'The Secretary of State shall, before making an order under section 22(3) of this Act—
- (a) provide guidance to public authorities on the steps which they need to take to comply with section 6 of this Act,
- (b) consult public authorities, and such other bodies and persons as he may consider appropriate, on the most effective long term arrangement for providing public authorities, and persons who may wish to exercise their rights under section 7 of this Act, with advice and assistance on their respective responsibilities and rights under this Act,
- (c) include within that consultation the options for establishing a Human Rights Commission to fulfil those functions, and
- (d) inform Parliament of the outcome of that consultation:—[Dr. Tony Wright.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I move the new clause because I hope that the House will think it important and worth while. Also, it enables Members who are not lawyers to join in the debate, which is always refreshing during proceedings on this Bill.
As we reach the closing stages of this important Bill, the question is whether any gaps remain to be filled—gaps that might prevent the Bill from delivering its potential. We believe that there are such gaps, and seek, tentatively, to fill them by means of the new clause. It argues that, for the Bill to be effective, it will need some underpinning which is not in place and will not be unless the Government put it there. This is the moment when they should do so. They have put such support in place for every previous similar human rights measure—for example, with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality—that has extended and strengthened human rights.
In each of those cases, albeit 20 years ago, it was believed that some institutional structure should be put in place to ensure that the rights being enshrined in a Bill would be operational in practice. It was necessary to ensure that people could access the rights and that something would happen after the House had passed the measure. That legislation was given the necessary institutional support, and it is crucial for a similar approach to be taken with this measure.
It is crucial, too, that prevention issues be dealt with; for example, how we can prevent cases from even arising by developing good practice in public bodies and private bodies charged with public functions. How can we promote access to justice? How can we advise and assist the people who might benefit from the provisions of the Bill? How can we promote awareness of human rights and develop a real human rights culture in this country? How can we scrutinise draft legislation to ensure that it is consistent with the convention and with other human rights obligations to which this country has signed up? How can we advise Government and Parliament? The latter will need an independent source of advice, and this is our opportunity to ensure that it is put in place. For a range of reasons, it is essential at this late stage in the passage of the Bill that we insert a provision to ensure that all that can happen.
The new clause would provide the support that the Bill requires. As hon. Members may see, it asks the Government to take three steps prior to the Act's coming into force. The first step will be to provide guidance to public authorities on the steps that they need to take to ensure that they comply with the Act.
Everyone who has looked at the Bill knows that it has momentous implications for all public authorities and all private bodies that exercise public functions. The Government accepted that both in this House and in the other place. Indeed, in the other place there was talk of a transformation that would need to occur in the behaviour of public bodies.
1313 It is not difficult to assemble a long list of the issues that public bodies may have to face as a consequence of the Bill. The current issue of Local Government Chronicle carries the dramatic headline "Human rights Act unleashes legal deluge", and contains a long list of the Bill's legal implications for local authorities. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary spoke about exaggerated rhetoric and perhaps the article is over the top, but it is not difficult to assemble a wholly convincing list of matters about which public bodies may be required to respond.
