HC Deb 13 May 1985 vol 79 cc44-73

5.3 pm

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)

I beg to move, That this House strongly endorses the need to protect the essential rights and liberties of the individual citizen, while recognising the vital need to preserve order and stability in our society.

Mr. Speaker

As we have a late start and six Back-Bench Members have asked to take part in the debate, and there may be others, I ask for short speeches in the hope that nobody will be disappointed.

Mr. Ottaway

There is nothing new about the House debating civil liberties, and I do not move the motion in a pioneering sense. Since the days of Magna Carta, which protected Parliament from the King, and the Bill of Rights, which ensured that barons were tried by barons, there have been many advocates of civil liberties and human rights. In the post-war years of the Attlee Government, British support for the European convention on human rights was backed by such eminent Members as Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Stockton from my party, and Ernest Bevin and Lord Layton from the Opposition parties.

In the 1960s, there was much pressure for the right of individual petition to the European Court of Human Rights and, latterly, alliance Members have moved ten-minute Bills in support of incorporation of the European convention into British law. Throughout this period there has been a keen awareness of the need to ensure that legislation recognises the individual's rights and liberties. Accordingly, although the House has not debated the subject for some time, I do not feel that I am trail blazing.

My interest in moving a motion such as this was sparked off by an event that, in many senses, has had a far-reaching impact on civil liberties, and has rent the civil liberties movement asunder. I refer to the coal strike, which has had so much impact on my constituency, which forms part of the Nottinghamshire coalfield. I have in my constituency Babbington colliery, which is one of the oldest mines in the country. Like all other pits in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, it continued to work throughout the strike. The House is aware of the scenes that characterised the dispute, and Babbington colliery was not spared. On two occasions, large numbers of pickets appeared at the front gate, and their behaviour was such that one was led to believe that the object of the exercise was to prevent miners from getting to their place of work.

On the first occasion it is estimated that some 2,000 pickets turned up, split themselves into two groups and then made co-ordinated charges at the police at the gate. At first, there were about 40 policemen, who were rapidly reinforced. In spite of the pickets' efforts, approximately two thirds of the men made it into the pit, largely thanks to the police, who were able to impose control and protect my constituents' right to work. Subsequent discussions with my constituents showed that many of them were most concerned not only about their safety but about that of the police.

On the second occasion, the police, in anticipation, had set up a checkpoint on the M1 about half a mile from the mine. However, the pickets circumvented it by abandoning their cars on the hard shoulder of the motorway and walking across the fields to the pits. Such scenes, with large numbers of pickets turning up obviously intent on preventing working miners getting to the pit, were common throughout the Nottinghamshire coalfield. Large numbers of policemen were present to help maintain law and order and to apprehend those whom they believed were breaching law and order.

The stories of violence by pickets throughout the dispute are legion and are recorded in the document "The Miners' Dispute: A Catalogue of Violence." Likewise, complaints of police excesses have been recorded, and I am prepared to believe witnesses recording violent police behaviour. While everyone will support a picket's right peacefully to express his point of view, and the policeman's duty to maintain law and order if he does not, in such an explosively charged atmosphere as there was in the coal strike, it was inevitable that some people on both sides should have gone over the top.

Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)

Will the hon. Gentleman include in his speech protests not about individual police excesses but about the police policy, to which he has referred, of setting up road blocks? Those policies included preventing people from peacefully going about the country —for example, miners were turned back at the Dartford tunnel. Will the hon. Gentleman address himself to that problem, or only to the other side?

Mr. Ottaway

I do not intend to address that particular point, but I am prepared to be even-handed about the policing of the miners' strike. If the hon. Lady had been listening a moment ago, she would have heard me say that there were excesses on both sides, and it came as no surprise to anyone when both sides went over the top.

In view of reported excesses both by the striking miners and the police, it can have come as no surprise to anyone when the National Council for Civil Liberties set up an independent national inquiry into the civil liberties aspect of the dispute. The interim report of that inquiry has much divided the civil liberties movement. My personal opinion is that the report is independent and fair-minded. Although anyone with any political antennae will seek to argue some points on it, I think that most people will agree that it is even-handed in its approach.

Let me refer to that report. I believe that anyone who has any concern for civil liberties will agree with the statement: protection from violence and fear of violence is a fundamental civil liberty principle which has been extensively violated during this dispute. In reviewing that principle, the report is quick to condemn violence on the picket lines, to which I have referred, as well as excessive police action, for example: rampaging groups of police officers have run through mining villages, bursting into houses in pursuit of pickets, causing extensive damage to property and assaulting residents. If that is true, I am sure that hon. Members of whatever party will condemn such acts.

While such incidents are a matter for deep concern, they have not caused the rift in the civil liberties movement. It has been caused by the so-called clash between collective and individual rights. The report states: It is a fundamental yardstick of freedom that workers may choose to participate in peaceful collective action, including the withdrawal of labour, to protect their interests. That is the collective argument. However, what has caused all the trouble is what seems to me to be the perfectly reasonable statement: We accept that freedom not to take part in a strike is as much a fundamental right as the right to strike. That short but immensely important statement has caused much controversy. During the summer of 1984 anyone living in Nottinghamshire was keenly aware of the importance of both rights. Miners could go on strike if they wanted. There were striking miners in Nottinghamshire, and their views were respected. Alternatively, they could choose to go to work if they wanted. No one thought that those two opposite points of view were exclusive. Anyone who cares about civil liberties should be able to accept that the two rights can exist together.

Accordingly, it came as a surprise to me to hear that the NCCL which, after all, had commissioned the report, was unable to accept the premise that the right not to strike was as fundamental as the right to strike. As I understand the argument, it is suggested that the right not to strike weakens the effectiveness of the right to strike and the realisation of its objectives. To me, that is completely to misinterpret the role of the human rights movement. Those people are saying that power is more important than the right. I cannot accept that.

The same annual general meeting of the NCCL reaffirmed its existing policy not to give advice on civil liberties to the National Front. It should come as no surprise to anyone that a group such as the National Front, on the extreme wing of politics, should find itself in that situation. To paraphrase an extract from one of Bernard Levin's columns in The Times, he suggested that it would not be the local flower-arranging group that would seek advice, and summed up the principle by saying: Free speech is for bastards too.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ottaway


The trouble now is that any bastard who comes along to the NCCL for advice will find a notice on the door saying, "No bastards need apply."

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Alex Carlile

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ottaway


That approach to civil liberties, whether by the NCCL or any other group, is selective and fails the fundamental test of a bona fide civil liberties organisation, in that it is not prepared to support the rights of those whose views it finds unpalatable. The philosophy behind the present position of the NCCL seems to be a split between collective and individual rights and liberties, with the view that collective rights should override any individual rights.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I follow the hon. Gentleman's reasoning, but he is making a mistake that has been made in some press reports. To be fair to the debate, he has not got the argument right and needs to clarify it. First, on the issue of striking, the objection was on equating the two rights as fundamental rights, whereas the mover of the NCCL motion said that the right to go to work without fear of intimidation or violence was a right to be protected. The second issue concerns advice. The NCCL would happily give advice to an individual member of the National Front, but not to the organisation itself. If the hon. Gentleman does not accept that, he is in difficulty, for example, in dealing with whether he would have given advice to the Nazi party in Germany. Judging by his understanding and interpretation of the argument, I believe that he could have done so. The example would apply equally to the IRA.

Mr. Ottaway

If I were in a civil liberties movement, I would give advice to anyone who came to me.

Mr. Soley

To an organisation or an individual?

Mr. Ottaway

I would be prepared to give advice to an organisation or an individual.

I regret to say that that attitude reflects the Soviet attitude to civil liberties. In any aspect of Soviet life, whether political, social or economic, all those areas are run by committees, and all the decisions that are made are collective. The system has an in-built preference for collective rights over individual rights when they conflict. That is an abhorrent approach to civil liberties. The concept is alien to Western democracies, particularly in this country with its strong tradition of protection of the rights of the individual. In our society there is no place for that point of view. While I am not for a moment suggesting that there is any link between the Soviet Union and the NCCL, I believe that is is sad that the organisation should adopt such an attitude as its policy. In that context, it is worth noting that the American Civil Liberties Union is prepared to back the right of free speech for everyone, no matter how unpalatable their views.

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Is it not worth noting that the National Union of Mineworkers, which used to be a democratic union, with the right to a ballot before either a local or a national strike, is now proposing to change its rules so that the national executive committee —in other words, the spokesmen of the collective—will be able to call out any member and all members on strike as and when it pleases, without calling a ballot?

Mr. Ottaway

My hon. and learned Friend is right. That is a typical example of the collective view conflicting with an individual right and seeking to dominate it.

