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5 Feb 2008 : Column 791

Points of Order

3.33 pm

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This morning’s “Today” programme carried reports that BBC’s “File on Four” programme would broadcast details of an unpublished report by rail inspectors that reveals some very serious shortcomings in the safety inspection regime at Network Rail. The Railways Minister is in his place, and I should be very grateful if he would assure the House that hon. Members will be able to see a copy of that report at the earliest possible instance.

Mr. Speaker: That is not a point of order, but I shall ask the Minister whether he has anything to say.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me warning of her point of order. The railway inspectorate is an independent organisation. It is part of the Office of Rail Regulation and it has produced the report that was referred to in this morning’s “Today” programme. It has not published that report: I can assure her that the Department for Transport does not have a copy, and it is entirely up to the ORR to decide whether or not to release it. However, as far as the safety regime is concerned, she will know that the rail accident investigation branch is continuing its investigation into last year’s accident at Grayrigg. The full conclusions of that organisation’s report will be made available to the House.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), used the privilege of the House to repeat allegations that the charity Interpal was linked to Hamas, despite the fact that the Charity Commission has twice found those allegations to be unfounded. The charity is well run and there is no evidence of any pro-terrorist bias. Is it in order for—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is using a point of order to debate a matter. That is not a proper use of the point of order system.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As has been widely reported, my constituent, Simon Mann, has disappeared from Zimbabwe and, allegedly, has illegally been handed over to the vicious and repressive regime in Equatorial Guinea. Has any Foreign Office Minister given you any indication that he will come to the House and make a statement and, in particular, that he will call in the ambassadors of those two countries about that blatant abuse—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry for the difficulties— [ Interruption. ] Order. I am sorry for the severe difficulties faced by the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, but I cannot be drawn into those matters.

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Union Flag

3.35 pm

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I beg to move,

My Bill will affirm the Union flag, established on 1 January 1801, as the national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It will define the Union flag as one that can truly represent all British people, including those from Her Majesty’s Crown dependencies and overseas territories who have shown such loyalty to the Crown over many centuries.

I seek to uphold the Union flag for everyone to honour and take pride in, and I want positively to encourage the flying of our flag from public buildings the length and breadth of these islands—not just on the rare days designated for the flying of the flag, but on every day throughout the year. It is time we discarded the outdated convention that the Union flag should fly only on certain days; we should follow the fine example of Her Majesty the Queen who displays the Union flag from Buckingham palace every day except when the royal standard is flown.

The Union flag, or the Union Jack as it is widely known, is a popular modern symbol for most Britons and those with British ancestry—a magnificent emblem representing an unshakeable common bond between all British peoples the world over. The Union flag represents each and every one of us: English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, Channel Islanders, Manxmen, Falkland Islanders, Gibraltarians and all Her Majesty’s subjects in the British overseas territories—indeed, the Union flag is their flag, too.

Another reason for the Bill is to reclaim the Union flag from those who would use it for narrow or extreme political ends, and from those who ridicule our flag on grounds of political correctness or for their own nationalist ambitions. Our flag must be one that all Britons feel able to fly with pride, overriding other divisions that may exist in our nation. In many countries the national flag is a unifying symbol that flies proudly throughout the land: Australia, New Zealand and Canada are the best examples, but in the stars and stripes of the United States and the flags of countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland we see examples where the national flag is flown far and wide, strengthening national identity. The idea that it is somehow not very British to fly the flag is outdated and divisive, and it is time for that old attitude to be discarded.

My Bill will give everyone the right to fly the Union flag all year round, not just from Government buildings in Whitehall but from local town, community, civic and village halls, and from police and fire stations, hospitals, schools, clubs, businesses, offices, shops and private homes, if people choose to do so. Let us start here, today, by flying the Union flag every day from the Houses of Parliament, so that all visitors to London can see our flag proudly fluttering on the mother of Parliaments whenever they visit London. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood)
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has pointed out to me, we should be proud of our heritage and more forward in displaying the symbol that unites us all. That symbol can also be highly significant for tourism. Every visitor is a potential ambassador for Britain, and our flag could be better used to promote our country, our heritage and our people.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who proposed a similar Bill in 1996 when he called for the Union flag to fly freely throughout the nation and for the removal of planning restrictions that prevented that from happening. He, too, called for schools to fly the flag every day. I would like to see that idea adopted. Perhaps a different pupil could be invited to have the honour of raising the flag at the start of each school day. There is nothing more important than instilling in our younger people pride in our flag and our nation.

