HL Deb 13 April 2000 vol 612 cc281-3
Lord Lamont of Lerwick

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their attitude to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights which it is proposed should be added to the European Union treaties.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government welcome the opportunity to draft a charter of fundamental rights. Properly constructed and presented, it could help to strengthen the culture of rights and responsibilities across the European Union. The bringing together of existing fundamental rights into a single document, endorsed by member states and Community institutions, will have a powerful effect in reinforcing in the minds of administrators, governments and legislators the rights that citizens possess and the need to respect them. The Government are committed to working with our partners to develop a document which meets the Cologne criteria, protecting human rights while preserving legal certainty.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. As ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights is a condition of EU membership, as every EU state has ratified the convention and as there are innumerable other international instruments which cover human rights, do we really need another charter to cover such egregious rights as the right to marry? Is the noble Baroness aware that although lawyers may be doing very well out of human rights legislation, many other people feel that, far from there being a shortage of human rights legislation, there is something of a saturation of it? Exactly what gap in the legal order of European states makes this necessary?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is a matter of great regret to me that the noble Lord feels that the right to marriage is egregious. I believe that the charter will help people and, one would hope, put a number of lawyers out of work because it is intended to reflect existing rights, to bring clarity and transparency, and generally to be accessible to all our citizens. It provides a way to consolidate existing rights and propound them in a clear document which is easily available to our citizens.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, my noble friend is aware by now that many of us have had quite enough of the transfer of powers from our own country to foreign courts, wherever they are situated in Europe, and that we have sufficient confidence in our own people and their own Parliament to defend their fundamental rights in the future, as it has done in the past. Is it not time that we took a more robust attitude towards this endless encroachment of unelected lawyers into our affairs?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, my noble friend expresses himself with his usual passion. However, this provision does not in any way represent an encroachment or extension of those rights. We shall preserve legal certainty; the charter should be fully consistent with the civil and political rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights; and it should not disturb member states' legal relations with citizens within areas of national competence. It must reflect existing rights. It is not a platform for new European Union competencies, nor a launch pad for new European Community legislation. This is not an issue which should disturb your Lordships. I would have hoped that noble Lords would applaud and welcome it as a most productive step forward. However, I suppose that I must be disappointed again.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, far from an encroachment on democracy, this is a great experiment in democracy? Does she also agree that national parliamentary Members are involved as much as Members of the European Parliament—indeed, in a ratio of two to one; that outside citizens are invited to take part through an Internet website and in other ways; and that it is an extremely interesting innovation in widening democracy? I believe that if Members of this House look at it closely and in detail they will wish to welcome, and not to condemn, it.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, once again, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness that the charter provides an opportunity for us to move forward and to have clarity. Noble Lords should be reassured that my noble friend Lord Goldsmith—if he is here I shall spare his blushes—is our representative and is a most able and persuasive advocate on Britain's behalf. Parliamentary Members from this country are participating, and Britain is leading the way with great sense and moderation.

Lord Renton

My Lords, would it not be better if the new charter were to replace the present convention on human rights and bring it up to date and correct some of its obscurities?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is not the purpose of the charter to amend the convention on human rights. We hope that it will be declaratory; that it will rely on the jurisprudence that has grown from the convention; and that, as a result, it will help to make the convention more clear, transparent and open.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, will the Minister spell out in a little more detail what benefits we would gain from a declaratory charter?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as I have already said, it is a worthwhile objective to make citizens, organisations and society more aware of their rights and responsibilities, really bringing Europe closer to the people. The interest already generated by this exercise is proof that a document does not have to be legal to raise human rights issues higher up the agenda. It is doing that. The successful development of civil society depends not just on laws but on the development of a culture which gives major importance to fundamental rights. It is hoped that the charter will be a good vehicle to enable us to do that.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether the threatened litigation under the human rights convention will be made even worse if the forthcoming European Charter of Fundamental Rights is made legally binding? In the light of that, will she guarantee that the charter will not be incorporated into the treaty and that it will not become legally binding?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I should make it clear, if it is not clear, that the charter will be put before the European Council. It will then be for the European Council to decide whether or not it should be incorporated into a treaty. We have not yet reached that stage.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords—

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords—

Noble Lords


The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, it seems to be the feeling of the House, judging by the vociferous interventions, that my noble friend Lord Goldsmith, who serves on the committee, should ask his question. We are a little short of time, but perhaps there will be time for the noble Lord, Lord Lester, as well.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the advantages of this charter will be to make clear also what are the responsibilities and obligations of administrators in Brussels when they deal with legislation, in the way that they have competence to do, so that they are required, in the same way as our own administrators, to respect fundamental freedoms and the liberties of everybody? Does she agree that that in itself is a good thing?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have no hesitation in saying that I absolutely agree with my noble friend.

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