§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Patnick.]7.53 pm
§ Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)
In August this year, Britain will go to the United Nations to stand condemned in the dock of world opinion for its failure to protect and extend citizens' rights in this country.
What we are really debating here today is the United Kingdom's shunned responsibilities and the Conservatives' failure to meet their human rights obligations to British citizens. It is sad that fundamental political questions of serious concern such as rights and democracy are debated in the United Kingdom's Parliament only by the luck of an Adjournment debate, rather than being central to our concerns. I am afraid that it shows how detached Parliament as a whole, and the Conservative Government in particular, has become from people's basic concerns.
By sharp contrast, the next Labour Government will deliver a renewed and real commitment to defining and protecting the rights of the British people. We shall do so not only because we have signed international treaties but because of our core belief that people's rights should be protected and are intrinsic to a democratic country, and not only because the United Nations will be looking over our shoulder to monitor our human rights record, but because we truly value the human dignity that should be inherent in every citizen in the country.
That will be just one strand of the attack on the failures of our democracy which the next Labour Government will introduce in the new democratic settlement. A fundamental political divide even transcends political parties. It is the divide between those who believe in a pluralist system with many ways into our democracy and those who believe that only one track exists in our democracy and that whoever wins the general election and installs someone in 10 Downing street has the whole of political wisdom summed up in their character. That false premise becomes increasingly less sustainable as the present Government go on.
The positive aspect of this debate, however, is that that effort to build up sustainable human rights in the United Kingdom must be just one part of a wider change in our democracy to a plural democracy of independent, strong and legitimate local authorities, regional assemblies that count for something and have real powers, a second Chamber elected by the people and a House of Commons worthy of the name. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) here tonight as he has done much in the latter regard. He recently tried to put some flesh on the bones of the idea floated by the Prime Minister about improving Prime Minister's Question Time. As one of the outstanding parliamentarians of my intake, I hope that he gets all the success that he deserves.
In considering how rights affect the effort to build what John Smith called a new democratic settlement for a new century, we must first look at incorporating into British law the European convention on human rights and then seek to build up a knowledge and awareness of individual rights and responsibilities among the British people so that never again will people feel powerless and defenceless whenever 189 a central Government use their overbearing powers to slice away at individual liberties. That has patently taken place over the past 16 years and was also evident in the centralising tendencies of previous Governments. We should all have a little humility in that regard because Governments of all political colours have abused the overbearing power of the Executive to centralise power. In a society with no written checks or balances, little stands in the way of the central machine once it gets under way. Introducing those checks and balances—those impediments to arbitrary Executive power—must be one of the foremost tasks of the incoming Labour Government.
As I have said previously in the Chamber, I do not believe that written rights are a panacea for all the ills in our political society—far from it—but I firmly believe that the writing down of rights for everyone to see provides a framework in which the ordinary individual, even the schoolchild, can operate. Those constraints on executive power which should be in place can then be better understood by the average individual and not be the subject of judicial archaeology to discover an individual's specific rights.
It is therefore important that we move rapidly towards written rights for individuals and citizens in this country, and there is no better starting point than the internationally agreed texts on human rights. The clearest and most widely respected text is the international covenant for civil and political rights. In effect, it is an international bill of rights, put together by the United Nations and agreed by the nations of the world. It is a measure against which our human rights record should be studied.
As a signatory to the international covenant for civil and political rights, the United Kingdom has wittingly and willingly agreed to uphold the citizens' rights set down in its 27 articles, to adopt new legislation where necessary, to effect those rights fully and to ensure that anyone whose rights are violated has an effective remedy. Every five years, the Government must submit an account of their rights record and report on their progress in introducing legislation to effect rights. That report must be submitted to the United Nations human rights committee, which then examines it. In its most recent response to the United Kingdom's report in 1991, the committee expressed concern about the Conservative record on a wide variety of rights issues. Many of those issues remain unaddressed today: the lack of judicial process in respect of emergency measures in Northern Ireland; inadequate legal aid provision; the treatment of asylum seekers and discrimination in the application of immigration laws; restrictions on freedom of information and excessive censorship.
That statement has been submitted not by Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, nor by one of the groups on the libertarian wing of civil rights, but by a sober and responsible organisation affiliated to the United Nations which treads very carefully before issuing statements in respect of the human rights record of any country and which therefore must be taken more seriously than any easy party political point scoring that might take place in this Chamber.
As a nation, by ratifying the international covenant for civil and political rights we have officially recognised that: 190the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world".The failure of the Conservative Government to uphold in practice those equal and inalienable rights has contributed to the steady erosion of freedom, justice and peace in this country in the past 15 years. I shall seek to highlight those failures in the submission that I intend to make to the United Nations human rights committee next month.
We have signed and agreed that all peoples have the right of self-determination and thatby virtue of that right they may freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development".Have the peoples of the United Kingdom been given that choice? Do the Government respect that fundamental right? I suggest that we consult the Scottish people for an answer to that question. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West may have a similar view to express for Wales, but the Scottish people have consistently voted and expressed their desire through opinion polls for some type of devolution. That has been made transparent at the ballot box, in the opinion polls, in surveys and in conversation. It is in the atmosphere that those people want further self-determination and no one can deny that. In 1979, a majority of Scots voted directly for the creation of a Scottish Assembly, yet the Conservative Government have refused to respect their desire for a new political status. Similar considerations apply in Wales, where the rights of the Welsh people have been neglected.
The Labour party is committed to upholding the right of self-determination of peoples by creating a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The realisation of that fundamental right found in the UN's covenant is long overdue in its application to our country.
I am sure that we would all say that we believed in the principles of justice and fairness. The international covenant for civil and political rights entrenches those principles. It states that everyone should be guaranteed the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It states those things baldly and clearly for all to see. There is no need to go back to the 17th century to read the obscure Habeas Corpus Act 1679 or even further back, to the 13th century, to read Magna Carta. It is there in plain language for every individual citizen to read in the covenant.
The covenent says that all persons must be afforded effective protection of the law, without discrimination. It states that a trial must take place without undue delay. It obliges Governments to provide legal assistance to anyone charged with a criminal offence who does not have the means to pay for it. It also obliges Governments to ensure that anyone charged with a criminal offence is informed promptly, in a language that he understands, of the nature and cause of the charge, and that that person is given adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence, including the free assistance of an interpreter if necessary, and is not compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt. It also obliges Governments to ensure that everyone who is convicted of a crime has the right to review by a higher tribunal.
Many people would say that such rights prevail in the United Kingdom under common law, but that is insufficient. That is not in itself adequate to protect the individual's rights, to make us aware of our individual rights and to enable us to understand them. Without that 191 understanding, those rights become meaningless to the individual unless he is accompanied by a learned lawyer or some other assistant to his rights.
I do not believe that we should require assistance to meet our rights. Those rights should be plain for all to see and for all to understand. Again I use as my benchmark the youngster at school who should grow up knowing in plain language where he or she stands on some of the fundamentals. That is the beauty of the incorporation into British law of the European convention on human rights, which states clearly the basic rights to freedom of speech, freedom of worship and privacy.
Once one grows up with the knowledge of those things, they stay with one for ever and one is prepared to defend them for ever. They are not something gifted to one by an obscure legal judgment. They belong to one and they cannot be taken away from one. Once one knows one's rights, it is far easier to understand one's responsibilities and social obligations. It is far easier for a teacher at school to explain to a child, "Yes, you know that you have the freedom of speech, but rights overlap." There are difficulties with some rights. A person's right to freedom of speech does not mean the liberty to shout "Fire" in a crowded cinema, as the famous American case showed. With such debate and exchange, our young people will genuinely become citizens rather than subjects in our society—something that I hope all hon. Members would welcome.
The European convention on human rights is not that frightening, even for Conservative Members. It has existed in its current form since 1951 and everyone has been able to take it into account in moulding the development of law in the United Kingdom. I may sometimes be critical of the judiciary, but in many respects it is ahead of the politicians, and the subject under discussion is one of those respects. Many of the senior judiciary realise that the precedents set in European law, particularly rights law, are being drawn into British common law, even without the European convention on human rights being formally incorporated into British law. It is happening by stealth. Why can we not incorporate the European convention clearly, openly and honestly and begin the wider process of education?
