HL Deb 22 November 1979 vol 403 cc287-95

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into a Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Wade.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

Clause 1 [Convention to be enforceable in courts]:

Lord WADE moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 9, leave out from (" shall ") to (" immediately ") in line 10 and insert (" subject to any reservations thereto by the Government of the United Kingdom ").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 1. As this is the first of the amendments, perhaps the Committee will be good enough to allow me to make three brief observations by way of introduction. First, I should like to express again my thanks to all those who took part in the Second Reading debate. Ignoring myself, I think that the debate was of a very high standard and, as those noble Lords who were present know, it lasted for nearly five hours. In my view, there was a combination of eloquence and erudition which did this House justice. But it became clear during the debate that the main issue was between those who were in favour of the Bill and those who were against it. Therefore I think that there will probably not be a lengthy debate on any one particular clause and I do not anticipate—although I may be proved to be wrong—a major clash during the Committee stage. Nevertheless, constructive criticisms were made by those taking part and I shall hope to deal with some of them.

Secondly, by way of a preliminary observation—and again I hope that I am forgiven-I wish to acknowledge the statement made on Second Reading by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, followed by a letter to me, which he said he would be writing, about the possibility of constitutional talks of an all-party nature on the subject of constitutional reform. I appreciate that he is not yet in a position to write to me or to others precisely, but I am able to say that so far as my colleagues and I are concerned the letter is receiving very careful consideration and is being treated with the seriousness that a communication of this nature from the Lord Chancellor obviously deserves. But of course the matter must take time, as the Lord Chancellor indicated.

Thirdly, with regard to the Bill now before the Committee it may seem a little surprising that the amendments are apparently all tabled in my name. This is partly due to the fact that I gave certain undertakings which I have to carry out and partly to the fact that one or two of your Lordships suggested very strongly to me that certain amendments would be advisable, but, when it came to the point and I said "Yes, by all means put them down and I will answer them", it ended in my being asked to draft them myself. So it is that we have eight amendments in my name. One noble Lord said to me, when seeing the Marshalled List, that it was rather like a game of tennis when one is expected to play from both sides simultaneously. I shall not press that analogy too far as I can assure the Committee that I do not intend to oppose amendments that I am proposing.

With regard to the first amendment, which I hope will be dealt with quite quickly, I explained on Second Reading that, when the previous Bill was before the Select Committee, Clause 1 of that Bill contained the words "Without any reservations" in line 9. Those words were appropriate in the context of the Bill as then drawn. They are no longer appropriate, and I mentioned on Second Reading that I would suggest that those words be deleted and that in their place the words, "subject to any reservations thereto by the Government of the United Kingdom" should be inserted. If that is done, the beginning of Clause 1 will read: The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, and Fundamental Freedoms signed by Governments being Members of the Council of Europe at Rome on 4th November 1950, together with such Protocols thereto as shall have been ratified by the Government of the United Kingdom, shall subject to any reservations thereto by the Government of the United Kingdom immediately upon the passing of this Act have the force of law ". I hope I have not made that sound unduly complicated but the proposed alteration I think will remove a possible misunderstanding. I hope it will clarify the clause and I therefore beg to move.

The LORD ADVOCATE (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

Before saying anything about the detail of this particular amendment I should like to remind noble Lords of the point that has already been referred to which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor mentioned at Second Reading. In the view of the Government, matters of such importance as this Bill should, if possible, proceed by agreement of all parties, and, accordingly, it is the Government's intention at a suitable time to attempt to set up constitutional talks between all parties to see whether we can reach agreement. That is of course a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Wade, has already referred.

With regard to this particular amendment, the Government welcome the clarification which it gives to the aim of the noble Lord and the relationship between what he proposes and the reservations, although we must of course reserve our position on the precise form and drafting of the amendments, and indeed their substance. This would be a suitable subject matter for the constitutional talks to which I have referred.


I have received the Lord Chancellor's letter and of course we shall be giving further consideration to it. The issue of human rights is a matter of continuing importance in every society and clearly it is a subject that is going to occupy Parliament continuously in the future.

