|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Williams of Crosby: In rising to support my noble friend Lord Lester and to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I should like to advance some non-lawyers' arguments for a human rights commission in the hope that I can persuade the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and his colleague the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, to consider again the position that they have now adopted. It is in some contrast to the position that we understood they supported at an earlier stage. However, I fully recognise that they have made it an open possibility that they may return to the issue at a later stage. In supporting my noble friend I seek to persuade them to do so.
First, I believe that the Bill could bring about a significant transformation and modernisation of the British constitution. My profound concern is that, because at present it fails to include within its orbit a proposal for a human rights commissioner or commission, however modest in its original manifestation, I believe that the Government may lose much of the thrust and purpose of the Bill. I trust that my remarks will not be so lengthy as to tire the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. I note that he has left the Chamber.
As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, we are looking at a picture of fragmented and in many ways disassociated organisations, each looking after some aspect of human rights, each one thrust into the picture by the pressures of the constituency that it serves. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, we have had an Equal Opportunities Commission concerned with the rights of women. It was created after the period in which the
However, what we are looking at is an extraordinarily uncoordinated structure of concern for human rights, with wide gaps between the organisations that currently exist. Those gaps may in part be filled by the Bill but they will not be satisfactorily filled if there is no provision for a human rights commissioner or commission. There is no overarching theme. There is no common culture of freedom to be found in this picture. I fear that we may lose a great opportunity created by the Bill--I pay due credit to the Government and to the Lord Chancellor--because of our unwillingness to take the final step. It reminds me of the famous poem about the battle of Bosworth Field:
Indeed, let me say with due humility that those of us who are not trained lawyers have, time and again, repeated our inability fully to understand the terms of this debate. If that is true of us, who have the great privilege of sitting in this House alongside some of the most distinguished lawyers in the land--not excluding the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and his noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn--how much truer it is of the scores of public bodies with which the Bill will deal and interact. I fear that, for failure to train them in what the Bill means, we shall see a great deal of litigation that is unnecessary, expensive, slow, tedious and repetitive.
One of the most important changes that a human rights commission could bring about would be a gradual extension of the culture of human rights, to which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred stirringly in his speech to University College, London, last July, when he spoke about it as "a driving force". He was absolutely right.
I fear that what we may see instead--and I should profoundly regret it, because I believe the Bill to be of the greatest importance--is a piece of legislation that comes to be seen as a lawyers' inside world, a world which excludes those who are not lawyers and, above all, those who are not sufficiently advantaged in their education even to think of understanding the strange professional aberrations of the law.
Therefore, my first point is that I believe the training and education of public bodies is just as important as the establishment of case law. The second point is that, in establishing education and training of public agencies, Her Majesty's Government could save themselves a great deal of money.
Perhaps I may draw a quick analogy. In areas such as industrial safety, we see safety officers established by companies and paid for by companies--in other words, they themselves in a sense own safety legislation and make themselves responsible for it. In the same way, we see increasingly the establishment of, for example, people who own human rights in other countries where human rights are long established. It is striking that in virtually every significant Commonwealth country--from India, with its millions of people and its relatively poor economy, to Canada--in every single case there is a clear responsibility for the education of the people. Indeed, the marvellous phrase used in Indian human rights law is that they must address "illiteracy in human rights". Australia, Canada and New Zealand all have a major function of education. Countries both richer and poorer than ours find that to be of the greatest possible importance.
One other thought about education is that we need to educate children in our schools in the culture not only of rights but of responsibilities. The two go side by side. There is little understanding of what it is to be a British citizen. If we are to move towards a genuine rather than a deferential democracy, our citizens need to have that understanding as a profound first principle.
Thirdly, we live in a profoundly changing society. That is why we need human rights laws. We live in a society that is becoming multi-racial and multi-cultural. We have to protect the rights of all in our society, including many who expect little respect for their position. We live in a society that is increasingly demanding the right to participate--for the characteristic of modern democracies is that their citizens want increasingly to participate. However, if they do not understand that responsibilities go with rights, their participation will be only the beginning of a new disappointment.
We live in a society which is becoming increasingly subject to international norms in areas like the environment, refugees and the protection of the rights of children. A human rights commission would be in a
Finally, the major arguments against a human rights commissioner or commission--I carefully put forward both alternatives for reasons of public expense--are, first, public expense itself. Having been a Minister, I have to say that it is never impossible to find a couple of million pounds. I believe that the preventive effect of paying that money would be more than repaid by the savings I have described already. I would go into detail if the House were not sitting so late in Committee. I shall not attempt to do so but I should be happy to indicate some ways in which I believe this money could be relatively easily found.
Secondly, the argument is that the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality might be in difficulties in their relationship to such a new body. I find that argument unconvincing. They would begin to establish increasingly close working relationships one with the other. In any case, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality has made it plain that he believes that it would be right to have a human rights commission and the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, has made it clear that she, as a former chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission, believes that a human rights commission or commissioner would be extremely helpful, rather than a negative force, in relation to the Equal Opportunities Commission.
I conclude with this thought. The noble Lord the Lord Chancellor indicated that there would be a joint committee of Parliament. He indicated that the Government are or could be--it is a matter for Parliament, I understand--responsive to such an idea. I believe that it is an excellent proposal. However, I recognise that, if a joint committee of Parliament is to do an effective job in the way that, for example, the European Communities Committee does in both Houses in a rather similar scrutiny exercise--also one of great complexity--considerable sums of money will need to be spent on the expert resources to make it effective. Whether that secretariat is found in clerks within this House and the other place or in a human rights commission, it will involve additional expenditure. I suggest that the great advantage of a human rights commission or commissioner is that it would make human rights open to the public, it would encourage the public to own human rights in a way which would not be exclusive either to Parliament or to the legal profession but should be the beginning of a real and profound change in the democratic ethos and sense of freedom in this country.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page