HL Deb 03 February 1981 vol 416 cc1102-6

7.4 p.m.

Lord Wade

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. It seems a long time since I first embarked on this subject. As to the Bill itself, if today this House approves the Third Reading, I calculate that I shall have gained a Second Reading in this House four times and a Third Reading twice; and in due course, if it finds its way to another place, it will twice have been sent to the Commons. I hope that that is an augury for the future. I am certainly grateful for the patience of all those noble Lords who have taken part, whether for or against the Bill.

Since the Report stage of the Bill, which was only a week ago, I have had the opportunity to read the report of the Lords Select Committee—that is, the 71st Report, 1980—on the proposed accession of the European Communities to the European Convention on Human Rights, and the outcome of that report is more or less what I had anticipated. Certainly the committee deserves to be thanked for its work. It recommends that the report be debated, but it points out certain technical and other difficulties in accession (if I may call it so) en bloc. In my view the report strengthens the case for the Bill which is before your Lordships. It certainly does not detract from the arguments which have been put forward for incorporation, as suggested in my Bill.

My Lords, I have endeavoured to avoid repetition, but for the benefit of those who may not have had the opportunity to read Hansard I should like to mention two basic issues—and I do so for reasons which I shall explain in a few moments. The first question is as to whether, in our present stage of constitutional development and in the complex society in which we now live, we ought to move towards greater protection for basic liberties and rights. This can conveniently be referred to as a Bill of Rights, hence the Title of the Bill now before us. Your Lordships will be aware that the Select Committee set up by this House to study my Bill decided that if a move towards a Bill of Rights was desirable then the most satisfactory way forward would be to use, or to make use of, the articles of the European Convention which have been signed and ratified. So that is the first basic issue. It is so well known to some of your Lordships that I apologise for repeating it, but I think it needed stating.

The second basic issue is this. Should the articles of the convention and protocols that the United Kingdom ratifies be treated as part of the law of our land and not merely as treaty obligations? There are many people who still do not understand this. If they feel that they are suffering in some way for some action that appears to be in conflict with an article of the European Convention, or if in the process of court proceedings they raise an article of the convention, they expect it to be a matter which the judge of whatever court it may be can properly regard as if it were the law. But what is contained in a treaty is not the law of the land. That was pointed out very clearly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, in the Second Reading debate. It is not necessary for me to repeat it; but the object of my Bill is to rectify what some of us regard as an anomaly. Those are the two basic issues as I see the matter.

I should like to turn for a few moments to Article 60 of the convention, which is also contained in the definition clause in my Bill. I refer to it for this reason. In discussions that take place among the general public about standardisation between this country and European countries, I sometimes find it alleged that the original position (in standards, for example) which prevailed in this country earlier is better than at the present day. I am not going to enter into that controversy; I am not going to say whether those arguments are sound or not sound. What I wish to say now is that there is no necessity tonight to enter into that controversy; it is clearly stated in Article 60—and it was deliberately included in this Bill—that nothing in the convention shall be construed as limiting the rights or freedoms ensured under the existing law; so we are not limiting existing law.

Returning to the basic issues—and here I explain why I have made special mention of them—I was interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in the debate on Second Reading. In effect, he said that a Bill ought to receive due consideration in the Commons if it has been passed through this House, and especially if it has been passed twice through this House. It is not for me to say what another place should do, but I should like to add this observation. If we are to have a single Chamber, if the House of Lords is to be abolished and no other Chamber put in its place, I would not expect those who support that view to be particularly interested in a Bill that has gone through this House even though it has been approved several times. But if there are those—and certainly I am one of them—who believe in the value of a Second Chamber, the position is different. I believe that the parliamentary system can only function satisfactorily if both Houses have an opportunity of debating basic issues. I take the view that this is such a case. I cannot do more than express a hope, but I hope that the point will be kept in mind in another place.

My Lords, I know that it is customary on an occasion such as this, when one has reached the Third Reading, for the sponsor of the Bill to express appropriate thanks at the end of the debate; but I should like to slip in three expressions of thanks now before I sit down. First, I should like to say that I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, because throughout he has constantly disagreed with me on certain aspects; and the fact that he has done so has helped to make for a more balanced debate. Secondly, I should like to acknowledge—and I hope that I am using just the right words—the courteous neutrality of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate. Thirdly, I must express my gratitude for the contributions from the Cross-Benches including, in particular, the three noble and learned Law Lords who made some very important contributions to the debate and who were extremely encouraging to me. Having said that, I hope that your Lordships will see fit to pass the necessary Motion to give this Bill a Third Reading. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

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

7.18 p.m.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, I should like first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wade, for his very kind words, and also to offer him warm congratulations on the way he has piloted this Bill and the earlier ones through this House and on the enthusiasm and constant determination that he has shown in this cause. Without entering into the details of the merit of the Bill tonight, there is one thing that I would say about its possible passage through the other place—and, who knows, the other place deciding to pass the Bill?—and that is this. It will be an occasion for at least some regret that there would then be no further cause for us to continue the "club" which we have formed, which has continued for these past few years and which has been a very enjoyable one.