Ms. Harman

The hon. Gentleman has just applauded the stand of the ACLU which, I agree, is a formidable and good organisation. However, will he say specifically whether he thinks that it was right, during the McCarthy Communist purges, that the ACLU did not stand up for Communists? Would he do the same in similar circumstances?

Mr. Ottaway

The ACLU did not stand up for Communists. I condemn that, and would do so in similar circumstances.

There is another aspect of this sorry tale. A little over a year ago, the NCCL celebrated its 50th anniversary. Its admirable then general secretary, Mr. Larry Gostin, publicly sought to expand the political profile of the NCCL, launching a liberty campaign and publishing an NCCL charter of national civil rights and liberties, which was signed by some 1,500 leading men and women from all walks of life. The question must be put to all those signatories, who include the leaders of the Social Democratic party and the Liberal party, and the Leader of the Opposition: can they continue to support an organisation with such a lopsided approach to civil liberties? No doubt those people will argue that they were merely signatories to a charter, the wording of which no one could disagree with. However, that is not the point. It was described as the NCCL's charter, and the NCCL has chosen to interpret it in such a way that the right not to strike is excluded. To be fair to the leader of the Social Democratic party and certain members of the Liberal party, they have been critical of the position taken up by the NCCL, but they continue to support it and seem to say that they will endeavour to bring about a reform from within, despite the comment by Mr. Gostin that there was little prospect of that in the immediate future. To date, little has been heard from the other signatories.

Mr. Alex Carlile

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not realise the essential difference between a political party, for example, and an organisation such as the NCCL, in which people can continue to be members and attempt to change policies? Does he agree that his implicit criticism of people who are remaining within NCCL is entirely unfair and unjustified?

Mr. Ottaway

I would accept that point of view if it were not the fact that the outgoing general secretary thought that there was little prospect of immediate reform from within.

Mr. Carlile

But is that correct?

Mr. Ottaway

Mr. Gostin is well placed to see what is going on.

However, what is possibly even more alarming is the fact that a former general secretary of the NCCL, and a current member of the executive, is personal adviser to the Leader of the Opposition. In view of the fact that she believes that the right of the working miner not to strike is less fundamental than the right to strike, several million people who live in the working coalfield areas will be looking forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) whether the Labour party agrees or disagrees with that point of view.

It is regrettable that there is a clear political split on this important issue. Civil liberties is a topic which needs to be treated on an all-party basis. If civil liberties are to be respected, fundamental rights must be supported and any political gulf between the parties over fundamental rights must be bridged. It is worth mentioning that Justice, an equally important civil rights movement with a much lower profile than the NCCL, has as part of its constitution a requirement that members of all three major parties should make up the executive. That is a sensible approach that gives much credibility to Justice.

Mr. Soley

I asked the hon. Gentleman to clarify an important issue. He has said again that the right to strike and the right not to strike, or to strike break, are both fundamental. He is implying that there is a right to work. If the right to work is to be maintained, leaving aside the 4 million unemployed, will he give full support to a group of workers who decide to enter their place of work if the management, for whatever reason, has chosen to lock them out?

Mr. Ottaway

That must depend upon the circumstances. I do not think that a right can be qualified. In the example that the hon. Gentleman has given, I do not say that the group of workers have a right, but one which is not quite as important as the right to strike. That is what was said at Nottingham during the miners' strike. We must not try to contrast a not-quite-so-important right with an important right.

I was saying that the executive of Justice has all-party representation. I welcome the formation of an all-party group for civil liberties and congratulate all those who worked for its inception.

Individual liberties are enshrined in the unwritten common law and statutes as interpreted by the courts of England. It is becoming more and more apparent that the common law, on its own, is not a comprehensive safeguard of individual rights and liberties. The growing evidence of this is the increasing number of cases that are found to be admissible by the European Court and the many cases in which the United Kingdom is found to be in breach of the convention compared with other countries.

There have been tremendous developments in English law in recent years. We have seen especially the development of the process of judicial review, which examines the rights of the individual when confronted with authority. From time to time, common law needs assistance from statute law. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Acts 1976 are two examples. Without these Acts, the common law would be entirely inadequate to deal with the issues to which they are directed. It was necessary to adjust the balance by introducing legislation.

Britain desperately needs a Bill of Rights. I support the call for the European convention on human rights to be incorporated into our legal system. It is not a perfect statement of rights, as it was drafted about 35 years ago. It is ironic that it lacks any express reference to the freedom of passage and the right to work, although such rights can be construed from it. However, it would be politically impossible to achieve consensus on anything other than the European convention. Accordingly, if there is to be any prospect of the incorporation of a Bill of Rights into our legislation it must be the European convention.

We have shown a marked reluctance to incorporate a Bill of Rights. After all, it took 15 years to establish the right of the individual to petition to the European Court. Despite a number of attempts to have the convention incorporated into our legal system, little progress has been made.

It is especially ironic that as the "wind of change" swept across Africa, one by one the Commonwealth countries, as they gained their independence, adopted the European convention on the advice of United Kingdom Governments. It began with Nigeria in 1958, and the convention, as incorporated into the Nigerian constitution, became the model for the "fundamental rights" which are to be found in the great majority of independent Commonwealth countries. In this way, the convention has been transplanted by Westminster legislation into the national laws of more countries and territories than are party to it.

There are many good reasons for the incorporation of the convention. As I have demonstrated, there is a substantial body of very learned opinion which believes that the common law has developed as far as it can go and has been found to be lacking on many occasions, the remedy having to be found in the European Court. The court has played an important role in developing and protecting human rights in Britain, from a prisoner's right of access to a lawyer to enabling The Sunday Times to publish its report on behalf of the disabled children in the Thalidomide tragedy. In this Session alone, two Bills have been introduced as a direct result of decisions of the European Court. These are the new regulations on telephone tapping and the new restrictions on corporal punishment in schools.

As the convention is not incorporated into our law, one practical effect is that a judgment of the European Court cannot be referred to by British judges or relied upon in their interpretation of statutes and civil liberties. This deprives the judges of the power and responsibility of protecting civil rights. If the convention were incorporated into our legislation, a body of case law would be built up to which judges could refer, and those with a grievance could obtain a remedy from the High Court without undue difficulty.

No one should be under any illusion that it is an easy matter to have his rights reviewed by the European Court. A reference to the court cannot be made until al, remedies in the United Kingdom have been exhausted, which normally means that a petitioner has to go through the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords before he has a chance to take the matter to Europe. Apart from the fact that it will probably take him up to eight years to get there, he will probably bankrupt himself in the process of funding the action through the courts. If he then decides to take the plunge and goes on to Europe, he will not qualify for legal aid as it is not part of our judicial system. Therefore, those who find no remedy in our courts will have to suffer if they do not have the resources to go to Europe.

Let us suppose that a prisoner feels that his right of privacy has been infringed by a prison officer having opened his mail before he gets it. Leaving aside whether that is a good or bad idea, the prisoner has no remedy in this country as there is no right of privacy. His only prospect of remedy is to take the matter to Strasbourg, and the chances are that he will be released from prison before the European Court is able to make a ruling. It is taking eight years to make a ruling. If the European convention were incorporated in our own law, it would be relatively simple for the prisoner to make an application to the High Court for his grievance to be aired.

The introduction of a statutory Bill of Rights to Britain will almost certainly stop civil liberties from becoming a political football. A classic example is the reference to the European Court of the GCHQ decision, which is clouded in political controversy. Another example is the three British Rail employees, Young, James and Webster, who established at the European Court the right not to join a trade union, a case which is still not recognised by the NCCL.

It is worth considering whether the existence of the European convention would have made any difference to the miners' strike. This is currently a matter of some discussion by academics, but there would seem to be a general feeling that the Kent miners would have had a good case to take to the court over the road block at the entrance to the Dartford tunnel. Likewise the working miner would have had a much clearer established freedom of association — a right which is lacking in common law.

A Bill of Rights would be a pillar in our midst with which the young would grow up. The establishment of the right would no longer be the subject of a political argument and sectarianism would be removed from our society. The rights of the individual are paramount and they will receive support from all quarters of the House. The current debate over collective and individual rights is most disturbing and a fundamental advance in individual rights and liberties would be the incorporation of a Bill of Rights into our legislation. That would go a long way towards ensuring that the rights of the individual do not become subservient to collective rights.

I recommend the motion and urge hon. Members to support it.

5.29 pm
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to participate in this debate. I speak not only as a Member of this House but as a new member of the executive committee of the NCCL.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway) has given us the benefit of a speech which fell into two distinct parts. The second part was a constructive exposition of some of the reasons why we need a Bill of Rights. That view has been expressed in various Bills, most recently in a Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan).

