HL Deb 28 March 1979 vol 399 cc1582-6

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of a decision of the House on the 29th November 1978, carried by 56 votes to 30, urging Her Majesty's Government to introduce a Bill of Rights to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into the domestic law of the United Kingdom in the form recommended by the majority of the Select Committee, what steps they have taken to implement that decision.

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Elwyn-Jones)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and I, while recognising the importance of this matter and giving due weight to the view expressed by this House at the end of the debate last November, remain of the opinion that there is not at present sufficient agreement to justify taking a step of such major constitutional significance. That being so, it would not be right for the Government now to seek by legislation to incorporate the European Convention into our law, since we do not ourselves consider that the case for this has been made out.


My Lords, while thanking him for his reply, may I ask the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack to be a little more forthcoming? While I recognise that the Government have had many other problems to face, is it not a fact that four months have elapsed since a decision of this House in favour of a Bill of Rights on the lines indicated in my Question? Am I to understand that Her Majesty's Government have decided definitely in principle against a Bill of Rights of this nature and, if so, have they any alternative to propose?


My Lords, certainly the Government have not decided in principle against the proposal, which is obviously a matter of very great importance in view of the general concern about the maintenance of individual liberties, but we do not detect any movement of opinion in favour of this particular claim to strengthen the rights of the individual. But of course we are prepared to see how opinion develops in this field, and in the meantime I congratulate the noble Lord on his pertinacity in pursuing his own particular approach to this matter.


My Lords, would my noble and learned friend agree that as there will be an election in six months' time—

A noble Lord

Says you!


—it would be highly desirable that the Government should use the intervening period to introduce such a desirable Bill?


My Lords, while noting with interest the forecast of my noble friend of future events, I prefer to follow the advice of a great American who said it is always dangerous to prophesy, especially about future events, so I cannot pursue him in that direction. There was clearly a division of opinion in your Lordships' House when we last debated this matter; it was not quite as equally or nearly equally balanced as it was among those who took part in the Select Committee. There has been no significant change of opinion in regard to this matter and therefore I do not think it right that the present Government—who, as I say, are not convinced that this is a useful measure for the protection of individual liberty—should promise legislation at this stage.


My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that we on the committee asked for the incorporation of the European Convention into our law? Surely it is ludicrous that our lawyers should have to engage in a shuttle service between here and Strasbourg in order to deal with our own legal cases.


My Lords, the Government have allowed the right of individual petition to the European Court of Human Rights, and those who are not satisfied with the provisions in our own law are entitled so to petition; and that arrangement will of course continue. The difficulty is that the language of the convention itself is in such broad and generalised terms that it does not fit into our concept of what statute law ought to be. If it were incorporated into our law it would be liable to create both considerable disappointment and a great deal of litigation; and, curiously enough, as a lawyer I do not encourage the proliferation of litigation.


My Lords, with great respect to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and the words that he used, is this not less a question of strengthening the rights of the individual than of preserving the rights of the individual?


My Lords, I think that that is the hope underlying the measure, but in my view the rights of the individual in this country are as well protected as they are in any other country in the world. I hear doubting noises behind me, but I say that after some experience in various other parts of the world as well as in this country. Of course one must be constantly watchful, and I do not exclude the possibility of some measure of agreement internationally, and particularly within Europe itself, on lines which would be more suitable for incorporation into our law than is the European Convention.


My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack consider that the court at Strasbourg is more competent than our own courts to adjudicate on the matters which we have agreed shall go to Strasbourg? Secondly, does he also agree that if we incorporated the convention into our domestic law, the individual citizen could not be worse off, and might even be better off in consequence?


My Lords, I do not for one moment question the high quality of the membership of the European Court. It contains some of the finest lawyers in Europe; of that there is no doubt. However, I repeat my concern that if the provisions of the convention, with its broad and general statements of principle, were embodied in our law, much confusion and difficulty would result, and I maintain that on matters of substance the individual is protected. If there is evidence of an area where there is inadequate protection, Parliament should legislate forthwith to deal with that.


My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish TUC has constantly pressed for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, and that the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights in Northern Ireland has repeatedly refrained from that course and has recommended that there should be a Bill of Rights for the whole of the United Kingdom? Therefore, does my noble and learned friend agree that there is some pressure for this course of action, and that there is a majority of this House in favour of a Bill of Rights for the whole of the United Kingdom?


My Lords, it is quite true that the recommendation to which my noble friend refers has emerged from Northern Ireland; and I appreciate the value of the work carried out by my noble friend and his colleagues in that field. While there was a majority in this House of 56 votes to 30, the debate itself showed a division of opinion right across parties. I recall, for instance, a distinguished speech from one of the occupants of the Opposition Front Bench, and there were other differing views right across parties on this very difficult issue. There are no easy answers to the difficulties that have to be faced, but I still consider that it would be unwise to proceed down the road suggested without the matter first receiving a greater measure of public support and acceptance than it has at present.