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Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Further to the second part of your statement, Mr. Speaker, which you said was the more important one in that it covered the more important issue, does not an unsatisfactory situation arise in the House? It appears that there was a leak on Thursday to the media of material that was clearly conceived and drafted in the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of State says that he personally was not responsible, but presumably that means that either one of his officials was or there was a leak from the Ministry of Defence, which in the nature of things would be a matter of considerable concern, to some other organisation, which then itself passed the information on to the media.
If we do not have the apology which you said would be required had the Minister been directly responsible, Mr. Speaker, do we not need at least an inquiry to ascertain how it was that information came from the Minister or from his office into the media? Without such an inquiry, surely the public will never be aware of what exactly occurred on Thursday. As you have said, we face a bad situation.
Mr. Skinner: Yes, Mr. Speaker. I have listened to the points of order with increasing incredulity. Having been in this place during the 18 years when the Tories were in government, I had the impression about three times a week that policy was being announced when I listened to it on "Today" and it was repeated on "Newsnight". If we were lucky a statement would be made on the following day, or no statement would be made.
There is another area that should be examined. We live in a time when the Liberals are consulted about many things. How do we know that it is not that lot on the Liberal Benches who are doing these things?
Mr. Bercow: I assure you that it is intended to be a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful to you for your clarification in response to my point of order last Thursday about the conduct of the Secretary of State for Defence. He said on that occasion that no words--this is important, and I refer to column 424--for which he was responsible appeared upon the BBC website. It is only right to point out that the right hon. Gentleman sidled up to me earlier this afternoon to vouchsafe to me his innocence.
Will you confirm, Mr. Speaker, that it is not good enough for a Minister to go to the Member who has complained to protest his innocence? It is necessary for him openly to apologise to the House for the leak on behalf of one of his officials, which has obviously taken place.
'After section 66(1) of the Race Relations Act 1976 (Assistance by Commission) there is inserted--
"(1A) Subsection (1) shall also apply to proceedings or prospective proceedings under the Human Rights Act 1998 in which the complaint or claim includes or is proposed to include discrimination on racial grounds by a public authority.
(1B) For the purposes of subsection (1A) a public authority shall have the same meaning as in section 19B of this Act.".'.--[Mr. Simon Hughes.]
In the Race Relations Act 1976, a power is granted for the Commission for Racial Equality to provide assistance through advice and support during legal proceedings. It is set out clearly. The provisions relate to proceedings or prospective proceedings under the Act. An individual who is a claimant or might be a claimant, or complainant, can apply to the commission for help. The commission then considers the matter--I have had constituency experience of such cases--and if it thinks that there is an issue of principle or if it thinks that it would be unreasonable to expect the applicant to deal with the case unaided because it is difficult or because of the relationship between the applicant and the body complained against, or for other special reasons, it, the commission, can give help. The new clause represents an attempt to extend that power in light of the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, which came into force at the beginning of this month.
I want to say again publicly what Ministers have heard me say elsewhere. I and the Liberal Democrats greatly welcome the Human Rights Act, and we welcome its passage into law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in Scotland where it was passed last year. I and my colleagues join the Minister and the Secretary of State in welcoming that.
As a result of that Act coming into law, someone may want to bring an action under the Human Rights Act only or under a combination of the Human Rights Act and the Race Relations Act 1976--or the Act as amended if the Bill becomes law, which we very much hope it will. Under the new clause, we propose that the commission's power to give help should be extended
The first reason is that, as the Minister will understand--it does not need anyone to persuade him--a person might bring an action that at one and the same time could be an action under the Race Relations Act and the Human Rights Act. It would be nonsense if two separate actions in law were started: indeed, the courts would be unhappy about that if they were on the same issues. It would be logical to join the complaints together.
Ministers may give the technical answer that advice to people would be covered under the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill or the original 1976 Act, but the stronger case may be on discrimination under the Human Rights Act and the straightforward implementation of the convention through English law. The Commission for Racial Equality or others may say that that is the best way to proceed. A case may proceed on the basis of racial discrimination, but it would be better, and a person would be more likely to succeed, if the applicant took action under the Human Rights Act.
That is the first reason why we believe that the commission's power should be extended. It uses that power carefully and considerately. I have had experience of the commission helping people to take cases to court, and of it turning down people who have asked for help when it has considered that their case was not justified.
Secondly, our case may be stronger now than it was before the summer because the Minister said before the recess that the Government were moving towards the creation of the Human Rights Committee of Parliament. That commitment for a Committee of both Houses was welcomed. There are one or two other such Committees. It would be the new body to consider human rights matters in the light of the implementation of the 1998 Act. I am aware--I do not think that it is confidential information--that some progress has been made in the House of Lords on agreement on the structure of the Committee, but the proposal has not yet come before the Commons. I am also aware that there have been discussions on that matter between Whips Offices and party managers. The proposal has not been lost, but it has not happened. Even if it did, things would take a while to get going--as they always do--so there is a benefit in acting now that the Bill has been introduced, to give the Committee power, even if Ministers did not think that necessary before the summer.
I wish to put on the record one further important thing so that I do not take up the time of the House when we return to the matter later. My colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler),
The same should apply to the Human Rights Committee, which will be a Committee of both Houses. Quite properly, the Government have the power both to introduce legislation and certify whether legislation complies with the Human Rights Act. The Secretary of State certifies on the front of the Bill that it is compliant with that Act. Therefore, the scrutiny of such matters in both the Commons and the Lords should be undertaken by a senior Opposition Member, whether a member of the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrat party or, indeed, any other Opposition party. I also state publicly our belief that, for obvious democratic reasons, that role should be undertaken by a Member of the House of Commons, not the House of Lords. Of course, there are eminent people in the House of Lords, and I pay tribute to those who have made the Bill much better during its passage through the House. Ministers have been equally courteous, but it would be invidious to list everyone who has contributed. However, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who has pre-eminent national expertise in such matters, has contributed greatly and has worked hard, both publicly and privately, to get the Bill into the best possible shape.
Although negotiations on the Human Rights Committee are being pursued, the Committee is not in existence, so the power to set it up should be introduced now. I suspect that the Minister will respond to our debate in a second, and I hope that he will tell us that the Government will act urgently to introduce a motion to set up the Committee, which was supposed to have been established by 2 October. That meant that it should have been set up before we broke up for the summer, given that we were did not return until after that date. It is now after 2 October, Parliament is back and the Human Rights Act is in force, so there is no excuse. I therefore hope that, before this week ends, a motion to set up the Committee will be laid before the House and that, thereafter, a motion for the membership of the Committee, including its chairmanship, will be tabled.
Lastly, when the Human Rights Committee is up and running and sets up a human rights commission which, it is envisaged, will look after these matters--although that may not necessarily be the case--will the House consider whether that commission should be different from the Commission for Racial Equality? I accept that that new commission will not have the experience of the CRE. People have different views about the CRE's individual acts and expressions, but no one doubts its authoritative
I hope that Ministers can be positive about the new clause. I am conscious that the Bill began in the Lords and that its Report stage may be the last occasion on which we may deal with these matters. That is unusual, as most Bills start in the Commons and therefore come back to us. If Ministers do not concede the new clause, the power of the Lords to do anything about it is limited, given that they can amend only what we amend here. I therefore expect more than warm words if I am to be persuaded not to press the new clause to a Division. I hope that the Minister can be helpful.