The Institute for Public Policy Research drew up such a list after a series of conferences between practitioners in different fields. It shows—I shall only dip into it—under which articles of the convention public bodies may have to respond. The cases that could arise for health authorities, for example, include, under article 2:inadequate steps taken to protect/save a life—shortage of resources may be no defence—eg Health Authority's refusal to fund expensive treatment for a child because it would only prolong his life a few months—or for an elderly person … failure to prevent death or injury by providing a senior/experienced enough doctor to carry out an operation … that turning off a life support system for someone in a vegetative state denied his/her right to life … that a foetus's right to life should override a woman's refusal to have a caesarean section".Cases that may arise for local authorities include, under article 2:failure to protect the public from known and avoidable dangers—eg a local authority which failed to exercise its enforcement powers against a known polluter".Cases that may arise under article 8 include apublic landlord's failure to repair or maintain a home—or all of the homes within an estate … local authority's failure to issue an abatement and enforcement notice against a creator of a statutory nuisance—bad neighbour factory in a residential area".An article 3 case may arise because ofany treatment in residential homes/institutions of the elderly, mentally ill, homeless, young people, asylum seekers, remand prisoners (for example) which could be considered degrading".The list identifies cases that Government Departments may have to face, such as, under article 8,refusal to allow children conceived by artificial reproduction to know the identity of their birth parents … deportation of a parent which effectively denies a child the right to family life".An article 3 case that could arise would bedegrading treatment by a public official".The list mentions education authorities and schools. Under protocol 1, a case could arise concerningwhether a school's decision to expel a child was proportionate to his/her behaviour".A case ofwhether the suspension of a pupil for writing a critical article about the school in a local paper denied his/her right to education and his/her right to freedom of expressioncould arise under protocol 1 and article 10.
One can, without any difficulty, compile an extraordinarily long list of cases that will land on the desks of public authorities. Those of us who have supported the measure and who have long wanted to bring 1314 rights home must not allow the House to be misled about the scale and impact on public bodies of the proposals. We must ask from whom public authorities will obtain the guidance that they will need to know whether they are complying with the Bill. Where is the agency that will provide the public bodies with the help that they will need?
When the race and equal opportunities legislation was enacted, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission were established precisely to provide such guidance for the bodies that would be covered and for the individuals who believed that their rights had been infringed. The commissions were the support mechanisms that underpinned the legislation. As a human rights commission has not been established to fulfil such a function in respect of this Bill, the implications for public authorities are far greater.
Senior lawyers who have been providing training on the implications of the Bill over the past weeks—mostly under the auspices of Justice—have drawn attention to cases of medical negligence, personal injury, environmental health and nuisance, family law, privacy and mental health. They have based their judgments on the cases that have been taken successfully to the European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights.
Not only will public bodies need advice prior to the Bill's enactment on the steps that they will have to take to avoid unnecessary litigation; they will also have a continuing need for advice as the case law develops—for example, on how, under article 3, the courts are defining degrading treatment or, under article 8, people's homes and correspondence and the scope of the right to respect private and family life.
Private bodies will urgently need guidance on the definition of public function so that they know whether they are covered by the legislation. Large public authorities and companies may rightly be expected to pay for legal advice, but it is unreasonable to expect voluntary organisations—such as Barnyards, which will be centrally involved in the operation of the measure, or bodies that provide residential care for education—to do so.
The new clause was designed to focus attention on prevention—how we can prevent cases being brought by ensuring that public authorities are behaving as they should. We cannot assume that the Bill's enactment will in itself lead to the culture of awareness to which we all look forward. In the absence of a human rights commission or a similar mechanism, the Government will need to be active in approaching the wide range of organisations to which the Bill applies so that the legislation leads to the desired change in culture rather than to a series of avoidable and expensive cases in the courts. Some training has begun, but there will have to be much more. A concerted and coherent programme is needed, and that must come from an agency that is provided for in the Bill.
The new clause would also require the Government to consult interested parties on the most effective long-term arrangements through which to provide guidance to public authorities and advice and assistance to individuals who believe that their rights have been infringed. In the White Paper and in subsequent debates, the Government have said that they are not convinced that a human rights commission is essential to the successful implementation 1315 of the Bill and that they want a greater consensus on the functions and structure of such a body before they legislate. However, it is clear from that that some arrangement is needed to provide continuing assistance to public bodies and individuals.
Paragraph (b) of the new clause would ensure that the Government take the lead in finding out what the most effective arrangements would be. The Government have, in a sense, conceded that there will need to be such arrangements, and the clause asks them to consult on that and to make those arrangements an integral part of the Bill.
