Human Rights (Joint Committee)

Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 30th November 2000.

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Motion made,

That the Lords Message [12th July] communicating a Resolution, That it is expedient that a Joint Committee of both House be appointed— to consider and report on:

  1. (a) matters relating to human rights in the United Kingdom (but excluding consideration of individual cases);
  2. (b) proposals for remedial orders, draft remedial orders and remedial orders made under section 10 of and laid under Schedule 2 to the Human Rights Act 1998; and
  3. (c) in respect of draft remedial orders and remedial orders, whether the special attention of the House should be drawn to them on any of the grounds specified in House of Lords Standing Order 73 (Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments);
to report to the House:
  1. (a) in relation to any document containing proposals laid before the House under paragraph 3 of the said Schedule 2, its recommendation whether a draft order in the same terms as the proposals should be laid before the House;
  2. (b) in relation to any draft order laid under paragraph 2 of the said Schedule 2,
its recommendation whether the draft order should be approved;
and to have power to report to the House on any matter arising from its consideration of the said proposals or draft orders; andto report to the House in respect of any original order laid under paragraph 4 of the said Schedule 2, its recommendation whether:
  1. (a) the order should be approved in the form in which it was originally laid before Parliament; or
  2. (b) that the order should be replaced by a new order modifying the provisions of the original order; or
  3. (c) that the order should not be approved,
and to have power to report to the House on any matter arising from its consideration of the said order or any replacement order,
be now considered.

Hon. Members:

No!

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My understanding is that the Lords Message is debatable, and we on these Benches want to debate it.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I advise the hon. Gentleman that there is a further motion to be dealt with, and it might be more appropriate if he made his objections known then.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Some of us believe in debate and in holding this arrogant Government to account. It is clearly stated on the Order Paper that motion 5, which stands in the name of the Leader of the House and is entitled Human Rights (Joint Committee), is not debatable after 7 pm. I am capable of reading the clock and seeing that it is 6.39 pm, so presumably we have the opportunity to consider the important proposal that there should be a Joint Committee to discuss that matter. May we now discuss it?

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

In no way was it my wish to curtail debate on a debatable motion. I merely suggested that it might be more appropriate to launch a debate when we reach motion 6. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants to debate motion 5, clearly he is entitled to do so.

Question proposed.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office 6:40 pm, 30th November 2000

I agree with those voices in the House that say it is important to debate this motion. During the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government committed themselves to the establishment of a Joint Committee on Human Rights. That Committee was widely welcomed across political parties, although it may have caused controversy in some of the parties and in both Houses. The Lords have agreed to a remit for that Joint Committee, and the motion invites the Commons to agree that remit.

The Committee's terms of reference give it a wide power to consider matters relating to human rights in the United Kingdom. In that role, it will choose subjects and hold inquiries in the normal way. It will also have a specific duty to consider and report on remedial orders made under the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act preserves parliamentary sovereignty. The courts will have no power to strike down primary legislation on the ground that it is incompatible with convention rights, but they will be able to declare that legislation is incompatible with those rights. It will be up to Parliament to decide what action, if any, should be taken following a declaration of incompatibility. Changes to the incompatible legislation could be made through fresh primary legislation or through remedial orders.

Remedial orders will follow roughly the same pattern as deregulation orders. A proposal will be laid and consulted on, during which time the Committee can report, and then a draft order will be laid, which may or may not incorporate any amendments suggested by the Committee. The Committee will report on the draft order. There is also provision, in cases of urgency, for orders having the effect of law immediately to be laid before Parliament for approval and for amendments be made to them, if necessary taking account of any report from the Committee.

The Human Rights Committee is expected to play a role in examining remedial orders analogous to that played by the Select Committee on Deregulation regarding deregulation orders. It is not known how frequently such remedial orders will be laid, but it is hoped that they will be rare. However, whether they are rare or not, the Joint Committee on Human Rights will be able to provide Parliament with an expert opinion on them.

The Committee will be able to scrutinise legislation before Parliament to decide whether it is compatible with the European convention on human rights—especially draft legislation or that subject to a statement made under section 19(1)(b) of the Human Rights Act. However, nothing in its terms of reference compels it to do so.

