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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. There is a danger that the House, led perhaps inadvertently by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, is moving into the area covered by the next motion on the Order Paper. If the House continues much more on those lines, obviously, the occupant of the Chair will take a severe view as to the length of debate on the next matter.
Mr. Howarth: I should give way first to the hon. Member for North Cornwall, as I am due to visit his constituency at the weekend. I am looking forward to it, and I should not like to upset him in advance.
Mr. Tyler: I shall try to ensure that the weather is polite to the hon. Gentleman. The reference in The Parliamentary Monitor's information digest is to the "Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights", and is therefore very relevant to this debate. Moreover, the digest items are almost always taken from press releases from the responsible and relevant Department or party.
Mr. Howarth: That is extremely helpful. I hope that the Minister will take on board what has been said in the debate, and report to the House on what action will be taken to put right what is generally regarded as at least an affront to the House. I realise, however, that you want us to debate that matter at the appropriate time, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Mr. Lilley: Although we do not want to discuss now the personalities of those who will serve on the Committee, has my hon. Friend found any reference at all in the proposed Standing Order to the existence of a Committee Chairman? Why are the Government presupposing that there will be a Chairman and that they will have to nominate someone?
Mr. Howarth: I assume that, at some point, there will have to be a Committee Chairman; generally it happens that way. However, my right hon. Friend is entirely right that the only mention of a Chairman is in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North Cornwall and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and
Mr. Tyler: I am grateful, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the intervention is extremely relevant. As I said, in its comparable motion, the House of Lords referred to the chairmanship. Therefore, the fact that we have no mention of it in our own motion is rather extraordinary.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) knows, I am one of those who were intractably opposed to the Human Rights Act 1998. Unlike him, I am not a lawyer. I have generally found that lawyers are more favourably disposed than many lay people to the legislation.
I seriously wonder what the proposed Committee will do. I think that there is some deception and self-delusion in the matter. The Minister said, and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield essentially repeated, that there is no power in the 1998 Act to strike down primary legislation. I understand that. I simply ask the Minister to tell us on how many occasions a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights finding the United Kingdom Government in breach has been cast aside and the Court told to take a running jump? If the Minister can tell us on how many occasions that has happened, I am sure that the House would be interested to know.
Mr. Howarth: The Minister's sedentary silence is confirmation that on no occasion has a British Government--the current Government or the previous, Conservative one--done anything other than roll over, accept a decision of the European Court of Human Rights and change the law. The essential point is that, in the early 1950s, when we signed up to the European convention on human rights, we did so only once the then Government were absolutely satisfied that our laws were compliant with it.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I gave the hon. Gentleman a little rope in the hope that, as he promised, he was going to talk about the substance of the motion. However, he seems to be wandering away from the substance. I must urge him to come back.
Mr. Howarth: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that you agree that I am entitled to respond to the Parliamentary Secretary's claim that there is no power to strike down primary legislation. The thrust of human rights legislation is that Parliament will not gainsay a decision by the courts. That means that there will be remedial orders, for which the Human Rights Act 1998 provides.
I am not clear about the purpose of the Committee. Will it act as a sift, after receiving a court decision, which contends that an Act of Parliament conflicts with human rights legislation? Will it act as the primary sifter and decide whether to table a remedial order, or will remedial orders be made in every case? In the case of the latter, the House will be obliged to roll over and amend primary legislation that we have passed by democratic vote in the Chamber, in accordance with our constituents' wishes.
The Committee will not be entitled to consider individual cases; they will rightly be ruled out. However, I want to know the precise way in which the Committee will operate. I am always suspicious of a Committee that may be tempted to usurp the role of the House. It seems to me that it will be a major problem if the courts decide that an Act of Parliament--primary legislation--conflicts with human rights legislation. That issue should not be determined by a small caucus; it should be discussed on the Floor of the House from the outset.
Mr. Tipping: Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that the Committee will consider the matter, that its views will be sought and its points noted. The Government will not necessarily accept the Committee's views. Any legislation will be discussed on the Floor of the House.
Mr. Howarth: I would not have expected the Parliamentary Secretary to answer differently. Of course, any amendment to primary legislation must be done in the Chamber. However, what is the point of establishing the Committee if the issue has to return to the Floor of the House?
Mr. Hayes : There appears to be confusion at the heart of the matter. The Parliamentary Secretary--with, I believe, complete integrity--suggests that sovereignty rests with the House. We are told that the Committee will not exist simply to support the lawyers' views. Yet we are also told that the Committee is vital; the Parliamentary Secretary and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) claim that it is enormously important. However, if sovereignty rests ultimately with the House, which may well disagree with the Committee, why is the Committee so important?
Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I do not need to repeat it; it speaks for itself. What is the purpose of the Committee if the decisions will ultimately be made on the Floor of the House? That is the essential point that I wanted to make.
I worry that we are being unduly influenced by human rights legislation. That is a grave matter, and we are in danger of having sold the pass. By setting up the Committee and advertising it to the rest of the world as an important Committee of the House, we invest unduly in the possibility of a challenge to Parliament's authority. We should not do that. We should not accept that a Committee of wonderful parliamentarians is to deal with a stream of hostile decisions from the Strand, telling us that our legislation is somehow incompatible with another view of human rights. Creating the Committee gives the impression that we are gearing up to receive such a stream of challenges.
Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend has touching faith in the way in which the Committee will operate. If it were to do that, obviously I would welcome it. However, that is not the way in which the tide is flowing.
The quorum of the Committee is to be three. The Committee will have a dozen members and will deal with extremely important issues which are key to why we as parliamentarians are here. Both Front Benches agree that the Committee should be invested with a degree of authority about which some of us are not quite so certain. With the proposed quorum, the Government--with their overwhelming majority on the Committee--will have to put up only three members to make it work.