On the first part of the speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, I agree with some of his remarks about the National Council for Civil Liberties. In particular, I deprecate the decision taken by the annual general meeting in connection with the right of working miners to go to work. However, the decision was to some extent blown out of proportion by the press, which failed to understand that the debate at the annual general meeting was a serious, legitimate, intellectual debate about the difference between group rights and individual rights. Although Conservative Members may laugh and scoff at the proposition that there can be an intellectual discussion of those issues, whether or not one agrees with the conclusion, there can be such a discussion.

The hon. Gentleman, perhaps inadvertently, said that in his view there was no place in our society for the view that the group right to strike outweighed the individual right to work. Those words were not worthy of him. Although we may disagree with the point of view of which he complained, it can respectably be held and argued.

Mr. Ottaway


Mr. Carlile

I shall not give way now.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that on 3 May, at the first executive committee meeting after the annual general meeting, the executive committee passed a resolution regretting the resignation of the members of the inquiry into the policing of the miners' dispute, and endorsing the annual general meeting's decision to endorse the independence of the inquiry and most of the conclusions of the inquiry's interim report. Before the hon. Gentleman seeks to pour too much scorn on the NCCL — it is important to distinguish between legitimate criticism and unnecessary scorn, as the former is justified and the latter is not—I remind him that at that executive committee meeting, in which I participated, the executive committee also declared: The NCCL will continue to act as the guardian of Civil Liberties, independent of any political or industrial lobby, or faction. The executive committee continued: It must not be seen as the mouthpiece either of the trade unions or of those who oppose them … This Executive Committee reaffirms its absolute commitment to the defence of the civil liberties of all citizens, irrespective of their individual political beliefs. It is also important to reinforce the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), that at the annual general meeting the organisation reaffirmed its commitment to advise individuals of their rights, whatever political views they held and whatever the political organisations of which they were members.

As a member of the NCCL and its executive, my view is that the organisation should be prepared to advise organisations as well as individuals of their civil rights, even if it does not agree with their political views. I also believe that at the annual general meeting the NCCL took a disproportionate view of group rights as opposed to individual rights. That disproportionate view contradicts article 11, paragraph 1, of the European convention on human rights, which affirms the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association with others. That covers the right to go to work, even if there is a strike at one's place of work.

When one considers the controversies about the NCCL's annual general meeting — some of us are anxious to redeem the organisation of those controversies —it is important to remember that they represent only a small part of what was discussed. It is right to bear in mind that over 95 per cent. of the day-to-day work of the NCCL is not in the realms of the miners' strike and the National Front, but in the excellent work of advising ordinary citizens or groups of citizens who feel that their civil rights have been aggrieved.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the resignation of Mr. Gostin and those who are looking into the miners' strike is ample justification for the deep-seated criticism of the NCCL by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway) which, in my extensive experience, has never been interested in looking after the interests of people who wish to work when there has been a strike?

Mr. Carlile

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the resignations of Larry Gostin and the committee of inquiry gave rise to legitimate criticism of the NCCL. I have sought to make it clear that I agree with much of the criticism and the views expressed. However, it appears that already there has been some recognition, through the resolutions of the executive, that mistakes have been made. That is why I remain, at least for the present, a member of the executive and of the NCCL. I have not referred to all the other resolutions passed, but I commend them to Conservative Members.

Although Mr. Gostin's resignation is regrettable, it is important to remember that he remains a member of the organisation. His position became untenable because he was an employee, unlike, for example, a member of the executive or any other member of the NCCL. He was contractually bound to carry out the policies of the annual general meeting, and he was not in a position to change them, or, at least, his position made it extremely difficult for him to change them. Those of us who are not contractually obliged to the NCCL bear in mind that it is not a political party, but an organisation consisting of groups and individuals. The majority of members of the NCCL believe in the all-party approach—the across-the-board approach — to which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North rightly referred.

The re-establishment of the all-party civil liberties group was an important step in that direction. The press has, to a great extent, misunderstood the status of the all-party civil liberties group, because Larry Gostin, then of the NCCL, helped to re-establish it. Certainly one should give him the credit of being highly influential in its re-establishment. As a result it has been assumed that there is a formal relationship between that group and the NCCL, but hon. Members will know that there is none. The group will, from time to time, undoubtedly be valuably served by the extremely good briefings which the NCCL is in the habit of providing to hon. Members of all parties. It is to be hoped that the group will continue, as appears to be the case, on an all-party basis.

The second part of the speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North was far more constructive, and was the more important part of the debate. Not only the hon. Gentleman, but—I hope that he will forgive me for this —some of his as yet even more distinguished colleagues have expressed similar views in the past. In a celebrated Dimbleby lecture, the present Lord Chancellor expressed the opinion that the Houses of Parliament were no longer able to provide satisfactory or adequate safeguards for the fundamental liberties of the individual. As all right hon. and hon. Members know, the simple reason for that is that our work in the House is too great in volume and too complex in detail for hon. Members to be able to look day-by-day at breaches of possibly important and, indeed, fundamental civil rights, which may have occurred as a result of unfortunate excesses by the police, local authorities. the Civil Service or other public bodies.

That view had been expressed before by many others. Not least, it had been said in strong terms in a pamphlet, published by the Conservative Political Centre, by the present Secretary of State for Education and Science. He had come to similar conclusions over 10 years ago on the same basis—that Parliament could no longer safeguard the liberties of the individual. The Liberal party and my hon. Friends in the Social Democratic party have long expressed similar views. Indeed, Lord Wade has a distinguished record of propounding that view, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Caithness and Sutherland and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). The roll of honour goes across party lines on to the more independent Benches. That most distinguished of judges and constitutional lawyers, Lord Scarman, has expressed a similar view on many occasions.

The problem is that the only remedy that is realistically available at present to the citizen who feels that his fundamental liberties have been interfered with is an application for judicial review. The procedure has improved in recent months, so that it is now easier to apply for judicial review and quicker to have an application heard. However, the procedure is expensive and risky, and it involves going to the High Court. Many of those who have been wronged are people who may find the prospect of applying to the High Court for judicial review somewhat intimidating. It is right to say that the judges have been pushing out the boundaries of judicial review. Because of the liberal judicial interpretation that has extended the range of circumstances in which judicial review can be applied for, it has become more possible for the citizen to obtain redress. However, it is a lengthy, expensive and intimidating procedure.

It is right to remind the House that not only have distinguished members of the Conservative party and the alliance supported my views, but that similar views have been expressed from time to time by members of the Labour party. However, it would be pleasing if one could hear an unequivocal commitment from the Labour Front Bench to a Bill of Rights. If one examines the Cabinet papers of the Labour Government during that crucial period between 1945 and 1950, when the European convention on human rights was ratified—this is clearly set out in a distinguished article in the 1983 volume of the journal Public Law by Anthony Lester QC—one sees that that Government, and especially the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Jowitt, did not have a good relationship with the convention. Perhaps I am oversimplifying, but it seems to me that, before the Labour Government eventually agreed to ratify the convention, some Labour members believed that if one paid too much attention to the convention, and certainly if it was incorporated into domestic law, there would be a severe risk of a Socialist Government losing control over a corporate state. If that is still the view of the Labour party—and I 'lope it is not — it will give our citizens considerable 'cause for concern.

The great advantage of the incorporation of the European convention —

Mr. Lyell

The hon. and learned Gentleman posed a question of great interest, and I saw the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, shake his head. But the question is ambivalent. What the hon. and learned Gentleman should have asked, and what must be clarified, is whether the Labour party believes that it can still run a corporate state despite the European convention, or whether it is prepared to accept the European convention on its merits.

Mr. Carlile

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for posing the question in that way, and I should be happy to hear an answer to it. I note that we shall get one in due course from the hon. Member for Hammersmith, who I am sure will give us a full answer.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that the Labour party has been ambivalent about this, but that some distinguished members of the Labour party support it? They include, notably, Lord Gardiner, the former Lord Chancellor, who wrote a letter to The Times in support of my Bill proposing the incorporation of the convention, and the sponsor of the Bill, the right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason) who, from his experience, especially in Northern Ireland, recognised the value of incorporation.

Mr. Carlile

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I accept what he says. He reminds me of those two distinguished names on what I have already called the roll of honour, and I hope that their considered approach will permeate through to the entire Labour Front Bench.

Some parts of the European convention on human rights can be criticised as weak and somewhat wishy-washy. Indeed, article 8, which was debated at some length when we dealt with the Interception of Communications Bill, is weak and is affected— or infected—by having been prepared in the nervousness of the immediate post-war years. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that if consensus were obtained on a Bill of Rights, it would probably be obtained only on the European convention. It is detailed and tested, and it is certainly better than having no constitution at all.

If incorporated into our domestic law, I hope that it would mean that if a citizen believed that his fundamental human rights had been interfered with, he could go to a summary court—the local county court, where a hearing can be obtained quickly nowadays— for a declaration that his rights had been interfered with, and for other appropriate remedies, such as an injunction and damages. That would cut out all the nonsense and expense of having to plough through the system of High Court pleadings and proceedings before finally obtaining a contested hearing in the High Court as to whether there had been a breach of fundamental rights.

