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McIntosh Case

25. Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): What advice she has given on the implications of the Privy Council decision in the case of McIntosh. [150761]

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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): I give advice to various Departments on various matters. In relation to the McIntosh case, which concerned a confiscation order following conviction for a serious drugs offence, I presented arguments to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in January. On 5 February, their lordships delivered their judgment and decided that the current legislation was compatible with the European convention on human rights.

Mrs. McKenna: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Does she agree that that is an important decision for human rights legislation and particularly for the campaign against drugs in the whole of the United Kingdom? Will she advise the House of the main arguments advanced in the case?

The Advocate-General: I considered the case an important one. It was a challenge to the statutory scheme that succeeded at first instance and had implications for the rest of the United Kingdom, where similar legislation exists. The main arguments, which were advanced over about two days in the Judicial Committee, were that the presumption of innocence in article 6(2) of the convention did not apply to the making of a confiscation order following conviction, and that, even if it did, the statutory assumptions were within the reasonable limits permitted and, therefore, lawful. It took us a considerable time to develop those rather basic arguments, but the judgment is now available if anyone would like to examine it in detail.

Criminal Justice and Police Bill

26. Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): What assessment she has made of the human rights implications of the new powers of seizure and for the disclosure of information proposed by the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. [150762]

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made a statement of compatibility under section l9(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 confirming that, in his view, the provisions of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill are compatible with the convention rights.

Mr. Browne: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for reminding me of that. I am aware that when the requirement for information to be disclosed under the Bill lies in the hands of a public authority, article 8 of the convention will protect an individual's privacy. However, when the information lies in the hands of a private person or private body, how will an individual obtain protection for his or her right to privacy under the Bill?

The Advocate-General: It will be a matter for the courts to perform the balancing exercise required, taking into account the provisions of the Human Rights Act and, of course, the statutory regime under the Data Protection Act 1998, which gives certain protections to the individual.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Does not the Advocate- General think that it is a disgrace that those provisions, like many others before the Committee considering the

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Criminal Justice and Police Bill, will not be considered in detail simply because of the appalling programme motion that the Government have inflicted on the House?

The Advocate-General: If there were less filibustering and more focused argument, the provisions could be considered.


The Parliamentary Secretary was asked--

Crown Courts

27. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): How many Crown courts have been (a) closed and (b) merged since May 1997. [150763]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): None.

Mr. Ruffley: The Minister will be aware of the concern in my constituency about the threat of closure that Bury St. Edmunds Crown court is under as a result of plans to centralise court services in Ipswich. Will she throw aside her Department's institutionalised complacency on the matter, review the case personally, note that my constituents want their justice administered locally in Bury St. Edmunds and come to the only sensible conclusion, which is to keep Bury St. Edmunds Crown court open?

Jane Kennedy: There are no plans currently to close the court at Bury St. Edmunds. The Court Service is not complacent about the provision of trials and hearings for those cases that cannot be compromised. The hon. Gentleman may not like to hear this, but it is the truth: it has been proven that pooling resources at courts with a number of judges and courtrooms leads to the quicker and more efficient disposal of cases, which must be in the best interests of the parties and his constituents. The new Crown court buildings will substantially increase the capacity to deal with cases in the area--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) has asked a question and I expect him to listen to the answer.

Jane Kennedy: A decision on whether to follow the procedure to close the court at Bury St. Edmunds would be taken only nearer to the completion of the new buildings, which is expected in 2003.

Charter of Fundamental Rights

28. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): What meetings he has had with the Lord Chancellor to discuss the impact on the English legal system of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. [150764]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): I regularly meet the Lord Chancellor and have wide-ranging discussions covering all aspects of the business of the Department except, of course, matters concerning the appointment of judges.

