3.11 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for giving us a chance to speak on this matter. It does not seem like it is three years since we had a similar debate in Westminster Hall. Incidentally, I think the leader of the Labour party was part of that debate. Remarkably,

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we seemed to agree across the Chamber on all the human rights and equalities issues, and I do not believe it will be any different today, because the Members here are of the same mind.

For decades, Egypt has not only been a beacon of hope in the middle east and north Africa for freedom and liberty in comparison with its neighbours, but done well economically. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) in her last few words referred to democracy in Egypt. Co-operation with NATO and the west has been priceless; we saw how much that meant when Egypt suffered from instability following what was called the Arab spring.

It is pleasing to see the shadow Minister and the Minister in their places. I look forward to both of their contributions and I am quite sure that the Minister will be as positive as ever. He has the ability to understand what we are thinking and put that in his answers.

At the end of last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) was appointed the economic envoy to Egypt—the Minister will know that. We are pleased that someone from this House has direct input and can carry the banner, so to speak, for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—in Northern Ireland we are fond of carrying banners. That is fantastic news and we fully support him.

Charlotte Leslie: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the very appointment of a trade envoy to Egypt—our current envoy is excellent—illustrates that the Government really want to engage? Does he also agree that in John Casson and Nasser Kamel we have two good ambassadors who are extremely good at engaging with their respective populations and acting together?

Jim Shannon: I can only agree with the hon. Lady on all those points. I will mention one of the ambassadors later on in my speech, because lots of good things have been done.

I want to look at the debate in a positive fashion, but I also want to highlight some issues. While we recognise the small and giant steps that Egypt has taken, we must look at some of the changes needed. I want to talk about them in a respectful fashion, which is important.

Relationships, which are proving fruitful, still exist as we seek to foster peace in the region. They are invaluable in the fight against Daesh. Egypt needs to be a lead nation in any coalition against Islamic State. We may not hear about it often, but Egypt’s borders are crossed on many occasions from Libya, where Daesh groups operate in units. They have attacked and in their activities a number of Egyptian soldiers and civilians have been murdered. They are on the front line, so let us give them the support they need. When the Minister responds, he will probably be able to tell us a wee bit more about what we are doing. I know it is not his remit, but perhaps he can say how we can support them militarily. It is important that we do so and that we are seen to do so.

We need to do everything we can to support one of our strongest allies in the region in its drive to return to stability so that it can not only use its military and diplomatic capabilities, but reignite as the beacon of hope that once shone in north Africa and the middle east. For all its problems, Egypt has shown itself to be a

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bulwark against the instability and chaos that plagues other countries not too far away in the middle east and the Arab world. Instability has swept over them like a tidal wave, but it has not to the same extent in Egypt.

Egypt is strong, Egypt is our friend, and it makes economic, political and strategic sense to ensure that it remains our friend to provide the stability necessary in the middle east, now and in the years and decades to come. Notably, al-Sisi’s top security concern is the presence of Daesh in the Sinai peninsula. Earlier I mentioned the attacks from Daesh groups in Libya, which illustrate that. That is dangerous from a human point of view, a regional and global security point of view and an economic point of view. It offers a new launch pad for the abhorrent Daesh disturbingly close to our other ally in the region, the state of Israel.

It should be remembered—no one in the Chamber will have any doubts about it—that Israel has been Egypt’s ally from the beginning of biblical times. In the past the relationships were strong, even with the Arab and the Jew. We still have that working relationship between Egypt and Israel, which is perhaps unique in the middle east, not only on economic things, but to combat Daesh and take on the threat of Palestinian terrorists. Egypt sees the threat, Israel sees the threat, and they work together to ensure that the tunnels that have been used by some, coming from Egypt towards Israel and the Palestinians, are closed off. We must recognise that Egypt plays a part in that.

Members should be aware that that is being taken seriously by our diplomats in the region. The hon. Lady referred to our ambassador in Egypt, John Casson, who last week addressed an Egyptian Ministry of Tourism conference in Cairo. All Members who have spoken so far have rightly referred to the importance of tourism, which we need to reignite. We need to provide security first of all. Ambassador Casson stressed the importance of the points I have raised: the economic, diplomatic, strategic, and defence and security ties.

Charlotte Leslie: Will the hon. Gentleman join me in becoming one of the first people on a flight back to Sharm el-Sheikh? I am asking him on holiday.

Jim Shannon: As a married man, I have to be careful. [Laughter.] I am very loyal and dutiful to my wife, who I love, but if it was in a purely platonic way, I think that would be okay.

The ambassador praised the efforts of Egypt to re-emerge from the years of instability she suffered following the Arab spring and the Muslim Brotherhood takeover. Three years ago I had a chance to visit Egypt with the all-party parliamentary group on Egypt. I had always wanted to visit Egypt—I had a purpose. The APPG met President al-Sisi in his palace, so I had a chance to put to him issues about freedom of religious belief, which are important for me and for my Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt, and I was impressed by his response to the questions put—I could not say otherwise. He showed his commitment to the change he wanted to see and the society he wanted in Egypt. I was impressed by that. He also won the election shortly after that, and let us be quite clear: a democratic process was carried out and he was overwhelmingly elected. The people were not happy with the Muslim Brotherhood—although they were not happy with Mubarak either—but I believe that President al-Sisi delivered a democratic process to them.

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On our visit the members of the all-party group had a chance to raise some issues. We met a pastor in a church in Cairo, called Pastor Sami. People often say to me, when I mention him, “Is he from Belfast?” I say, “No, he is not; he is from Cairo, and he is an Egyptian.” Seven thousand people attend that evangelical church in Cairo, but you will never hear about that, Mr Pritchard. It is one of those things that come out only from visits to Egypt or from having direct contact with places in the area. Pastor Sami wanted the changes. I expressed to him my concerns about people who had converted from Islam to Christianity, and a block being put on them, and asked about the level of direct representation at every level of the democratic process—not just with respect to President al-Sisi. There was a meeting about a month ago of the all-party group on religion or belief, which I chair, and we met some people from Egypt. There are a number of Christian MPs in Parliament in Egypt, taking part in the democratic process and making changes, as they should.

Kwasi Kwarteng: Would the hon. Gentleman suggest how, if at all, what he describes is an improvement on the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Jim Shannon: First, it is an improvement because people can pursue their religious beliefs without fear in Egypt today. There are still attacks, but there is a change, and I have seen that. When I visited I had a chance to meet the Grand Mufti. It was an opportunity to meet someone of Muslim beliefs at a high level and to ask him his personal opinion on the new Egypt that we would see shortly afterwards. He made a commitment to ensure that people would have the opportunity to express their religious belief without repercussions. I want that to come from the top, and to go all the way down; and I think there are levels further down that it has not yet reached. There are steps to be taken—small ones and big ones.

The Islamic groups that have infiltrated into Egypt are more violent. In the Sinai region, radical groups seem to operate with impunity. Christians are punished and pushed outside the proper legal process. Coptic Christians, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne mentioned, have been expelled from their villages. There is persecution and discrimination, and one example I know of concerns a schoolgirl whose name is Marina. She is 10 and the youngest of six children. Her mum and dad are illiterate, but they send all the children to school. As a Christian, she has to sit at the back of the class on her own, isolated and perhaps marginalised. It is such levels that must be reached if there is to be real change for people in Egypt. I know that everyone in the Chamber wants that to happen as well. Christian women have been kidnapped and raped, and involved in relationships that they find abhorrent. Christian buildings and churches have not been repaired in some cases, but in fairness there has been some change on that. There has been rebuilding of churches, and protection, in Cairo.

The response to the saddening and shocking events at Sharm el-Sheikh is an example of exactly what is needed on every level. Britain, Germany and Russia, to name a few of the nations in question, have taken steps to co-operate further with the Egyptian Government to ensure that Sharm el-Sheikh can be a model for security at airports and show strength and resilience in the face of terror and cowardice. There is a young girl who

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works in my office as my researcher, and when she got married she had her honeymoon in Sharm el-Sheikh. At the time there was not any bother, and she recommended it for a holiday—a honeymoon is of course a bit better as a holiday—and an opportunity to enjoy some special time.

There is great development potential in the Nile delta. On our visit we hoped to see some of that development. With the water source there is agriculture and agribusiness, which create jobs and enable food to be grown, moving Egypt, with its massive population, towards some sort of self-sufficiency, if that is possible. Among various issues there has been talk of Ethiopia building a dam, which might cause some problems. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to respond on that, or give us an idea of where things are in that process, but Egypt can develop and create jobs. The resurgence of gas and oil and access to Egypt’s vast energy resources are of interest to everyone, and helping an ally to develop those resources is much better than relying on enemies for energy, as the west too often finds itself doing. BP and British Gas have found Egypt to be an ideal business partner recently, and utilising our relationship with Egypt to further voluntary co-operation and trade across the region will open up the prospect of prosperity to millions of oppressed people—a vast population who need employment. We should remember that they need prosperity as well as the peace we all continue to work for.

I have outlined an array of issues on Egypt, including the concerns of the all-party group. I have mentioned the role of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley as an envoy to Egypt, and there is already an apparatus that we can build on to ensure support from the United Kingdom. I hope that will help to ensure that what was once a towering pillar of stability and a beacon of hope in the Arab world can come roaring back to its former self and sit again at the top table of global powers and economies, alongside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

3.27 pm

Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): I am pleased to be called to speak in the debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for securing it. I thank him for the brief background he gave us, from his own experience, reminding us what a great country Egypt is, and what a much greater country it can become. It is, I think, the 16th biggest country in the world, and often we do not appreciate that. Not too long ago different cultures and traditions, and people of different faiths and none, could mix comfortably, respecting one another’s traditions but with the freedom to carry on their own. Clearly, that is what we want Egypt to return to.

We must recognise that Egypt belongs to the Egyptians, so in our dealings with them we must be careful. By all means we should encourage them to move towards the kind of society that we think the citizens are entitled to; by all means we should use diplomatic and other ties to try to develop the interests of the United Kingdom in relation to Egypt; but at all times we should respect the rights of Egypt’s citizens to choose a Government and un-choose them should they see fit.

I think we can see optimistic signs even in the behaviour of President Sisi. A lot of what he has done recently is completely unacceptable and contrary to any interpretation of international human rights law; that must be made

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clear to him. However, he has the potential to change course. There has been some sign of a small but welcome softening of attitude on law and order, for example. It is unacceptable that hundreds of people can be taken and sentenced to death almost at one time. Some of those death sentences have been commuted, and that is something we should encourage. President Sisi received military command training in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America, so he knows where the boundaries lie between using military means to ensure security and abusing military power to oppress either his own people or anyone else. He knows what is acceptable and what is not. I think there is something there that we can work with, which perhaps we do not have with some of the other dictators or semi-dictators in the region.

