HC Deb 16 November 1998 vol 319 cc651-5

Lords amendment: No. 132, after clause 91, to insert the following new clause—Human rights

".—(1) This Act does not enable a person—

  1. (a) to bring any proceedings in a court or tribunal on the ground that an act is incompatible with the Convention rights, or
  2. (b) to rely on any of the Convention rights in any such proceedings,

unless he would be a victim for the purposes of Article 34 of the Convention (within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998) if proceedings in respect of the act were brought in the European Court of Human Rights.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to the Lord Advocate, the Advocate General, the Attorney General or the Attorney General for Northern Ireland.

(3) This Act does not enable a court or tribunal to award any damages in respect of an act which is incompatible with any of the Convention rights which it could not award if section 8(3) and (4) of the Human Rights Act 1998 applied.

(4) In this section "act" means—

  1. (a) making any legislation,
  2. (b) any other act or failure to act, if it is the act or failure of a member of the Scottish Executive."

Mr. McLeish

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 133, 134, 136 to 138, 279 to 285, 299 and 300.

Mr. McLeish

Amendment No. 132 deals with the compatibility of the Scotland Bill and the Human Rights Act 1998; amendments Nos. 133 and 134 deal with the legislative power to remedy ultra vires acts; amendments Nos. 136 to 138 would ensure that the appropriate law officer is informed if a court intends to exercise its powers to vary retrospective decisions; amendments Nos. 279 to 283 refer to the definition of devolution issues; amendments Nos. 284 and 285 relate to a number of court procedural issues, including the requirement that intimation be given to the Advocate General and the Lord Advocate if a devolution issue arises in any proceedings; and amendments Nos. 299 and 300 refer to an amendment to the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 to take account of devolution issues.

That group of amendments basically comprises technical ones to clauses 92 and 93 and schedule 6 to ensure that the arrangements for judicial scrutiny are appropriate and work properly. I should remind the House about the systems put in place by the Bill for dealing with legal questions about the extent of the Parliament's powers.

The Bill creates a carefully thought through process for settling questions about the boundaries of the devolution settlement. What we propose will ensure that any legal disputes about those boundaries can be resolved consistently and authoritatively. Schedule 6, in particular, sets out the definition of "devolution issues" and the process for resolving any legal questions that arise about them. The arrangements will provide a solid foundation for developing a common understanding of the detailed extent of the powers of the Parliament and the Scottish Executive as time passes. They form a key part of our proposals.

Mr. Letwin

I draw the Minister's attention to amendment No. 132, which again deals with the question of judges and litigation. My suspicions were aroused slightly when the Minister described it as a technical amendment.

The Opposition strongly welcome what we understand to be the purport of amendment No. 132—I hope that the Minister will confirm whether we are correct. Namely, the amendment would prohibit class actions on behalf of people who are vaguely affected by some act—I am comforted to see the Minister nodding—when it could be argued loosely that they were affected by a convention right under clause 28. If that is the amendment's intention, we strongly welcome it. I should add in passing that the noble Lord Mackay of Drumadoon first pointed that out in another place, and we all owe him a debt.

Can the Minister clarify his interpretation of the critical term "victim" as it applies in this case? How does he expect that that will relate to a convention right not to be covered under clause 28, given amendment No. 132? Can he also enlighten us about how he envisages individuals pursuing those matters in the courts? Does he expect that it will be possible, nevertheless, to bring an action against Parliament or will it inevitably be against the Executive? If it is against Parliament, does anything in any of the amendments create a constitutional precedent that could have implications for this place?

6.15 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), I am prepared to accept the Minister's description of "technical" amendments. However, when he refers to a "technical explanation" of amendments, one might—with the greatest respect to the Minister—read "convoluted".

