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Baroness Byford: My Lords, I may have confused the Minister. There are two separate issues. The ice-cream farmer is in this country; this has nothing to do with France. I hope that Hansard will show that I have not misled the noble Lord.
I repeat my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, and to everyone who has taken part in the debate. I repeat the assurances that the Government greatly value the contribution of small businesses. I hope that we have shown that we intend to do not only as much as reasonably possible but sometimes as much as unreasonably possible to improve the prospects for small business in this country in every way we can.
Lord Vinson: My Lords, at this latish hour in the evening I know your Lordships would not wish me to open up too many of the points made in the debate. We have had such a good-natured debate that it would be wrong for me to raise any particularly contentious points.
We have much to learn from the American scene and how the Americans interpret and enforce regulations. I wish to make it quite clear that I recognise that there is a place for regulation; however, I do not recognise that there is a place for overregulation.
I am fond of looking to America because we have so much to learn. It is always 20 years ahead in terms of its economic and often legislative development. I once saw a sign outside a town in the mid-west which said, "As you come to our town here, please remember that a smile is a curve that helps straighten out a lot of things".
We have had a good-humoured debate but behind it has been a heartfelt and deeply experienced expression of the realities of the world. I welcomed the Minister's sympathetic summing up, but there is one point I would like to leave with the Government Front Bench. When we talk about SMEs we muddle together--the muddle has been made by a number of speakers today--firms employing 500 people with firms employing one. They are totally different animals and legislation should and must be framed to recognise that fact. The global expression "SME" means nothing when it is related to the realities of the precise size of the firm on the ground. The self-employed person taking on one man and thereby turning himself or herself into an employer is a critical point that legislation should examine.
I thank noble Lords for the great support we have had today. I hope that many of the good ideas that have been put forward will be taken on board and digested by the Government. I know that they have at heart the welfare of this very important sector. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will reconsider their refusal to make available the international remedies for breaches by the United Kingdom of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1996), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman
The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may thank in advance noble Lords who will participate in this debate. I am sure that its quality will be in inverse proportion to the number of noble Lords participating.
The United Kingdom is bound by several important international human rights covenants and conventions. The Attlee Government ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951. The first Wilson Government ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1969. The second Wilson Government ratified the two International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Cultural and Social Rights in 1976. The Thatcher Government ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1986 and the Convention against Torture in 1988 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991.
These decisions to become bound by those human rights instruments had to overcome strong objections within Whitehall. They were made because enlightened Ministers and their advisers were committed to the effective international protection of human rights and because there was the necessary political will.
The decision to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights was made most reluctantly by the Attlee Government and only on condition that the UK would not accept the jurisdiction of the European Commission and Court of Human Rights to deal with individual complaints of breaches of the convention by the United Kingdom.
The historic decision by Harold Wilson's Government in December 1965 to allow British cases to go to Strasbourg was taken after a full year of debate within Whitehall. The decision to ratify the two UN covenants in 1976 was taken in the face of strong resistance from within the Cabinet and again only on the basis that complaints of breaches of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights would not be permitted to be made to the UN Human Rights Committee.
Similarly, successive British Governments have also refused to accept the jurisdiction of the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Committee Against Torture to deal with individual complaints of breaches by the United Kingdom.
When the new Labour Government won power two years ago, I and many others, in our innocence, hoped for a change of heart. We hoped and believed that Tony Blair's Government would not only introduce the long overdue legislation to make the European Convention on Human Rights enforceable in British courts, but would also follow the example of the other 14 member states of the European Union, of the great majority of the member states of the Council of Europe and of Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, by accepting that British complainants could take their cases to the
But when at last the Government announced the results of their labours on 3rd March 1999, our hopes were dashed. Instead of seizing the opportunity to enhance the human rights protections offered by these instruments, the Government merely said that they would "look again" at the issue,
Deferring decisions on the acceptance of the international complaints mechanisms until convention rights really are brought home means that the people of this country will have to wait several more years until the Government decide whether at last to take the modest but important step of accepting the competence of the Human Rights Committee to give redress for breaches of the covenant. They will also have to wait for the Government to accept the competence of the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Committee Against Torture (CAT) to be able to give redress.
