18 July 2007 : Column 259

18 July 2007 : Column 259

House of Commons

Wednesday 18 July 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Queen's Speech

1. Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to engage in dialogue with Parliament and the public in seeking their views on the contents of the Queen's Speech. [150195]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): In setting out details of the content of the provisional list of Bills for the next parliamentary Session, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement last Wednesday that he intended the Government’s initial thinking, formerly private, to be the subject of widespread discussion and debate. Further and full information about the Bills is now available on the Cabinet Office website and in hard copy, from the Vote Office among other sources. We want to hear the views of all parliamentarians, members of the public and interest groups on what we have proposed and what they think should be changed.

Barbara Keeley: May I say how pleased I am to ask the first question of the new team at the Ministry of Justice, and to welcome my right hon. Friend and his team to their new responsibilities? May I also say how much I welcome the news that there will be additional debate and dialogue about the Queen’s Speech? Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether that additional debate and dialogue might lead to further proposals or expanded legislation to be included in the draft programme?

Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for her congratulations to me and to the other members of my team.

The whole purpose of consulting people is to take account of others’ views. It is always a fact that the legislative programme changes—I know that, having been responsible for it as Leader of the House—but in the past the changes have principally been made in private. Now we want to hear from parliamentarians and members of the public and take account of what is said so that, with luck, the programme will be more in line with the overall opinion of parliamentarians and
18 July 2007 : Column 260
the public before we publish the final list—or Her Majesty does—in the Queen’s Speech in November.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on his appointment. May I remind him that the public are well aware that many Acts of Parliament do not fulfil their intended purpose? Will he therefore continue to work with the authorities in both Houses to produce an effective system of post-legislative scrutiny, on which we were working beforehand and which really needs to be brought into play?

Mr. Straw: I thank the right hon. Gentleman—the Chairman of what will shortly become the Select Committee on Justice—for his congratulations, and look forward to working with his Committee in a constructive manner. I agree with him about post-legislative scrutiny. The Law Commission presented some very sensible proposals about it, and subsequently the right hon. Gentleman and other senior Select Committee Chairmen suggested ways in which they should be implemented. I am committed to doing that, as is my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I add my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman and his team, and wish them well in their important task.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House two assurances? First, will he assure us that the Queen’s Speech will always take place, and that the Government have no desire to dispense with that important ceremonial occasion? Secondly, if Parliament is truly to be at the centre of the Government’s plans, may we have an assurance that not every Bill will be timetabled?

Mr. Straw: I give an absolute assurance on the first point. I am the first Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain to sit in the House of Commons—[Hon. Members: “Hear, Hear!”] I think it is time to give a wider audience to the full name. However, I am already in training for my role at the other end of the Corridor in the state opening, which I am told in my incoming brief must continue. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an absolute commitment that nothing in our efforts to provide for more consultation of the draft legislative programme will detract in any way from either the formality or the importance of the state opening of Parliament by Her Majesty the Queen which takes place at the beginning of each Session.

Now I have forgotten the hon. Gentleman’s second question, and sadly it is not a Freudian slip. [Hon. Members: “Timetabling.”] Yes, timetabling. Not every Bill is timetabled, although nowadays most Bills are. I know that that has been a matter of controversy. When I was Chairman of the Modernisation Committee we examined it in some detail, and, as a result of complaints from both sides of the House, although timetabling continues it is now much more relaxed. In most cases knives are not used for Report stages, and the time allocated for both Committee and Report is usually more than is used. However, I understand the importance of the matter, and we keep it under review.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I welcome the Lord High Chancellor to his newly expanded post, although since he is responsible for making the
18 July 2007 : Column 261
Executive more accountable, I hope that in future an hour will be provided for Justice questions.

The Prime Minister has said that the British people will be consulted on major decisions through citizens’ juries. His spokesman has confirmed that the Government’s review will consider whether service on such juries should be compulsory. Does the Secretary of State think that the public will welcome being forced to serve on new Labour’s focus groups, and what will be the point of them if—as with public protests against hospital closures, or the 1.5 million people who signed the Downing street petition against road pricing—the Government simply ignore the jury’s verdict?

Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind congratulations, and I congratulate him on becoming the shadow Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain and shadow Secretary of State for Justice, which covers an important policy area.

