on the occasion of the
third part of the 2011 Ordinary Session
of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly
(Strasbourg, 20-24 June 2011)
(Extract of the verbatim records)
Thank you for your very kind words of welcome. It is a particular pleasure for me to address you. It is at least 35 years since I first visited this Assembly as a student, when, as you say, my father was a member of it. He went on to become Chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. It was he who first interested me in these issues, and it is a great privilege for me to follow in his footsteps today. Coming before you as a lawyer, one thing I have learned is that you should never tell an audience or a client what you think they want to hear. Therefore, I hope you will trust my sincerity when I say that national parliaments should be central to the implementation and protection of human rights if human rights are to flourish.
This is not to diminish the role of the Executive or the judiciary. By virtue of my position of Attorney General, I see the importance of all three. I advise the government and appear for it in court, but I am also a proud parliamentarian. It is through the balance of the functions of all three pillars of the state that we fulfil our primary obligation to implement the European Convention on Human Rights at a national level.
Since the 1990s, our national parliament has been an increasingly important partner in the protection of human rights. It is not true, despite what some may say, that with our Human Rights Act it just passed all responsibility for human rights to the courts. Indeed, that would be entirely to overlook section 19 of the Act, which, although short, has greatly increased parliament’s focus on human rights. Under section 19, the minister presenting any Bill – a draft law – to parliament is obliged to tell parliament one of two things: either that, in his or her view, the Bill is compatible with the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Convention or, explicitly, that they cannot make such a statement but wish to proceed with the Bill anyway. On its own, this simple statement is not much. However, I can assure you that ministers are increasingly expected to explain their reasoning to parliament, and parliament has increasingly scrutinised this reasoning in its debates and subjected it to rigorous critique.
This is in great part due to the efforts of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the two Houses of the British Parliament. They consider every government Bill and report on many of them. Those reports draw attention to relevant human rights considerations – not just ways in which a Bill may interfere with the Convention rights, but opportunities that could be taken to further the implementation and enjoyment of those rights. The reports are well-respected and influential. I say that notwithstanding the fact that members of the committee are here in Strasbourg today.
To my mind, it is this wider perspective that is the most valuable aspect of parliament’s role on human rights. Courts can provide a remedy where an individual’s rights have been infringed, but parliaments can take a broader and more positive view on how to ensure the best possible enjoyment of rights when considered across the population as a whole. It must be that a democratic and representative parliament is best placed to know the steps that need to be taken.
A good illustration of this is the Joint Committee’s annual report on the government’s record of responding to judgments against the United Kingdom. In this report, the joint committee keeps a watchful eye on the UK system as it responds to court judgments, as well as in the implementation of individual judgments. By doing so, it not only holds the government to account on its compliance with the Court’s judgments, but helps to avoid future violations of the Convention where they might be foreseeable.
Mr President, I noted with great interest the proceedings of the conference on the future of the Court, which was held earlier this year in Izmir, Turkey. Much was said in the context of that conference about the respective responsibilities of the Court and of national authorities. My colleague the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, spoke on behalf of the United Kingdom at that conference, and I wish to pick up on a particularly perceptive remark that he made on this subject. He said, “If the Strasbourg Court is too ready to substitute its own judgment for that of national parliaments and courts that have through their own processes complied with the Convention, it risks turning the tide of public opinion against the concept of international standards of human rights, and risks turning public opinion against the Convention itself.”
Kenneth Clarke placed this statement in the context of a particular judgment against the United Kingdom but, with all due respect to him, this is a far wider point. The mission of the Council of Europe is not just about human rights; it is also about the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. So far as is possible, these three vital elements should exist in harmony. Although the Convention is a creation of governments, we must always remember that it was created not for our benefit, but for the benefit of the people of Europe. When we hear the voice of the public, we cannot refuse to listen to what they are saying to us.
The strange thing is that if one shifts the context to north Africa or the Middle East, one finds that the value and importance of human rights becomes obvious and well accepted. People in those places are rising up and protesting precisely to defend their human rights, so why should public attitudes sometimes be so different in a mature democracy? I simply suggest that people need to feel that they “own” their rights. It is not enough simply to hand down rights from on high, telling people, “This is a human right”, or, “That is not a human right.” It is not even enough for us politicians to talk about human rights among ourselves – the man and woman on the street must be part of this debate. This is the key role for representative democracy and the key challenge as well: how to make human rights relevant to everyone.
The response must be a partnership, whereby each of the three pillars of the state must play its own role in the implementation of the Convention and each must respect the role of the others. When we come here to Strasbourg, we must work in partnership again; individual states must fulfill our responsibility to implement the Convention and the Court must be careful to respect that primary role.
Mr President, as I say, it has been a great pleasure for me to have been able to speak here today. I hope that the Assembly’s deliberations will continue, and the United Kingdom very much looks forward to its period of chairmanship, when it hopes to take forward an agenda of reform in a positive way that will put human rights at the very heart of what every national government in Europe is doing.