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House of Lords

Wednesday, 3rd March 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve

Miss Onora Sylvia O'Neill, CBE, having been created Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve, of The Braid in the County of Antrim, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness David and the Lord Flowers.

Lord Patel

Sir Narendra Babubhai Patel, Knight, having been created Baron Patel, of Dunkeld in Perth and Kinross, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Fraser of Carmyllie and the Baroness Hayman.

Human Rights Act 1998 and the Judiciary

2.48 p.m.

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What they consider to be the likely effect of the Human Rights Act 1998 on the public's perception of the impartiality of judges.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, the Government's decision to promote a Human Rights Act in their first legislative programme was strongly welcomed. The noble Lord is and was opposed to that, as he is entitled to be. The public will think that the judges, in deciding cases under the Act, are carrying out their traditional function of upholding the rights of individuals in a democratic society under the rule of law. The high public standing of our judiciary for impartiality will remain unchanged.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his very full reply. Was not the noble and learned Lord right when in an interview with The Times in December he said that increased public scrutiny of the background of judicial candidates was inevitable when the Human Rights Act came into effect and that media comment about judges' political and social values was bound to increase? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that if we do not move to some kind of parliamentary scrutiny of judicial appointments--which I certainly do not advocate--the press will carry out that scrutiny itself and begin to examine with minute care the political and social

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background of every candidate, perhaps forcing the Government eventually to a more open system of appointment?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I believe that I accurately predicted the interest that the media and some sections of the public might have in the background of judges. But the country does not want judges to be appointed on political grounds. The country wants impartial judges and would be opposed to political hearings prior to appointment to subject judges' judicial track records or attitudes to appraisal by politicians in terms of the changing fashion for political correctness. I have no doubt at all that our higher courts should not be sculpted to conform to some notion of social gender or political balance.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble and learned Lord about his remarks on 8th February about the impartiality of judges and one particular case to which he referred. Certainly, I cast no aspersions on any Member of this House and do not intend to enter into matters that are sub judice. First, is it really possible to distinguish between an appearance of bias and a reality of bias? Surely, no third party can judge that. Secondly, on reflection, does the noble and learned Lord agree that his remarks would have been wiser had they been made after the Law Lords had concluded their hearing in the case relating to the extradition of a former head of state rather than making a judgment about an earlier decision relating to that same case? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that his remarks are in danger of possibly being interpreted as steering in one particular direction?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I believe that they are incapable of being interpreted in that way. At the time that I spoke the House of Lords in its judicial capacity had come to a concluded view that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann, should not have sat. That matter was therefore concluded. I believe that I was both free and right to answer questions on that subject. The Law Lords made plain that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann, was not affected by any actual bias. Anyone who knows that noble and learned Lord would not contemplate that he could be. There was, however, an appearance of want of impartiality because of an association, not financial but voluntary, with Amnesty. There is a clear and well-known distinction between actual bias and the appearance of it. The latter entails that justice must not only be done but must be manifestly and clearly seen to be done.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, can my noble and learned friend assure me that the European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated for several years in most western European countries? Has there been any indication of their judiciary being adversely affected in any way?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely correct. The European convention has been incorporated into the laws of the majority of our western

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European friends. There is no thought or public perception there that the reputation of their judiciaries for impartiality has been in any way impaired.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor agree that it is of great importance to the British people that British courts should have the power to enforce their rights under the European convention? Does he agree that British judges have a high international reputation for impartiality? Does he also agree that there is no reason to suppose that that reputation is likely to be damaged by giving them the power to decide questions under the convention?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I agree with all that, and I believe it to be consistent with what I have already said.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that cases before the European Court of Human Rights often involve delay and considerable expense, and that much of the delay and expense will now be reduced by the power of the people of this country to go before our own courts?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I emphatically agree with that too. A powerful argument for the Human Rights Act was to bring those rights home so that they could be enjoyed by our citizens in our own domestic courts without having to engage in delay on the long road to Strasbourg.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord confirm that it is the intention of the Government that one court, the Courts Martial Appeal Court, should hear all human rights cases brought by servicemen of all three services in order to ensure parity of treatment?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, that is rather wide of the Question. I shall write to the noble and gallant Lord specifically upon it.

Teaching Assistants

2.56 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many extra teaching assistants have been appointed since May 1997; whether there is a target for the number to be appointed; and what provision there is for the training of such assistants.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, this information is not collected centrally. However, between January 1997 and January 1998 the number of teaching assistants in schools increased by about 6,500. There is no target for the number of teaching assistants appointed. The employment and training of these staff are determined by schools and local education

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authorities. However, funding for the recruitment of an additional 20,000 teaching assistants will be provided over the next three years.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that at present, when there is much understandable concern about the shortage of teachers, the importance of teaching assistants tends to be forgotten? I am somewhat disappointed by my noble friend's reply although it is better than responses from the last administration. I welcome what has been achieved. However, since much more needs to be done, have the Government any objective or formula to achieve their aim?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I cannot tell my noble friend that the Government have any formula. But we recognise the importance of teaching assistants, in particular supporting teachers in the teaching function in schools. The value of teaching assistants is their contribution in its own right; they are not substitutes for teachers or a response to problems of teacher recruitment. The Government have measures in place to deal with that issue. I acknowledge the value of teaching assistants and the work they do.

Lord Tope: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the extent to which this welcome funding initiative is likely to be undermined by the cost of implementing the single status agreement which harmonises working conditions between manual and non-manual staff, not a penny of which is being funded by central government. For instance, my honourable friend Phil Willis tells me that for his local education authority in North Yorkshire the £2.25 million cost of implementing the single status agreement is being met by a 24 per cent. pay cut for non-teaching staff, a loss of holiday entitlement and loss of other benefits for staff who are already among the lowest paid. Does the department monitor the effects of implementing the single status agreement? If so, can the Minister tell us about that? If it does not, does the noble Lord think that it should?

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