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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I believe it was a Conservative Government that wrote into the Northern Ireland constitution legislation in, I think, 1972 that there should be no religious discrimination, gave effective legal remedies for religious discrimination and made it perfectly plain that any religious discrimination or torture would be wholly contrary to the law of the land. Therefore, what does the noble Lord fear in the mechanisms under the covenant and the conventions which could be abused and exploited in the way that he had suggested?

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. I referred in extremely general terms to our efforts to ensure human rights. I included the kinds of provisions that the noble Lord referred to. However, I fear that international tribunals would be used for propaganda purposes to some degree in order to bring additional international pressure on the United Kingdom Government as regards the struggle in Northern Ireland.

I do not want to dwell too long on the subject of Northern Ireland. We all hope that the present situation will be advanced and that we shall get what is described as peace becoming permanent and that we shall not return to the kind of situation that prevailed when I was a Minister there. Had these provisions been available at that time I believe that they would have been used as a propaganda weapon.

In addition to those factors, the United Kingdom already has important legislation, not least that to which the noble Lord has referred. There is also legislation on race relations generally. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, drew attention to that. I have always understood that our law compares extremely favourably with the legislation of other countries. In those circumstances it does not

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seem to me that there is a great need to advance too quickly on that front. I am not necessarily against advancing, but I am not going to join in pressing the Government to do so before they have had the opportunity to reflect.

The general point is also relevant. The Government are in the process of taking through Parliament many extremely sweeping changes to our constitution. They are doing so at very high speed in many respects. I believe that changes to the constitution should take place more gradually. When the Government are ready, no doubt they will put proposals before Parliament. It may be that when he replies the Minister can give us a clearer idea of the timescale that the Government have in mind. We shall of course consider the proposals carefully. As I say, I am not pressing the Government to produce their measures before they are ready to do so.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: The noble Lords, Lord Lester of Herne Hill and Lord Dholakia, were uncharacteristically gloomy this evening. There was a shade of reproach which I am happy to deal with as regards the fact that the Government have dragged their feet. We have been in government now for two years. In that time we have provided a devolved parliament for Scotland; a devolved assembly for Wales; and new constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland which were supported by over 70 per cent of those in the North and by over 90 per cent of citizens of the Republic. In addition, there was the Human Rights Act. I pay credit to both noble Lords and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for the very long struggle that he engaged in for many years past. That legislation is on the statute book. An entirely novel constitutional device is to fetter executive power. I believe that the key to devolution is not simply the shorthand devolution to assemblies. The whole of our programme is about the devolution of power to the individual, which is much more significant.

I imagine that there will be an announcement about a freedom of information Bill within the next few days, which I have promised on a number of occasions would be available for pre-legislative scrutiny by the appropriate committee in the other place chaired by Rhodri Morgan MP. The Crime and Disorder Act is already on the statute book and will change almost unrecognisably the way in which we deal with the treatment and prevention of crime, particularly in the young. There is also the Data Protection Act. Its name is not on the lips of everyone, but it is a very important piece of legislation dealing with civil liberties. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, pointed out, it will be remembered that at the moment we are engaged in the wholesale reform of this House, which will be the first successful effort this century. Without being unduly boastful, that is not a bad record for two years.

The noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Dholakia, referred to the comparison which might be made as regards our relationship in the Council of Europe with those who have signed "pieces of paper". I am not being dismissive of important treaty obligations. I was there for the 50th anniversary last Friday. Without being

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unduly chauvinistic, but with a decent regard for our own achievements in this country, whatever conventions have been signed by many of our colleague national members in the Council of Europe, I welcome in many respects a comparison with what they have actually delivered in terms of the protection of human rights for their citizens with what we have delivered in terms of judicial protection, lawful protection and access to remedies. There is no comparison between our achievements and what they have achieved.

We are looking not simply for a signature to important documents, but the actual delivery of positive remedies, preferably, in the first place, within this jurisdiction. I deal with the specific point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. We are not undermining the working group of the Council of Europe on the draft additional protocol. It is being considered by a committee of experts at the moment. The Council of Ministers has yet to consider the issue. We have not taken a position for or against the protocol. We have taken a prudent decision to wait and see what is the text and to consider it before coming to a conclusion.

The noble Lord's Question to the Government is whether we will reconsider our refusal. We have not refused to take the course of action that the noble Lord wants. I stress again that we have not closed the door on acceding to treaty obligations referred to by both noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. We are preparing for the implementation of the Human Rights Act.

I believe I can say without exaggeration that the preparations needed fully to incorporate into our systems not simply the Act but the culture behind it are the biggest single effort in the context of public administration that has ever taken place in peacetime. That may sound overblown but I shall develop my theme shortly. Jack Straw asked me to chair the implementation group. We have not cast the net narrowly. For example, we have on it John Wadham, Francesca Crew and Sarah Spencer, who represent organisations that have a very good record here. We have senior representatives of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Bar Council, the Lord Chancellor's Department and local government. We are preparing for the efficient introduction into our systems and culture of something that in 15 years' time will be regarded as the flagship Act of this Government which brings about a fundamental and deeply subtle change to the way that we do our business and think.

At the moment officials are preparing core guidance--I pay tribute to them because it is extremely difficult work--for departments and public authorities. We have under way a programme of public information and dissemination of rights and responsibilities at different levels so that all our fellow citizens, whatever their positions or capacities, will know that these rights are there for them.

As the noble Lord suggested, we could have proceeded in a different way. I believe that we are going forward in the right way. We have to train the courts, for which the budget is available. It is notoriously well known that most of the challenges, perhaps 75 per cent,

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will arise in the context of criminal cases. The magistracy must be trained since it deals with substantially more than 90 per cent of the cases in this country in the criminal jurisdiction. The judges must also be trained properly, and the Judicial Studies Board will see to that. I do not believe that it is being backward. Whenever I have made approaches on behalf of colleagues from other jurisdiction who are interested in benefiting from our experience I have always had a most generous response from the board.

Even within the context of the Home Office perhaps the short logistical description that I give indicates the amount of work that we have to do. We must look at every subsisting Act of Parliament and statutory regulation to see whether over the years--sometimes centuries--any relevant Bill that has a connection with the Home Office is convention compliant. That is not the work of a week or a month; it is an extremely intensive, difficult task. We must look at every system that operates within any part of the Home Office empire.

I take almost at random the example of the Prison Service. We must ensure that for every practice in that service it is possible to assert that it is convention compliant. We must also make absolutely certain that all human rights described, defined and guaranteed in the convention are available within every government department. Further, we must advise our colleagues in all public authorities as to what they must do. I believe that that is a small price to pay in order to get it right internally before we go to external remedies. After all, if we provide an effective internal system of remedies it should satisfy the overwhelming majority of legitimate complaints and provide a decent platform for those complainants who find that they have no domestic remedy. I do not regard that as an ignoble stance but a practical way of taking matters forward.

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