HL Deb 15 February 1996 vol 569 cc717-9

3.10 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to seek the approval of Parliament for their decision to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg in cases affecting British citizens over the next five years.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, the decision to renew the United Kingdom's acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the court for five years, as well as the right of individual petition, was announced on 13th December and has been communicated to the Council of Europe. Parliament has been kept fully informed.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that she has not answered the Question? I did not ask whether Parliament had been informed. I asked whether the agreement of Parliament to this substantial transfer of authority had been obtained. Is my noble friend aware that it has not been obtained? Yet it is still possible for this body, this so-called court, to impose a charge on the British taxpayer at the moment at an annual rate of £40 million. Surely it is for Parliament to approve or disapprove of such a proposition.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend. This has been a matter of discussion for over 30 years. I was unaware that he thought that renewal of the optional articles required parliamentary approval. In those 30 years renewal has never been the subject of advance debate or scrutiny. A similar Question received Written Answer in the other place. There was an exchange with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on 7th December. Subsequently a Question was tabled in the other place on 10th January and in your Lordships' House on 29th January. Perhaps I can point out that we are talking about the European Court of Human Rights. We contribute £2.25 million annually towards the administering of the convention which covers both the Commission and the Court of Human Rights.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, I accept that in the early days it was sensible to adopt the jurisdiction for a limited period. What is now the objection to adopting it indefinitely?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I understand the point made by the noble and learned Lord. However, we are looking for improvements in the procedures. While those improvements to the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights are being discussed, it is right to renew for only a limited period.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are immensely strong reasons for enabling our own courts to try cases under the convention? The reasons so far given for not doing so have convinced few people. Will the Government open their mind to that point?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I know that my noble friend feels strongly about this matter and I have some sympathy. We must look again at the situation. However, we must also look at improvements in the fact-finding procedures in Strasbourg. We must ensure that the quality of judges in the new permanent court and the procedures for their selection are top rate. We are looking for worthwhile improvements and that matter will be considered.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the Minister dissociate the Government from the phrase "so-called court" used by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, sometimes there are misconceptions. The Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is quite different from the European Court of Justice. That is why the phrase "so-called" sometimes creeps in.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, in view of the fact that this Government—the Home Secretary, in particular—are one of the most unsuccessful litigants in the English courts, will the Government be looking for improvements in the procedures in this country in relation to judicial review?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, that has nothing to do with the European Court of Human Rights. However clever the noble Lord believes himself to be, that was not a clever question.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend answer my Question as to whether the transfer of authority to raise large sums from the British taxpayer should be a matter for approval by both Houses of Parliament, which it was not in this case?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, considering the amounts that are raised from the British taxpayer, £2.25 million does not seem to be in the "large sums" category. I must correct my noble friend. The UK contributes £2.25 million annually towards the administering of the convention. If your Lordships wish to discuss the matter, the usual channels will take careful note of that. However, I cannot say any more today.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, is it not a fact that until he recent perverse and stupid judgment in regard to Gibraltar, the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg gave almost complete satisfaction? Is the noble Baroness aware that not only Ministers but also the Parliamentary Assembly—of which I have the honour to be vice-president—are examining the guidelines in order to ensure that potential judges, unlike some chosen in the past, are much more versed in the law?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend puts in far better terms exactly what I was seeking to explain when I talked of improving the quality of the European Court of Human Rights.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell the House why British citizens have, at great cost, to go to Strasbourg to exercise their rights when, if the Government changed their policy, cases could be heard in British courts?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, that is exactly the same point raised by my noble friend Lord Renton a few moments ago. I said that steps to improve the quality of the system would be looked at.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will the noble Baroness elucidate an earlier answer to a supplementary question? She spoke of the "so-called" court. Which does she consider to be more "so-called", the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights, and why?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, they are entirely different bodies. I happen to believe that both have a rightful function. I did not use the word "so-called". I was attempting to clarify for the noble Earl, Lord Russell, how confusion sometimes arises and why people sometimes use the phrase "so-called".