to perform their duties
Mr Straw: The most obvious one
which happens already is their right to liberty and you have responsibilities
obviously to behave.
Q485 Earl of Onslow: At the moment
you are proposing to take it away in 42 days.
Mr Straw: We are very happy to
have that discussion too, my Lord.
Q486 Lord Morris of Handsworth: I
need an answer to my question. If you go to the town hall to complain
about your local council not delivering your rights, will there
be a checklist to see whether you have fulfilled all your duties?
Mr Straw: Going back to my education
example, children have rights and parents are the means by which
those rights are exercised, but the parents also have responsibilities.
In practice now, but in any kind of encapsulation of rights to
education, rights for children, these two will need to be balanced.
I am not anticipating that such a statement of rights would be
directly justiciable but it would be interpretive and when it
came to remedies in respect of explicit rights I would hope the
courts would take into account how far parents had exercised and
showed responsibility that these things are not a one-way street.
Q487 Chairman: What you are suggesting
is probably along the lines of the Criminal Injuries Compensation
Scheme where if you make a claim from a crime, if you yourself
have perpetrated crimes your compensation will be docked or refused.
Mr Straw: That is a very good
example which is built into the law. Neither Michael nor I are
suggesting for a second that there is no sense of responsibility
already built into the existing lawof course there is in
all sorts of waysbut what we are saying however is we think
precisely because in all sorts of ways responsibilities are implicit
and sometimes explicit in individual texts of individual statutes
or authorities, then we ought to bring this out and it is safe
to do so as a framework for how people should behave towards each
Mr Wills: Rights are not contingent
on discharge of responsibilities. In answer to your checklist,
no, of course not, but there are consequences for people not fulfilling
their responsibilities and the Secretary of State just sent it
out. The fact that some of those consequences may actually mean
that one of your rights is temporarily forfeited, if it is not
the same thing, the punishment is in the law. The basic human
rights say the same and so they should. It does not mean there
is no value in articulating responsibilities for all the reasons
the Secretary of State has so cogently outlined.
Q488 Lord Morris of Handsworth: It
is a secondary loss rather than a primary loss.
Mr Straw: I am not quite sure
Q489 John Austin: You said in your
original opening statement that this Bill of Rights would not
qualify anything which is in the European Convention or take away
anything; it would be a Human Rights Act plus, not a Human Rights
Act minus. There are of course other international obligations
that we have under various treaties and international agreements
which are not, unlike the European Convention, in the Human Rights
Act at the moment and therefore not part of UK law. What would
you see the relationship between the new Bill of Rights and those
other international obligations, such as the Convention on the
rights of a child or the Convention on the discrimination against
Mr Straw: You have to make a judgment
on a case by case basis whether you want to incorporate those
into domestic law. I speak from memory, but one of the problems
about incorporating those into domestic law and making that therefore
enforceable here is that there is no appropriate international
court equivalent to the Strasbourg Court to come to consistent
decisions about these matters across jurisdictions. What we have
sought to do with a lot of these international instruments is
we have signed them, we have ratified them, but we have made deliberate
decisions not to incorporate them into our law, but we have sought
to ensure that the rights in these instruments are reflected in
our law. I think that is the appropriate and safe way to do things.
Q490 John Austin: On the Convention
on Trafficking, for example, you have said we will not ratify
it until we have in place the mechanism to ensure that it can
Mr Straw: Of course. That is really
Q491 John Austin: But we have ratified
these other treaties.
Mr Straw: It depends inevitably
on the precise text of the legal instrument, its scope, and above
all what obligations it imposes on the British state.
Q492 John Austin: Would you say in
principle to incorporate your obligations in those conventions
in the Bill of Rights?
Mr Straw: The only principle is
what is in the interests of the British people in these things.
You have to do it on a case by case basis. I do not think in principle
that just because we have signed and ratified an international
convention we should be obliged to incorporate it into our domestic
law. If we go down that route we end up in the position of the
United States where in fact they do that so they end up not being
party at all to all sorts of international instruments because
they cannot get them through their Senate.