Another important reason for a Bill of Rights is that we are living in such a complicated society—much more complicated even than that of the late 1940s, when the convention was drafted — so that it is much more difficult for the citizen to know what his fundamental rights are. Indeed, I suspect that each of us from time to time is approached in his constituency surgery by someone who says, "But it is my right." Whether one be an expert constitutional lawyer or not, one cannot answer yes or no, because we have little understanding of what those "It is my right" rights are. It is important to define them as far as possible.

Mr. Lyell

This is a most fascinating subject. Before we charge too rapidly in the direction of incorporation, is it not right to remember, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, that the European convention has many faults, many wishy-washy aspects and obscurities, and that we have no opportunity now, or even if we incorporated it, to change it?

Mr. Carlile

The debate could develop into an interesting colloquy between myself and the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I have already spoken at length and I do not want that to happen.

At the moment we have no Bill of Rights worth the name. We need one, and the European convention provides a good basis from which our Bill of Rights could be drafted.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, whom I criticised a few moments ago, on his luck in obtaining this debate and his good sense in choosing the subject of the debate. I hope that most of the rest of the debate will concentrate upon the constructive rather than the destructive parts of his speech.

5.50 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

The more time I spend in politics, the less certain I become about what other politicians tell me is certain. Usually there is an element of truth in what both sides say. But, no matter, because most of the great evils perpetrated in history have been caused by convinced adherents of a specific ideology or "ism". Those of us travelling hopefully on the road towards an elusive truth are usually driving too slowly and have our eyes too closely on the road to kill anyone.

For me, the only certainty in politics is that just as the individual can only find his individual salvation from within himself, so the principal aim of political organisation and thought must be to enable the individual to have the fullest freedom of action and expression consistent with equal freedom for others.

For those of us who support the Western liberal tradition of the supremacy of the individual, those beliefs conjure up more dilemmas than they provide answers. The question was first posed by J. S. Mill in "On Liberty", when he wrote: The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited. He must not make himself a nuisance to other people. The classic dilemma is the right of the individual to speak out. That must include the right to criticise individuals and the right of other individuals to be given redress to protect their good names and reputations.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the doctrine of civil liberty, like that of democracy, is at once the most universally accepted doctrine and, in most countries, the most abused. Thus, the Soviet constitution has one of the most ringing acclamations of civil liberties, while we in this country have no Bill of Rights. I know, however, in which country my civil liberties are better protected.

As Burke said: Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. I find it useful to consider the analogy of the large house full of tenants, when addressing that dilemma. I should defend to the death the right of any of my fellow tenants to criticise me or the management of the house. I believe, however, that I have the right to stop, if necessary by force, one of my fellow inmates from wielding a pick-axe at the foundations of the house and bringing the whole lot tumbling down.

Let me illustrate my analogy with reference to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. If our home is ringed with enemies armed to the teeth whose one aim is to destroy the pleasant liberal, democratic regime pertaining in the house, does one of my fellow tenants have the right to stand up and say that we should unbolt the door? Most decidely, yes. That is the right of free speech, however miguided. That is his civil liberty. It is a different matter if he insists on passing a message to the enemy outside, telling him how to unbolt the door. That is what CND is doing by telling the world where our cruise missiles are being deployed. Does the minority tenant have the right to demonstrate in the corridors of our house against the wishes of the majority? Most decidedly, yes. It is his civil liberty to demonstrate. Does he also have the right deliberately to sabotage the work of our house by sitting in the corridor and preventing the rest of us from moving about? That is different. It is denying the majority of us our civil liberties, and that is what CND means by civil disobedience. The British people agree.

In a recent Gallup poll commissioned by the Coalition for Peace Through Security, whose results have previously been unpublished, 52 per cent. of those who had an opinion approved of the monitoring by the security services of political organisations such as CND which have adopted civil disobedience in pursuit of their aims.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)


Mr. Leigh

No, I shall not give way.

An even larger majority—62 per cent. — supported the monitoring of trade union activists who are members of the Communist party. Why do the British people take that clear view? They recognise that those people are less interested in free speech than in bringing the whole house of freedom tumbling down.

The delicate plant of our civil liberties can flourish only if we respect the will of the majority. The alternative is the law of the jungle, the law of "might is right", and the immediate degradation and ultimate destruction of all our civil liberties.

Mrs. Clwyd


Mr. Leigh

I have already said no. The hon. Lady will have a chance to speak in a moment.

The state has the right to govern only so long as it is sustained by the majority. No regime unsustained by democracy has the right to destroy individual rights for the convenience of the state. Thus, the Nazi and Stalinist regimes in the 1930s, by denying the individual his individual liberty and collective voice, rendered themselves instantly abhorrent, whatever their other crimes against humanity.

To the extent also that a regime like that in South Africa seeks to limit the civil liberties of one section of the community, so it destroys its right to govern the rest.

There cannot be one law of civil liberties for those whose opinions we like and another for those whose opinions we abhor. That is why I find what has been happening in the NCCL this month so alarming, and why I welcome the debate which my hon. Friend has initiated today.

Mr. Larry Gostin's heretical opinion was to assert: the freedom not to take part in a strike is as much a fundamental right as the right to strike. For those of us who believe in civil liberties there is nothing unremarkable in that statement, but to the majority of NCCL members, apparently, a collective decision to break one's contract of work by going on strike denies the individual his right to abide by his contract of continuing to work.

That decision reveals that the NCCL is far from being the guardian of the nation's liberties and is just another Left-wing pressure group. The NCCL even seems to have ignored what the sensible Left appreciates, that the failure to observe basic liberal principles of democracy was the cause of the Left's greatest defeat since the war—the collapse from within of the miners' strike because of the denial of a ballot to all the miners.

Why has the NCCL stood civil liberties on their head? A clue may come from an internal NCCL document which has come into my hands. It says: NCCL has a .5,000 overdraft facility which is guaranteed by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers —Transport Salaried Staffs Association. In the past, NCCL has exceeded that .5,000 limit by considerable amounts. A bank manager has met the NCCL's treasurer to discuss that. The bank takes the view that it will not give an overdraft limit beyond .5,000 unless the guarantee is for a larger sum. The NCCL is thus in the pockets of the trade union block vote. All that furore—a three to one majority against Mr. Gostin — is directed at the authors of a report, who all come from the Left of the political spectrum and who devote merely a passing obeisance to balance amidst a sustained attack on the police.

Of course, this is not the first time that the NCCL has taken such a biased line. Last year the NCCL was quick to condemn the police for issuing passes to local residents at Molesworth. The NCCL made not a peep of criticism when CND issued passes to its members to pass through its own roadblocks.

The NCCL consistently promotes the collective rights of trade unions, but rarely, if ever, the rights of individual trade unionists.

It is no surprise that I have a record of a Ms Terry Marsland, who is a prominent supporter of NCCL. and a Communist, telling an NCCL meeting that the Soviets should be praised for going to the aid of the Afghan people —no doubt to defend civil liberties.

Patricia Hewitt, who is now ensconced safely with the Leader of the Opposition, used to be the general secretary of NCCL. In that capacity she pressed, not just for political control of the police—one would expect that from her—but for political control to determine whom the special branch should investigate for subversion. Does Ms. Hewitt want local Tory councillors in Lincolnshire, who may have an axe to grind, to decide which of her chums should be investigated? I certainly do not want that, and I doubt whether she does.

Mr. Gostin ,

as we know, was finally forced to resign because, and I quote him, of the intolerable interference from the NCCL Council Left wing extremists". His is not the first defection from the NCCL by moderates; E. M. Forster and George Orwell resigned in the 1940s when they realised that the NCCL was too close to the then Communist party for comfort. One of NCCL's general secretaries, Ronald King, was found, after his retirement, to have substantial, if subterranean, links with the Communist party.

The ideological doublespeak that permeates the NCCL is evident from a letter written by one of its supporters to The Guardian. It criticises a very balanced critique delivered by Mr. Hugo Young, who is not a particular friend of the Conservative party. Listen to this extraordinary doublespeak: Mr. Young's criticism of the NUM's failure t3 observe `basic' libertarian principles and his recommendation that the NCCL should allow a 'commitment to a political principle' is so much utopian sophistry. Such a stance is, moreover, overtly political. Liberty is not a neutral commodity that may be quantified. It is merely an ideological creation. Yes, it is an ideological creation in the hands of those Left-wing extremists who now seem to control the NCCL.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Leigh


Liberty is indivisible. It is not an ideological football. It is a fundamental human right. As was once said, it may be dangerous, but it is the safest thing that we have.

