Activities outside Parliament

The Westminster Foundation Event - 29 March 2011

Human Rights and Parliamentarians

  • The international community is increasingly focusing on the role which we can play as Parliamentarians in securing the protection of human rights. As representatives, legislators and scrutineers of Government, we are ideally placed to make sure that the international human rights standards globally agreed by our nation States are given teeth and made real for everyone.
  • This renewed focus on democratically elected institutions in the implementation of international and constitutional standards for the protection of fundamental rights creates a timely opportunity for us to come together and share each of our experiences of human rights advocacy in our work as politicians.
  • We each come from very different constitutional traditions and political backgrounds, but we each share a common framework of international standards designed and agreed in the aftermath of the Second World War to guard against the worst excesses of State power and ensure that the atrocities of that era are never repeated.
  • Much of the work we do might qualify us to call ourselves human rights champions without our realising it or adopting that label - for example - working to agree a budget to ensure that adequate funds are available for education or healthcare or reviewing our criminal law to ensure that victims are protected and due process rights respected.
  • The constitutional framework in the United Kingdom creates a significantly stronger argument for the essential involvement of MPs and Peers in the protection of individual rights. The cornerstone of the UK constitution is the sovereignty of Parliament. In the UK the Parliament can legislate as it sees fit and the domestic Courts have no authority to strike down primary legislation for any reason.
  • The Human Rights Act 1998 - which incorporates the rights guaranteed by the ECHR - into our domestic law was closely designed to preserve this principle. The Executive must certify that every draft law produced in Parliament is considered compatible with Convention rights. The Courts are obliged to interpret legislation in so far as possible in a way which respects Convention rights. When such an interpretation is not possible, the Courts cannot strike down the relevant law, but can only declare that the measure is incompatible with the ECHR. It remains for Parliament to act to remove the violation. Thus, the Act creates a sophisticated democratic dialogue on rights, realising roles for all three branches of Government in rights protection.
  • In light of this careful settlement, the then Labour Government accepted that Parliament must have a particular focus for the consideration and scrutiny of human rights matters in the UK. During the passage of the Act, a commitment was made to establish the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Committee is an oversight Committee made up of members from both Houses, our House of Commons and our House of Lords and it has existed since 2001. The JCHR has a broad remit and powers. We can consider any matter relating to human rights in the UK but cannot intervene on individual cases or comment on human rights issues overseas. We have the power to take evidence in public, to conduct visits for the purpose of our work and the Government must respond to each and all of our recommendations within 2 months. Some of you will see our work in practice later today, when we take evidence from the Minister for State on extradition. This session is the culmination of a short inquiry on the scope of our extradition law in the UK and its implementation. After we hear from the Minister, we hope to report on this issue before the Summer in order to inform a Government review of UK extradition law.
  • The current Committee under my chairmanship has agreed to continue three broad strands of work: (a) legislative scrutiny (we report on every Government Bill which raises significant human rights issues); (b) human rights judgments (we monitor every adverse judgment finding a violation of Convention rights in UK law, policy and practice); and (c) thematic inquiries, like our extradition inquiry. Across each of these areas of work we consider the human rights obligations of the UK, in both our statutory and common law, and in our regional and international human rights obligations (for example, in the ECHR and the UN human rights treaties).
  • We work to reinforce the belief that human rights are not the sole preserve of lawyers and judges, but that minimum standards in law, policy and practice can avoid violations of individual rights happening and can remove the need for lengthy and costly litigation by victims to secure redress. We have the support of two legal advisers who advise us on the substance of the law, but we try to express all of our views in language which can be understood easily by everyone and in a format which can helpfully inform the work of other Parliamentarians, including in plenary debates.
  • A simple example may help to illustrate the valuable role which I believe we as MPs can play. Many of you may have seen on television reports about the significant protests and disturbances which occurred before Christmas in Westminster. Our predecessor Committee conducted a lengthy inquiry on the implementation of public order legislation in the UK and made a number of recommendations designed to better secure the right to freedom of expression and assembly guaranteed by our common law and our obligations in the ECHR and ICCPR. Shortly before Christmas my Committee agreed to take new evidence at short notice from both the police and protesters to consider what lessons could be learned from the protests by students in November and December. This exercise allowed us to consider closely whether an appropriate balance had been struck in policing these protests with a view to learning any lessons in advance of new protests planned for Spring and Summer. We followed up this evidence by bringing together the police and organisers of the march which took place this weekend, to ask questions about planning for the march and to encourage them to work together on a “no surprises” approach designed to protect the public and facilitate the right to protest. We also heard from the national inspector of police who told us about the implementation of his recommendations on protests and policing by individual forces. This pre-emptive approach allowed us to Report in advance of Saturday’s March, emphasising the need for a balanced, cooperative approach to policing of such major protests in practice. [In light of the events at the weekend, we may return to this issue in our future work].
  • This brief example of our work illustrates how we can use our powers to highlight an issue, to inform public debate and the activities of public authorities on matters which engage our individual rights. It shows that Parliamentarians can use their unique position to gather evidence and evaluate the balance struck between competing rights in practice and to encourage Government to plan to incorporate rights protecting measures in their work from the outset.
  • While Committees have the tools to work intensively on an issue and afford members the opportunity to access support and advice on specific targeted concerns, human rights has a much wider role to play in our work as Parliamentarians. In our daily work, in questions and in debates we have tools which equip us to make a difference in the approach of Government and to improve the standards of protection enjoyed by individuals in practice. For example, before taking up my current post as Chair of the JCHR I introduced a private member’s bill designed to provide greater protection for the rights of people who care for disabled and elderly relatives. I also chaired the House of Commons Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, where we focused on the implications of law and policy for Wales, including in respect of the rights of Welsh people as a national minority in the UK.
  • There are many opportunities in our work to integrate the human rights standards encapsulated in our national constitutions and in our international obligations. These standards provide us with a useful tool against which to measure our Governments’ performance through their commitment to these rights. I look forward to this opportunity to learn from each other and to hearing your stories of human rights in practice.
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