HC Deb 26 April 2004 vol 420 cc703-6
Mr. Trimble

I beg to move amendment No. 16. in page 4, line 38, at end insert 'contained in binding treaties ratified by the United Kingdom.'.

Under clause 8 the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland is placed under a duty to issue guidance to various criminal justice organisations directing them to exercise their functions in a manner consistent with "international human rights standards", a term that the Bill does not define. Of course, international law covers a multitude of things, and there is a range of international agreements, so various matters could come under that term. There is a sad lack of clarity in this matter.

In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) the Minister referred to various documents listed in one of the working papers for the criminal justice review. In a revealing phrase, he referred to some of those instruments as containing "soft law". That is a term of art used in international law to describe instruments that are not binding but indicate possible practice and ways of proceeding. Soft law arises out of agreements entered into by just some countries, or from bodies meeting to debate and issue what they call "standards" and so on. I thought that it would be desirable in this situation, particularly as we are dealing with criminal law, to apply a basic principle of criminal law, which is that the law and procedures should be clear. The Attorney-General, in coming to draw up guidance, should know precisely which international standards he should have regard to.

8.15 pm

The obvious provision is my amendment, which would define international human rights standards by reference to treaties and agreements that are binding on the UK. It would be improper if the Attorney-General were to base his guidance on provisions that were not binding on the UK, and it would mean giving him discretion to introduce into practice instruments that were not binding on the UK or, therefore, on the bodies concerned. As the guidance will emanate from the Attorney-General, the bodies might feel that they were obliged to follow it, but if it concerned an instrument that was not binding on them, they ought not to be put under that impression.

In the background is the fact that we should bear in mind: if there is devolution, the Attorney-General will be appointed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I repeat what I said earlier: one can be certain that there would be political considerations behind such an appointment, and those considerations might feed into the view about what instruments should be, if not binding, issued as directions to organisations performing criminal justice functions. The object of the Bill ought to be to try to insulate the criminal justice system from political influence, but again and again the Government are removing safeguards and opening the door to political influence, allowing it to seep into the administration of justice.

I have some idea as to what lies behind this part of the Bill, and it is something very bad indeed. However, I have tabled an amendment that would cure the problem. I would like to think that the Minister would treat the matter on its merits but in light of the way that the debate has been going, we have no expectation of that.

Mr. Carmichael

I am afraid that, as far as poverty of expectation is concerned, I am very much with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I agree with his amendment; it is certainly possessed of a certain elegant simplicity. He has identified the difficulty—the lack of specification about what is meant by the term international human rights standards relevant to the criminal justice system. I commend him for having come up with a solution that makes it clear that the ratification of international treaties is of central importance, because that, quite properly, would mean that the House would be the arbiter on which matters were to be considered.

I cannot for the life of me imagine why the Government would not want to accept the amendment. I cannot see how they could view it as anything other than an improvement to the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has done tonight, as he did in Committee, his duty as a parliamentarian in seeking to improve legislation, and it is quite depressing that we will again, I suspect, be unsuccessful.

Mr. Spellar

I suspect that part of the reason why the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has tabled the amendment is to gain further clarity on the standards that the Government intend should be included in the guidance. I hope to be able to provide that clarity.

As an aside, let me say how interested I was in the contribution of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. We note his downgrading of non-binding treaties and will pay careful attention to statements made by his Front-Bench colleagues when they try to castigate the Government for not following some non-binding treaties. We shall treasure his comments.

Mr. Carmichael

The Minister has perhaps been stung by the criticism relating to this amendment and previous ones—his body language is somewhat defensive and telling. He is trying to misrepresent my position. As he well knows, there is a world of difference between treaties that are regarded as non-binding in relation to Government actions and the duties placed on individual officers of state. The Minister knows it, and he is mischievous to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Spellar

Oh yes, I know the difference between binding and non-binding treaties. I am not sure that his colleagues always do. We shall remember what he said when speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats today when his Front-Bench colleagues try to present non-binding treaties as being of equal validity to others.

