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Lord Wallace of Tankerness:My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said some considerable time ago when the debate started that it was the Government's intention to delete these clauses from the Bill. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that the effect of these clauses, were they to be enacted, would be to repeal the Convention Rights Proceedings (Amendment)
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"(2) The Secretary of State may by order make transitional, transitory or saving provision in connection with the coming into force of paragraph 4 of Schedule 15 (which reduces from 30 years to 20 years the period at the end of which a record becomes a historical record for the purposes of Part 6 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000).
(a) make provision about the time when any records are to become historical records for the purposes of Part 6 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and
(b) make different provision in relation to records of different descriptions.
Lord Bach: My Lords, we move to Part 12 of the Bill and the Dacre report. In moving from a 30-year to a 20-year rule for the transfer of records to the National Archives and other archives and, in parallel, reducing the period during which certain exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act apply, the Government will be providing earlier access to a significant volume of material.
Of course, it is right that such a move involves careful preparation and is managed with an eye on the cost to the public purse. It is estimated that central government alone holds approximately 2 million paper files between 20 and 30 years old that would need to be reviewed as part of this process. A power is already included in the amendments to the Public Records Act in Clause 85 to allow us properly to prepare for and manage this change. The, power is flexible but it is anticipated that two years' worth of records will be transferred to the National Archives or other place of deposit each year during a 10-year transitional period. These amendments to Clause 86 and Schedule 15 create a power to make corresponding transitional arrangements for entry into force of the amendments to the Freedom of Information Act. This is a logical extension.
The transitional provisions, which can be applied for different periods for different types of record, are needed because large volumes of requests for some information over 20 years old are anticipated. A gradual reduction would help us properly to manage the resource burden resulting from the changes to the Freedom of Information Act. I beg to move.
"(2A) Until the end of the period of 10 years beginning with the commencement of paragraph 4 of Schedule 15 to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, subsection (1) has effect subject to any order made under section 86(2) of that Act.""
Lord Ramsbotham: I fully accept that the Bill that we are now discussing is but a shadow of the one that came before us yesterday afternoon. I am conscious of the hour and do not wish to detain your Lordships on a subject which many may deem peripheral. However, I submit that it is actually far from peripheral in the context in which we are conducting this wash-up-namely, the forthcoming general election-because it has to do with the way in which the Government have chosen to handle an issue that could endanger the whole process. Indeed, it could have been dealt with years ago. If this were a normal Committee stage, I would now set out my reasons in full, cataloguing what has happened in the nine years since the High Court rejected the case made by three serving prisoners, that all prisoners should be enfranchised in accordance with Protocol 1, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which this Government caused to become part of the United Kingdom law in October 2001.
One of the three, John Hirst, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which in March 2004, unanimously ruled against the UK Government's blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting, which had been set out in Section 3 of the Representation of the People
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In logic, you would expect that a Government who pride themselves on acting within the law and who have introduced more legislation than any other in our recent history, would abide by the decision of the highest court to which they could appeal and take the necessary steps to implement what was laid down. But no, frightened of offending reactionary public opinion by appearing not to be tough on criminals-which is not the same as Mr Blair's unfulfilled pledge to be tough on crime and the causes of crime-the Government determined to prevaricate for as long as possible, going to absurd lengths, such as suggesting that prisoners had lost the moral authority to vote.
Civil and political rights determine who may vote, not moral authority and goodness knows who else the Government would have deemed to have lost the moral authority to do so, with the notable exception of Members of this House, if they decided to go down that route. The European Court was damning in its criticism of the Government's line, saying that it found no evidence to support the claim that disfranchisement deterred crime and that there was no evidence that the Government had ever sought to assess the proportionality of the ban as it affected convicted prisoners. The Grand Chamber went even further by stating that there was no place under the European convention where tolerance and broadmindedness are the acknowledged hallmarks of a democratic society for automatic disfranchisement based purely on what might offend public opinion.
The prevarications included the charade of two so-called consultations. The first, initiated in December 2006 and promising a legislative solution early in 2008, was farcical on two counts: first, it was based on the wrong question. The court having ruled that all convicted prisoners have the right to vote, the issue should have been who should not, rather than who should be allowed to do so. Secondly, there was no response until April 2009, over two years later, and a year after the promised solution. The second consultation, announced at the same time as the results of the first, was also farcical on two counts: first, it lasted for 20 weeks, ignoring the Government's published code of practice laying down a maximum of 12 weeks; and, secondly, because despite frequent questioning it was clear from the start that the Minister of Justice had no intention of doing anything before the election.
Comparisons are odious, but what makes that delay even more reprehensible is that, during that period, the Ministry of Justice was abusing the process in a completely different way, again for its own ends. On 15 March this year, the chairman of the Bar Council drew the attention of a Grand Committee of this House to the fact that the Minister of Justice, prevaricating over prisoner voting consultations, had rushed through a consultation on draft conditional fee agreements, stipulating that consultation should be limited to a mere four weeks, rejecting all pleas for extensions and publishing his response a mere two weeks later. He justified that deviation from the code of practice as being "in order to be in a position to implement the proposal as soon as possible". The Bar Council chairman
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The Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe has publicly expressed its condemnation of that prevarication three times in the past six months, most recently on 8 March, when it said that it was seriously concerned that a failure to implement the European Court's judgment has given rise to a significant risk that the next United Kingdom general election would be performed in a way that failed to comply with the European convention and require the Government to rapidly adopt measures of an interim nature to ensure the execution of the court's judgment before the forthcoming election. In other words, we are being accused of behaving like a recalcitrant third-world country, rather than the country which, until now, has had a proud record of setting examples for others to follow. Clearly, the possible threat to the general election is not regarded as requiring the same urgency as conditional fee agreements.