It might be useful to have some practical examples of the effects of amendment No. 132 and the previous group of amendments. They appear to bring the Bill into line with the Human Rights Act 1998, but it would be useful to have some tangible examples of the difference that they will make, and a fuller explanation thereof. I accept that the amendments are technical and I have no wish to delay the House unnecessarily, but we need an explanation, by way of example, of the difference that the amendments will make.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I do not think that amendment No. 132 is a technical amendment. I believe that it is a fairly important amendment—although I suspect not a controversial one. It seeks to bring the scope of the Bill into line with the Human Rights Act 1998, but I ask the Minister to clarify why this change has been inserted into the legislation at a late stage when we debated the matter at considerable length when it was first brought before the House. It was made quite clear then that there would be the right of challenge under the scope of the human rights convention and the Bill as then drafted. That does not appear to me to be a technical matter. The amendment introduces a considerable change—albeit a change that is in line with the House's intentions when the matter was first brought before us. I seek clarification on that point because it is important that the two pieces of legislation should match up correctly.

Mrs. Laing

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that this is a late stage for the Government to introduce an amendment that the Minister describes as a "key part" of their proposals. If they are so important, why have we not examined those matters before? They refer to the way in which the proceedings of the Scottish Parliament coincide with or work alongside the proceedings of not only this Parliament but other quasi-judicial and quasi-parliamentary bodies—of which there seems to be an increasing number—to which we are affiliated or connected in some way. The amendment relates to important parts of the Human Rights Act 1998, which we scrutinised and considered in this place for many hours. I do not believe that I am being unduly critical by asking the Minister to explain why, if the amendments are a key part of the Government's proposals, they are being proposed now.

It is also a matter of concern that the amendments are described as technical ones. Given that the amendments cover page after page, and if they are technical, is the Minister admitting that many of the points that Conservative Members raised when the clauses were debated in Committee had been overlooked at the time and have had to be considered since?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We cannot go into the history of the Bill. The motion before us asks whether we agree with the Lords in their amendment. It is a question of agreeing or disagreeing, not wondering why we got here.

Mrs. Laing

I was seeking to clarify some points about the amendments so that I could consider whether we should agree or disagree with the Lords amendments. Thank you for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Hayes

It would help those with less acute minds than your own, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if the Minister would clarify the point by citing an example. We accept that the amendments are technical, but we should be grateful if the Minister illustrated that by citing an example. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset asked for examples when we debated the previous group of amendments; he did not get them. By providing practical examples, perhaps the Minister will satisfy those of us who have reservations about the interface between the two pieces of legislation.

Mrs. Laing

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me of that point, which I should have made. I am sure that the Minister took the note of my hon. Friend's observation.

Once again, I seek clarification to enable us to consider whether the clauses have been properly scrutinised by the House before we can decide whether to agree or disagree with the Lords amendment.

Mr. McLeish

Setting aside the bit of melodrama at the end of the hon. Lady's speech, I point out that our aim is consistency. The matter is technical. The amendments have been debated; they make sense, and we ask the House to support them.

Technically, the Scottish Parliament will be a public authority under the Human Rights Act 1998, but in most cases we would expect the Executive to be the subject of any actions on that. Government amendment No. 132 ensures that the Scotland Bill and the Human Rights Act 1998 are consistent in terms of title and interest and the award of damages. Only those with title and interest—that is, Law Officers or anyone who would be a victim in terms of section 7(6) of the Human Rights Act 1998—could bring proceedings about the alleged contravention of the convention rights, about whether an action is incompatible with those convention rights.

It is intended to restrict the members of the public who can mount a challenge involving such questions to those who can bring proceedings against the public authority under section 7(7) of the Human Rights Act 1998. That ensures consistency between the Scotland Bill and the Human Rights Act 1998 about who can bring proceedings. Scots law would probably already have the effect that only such victims would have had title and interest. We are making a straightforward attempt to achieve consistency.

Hon. Members asked for examples. I should like to respond fully and give some illustrations, but the key points are that the amendment is technical, that it makes sense, and that there should be no suspicion that the matter has not been properly considered. The amendment will improve the Bill; that is the purpose of all the amendments that we are discussing tonight.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 133 to 138 agreed to.

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