We take for granted many rights that one would have to struggle hard to find in written form. I have already mentioned some of them. While we search for those rights which may prevail in the United Kingdom there are undoubtedly many areas of concern in the law in respect of human rights. The judiciary is still largely unrepresentative of the population. I make no case for a proportion of judges to be women or to be from an ethnic minority, to be black or to be white, but it is wrong that a mere handful of the senior judiciary are currently women and it is wrong that only two or three are from what may be categorised as ethnic minorities or are black.
I commend the work of the Lord Chancellor, but the judiciary must become more representative if its members are to reflect and find acceptance within our society as arbiters of law and rights. I wish the Lord Chancellor well in his efforts towards that end, but I believe that further effort is required. Proposals will be forthcoming from the next Labour Government to ensure that a more balanced judiciary is in place by the end of the first term of the Labour Government.
The miscarriages of justice have been plain for all to see in the trials and media coverage. Criminal trials all too often suffer undue delay. Justice delayed is justice denied, 192 which is not acceptable in modern society. Black and ethnic minorities, people with mental health problems, those already incarcerated and women suffer discrimination within our judicial system. Without a requirement in court to refer to legislated, written rights and with a barely discernible commitment to upholding the rights in the covenant, people up and down the country are subject to wrongful searches, arrests, detentions, convictions and imprisonment. That is not the way to ensure that citizens in this country support the judicial process and the hard-working police we are so lucky to have in this country. It is the way to undermine those institutions rather than strengthen them. I believe that written rights would help to strengthen those very forces of law and order now so ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
The legal aid system in this country is shameful. The Government have directly violated the right to free legal assistance for those who need it. The United Nations human rights committee stated in 1991—the last time that the Government had to report to the United Nations—that legal aid provisions in the United Kingdom were "excessively restricted". Those are not my words, but the words of the United Nations. The Conservatives have not only ignored that criticism, but have now placed the right to justice of the vulnerable and the poor in even greater jeopardy by legislating in April last year to reduce legal aid eligibility still further. Even more people are now being denied access to the courts where their cases can be dealt with openly and honestly.
The right to remain innocent until proved guilty is another basic human right and a fundamental tenet of our justice system. Not only has the proposed erosion of that right in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill been criticised by lawyers, pressure groups and politicians of all parties, but it is clearly in breach of our obligation under international law to guarantee a fair trial as defined in the international covenant for civil and political rights.
The European Commission of Human Rights has already ruled that the removal of the right to silence in Northern Ireland under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 should be considered by the European Court. It is not good enough for our country to be periodically dragged into the courts, whether it is at the European level or whether it has to come before the United Nations every five years or so as the naughty boy of the international democratic community, unable to live up to international obligations that it helped to draft. The Government's school report states, "Must do better".
We in the Labour party recognise that there is a balance to be struck between convicting the guilty and ensuring that the innocent are not convicted. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has made many proposals aimed at speeding up the conviction of the guilty, early intervention in the case of young offenders and other steps to reduce crime and protect the victims of crime. The rights of innocent people must be protected. We must ensure that suspects are not exposed to misleading questions which may result in false confessions and grave injustice. I shall not delay the House by rattling off the list of cases in which individuals have wrongly convicted themselves out of their own mouths as a result of such questioning. Those sad cases are known to all of us in this place.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill does not confine its proposed rights violations to an erosion of the right to silence. It threatens the lifestyles of minority 193 cultures and will jeopardise the right to free movement and peaceful assembly. What sort of democracy can we claim to be when we are denied the right of assembly and peaceful protest? Those rights are enshrined in the covenant, so the Government are obliged to adhere to them. The covenant is not a voluntary process, but something written in international law to which the Government have voluntarily subscribed. It is not a menu from which they can take what they like and leave the rest. The Government are once again absolving themselves of their responsibility to adhere to the convention, much to the detriment of the rights and lives of United Kingdom citizens.
Under the international covenant for civil and political rights, we are also entitled to liberty and security. We must be protected from arbitrary arrest or detention and be accorded the due process of law. The right of freedom of association, which includes the right to form and join trade unions, is also enshrined in the covenant. The denial of trade union membership to employees at GCHQ is a disgrace and a grave violation of those rights. That, too, will be put right urgently and quickly by an incoming Labour Government after the next general election.
As immigration spokesperson for the Labour party, I am constantly confronted by violations of the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. For example, the right of aliens to have an expulsion decision review is specifically and clearly stated in the international covenant for civil and political rights, but the Government breached their obligation to that right by passing the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993.
The Act removed the right of appeal against refusal of both entry clearance and leave to enter from visitors and students intending to study for less than six months and from prospective students and their dependants. It amounted to a removal of redress from about 25 per cent. of applicants. Many thousands of people who had appealed previously, had their appeals upheld and, therefore, could visit friends and family in this country found themselves without the right of appeal and denied the ability to test the decisions of the Home Office and the Government. It has compounded the existing problems of discrimination and disadvantages suffered by individuals from non-white countries that the Conservatives have failed to address.
Asylum seekers are not only detained en masse without trial, but are kept in difficult conditions, often for many months. It is in breach of the Government's obligations not to deprive anyone of his libertyexcept on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as established by lawand to treat all persons that are deprived of their libertywith humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person".Can the conditions at Campsfield detention centre, where detainees are driven to go on hunger strike, be considered humane or dignified? How can the death of Omasese Lumumba, who died in Pentonville prison, where he was forcibly detained awaiting an asylum decision, be justified?
Prisoners are also denied the humanity and respect that is their right. Many prisons in the United Kingdom are overcrowded, with low standards of health care and sanitation, and problems such as drug taking are on the increase.
194 The international covenant for civil and political rights states that the essential aim of the penitentiary system should be the reformation and the social rehabilitation of prisoners. The United Nations human rights committee stressed the importance of that in its last report on the United Kingdom, yet prisoners in this country are offered little or no attempt at rehabilitation. Training and education facilities are limited, access to counselling and psychotherapy is denied to most prisoners and the use of solitary confinement continues.
Why does the Conservative political agenda appear to favour the imprisonment of as many people as possible? Their philosophy of prison works, as outlined by the Home Secretary's speech to the rabid Conservative conference last year, which proclaimed just that. It also proclaimed objectives such as locking up 12 to 14-year-olds and making community sentences "a proper punishment" with no regard to rehabilitation. That will serve to violate and not protect the rights which are bound in the UN convention.
I feel strongly that the best answer to the crime problem in Britain, particularly where it affects young people, is to give those young people a job; to give them some hope and some future. Then they will find less time to do the damage they so often do when denied that hope and that future by being denied a job.
There is not even an effective means of redress for prisoners whose rights have been violated, although the international covenant for civil and political rights clearly states that there must be such a remedy. We should have a prison complaints system that is independent and representative and full legal rights to representation and appeal.
Along with other citizens, prisoners must have their rights safeguarded in a civilised society and we shall follow closely the appointment and activities of the prison ombudsman to see whether he lives up to the benchmarks set by the United Nations.
It is fundamental to the international covenant for civil and political rights that the rights it serves to protect are accorded to all citizens equally and without distinction, yet the Conservative Government have continued to preside over institutions and to implement procedures which are clearly in breach of the convention's non-discrimination articles.
The Government have continued to ignore the unequal position of women in many spheres of economic and social life in the United Kingdom and have even refused to implement many of the recommendations put forward by their own independent watchdog, the Equal Opportunities Commission, when it has suggested anything approaching a radical overhaul of sex equality legislation.
The rights of ethnic minorities are also negotiated and the Commission for Racial Equality cites continuing evidence of widespread discrimination on racial grounds.
It was with some regret that I read the Home Secretary's comments in the recent European election raising fears of mass immigration from eastern Europe, raising the spectre to frighten people here by saying that millions of people would come into the United Kingdom from central and eastern Europe, and, indeed, telling some untruths in respect of the policies of my own party.
It really sits ill with such a person to pose as the friend of the ethnic minority communities, seeking to ensure racial harmony while stoking the very fires of prejudice and discrimination that so afflict our country. That was as 195 deeply disappointing as his failure to condemn the Mail on Sunday for its distortion of the story relating to those Jamaicans who came to Britain at Christmas time and its statement that those people had vanished.
