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Human Rights: UK Application

Volume 767: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that fundamental rights apply equally in all parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government are committed to protecting human rights. There is already some variation across the United Kingdom, as the devolved Administrations have competence to legislate in respect of human rights in the policy areas devolved to them. The Government were elected with a mandate to reform the UK’s human rights framework. We will consider the implications for devolution of a Bill of Rights as we develop our proposals and will fully engage with the devolved Administrations.

Why should my gay friends in Belfast be denied the right to marry one another if they wish to do so, while my gay friends in London can exercise that right? The first civil partnership in the United Kingdom took place in Belfast, but a same-sex marriage is impossible there. Has the time not come to review the scope and extent of the so-called Sewel convention, under which this wholly unfair state of affairs has arisen? While we are about it, do we not need a new name for the convention?

I will gracefully decline to answer the last part of the noble Lord’s question. As to the first part, the position is that this Government, and indeed this Parliament, were pioneers in passing the same-sex marriage Act. Since then, the Republic of Ireland has followed suit, the American Supreme Court has accepted the argument, and the European Court of Human Rights has also. We can be proud that we have set the way. We also commended it to the Northern Ireland Executive, both before and after the passing of the legislation, but ultimately this is a question of devolution. The Northern Ireland Executive are capable of making that decision themselves. The matter is the subject of two judicial reviews. At the moment, there is no inclination on the part of the Northern Ireland Executive to take matters forward, and I hope that that changes.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the human rights of Gypsies and Travellers are much better protected in Wales than in England because the Government have created an obligation on local authorities to provide sites? Why can we not do the same thing here?

The noble Baroness has particular expertise and knowledge of this area, and I defer to her knowledge, as it were, on the ground. The application of the law in relation to human rights should of course be common across England and Wales.

My Lords, I draw the Minister’s attention to the Dudgeon case, which concerned the legalisation of homosexuality. Mr Dudgeon was from Northern Ireland, where homosexuality was still an offence when it was not an offence elsewhere. He went to the European Court, which held that human rights must be uniform throughout the country. I think that that might be relevant here, too.

The question of uniformity is difficult. Although the European Court of Human Rights maintains certain core standards, it nevertheless acknowledges a margin of appreciation for all members of the Council of Europe. We may well feel that some countries respect these better than others, but unless there is a violation of a convention right, that is a matter for the individual country.

My Lords, it is many years since the Good Friday agreement. Surely the British Government have an obligation as regards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Have not we dragged our heels for far too long? I know that there are difficulties among the parties, but surely the British Government should take the initiative.

Once again, the question is not exclusively for the British Government. While the British Government are anxious to see the protection of human rights here, in Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole, it is also a matter for others.

Will the Minister please confirm to the House that the Secretary of State has the power under Section 26 of the Northern Ireland Act to give direction to the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland to secure their compliance with the European Human Rights Convention? If he does confirm that, will he tell us whether the Secretary of State has thought about exercising that power so as—to take the example given already about marriage, or perhaps the example of defamation or blasphemy—to secure full compliance in the Province with the obligations under the convention?

I am extremely hesitant to answer a question of law from the Dispatch Box. That is a matter that I will consider and write to the noble Lord about. It is a matter of concern for the Secretary of State and I am sure that it will continue to be, as it is for the Ministry of Justice as a whole.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that public opinion in Northern Ireland on this matter is changing rapidly? A few months ago, the Assembly voted on it, and there was a narrow vote against change. Very recently, there was a narrow vote for, which fell on a technicality. There will be a general election shortly, which will change the composition of the Assembly. Does the Minister agree that it may be better to leave this for the normal process of public opinion in Northern Ireland, which is moving very much in the same direction as public opinion in the Republic? Might this not be better than at this point raising issues such as Article 14 of the Strasbourg convention, which drove reforms on this issue in the past in Northern Ireland and could do so again? At this point it might solve itself naturally.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord. I have followed and been told about the progress at the moment and the fact that it was by only a narrow vote that the matter did not progress further. I think there may be something in what the noble Lord says about allowing the matter to develop and hope the solution will come without the rather more draconian measures which have been suggested.

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene. As you know, at Question Time we try to apply a number of principles. It is the turn of the Conservative Benches, but I think on this occasion the House is calling for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, so we will go to him, and then we will, I hope, have time for a Conservative.

It is good to hear from the noble Lord the commitments to human rights and also, particularly, what he said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. There is a more basic problem, as the noble Lord will know, even more so than that of same-sex marriages, which is the criminalisation of homosexuality in certain parts of the world. What can the Minister say about the British Government’s persuasion of other countries, particularly Commonwealth countries, to get rid of the criminalisation of homosexuality and treat people decently in that respect?

The Government maintain their firm resolve to do all they can to protect human rights, both here and abroad. It is a tradition which precedes this Government; it was part of the coalition Government’s policies and, indeed, those of the previous Labour Government. Nothing about any changes we might wish to make to the domestic arrangements has in any way diminished our enthusiasm or determination in that area.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the extraordinary proposals by the Scottish Government to require a state guardian to be appointed for every child born in Scotland in order to ensure that parents are adequately looking after their children? Could he tell us what happens when those families move south of the border? Will that continue?

I am afraid that I am not seized of that particular issue, but I do know that in Scotland there are a number of different interpretations of what needs to be done in order to respect individual human rights. Some of those approaches vary considerably from the approach that we might take in this country. That is a feature of devolution.