The Government's excuse for further delay does not bear close scrutiny. In a Written Answer on 31st March 1999 the Minister explained, as he will probably do in his reply to this debate--and I sympathise with the task he will have--that,
To avoid an unnecessary duplication, the Government could follow the example of other European countries by accepting the right of petition under the covenant only for complaints that cannot be dealt with under the European Convention on Human Rights. My noble friend Lord Dholakia will have something to say on the important issues relating to racial discrimination. As regards racial discrimination and torture, complaints can be made to the Human Rights Committee, the CERD or the CAT only after all effective domestic remedies have been exhausted. The domestic remedies rule acts as an effective filter to reduce the likely number of cases that would be taken against the United Kingdom in these international fora. The experience of the many European and Commonwealth countries that have accepted the right of petition under the covenant shows that the caseload is perfectly manageable. Yet in some way, apparently what the Germans, Italians, French and the rest of the European Union can accept is unacceptable to Her Majesty's Government.
Because of the Government's procrastination, the UK remains in unsplendid isolation as the only member of the European Union that has not accepted the right of individual petition under the covenant. The covenant and the convention are complementary, rather than conflicting. The Council of Europe, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated here last Wednesday, has encouraged the ratification of both instruments since the 1970s. Within the 40-strong, now 41-strong, Council of Europe, the UK remains with only Albania, Andorra, Moldova, Switzerland and Turkey outside the covenant's individual rights mechanism.
The covenant contains several rights which are not in the European convention. It contains children's rights, voting rights and a right of access to public services on an equal basis. It also contains rights for ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities and very specific rights on what are the humane standards of treatment for detainees (unlike the European convention which is not as detailed). Most importantly, the covenant contains a free-standing right to be free of arbitrary and unfair discrimination without restriction. There, I suspect, is the rub for the Home Office and other departments.
Acceptance of the right of individual petition would enable individuals to seek a remedy for discrimination on grounds currently not forbidden by UK law--for example, on grounds of religion, in Britain, or sexual orientation or age--and without the restrictions on the right to equal treatment contained in Article 14 of the European convention. That is what happened in the case of Australia, where Tasmania had discrimination based on sexual orientation. A complaint went to the UN Human Rights Committee and, as a result, legislation was enacted to give effect to its opinion.
It is in this area that there is the most significant gap in practice between covenant and convention rights. I am sorry to say this as well: Work is currently being done by a Council of Europe committee of experts to fill the gap between the covenant and the convention
Very sadly, I have come to the conclusion that the main reason for the Government's continued denial of the right of individual petition, at least with respect to the covenant, is that they do not want breaches of the right to equality and non-discrimination to be dealt with at an international level by the body established by the covenant for this purpose: the UN Human Rights Committee. It is not some kangaroo court. The Human Rights Committee of 18 distinguished jurists is a most eminent body. Indeed, in many ways the quality and qualifications of those who are on the committee are at least equivalent to those of the European Court of Human Rights. One of the most distinguished and long-serving members, Professor Rosalyn Higgins, is the wife of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. She is now the British judge on the International Court of Justice.
Acceptance of the right of individual petition would, in the words of Dame Rosalyn Higgins, take the covenant "out of the shadows" and make it a more significant source of United Kingdom law. A few rulings by the Human Rights Committee in British cases would also encourage British courts and administrators to take the covenant more seriously, enhancing its standard-setting nature and reinforcing the covenant's role as a universal yardstick for respecting human rights. That would also contribute to an ethical foreign policy in which we were able to set a good example to other countries.
