HL Deb 20 October 2004 vol 665 cc775-8

3.6 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the requirement (under the Human Rights Act 1998) for a Minister to state that a Bill is compatible with the European Convention was met in the case of the Hunting Bill when the Lord Whitty indicated at Second Reading on 12 October (HL Deb, col. 258) that he had made the statement of compatibility on the basis of an amendment which might thereafter be made to the Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government have repeatedly made it clear that the Hunting Bill is compatible with the Human Rights Act, regardless of the date of commencement.

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making himself available to answer the Question at very short notice. First, does he accept unequivocally that, in giving the certificate of compatibility, he can look only at the contents of the Bill as it is before the House and not at any intended amendment? Secondly, after mentioning the general position on the convention, the noble Lord said: it is … true … that the issue of whether compensation is appropriate or not would be met by the amendment before us, in terms of the delay in the application of the main parts of the Bill. On that basis, I had no hesitation in signing the statement of compatibility".—[Official Report, 12/10/04; col. 258.] From those words, is it not categorically clear that he had taken the proposed amendment into account in deciding whether or not to give his certificate?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am somewhat shocked at the noble Viscount's selective reading of col. 258. If he read out the full paragraph, it would be clear that I was referring to the views expressed by the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and that, before I reached the part about the basis of general consideration, I said that, the Government consider that there cannot be a right to compensation for an unperformed or unenforceable contract", which is the very narrow ground on which concern was expressed by the Joint Committee. I then went on to say, quoting indirectly the Chair of the committee, that it was also true that she had made clear that her concern would be completely met by the amendment. It was on the basis of the totality of the analysis in that paragraph and not on the basis of the remarks of the Chair of the Joint Committee that I signed the statement of compatibility. Indeed, if the noble Viscount thought about the timescale, he would see that it could not be any other way.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that an important decision was taken in Scotland when the hunts went to court on the basis that their human rights were being infringed by the banning of hunting? In May, the Inner Court of Session in Edinburgh threw out that claim.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes, that is correct. Of course, I would not wish to imply that the Scottish courts could bind the English courts. Nevertheless, it is a pretty good indication of where the law stands.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that in relation to compatibility the Chair of the Committee on Human Rights has admitted that the delay in the application of the main part of the Bill until 31 July 2006 and contained in the House of Commons amendment was not in the Bill? Would it not be easier for the Minister to apologise for the error and just get on with it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I thought I had dealt with that point. There is not an error. The conclusion of the Government, in the Commons and here, and therefore in the certificate of compatibility given by my right honourable friend Alun Michael and me, is based on the Bill as it now stands. The point for the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights was that she felt that the anxiety on a very narrow point that her committee had expressed would be met by the amendment. However, that is not my view; that is her view.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Minister's response answered a question that I asked during the debate. There are two issues here with regard to compatibility. One is possession—we agree here with the Minister that it is compatible—and the other is vested rights. It is clear from the report of the Select Committee and from what Jean Corston said in another place that the Bill is not compatible without the amendment. Will the Minister admit that?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have not accepted that. Insofar as there is a vested right, it would relate to a contract which would be frustrated by the passage of that Bill or because there was not due notice of that. The compensation issue has been dealt with in this and a number of other contexts several times by this House and by Parliament as a whole. The restriction on the use of goods does not of itself constitute a breach of human rights and does not therefore threaten the compatibility of this Bill with the Human Rights Act. That has been the position of the Government throughout, before we even started discussing the date of implementation.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, in the light of his Answer, has the Minister looked at the Defra website, which has questions and answers about the Bill and which indicates that the reason for the suggested postponement of implementation is to avoid the need for compensation? Are the reports in a Sunday newspaper to the effect that Ministers are considering compensation for hunt staff correct? If so, can the Minister tell us when an announcement to that effect is likely to be made to Parliament, as opposed to journalists?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I spend a huge amount of hours on the Defra website but not on the Sunday newspapers. I can tell my noble friend that the report in the Sunday newspapers bore no relation to any decision or any impending decision by Ministers on compensation. Our view is that the Human Rights Act does not require compensation. That is based on our best legal advice and precedent. Clearly, there are benefits from the delay because hunts and others involved can make adaptations which will ease the effects on them. However, that is not an issue under the Human Rights Act; it is one of ensuring the smooth introduction of this Act.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Bill can never be enforced as drafted—forget the suggested amendment—without the sanction of the court?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not entirely sure that I follow the noble Lord. Clearly, enforceability of an Act is an issue which the House and another place take into account. I believe, and the House of Commons clearly believes, that the Bill will be enforceable and, indeed, we are supported in that in the view of the official representatives of chief constables.

There may well be a challenge in the courts to some aspects of enforcement. That is true of every piece of legislation, but an Act of Parliament is an Act of Parliament and must be enforced. I would hope that the noble Lord was not moving on to give some succour to those who oppose the Bill that it would be frustrated by civil disobedience. I would very much regret if that view was expressed in this House.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords—

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords—

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, I hope we can hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, is not the real reason for the 18-month delay that the Government do not want the Bill to be forced through under the Parliament Act, so as to come into effect before the next election? If the House denies the Government the 18-month delay, will the Government still use the Parliament Act to force the Bill into effect before the next election?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the triggering of the Parliament Act is a matter for the House of Commons and the Speaker, not for me. The main reason for the proposed delay that the House of Commons adopted was to give some time for the hunts and other people affected by the legislation to adapt and, it is to be hoped, to adopt less cruel countryside pastimes which would, indeed, give employment to many of the people currently involved in the hunt.

As I pointed out during the debate, it has the additional benefit that if, as some on the Opposition Benches claim, the country is really outraged by this piece of legislation, it has the opportunity to say so in a general election, but that is not the main point.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, is my noble friend concerned with the human rights of those who live in the countryside who suffer from hunt havoc and from hounds marauding into private gardens killing domestic cats, marauding over railway lines, interrupting the trains, and marauding down country lanes, frightening schoolchildren, as happened in Cheshire?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, clearly I am concerned about that. Regrettably, those on the Opposition Benches who laugh do not recognise that as a real feature of country life. However, there are laws to cover such instances. Regrettably, some country people feel intimidated by the hunt and its supporters and so do not invoke those rights.

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