Since the Bill was last debated in the House, the Northern Ireland Bill has been introduced, with its provision for a human rights commission in Northern Ireland. That body will have a responsibility to advise and assist individuals taking cases under the Human Rights Act. That assistance will be available whether a case raises issues related to Northern Ireland's particular problems, or issues which could equally have arisen in Britain, such as infringements of privacy or of the right to education. Such assistance will not be available to people living in Britain, with the exception of disabled people, who will be able to seek assistance from the proposed disability rights commission. Whether it is fair that people in Northern Ireland should have access to such support when people in Britain do not is surely a matter on which, at the very least, the Government should consult.
The Northern Ireland Office does not expect the human rights commission in Belfast to provide guidance to public bodies on their new responsibilities under the Human Rights Act, on the grounds that the provision of such guidance for public bodies throughout the UK will be the responsibility of the Home Office. That therefore leaves a gap.
Finally, there is the third step which the clause asks the Government to take in order to inform Parliament of the outcome of the consultation exercise that they have been invited to put in hand. On a number of occasions, the Government have suggested that Parliament should establish a human rights committee, and have proposed that the committee's first inquiry could be into the question of a human rights commission. We do not know when such a committee is to be established. The House has not considered it, and such a committee is clearly not in place.
It would be appropriate for that committee, if and when it is in place, to be informed of the outcome of the Government's consultation on the kind of arrangements that they think are appropriate and necessary for the Bill, so that it can then consider the issue and in turn make its own recommendation. If the Government fail to take the lead in conducting such a consultation exercise, there will inevitably be a long delay before the human rights committee could give the Government its view—a delay at the very moment when public bodies are in most need of the kind of support that the Act will mean they require.
During that time, the Government would have to be the principal source of guidance to public bodies, and individuals in Britain will have no statutory body to which they can turn for advice and assistance in taking cases under the Act.
Furthermore, it is my firm belief, based upon some little experience of the ombudsman model in Britain—it works well because a committee of the House, of the kind which 1316 has been proposed with the human rights committee, is linked to an external agency—that such a model is needed here if the measure is to be effective. It is because the ombudsman's office and the committee here work in partnership that the model is so effective. One is not a substitute for the other: they should properly be seen as complementary.
I have no desire to invite the Government to invent another quango. I am a fully paid-up member of the quango hunters club, and I have a track record to prove it. A body is only invented when there is a task to be done. I am persuaded—it is a view shared by almost every organisation that has been consulted on the matter—that for the Bill to be effective it will require some underpinning machinery, and that is what the clause affords. If the answer is to be, which it has, albeit obliquely, been, that all machinery is expensive, there is a moment when we have to decide whether we believe in something. If we do and we want it to be effective, it must be sustained and not be trumped by the Treasury saying, "It will cost tuppence ha'penny so we must not have it."
When Back Benchers are being difficult, they always say that they are being helpful, but I intend to be helpful here. New clause 3 is entirely in the spirit of everything that the Government have previously said about the measure. They have talked about the need for further machinery to support the Bill, they have said that they are not persuaded about a particular model—the human rights commission—but that they want to explore the matter further and want the relevant bodies to come to a view. The need for that is still there. The clause translates that acknowledgement of need into some mechanism for doing something about it.
The Bill, hugely important though it is, is only the beginning of a process which will strengthen and extend human rights in Britain. It needs some supporting machinery so that its potential can be fulfilled; the clause enables the Government to ensure that that happens.
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)
I am sure that the House will agree that we have just listened to a thoughtful speech by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). He has clearly given much thought to the consequences of the incorporation of the European convention and the way in which the Government have chosen to achieve that. The House will have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who takes a great interest in these matters. In many ways, he proceeds from the worthiest of motives. He seeks to uphold the human rights culture, as he puts it, and to give the Government advice on the best way to implement the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman gave a long and considered list of possible ways in which the human rights convention could give rise to legal action and, while all are in favour of upholding human rights, it is to be hoped that that will not be at the expense of a descent into sheer litigiousness, which did seem possible from what the hon. Gentleman was saying. We do not want to see the European convention cropping up in every nook and cranny of our relationships with others, but after listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech that seemed a possible outcome.