6 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

It is very sad that the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) has chosen to smear not only the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament but the National Council for Civil Liberties. It is also very sad that he has chosen to smear politicians by his comment that he objects to political control. The government of this country is about political control. It is fortunate that in this country political control is based on democracy. If it is good enough to have democracy to run the country, it is also good enough that democracy should be involved in such issues as the control of the police. It is very sad when politicians who are openly involved in politics set out to smear the idea that there is something wrong with political control. Political control is right if it is balanced by the democratic right of the electorate to get rid of those who have political control if they misuse it.

I should have liked to be able to congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway) on having chosen civil liberties as the subject of this debate. It is a subject which is not debated sufficiently frequently in the House. However, the hon. Gentleman unfortunately chose to use this opportunity to attack the National Council for Civil Liberties. I believe that that was regrettable.

Mr. Ottaway

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bennett

In a minute or two, possibly.

It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman chose to devote the greater part of his speech to an attack on the NCCL. There are many important civil liberty issues which are far more deserving of our thought and comments than an attack on the NCCL.

If I may deal first with the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for a Bill of Rights, it is questionable whether we ought to embrace such a Bill. Are there absolute, fundamental rights? All of us believe that there are fundamental rights, but when one examines them more carefully one finds that almost all of them have to be qualified. The right to work appears to be a fundamental right which we ought to embrace, yet in practice we do not embrace it because there are between 3 million and 4 million people in this country who are unemployed.

There also appears to be a fundamental right of free speech. However, I do not imagine that any Conservative Member would grant me the right, late at night, to knock at all the doors in the street in which I live and insist upon haranguing the people who live in those houses. That is a right which to a certain extent is limited. One also thinks that there is a right to breathe pure air, yet people also have the right to drive motor vehicles, which, to a certain extent, pollute the air.

When, therefore, one examines the question, one finds that many of the rights which we take for granted have to be modified to a certain extent, that for most rights there are corresponding responsibilities and that it becomes increasingly difficult to define those rights. Anybody who is to be tried ought to have the right to a trial in public, yet it is generally accepted that for certain offences against the state the trial ought to take place in camera. Although there is the right to an open trial, there is also the right to screen a juvenile from the publicity of an open trial. Therefore, a balance has to be struck between rights on the one hand and responsibilities on the other.

This causes problems over a Bill of Rights. If a Bill of Rights could be written in simple language, was absolute and self-enforcing, I should be enthusiastic about the introduction of such a Bill, but a Bill of Rights would not be self-enforcing. In almost every case it would have to be interpreted and implemented by somebody. One of the weaknesses of a Bill of Rights lies in its enforcement. It would have to be interpreted, and power would have to be handed over to the judiciary to interpret the Bill.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) pointed out that if a Bill of Rights or the European convention on human rights were enshrined in our legislation it could be implemented by the lowest courts of the land, but in practice there would be appeals to higher and yet higher courts. Ultimately, the implementation of a Bill of Rights would very much depend upon the views of High Court judges, who are not elected.

Mr. Alex Carlile

I am puzzled by the approach of the hon. Member for Denton and reddish (Mr. Bennett). He seems to be calling into question the whole concept of the rule of law. Issues are interpreted by judges every day. Who else is to interpret the laws that are made in this House? I would ask the hon. Gentleman what is wrong about adopting the ordinary circumstances of the rule of law? Let the judiciary interpret, and let us rely upon the political impartiality of the judiciary.

Mr. Bennett

The problem with a Bill of Rights is that in some way it is absolute. There are many examples of the way in which judges have interpreted the law. If Parliament does not like their interpretations, the law is changed. If there were a Bill of Rights which was continually being altered by Parliament because it did not like the interpretation that judges were placing upon it, I do not believe that it would hold any attraction. The attraction of a Bill of Rights is that it is absolute, but even if it were absolute it would be subject to the interpretation of judges.

If one considers the enforcement of the constitution of the United States, one finds that it has been the willingness of judges continually to adapt and modify their interpretations that has allowed the constitution to work. Before we grow too enthusiastic about a Bill of Rights, I suggest that we ought to realise that if we enshrined such a Bill absolutely in law we should be handing over parliamentary powers to the judiciary. I am not particularly happy about the economic, class and sex backgrounds of hon. Members, but I would certainly argue that this House is more representative of the whole country than are our High Court judges.

As for the attacks on the NCCL, the strength of that body is that it is a broad coalition of interests—[HON. MEMBERS: "Of the Left."] It is a broad coalition of interests, which includes the vast majority of the people of this country. If people are interested in civil liberties they ought to be involved in the organisation and in arguing their point of view within it. The record of the NCCL during the past few years has been considerable. I pay tribute to the fact that an all-party group has been re-established in Parliament. It is sad that the previous all-party group did not have many members and that its meetings were held irregularly because insufficient Conservative Members participated enthusiastically in its activities. Had there been better attendance by all hon. Members, the group would not have had to be reformed.

There are many issues upon which an all-party group would not be appropriate. When a Bill is being considered in detail, it is appropriate that groups of Back Benchers from different parties should separately be briefed by an organisation like the NCCL. If one is in opposition, one's approach to the Government will be different from the approach of a supporter of the Government.

During the 10 or 11 years that I have been a Member of Parliament I have been impressed by the detailed briefing that has been given by the NCCL to hon. Members. Rather than attack it tonight, hon. Members should pay tribute to the back-up service that it gave those hon. Members who served on Committees such as those dealing with the Police Bill, the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill and the Data Protection Bill. Throughout that time its secretaries and officials have briefed hon. Members extremely effectively.

I should have liked more time to consider matters which we should be spending more time arguing about, such as privacy, public order, the administration of justice, freedom of information and the pressing need for that to be implemented, and prisoners and women's rights. Sadly, in a short debate such as this, that is not possible.

The House must also spend time considering the relationship between the general public and the police. That is one of the areas in which our civil liberties are fast being eroded. I went to a football match on Saturday. Because of the large numbers of people who went to watch Manchester City, rather to my surprise, and, I suspect, that of others, I ended up going into the standing accommodation, an area to which I do not often go. Like many other older football supporters, I prefer to sit down. Among the younger age group with whom I went through the turnstiles I was horrified to find that the mass of discussion related to what they intended to do to annoy, upset and harangue the police if Manchester City were to lose.

I thought back to about 20 years ago, which was probably the last time that I went into that part of the terraces, when the same sort of discussions about what to do if the team lost went on, but with none of that antagonism and bitterness towards the police. I accept that at least 90 per cent. of the comments I heard from those young people were simply the result of bravado and that they had no intention of doing anything at all. But it represented a complete alienation between the youngsters and the police. It was also noticeable that the police no longer stand in the crowd in that part of the ground. They are down in front of the crowd, turned to face it.

We must find out why that alienation between young people and the police has come about. Unless we address ourselves seriously to repairing the breach between many of the younger generation and the police, increasingly our civil liberties will be put at risk. People will demand greater powers for the police to combat the sort of opposition that is now coming from that age group.

It is sad that although the hon. Member for Nottingham, North was right to choose civil liberties as a subject for debate, he spent rather too much of his time attacking the NCCL, whose record in Britain is excellent. Over the past few months it has had some fairly minor disagreements, but on the majority of its work there is consensus. It would have been better had he spent his time addressing himself to the more fundamental issues of civil liberties, about which we should all be worried and alarmed.

6.12 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

There could not be a more important subject for debate than civil liberties. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway) on choosing it. It is a subject which concerns us all. Conservative Members may think that the Labour party has a monopoly on civil liberties, but it is clear from the number of my hon. Friends present that it is the Conservative party which has a monopoly on civil liberties. Three Labour Members and two alliance Members are present on the Opposition Benches. It is worth noting that there is a good attendance on the Conservative Benches tonight.

The debate has rightly centred on the rights of individuals, the liberties of the subject and the rights of the citizen. However, having listened to some powerful speeches, I find it slightly curious that not one hon. Member has mentioned that with rights come obligations. Obligations tend to be forgotten. There are obligations to neighbours, society, employers, teachers, and, above all, one's country. When one talks about rights, one should constantly couple that with obligations.

I want to talk about organisations, such as the NCCL and others, engaged in that important work. Such organisations usually raise the bulk of their funds from outside the state sector. It was revealing to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) that the NCCL has its overdraft facilities mortgaged to a trade union. That is regrettable, because it destroys the independence of that organisation.

There is nothing wrong in voluntary charitable work being financed by the state. We finance the Ombudsman out of public funds, and that does not necessarily compromise him. There would be nothing wrong in financing objectors to planning appeals, especially where the national interest is concerned. Objectors could be funded out of the public purse. Organisations committed to civil rights could be similarly funded. Instead of compromising them, it would give them a better basis for their work. The problem is that many such organisations would feel compromised if they received money from the public purse.

