(HANSARD) in the second session of the fifty-second parliament of the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland commencing on the seventh day of may in the forty-sixth year of the reign of





House of Lords

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Monday, 25th October 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

Angela Felicity Harris, having been created Baroness Harris of Richmond, of Richmond in the County of North Yorkshire, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Hamwee and the Baroness Maddock.

Baroness Howells of St Davids

Mrs Rosalind Patricia-Anne Howells, OBE, having been created Baroness Howells of St Davids, of Charlton in the London Borough of Greenwich, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Amos and the Lord Alli.

The Earl of Meath --Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Lord Catto --Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Equality before the Law

2.48 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they support further steps to promote equality before the law and the equal protection

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    of the law throughout Europe by means of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, in principle the Government support the promotion of equality before the law. With regard to the additional protocol, the Government will come to a considered view in the light of its text.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that encouraging, although cautious, reply. Does the Minister agree that there is at present a gap between the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, by which the United Kingdom is bound and which is a strong guarantee of equality, and the much weaker guarantee in the European Convention on Human Rights? Does he agree also that it is in the public interest of this country and Europe as a whole that that gap should be filled by means of the protocol? If not, are there any objections in principle which the noble Lord can foresee in the way in which the protocol is now being worded?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the gaps to which the noble Lord refers are regrettable. Our primary concern in looking at the draft text of the protocol is that there is no exemption for positive discrimination and for other forms of differential treatment which have a reasonable and objective justification. That is our primary problem. Of course, if those issues and others can be addressed, we can make progress with the protocol, which we fully recognise to be extremely important in the development of civil and political rights across Europe.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that it would be a good idea for the British Government to set an example in this area? We have reasonable legislation on racial and sexual

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discrimination, but some other countries are not so well blessed. Would it not be a good idea to set an example by supporting the protocol?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. We have excellent legislation in this field. The Labour Government, and Labour in local government, have a proud record in taking forward equality provisions and policies in legislation. We require progress to be made in dealing with the protocol and perfecting the draft so that we can reflect positively on those aspects of it which need to be improved, in particular those which relate to positive discrimination and the need for differential treatment. That will take forward important equal rights objectives.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, without expressing a view on the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, will the Government be wary about signing up to international covenants expressed in general language of principle, without any clear idea as to how such a principle might be interpreted in years to come by foreign judges brought up in different disciplines? Surely there are some lessons to be learnt from our experience with the European Convention on Human Rights.

While on that subject, will the Minister take special heed of remarks made the other day by the United States Supreme Court judge, Judge Kennedy, who said that the more that judges become involved in social and economic decisions, the more they will lose the respect of the public?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we are always cautious in terms of incorporating European legislation into our own, so as to ensure that we protect and advance the British interest. Of course, we have to take account of the views expressed by the noble Lord. It is important for us to make sure that we get things right for our people in our country.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Government's approach to the review of the race relations and equal opportunity legislation has been very cautious? Does he also accept that, by signing or supporting the protocol to the international convention, we are also giving domestic remedy on this issue which is very much in line with what the Prime Minister said at the Bournemouth conference?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is right to say that we are cautious; but we are cautious only because we want to get things right. Therefore, it is only right and proper that we give very careful consideration to the way in which we incorporate into our own domestic legislation measures such as Article 14. We share a common objective: to improve the standard and quality of equalities legislation.

Lord Desai: My Lords, in reply to my noble friend Lady Turner, my noble friend said that there were

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some defects in the international protocol. In avoiding those defects, is he satisfied that we have done everything we can to bridge the gap between the protocol and the European Convention on Human Rights?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we shall continue to make our case very strongly with regard to improving the quality of the protocol because we believe it to be important. We want to get it right. As I said earlier, as it is currently drafted, there is no exemption for lawful positive discrimination. We want to ensure that we can batter away at that and get things right so that the legislation, and the way in which we incorporate the protocol, accurately reflect our interests and our desire to get equalities legislation properly termed and phrased.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, will the Minister take advice from his department about the case law under the European Convention on Human Rights, Community law and the covenant, all of which deal with the problems to which he referred? At the same time, in relation to the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, will he bear in mind the fact that the Government have the overwhelming support of these Benches, and the country as a whole, for having incorporated the convention and given our judges the responsibilities that it is time they exercised, as is the case in the courts in the rest of Europe and in the Commonwealth?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we are more than happy to take advice and, indeed, more than happy to take encouragement from the Liberal Democrat Benches on these matters.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, does the Minister also accept that there are many who might not agree that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, speaks for the whole of the country? There are many others in the country who believe that positive discrimination is a can of worms. Indeed, it has proved to be so in the United States where the doctrine has been most advanced. On reflection, does the noble Lord agree that it might be better to rest on the principle of no discrimination?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is, of course, quite entitled to his view.

Prisoners' Voting Rights

2.56 p.m.

Lord Lucas asked her Majesty's Government:

    What consequences the Human Rights Act 1998 has for the voting rights of prisoners in the United Kingdom.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, none. Remand and unsentenced prisoners already have the right to

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vote. We do not believe that the Human Rights Act 1998 requires us to extend that right to sentenced prisoners.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the right under Article 3 of the convention is an individual right and that, therefore, the Human Rights Act gives to an individual prisoner, or another individual, deprived of his voting rights (for whatever reason), the right to pursue the restoration of his voting rights through the courts?

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