Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, in its report of December 1997 the IPPR made it plain that in its view the creation of a culture of human rights in this country depended on two pillars: prevention and enforcement. I believe it is worth quoting a paragraph from that report:

In these debates, in some of which I have been privileged to take part, there has been much emphasis on enforcement. We have heard an impressive array of speeches from members of the legal profession. I am even more admiring of that profession than I was when the proceedings began. But I also have a sense of slight despair. The danger of a debate almost wholly dominated by brilliant members of the legal profession is that almost every aspect except the legal one is neglected. For that reason I wish to say a few words about those neglected aspects in the hope of strengthening the hand of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor should he decide that it would be wise and proper to press for a human rights commissioner.

As my noble friend Lord Lester said, this amendment is framed in a minimalist way. We have moved away from the suggestion of a human rights commission, with which we began. We have fallen back, not because we wanted to, but to try to commend the issue without involving ourselves too deeply in questions of public expenditure, on this proposal which I and my colleagues believe to be essential but which is deliberately framed in a modest way.

Let me say something about the needs and the responses to those needs. The first need is to make our fellow citizens aware of the culture of human rights and human obligations. It is an issue which the colleagues of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor--the

5 Feb 1998 : Column 824

Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and others--have addressed on many occasions, and we commend them for that.

The issue of education does not only concern the education of schoolchildren; it concerns above all the preventive factor the IPPR pointed to, which is so far missing from our deliberations and conclusions. Let me give examples. If government departments, particularly sensitive departments such as the Home Office, are to take seriously the culture of human rights and their related responsibilities, it is crucial that officials in those departments understand the impact and nature of the Bill and the case law which flows from decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

Secondly, it is crucial that those who are supposed to teach our children about human rights and responsibilities and positive attitudes towards them should have access to training in that area. Some of us who are not lawyers have found it hard enough to follow the meanderings of this debate. I invite the House to consider how much more difficult it is for someone who has not had the privilege of listening for many hours to deliberations on these issues.

Thirdly, if we are serious about our responsibilities to our fellow citizens, it is absolutely crucial that those bodies that stand at the interface between Government and the citizen, in particular the citizens advice bureaux and local government, understand the implications and impact of the Bill. I fear that there is probably not one in a hundred who has the faintest idea about what we are deliberating--not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of any access to information about it on a broad scale. I am profoundly disturbed by that because I wish the Government well on the Bill. I hope that they can bring about a change in public attitudes. But for the life of me, I do not know how they will do that without some system of reaching out to those fellow citizens and explaining to them what their rights and the rights of others are.

I do not wish to detain the House--it has been a long day of debate--but I should like to outline briefly the supply of advice and assistance along those lines at the present time. I speak as someone who once tried to introduce what was then called "political studies" into schools, only to find that it aroused the most extreme suspicions in this country. It is strange that we are a democracy but are terrified of politics. I have never understood why.

The current response of the Government falls under one heading--the new Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship. I shall read out briefly the crucial terms of reference:

    "The Group will give advice on how schools can teach their pupils about the nature and practices of participation in democracy and the duties, responsibilities and rights which individuals have as citizens".
Every other word in the terms of reference, every reference by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and every reference in the press release concerns only education in schools. I telephoned a member of the advisory council who confirmed that the target of the advisory committee was children up to the age of 19 and also that it has no resources. I am all

5 Feb 1998 : Column 825

for children receiving education in citizenship and all for a module in the national curriculum to that effect, towards which it is working. But I am deeply troubled about the lack of any provision of any kind for those who are over the school leaving age.

There is one other provision in this country--the so-called network of human rights units--which consists largely of university and NGO bodies, including some distinguished elements such as the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex and the Human Rights Unit at the University of Birmingham. It is an entirely voluntary network which gained a little support from the National Lottery.

It is of the most crucial importance that we prevent what otherwise might be a series of cases reaching the courts, none of which needs do so, simply because we failed to inform those responsible for administration at central government, local government and citizen level about the impact of the Bill. It is because I believe in the Bill that I feel such profound concern in relation to the failure to make provision for telling our fellow citizens about it.

I plead once again and finally with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to make the strongest possible case--I am sure that he will make a very persuasive case--to his colleagues that a small amount of public money to set up a human rights commissioner is vital to the achievement of the aims he so eloquently set out over recent days and weeks.

Viscount Colville of Culross: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is absolutely right. In this country we ought not to be too proud to learn from the experience of the rest of the world.

As your Lordships know, I sit on the United Nations committee that oversees the implementation of the international covenant on civil and political rights, many of whose provisions are exactly the same as those we are discussing today. In country after country throughout the world a national commission either has been or is proposed to be set up to do exactly what the amendment foreshadows. Some of them do that better than others, but they carry out the functions mentioned by the noble Baroness.

The need for such a commission in some countries is extreme. Perhaps the most striking example--in a country which had better be nameless but is part of the former Soviet bloc--is a case we examined quite recently. That country had signed and ratified the optional protocol giving individual access by way of communication to the committee. The leading human rights non-governmental organisation was not aware that the government had ratified the optional protocol or that it could advise any of the citizens of that country that there was a right of individual access.

I know that that sounds quite extraordinary, but it is not as unusual as all that to find that there are people who do not understand that human rights of the kind we are talking about in the Bill are actually intended for them to implement and, as the noble Baroness said, for those who are in charge of the administration of all kinds of our affairs to implement on behalf of the

5 Feb 1998 : Column 826

recipients of those services. There is a widespread ignorance, and I do not think this country is immune to that disease.

It is also worth noting that there is the excellent standing commission in Northern Ireland which for years now has been carrying out the most valuable service in this respect. It has advised government in report after report on wholly practical and sensible things, many of which are taken up. One would have thought that if one did not need a body of that kind government would have done it all by themselves. But they have not. They do it on the initiative of the standing commission, and the standing commission goes into the whole question of the dissemination of the rights and the dissemination of the discussion of these matters in a way that no one else does.

I therefore think that the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and his colleagues are correct in continuing to press the Government for something as modest as what they are talking about this evening, because it will do things that I am perfectly certain will bring home the benefits to those who are entitled to have them under the Bill in a way which no one else will ever do.

9.15 p.m.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page