HL Deb 29 January 1996 vol 568 cc1225-7

2.42 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to withdraw their recognition of the European Court of Human Rights.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we have renewed for the usual five years our acceptance of the right of individual petition and the compulsory jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. We are unhappy with some recent Strasbourg judgments, and are initiating discussions in the Council of Europe to improve the way the convention system works.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that moderately encouraging reply. Is he aware of the fact that many of us very much resent the operation of this so-called "Court" in altering the age of entitlement to free drugs in respect of a male section of our population? Is he further aware that most of us feel that that is the business of this country and of this Government and that interference of this kind by a so-called "Court" is quite intolerable?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, as the Prime Minister made clear in another place on 7th December, the Government are certainly unhappy with some Strasbourg rulings. We are initiating discussions with other members of the Council of Europe and representatives of this institution to improve the way in which the convention works.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether a special protocol which derogates from recognition of the distinction over all aspects of the conduct of our Armed Forces may be made, quite apart from the derogation to which my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter referred?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we are attempting to change certain aspects of the Court. Protocol 11, which will come into effect in a few years' time, will mean that the right of the individual to take a case to Strasbourg will no longer be optional. We have accepted that situation by ratifying that protocol, but it would be inconsistent not to accept that right in the intervening period.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I was a little surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, say that he was moderately satisfied with what the Government have said on this since I was about to congratulate the Government on doing what they have just done.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I am grateful for that.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, perhaps I may add to those congratulations. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, successive governments since 1966 have renewed the right of petition. Although many of us have reservations about particular judgments made by the European Court of Human Rights, especially in the "Death on the Rock" case, which seemed a most unfortunate judgment, is the Minister aware that there is nevertheless widespread support throughout the country for the right of access to the European Court, especially given that we do not have a British Bill of Rights which could be interpreted and applied by British judges? I wonder whether the noble Lord appreciates that the case referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, had nothing to do with the European Court of Human Rights; it was the European Court of Justice which dealt with prescription charges.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments. We have no quarrel with the European Convention on Human Rights. Flawed judgments by the Court were not sufficient to justify the very serious step of withdrawing.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind that, as my noble friend just said, we have no quarrel with the European Convention on Human Rights, which we signed 40 years ago, would it not be better and achieve greater justice in cases where justice is needed if jurisdiction were given to our own courts to hear cases under the convention?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I do not see that that is relevant to this Question.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it would be unfortunate if there were to be any confusion between the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice? Does he accept that many of us who might conceivably approve in normal circumstances of the European Court of Human Rights have strong reservations about the European Court of Justice?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, that is slightly wide of the Question, but I am well aware of the noble Lord's strong reservations.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we should get back to the flavour of the month, which is education? What is his comment upon the fact that, owing to a mistaken and foolish judgment of the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights, corporal punishment in our schools was abolished, with the result that we have all seen?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I think that we are going even wider of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to some change which he expects will take place in a few years time. What change does he expect and how many years will it take?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the changes which are being negotiated at the moment are designed to improve fairness and ensure that all factors are taken into account. The discussions will concentrate on fact finding; procedures for the new full-time court to be set up in a few years under Protocol 11; the replacement of the present part-time commission and court; and ensuring the quality of judges In the new court and procedures for their selection. It will come into effect one year after ratification by all countries in the Council of Europe, which will probably be 1998.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the noble Lord recall that on more than one occasion your Lordships' House has agreed to the incorporation of the European Convention into British law? Does he agree that it will be a good thing to have the other place follow the House of Lords in this matter?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I can hardly comment upon what should happen in the other place.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the noble Lord make it absolutely clear, because he did not do so in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that the case referred to by his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter did not relate to the Court of Human Rights but was a case brought and declared upon by the European Court of Justice, arising from a European directive made in 1979?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I can confirm what the noble Lord just said.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that any court whose judgments were all acceptable to this country might risk being construed in other places as lacking in impartiality?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I believe that I can agree with the noble Lord, but, on the other hand, if one has decisions with which one is not happy one is entitled to say so.