The hon. Gentleman proceeds from the worthiest of motives. He seeks to improve and underpin the Bill but, in doing so, he has exposed for all to see one of the glaring 1317 weaknesses in the Bill's structural foundation. There is much to be said for what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to require the Secretary of State to do—to consult about the Bill's implementation and to give long-term advice and assistance to public authorities—but what he proposes has one glaring problem which we have come up against time and again in our consideration of the Bill.
New clause 3 requires the Secretary of State to consult public authorities and to give them advice and assistance, but at this point no one can say who or what a public authority is. There is no list in the Bill. The Under-Secretary smiles. He is aware of the problems that this has caused, and he knows the point. It is there for all to see in the Bill. A public authority is a court or tribunal and any person some of whose functions are functions of a public nature.
As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said, that will include a wide range of organisations, persons and bodies who at this moment may not necessarily feel that they are public authorities. But any of those organisations, which may be private organisations for many purposes, when they carry out a function of a public nature may become a public authority, subject to the provisions of the European convention and therefore at risk of litigation for alleged breach of the convention. That will catch a wide range of organisations. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase gave some examples, and even mentioned charities such as Barnardos. A wide range of people could be brought within the ambit of the Bill.
It is difficult at this stage to say what a public authority is. That is the problem that the Government have come up against in the past. We can go back to a much earlier stage of the Bill and look at the view of an esteemed lawyer, someone who is much wiser than I am in these matters: none other than the Lord Chancellor. In another place he gave the considered opinion, when asked, that the Press Complaints Commission was not a public authority. He then received even more learned and distinguished legal advice—it came from one of my constituents who happens to be a lawyer, so I have to call it learned. That person told the Lord Chancellor that it was possible for the Press Complaints Commission to be a public authority. The Lord Chancellor then had to go back and say that he was wrong.
I am a great admirer of the Lord Chancellor. We are fortunate in having a Lord Chancellor who is so wise that it is good when he is right and even better when he is wrong. He said that it was marvellous for the Press Complaints Commission to be a public authority, because, as such, it would have all the protections available to it under the European convention.
That is an example of the problems that can arise. It is not only an esteemed legal authority such as the Lord Chancellor who has had some difficulty in saying what a public authority is. In another place, Lord Donaldson highlighted this as one of the problems of the Bill. He gave a long list of examples, rather like that given by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, as to what may or may not constitute a public authority. He referred to a public authority as anything that is an emanation of the state, any arm of local government or central Government, and courts and tribunals—they are in the Bill. But his list went on. He said that he believed that it could include the BBC, ITV and the press. He asked: 1318is Safeways conducting a business of a public nature?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 November 1997; Vol. 582, c. 1293.]He came to the conclusion that it probably was not, but he could not say why. A wide range of organisations and persons will be brought within the definition of a public authority.
We cannot support the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, because we cannot ask the Secretary of State to consult public authorities when it is difficult, if not impossible, to say what a public authority is. The words of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase contain a clear warning that many people should heed. There are many organisations and bodies which may think that they are perfectly private in what they do, but which may brought within the ambit of the Bill as a result of the way the Government have chosen to incorporate the European convention in our law. In the future, they may face all the problems and difficulties that come with litigation.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase is right to the extent that people need to be aware of the problem that will emerge as a result of the Government's whole approach to this matter.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) was right to draw attention to the wide consequences of the Bill and its broad impact on many aspects of public administration. He was right to draw attention to the need for advice to be made available. Before the election, the Government recognised that quite clearly, and put their hand to an agreement with the Liberal Democrats indicating that they would favour the establishment of a human rights commissioner or commission or a similar public body to discharge that responsibility. It is a matter of some disappointment that the Home Secretary has not felt able to continue the undertakings he gave before entering his high office.