The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) rightly reminded us what can happen if someone who is elected democratically stops being democratic and is allowed to get away with that.

The persecution of religious minorities, to which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred, is something that we cannot afford to ignore. We should remember that the persecution of Christians is an anti-Islamic action in exactly the same way as anti-Semitic or Islamophobic persecution is an anti-Christian action. All of those faiths teach fundamentally that we are all free to take our own decisions and that we will all be held to account for those decisions at some point. We should not allow our concern for persecuted Christian minorities in Egypt or anywhere else to develop into a claim that it is somehow Islamic actions or an Islamic group of people that are responsible for those crimes and that persecution.

We need to ensure that when we talk about stability, we do not mean the stability there has been in some countries in the past, where stability meant military dictatorship. Often, if there is a brutal military dictatorship, there is stability, but it comes at the cost of the violation of the human rights of tens of millions of people. That, again, is not acceptable.

The influence that the United Kingdom can exert in Egypt comes from our shared history, since a lot of the history of Egypt has been closely bound up with that of the United Kingdom, and from the fact that the United Kingdom is now the single biggest foreign investor in Egypt. There is an avenue for the Government to encourage businesses that are investing in Egypt to invest in things that will help Egypt, not hinder it, and in projects that will support the development of a democratic society rather than simply prop up a discredited regime.

The Government must also continue to remind the Egyptian authorities that the United Kingdom has—or should have—a policy of not investing in Governments whose human rights record is poor and not showing signs of improvement. The carrot of investment would then be there, but the stick—the threat of that investment being stopped—could be used, not to ensure that Egypt develops into the country we say it should, but to allow and encourage Egypt to develop the fundamental principles that cross international borders such as human rights, the rule of law, respect for democracy and respect for diversity in society.

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I believe there is a good possibility that if we play it right, we can help Egypt to develop back into the kind of society that will be in the best interests of its 90 million citizens. That means, for example, that we need to encourage the development of Egypt’s tourist industry and see the air routes into Sharm el-Sheikh and elsewhere reopened, but we should not just do that to give our people a nice place to go on holiday; we should do it because it helps to stabilise Egypt’s economy. Once the economy is stabilised, it will become much easier for ideas such as democracy and the rule of law to be re-established.

We have to be very careful indeed that we do not allow tourism to destroy the extraordinary and ancient culture that people are going to see in the first place. We cannot allow tourism to cause the Nile valley, for example, to become one great big western holiday resort—partly because that would be morally and ethically wrong, but also because that kind of behaviour creates a climate in which young Muslims growing up in Egypt will readily believe the myth that the country has been taken over by evil western heathens.

We have to be careful to ensure that allowing opposition groups to flourish without persecution in Egypt does not mean that terrorist groups or groups that espouse terror are allowed to develop undetected. I have a concern about the way that President Sisi has been treating the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be that some of its members are resorting to or promoting terrorism; if they are, they deserve to be taken through the courts and imprisoned. However, we have to be very careful indeed if we are outlawing the single biggest opposition party in any country simply because all its members are accused of being terrorists. Going in too heavy-handed in that way will create a climate where if young people who want a more Muslim society—whether we agree with that ourselves or not—do not have the right to promote their views through peaceful, lawful and democratic means, there are other avenues open to them that they may want to pursue. As has been said, there are others in Egypt and elsewhere who will be only too keen to encourage them to adopt such other methods.

Mention has been made of the high-performing UK ambassadorial staff. I have not met any of the embassy staff in Egypt, but I have certainly been very impressed with the embassy staff I have met in the other countries I have visited so far. The fact that the UK ambassador was prepared to speak out against the treatment of the three al-Jazeera journalists is an encouraging sign. That is the kind of diplomatic pressure that we should continue to apply.

Just this week, we saw a TV presenter in Egypt jailed for mocking a woman who came on a television programme to be interviewed about a claim she had made of sexual harassment. It is appalling for a TV journalist to suggest to an alleged victim of sexual assault that it was her own fault because she went out wearing jeans and a sleeveless top; that is not an acceptable way for a journalist or anyone else to treat a victim of crime. However, throwing someone into jail for that is an overreaction. I do not condone making videos that mock someone else’s religion, but it is a serious overreaction for the Egyptians to have thrown three young Christians in Egypt into jail for producing a video that appeared to mock Islam. In that case, the teenagers said they were mocking Daesh, not Islam. I do not agree with anyone

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mocking another’s religion, but I do not agree with throwing people into jail for doing that. There are other ways in which we can encourage respect for one another’s faiths.

I am concerned about an apparent shift in emphasis from the UK Government. Whether it is through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or any other Department, concern for promoting human rights in the countries in which we do business appears to be moving further down the order of priorities, while the promotion of interests of UK business and UK investors appears be to moving further up. I understand and support the desire to let British businesses prosper in other countries, but I ask the Government to ensure that we never do anything that is seen to give succour to those in either government or opposition who want to undermine the rule of law and democracy and those who may want to turn Egypt into a country that is a significant danger for us and for those who live there.

It is appalling that a young Italian student who had previously lived in the UK was taken away, tortured and murdered. It is also appalling that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Egyptian citizens live with the danger of the same thing happening to them. Many of them have died in similar circumstances. The torture and murder of an Egyptian citizen should appal us just as much as the torture and murder of an Italian or UK citizen. I want to see an Egypt where all 90 million Egyptian citizens can live in peace and harmony with one another.

3.37 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing the debate. He spoke with great experience and knowledge of Egypt and set it in its proper context; I think we all benefited from that introduction. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who spoke clearly and effectively about the horrific death of Giulio Regeni. I will say a little more about that later on.

The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) set out so well the context of Egypt in the region. She used what I thought was a very good phrase: “democracy was never going to happen as it does in Tunbridge Wells”. That was very telling. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as ever, stood up for religious freedoms and, of course, blushed at the offer of a holiday with the hon. Lady in Sharm el-Sheikh.

As we have heard, Britain and Egypt have a long, close and often tumultuous relationship, but Egypt remains a key ally for us in the middle east. We are key trading partners, and as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, the UK is the biggest source of direct investment into Egypt. More than 1,000 British companies invest in and operate in Egypt in sectors such as finance, energy, construction, pharmaceuticals and IT.

Of course, as the hon. Members for Spelthorne and for Bristol North West said, there are also the thousands of British tourists who visit each year, or would if they could get to Sharm el-Sheikh. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to update us on the

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progress made on restoring flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. Those flights are vital for the Egyptian economy, which desperately needs the summer season, and for British holidaymakers, who are already making their plans. In fact, numerous holiday firms, including Thomas Cook, are currently offering holidays to Sharm from May, so is the Minister confident that the security measures will be sufficient by then for flights to resume?

Egypt is, of course, more than just an economic partner to the UK; it is also an important strategic partner in the Arab world and a key ally in the fight against extremism, against Daesh and Assad in Syria, and in north Africa and the Sinai. We need to work with Egypt to tackle extremism, and we want it to do more to tackle terror financing. All of that gives us a very good reason to work with Egypt and, for those reasons, we need a stable Egypt.

It is clear that over the past two years, the Government have improved relations with Egypt. Since the election of President Sisi in June 2014, albeit on quite a small turnout, the Government have gone out of their way to build relations with the Sisi Government, and I welcome many aspects of this Government’s work to improve those relations. First, as I have said, it is very important that we co-operate on security and countering extremism. Secondly, as an MP for Hull, which is a key centre for renewable energy, I was very pleased to see the memorandum of understanding signed on a multibillion pound renewable energy deal with a British company. Thirdly, I am very pleased to see that 2016 is the year of British-Egyptian co-operation on science, innovation and higher education.

However, we have to remain critical friends of the Sisi regime. To promote stability, we need not just to support the Government of President Sisi, but to encourage his Government to tackle some of the underlying issues that have caused so much instability over the past few years. Stability requires respect for human rights, for the constitution and for democratic participation. It requires corruption to be tackled and the rule of law to be promoted, and we cannot promote academic co-operation and innovation unless we also promote academic freedoms.

The Amnesty International report from 2015-16 paints a bleak picture for those aspects of Egyptian society. The rule of law has been undermined by mass detentions and mass trials, which are rarely fair. The relationship between the state and its citizens has been undermined by routine allegations of police brutality, torture, arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearances. The treatment of women is a particular concern in relation to sexual violence.

Respect for democratic institutions has been undermined by repeated attacks on freedoms of assembly and non-governmental organisations, and I am very concerned that those actions, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West said, are fuelling the disquiet that has previously led to problems and revolutions in Egypt, and are making it more difficult for there to be a transition to a fully stable democracy.

Charlotte Leslie: Although I agree with much of what the hon. Lady outlines, does she agree that there is a ray of hope in that in the new Parliament, it is surprising how many women representatives, in particular, there are and how many people from different faiths?

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Diana Johnson: I am very pleased to have taken that intervention. I think that is a good sign—if there are more women in any Parliament, it is usually a good sign of progress, so I welcome that.

To get back to my point, it is important that the British Government should be prepared to make it clear to the Government in Egypt that we expect them to operate to a higher standard on human rights issues. It is in our interest to promote British values of human rights and democracy, and it is also in the interests of Egyptian stability for it to do the same. However, as an example of the Government’s reluctance to do that, I want to return to the case of Giulio Regeni, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge. He set out so effectively what happened in the horrific murder of this academic and talked about what has been described—the systematic ripping out of fingernails, the broken ribs, and the brain haemorrhage that happened to this man. It is just appalling.

I raised some parliamentary questions with our Government to ask what their response was. I was told that the Government support the Egyptian and Italian investigations, but reports suggest that the Egyptian investigation is seriously flawed. The Italian ambassador has complained of a lack of access. There are real concerns about whether Egypt has the capacity to conduct a genuinely impartial investigation.

I wrote to the Minister on 16 February 2016 pressing upon him the importance of this case and the need for Britain to intervene to ensure that an impartial investigation takes place and to offer British assistance. I look forward to receiving a response from him. In particular, given that we are in this year of co-operation on education and research, I would think that the Government have had many opportunities to raise this case. There have been press releases, partnership agreements and a visit from the Prime Minister’s special envoy, but academic freedoms seem to have been excluded from that academic dialogue. We appear to have had a situation in which the Prime Minister’s special envoy was in Egypt discussing academic co-operation, weeks after the body of a murdered British academic was found, but as I understand it, that was not raised.