To begin on an ecumenical note, I regard even an hour of questions as too little for this Department, and for practice for the Opposition. I have already made strong recommendations on the matter to the Patronage Secretary and the Leader of the House as we recognise that half an hour is not long enough, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that, too.

On the hon. Gentleman’s next question, I have been reading the West Sussex County Times, which reports him as saying that, so far as he is concerned, there will be a reduction in party political slanging matches. I note the standard that he has set on that.

Citizens’ juries do not, and cannot, work in the same way as juries in real courts; they have to be collaborative. Citizens’ juries have been used in my constituency, and the idea behind them is to draw out people’s views, not as focus groups, but through a collaborative, discursive approach. They often arrive at interesting conclusions, and the purpose in having them is to take account of what they say.

Human Rights Act

2. Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act 1998. [150196]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Last year, my predecessor as Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, was asked by the Prime Minister to review the implementation of the Human Rights Act. His review was published in July 2006—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has read every page. It concluded that the Act has had no impact on the Government’s ability to fight crime, but that it has had a significant and beneficial impact on policy development.

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to the Lord High Chancellor for his answer and welcome him to his post. Has not the decision to enshrine in law the declaration of human rights proved to be an own goal, in that it has limited the power of Government to uphold the rights and security of the people of this country? Is not the underlying problem the fact that rights are not absolutes but need to be balanced against each other, which requires political judgment and common sense,
18 July 2007 : Column 262
and that that is best left not to lawyers but to Parliament, which developed those human rights in the first place?

Mr. Straw: Of course rights have to be balanced by responsibilities, and that is precisely what the European convention on human rights does. As the shadow Lord Chancellor, Lord Kingsland, has pointed out, it was drafted not by some rabid radical socialist-leaning French or Italian lawyers but by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, later Lord Kilmuir, a senior and highly respected member of the Conservative Bench. Its rights are supposed to constrain the power of the state against the individual. If the right hon. Gentleman is serious about wishing to withdraw from the European convention or to reduce rights, he must say which rights he wants reduced. Does he want the right to life to be reduced? Does he want the prohibition on torture or the right to a fair trial to be abolished? Does he want the right to marry—I know that he is concerned about such matters—to be cut out, along with respect for private and family life? It is time for Opposition Members to move away from slogan-making and instead put up or be quiet about which aspects of this great convention they wish to be repealed.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend say how he plans to extend the protection of the Human Rights Act to those who rely on privatised or contracted-out services not only in care homes but more generally, in order to put right the consequences of the YL case in the other place and to get back to what was originally intended when the Act was passed by this House?

Mr. Straw: As my hon. Friend knows, we left open as a matter for the courts the definition of a public authority to which the Act would apply. I am currently digesting the results of the decision by the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, and I will consult my hon. Friend and his Committee about the best way forward.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. As the only previous holder of his office not to be a member of the House of Lords was Sir Thomas More, he has quite an act to follow.

It is intolerable to members of the public that the courts should, again and again, refuse to deport people, even to places such as Afghanistan into which we have put considerable amounts of blood and treasure to get a grip, because of human rights legislation. The rights of citizens of this country must matter, too.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations and the reference to historical precedent, but I would rather not go the same way as Sir Thomas More—although one never knows in this business.

The provisions of article 3, which require that no one should be subject to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and their interpretation, go back way beyond the introduction and coming into force of the Act. The difficulty arises not under the Act, but under the decision of the European Court of
18 July 2007 : Column 263
Human Rights in the Chahal case in 1996. The British judiciary are members of the public and they have no interest in seeing terrorists at large, but they do have an interest, because we have asked them to do so—we signed the convention and the Conservatives have supported it—in genuinely ensuring that people are not sent back to be killed or tortured. We cannot do that. The question is one of balance, and we are currently backing actions in the European Court to get it to modify the Chahal judgment, which was made in different circumstances, to provide the courts with greater flexibility.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his team on their appointments. I realise that he is new in his post, but I wrote to him on 5 July asking for an urgent meeting to discuss the whole question of Welsh language juries, which is a question of human rights under article 6 of the European convention on human rights. Will he please make time to see my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) and me before we rise for the summer recess?

Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations and for giving me some notice of this question. I will of course make arrangements to see him and his colleague before the end of next week.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on his appointment as Secretary of State for Justice. On 3 July, the Prime Minister made an important statement on constitutional reform, involving the possibility of a new written constitution and a new Bill of Rights. Will he assure the House that any new constitution would be fully compatible with our obligations under human rights legislation, and deal not only with rights but with responsibilities?