The intellectual basis of the Home Secretary's objection to introducing a human rights commissioner or commission at this stage appears to rest upon the difficulty of reaching agreement about the form it might take, particularly as there are already a number of bodies in existence, to which the hon. Member for Cannock Chase referred in passing, in the context of race relations and equal opportunities, whose roles have not been defined.
Since the introduction of the Northern Ireland legislation and the provisions for setting up a commission in Northern Ireland to deal with exactly the functions in respect of Great Britain with which a human rights commission would be dealing, the basis for objection has disappeared. It seems to be boiling down to nothing more than a penny-pinching unwillingness to foot the bill of establishing a human rights commission. That may prove to be not only penny-pinching but pound foolish, since it is quite possible to envisage—the hon. Member for Cannock Chase did envisage this—that many people might embark upon litigation who might otherwise not do so. That could result in substantial public expenditure in answering cases that might, advisedly, not have been brought.
I have predicted that there will not be a landslide of litigation arising out of this Bill. I do not believe that there is so much action by public authorities or legislation on the statute book that runs foul of the human rights 1319 convention that we could anticipate the need for such a lot of litigation. However, people will try their hand, and they are more likely to do so if they are not given the sort of advice that would be available from bodies cognate to the European Commission of Human Rights and the Equal Opportunities Commission in the wider field of human rights.
It is clear that the House should view with sympathy the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase. I fear that he will not persuade the Government of the basic case for establishing a human rights commission at this stage, so his new clause does not seek to go down that route. It seeks to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to act in substitution for the role of a human rights commissioner.
I suggest that that might have some dangers for the legislation. I agree that the provision of advice and the provision of guidance to public authorities is necessary, but I do not think that that advice should be a prescription of law prior to the enactment of the legislation. There is some doubt at this stage as to the Government's intentions with respect to giving effect to the legislation. What is to be the operative date? When will the order be made under clause 22(3)? Will it be long delayed? I profoundly hope not.
The Government have put in train some work and have found some money to carry out a programme of judicial education on the consequences of the Bill becoming law. However, there can be no public policy merit in a long delay in giving effect to the will of Parliament that, as the Government's White Paper says, rights should be brought home.
I fear that, if we were to accept new clause 3, it could mean the Government embarking upon extensive consultations with public authorities before giving the date for implementation. If one is to follow the argument of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, that process would be extensive, with many bodies involved. It could lead to a great deal of uncertainty if the Government cannot provide legal advice about the effect of their legislation in this or any other area, in an authoritative and binding way. Governments are reluctant to do that, for example in taxation. We would not normally argue that a tax bill should not be implemented until its provisions have been fully understood by those to whom it may apply. The same must be said about this legislation: we cannot wait for the Government to provide advice before giving effect to the Bill.
Although I have considerable sympathy with the arguments outlined by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, and share his broad view about the necessity, if we are to avoid confusion and unnecessary public expenditure, of establishing a public body to fulfil the functions that he described, I cannot bring myself to suggest that the House would be wise to vote for new clause 3. He has, however, performed a valuable service in highlighting the potential problems and the need for the Government to address them. None the less, the manner in which he suggests they should be addressed is inappropriate.
I reaffirm my view and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends that the Government should commit themselves to the modest expenditure of establishing a human rights commission at an early date.
§ 6 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)
I think that this is the first intervention that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has made in the parliamentary proceedings on this Bill. I welcome his speech, which he delivered with his customary eloquence, and, most importantly, his "non-lawyerly" eloquence. We must all pay heed to his theme of consultation and guidance if we are to ensure that the Bill is a success.
