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Human Rights Legislation

Volume 684: debated on Monday 10 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Which persons’ or bodies’ application of the human rights legislation has caused them to review the way in which such legislation is being applied.

My Lords, the review of the Rice case by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation has shown that the Human Rights Act may be being misapplied by the probation and parole systems by giving insufficient importance to the state’s primary responsibility to provide public protection. Some court judgments have led to public debate about the workings of the Act. We are reviewing, overall, the working of the Act and will do whatever is necessary to ensure that the Human Rights Act works as it is supposed to, but we will not repeal the Act, and we will not leave or act inconsistently with the convention.

My Lords, in a Written Answer given to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on 5 July, we were told that the Prime Minister had asked the Home Secretary to consider whether legislation was needed to require our judges to be as compliant with the wishes of government as those on the Continent. Is that an implied criticism of our judges or of judges on the Continent?

My Lords, I am not sure that the wording of that Answer was precisely as the noble Lord said—I will need to check it. No, it is not a criticism of the judges; they do that which the law requires them to do. If that gives rise to concern, the right way to deal with it is to change the law, but that must be done in accordance with the terms of the convention, which we as a country substantially wrote and signed up to 50 years ago.

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the meaning of the European Convention on Human Rights is a question for the judges and, ultimately, for Strasbourg, and not for Her Majesty’s Ministers?

My Lords, I do. That is what is meant by the independence of the judiciary. Problems with the enforcement of the convention very often arise, as I indicated in my Answer, because of misunderstandings and misapplications of the Act, as in the tragic case of Naomi Bryant, who was murdered by somebody who should not have been released. The Chief Inspector of Probation said that he might have been released because of misapplications and misunderstandings of the Act.

My Lords, do the Government accept that human rights legislation is most important not when it is popular but when it is unpopular? Do they also accept that, given the extent to which the European Convention on Human Rights allows concerns about national security to be taken into account and permits derogations in times of crisis, human rights legislation does not inhibit any making of rational and necessary legislation against terrorism?

My Lords, I agree strongly with the last point made by the noble Lord: the Human Rights Act does not inhibit any rational and robust approach to crime and terrorism. Indeed, having a clear set of rules makes it possible to take robust measures because, with a clear set of parameters, you know where you stand, and tough measures can be taken because there are clear safeguards.

My Lords, my noble and learned friend agreed with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, about the importance of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Will he therefore undertake to look at the report produced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, which drew attention to the serious underfunding of that court, and reflect on it to see what action Her Majesty's Government need to take to ensure that it is properly financed?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. I have read the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the other people engaged in work with him. There are unacceptable delays in the European Court. There are too many cases, and they often come from countries that are quite new signatories to the Council of Europe treaty and the convention. The European Court must decide how it deals with that problem, and we will provide any assistance that it asks for.

My Lords, if, as the Prime Minister rightly said, the balance between the criminal and the victim has gone wrong in the past eight years, is that not good cause to review the part played in that by the Human Rights Act?

My Lords, the Prime Minister was referring to things such as the inability before the 2003 Act to have indeterminate sentences to provide proper public protection in many cases or the inability to look into people's bank accounts for evidence of money laundering, for example. We also need to ensure that what happened in the Rice case, as described by the Chief Inspector of Probation, does not happen again. I am glad that the noble Baroness could take time off from hugging a hoodie to come and ask that question today.

My Lords, I am just trying to get that thought out of my mind.

Will my noble and learned friend help me and advise the House on whether it would be possible for some of my former colleagues in the House of Commons to go to the European Court in Strasbourg if some future Government were to try to remove some of their rights as elected Members, such as taking away the right to vote on certain matters in the House of Commons?

My Lords, I am not sure what my noble friend has in mind, but Scots should be able to vote here and in the other place on every issue.

My Lords, I did not hear that, but I am most obliged to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House.

I ask the noble and learned Lord—is he still “the noble and learned Lord”?

My Lords, I have two questions for him. First, how often, if at all, is the European convention reviewed? Secondly, can I ask him about activities, particularly by the police, that may bring the convention into disrepute? I am thinking of the man on a tin roof who was bombarding everyone—and people’s property—with stones. To see that he had his human rights, the police, far from helping to bring him down, sent up not only food but cigarettes to him. That really brings things into disrepute.

My Lords, I am still noble and learned. When my noble friend the Leader of the House said that the independents should ask a question, she plainly meant the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, not the unindependent anti-European party. The convention is never reviewed, although its workings are reviewed, and it is disgraceful that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, presses on with that canard about the Human Rights Act requiring the man on the roof to be given cigarettes and food. It did not—it had nothing to do with it.