Other countries have not remained silent. The Italian Prime Minister Renzi stressed that it was because of his Government’s “friendship” with President Sisi that he stood in a position to demand the truth and stressed that it was critical for the future of Italian-Egyptian relations. The UK Government need to realise that it is because of the strength of our economic, social and security co-operation that we can also be in the position of critical friends. Weakness from the Government in not taking the matter up is not helpful. I hope that the Minister, in his response this afternoon, will be able to reassure us that he is having those conversations with the Egyptian authorities. I also look forward to him responding to the other points that I have raised, particularly on tourism.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship again, Mr Pritchard, and I echo the comments that have been made across the floor; this has been a very timely and important debate. I congratulate, as others have done, my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne

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(Kwasi Kwarteng)—my good friend—on securing this debate and on opening it with an exposé of his knowledge and understanding of what is happening not just in Egypt but in the region itself, and of Britain’s unique relationship and the role that Parliament is playing.

I want to say thank you to colleagues; it is because we are able to visit the country a number of times and develop relationships to understand what is going on that we can speak with some authority about matters there and have debates such as this in this House. We are all the wiser for that, and the relationship is all the stronger, so I am very encouraged. I have visited the country a number of times as a Back Bencher and as a Minister, and I know that Egypt very much appreciates such visits and appreciates the dialogue too.

We have heard some excellent contributions, as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), has said. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) raised specific points, and the link is understandable given the academic connection with Giulio Regeni. I will come to that matter and speak in a bit of detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) spoke of the challenges in Governments and the changes that have taken place. It is fair to say that any country that had endured the decade of change that Egypt has had to go through would have been severely tested. It is pleasing to see the direction of travel that Egypt is going in but, none the less, a huge amount of work still needs to be done. That is why Britain must stand firm in providing that support.

I was pleased that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) took a bit out of my speech by commenting on the importance and role of the trade envoy, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson); we are very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is able to take on that role. It underlines the significance of having these trade envoy positions, which allow detailed knowledge to be exchanged and for that relationship to be pursued. The hon. Member for Strangford also spoke of some of the military support that we are providing as Egypt deals with terrorism, and I will come to that in my speech, too.

The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) spoke of the importance of the continuing governance of reform and I very much agree. I am sad to say that he also made this very binary: either we challenge the human rights situation and therefore the prosperity agenda stops, or we are happy with the human rights situation and therefore prosperity can start. I am afraid it is not as simple as that. I should make it clear that our work and our relationship, which comes not just from the commercial angle, allow us to have frank conversations to the frustration of those who would like to see more in the public domain. We often find ourselves having greater leverage in and influence on what is going on behind the scenes because of the manner in which we conduct our activities, which is not always on the front pages of the newspapers.

Peter Grant: I certainly did not intend to give the impression that the choice is between human rights on one hand and economic prosperity on the other. If I gave that impression, I apologise. The point I wanted to make was that Egypt gives us the best possible opportunity to demonstrate that respect for human rights, diversity and economic prosperity can all happen at the same time.

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Mr Ellwood: I will come to that point as I develop my argument.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North spoke in her usual formidable style and clearly understands these matters. We spar on a number of issues across the middle east and I thank her for the tone she adopts in these debates when putting forward extremely important points. She spoke first about the flight concern, which I will come to, and the case of the Italian student, the importance of the economy and, linked to that, stability and the opportunities in front of us. I am grateful for the points she made. As always, if I do not cover all the points that have been made, I will write to hon. Members in due course.

In the limited time available, I want to take a step back and place Egypt today in context. It is worth reminding ourselves that it is a cradle of ancient civilisation and a very proud part of the world. It has gifted to the world some of the earliest forms of central governance, literature and major feats of engineering. It connected the world with the Suez canal in the 19th century and has been a centre of Arab culture and regional political leadership in the 20th century.

In the Arab world, Egypt sits astride the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League and occupies a unique position in international affairs. Despite experiencing some tumultuous times in the 21st century, Egypt has delivered another major feat of engineering through expansion of the Suez canal in just one year under President Sisi. That truly represents Egypt’s ambition in looking forward.

Although not as long standing as Egypt’s ancient history, Britain’s interests are also deep and long standing in modern times and include an historical British presence, close business links, more recent efforts to bring peace in the region and working together on the UN Security Council. President Sisi’s visit to the UK in November was an important moment in deepening our relationship further and an opportunity to have those frank conversations I spoke about.

Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country, is on the frontline in the war against Daesh and in north-east Sinai, and has a critical role in bringing stability and security to Libya. Egypt is a vital partner in a troubled region. It is clear that its stability is in our interests. I am proud to say that since 2010 the UK has spent some £30 million in Egypt and we plan to spend a further £50 million between now and 2020. All this funding has the ultimate aim of helping to support the country’s continued stability. There are, of course, many aspects to stability. Our work in Egypt focuses on security, the economy, governance and education. I will take each in turn.

A number of hon. Members asked about security. The crash of the Metrojet airliner, the murder of a Croatian oil worker and the attacks on Egyptian troops make it clear that Egypt faces a real threat from terrorism, so security is key. To protect ordinary Egyptians, tackle radicalisation and safeguard tourists, we are working closely with the Egyptian Government, training bomb disposal officers and close protection officers, and welcoming military officers to Sandhurst and other prestigious military training establishments here in the UK. This will help to meet the threat emanating from north-west Sinai and the region.

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Egypt’s greatest external security threat remains Daesh’s planning and launching of attacks from bases in eastern Libya. The UK is supporting Libyan efforts to finalise a Government of national accord, which is vital because only a unified national Government can begin the difficult work of restoring stability and tackling the threat posed by Daesh from the west of Egypt. In Gaza, the UK is providing aid and working to convince Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to take steps to improve conditions, which is in the interests of Egypt’s long-term security.

We are, of course, continuing our extremely close co-operation on aviation security so that we can resume flights as soon as possible. Sharm el-Sheikh is proven to be a clear favourite with tourists. Prior to the changes, almost 1 million visitors wanted to go to Egypt every year. I am unable to give further details, but huge efforts have been made. I spoke to the deputy National Security Adviser yesterday. Some final pieces of the jigsaw need to be put in place, but I hope it will not be too long before flights are resumed.

The hon. Member for Cambridge raised the very sad case of Giulio Regeni. I can only echo what I said in my reply to the question. We are very saddened by this tragic death and very concerned about the reports that he had been tortured. He is an Italian citizen and there is protocol on who can lead and participate in the investigation. Having said that, we have raised our concerns with the Italian authorities. We very much support Italian and Egyptian efforts to investigate and have requested that that be done in full to recognise what happened. The Italian police now have a team on the ground in Egypt. We will continue to raise the matter. I will be visiting the country very soon and will certainly ask further questions, but although the individual studied in the UK, there is a protocol on which country can lead and be involved.

Egypt has elected a President, has a new constitution and now has a Parliament, which is to be celebrated. We are working to help to make parliamentarians stronger and to encourage visits. I hope that the work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy will continue. As the new Parliament beds in, we want to do more to strengthen this vital institution and I hope that Members with a keen interest in Egypt, many of whom are here today, will be able to play an active role in that.[Official Report, 9 March 2016, Vol. 607, c. 3MC.]

We are looking to President Sisi and the Egyptian Government to make more progress on human rights—that has been echoed today—and on freedoms. We are concerned about detention of political and civil society activists and journalists, deaths and reports of torture in police detention and prisons, and the continued narrowing of space for civil society to operate freely. We continue to believe that respect for human rights is vital to effective governance for the Egyptian people and long-term stability

A vibrant economy is a necessary precondition for security and democracy. I am proud that Britain remains the largest foreign investor in Egypt. British companies have invested over £25 billion in recent years. I was pleased to lead the largest trade delegation to Egypt for 15 years when we had the pleasure of meeting President Sisi.

Education has an important role and I am pleased that the British Council has taught English to over 90,000 Egyptians in the last five years.

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I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne a few minutes to respond so I will conclude. We remain a close and important partner of Egypt. I am grateful for this debate to underline our commitment to the country and pleased that other Members of Parliament have also been able to do so.

3.59 pm

Kwasi Kwarteng: I am grateful for this wide-ranging debate in which we have hit many of the principle issues. The tragic death of Giulio Regeni stains Egypt’s reputation, but I am sure that with the Minister’s good offices our Government will do their part in bringing some form of closure and justice to the situation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered British support for stability in Egypt.

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School Provision: Christchurch

3.59 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered planning for school provision in Christchurch.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for this timely opportunity to discuss a very important issue in my constituency.

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 30 December, requesting that he call in for his own determination the planning application made by Dorset County Council to itself—application 8/15/0665—to develop a site wholly within the green belt for the construction of a new school. The county council has accepted that the proposal is a significant departure from the local plan because it involves development on green-belt land that was reconfirmed as being within the green belt as recently as 2014. It is hardly surprising that the application has generated 688 letters of objection. There was, Mrs Main, an earlier plan to remove the land from the green belt for housing, as part of the core strategy, but following consultation, that proposal—to remove land from the green belt—was abandoned. I am sure that you can imagine the consternation of local people that it is now being revisited after such a short interval. That is creating anger and despair.

In response to my letter and a parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, whom I am delighted to see in his place, told me that he would wait to see whether the county council granted itself planning permission before deciding whether to call the matter in. To the surprise of no one, on Thursday 18 February the county council duly granted itself detailed planning permission for a new two form entry primary school at Marsh Lane, Christchurch. I therefore wish to use the opportunity presented by this debate to press the Minister very hard, on behalf of my constituents, to call in the application and have a proper independent examination of the issue and, in particular, whether a suitable alternative site for a primary school is available. I say that because almost all those who have supported the planning application have done so reluctantly and on the basis that extra primary school places are needed in west Christchurch and there is no alternative place to put them. It is the great TINA—there is no alternative. That is why they support putting the new school on the green belt.

In my submission, the county council has failed to consider seriously potential alternative sites. It failed to look at two brownfield sites that are currently vacant and awaiting redevelopment. One is a site for which planning permission was given for a new Asda supermarket. That development is not now proceeding and the developer has sold the site, but no new plans have been drawn up. I am told that the site is available on the open market. The other site, on which I will concentrate, is the Christchurch town centre site variously known as the Bargates site, or the site of the former magistrates court/police station and the Pitside car park.

