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Human Rights: Spending Cuts

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 7 October 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether there will be any spending cuts affecting human rights.

My Lords, we are committed to protecting human rights and restoring civil liberties in the UK, but all our priorities will have to be addressed in a very difficult fiscal context. We will make decisions about how we will achieve our aims after the results of the comprehensive spending review are known on 20 October.

What I would have liked to have heard from the Minister is a clear undertaking that human rights internationally would not be affected. This represents, does it not, an invaluable initiative of the late Robin Cook. Can they not see that the protection of international human rights is part and parcel of our security? Is it any small wonder that charities and many MPs of all parties are furious about the possibility that this will come under attack? Is it not right to contrast the way in which the Labour Government supported human rights with this coalition’s comparative indifference?

My Lords, I think that I can give no better answer than to quote a speech by the Foreign Secretary on 15 September—a speech which I commend to all Members of this House. In it, he said:

“There will be no downgrading of human rights under this Government”.

My Lords, given the speech of the Foreign Secretary at Lincoln’s Inn—I welcome what he said there—will the Minister, as he looks at the comprehensive spending review, also examine the excellent proposals of the Conservative Party’s commission on human rights, which were published a few months ago? It detailed some very good proposals, including creating a designated Minister, rather than one who has nine or 10 other responsibilities, to deal specifically with human rights.

Ministerial responsibilities are of course for my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, but one of the refreshing things about the coalition Government is that we have been able to draw on thinking in these areas from both parties that make up the coalition and, indeed, from the work that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, did when he was in office and the review that was undertaken just before leaving that office. Our approach, certainly, will be to draw on good advice from many sources.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if the division of the national cake were to be determined by human rights, the UK budget would end up being settled by the European Court of Human Rights, the quality of life of this country could well be shattered and a lot of very deserving people would end up with very few crumbs?

I hear what my noble friend says, but in fact the budget of this country will be decided in the first instance by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, ably aided by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and then by the views of Parliament, mostly in the other place.

I turn to the human rights of the citizens of the United Kingdom, particularly those of Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members of Parliament, which were breached by Andy Coulson and the team at the News of the World newspaper. What assurances can we have that the police will have not only the funds but the determination to carry out a further investigation into the allegations that have now been made in the documentary by Peter Oborne?

I am sure that the police have studied the text of the documentary by Peter Oborne but, as with other breaches of the law—or alleged breaches of the law—I suggest that anyone who has evidence should send it to the police.

My Lords, would my noble friend give some consideration to the fact that we might be able better to protect human rights if we actually had a written constitution, which would make it a little bit more difficult to duck the issue if you wanted to?

My Lords, I know that there are supporters on all Benches of this House for the idea of a written constitution. However, I remember when my old friend Lord Peart occupied these Benches and got questions like that. He used to say, “Not next week”.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that human rights have a practical role to play in an era of austerity? Looking at expenditure cuts through the lens of human rights would save us from damaging services for the most vulnerable. If he agrees, what steps are being taken now to ensure that this is happening?

My Lords, I agree entirely that human rights are not a matter to be judged by expenditure cuts. What we can do—and I think that this is already taking place in all departments—is to ensure that, when the inevitable cuts take place, they are tested against protecting human rights, with a strong emphasis on protecting the rights of the most vulnerable.

Does not the Government’s cutting of the £30 million grant to local authorities for building sites for Gypsies and Travellers deeply affect their human rights, not least the rights of thousands of Gypsy and Traveller children to education and access to health, as well as a place to live in without the terror of eviction?

We are trying to operate the policies towards Gypsies in the context that they live among us and are protected by our laws and human rights. As with other expenditures, there will be cuts and difficulties, but, again, as I said to the noble Baroness, we are looking at those cuts and policies with a strong emphasis on trying to protect the most vulnerable.

My Lords, we already know that older people and people in care homes are, sadly, very vulnerable to human rights violations. Given the cuts in budgets that are inevitable in these areas, will the Government be able to take positive steps to protect this group of people from further such violations?

I can only repeat what I have said; for all the decisions in all the departments, the departments are asked to look at how protection can best be given to the most vulnerable.

Will the Minister ensure as best he can, given his strong support for the human rights agenda, which is appreciated, that his Government do not arbitrarily remove financial support from the institutions and bodies that protect human rights in this country? Further, would he confirm, as alleged in a recently published booklet, Common Sense: Reflections on the Human Rights Act, that at the post-coalition Liberal Democrat party meeting, a big meeting held in Birmingham on 16 May, he threatened to resign if the Human Rights Act was repealed by this Government?

On the first part of that question, all the groups will have to see what happens in the public expenditure review. On the second part, I did say that if at the end of this Government’s term there was no Human Rights Act, there would be no Tom McNally—but I also suspect that if that were the case, there would be no William Hague either. We are both determined, as the Foreign Secretary said, that there will be no downgrading of human rights under this Government.