Clause 22(3) provides for most of the Bill's provisions to be brought into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint. New clause 3 would require the Secretary of State to carry out certain actions before making such an order. One is to provide guidance to public authorities on what they need to do to avoid breaching people's convention rights under the Bill. In general, our laws and procedures comply with the convention. When in the past they have been found by the European Court of Human Rights not to do so, successive Administrations have had a good record of taking action to bring them into line. However, the Bill will render alleged breaches of the convention rights liable to challenge much more easily and quickly in our domestic courts.
We agree that Government Departments and other public authorities should review their legislation and procedures for compatibility with the convention, and consider what amendments are feasible. We are considering ways of providing guidance to help that process along. We shall issue a guidance booklet on the Bill, and provide an overview of the Bill and the convention rights. It will provide advice to help Government Departments and other public authorities comply with their obligations under the Bill. Drafting is at an early stage, but we hope to issue the guidance early in the new year.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will say a little more about our implementation plans when he moves Third Reading shortly. Those will include the establishment of a task force of non-governmental organisations and Government representatives, which will help the Government to prepare for implementation. It is unnecessary to insert in the Bill a provision that expressly requires the Government to provide guidance. No one doubts that guidance is needed before the legislation can begin to operate.
We have reservations about another of my hon. Friend's proposals—to consult on the most effective long-term arrangements, including the options for establishing a human rights commission, to provide advice and assistance to public authorities and those whose convention rights might be breached by their actions.
We do not object to consultation on the human rights convention. Indeed, we would want to encourage discussion on the issue, because there is a lack of consensus, as the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) said. That is evidenced in recent documents, such as the book published only last week by the Institute for Public Policy Research, which presents markedly different proposals from those that will operate in Northern Ireland. Thus there is a wide debate yet to be had.
1321 The important point is that the Secretary of State would be prevented from enacting the Bill until he had consulted on the options for a human rights commission. As the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, that could be a prolonged process, particularly if a parliamentary committee on human rights wished to consider the matter. We could not guarantee when it would publish the results of its consideration. It might wish to take evidence, or want the matter to be the subject of a much wider public debate. Implementation of the legislation would therefore have to hang on the completion of that.
As we made clear in the White Paper "Rights Brought Home", which we published last year, our priority is our manifesto commitment to give effect to the convention rights in our domestic law. Establishing a human rights commission in Great Britain is not central to that objective, which is why it does not form part of the Bill.
Before taking the matter further, we want to see how the Bill operates in practice, and to give the proposed parliamentary committee on human rights an opportunity to examine the detailed issues surrounding the establishment of a commission in Great Britain. We do not have a closed mind on the issue of a human rights commission; on the contrary, we want to encourage a healthy debate on it. However, tying the Bill's implementation to some form of statutory consultation would not be helpful, but would merely tie the Secretary of State's hands.
We already know that there is far from being a consensus on this matter. The Equal Opportunities Commission has its own views on its future and how it might tie into a human rights commission. The Commission for Racial Equality has somewhat ambivalent views and has shifted one way and another on the matter. It now seems to suggest that it is in favour, but it is a somewhat lukewarm view. The IPPR' s proposals envisage a federal structure involving the CRE and the EOC being part of a human rights commission while operating independently on equal opportunities issues. The way in which any structure would work is still vague, and we do not know whether it would bring benefits. Much more discussion is needed.
The passing of the Bill will do much that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase seeks. He seeks access to human rights; the Bill will provide that access for ordinary individuals in our courts. He seeks to develop a human rights culture; the Bill will provide the basis for developing that culture in our country.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) rehearsed some of the arguments on definitions of public authorities. If he will forgive me, I shall not pursue him down that route, because the House has already discussed the issue at length. However, I wish to touch on a couple of points made by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. He said—I have some sympathy with his view—that he did not share the fears of the hon. Member for Hertsmere or the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase that there will be a landslide of litigation. There will be a settling-in period in which the courts will have to resolve a number of issues, but I, too, do not anticipate a massive landslide 1322 which will overwhelm the courts, or anything like that. The fears on that account are, as we shall see in due course, likely to be unfounded.
