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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): I am pleased to have an opportunity to take part in our interesting debate. I was a little crestfallen at the lack of a wholehearted welcome from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) earlier. He and I share a particular political interest, and we are both working hard on it in our respective positions. I have great regard for the work that he is doing. I know that his comments were not meant personally; none the less, he knows me well enough now to know that I would not come to the Dispatch Box unless I was on top of the issue. I am not sure whether that means that he will get the shift in position that he wants, and I hope that he accepts that.
I am speaking earlier than I had intended because it is clear from listening to my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) that they are not aware of a Government statement made earlier today. It may be helpful if I inform all Members in the Chamber of the current position. Today, my right hon. Friend the President of the Council answered a question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), in which he asked what arrangements she intends to make to inform the House of the compatibility of private Bills with the European convention on human rights. I should like to give the House my right hon. Friend's answer in full:
Mr. Mackinlay: I welcome the news given by the Under-Secretary and am grateful for her kind words, which I reciprocate. The announcement is a major step forward and, to a large extent, I have been asking for such an announcement for the past 12 months. She rightly stressed that the arrangement was for the future and that only legislation deposited in either House in future would be dealt with in the manner described. In that spirit, it would be fair and, more important, prudent for the Government to discuss with the promoter of the Bill whether the arrangement could be applied now. It is the Bill before us that is contentious, so perhaps the test should be applied now, even though the current process is under way.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I echo the welcome given by the hon. Member for Thurrock to the written answer. I hope that it can be repeated in the House, so that more hon. Members will be aware of it. Many hon. Members of all parties have argued for the sort of change that it announced. However, I seek some clarification. Was the President of the Council speaking only about guidance that will bind members of the current Government, or will the Government seek to introduce the arrangement as legislation?
Ms Hughes: I shall have to leave it to my right hon. Friend the President of the Council to give greater clarity on the detail of her statement and on how the arrangements will work. I have at my disposal only the text of her answer. I hope that both the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will understand that I cannot pre-empt the further details that my right hon. Friend may want to give.
Mr. McDonnell: My hon. Friend is superb in dealing with her briefings and I understand her difficulty. We are discussing a major statement that was made at a late stage in the Bill's passage, so I understand her problems. However, I have a question that I should like her to take on board, although I do not expect her to respond today. When the Secretary of State or relevant Minister makes it clear that he or she has no dispute--that is the word that was used--with regard to the advice given by the promoter to the general public and the House, what element of liability for that advice will fall to the Government? Will the Government be taking
Ms Hughes: As I have made clear, the question of liability and compliance is ultimately for the courts. I thank my hon. Friend for his recognition that I cannot deal any further with that question today.
Mr. Davey: Before the Under-Secretary proceeds, will she answer another question about her previous comments? She told us that she was not sure whether the arrangements described in the written answer would be introduced in legislation. Will she ask the President of the Council whether she will make a full statement to House about the matter? I believe that it is of such substance that it is worthy to be the subject of such a statement.
Ms Hughes: I am sure that the attention of my right hon. Friend the President of the Council will be drawn to the comments made during today's debate. I shall undertake to ensure that she is aware of them.
Hon. Members who have been present at the Bill's other stages will know that the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) assured the House that it is the promoters' opinion that no contravention of the European convention on human rights arises from the Bill. My right hon. Friend the President of the Council made it clear in her written answer that the requirement for a Minister to give a formal statement to the House in the light of the promoters' assessment applies only to Bills to be introduced in future.
If, however, the promoter and the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster wish to submit the assessment to me, I shall, in the spirit of the answer given by my right hon. Friend the President of the Council and of the Government's clear future direction on the matter, be happy to consider the assessment with a view to making a statement on Third Reading. The statement would deal with whether it had been properly carried out, in my view and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Subject to the views of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, that should not further delay today's business, which is to consider the amendments and to make more progress on the Bill.
Mr. Corbyn: I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome news about the future compatibility of private legislation. I imagine that such an arrangement must be introduced through a change in our Standing Orders. She seemed to say just now that she had received advice on the Bill's compatibility with the European convention on human rights and with primary legislation. She appeared to think that there was no variance in that respect. Will she confirm that impression, or have I misunderstood her words? I believe that there is a clear distinction between the right to independent, free and fair elections and the proposals in the Bill.
Mr. McDonnell: Again, I do not seek a response today, but I should like my point to be considered and dealt with in a further statement, perhaps on Third Reading. Will my hon. Friend assure hon. Members that any statement by the promoter on human rights compliance will be published, made public and made available for examination by all hon. Members? Of course, hon. Members may themselves want to seek legal opinions. If such an assurance cannot be given now, will my hon. Friend ensure that the matter is considered by the President of the Council?
Ms Hughes: I am sure that that is part of the detail in respect of which my right hon. Friend the President of the Council will want to consider the need for further explanation in the House. I do not feel that I can go further. I have made the Government's position clear in relation to future private Bills. In the spirit of my right hon. Friend's answer, I have made an offer to the promoters; if they want to make their assessment available to me and to the Department, we will make a statement on Third Reading.