Hon. Members may not be fully aware that the Union flag has never been affirmed in law. I believe it is time that it was. The first Union flag was adopted by royal proclamation by King James on 12 April 1606. It combined the flag of the cross of St. Andrew for Scotland, and the flag of the cross of St. George for England. It was principally for use at sea. The Union with Ireland in 1801 brought the cross of St. Patrick into the flag. The result was the modern Union flag, established by royal proclamation by King George III on 1 January 1801. Nevertheless, the Union flag has never been affirmed as the civil national flag of the United Kingdom. Instead, it has existed only as a Government flag or a royal banner.

In its detailed research, the Flag Institute discovered two significant references to the Union flag in Parliament. On 14 July 1908, in response to a parliamentary question regarding the status of the flag, the Earl of Crewe, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in another place, declared that

Nearly 25 years later, the Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, stated:

5 Feb 2008 : Column 794

Those two statements are the nearest that the Union flag has ever come to being constitutionally endorsed by Parliament in its popularly accepted role. Consequently, the status of the Union flag has been the subject of controversy and misunderstanding for many years, and there is uncertainty among some people about its constitutional position and legal standing.

My Bill will affirm once and for all that the Union flag is the official flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and it will proclaim it to be the flag of all British peoples. It will also formally recognise that the name, Union Jack, can be commonly used when referring to the Union flag. I am indebted to Captain Malcolm Farrow OBE RN, president of the Flag Institute, who has provided me with a wealth of information about the Union flag and its progress and evolution through the centuries, and I commend the work of the Flag Institute to hon. Members.

Some may feel that the status of our flag is unimportant and others may even misinterpret my passion as misplaced patriotism, but nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that my Bill will be the first step in wresting our national flag from the hands of extremists and giving it back to the loyal people of this country, whatever their race, colour, creed or religion. Our flag is a symbol that instils unity and loyalty throughout our nation, so let us today proclaim it as the flag that can truly represent all members of our great British family. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Andrew Turner, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Angela Watkinson, Mr. Henry Bellingham, Mr. Tobias Ellwood, Geraldine Smith, Mr. Martyn Jones, Mr. Nigel Dodds, Mr. David Jones and David Mundell.

Union Flag

Andrew Rosindell accordingly presented a Bill to define the Union flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; to make provision about the display and flying of the Union flag; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed. [Bill 65].

5 Feb 2008 : Column 795

Treaty of Lisbon (No. 3)

(3rd allotted day)

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Today the Minister for Europe is publishing the Command Paper on prospects for the European Union for 2008, particularly about the Slovenian presidency and its ability to get the treaty of Lisbon ratified. It would be helpful if that document were available for this debate. Having checked in the Vote Office moments beforehand, I find that it is not. Perhaps you would look into the matter and see if it could be put right.

Mr. Speaker: I think we can manage to get on with the debate. We will manage somehow or other.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is, I believe, customary for the Government to put down all documents relevant to debate. Frequent reference has been made in the House to the positions that the Government took during the negotiations on the European constitutional treaty. Could you ask the Minister to put before the House those positions and the motions that the Government sought to move in the constitutional treaty Convention so that all of us, rather than just some, can refer to them? I have asked the Library; it does not possess a copy.

Mr. Speaker: As I have said previously on points of order, hon. Members can sometimes call on me to do things that are the business of Government. It is up to the Government to decide what papers to lay down in the course of the debate. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising the matter.

3.48 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move,

The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of the development of fundamental human rights, especially since the notion was first articulated by Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt in the Atlantic charter in 1941. Nine years after that charter, British lawyers—including the distinguished lawyer Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who later became the Conservative Lord Chancellor as Lord Kilmuir—were instrumental in drafting what became the European convention on human rights. The Labour Foreign Office Minister, Kenneth Younger, described the resulting document as

The rights contained within the convention have a long British pedigree, rooted in Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights and habeas corpus. They were a manifestation of the values already deeply imbued in
5 Feb 2008 : Column 796
the British social fabric and our common law. However, it is as much the origins as the effect of these rights that are relevant to this afternoon’s debate.

