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Friday, October 28, 2011

David Lidington the Minister for Europe misleads Parliament, etc

David Lidington the Minister for Europe misleads Parliament, etc

David Lidington the Minister for Europe misleads Parliament

Hansard 27 Oct 2011 : Column 507

Sir Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm a bit of information? As he touched on earlier, there are about 800 million people, comprising 47 nations, in the greater European area. I hope that he will confirm for Members on both sides of the House that, on all the judgments that the Court has made so far, this country has never refused to endorse the Court’s findings.

Mr Lidington: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right.

27 Oct 2011 : Column 522

Mr Walter:...My third point concerns the competence of the Court and its relationship with national Parliaments and sovereign member states. That the House debated and voted overwhelmingly against prisoner voting rights showed that we in this country feel that somebody committed to jail for an indictable offence should have their voting rights taken away while in prison. That is at variance with the judgment of the Court. I am not a lawyer, but in my view it is absolutely right that a court can sentence somebody to prison and so deny their liberty in several areas. In sentencing them to prison, we are not infringing most of their convention rights—for example, we are not infringing their right to life or imposing on them inhuman and degrading treatment. Instead, we are deciding to deny them certain liberties—for example, by not allowing them to go home to their family every night, we are denying them the right to a family life.

Mr Binley: Do the people sent to prison not have the choice about whether they go to prison, and should that not be a major consideration? Furthermore, is this not a constitutional right, rather than a human right? I know that that takes us on to aspects of law, but these are the things that make people very angry.

Mr Walter: Of course, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the point that we are making. We could have a wider debate about why people commit crimes and why they go to prison, but my specific point is about the denial of liberty and what convention rights that denial of liberty impinges on. It is accepted that some rights in the convention can legitimately be denied. I am interested that Mr Hirst, when he went to Strasbourg, did not say that he was being denied the right to a family life by being in prison and ask why he could not have his wife and children there. He picked on one emotive issue—his voting and democratic rights—but I think that it is absolutely right that this Parliament decide the voting rights of prisoners, and if it decides that prisoners should not have a vote, so be it. That is part of our national sovereignty. It is a matter for national legislatures, not the Court.

Priti Patel:...This situation is made even more challenging to our democracy because no real mechanisms are in place for Parliament to reverse these European Court judgments.

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Michael Connarty: I have been listening to the hon. Lady expand on her point. I think she has got the matter wrong. When the European Court of Human Rights makes a judgment, it passes it back to the country of origin, which must then make proposals to try to fit in with that judgment. I understand that there is no intention on the part of the Government—supported by the Opposition, I hope—to give up their right in this matter entirely. They are being asked to define in which circumstances it is appropriate for someone to be not only incarcerated but deprived of their right to vote.

Priti Patel: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks.

In February we debated the sovereignty and decision making of this House in relation to a particular judgment. By refusing to accept the sovereignty of our Parliament and the democratic decision making of this House, Europe is demonstrating a lack of legitimacy and democratic accountability, which I find astonishing given that the Council of Europe was established precisely to promote democracy. Therefore, in my view, attacking our Parliament and seeking to undermine our democracy is simply counter-productive.

The prisoner votes issue is just one well-known example of the problem—and it is still ongoing...

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a number of excellent points. Does she agree that the human rights of violent criminals and terrorists are too often being put ahead of the human rights of law-abiding British subjects? She is right to draw attention to that.

Priti Patel: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point so clearly and succinctly. Our chairmanship of the Council of Europe is coming up and this is a big opportunity for us to address, if nothing else, the perception issues and the fact that we need to remain vigilant on these matters to ensure that powers and decision making stay in this country.

27 Oct 2011 : Column 530

In pulling my remarks together, I wish to emphasise to the Minister and the Government that there are issues to be addressed. Britain is signed up to a range of international agreements on human rights-related matters, which are all welcome and important. However, decisions on human rights laws must be brought back home, because having British courts interpreting British laws is a better and more democratic position than having European judges and their officials ignoring our national interest. It is unhelpful and counter-productive for them to be foisting their particular laws on us.

It is time to draw a line in the sand on many of these matters, and to free up our courts, our public bodies and, in particular, Parliament from some of the excessive intrusion and integration on human rights matters that we have seen. I hope that, through the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the Government will take this opportunity to address these matters, in addition to the areas of priority that the Minister outlined.