The Home Secretary knows as well as anyone else that by the same definition millions of British tourists vanish at any one time because people are not counted in and counted out of nations when they go on holiday. It was a ludicrous story for the Mail on Sunday to run and it was even more offensive that the Home Secretary could not find it in himself publicly to state his condemnation of the way in which that front page story was run in order to incite individuals to a wrong perception of the situation concerning immigrants or visitors from Jamaica.
It was really not good enough to come forward with a less than adequate statement on racial harassment and minor changes to the law on racial harassment when we all know that the race card will be played at election time, as it was played in the European elections and the last general election and as it will be played in the next general election.
Quite frankly, I hope that the Home Secretary, not least because of his own family background—I do not wish to linger on that, but I understand that he came from a family of immigrants and has made much of himself from that background and I welcome the fact that he has done that—should consider the fortunes of those setting out on the same path. To feed prejudice and the poison of discrimination does no credit to him or his office.
Under the international covenant for civil and political rights we are entitled to privacy and the Conservative Government have made a mockery of that right. Infringements of individual privacy by the state and large corporations are now rife, let alone the bugging and the use of long range lenses to pry into the lives of individuals by the media.
Surveillance and bugging have become more prevalent, and employees complain of intrusive monitoring of their personal lives in the work place. There is even talk of introducing identity cards—but to imagine that such cards will have a serious impact on crime is to delude oneself. I fear that the Prime Minister is snatching at another of the one-off ideas that he comes up with sometimes, such as boot camps. They will have no effect whatever on hardened criminals such as drug dealers, and others who can easily obtain access to false identity cards. That happens throughout Europe, and the introduction of identity cards will not influence such people by one iota.
Press regulation is inadequate, and the press complaints body is unrepresentative. The need for a formal privacy law can no longer be ignored. Even the Government's own consultation paper "Infringements of Privacy" admitted that the law does not protect people adequately from harassment. Opposition Members recognise the need to balance the right to privacy with rights to freedom of information and expression. We require not only the introduction of privacy laws but a freedom of information Act, "right to reply" legislation and a free press.
For too long we have drifted away from fundamental principles of open government and free information towards censorship, excessive secrecy and unaccountability in government. Those developments are not the product of any personal defects in Conservative Members; they are a logical extension of centralised power in this country, which is unchecked and unchallenged, with no one item able to stand in the way of the will or whim of members of 196 the Executive. That, rather than the inadequacies of this or that political personality, is the fundamental fault in our political system.
At present, we do not even have minimal legislation on freedom of information. The Conservatives have not only held but withheld information as they have seen fit. Even the citizens charter allows public authorities to keep basic consumer information secret from the public. Sometimes the Conservatives give us a glimpse of commitment to upholding their human rights obligations; in this instance, they have promised to release information on request under a new code of practice on access to Government information. It is a bit surprising that the effect of the code will be limited in practice: unlike a freedom of information Act, it is not actually enforceable. Rather than having access to documents, we shall be given only selective answers to questions. Even then, information on immigration, nationality and refugee policy will be exempt—and the Conservatives are planning to charge for the information.
The same circumstances apply to so many of our rights. Legislation for rights protection may be in place, but that is not enough to ensure that our rights are made effective in practice. The Government do not merely have an obligation to legislate; they have a responsibility to make good their rights protections. A pertinent example is the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs. That right is essential if we are to have a representative and accountable Government, and maintain a sense of citizenship that has faded steadily over the past 15 years.
Little wonder that there is a pervasive feeling of alienation from the institutions of politics; little wonder that there is a low turnout in our council and European elections—and, in my view, an unacceptably low turnout in our parliamentary elections. Little wonder that there is a deep, genuine and growing contempt, if not for this place, for some of the people in it and for antics that the public perceive as irrelevant and unimportant—antics that we get up to when there are matters of great import to be discussed.
We in this place have a necessary duty to correct that problem. I believe that we must ensure that our procedures are brought up to date—not in a dry technical sense, but as an important, indeed central, part of our democracy. In an electronic age, people at home should feel that they share our beliefs and respect our opinions, rather than seeing what we do as a form of the cult comedy that so often appears on our screens.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Speeding up our procedures involves a difficulty : it often means that opportunities for Back Benchers are wiped out. For instance, the second Adjournment debate used to be an acceptable part of House of Commons procedure, but is now exceedingly difficult to secure. Tonight is an example of that. I am in no way criticising my hon. Friend, but I warn him that modernising our procedures often means fewer opportunities for Back Benchers who may want to put urgent points of view on awkward subjects.
§ Mr. Allen
I have great respect for my hon. Friend's views in that respect, and in particular for the doughty fight that he, as a legislator, has carried out against the Executive. I think that many newer and younger Members of Parliament pride themselves on emulating, in their own way, his efforts to perform that task.
197 I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the Executive now has powers that would make Stalin salivate. The Prime Minister, in 10 Downing street, has the ability to appoint senior judiciary and every member of the Cabinet—the senior Executive; he has the ability to appoint Members to the second Chamber, should that ever be necessary. If 1,000 Members in the other place were to perish and the majority was not there for the Conservative party, the Prime Minister could appoint additional Members, unencumbered by a bill of rights or a written constitution.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) thinks long and hard about these matters. He may agree that one of the central problems of this place is the fact that the legislature is not an independent body but, to all intents and purposes, the creature of the Executive. It is almost possible to use an analogy that was used the other day, involving the film "Alien": within the legislation is the enormous parasitical body of the Executive, controlling its every movement. I am waiting to see it burst out from the Minister at some point in the near future.
I consider the control exercised by the Executive to be the enemy of democracy. The only answer is to develop a pluralist democracy of many institutions, each with its own legitimacy and power, that can confront and conflict with the Executive on the road to consensus. I think that the Executive has often allowed Back Benchers the few crumbs of power that they have in order to disguise the fundamental inadequacy of this place in holding the Executive to account.
The international covenant for civil and political rights guarantees everyone the right and opportunity to participate in the conduct of public affairs, to vote or be elected and to have equal access to public service. In 1994, we still have massive over-centralisation and restricted access to the opportunities that I have cited. Central Government refuse to devolve power to the nations and regions. Again, I make no passing party-political point; Governments of all descriptions have always tended towards centralisation because they have been unencumbered and unrestricted by written rights and constitutional developments, and local democracy has been classically undermined over the past 16 years.
I often wonder why many of my hard-working colleagues in local government stand for election. They do a vital and tremendous job, but they no longer have influence or control over budgets. Many members of the Conservative, Labour and other parties now choose not to enter local politics and serve their community because they feel that it would be useless to do so in the face of the Executive power that is being used against them. Many people take great pride in being able to make small local achievements, but their right and ability to do so is being denied by the Government's massive centralisation drive, which conflicts with one of the basic tenets of civil and political rights in the international covenant.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the first objectives of a Labour Government should be to restore dignity to local government?
§ Mr. Allen
I feel strongly that local government should be given some form of genuine independence from the centre. How that should be achieved—by using the 198 Parliament Act 1911, by defining its financial abilities and by making clear its power—will require wide discussion and probably some genuine consensus in the House.
We must listen to the voices outside and must give them power and let 1,000 flowers bloom, even though from our point of view some may be weeds. It is important to hear people and ensure those developments. In that way lies economic recovery. The great personal strength of the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher—using the centralised machine to its nth degree—has proved one thing to all of us: that centralisation can no longer deliver economically. It was tried with its best driver but failed. The answer to our economic ills lies in a far wider effort, involving independent local communities, individuals with rights and the ability to define their own futures and with the regions and nations of the United Kingdom operating together.
I do not believe that our economic salvation lies with centralisation. It will be guaranteed, as it is in many of our leading competitor countries, only by those who seek to devolve energy and power and give people their head to innovate and be entrepreneurial. The way that the Government are going, running counter to the international covenant on civil and political rights, is the wrong way to go—more and more centralisation will mean that we are less and less effective.
One of the classic examples is the plethora of unelected quangos. Billions of pounds of public money is dispensed without account or clearly defined lines of scrutiny to elected representatives. Our public services, having been in the hands, first, of locally-elected representatives and then nationally-elected representatives, are now increasingly in unelected hands.
