HL Deb 17 May 1988 vol 497 cc257-62

7.39 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th April be approved. [23rd Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that this draft order be agreed to.

The order provides that the members of the European Committee to be established in accordance with Article 1 of the Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment shall enjoy the appropriate privileges and immunities to enable them to exercise their functions under the convention.

The task of the committee will be to arrange visits to places of detention in order, in the terms of Article 1 of the convention: to examine the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty with a view to strengthening, if necessary, the protection of such persons from torture and from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

Parties to the convention are required to offer the members of the committee every facility in the performance of their tasks, in particular by giving them access at any time to any place where persons may be held (for instance, police stations, prisons and hospitals) and the opportunity to interview detainees in private and likewise their families, legal representatives and doctors.

Apart from periodic or routine visits in the territory of each contracting party, the committee may organise any ad hoc visits warranted. After each visit the committee will communicate its findings and recommendations to the party concerned. This procedure is confidential.

This non-judicial and confidential procedure is designed to assist governments in treating detainees properly. It aims at co-operation between the committee and the state concerned, not the latter's conviction by a judicial authority.

If this committee is to be able to carry out its task fearlessly and impartially, it is vital that its members be accorded certain privileges and immunities, not for their personal benefit, but in order to safeguard the independent exercise of their functions and free them from any constraints in carrying out their duties.

This order accordingly provides for the members, whilst performing their official duties, to have some of the privileges and immunities accorded to a head of a diplomatic mission, such as immunity from legal action, immunity from personal arrest or detention, inviolability of documents and papers and inviolability of personal baggage.

The convention has been signed by all 21 member states of the Council of Europe and three have already ratified it (Turkey, Malta and Ireland). The order before the House will enable the United Kingdom to ratify it. I understand that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments have examined the order and commented favourably on it. This convention will serve as a signal to other regions of the world of European commitment to stamp out torture. Let us hope that it will eventually lead to the elimination throughout the world of this terrible violation of human dignity. I commend the convention and the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th April be approved. [23rd Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Glenarthur.)

7.42 p.m.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, for his explanation of this important new order which provides a new mechanism for dealing with torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

It was in the late part of the 18th century or in the early part of the 19th century when Voltaire said how splendid it was that the use of torture had ceased to be an instrument of Government activity and action. How wrong he proved to be! The United Nations passed a resolution in December 1986 which expressed its sincerest concern about the: alarming number of reported cases of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment taking place in various parts of the world". That is the sombre reality. In a statement to the Commission on Human Rights in February of this year the United Kingdom delegate, my old friend Henry Steele, if I may call him that, said: So long as torture continues to be widely used—and recognition of the fact that it is widely used is inescapable—it is clearly essential that the Special Rapporteurs Mandate on Torture should be continued. So that is a measure of the gravity of this matter.

This year's report of Amnesty International, which has done valuable work in exposing and fighting against torture, alleges that torture is practised in the countries of over one-third of the members of the United Nations. So it is a grave challenge to human dignity, liberty and to international decency. Therefore I would hasten to congratulate the Government upon their decision to bring this order forward. It will have a great value in that by conferring immunities on members of the European Committee to which the noble Lord referred, the order will enable the Government to become a party to the convention which they have already signed and in the creation of which the Government—I give credit to them for this—have played an important part.

As the noble Lord has indicated, the convention is unique among both regional and international instruments dealing with torture in setting up this committee of elected members to conduct, as he has said, on-site visits to places such as prisons, and possibly even police station cells, where people are deprived of their liberty under the jurisdiction of the states which are parties to the convention.

This is therefore a very important order with very important implications indeed for this country and for prisoners, in that it will enable the members of the committee to enter these places and make their report. I am not very clear as to whom the committee is to report or the extent of confidentiality of its proceedings. It is clearly very important that the committee should be provided with adequate resources for its important and difficult work. It will also be very important that the Government should be able to ensure that access to the committee is available to those who might have complaints to bring forward under the terms of the convention. Perhaps the noble Lord will indicate how it is hoped that this access is to be ensured.

Finally, it is very important, of course, that the committee should be provided with adequate resources for its important and difficult work. In short, I believe that this is a most important step that the Government have taken in the advancement of human rights, and I am happy to be associated with it and to support it.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I rise to welcome this order to establish a European committee for the prevention of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The order also concerns the immunities and privileges for this committee. I do not want to delay for too long the passage of the order, but I hope that the Minister can clear my mind on a few points.

How will the committee members be chosen? I understand that the bureau of the European Assembly will be involved and that there is also a mention of expert advisers. But what tests will be applied to establish this good and just list? How large will it be as it will come from the 21 different nations of Europe? How will the committee members choose their visits, and on what criteria, or is this to be a roving commission?

How many countries have to ratify before the committee goes to work? It could be years, could it not? There are three countries which have ratified so far, and four if we pass this order tonight. One recognises that the few countries that ratify signify that their doors and their frontiers are open. That in itself is indeed a welcome step forward in combating torture in Europe.

As regards how the members will choose their visits, suspected punishment and torture will of course be the test. But are there to be any guidelines for their work? What happens in the case of newspaper and media exaggeration? I know from experience that that often happens in this sphere of alleged torture. Will this form of highlighting an alleged act or incident be the signal for the committee to act?

