Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Bill [HL]
Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I have added my name to the noble Lord's amendment because I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and we dealt with the issue in paragraphs 1.41 to 1.44 of our latest report. Indeed, together with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, I was a member of the previous Joint Committee on Human Rights, when we made similar recommendations.
In our report, we paid tribute to the Government-it is important that tributes should be paid-for the way in which, during the passage of this Bill, they have moved in a human-rights compliant direction. One of the many ways in which they have done so, as we report at paragraph 1.42, relates to the two additional safeguards that have been included:
"First, there is a requirement that the Treasury report quarterly to Parliament about the exercise of the powers. Second, that the Treasury is required to appoint a person to conduct an annual 'independent review' of the operation of the asset-freezing regime, reporting to the Treasury which lays a report before Parliament".
The Joint Committee then states at paragraph 1.43:
"Safeguards which enhance democratic accountability for the exercise of counter-terrorism powers are clearly to be welcomed from a human rights perspective. Our predecessor made a number of detailed recommendations for improving such safeguards, including that the post of statutory reviewer of terrorism legislation should be appointed by Parliament and report directly to Parliament, on the grounds that a reviewer with a supporting secretariat within Government might suffer from a perceived lack of independence from the Government".
The committee therefore recommended that,
"consideration be given to amending the Bill so as to give Parliament the power to appoint the proposed independent reviewer and for the reviewer to report directly to Parliament, in line with earlier recommendations concerning the statutory reviewer of terrorism legislation".
Like the noble Lord, Lord Judd, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Carlile for the work he has done as reviewer. Nothing I am about to say should be taken in any way as a criticism of his fine work. In previous debates, I have made the case that important public appointments should be made at least with the advice and consent of Parliament, not only by the executive branch. I am not suggesting that this is an occasion when that principle needs to be slavishly followed, but it is one that has a great deal to commend it. In other states that I can think of in Europe and beyond, it is regarded as good governance.
I am not in favour if disfiguring Bills with too much unnecessary detail, and there may well be other ways than this amendment of accomplishing the objective indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Judd: that is, to enhance public confidence in the perceived independence of the reviewer.
When for 18 months under the previous Government I acted as the independent unpaid adviser to the right honourable Jack Straw, Minister for Justice, one of the requirements on which I insisted, and which the Cabinet Office strongly resisted, was that I should not have an office in the Ministry of Justice and that I should not have a secretary appointed within the ministry. The Cabinet Office could not understand why I took such a strong position. I said, "Well, I am meant to be the independent adviser and it seems to me important that, as a matter of public confidence, I do not have staff from, or an office located in, the ministry". In the end, as I said that I would not do the job otherwise, the Cabinet Office had no alternative but to comply.
I appreciate the reasons why that has not happened in the case of my noble friend Lord Carlile, and I can see arguments of convenience about security and confidentiality that would point in the other direction. However, if I am allowed, I would say to the noble Lord's successor that, whatever the fate of these amendments, I very much hope arrangements will be made to enhanced the perceived independence of the reviewer in order to enhance public confidence. It does not have to be done in the way suggested in this amendment: it can be done administratively, provided that sensible arrangements are made. So I support the objective of the amendment, and although I have no doubt that it will not be pursued to a Division today, I hope that the principle that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has made several times will be appreciated within the Executive. I am sure that they will appoint an admirable person without the need for parliamentary intervention, although I would prefer some parliamentary involvement in the process. That person, whoever is appointed-it is a matter of judgment and character-needs to act in a way that will enhance public confidence.