Human Rights

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 9:38 am on 27th May 1993.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Shadow Minister (Constitutional Affairs) 9:38 am, 27th May 1993

There is no magical bit of paper that can somehow defend our rights, and certainly a written Bill of Rights, although essential, is not a panacea. It can become meaningful only in a wider democracy, in which its values are accepted and practised by public authorities and private citizens. In order to build that sort of democratic practice in our country we need to take a long hard look at our democratic institutions and fundamentally reform them, and in some cases replace them, so that government at all levels can legitimately carry the stamp of democratic approval.

In essence, that means ending our long-unchallenged unitary system of government, in which all political power is decided in a winner-take-all general election, and establishing in our country for the first time a genuinely pluralist society in which many different centres of power are created, not dependent upon one another but each with its own electoral base and its own legitimacy, unafraid to challenge the monopoly of the over-powerful Executive in the United Kingdom.

That is the only long-term guarantee of our rights, ending the Executive's ability to control the Commons, to appoint the Lords, to select the judges, to instruct every local authority and to ignore Europe—centralised powers that would make a Stalin or even a Thatcher salivate.

Labour has crossed the great political watershed from unitarism—we no longer believe that we have the right to tell people what to do just because we are the good guys —to pluralism. There is a mature acceptance that people themselves should decide through democratic institutions what they want to do.

Since the election of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) as the leader of my party less than a year ago, Labour has committed itself to an impressive review of our democracy. We propose a Bill of Rights, scrutiny of prerogative powers, free-standing local government, elected regional authorities, a Scottish Parliament elected by the additional member system, an elected second Chamber under a proportional regional list system, a European Parliament elected on the same basis, and a thorough reform of the way in which this place works, in addition to a referendum on how we should elect Members to this the first Chamber.

Never again will an all-powerful Executive be able to control every facet of our political life. It is a frightening prospect for centralists everywhere, but an exciting one for democrats of all parties and at all representative levels of all parties. It is in that new context that the idea of human rights will find its home.

We are very complacent about our rights in this country. We like to think that abuses of rights take place elsewhere, but not in the United Kingdom. The reality is painfully different. It is almost so painful that we do not like to talk about it or even to admit that abuses exist. In a country with no clear list of rights, it is quite difficult to assess what rights have been abused. In a society that places emphasis on class and hierarchy, it is often the place one occupies rather than one's rights vis-a-vis other individuals that preoccupies many and colours their view of any abuse.

All that is now changing. Old certainties are breaking down, and old social structures and values have been dealt the death blow by Thatcherism, by the atomisation of society and by the exaltation of greed. A social and a spiritual vacuum has been created. We in this place need to put new values and new ideas into that vacuum. A central part of that will be to develop clearly understood and widely accepted rights and responsibilities for the modern British citizen.

Such ideas are not alien to this country, as many would have us believe. We were the first founding signatories of the European convention on human rights, a convention incorporated into the legal system of most of our fellow European nations. I am proud to say that it was a Labour Government who signed the convention in 1951 and it was the Labour Government of Harold Wilson who gave United Kingdom citizens the right of individual petition to the European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

To the present Government's great shame, Britain as a country has since been found guilty of breaching the provisions of the treaty more often than any other member of the Council of Europe. Today, seven cases are proceeding against the Government in the European Court. One has been awaiting judgment for five years.

One of the major flaws of the European convention's being interpreted in Strasbourg rather than the British courts is the time it takes for cases of human rights abuse in Britain to be heard. The time is currently five or six years, after a petitioner has exhausted all other means of redress under domestic law. Anthony Lester, a noted expert in administrative and constitutional law, has predicted that, in future, cases will take a minimum of 10 years to be heard, and perhaps as many as 15 if current trends continue.

The consequence of the long wait and the associated expense is that only those with the backing of large organisations or with substantial personal resources can make use of the only guarantee of rights available to the United Kingdom citizen. That amounts to the creation of a two-tier system of rights in this country. Yes, our rights are guaranteed, but only the select few can enforce them.

I make it plain to the House today that that is wholly unacceptable. An incoming Labour Government will incorporate the European convention on human rights into our law, so that cases can be dealt with speedily in the British courts.