So far as the Bill is concerned, this is, as we considered in the Second Reading debate, ground that we have trodden over in detail—I will not say "exhaustively" because clearly we are inexhaustible in the discussion of this matter. However, so far as I myself am concerned, I fear that my objections to the concept of incorporating the convention in our law remain, but, in so far as the noble Lord, Lord Wade, wishes to improve his Bill and to make it more acceptable to himself, then I wish him godspeed. I hope he may succeed in his endeavours but I am afraid that I cannot give him any more comfort than that. It may well be that, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said at Second Reading, the Bill will run into the sands in another place. If I may say so, I think that a Bill of this importance really merits Government attention, Government support and Government drafting. I say this without any disrespect to the excellent efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Wade, himself. So my view on these amendments is that we shall do nothing to obstruct them, but I fear that at the end of the day there is little hope that this Bill in its present form will reach the Statute Book and I am sorry to say that I, for one, shall not regret that fact.


I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord on the Government Front Bench one question about this letter which has been sent to my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones and to the Leader of the Liberal Party in this House. Now that the author of the letter is with us, can we perhaps ask someone on the Government Front Bench to answer this particular question? Is it suggested that the proposed talks should be on the sort of issues which are raised specifically in this Bill or, as I assume is the case, that they should range on rather wider issues?

The LORD) CHANCELLOR (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

I shall try to answer the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. I have not a copy of the letter with me, but I wrote both to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and to the representative of the Liberal Party. Having got into contact with their colleagues in another place, the first question is whether they think that talks based upon the wider issues in this Bill, and the desirability of having a Bill of Rights in this or some other form, are likely to be fruitful.

I do not think that any of us—either in this House or in another place—would like to embark on a purely cosmetic exercise which would probably take time and in which each side would be trying to put the other side in the wrong; so I am anxious to know from the noble and learned Lord and from the Liberal Front Bench whether, after contact with their friends in another place, they think it is worthwhile talking at all. If they think that it is worthwhile talking at all, then of course the question is under whose chairmanship and in what form the talks shall take place.

Thirdly, so far as I am concerned, any talks that they think would be fruitful, whether upon the detail of the Bill—the kind of point that was raised on Second Reading by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale—or upon the general principles of the Bill, would be welcome. My door is wide open. It may he that the Commons Ministers will want to take the labouring o'er. If so let them labour. So far as I am concerned, I am anxious to be as helpful as possible, and I imagine the noble and learned Lord opposite and the Liberal Party will take the same attitude. I hope they will tell me frankly if they believe there would be any value in these talks at all, because I am sure we do not want to waste our time.


If I may be allowed to intervene again, I have communicated with my friends in another place and I shall be communicating the outcome of our discussions to the noble and learned Lord when these discussions have been completed.


Without endeavouring to interfere in the slightest with the discussions which are taking place on a much higher level than my own, may I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor this question so that some of our minds may be clarified. There is already a Convention on Human Rights. Some of us know that an intention is afoot—at all events, the matter is under discussion—that the EEC as such should sign that convention. If that in fact materialises, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor feel that that has an effect upon our thinking, that in some way, directly or indirectly, if the EEC were to be a signatory to the convention, this possibly becomes a matter of our own law?


I think this would be a hypothetical question; I would require notice of it in order to give a considered answer.


This, happily, has always been treated as a non-party political subject; it is indeed one on which members of different parties think differently from their colleagues. We know the difference of view, for example, between the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and the noble Lord. Lord Foot. I find myself supporting Lord Wade, and, unhappily, unable to agree with what my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones has said. It rather sounds now as though the matter is being taken care of by the political parties. Will there be no Back Bench representation at all? Would it be possible for a copy of the letter which the noble and learned Lord has written to the Leaders of the other political parties to be put in the Library so that the Back Benchers of this House may have some say in the matter?