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In the report to the planning committee on 18 February, at appendix 9, consultants engaged by the county council described the Bargates site as

“not big enough for the accommodation required for a two form entry primary school”.

That would have been correct if the site in question was only 2.8 acres, as they asserted in their report; however, the site is 4.74 acres and comprises land currently in the ownership of Dorset County Council, the Dorset police and crime commissioner, the Hospital of St Mary Magdalen Trust and Christchurch Borough Council. Under Department for Education guidelines set out in “Building Bulletin 103” of June 2014, the actual area would be more than sufficient for a two form entry primary school.

As co-owners of the site, the county council and the borough council must have known that the Bargates site is much larger than described in the report. Local people are wondering why they—and, I think, many county councillors and borough councillors—have been kept in the dark. The suspicion is that all the public authorities that own the land would think themselves financially better off if they used the Bargates site for more lucrative development than the provision of primary school education. It is therefore in their financial interests that the school be built on much less expensive green-belt land. As I am sure the Minister will agree, that pattern is repeated up and down the country. The cheapest land available is often the green-belt land, precisely because of its protection. If a local authority is proposing to develop green-belt land where the consequence is that it will save itself money, it is incumbent on my hon. Friend to be even more circumspect in deciding whether to allow that to go through without intervention from the centre.

It has taken some 12 years to assemble this unique town centre site. Plans for the development of the site have not yet been published, let alone been the subject of public consultation, but I understand from a meeting that I had at the beginning of last month that there are proposals for a 3,000-square-metre care home and 1,850 square metres of retail. The remainder of the site would be for housing, but there would be no community use.

Government policy on green belt is designed to encourage the redevelopment of brownfield land. The land at Bargates is exactly that. There are 221 car parking spaces there, on open land; there is a redundant magistrates court and police station; and there is a substantial residential building, currently boarded up, with a big adjoining garden, which certainly until recently was used for the keeping of pigs. That is being released by the Magdalen charity. That is the site, but at the meeting of the planning committee council officers argued that it could not possibly be used for education purposes because it was not mentioned for education in the core strategy. Of course, nowhere was mentioned for education in the core strategy, because the education authority was asserting at that stage that there was no need for any new sites in the borough for schools. Therefore, this site was not mentioned, nor was the green-belt site at Marsh Lane. If the county council had been more up front, the debate about the core strategy could, and indeed would, have included the relative merits of building a new school in the town centre as against building a school on the fringes of the town, on the green belt.

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The advantage of building the school in the town centre is that it would form part of a new education cluster. It would be much easier for families with children at both the secondary school and the primary school to do the school run, because the primary school would be very close to the secondary school, Twynham Academy, for which it is the feeder and, indeed, in the grounds of which the primary school is currently housed. It will also be part of the Twynham Learning Federation, which is headed by Twynham Academy but will also include the new Twynham primary from this September. It would be easily accessible by public transport from both east and west Christchurch and it would be close to town centre car parks. The buildings would be available for community use during the evenings, holidays and weekends in a location convenient to the public. The school pupils would be within easy walking distance of town centre amenities such as the library, the Regent Centre, the Priory church and the playing fields and recreation ground on the opposite side of the road. Adequate undeveloped land on the site would be available for play space.

The report that went to the planning committee from the officers said that there would be no room for playing fields. However, in the letter sent to Councillor Jamieson by the principal planning officer, Mr Williams, on 17 February, Mr Williams says that the provision of playing fields would be very expensive. He does not refer to the fact that it would not be possible to provide playing fields on that site. That goes to the core of the issue. It is much cheaper to provide playing fields on open green-belt land adjoining the marsh and the flood plain but that is not what planning policy is, or should be, about.

At the meeting of the planning committee, the report to the committee from the county council officer also said,

“The current buildings would be unsuitable and would have to be demolished and replaced.”

Well, that is accepted. Everybody accepts that the old magistrates court with the cells down below and the police station need to be knocked down, but I do not see that as an objection to building a new school on the site. The county council officer raised other concerns including the one to which I referred earlier—that the site is too small. In other words, the council officers were misleading the councillors who were considering the planning application by providing facts that were not correct.

The officers went on to say that the school is geographically in the wrong location for the community it needs to serve. That is not correct either. The school that is proposed to be built on the green belt is currently temporarily housed at Twynham Academy, which is a few hundred yards down the road from the Bargates site.

Another objection raised by the county council officers is that because the Bargates site is in a town centre location, it is unsuitable for a primary school. Again, that is in defiance of local experience. One of the most popular primary schools in Christchurch is the Priory Church of England Primary School, which is on a small site in the centre of town and has the same catchment as the new school. The new school is already in temporary accommodation right in the centre of the town and there has been no suggestion that parents have been put off by the location. Indeed, many regard it as much more convenient for the school run.

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From what I have said, the Minister may agree that the conclusion reached by the responsible officer in paragraph 6.14 of his recommendation is not consistent with the facts. Yet the officer went on to say,

“I am satisfied that there are no other sites of sufficient size to meet the identified development need that are available and should be regarded as preferential alternatives to the application site”.

As I have said, that conclusion was based on false information. That the Bargates site is not available is an extraordinary assertion to make, because the site is still owned by the county council, the borough council and the police authority. If the county council and borough council were prepared to recognise educational needs as a priority, the solution to the development of the site for a school would be in their hands. Public consultation on future uses of the site is not intended to start until May, with a view to a planning application later in the year. That consultation could easily be about using the site for a primary school, with a planning application later in the year to meet the timetable required for the new school.

The other issue worth mentioning is the size of the school. The new Twynham Primary Academy to which the Secretary of State for Education has recently given authority is one form entry. Expressions of interest were invited by Dorset County Council on the basis that,

“The projected pupil numbers have identified an immediate requirement for 1FE with a further growth to 2FE when population figures warrant it and agreed”

by the county council. The statement is reinforced in the county council’s January 2016 paper, “Christchurch pupil place planning strategy 2016-2019”. The paper is marked as a confidential document, but for the purposes of the debate it is important that everybody should know that paragraph 2.1 says,

“For west Christchurch, DCC continues to pursue the establishment of a new 1FE Primary School. The site/building will have capacity to expand to 2FE if required in the future.”

So the county council accepts that there is no immediate need for a two form entry school, which bears upon the issue of the timescale within which the situation should be sorted out properly.

The county council says that the area only needs a one form entry school with the capacity to go to two forms, partly because that would deliver six forms of entry for primary school places in west Christchurch. That takes no account of the new Parkfield School, a primary free school that opens in 2016 with two form entry and is located in the western part of west Christchurch, close to the airport. Yet the county council gave itself permission for a two form entry primary school with the potential to extend to three form entry. Why did it do that? It involves an unwarranted impact on the neighbourhood and intrusion into the green belt that is not justified even by the county council’s own evidence.

The implications are that the proposed design of the school, as approved, has been criticised by the borough council as being intrusive in the landscape. In response, the county council has said that the school needs to be in that position so that the council could make it into a three-form entry school in the future. The borough council’s criticism could have been addressed if the school were to be one form entry with the option of additional

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buildings to make it two form in the future. A one form entry school with the potential to be two form entry would obviously have much less impact on the green belt, the sites of special scientific interest and local traffic. It would also fit more easily on to the town centre site to which I referred, and on to some of the other sites that the county council said could not accommodate it because it needed a site for a two form entry school.

This is a serious issue. If we have a public inquiry, the inspector could look at the alternative sites to the green belt and could examine the evidence, which is contradictory. The county council is asserting that it needs a two form entry primary school, but the county council officers, in a confidential document, say that it only needs a one form entry school.

Many people have asked why the draft core strategy, which was adopted in 2014, did not envisage the need to propose or allocate a site for a new school. Christchurch county councillors were informed by Mr Williams in a letter on 17 February that,

“Late in the preparation process my understanding is that discussions took place between Planning Officers at Christchurch Borough Council and representatives of the County Council as local Education Authority over the possible need for a new primary school to serve West Christchurch. As the Draft Core Strategy was already at a very advanced stage, a decision was taken not to modify the Strategy to take account of the potential additional development requirement. The planning application proposal has, therefore, fallen to be promoted as a departure from the Development Plan.”

The problem is that as a departure from the development plan is decided by the county council itself, it is not open to the same independent scrutiny and examination as it would have been had it been dealt with as part of the core strategy, which is another reason that it is essential that this—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he might want to hear what the Minister has to say on the matter. He has already eaten somewhat considerably into the Minister’s time.

Mr Chope: I am familiar with that, Mrs Main. I am using, say, 20 minutes of the 30 minutes available to put my case, because I know, having been a junior planning Minister in the past, that the Minister will not be able to give me a very substantive reply today. I hope he will be able to say that he has listened to what I have had to say, and then to make some other comments about the importance of preserving the green belt. I have not had an opportunity to put all the concerns on the record, and I thought it was important to do so in this debate, which I hope will not cause my hon. Friend, the Minister, any problems.

In conclusion, I hope that, taking all I have said into account, the Minister will call in the application for the Secretary of State’s consideration and will effectively have an independent public inquiry into the issue.

4.20 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Brandon Lewis): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this debate and on putting so fully his case on behalf of his residents. I appreciate his concerns, particularly on the more

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general issue of development on green belt, which I know is of considerable importance to him, to communities including the ones he represents, and to other parliamentary colleagues.

As my hon. Friend has outlined, and as he understands, the proposal is currently before the Secretary of State to determine whether call-in is appropriate. As we have also received a request to intervene from my hon. Friend, it would be inappropriate of me to comment on the specific application, as that could prejudice any consideration of these matters. I know he understands that. I will, however, outline a few things more generally, as he rightly guessed I might, to give some background to the present situation.

To put the matter in context, about 475,000 planning applications are made to local authorities every year. Obviously, we have powers to call in some decisions, and the current approach is set out in a written ministerial statement of October 2012. To put it in context, in 2015 just 24 cases were called in by the Planning Inspectorate for inquiry. He will be reassured to know that the officials of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are currently considering the application on the Secretary of State’s behalf. Their assessment will consider whether the application, or the issues raised by concerned parties, justifies intervention based on the Government’s call-in policy. The Secretary of State or one of the other Ministers will decide whether to intervene.

The national planning policy framework is very clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development. I make it clear that it is not development at any cost, nor is it development anywhere. Localism means choosing how best to meet local needs, not whether to meet them. Meeting local need is not just about houses; as my hon. Friend rightly outlined, it is also about the wider needs of the community, including educational needs.