Much has been said today about the contempt in which the parliamentary process is being treated during this wash-up. I have sided not just with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, but with all those who have called for time to be allowed for proper scrutiny of legislation and for Bills to deal with discrete issues, rather than the vast catch-alls that have marked criminal justice Bills in particular. I cannot imagine why the Government have not included this issue in all that legislation. Time and again, it has had to be raised whenever an opportunity arises, such as tonight. I hope that the issue will be put to bed very quickly by the next Government, because it is a disgrace that this has gone on for six years, which, as I have pointed out previously, is longer than the whole of World War II.
There is another reason why I want to put the issue on the record. The Government's prevarication amounts to nothing less than deliberate and inexcusable defiance of the rule of law as laid down by the courts. At the same time, they have gone to extreme length to punish those who do the same thing, as demonstrated by the record numbers in our prisons, the fact that we have more life-sentence prisoners than the rest of Europe added together, and that more than 3,000 new laws carrying prison sentences have been introduced.
At a time when the reputation of Parliament is at an all-time low, what respect can anyone have for a Government who so flagrantly fail to practise what they preach? What message does that attitude to the law send, not just to criminals but to young people who may be tempted to turn to crime?
Ghana was faced by exactly the same situation in November last year, when two lawyers took the Government to court for refusing to allow prisoners to vote. In sharp contrast to this country, the High Court found against the Government on 23 March-a mere four months later-contending that it found it extremely difficult to understand what constitutionally legitimate interest was served by the non-recognition of prisons as places of residence for the purpose of voter registration. The court commended the lawyers for advancing the
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As the Minister knows, I have never called for all prisoners to be allowed to vote. Clearly, some have committed crimes that justify that right being removed, but that should be decided by the courts as part of the sentence. Had we been having a normal Committee, I would have been able to set that out in more detail but, in the mean time, I ask for the removal of a wholly unnecessary blot on our national escutcheon, which we share with very few countries in Europe, such as Albania and Bulgaria, by the omission of Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, thus allowing prisoners to execute their civil and political right to vote. I beg to move.
Lord Grenfell: I strongly support what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has just said. The fact that he felt it necessary at this hour to take eight minutes to make a very important point demonstrates how we have lost so much in this House by not having had the time to have a proper debate on the Bill. I feel strongly that he made a very good point. It is awful that this House has to get through the Bill, arriving at 2.30 in the morning, when we should have had at least the chance to have a proper debate on it. As I said earlier, the whole Bill should have been held over until the next Parliament. It would have been so much better if we had had the chance to have a proper debate during the next Parliament. I have a feeling that whoever was in charge of the wash-up has put fast-forward on to spin-dry because we have not had a chance. This is typical of what we said earlier, but there are good points in the Bill. There are 42 pages of amendments, yet we have got through them in a very short time because we have not had a chance to debate them. They have been withdrawn one after the other. Many of them were making very good points. I re-emphasise that I hope that this will not happen again. It is a sad day for this House that we arrive at the end of our discussion of a constitutional reform Bill at this hour and have had to take so little time to debate the important issues that have just been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
Earl Ferrers: I agree with both the noble Lords who have just spoken that it is a terrible thing that all these important matters dealing with the constitution are being done in the course of a wash-up. It is not only the two noble Lords who have so complained but also the Select Committee on the Constitution. I remind noble Lords of what it said at paragraph 45:
"The House may take the view that the consequence of the Government tabling so many late amendments to the Bill is that the parliamentary consideration given in both Houses to the important aspects of constitutional reform which this Bill is likely to effect has been substantially curtailed".
"In any event, we consider it to be extraordinary that it could be contemplated that matters of such fundamental constitutional importance as, for example, placing the civil service on a statutory
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Both noble Lords who have just spoken made that point, and many other noble Lords feel the same. Although we have done the best with the Bill that is in front of us, it is wrong to try to alter the constitution in such a hurried and undebated way.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: Returning to the issue of the votes of prisoners, I hope that whichever party comes into power after 6 May will make this matter a priority. It will be very sad if we continue for years to come to have my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham asking whichever Government are in power to get on with something that has become a disgrace.
Lord Elton: The reputation of the wash-up process is now in shreds and it is not necessary to go on about it. The point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is a serious issue. Your Lordships may not find it attractive at first glance because it deals with prisoners, but were we able to have a full-scale debate, I feel confident that we could convince your Lordships that this is something that needs to be done urgently for reasons quite separate from the need to abide by the law as established by the European courts. We do not have that opportunity. I add my support, without such a debate, to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. If the Government say that they cannot accept it because it is now too late to carry out the duty that this would impose on them, that reflects a shameful light upon them.
Lord Norton of Louth: I will briefly piggyback on the amendment in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and my noble friend Lord Ferrers have said. This will save some time because I will not need to move Amendment 161. I take my noble friend Lord Elton's point about the wash-up; I intend only to make a constructive suggestion. I have made the point that in the new Parliament the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House should carry out an inquiry into wash-up, which would enable us to stand back, look at the whole issue and recommend how this ought to be addressed in the future. I think that that is the way forward.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I totally support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I merely note that, were it to be passed, we would be left in the company of murderers and rapists only. That may be disfranchisement and not really the place in which we want to find ourselves.
Lord Tyler: I record on behalf of my noble friends that we, too, support the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, as we have consistently on a number of occasions. It is most unfortunate that this has come at this juncture, but that is scarcely his fault. It is entirely the fault of the Government, who have left it to this very late stage. It is extraordinary that the Government see fit to respond to the concerns of the Daily Mail rather than to obey the Court.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, which has been about two things: the addition to the Bill which the amendment proposes-it is not in the Bill, but is an amendment to it; and the Constitution Committee and the wash-up generally.
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