The task of scrutinising statutory instruments for technical faults will remain with the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The grounds for objection to an instrument's vires have been widened by the Human Rights Act to include incompatibility with the ECHR. The Government firmly believe that human rights should be central to our considerations—I think that the current and cult word is "mainstreaming". Giving scrutiny of the human rights aspects of delegated legislation to the JCHR would run counter to that view, would swamp the Committee by requiring it to examine the 1,500 or so instruments laid in a typical Session, and would lead to duplication of effort.

When the two Houses have reached agreement on the principle that there should be a Committee and have agreed a common remit, we will bring forward detailed Standing Orders covering its powers. It may assist the House if I explain those powers. The Committee is expected to have six Members from each House, on the model of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. It will have the powers commonly given to Select Committees, plus a power to exchange papers with other Committees. Discussions are currently taking place about membership of the Committee. Following those discussions, the House of Commons will be asked to approve the membership.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Can the Minister tell us how the Chairman of the Committee will be elected, or appointed?. It would be helpful for us to know whether the Minister envisages any ground rules, or whether the matter will be entirely for the discretion of Committee members.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

It will be a matter for the House. Members will have an opportunity to vote.

I hope that, following my assurances, the House will approve the resolution.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 6:45 pm, 30th November 2000

We are delighted to have an opportunity to scrutinise the proposal. I note from columns 233 and 234 of the Official Report on 12 July that all that happened in another place was that the Attorney-General read out the proposal on behalf of his noble Friend Lady Jay. There was no debate, so it is particularly important for the democratically elected Chamber to scrutinise what is being suggested.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I certainly will, on this occasion.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope he is not suggesting that 14 minutes constitutes adequate time for the House to scrutinise something as important as this.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am sorry if I have not already made that clear. I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that the time allowed is inadequate. Nevertheless, we think it important to debate the motion. I was delighted to hear the Minister agree, when we raised our points of order with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it was debatable and should be debated.

As I have said, I agree with my right hon. Friend that the time remaining is inadequate. For that reason, the House may decide that further debates are needed in a later Session.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Surely the reason that we have any time at all is, in a sense, an accident. It is difficult for the Minister to suggest the existence of any credibility for the debate when the remaining minutes are not only few but accidental. It does not look as if the Government were over the moon about their attempt to give the House an opportunity for debate.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This may be another example of a happy coincidence calling the Government to account, and my right hon. Friend was justified in suggesting as much. However, Conservative Members are determined to use what time is left to seek to hold the Government to account.

Ever since the Government incorporated the European convention on human rights into our legislation, Conservative Members have repeatedly questioned them about the cost of implementation to the taxpayer. Throughout the process, the Government have said that the cost will be negligible. In questions to both the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor's Department, I have repeatedly suggested that the Government woefully underestimated that cost. Because of our feeling that the Government horrendously underestimated it, we are especially delighted to have the opportunity to examine the further piece of parliamentary bureaucracy that the Government propose in the establishment of the Joint Committee.

Photo of Ms Jean Corston Ms Jean Corston Labour, Bristol East

Is it not extraordinary that Conservative Members should complain that there was a short debate this evening? In 1995, a Conservative Government—incidentally, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was a Minister then—

Photo of Ms Jean Corston Ms Jean Corston Labour, Bristol East

So the right hon. Gentleman says; others may have a different view. Anyway, that Government incorporated article 2 of the convention without any parliamentary scrutiny or debate.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The hon. Lady is seeking to go back five years into history. I hope she will correct her unwillingness to describe my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) as a distinguished Minister, which indeed he was. When I was a new Back Bencher, I had the great privilege of supporting him in much of the valuable work that he was doing, particularly when he was a Minister of State at the Department for Education. He was one of the best and most diligent Schools Ministers that the House has ever had the pleasure of working with.

Government Back Benchers' churlishness in failing to recognise the work done by distinguished Ministers such as my right hon. Friend is an absolute disgrace. It is absolutely typical of them to say that they believe in human rights while being unwilling to pay tribute to the work done by my right. hon. Friends in the previous Government.

