HC Deb 02 April 1971 vol 814 cc1854-64

Order for Second Reading read.

12.35 p.m.

Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill would enable the humblest of our citizens and those who visit our shores to complain to a new tribunal, the National Tribunal of Human Rights, of the violation, whether by public authority or by private organisation, of those rights and freedoms which society believes should be protected but which remain, for the time being, outside the protection of the law.

The concept of the rights of man is ancient. It is a child of man's free spirit, the seed of democracy, the safeguard of freedom of thought and of speech, the shield of the weak against the oppressiveness of power. It is a concept in which equality is inherent. Two thousand years ago Cicero declared that rights which are not open to all are not rights. From this idea of equality grew the concept of the rights of minorities. From that James Stuart Mill was able to make his famous declaration that if one man alone held an opinion contrary to that of all mankind, mankind would be no more justified in silencing him than he, if he had the power, in silencing mankind.

From these ideals have been born the great declarations of State—the Magna Carta, with its assertion that justice shall not be denied to any man; habeas corpus; the Declaration of Independence, founded upon Jefferson's inalienable right unchangeable in a changing society; the French Declaration of 1789.

For these beliefs throughout the ages men have lived and died. Yet it was only when the forces of freedom had survived and conquered in two devastating wars in a single half century that man came to realise that his rights are as indivisible as peace itself and, like peace, require the armour of international protection from the forces which would stifle them within the weaker machinery of the individual State. Hence the proclamation in the United Nations Charter of respect for human rights for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion; hence the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

So it was natural that the Council of Europe, created in the aftermath of war against a European tyranny, and dedicated to the maintenance and further realisation in the member States of human rights and fundamental freedoms, should at its very outset conceive a new and historic approach to the international protection of these rights and freedoms, and should realise it in the European Convention of 1950.

In describing that Convention as a new and historic approach I weigh my words carefully. For the first time in man's history, nations have accepted the right and the power of their sister States to supervise the manner in which the liberties of their citizens are maintained and the fundamental rights and freedoms of those citizens safeguarded. This power to supervise—a deliberate sacrifice of the sovereign right of a nation to control its internal affairs—is exercised through the European Commission and Court of Human Rights.

We in this country can be proud in proclaiming that we were the first signatory to that Convention; yet for 15 years thereafter we resisted the idea that our citizens should have the right of indi- vidual petition to the European Commission and that our laws should be open to scrutiny and review by the European Court. It was not until 1966 that those rights were given.

During the intervening period international opinion did not stand still. The wheels were turning. The pressures which had produced the international instruments for the protection of citizens' rights were causing the nation States to review their own protection systems. The recent United Nations Conference on Human Rights at Teheran had before it a resolution proposing the establishment of national commissions of human rights. Unhappily, that resolution was not reached on the agenda. The General Assembly of the United Nations has, however, discussed this proposal and asked for information upon it from its member States.

Many have welcomed the idea; some indeed have begun to move along that path. Most noteworthy of all is without doubt the United States. In 1957 it established a Civil Rights Commission, and the great Civil Rights Act, 1964, extended its ambit. Within the national context, that Commission has powers which are comparable to those of the European Commission, to examine alleged violations of human rights, to appraise even the federal laws and policies and to recommend relief.

The American initiative is particularly striking. In this country—dare I say it? —our Civil Service tends to be somewhat conservative in its approach. Our tardiness in accepting the right of individual petition is one example of that. We tend to say that it is unnecessary and that existing institutions are adequate to serve the purpose. Perhaps, though I hope not, we shall even hear something of that kind from the Treasury Bench today.

But the United States has not only a constitution which incorporates fundamental rights and freedoms but a supreme court with the power to enforce new rights and new freedoms far in excess of any enjoyed either by our own courts of law or by any institution other than Parliament. Yet the civil rights law incorporating the Commission has been added to that machinery and, in the process of addition, has been described as a Magna Carta of Human Rights and, by Senator Humphrey, as the greatest piece of social legislation of our generation. The contracting parties to the European Convention have a particular responsibility in this direction. Article 13 of the Convention specifically obliges them to establish a national authority before which everyone whose rights and freedoms are violated shall have an effective remedy. This country, the first to sign the Convention, has no such authority. The Convention does not bind our courts. There is in this country no institution to which the citizen or the visitor can turn and say, "My fundamental freedoms as set out in the European Convention have been violated. I seek your aid."

It is true that we have made piecemeal provision for certain specific cases. We have bodies which can act in cases of racial discrimination—and very valuable no doubt they are. We have established the right of complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner not so much in the field of human rights but in maladministration and, as the Prime Minister reminded the House only yesterday, within the sphere of Ministerial responsibility. The plain fact is that ever since we signed the Convention Governments of both the main political parties—and this is in no sense a party point—have allowed us to remain in breach of that vital obligation, and in breach of it we remain today.