Lord Wade

My Lords, if I may interrupt for a moment, I should be very surprised if there were no amendments.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, we shall see. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wade. I do not want now to go into the detailed merits or otherwise of the Bill, but I should like to take up one matter arising from what he said tonight about the possible future parlia mentary discussions on the Bill. First of all, your Lordships know and appreciate the reasons why we from this Dispatch Box—and I do not speak for my party generally because there are different views held—have not been able to support the Bill although we have also not felt disposed to seek to obstruct its passage through the House. As we have seen previously, the Bill has itself drawn support and opposition from the three parties—and indeed the noble and learned Lords on the Cross-Benches, too, have been divided on the Bill.

The matter it deals with, the whole matter of human rights, is clearly of continuing and crucial importance. We have all been united in upholding the fundamental importance of protecting and developing human rights. What has divided us is not ends but means. We have been divided about the best means, the best machinery, to achieve the ends which I believe we all seek. This is why there are differing views about incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into our law; why there have been differing views about the difficulties, as some would see them, which it would give rise to in our courts if it were incorporated, and why there have been differing views about whether or not the individual would benefit more from incorporation than under our present system. At the very least, continuing discussion of these matters is part of the responsibility of Parliament; and surely only good—certainly no harm—would he done by sending this Bill to another place. There would then be an opportunity for further productive examination of the great issues which arise from it—the arguments for and against.

My own party—like others—has been in the forefront of the battle to set up effective machinery to deal with human rights matters. We have strongly supported and welcomed the extension of the right to petition individually, and our view certainly has not changed about the importance and great value of the convention itself. It is right that these matters should receive full consideration. This is what I would be inclined to say in response to the point introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Wade, about future parliamentary discussion: if in another place it was decided to give further consideration to these matters, that certainly would not be unwelcome to us on this Bench. We would in those circumstances look forward to further progress in seeking the best means to advance the cause of human rights which all of us seek.

7.22 p.m.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, as your Lordships know, I have indicated on earlier occasions that the attitude of Her Majesty's Government is very strongly in favour of the promotion of human rights; but as the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, has pointed out, there are differences as to the way in which that can best be achieved in present circumstances. The Government's view is that the best way forward in this situation is, if possible, to attain a fairly large measure of agreement. That would be a matter which would be expected to be attained under the machinery of, first of all, talks between the major interests concerned, and then the promotion of a measure with detailed consideration behind it.

The Government's view is that the discussion which has taken place here has been extremely useful. As I said in the Second Reading debate, it is very remarkable how much new can be said after there have been so many debates on the same subject. I should like to join in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, to thank him for what he said about my "courteous neutrality". I believe that he has done a great service to the cause of human rights by what he has done in this House. It is not appropriate for me to say what will happen in another place or to discuss the procedures in another place. The present anticipation is that the amount of business with which another place is presently charged is so pressing, so great, that it is unlikely that much further progress can be made in this particular subject in this Session. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, spoke of this at Second Reading and the judge's dream. I was thinking afterwards that perhaps the words of John Bunyan might be appropriate: I awoke and, behold, it was a dream".

7.25 p.m.

Lord Wade

My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships. I will of course study what the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate have said. I have the impression, from comparing remarks that were made a year ago and those made today, that although perhaps cautious, there is indicated some movement in the course of the year. To that extent I am gratified by what has been said.

I note that the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, is certainly in favour of continuing discussion, and I gather that he would be in favour of continuing discission in another place. I have already observed that I must not say what ought to happen in another place, but when I refer to basic issues what I have in mind in a two-Chamber Parliament is this: the Second Reading in both Chambers provides the best opportunity for debating the basic issues. From that there follows a Committee stage and possible amendments.

When I said that I should be surprised if there were no amendments, I had in mind that if it received the discussion that I should like in another place I should not be surprised if someone thought of some amendment to send back to this House so our task would not be finally completed.

In view of the time and the many discussions that we have already had, your Lordships would not wish me to enter further into some of the underlying problems. I express my gratitude to all those who have spoken and I hope that your Lordships will see fit to agree that this Bill be read a third time.

Read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.