We are committed to improving the education of our younger generation. We have worked hard to encourage efficient use of land and buildings to facilitate the schools we need. We have also ensured that the national planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should take a proactive, positive and collaborative approach to meeting educational needs. The framework and accompanying guidance are clear that local planning authorities should work with other providers to assess the quality and capacity of infrastructure, including education infrastructure, as part of their local plan. Such plans are important, and they should set out a positive vision for the area; they should also be realistic about what can be achieved and when, including with regard to infrastructure. In areas where there is both a county council and a district council, it is important that those bodies work together constructively to gather

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evidence of likely educational needs and to look for the correct and appropriate sites for any new required schools.

I congratulate Christchurch Borough Council on putting in place a core strategy in 2014. An up-to-date local plan, prepared through extensive public consultation, sets the framework in which decisions are and should be taken, whether locally by the planning authority or, I stress, at appeal.

My hon. Friend knows that the Government attach the highest importance, as he does, to protecting our green belt. Our new guidance in 2014 re-emphasised the importance of green belt and adds that the presence of constraints such as green belt can constrain the ability of a planning authority to meet its needs. We make it clear that green-belt boundaries should be established in local plans, which can be altered only in exceptional circumstances using the local plan process of consultation and independent examination. I note that Christchurch Borough Council decided and successfully argued for changes to its green-belt boundaries to allow for new development to go forward, which is why it was a locally led, properly calculated decision.

I understand what must be my hon. Friend’s frustration that, following that review of green-belt boundaries by the council in a proper and appropriate way, proposals are still being made for green-belt land. Our planning system allows people to make proposals for development in areas such as green belt, but most types of new buildings are inappropriate development in the green belt and by definition, therefore, are harmful to it. The national planning policy framework makes it clear that such development should not be approved except in very exceptional, special circumstances. Each planning case obviously has its own unique facts and contexts that have to be determined on their own merits.

When I am out visiting communities and speaking to constituents, I hear widespread support for the provision of more housing, more schools and more hospitals for our growing population, which I know my hon. Friend recognises and supports, but that support is often swiftly followed by concerns about where those homes, hospitals and schools should be built, with appeals to protect our open and green spaces and countryside. It is therefore important that new developments are located in the right place for each local area. We are committed to ensuring that delays in the planning process are kept to a minimum, but I assure him that we will be aiming to issue a decision on whether to call in the proposal as soon as possible. He has made his views clearly known today, and he will be formally notified as soon as that decision has been made.

Question put and agreed to.

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Human Rights Framework: Scotland

4.27 pm

Richard Arkless (Dumfries and Galloway) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future framework for human rights in Scotland.

The framework for human rights in Scotland is reaching a critical point, and determining its future has therefore become an issue that my colleagues and I have been attempting to bring before the Attorney General and the Secretary of State for Justice for quite some time. We believe that any future framework currently rests on a constitutional precipice, one that requires more substance from the Government than we have received up to now. I personally stated my concerns to the Attorney General and the Secretary of State on numerous occasions and in many forms—written questions, oral questions and through my duties on the Select Committee on Justice. My colleagues and I are yet to receive answers containing any kind of substance. For that reason, I am delighted to secure this Westminster Hall debate.

Our position, and the crux of this debate, is predicated on a sound legal assertion that human rights are devolved to Scotland, and not something on which this place can legislate for Scotland. The legal basis for that assertion is the Scotland Act 1998, which is in effect the Scottish Parliament’s constitution. We argue that it is as close to a written constitution as Scotland can acquire at present.

I will take this opportunity to explain exactly why, in legal terms, we believe that human rights are devolved to Scotland. Before I do that, I ask the Minister in his response to save us from the message repeated ad nauseam that he believes in human rights but that he just has a problem with their interpretation by the European Courts. We understand that point. I do not seek a debate on the rights and wrongs of human rights constituted here or in Europe; I want a debate surrounding the legalities of any action this Government could take on human rights and how that affects Scotland. If he fails to give those answers in clear terms, I will write to allow him an opportunity to consider his response further so that the issue of human rights in Scotland can be clarified and this damaging uncertainty on our citizens’ protection can end.

I will outline the legal basis for my argument. The Scotland Act does not specify which powers are devolved to Scotland; that is simply not how our constitutional settlement works. Schedule 5 to the Act actually lists the powers reserved to the Westminster Parliament, with the rest—de facto—being devolved to Scotland. So, for any matter to be reserved to the UK, it must—simply must—be listed within schedule 5 to the Act.

I certainly hope that the Minster is aware that human rights are not listed in any form within schedule 5 to the Act, meaning that they are—as a matter of fact and of constitutional law—devolved in their entirety to Scotland. I also assume that he is acutely aware that any attempt by this place to legislate on schedule 5 will require—again, as a matter of constitutional law—the explicit consent of the Scottish Parliament, through a legislative consent motion under the Sewel convention, and that convention has arguably been strengthened by the Scotland Bill that is making its way through this place.

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Consequently, my next request of the Minister is this: can he please confirm, in clear terms, whether the UK Government agree with this analysis? It is essential that we put this matter to bed, once and for all, so that we all understand that human rights are indeed devolved to Scotland.

The UK Government have various proposals—mooted proposals—on the table. One of those is the potential withdrawal from the European convention on human rights. The rights contained within the ECHR are enshrined in the Scotland Act, in section 57, meaning that the Scottish Parliament cannot do anything contrary to convention rights contained within the ECHR, essentially enshrining those rights in the Scotland Act. Section 57 of the Act combines with schedule 5 to the Act to mean that no UK Government can remove section 57, meaning that the ECHR—even if the UK removes itself from its effect—will always apply to devolved issues in Scotland.

So my next question to the Minister is this: do he and the UK Government accept that even if they withdraw from the ECHR, they cannot remove section 57 from the Scotland Act, meaning that the ECHR will continue to have an effect on devolved matters?

I am very proud of the UK’s role in the creation of the ECHR and we should never forget the reason it was established in the first place—to prevent the atrocities of 1914-18 and 1939-45 from ever happening again. In my view, we fragment the ECHR at our peril; it sets out minimum standards. So I often ponder why we would even moot removing ourselves from those standards, unless—in effect—we wanted to dilute them.

The repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 has often been mooted by the Government. Schedule 4 to the Scotland Act contains a list of Acts that the Scottish Parliament is deemed not capable of repealing or amending. It includes, most obviously and in my opinion regrettably, the Act of Union. The Human Rights Act 1998 is also listed in schedule 4 to the Scotland Act, and as a measure of comfort—or, indeed, otherwise—to the Government, I can assure the Minister that Scotland will continue to comply with schedule 4, as she has absolutely no plans to repeal the Human Rights Act or indeed the Act of Union. We understand that it would be ultra vires to do so.

If we combine schedule 4 to the Scotland Act with schedule 5, it is clear that the UK Government cannot repeal the Human Rights Act from effect in Scotland. If the UK Government did so, they would require a legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament, and I do not think that any Scottish Government of any party of any colour would agree to that. Nevertheless, if the Human Rights Act is considered capable of being repealed in Scotland by Westminster, the Scottish Parliament could easily legislate to enact our own Human Rights Act, which I stress would not be a desirable outcome, as we could not insist that any new Act passed in Holyrood could cover reserved matters. The Human Rights Act provides important protection to Scottish citizens in relation to the laws passed on reserved matters in this place.

It is also worth pointing out that the Human Rights Act merely ensures that the convention rights are applied by the UK courts. Perhaps that is why it attracted cross-party support in the 1990s; it was hardly controversial then, and in my view it remains uncontroversial in Scotland.

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This Government have not only mooted repeal of the Human Rights Act and withdrawal from the ECHR but they have made clear their ambition for a British Bill of Rights. Although I accept that nothing of that kind has been published yet, a British Bill of Rights was a manifesto pledge and we expect it to come to the Floor of the House at some point during this Parliament. So my next question to the Minister is this, and it is a question that my party has asked many times since May: will any proposed British Bill of Rights apply to Scotland? The name would suggest that it would be intended to cover Scotland. However, our position—founded on schedule 5 to the Scotland Act—is that, as a matter of constitutional law, the UK Government cannot impose a British Bill of Rights on Scotland without a legislative consent motion under the Sewel convention, which we believe would be withheld.

Hopefully I have made it clear that, in our view, human rights are devolved to Scotland. Of course, the Scottish Parliament could legislate for a Scottish Bill of Rights, but it has absolutely no plans to do so. As yet, we have no idea what a British Bill of Rights would contain, but no one can seriously believe that this UK Government would take the opportunity within that process to strengthen our citizens’ protections.

The protections of the ECHR and the Human Rights Act are hugely important to our citizens: the right to life; the right not to be enslaved; the right to liberty and security of the person; the right to a fair trial; and the right to marry, to name but a few. As Lord Bingham memorably said in 2009:

“Which of these rights…would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary?”

We say that none of them are. We view the convention not as a ceiling but as a baseline—a minimum. We should be building on these rights and not diluting them. Indeed, Scotland can go further if she so wishes.

Repeal of, or withdrawal from, the ECHR would not strike a blow to lawyers, criminals or ambulance chasers; it would strike a blow to the poor, the vulnerable and the dispossessed. Scotland wants to increase our citizens’ protections. We want to put human rights at the heart of our domestic policy, as we pledged to do in our national action plan on human rights, which the Scottish National party Government launched a couple of years ago. For example, our dementia strategy in Scotland is based on agreed rights for patients, including the right to have access to treatment, and the right to have dignity and respect. We see this process as the way forward—strengthening our citizens’ rights, because we are here as lawmakers essentially to protect the citizens who put us here.

My view is that we would look rather insular to our partners in the wider world if we repealed or withdrew from the ECHR. When most countries in Europe have adopted the ECHR, what message would it send out to the world if we withdrew from it or repealed it, and diluted our citizens’ protections? It would be a sad day indeed for the UK’s reputation abroad.

I look forward to the sovereign people of Scotland coming together to draft a written constitution for Scotland, enshrining these rights forever in a future independent Scotland.

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4.37 pm

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) for securing this very important debate.

Last December, I had the great pleasure of tabling an early-day motion to recognise Human Rights Day 2015. As a lifelong advocate of human rights, one of the great privileges of being an elected Member is now being in a position to effectively defend them, and they do need defending, as they are under attack from the current Government. They will say that this piece of legislation—the Human Rights Act—is not one and the same as our actual rights and that the reaction to their plans has been overblown. I say that is nonsense. Plans to scrap the Human Rights Act are no less than a full-on assault on the rights that I hold dear. The dismissiveness of the Government betrays the seriousness of the implications of their plans. It is a decade since the Prime Minister set up a panel of legal experts to draw up a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. Ten years on and that plan is still met with the fiercest opposition. Ten years down the line, the Tories are still unable to spin their plans as favourable, useful or in any way feasible.

It is important to remember that the Human Rights Act received cross-party support back in 1998. It is just as important that the Prime Minister’s plans do not even have the full support of his own Back Benchers, let alone Members from other parties.

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights visited the UK in January and said:

“My impression is that the debate over the HRA in Westminster is not a true reflection of concerns outside England”?

With regard to the position in Scotland, does she agree with the Commissioner’s statement?

Margaret Ferrier: Yes, I totally agree with that statement. It is important, not only in England and Scotland but worldwide, that we support human rights and hold firm our thoughts on how important they are.

The tenacity of the Prime Minister in pursuing this wholly unpopular and unnecessary move is deeply unsettling. Like a hunting dog with a scent, he simply will not accept defeat. One wonders precisely what the motivation behind that staunch attitude is. After all, the plans are not only appalling, but risk a complete constitutional change and crisis in the UK.

Human rights are not reserved, and it is not conceivable that the Human Rights Act could be scrapped without legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament. I am proud that the Scottish National party will stand up to the Tories and will not buckle over our fundamental rights. I stood for election under the party promise that we were “Stronger for Scotland”. For me, our steadfast and unyielding opposition to this attack on human rights is our motto in practice. People in Scotland want a strong voice standing up to the unscrupulous attacks on our rights and core values, and that is what we are providing. Human rights are not Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish—they are not American or

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Australian for that matter. Human rights are universal, and we will not stand by and allow them to be diluted wherever they face threat. Repealing the provisions of the Human Rights Act would be nothing short of a colossal misjudgment, as it would remove important protections for people in the UK.

It is important to point out that the Human Rights Act did not give any new rights to UK citizens when it became law in 1998. It ensured that convention rights could be interpreted and considered by courts here in the UK. The UK was one of the first states to ratify the European convention on human rights. It is only right and proper that those rights are upheld in British courts, without the need to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights, if we are still in Europe. Justice should be accessible, yet just as we have seen with the introduction of tribunal fees, the Tories seem hellbent on making it as prohibitive as possible, particularly for those on low incomes. Human rights are centred on fairness for all of us. Removing access to justice, or at least making it much more difficult for vulnerable people, is itself an attack on our rights. What does that say to the rest of the world? What message does it send if we are unwilling to stand up to regimes such as that in the Saudi Kingdom, and instead pour our efforts into degrading our own protections?

My early-day motion called on the Government to work constructively with other Governments to promote the universality of human rights. The convention on human rights remains as much the shining beacon of human achievement that it was decades ago when Winston Churchill was championing it. I want to see human rights protected not only in Scotland, but across the UK and beyond. I want to see our human rights strengthened, not diminished. I want to see fairness at the core of everything we do as legislators. We can only do that if we stand up against these plans, loudly and clearly, and say no.

4.43 pm

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) on obtaining this debate. I apologise for being a little late, but I caught up during the latter stages of his contribution. I was interested to hear the speech by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who dealt with the threat posed by the discussion that is clearly going on within Government on the future of the Human Rights Act 1998. Without disagreeing with what she said, this is a moment where we might stop and take stock. If the Government are conducting a good-faith exercise, it need not be a threat, and it could be an opportunity.

Let us not forget that the implementation of the Human Rights Act brought a greater and more immediate degree of access to convention rights. The convention was written in the 1950s and the framework of human rights and wider jurisprudence was very different from the one we have today. Nowadays, there is a whole range of different rights, including employment rights and social and economic rights, that are worthy of protection and of being given the same status as the right to a family life, for example, which is an important part of the ECHR. Those are the sorts of rights that I would

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like to see brought in. If this is a good-faith exercise on the part of the Government—that remains to be seen, and I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment, because we have never heard much by way of progress, although perhaps the Minister will have something to tell us today—I am happy to engage with them on the basis of broadening and strengthening the human rights covered by the Human Rights Act.

At this stage, it is useful to remember the history of the debate that brought us to where we are today. Essentially, the creation of the Human Rights Act and the terms in which it was introduced were something of a fudge. Throughout the 1990s and back into the 1980s—and possibly before that, for all I know—there was ongoing and substantial debate about the creation of a British Bill of Rights. I say that it was a fudge because the creation of a Bill in the terms that were discussed would have brought with it a fairly substantial challenge to the conventional Diceyan view of parliamentary sovereignty and the sovereignty of this place.

The justiciability of decisions taken by Government and Parliament was something that Tony Blair just did not have the stomach for taking on, even in the early years of the 1997 Government. For that reason, he came forward with a fudge, albeit an elegant one. It compelled courts to bring consideration of convention rights in an immediate way that meant that citizens did not have to go through the whole rigmarole of taking things to the European Court of Human Rights. Indeed, it has worked well ever since. In the time since the Human Rights Act was introduced, we have seen a substantial revision of the Diceyan view of parliamentary sovereignty. If we were to start with a Bill of Rights today, it would not scare the horses in the way that it clearly scared Tony Blair back in the late 1990s.

Joanna Cherry: Like me, the right hon. Gentleman is a Scots lawyer. Does he agree that the Diceyan view of the sovereignty of Parliament is very much a doctrine of English constitutional law? In Scottish constitutional law, there is a very strong foundation, recently reiterated by Lord Hope in the Supreme Court, in Jackson v. Attorney General, that the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is an English doctrine and that in Scotland the people are sovereign.

Mr Carmichael: That was a debate that we enjoyed in the 1990s—I say “enjoyed”, but I use the word in the loosest possible sense—in the days of the constitutional convention. It was the underpinning of the claim of right that led to the Scottish Parliament being founded. There is a fairly long pedigree of jurisprudence in Scots law. Dredging my memory of the days of constitutional law, I go back to the case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate, where that view was well-founded, albeit in obiter dictum.

The opportunity is there for something more to be done with human rights and a new Bill of Rights that would build on the Act that we currently enjoy. I hope the Minister would be open to that. More important and more fundamental to me than the Human Rights Act is that this country should remain a party to the European convention on human rights. If the worst predictions of the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West were to come true and the Human Rights Act were repealed, that would not deprive us of the convention rights; it would just make them that much

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more inaccessible. It would take us back to the situation we had before the 1998 Act, when citizens could access their convention rights, but it ultimately required going all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. That would be a genuine retrograde step.

To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, that would also put us in rather poor company. In fact, leaving the convention on human rights would leave the United Kingdom sitting—I hope rather uncomfortably—with Belarus.

Richard Arkless: The right hon. Gentleman is putting a typically articulate view. What is his view on the potential legalities and problems that the UK Government might have in either an imposition of the British Bill of Rights, repeal of the Human Rights Act, or withdrawal from the ECHR? That is what I would like the debate to focus on.

Mr Carmichael: To take each point in turn, the imposition of a British Bill of Rights would require an Act of Parliament. If that were to extend and build on convention rights, and if it were not in contravention or conflict with convention rights, I would see no difficulty with that. If we were to seek to withdraw from the convention, that would bring with it enormous problems. It would bring the political problems that I have already touched on and would put us in the company of nations that, frankly, I do not want to find myself with. Beyond that, it would put us in breach of treaty obligations, because the convention rights are built into the Good Friday agreement, which, above all else, is a treaty between ourselves and Ireland. It would also throw our own constitutional structure into disarray, because the Human Rights Act is hardwired into the devolution settlement in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Again, this is one of those things that was probably not given consideration when the Conservatives set up their commission 10 years ago. That probably explains the fact that this seems to have landed in a pile of things in the Ministry labelled “a bit too difficult to deal with; we’ll maybe look at it next month”.

Richard Arkless: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer. He makes the position clear from a UK point of view, but I am interested in his view on whether a potential imposition of a British Bill of Rights would require a legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament and whether, in his view, that consent is likely to be given by any party of any colour or any Government in Scotland?

Mr Carmichael: We would have to see what the terms of the Bill were before deciding whether it required legislative consent. There are a lot of social and economic rights where the Bill would of course cut across devolved areas and would need a legislative consent motion. Employment rights, for example, are clearly reserved. We would need to see what the terms were. Like all such changes—if I can expand the thought for a second—these things are based on building consensus before introducing a Bill, so that everybody knows exactly what it will cover. I am talking about my fantasy Bill of Rights and the things I would like to have in it, which are not reflected much in a great deal of what we have heard from the thinking of the Government. However, I am ever the optimist, so we do not know what we might we get from them.

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If we were to get a Bill of Rights that built on the convention rights, did not interfere with them and left us still a party to the European convention, I think that would be well received in Scotland. I would be disappointed to think that, just because such a Bill had been initiated here in Westminster, it would not be accepted by people in Scotland. The protection of human rights has been reserved broadly since the days of devolution, and people in Scotland would still respect that, having voted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say. The last time we went round this course in Westminster Hall, he assured us that we would be hearing more. We have not heard quite as much as I had hoped we would; we have heard just as much as I thought we might. We shall wait to hear what he has to say. I hope that at some point we will get the answers to how the Government are going to get out of the hole they have been digging for themselves, in terms of the constitutional difficulties that any repeal of the Human Rights Act would bring.

4.55 pm

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Main.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless), who secured this debate, made it clear that he specifically wanted to talk about legalities. He has argued that human rights are integral to the devolution settlement, and he referred to the fact that the European convention on human rights is written into the Scotland Act 1998 in sections 29 and 57, which provide that the Scottish Parliament cannot pass any legislation that is contrary to any of the convention rights, and a Scottish Minister or a Member of the Scottish Government cannot pass legislation or carry out any act that is contrary to convention rights. Neither of those sections would be changed by a simple repeal of the Human Rights Act, because they are part of the Scotland Act.

My hon. Friend also made the point that if we look at the scheme of devolution that was devised by the late Donald Dewar, who was the first ever First Minister of Scotland, his plan was simple and, in my view, to be lauded: everything would be devolved unless it was specifically reserved. We find in schedule 5 of the Scotland Act a list of the matters that are specifically reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament, but one will search in vain for any mention of human rights in schedule 5, so in my respectful submission it is not correct to say that human rights are a reserved matter. They are a devolved matter. My hon. Friend asked the Minister to confirm whether he agrees that, as a matter of statutory interpretation, human rights are not reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament.