I certainly do not want to exclude the Back Benchers, but we are, of course, all members of political parties; even the noble and learned Lord below the gangway opposite is a member of a political party. One does make use of the party system in order to discover whether parliamentary progress can be made. So far as I am concerned, if the two recipients of my letter were to agree I would be perfectly happy for this information to be put in the Library. I do not know that in its present rather inchoate form it will help the noble and learned Lord, but so far as I am concerned there is no secrecy about the matter at all, and I am only too glad to enlist the noble and learned Lord's support, either formally or informally.


As an independent Member of your Lordships' House, perhaps it is impertinent of me to say so, but I must say nevertheless that I greatly welcome what we have been told today and indeed what was hinted by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack at the end of the Second Reading debate—that there is the suggestion that there should be a get-together between the parties on any constitutional issue on which the parties think they might possibly be able to find agreement. I feel that this Bill which is our immediate business this afternoon is only one very small step towards the improvement of our general arrangements, and therefore, although a Cross Bencher, I must say how much I welcome the initiative which has been taken and greatly wish it success.

At the same time, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Wade, has not been dissuaded in this House from going into Committee on his own Bill. I think it would be the greatest mistake if, because there was the hope—no more than the hope at the moment—of these inter-party discussions on any subject on which it is thought agreement may be reached, we were deterred from completing the business which the House, for the third time of asking, took one stage further in giving a Second Reading to Lord Wade's Bill a little time ago. I need not remind your Lordships of the hours spent by the Select Committee, the extraordinarily persuasive speeches made in evidence before that Select Committee on both sides, by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, at a later stage, by Lord Scarman and Lord Diplock, et cetera. It would be, to my mind, a very great mistake if we regarded this good news about possible talks as any reason for not pressing on and doing, as your Lordships' House, what we can do to have on the record a good Bill that this House approves of on this very narrow area of domesticating (if I may use the word) the convention and turning it from a little known international treaty into something that is part of our domestic law.

I make no reference to the warnings which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack gave us of the certainty that there would be no time in another place in this Session for the Bill to be even considered on the way to becoming an Act. That seems to me no reason at all why your Lordships, having given a great deal of time to this, should not give a little more time. I was very pleased to find that the amendments put down for our consideration this afternoon were all in the name of, as it were, the founding father of this little Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Wade. I hope, therefore, we shall be able to complete our business without too much delay, without any prejudice whatever to the wider and much more ambitious projects which from these Cross Benches I wish every good luck.


I wonder if I may intervene again, because there is a slight danger of the Committee being perhaps innocently misled by me into an assumption that there is now a firm commitment for all-party talks and all-party discussions. As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor frankly said, his paper puts up suggestions in a very inchoate form, and it may well be that the conclusion may be arrived at that there is no common ground on how best to proceed with the protection of human rights. There are various approaches to it. Some favour the setting up of a domestic commission on human rights to examine our law, to see in what respects it is said to be defective in any field governed by the convention itself. There are other suggestions proposing a fairly fundamental constitutional package of which a Bill of Rights would be a component part. I remember the speeches of the noble and learned Lord on this theme when he was in Opposition.

All I am seeking to say at this moment is that what is suggested is very tentative. If there were ultimately any discussions I would hope that my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner would take part. but at the moment I cannot put it higher than a tentative suggestion about an inchoate proposal.


I had not anticipated when I referred to the letter from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that it would lead to such an interesting discussion. My reason for referring to this point at all was that the noble and learned Lord had stated at Second Reading that he would be writing to me and others, and I felt it would be only polite to acknowledge the fact. I was authorised to say that what he had suggested was receiving very serious consideration by my colleagues. That was obviously as far as I could go at the moment. I think I should also add, in fairness to the noble and learned Lord, that his remarks were very tentative, because he was not yet in a position to go further. But I welcome the initiative which the noble and learned Lord took in that respect, and the matter is being considered. Nevertheless I hope, that, whatever may come about in the way of all-party discussions, the Committee may think fit to proceed with and, I hope, approve the Bill. It is with that in mind that I move the first amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.


For the purpose of hearing the Statement I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.