HL Deb 22 March 1988 vol 495 cc93-4

2.53 p.m.

Lord Elwyn-Jones asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the Government have not ratified the United Nations covenant against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, before ratifying the United Nations convention against torture, we need first to introduce domestic legislation which would deal with the provisions of the convention regarding extraterritorial jurisdiction, and the definition of torture as including the causing of severe mental suffering. We shall introduce this legislation as soon as we can.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is it not the case that 26 states have already signed this enormously important convention against torture, which among other things gives the United Nations new powers to deal with such allegations? Is it not the case that the United Nations General Assembly agreed the convention as far back as 1984? Why are the Government dragging their heels? It is outrageous that we should be so backward in a matter where we should be giving forthright support. We must get our priorities right in legislation.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we have, as the noble and learned Lord will be aware, taken a leading role in the formulation of this convention. We were among the first to sign it although, as the noble and learned Lord will know, signing and ratification are separate steps. We have signed the convention and we are determined to ratify it as soon as possible. We shall do that as soon as we can make the necessary legislative provisions.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that Great Britain is seriously jeopardising its international reputation on human rights through not ratifying this convention? Can the Minister say why it is not possible to include provisions covering torture within the Criminal Justice Bill which is at present going through the other place?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it may be possible to do just as the noble Baroness suggests. I understand that some discussions are going on about that proposal at present. If that proves possible, naturally that will hasten the day when we can ratify the convention.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House a little more about his phrase "as soon as possible"? It would seem to many people that a great deal of legislation which is much less important flows through this House. What is preventing the Government from introducing this legislation, and what does the noble Lord mean by "as soon as possible"?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the legislative timetable is very tight, as the noble Lord will know. There are many major Bills going through Parliament at present, so I cannot be specific as to when the Government can introduce the legislation. However, as I said a moment ago, if it proves possible to effect this legislative change by amending the Criminal Justice Bill, the Government will certainly be very pleased about that and it will hasten the day when we can ratify the convention.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the legislation timetable is very tight because of the volume of controversial, unpopular legislation which is being driven through by this Government Does not the Minister agree that this is a Bill which would go through both Houses without difficulty and would bring some credit to the Government for a change?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I happen to think that all the government-sponsored legislation going through Parliament at present in entirely beneficial. I am certain that your Lordships will agree with that in due course. In the meantime, we will do what we can to find a legislative occasion on which we can enact the necessary provisions for this convention and then we shall hasten to ratify it.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind that this year is the 40th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and therefore is a most appropriate time for this country to become a party to this all-important convention? If I may say so, there was a certain lack of urgency about the Minister's replies. Will he now give this matter his urgent attention and will the Government do so too?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, nobody doubts that it is a very important convention and one which we ought to ratify just as soon as we can. However, a change in our law is needed before we can effectively do that, and that is as much a matter for Parliament as it is for the Government.

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