The Bill would allow us to make amends for our tardiness. It does not seek to impose some new fundamental constitutional principle. Some might think that it could go further than it does. The Lord Chancellor, during one of his visitations to the Chamber of the common man, went so far as to sponsor the idea of a modern Bill of Rights, a piece of legislation which would have supremacy even over the elected representatives of the people. Since his elevation to another place, he seems to have become somewhat more cautious—I believe with justice.

The Bill would not establish any cataclysmic reform. It recognises the supremacy of Parliament. It follows the characteristic English system of moving from precedent to precedent and of building up a body of practice based upon experience as well as principle. It would establish a United Kingdom Commission of Human Rights which, like the European and American examples, would investigate, report and recommend but would have no power to enforce. As in the case of the Parliamentary Commissioner, who has served in part as the model for the new machinery which the Bill seeks to institute, it would be for the Government of the day and, in the last resort, for Parliament to give effect to its recommendations.

It is right to ask what sort of issues might be brought before such a tribunal. In this country we no longer suffer the crude, deliberate suppression of freedom of speech which for nearly four years has disfigured that country where the word "democracy" was born. Today the violations may be subtler but they nonetheless exist. If my proposed Commission had existed at any time in the last decade with jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, might it not have provided that outlet for the frustrations which eventually fed themselves into violence? Can we say that such frustrations do not exist within some of our communities today, notwithstanding our community relations machinery, and are we sufficiently stubborn in our belief that all is for the best to say that none of them is justified?

Are we wholly satisfied with our system whereby the police investigate complaints against the police which often enough involve allegations that the citizens' fundamental freedoms have been violated? Certainly there are many responsible people who are not so satisfied. But these are only a few of the possible abuses of power, whether we speak of abuses by the servants of government, of local authorities or of those centres of private power which are responsible only to their own shareholders or members. It is not my wish to take sides between them. I say only that we know that they exist. Our postbags as Members of Parliament alone disclose it.

The opportunities for abuse do not shrink. Rather, they multiply with the development of the greater and greater size and complexity of organisations and subtler and subtler advances in technology. From the crude distribution of unpleasant circulars, which the Lord Chancellor described yesterday in another place as an invasion of privacy and family life, and the exploitation of sexual curiosity for profit, we move to the subtler influence of long-range recording devices, wire tapping, the use for improper purposes and even the sale of confidential information. The examples appear regularly on the pages of our Press—our Press, which itself obtains some part at least of its material from violations of the privacy of our citizens.

It may be said that the reality of this picture is more reassuring, that the instances of gross violation are rare. I hope that that is so. But so also could it have been said and could now be said that the occasions would be rare that the exercise of the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner would be justified by the discovery of maladministration in our Government machinery.

Nonetheless, the very existence of the Parliamentary Commissioner is a safeguard. The very fact that the ordinary citizen can complain to him, even through the sieve of his Member of Parliament, is a valuable addition to our freedoms. For my part, I have always said that the Parliamentary Commissioner will be most succcessful when he no longer has anything to do.

The new commission which this Bill would establish, composed of commissioners who would not necessarily be engaged full time as such—that would be a matter for decision—any more than are the European Commissioners at Strasbourg engaged full time, would play a similar part. A commission such as this Bill would establish must have a body of principle to act as its guideline.

It is natural that a tribunal established to comply with our obligations under the European Convention should found itself upon the principles enshrined in that Convention, and so this Bill provides. But the rights of man are not static. They are constantly developing. The Bill enables Parliament to alter those guidelines from time to time.

I hope that it will not be said that we do not need this machinery because our laws, our regulations, the practices of our administrators, the decisions and procedures of our courts and tribunals, the actions of our public and local authori- ties, and the activities of our centres of private power are always and always will be entirely consistent with man's fundamental rights and freedoms. So to assert is not national pride but national effrontery. Let us at least have the humility to accept that power, even if it does not corrupt in this country, may mislead, and that the weak need support and protection even in the best of societies.

That is why the Bill provides that any person, however humble, who could now petition the European Commission should in future be able to petition our own national commission of human rights. If his petition failed, then his right to seek relief from the European Commission would be unaffected. The procedure by which our commission would operate would be as nearly as practicable that of the European Commission itself.

I have said that the concept of human rights is not static but developing. A great modern international statesman celebrated International Human Rights Year in 1968 in words which I should like to quote to the House: Civil liberties alone may mean little to the frustrated of opportunity, to the ignorant, the hungry, the diseased and dying, or to the unemployed and rejected of society, but without them injustice and oppression will remain beyond the reach of the social conscience. How then can we make civil liberties a reality for those who may hesitate to invoke them and are powerless to enforce them for themselves? Should we not devise, where be, new procedures and remedies whereby the collective interest in civil liberties can assert itself? May not Europe, to which the world owes so large a proportion of the fundamental concepts of public law, still play a major part in pioneering new concepts and procedures which may be decisive for the future of civil liberties far beyond the frontiers of Europe? In that pioneering work, no European nation should precede that nation which pioneered parliamentary democracy itself and which sponsored the historic European concept upon which this Bill is modelled. That is why I confidently commend the Bill to the House.

