some default text...

Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, Saudi Arabia will be considered under the confidential

19 Jan 1998 : Column 1250

1503 procedure of the UN Commission on Human Rights. We would expect practice in places of detention to be among the subjects raised by non-governmental human rights organisations.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, has the Minister had time to glance at the report, Torture in Saudi Arabia: No Protection, No Redress, which is to be published tomorrow? I understand that a copy was sent to her. It illustrates that torture and ill treatment in places of detention in Saudi Arabia are widespread and persistent. Is that not caused partly by the practice of holding people incommunicado for long periods before they are brought to trial? Will that matter also be raised with the UN Commission on Human Rights? Does the Minister believe that, in view of that evidence, it would be useful for the UN rapporteur on torture to visit Saudi Arabia to see whether, in collaboration with the government of that country, he can help in eradicating the causes of torture?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I have glanced at the report to which the noble Lord referred and which is to be published tomorrow, although as yet I have not been able to study it very thoroughly. Her Majesty's Government condemn unequivocally the practice of torture wherever it occurs. We shall certainly study that report in greater detail and look carefully at its recommendations.

We continue to be concerned about reports from Amnesty International and other non-governmental organisations of torture in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in his Question the noble Lord refers to holding individuals incommunicado in Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, the very particular form of Sharia courts is one which is very different from our own system. Under our system we would find holding people incommunicado extremely difficult and when that occurs we make representations to the authorities on a consular basis to the Saudi Arabian authorities. Her Majesty's Government have supported the noble Lord on previous occasions in relation to the UN rapporteur, and it is regrettable that the UN rapporteur is not welcome in Saudi Arabia. We hope that our representations on a wide number of issues will also include that matter.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, while I recognise the right of states to bring to justice those convicted or accused of recognised criminal offences, what specific policy initiatives are the Government taking in line with their ethical foreign policy to encourage the access of human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, into Saudi Arabia to observe its judicial system?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have done what we can to encourage the Saudi Government on this issue. Our embassy in Riyadh raised this matter on 31st May and on 16th November. We stressed the public and parliamentary concern felt in this country in relation to those issues. Torture was discussed specifically, as was our wish to see greater freedom for individuals to practice non-Moslem

19 Jan 1998 : Column 1251

worship. My right honourable friend Mr. Derek Fatchett has also discussed those matters with the Saudi ambassador in London and I have had occasion to raise some of those issues on a consular basis with the Saudi ambassador in relation to particular cases of British individuals in detention in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, we have raised this matter on a number of occasions and in different fora.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, while we recognise the importance of Saudi Arabia to British economic interests, particularly as a country to which we export a great many arms, does the Minister recall the series of lectures which Sir Anthony Parsons gave in 1980-81 on our failure to foresee the likelihood of a collapse of the Iran Government and regime and the adverse consequences to Britain of having become over-committed to the Shah? Are the Government conscious of the internal tensions within Saudi Arabia and the need to conduct a very delicate foreign policy relationship with that regime for much the same reason?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we are very conscious of the points which the noble Lord rightly makes. Of course there is an important economic relationship with Saudi Arabia, but there are also very important human rights issues at stake. We engaged the Saudis in confidential dialogue on a full range of human rights issues, including that relating to torture, which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raised in his Question. We welcome the fact that the Saudi Government have acceded to the UN convention on torture. That is a delicate matter. It does not mean that we should not address it robustly but we must address it in the delicate way which the noble Lord has indicated if we are to achieve any results rather than just make loud noises in the right places. That is not the point. The point is that we should make a difference.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, of course there is a need for delicacy, which is always prayed in aid as an excuse for doing nothing. But does not the Minister agree that Saudi Arabia is not exempt from the Foreign Office mission statement goal that the Government will seek to promote the human rights and democracy which we demand for ourselves, and that that includes immunity from torture and detention without trial as well as the other human rights and freedoms which are similarly lacking in Saudi Arabia?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I should be most alarmed if anything that I have said to your Lordships' House had led your Lordships to believe that the Government in any way take a different view from the view that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has expressed. My remarks about delicacy were merely that the Government must consider the most effective way in which to argue human rights issues where there

19 Jan 1998 : Column 1252

are different cultures and different religious practices and observation, and where the attitudes towards human rights are very different from our own.

Human Rights Bill [H.L.]

3.5 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [The Convention and the First Protocol]:

Lord Mishcon moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 6, at beginning insert--
("( ) The main purpose of this Act is to provide effective remedies for violation of the Convention rights within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships will recollect that in Committee the subject matter, as well as the principle of this amendment, was discussed and from all sides of the Committee there appeared to be support for the proposition, if this were brought forward on Report, that it is a good thing from a legislative point of view to have the purpose of the Act set forth in summary form. I hope that the House will agree that that summary is correctly contained in the amendment.

Perhaps I may anticipate the amendment to Amendment No. 1, which I believe may be moved. The principle must be to summarise the main purposes of an Act and not to include in that summary exceptions that there may be or other provisions which are of a fairly minor character compared with the main objects of the Bill. Having said that, I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Elvel moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, Amendment No. 2:

Line 2, after ("remedies") insert ("subject to exemption on grounds of religious law and practice").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should first perhaps disagree with my noble friend in that he said that the matters which I am about to raise are of minor importance. I believe that they are matters of major importance. Secondly, I should declare an interest in the sense that I am a practising member of the Church of England; I am and have been for many years a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee of both Houses of Parliament; and I should further add that I do not regard this as a party issue. This is an issue for the House rather than a party political matter.