The covenant and the conventions are important standard-setting instruments of universal human rights. It is a great disappointment that the new Labour Government, like their predecessors, continue to block victims' use of the international mechanisms available for the protection of human rights. It sets a very bad example abroad. It weakens the effectiveness of international human rights law, and it denies victims of alleged breaches the opportunity to assert their case before an international body of jurists, such as the Human Rights Committee, for an effective remedy. If the Government will not bring home all the rights guaranteed by those instruments, by incorporating them into domestic law, they could at least allow the rights to be exercised on the international plane, as did Harold Wilson's Government from 1st January 1966 in relation to the convention. I hope that the Government will reconsider the case for doing so soon so that we can celebrate with them next year.
"Time ... is like the medlar; it has a trick of going rotten before it is ripe".
My noble friend's record on race relations is unique. I remember his contribution in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when, as a member of CARD, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, he did much work to bring about awareness of the extent of racial discrimination in this country. I remember that he promoted the first Anglo-American conference in 1967, which was chaired by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Michael Ramsey, and which was the forerunner in establishing comprehensive race relations legislation in this country.
It was no surprise to many of us that when my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead was Home Secretary my noble friend Lord Lester was appointed his special adviser. The 1976 Race Relations Act bears the hallmark of his efforts in this field. When we add to this his record on human rights we see that he should be listened to with great respect, because he makes sense on matters of equality of opportunity and the elimination of all forms of discrimination.
Let me stress what we all know. The United Kingdom has signed, but not ratified, several important protocols to the International Convention, which enhance the protection of human rights. It should therefore be no surprise to anyone that without ratification those protocols remain non-binding on the United Kingdom. That has left us without international remedy. What we now do is to submit periodic reports on the legislative, judicial and other measures that the Government have taken in order to give effect to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In other words, where British legislation is silent we are left without international remedy.
The international convention we are all talking about is the great theme based on the United Nations Charter and other instruments, both national and international, concerned with human rights and civil liberties. The bottom line is about equality.
I simply want to concentrate on one issue: Part 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. I need not spell out all the details. It is sufficient to say that the term "racial discrimination" means any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference, based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, which has the purpose or
I must admit that we have a record in this area which is the envy of the western world. This is not denied. There has been a long, slow process of race legislation introduced in 1965, 1968 and 1976. It would be wrong not to admit that the Government are committed to the elimination of all forms of racism and to the development of policies which address racial discrimination, intolerance and violence. We all subscribe to a society in which every individual, whatever his or her racial or ethnic origin, is able to fulfil his or her potential through the enjoyment of equal rights, opportunities and responsibilities.
But, despite this enviable record, there are some crucial gaps in the way in which we tackle racial discrimination in this country. This is particularly so when discrimination surfaces in public bodies. Let me explain. The last Race Relations Act was passed in 1976. It established the Commission for Racial Equality and charged this body to eliminate racial discrimination and promote equality of opportunity. It has also been given the task of reviewing legislation to ensure that it is effective.
We all know that in the past 23 years the commission has reviewed and reported to the Government on three occasions about the inadequacies and flaws in the current legislation. One particular concern is the exemption granted to public services.
Of course, I am aware that as a response to the Macpherson inquiry, the Government are committed to removing this anomaly and bringing all public services within the scope of the race relations legislation. To the credit of the Home Secretary, he established the Macpherson inquiry which highlighted the extent of racism in one of our public services, the police. The previous Home Secretary steadfastly refused to order an inquiry despite the pleas made by the Lawrence family, the Commission for Racial Equality and a good number of other organisations. Of course, he was entitled to do that but if that attitude had prevailed and the same administration was in power now, would we have ever found out the extent of racism and racial discrimination, as highlighted in the Macpherson Report?
If, on the other hand, we had ratified several important protocols, there would have been an opportunity for individuals to submit complaints or communications to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. All the European Union member states, except the United Kingdom, allow for individual petitions to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. By not ratifying the protocol, the UK Government do not fully ensure that an effective remedy is provided to all victims of violations of the rights contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
I said earlier that it is now over two decades since Parliament put the Race Relations Act on the statute book. The Government's intention is not in doubt. It is implicitly to assert the right of all individuals to be free of discrimination and the positive value of good relations between different groups. The Commission for Racial Equality has argued on a number of occasions that the law falls short of this promise. Legal action and formal investigative powers have in most cases served as the trigger for change. There has been measurable progress in tackling discrimination over these two decades. The value of legislation has been well established. The vast majority in Britain supports an inclusive society, yet reality falls short of this vision. Inequality, prejudice and racial discrimination are still a reality in the lives of many people. The law as it stands today has several weaknesses as identified by the Commission for Racial Equality.