I should also like to know what Amnesty International's role will be after this committee has been established. Of course, Amnesty International will be totally free in its operations and activities outside the European countries that are subject to this committee's work. The Minister may well say that he has no responsibility for Amnesty International. But what will happen if Amnesty International intrudes on the work of the convention and affects the 21 European member states covered by it? Will Amnesty International and the committee co-operate and work together, or will they work separately but in parallel? In the latter case, we shall have two torture-examining bodies working within the 21 countries.

Amnesty International might decide alternatively to raise its profile within the 21 states, to heighten or at least maintain its international profile. It might well try to be more unduly active than has hitherto been the case, ferreting to keep itself alive in Europe. I warn it that to do so will damage its reputation. How exactly will the two organisations perform within the 21 states?

Welcome as this development is, especially in the light of the committee's diplomatic immunity and ability to travel to visit institutions on an ad hoc basis, I hope there will be no confusion between the operations of Amnesty International and the new committee. Above all, in this sensitive field there should be no competition which, in the end, would only result in the hounding of the various institutions, subject to investigation within the 21 states. The order has my blessing. However, I should like assurance on the points which I have raised.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will allow me to say that I greatly deplore his attacks on Amnesty International, which will of course be happy to work in a most co-operative way with the new organisation.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Foot

My Lords, perhaps I may say a word from these Benches in support of what has been said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones. It is a matter for congratulation and gratification that the Government have adhered to the convention. The only question which I wish to ask concerns a matter of fact. As I understand it, this order is made under Section 1 of the International Organisations Act 1968. That section enables representatives of international organisations and other persons to have conferred upon them by Order in Council certain privileges and immunities. Those privileges and immunities are to be set out and specified in the order. That is precisely what is being done here.

If one looks at Part II of the order and in particular at Article 4(c), one will see provided there that, among the other immunities conferred upon members of the committee, is an immunity in respect of personal baggage. I understand that to mean that personal baggage will not be liable to search or investigation. However, there follows a proviso which states that: the provisions of paragraph (c) of this Article shall not apply to any person who is a United Kingdom national". There may be a simple explanation for that which I have missed. I should be grateful if the Minister can explain why United Kingdom nationals do not have an immunity which is granted to all the other members of the committee.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, previous speakers have underlined the importance of the order and of the European convention which lies behind it. I should like to welcome it. I was particularly delighted to hear that the Irish Republic has already ratified the order.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, asked what kinds of cases the committee might look into. I should like to suggest a few. We have had too many prison riots in this country in recent years. The knowledge that the committee could, or would, visit might well defuse a potential riot before it actually happened. Again, in recent years we have had rather too many cases of abuse of patients within psychiatric hospitals. The committee might act as a preventive safeguard. We currently have far too many persons, who have been arrested and who are awaiting charge and trial, confined within police cells. I hope that the committee will be a spur to the reduction in those excessive numbers.

In recent years we have experienced cases where would-be immigrants—some of them asylum seekers—are detained in such places as Harmondsworth. Some of them have reached such a desperate state of mind that they have attempted suicide. I hope that the committee will help to eliminate those situations. Those are examples of the reasons for my belief that the committee can be active in the United Kingdom and do much good. I welcome the order.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in our discussion on the order. Although I very much appreciate the general concerns which have been articulated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, regarding torture in all its forms and the rights of people in detention to the provisions in the convention which apply to them, we are not debating the European convention as such. We are merely discussing the immunities and privileges aspects of the convention. However, I thought that it was important to allow the debate to develop. I realise that there are very real concerns, such as those expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Foot.

Many of the answers to the questions which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, raised are to be found in the convention itself. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Mason, will have a copy. It describes the details of the committee and how it will operate. However, perhaps I may answer the noble and learned Lord by saying that the committee will report to the state concerned. It will also report on its activities to the consultative assembly. So far as I am aware, that report will be made public.

Articles 4 and 5 cover the election of members. The members of the committee will consist of a number of members equal to that of the parties, and the convention will come into force when seven member states have ratified it. After our ratification, a further three ratifications will be needed. The members of the committee are to be of high moral character and known for their competence in the field of human rights.

As regards Amnesty International, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Mason, will accept that that is not in any sense a matter for us. So far as I am aware, Amnesty International will continue to operate as it always has. It is in no way affected by the order or the convention itself.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I am obliged to the Minister for that answer. There was no attack on Amnesty International. However, I wanted to clear up the confusion between the two bodies operating within the 21 states.

Lord Glenarthur

The two bodies can operate as Amnesty International always has. This is a totally separate body and in no way affects Amnesty International.

The noble Lord, Lord Foot, raised a technical point concerning Article 2 of the order. As he said, the order is made under Section 5 of the International Organisations Act 1968, not Section 1 of the Act. Paragraph 3(a) of the annexe to the convention reflects privileges granted to senior officials travelling abroad on temporary official duty. I am not sure that that answers fully the point that he made but it seems to me, unless I have got it wrong, that the provision relating to baggage would not apply to a UK national operating in his own country. That is presumably all that the order refers to in so far as it concerns people trying to deal with these problems as members of the committee in this country. I hope that I have got that right but I believe that to be the case. I do not think that anyone will be disadvantaged by it and I believe it to be perfectly normal. I hope that I have answered most of the points that have been raised.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.1 p.m. to 8.30 p.m.]