The trouble about so many rights organisations —welfare rights, civil rights, community rights and neighbourhood rights—is that whereas their objectives are highly laudable, they often masquerade under charitable status for the party political aspirations of their organisers — their paid staff. Regrettably, many voluntary organisations have been captured by party political activists— usually on the far Left, many of them Trotskyites — who believe passionately that their objectives and ambitions can best be pursued and advanced by using the vehicle of the organisation and twisting its objectives to suit their own party political purpose. That, I fear, is the new trend of the new Left.

I was involved, as some hon. Members may remember, in starting an organisation called Task Force in 1964. We recruited tens of thousands of young people all over London to give service to the old and lonely. By 1968 we had 70 paid staff. We raised money from local authorities, the Government and private donations. The importance of such an organisation was that it matched the aspirations of the young to the plight of the old and the lonely. In the best years we had 15,000 volunteers. The purpose of the organisation was to find and give young people something useful to do and something which they wished to do, which, at the same time, would help others less fortunate than themselves. It was a simple operation.

But today Task Force has been captured. It has now been renamed and it has become highly party-politically active. The same is true of the Young Volunteer Force Foundation, which I had the privilege of directing in 1968. It was launched by the Labour party under Harold Wilson. About 120 community workers, lawyers and social workers were directed all over the country to deal with social problems, community work, play groups and legal advice centres in order to help people to help themselves. That was a magnificent operation with altruistic objectives. Despite the good work of the Task Force and the Young Volunteer Force Foundation, both have been renamed and captured by the staff, and they masquerade under the banner of caring.

I cannot understand why the Devon and Cornwall branch of the Community Youth Workers Union yesterday sent me a resolution saying: This Union deplores the current attempt to destroy the public transport system by the present Government through the introduction of legislation to privatise and de-regularise public transport. What has that got to do with community and youth work in Devon and Cornwall? That is what is happening on the civil liberties, community and voluntary work front. An old man told me last week that he accepted an invitation from such a voluntary organisation to go on a day trip to Brighton. He said: "I was looking forward to seeing the sea and The Lanes and down we went in a bus. We had a nice trip down and a good day by the sea, but on the way back the megaphone was switched on and for an hour and a half I was subjected to being told by a community worker that I had to protest and stick up for my rights when all I really wanted was a day by the sea. I was being harangued by social workers and community leaders into protesting about my rights." That is the way that many of these organisations have gone.

By the sound of things, the NCCL has gone the same way. It has been captured by the hard Left, and it does itself immeasurable harm by being identified as promoting a party political line. Of course organisations such as the NCCL will be political; that is the very nature of their work. But they cannot be party political. That is a difference that those who work in voluntary, community and civil rights organisations do not seem to appreciate.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Is it not a little hard to suggest that the NCCL has been hijacked by the hard Left? Although the annual general meeting may well have been attended by those of predominantly Leftish views, the election of executive committee members involved a postal ballot, and a Liberal—myself, as it happens—came top of the poll. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that I am part of an arrangement to hijack the NCCL on behalf of the hard Left.

Mr. Steen

The hon. and learned Gentleman has made a valid point. He is a pawn. He is highly respected in the House, and no one would think for one moment that he intended to hijack the NCCL. Indeed, some of my hon. Friends might think that he would do a better job than the present committee does. But the point is that the hard Left will use the hon. and learned Gentleman. He has not been here long enough to know just how easy it is for a Liberal or SDP Member to be used. I hope that he will be very circumspect about what is being done to him and about what may happen to him if he objects. The pattern in voluntary, community and civil rights organisations is that everybody resigns. I receive letters from the NCCL; and there is always an acting director or acting secretary, but never a real one. There is never a chairman; always a chairperson. People are always moving on.

I have always read the NCCL's briefs with great interest, and I have been very active in the House on behalf of civil liberties. However, I regret what has gone on, and I believe that the situation is very damaging for that organisation. I am concerned that the Trotskyites are using such organisations to gain a rung on the ladder and a public platform for their views. Organisations including youth leaders, social workers, and the community work professions are now all riddled with party political activists. Whether those involved be social workers in Liverpool or educationists in London, they appoint their own kind and damage their own cause as a result.

Voluntary work is an honourable estate. It provided, and still provides, opportunities for people to give of themselves to those who are less fortunate. Many of the established organisations carry out their original briefs with professionalism and compassion. But since the early 1970s a new sort of organisation has come on the scene. Such organisations obtain charitable recognition for dubious ends and then go on raising money for the pursuit of their party political work.

The NCCL has a crucial role to perform in this country, but I believe that its work is now suspect. I believe, too, that many other organisations, claiming theirs is the true democracy, manipulate their members to ensure that the voice of the hard Left is heard. Indeed, the new cells of militancy are often based in community work organisations, protesting about benefits, rights and legal assistance. I regret that that is so. I regret that party politics of extreme kinds are entering and eating into this country like a canker, destroying a great deal of invaluable and dedicated work.

I have spoken strongly, because before I became a Member of Parliament I worked in this area for about 20 years. It has dramatically changed, and the remarks of Opposition Members should be tempered by the experience of those Conservative Members who have done the work and know what they are talking about.

6.24 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

As I have said on several occasions, the democratic and civil rights of the people of Britain have been seriously eroded in recent years, and particularly under this Government. That is the case that I shall advance again today.

I would be the first to concede that that erosion has been going on for many years. There are several reasons for it, not least the effect on this country of the political problems in Northern Ireland. We should address ourselves to that, but that is not the subject of today's debate. The United Kingdom has seen a terrifying erosion of civil rights and that is why we have such an appalling record before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. More than any other country, we have been brought to book by that court. As a Member of Parliament and a British citizen who is proud of our democracy, I am ashamed of that. I should like to think that Conservative Members were ashamed of it too, but I do not think that they are, or ever will be.

The Government are making a fundamental mistake in assuming that order can be imposed at a time of social and economic distress. I remind the Conservative party that social and economic distress, and in particular mass unemployment and hyper-inflation, lead to calls for authoritarian leaders. Dictatorship lies at the end of that road. In the past week or so we have heard talks on the second world war. I remember, with respect, the comment by the President of West Germany. He said that the German people must take responsibility for what happened during the Hitler years. There is much in that, but all of us must take responsibility, because all of us are responsible in a way for what happened in Germany before 1933. When hon. Members consider the hyper-inflation in Germany then, the mass unemployment, the feeling of national disgrace and the fact that the Germans could not cope because of the burdens put on them from afar, they must bear in mind that we ploughed the fields in which Hitler so ably sowed his seeds. When we forget that, we forget what we are doing here.

More than anything else, my objection to this Government is that they have tried to impose order in numerous situations where that cannot be done.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)


Mr. Soley

I shall give way shortly in certain circumstances, but I am conscious of the shortage of time and the number of hon. Members who want to speak.

We should always beware of the call for order. Order is one of the most dangerous concepts out, unless it is qualified with the need for law and for civil rights. If people argue for order alone, they are arguing for the Hitlerite example of order. That is what Conservative Members forget so easily. Sadly, the failure of the motion — I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) that the latter half of the speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway) was constructive—is that it is assumed that we can have stability in the face of economic distress. That is impossible, as can be seen in Poland, South Africa and —I hate to say it—in Northern Ireland. We should have learned from that lesson. Ultimately, one cannot go on imposing order without a severe risk to the democracy that one is trying to defend.

I am not here as a spokesman for the NCCL, but I shall say what some other hon. Members should perhaps have said. I was not at that meeting and I have not read most of the documents associated with it. However, the interpretation put on it by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North was wrong for several reasons. As I said in my intervention, the point was that the NCCL had always defended the right to go to work free of intimidation and the threat of violence, even if there was a strike. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the right to strike is equal to the right to go to work, he is in dead trouble with the 4 million unemployed. On the other hand, if he is arguing that the unemployed are just a sad fact of life and one of the vagaries of this Government's ideological system, he is still in trouble for the precise reason that I gave earlier. If that is the case, a worker has the right to go to work when he is locked out. I might expect to see every Conservative Member defending that right, but they will not do so.

Mr. Ottaway

The hon. Gentleman has turned my argument round through 180 degrees and is arguing it in the negative. But does the hon. Gentleman agree with the statement that the freedom not to take part in a strike is as much a fundamental right as the right to strike?

Mr. Soley

I shall argue that neither of them is a fundamental right. That is why the argument is wrong and misleading. The problem is that if one argues that there are absolute rights the first right must be the right to life. Government Members do not argue for the right to life because they know that that right is qualified in terms of a member of the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland or of a member of any other paramilitary organisation. It is qualified in war and when Conservative Members vote in favour of hanging.

Mr. Ashby

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soley

No. The hon. Gentleman has not been present for the whole debate, and I am running out of time.