The European convention was a means by which a continent racked by the most horrific violence and violations of the most basic rights could heal its wounds. The crucial development was the way in which human rights moved from just being noble sentiments to becoming legally enforceable mechanisms by which a nation’s citizens could seek protection from the otherwise overweening power of the state.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that, over the centuries, it has been this Parliament that has defined, upheld and shaped our human rights, and that it should be this Parliament that does so in future? The European charter would be too inflexible and would not reflect the will of the British people.

Mr. Straw: I do not accept that. It was this British Parliament that decided in 1971 to join the European Union. It was also this British Parliament that signed up to the Single European Act in 1986, to the Maastricht treaty and to the treaties of Amsterdam and Nice. We now have the prospect of signing up to this one. It is open to any party in this country to propose in its manifesto that the United Kingdom should withdraw from its treaty obligations and leave the European Union. That is the sovereign right of this country and this Parliament, and long may that continue to be the case.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman did not mention the controversy within the Labour Cabinet over these matters in the late 1940s. He did not mention the hesitations and reservations expressed by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Jowitt, about the European convention on human rights, because of a matter that is germane to this debate—namely, the jurisdiction of an independent non-UK court. That was the crux of the difficulty that the then Labour Government were confronted with, as we are today.

Mr. Straw: I have not mentioned those things here. However, I have only just begun my speech, so that is not surprising. There are quite a number of things that I will have mentioned by the end of it. I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman, however. I was not going to mention that part of the history today, but I mentioned it recently in a lecture that I gave to a Justice and Guardian newspaper seminar—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Put it in the Library.

Mr. Straw: It is on the website, but I would be happy to put it in the Library and lay it on the Table as well.

I am aware of the history, and of the fact that there was debate in both parties on whether it was acceptable to sign up to a convention and to be bound by the decisions of its courts. I have to say, however, that both the major parties, along with the Liberal Democrats—and their predecessor, the Liberal party—and now this Parliament have successively decided to endorse our signature of the European convention and our acceptance of the decisions of the Court at Strasbourg.
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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): We all know about the European convention, whose history the Secretary of State is describing. What concerns us today, however, is why the Government think it appropriate for this additional charter—the charter of fundamental rights—to come into existence and to become an integral part of European Union law, as opposed to European convention law. Are we not simply duplicating?

Mr. Straw: I will refer to that matter in a moment if I am given a chance to do so, as I know I will be.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to something that he said a few moments ago? He stated that the British people had signed up to the European Union. He is a man of great honour; will he at least acknowledge that the British people have only ever voted to join a trading relationship? What we are getting now is a quite different sort of relationship, which is why the Government should honour their promise and give the British people their say.

Mr. Straw: The debate during the 1975 referendum roamed much wider than that; plenty of histories of it have been written. It is a matter for the hon. Gentleman to win an argument within his own party. Perhaps he wishes to propose that his party commit itself to leaving the European Union—an idea on which the hon. Gentleman is very keen—and putting the question to the British people in a referendum. That would be the appropriate way to address that absolutely fundamental issue.

Meanwhile, I shall make a little progress before provoking some more interventions. Lest the House forget, I was just saying how the ideas moved from being sentiments to legally enforceable mechanisms. The lessons of European history are conspicuous: good will and paper barriers, in and of themselves, are no protection from the perils of authoritarianism. The creation of common minimum standards, backed up by law and enforced by supranational courts—that is the heart of the argument—has turned out to be a powerful guarantee of citizens’ rights and freedoms.

Britain has played a pivotal role in developing that culture of rights and the idea of human rights across Europe. My point to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is that that has been of profound importance in helping to introduce across Europe shared prosperity and stability, from which our own citizens have so benefited. Without not only that culture, but the ability to enforce common standards of human rights, I doubt very much whether we would have seen the extraordinary progress made during the lifetimes of many right hon. and hon. Members, including mine. We have moved from a position in which only a handful of European states could be described as functioning democracies; there were dictatorships not only in eastern Europe but in what we now describe as western Europe. Today, almost every nation meets that description, or is working hard towards it.

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