HC Deb 13 April 2000 vol 348 cc495-8
21. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

If he will make a statement on United Kingdom compliance with the European convention on human rights in relation to legislation. [117752]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Ross Cranston)

The United Kingdom ratified the European convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in 1951, and is bound in international law to respect and observe convention rights.

Section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998 provides for a statement of compatibility from Ministers introducing legislation into Parliament. That is already in force. It requires that when legislation is introduced in either House for a Second Reading, the Minister responsible for the legislation must make a written statement that he or she considers the Bill to be compatible with convention rights, or is unable to make the statement but wishes Parliament to proceed with the Bill anyway. It is primarily for the Minister who is responsible for a Bill to ensure that the provisions are compatible. On reaching a view on these matters, the Minister would act on the advice of his or her officials and legal advisers, and sometimes the Law Officers become involved.

Mr. Mackinlay

Is it not time that we revisited section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998? It is inadequate, and will lead to embarrassment for the United Kingdom and to work for the Law Officers, who will have to defend our statute book in the European Court and other courts. Did my hon. and learned Friend notice this week that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was unable to give a human rights compliance notice in relation to the Local Government Bill? On the advice of the Lord Chancellor, he is unable to explain why he is not able to give that notice. It is nonsense. Private Members' Bills and private Bills are passing through the House, and with them there is apparently no need for human rights compliance certification. Again, that is nonsense. When these measures reach the statute book, the Law Officers will sometimes have to defend the indefensible. We should recognise that we are being sloppy and that these issues should be taken up with expedition.

The Solicitor-General

We are taking the Act seriously, and the statements. We started with public Bills. However, I take my hon. Friend's argument. He raises a serious point about private Bills, for example. The concerns that he has expressed on previous occasions have been taken on board. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering them seriously. As for the Local Government Bill, Ministers will have to give an explanation to the House and in Committee in due course. They will have to explain why some measures within it are not compliant, and why most are.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Have the Government estimated the number of cases that will arise under the European convention when the new provisions come into force, the additional burden on the court system and the additional costs?

The Solicitor-General

An announcement was made yesterday, and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was given some figures. We have admitted from the outset that costs are involved in training and litigation. Initially, we expect that human rights problems will be raised in ordinary cases, and they will be dealt with in the ordinary way. We have anticipated additional costs, and there is no doubt that they will arise. We say that there are advantages in promoting a human rights culture. To take up the slogan that was used on one occasion by a leader of the Conservative party, "Rejoice, rejoice."

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

To follow up the point about creating a human rights culture, does my hon. and learned Friend believe that we are succeeding in doing that, or does he share my concern that discussion about the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 has focused on minor aspects of it that will cause complications rather than on the fact that we are giving legal rights to our citizens?

The Solicitor-General

My hon. Friend is right. Many misconceptions have been sown about this matter, and there has been much concentration on litigation, which is the issue that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) raised. We are trying to change the whole culture, initially in the public services, so that they will deal with matters in the right way, but more generally in the community.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

As the House knows, the European convention on human rights already impacts on our law. I refer the Solicitor-General to the Starrs case, which has given rise to a significant rethink in the Lord Chancellor's Department, as was shown in a written answer given yesterday by the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy). Although that case deals with judicial appointments, is the Solicitor-General satisfied that it does not impact in any way on appointments in his Department or on any person for whom he is accountable to the House?

The Solicitor-General

That particular case involved judicial appointments and quasi-judicial appointments. As yesterday's statement indicated, certain changes have been made. It is vital that we underline the independence of the judiciary, and that has been done. For example, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Gamier), the shadow Attorney-General, has by virtue of that statement become a recorder. He is no longer an assistant recorder, because assistant recorders have only short-term appointments.

Judicial independence is important, and it is also important that tribunals are seen to be independent. That brings me back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). Although individual cases and structures are important, it is more the culture of rights and responsibilities—I emphasise the word "responsibilities"—that we are attempting to promote by our legislation.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

There is much speculation about the readiness of our legal system to cope with the implementation of convention rights in domestic law later this year. What assurance can my hon. and learned Friend give to the House about the state of readiness of Law Officers themselves and of those parts of the legal system, such as the Crown Prosecution Service, for which they are responsible?

The Solicitor-General

I hope that I am absolutely and completely ready. As the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) suggested, the convention has been in force and been part of our law since 1951. It is nothing new. We constantly have to give advice on human rights matters. All that has happened is that the Human Rights Act has domesticated those rights, so that remedies can be sought in domestic courts.

My hon. Friend referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and a great deal of training has taken place. By October, when the Act comes into effect, all crown prosecutors will be thoroughly trained. It is interesting that, in the training process, a great deal of co-operation between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police has occurred; police and prosecutors have worked together. [Interruption.] I know that the introduction of the Act is a source of mirth for Conservative Members, but it is a serious and important measure that will promote rights and responsibilities in this country.

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