I should like to examine the terms of the undoubtedly bureaucratic innovation that the Government are suggesting in the resolution. I am one of a relatively small number of hon. Members who have sat—in the previous Parliament—on a Joint Committee. There are not many such Committees. However, the one on which I sat—which had many distinguished Members of this place and of another place—undoubtedly used to get tied up in bureaucracy.

One of the concerns that I know is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—which they may be able to outline in a moment if they are able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker—is that the Government are seeking in the resolution to impose an additional cost and bureaucratic burden arising from the Human Rights Act 1998.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way. However, I am also slightly confused. The resolution begins by mentioning the "Lords Message [12 July]". I presume that that means that the message has been in the hon. Gentleman's hands, or at least in the public domain, since 12 July. What representations have Conservative Members made, through the usual channels, to have a longer debate on the subject?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I have not personally been involved at any stage in my parliamentary career in what are usually referred to as the usual channels. I do not think the hon. Gentleman has ever been involved on behalf of his party in what are usually referred to as the usual channels. I therefore do not think that he can ask such a question, and I am certainly not able to answer it.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does my hon. Friend agree that a matter of this importance does not require requests for debate from the Opposition? Since when has debate in this House been something that the Opposition should request? When the previous Government were in office, we constantly had debates because we thought that subjects were sufficiently important to debate. The trouble with this Government is that they do not want debate on anything at all.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Of course my right hon. Friend, who has vastly more experience of how the usual channels operate than the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) or me, is absolutely right. The Government constantly attempt to bypass Parliament and to curtail debate or abolish it entirely. When we are considering the human rights issue, perhaps we should also be considering the human rights of parliamentarians.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Does my hon. Friend not think it odd—sinister, in fact—that something that arose on 12 July is being brought to the House by the Government only in the very last minutes of this Session? What does he think has been happening to the resolution in the intervening several months? Are the Government ashamed of it, or do they want to avoid debate? Why has it taken so long for the Government to bring it to the House?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

That is an appropriate question. The Government chose to have one of the longest summer recesses in living memory. This proposal was put before another place before the recess, and we could have had plenty of time to deal with it. Why should this appear today? Why have the Government been so secretive? My right hon. and hon. Friends will be pressing the Minister to respond if we have a further debate. If there is not time for debate, the Government could withdraw the motion and bring it back in a new Session—

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Or tomorrow, as my right hon. Friend says, when there could be scope for a more thorough debate.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot 6:55 pm, 30th November 2000

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office for his unfailing courtesy in dealing with the House, even if he is the messenger of some ghastly messages.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for at least telling the House what the proposal is all about. It is right that a matter of topical interest to the public—human rights—should be brought before us at the 59th minute of the 11th hour. That suggests that the Government wanted to smuggle this through at the last minute.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I said straightforwardly that we wished to debate that matter. The debate may not be completed today; it may be necessary to have a further debate at another date.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

The House will be grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for that, as there would be a wish on our part to debate the issues. Human rights and the way in which the law is developing in that area are causing great concern.

I wish to refer to the impact of the European convention on human rights on this House. I have said many times that it is deeply offensive to our democratic and constitutional principles in this country for the composition of Her Majesty's armed forces to be determined not by this House but by European Court of Human Rights judges who are not nationals of this country, let alone Members of this House.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Can the hon. Gentleman not say that they are foreigners?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. They are, indeed, foreigners, or aliens. They are manifestly not Members of this House. The Government are perfectly entitled to bring the proposal to the House for debate and a vote, but that was not the practice. The Government said that they had been handed down a decision by the European Court and they simply had to comply with it, as they have done without a vote in this House or in another place.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Joint Committee will not be able to look at individual cases? Is that not a major failing?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I am not in favour of these matters being addressed by the Joint Committee. My immediate reaction is that this will be a hellish bureaucratic procedure. For example, the order states that the Joint Committee will be appointed to consider and report on:(a) matters relating to human rights in the United Kingdom. That is a complete open sesame. What are we letting ourselves in for? Will we have to sit in permanent session, considering whether it is the human right of girls in school to wear trousers if they so wish, rather than the designated uniform of that school? Are we to—

7 pm

Sitting suspended.

On resuming

Message to attend the Lords Commissioners:

The House went; and, having returned: