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28 Oct 2002 : Column 604—continued

Simon Hughes: The hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right; this was a matter where Parliament led public opinion, which had not been persuaded of the argument. We had had cases where Lord Chief Justice Goddard sentenced people to death who were later found to be not guilty. I do not regard the matter as a dirty political deal. I understand why it happened, but we have moved on since then.

When subsequent Home Secretaries introduced the notion of the tariff, they did so without any parliamentary debate or secondary legislation; it was introduced, as it were, by a Government statement. Many reports of the bodies concerned over the years, including the Home Affairs Select Committee, have recommended that there should be judge-made sentences, not politician-made sentences. That included the last Home Affairs Select Committee report under the last Conservative Government, a Committee that had a Conservative majority.

The logic of the cases that have been debated here, which came from Strasbourg and dealt first with young people, was that we should apply the same principle to adults. There does not seem to be any logical distinction between the two. By signing the sixth protocol to the ECHR, Parliament has prevented itself from being able to reinstate the death penalty, so the reason for the old position has gone.

In addition, other parts of the United Kingdom have judge-set sentences. Scotland has them, and it is not an issue there. In Scotland, the Justice Minister—my friend Jim Wallace, a former Member of this House—does not set the sentences. In Northern Ireland, legislation is going in the same direction. We have heard the arguments and, around the world, all similar jurisdictions have moved away from the system that we are discussing. Whatever the House of Lords decision may be, sooner or later we should, and we will, have judge-made sentences, not Home Secretary-made sentences.

Mr. Cash: Surely the hon. Gentleman conceded to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that there were questions relating to public safety. One might give as instances serial killers and paedophiles. How does he square that with what he has just said?

Simon Hughes: I give the hon. Gentleman the same answer that I gave to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham. I am on the record as saying that it should be for the courts to make sure whether somebody who has been given a life sentence is safe to be released. When juveniles become adults, it is my view that there should be the same reassessment. Also—this will be topical in the next Session—the same should apply to people with a history of mental illness or mental disorder. I would far rather that courts made that decision in public, on the evidence, than—with great respect—parole boards sitting behind the scenes. The parole boards have done a difficult job well, but for reasons of public safety and reassurance those decisions should be made in the open.

My party enthusiastically supported the Human Rights Act in both Houses, believing it to be right and proper for Britain to make the convention directly enforceable. Every Council of Europe country that is a signatory to the convention has now done that, with the exception of Ireland, which is considering doing so and in any case has long had a written constitution and Bill of Rights.

The Act appears to be hugely successful. In the lecture that has already been referred to, Lord Woolf made it absolutely clear that he considered it to be a good thing and working well, and the other senior judges fully support it. The remedy for a human rights breach is now available far more quickly—one used to have to go to all the domestic courts and then to Strasbourg, and that often led to justice denied.

The Act means that our courts can now influence the jurisprudence of Strasbourg. It has not been abused, and I think that only one case has resulted in compensation. It means that we scrutinise our legislation for human rights implications more thoroughly. Civil servants have to do that and Ministers have to certify compliance, and the Joint Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), has done an extremely good job on behalf of both Houses, ensuring that every piece of legislation is examined. I pay tribute to her and her colleagues for their part in ensuring that Parliament can do its job properly.

The Act has made us much more human rights conscious. Official secrets legislation dating from the first world war—passed in haste and repented of at leisure—could never have remained on the statute book so long if we had had this process. That is why, uniquely in the House, my party opposed the derogation in last year's anti-terrorism legislation. I understand the arguments, but we thought it unnecessary, as other remedies are available. We believed that other countries would not follow us in seeking derogations, and indeed they have not.

The implication in the motion that the Act is inimical to democracy is, as the Minister said, completely flawed. Lord Woolf dealt with that head on at the end of his lecture. The reality is that the best remedy against the excesses of the state—often the Executive, sometimes Parliament—is to have someone outside who can say, XYou've got it wrong." It is easy for Parliament to be swayed to support the view of the majority, but often we need to ensure that it looks after the interests of the minority just as much. Lord Woolf made it absolutely clear that occasionally judges are needed to do that job. They may be unpopular at the time, but they are needed.

We should consider our history, taking in Thomas Paine and the tradition that we have exported to the United States, as well as the French revolution. Going back even further, there is the declaration of rights and, more recently, my party's traditions, with Mill and all the others. We believe that liberal democracy is absolutely rooted in human rights, and sometimes we need something other than Parliament to defend it.

I pay tribute to those who fought the battle. When I was first interested in politics, I met the then Lord Wade, a Liberal peer, who was fighting to get the Bill of Rights incorporated in law. He kept trying, and it seemed almost cloud cuckoo land to imagine that it would ever happen, but he fought doggedly on and eventually he was proved to have been right. More recently, my noble Friend Lord Lester, who has many years experience in human rights and serves on the Joint Committee, fought hard to secure the legislation. Parliament achieved a balance, saying that it need not accept the court's decision, but accepting that eventually it could be overridden by the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr. Letwin: No one listening could fail to be impressed by the hon. Gentleman's evident sincerity and the logic of his arguments. Does he accept, though, that there is a difference between using such a structure of argument in the United States, where constitutional amendment is available as a democratic device, and using it in our current circumstances, when we are denying Parliament the ability to contradict the judges' interpretation of a document that Parliament cannot change? Is not that a fundamental difference?

Simon Hughes: It is a difference, and we could have a perfectly proper debate about that. Unlike the United States, we do not have a written constitution. This country has signed up to a European convention, rather as the states in America signed up to the federal constitution.

I intended to end on this point, and the right hon. Gentleman leads me to it. The process of our democracy and the defence of human rights is an evolving and developing process. I welcome the debate about how Parliament—the legislature—the Executive and the courts interrelate. But for us this will continue to be unsatisfactory in its resolution until we have a written constitution and a Bill of Rights. When we have, the parallel with the United States will be much more obvious, and the citizen will understand more clearly the relationship between himself or herself and the state.

The great benefit of being brought up in the United States or in France is that young people there understand their rights and obligations more clearly than they do in this country. We still have some way to go. The Human Rights Act was a good start, and independence of the judiciary is an important principle—but there is further work to be done, and further constitutional reform is still urgently needed.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that the 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches now applies.

8.40 pm

Jean Corston (Bristol, East): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in a debate on the implications of the Human Rights Act 1998. I agreed with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) when she surmised the reasons why the Conservatives chose this subject for debate this week—but I am pleased to say that the Court of Appeal shot their fox last Friday.

Such time as I have, I intend to devote not to recent cases in the Court of Appeal, nor to the position of politicians with regard to determining sentences, but to a recently produced pamphlet containing what passes nowadays for thinking on human rights in the Conservative party, including an article by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, entitled XLiberty under the Law" and a foreword by Lord Cranborne.

The pamphlet says that there is little parliamentary check on the expanding power of the state, which increasingly threatens individual freedom, so the role of protecting individuals from the excesses of state power falls to the judiciary. However, the European convention on human rights, which the Human Rights Act incorporates into British law, has at its heart the protection of individual freedom. As we all know, it was drafted in response to the experience of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, and is based on the principle of the rule of law in a democratic society. The convention protects rights, including rights to liberty, to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and to privacy—an essential check against excessive intrusion into the personal sphere, which is, in essence, the right to be left alone.

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