HL Deb 28 October 1998 vol 593 cc1910-2

2.52 p.m.

Lord Goodhart asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they propose to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10th December 1948.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the 50th anniversary is an important opportunity to re-affirm the universal nature of human rights. Five decades on, the declaration remains a common standard of achievement for all nations and all people. We are working closely with the United Nations Association and other NGOs to mark the anniversary in the United Kingdom. This includes meetings, seminars and events covering the full spectrum of human rights issues.

We have encouraged NGOs to use the 50th anniversary commemorations to stimulate young people's interests in human rights. The Foreign Office has funded information packs for all secondary schools which have been enthusiastically received. We are also organising a conference—human rights in the 21st century—attended by delegates from about 30 countries. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary addressed an Amnesty festival on 16th October at which he announced a number of important new initiatives.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's recognition of the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why is it that Her Majesty's Government have in substance left the organisation of the celebratory events to the United Nations Association? Again, while I recognise that the Government have made a great contribution to human rights this year by what is shortly to become the Human Rights Act, could not the Government link that with the 50th anniversary? I accept that there is no possibility of bringing the whole Act into force on 10th December, but will the Government consider bringing part of it into force on that date; in particular, what is now Clause 19 on ministerial compatibility statements? Will the Government lay a commencement order before Parliament on 10th December bringing the rest of the Human Rights Act into force as soon as possible, and not later than 1st October?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, what a long supplementary question! The noble Lord raised several issues. This country is celebrating the 50th anniversary in an entirely proper way. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd have signed up to Amnesty's Get Up, Sign Up, campaign. I urge others in your Lordships' House who are so minded to do so. We held a seminar at the FCO attended by NGOs, academics, government officials and private sector representatives at which a full range of human rights issues was discussed. We also welcome a full programme of events being organised by the United Nations. This is an international event and 24 such events are being organised by the United Nations. I am happy to give the noble Lord a list of those.

The noble Lord raises other questions which I understand the noble Lord, Lord Lester, raised with my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd at a meeting yesterday. Mr. Lloyd was able to tell the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that a number of issues are being looked at now. For example, the Government have announced a review of the UK's position under various international instruments.

It is important that the Government have been pursuing those issues and the legislation to which the noble Lord referred. He knows that very well and he knows also that I am in no position today to give an undertaking that it will be brought in on 10th December. I hope that that is not a desperate disappointment to the noble Lord. I hardly think it is. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that in the reviews to which I have referred the Government are sincere in trying to look at their position in that respect.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, in linking that important anniversary with the Council of Europe, will my noble friend accept that it would be paying tribute to the post-war Labour Government who played such an enormously important part in those developments?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that all the appropriate tributes will be made. I am trying to impress upon your Lordships that an enormous amount of work is under way on human rights. I have referred to the various reviews which are taking place covering the additional ECHR protocol, the UN optional protocols and the individual petition mechanisms under the ICCPR, the convention on elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, and many other protocols which the United Kingdom Government are examining at present.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, while not associating myself with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in his supplementary question, I would like to know what position have the Government taken as regards the formation of a human rights centre in London which is being advanced by Amnesty International in order to give training on the proper respect for human rights, both to people in this country and across the world.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the pre-election consultation paper Bringing Rights Home canvassed views on the establishment of a human rights commission, as I am sure the noble Baroness is aware. The Government's priority is to give further effect to ECHR rights in domestic law so that people can enforce those rights in the United Kingdom courts. The establishment of a human rights commission is not, in the Government's view, central to that particular objective.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the clock has reached 15 minutes, which is half-way through Question Time. We must move on.