Mr. Ashby

I have been here.

Mr. Soley

I apologise. I did not notice the hon. Gentleman, but I must stick to the timetable.

The right to strike has always been regarded by the various international bodies as basic and important because it is linked to social and economic rights. As the NCCL says, everyone has the right to go to work free of intimidation, threats and violence. I support that stance 100 per cent. I suspect that I support it more than Government Members because it does not apply for them during a lock out.

A misunderstanding occurred over the National Front. The NCCL's position was simple. It will represent an individual but not an organisation. If an individual from the National Front said that he was in trouble with the police or the state the NCCL would advise him, but if an organisation dedicated to the destruction of civil rights asked for help the NCCL would reserve its judgment and not advise. The NCCL reserves its right to canvass for support, but some Government Members believe that it should not and that it should advise anyone. That means that it might have had to advise Hitler and that if the Provisional IRA took over in Northern Ireland it would have to advise that organisation because it would be a legal body.

The concept of equality is important to Socialists because we know that civil rights are conditioned by social and economic circumstances. A person earning a high income has more real civil rights than a person who is unemployed or on low income. That is probably why the constituent of the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) was lectured so terribly on the bus to the seaside.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) wanted to know the Labour party's position on a Bill of Rights. It is similar to the opinion expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). I recognise the strength of argument for a Bill of Rights and a written constitution, but the issue is complex. The Liberal view is to go for a European state in which a written constitution and a Bill of Rights applies. If one picked on part of what is, in effect, a written constitution, and put it into a constitution under which Parliament is seen as sovereign, difficulties would arise.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said so powerfully, one of the significant differences between Britain and other western European powers and America is that entry to the judiciary is restricted to the higher socio-economic groups. That is because grants are not given to train a person through to being a judge.

Mr. Alex Carlile

What about magistrates?

Mr. Soley

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery is supposed to be a lawyer, although from his interruptions I should not have thought so. Magistrates do not preside at Strasbourg, nor are they likely to. The point is that entry into the higher ranks of the judiciary in Britain is restricted. The way to change that is to give grants for study to all people who want to go all the way to the top ranks. Until we achieve that the higher levels of the judiciary will be seen not only to be against, but not to understand the problems of many people whose cases go before them. That is why I should not want to pick up one part of a written constitution and incorporate it into our constitution.

The Government are guilty of being responsible for a serious erosion of civil rights. The evidence of that is in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act which allows 96 hours remand in custody. The Government have thought of dropping the idea of the duty solicitors scheme. The Law Society says that it is not possible for the Government to go ahead with the duty solicitors scheme unless it provides more money because it cannot train and administer such a scheme in time for January 1986. If that is so, the one in five people remanded in custody who need the aid of a duty solicitor will not have it.

Mrs. Clwyd

Does my hon. Friend agree that justice was not even-handed during the miners' strike, and that something serious is wrong with the Police Complaints Board which failed to uphold any of the 74 complaints against police officers during that strike?

Mr. Soley

Even the Government are unhappy about the Police Complaints Board. We believe that the existing system is excessively bureaucratic. I should prefer a type of ombudsman with the power of investigation up to the point of public prosecution if a criminal offence is suspected, and then that case could be handed to the independent public prosecutor.

Attacks on trade union rights and restrictions on picketing in the 1980 Act made the miners' strike and other strikes worse then they might have been. We sometimes forget that industrial unrest applies in many industries. What do Government Members expect, with 3 million or 4 million people unemployed? What do they expect when they cut benefits to people who are already struggling? Do they expect the British people to be different from the people of Poland when their basic rights are attacked? What do they expect when such an attack on trade union rights was made at GCHQ?

The Government are using the police force as the Tory party's private army to enforce failed economic and industrial relations policies. Since 1979 the crime rate has been increasing, and it was up by 9 per cent. last year. Riots have taken place in our inner cities and in connection with industrial disputes. Rioting has taken place in the villages of Britain, and yet the Tories say that they are the party of law and order. It is the party of rising crime rates and increasing disorder. Its social and economic policies are the cause. So long as the Government try to address the symptoms by screwing down the lid they will fail to contain the problem and store up dangerous problems for the country.

Labour Back Benchers have stopped a number of private Bills which would have required notice before a procession could take place. I am pleased about that, because the right to demonstrate has been eroded by the Government. Permits have been required to drive from one part of the country to another. The essential difference between a CND permit and a police permit is that one is given to the state. That is a potentially dangerous power to give to the state—it is the same as the permit to move in the Soviet Union.

The Government have been responsible for jury bashing and have attacked ethnic minority groups in the British Nationality Act which creates stateless citizens now called British overseas citizens. Foreign husbands of women settled here are not allowed in, so we divide families, against our own signature to the Helsinki declaration.

The Commission for Racial Equality report leaked to The Guardian said that the measure was being used to keep black immigrants out. The Data Protection Act with its minimal safeguards does not even cover manual records and, as with the Interception of Communications Bill, the Government have been forced to introduce it because of the Strasbourg court.

I concede that the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act was introduced by a Labour Government but it is now being used for one of the most steady of all erosions of human rights. Yet this Government tried to take out the word "temporary". Secrecy is one of the greatest enemies of an open society and yet the Government refuse to put the security services under a Select Committee.

The GLC and the metropolitan counties are to be abolished. We must remember Sarah Tisdale, Clive Ponting and Cathy Massiter. The message if one plans to give away secrets, is to ensure that they are big secrets because one will not then be prosecuted, but if they are little secrets one will be taken to court.

There is a major threat to civil liberties. One of the dangers is the need for order that all Governments want to pursue to some extent. Therefore, the House should always be on its guard. The Government are trying to deal with social and economic problems by increasing centralised power and order. Centralised power is itself a danger to liberty, as is unaccountable power. We often hear the Tory party talking about trade unions, but how little do we hear it talking about votes in companies, votes between people—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shareholders."] Oh no, not shareholders. Every time someone buys a pint of beer, he gives money to the Tory party. Is that not right? Is it not true that that is the way in which the Tory party raises money from the consumer without a vote by anyone, and especially the employees? It is the sort of dishonesty and double standards that we have come to expect of the Tory party.

I am reminded that 340 years ago there was disorder in the House when the King broke in. Fortunately, many people resisted that and there was violence. If they had not resisted, this country would not have become the mother of Parliaments and this House would not have been the defender of civil liberties that it should be. If many Conservative Members had been alive at that time, they would have supported the King, and they know that.

The Opposition are on the side of civil rights. We do not think that there are any simple definitions or any simple answers to difficult problems. But we do know that if we try to govern by oppressing significant parts of our community, we will create trouble in our society. That trouble will sooner or later destroy our democracy.

6.41 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

We have just listened to an extraordinary speech from the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard that the hon. Gentleman was to speak rather than the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), whose all-purpose ranting on these occasions is well known. But even the hon. Member for Knowsley, North might have blushed at some of the remarks in the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith.

I shall be brief, so I will have a self-denying ordinance with myself about picking up the hon. Gentleman's points. A great deal of his speech was humbug, especially when he prayed in aid what happened during the civil war. He showed a total lack of understanding of the courage of individuals who went through the hundreds of jeering pickets to exercise their right to work. The idea that the spirit that took England through the civil war and allowed this place to rise to the position that it exercises today was not the same spirit as that shown by Nottinghamshire miners is humbug, partisanship and a narrow sectional view of civil liberties that is quite astonishing coming from the hon. Gentleman, whose views I often commend.

Again, the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Interception of Communications Bill were pure humbug. When the Opposition were in government, they exercised the same powers and did not dream of introducing the safeguards that this Government have introduced in the Bill. Part of his attack was on a little measure on juries that I helped to take through the House, which was proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson). The proposal was to exclude from juries people with criminal records. What is there in the advancement of civil liberties that requires us to retain crooks on juries? I do not understand that point.

The hon. Gentleman complained about the steps necessary to protect rural communities—which, through no fault of their own, live near defence establishments —from major incursions by all manner of people who think it their right to enter their communities and make trouble. Yet he did not say a word about all the demonstrations that led to the need for exceptional measures.

The sad thing about the hon. Gentleman's speech was its lack of balance, and we must turn to balance if we are to have a civilised debate on these issues.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway) on introducing this motion. Not the least of his achievements has been to show the Labour party in its present, rather unsavoury, mood. However, the need for balance was the important point that he made. I appreciate that intellectual abstractions are as crucial to this subject as to any other, but in the end the practical business of government requires weighing the need to protect the essential rights of individuals with the equally vital need to preserve order and stability in our society. Where we strike that balance is always a matter for careful judgment. I do not believe that this Government stand in any condemnation of having got the balance wrong.

