HC Deb 04 April 1979 vol 965 cc1318-21

3.40 p.m.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torbay)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to declare the inalienable rights and liberties of the subject. It was only after considerable reflection, following the dramatic events in the House last Wednesday, that I decided to proceed to seek the approval of the House to introduce this Bill today, even though I am conscious that it can make little or no progress towards implementation in the lifetime of this Parliament. However, I finally decided to go ahead because I was allocated time for this Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule well before last week's events and therefore no question of a sudden propaganda exercise could possibly arise. Indeed, I am hopeful that what I propose, and the form in which I propose it, will receive the general approval of all parties in the House.

During the last two decades, while the increase of the power of the Executive under successive Governments has been steadily growing, there have been a number of attempts by Members of Parliament of different parties in both Houses of Parliament to review and maybe amend where necessary the old Bill of Rights 1688, but none has proved successful, for a variety of reasons. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) produced a Bill very similar to mine exactly 10 years ago. None of those attempts proved successful, partly because of lack of time and because some of the Bills were phrased in a contentious manner. It is not my purpose to be contentious today.

It has become all the more relevant in the post-war years, and all the more important to the ordinary subjects of this kingdom as time has gone on, that the individual rights of the subject should be clarified, brought up to date, and more fully understood than at present. It is not enough to reassert that within our unwritten constitution no such clarification is necessary. There is no convention that requires a Ten-Minute Bill to consume the full 10 minutes of parliamentary time. Therefore, because of the other outstanding business that is before the House, I shall keep my remarks as brief and uncontentious as possible.

There are, however, three arguments that I can quote, which I believe support my submission that the Act of 1688 needs to be reviewed, if only to remove uncertainties which exist in the mind of the public.

First, in recent years individual British subjects, in order to obtain their constitutional legal rights established on matters of great issue, have, on too many occasions—often at excessive expense to themselves—had to seek redress on these issues of principle up to the highest court in the land. This is an indication of the need for clarification in a number of areas.

Secondly, it is a known fact that the Ombudsman is increasingly approached by individuals, through their Members of Parliament, because they are dissatisfied with the grey areas—the present apparent uncertainties—of the legal situation affecting their constitutional rights.

Thirdly, and perhaps most telling of all, it is a fact that individual British subjects, unable to obtain the redress to which they are entitled within our present system of law, have felt impelled to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights under the terms of the relevant provisions of the European convention on human rights which the Government, with the consent of all parties, have rightly signed and ratified.

I shall quote only two instances, which are of a completely non-partisan nature. In February 1975 the European Court, in its first decision in an individual case involving Britain, found this country in breach of the convention in the Golder case, as it has become known, which involved a prisoner who was refused permission to consult a solicitor. In the result, the Home Secretary of the day, to his credit, undertook to amend prison rules in the light of the judgment of that court. As I say, this was to the credit of the then Home Secretary, but it remains a fact that the unfortunate Mr. Golder made his complaint in 1970 and only five years later, when he was no longer in prison, did he obtain a verdict favourable to his original plea for justice.

At this moment there is another case pending before the European Commission regarding the assertion of three railway men who claim, rightly or wrongly, that they were wrongly dismissed by British Rail. By an odd quirk of fate, the verdict of the 16 jurists of the European Commission will be given on 3 May. Because this case is clearly sub judice, I shall not comment on it further apart from making the general observation that to me at least—and I think to many of my right hon. and hon. Friends—it is repugnant that British subjects have to go abroad to seek redress that they are unable to obtain in the courts of this country, although the British Government have ratified the very convention on which they rely for their right to submit their cases to the European Court.

There are those who say that all that is needed to rectify this admittedly unsatisfactory situation is for the legal rights that have been endorsed in the European convention to be embodied in our own legal system by a specific piece of legislation limited to that end. There are others who believe that that would not be enough to meet our needs, including that distinguished jurist, Lord Scarman, who has put a powerful argument for a new constitutional settlement with entrenched provisions, including a Bill of Rights.

I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers), the present Shadow Attorney-General, takes the view that more than a simple endorsement of the European convention on human rights is required, or at least that the Act of 1688 should be reviewed though not just in that limited context.

What are the objections? The first objection that has been made from time to time is that this is an attempt to bind a future Parliament. That is constitutional nonsense. There is no Act that could pass through this House that could not be repealed by another Act.

I close by pointing to the example of Canada, where a constitutional Bill of Rights was passed. It has been observed in the spirit and the letter, and no objection has been raised by any of the three parties in Canada—the Conservatives, Liberals or the equivalent of the Labour Party there—because they all realise that the same right exists to repeal that Act as to repeal any other Act.

I make this plea in the most amiable sense. I do not think that it would be a bad thing for anyone in the House, any party or the reputation of Parliament as a whole if one of the last items of business that we considered before Dissolution showed our concern about the rights of the individual within the democratic way of life to which we all subscribe.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Percy Grieve, Mr. John Page, Mr. Paul Hawkins, Mr. Toby Jessel, Mrs. Jill Knight and Sir Frederic Bennett.

  1. BILL OF RIGHTS 60 words
  2. c1321
  3. STATUTORY INSTRUMENTS, &c. 111 words