In the interim—the Conservatives pretend to be serious about human rights and about the delays—there is a need fundamentally to restructure the current two-tier, part-time court in Strasbourg and to replace it with a smaller, single-tier, permanently sitting court capable of dealing with the ever-increasing work load. That is the solution advocated by the vast majority of members of the Council of Europe.

Unfortunately, a small minority of Governments, regrettably including the British Conservative Government, have already been guilty of blocking the reform process. The Conservatives' intransigence is now preventing a workable solution from being reached—a solution that would enable the court to resume its role as a Europewide guarantor of human rights and minimum standards.

It is not surprising that the Government seek to frustrate the European Court. Between 1970 and 1978, 12 cases were commenced against the British Government. In the subsequent 12 years, 29 cases have been brought before the court. There are now more than 30 landmark decisions, as a result of which our Government have been forced to introduce new procedures to protect human rights. We were forced, kicking and screaming, by the European Court to change our laws.

None of the decisions has been trivial; some have been fundamental. They include ending unfair press curbs, ending unjust restrictions on prisoners' access to lawyers, ending unacceptable restrictions on husbands of immigrants, ending ineffective judicial protection of mental patients and requiring new controls on telephone tapping. I say with a heavy heart that, in Europe's league table of shame, Britain has the worst record by far of receiving adverse judgments in the European Court.

Ministers will, of course, point out that Britain's dismal record is in part due to the fact that we have not incorporated the European convention on human rights into United Kingdom law. We are unlike other countries, where people have a remedy for human rights abuses in their own country. If that is intended to excuse the violations of basic civil rights, it is a woefully poor excuse. It begs the question why we have not yet incorporated the European convention or similar rights into domestic law, as is the case for all our close European neighbours.

We can incorporate such rights for others. In Hong Kong in 1991, we introduced the international covenant on political and civil rights. We can do it in Hong Kong, but, with this Government, we still find it difficult to do it in our own country. We are now the only country in Europe or in the democratic Commonwealth without domestically enforceable political and civil rights. Perhaps all the other countries are wrong. Perhaps we have found the answer, and perhaps everyone else in the world is wrong on these matters.

Labour believes that, if people have rights and freedoms as individuals—we certainly believe that people have those rights—there is no problem about writing them down. If an individual's right as a consumer can be expressed in a citizens charter, why cannot his or her rights as a citizen be expressed clearly in a Bill of Rights? All schoolchildren should carry in their pocket or purse a list of their rights as individuals. They should grow with those rights, and knowing those rights, so that they can become full citizens of our society.

The justification that is often offered by those opposed to incorporation is that, in Britain, every citizen is protected by rights and freedoms under the common law. But those rights and freedoms are ill defined and incomplete, and are not accessible to or understood by the average citizen. One needs a law degree to have even an inkling of the challenges that can be made, let alone of the detail of the rights. The extent of such rights is controlled by the judges and not by Parliament. That is unacceptable. The job of judges is to interpret and apply the law and not to make it.

Some claim that incorporation would create a political judiciary: it would not. Many judicial decisions made today could be viewed as political, but are made outside the framework of a statute explicitly defining people's rights. Far from politicising judges, the incorporation of the European convention on human rights and a subsequent British Bill of Rights would enable the judiciary to make decisions free from political pressure, thus guaranteeing its independence.

It is not as though our judges are incapable of deciding rights cases—indeed, many are themselves in favour of a Bill of Rights. The judiciary already makes decisions based on rights-oriented legislation, such as sex and race anti-discrimination laws, and there is no reason to suppose that it would be incapable of handling decisions once the European convention was incorporated.

If the Government are wary of granting judges the right to make decisions on basic rights, why do they not revoke the right of individual petition by a British subject to the European Court of Human Rights, where European judges make decisions? Perhaps the Government lack confidence only in British judges.

To suggest that incorporation would destroy the political impartiality of the judiciary is to display a shameful lack of confidence in those to whom we entrust the administration of the law. That suggestion is certainly odd coming from a Government who once sought to style themselves the Government of law and order.

