Draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) Order 2001

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is pursuing a thoughtful list of questions. He would have heard my question to the Minister about jurors and jury service and he will have heard the reply that jurors performing jury service are not included under the order. Does he consider that to be a lacuna or would it add additional difficulties for the court if they were to be included, for any category no matter how serious the case upon which they were adjudicating?

Mr. Bercow: I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend's comments. I am not a lawyer—I say that as a matter of pride. It is important that justice should be done and should be seen to be done within the justice system. I am a staunch defender, as is, I suspect, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, of the principle of 12 good persons and true. The Minister will notice that I have brought the lexicon up-to-date by not using the old-fashioned terminology.

Mr. Charles Clarke: It is political correctness.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister accuses me of political correctness; I am not sure that I shall recover from the charge.

If the jury system is to be effective, however, there must be as few cases as possible in which doubt may be cast on the suitability of jury members and the objectivity of their judgments. Those cases may not come to light, but the principle is important none the less.

I am speaking off the top of my head because I have not given careful thought to the matter. I would not want people who have erred in the past, but who have paid their dues to society and who have been rehabilitated into it, to be excluded unfairly from the duty—which in a liberal democracy may be regarded as the privilege—of serving on a jury. However, I think that my hon. Friend has in mind a potential for conflict, where people who have committed serious offences, and paid their dues, could be invited to serve on a jury to consider the type of offence for which they were convicted and sentenced. The question is not merely whether such people should have the opportunity to serve on a jury but—before a decision is taken on that and providing that they are willing to serve—whether they should be obliged to disclose previous convictions.

I have deliberately developed that point and asked the question that was implicit in my hon. Friend's observation in a judicious and thoughtful manner because I have not reached a definite view. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold knows that I strongly believe in the principles of a genuine liberal democracy, and that I take a fair-minded attitude towards penal policy and sentencing regulation, which I hope that I indicated earlier. However, I would appreciate the Minister's comments on the matter, although the point is obviously of interest to my hon. Friend, as he raised it with both the Minister and me.

I move to question 23. Will the Minister again explain the meaning of ``regulated position''? It is important because he intends to substitute those words for the current paragraph 14 of part II of schedule 1. What is the lacuna in the order that necessitates that substitution? Is it a protection against future detriment or has a weakness flowed thus far?

I move to question 24. What is the definition of ``further education institution'', which is given in paragraph 3 of the Education (Restriction of Employment) Regulations 2000, and what weakness would arise if a change was not made?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Has my hon. Friend considered an important point that he could put to the Minister? Is the order compliant with the European Court of Human Rights, and what is the practice in Europe? It would be folly to consider the order if it were not compliant.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Conceptually, I do not give a tinker's cuss about the contents of the European convention on human rights. I have stated that on several occasions.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Is that the Opposition's official position?

Mr. Bercow: No. The Opposition opposes the Human Rights Act 1998. I was expressing a view about the significance of the convention in relation to the British Government's domestic policies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold has made an important practical point about our duty to take account of our legal obligations. My political judgments are neither informed nor guided by the theories that underlie the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. Many hon. Members hold that view. However, as law-abiding folk, we have a responsibility to comply with our legal obligations. There is not a cigarette paper between my hon. Friend and me on that point—or, I dare to suggest, between the Minister and me. Therefore, if the Minister thinks that he can make mischief, he will be disappointed.

Mr. Charles Clarke: It is important to clarify the matter. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman and his Conservative colleagues would not respect the laws of the land. We all work within that context.

However, Hansard will confirm that the hon. Gentleman said that he does not give a tinker's cuss about the European convention on human rights. As he is an Opposition spokesman on home affairs, it is important that he makes it clear whether that is also the Conservative party's position. I am sure that his opponent at the next general election, Mr. Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune, will be keen to develop that point at the hustings in Buckingham, and that the voters will be interested in his response to it.

Mr. Bercow: It is right that the hon. Gentleman should try so hard on that point—although I wish that he would look in my direction when I am volunteering an answer to his question—as he is paid a good salary, courtesy of the taxpayer, for the efficient, or otherwise, discharge of his responsibilities as a Minister of State at the Home Office.

I want it to be put on the record, in terms, beyond peradventure, or the tiniest scintilla of doubt, that I speak for the Opposition. The Opposition accept the European convention on human rights, although we did not support the incorporation of that convention into British law. Indeed, many Opposition Members, including me, were strongly opposed to that. However, there is a world of difference between what happened then and the present situation. My hon. Friends and I are law-abiding citizens of this country, and I accept the incorporation of the convention into British law for the simple reason that that was the judgment of our more-or-less sovereign Parliament. I care very much that we now have responsibilities as a consequence of that.

It is important to clarify that when I said that I did not give a tinker's cuss, I meant that my political judgments have not, traditionally, been influenced by the philosophy that underlies the Human Rights Act 1998. However, in matters of public policy, the Opposition must be informed, influenced and guided by our legal duty.

I have a legal duty to ensure that the order under discussion, beyond which we cannot stray, complies with our responsibilities under the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. I am as concerned about that obligation as anyone else.

Jackie Ballard: On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. Is it in order, when the Committee is time constrained, that one hon. Member should take up the bulk of the time available?

The Chairman: The hon. Lady will know that that is not a point of order on which I can rule, but I know that the hon. Gentleman has heard what she said.

Mr. Bercow: I have certainly heard what the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) said, and it would be a great pleasure to hear her comments. In fairness to myself, I must say that the hon. Lady did not indicate that she wanted to speak when I rose. I made that point at the outset. However, we look forward to her contribution and I will be sure to leave time for her. It would be the greatest discourtesy not to give way to the Minister, so I shall do so.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he and his party accept that the Human Rights Act is law and must govern all our Acts. However, he also made it clear that he speaks on behalf of the official Opposition; he said that in strong and proud terms. Therefore, I want to be clear that when he said, ``I don't give a tinker's cuss about the European convention on human rights,'' he was speaking for the official Opposition.

Mr. Bercow: No, that is not what I meant at all. The Minister has got it wrong, either deliberately or inadvertently. He is doing his best to be mischievous at public expense; he is funded by the taxpayer, and should have a proper sense of his political responsibility.

I believe that we should comply with the law; I am influenced in my judgments by that, as I have a duty to be. Her Majesty's Opposition consider themselves pre-eminently a party that respects the rule of law and is mindful of and attentive to our legal and constitutional obligations. I sign up without hesitation to that position. We have duties under the European convention and the Human Rights Act. Whether the philosophy underlying the legislation influences our minds in matters of public policy is irrelevant, because we have those duties and obligations, as there is a law and a convention. We are faithful to that law and convention and to our responsibilities under them. That is explicit, direct and beyond peradventure—[Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering from a sedentary position that what I have said does not satisfy him. I am making it clear that I believe that we should obey the law and that I am influenced by the European convention and the Human Rights Act. What I have said could scarcely be clearer, so I fear that the Minister is being perverse and abstruse.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister is mischief making. It is more important to know whether he feels, on behalf of the Government, that the order complies with the Human Rights Act.

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