HC Deb 14 July 1999 vol 335 cc463-5

As amended in Committee, considered.

7.8 pm

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I gave notice to Madam Speaker that I would raise this point of order, which relates to the point that I made on Second Reading. You will recall that I asked whether the Bill was compatible with section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, and whether legal advice had been sought and published.

We have debated the Northern Ireland Bill this week—it contains a clear statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that it complies with the Human Rights Act 1998. I believe that a similar statement should be attached to all future legislation. Section 19 of the 1998 Act requires that the Minister in charge of a Bill in either House of Parliament must, before Second Reading of the Bill make a statement about the compatibility of the Bill with the convention rights defined in section 1 of the Act. The Northern Ireland Bill states that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made the following statement: In my view the provisions of the Northern Ireland Bill are compatible with the Convention rights. That seems to be the procedure for legislation as regards human rights. On Second Reading, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you suggested that this was a matter for the courts. I can appreciate that, but clearly individual Ministers or promoters of Bills must now ensure that they comply with the Human Rights Act.

The issue to which I am referring is specifically in relation to the convention on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms as amended by protocol 11. Article 3 of that protocol, which is headed, "The Right to free elections", states: The High Contracting Parties"— that is, the individual countries that have signed the convention— undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature. It does not refer to businesses.

We are now operating in a supra-national political and legal environment. Of course, we are governed by Parliament, which is sovereign, but it is no longer totally so in relation to that legislation. Therefore, I asked earlier at the Private Bill Office whether that legal advice was sought, whether the Lord Chancellor had given his opinion, and if so, what it was—should it be published or at least laid in the Vote Office or the Library?

In my view, if the House knowingly and wilfully proceeds to introduce legislation that is contrary to the convention, that is one thing. That is a decision of the House, individual Members promoting the Bill and Ministers who may support it. However, if hon. Members blunder into legislating contrary to the convention, without advice, it is a dereliction of duty on behalf of the Lord Chancellor or the Officers of the House in not affording us such advice. I would welcome your views, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan haselhurst)

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his point of order. I hope that I can resolve the matter in fairly simple terms. In the case of a private Bill, the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is a matter for debate and not for the Chair. The House will be aware that section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, obliges a Minister in charge of a Government Bill to make a statement of compatibility before Second Reading. No similar provision occurs in the case of either private Member's or private Bills.

Mr. McDonnell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can I clarify the matter? Is any hon. Member who seeks to promote legislation in debate in the House liable, therefore, to digress against the convention on human rights, which we have incorporated in legislation? If we enact this legislation—I hope that we do not because it contravenes everything that we stand for both in terms of human rights and party policies—does that mean that the City corporation, if it instigates some form of election under the legislation, is open to legal challenge? I would be grateful if, at some stage, in addition to the advice that you have provided, the Lord Chancellor could be consulted and we could have some advice on that matter, too.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It might be relevant to report to the House that, as Chairman of the Select Committee that considered the Bill—we spent several days on it and heard petitioners—I can confirm that that issue was not raised by any of the petitioners and did not come before the Committee at any stage.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) does not do himself a service because he has illustrated that that is a matter for debate; it is not a matter on which the Chair can rule.

Mr. McDonnell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Previously, I raised a point of order about declaration of interests. Under the heading, "Declaration of Members' Interests" in the code of conduct, the principle is clearly established that Members shall fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the House in respect of the registration of interests in the Register of Members' Interests". Paragraph 5 of the code of conduct states clearly: The main purpose of declaration of interest is to ensure that fellow Members of the House and public are made aware, at the appropriate time when a Member is making a speech in the House or in Committee or participating in any other proceedings of the House, of any past, present or expected future pecuniary interest". It also mentions miscellaneous interests.

We are debating legislation that would give companies and banks within the City of London the right to a vote and, therefore, the right to an interest within the City corporation. I do not believe that any hon. Member has so far declared any interest in relation to this matter. However, I cannot believe that there is no hon. Member or member of the Committee who does not hold some form of bank account or have some interest in a body that is located within the City of London.

I have a Co-operative bank account—there is not an awful lot in it, but I still have it. That bank is located within the City. That is an interest, because that company will now have a vote in the City corporation elections if the Bill is enacted.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The position is clear. Any hon. Member who believes that he has in interest relevant to any matter that comes before the House should declare it. If any hon. Member feels that there has been a failure to disclose, there is a procedure for reporting and investigating that.

Forward to