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5.26 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to make my first contribution to our deliberations here, the more so as there is an agreeable practice of knowing roughly when one is able to make one's contribution, in contrast to the situation in the other place.

I recall an incident which happened to me some years ago when I was in the other place, shortly after I was elected to it. It was one of those occasions when the debate was to go on all night. I believe that it was a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill. I had been advised that I had no chance of being called to speak until about two o'clock in the morning. Therefore, I returned to the Palace of Westminster at round about midnight feeling slightly self-conscious at going in at such an awful time. The policewoman at the Members' Entrance said, "Good evening, sir". Rather naively, I felt that I had to justify my appearing there at that hour so I said, I fear rather pompously, "Good evening. I am hoping to speak tonight". "Yes, sir", she said. "Will it make any difference?" In fact I was called to speak at about four or five in the morning and I have to say that it made not the slightest difference; my local newspapers did not even publish one word of my press release. I learnt a lesson from that.

I am happy to be here and it is not just because of the more sensible hours that I understand we keep. Despite my earlier experience in the other place, I hope that occasionally, in a small way, I shall be able to make a difference to our deliberations.

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There is a much greater difference, and here I am going to be partisan but not controversial because I think it is accepted; namely, I hope that within the next two years there will be a change in the seating arrangements here and that my Labour colleagues will be on the government Benches. Anything that I can do to help along that process is something to which I am dedicated.

I should like to thank the many people who have been helpful to me in my few weeks here. I thank the officials of the House who steered me through the rather difficult introduction ceremony. All staff of the House have gone out of their way to be helpful and supportive. I thank all my colleagues and especially those who sponsored me--my noble friends Lord Clinton-Davis and Lord Ponsonby.

Of course I realise that I have to unlearn some bad habits which I acquired in the other place. I believe that that is more difficult than learning good new habits. I suppose that I am conditioned to being rather more confrontational than is appropriate in your Lordships' House. I shall do my best to adopt the appropriate style, although I hope that my very firm convictions will remain the same.

I also hope that I can contribute to our debates and that in doing so I shall be helped by the experiences that I had when representing the Battersea constituency until 1987. I have to say that it is a constituency full of wonderful people who, sadly, erred seriously on two occasions; namely, in their voting habits in the last two general elections. However, I am confident that they will see the error of their ways next time.

I am now the director of the Refugee Council. I hope that I will be able to contribute on issues dealing with asylum seekers and refugees. I hope to say a little about that in a moment. I feel that the way we as a country and western Europe generally deal with asylum seekers and refugees will be a real test of our commitment to human rights, not just in the immediate future but well into the next century.

I am pleased that legislation is planned to set up the criminal cases review committee to deal with miscarriages of justice, the more so as I happened a few years ago to serve on a Select Committee which produced a report recommending a procedure not all that different from that which I understand is now being contemplated. But at least that committee will review people who have been charged with criminal offences and then convicted, perhaps wrongly, through a judicial process in the courts.

However, I contend that there are other miscarriages of justice. I have in mind asylum seekers currently being held in detention. I believe that there are between 600 and 700 such people who have not been charged with a criminal offence but have been imprisoned through an administrative rather than a judicial process. I appreciate the fact that if I say much more I risk moving into a controversial area. Perhaps I may merely add that I welcome the Government's commitment to human rights as expressed in the gracious Speech and trust that human rights considerations apply as much within this country as abroad.

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This is the United Nation's Year of the Family. It is, therefore, disappointing that our immigration policies continue to have the effect in all too many cases of keeping families apart. I refer particularly to asylum seekers who are awaiting a decision about their status and to those people who have been given the status of exceptional leave to remain rather than full refugee status. For those people, the prospects of being reunited with their families are sadly remote, as they may not even apply to be joined by their families for at least four years after they have been given ELR status. I do not believe that any of us can be happy about families who are kept apart in that way.

Perhaps I may now turn to Europe. Increasingly, decisions about asylum and refugee policy are being made in Brussels rather than by the nation states of the European Union. Unfortunately, those decisions are made through the Council of Ministers, with many of the discussions in secret--and sometimes the decisions are kept secret as well. I hope that our Government will feel able to practise a more open approach to those Brussels discussions. Perhaps now is the time to advocate more openness in the study group which will prepare for the 1996 intergovernmental conference.

I welcome the reference in the gracious Speech to weapons of mass destruction, although I appreciate that the subject goes somewhat beyond home affairs. I also welcome the fact that the proliferation of such weapons is to be prevented and that that is to be an important priority. I wonder whether anti-personnel land-mines would be included in weapons of mass destruction. I believe it is generally known that there are about 100 million of those weapons buried in the ground in many developing countries, such as Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Mozambique and others. Every day such weapons blow off the legs of any unfortunate person who happens to step on one of them. The people who are sadly maimed by them are often refugees who want to return to their countries because conditions in other respects make it safer for them to do so. They are farmers who need to sow their corn and to collect water and firewood and whose children need to play. Every one of those activities all too often results in children or adults losing their limbs.