I wish to take up the hon. Member for Hammersmith on one of his examples — the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. The previous Government were sufficiently concerned about the imbalance between police powers and the rights of citizens to set up a Royal Commission. It reported and, following its proposals, legislation was introduced to provide powers necessary in each area of activity—from stopping and searching on the streets, to searching of property, through to the questioning of detained persons. The guiding principle was that the powers provided should be sufficient for the task faced by the police, but no more than were needed in the circumstances, and that each power should have a check.

The hon. Gentleman was on decidedly sticky ground when he cited the 96-hour provision. His experience in the criminal courts is sufficient to know that on a number of occasions the courts have upheld the power to detain for 96 hours or longer. The question how long the power to detain should be in each case could never be prophesied at the start. We now have the position that not only is 96 hours the maximum, so certainty is imposed, but that to get to that 96 hours there must be two hearings before magistrates at 36 and 66 hours. There is an absolute right —something that the Labour Government never gave—to legal representation where there is not a serious arrestable offence, and a right to legal representation in all but the most extreme circumstances where there is a serious arrestable offence. I think that the hon. Gentleman's attacks were well wide of the mark—

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the Minister give way on the point about duty solicitors?

Mr. Mellor

This is not the occasion to say more than that we have advocated the duty solicitors scheme and we will ensure that it is introduced. The necessary horse trading and bargaining that go on should not obscure from the hon. Gentleman the sincerity of the Government's intention. It is no good the hon. Gentleman scoffing about money. Money becomes a large criterion when Opposition Members move their bottoms from their Benches and come to the Government Benches. It is only in opposition that they pretend that they can forget about money.

I respect the sincerity and thought with which a number of hon. Members have advanced the case for incorporating the convention in some form in our domestic law. Anyone who advocates that should not be under any illusions about its significance. I want to endorse a number of the points made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). The Government have no plans for any early initiative and take the view that there needs to be a much greater consensus in favour of such a major change. The burden of proof for such a major change lies very much on those who advocate it.

The hon. Gentleman raised a valuable point when he noted the parallel with the United States—something that deals with the necessary creativity with which the dead letter has to be interpreted and have breathed into it the life of the particular age through the judiciary and not through the legislature. That crucial point should not be underestimated. Implicit in what he said was the politicisation of the process for appointing senior members of the judiciary, which might cause some of us to pause before we would want to see it in the United Kingdom. We must accept that if we adopted that system, inevitably the balance between the courts and Parliament would be altered. That is not to say that there is not a compelling case on the other side, but it needs to be made in recognition of the enormity of what is proposed.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith attacked the United Kingdom's record before the European Court. The case is not as stark as he suggested. It is true that on 11 occasions the United Kingdom has been found to have been in violation, but Belgium, a far smaller country, has been found to have been in violation on nine occasions, the Netherlands on five and Italy on six occasions, and Italy allowed the right of individual petition seven years later than we did. It is hardly fair to make a comparison with, say, France as France did not even allow the right of individual petition until 1982.

There was a good deal of unreality about the claim of the hon. Member for Hammersmith that that demonstrates that the United Kingdom is a country in which civil liberties are dead, just as there is an air of unreality about reading the Soviet constitution. The reality, however much we may want to play partisanly with the figures, is that the United Kingdom is a country in which the flame of individual freedom burns brightly; and if it fails to burn brightly, that is as likely to be because of the actions of those on the Left as anything that the present Government might propose.

Rightly or wrongly—and one suspects that the extent of interest in the matter from one country to another might determine the final outcome—there is a great deal more interest in these issues and more organisation about them in the United Kingdom. The fact that we have been found guilty of violations on 11 occasions must be set in the scales against the 823 cases that we have been notified as being brought against us.

Much has been said about the National Council for Civil Liberties. It is not much to do with the Government, but I would have hoped that any organisation devoted to civil liberties would not have taken exception to a report which said that the freedom not to take part in a strike was as fundamental as the right to strike. The special pleading of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) was worrying. I admire him and I do not criticise him for trying to make that organisation work, but he will have an uphill struggle. I need only look at the motion passed by its executive in February—I do not know if he was a member of the executive then — which regretted that the inquiry had exceeded its terms of reference in commenting on the conduct of striking and working miners, and charged that the presentation of the report was unnecessarily damaging to the miners' cause. What is a civil liberties organisation doing criticising a report that it set up on the basis that it was unnecessarily damaging to the miners' cause"? There is more than a hint of the world that Joseph Stalin would have understood in all that.

I remind the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery that for the inquiry, which was willing to look at the civil rights of working miners, who, throughout the dispute, were faced with systematic mass picketing, violence and intimidation to prevent them from going to work, and to comment on the situation, to come out with the legal quibble that the executive and AGM of the NCCL did—that it was outside its terms of reference—verges on the contemptible in the view of most people. I wish the hon. and learned Gentleman well, but he has an uphill struggle, and, sooner or later, he will be asked whether he does more good for the NCCL by being in it or more damage to the Liberal party's standing by being in it.

I wish my hon. Friend's motion success. He presented it well. I look forward to hearing other commendations of it before, all too soon, this debate is cut off in its prime.

6.53 pm
Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I, too, shall be extremely brief, although I should have liked to comment strongly on the reactionary and bigoted comments of the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh).

Justice has not been even-handed in relation to the miners' strike. Hundreds of miners were charged. Some were fined, and some were imprisoned, during the dispute, but no complaints have been upheld against police officers following complaints being reported to the Police Complaints Board during the strike. Indeed, today I received a letter from the board dealing with a complaint of mine against the police following an incident in my constituency outside the Phurnacite plant on 7 December 1984. There have been many comments in the press about that incident. It took six months for that complaint to be dealt with, and only after the Home Secretary intervened personally did I receive a response from the Police Complaints Board.

I wish to place on record my view that the letter that I have received from the board represents a complete fabrication of the events as they took place on that day. The board has accepted totally the evidence given by the police officer concerned and has taken no notice whatever of the evidence given by me and a Labour councillor. The board comes to the conclusion: Because there is no fully independent evidence to resolve the dispute between your account of the incident and that given by the officer, no action will be taken. That method of dealing with my complaint is unsatisfactory, though I suppose one must remember that the members of the board are appointed by the Prime Minister. Clearly, they have not been able to investigate my complaint thoroughly and impartially, as they are charged to do.

The new police complaints procedure came into operation on 29 April 1985. It fails either to ensure independent investigation of complaints or to provide for legal representation for police officers in all cases when they face disciplinary action. The much-vaunted independent element is grafted on to a scheme in which investigation remains in the hands of the police. There is little in the new scheme to increase public confidence.

I regret the fact that the Minister did not address himself to the need for research to be carried out into the new police complaints system. It is clear that the system suffers from a dangerous lack of public confidence, and that has not been helped by the failure of the board to uphold any of the 74 complaints against officers reported to it during the miners' strike.

6.56 pm
Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

I have been extremely disappointed by the debate, in particular by the remarks of Labour Members. It is unfortunate that at a time when we have established an all-party group on civil liberties we should have had from the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) the type of speech that he made.

To speak as the hon. Member for Hammersmith did, and to equate unemployment and the economic situation of the country with civil liberties was a travesty of the facts, and his remarks were totally unjustified and unworthy of him. If he wishes to speak of a Government who are pursuing to the very limits measures designed to reduce unemployment and improve the economic lot of the nation, an Administration with a high record for civil liberties, he must speak of the present Government. Everything that the Conservatives have done and are doing has had as its prime objective the reduction of unemployment and the economic w ell-being of the nation. His argument was absolutely false and divisive.

I shall mention two matters that are helpful to civil liberties. The first is the role of the ombudsman. His role is extremely important in terms of civil liberties—this applies especially to the health ombudsman — and I should like to see an extension of the system to a defence ombudsman. The second relates to freedom of information. This is an aim which we should be able to achieve, if not in this Parliament, in the next one.

6.58 pm
Mr. Ottaway

Many hon. Members have expressed disappointment over the debate having been what they described as an attack on the National Council for Civil Liberties. President Truman once said that if one could not stand the heat one should not be in the kitchen. There is no doubt that the NCCL is a front-line political group which expresses political views. It must, therefore, expect criticism.

Hon. Members have said that I attacked the NCCL. I did no such thing. I merely said, as others have said, that I did not agree with the policies that it had put forward. That is very different from attacking it. This has not been an NCCL-bashing exercise; just a debate in which many hon. Members have said that they cannot agree with the NCCL's point of view.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) made an interesting comment in reply to my intervention. When I asked whether he accepted the statement in the NCCL report, he said that basically he did not think that the right to strike—or the right not to strike—was a fundamental right. I am sure that many people will be very interested to hear that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House strongly endorses the need to protect the essential rights and liberties of the individual citizen, while recognising the vital need to preserve order and stability in our society.