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Human Rights Act 1998

Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they continue to support the Human Rights Act 1998.

Yes, my Lords. However, as the noble Lord will be aware, the Government established an independent commission to investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights in March 2011, thus fulfilling a commitment made in the coalition’s programme for government.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. The manner in which this important issue was not so much debated as debased last week by senior Cabinet Ministers was frankly infantile and not worthy of the serious matters involved. For a more serious consideration of the debate, may I urge the Minister and perhaps all Members of the House to read the article by my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine of Lairg, published in today’s Guardian? The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have both said, and I quote the latter’s words, that,

“the Human Rights Act needs to go”.

Does the Minister agree with his right honourable friend the Home Secretary?

One of the problems about party conferences is that the newspapers like to heighten and find clashes between Ministers. I am old enough to remember it said that every time Harold Macmillan returned from a journey abroad Rab Butler was at the bottom of the steps to grip him warmly by the throat. The Government’s policy is very clear, and the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary are on exactly the same page on this. The commission will investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. It will provide interim advice to the Government on the ongoing Interlaken process to reform the Strasbourg court ahead of the UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe. That is the Government’s policy.

Does the Minister agree that much of the criticism of the Act is based on ill-judged statements and decisions by public authorities, rather than what the European Convention on Human Rights actually says and what the courts in this country have decided in applying the Act? Does he endorse the plea of Sir Walter Scott in The Fair Maid of Perth, “Touch not the cat”?

I am not sure that I would call in evidence Sir Walter Scott on this, but the Government have very clearly in the programme for government, set the commission the task of looking at the Act and how it is operating. We have given it a parallel but equally urgent task; we are using our UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe to push forward an agenda of reform of the working of the court. Both are extremely useful exercises and, when both are completed, we will be able to make a proper assessment of where we go next.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the European Convention on Human Rights derives largely from the work and suggestions of Conservative Ministers in the late 1940s and that, although individual decisions may be uncomfortable, the general thrust of giving effect to human rights through legislation of this kind is one that reflects well on this country and provides a good example for others?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to the Guardian article by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, in which the noble and learned Lord says that,

“the main proponents of the European convention were Conservatives, including Churchill and Macmillan. The convention was substantially the work of British jurists in a tradition going back to the Petition of Right of 1628 and our own Bill of Rights of 1689”.

My Lords, in declaring an interest as the second lead commissioner on human rights in the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I ask the Minister for reassurance that the Government will, in any look at a Bill of Rights, not go back on the basis of the Human Rights Act but build on it—that they will look at some of the controversial workings of the Act, which need looking at, but not take us backwards. It is very important that we are all committed, as I think we all are, to the basic human rights principles.

Again, I can do no better than to quote the coalition agreement, which says:

“The Commission will investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extend our liberties”.

While acknowledging the Minister’s own commitment to the Human Rights Act, are there not at least double standards at work, or worse hypocrisy, when the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet preach the virtues of human rights and respect for the rule of law abroad while trashing these self-same virtues at home?

I think that those are rather strong words. I have said before that in a democracy where there is a separation of powers there can be a healthy relationship between parliamentarians and the judiciary, whereby parliamentarians can sometimes express concerns about how the judiciary has interpreted some of Parliament’s Acts and, likewise, the judiciary may occasionally pass an unkindly word about the behaviour of parliamentarians. As long as that is kept on a basis of mutual respect and due courtesy, it is a healthy way for a democracy to go.

With that advice, I am not sure whether I ought to ask this question, because I am a member of the Commission on a Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom, so I must choose my words with great care. Is the Minister aware that the Council of Europe has commended the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I serve, as a model for Europe; and is he aware also that, across the common law world, we alone have reconciled effective remedies with respect for parliamentary supremacy?

It does not surprise me that that is the reaction. When we set up this commission, indeed when we announced that we intended to take a vigorous attitude to reform of the court, we were told, “Oh, it’ll never work—you will get nowhere with this”. The fact is that we have found an increasing number of countries around Europe which have appreciated that we are taking a proper, sensible, calm look—through the commission on which my noble friend sits—at how the act is working in practice, and we are taking to Europe some very practical proposals for how to get the court working more efficiently and thus more respected. If we get away from all the showbiz of this, and get down to what the Government are actually doing, you will find that it is something that should have the approval of colleagues on all sides of this House.