It must be recognised squarely that in terms of schedule 4, the Human Rights Act cannot be modified or repealed by the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish National party and the Scottish Government accept that. However, we argue, as my hon. Friend did, that because human rights are not reserved in terms of the Scotland Act, if the British Parliament wants to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, it will be legislating in the field of human rights, and under the Sewel convention it must seek the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament. Hopefully, by the time we get to that stage, the Sewel convention will be on a statutory footing as proposed in clause 2 of the Scotland Bill.

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I reiterate my hon. Friend’s question to the Minister: does he accept that for repeal of the Human Rights Act, and for repeal of anything in the Scotland Act, a legislative consent motion would be required from the Scottish Parliament? Also, does he appreciate that as recently as the end of 2014, more than 100 Members of the Scottish Parliament indicated that they supported the Human Rights Act? A cross-party majority was in support. Is he also aware that the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has made it very clear that her Government, which has a majority in the Scottish Parliament, would never support repeal? So does he accept that, with regard to the future framework for human rights not only in Scotland but across the UK, the British Government could not repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights without the consent of the Scottish Parliament and that that is extremely likely to be withheld? The third question that my hon. Friend posed was the question of whether the British Bill of Rights will apply to Scotland. If it is going to apply to Scotland, does the Minister accept that there would have to be a legislative consent motion?

The First Minister of Scotland has been keen to emphasise on several occasions that she wants to preserve the Human Rights Act for the whole of the United Kingdom, not just for Scotland. There is no question of the Scottish Government doing a deal whereby Scotland would get out of the repeal of the Human Rights Act and leave the rest of our partner nations in the United Kingdom swinging in the wind. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) stressed the universality of human rights, and the First Minister of Scotland has argued that it is important they are kept for the whole of the United Kingdom, so it is not the intention of the Scottish National party or the Scottish Government to do any deal. We would like to be involved in the cross-party movement to keep human rights for the whole of the United Kingdom.

That feeds into another point made by both my hon. Friends. The repeal of the Human Rights Act would send out completely the wrong message to the world about the United Kingdom’s direction of travel on human rights. It is striking to look at the testimony of Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He was involved in the Tahrir square uprising five years ago and said:

“The most important thing that the British can do to support human, rights in Egypt is to support human rights in the United Kingdom...It is significantly more difficult for us to fight for universal human rights in our country, if your country publicly walks away from the same universal rights.”

To his great credit, the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), made a similar point when he recently highlighted the fact that Russia is already using the UK’s position on human rights to delay implementing European Court judgments and that the UK is being cited by countries such as Venezuela as justification for ignoring obligations under the American convention on human rights.

When the right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke in Edinburgh last September, he described the ECHR as

“arguably the single most important legal and political instrument for promoting human rights on our planet.”

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He has previously stated that if the UK is

“instrumental in damaging its effectiveness it will sit very strangely with our settled policy of promoting human rights globally.”

That is a voice from the Minister’s party supporting the notion that it would be unfortunate if Britain sent out the wrong message about our support for human rights.

Mr Alistair Carmichael: I very much agree with the hon. and learned Lady on the question of universality. When I went to Cameroon a few years ago to work on a Voluntary Service Overseas-funded project that provided legal aid to people who could not afford it, I was struck by the fact that when I went into lawyers’ offices and courts, there was the universal declaration of human rights. We always think of it as being quite high-flown and possibly even overblown, but they rely on it in courts of first instance. Does the hon. and learned Lady agree that the Human Rights Act need not be the last word in human rights? Legislation could be introduced in several areas to give protection that is more contemporarily relevant than that envisaged in the 1950s.

Joanna Cherry: I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway indicated, the Scottish Government are already attempting to hard-wire human rights into all their social policy—not only the human rights enshrined in the ECHR, but social and economic rights. For example, the Scottish Government have made it clear that when they have the additional powers they hope to get to develop a social security system for Scotland, respect for the dignity of the individual will be at the heart of the system. We are keen to move the human rights debate on in Scotland, which is why the Scottish Government brought in Scotland’s national action plan for human rights. When the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights visited Scotland in January, he singled out the national action plan for support.

I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman that socioeconomic rights are important. Many other countries in the world recognise that and have such rights in their written constitutions. The constitution of the new Republic of South Africa, which was drafted, at least in part, by one of the finest lawyers on the planet still living, Albie Sachs, recognises the importance of socioeconomic rights, which are embedded in it. Some of the Nordic states’ constitutions also embed socioeconomic rights. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, it is our hope that when we become independent we will have a constitutional convention to write a constitution for an independent Scotland. We will look at the models and examples of other forward-looking democracies—not only in the west, but including examples such as South Africa—and seek to write socioeconomic rights into our constitution.

There is universal recognition among all those who have spoken so far of the importance and universality of human rights. We are of one voice, across the SNP-Lib Dem divide, in saying that socioeconomic rights are important and that the rights in the ECHR are only a floor for human rights, not a ceiling. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) expressed the hope that the currently proposed consultation might be brought forward and might look at socioeconomic rights. I am far less of an optimist than he is. All the noises I have heard coming from the Government Benches

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have suggested that it will be an exercise in reducing rather than bolstering human rights protections. Regardless of the purpose of the exercise, do the Government accept that human rights are devolved, not reserved, and that the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament must be sought before there is any interference in the human rights regime that effects Scotland?

5.5 pm

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I, too, commend the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) for securing this important debate. For him and for you, Mrs Main, these are obviously fresh and interesting developments, but for the rest of us there is an element of groundhog day. The Minister, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and I were present on 30 June last year for what I think was the previous human rights debate in Westminster Hall, which was secured by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). One would have thought that in eight months we might have moved on somewhat, but we have not moved far at all.

First, I shall explain what we now know that we did not know then, and then I shall outline what we still do not know. The hon. and learned Lady made essentially the same point as she made in the previous debate:

“Ministers…suggest that they believe that the UK Government could repeal the Human Rights Act without reference to the Scottish Parliament. They argue that the Sewel convention would not be engaged because human rights are a reserved matter. That is wrong and legally illiterate. Human rights are not a reserved matter and are not listed as such in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 424WH.]

I do not have the benefit of the expert legal advice that the Government have to enable me to comment on that—I am not sure whether Minister himself does these days, as he and the Lord Chancellor are in that interesting lacuna in which the outers currently find themselves—but I can at least say that this is a hotly debated matter. This is one of the most intractable issues in which the Government have engaged in since beginning this rather sorry and unwise attempt to unravel the Human Rights Act, which was introduced by the last Labour Government.

If nothing else, the Lord Chancellor is candid and answers questions as honestly as he can. When called upon to give answers about this matter, he struggled and said that it was still under review. That is probably right. Given the proximity of the Scottish Parliament elections, there is an additional problem: we will shortly be entering a period of purdah. The former leader of the Labour party, now Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), wrote to the Lord Chancellor asking him to confirm that

“no part of the consultation period will overlap with the period where purdah applies or the Scottish Parliament will be dissolved”.

The response simply said that the Lord Chancellor will

“adhere to any Cabinet Office guidance”.

Can the Minister shed some more light on those matters? It might not be important now as it does not look like there will be any movement before the Scottish Parliament elections or, indeed, the EU referendum. Nevertheless, I would appreciate some clarity. If the positions of the

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devolved authorities—not only the Scottish Parliament but the Northern Ireland Assembly—are going to be significant in any legislation that is drafted, there will need to be a full consultation, which cannot be done properly during a period of purdah.

Let me throw one other thing into the mix. The Scottish Conservative general election manifesto—a rather recherché document that I am not sure we are all terribly familiar with—said:

“The Scottish Parliament will retain the final say on the role of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to the Scotland Act 1998.”

The Minister may wish to clarify the Government’s attitude to the European convention on human rights. From what both he and the Lord Chancellor have said recently, it is pretty clear that they now do not envisage our withdrawing from the convention, but that is always hedged with the phrase, “Nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out.” It would be helpful if the Minister ruled that out, because that would remove one of the major problems that we face.

That is the territory we are in and those are the questions that we can glean answers to. Although it is always valuable to run these issues around the Chamber again, until the Government actually bring something forward, we are all stumbling around in the dark.

Mr Carmichael: I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the timetabling. It is unlikely that we will see anything this side of the purdah period for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections. It is impossible at this stage to consult with the Administrations in any of the devolved regions before the elections. However, it would be exceptionally unwise thereafter to start a consultation in the middle of the referendum campaign. This discussion is best conducted in a period of relative calm and stability. I fear that the period between 6 May and 23 June is not going to be—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. Interventions are getting rather long and are not in the form of questions.

Andy Slaughter: I apologise on behalf of the legal profession. Once we get going, it is difficult for us to stop.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. This will probably be my last or my last but one point, so the Minister has time to respond. If nothing else, we must have some clarity on the timetabling. I remind the Minister, although I am sure he engraved these milestones, that the Conservative manifesto said:

“We will…scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights”.

Last year, the Prime Minister, writing in no less a paper of record than The Sun, said that it is

“one of the first tasks I set the new Justice Secretary”.

In May 2015, the Minister said:

“The Government will consult fully on its proposals for a Bill of Rights during this session.”

From what we read today in the papers, it may well be that the Prime Minister gets round that by simply extending the Session and pushing the Queen’s Speech back. Nevertheless, we need certainty.

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Nothing could be clearer than what the Minister said in Justice questions on 8 September 2015:

“We will bring forward proposals on a Bill of Rights this autumn. They will be subject to full consultation. The preparation is going well.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 205.]

The Lord Chancellor modified that on 2 December 2015, when he said:

“My original intention was to publish the consultation before Christmas. It has now been put back. I expect it will be produced in the New Year.”

I think we can say that we are quite firmly in the new year now. It would be helpful if the Minister to give some clarity, because I am reliant on another authoritative source—The Mail on Sunday—which told us at the weekend that the Bill has been put off indefinitely to avoid an explosive new row over Europe. Specifically, it said that the work

“has now been completed by Justice Secretary…and is sitting on a desk inside No 10… Downing Street is refusing to publish the legislation, they say. Insiders believe the explanation is Mr Gove’s decision to defect to the Out camp in the referendum.”