A few days ago I saw some photographs that had been taken a week or so before in Angola. I saw a child with its ankle in shreds because it had stepped on a land-mine and a pregnant woman who had lost a leg through a similar incident. Such weapons take their toll years after the end of the conflict during which they were planted in the ground. I very much hope that our Government will commit themselves to saying that those weapons are dreadful; that they have no part to play in a civilised world; and that they should be banned before any more people are maimed.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on his unpompous, charming and memorable maiden speech. I happen to share keenly several of the noble Lord's interests. For example, his

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interest in free speech and broadcasting through his membership of the Broadcasting Standards Council, his deep commitment to good race relations and a fair immigration policy and his quite outstanding work as director of the Refugee Council for some six years on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees. If the noble Lord will permit me to say so, he is a champion for the underdog and the underprivileged and for the excluded and dispossessed, not only in this country but also across the world.

It is also a great personal pleasure to be able to congratulate my noble and good friend Lord Tope. We worked closely together as co-chairmen of a troublesome and difficult inquiry into the conduct by some local Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets during a notorious by-election in the Isle of Dogs. I learnt a great deal from my noble friend, not only about local government but also about the art of the wise diplomat. He was always good humoured and very effective. I hope that, together, we managed to accomplish a small thing in combating populism in the pursuit of political power.

The third and most memorable maiden speech was made by the noble Lord, Lord Attenborough. The noble Lord has brought more pleasure to our lives, and his speech shows how lucky we are that he will be able to entertain us for the rest of his life and, more than that, to make us think deeply and harder about art and civilisation.

Despite the eloquent speech made by the Minister, I feel bound to observe that the gracious Speech contains meagre fare for those of us who would like to strengthen the constitutional rights and freedoms of the people of this country and to create a more genuinely democratic and accountable system of government.

However, perhaps I may first mention what I regard as being the good news. I believe that it is good news that the Government propose to introduce a Bill to tackle discrimination against the disabled. It is long overdue, but it is good that the measure will now be introduced. I should like to emphasise the need for that measure to treat the disabled no less favourably than others who are protected by anti-discrimination legislation at present. I very much hope that the Bill will protect the disabled against indirect as well as direct discrimination; that its scope will be broad; and that it will form part of a comprehensive anti-discrimination code which already covers ethnic minorities, religious and political groups in Northern Ireland and women and men as regards sex discrimination across the whole country. I trust that we will not have piecemeal and more limited legislation which makes a nonsense of any coherent concept of equality.

I also welcome what I suspect was a last minute decision to include a measure to set up the criminal cases review authority, to expedite, at last, Law Commission recommendations for law reform and to equalise the state pensionable ages for women and men. I hope that when that measure is introduced we shall not find that women are worse off as a result of a proposal to equalise downwards rather than to produce a flexible scheme which ensures equality but enables women to be not worse off but, if possible, better off than at present.

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I also welcome something which is not in the Queen's Speech. It is excellent that the Government have not introduced anti-press legislation to protect government privacy and the lives of public figures against embarrassment from the press. I very much hope that the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission--and a worthy successor to the noble Lord, Lord McGregor--will cause the Government to listen to his wise advice and that of his council and dissuade them from introducing any measures which will threaten the vital freedom of the press and of the readers of the press in a way which has been hinted at in the past.

I should like to join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the role played by the Government of this country and the Government of the Republic of Ireland in the peace process. However, it is strange that the only part of the constitution of the United Kingdom which the Government propose to reform is the part which covers Northern Ireland.

The gracious Speech refers to the principles of the Citizen's Charter. That is a useful charter for protecting the rights of consumers, but it is not a citizen's charter in the sense of a constitutional charter of the rights and freedoms of the individual. It does nothing and is not intended to replace our over-centralised and autocratic state with a more democratic and plural system of open and accountable government based on a modern concept of citizenship. As my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank suggested, there is a large gap left by the retreat on Post Office privatisation which could be filled by measures of that kind.

In conclusion, perhaps I may suggest some of those measures which could be tackled. There is a gathering consensus across the country, which is not shared by the Government, that what we British citizens urgently need is nothing less than a new constitutional settlement within the wider context of our membership of the European Union. That means a new constitutional scheme which gives the European Convention on Human Rights the same status as European Community law in our legal system; which sets legally enforceable limits on the prerogative powers of the Crown within and outside Parliament; which shifts substantial power from our over-centralised Whitehall departments and what has been called the unelected new magistracy of quangos to a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly and, if the people want it, English regional assemblies where there is sufficient regional demand; and which renews our system of local government, thereby translating subsidiarity into practice.

We need measures which make Parliament more effective in controlling the Executive and which create a more democratic and more regionally representative Upper House; which create a voting system better and more fairly reflecting the wishes of the voters; which modernises the machinery of justice and improves access to justice and strengthens judicial independence; and which promotes greater openness and accountability of government at every level through the enactment of freedom of information legislation and, in the light of the Nolan Committee, to promote good standards of ethics in public office.

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I very much regret that the Government remain unwilling to introduce a citizen's charter of that kind to renew the British constitution and to meet the real needs of our fellow citizens.


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