We must start to develop a discussion on these issues. I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase that, somehow, the Bill will fail or be less of a success without a human rights commission. There has been criticism that the Bill will fail to achieve the Government's objectives unless it has what my hon. Friend described as the "underpinning" of a human rights commission. We do not accept that. The purpose of the Bill is to give access to convention rights in our courts, rather than people having to incur the cost and delay of going to Strasbourg.
Remedies will be nearer home, and I believe that people will seek them. They will not lack advice. There is tremendous interest in the Bill among non-governmental organisations, the legal profession and academics. I have not the slightest doubt that learned books on how the Bill will affect everyone will be published shortly after it is passed. The result will be the beginning of the strong development of a human rights culture in this country.
A commission is not essential to ensure compliance with convention rights by the Government or public authorities, or to ensure that Parliament can properly carry out its functions of scrutinising legislation. The Bill provides for Ministers to make statements about the compatibility of Government Bills with convention rights, which we believe will enhance the scrutiny of such Bills within the Government. We have also said that we would support the creation of a parliamentary human rights committee with a range of functions relating to human rights.
There are a number of sources of advice, and the fears expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase about lack of advice will not come to pass. The Bill will deliver what the Government intend. The issue of the human rights commission can be resolved later; there needs to be greater consensus before we move on that. I hope that my hon. Friend will not seek to tie the hands of the Government by pressing the new clause. In view of what I have said, I ask him to withdraw it.
§ Dr. Tony Wright
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. He said at the outset that this is my first intervention during the passage of the Bill. Indeed it is. Until this point, I had believed, perhaps mistakenly, that I was constrained, as parliamentary private secretary to a Minister closely associated with the Bill, from taking part. If that is not the case, it is good news. As is well known, parliamentary private secretaries are the castrati of political life. I am enjoying having my vital organs returned to me, which explains the nature of my remarks.
§ Mr. O'Brien
If my hon. Friend had been constrained, or thought that he had been constrained, in any way, the House would have missed his contribution, which I very much welcome. We are all the better for it.
§ Dr. Wright
That is enough mutual flattery, but I agree with my hon. Friend about one thing: lots of learned books will be published. There is no question that the Bill is good news for academics and terribly good news for lawyers—there will be lots of trade. The point of the new clause is to show that citizens are involved, too, and that 1323 public bodies will be affected by the Bill. We need to provide assistance for them, and they need to get part of the action, too.
I am slightly puzzled by what the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) said, because there was an agreement between my party and his that we were committed to a human rights commission. Whatever else the new clause does, it keeps the door open on the idea of such a commission, which his remarks would close. I am puzzled, not for the first time, by what Liberal Democrats say. Although I am one of those who are always in favour of co-operative politics, I sometimes find theory easier than practice.
What my hon. Friend the Minister said about setting up a task force is interesting. We know that we like task forces—we have a great proclivity for them, and they are useful institutions—but they are not the same as the mechanism that I propose, and should not be confused with it, because they do not provide those support mechanisms.
My new clause does not propose the establishment of a human rights commission. It simply states that there should be consultation about the most appropriate arrangements with which to underpin the Bill, one of which might be a commission. It could not be a more helpful and open-ended new clause, and I am disappointed that the Government cannot support it.
This is one of those occasions on which the House—if it did what it wanted to do or did what it would do if it knew what it was doing—would probably bless a new clause of this kind. Indeed, early-day motions have expressed wide support for it, and we have all kinds of evidence that the outside community, which knows about these things, is in favour, but the House will not support it, even though it would like to, because that is how we operate.
I shall endeavour to keep myself cheerful by hanging on to the words about doors not being closed. I hope that they are true, and that the Government will return to the matter, which is extremely important. Those of us who wish the Bill well and have campaigned for it for a long time think that a commission should be an essential support for it.
I know that this will bring good cheer all round: in trying to cheer myself up, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.