Scope for a Bill of Rights

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Lady Hermon: Will the Minister elaborate on one point? I am not going to ask him about individual rights. Will he express a view on the constitutional guarantee that is written in black and white in the agreement? Should that go into the preamble to any additional Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady anticipates precisely what I will not do. My answer to her is that I await the view of the commission on that point, and that view can then be played into the overall debate. It is inappropriate for me to give my opinion on such specific issues. It is appropriate that I set out the issues of principle, and some of the related arguments, which I think ought to engage the process. From that process, if everyone that I hope and expect to engage in it assists the commission to supply proper, formulated advice to the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend will then make our position clear in relation to those specifics.

One cannot determine the scope for a Bill of Rights for anyone, unless one has an informed and mature debate about where the responsibilities of the democratic process and politicians lie, and what it is appropriate to express as rights that are justiciable in the courts. There needs to be a debate that hardens that division, and then rights can be drawn on the right side of that line. If the convention does not fully address the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland on that side of the line, a Bill of Rights should fill that lacuna.

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A carefully crafted Bill of Rights need not tie the hands of politicians unnecessarily, but any proposals must be analysed closely by all the participants in the process to ensure that it is precise, enforceable and answers a real need.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The distinction drawn by my hon. Friend between rights and policies is important. Does that mean that those who argue that a Bill of Rights should be inclusive and extend to social and economic matters are in the area of policy rather than rights? Would a Bill of Rights then cover rights against the state rather than the policies that that state might be operating?

Mr. Browne: I am pleased that my hon. Friend is in exactly the area of debate where I want people to be. He is engaging in one of the two great areas of debate on human rights at the present time. One is a mature debate on whether all social and economic rights fall within the province of democratic politics and policy. I shall give a crude example; I hope that the Committee will excuse that. Are we to live in a society in which it is not open to a political party to seek power on the basis that its priority for a given period of government will be, for example, education and to say by definition that it cannot fulfil everyone's expectations in health, housing and other social and economic areas? Or are we to live in a society in which politicians and party policies in relation to social and economic rights will become largely irrelevant because there will be a set of absolute rights or a set of broadly written rights and every decision made by a politician on policy in the social and economic sphere will be second-guessed by an application to the courts?

That may not answer my hon. Friend's question, because there is no simple answer. However, I can confidently say that not all such rights would be excluded from a Bill of Rights, but we must engage in informed debate about where the line will be drawn. We cannot proceed on the basis that every international instrument signed by the Government can be incorporated willy-nilly into the domestic law of the country. We cannot proceed in that way because the majority of such instruments are not drafted with a view to their being so incorporated.

Those who know the history of the European convention on human rights will say that the situation was the same for the convention and that we eventually incorporated it, but we did so in this country with a history of jurisprudence and after decades of the right of personal petition. We incorporated it with a jurisprudence that had moved on and was a dynamic process. We need to engage in that debate, which is all the more important because some people have not done so. Those people felt that it was for others to do that, or they stupidly adopted the view of the former Prime Minister, which was that we do not need human rights because we have a free society.

We must engage in the debate because of the world in which we live. Those of us who fundamentally believe in human rights, as I and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister do, must

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engage in the debate on where the lines are properly to be drawn and not see this as an inexorable process of internationalising every single policy decision. It is the responsibility of democratic politicians in this country. I have gone further than I planned, but I hope that that is clear.

Lady Hermon: The Minister is much more enlightening when he speaks without his written notes. He gave what he called a crude example, which was, in fact, a very helpful illustration of the Government's thinking at present.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's kind remarks. The other point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was about the relationship between the individual and the state. I take the opportunity that that part of his question gives to put my papers down again and discuss that issue. Northern Ireland is a good example of the deficiencies of a stereotypical attitude towards human rights, and challenges all of us who have an interest in advancing human rights, using the human rights agenda to inform our politics and the future of Northern Ireland.

There is a deficiency in an approach that tends to be adopted in a stereotypical fashion, because the structure of human rights that is incorporated in the convention is designed to reflect only the relationship of the individual to the state. For that reason, many people in Northern Ireland have turned their backs on the human rights agenda, because their view is that non-state organisations or other individuals rather than state organisations are responsible for infractions of their human rights. As a result, they believe that the human rights agenda has nothing to offer them.

We must use those rights as templates for finding ways to regulate and inform the way in which we treat other human beings. Instead of looking at rights from a selfish perspective, we must start looking at rights from the point of view of the other. Instead of ''my rights'', we must talk more about other people's rights. If we all talked about other people's rights, informed by the principles set out in international instruments and by the convention, we would create an environment in which all those who think that human rights are for other people would be able to engage.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): In the last Parliament, the Government convinced me that it was right to incorporate the European convention on human rights, although my previous judgment had been against it. I now have difficulty with the Government's saying that perhaps there ought to be a dimension beyond the European convention in terms of detail, extension and expansion. Some of us in the Opposition find it difficult to understand why what was declared in the last Parliament to be the solution—for want of a better word—to the issue now must be a question of debate.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman takes us to the essence of the debate. It is a mistake to think that the Government are saying that the European convention on human rights does not provide enough rights for the people of Northern Ireland. The Government are

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saying that the Belfast agreement—an agreement between both Governments and the parties of Northern Ireland—requires a survey of whether the convention provides sufficient rights in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland or whether there is a need for supplementary rights in the form of a Bill of Rights. The Government are saying what all Governments should say; ''We have reached this point, but that is never the end of the road. We need to look at what road we are going to travel in this area in the future.'' I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman was persuaded by what I thought were very good arguments for why we should incorporate the European convention on human rights. Not the least of those was that, as we already have a right of personal petition, it is appropriate for our judges to adjudicate on issues in relation to the convention, rather than relying on an international court to do that for us. It is appropriate for us to do that domestically.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was persuaded by that but I am certain, knowing him and his ability to look beyond today, that he did not think for a minute that that was the end of the debate on human rights. It is not, and is not likely to be. The whole process of rights and equality is a dynamic. Every aspect of law in this country is dynamic, or else it would have been fixed in stone a long time ago. We do not do that; we look at the law and discover that, from where we are now, we have a different view of the future and might need to adjust our position.

All that we are doing in Northern Ireland, in the context of the requirement in the Belfast agreement, is asking the human rights commission, which has the expertise, to advise us on the scope for supplementing the rights in the European convention on human rights in the future because of the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. The Government are not saying that the convention is not enough and that we need more. We are saying that we have an open mind about whether it is enough. If we are persuaded by arguments that it is not enough, those additional rights that are necessary for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland will be reflected in a Bill of Rights.

 
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Prepared 27 June 2002