Membership of Parliament, for example, is not open to all, most starkly because the hereditary principle still operates in half of our legislature but also because the unsociable hours of Parliament and the lack of child care facilities prevent those with family responsibilities from participating in government. Black and ethnic minorities remain under-represented. An incoming Government must, above all, make it clear that as part of a new democratic settlement—a new pluralist settlement—we shall redeem our historic pledge to have an elected second Chamber and abolish the House of Lords in its current form. That, too, ties in with the international covenant on civil and political rights by ensuring that people are drawn into public affairs.
It is nonsense that the vast majority of those who sit in our second Chamber are hereditary peers. That is becoming less and less tenable in this day and age. As I read in the newspaper the other day, what a farce we would say it was if the second Chamber in Germany, instead of being made up of regional representatives, were made up of relatives of the former Kaiser or Bismarck or that the second Chamber in Russia were made up of relatives and descendants of Lenin, Stalin or even the Tsars.
I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East, before his sad death, felt vehemently that the hereditary peerage should be dispensed with quickly and that we should have proper elections to the second Chamber. Nothing less would be acceptable under a new Labour Government.
Hon. Members, too, have no reason to be complacent for the reasons that I outlined earlier, with the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow. This place needs to rediscover some teeth in terms of the way in which 199 it scrutinises legislation. Pre-legislative scrutiny is very important. The Special Standing Committees that have been in abeyance for many years need to be resurrected in some form. We must strengthen departmental Select Committees so they can report to the Floor. Since 1979, there have been 500 departmental Select Committee reports, many of them first rate, but only four have been voted on on the Floor of the House. What other organisation that any Member is connected with establishes a committee to do a job and refuses to receive its report? What nonsense.
We must make some fundamental changes before we shall be seen to be fit to challenge the Executive. That Executive may be a Labour Executive. That is one of the reasons why resisting the temptation to shelve reform needs the inoculation of clear, open public commitments well ahead of a general election.
The formal political process must be opened up to ensure broader representation of people, nationally and locally. We need a diversity of institutions—that is the definition of pluralism and is contrary to our unitary system—that are elected, accountable and, above all, independent of central Government, so that none of them is the creature of central Government and the Executive.
We also require a plurality of electoral systems. I do not make a case for any particular electoral system, nor do I make a case for change in the first Chamber, but one of the things that I learned from two years hard labour on Lord Plant's commission into electoral systems is that there is no holy grail, no perfect electoral system. It is a matter of political judgment, and the judgment of my party, endorsed at its annual conference last year, is that there should be a regional list system of proportional representation for the European Parliament. It seems perfectly suited to that. That means that last week's election was the last election under first past the post and we will move on to a different system under a new Government. That should be welcomed by the Conservative party, since such a system would have meant that the disaster that they suffered would have been slightly mitigated.
However, as a democrat I accept that there are swings and roundabouts, and that a mid-term Labour Government might find themselves the beneficiaries, by losing fewer seats than otherwise might have been the case.
Secondly, the Labour party conference proposed that the second Chamber should be elected by a similar proportional representation system, using a regional list. Finally, the conference said that there should be a referendum, and that the people should decide on the electoral system to be used for this place, although there was a preference for single-Member constituencies.
Those three pledges were not merely made by our national executive committee and our party conference, but were agreed by our former leader. Of all the people in my party, John Smith had the greatest gut instinct for democracy—perhaps because of his Scottish background, perhaps because of his devolution experience. He may have been a hard man to convince, but when he was convinced on a matter of democracy, he stuck with it in the strongest possible fashion—as I know well with regard to his deep personal commitment to a bill of rights, to incorporate the European convention on human rights. It is nothing less than a personal task to ensure that those commitments are carried through in his absence, as he would have wanted.
200 We must encourage greater participation in our democracy, if it is to be worthy of the name. We can do that by more than one-off participation once every four or five years at a general election; we should have lots of strings to our bow. We should have meaningful local elections and develop regional assemblies from the bottom up. They should not be imposed from the centre and thus be immediately repealable following a change of Government; they should be regions that people want, care for and build themselves. Devising those institutions, and ensuring that people feel that they own them, will be an important task.
We should also have a judiciary that is more representative of and less distant from those whom it seeks to serve. We should have a European Parliament that defines its powers. Let us take the word subsidiarity at its face value, decide what should be done at the European level and define clearly what the powers of the nation state should be. In those contexts, backed up by the fact that individuals would know their rights, individuals would genuinely and meaningfully be able to participate at many levels in our democracy. That is a great cause, well worth working for in the next Labour Government.
But that is for the next Labour Government, and here we are now with a Government who seem to have no desire whatever for any restraint to be placed upon their activities in the name of democracy, or of human rights or citizens' rights. An unrestrained executive power has allowed the Conservatives to pursue policies and introduce legislation that undermines human rights in many spheres. The result is a disillusioned populace, withdrawn from politics and lacking any real sense of citizenship and civic responsibilities. Participatory democracy has been stifled in this country.
One of the key areas that we must examine to ensure that the international covenant for civil and political rights is made meaningful is the use and abuse of prerogative powers—the ability of a Government of any political party to take the nation into a war without any redress, and without even informing the House. The House debates matters long after the event, and then only because a motion is contrived to allow Members to have their say. Obviously, I do not say that the Executive should be prevented from taking the necessary action at a time of national emergency, but at the earliest reasonable opportunity that action should be ratified by the legislature—the people who represent the electorate.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Does my hon. Friend recall that the House of Commons was in no way consulted about the decision to allow bombers to go from Upper Heyford and other British bases to attack Libya, and that there was no formal permission for the Gulf war? Those and many other factors mean that it ill becomes us to criticise the Americans too much about the Gulf of Tonkin.
§ Mr. Allen
The same could be said of Kuwait as of Libya—and also of the Falklands conflict, in which actions were taken and only later, on a procedural technicality, was the elected House of Commons involved.
Prerogative powers also extend to such activities as the appointment of the judiciary. How interesting it was to see the hearings concerning Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas in the United States Congress, at the same time as in this country two judges of the Court of Appeal were appointed without any reference whatever to the legislature. I do not 201 say that we should put our judiciary through the mill as Clarence Thomas was put through the mill, but there is a happy medium. Those individuals should at least have their appointments noted by the House.
To have a Legal Affairs Select Committee—the only part in the St. John-Stevas jigsaw still missing from 1979—would be progress. The possibility of having a Secretary of State for Justice, answerable at the Dispatch Box, rather than having a Lord Chancellor in the other place, would be progress, too.
Certainly we should understand how the individuals concerned come to be appointed. I shall digress briefly with one anecdote. The father of a friend of mine was to be appointed to a senior post in the judiciary, and when he went along for his interview the whole process, which lasted 40 minutes, consisted of a discussion of how the cricket team was doing at his old public school. He then left the interview and was told by letter the following day that he had got the job.
There may be some exaggeration in my friend's story—I do not know—but it is difficult to discover the criteria used in individual appointments. It would be healthy for our democracy if, even if only nominally, such senior people were to come before the House or one of its committees to take up their posts and be given their duties legitimately by the legislature. I go no further than that. The present process undermines the credibility of the judiciary, and mystery does not add to that credibility in this modern age—the information age.
§ Mr. Dalyell
On the question of a Secretary of State for Justice, when I was first elected here some 32 years ago, the whole place was hoatching with Queen's counsel on both sides. Both parties will soon be hard put to it to find QCs to occupy the positions of Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. It is becoming a problem for the Conservative party and it is certainly a problem for the Opposition. In those circumstances, the idea of having an Attorney-General becomes that much more difficult. We Scots have seen this because we cannot have direct questioning of the Lord-Advocate, who is our equivalent of the Attorney-General. With a case such as Lockerbie, there can be extremely serious consequences.
§ Mr. Allen
That is a genuine difficulty in respect of the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General. Where I would draw the line would be that if the Lord Chancellor was accountable to this place, and if we genuinely had a Secretary of State for Justice, there would be no reason for that individual to have as a requirement a legal qualification, any more than we would expect the Secretary of State for Health to be a legally qualified doctor. It might be better if a Secretary of State for Justice, encountering the fundamental political problems and administrative problems that beset our legal system and our judiciary, was a person without legal qualifications.
