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Bill of Rights

Volume 724: debated on Monday 24 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights will consider the option of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998.

My Lords, the commission will investigate the idea of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. We will make a statement to Parliament on the precise terms of reference of the commission in due course.

My Lords, the very careful words that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has just used appear to open the door to repealing the Human Rights Act. I wonder whether he recalls what he told this House on 7 October last year, when he said that,

“if at the end of this Government's term there was no Human Rights Act, there would be no Tom McNally”.—[Official Report, 7/10/10; col. 217.]

Can the Minister clarify the situation for the House and say whether he still agrees with me that the Human Rights Act provides essential protections for the rights and liberties of the individual in this country and does so by enhancing the protections already available under the European Convention on Human Rights? Will he stick to his commitment to resign if the Government move to repeal the Human Rights Act?

My Lords, when I was studying politics at university, I remember a chapter in the book about the man who forgot Goschen. That was Lord Randolph Churchill, who threatened to resign so many times that in the end the Prime Minister of the day accepted the invitation and replaced him with Viscount Goschen. I am well aware that we have a Viscount Goschen in this House. I think that you can threaten to resign too many times in a political career.

I do not think of the decision to go ahead with a commission on the working of the Human Rights Act as any dark plot to repeal it. Again, I have called the noble Lord in aid so often today, but he knows that when he was in office, he took a similar look at the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act. That is what we will do. In all I do, I shall ask the question asked by the late and lamented Lord Bingham, “Which particular human right do you intend to repeal?”

The Minister said on another occasion—I think at the Liberal Democrat Party conference—that he was anxious that the Act should be “better understood and appreciated”. Does he envisage, along with other steps that might be taken, giving a gentle reminder to courts and tribunals of the provisions of Section 2, which requires them to “consider” Strasbourg jurisprudence, as opposed to slavishly following it even if the decision is contrary to common sense?

Most certainly, my Lords. One thing that I have been looking at is whether it is possible to give some guidance in the exercise we are undertaking which will point our courts to such a sensible review of human rights cases. Nothing does more damage to human rights than court judgments that call on human rights, not always accurately, as the justification for action which the general public think is absurd.

Nevertheless, does the noble Lord agree that the Human Rights Act has done much to underline the dignity of ordinary people through the courts when they have restored the right of elderly people to life-saving treatment in hospitals and the right of brothers and sisters not to be separated if they go into care homes, along with many other such decisions?

My Lords, I could not agree more because, importantly, whereas we get the odd publicity that seems to suggest that the Human Rights Act is there for the benefit of villains, the understanding that we need to get through to people is that it is our human rights which the Act protects. Just to add to what I was saying to my noble friend, one reason why I am an enthusiast for celebrating Magna Carta in four years’ time is that I want people to understand that human rights are part of our DNA as a country—something that Lord Bingham often emphasised. I am in talks with my honourable friend Sarah Teather about how human rights can be better included in teaching in schools.

In an earlier answer the Minister referred to a UK Bill of Rights. I wonder whether he would care to say something about the position of Northern Ireland, where for a long time there has been a request that there should be a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights to reflect decisions made in the Good Friday and other agreements.

The noble Lord is quite right. There is a commitment but, having looked at this matter, we feel that the Good Friday agreement commitment should be honoured separately and not as part of this exercise.

In his first Answer, the noble Lord referred to building on the European Convention on Human Rights. Will he assure us that if there is to be a replacement of the European convention by a British human rights Act, it will contain all those provisions and additional provisions as we see necessary for the circumstances in this country?

The coalition agreement made it clear that this exercise would be a matter of building on the European Convention on Human Rights. That remains our intention.

The Minister is well known and widely respected for his support for the Human Rights Act. Does he agree that the introduction of that Act by the previous Labour Government, supported by his party, represented a huge step forward for the liberty and freedom of the British people?

My Lords, I most certainly do but, as has been said, the previous Government were taking a long, hard look at that legislation—and quite sensibly, because the Act is sometimes misrepresented and misreported. Anyone who believes in it, as I do, would also recognise that it does not have the national buy-in which I would like to see for a Human Rights Act. Our exercise will educate people and give them a greater understanding about what I referred to otherwise. It is not a Human Rights Act for villains. It is our Human Rights Act and the more we understand that, the better it will be.