HL Deb 19 November 1992 vol 540 cc714-6

3.17 p.m.

Lord Kirkhill asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend that Parliament should incorporate the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights into the domestic law of the United Kingdom, and if not, why not.

Earl Ferrers

No, my Lords. The Government are fully committed to the principles of human rights but we consider that it should be Parliament rather than the judiciary which determines how human rights are best secured.

Lord Kirkhill

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply, which was predictable. It reflects the Government's long-standing view. Does the noble Earl agree that a person who has made his submission in the United Kingdom domestic court at considerable expense to himself and feels aggrieved can take his case to the Commission of the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg where the judges are able to invoke the articles of the convention? Does he further agree that as a consequence that submission is frequently upheld and then, in the United Kingdom context, his submission is sustained? Will he accept, therefore, that on the one hand our judges have one hand tied behind their back and, on the other, the aggrieved person has too much difficulty in seeking justice?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the individual person can always seek justice. It may be difficult if one has to go to a European court or commission but it can be done. The view we take is that the incorporation of the convention would undermine our constitutional tradition. Parliament has supreme responsibility for enacting and changing our laws. Therefore, while we are in accord with the convention and have signed and ratified it, because Parliament is supreme we do not believe that it is right to put it into legislation.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, I accept completely what my noble friend says about the position of Parliament and the duties of the judiciary. Will he accept that it would save a great deal of time and money were British judges able to give effect to some of the provisions in the human rights convention? Would they not then be able to do it with a knowledge of British conditions?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that could well be the case but the fact is that Parliament makes the laws. If we were to put such a procedure into our laws we would end up with judges in the High Court determining whether or not matters which Parliament has decided are within the European legislation.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, is the Minister aware that at present British citizens who believe that their rights have been infringed can appeal to the European Court and the Commission? In that sense Parliament already acknowledges that human rights are protected by a court. The problem is that the court is in Strasbourg and it takes hundreds of thousands of pounds and many years for British subjects to have their rights redressed. Might not the rights of British subjects be more immediately and inexpensively redressed in British courts by British judges?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is true that to go to the European Court takes a long time and is sometimes expensive. However, that is the route by which the European Convention is applied. It would be a difficult process to try to change that method and introduce it into our courts.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, this is a complicated subject which we have debated on a number of occasions. Is the Minister aware that some of us agree with his comments about remaining uneasy about the responsibilities which this would put on our judges, rather than on Parliament, to say what a new law is "on the spot", as it were? Does the Minister agree that as a consequence there is a risk that, as in America, the social and political views of our judges might become matters of public interest?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is, not for the first time, 100 per cent. right. If the judges have to determine matters of political substance, which is normally determined by Parliament, they could find themselves in an uneasy and uncomfortable position.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, if the Minister and the Government agree that Parliament is supreme, why are they proposing to bring back the Maastricht Bill, which will make Parliament less supreme?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I was wondering how on earth the noble Lord would manage to introduce the Maastricht Treaty. If Parliament is supreme and I believe that even the noble Lord will agree that it is and if Parliament decides to agree to the Maastricht Treaty, Parliament will remain supreme.

Lord Monson

My Lords, in the light of the case reported last Saturday in which, apparently under pressure from the European Court, British taxpayers were obliged to fork out the preposterous sum of £8,000 to compensate someone for having been caned on one occasion at a private school nine years ago, does the Minister agree that there is something to be said for distancing ourselves from the European concept of justice rather than binding ourselves more closely to it, given that our concept of what is right and wrong evidently differs considerably from the continent al concept?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not know that we want to distance ourselves from European justice, but the noble Lord might want to distance himself from the result of one particular case.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is it not a fact that the United Kingdom is the only one of the 23 member countries of the Council of Europe which has no written constitution or enforceable Bill of Rights? Should we not be taking appropriate and rapid steps in that direction?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord's figures may be correct. However, other countries in Europe have different constitutions, but we find that the way in which we run our country is the best.

Lord Kirkhill

My Lords, does the Minister recollect that the United Kingdom was the first signatory to the convention? Does he agree that the perhaps unfortunate consequence of the articles of the convention being outwith the United Kingdom domestic court jurisdiction causes the frequent overturn of our judges' decisions?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that we were one of the first to sign the convention. Indeed, we played a major part in drawing it up. All legal arrangements have their own complexities and problems. We believe that the way that we use the European Convention suits this country best without involving ourselves with the legal problems to which the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, referred and by not incorporating a Bill of Rights within our constitution.

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