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House of Lords

Wednesday, 1st March 2000.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Message from the Queen

Lord Carter: My Lords, I have the honour to present to your Lordships a message from Her Majesty the Queen signed by her own hand. The message is as follows:

    "I have received your address praying that the Greater London Authority Election Rules 2000, laid before the House on 8th February, be annulled.

    "I will comply with your request".

Human Rights Defenders: Special Rapporteur

2.36 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will urge the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to appoint a special rapporteur for human rights defenders.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recognises the invaluable role played by human rights defenders around the world. It requires that states live up to their responsibility to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

We want the declaration to make a real difference. The Government will therefore join other delegations at the forthcoming Commission on Human Rights in pressing for a UN special rapporteur to take forward practical steps to implement the declaration.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I thank the Minister--and not merely formally--for that encouragement. While I am on a winning streak, will my noble friend confirm that those who act as the eyes and ears of the international community in defending human rights, often at great risk to themselves, deserve all the protection we can afford? Does she agree with the old adage that what is everyone's business is no one's business? Can the noble Baroness persuade the commission to appoint a special rapporteur with sufficient resources to assure potential victims and perpetrators alike that someone cares?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am happy to agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble and learned Lord, who has worked zealously for so

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long in this field. Her Majesty's Government will do everything they can not only to promote the role of the special rapporteur but also to seek to ensure that that officer receives appropriate funding to carry out with vigour and efficacy the duties imposed upon him.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the Government quote the long list of most distinguished people, from Gandhi through the present Pope to Mr Akin Birdal? They have suffered either death or serious injury in the course of defending human rights.

Will the Government also try to ensure maximum protection for lawyers, solicitors and barristers defending human rights activists, who are frequently being tried?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can reassure the noble Lord that we shall do everything in our power to promote human rights and those who so vigorously seek to protect them. I join with the noble Lord in applauding all those who historically have defended, and still today defend, those rights with such energy, often at very great risk to themselves.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most disturbing experiences for those defending human rights is the degree to which they can be subjected to torture--torture which can have lifelong psychological and physical consequences? What are the Government doing in that respect?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we are sensible of this terrible burden. I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend. We want to ensure that those who defend human rights should not themselves be victims of abuse. We have taken, therefore, a number of steps, including a successful world-wide lobbying campaign to urge governments to ratify the UN Convention against Torture. The FCO is giving £42,000 in funding for the creation of a database for the world organisation against torture, allowing it to track progress on individual torture cases. We are also working closely with Save the Children Fund to sponsor research into the torture of children. We have contributed over £400,000 to multilateral activities against torture. It is an extremely important area and we are doing all we can to make sure that we put energy and commitment as well as money into this endeavour.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, accepting that the Government do everything they can in this area, is not the problem being able to arrest those suspected of crimes against human rights? Can the Minister help us as to the state of play on that aspect of the international scene?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, noble Lords will know that this subject has exercised our interest over a considerable period of time. The Government are doing all they can not only to support the identification of those responsible but also to bring about a good process to ensure that those who have

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committed such offences are brought to trial. In that regard our energies will not wane. I endorse the importance of the issue which the noble Lord highlights.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, can the Minister confirm whether the Government, together with the United States, intend to co-sponsor a resolution at this year's Commission on Human Rights, censuring China's human rights record? Over the past two years, while they have failed to do so, the Chinese Government have arrested dozens of members of the China Democratic Party, imposed strict controls on the use of the Internet, and clamped down on the religious sect Falun Gong.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am unable to tell the noble Lord our precise position in relation to that issue. We have been very robust indeed in the dialogue we have had with China on this issue. We have engaged with it on a creative process of bringing human rights issues very much to the fore. The noble Lord may be aware that in February the Chinese met with us. The all-party group on Tibet will go to China in the summer.

We have had a number of projects with the Chinese making sure that they fully understand that human rights are issues in which we have an acute interest, and we should like to engage them in bringing about productive change.

Welsh Assembly

2.43 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any proposals to amend the Government of Wales Act in the light of the current situation in the Welsh Assembly.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the Government have no such plans. The Assembly has very many powers to control and influence matters of great importance to the people of Wales. We believe that this gives the Assembly genuine scope to make a real difference in Wales. The new First Secretary has said that he shares this view.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, first, I wish the noble Baroness and all noble Lords a very joyful St David's Day.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, what are the Government going to do about the fact that the National Assembly is lagging behind this Parliament in its consideration of the contents of Bills as they affect Wales? Will the Minister refer the matter to the joint ministerial committee set up to deal with

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devolution problems so that we may have the benefit of the Assembly's views before rather than after we in this Parliament have begun proceedings on Bills as they affect Wales?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I join the noble Lord in wishing all noble Lords a happy St David's Day. His suggestion of a JMC meeting will be given great consideration. It may not be the most appropriate way to begin to raise the important issue he has raised. The most appropriate way may be to seek to have a meeting including non-Assembly or non-Government Members to examine the process followed with regard to the legislative procedure relating to Wales. Perhaps that could be best achieved initially by himself and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, with their experience of the legislative process, meeting the Secretary of State.

Secondly, the Assembly did not have the benefit which it will have this year; that is, to begin consideration of next year's legislative programme early. It was not in a position to examine current legislation until the autumn. However, I am sure we all want to ensure that the process is the most effective possible.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, will my noble friend agree that as the Assembly is only a few months old it should be properly helped by all of us to achieve perfection in a reasonable time?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. My experience of those involved in Welsh public life, in particular Welsh politicians, is that they always strive to achieve perfection as quickly as possible.

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