Q493 Chairman: When I go door-knocking
around the streets of Hendon, as I do every weekend, I cannot
recall anyone actually asking me where the Bill of Rights debate
had got to. It does not seem to have chimed with public opinion.
What are you going to do to try and generate public interest around
it? Where have we got to in planning for the consultation and
how are you going to make sure that it is not just the usual suspects?
Mr Straw: It was not raised with
me when I was door-knocking in Blackburn and other towns before
the local elections but it has been raised with me plenty of times
indirectly in my open air meetings in the town where people have
a go at the Human Rights Act "villains charter" and
I have said the things I have said just now and then go on to
say we are going to produce a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities
and I hope you find that appropriate. When I was doing Talk
Sport, Mr John Gaunt, who has views to the right of anybody
around this table by some margin
Q494 Chairman: Even the Earl of Onslow?
Mr Straw: Certainly the Earl of
Onslow because he is undiscriminating in his belief about who
should have rights.
Q495 Earl of Onslow: I do get a trickle
of letters from people saying to me yes, well done on what you
have said, keep it up, et cetera.
Mr Straw: There is an interest
in it. How do we engage people? First of all, we get a document
out and start engaging Parliament. You then generate debate and
this will have a ripple effect. You get people from the Women's
Institute to the UK Youth Parliament to everybody else debating
it and I will address my constituents in the town centre of Blackburn
about this. They may flee because you do not have a captive audience
in that situation at all but I think they will be interested in
it. It is inevitable that quite a number of these constitutional
changes generate much more interest once they have been brought
into force than they did beforehand. That was true of Human Rights,
although there was some interest in it. It is certainly true of
Freedom of Information which was debated over many hours with
only the enthusiasts of Mike O'Brien and myself there. Even on
devolution, although people understood the importance they did
not really understand the significance until these things happened.
I hope we are able to generate a bigger debate.
Mr Wills: One of the keys to doing
that will be not to plonk it down in front of people as we go
round the consultation process in one big wodge of paper, but
to produce a document and then consult on different bits of it
because the different bits of the document will have different
effects. They will not all have the same legal effect and the
more that we can crystallise it and bring it home and root it
in people's own experience like, for example, in relation to the
YL case, the better it will be.
Q496 Earl of Onslow: When we had
the Northern Irish Human Rights Commission here they had a document
in front of them which obviously was a document which nobody could
agree on, so everything went in from you should do the washing-up
on Tuesday afternoon onlyI am exaggerating only a littleto
get an agreed document. This was not a satisfactory document at
Mr Straw: It has to be finished
but it must not be banal, but you cannot get to a point where
it drops to the most common denominator.
Q497 Earl of Onslow: That is what
this document in a way did.
Mr Straw: It is work in progress.
Q498 Lord Dubs: If I could ask you
about the relationship between Parliament and the Bill of Rights
and Responsibilities, you have both said Parliament has a crucial
part to play in governance. Would you like to develop your thoughts
about the relationship between Parliament and the Bill of Rights?
Mr Straw: Parliament will ultimately
decide. Parliament can repeal it if it wishes. If it goes on the
statute book, as I hope it will do, I have a shrewd idea that
this Committee will be there to supervise its implementation.
Q499 Lord Dubs: I want to go back
to the process. In a letter Michael Wills said that you wanted
to take the opposition parties with you. Clearly you are aiming
for consensus. The Earl of Onslow has referred to the Northern
Ireland CommissionI think he was referring to the people
who came to the forum rather than to the Commissionto what
extent will the Government take the lead on this or do you envisage
setting up an independent body to drive the process forward along
the lines that was done in Northern Ireland?
Mr Straw: I think the Northern
Ireland example is not appropriate here. We have to take the lead
on it and we have decided to take the lead on it and we will see
who follows. It will generate debate within parties as well as
between parties. By consensus on this I do not mean unanimity
any more than there was unanimity over the Human Rights Act, but
we moved by a careful process of deliberation to a much broader
consensus than we had started with.
Chairman: Thank you very much.