Mr. O'Brien: The new charter forms part of the Nice treaty and is, in effect, legally binding on the English courts because, as the European Commission said, it is treated as mandatory by the courts. Last month, it was prayed in aid in an English court, so does the Minister really agree with the Minister for Europe that the charter will be no more binding than the Beano? Does he deny that it will have a massive effect on our legal system by subverting the decisions of our courts, thus making the charter, as Conservative Members have repeatedly said, a key element in taking this country into a European constitution and, thereby, European integration?

Mr. Lock: I anticipated a xenophobic rant from the hon. Gentleman and I am afraid that that is what we got. The charter is not the law, here or in the European Union. It is a political declaration aimed at making citizens' rights more visible. It expressly states that it does not establish any new power or task, or modify powers or tasks defined by the treaties. I encourage him to read article 52 and to be slightly more accurate in future.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Many Members in all parts of the House welcome the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into law, but will the Minister confirm that the EU charter of fundamental rights does not impinge on the law and litigation conducted either in this country or in the EU? Furthermore, does he agree that if it did impinge on our law, it would be a recipe for uncertainty, confusion, conflict of laws and never-ending litigation?

Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman raises an important and sensible point, in contrast with the previous one. There must not be confusion between the ECHR, which is part of our law under the Human Rights Act 1998, and the political statement, which is declaratory, in the charter. However, the relevant charter provisions are based on the ECHR, as are the human rights provisions of the treaty on the European Union.

As the charter gives no rights that are justiciable in the English courts, there should be no problem; but I entirely understand and support the hon. Gentleman's view that, having incorporated human rights in English law, we should not have a second charter in English law that is confusing. That is why the Government's success in maintaining this as a political rather than a legal set of rights is so welcome.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): During his meetings with his noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to discuss human rights and other issues, has the Minister raised the view of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) that the one thing no Minister must conceivably do is attempt to solicit funds for political purposes from those over whom he has influence, power or patronage? That strikes me as so

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obvious as to be incontrovertible. Has not the Minister's noble Friend betrayed his office, and ought he not now to resign?

Mr. Lock: I am afraid that raising his voice does not make the hon. Gentleman's points any better.

The fact is that the Lord Chancellor's is a political office, and he, like earlier Lord Chancellors, has acted politically. On the "Today" programme, the shadow Lord Chancellor, Lord Kingsland, has said:

That, I think, puts an end to any suggestion of a link between political activity and the appointment of judges, and no repetition of such a suggestion by the hon. Gentleman--even in a very loud voice--will make any difference.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): If I am running and racing around the country raising money for all the Labour MPs in marginal seats, why is it that the Lord Chancellor cannot pull his weight as well? I expect him to raise more money than me: he is a posh lawyer. I am pulling my guts out raising money, and I hope the Lord Chancellor will carry on raising money and save my breath.

Mr. Lock: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support in raising money for a worthy cause--the re-election of Labour Members and a Labour Government.

My hon. Friend is quite right. The Lord Chancellor is a member of the Cabinet and a member of the Labour party, and he is perfectly entitled to raise money for the party. Given that he was raising money from lawyers who have done extremely well under this Labour Government, I am delighted that those lawyers were encouraged to contribute to the re-election of a Labour Government.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): So that we can conform with human rights legislation, it has been decided that no prisoner--no defendant--may be seen in a public part of a court in handcuffs. In my constituency, that will require £197,000 in Oswestry, £167,000 in Market Drayton and £132,000 in Whitchurch to bring the courts up to scratch.

Is this not a complete waste of money, given that the arrangements are adequate now? Moreover, will it not constitute an intolerable attack on the human rights of my poorest constituents if those courts are closed and witnesses, including elderly ladies, must go all the way to Shrewsbury or Telford to give evidence?

Mr. Lock: Again, the claim is put in stark terms but is somewhat exaggerated.

It is important for the human rights of individuals to be respected, and it is somewhat dismaying to hear them being decried by Conservative Members day after day. Decisions on how aspects of the Human Rights Act 1998 that are relevant to magistrates courts should be interpreted is a matter for individual magistrates courts committees, and the Government are confident that we have given those committees the resources that will enable them to discharge their duties.

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