Mr. Straw: I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that we want a debate on whether we should build on, not detract from, the European convention on human rights and what is in the Human Rights Act 1998. We have to get it across, and the Opposition make a fair point, that the Act and the rights themselves have to be balanced by obligations, duties and responsibilities. That is an important part of the debate that my right hon. Friend has now launched.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): In the light of the answer that the Lord High Chancellor gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), will he note that there are two House of Lords cases, one of which reaffirms the sovereignty of Parliament in relation to the question of the Human Rights Act? It is embedded in the Act. Will he also note that Lord Hoffmann recently said that the questions of the balance between security and human rights should be determined by the Home Secretary because he is required to answer to Parliament? Does he also note that only the other day Lord Carlile said that he thought that there was a case for extending the detention period of 28 days? Will the Secretary of State take note—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

18 July 2007 : Column 264

Mr. Straw: First of all, may I say that this is an historic first? This is the first time in the 11 years that I have been answering questions that the very assiduous hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has asked me one and not mentioned Europe—a subject that normally features even in inquiries about drains in his constituency. On the other matter, though, he is absolutely right to say that this Parliament is sovereign. That is embedded in the Human Rights Act, and in our membership of the EU. We can withdraw any time that we wish, but I am against doing so.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The Minister will be aware that the many thousands of parents who are victims of malpractice in the family courts are prevented by law from making representations about the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act. Does he have any proposals to make it possible for such people to make representations about malpractice to Members of Parliament?

Mr. Straw: I do not have proposals at this stage, but I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman raises and I am very happy to meet him and talk about how we deal with the problem.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In May, the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), who is in his place, said that human rights legislation needed modernising to protect citizens against terrorism and that, if necessary, the Government would even derogate from article 5 of the European convention on human rights to deal with terrorist suspects who abscond from control orders. Was the previous Home Secretary right, or is the new Lord High Chancellor so wedded to his Human Rights Act that he will not contemplate changes to protect the public from extremists who threaten this country and our way of life?

Mr. Straw: There is no difference between me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) on this matter. What we all accept is that the fundamental obligations are embedded in the ECHR. Some sensible modifications to the Human Rights Act are already anticipated in our document “The Governance of Britain”, which I am holding up for the House to see. As far as derogation is concerned, it is of course open to us under the convention and the Act itself to derogate, if we judge that that is necessary.

Values Statement

3. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to consult the public on a British statement of values. [150197]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): In the coming months, we will be starting a series of consultations, using a range of formats, to involve the British people in the formulation of the statement and to give them a decisive role in the process.

Chris Bryant: I warmly welcome the Minister to his new post, and his appointment is long overdue. Recent opinion polls suggest that the British public think that the most important British values are a sense of fair
18 July 2007 : Column 265
play, a respect for minorities and the belief that everyone has the right to say precisely what they think. But has my hon. Friend watched “Little Britain” recently? Does he believe that one of the most important British values is our ability to laugh at ourselves?

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): There’s a lot of them in this village, though!

Mr. Wills: I am grateful for the first words of welcome uttered by my hon. Friend, although I am not sure of the implication of his final remarks. However, I agree with everything that he has said and pay tribute to his contribution to the last of the British values that he identified. I look forward to his contribution to the consultation.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Our heritage and marine traditions lie at the heart of our British values, so will the Minister note the disappointment, both in the House and beyond it, that neither the heritage Bill nor the marine Bill were included in the preview of the Queen’s Speech? Will he and his colleagues reconsider the matter?

Mr. Wills: I note the hon. Gentleman’s question, and he is very welcome to participate in the consultation. It is precisely for that purpose that we are holding it.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Is not participatory democracy one of the great British values? Will the Minister recognise that the Government’s Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been a great success in that regard? Given that it has caused no problems, will he and the Government consider removing some of the restrictions in the legislation that prevent information from being released?

Mr. Wills: I recognise entirely what the hon. Gentleman says. We are proud to have brought in the freedom of information legislation, which is making a substantial and significant contribution to democracy in this country. We are constantly reviewing the way it works, and I am sure that he and I will have further exchanges on that in the future.

Next Section Index Home Page