Perhaps I may cite them. It leaves many people who are aware that they have been racially discriminated against unable to secure justice. It provides no incentives to encourage institutions, public or private, to end discrimination and implement good practice. Although the Act properly raises the expectation that racial equality objectives are basic to the approach of Parliament and the Government, the Act does not in fact take precedence over other legislation: Parliament can continue to pass discriminatory legislation and important areas of government activity are exempt from the provisions of the Act. While the Act gives a duty to local authorities to have regard to the promotion of equality of opportunity in carrying out their functions, it leaves this duty unenforceable, with the result that it continues to be ignored, even flouted. Confusing and limited provisions for positive action mean that this is little practised. Since a House of Lords ruling in 1984, the commission faces obstacles in embarking on formal investigations which prevent it from using its power as effectively as Parliament originally intended.
I am aware of the Government's stance on these matters. The only confirmation we have so far is that all public services will be brought within the scope of the discrimination legislation. We need much more than that. Very shortly we will deal with asylum and immigration legislation. Immigration legislation is, by definition, discriminatory on grounds of nationality or citizenship. Since the case of R. v. Entry Clearance Officer Bombay, ex parte Amin (1983) it has not been possible to challenge immigration practices under the Race Relations Act. To give precedence to the Race Relations Act would mean that, in future, when new immigration legislation is likely also to be discriminatory on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic origin, this would need to be justified when it was proposed. But the indications given by the Government are that that is not on offer. It has been accepted that the actions of the Immigration Service, like those of the police and other public bodies, pertaining to racial discrimination will be subject to the provisions of the
There is another major anomaly. Religion is not covered by the Race Relations Act, except in Northern Ireland. Again in one of its reviews, the Commission for Racial Equality sought to open the debate on the need for legislation to prevent religious discrimination. What has been the Government's stance on that issue? Perhaps I may quote what the Government have said:
The point that I am trying to make is the importance of having an international remedy when our own legislation is lacking in its anti-discriminatory provisions. We should ensure that we have ratified important protocols which will enhance the protection of human rights. We cannot claim a proud record on anti-discrimination issues if the international remedy is denied to individuals.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, has once again done us a service in drawing our attention to these matters. He set out the history of the various covenants and conventions in some detail. He has great expertise in, and enthusiasm for, these causes and he has shown this over a number of years. I shall not try in any way to match his expertise--and, as will become clear, I do not entirely share his enthusiasm.
In short, I think that the Government are right not to rush these matters. They are right to consider them most carefully. No doubt in due course they will come forward with proposals to Parliament in this area, but I do not want to be counted among those who would press them to do so before they feel that they are ready.
My main experience in this area comes from my time as a Minister in Northern Ireland, with particular responsibility for the security situation. At that time, we faced a small number of very determined and extremely sophisticated terrorists who used the most vicious methods, partly to prevent their members being successfully prosecuted and brought before the law. They succeeded in making the proper working of the law very difficult indeed. They also used every
The Northern Ireland conflict is sometimes represented as a religious struggle which might fall within the terms of religious discrimination. It is not a religious struggle in the sense of being about religious controversy or doctrine. Indeed, the Churches on all sides have condemned the terrorists of their own persuasion as well as other terrorists of apparently different religious persuasions, and asked them not to pursue their methods. I do not believe that in any real sense it is a religious struggle, but it could certainly be represented as such. Frequently, in a form of shorthand, it is represented as a religious struggle in the newspapers and in comment. It is this kind of misuse of the powers which should make the Government reflect very carefully on what they are doing.
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