27 Oct 2011 : Column 534

Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con):...Many of those countries, France in particular, are preaching to the United Kingdom and trying to tell us that we must give prisoners voting rights. We had that debate in this Chamber and reached a sovereign decision as a sovereign Parliament. I explained that in person to the Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, the last time we were in Strasbourg. I said, “Tom, you must understand that this is a sovereign Parliament. This is not a Government decision, but a decision taken in the House of Commons by elected Members. We have decided that we do not believe that we have a duty to give convicted prisoners voting rights.” While that is an issue, we are told that other countries can hold citizens without trial for very long periods in breach of the convention.

I would like my right hon. Friend to take to the chairmanship and to Ministers this clear issue and say that we will not budge one inch until every country holding any citizen for an indeterminate period without trial has complied properly with the convention.

27 Oct 2011 : Column 535

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend regret as I do the fact that, notwithstanding the Forfeiture Act 1870, which established the will of this House in respect of prisoner votes, and the emphatic vote in February, which made clear to Ministers and to the Court itself the settled view of the House, there has been only a suspension of the Court’s judgment on the UK situation with respect to Greens and M.T., as a result of an Italian case, and that the Court has not accepted the will of this House to decide that we are correct and will not give the franchise to convicted felons?

Mr Gale: I have already made my view abundantly plain: I regret the situation very much indeed. If there is any case to be made, it can only be this: a person on remand might be considered to have the right to vote, because they have not been convicted. I cannot have my cake and eat it, because, if I want people to have a fair trial and to be tried in a timely fashion, I have to concede that if people have not been convicted, they should arguably have the right to vote—but that is all.

27 Oct 2011 : Column 538

Bob Stewart: I have a question because I am slightly ignorant on the procedures. If a judgment came back to this House and this House decided that it would not accept it, where do we stand then?

Michael Connarty: That is a very important question. If the Government should bring back a proposal on, for example, whether prisoners in custody should have voting rights, and we decided that we did not wish to accept it, we could reject it. They would have to come back again to try to put another proposal, and I presume negotiations would go on between the Committee of Ministers, particularly with our chairmanship in the next six months, to find something that would be suitable, and that would be correct. However, I believe—this is my own judgment—that if we got to the point where we said, “No, we refuse to implement this”, then there must be some question about whether we want to remain in the Council of Europe at all.

Mr Binley: The hon. Gentleman is a very dedicated member of the Parliamentary Assembly, and it is a pleasure to work with him. Does he recognise that at the end of the day the judgment goes to the Council of Ministers, and that equally at the end of the day they have no powers of enforcement? I relate that to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale): nothing can be done, and therein lies one of the problems.

Michael Connarty: I think that is correct in what I have seen of the Council of Europe. It can make judgments, it can put down statements, people can support those statements, and they can be transmitted through the Committee of Ministers to the representatives of all the countries who send a representative to that Committee. One of the reasons I am quite a strong supporter of the European Union is that it can bring in directives, and has done so, as I shall mention later, in areas which are close to my heart and to the logic of why I am here as a representative of the people of my constituency. It has an enforceable power, mainly tied up with the economic power that lies in the EU rather than just the Court of Justice. But yes, I think that there is a need for a much more diligent pursuit of the matters raised by the hon. Member for North Thanet.

27 Oct 2011 : Column 568

5.34 pm

Mr Lidington: With the leave of the House, Mr Speaker...

As has emerged during the debate, there is a range of views about how human rights are best protected, and about the respective roles of national authorities and the European Court of Human Rights. That is, of course, one of the issues that we intend to address during our chairmanship. The principle that we will advance is that national authorities of member states—their Governments, legislatures and courts—have the primary responsibility to guarantee and protect human rights at a national level. The role of the European Court of Human Rights is subsidiary in achieving those objectives...

However, it is important to note that the corollary of the principle is proper implementation of the convention by national authorities. Of course the United Kingdom should still be subject to judgments of the Strasbourg court, but the court should not normally need to intervene in cases that have already been properly considered by national courts applying the convention.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of the UK’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

27 Oct 2011 : Column 575

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