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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 8:18 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry 8:18 pm, 13th October 2008

It is a pleasure to follow Hugh Bayley. I listened to his remarks about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and I pay warm tribute to his contribution in leading it for the past three years. It is also a privilege for me to be the first Member on the Conservative Benches to congratulate John Mason on his maiden speech, which was graceful, gracious and informative about his constituency. We ask no more than that.

In a sense, this debate is a tribute to the power of democracy and to our ability to support each other even when we disagree with each other. I have found the insights that I have heard today fascinating and mutually reinforcing, from all the different aspects. I hope that the House will forgive me if my comments are a little more related to the legal side of human rights, because that is a personal interest and, as it happens, a familial interest of mine. I also have experience in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which I have found very stimulating and informative on this issue.

Looking back at the history of all this, we can see the roots in world war 2, going back as far as the Atlantic charter. It was signed by the two nations of Britain and America, which Churchill described as the great democracies. It was a reaction to absolutism, aggressive war and the holocaust. I think it was also an understanding of the need to temper the powers of the democratic state, which were exercised during wartime. It was also a celebration of the worth of every individual. It is about the respect we have for individuals and groups of people in our society.

I commend the European convention of human rights itself as a clear document that is well worth reading. It has a surprisingly strong emphasis on private autonomy, private life and private decision making. That is well instanced in article 8, which recognises the right to private life, but then says that it is subject to any overriding interest, whether it be of national security, public safety, economic well-being, concerns about disorder or crime, health or morals or, finally, the protection of the rights or freedoms of others. The default position in human rights law thus lies firmly with individual rights, and any derogations are defined only in strictly limited and specified circumstances. Bearing in mind the strong influence of British lawyers in the drafting, it expresses in codified principles the pragmatism of our common law, and it is in no sense a sanction for arbitrary acts by central Governments.

It is perhaps not without significance that the title of today's debate omits the third leg of the Council of Europe stool, which always refers to "democracy, human rights and the rule of law". Indeed, it is under the present Government that we have repatriated the convention and required Ministers to certify the compatibility of their legislation with the convention rights. Sometimes, they do not find it very happy when that is challenged.

Nobody has said in today's debate—but I shall—that there is sometimes a backlash against human rights, although not perhaps against the simple ones. We can all sign up to the fact that we do not want people to be maimed, tortured or subjected to arbitrary imprisonment. That is easy. The more difficult situations arise when there is a clash of rights or where we feel some sense that rights are being extended to persons who do not deserve them. That is not my view. Our problem is that we all enjoy implicit rights, but we dislike explicit rights being extended to people who do not suit—whether they be terrorists, paedophiles or even just foreigners. That argument can then turn up in the tabloid press, with a very unpleasant set of overtones.

As I just mentioned, those who drafted the European convention recognised from the start that there were limitations occasioned by public policy and that no absolute right was expressed in the convention. This rather difficult situation—the move from the easy rights to the complex rights—has, I think, been aggravated by a number of factors. This country has seen a huge growth in administrative law and judicial review. There has been a shift from concentration on individual rights—involving whether individuals are tortured or persecuted—to issues about group actions and groups of people, often fuelled by the media or by non-governmental organisations. The increase in challenges to authority is perhaps healthy. For example, whereas food rationing would have gone through on the nod as an administrative action during the war, if we started imposing a system of milk quotas now, that would nowadays immediately become subject to judicial review.

Where do we go now for human rights? The first and strongest point is that we need to be very careful about our own record. There is a wonderful phrase in the convention about the general principles of law being recognised by "civilised nations". I have an idea that the UK thinks of itself and defines itself as one of those nations. It is no longer any good, however, simply putting ourselves forward as a civilised nation, with the assumption that everything we do here is above reproach.

One really stimulating aspect of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is that it has 47 member countries—all in various stages of emerging democracy and with different traditional attitudes towards human rights. Whether Her Majesty's Government like it or not, those members can bite back at us. Critical reports were recently issued about the security of our postal voting system—already referred to earlier—and an outline report has been drafted on the 42-day detention proposals. That, of course, stresses the importance of process and safeguards. I am given to understand that the other place has taken a lively and, in my view, entirely commendable decision on that matter today—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] The concept is not confined to the Council of Europe, because some rights are universal under the UN convention, and they extend to other issues such as disabilities, the rights of children and so forth.

I am delighted to welcome the Minister for Europe to her new post and I am pleased to see in her place the Under-Secretary, who is going to wind up today's debate. I would like to provide them with a brief shopping list on human rights. I mentioned in an earlier intervention the importance of adequate resourcing for the Strasbourg Court and of following protocol 14 to improve process. I would like Ministers to look further into the whole business of Council of Europe conventions that we have signed but not ratified. A White Paper explaining why we have not ratified them—sometimes over many years—would be appropriate, even if some of them are no longer valid.

I would also like further work to be done on the responsibility to protect both the definition of the circumstances justifying intervention and the means of securing it. Given that Ministers are now a certifying body, I would like them, along with central and local government officials, to get better training in what the conventions mean. In domestic legislation, I would like greater use of principles clauses, which we used successfully in the Mental Capacity Act 2005. I would like to see greater awareness of the concept of human rights in education, notably in history and citizenship training. Better international exchanges between interested parties to promote a common understanding of the meaning of human rights under legal systems that formally differ from one another would also be helpful, as would more independent international monitoring of each other's practices. We have nothing to hide, so we should welcome that.

As the final item on my list of specific interventions, I would like further work to be done on preparing for intense immediate intervention in conflict and crisis situations. I pay tribute to the work done during recent conflicts in Georgia by the teams of the European Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammerberg. It is very important that we are able to send such people in, because human rights go by the board when there is warfare.

Today is a time for thinking about the big picture. On paper, we can have all the human rights we want, but we must have a human rights culture to accompany them. Perhaps the easiest bit is democracy, because we have been at that for many years, but we need to remind the general public that human rights are their rights, and that in a sense we will all need them at one time or another, whether for the purposes of anti-discrimination or for protection from arbitrary administrative action.

We have moved a long way. For example, I participated in consideration of legislation driven by the European Court of Human Rights to change the law on transgender people. Also, as today has shown, by adding the rule of law to complete the trio, we have made Ministers think. Sometimes, as today, we have stopped them dead in their tracks.

In the end, however, this will be a matter of attitudes. In the spirit of the conventions, whether European or United Nations, we need to start by leaving space—whether in Britain or worldwide; it does not matter where—for people to live and flourish without unwarranted interference. That is the respect side of human rights. We need proper discretion by Government—for example, over their storing of data. We need a sense of fairness between the parties that people have to deal with. If Government have to intervene, or are the provider of a public service, people using that service should be treated with decency.

If we can get Ministers—who are public servants, as they should be—and then their private counterparts to act in that spirit, the advances in human rights that we have made in the last half century in this country, in Europe and internationally will be secured, and we can use and extend those universal principles to improve the future functioning of this planet and, above all, of the people who live on it.

Debate interrupted.

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