HL Deb 06 December 1979 vol 403 cc911-5

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. This is an occasion for appropriate thanks to be expressed to all those who have taken part in the debates on the Bill, and that I gladly do. But more than conventional thanks are called for today. I have not only appreciated the courtesy that I have learnt to expect in this House, but I have felt greatly indebted to the constructive and helpful criticisms that have come both from those who are doubtful about the Bill and from those who support the Bill. At the same time, I think that a few words of gratitude should be expressed to my colleagues on the Select Committee for the work that they did which lasted for over a year. I have recently been told that the report and the volume of evidence, including that given by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, is now compulsory reading for students in some establishments of higher education. What the students have to say about that I do not know, but the information might be of interest to those who served on the Select Committee.

As your Lordships know, there has been a great deal of literature written about this subject. Lectures have been given—including the great one by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor—books have been written and various other documents have been produced. In steering this Bill through the House, I have tried to avoid oversimplification, on the one hand, and excessive legal complexities on the other. I hope that I have not erred too much one way or the other.

At this final stage, I hesitate to arouse any question of controversy, but I respectfully suggest that some of the doubts that have been expressed about the Bill should have been directed to the signing and ratification of the European Convention rather than to the Bill. It was at the time of ratification that the vital step was taken, in particular when the high contracting parties—in our case that means the United Kingdom Government—under Article 1 undertook: To secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section 1 of the Convention". To give added strength and meaning to that undertaking is the purpose of this Bill. That is what the Bill is all about.

There are, of course, constitutional implications. I have certainly not overlooked the proposal for an all-party conference. I have already said that that is being seriously considered. However, there is just one point I would make, and this is on my own responsibility. It is conceivable that difficulties may arise in achieving agreement on the terms of reference for such a conference, but I hope that no insuperable obstacles in that respect will arise. My immediate task today is to speed this Bill on its way to another place. I trust that the Members of another place will pay due regard to the great amount of time and effort spent by Members of this House on this subject.

I do not claim that this Bill will remove all the imperfections of our parliamentary system. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, brought out this point in the Second Reading debate. In supporting this Bill, he referred to four ways of gaining protection against the dangers of an elective dictatorship. His first was electoral reform for the Commons. I think he gave that top priority. Perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that I am inclined to agree with him. But, in support of this Bill, I would suggest that it could have an important psychological as well as legal effect if the Bill is placed on the statute book. In my view, any Government responsive at all to public opinion would hesitate before riding roughshod over the provision of this Bill.

Much has been said during these debates. I have been involved in it for three years now in this House. There is little to say that has not already been said, but in conclusion might I add a note of some historical interest. The well-known Bill of Rights of 1689 passed its Third Reading in this House on 23rd November 1689. Incidentally, that information was kindly provided for me by the Library of the House of Lords. I would not like it to be thought that I go around carrying all these dates in my mind. On 23rd November 1689 the Bill of Rights was passed, and it received its Royal Assent on 16th December of that year. That is approximately 290 years ago. At the beginning of the last century an important Bill dealing with habeas corpus—not actually called a Bill of Rights—was passed. It received the Royal Assent on 1st July 1816. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is not going to catch me out on these dates. Of course it passed through both Houses of Parliament before receiving the Royal Assent. In the latter part of this century, several attempts were made to get a liberty of the subject Bill accepted and, more recently, drafts of a Bill of Rights by myself and by others have been introduced. But this is the first time since 1689 that a Bill of Rights has reached the stage of Third Reading in your Lordships' House. I should, therefore, naturally rejoice and feel it a privilege if this Bill is given a Third Reading today, and in due course is sent on its way to the House of Commons. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a. —(Lord Wade.)

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, I shall detain your Lordships for only a minute or two, but lest it should be thought that silence from this particular Dispatch Box indicates a lack of interest in this important subject on this Bench, I intervene first to reassure your Lordships, and to confirm that we do indeed regard this whole matter of the protection and the advancement of human rights as of immense importance. Secondly, I recall that we have—especially my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones—argued on previous occasions that we are not able to support this Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our law, because we have taken the view, and I am afraid still do, that we do not regard this as the best nor even a satisfactory way of advancing the cause of human rights.

So far as the advancement and protection are concerned, this is indeed something on which we are, all of us, united, whatever our view on incorporation and the Bill itself. If I were to use this particular occasion to repeat those arguments at any greater length today at this late stage in the passage of this Bill through your Lordships' House, I think that I might indeed be in danger of infringing your Lordships' own human rights. Therefore, I shall detain your Lordships only to offer warm congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, on having piloted his Bill successfully as far as this through what have undoubtedly been difficult waters both here and in the Select Committee itself, and in a way which has made the voyage a pleasant one indeed, even if for some of us the ultimate destination would involve us in perhaps too much of a mystery tour or —not to labour the point too much, but to put it in another way—introduce a little too much uncertainty into our law. We on this Bench wholeheartedly and most warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wade, on his conduct of this Bill through your Lordships' House. Certainly, we on this Bench would not wish to stand in the way of its receiving a Third Reading, should that be your Lordships' wish.

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, I too should like to join in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, who has, with such skill and perseverance, at the third attempt successfully guided this Bill through all its stages in your Lordships' House. I am indebted to him, as I am sure we all are, for the valuable contribution that has been made to the wider debate about the very necessary protection of the rights of the individual in our country.

The Government are committed, as my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor made clear at the Second Reading, to try to pursue this wider debate through the medium of all-party talks. I think that matters are at too early a stage for it to be useful for us to discuss the substance of the proposed talks today, but, as your Lordships are aware, the Lord Chancellor has already embarked, with the Opposition party leaders in your Lordships' House, on the first tentative steps towards such talks. If we are successful in getting these talks off the ground, we shall be in the happy position of having Lord Wade's hard work available to us at the outset, along with the valuable contributions of those other noble Lords who have taken part in the debates and in the Select Committee. I should like particularly to pay tribute on this occasion—not denigrating anyone else—to the work of my noble friend Lord Morris, who proposed amendments at the Report stage which commended themselves to your Lordships' House.

As to the Bill's future, that is of course a matter for the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and he has already spoken somewhat of that, but I think it would be only fair to repeat the vivid words about "an icicle in June" used by the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor on Second Reading when he said he could not see the smallest chance of the Bill finding sufficient Parliamentary time in another place to reach the statute book this Session. Having said that, I would add that I do not believe for a moment that noble Lords, and in particular Lord Wade, have wasted their time on this Bill. There are inevitably major problems involved in a Bill of this sort and though I would not suggest that Lord Wade has found answers to all of them, the discussions on the Bill have clearly taken us a long way down the road in many respects and perhaps highlighted quite a number of new problems for us, and for that I am sure we are all very much indebted to the noble Lord.


My Lords, I am very grateful for the kind remarks that have been made. I shall resist the temptation to say anything more except that I hope the Bill will receive your Lordships' approval and be read a third time.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.