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House of Lords

Thursday, 20th May 1999.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Human Rights Act: Implementation

Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they anticipate that the Human Rights Act 1998 will be brought into force, and what is the reason for the current delay.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced on Tuesday of this week, in answer to a Written Question, that the Human Rights Act would be brought into force on Monday 2nd October 2000.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, may I couple the conventional thanks for that Answer with my deep appreciation of the Minister's courtesy in informing me in advance of the Statement which was to be made and in drawing my attention to a Written Answer to a Written Question? Perhaps that was the least that one could expect from one former chairman of the Bar Council to another. Does the Minister recognise that there is a constitutional aspect to the Question? Does he recall the enthusiasm with which my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor piloted so efficiently through your Lordships' House the Human Rights Act 1998? Does he agree that there was not the slightest hint that the Act, which had been so long delayed, would provide a speedy domestic remedy to its breaches? In those circumstances, what is the Executive's justification for frustrating the natural desire of Parliament to have the remedies available at the earliest possible moment?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I certainly recall the proper enthusiasm of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor for the Bill during its passage through your Lordships' House. Undoubtedly it will be the flagship of the present administration. It is quite wrong to suggest that Parliament was not told that there would be a lead-in time to implementation. As long ago as 21st October 1998 my right honourable friend the Home Secretary stated in another place that implementation could not happen in the near future and that a precise date could not be given. My right honourable friend Jack Straw has asked me to chair the Human Rights Task Force. A vast amount of work needs to be done. It is better to get that work done properly than in a hurried way. When the date comes, we should be properly prepared for something which will be a complete transformation of the way in which public affairs are conducted in this country.

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Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, can my noble friend say what progress is being made with the training of the judiciary at all levels, as they will be confronted with human rights issues, sometimes in ordinary, run-of-the-mill cases and often without notice?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am able to give details to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell. Some £4.5 million has been allocated to judicial training: £1.13 million to the full-time judiciary; £1.5 million for lay magistrates; £300,000 for tribunal members; and £1.5 million for court service costs. The Judicial Studies Board, to which I pay ready tribute, will have the largest training programme in its history. Training will be carried out mainly through a series of one-day seminars for 3,000 full and part-time judges; those seminars have already started. There will be a series of 54 seminars for the whole of the judiciary, arranged from January to July 2000, with a pilot seminar in Cardiff planned for the end of September of this year. The board is planning to carry out the training in good time before implementation. As to my noble and learned friend's further point about the judiciary at all levels, the board will oversee the training of 30,000 lay magistrates, who will be trained locally by the Magistrates' Courts Committees.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, as the Minister will be well aware, as from today's date the decisions of those who prosecute in Scotland in the criminal courts will be subject to review against convention rights. That will entitle those who are accused and the victims of those who are accused to have the decisions of the prosecutor reviewed. The decision to defer implementation of the Act until October of next year will mean that those accused of crime and their victims in England and Wales will not enjoy similar rights. Does not that place the Government in breach of Article 14 of the convention which provides that the enjoyment of rights under the convention shall be secure without discrimination?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: No, my Lords. I am well aware of the training that has gone on in Scotland. Indeed, the Lord Advocate was kind enough to invite me to the residential seminar which demonstrated the extremely careful preparation that the Advocates Depute have undergone. The mere fact that the legal obligation is not laid on the Crown Prosecution Service does not mean that it will not attend to convention issues when it is making decisions.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, now that the Government--

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords--

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, there is time for both questions.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, now that the Government have given a firm date for the implementation of the Act, will they take the next step and give it teeth by establishing a human rights commission?

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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it has been said many times that we are looking to the establishment of a Joint Committee of both Houses--if both Houses think it appropriate--to deal with issues of human rights. That remains the Government's position.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, does the Minister recall what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor stated in the course of the Third Reading debate on the Human Rights Bill? He stated that the Government,

    "would consider designating military courts as the proper venue for the consideration of complaints on convention grounds by Armed Forces personnel".--[Official Report, 5/2/98; col. 768.] Some 15 months later, can the Minister confirm that the Government are still happy that that would be the right approach?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I remember the observation made by my noble and learned friend; I was sitting next to him when the point was raised and when he answered it. As far as I am aware-- I shall check the matter in more detail--that remains the position. If I am in error I shall, of course, write immediately to the noble and gallant Lord and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, has the Minister identified within his department any laws or practices which should be changed before the coming into force of the Human Rights Act? If so, what are the principal ones?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we have carried out an audit of information within the Home Office. The audit--which included questions relating to other departments and their responsibilities vis-a-vis legislation, whether primary or secondary--was prepared for the March meeting of the Human Rights Task Force. I placed that document and a record of relevant task force discussions in the Library, where it still remains available.


3.9 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will increase their endeavours to promote the abolition of slavery in those countries where it persists.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, slavery is outlawed by a substantial body of international law. Her Majesty's Government urge all countries to ratify the relevant instruments and to wipe out all forms of slavery.

At a practical level, we work to address this issue in international forums such as the UN and the International Labour Organisation--for example, in

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support of the ILO's International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour--with EU partners, especially on Sudan, and in our bilateral relationships.

We strongly support the efforts of certain countries to eliminate the practice of slavery. We also provide practical help to tackle the poverty which breeds abusive labour practices.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that reply, which contains some cause for hope, I should like to ask her whether this Government, who are committed to a foreign policy which takes account of human rights, are adequately addressing the scale of slavery in the modern world. For example, in addition to the evidence in the recent excellent report by Anti-Slavery International, we in Christian Solidarity Worldwide have freed more than 1,200 slaves in Sudan but we estimate that there are still tens of thousands of people enslaved in Sudan. I have just returned from Burma where I had the privilege of being with the Karen and the Kareni people, many of whom have been forced into labour in such harsh conditions that they are dying. Therefore, will the Minister give an assurance that this Government will follow in the tradition of William Wilberforce and make increased efforts to try to achieve an end to this abominable practice before we move into the next millennium?

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