We know that there are political difficulties for the Government, which may be why it has been convenient to postpone what seems to be the entire Parliament’s business, including the Queen’s Speech, until after the referendum. It would just be nice to be told that in terms.

Two weeks ago, we were told that there will be a sovereignty Bill, possibly published this week. What has happened to that? How does it relate to reform of the Human Rights Act? It may be that the boat has sailed and that, because the people whom the Prime Minister wished to keep within the tent—including the Minister—are already outside the tent, there is not much point in introducing a sovereignty Bill. It is extraordinary that we talked for so long about the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights, but we barely hear them mentioned now. Everything is about the European Court of Justice. I wonder whether it was just the words “human rights” that caused difficulty for some Government Back Benchers, and that in the hothouse atmosphere of the European Union referendum debate the caravan has moved on. That is no way to run a Government. If nothing else, I ask the Minister to give us some clarity on whether we are going to have a proposal, so when we next debate this matter we can have a substantive debate rather than run around the houses.

Let me end on this point. Although the have been some comic—or tragicomic—aspects to how the Government have handled this matter, in essence it is extremely serious. Other speakers talked about the universality of human rights and the importance of giving effect to international law and human rights in our domestic courts. That is not something to trifle with and it should not fall prey to internal disputes within a political party, even if it is the governing party.

I remind the Minister of what the director of Amnesty International said last week when its report was published —it is a shame that Amnesty needs to remind the Government of their duties on this matter—

“The UK is setting a dangerous precedent to the world on human rights. There’s no doubt that the downgrading of human rights by this government is a gift to dictators the world over and fatally undermines our ability to call on other countries to uphold

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rights and laws. People around the world are still fighting to get basic human rights and we should not let politicians take our hard-won rights away with the stroke of a pen.”

I know that the Minister is a sensible, intelligent man, and I hope he takes those comments on board and is not swayed by the passions of Europe, pro or anti.

5.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Dominic Raab): It is an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, for the first time, I think. We have stood shoulder to shoulder on many issues and you have steered us wisely thorough this debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) on securing the debate, and other hon. Members on their stimulating contributions. In particular, I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for sharing his fantasy of a British Bill of rights with us. The serious point that he made is that the Human Rights Act is not the last word on human rights: it is not the perfect incarnation of human rights in this country, and therefore it can admit of change. I sensed agreement on that point, so the real bone of contention is what that change might look like, rather than the principled question of whether the Human Rights Act has become untouchable.

The Government are fully committed to the protection of human rights across the UK. This debate is an important opportunity to reflect on what that protection looks like now, what it might look like in the future and how it might be improved. The Prime Minister made it clear that the Government will work in the interests of all four nations of the UK, and it goes without saying that I share that commitment. One of the things that unites us as a country is our shared commitment to liberty and the rule of law. Although that commitment has evolved though different instruments, from Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights in England and Wales, to the Scottish Claim of Right, the nations of the UK have evolved with a shared commitment to the common values that underpin human rights and, indeed, the Union.

As an Englishman, I am proud to pay tribute to the Scottish landmarks on Britain’s long road to liberty. I mentioned the Claim of Right, to which can be added the Criminal Procedure Act 1701, which established and entrenched the principle of habeas corpus in Scots law. Scotland has produced some of our very finest thinkers on the subject of liberty and the rule of law. I would single out David Hume and his essays on the liberty of the press and civil liberty. He regarded Government not as the enemy of liberty but as a necessary condition for liberty. As hon. and right hon. Members will know, his work came in the context of the period after the Act of Union, so it was part of the intellectual fabric that binds this United Kingdom.

We share not only the values, but the things that emanate from them—the practical products of a commitment to liberty, such as free elections, a ban on cruel and unusual punishment, free and fair trials, and free speech. Those values and their product found voice and strength in Scotland as in the rest of the United Kingdom and are shared across the UK. At the same time, we must reflect on the pluralism within the UK and that the UK is a union of diverse interests, history and legal traditions.

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Notwithstanding our shared commitment to rights and liberty, there are areas where we diverge. We can look, for example, to the right to trial by jury that exists in England and Wales. Jury trial is practised in Scotland, but it is not there as a strict right, which is perfectly legitimate and respectable. There is room for different applications of fundamental freedoms across the UK. That diversity is not merely to be expected; it is to be welcomed. It would be odd were the SNP, which is effectively committed to secession, not to think that that pluralism was a good idea.

Joanna Cherry: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Raab: I will just make a little progress and then I will certainly take interventions.

The balance between shared values and the different application of those values finds voice today in Scotland’s human rights framework. The protection of rights and liberty remains at the heart of Scotland’s devolution settlement—a point made well by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway. The compatibility of devolved legislation with fundamental human rights is central to the competence of the Scottish Parliament. While competence for the UK’s human rights framework remains with the UK Government and this House, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are responsible for the application of human rights in devolved areas and are free to act on human rights issues within devolved policy areas. The core substantive rights are common across the UK, but we have an element of pluralism in our approach to the procedural mechanism for protecting human rights. That variable procedural geometry means that the application of human rights admits some measure of variation across the UK.

We had lots of theoretical considerations of the human rights position as it applies in the UK and in Scotland, but let us discuss some tangible illustrations. Unlike in England and Wales, for example, the Scottish Government do not provide for mandatory fatal accident inquiries for unnatural deaths of persons detained under mental health laws, despite some criticism from the Scottish Human Rights Commission. Another example is the hourly rousing of detainees in police cells, which takes place in Scotland but applies only to vulnerable detainees in England. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland recommended reform in that area. A third example—again, this list is illustrative, not exhaustive—is the notification period for demonstrations in Scotland, which is 28 days compared with six days in England. That has been the subject of criticism by the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. It is also highlighted in “Is Scotland Fairer?” the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s latest report, along with other areas that the commission concluded required improvement, such as violence and harassment against children and young persons and hate crimes perpetrated on grounds of disability or sexual orientation.

I should make it clear that the Government support the principle that Scotland should have the freedom to take action on rights in devolved areas, in line with its own priorities for implementation, and to decide how it balances fundamental human rights with the need to implement practical and sensible policies for the people of Scotland.

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Joanna Cherry: I mentioned in earlier that the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights recently visited the UK. Is the Minister aware that the commissioner complimented the Scottish Government on the fact that they are looking to go beyond the European convention on human rights by implementing other international human rights treaties directly into Scots law? Is the Minister aware that the commissioner also said:

“The Scottish National Action Plan for Human Rights is also a good example for”

the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr Raab: I read the remarks of the commissioner. Indeed, I met him in person and he seemed satisfied with the assurances I gave him that our reforms, proposals and what we have in mind will not see us turn into the basket case of Europe or become like Belarus, which is nonsense that is bandied around frankly rather irresponsibly. I did meet the commissioner and did read his comments about Scotland, and it is right to pay tribute to the improvements and to what the rest of the Union can learn from Scotland. Action plans and the theoretical stuff is fine, but it is what we do in practice that really counts for the citizens of Scotland and indeed the rest of the UK.

In addition, the more powers that the Scottish Government assume for the implementation of human rights for the people of Scotland, the more they can be expected to be questioned and evaluated on the degree to which they live up to the responsibilities that they acquire. We hear an awful lot from the SNP in this House about how the UK Government and Parliament are threatening human rights in Scotland, but I hope that that is not being used as a distraction from considering the degree to which the Scottish Government meet their commitments in reality in Scotland. It is not about brandishing action plans, to which the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway referred, and making pious policy statements about human rights in theory instead of focusing on delivering in practice. Perhaps the hon. and learned Lady would like to respond to that point.

Joanna Cherry: I would not, because the Minister is here to answer questions put to him by us in this debate. I am conscious of the clock and that there is about three and a half minutes left. He has been asked a number of questions by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) that he has not yet answered. He has also been asked some important questions by the spokesperson for the official Opposition about the purdah period. Will the Minister answer those questions?

Mr Raab: I thank the hon. and learned Lady. We have given answers to all those questions before.

Richard Arkless: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. It is usually customary to let the Minister respond to the question being asked.

Mr Raab: I am happy to give way, but if we have a Gatling gun salvo of interventions, that rather eats into my time and opportunity to address such matters. I will, however, give way to the hon. Gentleman, as it is his debate.

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Richard Arkless: The Minister says that the issues have been dealt with before. The question is simple: do the Government believe that human rights are reserved or devolved? He says that they have given the answer before. Where and when? We have never heard it.

Joanna Cherry: Tell us.

Richard Arkless: Tell us!

Mr Raab: We have made it clear that the Human Rights Act can be revised only by the UK Government, but the implementation of many human rights issues is devolved. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland neatly summed up the position on the Sewel convention and legislative consent motions. Scotland cannot responsibly take a decision on such things until it has its package. In relation to the European convention on human rights, which the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway also asked about, I do not know how many times I have said it in the House, but our current plans do not involve our withdrawal from the convention. If the hon. Gentleman has been in for Justice Question Time once over the past six months, he will have heard me say that.

In fact, the Scotland Bill, which is currently completing its passage in the other place, serves as a reminder of the Scottish Parliament’s role in deciding the right balance for Scottish people in Scotland. To take just one example, when competence for the franchise in local and Scottish parliamentary elections is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it will be for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to determine whether the current ban on convicted prisoners voting ought to remain, as in the rest of the UK. The SNP has made it clear that it did not want the franchise extended to prisoners for the Scottish referendum. Nicola Sturgeon made that clear in May 2013.

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Joanna Cherry: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Raab: I will not because I have so little time left.

Under the Human Rights Act, however, once Scotland has devolved responsibility for the franchise, the only way that the Scottish Government will be able to retain the ban on prisoner voting is by relying on the nationwide ban enacted by the UK Parliament here at Westminster. It is one of those things that SNP Members should remember, ’fess up to and be a bit more honest and straightforward about when they hurl around the suggestion that we are attacking human rights.

There is actually widespread support in Scotland for replacing the Human Rights Act with a bill of rights, which has been borne out by all the YouGov polling.

Joanna Cherry: Nonsense!

Mr Raab: The hon. and learned Lady does not like the facts.

The truth is that the UK’s history of respect for human rights predates the Human Rights Act in all parts of the United Kingdom. That protection will continue to be totally central to our human rights framework in the years ahead. I look forward to many more opportunities to discuss the substance and detail of the framework with hon. Members in due course.

Question put,

That this House has considered the future framework for human rights in Scotland.

The Chair’s opinion as to the decision of the Question was challenged.

Question not decided (Standing Order No. 10(13)).