Labour has no such worries about incorporating the European convention on human rights, although we accept the need for changes in methods of judicial recruitment and appointment and for an improved continuing education programme for the judiciary I hope that the Lord Chancellor's Department will take those comments to heart.

It is not as if the European convention is some wild, radical, untested code. It is a mature statement of rights that has been interpreted and applied for many years. The United Kingdom has in reality been subject to its provisions for more than 45 years, and its incorporation into United Kingdom law as a first step to a home-grown British Bill of Rights would merely ensure that all could quickly have the benefit of its provisions. It would make rights in the United Kingdom a matter for United Kingdom citizens and the United Kingdom courts, and would prevent the perpetuation of the notice that rights are some strange foreign European concept.

Incorporation would not be particularly complicated. Parliament would merely need to pass an Act incorporating the convention into British law and giving citizens the right to have the rules enforced in court. In that context, I hope to be presenting to the House within the next couple of weeks a Bill that would make incorporation a reality.

All Acts, previous and subsequent, would be stated to be consistent with the provisions of the convention. The exclusion of any Act from those provisions would require an explicit statement of intent. That would allow a Government—for example, at a time of national crisis—to pass legislation curtailing individual rights, but would also ensure that no legislation could be interpreted as breaching the convention unless that was specifically stated.

Incorporation will take place speedily under the next Labour Government and will be just a beginning. We shall then need to examine—perhaps by means of an all-party commission—a home-grown British Bill of Rights. I suspect that that will have to be the subject of my next Adjournment debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

For the past 14 years, we have watched the Government ride roughshod over our rights. It is time that the balance was redressed. Our current constitutional system of checks and balances is in no way adequate for what is allegedly a modern democracy. We need to re-establish the fundamental pillar of democracy—the separation of powers. We need to consider once again the balance between the powers of the legislature, the Executive and the judiciary, and a Bill of Rights will be central to such a re-examination of political and democratic theory.

Far too much power is placed in the hands of the Executive, without adequate restraint being exercised either by what is now a client House of Commons or by a House of Lords with a built-in majority in favour of one party. I take this opportunity to remind my hon. Friends that, although there is a tendency to regard the House of Lords as a quaint institution that has occasionally overturned minor matters of Government policy in the past 14 years, it defeated the last Labour Government 350 times.

We need to examine that situation before we allow ourselves to let pass any commitments on an elected second Chamber. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition said a week ago; the second House should be elected under a regional list system on the basis of proportional representation. The sooner that happens, the less likely it is that the will of the people as expressed in the House of Commons will be subverted.

Ministers have suggested that Parliament is best placed to protect the rights of the individual. At best, that is wishful thinking; at worst, it is worrying political naivety. We should remember the local government legislation, what happened at GCHQ, Zircon, the "Spycatcher" debacle, the broadcasting ban, deportations without trial: all are instances of the way in which individual rights have been diminished, ignored or abused. That list is in no way definitive; time dictates that I curtail it.

The fact that all the abuses that I have mentioned have occurred under the Conservative Government should not be taken to mean that rights need protection only under an arrogant Conservative Administration, grown fat from being in power for too long. Our rights should not depend on who wins a general election.

The rights and principles enshrined in the convention are far too important to be subject to the whims of temporary majorities—even Labour majorities—in the Commons or to unnecessary interference by public officials. Without the incorporation of the European convention on human rights, our citizens' rights cannot be guaranteed. That is the essential first step.

In the country at large, there is a feeling that Britain's archaic and dusty formerly democratic structures are no longer capable of meeting the needs and aspirations of its citizens. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the lack of protection for our individual human rights. The time has come for fundamental change, and incorporation is just one part of Labour's radical agenda for the democratic renewal of Britain.

Incorporation will come—either from a reluctant Conservative Government or early in the lifetime of a new Labour Government. Thereafter, we hope to build upon incorporation and ensure that we have a genuine well thought out British Bill of Rights, which I hope will command a consensus in the Chamber. If we can achieve that consensus and build human rights into our domestic law, our country will be far stronger and our democracy will find deeper roots—roots that will stretch to every citizen in the United Kingdom, who will then have a stake in defending and extending our democracy.