Joint Committee on Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480-499)


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 forum today.

  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 British—they may be other countries as well almost certainly—but they are something which they can own. They are not foreign, they have not been imposed by a political elite—they own them and they are fundamental to their lives—and 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 being interpretive.

  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 the State.

  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 and responsibilities?

  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 law—of course there is in all sorts of ways—but 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 other.

  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 I follow.

  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 women?

  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 be implemented.

  Mr Straw: Of course. That is really important.

  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 only—I am exaggerating only a little—to get an agreed document. This was not a satisfactory document at all.

  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 Commission—I think he was referring to the people who came to the forum rather than to the Commission—to 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.

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