HL Deb 15 July 2004 vol 663 cc1359-61

11.24 a.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consult Parliament and the public before reaching a decision on whether to accept the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (enabling complaints to be made to the United Nations Human Rights Committee of breaches of the covenant by United Kingdom public authorities).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, the issue is being addressed in our review of international human rights instruments, the outcomes of which we intend to announce before the Summer Recess. The review was announced to Parliament on 7 March 2002, and has been the subject of various Questions and debate. Although the review was internal to government, representations were invited and received from a wide range of outside organisations and from the public. We have given these careful consideration.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. Can the Minister confirm that every other member of the European Union has accepted the optional protocol, as have the great Commonwealth democracies and 39 countries of the Council of Europe, and that we are the only major European state not to have done so? Is there not a powerful case for consulting Parliament on this—at least through its Human Rights Committee—given that Ministers are judges in their own cause if they continue to use their prerogative powers to prevent our fellow citizens having recourse to the United Nations Human Rights Committee for alleged breaches of the covenant by the Government themselves?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, as I said, the review was announced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, in March 2002. For good reason, its terms of reference were clear: to review the UK's position on international human rights instruments in the light of the experience of the operation of the Human Rights Act. We have had a process that has welcomed and involved representations from others. We have also been clear that the outcomes with the reasons will be made clear to Parliament. Therefore, there will be an opportunity for Parliament, no doubt through the usual mechanisms, to engage with the Government's decision in that respect.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, the majority of rights in the ICCPR are already protected under the Human Rights Act. What important areas are not covered?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, without wishing to add fuel to the fire, as was said in May, I think, most of the covenant's rights and freedoms are protected also by the European Convention on Human Rights. To that extent the covenant adds nothing, as victims of breaches have effective remedies in British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said. As he also said, in important respects the covenant is wider: it covers the guarantee of equality before the law and non-discrimination is freestanding.

The latter point means that if we signed up to this, an individual could make a petition to the United Nations Human Rights Committee on issues that are not within British law. That raises an interesting constitutional issue about the balance of the advantage or disadvantage in so doing. In practice, the lack of overlap is very narrow indeed. However, there are areas where the United Nations would allow access for issues which are not rights in the UK to be exercised or heard there.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the provisions of the European convention on discrimination are seriously defective? There is currently no freestanding anti-discrimination clause in the convention. In those cases in particular, there would therefore be considerable advantage, until the European convention is brought up to date, in giving the right of approach to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, those are some of the issues that the review, on which we are not yet able to announce a conclusion, explored; in other words, the extent to which there are deficiencies in human rights protections in the United Kingdom. Our broad position is that, in the Human Rights Act, our citizens probably have some of the best human rights protections in the civilised world. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is correct that there is not a right at large to take discrimination action. However, it is also debatable whether a right to take discrimination action at large is always desirable. I can, for example, think of arguments about whether there should be a right to take discrimination action because one does not have access to a private Italian beach.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I do not think that the Minister answered my first question, which was whether it is right that we are in "unsplendid isolation" in Europe. Can he tell us what it is about the United Kingdom especially that makes us uniquely unable to accept the optional protocol?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I shall check Hansard carefully, but I am happy to take on trust that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was correct in what he said in the introduction to his first supplementary question. I seem to be in the position of explaining that the fact that we are not necessarily in the majority on issues this week does not necessarily mean that we are wrong as a society.

The issue is essentially whether our citizens are suffering significant disadvantage as a consequence of not having a right of access to the United Nations human rights court. That is the real issue, and that is the issue on which the Government will have to come to a conclusion as a result of our review. I think that noble Lords have had a taste of the relatively narrow scope of the issue.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is not just a question of the extent to which these rights exceed those in the European convention, but whether Great Britain is setting a useful and effective example to the rest of the world in complying with our obligations under the ICCPR?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is correct that one of our aims is to set human rights standards for the rest of the world. Although I do not wish to prejudge the outcome of the review, I am not necessarily convinced that signing the optional protocol would make the most significant difference. What really counts is the reality of what happens domestically and the ability of our courts and of Parliament itself to uphold the rights of our citizens. Those are the fundamentals of the issue.