In terms of prerogative powers, there must be in principle one general rule—that in this day and age, any power exercised by the Executive should have legislative authority. Again, I am not saying that that would alter the way in which the power was used. However, let it be transparent and let it be on the face of a Bill that the Government—the Executive—have the power to take the 202 country into war, on the condition that at the earliest possible moment the House should be informed and allowed to debate the matter.
Let it be on the face of a Bill that the judiciary should be appointed in the following way. Let it be on the face of a Bill that instead of treaties being covered by some obscure rule from the 1920s, they shall be ratified by this place if they involve international obligations. Again, perhaps, there is no need for a change in the way in which power is exercised, but essentially there is a need for a change in the way in which power is held to account. That needs to be made very clear in this place.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I intrude on my hon. Friend's generosity, once again, to support him. It is not simply a matter of not formally debating military action before it happens. I have experience, as do some of my colleagues, of pleading with Speakers when ominous situations were developing to allow private notice questions so that something could be done before the event about what seemed to be important issues. But we are told that the situation is hypothetical and that we are not entitled to a private notice question. In those circumstances, it is a case of not being able to take action until the milk is spilt. That is deeply unsatisfactory, democratically and constitutionally.
§ Mr. Allen
As usual, my hon. Friend finds the most knotty and difficult points of principle in my general case. I would be extremely cautious before saying that the Executive power itself could not be used as and where it was seen to be appropriate. However, I underline the principle that the legislature should then be able to scrutinise and hold to account the Executive in their actions. My hon. Friend may agree that that would be the only sensible way in which to proceed.
We do not seek to hamstring the Executive. On the contrary, as many years' membership of the Public Accounts Committee has taught me, an effective legislature is a boon and a bonus to an Executive, unless it becomes deadlocked or gridlocked by the political problems that have beset the Executive in the United States. If it does not, it is of great assistance, not only in terms of value for money, in which the Public Accounts Committee revels, but in terms of good government. Some of the most appalling mistakes made by Government would have been checked if we had had an effective legislature.
The poll tax is but one example. I led for my party, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), who was with us earlier, on the Child Support Bill. My word, the Government must now wish that they had listened at that point, a year before the Bill became an Act. Would not they now give their eye teeth for a pre-legislative stage? They could then have listened to the fathers, the mothers and the children who could have told them about some of the nonsense that would emerge through the Child Support Act 1991. But we failed. The House failed in its duty of holding the Executive to account. Since we failed, literally thousands of people have suffered, many of them children.
That is but one example. Hon. Members who have served on other Bills can tell the House from their own experience of how in education, or in immigration or other areas, the failure to provide proper legislative scrutiny has left a legacy, which is inherited by the schools, by the people seeking a visitor's visa, and by other individuals 203 affected by our legislation. We are not yet competent and professional enough in the way in which we scrutinise the Executive and their legislation. Clearly, that has to be put right, or we may, even then, be in breach of our commitments under the international convention on civil and political rights.
The Opposition do not want prerogative powers and Executive powers done away with, but they should be held to account by the appropriate body, in a political philosophy which goes back 200 years through a separation of powers and all the other key democratic pillars to which many of us pay lip service. We want those powers held to account by the legislature and checked, at one remove, by an independent judiciary. That is the basis of any democracy. We do not have that basis in this country and we do not have it in this place. We want to see the Government of the United Kingdom revitalised, with renewed trust in their practice and institutions and revived participation on the part of all their citizens. We want to see citizens as shareholders in our democracy. The responsibility lies with Government and, if this Government will not take it, that responsibility, abdicated by the Conservatives, will be picked up and welcomed by an incoming Labour Government.
The international covenant on civil and political rights sounds technical, it sounds dry, it does not look very sexy on the Order Paper, but all of us in the House would do well to put on our walls as part of our job description what it says in the following respect:the ideal of free human beings, enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his or her economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights".That is not a bad job description for a Member of Parliament and it is one which we should take very seriously. Central to that will be the need to improve the UK system of checks and balances, so that the Executive may be held to account, as I have outlined, and a new, pluralist constitutional settlement based on those principles of subsidiarity and openness and entrenched rights in law.
I have said that we are committed to incorporating into British law the European convention on human rights. We are also committed to establishing an all-party commission, which will devise a British bill of rights and bring that bill back to this place in a matter of years, perhaps two years, after the first incorporation has taken place. That will give individuals the right to challenge arbitrary decisions and excesses of powers that affect them and to guarantee a quality of treatment without discrimination. Those of us who are interested in that area—all of us should be—follow the proposals emanating from Northern Ireland at the moment about the possible consensus that could arise around a bill of rights in that part of the United Kingdom. There is much of importance for the other people of the United Kingdom in that, as well as for the people in the Northern Irish part of the United Kingdom and I wish those who are involved the very best in producing something that may have something to teach the rest of us about making sure that human rights are respected throughout the kingdom.
Statute law will be used, and must be used, to correct the specific rights problems which are not always captured by the generality of rights legislation. Our new constitution will comprise that rights legislation, the election of a second Chamber, an examination of our electoral systems and referenda on the system to be used by the first 204 Chamber, English regional assemblies, a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, a reformed judiciary to which I have alluded, and independent local government.
Very soon, our country will undergo the humiliation of having the Conservatives defend their rights record before the United Nations. Shortly thereafter, the UN human rights committee will issue its response, which, as the last one did, will inevitably highlight the deficiencies of the human rights record of the Conservative Government. Let this be the last time that our record is a source of shame for our country. Let a new Government, a Labour Government, build a nation aware of its rights and secure in their defence.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
On 4 November 1839, in my constituency, 20 men were killed, one of whom was George Shell, a cabinet maker from Pontypool. The night before he died, he sent a message to his parents saying, "If I die tomorrow, I will die in a noble cause." That noble cause was the same noble cause about which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has spoken tonight. It was the cause of democracy and human rights.
George Shell was one of the Chartists to be shot down in front of the Westgate hotel in Newport. The Chartists campaigned against all the crude injustices and unfairness of the embryonic and very wretched democracy that existed at that time. Over the years, our democracy has improved. All but one of those Chartists' rights have been achieved. We have got rid of uneven sized constituencies. The property right has been abolished and the franchise is now universal.
However, one of the Chartists' claims has never been achieved. As each year passes, that other point of the charter which they carried on their banners becomes more appropriate. That point was annual parliaments. I am not suggesting that we should head in that direction, but the position that we are in now is highlighted by the fact that, all that time ago, the Chartists foresaw the perversion of democracy that we suffer from now. Once every four or five years, one party persuades the country to vote for it.
That persuasion is often not achieved by legitimate means. It is carried out by the use of money, half truths and bribery by a party. I can give the House an example of that as I had a ten-minute Bill on the subject. We no longer control the national spending by parties on elections. The proportion is £9 by the Conservative party, £4 by Labour and £1 by the Liberal Democrats. There is no check on that whatsoever.
One of the advantages enjoyed by the governing party in the elections was that it was given poster sites, which could not be obtained by the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats, by the Imperial Tobacco Company. That company told me in a letter that it did that because it knew that the Government had promised not to ban tobacco advertising. That was a thoroughly illegitimate way of obtaining advantage. We also know that the Government used the powers of advertising to put forward to the electorate an untruth about tax policy. However, on one day every five years over the past 15 years, the Government have persuaded the country to support them. On almost every one of the other days, a majority in the country opposed the Government. That is not the proper way to run a democracy.
205 I shall not repeat the main points that were raised so eloquently by my hon. Friend. However, we have a real difficulty in Wales because Wales has the largest democratic deficit of any country, certainly in the European Union. The democracies of eastern Europe emerged while our democracy in Wales was abused and battered more than ever before.
Just over a fortnight ago, I was part of a panel on democracy in the European election campaign. One candidate admitted that he did not believe in democracy; he did not think that it was a good thing. He thought that the world should be run by 7,000 yogic fliers: these people had a special knowledge and they would get together, unelected, and decide everything. We have people in Wales who are not, I think, qualified as yogic fliers, but they are qualified as members of one party which cannot win elections in Wales. Fellow travellers of that party sit on quangos in Wales.
