Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [ Lords]

Part of Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language) – in the House of Commons at 1:11 pm on 1st April 2009.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 1:11 pm, 1st April 2009

I very much welcome the Bill, which fills two gaps in the domestic application of international humanitarian law. If, by any chance, there should be a Division later today, I shall certainly support the Government in voting in favour of a Second Reading.

As there is to be no separate debate on the programme motion that the Government tabled today alongside the motion on Second Reading, I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I start by making a few brief comments on that programme motion. I welcome the Government's decision that the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House. That is a welcome departure from a practice that has been too frequent in recent years; Bills that once would have been open to debate in Committee by all right hon. and hon. Member have been shunted upstairs for truncated scrutiny there, so this is a welcome change. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office rarely has primary legislation before the House, and I am glad that it is, on this occasion, setting an example to other Departments. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Gillian Merron, are able to persuade their fellow Ministers that it is an example that other Departments would do well to follow.

I temper my welcome just a little bit by expressing disappointment that the programme motion provides for proceedings in Committee, on Report and on Third Reading to be completed all within a single parliamentary day. The Bill has cross-party support, but in my experience, we could improve our understanding of most Bills through detailed scrutiny and questioning, and the tabling of new clauses and amendments that are intended to probe, rather than to overthrow the principles of the Bill in question. The House of Lords is very insistent on maintaining intervals of a few days between each stage of primary legislation; that is an example that we in this House might profitably seek to emulate.

I note that the programme motion not only provides for Committee and all subsequent proceedings to be taken in a single day, but makes no guarantee that those proceedings will not be strictly timetabled so that they take less than an entire parliamentary day. The Government perhaps need to reconsider that point. I hope that there will be further reflection on that subject before we get to the subsequent stages of the Bill.

As the Minister said in her opening speech, we are debating the application in domestic law of two protocols in international law. The additional protocol was adopted by parties to the Geneva convention as long ago as 2005. That is true, too, of the optional protocol to the UN convention on the protection of United Nations and associated personnel, which was adopted by the General Assembly in December of that year. It is slightly odd that we should have had to wait from the end of 2005 until the spring of 2009 for the Government to decide finally to bring forward the legislation to give effect to their decision to sign and ratify those important pieces of international legislation.

I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate she will elucidate the distinction between the two conventions, which intrigues me. When we talk about the red crystal, we are talking about the ratification of the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions, whereas in the case of the amendment to the United Nations convention on the safety of United Nations and associated personnel, we are talking about the ratification of an optional protocol to the original convention of 1994. I am no lawyer, let alone an international lawyer, and I am genuinely intrigued to hear whether the Minister can elucidate the distinction between an additional protocol and an optional protocol. That is not an academic inquiry. We need to be clear in our minds, when we enact the legislation, about whether the difference in title means that there is a difference in the legal effect of the two parts of legislative reform in the Bill.

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