Our intention in the present case is quite different. We have referred to international human rights to provide some clarity about what we expect the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland to refer to in his guidance. We do not wish to pre-empt his considered advice, but he is likely to refer to the sort of International human rights instruments listed in the criminal justice review research report No. 14, which listed several binding treaties and several non-binding treaties, which, as the right hon. Member for Upper Bann rightly said, are also described as "soft law". The report listed 16 such standards, but there is no reason so suppose that the list is definitive. It includes the European convention on human rights, the conventions on the rights of the child, the European convention on the compensation of victims of violent crimes and the international covenant on civil and political rights.

To refer only to human rights standards contained in binding treaties ratified by the United Kingdom would mean that the guidance could not include information on important non-binding treaties, such as the UN rules for the protection of juveniles deprived of their liberty and basic principles on the role of lawyers. It is important to state that the Attorney-General's guidance on the application of standards contained in non-binding conventions and treaties will make it clear that those standards are non-binding. However, not referring to them at all would misrepresent the standards to which the UK Government have signed up, and thereby prevent the draftsmen from ensuring that the guidance is as comprehensive as possible. That gives the right degree of scope to the Attorney-General. It makes clear the difference between the two standards.

I recollect that although the UK has been a party to some international conventions, we have indicated that we would not accept certain parts of them, but did not want to interrupt general progress—for example, the prohibition on the recruitment of children into the military. Such recruitment is a problem in several African countries and elsewhere, but that is entirely different from youngsters joining the UK military with informed consent and the support of their parents. We do not want to obstruct progress elsewhere in the world, but at the same time we have reservations about the prohibition. The arrangements that we have made will enable the Attorney-General to take account of the provisions of international conventions and any reservations expressed by the UK Government, and to indicate which terms are binding and which are not.

We believe that that covers everything, but I do understand what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann was trying to identify. I hope, although with little expectation of success, that I have been able to explain the Government's position and convince him that the amendment is unnecessary.

Mr. Trimble

The Minister has effortlessly managed to get down to the level of our expectation. What he has said is simply not relevant. He said what the Government expect, and confidently stated that the guidance will make clear what is non-binding and that it will take account of UK Government reservations. How on earth does he know that? When the measure comes into operation, it will not be the Government who give guidance to the Attorney-General; the Attorney-General will be the appointee and the creature of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. How does the right hon. Gentleman know that the guidance will take the form that he describes? Obviously, he does not. It is quite fatuous to talk about what the guidance will do in such circumstances. That is why we are not happy with the provision.

It is ironic that the Minister referred to various conventions prohibiting the abuse of children through their involvement in military matters, when that is a huge problem in Northern Ireland. There is massive abuse of children, especially those aged between nine and 14, and particularly of young males. Their recruitment to paramilitary organisations is a form of child abuse to which the Government turn a blind eye. It is ironic that the Minister refers to that matter, but turns a blind eye to the huge problem in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Spellar


Mr. Trimble

If the Minister wants to speak, let him do so.

Mr. Spellar

We do not turn a blind eye. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there was an attempt by some countries to define Northern Ireland as one of those troubled countries—quite separate from any question of recruitment of child soldiers. That would have converted the problem in Northern Ireland from one of law and order to one of a recognised zone of conflict. As he well knows, the British Government opposed that effort successfully. The right hon. Gentleman is being a little disingenuous.

Mr. Trimble

The Minister, quite predictably, misses the point. I am not referring to the matters to which he referred. I am referring to what happens in Northern Ireland, where the paramilitary organisations are, to use his phrase, recruiting child soldiers, left, right and centre, and the Government of whom he is part turn a blind eye—they do nothing about it.

By doing nothing about it, they tacitly come as close to encouraging it as could be. That is why I find it particularly nauseating that the Minister, a member of the Government, turns a blind eye to the problem, and then cites it in a slightly different context with approval. It is quite revolting to see that happen.

I had no expectation that the Minister would take a sensible line. He has resolutely avoided taking a sensible line throughout the evening, but because of the lateness of the hour and the desire of Members to get on, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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