Over the past 15 years, we have seen an enormous growth in the power of quangos and the amount of money that they use. They are staffed by people who cannot be elected—failed Conservative candidates in local and other elections that take place in Wales. At the same time as we have seen the process of unelected bodies growing in power, we have seen—as my hon. Friend pointed out—the denial of power, influence and resources for elected local councillors, so they have little power left now. Our democracy has been degraded by that process.
The civil service is a great worry. We do not often talk about the value of our civil service. However, 150 years ago, we reformed the civil service because, like most civil services in the world, it was corrupt and politicised. Despite 15 years of Thatcherism, and despite 15 years of promotion by people who were seen by the Government to be "one of us" and to have a certain political view, we still have a civil service that is the least corrupt and the least politicised of any civil service in the world.
What are we doing about it? We are offering the civil service to be market tested and, ultimately, privatised and contractualised, so that it will be run by people who are not devoted to public service. From the top to the bottom, civil servants are special. They have a special regard for their role, and they know that they are not out to make a profit. There is an element—often it is a powerful element—of service in that job. All political parties have had the benefit of a civil service that is not corrupt or partial. That is one of the great strengths of our democracy.
Because of the Government's fanaticism for believing that everything private is good and everything public is bad, we are about to sacrifice that. We are about to see the civil service shrink into a small core—that is the expressed wish of many Ministers—with all the main civil servants being run by commercial firms and working towards commercial ends. What we will end up with is what Governments in other countries are ill served by—civil servants who are partial, politicised and corrupt.
Never at any time in the past 150 years have we had so many cases of corruption in quangos and other public bodies, especially, sadly, in Wales. Almost every week, there has been a scandal in a public body in Wales over the past 12 months.
My hon. Friend mentioned the need to reorganise our democratic process. Our faith in the democratic process 206 has collapsed—and so it should, because when most people go to vote they realise that their vote does not make any difference. The only votes that matter are those in the marginal seats. People who vote Conservative in Ebbw Vale or Labour down on the south coast realise that their vote does not make any difference whatever. It is only the small number of people in marginal seats who count.
We have seen the travesty of democracy that has occurred so many times. The worst example was the 1983 election where a large number of people voted for the third party which had few representatives in the House. Unless we correct that situation and ensure that the views of voters are reflected in their representatives here, which we can do simply through the system that the Labour party is proposing, there will be a lack of respect for democracy.
Today, I spent some time looking at a Bill that went through the House in 1985. The Prime Minister was the Government spokesman, and the acting leader of the Labour party was the Opposition spokesman. It was an atrocious piece of legislation. If one is looking for a bad Bill, that was it. It introduced personal pensions and it was interesting to read some of the prophetic remarks of one of our former colleagues, Mr. Frank Haynes, then the Member for Ashfield. He told us clearly what would happen as a result of the Bill.
Tonight we heard about the legislation that set up the Child Support Agency. We are not an efficient democracy if we allow bad laws to pass, unchecked and without proper scrutiny. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North mentioned another matter that has occurred to us during the past few days and it is interesting to note that the two are connected.
The Prime Minister declared his views on civilising our procedures and stopping us from looking like an entertainment, for which he would receive warm support from all corners of the House, as happened in the debate yesterday. We are legislators. Legislation is not a spectator sport, or something to be enjoyed. It is not something for people outside to view for their entertainment, but we are seen in that way and it demeans our role and the people's view of us.
How sad it was that, when someone attempted to take up the challenge that the Prime Minister made by asking us to send him our questions so that he could think about them and give a considered response, his answer to a serious question that involved the pensions of 6 million very anxious people and did not include combative words or try to strike any political advantage was not reasonable or civilised and did not produce light rather than heat. An editorial in The Times described his answer as a typical civil service briefing, followed by a cheap political jibe.
Can we really take the Government seriously when they talk about reform of the House of Commons unless they show by their deeds as well as their words that they are serious about it?
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North dealt ably with the legal system. At a more humble level, how are magistrates selected and whom do they represent? The lord lieutenant of a county chairs the committee that selects its magistrates. Being a lord lieutenant is hardly a democratic job. I applied for it once. I wrote to the Queen and said that I had noticed that all the lords lieutenant in my county had been prominent freemasons with brilliant military careers who lived in large houses surrounded by their own grounds. They were all white, male Gentiles, rich enough to do a job without any salary. I asked the Queen 207 whether she thought that I, as a shift worker in the steel works who thought that he could do a reasonable job, could be considered for it. I received a brief and polite reply, but my application was unsuccessful.
The Guardian recently picked about 12 lords lieutenant at random and found, amazingly, that every one had been to Eton—hardly a cross-section of society, but they chair the committees that select magistrates. It is not surprising that, even in an area such as mine where we elect Labour Members of Parliament with very large majorities, most magistrates declare themselves to be supporters of the Conservative party. It is highly dangerous when we can draw maps of our towns and find that the magistrates come from one area and the defendants from another. That cannot be a good thing if we want a magistracy who can understand the people who come before them.
My final point relates to language in this House. My hon. Friend said that we should have the right to use the language of our choice. This is the only Parliament that Wales has. Wales is England's first and, sadly, last colony, but if I were to speak in the original and ancient language of Wales I should be declared out of order. It has the same status here as riotous behaviour.
Yet there are Parliaments in the world which can deal with eight or nine languages perfectly happily. You are looking nervous, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I shall not speak in Welsh. On one occasion when Madam Speaker was in the Chair, I spoke in the words of Chaucer, which were totally unintelligible to almost everyone in the Chamber. I would be quite in order to speak in those words, and I shall for a moment:Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendered is the flour.I shall stop there. But those lovely words of Chaucer are English—not Anglo-Saxon or Norman French. They are perfectly in order in this House, but they are gibberish to most people. Yet I cannot speak in Welsh, a language understandable by 20 hon. Members, in the House because that language is denied in the House.
We look forward to the day when all of the lovely languages of these islands—Irish, Gaelic and Welsh—can be spoken here. That is one of our fundamental human rights.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) that West Lothian and the Linlithgow constituency cannot complain about our lord lieutenant. He is the 23rd Earl of Morton, but he did leave school at 15 and was a chef, truck driver and building worker. He is a jolly good lord lieutenant.
In his quite outstanding speech—one which was more than ephemeral and will be much-thumbed by many people in the Labour party—my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) touched on the problem of Law Officers, and a Secretary of State for Justice.
Often in life, one does not know that one is missing something until suddenly one does not have it. I am referring to the fact that the Scots do not have a Law Officer in the House of Commons. If anybody had told me 20 years ago that this was a serious situation, I think that I would have been relaxed about it. But one does not realise what is not there until one does not have it.
208 Perhaps I am obsessed with Lockerbie, but it was the biggest crime against western civilisation since 1945. One of the key Departments—proudly separate from the Scottish Office, incidentally—the Crown Office, through either the Solicitor-General or Lord Advocate, cannot be questioned in the House of Commons. I do not make a party point, but it is a deeply unsatisfactory situation.
Another truth about British government, which I am sure my hon. Friend has tumbled to, is that when there is a problem which affects one Department, it is often very efficiently dealt with. If it is in the domain of the Home Office—in my opinion, a very efficient Department—my experience is that usually one gets answers and there is a coherent policy. Equally, if something is clearly in the domain of the Department of Transport, there is again a good reply; and that is also the case with the powerful Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The trouble starts when a problem straddles two, three or four Departments.
I do not say that simply because it is an excuse for raising a subject which I would have wished to raise in a second Adjournment debate, but the gods were against me on this occasion for reasons which I shall not go into. It was an erosion of the rights of Parliament, and that is why I interrupted my hon. Friend to say that we should be careful about getting rid of anachronisms. The second Adjournment debate was an anachronism. It was highly inconvenient, but it was often an opportunity to air subjects of great urgency. Therefore, we should be careful about cutting down on what seem to be the sillinesses and slownesses of the parliamentary system.
