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Queen’s Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 1st June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 4:30 pm, 1st June 2015

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. I have had the privilege of his company many times and have had much valuable instruction from him. In the diocese of Leicester, he has given tremendous leadership in bringing diverse communities together. I am sorry that the time is approaching when he plans to leave this House, but I am sure he will be a valuable member of the community to which he hopes to go.

I do not propose to follow the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, about the qualifications of the present Lord Chancellor, except to remark that he had something to do with bringing about the position in which this is possible. Since he has mentioned it, I also take this opportunity to mention what I consider to be the very sad treatment of his immediate predecessor.

My comments on the gracious Speech will be confined to the proposal:

My Government will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”.

This is an important and difficult subject which has received attention in this House since I joined it. I want briefly to mention the present position: the United Kingdom is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and certain protocols to a statement of these rights and to implement decisions of the court set up under the convention in cases arising from this country. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is not correct in saying that the ultimate decision on cases arising in this country rests with our

Supreme Court. At the moment, it rests with the court in Strasbourg. I shall say something more about that in a minute.

Until the convention was incorporated into our law by the Human Rights Act, the text of the convention was not part of our law, although our courts had regard to it in deciding cases in which it was relevant. With the passing of that Act, the text became part of our law and our courts applied it in deciding cases in which it was relevant. The Act required our courts to have regard to decisions of the court in Strasbourg in reaching such decisions, as the noble and learned Lord said. The Act also conferred on our courts power to declare Acts of our Parliament inconsistent with the convention. The Act did not affect the obligation of the United Kingdom to implement decisions of the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to which I have referred.

This position has now produced a difficult situation. The Strasbourg court has decided that our statute which denies persons serving a prison sentence the right to vote is inconsistent with the convention as supplemented by a protocol. A court in Scotland has declared that the statute is inconsistent with the convention and the Court of Appeal in England has agreed. Taking part in that decision, Lord Justice Laws gave a full account of what Parliament would require to do to implement the Strasbourg court’s decision. So far, Parliament has not taken any such action and has indicated no intention of doing so, so the obligation is in suspense in the sense that it has not been complied with. I must confess to a feeling of great anxiety that the United Kingdom, with its tradition for respect of the rule of law, not the rule of lawyers, should be in breach of a treaty by which it is bound.

It has been suggested in some quarters that we should adopt the procedure necessary to free the United Kingdom from its treaty obligation under the convention. That treaty, as was already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, came into existence as the result of the way minorities had been treated in Europe in the preceding years. That treatment had been inflicted with the authority of the elected Government. The United Kingdom took an important part in setting up the treaty and its mechanism of enforcement, and I have little doubt that our leaders of that time were motivated by a concern for the citizens of other countries rather than those of the United Kingdom in particular. It would surely be extremely sad for the United Kingdom to withdraw from a treaty which we took such an active part in setting up with motives of concern for citizens of other states than our own.

I will make a suggestion for a possible way forward. We could seek an amendment to the convention to exempt from the obligation to implement the decision of the Strasbourg court where the court has decided that a statute of a member state contravenes the convention, and in that member state no court of that state has authority to set aside or modify that statute, if the legislature of that member state passes a resolution, which for stated reasons declines to implement the Strasbourg court’s decision. If such an amendment could be agreed, I venture to think that the effectiveness of the treaty would not be substantially diminished.

I regard the present situation as extremely unsatisfactory. That would be a possible way of recognising that at least in our country—and maybe in some other member states—the elected Parliament is sovereign and not subject to any kind of quashing order by the courts of this country. That of course has been the situation in our country for a very long time. The courts of our country, including the Supreme Court, have no power to quash or set aside an Act of Parliament. Instead of coming out of the convention altogether there may be something to be said for considering whether the convention should recognise the possibility that in some member states the Parliament is sovereign and not subject to having its Acts set aside or modified by the courts of that country. From that point of view there is something to be said for the view that if the courts of our own country cannot do anything about an Act of Parliament, why should it be so for the European Court of Human Rights?

Of course, the original idea was to seek an enforcement which would override the position of the elected Government, but it may be that nowadays the publicity attended by such a decision of the court in Strasbourg would be sufficient to afford protection for minorities, although so far, in this country at any rate, that particular minority of prisoners serving a sentence has not been protected in the way the court in Strasbourg thinks it should.

The proposal in the gracious Speech is for the preparation of a British human rights Act. So long as that is well done, I see no particular objection to it. The gracious Speech does not propose coming out of the convention on human rights. There have been suggestions of that in other quarters but all that the gracious Speech proposes is the formulation of a British human rights Act.

Difficulties with the Human Rights Act have been expressed in this House from more than one side. I refer in particular to the reference made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, on Thursday to the difficulties in connection with the field of battle, and the application of the Act there. I do not know enough about it to say, but there may be some way in which that modification could be thought of. The idea that the Act would not apply at all would be pretty difficult, but I have certainly heard it said by noble and gallant Lords and noble Lords on other Benches than the Cross Benches that this is a difficult situation. These matters could be dealt with, and I venture to hope that they could be dealt with not in a partisan way but in a way that seeks to get the right solution to a difficult situation, done with deliberation.

This has nothing whatever to do with what I have just been saying, but I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, may not be correct in his assertion that my noble friend Lord Dunlop, who gave his maiden speech today, had any part in the introduction of the community charge Act in Scotland. I was not a member of the Government at that time because I was on the Bench, but I have a feeling that it may not be a well-founded suggestion, and the noble and learned Lord would not like to be responsible, as a former Lord Chancellor, for making unfounded suggestions.