I have general support for the amendment moved by my noble friend. There is no doubt that a general expression of the content of a Bill is desirable. Therefore, I have no quarrel with my noble friend in that regard. But the expression "effective remedies" caught my eye because the nub of the problem--and this is a problem which will run through a number of your Lordships' debates as amendments go forward--is that adherence to a religious faith is unlike membership of any other organisation. It is not like joining the MCC or, indeed, the Labour or Conservative parties. Those who join that religious faith recognise a higher authority that under usual procedures--and I shall come to those in a minute--can declare what should be the rules of that particular club.

19 Jan 1998 : Column 1253

In Committee my noble and learned friend quite clearly stated that if a church or a religious body has any functions of a public nature, it qualifies as a public authority under the Bill. He went on to say that certain acts by public authorities were covered by Clause 6(5) of the Bill (as it then was) and that:

    "In relation to a particular act, a person is not a public authority by virtue only of subsection (3)(c) if the nature of the act is private".

From my noble and learned friend's remarks, there is no doubt that the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, both Churches by law established--whatever that may mean; and I am sometimes in some doubt about it--have in many of their functions actions and activities of a public nature. Therefore, if my noble and learned friend is to be taken at his word, as he should be, they would undoubtedly qualify as public authorities under the Bill.

That may arguably be true of other religious faiths, but I cannot speak--and, indeed, would not wish to--for other religious faiths. I would certainly not wish to speak for the Church of Scotland as there will be others much more qualified than myself to do so. However, I believe that I can argue for the Church of England. There is undoubtedly a conflict between Article 9 and Article 14 of the convention when it comes to amendment of the canon law of the Church of England. It may well be that there is an argument about that for other religious faiths and, when I turn to practice, it is possible that that will also be the case. But certainly so far as concerns the Church of England, it has been well established under the law that the procedures for changing the canon law of the Church (which is the religious law governing it) under the 1919 Act fall under the process of measures which are produced through the synodical process at present. They come to your Lordships' House and another place to be approved or disapproved having been considered by the Ecclesiastical Committee, which noble Lords will know is a joint committee of both Houses, with the remit of declaring whether or not such a measure is expedient.

Perhaps I may give the House just one example. The conflict arose in a recent measure on the ordination of women, where the measure amending the canon law of the Church of England specifically excluded women from becoming bishops. As I understand it, and on any reasonable definition of Article 14, that would be considered to be discriminatory. But under Article 9 there is the freedom to practise religion in whatever way anyone feels is appropriate to conscience.

In my view, it would be absurd if the whole structure of the synodical relationship as regards the Synod, the Church of England and Parliament became disrupted by the fast-track procedure at present in the Bill. I am glad to have the assurance that the fast-track procedure, if your Lordships accept forthcoming amendments, will not apply to measures of the Church of England. Again, it is not for me to pronounce what may happen in the Church of Scotland.

However, that does not necessarily solve the fundamental problem; namely, that a measure, if so declared by a higher court--to use the words of the

19 Jan 1998 : Column 1254

Bill--and deemed to be contrary to Article 14 of the convention, can be replaced by another measure which, presumably, if the Synod so decides, would be in accordance with the convention on human rights now incorporated into UK law. But what happens if the Synod in its wisdom decides that it does not want to conform to what the higher court has decided? There is still the problem of a conflict between Articles 9 and 14 of the convention.

I do not want to detain your Lordships for long, so I turn now to the question of practice. As noble Lords will be aware, in the Church of England a number of priests decided that, although they would not leave the Church of England as a result of the ordination of women measure, they would seek alternative episcopal authority. So that was arranged. It is an unhappy compromise but, nevertheless, one that was accepted by the House of Bishops and the Church of England in general.

Clearly, any priest who performs an act of a public nature, which is a marriage or a burial, and decides that he cannot accept that the act is performed by a woman priest, is in contravention of Article 14 of the convention. But, on the other hand, he is working according to Article 9 of the convention. Having said that, I leave aside the whole question of other Churches; for example, the Roman Catholic Church where the canon law in fact prohibits the ordination of women to the priesthood. What happens in the case where those provisions of religious law and practice of the Churches are challenged by the courts and a higher court decides that they are contrary to the convention which is now part of UK law?

I wish to be supportive of the Government because, in the first place, basically I support my noble friend in his amendment. I support the idea of the convention being put into UK law. However, I am afraid that I have to part company with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in her amendment which she will move later because I do not believe that charities should be exempt from the convention. However, I make this suggestion to the Government. I believe that there are solutions. First--and I believe that this will happen--fast-track procedures for amendment of Church of England measures or Church of Scotland legislation should be ruled out. Secondly, measures can only be amended by other measures going through the normal synodical process.

That is the minor problem. The major problem is that there must be some way of indicating to the courts, in whatever way appropriate, that Parliament intends that Article 9(1)--that is, the freedom of conscience of "everyone"--should, if challenged, take precedence over Article 14 which is the anti-discrimination article. If my noble and learned friend could just move that little pace further, I, at least, would be much happier. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page