HL Deb 26 May 2004 vol 661 cc1420-1

8.46 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22 April be approved [17th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said

My Lords, the order is made pursuant to Section 1(4) of the Human Rights Act 1998. That subsection enables the Secretary of State to make such amendments as he considers appropriate to reflect the effect of a protocol in relation to the United Kingdom. The order is made to amend Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998 to reflect the ratification by the United Kingdom of Protocol 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights. The order will repeal the existing Part 3 of Schedule 1 to the European Human Rights Act and replace it with a new Part 3 containing Article I of Protocol 13. The ratification process requires the Minister with the main policy interest to lay an Explanatory Memorandum before Parliament for 21 sitting days prior to ratification, under the Ponsonby rule.

On 2 April 2003, an Explanatory Memorandum for Protocol 13, signed by the then Lord Chancellor, was laid in accordance with the Ponsonby rule. The 21 sitting days expired on 19 May 2003 without a call for a debate.

Neither Protocol 13 nor the amendment makes any practical difference to UK law on the use of the death penalty. As we all know, Parliament abolished the death penalty for murder in 1969. In 1998, Parliament made clear its view in a free vote that it did not want the death penalty for any offences, including military offences. The position reached on military offences was reflected in the Armed Services Act 2001.

Protocol 13 supersedes Protocol 6, which abolished the death penalty for most purposes. But Protocol 6 permitted states to make provision for the death penalty in respect of acts committed in time of war, or under imminent threat of war. Protocol 13 abolishes the death penalty in all circumstances. In international ECHR law, the provision for use of the death penalty in the UK during times of war and when under the imminent threat of war is abolished for all those who accept Protocol 13. Forty-two member states of the Council of Europe have signed the protocol, and 23 have ratified it. The United Kingdom ratified it on 10 October 2003.

The amendment under discussion today simply formalises the position in terms of the Human Rights Act. It deletes the out-of-date Protocol 6 and all references to it, and replaces it with the new Protocol 13.

As I said, the order means no practical change within the UK. It is somewhat of a belt-and-braces measure. It is the third layer of legislation under which we intend that the death penalty should lie buried. The first and most important layer, of course, was provided by Parliament's abolition of the death penalty. The second is provided by the international obligations that the UK has undertaken: first by ratifying Protocol 6 to the ECHR, and then by ratifying Protocol 13 to the ECHR. The third layer is this incorporation of our international obligations into the Human Rights Act.

Although the order makes no practical difference in the UK, it gives further evidence of the UK's unswerving commitment to the campaign for worldwide abolition oft he death penalty—a campaign in which the UK is in the vanguard. From time to time we are asked whether, in today's world, we should not review our commitment to human rights, and to the ECHR. We are told that times have changed, that new circumstances and new problems need new remedies.

I would remind those who may ask that type of question that the ECHR was forged in the determination that the crimes committed by the totalitarian dictatorships in Europe during the Second World War should never be repeated. Of course the world has moved on since then, and in Europe, at least, it has moved on mostly—-I emphasise, mostly—for the better. But that very improvement is due in no small measure to the determination of the peoples and leaders of Europe to build a better world, a determination embodied and encapsulated in the ECHR and now in the Human Rights Act.

To return to the order, the right to life is the most fundamental of all human rights. There are no circumstances in which the state should be able to remove it. The United Kingdom's rejection and abhorrence of the death penalty are now firmly established in our culture. It is surely significant that even the most brutal crimes no longer arouse a clamour for its reintroduction. That is an indicator of how attitudes have changed since Parliament first abolished the death penalty for murder in 1965. I am pleased today to be part of that process of social improvement by helping to consign the death penalty to history. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22 April be approved [17th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.