12.57 p.m.

Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

Not for the first time, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) has placed the House in his debt by enabling it to make a further contribution to a debate which annually is becoming livelier throughout the world, as to how we can, for ordinary individuals, protect those rights which to us seem so fundamental that we dignify them by the term "human rights".

If that debate has stemmed largely from lawyers, I believe that it is a response, by those who perhaps understand the technicalities from their training and their temperament, to a cry for help from ordinary people throughout what is becoming a frightening world. They have a feeling of insecurity with which all of us are affected from time to time. There are times when we all have the feeling of being lashed to a railway track in the path of an on-rushing train. As my hon. and learned Friend said, it may be that this is one of the prices that we are called upon to pay for the privilege of living in a technological age. It is undoubtedly a privilege, because few people would want to put back the clock to the simpler days before the age of technology.

There are a number of consequences. The first is that it is more complicated world and one with a greater variety of relationships, many of them relationships in which the individual is in grave danger of getting hurt. In which ways he is most likely to get hurt or which are most dangerous, may depend to an extent upon one's political views.

In another place on 26th November last year, the noble Lord the Earl of Arran introduced a rather different kind of Bill, but again set the stage for a very interesting debate on the protection of human rights. It was clear that in the noble Earl's view the danger lay from the Government. To a great extent that is right. The techniques at the disposal of Governments these days can make them extremely dangerous. It may be that some Governments settting out to crush individuals will not find it very difficult.

We on this side of the House take the view that there are other relationships, not only relationships between the individual and Government, which can also blight lives, and which, for many individuals can result in tragedy. Very serious distress can be caused by an employer, by a landlord, or by a neighbour. Not all wrecked lives are wrecked by Governments. Sometimes to safeguard individuals from this kind of danger may entail giving more power to governmental officials. We may have to give more power to industrial tribunals, to rent officers, or to judges. And it may be worth reminding the House that judges, too, are public officials to whom we entrust a great deal of power. Sometimes we have to entrust officials with power to protect us from other officials.

The Lord Chancellor, in the debate in the other place to which I referred, pointed out that the growth of tribunals, which for many represents the growing shadow of tyranny over us, is not a danger, but a method of protecting us from dangers which might otherwise confront the individual. They are there to protect individual rights.

The basic fact is that there are a growing and more complicated number of ways in which people can get hurt. Unlike the old ways before the technological age—ways like starvation, deprivation and exposure—they are things which lie within the power of human control, and it becomes all the more important to look for methods of controlling them.

The second great characteristic of our technological age is that, with modern communications, people are governed and dealt with and related in much larger units than previously. So it is inevitable that their lives are governed by decisions taken by people whose faces they do not know and often whose very names and identities are unknown to them. The whole of our administration is becoming more impersonal. Sometimes the people who take the decisions are themselves not entirely at liberty to take whatever decisions they please; they are themselves relatively small cogs in a large and impersonal machine.

This becomes more frightening for individuals. The wicked landlord of Victorian melodrama was a frightening enough individual, but at least the heroine could talk to him, and, in the last resort, could appeal to his better nature. These days the tenant who seeks to obtain the reversal of a decision from his landlord will be lucky indeed if he can find anyone who admits to having the power to alter such a decision, because usually it is a big property company.

So we live in a world where what one might call the know-how of civil rights, the technique of getting at somebody who has the power to do something, is becoming so remote from the experience of ordinary individuals that they feel that the whole thing has moved entirely out of their control and there is little they can do about their fate.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

On a point of order. Whilst a Count is going on, is it in order for an hon. Membe to raise a point of order? I believe that it is. If so, I should like to raise a point of order. My view is that there is an understanding that, when Private Members' Bills are introduced, unless there is a basic objection by the hon. Member concerned who can vote against the Bill at the conclusion of Second Reading or at Four o'clock, it is customary to allow at least a free and democratic debate on the issue, whether one is in favour of the Bill or not.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Peter Archer

Further to that point of order. Is it not normally considered at least courteous to allow an hon. Member who is in the act of speaking to conclude his speech before this step is taken?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Lewis

I have another point of order concerning the bells. When this Count was called the bells did not sound properly in the Library

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair will have that matter looked into.

Mr. Lewis

Yes. But if the bells were not sounded, it may be that hon. Members in the Library would have been here had they heard them.

House counted, and, 40 Members not being present, adjourned at eight minutes past One o'clock till Monday next.