The subject of Lockerbie straddles the Crown Office, the Foreign Office, and it must be a matter of considerable concern to the Home Office. It is of considerable concern to the debate, because if we are talking about international conventions on civil rights, two groups have civil rights in this matter. One group must surely be the relatives of the victims of Pan-Am 103. They have their rights to the truth. Another group with rights are the 5,000 or so of our fellow countrymen who are working in Libya and are affected by sanctions.
If Lockerbie were simply a matter of history some years ago and that nothing could be done about it, people like me would not be bothering the House of Commons at every available opportunity about it. It is an on-going issue because it is vitiating many of our relations with the Arab world. Only today, when I attended the Nuclear Forum, the most bitter complaints were made by senior executives of Babcock and Wilcox that orders that might have gone to Libya from Britain are going from South Korea. The effects of Lockerbie represent an on-going cost to one of the Arab countries with which we were most friendly.
Now is not the time to go into the details of the Libyan connection. I do not want to chance my arm and I hope that I am not a parliamentary cheat in the sense of commenting on one subject under the guise of another. I have one question only to put to the Government as a whole, not least to the Home Office: what on earth do the British Government think are their obligations in trying to get to the truth of the Lockerbie crime?
The law department has sat back and its behaviour has been described as simplistic by Queen's counsel in Scotland. Its officers have merely said, " Well, if anybody brings us any evidence, that would be a different matter." Consider what has happened within the past seven days. A man said to a court in Beirut, "I put that bomb on Pan-Am 209 103." Surely that is a matter on which there should be an investigation. Ministers should report to Parliament on its progress.
All I am asking for at this stage is that some Minister says," We take this claim seriously. It may not be true, but we have sent out some detectives to talk to the Lebanese and Syrian legal authorities in relation to the court case." Perhaps those detectives will come back and report that that individual just mentioned Lockerbie in order to prolong his case so that he would not go to the scaffold for the quite different crime of murdering a Jordanian diplomat. We do not know whether anything active is being done.
Part of the reason for the dissatisfaction felt by some of us is that we are not persuaded that the British Government really want to get at what could be an extremely embarrassing truth. I find it absolutely incredible that in the 800 pages of her memoirs the former Prime Minister does not mention Lockerbie once. What she does say is that it was justified, of course, to send planes to attack the working class areas of Benghazi and Tripoli. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North has already said, that is what happened. Planes were allowed to take off without any discussion. It was justified on the ground that the Libyan state would never again take part in terrorist activities. Who had better information from the intelligence services than the former Prime Minister?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. I fully appreciate the points which the hon. Gentleman made previously. With his long experience in the House, the last thing that he would ever do would be to cheat. He need not inform the House of that; the House knows it. However, he is now going a little beyond what the debate is about.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I shall return rapidly to the covenant for civil rights. The international travelling public—not only people like Jim Swire and Martin Cadman, parents of the British victims, but the Americans, including those youngsters from Rochester university and their relatives who were on that plane in the pre-Christmas rush only because seats had been cancelled by American officials—have a right to know that the British and American Governments are doing everything humanly possible to get to the truth of that crime.
I use the debate simply as a parliamentary opportunity to ask whether there will be a proper follow-up to what happened in Beirut. I took the trouble to go and talk to the Dumfries and Galloway police in Dumfries. I make no criticism whatever of the policemen. I am concerned about the Government Departments with which those policemen must liaise. I ask the crisp question: is anything being done to establish the veracity or otherwise of what happened last week in that Beirut court?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle)
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said that he hoped that he was not a parliamentary cheat. The entire House will agree that he is no such thing. I have often listened intently and with respect to what he has said. The House will agree, however, that he occasionally allows his 210 enthusiasm and single-mindedness for a subject to allow him to travel at will across the boundaries and definitions of "order". But that is a matter for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While I respect his having made a point about Lockerbie this evening, I do not intend to follow him down that road, and I see from your demeanour, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I would be wise to stick to that course.
The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) made an admirably succinct speech. I share his admiration for the standards in the civil service, but disagree fundamentally with his suggestion that the civil service should not be more businesslike. He might have learnt lessons from the late 1970s, when one looked at the need then to control public expenditure. I predict that, in successive Parliaments in the years ahead, the civil service will have to live with ever tighter financial constraints. It is right that it should learn useful lessons from the world of commerce, never trying to run the civil service as a business but being more businesslike in its approach.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on obtaining this debate, which provides an opportunity to discuss—in some detail, as we have heard—civil and political rights in the United Kingdom. I know of his enthusiasm for cricket. As I listened to him, I thought to myself, as he started and as he aimed for a few boundaries, that perhaps he was emulating his good friend who once played for Nottinghamshire, the former captain of the West Indies, Sir Garfield Sobers, but, as minute followed minute and five minutes followed five minutes, I obtained the distinct impression that he was seeking to emulate Joe Hardstaff; he was here to bat all day, and all night if necessary. I think that he appreciates the point I make.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in suggesting that the United Kingdom is in the dock in any way for its record on civil and political rights. That cannot be the case. Sadly, his claims about an interest in the subject are not borne out by the attendance in the Chamber this evening. The debate was at an early hour. He made a speech that might well have been listened to by more hon. Members, but, sadly, that was not the case.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's desire to modernise some of the operating procedures in Parliament, but I disagree with him fundamentally when he suggests that written rights should somehow stand above the sovereignty of Parliament. Our system of parliamentary democracy, based on the complementary roles of two Chambers and buttressed by the independence of the judiciary, continues to serve us well, as it has done for a long time.
Before I discuss the subject of the debate, I should like to discuss two or three arguments that the hon. Gentleman made. He spoke about the right of silence. Under the law of all three UK jurisdictions, any person suspected of a criminal offence has, and will continue to have, the right to remain silent at all stages of the criminal process. The burden of proof on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt remains unchanged.
The law on the right of silence that we propose to enact in England and Wales does not alter those basic principles of our law. The right of silence provisions simply allow the courts, in certain limited circumstances, to draw an inference from a suspect's silence when it is appropriate to do so, alongside other evidence, in determining guilt or innocence.
211 The hon. Gentleman discussed subjects that are familiar to him, and to me, because we have debated them long and hard in the Chamber and in Committees—immigration and asylum. I do not propose, although the temptation is there, to turn the debate into a fully fledged debate on those subjects. I draw just two points to the hon. Gentleman's attention.
He spoke about the abolition of appeals against refusal of visit visas. He did not—I think that he could not have done so—name any other country, with or without a written constitution, that signed up to the international covenant that is the subject of our debate that has a right of appeal against the refusal of visit visas. He knows, as the House knows, that that right existed for only 23 years, I think, on the statute book, and it is not a right whose demise will cause serious lament.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about asylum seekers and about their being detained en masse. He might have explained to the House that less than 1.5 per cent. of asylum applicants are detained, and that they are detained because of the judgment that they will not comply with reporting restrictions. He also spoke about them as asylum seekers, and he well knows that the vast majority of people detained in Campsfield house are people whose asylum applications have already been determined and who are there enjoying a right of appeal, or perhaps have had their appeal refused and are awaiting fresh documentation from their home countries because they have destroyed their documentation.
I return to the the subject of the international covenant for civil and political rights. I shall shortly describe the way in which the United Kingdom meets its obligations and responsibilities under the covenant, but it may be helpful if I refer briefly to the origin and content of that instrument. Under the United Nations charter of 1945, the international community pledged itself to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
As a first definition of those rights and freedoms, the universal declaration of human rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948 asa common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations".More than 40 years later, the universal declaration remains an essential statement of human rights by which Governments around the world can measure their progress in that field.
It was always recognised, however, that the universal declaration would not create legally binding obligations. Therefore, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights undertook the drafting of two legally binding instruments—one covering civil and political rights, the other dealing with economic, social and cultural rights. The two covenants were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966.
The international covenant for civil and political rights took effect in the United Kingdom in 1976. Based largely on those contained in the universal declaration of human rights, the covenant puts into legally binding treaty form a wide range of civil and political rights and seeks to meet the problems of protecting those rights in practice. The rights contained in the covenant are comparable to those contained in the European convention on human rights and include the right to life, to liberty and security of the person 212 and to freedom of thought, expression, assembly and association. More than 100 countries are now parties to the covenant.
