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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, perhaps I may deal with that straightaway. All 34 contracting states that belong to the European Convention are in the process of ratifying the 11th Protocol. That will give a permanent right of access to the European Court for all the peoples of Europe, whether or not they have incorporated the convention. I am glad to say that the Government of this country ratified that convention earlier in the year.
The answer to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, therefore is that even if we incorporate the convention, as I hope we shall, there will remain the same right in this country as in the other contracting states, as a last recourse, to go to Strasbourg.
The guiding principle of the Bill, and of the series of stimulating debates we have enjoyed during its passage through this House, is that the preservation and development of the rights and freedoms of the individual are an essential feature of effective and legitimate constitutional arrangements. The Government wholeheartedly endorse that principle andI must stress thistake very seriously their human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and under the other international treaties to which they are party.
What we are discussing here therefore is not ends but means. The Bill now before us would incorporate the convention into the domestic law of the United Kingdom, providing for the principles set out in the convention to serve as an aid to the construction of primary and secondary legislation and to be taken into account in equity and at common law. We have debated at length various different forms of incorporation and, as the Bill now stands, some have suggested that this particular form of incorporation would be helpful in that it would clear up existing confusion over how the courts should approach the convention without impinging upon parliamentary sovereignty.
That is simply not the case. The current position in our courts is clear: under our constitutional arrangements it is for Parliament to enact detailed and specific legislation on matters affecting the rights and liberties of the individual and for the courts to apply that legislation, having regard to the convention only where there is ambiguity. This Bill would certainly change that position. It would enable the courts to interpret legislation by reference to the convention even where there is no such ambiguity and Parliament's intention is clear and specific; and, in the case of the common law, it would apparently allow the courts to overturn long established traditions in common law which would, now, be considered to be the domain of Parliament.
It is a vital merit of our present arrangements that, if and when change of this kind is needed, it is our democratically elected and accountable Parliament which decides how and when any such changes should be made. As well as assuring proper accountability for such decisions, this helps to ensure that such changes, often in areas of keen social and public interest, carry public support and understanding.
The Government's view remains that incorporation of the convention into the domestic law of the United Kingdom would do nothing in practice to improve the enjoyment of the rights of freedoms protected under the European Convention on Human Rights. As the Secretary General of the Council of Europe himself has recently observed, these rights and freedoms are already well protected under the existing arrangements in this country.
Nor would incorporation guarantee fewer referrals to Strasbourg, as some of your Lordships have argued; nor would it minimise the cost or waste of time or effort, as is shown very clearly when we look at the records of those countries where the convention has been incorporated into their domestic law. What happens in practice is that a large number of those cases still find their way to the European Commission and Court of Human Rights where they must be examined afresh.
I should remind the House that, in 1994, 62 allegations of violation were referred to the Austrian Government; 723 to the Turkish Government; 118 allegations to the French Government; and 356 allegations to the Italian Government. What did they all have in common? All those countries had already incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights. By contrast, 46 such allegations were referred to the United Kingdom Government during the same period. I cannot see how, from these figures, it can be argued that incorporation is a way of reducing costs or speeding up the handling of cases.
I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred to Germany. He was mightily selective in choosing Germany. He did not choose Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Austria or Switzerland. France, a country with a comparable size of population to the United Kingdom, has almost as many violations as the United Kingdom despite having accepted the individual right of petition only 14 years ago. Italy, which again is of similar size to the United Kingdom, has more than twice as many violations. Of the smaller countries, which are a quarter of the size of the United Kingdom or lessthe Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Swedenall have between 20 and 27 violations. That hardly suggests that the United Kingdom has the worst record in Europe.
This hardly seems a basis upon which to make changes to constitutional arrangements which have been tried and tested over many years. No citizen in this country is denied his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. The Government's view remains that incorporation, whatever form it takes, is undesirable and unnecessary, both in principle and in practice; and accordingly, we cannot give support to the Bill. But although it is the convention that we make known our views about the Bill, I shall not be opposing the Bill.
Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I would very humbly tell your Lordships, speaking from the little red book, that not speaking more than once and not speaking after the Minister applies on Third Reading as it does on Report.
In a reply in Hansard on 18th April the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, gave information which showed that the United Kingdom had the second largest number of violations of the convention recorded before the European Court, being exceeded only by Italy. Those Italian cases all flow from delay. It also showed that we have the largest number of cases pending before the European Court.
I agree that that does not give a fair picture of the state of human rights in this country. But nor is there much point in comparing our position with that of Turkey on the basis that it has incorporated and we have not and that incorporation therefore does not do the trick. All I would like to say about the league tables
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, my recollection is to the contrary. All I would like to say is that the case for incorporation does not depend upon a comparison with other member states. It stands on its own feet. The question is whether there should be effective domestic remedies in this country. The Minister has not suggested that our domestic remedies are as effective.
I very much hope that your Lordships will feel able to pass the Bill through this House so that the democratically elected other place will have the opportunity, if it wishes, of considering its provisions.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, with the leave of the House, the noble Lord is right in terms of the number of allegations referred. In the comparisons which I gave in terms of population and numbers of cases that were regarded as breaches I did not include Turkey.