The principal question that arises from our ratification of the covenant, and that which most clearly separates the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and myself, is the best means of providing for the rights recognised in the covenant in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman believes that the only way to protect human rights in this country is to incorporate an international human rights instrument—like the covenant or the European convention on human rights—into domestic law. The rights and protections afforded to the British people would, he said this evening, be transformed if only such an instrument were entrenched in our constitution.
As the House well knows, that approach runs counter to the way in which rights and freedoms have been protected in this country over many centuries. The Government do not accept the case of those who argue that the incorporation into domestic law of the broadly drafted propositions of an international instrument would, in practice, clarify and strengthen liberties in the United Kingdom. On the contrary, it would weaken the current position by making the law unclear and uncertain.
The basis of liberty in this country is the long-established principle that a person is free to do as he wishes unless the law requires otherwise. Under our constitution, unlike that of many other countries, rights and freedoms are the natural possession of the individual, not something conferred by the state. That possession is assumed—it is not dependent on some constitutional device and it can be limited only by a democratic decision of Parliament. An individual seeking to know his rights has only to consult the law to establish what he cannot do; he does not have to consult a constitutional lawyer to find out what he can do.
If we accepted the view of the hon. Gentleman, we would overturn that principle and weaken the system of parliamentary democracy in this country. The areas of public policy covered by the general principles contained in the international covenant and the European convention have traditionally, and rightly, been the province of Parliament rather than the courts. Where this is necessary, it is for Parliament to enact detailed legislation on matters that affect the rights of the individual. It must have regard to the United Kingdom's obligations under those international instruments to which we are party, but the final decision rests with Parliament.
Incorporation would transfer this final responsibility to the judiciary, enabling the courts to strike down legislation that had been approved by Parliament. That would not, I believe, be a welcome addition to their present role of interpreting and enforcing specific legislation. The important issue is not the competence or good faith of our judiciary, but whether it is desirable or appropriate for such matters to rest with judges, who are not directly accountable to the public, rather than with democratically elected Members of Parliament. The Government's view remains that it is not.
Our opposition to incorporation does not, however, affect our continuing commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights in the United Kingdom. The lack of such formal provision in the United Kingdom does not detract from our major contribution to the preparation and implementation of instruments such as the international covenant for civil and political rights.
213 Article 40 of the covenant requires each state party to submit to the human rights committee established under article 28 a report at regular intervals on the measures adopted to give effect to the rights recognised in the covenant. The United Kingdom submitted a periodic report in 1977, 1984 and 1989; our fourth periodic report is due to reach the United Nations in August this year. A state party is subject to public, oral examination by the human rights committee on each of its reports; the United Kingdom was examined on its third periodic report in 1991.
The Government value the system of reporting and examination as an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness with which they meet their obligations under the covenant. Each periodic report contains a factual account of the legislation and administrative practice in the country relevant to the articles of the covenant and, collectively, the reports demonstrate the progress that we have made in ensuring that people in the United Kingdom enjoy the rights and protections for which the covenant provides. As with previous reports, copies of the fourth periodic report will, on publication, be placed in the Libraries of both Houses and be made freely available outside Parliament.
In describing the way in which the United Kingdom meets its covenant obligations, the fourth periodic report will be able to draw on a substantial body of legislative and administrative changes in recent years, which strengthen further the protection given in practice to individual rights and liberties in this country. I should like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the more significant developments.
Articles 2 and 3 of the covenant require nondiscrimination on grounds of race, gender or other improper grounds in the enjoyment of the rights recognised in the covenant.
The 1991 census of population was the first to include a question on ethnic origin, and has provided much information on the size and distribution of the ethnic minority population, which will help the Government, local authorities, employers and others to identify inequalities and plan action to overcome them.
The Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 and the Race Relations (Remedies) Act 1994 amend the Race Relations Act 1976 to strengthen the statutory protection against racial discrimination, while changes to the immigration rules expected to come into force later this year will remove virtually all the sexually discriminatory elements of our immigration control.
Article 7 prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In order to meet its obligations under this article and under the United Nations and Council of Europe conventions against torture to which we are also party, the Government are keen to ensure that rigorous mechanisms are in place to enable people to lodge any complaint they may have about their treatment in detention.
So it was that, in April this year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary appointed a prisons ombudsman to consider grievances from prisoners once they had exhausted the internal complaint procedures. In 214 February this year, the Scottish prison service introduced a new system for dealing with prisoners' requests and complaints.
In Northern Ireland in December 1992, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State appointed an independent assessor of military complaints procedures to provide an independent check on the Army's own procedures for dealing with complaints against its personnel serving in the Province.
In immigration, visiting committees have been appointed at the detention centres where detainees are held for more than a few days, while arrangements have been introduced by all police authorities in England and Wales for members of the public to be appointed as lay visitors to police stations.
Article 9 deals with the right to liberty and security of the person, and here the further safeguards introduced for those in police detention in Northern Ireland are relevant. The codes of practice for the detention and treatment of persons detained under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 came into force on 1 January this year.
Any police officer failing to comply with the codes is liable to disciplinary proceedings. The codes of practice represent a further important safeguard for those detained at the main police offices or holding centres. Other safeguards include the monitoring of all interviews on closed-circuit television and the appointment in December 1992 of an independent commissioner for the holding centres to observe and report on the conditions in which detainees are held.
Article 10 addresses the treatment of prisoners. Here we shall refer to the openness of the new parole system under the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Prisoners will receive a copy of their parole dossier, be interviewed by a member of the parole board and given reasons for their parole decision. We shall also be able to report on the new system for dealing with life sentence prisoners and on the development of sentence planning and through care in the prison service.
Article 13 concerns the expulsion of aliens, and a development of particular note, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, which came into force in July last year. The Act provides for accelerated and streamlined asylum procedures to ensure that unfounded asylum applications are dealt with expeditiously and with finality, while genuine refugees continue to be protected.
One of the main provisions introduced by the 1993 Act is an in-country right of appeal—with an oral hearing before an independent special adjudicator—for all refused asylum applicants, regardless of their immigration status. Together with other important safeguards contained in the Act, that represents a considerable strengthening of the rights of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.
Other developments relevant to our covenant obligations include the provision of the Education Act 1993 for the establishment of grant-maintained schools of a religious character, which falls under article 18, on freedom of religion; the implementantion of the Children Act 1989 and the United Kingdom's ratification of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which are relevant to article 24, on children's rights; and the Welsh Language Act 1993, which, in accordance with the cultural rights 215 conferred by article 27, further promotes and facilitates the use of the Welsh language—even if that does not extend to the Chamber of the House of Commons.
A further provision—to which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North has referred before—is the first optional protocol to the covenant, which recognises the competence of the human rights committee to receive and consider communications from individuals who claim that their rights under the covenant have been violated.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the United Kingdom has not ratified that optional protocol because, since 1966, an adequate and effective means of redress has been available to individuals in the United Kingdom through the procedures and institutions established under the European convention on human rights. The hon. Gentleman and I have debated that in the House on other occasions.
The protection afforded by that machinery is now familiar and well used. The Government do not believe that the position of people in this country would be significantly enhanced by the ratification of the optional protocol. The United Kingdom has signed the 11th protocol to the European convention, which, among other things, makes mandatory and permanent the right of individual petition to the European Court of Human Rights.
§ Mr. Wardle
As the hon. Gentleman knows, even Joe Hardstaff used to come out for a second innings from time to time. The hon. Gentleman either has not been listening, or has missed the point of what I have been saying for the past 15 minutes or so. If he reads Hansard, he will see that it is absolutely clear. He and I have fundamentally different approaches. I have set out my view, and because of the lateness of the hour, I do not intend to repeat all that I have said.
I have demonstrated the United Kingdom's commitment to its obligations and responsibilities under the international covenant. They are to be seen in the legislation that we have enacted—which I have just listed—and the administrative reforms that we have instituted, some of which I have mentioned. They reflect the practical rather than philosophical approach to human rights that we have always taken in this country. That brings me to the point to which the hon. Gentleman has just alluded.
We are less concerned with fine-sounding constitutional provisions than with ensuring that, in reality, the rights and freedoms of the people in the United Kingdom are fully in accordance with our international obligations. The Government look forward to continued progress in this regard, within the framework provided by the covenant.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Ten o'clock.